To self-publish or not to self-publish… That is the question more and more aspiring authors are asking themselves these days. And with good reason—self-publishing has come a long way in the decade since it really hit the market and many of the blatant scams of the past have been outed by an increasingly well-informed author community. With the popularity of ebooks and the rise of print-on-demand (POD), self-publishing has become a viable route to success as an author. It certainly hasn’t replaced traditional publishing, but the two paths are starting to coexist in the same mass market.
As an author I have successfully pursued both the traditional and self-publishing routes – funny enough with the same books. My first two military sci-fi novels were originally self-published and they did well enough to attract the eye of the traditional world. I’m very pleased to announce that the first of them, Virtues of War, is being re-released by Titan Books at the end of June, with two more on the way.
In an odd parallel to my career as an author, my day job is as the publisher of Promontory Press, a traditional house which specializes in new authors, but also maintains a completely separate division of author services in support of those authors who want to self-publish well. So I’ve seen both worlds from either side of the query letter, so to speak, with the scars to prove it.
For an author who’s decided to self-publish their sci-fi book, I offer the following humble advice.
If you’re a huge fan of a particular sci-fi franchise – Doctor Who, say, or Honor Harrington – I strongly recommend you start reading a selection of sci-fi books that are completely outside your favourite before you start writing. The most successful sci-fi franchises have their own unique elements, and many of these elements are so widely associated with the franchise that if you were to employ them in your own writing you’d be very quickly branded as an imitator. If you’re writing fan fiction based in the franchise that’s fine, but it can be disastrous if you’re creating something original. So read widely to make sure you have an appreciation of what the sci-fi community sees as clichés, tropes and/or proprietary ideas.
Another reason to read widely is simple: you’ll have a much larger pool of inspiration to draw from when you do sit down to write. Maybe you’ve always read space opera and never cared much for hard sci-fi. Reading some classic Arthur C. Clarke may not transform you into a hard sci-fi author, but it may give you some really interesting ideas on how to make your space opera unique. And please do me a favour: if you’re going to have a military presence of any kind in your writing, read some pure military sci-fi to get a real sense of how soldiers walk, talk and operate.
Having just told you to get out of the reading comfort zone and explore new sub-genres of sci-fi, this may seem like contradiction. But no. To be an effective author you still need to write about what really gets you excited. Don’t feel that you have to write in the genre that’s hot right now, and don’t be bullied by other sci-fi fans who say that you must include this aspect or that. I’m a sci-fi geek myself, and I know we can be pretty opinionated on what we want to see in a good book. But this is your book, not mine and not anyone else’s, and if you’re excited about the ideas, locales and characters then that excitement will come through on the page.
When I sat down to write Virtues of War, I made the conscious decision to include a certain amount of military terminology in the narrative and the dialogue. I did this to enhance the realism – I served 15 years in the Navy myself – and part of my decision was to assume a certain level of understanding for military terms in my future readers. Would this mean that the book was inaccessible to a certain group of non-military readers? Possibly, but I realized that I wasn’t writing for them. I was writing for people like me who enjoy and are comfortable with realistic military terms and tactics. I didn’t go overboard with the jargon, and I hope that since my story is primarily about the characters and not the kit, my books will be accessible to a wider audience.
There are certainly times that being an author drives me mad, but that’s not what I mean here. When you’ve finished your manuscript, revel in its genius and take a moment to dream about how rich and famous you’re going to be. Seriously, enjoy that moment. But then come back to reality and understand that no author can produce their best work without an editor. A professional editor – not your buddy who has an English degree. Give your manuscript to friends and family for feedback, absolutely, but before you even think about publishing your work, pay the money and hire a professional editor.
An editor is someone who loves writing as much as you do, but they aren’t you and they will bring their own perspective to your writing. They’ll see the places in the narrative where you keep repeating things, or where you don’t say enough and leave the reader confused. They will see where you’ve spent waaaaaay too long on exposition as you describe your amazing universe, and where you introduce a pivotal dramatic element out of nowhere to save the day. In short, an editor can show you how to make your book even better than it is, while still keeping the narrative voice authentically yours.
And if you’re self-publishing, you also need to shell out the cash for a brilliant cover artist. The cover is everything in selling your book – whether it’s online or on store shelves, your book lives or dies by its cover. So do not skimp out on this. Get a designer who knows specifically how to do book covers, and whose previous work you like.
Marketing a book is hard. It’s even hard for the Big Five publishers in New York – they just have millions of dollars to throw at the problem. I’m going to guess that you don’t, and I’m going to strongly recommend that you stay far away from any kind of marketing or advertising that costs a lot of money. Print, TV and radio advertising are out. Don’t hire a publicist unless they’re willing to work solely on a commission from book sales. To market a self-published book, you the author need to get engaged directly with your potential fans.
Enter the internet. There are thousands of sci-fi community groups online, and they’re usually wide open to new members. The future fans of your book hang out in these places, and because they like the same sort of sci-fi you do, you’ll probably enjoy mixing it up on the forums about existing sci-fi books, movies and TV shows. Your purpose here is to make friends and, ideally, become a bit of an opinion leader through your witty, succinct and profound commentary – or just being yourself, that works too. You absolutely do NOT want to start peddling your book as that is generally frowned upon.
The key to engaging your community of future fans is to start early – months before your book is even launched. Be sincere, be friendly, and be actively engaged. When your book does launch, it’s totally okay at that point to announce it to your community, because by then you’re a known entity and people kinda like you. After your launch, though, you need to get back to just being a frequent contributor to the discussions, although a link to your book’s webpage at the bottom of each post is a perfectly acceptable way to offer ongoing, soft promotion.
Notice that three of my four bits of advice are directed toward activities prior to actually self-publishing. I meant to do this. With any kind of writing, content is ultimately what matters in the long term. Yes, covers are critical at the point of sale; yes, you need to work really hard to get knowledge of your book out to the fans. But the best cover in the world and the most successful engagement campaign in history will mean very little if your book itself is poor quality. Because sci-fi fans can be ruthless, and if they don’t like your book they’ll tell the world. In the long term, books still survive on word of mouth, and you need your readers to like your book and to tell their friends. A good cover and good engagement will attract your initial readers – and this is critical – but if your book’s content is strong, it will eventually start selling itself.
So most of all, write a great book. The rest is just details and hard work.
Bennett R Coles served 15 years in the Canadian Navy as a bridge officer, and served a pair of tours in the Middle East as a UN Military Observer. A rising Canadian author, he led the maverick publisher Promontory Press, supporting Canadian and American writers. Bennett initially published Virtues of War himself, before it was picked up by Titan.