Can You Successfully Self-Publish a Cookbook?

Reading restaurateur Nick Kokonas’s exposé on the DIY creation of the Alinea cookbook reminded me how frustratingly opaque the world of cookbook publishing is to people outside the biz.. It was also a great reminder of how many people hanker to put out their own volume. (Seriously. Mention publishing in a cocktail setting and I guarantee cookbook and children’s book ideas will pour forth . . .) 

Indie cookbooks have expanded far beyond spiral-bound Junior League collections. Spurred on by the success of culinary blogs the likes of Orangette and the Smitten Kitchen, witty home cooks with a good camera aspire to vault from Instagram love right to publishing success. Self-pub cookbooks are a natural too for the folks who can’t or won’t—can’t eat gluten, eggs, or dairy or won’t eat meat, for example—and their affinity groups online. 

Some home cooks fancy memorializing their hot sauce recipes for friends and family. Others want to preserve grandma’s recipes languishing in a spidery scrawl on yellowing recipe cards. Restaurants and bakeries see an opportunity to promote their brand and satisfy customers’ longing for re-creating that blissful bite. If you’re any one of these aspiring cookbook self-publishers, there are unique editorial, design, and production fundamentals that you’ll have to consider. 

Yes, cookbooks are sexy, inviting. But at their most elemental they are technical books that require forethought and deliberation. We’ll give you the down-low on design elements in the next post. For editorial concerns, here’s where you start: 

 

Establish Your Ideal Reader

Just as there are those who prefer Fifty Shades of Grey to Finnegans Wake, there are beginning and advanced cooks. Alinea or Modernist Cuisine land squarely in James Joyce territory and appeal to a very sophisticated user. Unless you are targeting these sophisticates, avoid or explain any technical jargon (What is a bain-marie? How does one blanch?) Use basic ingredients or explain any specialty items (can you order harissa, a North African pepper paste, online?), and provide more detail in recipe steps or through photography. 

Craft Proper Headnotes

Many cookbooks have very little text outside the recipes. That’s why headnotes, those little paragraphs that introduce each recipe, are so critical. The headnotes compose the conversation the writer/chef is having with the reader. Are they funny? Serious? Do they incorporate elements of memoir, telling stories from the writer’s childhood or family? Do they explain the dish or the ingredients or offer serving suggestions? Keeping your Ideal Reader in mind, make sure your tone is even and appropriate to the feeling you want to convey, write headnotes of approximately the same length, and check for oft-repeated phrases or words. Readers rarely approach cookbooks one recipe at a time. If you use the word “yummy” or “delish” in every headnote, someone’s going to want to hit you over the head with a frying pan. (In fact, unless you’re Rachael Ray, maybe just leave those words out.) 

Borrow, Don’t Steal

Technically speaking, recipes cannot be copyrighted. By recipe, I mean a list of ingredients and amounts. What can be copyrighted is everything around that: the headnote, the procedural steps, any detail or tip. If you want to include a recipe from your favorite cookbook, give them attribution in the headnote (e.g., adapted from Amanda Hesser’s cardamom French toast in Food52) and write your own steps. 

Sweat the Details

Cooking is about precision. Sure, once you’re good enough you can riff on recipes and make them your own. But no one wants to read or cook from a book where the recipe isn’t guaranteed to work.  

  • Test your recipes, preferably in different kinds of ovens or on different stoves (friends are nice for this). 

  • Be consistent and clear with your amounts and write them out properly. “One-half cup of chopped almonds” is not the same as “one-half cup almonds, chopped.” And what kind of almonds are they? Roasted? Raw? Blanched? Skins on, off, does it matter? 

  • List your ingredients in the order in which they appear in the recipe, and don’t skip any steps in the procedure. It’s just like Chekhov’s gun; if it’s in the ingredient list, then it must be used in the recipe. 

  • Do as the pros do and give doneness cues. Don’t just tell me to cook something for 8–10 minutes, but for 8–10 minutes or until lightly browned. 

Rock That Title

Sometimes the best title is simply the most descriptive. With the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook you’re pretty sure what you’re getting. If you want to be clever, choose a subtitle that clearly explains the contents. 

To Index or Not to Index

I’m going to assume you already realize how important developmental editing, copyediting, and proofreading are to any technical book—and a cookbook’s no different. Find professionals and don’t skimp. What you might not have considered is hiring an indexer to help your cooks look up recipes or ingredients more easily. Indexing is the last step in the editorial process, occurring post-proofread on the designed pages.

What We’re Reading this Summer at GFP

It’s almost summer (if you go by the June 21 date and not just when it feels sufficiently hot enough), which means it’s time to start compiling your summer reading library. I asked around at GFP, and as usual, the folks here had lots of great book ideas to help you while away those hazy, lazy days of summer.  

On my personal short list this summer is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and the Neapolitan Novels quartet by Elena Ferrante. Why these? Because my mom told me to read them, and I do everything my mom tells me to do (well, almost everything). I also want to read the latest by Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and by Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

GFP photo researcher and production editor Emily Freidenrich is planning on reading Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, The Idiot by Elif Batuman, and Cutting Back by Leslie Buck this summer. 

Our resident writer and developmental editor, Anna Katz, is currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (it’s mind-blowing, she reports) and is looking forward to reading Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to ExplainThe Babysitter at Rest by Jen George is also on the short list. 

Our office administrator (and a writer in her own right), Kim Bridges, is flying through YA fantasy A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge and is also reading Theft by Finding, the newest from David Sedaris. It is the first volume of his two-part diary series, and Kim promises it moves from vaguely depressing to stock Sedaris humor as you journey with him from 1977 and up to 2002. (Of course, what wasn’t vaguely depressing about 1977?) 

Sara Addicott, one of our amazing production editors here at GFP, is reading Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, as well as The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. She is also planning on finally tackling Ulysses by James Joyce on her vacation. Good luck to you, Sara. (And by the way, what about any of these constitutes “summer reading”? Geez.) 

Art director Paul Barrett knows what I mean by “summer reading.” He’s got Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane, The Plagiarist by Benjamin Cheever, and Trajectory by Richard Russo all lined up. He’s also planning on plowing through a large stack of regional barbeque books. 

Senior special projects editor Emilie Sandoz-Voyer is currently reading and loving Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. She also has The Nix by Nathan Hill, Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein, and the first three volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle books on her bedside table. (Really, Emilie? Does that last one really count as summer reading?) 

Senior production editor Dave Valencia is planning on kicking back with Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone: A Fifth-Dimension Guide to Life by Mark Dawidziak; classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in honor of recently deceased author Robert Pirsig; and The Master of Hestviken (tetralogy) by Sigrid Undset. Wow, a tetralogy! And I thought a quartet was impressive.  

Senior production editor Bethany Davis is throwing some YA into the mix with Lord of the Shadows by Cassandra Clare and classic tearjerker The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. She’s also got The Child Thief by Brom all queued up. 

And last but certainly not least, production editor Laura Dailey is just finishing Seattle fave and soon to be major motion picture The Boys in the Boat and is planning on finally reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Now, those are two proper summer reads. 

We hope this list gives you some good ideas, and we would love to hear your summer reading picks too!

Should I Get a Manuscript Assessment or a Developmental Edit?

Many clients come to us ready for help, but then they’re not sure what level of editorial help is right for them. We understand. It’s often a new and sometimes daunting process, involving varying levels of unfamiliar editing jargon—narrative arc, pacing, tension, stakes, line editing, copyediting, etc.—and it can be difficult to know the best place to start. Below are a few guidelines to help you determine the best starting point for you and your manuscript. 

 

What is the difference between a manuscript assessment and a developmental edit? 

A manuscript assessment and developmental edit both address high-level content issues. With fiction, these include (warning: here’s that jargon) narrative arc and structure; character development; pacing/tension/stakes; and cohesiveness of plot. In layperson’s terms, are readers going to be hooked and compelled to keep turning pages? Do they need more background information or less? Are there extraneous plot points or threads that are confusing or unresolved? Do the characters feel credible and complex? Does the ending feel satisfying? With nonfiction, editors look at flow, logical delivery of argument, appropriateness of language for the intended audience, and clarity and consistency of voice. The difference between the manuscript assessment and the developmental edit is in the delivery. With both the MA and DE, you get an in-depth editorial letter addressing all of these issues. But with the DE, you will also get detailed margin comments embedded in the manuscript itself to guide your revisions. Your editor will point out specific places that you could expand; highlight passages of backstory that could be trimmed or woven in elsewhere; show you where you are both showing and telling; and identify holes in logic and confusing passages. In addition to identifying problem areas, your editor is more likely to offer specific suggestions on ways you could fix or resolve those issues. 

 

When is a manuscript assessment the right starting point? 

A manuscript assessment is often the right step for early drafts. If no one else has seen your manuscript, if you’re stuck and just want some very high-level feedback to get you on the right track, or if you’re not sure whether you’ve captured the right voice or are starting in the right place, then an MA makes the most sense. After all, you may be making significant changes and don’t necessarily need margin comments for material that may end up on the cutting-room floor. 

