Deirdre Saoirse Moen

Sounds Like Weird

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Self-Publishing

25 November 2013

When I was the head of programming for a local convention, I always cringed when someone self-published wanted to be a panelist.
It’s not that the self-published had little to say, or that they couldn’t be interesting. It was the baggage that tended to come with: wanting a place (often in the sold-out dealers’ room) to sell their books directly to customers, wanting to hijack panels to talk about their publications rather than the topic, wanting to hide the fact that they were self-published. In one case, a prospective panelist vehemently denied being self-published even after I went and looked up his “publisher’s” corporate registration and called him on it.
There’s no shame in being self-published, okay? Never was, never will be.
The issue comes in what a person who’s only been self-published can speak to vs. what someone who’s been traditionally-published can. If people want to hear (as many do) about experiences selling to industry editors, that’s not something the self-published can talk about with any authority. But they will always volunteer, in my experience.
Just. Don’t. It’s fucking annoying.
Especially these days, where a lot of traditionally-published writers are self-publishing their backlist or oddball works, the traditionally-published who’ve also self-published (aka hybrid-published) still have an advantage talking about self-publishing because they have informed opinions about which works for a given piece — and why. That may actually be more useful than a panel on self-publishing per se.
But there I was, having to make too many decisions about authors late at night, and all I had was their emails, websites, and Amazon (et al) to go by.

Let’s Give an Example

I happened to be searching on Google a couple weeks ago and came across an author site for a self-published author I don’t know. So, I’m sorry author-I-don’t-know, I’m going to use this site site as an example of what not to do.
First, let’s open the page for a random book on the author’s site.
Starting from the top of the content area (don’t get me started on the author platform in the menu):

  1. The first thing you see about a book shouldn’t be the literary prizes, especially not “buy the prize” offerings like this one. Above the fold should be a short synopsis (like this site has). See? [Update: she’s removed those links. Yay!]
  2. I’m not generally a fan of putting reviews before the synopsis, but it works for me if I can see the synopsis without scrolling. On the example site, I can’t.
  3. If you are a self-published author and you do not put an excerpt on your site, you are telling people that you think you’re a bad writer. I cannot emphasize this enough. Especially if you’ve paid over $100 to get literary prizes to attempt to lure buyers. [Update: she has now added an excerpt. Yay!]
  4. Reviews: 3-5.
  5. Do not post pingbacks from your own site on your site. That just looks stupid.

If you know anything about marketing and lead conversion and stuff like that, you’ll know the following: the fewer clicks it takes someone to get to what the reader wants, the more likely they will stick around and get it from you. Also, look at the way most sites are designed: you only send someone outside your little garden if there’s an actual need.
Sure, someone could follow a link off-site and get an excerpt of your writing. Is that what you want? For them to be distracted by all the other authors’ books? Maybe buy a DVD of Vin Diesel instead of your story? Perhaps they’ve forgotten all about that colored titanium spork they were looking for. Until now.
Do the lifting on your site. Look, no one’s going to sell to everyone. It’s the way it is. At Milford, we’d say, “I’m not your target audience.” However, some people will be captured, and those people you want to capture as soon as possible.
Which you can only do when you’ve got an excerpt on your site, right?

Show That You’re Interesting

Unfortunately, this site is pretty typical of what I see from self-published writers. There’s a whole bunch about “being a writer” and not a lot about being a generally interesting person that might be interesting to have as a panelist — or whose book may be interesting to read. The blog largely consists of cross promotion that can come off as a circle jerk (even though it is the most interesting content). Though I will give her props for having more interesting blog content than I’ve seen on some similar sites.
A few weeks ago, I was at a technical talk, and a woman who was interested both in math and traditional art was asking around for advice. She was insecure because others knew more than she did.
As a generalist, I feel this problem all the time. I’m rarely the person who knows the most about X, whatever X is. But if you happen to want to have a topic-shifting conversation about sound recording, the history of astronomy, SQL quirks, Leica cameras (and rangefinders vs. SLRs generally), similarities between Middle Egyptian and Hawai’ian languages, fascinating aspects of virology, writing Cocoa applications, and a bunch of random other stuff, well, I’m probably on your short list.
What I said to the woman was: the aggregate of what you’re interested in vs. what you’re not interested in is unique. Look carefully at what you care about vs. what you care less about, then look at what you don’t care about and what you really don’t care about. That combination makes you different, and you can use that to find your way into the right career track.
If you’re a writer and talk about what you’re interested in on your web site, some of the people who come to your web site will care about some of those things. Others will find your web site because search engines noted that you used those words, and they’ll lead other people to your pages.

An Example

So I take a lot of travel photos. I’d like to think I’m good at them. I’ve had a flickr account for over 8 years. I’ve posted a few of my travel photos on flickr here and there.
But my most popular photo is this one, taken at a chairmaking class with master craftsman Brian Boggs a few years ago at Northwest Woodworking Studio. It’s not a great photo. It’s not about the glory of sunsets. It’s about a good old-fashioned honest tool: a shaving horse (used to clamp an irregularly-shaped piece of wood while using tools on it, like so).
Probably, when you think of me, traditional woodworking doesn’t come to mind. That’s okay. It’s a part of who I am.
That photo is also three times more popular than the first photo that’s not about traditional chairmaking: a photo of a couple in the Mediterranean, taken from a beach near Alexandria, Egypt. They were the only couple there that day.
The story, as we were told, is that women on public beaches in Egypt are pretty much not allowed to go into the water. They aren’t prohibited from it per se, they’re just shamed into not doing it. So women who want to swim use private beaches, which this was one of. Some modern women swim in rather modest swimsuits, but going into the water in traditional dress isn’t unheard of. But that’s not why the photo’s unusual.
What’s led almost 350,000 views to my flickr pages is the sum and aggregate of who I am. I post irregularly and in weird increments, posting nothing for months at a time, then posting just one photo here and there. If I actually tried to game it, I’m sure I could get a lot more views even if my photos weren’t any more interesting than they are now.
What would have been a mistake, though, would be not posting about chairmaking because I thought people wouldn’t be interested in that part of me. Clearly, there are quite a few avid traditional chairmakers out there.


Because long post is long, I have two stories.

Story the first

Here’s a funny moment out of that class that I’ve never shared, but it’s one of the moments that sticks with me (apart from the moment where I cut myself with a drawknife and was embarrassed so I superglued myself back together so no one would know). The back legs were steam bent, and I had watched the other people force theirs into the forms we’d built to hold the leg in place while it dried.
I am not a small woman, but I am extremely strong. I was seriously worried that I was going to break the rear leg bending it to the form. I had visions of the wood splintering into bits–and we had had people try to bend the legs too quickly (or with too little steam), causing exactly that to happen. Instead, I found that I didn’t weigh enough to force the leg into the form using only my strength, and two guys pitched into help. Thanks, guys.
Every weird experience you have, like that one, is something that makes you different than everyone else out there. Use your distinctiveness.

Story the Second

I was at a convention talking with a BNA (big-name author) who’d published a lot of books and won a lot of awards, who turned the tables on me. Asked what kind of book I was writing.
I gave him the elevator pitch.
“Oh, I couldn’t write that,” he said.
It stopped me cold. I was stunned. “What do you mean, you couldn’t write that?”
“Your character’s on open ocean in a small boat. I’m afraid of water. Hotel pool’s okay, but that’s enough water for me.”
Which is why my favorite piece of writing advice isn’t, “Write what you know,” but, rather, “Write the book that only you can write.”
Now go make a web site to match that.

Related Posts