Self-Publishing Gets an Extreme Makeover

By: Athena Dean

These days there's an extreme makeover for just about everything. Your body, your house, your family, your finances...the media loves a stunning 'before and after' and a compelling story to go along with it.

After almost 20 years of being involved in the Christian publishing industry, I have come to the conclusion that self publishing, indeed, needs an extreme makeover. Most people would agree that the word itself conjures up all sorts of bad connotations. Amateur covers, typos, and bad grammar are often the hallmarks of self published books. That's why self publishing really does need a whole new look, where you can't tell it's self published!

I work with authors on a daily basis who have tried to save money by having a friend design their cover, or worse yet, designing it themselves. Others have their best friend (who just so happens to be a former English teacher) do the editing. And then there's good old Mom, who tells them the manuscript is just perfect the way it is and doesn't need any help at all.

With any extreme physical makeover there are phases of improvement. First is the inner aspect-diet and nutrition, emotional and hopefully spiritual health, then the outer-makeup, teeth, hair, nails, skin, and finally the attire-your wardrobe for all occasions with matching accessories. Let's move this parallel over to a book project and take a look at the top ten book beauty flaws you'll want to avoid.

First and foremost, we'll start with the inner flaws that must be avoided if you want your work to be taken seriously:

1. Insufficient expert editing: Your content must be compelling. Many authors tell me they don't need any editing because God gave them the words and He doesn't want them messed with. I often have to remind them that "God has better grammar than that!" More often than not, the authors I meet have completed their manuscript with a lot of "telling" rather than "showing," typically very little dialogue and other fiction techniques, and usually way too preachy, without sufficient personal experiences to back up the points being made. Frequently the writing is not as tight as it needs to be and transitions are confusing. All of these weaknesses are due to the lack of expert editing by a professional in the industry. If you really want your message to communicate effectively, do not shortchange yourself or your story by skimping on a good content edit or rewrite if necessary. Your editor may see areas that need to be expanded to emphasize a spiritual point. Or they will likely point out an example or story that doesn't really fit or need to be included. Don't let your pride get the best of you. Be willing to admit that, while you may have an incredible story or message, you may not have the skill needed to make your manuscript healthy and there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting the help you need.

2. Lack of competent proofreading. Don't think you can be your own proofreader, or you can have a friend or family member do your final proofread. Many things can happen in the typesetting process so you cannot assume that a final proofread is unnecessary. Remember, you are too close to the material. You know what should be there, you know what you are saying, and even if it's not there on the page your brain will insert it as you read along. Believe me when I say you cannot trust yourself to do a proper job of proofreading. Make sure this gets done once, if not twice, after the book has been typeset and before it goes to print. You want your message to ring with credibility and the one thing that can ruin it is typos in your printed book.

Now that we've insured the inside is well fed, healthy, and emotionally stable, let's move on to the outer flaws.

3. Looking Self-Published: Have you ever picked up a book and known within seconds that it was self published? When I ask this question in my workshops, hands quickly shoot up and heads move up and down. Asking what it is about the book screams "self published" a litany of reasons are shared....wavy binding, ugly cover, typos, bad writing. The last thing you want to do if you're going to self publish is to look self published! Your goal should be to have a book that looks just as good as one from a big royalty publisher.

4. Amateurish Cover / Terrible Title: We all know the saying "you can't judge a book by the cover" isn't true at all. You can and you do, and so does the buying public. If your cover looks sloppy, overly simple or too busy, uses 3-d fonts, clip art, or common fonts like Times New Roman, Courier, Arial or Comic Sans, or overused fonts like Papyrus, you are shooting yourself in the foot. Combine an unprofessional cover with a bad title and you've got a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Your title must be short and to the point and the sub title must precisely describe the mission of your book. One author we worked with was a perfect example of this. His original title was "Controlling Your Anger Before it Destroys You, Your Family and Your Future" and his cover was designed by a friend with red background, black edges, and big white letters taking up the entire cover. After we finished his extreme makeover, the new title became "Put Out the Fire: How to Control Your Anger Before It Destroys Your Life." He ended up with a cover that looked classy but still communicated the urgency of the message. What a stunning difference a sharp cover and great title made on this project.