A manuscript assessment is also a good option for experienced writers who know how to take feedback from the letter and incorporate it themselves. They may not need someone to point out every passage that needs work and would prefer to reenvision the material themselves. 

 

When is a developmental edit the right way to go? 

A developmental edit is appropriate when a manuscript is farther along in the process. Perhaps you’re a couple of drafts in; you’ve gotten and incorporated early feedback; or you’re pretty sure the basic pillars of the story you want to tell are in place. 

A DE is also an excellent option for authors looking for more guided feedback. An editorial letter is a remarkable document—it can also be daunting to know how to take that feedback and incorporate it into the manuscript. A DE’s margin comments provide a detailed road map for revisions. They will point out specific passages to focus on, provide explanations for editorial revisions, and offer suggestions for potential fixes. If you are relatively new to writing, this will teach you a lot of about the craft and give you more tools and resources as you continue to hone your skills. 

 

What is a line edit? How is it different from a developmental edit? 

Generally following in the footsteps of an MA or DE, the line edit is a more granular level of edit that focuses on the words on the line—word choice, repetition, syntax, sentence structure, appropriateness of language for the intended audience, clarity, etc. Once the narrative structure has been finalized, the line edit is the buff and polish that brings your language to a whole new level. If your writing is very clean, the line edit can sometimes be conflated with the developmental edit. If, however, you are new to writing books, these are generally separated into two stages. (It doesn’t really make sense to tinker with the words on the line until the general structure of the material has been finalized.) 

If you’re not sure what would be the right next step for you, don’t worry! We’re happy to review your material and help you determine an editorial game plan that will suit you and your text.

Myth Busting: Five Misconceptions About Writing Young Adult Fiction

Marianna Baer is the author of the YA novels The Inconceivable Life of Quinn (Amulet/Abrams) and Frost (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins). She lives in Brooklyn, NY, and edits both YA and adult fiction.  

As a writer and editor of YA fiction, I hear opinions about the genre all the time—from authors who write for adults, from nonwriters with YA book ideas, from the guy next to me on the airplane. . . . And there are a few misconceptions that come up over and over again. While I’m not too concerned with what the outside world thinks of my profession, I do think it’s good for aspiring YA writers to know the real deal. 

 

1. You have to make your writing less sophisticated for a teen audience. 

This is probably the biggest misconception, and I’m honestly not sure where it comes from. After all, most people begin reading books written for adults while they’re in their teens—if not for pleasure, then definitely for school. Teen readers don’t need us to coddle them by simplifying our vocabulary or sentence structure or the narrative structure of our books. If you want to write something simple and straightforward, like a contemporary version of the Sweet Valley High series you loved as a kid, go for it! Nothing wrong with that. Or if you want to write about a more serious topic in a way that will be accessible to teens at a lower reading level, that’s fantastic—there’s a real need for “hi-lo” books. But if the story you’re telling demands a more sophisticated narrative voice or structure, don’t hold back. Your readers will be right there with you.  

2. You have to avoid certain subject matter when writing YA. 

My recently released YA novel, The Inconceivable Life of Quinn, is the story of a sixteen-year-old daughter of a politician who is trying to solve the mystery of her seemingly virgin pregnancy while also facing the public scandal it causes. Because of the subject, the book goes to some dark places and touches on some controversial doozies. (Sex! Religion! Politics! Yikes!) Did this stop a major publisher from picking it up, or stop Publishers Weekly from giving it a starred review? Nope! The truth is, if you’re worried about censorship, or teens not being interested, or about introducing them to something too dark, chances are your worry is misplaced. YA novels explore issues and experiences that teens face—and teens face just about everything you could imagine. Aside from that, teens are engaged members of society—they care about what’s going on in the world. If it’s a well-told story, there will be teens who want to read it. (Not to mention that a good number of YA readers are adults, but that’s a subject for another post.) 

A caveat about dark subject matter: writing for teens does carry a certain responsibility. Take care that you’re handling topics with sensitivity. Be aware of what you’re putting out there. 

3. Your YA novel needs to have a romance in it. 

I’m not going to lie—I do hear a lot of editors say that romance in YA is key. But is it necessary for your book to include a little (or a lot) of kissing to sell it—either to a publisher or to a teen audience? No. Definitely not. If a romance isn’t a natural fit in your story, trying to shoehorn it in isn’t the way to go. It’s bound to feel out of place. There are plenty of editors and readers who don’t need romance and plenty who are actually looking for books without it. I often have friends ask me to recommend YA for teens who want stories that are romance-free. 

4. You should avoid having adult characters in your YA novel. 

While it’s true that the main character in YA fiction is almost always between thirteen and nineteen, plenty of books have either parents or other adults as important secondary characters. I think the “kill the parents” myth came from the (correct) belief that your main character should take the lead in actively achieving their central goal. But having them act with a certain amount of independence doesn’t mean that you can’t have older characters play significant roles in the journey your character takes, either as antagonists or as supportive forces. 

5. You’re going to get rich writing YA. 

Um . . . you might? I guess? After all, some people win the lottery! But if making a fortune is your ultimate goal, you might want to reconsider. Buying lottery tickets is a lot easier than writing a bestselling novel. (Not to mention that in most cases, it takes more than one bestselling novel to get rich.) 

If you’re one of the many writers trying (or thinking about trying) to break into this vibrant market, I hope that this quick rundown will be of help! And there’s no substitute for reading widely in the genre, to see what’s happening in YA firsthand. Aside from looking at bestseller lists to find books that are doing well commercially, check out the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) yearly booklists. They’re a great resource for finding both popular books and award-winners. I absolutely promise that exploring the depth and variety of what’s happening in YA is the most inspiring way to bust all the myths. 

A Conversation With Mystery Editor Faith Black Ross

What is something you always tell your authors?

Resist the temptation to jump on the next big trend. Yes, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train were huge hits, but don’t sit down at your desk thinking that the surefire path to success is to write the next psychological thriller with the word Girl in the title. For one thing, you should write the book you want to write and that you are best equipped to write. For another, by the time you get your manuscript written, revised, edited, and submitted to agents and then to publishers, that trend may well be over. It’s an exercise in frustration and futility to go chasing trends that have already peaked. It may sound like old-fashioned advice, but write the best story you can write, then worry about trends later—who knows, perhaps you’ll be the one to start the next big one.

What should your authors always keep in mind when it comes to developing their characters?

They don’t necessarily need to be likeable, but they do need to be relatable. Your readers need to be able to identify with them in some way. Yes, Amy in Gone Girl was a truly terrible person, but we all know what it feels like to be betrayed by someone we care about. You need to give readers something to lock onto—a compelling backstory, some moment that gives us a glimpse into their motivations or a hint of sympathy for them. Nuanced, flawed, complex characters are what keep us turning pages.

How late in a novel can the inciting incident happen?

There are always exceptions to a rule, but generally, if it’s a murder mystery, the killing needs to happen in the first three chapters—no more than fifty pages in. It’s easy to get caught up in the fun of creating characters and scene building, but all of that needs to happen in service to the mystery itself. Rather than dumping a lot of background information at the outset, authors need to work assiduously to intersperse those scene and character details into the action scenes so that they are relayed to the reader as organically as possible while keeping the story marching forward.

What’s the right number of red herrings for a mystery?

I get asked that all the time, and the fact is that there’s no single right answer to that question. It all depends on the book. A multilayered 120,000-word thriller has room for more red herrings than a 70,000-word cozy mystery. What’s most important is that the reader hasn’t figured it out by the end. You want them to have figured out some of it, but you don’t want to blindside them completely. You want readers to experience the satisfaction of that all-important aha! moment, but it can’t be a total shock. Keep some twist or element of surprise in play for the end.

Do you have any tips or tricks for keeping track of all the plot threads?

There’s no single system that works. My only advice is to find something that works for you, and use it consistently. I have some authors who have detailed Excel spreadsheets to keep track of every aspect of their plot. Others just keep handwritten notes by their computer. Others manage to fly by the seat of their pants and keep it all in their heads. One thing that often gets lost in the shuffle as authors craft an entire world and cast of characters from scratch is the timeline. It might help to keep a detailed outline of what happens when (not only what day, but what time) so that you can refer back to it and ensure consistency throughout.

Any tips on how to write great dialogue?

Oh yes. The only real way to know if your dialogue is any good is to read it out loud. Period.

Any final thoughts for our readers?

I get asked a lot about how to go about finding the best agent, editor, or publisher. The best advice I ever heard was to go down to the bookstore, find the books you think yours is most like, flip to the acknowledgments page, and you’ll most likely find the editor and agent’s names listed there. Those are your best starting point. Good luck!

 

Faith Black Ross has over a decade of experience in commercial publishing working on bestselling and award-winning fiction and nonfiction—everything from mysteries, historical fiction, and women’s fiction to true crime and popular culture. An alumna of Williams College, Faith also has an MA in English from Rutgers University and studied at Oxford University.

