I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with some fabulous independent authors in my career. Those who have really made their mark in the indie publishing world know how to write, but they also know how to brand themselves as professionals. In one sense, they’ve taken the ‘self’ out of self-publishing.
What’s wrong with ‘self’-publishing?
Nothing at all – it’s one of the most democratising concepts to have taken root within the publishing world in the past decade. Thousands of talented writers have published their books without the aid of a traditional publishing contract. That’s given us, the readers, an opportunity to access great stories that haven’t attracted a mainstream press’s interest because the author isn’t a known name, the genre is considered unfashionable, or the author hasn’t acquired agency representation.
The problem is the word ‘self’. It implies that the author does all the work themselves, and that the standards and conventions associated with traditional publishing are thrown out with the dishwater. The savvy author knows this isn’t the case. Instead, ‘self’ refers to taking personal responsibility for managing those professional standards – employing third parties with specific skills (editors, translators, designers/typesetters) for some parts of their publishing journey.
What marks the professional independent author?
Professional independent authors are recognisable precisely because they behave just like any big-name author – they are interesting and discoverable.
Being interesting to readers requires the independent author to write great stories with engaging characters. It also requires holding the reader’s attention by ensuring that the content is free of DIY red flags like unconventional layout; micro editorial problems such as spelling, punctuation and grammar errors and inconsistencies; and macro editorial problems such as confusing point of view and plot inconsistency.
Being discoverable to readers requires the independent author to market themselves such that their publishing brand is accessible, attractive, engaging and recognisable across multiple platforms and in multiple formats.
Rather than just writing a to-do list, I thought it would be more interesting to present a real-world case study featuring one of my favourite indie writers – Andrew Langley, author of the Nathen Turner supernatural thriller series. Langley is an independent author who exemplifies professional independent publishing practice. I know his books well because I worked on them – but I’d have paid to read them for pleasure. Let’s take a look at how he’s made himself interesting and discoverable, just like all those big-name authors in the market.
High-quality content: To date, Langley has two books under his belt – Mirror on the Soul and Dark Nights of the Soul – and a third due for launch in 2017. He’s a great writer, and knows how to spin a yarn and have a giggle at the same time. I loved these books. The characterisation is strong, the pace is spot on, and the author never loses sight of the fact that his readers want to be entertained. The world he’s built around the protagonist, Nathen Turner, is page-turning – and that’s what readers are paying for.
Professional layout: Langley’s taken steps to give his books the same level of professional attention they’d have received if he’d gone down the route of securing a mainstream publishing contract. Layout-wise, he has a creative background and was able to do his own typesetting. He followed publishing industry-recognised layout conventions, so his books look just as good as any novel published by Penguin or HarperCollins, and they wouldn’t look out of place on a shelf in a branch of Waterstones or Barnes&Noble. When readers open one of his books, they’re not faced with wonky paragraph indentation, inconsistent line spacing or oddly spaced margins. Instead, they see what they’re used to seeing in any mainstream published novel, and that means they concentrate on the story he’s telling.
Editorial assistance: Content-wise, he’s a great writer but he knows that self-editing has its limits. Each book is sent to third parties for professional editorial review and editing in Word. When the final post-design page proofs are ready, the proofreader climbs on board. That’s exactly how mainstream publishers play it, and it’s good practice for the independent author, too.
Website: Langley’s created a dedicated author website with a custom url: www.andrewlangley.co.uk. Websites with host suffixes look like DIY jobs. They function the same as customised urls but they look amateurish. Can you imagine Lee Child, Ian Rankin, J. K. Rowling or Stephen King having ‘.wordpress.com’ tacked onto the end of their domain names? No, you can’t. Neither can Langley. And nor should any independent author who wants their books to be taken seriously.
Accessibility: Langley’s made his books available across multiple distribution outlets – Barnes&Noble, Amazon, Waterstones – and in multiple formats (ebook, hardback and paperback). That means readers have a choice about where they buy the Nathen Turner books and how they read them. Indie authors who fail to acknowledge readers’ preferences are missing out on a potential income stream.
Social media: Langley’s not relying only on his website and word of mouth. He’s also harnessing the power of social media to engage with writers and readers and to share news about his writing. Not only is this an exciting way for the indie author to engage, it’s also sound business practice. When you share high-quality fresh content to relevant third parties, and others re-share and link to that content from other websites, your search rankings improve (which means increased visibility and sales). Don’t underestimate the power of social media – even if you don’t like it, you should still use it precisely because many of your potential readers and reviewers are using it. Good marketing is about putting your customers’ preferences before your own.
Identity: Take a look at the eye-catching images and continuity of title design on the covers of Mirror on the Soul and Dark Nights of the Soul. Both books are distinct, and yet recognisable as being from the same writer’s stable. The titles themselves follow a theme – a particularly effective tool when a writer is producing a character-based series. What Langley has done with the identity of the Nathen Turner series covers is what Bantam have done with Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series covers. Again, this type of recognisable brand identification is nothing more than good publishing business practice.
Fan engagement: Tweets and Facebook status updates aren’t the only way to engage fans. The professional independent author should consider complementary tools with which to engage their potential readers. Langley’s created a fun video trailer that introduces us to his protagonist. There’s also a blog and the option to sign up for the Haunting Tales Newsletter. Langley thinks these add-ons are a good idea. HarperCollins concur (see the I Am Number Four fansite based around the Lorien Legacies series). So should you.
All in all, Langley is doing just what Harlan Coben (a favourite big-name author of mine) does on his author website: drawing his readers into the stories he’s written, sharing a little of his own history, and making it as easy as possible for book lovers to engage with him and his novels – and all within a framework of recognisable, accessible and professional branding. Here’s Langley in his own words:
I looked at what all the mainstream publishers were doing – good and bad – and then decided on an approach I believed would connect with readers. From my perspective, the writer has one goal in mind – to entertain and engage with readers. You wouldn’t go and buy clothing that had stitches missing and was poorly made, and I feel it’s the same with books. If the novel looks like a school project, why would somebody buy it?
Wise words. The lesson is this – even though you’re not publishing your novel through a mainstream publishing house, you can still produce, brand and promote like one.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader to see how she works with independent authors to professionalize their books. You can also connect with her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, Facebook and LinkedIn.