Assaph Mehr is a software product manager who moonlights as an urban fantasy novelist. Here is everything Mehr learned on the path to becoming an author — from the actual writing to publishing and marketing the finished work. If you think you have a novel buried inside you, this guide will help you get it out.
Writing pic via Shutterstock
I’ve always loved reading. I spent the best years of my childhood with my nose buried in a book. As a teenager I worked in a bookstore. A couple of decades later my wife got me a Kindle, because she knows me so well.
So what made me write a book? I didn’t run out of stuff to read – my to-read list is longer than I’ll ever get to. But I had this niggling idea for the story I really wanted to read. Then one day my wife made a comment, which got me started, and a year later voila! I have a book out, dedicated to my lovely wife.
And here’s the crux. I believe every reader has that perfect story inside them, the story they’re just dying someone would write. This article will hopefully encourage each one of you to get on with it, and write the book you want to read. It’s an incredibly self-fulfilling journey. It’s worth all the hassle.
This article is in three sections, with tips on writing, publishing and marketing. They are based entirely on my own experience, and while your journey will be different there are some lessons-learnt here that might help you on your way.
But first, I’d like to present the One True Thing™ that you will need to make it! This is really, truly, absolutely the magic ingredient without which it will never work.
You’ll need one of these:
Jeans pic via Shutterstock
No, not the jeans. What goes inside them. You will need to park it in a chair, and keep working on your book until it’s done. And then until it’s published. And then until it’s a commercial success.
In short, it requires perseverance.
It doesn’t have to be a full-time job, but you do have to stick to it. Do a little bit every day. Some days will be glorious. Some days will suck. But just write daily, and wonderful things will happen.
Tips on Writing or, Just Do It!
As I said in the opening, I believe every reader has that story in their head that they wish someone would write. Start there. Start with the books you love to read. You know the genre, you know the target audience. You understand what works, and you know the clichés to avoid.
As a bonus, if you write the book you want to read you’ll get to enjoy it. Editing a book requires reading and re-reading it many times. You might as well have fun in the process.
Make sure you have a clear idea of the basic premise of the book. Reduce it to a single sentence – e.g. “a story of togas, daggers and magic – it’s a murder mystery in a quasi-Roman world”. This will keep you focused.
I started with the general setting and the twist ending in mind. I worked my way forward towards it. I let the protagonist wander around, throwing hints and complications at him, until we both got to the end. Whatever your story is about, just have a clear big-picture idea of it. You can flesh out the details as you write.
It should be your goal to work on your novel daily. Even for a little bit. Daily word counts help if you like such goals – give yourself a cookie for each 500 words you write. Or something. Draw maps. Write research notes for scenes you’ll flesh out later. Fill in character cards. Gather ideas for cover design and possible marketing.
Do it on the train-ride. Do it over lunch-break. Do it at night, after everyone else is asleep.
It doesn’t matter what or when, as long as it’s daily and it’s book related. In the first stages this is primarily putting words on paper, but if words just don’t come one day then do something else related to your novel.
Some authors swear by plotting ahead the whole novel before writing the first scenes. Some like to flesh out character cards, detailing their psyche and motivations. Some, like me, just get on with it. Part of the fun for me was discovering the plot as I worked towards the twist.
Don’t be afraid to try bits of both. Use a note-taking tool to keep track of everything. See what works the best for you. At some point you will realise what notes are worth keeping, and what is just procrastinating.
Experiment and discover your very own writing process. Refine as you go.
Congratulations, you’ve finished your manuscript.
Actually, you’ve only finished the first draft of your manuscript. It’s now time to turn it into a novel. This requires editing. A lot of editing. In this process you will read the book front to back, fix anything from spelling mistakes to gaping plot holes. Expect to spend on repeated editing cycles about as much time as you spent writing the first draft – though it might be spread out more, as you take breaks and engage beta readers.
As you edit your book, pay attention to repeated mistakes, and then go weed them out. Maybe you have a tendency to repeat the same word in close proximity, or overuse alliterative adjectives. Perhaps you use clichés like there’s no tomorrow. Hunt them down, and use a dictionary and thesaurus.
