Just Because You Can Self-Publish a Book Doesn’t Mean You Should

As the price barrier to book publishing lowers, too many books show up with too little quality

Just Because You Can Self-Publish a Book Doesn’t Mean You ShouldI just read a self-published book by a “NY Times Best-Selling Author.” I’ll let him remain anonymous. It was a short story anthology of “the best” short stories in a certain genre. I expected much and received little.

Perhaps I focus too much on flash fiction (short stories under 1,000 words). Possibly I read too many YA (young adult) books to appreciate writing that is more “serious.” It could be I lack patience. Or maybe I don’t know how to truly appreciate short stories. But just possibly this collection is not all that good, certainly not “the best.”

Here are the good parts: the cover design was okay, the interior layout was professional, and I didn’t notice any editing shortfalls. Failure in these areas is emblematic of shoddy self-publishing. So at least he covered the basics.

I started every one of the short stories but only finished a few. The one that I actually thought was well written and even had a twist at the end, elicited a “so what?” response from me and a stifled yawn.

Too often the stories failed to hook me at the beginning – and I always gave them a full page to do so. (I give books the first chapter to grab my attention.) And the few with promising openings that had me turn a couple of pages, failed to establish any reason why I should care about the protagonist. When you don’t wonder what happens to the lead character, there is no reason to turn the page. Ho-hum.

The book’s introduction was copied from one of the author’s other books. (I tried to read that one, too, but ended up too bored to even skim it.) He may have tweaked a few words, but if so, it wasn’t enough to notice or give it a fresh feel.

He also provided a short preview about the writing of each story, highlighting what he liked about it and the strengths he appreciated. This may have been helpful as a learning experience, had not the stories been too painful for me to read.

I selected this book to learn about short stories. What I learned was don’t bore readers or waste their time. And if you self-publish, it had better be good.

Although a worthy concept, I doubt a traditional publisher would have touched this book. This is likely why the author self-published it. He shouldn’t have bothered.

What is your experience reading a self-published book? If you have self-published, what did you learn from the process? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

6 Reader Responses to Books

I read a lot of books, but I start more then I complete. Some books just aren’t worth finishing. With so many books waiting for my attention, it makes no sense to waste time reading a book I’ve lost interest in.

Here are six reactions I have when I read a book:

  1. 6 Reader Responses to BooksGive Up: Nothing grabs me. The opening lacks a hook, the first page ends with no reason to turn it, or I grow bored before the first chapter finishes. I stop reading and reject the book.
  2. Never Return: The book starts out okay, but I never pick it back up. Another book seems more interesting so I start it, and I stick with it. Then I go on to another book. This doesn’t mean the first book isn’t good; it just means other books are better.
  3. Force to Finish: For some books I push through. Maybe it started okay and then languished, but I plod on anyway. For other books I hold on, hoping for a payoff at the end. Regardless of the reason, I’m invariably glad when I finish it, not for its content or conclusion, but so that I can go on to something better.
  4. Pleasant Diversion: These books are those I enjoy reading and look forward to. They are worthy of my time and the end brings satisfaction. I’m glad to have read it and plan to read the author’s next book.
  5. Page Turner: These books are so good that I keep reading even when I need to turn off the light and go to sleep. Just one more page becomes just one more chapter. It’s hard to put down, and I can’t wait to return.
  6. Takes Priority: Sometimes a book is so good that I’d rather read it rather than do anything else. The book gets in the way of eating, working, and writing. Ignore others; skip TV; forget the movie. I must read this book. Nothing else matters.

I’ve read books in all six of these categories. For those that fit in the first three, sometimes it’s my fault; I just don’t click with the book.

In other cases it’s the writer’s fault. They didn’t write a good book, they published it too soon, or they didn’t take steps to make it as good as they could.

Don’t be that writer.

Do you give up on books or push through regardless. How does a writer know when a book is ready? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

How Not to Write a Nonfiction Book

How Not to Write a Nonfiction BookA friend, who is also a prolific reader, once shocked me. Talking about nonfiction books, he said: “I only read the first chapter. Then I page through the rest and stop to read anything that’s interesting.”