 

 

The Indie Author’s Marketing Timeline

Bookmark this! 

Bookmark this! 

If you’re an author on the self-publishing path (or an author, period), you already know that a successful book release requires a considerable amount of self-marketing before, during, and after the book is published. However, the “before” part is especially important, and it often takes place months—even years—leading up to your release date.

For those who are new to publishing, knowing when to execute each marketing task can be daunting. You may be asking yourself, When should I create my media kit? What is a media kit? When do I start reaching out to influencers? To address these important questions, we created a comprehensive marketing timeline to help authors get their book promotion in gear. With this reference guide in hand, you can approach your book promotion with confidence—no marketing squad necessary.

Investigate Your Audience

(12–10 months before publication date)

You may know your readers’ demographics, but do you know where they hang out online? Twelve to ten months before your pub date is the time to figure this out. Do your research, read, and join online groups and forums to determine what websites your readers visit, what blogs they read, and whether they are on Facebook and Twitter. This is crucial information to have before you embark on your author marketing journey.

Tips on researching your target audience:

 

Build Your Channels

(10–8 months before publication date)

It’s impossible to establish your online presence too early. But don’t panic if you have less than a year to go and have yet to leave a digital trace. Ten to eight months before publication is plenty of time to build your digital footprint.

Start by giving yourself a digital audit to determine where your online presence needs the most work. After deciding which social media platforms are best for you, create your accounts and learn how to use them. If you don’t already have an author website, hire a designer or go the DIY route with Squarespace or WordPress. If you have a site, now is the time to spruce it up.

Tips for building your digital footprint:

 

Engage Your Audience

(8–6 months before publication date)

Now that you’ve got your bearings on your various social media platforms, the fun part can finally begin: engaging with your audience. This means planning, creating, and scheduling content designed to draw the attention of your readers on social media.

Post relevant articles and images on your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles. Build up your e-mail list and start blogging regularly to get your audience excited about your upcoming release.

This is also the time to start “teasing” your book. Planning a cover reveal and releasing sample chapters are two wonderful ways to hype your book.

Tips on developing a powerful online presence:

 

Reach Out to Your Influencers

(6–3 months before publication date)

Remember that e-mail list you compiled? It’s time to use it. Develop and write a monthly newsletter with book updates, blog posts, and upcoming events. Reach out to influencers, reviewers, blogs, and websites that could potentially feature you or your book.

Are you planning to do a book tour? This is the best time to plan any events, signings, and conferences you wish to attend.

Tips on using your connections to market your book:

 

The Final Countdown

(1–3 months before publication date)

Your publishing date is within arm’s reach, but there are still loose ends to tie up. The final months leading up to your publishing date are the best time to do things like host a giveaway for your book, plan a release party, and create and distribute your media kit to any outlets that have agreed to feature your work.

Take a cue from the pros: develop a promotional calendar for your website that organizes and displays the events and appearances you booked as well as a marketing calendar to keep track of when and where you will be featured online.

Tips on pre-release marketing practices:

 

Still have more questions? Reply to us in the comments. And good luck with your launch!

 

 

 

Bookmark These: Top Free Resources for Amateur Marketers

The book production process is like a series of finish lines, driving writers to keep writing, keep revising, keep editing, keep honing until that ultimate goal of publication becomes more and more perceivable. After months of back and forth between editors, design reviews, and proofreading minutia, the idea of having to promote the book may cause authors to wonder if this so-called finish line even exits. 

When it comes to marketing, the truth is that it doesn’t. Once your book is published, you can hold your tightly bound masterpiece with confidence that you’ll never have to touch it again. But marketing is an ongoing process that should continue as long as you want people to read your book. As with most elements of self-publishing, you can choose to go at this alone (and many do, with great effect!) or hire a firm to help you. Regardless, it’s a good idea to start establishing your platform early. Here are some of our favorite free resources to get you started. 

Grammarly: As a writer, you know the importance of proofreading your work before publishing it. Social media should be treated the same. With the informal nature of social media, it’s easy to slip up when replying to a reader on Twitter or Instagramming your book on a bookstore shelf. Grammarly is a plugin that can be installed to Microsoft Word or web browsers such as Chrome, Safari, and Firefox. The proofreading app underlines mistakes and provides a detailed explanation on how to fix them. 

Hootsuite: One of the most challenging parts of social media for writers is feeling the need to be “always on”—and it’s true that social media can easily become a time suck. You have better things to do—like write your next book!—than spend time each morning thinking of something compelling to post on Twitter and Facebook that day. Hootsuite’s free social media management tool helps you become way more efficient by scheduling batches of posts in advance. So, you can take a day or so to write out several weeks’ worth of content, then sit back while your posts are automatically released by Hootsuite according to the schedule you’ve created.  

Free stock photography: When you want to illustrate a blog post about the writing life . . . but dirty dishes and unfolded laundry are decorating your living room . . . stock photography is a fantastic source. Not only will your post look amazing, but its performance will likely almost double. And with sites like Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay, you can download gorgeous images for social media use for free.  

Pro tip: aim for photos that don’t look too fabricated. We’ve all seen the infamous man on a mountain with his laptop or the disturbingly fake handshake. The key is to use stock photography that looks authentic.  

Canva: The stream of information on social media moves incredibly fast, so it’s crucial to catch your audience’s attention at first glance. The quality of your visual content is vital to the success of your online marketing. Research shows that visual content is up to forty times more likely to be shared on social media. Services like Canva make it easy and affordable for non-graphic-designers to create stunning, sharable social media banners, posts, ads, blog graphics, and more. With simple drag-and-drop templates created by talented designers, Canva is a great tool for authors who want to look polished online without having to hire a designer to create customized social assets for them.  

Google Analytics: At first glance, Google Analytics may look intimidating with its lines graphs, endless reports, and terms like “Cohort Analysis” and “Ad Words.”  But it’s free, and the wealth of information captured by this powerful tool allows you to track your website traffic, learn who your viewers are and how they are finding you, and so much more. Fortunately, you don’t need to be an expert on the entire catalog of offerings to reap the benefits of Google Analytics. If you’re a beginner, we recommend paying attention to these ten things. 

How a Book Proposal Helps, Even if You Self-Publish

You’ve finally finished your book. It’s been a long slog, but look at that gorgeous manuscript you’ve created! You’re ready to see this book in print.  

You might be asking yourself, why not self-publish? The independent publishing landscape is more inviting than ever. Whereas the traditional publishing route is difficult for first-time authors to crack, self-publishing allows you to get your book out there more quickly, retain more control over the final product, and keep a larger percentage of your sales. If you are ready and willing to work hard to promote and sell your books in the digital marketplace, independent publishing could be a great fit for you. And hey, as an added bonus, if you’re not trying to get picked up by an agent or publisher, you don’t have to write a book proposal, right?  

Well, hold on. There are many reasons that a well-crafted book proposal can help you better position your book, no matter how you end up publishing it. At its best, a book proposal is a distillation of your project: It opens with a hook that speaks directly to your readership and goes on to describe the concept and scope of the book in clear, inviting language. A book proposal presents an accurate vision of the intended audience and offers an analysis of the market and the competitive titles already out there. It includes a breakdown of your platform, as well as ideas for promotional opportunities that you might pursue. It closes with a crisp, clean sample of the book’s material.  

So even if you self-publish your book, consider taking the time to craft a proposal. Here are just a few of the aspects of the book (and your role as an author) that you’ll be able to clarify in the process. 

Your hook: If you want a reader to pick up your book, you need to snare them with that perfectly crafted opening line. Lead with a short paragraph that presents your idea in bold, exciting terms—then delve into the details. If you self-publish, you’ll be able to use this text to kick off some fabulous back cover copy. Having trouble finding the hook? You might want to revisit your text. It could be that your manuscript needs another round of revision, but only by looking at it with the cold eye of a salesperson will you be able to see that. 

Your promotional copy: Following your hook, your proposal will include a longer description of your project. This overview can be mined later for back cover and promotional copy. Carefully considering the way you present your book—and then working and refining it until it’s streamlined and perfect—is always a useful exercise.  

Your audience: A big part of writing a proposal is researching and crafting an analysis of the market for your book and the competition it will face. In this section, you’ll pull together a clear vision of your primary readership, working to understand the other books your readers gravitate toward and the things they are passionate about. You’ll think about what’s already out there that could compete for your readers’ dollars and figure out how your book will differentiate itself. Figuring out these details early on will help you position your own marketing platform—crucial for any author, not just those who self-publish. Which leads us to . . . 

Your marketing strategy: The days of writing a book and sitting back to watch it achieve success are over (if they ever existed in the first place). The best authors work for every sale. They’ve identified their audience and know just how to reach them. For self-published authors, this is even more important; after all, you are your own marketing and publicity team. In crafting a proposal, you’ll have to start thinking about the promotional resources you can bring to the table. What is your platform? How will you reach your audience? What local or national papers or magazines would you love to see yourself in? How will you build your online presence? Which blogs should you try to guest post for? Where can you start networking with other authors and influencers in your field? Brainstorming this angle far ahead of publication will give you a leg up on other authors. You’ll be ready to reach out and connect with your potential readers long before your book hits the shelf, building awareness and interest. And you’ll have your audience clearly fixed in your mind as you make crucial creative decisions along the way, such has how your book cover design looks.  