One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that doing editing rounds consecutively without break has diminishing returns. Take a bit of a break between editing rounds. Put the manuscript aside, have some unrelated fun, and come back to it with a clear mind after a few days of rest.
At one point you will need to get other people involved. Your friends and family are an obvious starting point, but they may not be able to give you honest and professional opinion (they might be afraid to hurt your feelings, or they just may not have the skills for critique). Listen to feedback, say thanks, and then quietly decide if the advice fits your story and style.
Understand that it will never be perfect. You will always find something to fix, to tweak. When your latest editing round was just nit-picking, it’s time to publish.
Get beta readers from places like GoodReads, or pay for professional editing. Listen to advice, but remember that it’s your novel. Make sure the result is both professional and satisfying.
Tools of the Trade
You can use Word to write your drafts. Heck you can use a notebook and pencil or even an old Remington typewriter. But why not make life easier?
Personally, I’ve used yWriter (free) and Scrivener (paid). I found that yWriter had a few good things going for it but overall was a bit of a pain later when exporting and working with larger texts. Scrivener has a steeper learning curve, but works like a charm once you get used to it. This is what I use now. There are other tools too, if you want to search for them. You will appreciate something that lets you build scenes into chapters, and chapters into parts; move things around and track which scenes is about which characters. Your choice of tool should help you track places and characters, add extra information and whatnot, without being in the way.
In terms of research, random notes and sketches, I started with a paper notepad but quickly moved to OneNote. Your favourite ubiquitous note-taking program will be indispensable here, as brilliant ideas come at odd moments. I use OneNote to track anything from the timeline of my plots and Latin curse-words, to marketing ideas and publishing data.
Just pick something that works well for you. For writing you’ll want a tool that understands that a scene is the basic building-block of a book, and for note-taking you’ll want to use something easy and accessible.
Tips of Publishing Or, How To Get From ‘Manuscript’ To ‘Book’
In today’s world there are two options of how to publish your book: traditional publishing or self-publishing. These can be summarized as follows:
In a nutshell, your options are either face constant rejection, or to pimp yourself.
If you try tradition publishing, get ready for a lot of rejection. And by “a lot of rejection” I mean a lot – I’ve heard horror stories of writers who submitted their novel to over 400 agents before one would speak to them – and that’s even before talking to actual publishers. That of course may have been an extreme case, but it’s generally true for most aspiring authors I’ve spoken with.
So what does the holy grail of big-name publishing give you? Someone else to take care of the messy stuff of book production, someone to push the book into stores, someone to push the book into reviewers, someone who guides you through marketing (though you would still have to do quite a bit yourself). And of course, the prestige. Some very notable associations – like the Crime Writers Association or the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America – will only accept traditionally published members.
And the price? Reduced control over your work, much lower margin from every sale (but then, a small percentage of many sales is better than a high percentage of no sales), and you still have to do most of your own marketing.
There are also other options, smaller publishers who may provide a fraction of the services of the big-name houses. Anything from just help to produce the book, to a medium sized publisher who known how to run marketing campaigns.
Between these options I decided I’m better at marketing and sales then handling rejection, and chose to go the self-publishing route (where I learned about rejection as well).
Your millage will vary. Make the research and figure out what works best for you. My best advice is to work to your strengths and pay for everything else.
IBSNs and Imprints
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. While you can get by with selling on Amazon without it, if you want to expand, have control of your book, and generally appear as the real-deal you should buy your own ISBNs.
ISBNs are sold in each country differently, some countries even offer them for free. In Australia they are managed by Thorpe-Bowker.
Tip: buy in bulk. You will probably need at least two ISBNs – one for the ebook and one for print. You might also need more later, for future editions or further novels. Since buying ten is just double the price of buying one, buy in bulk.
Also, don’t buy barcodes. Just Google “Free ISBN barcode generator” and save yourself the unnecessary expense.
