Here’s an article from Writer’s Digest by AJ Wells, who has read and judged slews of self-published books for contests. He has some good tips that, of course, you can take or leave. But consider them carefully before you leave. There are pros and cons to every tip in every aspect, and you want to spend a think or two on each as you’re considering a self-publishing effort.
Right now, there are lots and lots of people going that route, and you have to remember that the competition is tremendous. Everything you do can have a major impact on whether you can sell something or not. As an example, I always hear from other writers, teachers, agents, and publishers about Tip #2 on opening lines, and how extremely crucial it is. And then I read one of Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone books in which the entire first chapter was pretty much a play-by-play narration of a softball game. At the end of the chapter, a body was found on a shoreline.
This was perturbing to me when thinking about how a whole lot of really Big and Famous Writers can get away with a violation of Tip #2, but we struggling wordsmiths have to adhere to it or fail miserably. But don’t forget the Big Point: Robert B. Parker has written umpty-bunches of books and sold a bazillion of each of them, and all his fans know it, and they know they’ll get a good heap of entertainment out of it even if it starts a little wimpy. Most of the Big and Famous Writers can get away with it…you can’t. Never forget those thousands of people who are competing with you for readers. You have to get their attention or you might as well just keep your wonderful novel at home and read it to yourself.
Is self-publishing the route you need to take? Think about it and make up your own mind, but take a good gander at AJ Wells’ thoughts and consider them carefully before you take the plunge. And good luck.
5 Tips on Writing a Standout Self-Published Book From Someone Who’s Read Hundreds of Them
WD competition judge AJ Wells breaks down what will make or break your self-published book, from cover design to plot construction.
Jan 6, 2021
As a judge for Writer’s Digest self-published competitions, it’s my mini-Christmas when the books arrive. I can’t help but be in awe of the work these authors have done. At the same time, I have to admit that I feel strong disappointment when an incredible book has a critical flaw—as in a mistake that I simply can’t look beyond no matter how great everything else is—especially when that critical flaw is a common occurrence amongst self-published books.
The world of writing help often points to writing in general, yet I think that self-publishing is a genre unto itself. Therefore, here are five pieces of advice I’d give to someone planning to self publish.
1. Judge Your Book by Its Cover
It might seem obvious, but the cover is the very first thing a reader sees on a book. The right self-published cover invites precious readers inside, like a gracious host welcoming his guests for dinner. The goal is to get someone excited about holding your book and cracking it open.
Simply put, the adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is for readers. Not self-published authors. This always pains me to critique, because the cover design often directly corresponds to money spent. As the financier of your book, you cannot cut corners. Imagine having your book published traditionally, and the publisher decides to apply budget cuts to the front cover. The author should be livid! Covers don’t have to be the fanciest, shiniest illustrations. Instead, they ought to present the essence of the book with the hope of hooking a reader in your specific audience. The quality is crucial. Unfortunately, just because your graphic artist friend drew something up for you, it doesn’t work if it doesn’t look professional.
The quality of covers isn’t always entirely money-related. Typos in the back cover synopsis absolutely sink a self-published book. Overemphasizing the author’s credentials or putting too many blurbs can overshadow the story and often don’t help win a reader over.
Some of my favorite examples from judging are The Word Dancer by Maxine Rose Schur and In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow by Kenneth W. Harmon. Both of these covers have an outstanding appeal of professionalism while also offering the idiosyncratic nature of the book.
2. Start on the Right Foot
If you’ve ever made a decision as to which book to buy from the bookstore based upon the opening lines, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Sometimes we don’t know why opening lines connect with us so effectively, but I’ve got some ideas as to what contributes to this “love at first sight” feeling.
The most successful books I’ve judged established tension immediately. They did not use the opening lines to describe the sunset or how the grass blew, but they focused directly on what was at stake. As best explained to me by Maria Kuznetsova, author of Oksana, Behave!, the line of tension must be taut from beginning to end of the novel. The tauter the line, the more conflicts can be hung from it.