The opening pages of your book: A very important portion of your proposal is the sample of the book that you include. As you pull together the proposal, you’ll want to run a fine-tooth comb through the prose of those initial chapters. Consider hiring an outside editor. See what issues the editor flags and use that feedback to start another edit on the full manuscript. Any chance you have to refine and tighten your prose before it’s in print, take it. 

Do You Have What It Takes to Self-Publish Successfully?

Self-publishing sounds like the great panacea to all publishing woes. It is indeed a tremendous development that is transforming the industry and handing unprecedented power to authors. This is all exciting stuff, but before you jump on the bandwagon, you’ll want to consider these traits that are key to self-publishing success and happiness.  

An entrepreneurial spirit: The successful self-publisher knows that being an author these days is not just about creative genius. It’s about seeing yourself not as a writer but as a small business—a publisher. As such, you’ll want to behave like one.  Create a business plan. Set goals. Develop a targeted marketing plan. Learn how to use Excel. Track your numbers. Then analyze them to determine which of your marketing efforts are working best. Watch those numbers grow. Study what the competition is doing, and learn from them. If that sounds daunting at first, start by learning from others: Join or form a community of other aspiring authors. Share information. Knowledge is power in this business, and the authors who are making a good living these days spend half their time writing and the other half nurturing and growing their platform. The key to doing this well is not fighting it or denying that it’s necessary, but creating dedicated time and space to embrace it.   

A deep understanding of your audience: The successful self-publisher also knows that bigger is not always better. It’s not about how broad your audience is. It’s about understanding exactly who your audience is—what problem they’re looking to solve, and providing the solution through very targeted writing that speaks directly to them. The most successful self-publishers know where their audience is hanging out online and are informed and generous members of those communities. It’s more effective to develop a cult following of a few thousand than to dilute your message and aim to please too many different groups. Know your reader, know what they want, and write for them. 

The long view: Publishing your first book is a massive accomplishment and certainly something to celebrate. Call your mom. Break open the bubbly. Jump up and down. Maybe shed a few tears of relief that you’re finally holding your very own book in your hands. But that’s not the end of the journey. In fact, successful self-publishers know that that first book is really a building block that serves as the foundation for your career as an author. Book number one is for establishing an audience. Book number two is for growing that audience. Book number three will help sell books one and two. And so on. Publishing is a long game, and the big rewards come only after investing time in your platform, building a loyal following, and rewarding that loyalty with the next book in the series. So pop the champagne. Share it on Instagram. Then sit back down at your desk and get to work on book number two.  

Realistic expectations: I don’t mean to bring anybody down, but the realistic self-publisher knows that competition is fierce and sets attainable goals. Successful self-publishers don’t give up when their book doesn’t appear on the New York Times bestseller list. They’ve done their homework, know their audience, keep the long view in mind, and don’t let themselves get blindsided by the fact that Oprah hasn’t called. And your goal doesn’t have to be easily quantifiable. It’s okay if you just want to be able to give your life story to your grandchildren; if it’s going to be part of building your platform or brand; or if it was something you wanted to cross off your bucket list. But be very clear on your objective from the start. Then celebrate it when you reach it. 

A commitment to quality: Quality matters. There’s a temptation to upload as soon as your draft is done (so that you can get to that champagne celebration that much sooner), but take a deep breath. Consider the long game (again), and know that a well-designed cover, professional editing, and carefully crafted marketing copy are all essential to long-term success. It’s a way of treating your readers with respect and showing them you care about delivering a fantastic reading experience. And taking excellent care of your readers is what successful self-publishing is all about.

Get the Best Results from Your Publishing Team

From having control over design and editorial changes to earning more favorable royalties, there are numerous good reasons why authors opt to publish books themselves. Professional indie authors also understand how important it is to hire a competent team if their book is going to compete on the same shelf as traditionally published volumes.

Perhaps you just recently took the plunge and hired an outfit of editors and designers, or maybe you’re halfway through production of your book. Either way, these tips will get you the best results from your team.

  • Be clear about your goals. Are you determined to get your book into local bookstores? Is one of your primary goals to make a profit? With this information in hand, your production team can help set realistic expectations and inform you of actionable steps for distribution and marketing.
  • Write thorough briefs. Depending on the established scope of the project, your crew may be writing your promotional copy, creating your author website, and designing the cover, interior, and logo using the information you provide as a jumping-off point. By providing clear direction from the start, you’ll help your team deliver the final copy and designs you’ve been envisioning. If you’ve hired a marketing strategist and publicist, it’s important that they’re fully briefed as well.
  • Give specific and objective feedback. For example, when you’re reviewing your copyedited manuscript, clearly respond to the copyeditor’s queries with actionable edits. This might mean inputting a simple “OK” to agree with a suggested change, or choosing a proposed solution and rewriting to fit. With design, though a cover might not “feel right,” go beyond such imprecise comments. Focus on identifying what’s not working for you rather than what you think the correct solution might be. Maybe the font is too traditional, the title too big, or the red that was chosen too bright. What did you think would be different about the design you envisioned? Communicate the specific element that’s not sitting well with you and why, and then let the designer bring their expertise to bear on the best solution to that problem.
  • Be open to new possibilities. Do you already have the perfect cover design in mind? Share it with your team, and get ready to review ideas both inspired by and completely independent from your own. Though your original concept is an excellent starting point, you might miss out on a well-suited design if you’re focused exclusively on your own. It’s smart to come to the creative table with a good dose of humility and appreciation for the expertise of the people you’ve hired to help you.
  • Stay organized to keep your team organized. Use best practices to keep the process rolling by acting like a professional. Input your project schedule into your online calendar to ensure you stick to your deadlines. Collate your design feedback into one email as opposed to several, or use project management software to collaborate.
  • Use the software specified by your production editor. You will likely need access to the latest versions of the tried-and-true publishing standbys: Adobe Reader and Microsoft Word. Reader is used to view and comment on PDFs (design files), while Word is the gold standard for editing and commenting on your manuscript. If you’re unsure how to use each program properly, ask for guidance.
  • Alert your team to potential issues right away. Whether you have a schedule conflict with your proposed review time or you think Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature turned off during your copyedit review but you’re not sure, tell your team immediately. Their experience and insight can help you head off problems and keep your book on schedule.
  • Come prepared to meetings. Not sure what to prep? Ask your project manager. You’ll be able to get the answers and next steps that you need if you and your team are on the same page during critical conversations.
  • Have a question or concern? Raise it. Your team is there to guide you through the production process, and often asking questions right away can save you the time, effort, and potential costs that making late-in-the-game revisions might necessitate.

At the end of the day, remember that you entrusted a stellar team of experienced publishing professionals to shepherd your title from manuscript to finished book. Ask questions, do as much of your own research as you like, query and requery issues until you’re satisfied, and bring a collaborative mindset. If you do these things, your relationship with your team will be productive and your book will be the very best it can be.

Publish Like the Pros: The Indie Author's Dream Team

At a traditional publisher, there are no fewer than eight (often more!) people working collaboratively to bring each book to market. Given that it takes a village, it’s no surprise that first-time self-publishers often feel alone or overwhelmed by the complexities of the bookmaking process. To do it right, you either have to assume each of these roles or, better yet, hire experts to help you.

Here’s a comprehensive list of the essential partners you will need on your self-publishing team. If you choose to wear some of these hats yourself, just ensure that you cover all the bases.

1. The Developmental Editor

What they do: A developmental editor’s job is to read your manuscript with an eye toward big-picture issues like narrative arc, plot, pacing, character development, and point of view. Creating a robust fictional world is an enormous task to ask of just one brain, and no matter how good a writer you are, I promise there will be some weird hitches in your timing sequence or something off about the main character’s voice in one section that will throw the reader. Nonfiction writers, especially subject-matter experts, are often too close to their material and need a layperson’s take on organization, tone, consistency, and clarity.

Our advice: Hire a professional. This is not the place to sub in your wife or dad or BFF. The developmental edit is often transformative—the difference between a five-star and a one-star review on Amazon.

2. The Copyeditor

What they do: Your developmental editor may have moved mountains, but she was focused on bigger-picture issues. A copyeditor’s responsibility is to ensure that each sentence of your work is squeaky clean. Editing on the heavy side, a copyeditor will do some wordsmithing (would you like to use “night shift” rather than “nightgown” to align with medieval vocab throughout?). At minimum, the copyeditor will ensure that supporting character Lucy doesn’t morph into Lucie (or Linda) halfway through the book, that you haven’t overused your favorite phrase, and that your indefinite pronoun antecedents are clear. Don’t know what a pronoun antecedent is? That’s why you need a copyeditor.

