If you are one of the many people who have a half-finished manuscript lying on your computer desktop, or a completed one that you have not yet shared with anyone or if you even think of yourself as someone who wishes to ‘write’, you have probably thought about how you intend to publish your work.
Publishing is the act of releasing your work into the world – making it accessible to the public, as it were.
You can do this in the traditional way – by sending your manuscript to one of the big traditional publishers – or through self-publishing. In recent times, the latter has become the preferred route for many first-time authors. Traditional publishers take too long to respond, they give a lower percentage as royalty – and they accept very few of the manuscripts that are submitted to them. Self-publishing seems easy – and inexpensive, by comparison. Write, format, upload, and your e-book is ready, available on Amazon or if you prefer it, Kobo, Smashwords or any other platform you prefer. A tie-up with a printing press allows you to even make your book available as a paperback or hardcover.
So if this makes it sound too easy to become a self-published author, it is worth pointing out that a lot of such self-published books provide the author nothing more than the gratification of having his name on a website or a printed book. Too many authors have self-published before they were ready, and as a result the book so published has sunk without a trace, deficient in quality, unable to pick up sales.
Why does this happen? Let us look at some reasons why an aspiring author may not be quite ready to self-publish, even if he or she has finished writing the book.
1. You haven’t brushed up the basics of writing
Most professions define a standard to which a practitioner must reach before being acknowledged as a member of it. Whether it is a CA, an engineer or a doctor, they have earned the right to practise their profession by passing some exam.
But that is not the case with authors. Too often, despite a lack of knowledge of the language, or the structures on which the world of literature is built, a young writer tries to present himself or herself to the world.
Remember that while in art, the rules may be meant to be broken, it is essential to first know what they are.
What is your reading level? Do you consider yourself really good at English? Do those who read at a high level (and I mean those who have forayed into the classics or literary fiction) consider you a competent writer? Unless that is so, you run the risk of not doing justice to your own talent and your plot, however good it might be.
2. Are you willing to invest in quality control?
Self-publishing has made the writing world a democracy. Without quality control of the kind that was presumed to be imposed by the traditional publisher, the fact is, anyone can upload a manuscript to make it an e-book. A book could be riddled with spelling, grammar and formatting errors. If you are not prepared to invest the time and money in getting your manuscript edited, the odds are that you will put out something with mistakes, and readers can be very unforgiving of those.
Even a fantastic plot can be ruined if it is told in language that is incomprehensible, and spelling errors will drive away any discerning reader.
So invest some money into a professional editing service. Have them look not just at the errors (proof-reading, line-editing) but also, if possible, at the plot. Sometimes a logical error escapes the writer, but is immediately obvious to the outsider.
3. You do not have a social media platform
The days of an anonymous writer quietly writing a masterpiece are long gone. Having an identity in the larger world has become necessary, a certain number of friends and followers who know you, what you are about, and are emotionally invested in your book with you. In fact, even traditional publishers are known to favour authors who have a platform. So unless you have already established your identity – one that can be accessed by your readers after they buy your book, at the very least – as a writer, it might be better to wait.
4. You do not have the time or inclination to promote your book
This follows from the previous point, and is even more important. Writers might be reticent by nature, but the world has changed around us. Your book is a product once it is published, and products need to be sold. Traditional publishers will bear a part of your costs, but when you self-publish, be prepared to put yourself out there. Pursue online marketing platforms. Arrange book-signings. Find a book-shop to do a book launch in.
If you do not have the time or inclination to promote your book, you might want to take a step back and think about whether now is the right time to get your book out there.
5. You are not willing to spend what it takes to make a professional product
Once you do publish, your book is competing with the best. There is no separate category for self-published books. Readers will not cut you some slack because you published yourself. If you plan to sell, you need an attractive cover, decent quality paper, proper typesetting and, of course, the editing we spoke about in point 2. All of these cost money. An artist will charge you for the cover design, editors will charge for everything else.
Be prepared to spend that money. Skimp on that cost now and live to regret it when you get negative reviews that speak not of your delicious plot or your complex, nuanced characters, but the poor cover, the quality of paper and the editing errors.
6. And finally…are you ready to deal with failure?
Publishing is not the end objective in itself for most young authors. Somewhere there is a dream that the book will be the new Infinite Jest or at least, One night in a call-center. The fact is though, that with all your effort, it is possible your book might not sell what you hope it will. It may not even recover the cost you put it into it. As for the effort you spent, the hours of writing, editing and agonising, that will seem like a waste too. And if you face negative reviews, that will hurt even more.
To be a writer, you need above all, a thick hide, and an ability to dust yourself off the ground and give it another go. Many of the most famous authors today faced failure with their first books. (Salman Rushdie’s Grimus was a failure, Paolo Coleho’s first three novels flopped, and even The Alchemist did not take off until his next novel was successful). Do you think you can deal with that? Putting in the effort, with no guarantee of success? If not, you are not ready to put yourself out there as an author.