Writing quality can be sensed immediately in the opening lines. This is not always foolproof, since self-published books can have inconsistent writing (bonus tip: watch out for disparate tones!), but if the beginning of a book lacks crisp, fresh language, I struggle to get excited about the rest of the book.
Also, I expect the beginning of the book to establish the rules, particularly when it comes to perspective and character intimacy (see tip #3). Ground me in the world of your book, but do so as a good host might. A good host doesn’t bore his guest with a detailed tour right off the bat, but rather points out what the visitor needs or wants to know so that the true entertainment may happen.
One of the most affecting opening scenes from this year’s competition came from Wilderness Therapy by Paul Cumbo, who directly placed his reader in the trauma of Whitaker (the main character) from losing his father, only to (spoiler alert) hang further tension later by adding the more affective scene: the drowning of Whitaker’s brother. Cumbo, most importantly, allowed the gravity of the tension to speak for itself and used crisp, vivid writing that allowed accessibility as opposed to overdramatizing these events.
Once again, I have managed to stumble across some excellent wisdom about writing. This is from the Career Authors website, written by Paula Munier, who is a literary agent, teacher, author, and all-around Knower Of Stuff. We all know that it’s been an extreme year, sneaking up on us and doing things to us nobody saw coming, but at least it has taught us things about the biz that are good to know. You gotta find the good where you can, and at least you don’t have to dig for this little segment of it. Ms. Munier has some well-thought ruminations about what The Year 2020 has done to us and for us, and what it means to the world of writing. Pay attention — it’s always good to have somebody else do some of the thinking for you.
10 Writing Lessons We Learned from 2020
Hindsight is 2020. I stole that great line from my son Greg Bergman, Editor-in-Chief for capitalwatch.com. This year was a nightmare, but we did learn a lot—the hard way—about our industry, ourselves, and each other.
1) Backlist matters.
As terrible a year as this may have been for frontlist (books published in 2020, especially in earlier in the year), backlist (books published before 2020) sold very well. Stuck at home, lots of people turned to reading for escape, entertainment, and enlightenment—and when they did, they often turned to the authors they already knew and loved. That’s why book sales were actually up this year—6.4% for print books alone—and established writers benefited the most. The industry typically neglects backlist, but that changed this year. Let’s hope that this new focus on backlist sales extends beyond the pandemic. And that frontlist rebounds.
2) Zoom events can work.
You have to feel sorry for those debut and midlist writers whose books came out in March, April, May, and June. With so many bookstores closed, all in-store book events were canceled, along with the book festivals and conferences and library events that celebrate authors and books. Those publishers that had ignored online events and digital marketing (and there were many) were dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, scrambling to create digital promotion and marketing campaigns as well as online events before they were completely left behind.
3) Writers write.
This year taught us that you can write at your kitchen table with your spouse working from home and your kids schooling from home and your dogs and cats barking and meowing from home. Or not. Either way, we all learned something about the way we work best—and how to carve out our sacred writing time no matter what happens or where you are or who’s in your face.
4) Writers write. Part Deux.
Writing under the aforementioned circumstances may have proved that you do indeed require, as Virginia Woolf warned us nearly a century ago, “a room of one’s own.” I’d been working mostly from our living room, my upstairs office serving double duty as the guest room where my son spent the early months of the pandemic before returning to the city.
When I was asked to do an interview with WABC TV with Sandy Kenyon, including footage of me at my desk, I realized that I needed to get a desk. I got one and reclaimed the guest room as my writing space. It’s the perfect hideaway as I plug away on book four in my Mercy Carr series.
The story can now be told.