Imprints are the trade names for publishers. Big publishing houses usually have multiple imprints, to control and build a brand for each market segment. If you’re buying your own ISBNs, like you should, you might as well come up with a snazzy name for your imprint. I’ve effectively created a whole side business with Purple Toga Publications, but even trashy romance books will look more professional when published by “Handcuff Books” rather than “self-published on Amazon”.
Give it a thought, come up with a good name. It’s going to be your business.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Ha! Your book will be judged by its cover. That’s the first thing potential readers and book-sellers see, and you don’t want it to be the last thing they want to see. Make sure it’s a professionally produced cover.
As before, you have the option of DIY or paid. You can find stock photography or art, or you can commission it. You can design the cover based on that art yourself, or you can pay for someone to do it for you.
There are plenty of sites for stock photography which you can use as the basis. You can also get some stock images for free through CreateSpace, Adobe Cloud and other sources. Just bear in mind that the art may not be ideal and may not be unique to your book. You might have to work and combine several pieces to make the final cover.
Since my book is set in a fantasy world and I had a very specific image of a lighthouse in mind, I advertised on DeviantArt, found someone I liked, and commissioned them for a drawing. I then designed the cover and all associated material from that base drawing myself, using InDesign.
Next is the book interior. This is important for eBooks, but much more so for print books. As soon as someone open the books and flips through the pages, it becomes painfully obvious if it started as a simple Word document, or if it’s a properly produced book.
There are many decisions, from setting paper type and size, to selection of fonts, to kerning. Luckily, there’s the internet. Plenty of advice is out there, on what looks good in print for a particular genre. Google is your friend.
If you are have troubles formatting emails, get some help. If you are a Word wizard with some Photoshop skills, learning InDesign is a cinch and will pay for itself for both cover and interior.
There’s no way getting around it. Amazon is the king of ebooks. It has a larger market share than all its competitors combined. So plan on producing a Kindle book. The question is whether you should only produce a Kindle book.
If you give Amazon exclusivity on eBook sales (not print), then you can enrol you book with Kindle Select. This program gives you a few marketing tools (free promotions and count-down deals) as well as listing your book in the Kindle Unlimited program, where you get paid for each page read. As a new author and based on others experience, I found that Kindle Select does help in getting that initial exposure. It was worth it for me, building the initial following for my books.
If you go with other platforms, such as Kobo books, Barns & Noble’s Nook, Apple’s iBooks, Google Books et al. – there are services that will help you do a mass enrolment at once for most services. The most well-known and reputable such service is SmashWords. They handle everyone except Google Books.
In terms of book production, an export from Scrivener as ePub is usually good enough. You can get Calibre ebook management software or Sigil ePub editor to tweak the file if needed. Once you’re happy, just upload the ePub to Amazon (who will convert it to their proprietary format) or any of the other services (which mostly use ePub anyway). This way you get much better control about how the ebook looks than by uploading a Word or PDF file as the basis for an ebook.
As you’re trying to break into the market, the Kindle Select program may offer you some distinct advantages. A select enrolment runs for 90 days, so you can always evaluate and change your mind later.
Nothing feels quite as nice as seeing your own name in print, holding a copy of your own novel in your hands, flipping through the pages and smelling that new papery smell. There are also a lot of readers out there who prefer “real” books, to say nothing about bookstores. It’s also easy to produce.
There are costs however. As alluded to above, producing a print book is more complex than producing an ebook. Their price to the consumer is higher, but your margins are lower. It’s also hard to get into bricks and mortar bookstores.
So why do it? Because it looks so much better and more professional, and it allows you to reach a wider market. This may be your first book, not your only one, in which case your goal is to cover costs and reach maximum exposure for your next novel.
