'Four books in one day, are you insane?' There were moments in the run up to the launch of my fantasy adventure series The Seraph Chronicles, last October, when I seriously began to wonder. The rise of the Kindle and the Amazon Store has opened up a whole new world for self-publishing authors (a long and noble tradition, which includes the likes of Mark Twain, Stephen King and John Grisham) but just how do you get it done, without going crazy?
Allow me to explain…
From the Depths...
I’d written a World War 2 role-playing scenario, The Trellborg Monstrosities, for the Acthung! Cthulhu universe, a crossover of WW2 and the terrors of HP Lovecraft which was published by Modiphius in 2012. Its accompanying novella which was written for extra colour, featured a pale, fey, infuriating sorcerer, the mysterious Mister Seraph, and he really stuck with me as a character I wanted to explore further.
My core concept was ‘one man who opposes Cthulhu and his dread minions down the ages’, so I prepared a new edition, two follow ups, The Crystal Void and Tomb of the Aeons, and also planned to release an omnibus Tales of the White Witchman: The Seraph Chronicles Volume One featuring all three.
Preparing Your Text
Now, tips on the art of writing (George Orwell, Stephen King and Elmore Leonard all have interesting things to say or ignore) could fill several volumes, so for now, I’m going to assume you’ve worked those out for yourself and go straight to finished first draft stage. It’s here I believe, the real work of publishing begins.
Writers work in all sort of ways, but I think of the first draft as my rough sketch, the initial chisel marks I make as I chip away at the block of story stone, trying to reveal the finished form within. 'Be a good writer, but a better rewriter’ is a great mantra to follow. Take your text, edit relentlessly, simplify, be ruthless (kill your darlings) and keep notes on any plot and continuity issues.
Use the editing tools on your PC to edit efficiently (search and replace is a godsend and a computer's 'eyes' are always more reliable than your own). It will usually take several drafts until you’re close(r) to being happy (typically three or four for me), and I’d advise leaving a decent time interval (a month) between each, so you can come to the next edit with a fresh set of eyes.
Once you’ve got your text to a stage when it’s fit to be seen, it’s time to let it out into the wild. Well, not the wild exactly, but to the first round of editing and proof reading. These are separate and distinct skills: proof reading picks up errors and typos within the text, but a good editor can have a profound transforming effect, shaping your work into something new and infinitely better. If you find a good one, stick with them.
I’m fortunate, having been a journalist for a long time, to know a lot good editors and sub-editors, who I can lean on to lend an honest appraisal and their eagle eyes. If you don’t know any personally, consider hunting one down online and pay for a good one (I should ...ahem... point out I am also available for such undertakings). You might also try recruiting a small focus group of readers: friends, relatives, writers, anyone who loves the genre you're writing in and can be trusted to give you an honest appraisal.
Now the hard part: be open to their feedback. Writers can be really defensive about their ‘masterpiece’, but listen (patiently and intelligently) to every piece of criticism and comment that comes your way. Weigh it, assess it and decide whether you need to act on it. Admit the critic may have a point, but also be prepared to back your own judgement.
The difficult part is having your prose and plotting torn apart and tested to the point of destruction, while still keeping a smile on your face. It’s in this horrible but crucial crucible that the final - and best - draft of your work will be forged. Look at this way: anything that makes the text stronger must be welcomed, but, as the screenwriter William Goldman observed of Hollywood, ‘No-one really knows anything’. Ultimately you're the arbiter of what stays and what gets cut. It’s your name on the cover after all.
... and Cover up!
Talking of which, while this exhaustive editing process is going on, for a little bit of light relief you can have a think about your cover. I believe this is hugely important, just as we 'eat first with our eyes', so your cover is the reader's first point of contact and interaction with your work.
Unless you’ve been blessed with fantastic writing ability and artistic excellence (then you're a rare breed indeed), hire a proper artist. They’re fellow creatives, who will be delighted for the work (for a fee naturally) and they will often welcome the challenge of a collaborative brief. Together you will build the public face of your work.