My incredulous look encouraged him to explain. “Most nonfiction books pack their entire message into the first chapter. The rest of the book just rehashes it.” While some books warrant a more thorough investigation, he claimed most didn’t.

I’ve tested his theory. He’s right. Most nonfiction books present all of the essential information in the first chapter. Yes, the subsequent chapters do expound on the first chapter’s truths, but they do little to add substance to the main concept. In too many nonfiction books, I learn 90 percent of the main material in 10 percent of the time by just reading the first chapter.

I see three reasons why this happens:

1) The author doesn’t have enough content for a book. Some ideas, really great ideas, are simply not big enough to fill a book. Maybe it’s perfect for an article or even a blog post, but not a book. Yet authors may try to stretch an article into a book.

2) The author has a word count goal. Publishers (or agents) want a certain length book. They require X number of words to fill Y number of pages. That’s what best fits their production process or what marketing feels the buying public expects. After all, if we spend $15 on a book, we expect it to have some heft. As a result, authors stretch their words to hit a target. But that doesn’t make for a good book.

3) The author doesn’t know how to write nonfiction. There are all kinds of instruction on how to write fiction, but the amount of information on writing nonfiction is nonexistent in comparison. Maybe the assumption is that nonfiction is easy to write and requires no training. In fiction, we learn how to grab readers’ attention, keep them turning pages, and skillfully guide them to a satisfying conclusion. We would never reveal the ending in chapter 1 and then explain how it all happened. Yet that is precisely what too many authors do in nonfiction.

The more I think about this, the more I realize what a huge problem this is. Maybe I should write a book about it. No, on second thought, I only have enough for a blog post.

Do you find this true when you read nonfiction? What resources can you recommend about writing nonfiction? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

What I Learned By Researching Competitive Titles

A common part in many book proposals is a “competitive works” section. I recently researched this for one of my book proposals. What I saw enlightened me.

What I Learned By Researching Competitive TitlesFirst were three books from traditional publishers. They gave me pause. I had to think a bit to determine how my book was different and how it would stand out. This challenged me, but it was a good exercise. Each book was impressive: an attractive cover, nice title, a great concept or theme where the content flowed nicely, and professional editing and formatting. However, I didn’t think about any of these qualities at first. I expected these characteristics. Since they met my expectations, I gave these traits no thought – until I looked at some self-published books.

Next, I looked at some books that were self-published using CreateSpace. At first glance, the covers were of similar quality and the titles were almost as good. The content, however, was not the same. The concept of these books was lacking and their execution, disappointing. Also, the writing wasn’t nearly as good. One didn’t even appear to have been edited, with sloppy formatting and missing words – and that from reading less than one page. The fault in all this is not CreateSpace. CreateSpace is a tool. If you put garbage into the tool, you get garbage out of it.

Last, I considered a pair of self-published e-books; they offered no print options. These suffered even more. Their covers weren’t as good and their concept was questionable. As far as the writing, I didn’t look at enough to tell: the interior layout was so bad that I couldn’t force myself to read it. I almost didn’t even include them in my “competitive works” section because I didn’t view them as competition, merely a distraction.

From all this I’m reminded, once again, that self-publishing is an attractive option and an affordable solution when traditional publishers take a pass on our books. While this could be for reasons outside of our control, it might also be that our content is ill conceived or our book still needs work. Sometimes this is hard to determine, especially after we’ve poured ourselves into writing it.

Regardless, if we choose to self-publish, we need to keep in mind that our finished product must look like a traditionally published book if we hope for folks to take it seriously.

What is your experience in reading self-published books? Have you ever self-published a book? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

7 Reasons Why Books Are Rejected

Having our book rejected stings. Here are seven common reasons why this happens.

1) The Writing Isn’t Ready: Everyone is a new writer at some point. It takes time for our writing to mature, our voice to emerge, and our style to become consistent. Some say this takes 10,000 hours or requires 1,000,000 words before we hit our writing stride. Yes, there are exceptions, but there is truth to these guidelines. Aside from still honing our craft, sometimes our work just isn’t as good as it could be. I suspect every writer encounters this at some point.

