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What You Should Know Before Self-Publishing a Book

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If you have a big idea the world needs to read about, you can write a book—but the publishing world is hard to break into and tricky to navigate. What does an agent do? What is a query letter? Do you have to know someone who knows someone to get anywhere? Will the pub-world gatekeepers stand between your message and the public forever?

You can get around all that by self-publishing (and here’s a good guide for how to actually do that), but there are a few non-procedural things you might want to keep in mind first.

You’re on your own

When you self-publish a book, you won’t have the stress of working with agents and editors—but you won’t have the benefits, either. There is no cash advance to keep you afloat while you write and there is no one to check and make sure your book isn’t garbage. Without these checks and balances in place, you can write and publish whatever you want, but don’t be surprised if the feedback is not great.

If you’re not a strong editor (or know one who is willing to help you out) or you have trouble actually writing, being on your own can be tough. You’ll have to manage your time well, schedule out when you’ll write, and read everything over very carefully.

Enlist some friends, if possible, but understand that if you’re not paying a professional, that still might not help you catch every continuity or spelling error.

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“Have someone that respects or cares for you read it first,” said Darien Anay, who self-published a book of poems, In the Nude, in 2014. She chose someone she “respected as a writer and a human.” Start thinking of someone in your life who fits that description—and pray they have the time to do this for you.

Promotion is going to be difficult

Again, you’re on your own here, so there is no industry machine to push your book. You arethe machine, so start promoting your work well in advance of its publication.

“If I did it again, I would be promoting it consistently at least a year before I plan to make it accessible,” said Anay, who suggested building a social media audience ahead of the promotion and release.

Traditional authors have a variety of ways to promote their books. Their publishers promote them and get them into bookstores, for instance. They have publicists who send out press releases and line them up for interviews. You should consider stopping by your local bookshop to ask how, exactly, you might get your work on their shelves. Spend some time crafting a press release and send it to any book reviewers or editors you can find online. It sounds pushy, but you have to be pushy because no one else is pushing for you and your book could easily fall into total obscurity.

If you have any friends with high profiles on social media, you’ll also want to call in a few favors from them. If you have the budget, throw yourself a release party, but make sure you set it up for maximum social media exposure. Think: Photo booth, kitschy decor, an event hashtag, and maybe even a giveaway your attendees can enter by sharing photos of the book or party. Think about how you find out about books, movies, shows, or events—then make sure you are using those same avenues to promote your work.

Lifehacker staff writer Sarah Showfety self-published Dating by the Books: One Blundering Singleton’s Search for Love in the Self-Help Aisle in 2012 in addition to publishing books the traditional way, so she has a unique perspective here. She said, “If you want it to sell, be prepared to market the hell out of it yourself, using every channel available, and even then, manage your expectations.”

Let’s look into that a little further…

Manage your expectations

Your book, as Showfety put it, is “not gonna fly off any shelves.” It’s just a crowded industry, plain and simple, and you’ll be at a disadvantage without the backing of a publisher. Don’t go into this endeavor expecting to top the New York Times’bestsellers list. That could happen, of course, but it’s extremely unlikely unless you have millions of social followers, a friend in the C suite of a major bookstore chain, or some kind of magic genie in a lamp waiting to grant you a wish (in which case, you probably wouldn’t be self-publishing to begin with).

Still, be optimistic. This is an opportunity for you to share your work. Raking in cash or smashing sales records might not be the only motivators for you. Anay said she published her poetry book so her friends and family could better understand the experiences she’d had. Showfety described self-publishing as “empowering” and “an amazing way to take control of your passion project and get it out into the world without waiting around for anyone to give you permission.”

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