Our advice: Skipping a copyedit is like washing your hands without soap. Hire a professional who knows The Chicago Manual of Style inside and out, and you’ll sleep better at night as your release date approaches.

3. The Cover Designer

What they do: Professional book cover designers are experts in this single type of design—in other words, a great graphic designer generalist is not the right fit. Book cover designers know what works in what genre, know what print specifications and cover “treatments” are appropriate, and employ best practices such as styling typefaces for readability at thumbnail size (for readers who will see your book on Amazon.com). They can also generate barcodes, map spine and back cover layouts to printers’ templates, and package mechanical files.

Our advice: Covers sell books—everyone knows it. If you intend to sell books, hire a professional cover designer.

4. The Interior Designer

What they do: Interior designers are responsible for everything between the covers, and, interestingly, are often different people than cover designers. The interior designer also has a highly specialized skill set, which has as much to do with layout and typeface as with reader psychology and editorial.

Our advice: If you’re looking for ways to cut costs, and you’re okay with compromising some polish and perfection, and your manuscript is straight text, then there are template designs you can buy that can be an economical stand-in for an interior designer. If you choose to go this route, you will need to be comfortable with new technologies to “flow” the text into the template yourself.

5. The Proofreader

What they do: During the layout process, it’s possible for all sorts of formatting errors to occur—italics are dropped, a line breaks in such a way that only two letters dangle on a blank page, a chapter number is omitted, a running head contains a typo, etc. Even when layout is done professionally, these issues arise (it’s not uncommon to have a couple hundred in a standard-length manuscript!), but if you’re using a template design, you’ll find even more formatting errors.

Proofreaders specialize in spotting any lingering text errors (there’s a missing word here: “Would you like go to dinner with me?”) as well as formatting-related issues. They mark missing quotation marks, extra spacing around dashes, or incorrectly styled epigraphs. Their checklist is long.

Our advice: You wouldn’t rely on Microsoft Word’s Spelling and Grammar check to stand in for your editor’s work on your manuscript, would you? Similarly, it would be foolish to assume that your template design program’s “auto-layout” would catch all of the errors a human reader will. Since proofreading is not only about text but also about formatting, it’s wise to hire a professional proofreader—lay readers won’t pick up on half of what a professional proofer will. Also, the proofreader should be someone reading the book for the first time. You and your editors are too familiar with the manuscript; you need to bring fresh eyes.

6. An Ebook Developer

What they do: The ebook developer translates your printer-ready files (i.e., static PDFs) into formats optimized for consumption on e-reading devices. Converting your ebook to MOBI and EPUB “reflowable” formats makes the text dynamic and easy to read on any device—and a professional ebook developer is an expert at this task.

Our advice: It depends on how important the ebook edition is for you. If it’s a “nice to have” and you’re trying to keep costs down, consider using autoconversion software like Draft2Digital. If you’re publishing in a genre in which the digital version will be the primary edition readers buy, consider hiring a professional.

7. A Marketing Strategist

What they do: We’ve written at length about how readers won’t flock to buy your book just because it’s available on Amazon—no matter how awesome your cover design is. Having an intelligent strategy for how to find your potential readers online, grab their attention, and actually get them to purchase your book is a necessary component of publishing successfully. That said, marketing effectively is all about building your author brand and creating relationships with your readership—a task that really needs to be done by you.

Our advice: There are so many different marketing tactics you could try, and they’re not all going to be right for you and your book. Engaging a marketing strategist helps you focus on what you know will work well and ignore the rest of the hype. Stop short of hiring someone to “assume your voice” and produce and post all of your online content for you, though; the most successful authors are personally engaged with their readers. Our advice is this: take a “strategically assisted DIY approach” to marketing your book to keep things both authentic and manageable.

8. A Production Editor

What they do: The unsung heroes of the book pipeline, production editors are the conductors of the orchestra. The production editor selects the right editors and designers, manages contracts with each of them, builds a schedule that’s suited to the project type, handles the registration of ISBNs, determines the retail price, interfaces with the printer or POD platform, and is the keeper of all the project details and shepherd of the integrated bookmaking effort.

Our advice: There are many self-publishers who happily handle their own project management and interface directly with the various freelancers working on their book. These same authors will attest to how much work the project management is—and how hard it is to foresee problems in the pipeline if this is your first time! At Girl Friday, we devote dedicated production editors to each client.

The Supporting Players

Depending on your project, you may require even more help. Scan the list below to make sure you cover the relevant needs for your project.

9. An indexer, if your nonfiction book needs an index.

10. A fact-checker, if your nonfiction book is full of names, places, dates, quotes, or other facts you need verified.

11. A lawyer, if your manuscript uses quoted excerpts, song lyrics, or descriptions of known public figures, or if it offers legal or medical advice.

12. A photo researcher, if you intend to use images in your book and need help verifying or securing permissions.

13. An audio conversion team, if you want to create an audio edition as well.

Is Hiring Someone to Manage Your Self-Published Book Project Right for You?

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Imagine an orchestra performing without a conductor. Sure, the musicians have the sheet music, but how do they know when to start playing? When should the violins recede and the cellos surge? Who sets the tempo? How will they express the true intent of the composer without someone leading the way? Without a conductor, you can imagine the orchestra going from concerto to chaos in a flash. And the same is true in book production. 

The production editor’s job is to be your closest ally—and the only person on your team who understands your project in its entirety. He or she plans the production process that is uniquely suited to your book and manages the details along the way. 

1. Setting Up the Game Plan

At your project’s kickoff, the production editor asks lots of questions and prompts you to fill out a couple of key briefing documents that help us capture the vision in your head. The answers help us get to know you, hand select the best team of editors and designers for your project, and set up a realistic production schedule. Early on in the process, your production editor establishes your printing plan and defines the book’s specs (trim size, paper stock, cover treatment, and which printer or print platform—or combination—makes the most sense for your project). 

2. Assembling Your Team 

A key role of the production editor is knowing which resource partners will be the best fit for your book. We work in conjunction with the editorial director and managing editor to carefully select the developmental editor, copyeditor, and proofreader who will work on your project, making sure they are well matched to your material and that their personal style will make for a good working relationship with you. We also make recommendations for cover and interior designers, choosing those with experience in your genre and the right sensibility. 

3. Reviewing Work for Quality, Consistency, and Authenticity

At every stage of the process, the production editor reviews the editors’ and designers’ work to make sure the work is consistent and high quality and that it reflects your intent. The editorial process can be a time when an author makes their toughest decisions, and sometimes a writer’s “darlings” must die. But the production editor comes to the author’s aid as an advocate, providing options, ensuring quality—all while keeping the project moving on schedule and on budget. The production editor also works as a translator between the author and designer—who often think and speak in much different terms. The production editor provides a prospective reader’s viewpoint in terms of the online search, browsing, and point-of-sale habits of the author’s audience as well. 

4. Managing the Minutiae

As a DIY self-publisher, you have to perform all the administrative tasks that a traditional publisher would handle on an author’s behalf. Production editors handle these kind of details on your behalf: buying and registering your ISBNs, determining the book’s retail price, setting up your copyright page, and uploading final files. 

5. Reviewing the Proofs

Once the hard work of creating a book is complete, it’s time to finalize printing, pricing, and distribution options. For our White Glove and Deluxe projects, the production editor transmits book files and metadata to the printer and designated distribution sites for each format. We check, and recheck, every aspect of the book and ebook to ensure each edition is ready for publication and distribution. Part of this verification process includes closely reviewing ebook files and physical print proofs so you can be confident your book looks fantastic, whether its pages are in a reader’s hands or on their iPad. 

6. Shaping the Marketing Collateral

Savvy authors know publication is just the first step to connecting with their audience. Effective book marketing includes the creation of a professionally designed website as well as other collateral such as custom logos and online content. Since the production editor has worked side by side with the author to produce the book, that person is perfect for helping to convey the right vision to the designers and strategists working on the various elements that will help deliver your book to market. 

7. Taking Ownership

On a personal note, it’s hard to describe the satisfaction I feel helping a client bring their project to life. I’ve been known to talk to my screen while reviewing an author’s revision, announcing, “Yes! That’s perfect!” I’ve been moved to tears seeing a book in layout for the first time. I get a rush when I hold a finished book in my hands—I rub my hands over the cover, feel all the pages. I even smell the ink (TMI?). But what this tells you is that as a production editor, I’m deeply invested in helping the client reach their goals—every step of the way.

An Updated Approach to Keywords on Amazon

In a recent post, we detailed how to optimize your Amazon page to promote your book’s discovery online. Since then, we discovered this piece on “mythbusting” the Amazon algorithm, published by Cate Baum on the Self-Publishing Review. A lot of Cate’s advice is in line with Girl Friday’s established approach to working with the Amazon platform with one important exception—the way to go about defining the right search keywords.