2) The Content Needs Improvement: Sometimes the idea or concept (for nonfiction) or the plot or story arc (for fiction) needs more work. It must be expanded, enhanced, or otherwise improved. Sometimes we try to stretch a great article or short story into a book, but there’s just not enough there for it to work.

3) The Work Was Pitched to the Wrong Place: When we pitch our work or idea to an agent or publisher, we need to make sure they are interested in the type of book we have written. A romance publisher will not consider a thriller; a publisher of practical how-to guides will not consider an academic treatise. Agents also specialize in certain genres or types of books. Pitching to the wrong place will insure a quick rejection.

4) The Pitch Fell Short: There are various means to entice an agent or publisher. It may be an elevator pitch, a one-sheet, a query letter, a proposal, or maybe all four. Each one is an opportunity to garner further consideration or a chance to be rejected. Make each pitch be the best it can be. In most instances, we will never get a second chance.

5) The Agent Doesn’t Think He or She Can Sell It: Even when everything aligns, if an agent doesn’t think he or she can sell our book, the agent will not take on the project. Remember, agents only make money when they sell our book to a publisher.

6) The Publisher Already Has a Book Like It: A publisher will not take on a book that is too similar to one they have recently published or an older one that continues to sell.

7) The Author Doesn’t Have a Big Enough Platform: Publishers expect authors to help promote and sell their books. This requires they have a platform or network of sufficient size to do this. A small or nonexistent platform means the author will not be able to move books.

I’ve suffered rejection for six of these seven reasons. Understanding why this might have happened helps us to do better next time and move towards acceptance.

Which one do you struggle with?

Your Nonfiction Book is the Ultimate Business Card

If you are a consultant, service provider, or business professional, having a book can become your best form of promotion. A book provides instant credibility, elevating you above the competition who has no book. It becomes a calling card, opening doors and providing opportunities you would otherwise miss.

Your book is the ultimate business card. Learn more from the article “Your Book as Your Business Card: Indie Book Publishing Provides Professionals the Edge.”

Of course, to realize the most from your book as a business card, it must be professional. Business cards run the gambit from homemade cards using your PC printer and perforated stock to four-color glossy works of art with professional graphics and quality printing. The difference is apparent, separating card-carrying market leaders from under-resourced wannabes. Though the homemade version is better than no card, it’s only a marginal improvement.

So, too, published books run the gambit, from homemade cover and self-edited to professionally designed graphics, quality editing, and elegant interior design that ooze competence. While the homegrown book is better than no book, it is only marginally so.

Whether it is a book or a business card, when someone sees it, do you want them to think “Oh no!” or “Oh wow?”

Is your nonfiction book your ultimate business card? Why or why not?

What Do Readers Care About?

When readers consider our book, few will bother to look to see who published it. They won’t care if a major publisher, let alone any traditional publisher, produced it. When it comes to publishers, there is little brand loyalty, let alone much brand recognition. The imprint is of no consequence. How the printed book gets into their hands or the e-book gets into their reader doesn’t matter to them.

Here’s what does matter:

Cover: What they will look at is the cover. They will, in fact, judge our book by its cover. First impressions matter a great deal.

Title: The title is critical, too. Depending on how they discovered our book, whether they see the title first or the cover first, the other element will seal the deal – or not. If the cover is great but the title, lame, they will dismiss it. Similarly, if they see the title first, a great cover will move them towards a purchase, while a bad cover will move them to a different book.

Formatting: Next, they will look at the insides, whether thumbing through the actual pages or clicking online. If the layout looks “normal,” they will proceed. If it looks odd – even though they won’t know why – a red flag pops up.

Content: If our book passes these first three screens, they may actually read a section or two. Great writing beckons them; bad writing or editing – even average writing or editing – sends them packing.

Only when they get this far will they consider buying it.

Readers don’t care if our book is traditionally published or self-published; they care if our book is professional looking, well written, and interesting.

What is your experience when buying a book? What do you care about?

What Type of Book Will Yours Be?

A couple years ago, my newsletter column for the month was “Six Types of Books in My Library.” In summary, this is how I viewed my books:

  1. Books Worth Keeping: I enjoyed them once, and I’ll read them again.
  2. Reference Materials: Books with information I want to keep.
  3. Books I Plan to Read: I really do intend to read them – someday.
  4. One Reading Was Enough: I enjoyed these books, but once was sufficient.
  5. Books I Started But Never Finished: Despite initial promise, I gave up on them.
  6. Books That Seemed Like a Good Idea: I’ll never get around to reading them.

