Today I welcome Ria from Bibliotropic, a popular book review blog of Fantasy and speculative fiction, to Amid the Imaginary. Her blog celebrates five years this year, though her love of reading has been a life-long pursuit. Thus, as an expert in her field and a blog participant in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, I asked if she could give us her take on the Do’s and Don’ts or trends she’s noticed of self-published books. 

Take it away, Ria!

Anela invited me over here today to talk about self-publishing because I’m part of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (To learn more about it, click here) . If you haven’t heard of it, I highly recommend you check it out, because there’s a lot of good commentary on the reading material all the participants are getting, and it’s a very fun and educational challenge thus far.

I say educational because I don’t typically read and review self-published novels. Not because I think they’re all of low quality. Far from it; I know very well that there are a lot of gems out there that deserve to be read. The problem I find is that self-publishing in general can be very hit-or-miss. There are so many offerings out there now that the self-publishing boom has arrived, and it seems sometimes that everyone who’s ever heard the saying, “Everyone has a story inside them,” has decided it’s their time to write a novel.

The problem comes in separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. While I know that not all self-published books are low-quality, I don’t want to go the other route and say that they’re all fantastic and perfect and deserve to be appreciated as the literary game-changers they are. With the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, all the bloggers involved got a random list of 25-27 self-published fantasy novels to look at and see what they liked and what they didn’t. So having looked through my random assortment, I’ve seen good books, I’ve seen books that could be good with a bit of work, and I’ve seen books that need a lot of work.

And thanks to this, I’ve been able to narrow down a few things I’ve noticed on either side of the coin. I’ve been able to see where books fall down and where they soar, and that’s what I’d like to talk a bit about here today. I don’t just want to trot out the same old advice that you see everywhere, either. Stuff like, “negative reviews can sometimes be helpful” or “don’t spam people.” You can see that in a dozen other places; you don’t need me to say it here, too. But here’s some stuff that I see mentioned less often, and the difference I find it all makes.

Never underestimate the value of a copy-editor

The job of a copy-editor sounds simple enough. Go through a document, find typos or grammatical errors or punctuation problems, make it a note of how to correct it, then send it back to the writer to approve and do. Sounds simple. Sounds useless, actually, since any spell-checker can do that for free, yes?

No. Oh heck no. Nothing, and I repeat, nothing, is a substitute for human eyes and minds going over a document and looking for that stuff.

For example, your spell-checker probably won’t tell you that “throws of passion” is incorrect. (It’s “throes,” by the way.) Case in point, the fact that the checker in the program I typed this in did not see anything wrong with it. The words are spelled correctly. There’s nothing wrong with the punctuation. It seems correct, by the standards of a machine that doesn’t understand the fun nuances of language, the wonderful turns of phrase that we employ in daily speech. Unless you have something in your hand called a passion, and you are throwing it, “throws of passion” is not a thing.

Many people do take one initial step on the road to good copy-editing, and that’s to show their novel to as many people as they can, to get feedback. This is excellent, and I recommend it. However, you have to be sure that the people you’re asking for this favour from can take out their red pen and have no problems correcting your errors. Can you trust them to know the difference between “throes” and “throws?” A quick look on Facebook will tell you that there’s a disturbing amount of people who don’t know the difference between “there”, “their”, and “they’re”, after all.

A copy-editor with experience will do this for you. They may not be perfect. Nobody is, and mistakes get through even the most meticulously-checked document. But you really want to make sure you’re having people with experience look over your work and check it for basic errors like that. It’s a simple step, but it’s one I still see a lot of people skip, secure in their belief that spell-checker will do it all for them, and believe me, it shows in the final manuscript!

Copy-editors aren’t always just friends who you know can proofread well. There are people who do it professionally. There are people who freelance. I myself do some freelance copy-editing now and again. I’m not saying you should all come to me with work like that; I mostly bring it up to show that there are definitely people out there who have the skills, who charge decent rates, and who are very willing to help you. If you don’t feel comfortable with getting friends to be that critical of your work, look around a little and find a professional stranger instead.

Worth a thousand words

Let’s talk cover art for a second 

This is possibly the worst part of self-publishing. Unless you’re already a great graphic artist, doing this part right is going to cost you money, or at least a very large favour, and that sucks. I get that not everybody can afford to shell out $50 or more to get someone to design them a cover, even a simple one.

The problem is that whole “first impressions” thing. Don’t judge a book by its cover. We all know that saying, and we all, on some level, kind of hate it. The cover art has nothing to do with the writing inside the book. The story is what matters most.

And I agree. Completely. The art can be terrible and the story great. The art can be great and the story terrible.