Cate argues that the Amazon toolbar serves up personalized results based on the previous things you’ve purchased and searched for. She’s correct about this—Google does the same thing. In Google’s case, this personalization helps advertisers identify and target very specific audiences; in Amazon’s case, they’re giving you a “better shopping experience” by serving up suggestions that will be specifically of interest to you.

It’s true that you don’t want that search bar to act as a closed loop, mirroring back only keywords that are most relevant to you. The way to get around this is to turn off your Amazon Browse History.

1. Go to Amazon’s Manage Your Browsing History page. (You can navigate here by clicking on the “help” button” under the main Amazon search bar and typing in “manage browsing history”.)

2. Select “OFF” on the “Turn Browsing History ON/OFF” button.

3. Then clear your browser’s cache as well. I don’t know if this step is actually necessary or not, but it can’t hurt. (If you’re using Chrome, go to History, and Clear Browsing Data. You don’t need to delete passwords, but make sure to delete your browsing and download history, cookies, and cached images.)

4. With your browser’s and Amazon’s memory of your preferences wiped clean, then go about using the search bar tool as we detail in this post.

5. Finally, make sure to add to keyword list those that Amazon requires you to use if you select certain categories.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments below if you have a different approach to working up your Amazon keywords.  

Need an Author Marketing Strategy? Start Here (Part II)

This post is part II of a series that begins here. Don’t dive into the steps below without reading that post first.

You thought you were done with the research part of all this? Ha! Well, you mostly are. The last step before formulating your strategy and starting to market your book is to research yourself.

Assessing Your Platform

This is what you may have heard referred to as a “digital audit.” That means reviewing all the ways in which you appear online and pinpointing weaknesses and opportunities.

1.   Your author website: Do you have one? If not, you should create one. It’s a crucial piece of your branding online and a home base from which you can do other important things, like blog and grow your e-mail list. If you do have a website already, look at it critically:

a.    Does it look cohesive or stylistically in line with your book cover or series?

b.    Does it showcase the most important material on its home page?

c.    Does it prominently display any press reviews or endorsements you may have from previous books (or if you’re a subject-matter expert, from your professional work)?

d.    Does it give your readers an opportunity to find out more about you or connect with you in ways beyond what’s printed in the book? Additional content could take a lot of different forms: a photo gallery of places in your novel or people in your memoir, a blog that lifts the veil on your life a little and lets readers feel like they know you better, or additional online-only worksheets to supplement your self-help book . . . The point is, there should be something more for readers to discover about you on your site.

e.    Does it encourage readers to stay connected with you through clear links to your social accounts and e-mail list?

2.    Your social presence: What are the social platforms on which you currently have accounts? You’re just collecting information at this point—no judgments!

a.    How many followers do you have on each of your various accounts?

b.    Are your accounts cross-linked and connected with your website?

c.    Is your author branding consistent across all of your accounts? Same profile picture, similar bio, consistent cover images?

3.    Your search ranking: For debut novelists, you likely won’t find much here. But for subject-matter experts who have made a name for themselves doing something other than writing, you should check what comes up when you type your name into Google.

4.    If you’ve written a book before, look at your Amazon author profile page and Goodreads author profile page, noting any inconsistencies with the rest of your profile images and bios posted elsewhere.

A lot of debut writers have . . . not much happening online. That’s okay, but it’s also important to recognize. If your audit of yourself turns up little to no online footprint, that means you’re starting at square one of the platform-building process. You’ll need to adjust your goals and expectations accordingly. Perhaps you do have a small presence, but it’s pretty disjointed when you step back and look at the full picture. That’s great to know too: your job will be to solidify your branding online to begin to take your platform to the next level. For more experienced authors with a stronger, established platform, your digital audit of yourself will need to dive into what kinds of content works well for driving the traffic you want and achieving your goals.

 

Identifying YOUR Tactics

Let’s first recognize, as indies, that the marketing tools available to you are different from those of our traditional publishing counterparts. Your marketing is going to be aimed at achieving online book sales—not in-store sales—and you’re fine with that because you realize that 75 percent of all books are purchased online. Which is why so much of indie book marketing is based in digital marketing.

As Jane Friedman so eloquently put it at the recent Digital Book World conference for indie authors, your author brand developswith or without your input—out of the following elements:

1.    Your body of work. This refers to the branding on your book as well as the quality of it. Does the cover suit the genre? Is the book description tailored to the genre and your audience, using strong keywords?

2.    Your website. You have one, right? If not, put it on your to-do list.

3.    Your e-mail list. If marketing is all about establishing and deepening your relationship with your readers, then adding their names to your e-mail list is the most valuable action you can ask your readers to take. The saying goes, “A sign-up is worth more than a sale.” Why? Because a sale is a single action; but an e-mail sign-up gives you the opportunity to win a reader’s loyalty and evangelism.

4.    Your social connection points. You certainly don’t need to be everywhere, just everywhere your readers are. Are you engaged in the conversations about your subject matter where they are happening? Are you forming relationships with influencers in your sphere?

I can’t prescribe a plan for all authors here, since individuals are at such different levels with their platform development. Use the ladder below to start at square one and build, build, build. Understand your level, take a step forward, and just show up and be consistent. Your continued presence in a conversation with your readers—no matter what level you’re at—will take your platform up a notch.

 
 

Remember, building your brand is a marathon, not a sprint.

Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter for more expertise from the Girls. (See what we did there?)

Need an Author Marketing Strategy? Start Here (Part I)

Marketing is the most complex element an independent author can undertake when publishing their work. It’s a many-headed beast. Unlike the nice, neat results of producing a high-quality book—you can hold the finished product in your hands—marketing doesn’t tie up in a neat little bow.

At the same time, most indie authors realize that, with 4,500 new books published per day, having a marketing strategy and executing it well is critical if you want to get that beautiful book of yours seen.

One of the reasons why marketing is such a challenge for authors is that it’s hard to pay anyone to do it completely on your behalf. The kernel at the heart of good book marketing is building an authentic relationship with your readers. No one can do that better than you. Don’t think the grass is greener for traditionally published authors; most successful traditionally published authors put a lot of time and energy into their own marketing as well. Publishers are no longer carrying the lion’s share of that load. That’s why you can’t get acquired without a “platform”—they want to see proof that their authors are doing the marketing legwork.

But I just want to write! you whine. I don’t want to spend time on the base pursuit of marketing! To that I counter, if you are writing for yourself alone, you don’t have to do any marketing—there’s no need to have your books read by others, and you shouldn’t expect them to sell. But if you’re writing for an audience, marketing is simply an extension of the connection your book is intended to create with your readers. Embrace it or bust.

But HOW? There is so much advice and noise about what works and what doesn’t. The way to approach marketing in a manageable way is to put on your blinders, stop following every shiny new blog post about marketing, and devise your own tailored strategy. Follow these steps and you’ll be well on your way.

 

It Starts with Market Research

You can’t possibly reach your readers if you don’t know them, understand what they love and fear, and know where they hang out online. There is no such thing as a marketing strategy without a bedrock of market research. That sounds fancy, but it’s not scary. Here’s how you do it: put on your detective hat and engage in some friendly stalking.

Identifying Comp Titles

1.    Go to Amazon.com and search for some terms someone might type in when they discover your (future) book. The goal is to think like your reader, who is looking for topic X. For example, if you’ve written a memoir about caring for your aging parent, you might poke around the terms “memoir, aging parent” and “grief and healing,” etc. Jot down any books from the first few pages of results that are a) published within the last five years and b) most similar to yours in terms of content or angle.

2.    For another entry point, search by category. Think of Amazon categories as you would the sections of a bookstore. At the left-hand end of the Amazon.com search bar, click the drop-down menu and select “Books.” Then in the column on the left side of the page, click “See More” to expand to the full list of general subject categories. Choose a couple of the most relevant paths and follow them down their subcategories until you get to the “shelf” your future book should be found on. So, for the memoirist above, that might mean looking in “Parenting & Relationships > Aging Parents” and “Self-Help > Death & Grief > Hospice Care” and other “virtual shelves.” Comb through the recent titles and jot down those that seem most similar to yours.

3.    Winnow your list. Your goal is to get it down to three to five strong comps. Good comp titles are books by authors who are in a similar but slightly more advanced stage of their career than you. No unicorn successes (like The Martian or 50 Shades of Grey)—those are not comps. Of course, books that are closest in subject matter to yours are better comps than those with a weaker link.

4.    Spend some time researching each of the authors of your comp titles online. Take note of what social media platforms they’re using and which accounts of theirs have the largest followings. Is there anything they’re doing that’s unique? Any content they’ve posted that seems to be well liked and engaged with?

 

Defining Your Reader Personas

The next step is to get a clear picture in your mind of your target reader. As you were writing your book, you probably (hopefully) had a picture of your reader in your head. This “reader look-alike” research will expand and confirm that notion, so when you reach out to these readers, you’ll know where to find them and what kind of content will be most valuable and persuasive to them.

1.    Let’s return to your comp titles first. Look each of them up on Amazon and note the list of “Also Bought” books below. Amazon gives you valuable information about your readership’s purchase history in this list.