Running out of space and wanting to downsize, I gave away all my books in the last three categories. Some of those books will be read, many will be thrown away, and the rest will be dismissed – again. At some point, my books in category 3 will likely go, too.

With self-publishing options so prevalent today, anyone can publish a book. The question is, what category will these books end up in? Too many will fall into category 5 and 6. Some may not even rate that high. That’s because too many writers are impatient with the writing and publishing process, cutting short the honing of their work.

While we can’t guarantee that our books will end up in the “worth keeping” category, we can increase the likelihood through careful writing and rewriting, listening to feedback from critique partners and beta-readers, hiring a copy-editor, and paying for professional cover design and interior layout.

May your next book be one that people actually read and then keep to read again.

What Can We Learn From the Used Textbook Market?

The August issue of Book Business had an interesting piece about the textbook industry. The article, “Combating the Higher-Ed Used Book Market,” said that of the $8 billion higher-ed textbook industry, roughly two thirds of the dollars spent is for used books. That’s bad news for the publishers and authors, as neither makes any money when students resell their textbooks.

There are many possible reasons for this, including high cost, books students don’t want in the first place or will never use again, required classes students don’t want to take, required books instructors don’t use, and so on. Another reason is some students must sell their book to help finance the next semester.

However, the bottom line is these students don’t value their textbooks.

The few dollars they will receive by selling the book means more to them than the content in the book. In economic terms, the book lacks “utility”; it does not possess usefulness. When a book lacks utility, only those who have to buy it, will. And as soon as the owner is no longer required to have the book, he or she will sell it (or throw it away).

The lesson for the textbook industry is clear: produce books that have value beyond the length of one semester.

By extension, there are also lessons for the greater book publishing industry:

  • Write the best possible book.
  • Ensure every chapter is relevant, every paragraph adds worth, and every word is needed. Remove redundancy, cut filler, tighten sentences, write concisely, and explain clearly.
  • Edit the book meticulously.
  • Present a compelling interior design and worthy cover.
  • Title it wisely.
  • Make quality paramount.
  • Give readers a reason to keep the book. For fiction, this means a story they will read again; for nonfiction, this means the book will become a useful reference.
  • Add helpful resources. Include additional content that will enhance the book, such as an index, glossary, graphics, color, related resources, study guide or discussion questions, and so forth.
  • Price it right.

While we can’t stop book buyers from reselling books, we can give them reasons not to.

Seven Things to Look For in a Beta Reader

Last week we talked about the importance of beta readers to give feedback on our books. I hope you’re as sold on the idea as I am.

The next step is finding beta readers – not just any one but the right ones. If we pick a beta reader who isn’t a good match, they could do more harm than good, both for our book and for our career.

The ideal beta reader should:

  1. Be a Regular Reader: If they aren’t a regular reader, how can they provide usable feedback? While they don’t need to be voracious, they do need to read. Ask them how many books they’ve read in the past six months. Their answer will be enlightening.
  2. Speak the Truth (in Love): Beta readers who don’t want to hurt our feelings will tell us our book is perfect; they offer no value. Beta readers must commit to giving honest feedback but in a constructive way.
  3. Respect Our Writing Voice: If a beta reader wants to change our writing voice, they will only generate irritation for us and frustration for them and us. They must resist the urge to reword what we write.
  4. Know the Genre: Do they read and like our genre? If the answer is “no,” then they aren’t the right beta reader for our project.
  5. Like Our Premise: Beta readers need to have a positive predisposition for our topic or story at the onset. If a non-fiction book has a thesis they disagree with or a fiction book with a storyline that irritates them, they will likely struggle through the entire project.
  6. Be Committed: Will the beta reader finish the project? How long will they take? Too many people agree to being a beta reader but never follow through. See item seven.
  7. Have Beta Reader Experience: Everyone at one time has no experience, so our book may be his or her first one. However, the more experience they have, the better the chance the results will be good.

Next week, we’ll address setting expectations with beta readers.