Kindle Cover Disasters is a fascinating car crash, but not one you especially want to feature on. I scoured DeviantArt and found the excellent Spanish artist Borja Pindado, whose portfolio convinced me he’d be ideal for my fantasy horror covers. We talked over email, he liked the subject matter and we eventually did a deal, where he would produce five covers for me (remember you’ll want more than one for a consistent style for a series).
I produced guides and briefing notes on key scenes to inspire him and we kept up a constant dialogue, using rough sketches to hone in on the final cover image of each book (a process worthy of another article itself). Sometimes a direct scene from your book works well, but don’t be afraid to make a striking portmanteau image which summaries the story at a glance (no spoilers though!). Follow a similar process to find a professional designer to layout the cover typography.
Pressing the Big Red Button
So now cover and text in place, you’re ready for PTBRB-day. In theory, all you need is a Word doc and a Jpeg image, but studying Amazon's publishing FAQs well in advance really pays dividends for formatting and error eradication.
Amazon provides tools to preview the final text as it’ll appear on your Kindle. Make use of them (I encountered and eventually squashed an annoying bug with comments and notes still appearing on the Kindle but not in my original doc). Read, re-read and check until your eyes bleed, exercise precise version control so that you keep track of all changes and don’t throw away any drafts (back up each change to the cloud).
Upload your cover and text, set a price in the UK and US (primary English language markets) based on what similar books sell for. Have a good think in advance about the meta data which will accompany your work, as it will help target a genre and your audience.
All done? Press the big red publish button, sit back and wait for the email with the magic words ‘Your book is available in the Kindle Store’ to come rolling in (typically a few hours but might be up to a day later).
Publishing your own work is an exacting and exhausting and process, which can make your eyes whir and your brain spin, but it’s also a fantastically rewarding one. I’ve sold hundreds of books rather than millions since launch, but every one feels like a victory and nothing feels quite so good as a positive reader review or appreciative comment.
I’m not in it for the money (though wouldn’t kick a large deal out of bed, any publishers reading), I just want to write stuff I like and be read and enjoyed.
It’s all there waiting for you too, all you need is patience, tenacity and a huge dose of stubborn self belief. To succeed, you'll need not only to be a writer, but editor, project manager, art director, publicist and sometime diplomat too, but that's surely not out of the scope of someone who invents worlds for a living? The path to publication is worthy of a saga in itself, it's up to you to forge your own.
I do have one final word of advice for you though. Stick to do doing one at a time. Four in one day will drive you bat-shit insane.
TLDR: What I Wish I'd Known Before
1) Have a short one-sentence elevator pitch, to help explain your work. Mine is ‘one man defies Cthulhu down the ages’
2) Know your genre, readers and potential audience (this helps target potential readers in the Store and if you advertise elsewhere)
3) Write a good press release and have a marketing and promotion plan in place
4) Have a site and/or blog where readers can learn more (like ahem www.John-Houlihan.net)
5) Be prepared to advertise (even bestselling authors like Stephen Fry advertise). It's great to be published, but you also need to be discovered!
6) Pre-orders can really work for you (I didn’t know about this Kindle feature until day of publication).
Exclusive Gizmodo Reader offer - FREE ebook
If you'd like a free copy of John Houlihan's first Seraph adventure, The Trellborg Monstrosities, for Kindle or Kindle app just mail firstname.lastname@example.org with Gizmodo in the subject line. John is also happy to hear from readers, writers and fellow sci-fi, fantasy and literary enthusiasts.
John Houlihan has been a writer, journalist and broadcaster for over twenty five years, for many publications including The Times, Sunday Times and Cricinfo. He is a former editor-in-chief of Computer and Video Games.com. For latest news and information see www.John-Houlihan.net or follow @johnh259 on Twitter.
You can see his work on the Amazon Store here. Later this year he will publish the next Seraph novel, Before The Flood, and he is editor of Dark Tales from the Secret War, a short story collection due to be published by Modiphius this summer.