2.    Then plumb Goodreads, which is an excellent place to do reader research. Look up your comp titles and check out the “Lists with This Book” below each entry. The reader lists are like a peek at your readers’ virtual bookshelves. Comb the reviews of your comp titles and check out the profile pages of the reviewers, noting their interests. Through this cross section of faces and interests, you’ll start to get a clear picture of the type of person who will be drawn to your book.

3.    Define a primary reader target. What I mean by this is, pick a photograph of someone who looks like your typical reader. Give her a name. Identify her age and likely profession. And identify whether she’s married, whether she has kids, and what she cares about. This is a softer science, but having just dug around thoroughly in virtual rooms full of your readers, creating this look-alike shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. You’re a writer—I know you can do this. It’s helpful to define a secondary reader target too, to acknowledge that your book may appeal to more than one reader type for different reasons.

4.    Finally, draw out some insights about your readers. Insights are key to good content marketing. Look at your comps and reader personas and see if you can imagine plausible answers to any of the following questions: What does this type of person care about most? What’s motivating to them? What might this person fear? Why does this person like to read books from this shelf?

The more specifically you can paint a picture of your readers, the more successful you will be in targeting and creating relationships with them. The absolute hardest audience to market to is the general “anyone who listens to NPR.” I know it’s tempting to believe your book will appeal to everyone, but forcing yourself to define a super-targeted reader look-alike will help you find them, help you create content that will resonate with them, and ultimately help you become an author whose voice they care about.

 

Okay, if you did all of that thoroughly, it likely took you hours. Time for a break.

Follow us on Twitter or Facebook so you don’t miss Part II: Assessing Your Platform and Identifying the Right Tactics.

How to Write Back Cover Copy That Will Help Your Novel Sell

Many self-publishers are surprised to learn that authors are almost never responsible for writing the back cover copy for their own books. Back cover copy is a hardworking marketing tool, and in traditional houses, it’s drafted by the editor in conjunction with the marketing team. Now, back cover copy needs to do double duty as book description copy on Amazon, making keywords a consideration as well. If you’re self-publishing your book and working on writing your own back cover copy, here are our tips for you.

1. Match the tone and mood of your book. The back cover copy (BCC) should give your reader a taste of what they can expect to find inside the book, so you want to make sure the tone and mood of the writing is similar. If your book is a thriller, your BCC should feel fast-paced and exciting. If your book is a romance, the BCC should exhibit a hint of steaminess. If your book is horror, use diction that reflects the level of gore found in the story. (But don’t be too graphic. You want to tempt the reader—not shock them.)

2. Grab the reader’s attention in the first sixty to ninety words. This isn’t just another book on the shelf; this is your masterpiece! What’s interesting or special about your book? Lay it out here, but leave some mystery. Make the reader want to read on. Not only is setting a good hook important to the buyer’s purchase decision, but it’s also critical for optimizing your Amazon book page: only the first ninety words of the description are visible before the reader must click “Read More.” So, make sure you cram enough into those ninety words to make people want to read more!

3. Tell them the Who, What, Where, When, but not necessarily the Why or How. After setting the hook, introduce a bit of backstory or context (the Who/Where/When), but get to the conflict (the What) quickly. This is the driving force of your story. The Why or How are the interesting details and should thus only be hinted at.

4. Don’t summarize! This is marketing copy—not a book report. The reader needs to know only enough information to get a feel for the book’s conflict. Let them know what kind of story they’re getting into without focusing too much on the mundane details. But . . .

5. Don’t give away too much. Your goal is to give the reader just enough information to entice them. You know when you watch a movie trailer that looks hilarious, only to watch the movie and discover that you’ve already seen all the funny scenes in the trailer? What a letdown! Don’t offer that kind of BCC.

6. End the text with a question/mystery. So you’ve given the story some context and laid out the conflict—now you have to give readers a reason not to click away and continue browsing elsewhere. Compel them to want to read more (i.e., buy your book!) by either directly or indirectly leaving them with a question. If your main character’s sister goes missing after a series of strange encounters, what does he think might have happened to her? Could her encounters have been something more, something . . . supernatural?

For more on how to choose the right words, check out our Promo Text Party post.

Optimize Your Book’s Amazon Page to Promote Discoverability

Independently published authors have many things in common: an unswerving determination to share their ideas with the world, an impeccable work ethic that takes them from a rough manuscript to a polished final product, and a bevy of innate and learned skills that allows them to adopt the roles of an entire publishing house from production manager to publicist. Yet among these enviable qualities, for most indie authors there lies a deep—and understandable—concern that despite all their efforts, their books won’t sell and their rankings on Amazon will linger behind other more visible titles. 

With more and more print books selling through Amazon.com as opposed to traditional bookstores, it’s important that indie authors understand how to remove any roadblocks to their book’s ranking on Amazon. 

The full answer to “How do I make sure my book ranks well on Amazon?” includes a discussion of how you’re marketing your book. In other words, are you successfully directing readers to the page in the first place? No amount of optimizing the Amazon page itself is going to help your book sell if you’re not marketing it well. In conjunction with your marketing efforts, though, you’ll want to make sure to remove any kind of on-page barriers to discovery. 

You can do this yourself by being smart about the categories and keywords you select when uploading your book. We’ll call this “on-page SEO.” Here’s how to do it. 

 

Choose Your Company Wisely

Amazon’s algorithm prioritizes books that are ranked highly within their categories. What this means: it’s better to be the biggest fish in a small pond than one of the million fish caught up in an enormous pond’s feeding frenzy. Categorizing your book in smaller niche categories will help it rise to the top: 

1. Go to the books page on Amazon.com under Departments > Books & Audible. 

2. In the left-hand column, scroll down to the “Refine By” section. Click on the format of your book (paperback, for example) to make sure you’re searching results of a similar book type. 

3. Review the categories in the left-hand column under “Books.” The number of books in the category is listed in parentheses after the category name. 

4. Click on the category that is most relevant and smallest. Let’s say you wrote a self-help book about improving your marriage through better communication.  The best-suited category would be, go figure, “Self-Help.” When you click on “Self-Help,” subcategories will then appear in the left-hand column of the page. 

(Note: Keep in mind that it won’t do your book any good to be listed in a sparsely populated category if its content doesn’t belong there. You don’t want your future readers feeling duped, and there’s the possibility that Amazon will pull your book if it thinks the subcategory is inappropriate for it. So play the game, but don’t cheat.) 

5. There are many subcategory choices that will work for most books, so scan the entire list and choose the smallest one that’s relevant. With our self-help book example, you could choose self-help subcategories “Relationships” or “Communication & Social Skills.” In this case we would choose the latter, given that it’s far smaller than the “Relationships” category.  

6. Go through this process twice, since you’ll be able to select two Categories/Subcategories when publishing. With the example above, we would return to the Relationships category and drill down to a further subcategory—perhaps “Marriage” or, if it’s relevant to your book’s content, “Conflict Management,” since that is the smaller of the two.  

 

Amazon Is a Search Engine: Use It

Think of Amazon’s search bar in the same way as Google’s search bar. Millions of people type in what they’re searching for, so the search engine has the “predictive knowledge” to auto-fill words as you begin typing. Using Amazon’s search tool gives you a glimpse into some favored keywords buyers use to help them find the books they’re looking for. 

When you upload your book’s metadata in preparation for publishing it, you’ll be given the chance to input five keywords. Use all of them. 

1. Your first two keywords should be the names of the most specific drilled-down subcategories you’ve selected (coming back to our earlier self-help example, we would choose “Communication and Social Skills” and “Conflict Management” or “Marriage”. Don’t use the general main category names. 

2. The remaining three keywords should all be search phrases that are consistent with what readers are looking for when they discover the book. It’s more helpful to use two- to three-word phrases rather than single words. Try to think about what readers will type into the search bar when looking for a book like yours. 

3. For example, if you think a user might search for diet cookbooks, then type in “diet cookbooks” or “diet cookbooks and” in the Amazon search bar and the drop down menu will suggest related search terms that are high ranking and more specific—such as “diet cookbooks for weight loss” or “Mediterranean diet cookbooks best sellers” or “diet cookbooks best sellers 2016.” If any of those are relevant, include them in your keyword list as well. 

 

The real key to SEO is the “O” part—optimization. If it doesn’t seem like your book is doing well in a category or subcategory, try it out in a different one, or test alternate keywords to see if the changes increase your sales. By doing so, you can transform Amazon’s search bar into a useful (and free) addition to your publishing toolbox. 

Why Your Book’s Interior Design Matters More Than You Think

Cover design is fun. It’s sexy and it’s important—it sells books, after all. But too often, indie publishers overlook the importance of the unsung interior. Interior design is arguably more important than cover design, if for different reasons. A cover is a marketing tool; its job is essentially done once the buyer leaves the store. The interior’s role, on the other hand, is one of information conveyance. It’s a delicate and subtle job, and you may not notice it until it’s done badly.