But good cover art sells. A reader browsing through a bookstore or Amazon or any other site is not going to have their introduction to your writing by your actual writing. The first thing they see will be the cover art. And good art draws the eye, it invites people to look closer. Bad art, similarly, turns people away. It may not be truly indicative of what your writing is like, but it’s a very short mental jump from, “This image is poor quality,” to “This book is poor quality.” Someone gets a poor impression and there go your sales.

You want something that will make your book stand out at first glance. And the best way to do that is to shell out some money and have someone design you a good cover. DeviantArt is great for this, by the way. There are a load of great artists there, many of whom take commissions. (Tip: don’t pitch this deal to them by telling them the exposure will be great. They already have exposure by posting on DeviantArt, or any other website. “Exposure” is code for, “I don’t want to pay you but I do want to profit from your hard work.” Don’t go there.)

Like I said, this is probably the worst part of self-publishing. Professional quality work usually costs you money before it makes you money, and from what I’ve seen, the majority of self-published authors skip this. It can be expensive. And there’s no guarantee it will work to draw in readers.

But from the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, I’ve seen other bloggers comment that the books that catch their eye quickest are the ones with professional-level cover art. And those books are getting read the quickest. Getting that art is a sign that you think your work is good enough to warrant the investment, and that makes other people want to find out why.

Never underestimate a good blurb.

Blurbs sell books. Or at least, they help sell books. Self-published books often skip this, because they can be really hard to get. How many books, though, have caught your eye in the bookstore because you see a quote from another author you like, talking about how good the book is?

It can be extremely hard to get a good blurb for a self-published book, in part because first of all you have to know someone who’s well-established, who’s willing to read your book (and you have to hope they like it), and is willing to provide a positive comment you can stick on the cover. This doesn’t have to be another author. It can be a well-known reviewer. But the tricky part is in convincing them that your book is worth their time. And there’s still unfortunately a lot of stigma against self-published books as being “not good enough” to be published through a traditional publishing house. It’s the problem of marketing all over again.

But if you can get one, it really does work wonders for helping a book sell. I’ve had my interest piqued in a few self-published novels thanks to good blurbs!

Speaking of…

Never underestimate early reviews, either. They work as well as blurbs on the cover for selling a book.

Many self-published writers will throw the book on Amazon as soon as they can. The sooner it’s available, the sooner those sales can start rolling in, yes? Why wait until June when you can publish today?

But there’s some value in waiting, especially when you’re waiting for early hype to kick in.

Most reviewers with an established presence very often get review copies of novels, and in advance of the book’s release date. This is to ensure that as soon as the book hits the shelves, people are already talking about it. People have already read it, and trusted names are generating hype for you just by posting reviews on their blogs.

Then comes the street date, and you’re already in place with a handful of quotes about how great your book is.

Similar to my comments about negative reviews meaning that at least people are reading your book, these quotes mean the same thing. And here’s where some awesome give-and-take comes into play. Their praise might help you sell your books, and that’s awesome. Stick them in a “reviews” page of your novel, stick them on your Amazon page, whatever. But make them known. BAM, you just gave that reviewer publicity. You got their name out there too.

And believe me, that never gets old! I was thrilled to bits the day I first saw my blog’s name inside a novel, a quote from my review right there in front of me, in print, and that is an amazing feeling. So not only is this a way to tell potential readers that other people are reading and talking about your stuff, but it’s also a great way to thank the reviewer.

In conclusion.

Most of the advice I gave here today boils down to marketing. Marketing, marketing, marketing. Well, marketing and quality control. The two go hand in hand. Very often they seem like small yet expensive steps, too big to bother with and too small a gain.

But there are a lot of those steps. And every step not taken is a step further away from success.

I can’t say that you’ll be a famous self-supporting writer if you follow all of these steps. I can’t say that your rent will be paid every month from your royalty cheques. But I can say that the things I talked about today are common issues I see in self-published novels, versus what I see done for traditionally-published novels. Successful authors often do more than unsuccessful ones.

It’s hard. For a traditionally-published novel, you’ve got a team backing you. You’ve got all those gatekeepers making sure you’re good at every checkpoint. You want to be like the pros, you have to act like the pros, and that means doing all that stuff yourself. Self-publishing may seem, at times, to be a quick way of skipping all those checkpoints. But success at this game is anything but quick, especially when you’ve got the work of an entire team riding on your back, and the only one who suffers for any missteps is you.

Best of luck to you all, aspiring writers, no matter where and how you’re published!


Many thanks to Ria for her insightful input on this subject!

Be sure to check out her awesome blog http://bibliotropic.net/ where she is always “Leaning toward books as flowers lean toward the sun”