Five lessons I learnt from self-publishing

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I usually try to keep my business blog posts for just that – business, but just this once I wanted to share some thoughts about what I get up to in my spare time: writing. I’ve recently, 30 July in fact, published my very first book. It’s a real, printed book – looks like all the other paperbacks on my shelf. Exciting! It’s not going to be the next best-seller. For one thing, it’s a non-fiction biography, and for another, the target audience is fairly small, but I’m hopeful that we will sell all the copies of our first print run. So, I wanted to share this exciting news with my business circle and at the same time share some of the things I’ve learnt during this seven-month journey.

Lesson 1: writing the MS is the easy part

The Twilight retirement home for dogs is a charity close to my heart. I’d been a supporter and volunteer for about two years when, just before Christmas 2016, I had the idea to write the Twilight biography ‘Paws Before Bedtime’. It’s a wonder that the story has never been told before. Indeed, when I broached the idea with Twilight founder Leeanne Whitley she told me that many people had suggested it, but neither she nor her husband Mike had the time, and no one else had ever followed through with action. Maybe she suspected that I was just another one with grand ideas. However, once the seed had been planted in my mind the idea grew and I quickly drew up the book’s outline. Apart from changing the order of the chapters, on the suggestion of my copy-editor, few changes were made to the initial concept.

In January 2017, I started writing in earnest. I scoured the Twilight archives and Facebook pages; interviewed Leeanne and Mike many times, at length; sent emails flying off to other volunteers seeking their memories, funny stories and favourite dogs, and drove around south-west France interviewing those willing.

Once I’d written about 10,000 words I decided to get a professional opinion and sought help from my SfEP colleagues. Yes, even editors need an editor. The editing world is extremely supportive, and full of animal lovers. I had many offers of assistance and eventually decided to team up with Sara of Northern Editorial, mainly on the basis that she had green hair. (We Twilighters are a bit wacky like that). Her initial response was encouraging so I set myself a target of 31 March to complete the first draft. This was the easiest part.

Lesson 2: Always get professional assistance

Before I sent the MS to Sara for copy-editing at the beginning of April I proofread it several times. I read it on screen, I used the spellchecker, I printed out a copy to mark up by hand, and I re-wrote the second chapter entirely. But I still managed to spell Leeanne’s name wrong in two places. It was interesting to be on the receiving end of editorial – I’ll call it ‘input’, not criticism. Sara was very gentle and tactful. Now, I understood how our clients must feel, sending their work off for editing or proofreading. You are exposing a part of yourself; it’s an incredibly vulnerable feeling. However, us editors don’t bite and few of us are really grammar pedants; errors will be corrected in an impartial and objective way. I quickly understood that when Sara commented, ‘did you mean to leave this in’, she actually meant ‘take it out’.

Lesson 3: Proofread, proofread, proofread

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read the MS. It is generally agreed that it’s very difficult to proofread your own writing and I can vouch for this. We were operating on a very tight budget, so apart from Sara’s editing input, I was acting as the author, project manager, commissioning editor, and proofreader. My husband was the only beta reader, as all my friends were potential customers and I wanted to keep the content under wraps. I must have read that MS ten times or more and each time I found something to correct. Although I am used to working on screen, I printed it out three times at different stages of the preparation process; each time there were corrections to be made. Even when the printed proof copy arrived – called a BAT here in France – the first thing I noticed on the second page was an error that I must have read and missed twenty times before. The cost of corrections really became apparent at this stage. We were allowed to change five pages for €50, any more we’d have to start the whole process again and pay for a new proof. We changed four.

Lesson 4: There are easier ways to bring a book to market

We had particular circumstances that dictated the need for a printed book that we could physically sell to an extensive base of supporters. In this respect, we are fortunate and the financial risk of printing is lower than normal. However, this created specific problems, due in part to our location, as we were producing an English language book in France. The French are very supportive of culture, especially writers, but the laws are complicated. I had to navigate obtaining an ISBN number, making a depôt legal with the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and negotiating with a French printer. The whole issue of printing was another problem in itself, as there are so many companies offering self-pub printing, but eventually I persuaded the Twilight book team that the more local, the better. This proved to be the best decision as, despite my dodgy French grammar, the printers were extremely efficient and supportive. I was also very lucky that a fellow volunteer, Mandy Petherick of Mooncat Media is a talented designer. She created the cover and did the entire book layout – as a donation to Twilight.

Lesson 5: The importance of a marketing plan

As I mentioned earlier, writing the book was the easy part. When you’ve got fourteen boxes of books sitting in your office it certainly concentrates the mind. Cue a great deal of research about book marketing. We are fortunate in that Twilight has a ready-made audience, so to some extent we are preaching to the converted, but I want the book’s reach to extend as far as possible. One of Twilight’s objectives is to raise the profile of senior dog rescue. So, I built a database of our supporters in Mailchimp and used this to send out updates and newsletters. We’re currently in the middle of a social media campaign on the five Twilight Facebook groups/pages (yes, five!) and soon I am embarking on a local mini book tour. I’ve also been a little more ambitious and have been putting out feelers in the media. Wouldn’t it be great to have to order a second print run? All of this activity has necessitated a detailed marketing plan, so that every day, in addition to my work, I work through a few book-related tasks, too. There’s also a daily trip to the Post Office. In terms of time and effort required, marketing is a task equal to writing the book.

Writing ‘Paws Before Bedtime’ has been a tremendously fulfilling experience. Nothing beats seeing your own creation in print. It’s the first book that I’ve written, but it certainly won’t be the last. In hindsight, would I have done it differently? I think not. Given the particular circumstances, the target audience and the nature of the book I think a traditional, printed self-pub was the way to go. And this was a totally pro bono project – 100% of the profits will go to Twilight. In future, I may not be able to do this – we do need to eat after all! So, next time I’ll be exploring Kindle DTP or Amazon Createspace. An e-book on one of these platforms would remove the headaches of obtaining ISBNs and the like, but whatever means you use to produce the book, as a self-pubber you’ll always need to do your own marketing.

Finally, and you know I have to say this: if you’d like to buy a copy of Paws Before Bedtime, please have a look at the Twilight website or contact me.

Twilight book
Paws Before Bedtime