5. Substandard back cover copy and author bio: If a potential buyer likes your cover, what is the next thing they'll do? That's right, turn your book over and read the back cover copy. This text must pull the reader in and tell them why they should spend their hard earned money on your book. It must convince them that they need what your book offers. Almost as much thought should go into your back cover copy as what's between the covers. It's your sales pitch, your chance to tell the reader what's in it for them. List the benefits, give them a reason to buy! And when it comes to your author bio, have someone else write it for you if you struggle with writing about yourself. It needs to be in the third person and build credibility. It should tell why you are qualified to write the book they hold in their hands and should persuade them to trust that you are the expert.

6. Unprofessional author picture: I'll never forget the day an author sent me a photo for the back of his book. When I opened the envelope I couldn't believe my eyes. A Polaroid picture of him standing in front of his garage. Now if the book was titled "An Average Joe on How to Fix Cars" maybe that would fly, but this was not the case! Make sure you have a professional photograph taken, and don't make it too formal. The trend these days is a more casual photo so you, as the author, look approachable and down to earth. Often times you can go to a portrait studio in a mall and pick the one you like best and just pay for the proof rather than having to buy an 8 x 10.

OK, now we've covered the outer issues, making sure your book is as handsome as it can possibly be. Now let's make sure the makeover is complete. It won't do much good if you have a great product and no one can find it to buy.

7. No distribution: Regularly I meet authors who thought saving some money by being their own self publisher was the way to go. Inevitably, the only way people can buy their books is from the box in the trunk of their car. Bookstores generally buy their stock from distributors, rather than publishers or authors, so oftentimes these stores are unable to carry product that is not available from their distributor. I found out from publishing my own books that having a contract with all the major distributors would be an important piece of the puzzle.

8. Non-returnable product: Let's face it. Getting your book returned and your royalty reversed is not a very encouraging experience, but it's part of the writing and publishing life, so we had better get used to it. If your book is not "returnable" then bookstores will not want to take the risk of stocking your book. If they do not know that they can return overstocks, then you'll lose them as a customer. There have been some print on demand companies who not only charge a very high suggested retail price, but then give a very low discount to bookstores and then, to add insult to injury, they do not allow their books to be returned. This has put a very bad taste in many book buyers' mouths about print on demand. Whatever you do, make sure your book is returnable when offered to bookstores and distributors.

9. No presence in the Christian market: Another flaw I see is when authors work with secular print on demand companies to get their books into print. What they don't realize is that Christian bookstores do not buy from the secular distributors so Christian books that really need to be available through Christian stores find themselves in a dead end situation with no distribution to the Christian market. It is imperative to make sure your book is carried by one of the major Christian book distributors if you expect it to be available in Christian bookstores.

10. Undefined market: Last but not least, the number ten book beauty flaw to avoid is having an undefined market. You can't expect everyone to want to read your book. It's just not going to happen. If your audience is men and women aged 20 to 80 you are going to find it very difficult to market your book with any success at all. The more specific you can be, the more you can zero in on a specific people group to target for your book, the better off you will be. Ask yourself the following questions: Who most needs to hear my message? What type of person, age, gender, marital status, etc., will most closely relate to what I have to say? What people group would benefit the most from what I have to offer? This should help you determine a more focused potential buying public.

So there you have it. Remember these top ten book beauty flaws and avoid them like the plague. I encourage you to make a commitment to excellence so that your finished product represents the Lord in a worthy fashion. That's why I always advise working with a professional custom publisher, one that is recommended by Sally Stuart in the Christian Writers Market Guide.

Over the last two decades I have seen self publishing become a credible option in an industry where it used to be considered taboo. No longer is it vanity publishing, but a viable option worth investigating.

"The general, prevailing theory used to be that if you self-published, it was because you couldn't find a publisher-it was vanity publishing," says Rick Wolff, an executive editor at Warner Books. "That's changed dramatically." --Writers Digest, January 2006 - "The State of the Industry"



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