Friday, December 3, 2010

22 tips learned from
self-publishing 15 books

In 1976, my first book was published by Doubleday.

In 1996, my second was published by a company you've never heard of.

In 2008, I formed Silver Sands Books with the intention to publish exactly ONE BOOK, for friends and family.

It's now late 2010. Yesterday I approved book #12 to be sold and I'm doing the hopefully final corrections on book number 13 and  book number #14. They should be on sale this month. I've also gone back to work on book #15 after a six-month hiatus. This seems like a lot of books in a short time, especially for a part-time gig run by one person who also has to run another business with employees, and clean up dog poop.

I'm out of bed and at this keyboard between three and three-thirty each morning. My wife says she'd rather share me with a computer than with another woman. She's not lonely. When I get out of bed, Hunter, our Golden Retriever, takes my place in our bed.

My newer books are much  better than the earlier books -- and that's how it should be. I won't say that I'm embarassed by the first books, but I'm much prouder of the latest vintage. I've learned a lot, partially from research, and mostly by experience with the 15 books.

Here's some of what I've learned (in no particular order):
  1. Proofread in multiple formats: on screen in word pro­cessing, on screen in PDF, on a paper printout and in a bound book. Different errors will show up in each format.
  2. You can save money and time if you have early proofs made by your local UPS or Fed­Ex store instead of by your book printer. For inexpensive book-like bound proofs, you can use Lulu or CreateSpace.
  3. One of the most boring and most important tasks in publishing is to carefully read down the right-hand edge of each page so you can spot and fix improper hyphenations. MS Word’s hyphenation system sometimes makes bad guesses and you’ll have to overrule its decisions. Don’t be embarrassed by “the-rapist.”
  4. Don’t be afraid to make small violations of your style sheet if the broken rules allow you to make a better-looking book. If you normally allow 24 points between a chapter title and the first sentence, no one will sue you or arrest you and few will notice if you occasionally use 23 points or 26 points. Similarly, if you normally use 16-point type for chapter titles, but by using 15.5 points you can get all of the words in one line instead of two, do it and save some space and some trees.
  5. Although Word’s type menu has sizes from 8 to 72 points, those are not your only choices. You can force Word to accept almost any size, such as 3, 21 points or 106 points. You’re not limited to whole numbers. If 10.5 points is the right size, use it. Tiny sizes are generally used for spaces, not words.
  6. Less-than-optimum (i.e., crappy but necessary) photographs will look less crappy if you keep them as small as possible. It’s best to eliminate or replace sub-par photos if you can.
  7. Photo quality, cover alignment, cover color and other book conditions may vary from print run to print run. Periodically order a copy from a bookseller or from your printer or publisher  for quality control. Don’t be reluctant to complain. Let your partner know you have high standards.
  8. You can often spot errors if you look at pages, but don’t actually read what you are seeing.
  9. Save your book frequently, onto your PC’s hard drive and also onto portable media such as a USB thumb drive. Keep backup files outside of your primary workplace.  You can keep backups online for free at http://www.mediafire.com/.
  10. Watch out for unintentional changes. MS Word can be independent, and nutso. It’s not uncommon for line spacing to change or type to be dark gray instead of real black. It’s easier to spot aberrations if you magnify the page up to 150 or 200% of normal size. The magnification also makes it easy to spot errors that were imported when you copied and pasted from other sources, especially straight quote marks and apostrophes that were supposed to have been changed to curlies. Word loves to put in horizontal lines (rules) where they don’t belong and it can be extremely difficult to remove them.
  11. If you copy-and-paste into Word from another document or a web page, you may end up with a hyperlink imbedded in your book text. It can be distracting when you’re working on a manuscript, and you may even click on it accidentally and be taken from your book page to a web page. To deactivate it, highlight and right-click on the linked word, then click on Remove link. At this point you will be left with ordinary text -- at least until wacky Word decides to change it back into a link. If you want to make it obvious that it’s a web address, try underlining it and/or use a different font.
  12. If you need to copy text from the web into a Word document, first paste it into Notepad. Notepad will cleanse it by stripping out HTML, links, rules (lines), background colors, table grids, etc. Then just copy from Notepad into Word and do whatever editing is necessary. Notepad is also good for purging extraneous garbage that Word sometime generates without your command or consent, such as horizontal rules.
