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.