In terms of print-on-demand services, CreateSpace is owned by Amazon and is easiest to work with. Create an account, provide them with book details (including your own ISBN – different from the eBook), upload a cover (including the back cover – use their templates), upload the book contents, and order a proof copy. Once you have that print copy, go read it in a quiet corner with a red pen – you’ll find some more mistakes that your last round of editing didn’t uncover…
Once you’re happy with how the book looks, you can approve it for sale. CreateSpace will push it automatically to Amazon. If your customer base is US-based that may be enough, but for us international customers, shipping from the US is both costly and time consuming. After you are happy with the book, create an account with Ingram Spark and use them to print the book internationally. The book interior can usually be used as-in (assuming they share the same physical dimensions), but the cover will require tweaking. Luckily Ingram Spark offers easy-to-use InDesign templates. However do not start with Ingram Spark, as they will bill you each time you upload new book files. You need to be certain you’ve weeded out all the errors.
There are, of course, other print-on-demand companies, such as Lulu.com. My experience was that CreateSpace was best for Amazon, and Ingram Spark best for international distribution. Do the research for your particular needs, as that may change over time.
Again, work to your strengths. If you’re happy working with InDesign than produce the cover and interior yourself. Otherwise, pay for someone to do it for you. Just make sure it looks professional.
Start with CreateSpace and Amazon, and expand to Ingram Spark as needed.
Tools of the Trade
I think I’ve mentioned InDesign enough times as an endorsement. It really is a great tool for covers, contents, and supplementary material such as bookmarks and posters. You can get it via Adobe Cloud at a reasonable price per month, and get an online course – such as at Linda.com – to learn enough of the basics to produce a book.
Scrivener as mentioned above will help you write the book but also produce the output. It can export directly to ePub and PDF formats, which is probably what you will use most.
Export to Word if you need to tweak the file before converting to PDF. In case you need to tweak the ePub (and in most case you won’t), you can use the free programs Sigil or Calibre, which can also convert to different formats if needed. From then on it’s a simple upload to Amazon, CreateSpace and other book distributors.
Tips of Marketing Or, How To Pimp Yourself Effectively
This is the part where you really feel how writing becomes a business. This is not a task that you learn, accomplish and move on, like book production. Marketing your book is an on-going, continual effort, without which there will be no sales.
Some things can (and should) be started as soon as you finish the first draft. Some are only applicable close to publication time, and some only make sense after your book is out there and readers can buy it.
Early online presence
The idea here is simple – establish yourself as a slinger of words, and get people excited about your upcoming novel. Quite a bit of generic advice for self-publishing authors is to ‘establish yourself as an expert in your field’ – but what does that mean for fiction authors? The only way I came up with is, is writing short stories. Something that demonstrates your style and genres, and makes readers keep coming back for more. If you can knock off a short story in between editing cycles, it will also give you a much needed break from your main novel.
There are several platforms that enable you to do this, and you can normally cross-post between them. Wattpad seems the hot favourite of the day, and Archive Of Our Own is good for fan fiction. Goodreads has a very active community, and has a Creative Writing section as well. Lastly, when your book is finally out you will also want a book or author website. If you get a WordPress site early, you can post short stories on your blog, build up followers, and make the splash when you publish.
So which one should you use? Probably all of them. Posting the same story across sites does not cost you more than time involved. When posting on other services, include a link at the end to your main site.
Goodreads deserves a special mention. Whenever someone mentions ‘social media’ we automatically turn to facebook and twitter – but they are not the only game in town. Goodreads is a social media platform dedicated to book lovers – readers and authors. Beyond merely looking for book recommendations and reviews, it has a very active community in the groups. Find groups dedicated to the genres you like, introduce yourself, and participate in discussions. Finding friends with similar interests will help later when you publish your book and are looking to put the word out. Similar but to a lesser degree are sites like KBoards or LibraryThing.
When you’re about to publish
This stage is when you’ve assigned an ISBN to a particular title, got your cover, and you’re about a month or two away from publication. The ISBN registration company will let you assign a particular number to a specific title, and load up all its associated metadata – book cover, blurb etc. They then make that information available globally.
Once that’s done, register to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), and put your ebook up for pre-sale. Once it’s approved, register with Amazon’s Author Central program, and create the page for yourself, manage book blurbs etc. (Amazon’s author program requires that a book be listed for sale in Amazon before you’re accepted).