  13. Be alert if you work on your book with more than one PC. Multiple PCs, even if you think they are identical, may have subtle differences which will drive you NUTS. One major problem relates to different fonts being available on the PCs. If PC #2 doesn’t have all of the fonts that were used with the book on PC #1, it may substitute other fonts that will cause the text to flow differently. Paragraphs may run longer or shorter than expected, and words may move from one page to the next page -- or even to the previous page.
  14. Sometimes the best way to improve the look of a paragraph is to add a word or two, or eliminate a word or two.
  15. Put your book away for a few weeks or -- even better -- a few months. When you return to it, you will discover errors you missed before and will probably have gained new insights during your absence. You’ll likely realize that words and chapters that once seemed brilliant now seem insipid, silly, immature, superfluous, inadequate, out-of-date or otherwise in­ap­prop­riate. However, you will probably have thought of new bits of brilliance which you can now insert to elevate the level of contemporary literature.
  16. As a book evolves before publication, the sentences, paragraphs and pages go through many changes. Sometimes a word that had been on the end of a line of text and needed a hyphen ends up in the middle of a line and no longer needs a hyphen, but the hyphen’s still there. The problem is most common when hyphens are manually added by the writer, rather than automatically added by the word-processing robot. Misplacements frequently occur when you change the location or size of an illustration. You’ll probably find some of the errant hyphens during regular proofreading, but to be safe you should do a search for hyphens. It may take a long time, and it’s boring, but do it.
  17. Even the best computerized spell-checker is not a substitute for a human editor. The robot can tell if a word is spelled wrong, but not if you used the wrong word. One book that I love to hate says, “for all participates.” “Participates” is not a spelling error; it’s the wrong word. “Participants” was the right word, but the robot didn’t realize it. Neither did the author. There apparently was no editor, and the publisher didn’t care.
  18. As you write, be conscious of your habitual errors, which may increase as you get older. I have many “senior moments” (also known as “brain farts”) while typing. Don’t laugh at me if you’re just 30 years old. The 20-year-olds are laughing at you. It takes just about 15 minutes to go from age 30 to age 50. It takes five minutes to go from 50 to 60. Lately, I’ve stupidly held down the shift key as I pressed the key to insert an apostrophe, and ended up inserting a colon. I often type “i nthe,” “hsould,” “nad” and “fro ma.” I now tap the Caps Lock key a lot by accident, the semicolon instead of the apostrophe, and the “Page Down” key instead of “delete.”
  19. When I was freelancing for Rolling Stone magazine, I was always rewriting until the last possible minute. This was in the pre-fax, pre-email era, and I’d drive to the airport and pay to have my column air-freighted from New York to California. There wasn’t much profit left. A perfectionist never finishes anything. When I was working as an advertising copywriter, I was notorious for not “releasing” an ad until the last possible moment. Fortunately, someone older and wiser taught me a valuable lesson: sometimes “good enough” really is good enough, and I learned to let go. Now as a self-pubber who has to be a businessman as well as an artist, I realize that no money will come in if I don’t approve a proof and let a book start selling. Perfection is a desirable goal, but not likely to achieve. I've found that a typical 300-page book from a major publisher has six errors. I try to do better.
  20. Any time you make a change -- even to correct an error -- you risk creating an error.
  21. Don’t just dump words onto pages. Carefully examine EACH line in your book so you can improve its appearance by changing words, spacing and hyphenation. Read this paragraph again.
  22. Every book takes longer than you plan. My twelfth book, Get the Most Out of a Self-Publishing Company, was three months late. I finally approved it yesterday, and it's much better than it would have been on September 1, when it was supposed to go on sale. It includes many more tips than are in today's blog, and I'll be very happy if you buy it, or recommend it to others who would benefit from it.


  1. Great tips, Michael. Thanks a lot.

    15 books in two years is amazing output. I doubt that Random House did that in their first two years.

  2. Great tips, Thanks. Experience is a powerful teacher.

    I just ordered your new book so you can teach me more.