A poorly designed book interior is hell on a reader. Overly tight or loose leading (that is, the space between lines of type) causes eye fatigue and slows a reader down. A poorly chosen body font can ruin the entire experience. And for more complex books utilizing subheads, sub-subheads, captions, charts, graphs, sub-sub-subheads, sub-captions, and intricate collections of data, a lack of an intelligent information hierarchy means a reader will walk away scratching her head—or else simply walk away.

Yes, much of an interior designer’s job concerns technical nuts and bolts, and many of the aspects that make up a good book interior can be accomplished by a well-designed template. Many services and platforms now offer templates that self-published authors can use to turn their warts-and-all Word documents into professional-looking real, actual books. Well . . . sort of. While a template can take care of the fundamentals (leading, tracking, font choice, words per line, lines per page, margins, gutters, etc.), the interior designer’s expertise lies in the details. It’s only after a manuscript has been “poured” into a layout that a book designer’s real work begins.

 
 

An interior designer’s first postpour task is the format proof, during which she aims to clean up any “bad breaks” (distracting or ambiguous hyphenations across lines); word or punctuation “stacks,” “orphans,” “widows,” and “rivers”; and other similar bits of jargon. Type being the persnickety beast that it is, even a minuscule fix can impact an entire page of text—this isn’t a step that a computer can perform (at least not yet). While the format proof may be deeply mired in minutia, any book-length manuscript will produce a glut of tiny errors in layout, and over the course of several hundred pages, an accrual of errors will seriously diminish the reading experience.

Professional Judgment

Because type is so finicky, an interior designer is often required to use careful judgment to decide how best to go about fixing an error—or even whether certain errors are worth fixing. Sometimes the fix is worse than the error itself—e.g., the “fix” causes two or three other errors. For this reason, designing book interiors can sometimes feel like a game of Whac-A-Mole, but it’s this judgment and attention to detail that makes for a book that’s actually a pleasant experience to read. Templates are certainly easy, but by glossing over the details, the books they produce can often be as unpleasant to read as they are pleasant to look at. Think of it like a cocktail bar: all the imported marble, old-growth timber, Etsy-sourced lighting, and paper-thin stemware in the world isn’t going to impress anyone if there are piles of sawdust or bent nails or grease-covered rags strewn about everywhere.

Custom-Tailored Design

 
 

Tedious but vital janitorial services aside, an interior designer offers a number of valuable benefits that automated templates can’t. A customized interior design means your book’s chapter headers, subheads, image captions, robot dialogue, and handwritten passages can be tailored to suit the themes, motifs, and atmosphere of your book. A good interior designer carries a library of typographic knowledge in her head and can select a group of typefaces that not only speak directly to your content but also work well on the page together. An interior designer can also work together with the cover designer so that the typography displayed on the outside of the book is mirrored on the inside, creating a cohesive, consistent, and professional product for your readers. 

Easy E-Book Conversion

Finally, working with a professional interior designer makes for much easier conversion to e-book format, an ever-increasing necessity for authors in the traditional and self-pub spaces alike. Knowing that a book will be published in both print and digital formats, a savvy interior designer will set up robust paragraph and character styles, apply rules to ensure accurate hyphenation when the book is reflowed automatically by various e-reading devices, and even accommodate adjustable body text sizes so that your book is as pleasant to read on any number of devices as it is in print. All, of course, while still ensuring that your book looks incredible.

Build Your Own Author Website in 6 Simple Steps

Establishing a strong presence online is crucial for all authors, and a fresh, informative, and on-brand website is the centerpiece of that online presence. Many authors choose to hire professionals to handle their website creation, but platforms like Squarespace make it possible for budget-minded authors to create their own sites from predesigned templates.

If you’re planning to create your own website, you can save yourself a headache or two by following these steps:

  1. Make a sitemap. Before you do anything else, step back and define the objectives for your website. Do you want to drive email signups to build your list? Is the priority to highlight your thought leadership with valuable content for your readers? Does your writing offer great world-building and unique characters that readers want to explore behind the scenes? Make a list of what’s valuable to your readers to help define your marketing priorities. Keep this list handy when writing out a “sitemap,” a verbal description or outline of the website’s hierarchy. Some questions to ask yourself: What is the most important piece of content on your homepage? The second-most-important element? What tabs are in your header bar?

  2. Write your copy. Unlike fiction, web copy must be brief; think in terms of headlines. Your homepage is not the place to be longwinded. Using your sitemap as a guide, write a draft of the text that will appear on each page. Make sure to include a concise author biography, a list of published book titles, upcoming events, any praise quotes about your work, and a way for your readers to contact you both directly and through your social accounts.

  3. Choose a platform. WordPress and Squarespace are the most well-known and user-friendly platforms available for DIY website designers. Squarespace, in particular, has beautiful template designs, so if your design sensibility is less than professional, it’s a solid pick.

  4. Purchase your URL. Even if you publish under a “company” name, we recommend choosing a URL closest to “yourauthorname.com,” as your name is what people will remember and search for. Choosing yourname.com as your domain will also contribute to your search ranking authority. If that URL is not available, try playing with your initials or add “author” or “writes” to the end. To purchase, go directly through the web platform you’re using to build your site (WordPress, Squarespace, etc.). Generally, the URL will cost about $20/year.

  5. Customize the design. Now it’s design time! Choose a template and use that as a starting point. Take advantage of design features like fonts and colors, which will make the site your own and allow you to match the site’s aesthetic to the look and feel of your book(s). Not feeling creative? A good basic rule is to choose precisely two fonts to use throughout the whole site—one serif and one sans serifYou can use bold type, italics, and all-caps sparingly for emphasis and variety. The Adobe Color Wheel can also help you to generate a color scheme based on your book’s cover: upload an image of your cover (click the camera icon in the upper right of the page), and the color wheel will pull colors from your image to create a coordinating color scheme.

6. Maintain. There is no bigger turn-off than a “dusty” website that feels ignored. Freshen your site with current events and blog regularly. If that seems daunting, link your pages to your social media (ideally in the header or footer), and include a section that automatically populates your latest Twitter or Instagram posts. That way, even if you can’t commit to regular blog posts, a quick snap of your weekly #bookstack or retweet of your favorite author will show readers you’re present and active.

Make Sure Your Book Doesn’t Look “Self-Pubbed”

While the new professional indie author is on the rise and the stigma around self-publishing is fading, many of our clients are quick to express concern for making sure their book doesn’t look “self-pubbed.”

Details big and small add up to produce a book that reads as professionally published, not to mention prompting that click on the buy button. At GFP, we know that certain design issues are more quickly recognized as visual standards that self-publishers should think through before they take the plunge. Here are four critical moves to make your book look legit.

1. Invest in professional cover design. Friends don’t ask friends to design their book covers! Good intent (and cost savings) aside, amateur cover design breaks all kinds of rules of good design and genre standards, and those mistakes are easy for the average reader to spot. Sophisticated font treatments and the quality of image manipulation are just two critical issues, as the juxtaposition of the covers below illustrate (pun intended). If the cover is an advertisement for what’s inside, make sure yours is well composed and compelling to your potential readership.

Keep in mind that simply paying someone to design a cover for you does not mean you’re getting high-quality professional design. A graphic designer is not necessarily a good book cover designer (and oftentimes, professional book interior designers are not great cover designers!). Seek out the people who do book covers for a living, and ask for portfolio samples.

2. Don’t forget a publisher’s logo. For traditionally published books, the publisher’s logo is always printed on the full title page, on the spine or back cover of the book, and sometimes on the copyright page. Most readers will recognize the most iconic colophons of the Big Five traditional publishing houses. But publishers also have numerous imprints, or specialty subhouses that concentrate on a certain topic or market. Because there are so many imprints out there, these logos aren’t household brands that are recognizable to most readers. So, creating your own logo won’t tip off readers that your book is independently published. What is a self-publishing flag? Using the CreateSpace logo, your name instead of a logo, or no logo at all.

3. Yes, you need ISBNs. ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) are standard identifiers used to track books. You can self-publish without an ISBN—and a great many self-published books don’t use them. But if you intend to sell your book at online retailers like Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com, or any brick-and-mortar bookstores, your book needs an ISBN. The ISBN is a unique identifier that’s used internationally to track sales, and booksellers and libraries use it to search for your book. Plus, all traditionally published books have them—and a copyright page without an ISBN looks strangely naked.

4. Choose the right print specifications. Print-on-demand platforms give you limited options for your book’s physical specifications, but there are right and wrong choices even within those specs. For example, most trade-sized books are printed on cream paper, not white. A novel printed on pure white paper looks very unusual. Using full-gloss lamination on the cover (read: shiny), while appropriate for a select few designs, generally looks self-pubbed as well. Matte lamination feels much more high quality and is in line with the treatment of most traditionally published books. Lastly, choosing a trim size (or footprint dimension) that is out of line with the rest of the books in your genre will make yours stand out—in a bad way. Make sure to visit your local bookstore or your own bookshelf and note the physical specs used by other publishers in your category.