In Goodreads, add your book and then claim your author profile. Again, you’ll provide similar info (your bio, book blurb, covers). Start looking for groups that support Indie authors and offer beta readers or Read-for-Review. This is a great way to both get feedback and to get those initial reviews. And in a sea of a million published books, you need reader reviews to float up.
If you haven’t created a WordPress site for your book (maybe you already run a few blogs), you can check out BookLaunch.io. They provide landing pages with some useful utilities specifically for books.
Be active! Participate in groups, tweet and post on Facebook and other platforms about your short stories and upcoming title.
When people can buy your book
In these days of goldfish-like attention spans, most of the activity needs to happen when readers can get excited and buy the book immediately. This is really the time to start advertising, giving copies for reviews, and generally directing people to your awesome debut novel.
Kindle Select is a good program to help generate exposure. Amazon will push your book a bit more if it’s registered with Select. You will also get paid when people borrow and read it through Kindle Unlimited. The other benefits are the Kindle Count-Down Deals and Free Promo days. These are best done together with an advertising campaign. There are plenty of book-of-the-day type sites, who will include your book in their email campaigns – for a fee. However to be true to their audience, most will require your book to have a minimum number of reviews and star rating to be considered. Some also only work with free books (not permanently free, but free for the duration of the promotion).
Schedule the Kindle Select promotions and the advertising campaigns together. Start with the basic sites, and work yourself up to the more reputable lists as your reputation grows. Keep notes about which services worked better for your particular niche. Don’t be discouraged if your book was not selected the first time you submitted – just keep on trying with other services.
While you are working your way up, believe in the Power of Free. You can host giveaways on Goodreads, Amazon, Facebook etc. Give free copies to anyone willing to post a review of your book on Amazon or Goodreads (but never pay for reviews! That will get you banned). Anything that will get your book cover in front of people. Your hope is that those who enter and win will write a review, and those who entered but didn’t win will consider buying the book. It’s a vain hope, but it is worth the extra exposure.
The Physical World
Despite what you many have heard, bricks and mortar bookstores are not a thing of the past. Many people still prefer a ‘real’ book, and like to go browse in stores for their next purchase. Stores however, are limited by shelf-space. They only stock up what they think will sell well.
So how to approach stores and get your novel on the shelves?
Start with a smile. Go to local bookstores, particularly independent ones. Tell them your story, that you are a local author. Offer to bring them copies on consignment, where you only get paid if they are sold. Prepare ‘signed by the author’ stickers and give signed copies to the store (signed copies tend to sell better). Prepare a small display even, using a cardboard stock display box with a printed blurb at the back to attract readers. Hand out bookmarks with your book blurb and website everywhere. These are all things that will help the store – and you – sell more copies.
Bear in mind that the store will keep about 40% of the retail price as their commission. Your price would be the 60% minus the book production and distribution costs.
The margins on physical books are low. This is an exercise in getting exposure. Aim to cover your book costs, not for a big profit. Decide if the trouble is worth it for you.
There are many more aspects that I haven’t touched, and plenty that I’ve glossed over for lack of space. Book publishing is a business, and self-publishing is no exception. Yet it can be a very rewarding business.
As I said in the beginning of this article, I believe every reader has that perfect story inside them – the story they would love to read if only someone would write it. I know all the above may make it appear daunting, but it should not deter you. All it take is perseverance. And while it can be a full time job, it can also be a work of love, done as part of your life balance.
Writing a book and getting it out there is one of the most exhilarating, frustrating and satisfying experiences you will ever have, all at the same time.
The key words: just do it. Start writing, and keep at it until wonderful things happen.
And they will.
Assaph lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife, four kids and two cats. By day he is a software product manager and by night he’s writing – he seems to do his best writing after midnight. He’s recently published his debut novel Murder in-absentia, and is currently working a sequel. You can read more about him and his hard-to-classify, historical-fantasy murder-mysteries at www.egretia.com