What’s the bane of existence to every flight chief, workcenter supervisor, and superintendent, not only in the Air Force but, though perhaps with different titles, in almost every organization? STAFF MEETINGS. So here’s what I did for years around Christmas time…and you can, too. Get a Christmas coffee cup with a photoelectric cell on the bottom that plays “Jingle Bells” when you pick it up to drink. I occasionally got caught, but I don’t know how many commanders would stop in the middle of a tirade and say, “What’s that sound?” as I set down the cup. They’d look around the room…everybody else, including me, would look around the room…nobody would hear anything, and the meeting would resume. So would the cup. Sometimes meetings could last for hours. This game could, too. And I’ve been retired for 17 years, and the cup still plays. I love this cup.
Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Editor at Writer’s Digest, which is always a helpful resource, and has a short essay to share for any writer who could use a little nudge of encouragement during these weird times.
Yes, Virginia, You Are a Writer
In a time and year that has been hard on so many in a variety of ways, more than a few writers have found their creativity dry up. Some have even asked if they are or should be writers moving forward. This open letter is addressed to all such writers.
Robert Lee Brewer
Dec 18, 2020
Whether we’re measuring things by lives lost, economic hardships, or wholesale changes to actions and behaviors that were normal and commonplace this same time last year, 2020 has been (and continues to be) a hard year. And that’s true for writers as much as anyone else.
I’ve seen you and heard you on social media saying things like, “I can’t find the motivation to write. I don’t know what to write. That is, I don’t know what to write that matters. There’s so much, too much, and I can’t focus. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to write again. I’m not sure if I consider myself a writer anymore.”
I know; I’ve been you myself. I’ve felt all the same feelings, including that existential writing question, “Am I still a writer?” Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about that response from editor Francis Pharcellus Church to eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s question, “Is there a Santa Claus?”
And so with both thoughts rumbling around in my head, I want to answer the former question for you, but also for me. Because I know there have been times I’ve needed this answer during “dry times” in my life and that I’ll likely need this reminder again in the future:
Yes, Virginia, You Are a Writer
Virginia, one thing I know as an absolute truth is that there will always be people on this planet quick to point out what you are not and what you cannot do. With the precision of a Google search, they will pull up all your flaws and let you know why you don’t measure up. They’ll pin lists of reasons why someone else is better or more qualified, and I urge you with all my spirit to avoid enabling these thoughts, whether they come from someone else or—worse—yourself.
Yes, Virginia, you are a writer. In fact, as my wife would say, we are all born writers. Our minds process a variety of senses each and every day, whether it’s the smell of honeysuckle, the taste of peppermint, or the sound of water splashing against rocks. And our hearts beat with love, fear, pain, regret, anticipation, and other feelings—some of them without words to express. And so, we feel doubt, because the language escapes us.
Still, if we didn’t have a word for human, we’d still be human. Or to quote Shakespeare, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” and Shakespeare himself was faced with the need to create many words. But you don’t have to create a language—not even one new word—to be a writer. Rather, it’s something innate, something that beats within your heart (you know if you’ve felt it), and though it may have grown dormant—like a volcano, it can erupt again.
If you breathe air, love life, think thoughts, feel emotions, then you’re a writer. Do not let the lack of words now discourage you from being who you are meant to be. Perhaps you’re still processing the world, but if you open yourself, the words will come. Believe it like you believe this planet will continue spinning from one day to the next. The words will come!
They will slip into your mind while you sleep. They will touch the very tip of your tongue while you talk. They will—eventually—work their way through your pen or your keyboard, and you will once again be face to face with them, and they will be yours. The words will come! Even this moment, they are making their way to you.
Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Editor of Writer’s Digest, which includes editing Writer’s Market, Poet’s Market, and Guide to Literary Agents. He’s the author of Solving the World’s Problems, Smash Poetry Journal, and The Complete Guide of Poetic Forms: 100+ Poetic Form Definitions and Examples for Poets. He loves blogging on a variety of writing and publishing topics, but he’s most active with Poetic Asides and writes a column under the same name for Writer’s Digest magazine. Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.