Disgruntled with the staidness and inaccessibility of traditional publishing houses many authors are choosing to self-publish instead. It is certainly an adventure and requires a couple of different skills in order to get one's book to thrive. Rachel Zadok speaks to Masha Du Toit, for #WriterWednesday about her self-publishing journey, whether it is a viable avenue and her experience of the growing community in general.
What made you decide to eschew the traditional route of agent and publishing house and self-publish your work?
MASHA: I never tried very hard to get a publishing contract. At the time I first started exploring publishing my writing in 2008, self-publishing was emerging as a viable alternative. I sent my first book to a few publishers but I found the experience of dealing with agents and publishers discouraging and unpleasant. By contrast, I enjoyed learning about self-publishing. The self-publishing community is generous, very helpful and welcoming. I also love learning new skills, like formatting an eBook, and designing a cover. I also like the fact that self-publishing is all about building a relationship directly with the reader, rather than with a middleman.
You’re an artist as well as a writer. Your book covers are beautiful. Please tell us a little about the process of writing a novel, then interpreting it into a visual for the cover.
MASHA: Designing a book cover is hard! I always take much longer than I think to come up with the final design. It's an interesting challenge as it's partly artistic, but also quite hard-nosed and utilitarian. The cover can't just be appropriate for the story, it has to communicate genre, and also create a unique "look" that readers will recognise as belonging to you as the writer. The final cover hardly ever looks anything like I imagine it will when I start. My writing process generates a fair amount of visual material, as I like drawing the characters as part of my writing process. Sometimes those make their way into the final design, but often I end up with something completely different.
Although you are self-published, you take all the steps one would if one was published through a trad house. Can you speak a little about the process from first draft to publication?
MASHA: I do a lot of research and outlining before I start writing. I usually take about two or three months to write the first draft. After re-writing that two or three times (or four, or five times) I give it to my developmental editor for feedback. This usually means changes to the story structure, and several more rewrites. Then I give the book to beta readers for some more feedback. By this stage the story is usually pretty solidly in place, but the readers pick up on continuity errors, places where the characters act in ways that don't make sense, or they find plot holes. After several more rewrites, I will finally reach a stage where I know that I'm just changing things, rather than improving them.
Then I give the manuscript to a proofreader to find all the (many) typos. I usually use more than one proofreader as there are inevitably more typos than one person can possibly pick up on. I design the cover while I wait for the corrected proof. Then I format the book as an eBook and do the print layout. The print layout is by far the most work! It's much more fiddly and demanding than creating an eBook. Once all of that is done, I write the sales copy for the book (the blurb) and start working on the publicity material. The whole process takes about a year.
With regards to marketing a self-published novel, can you share what you’ve found works and what doesn’t?
MASHA: Marketing is my weakest area. I still have so much to learn! Here are some things that I've figured out so far:
- Don't waste too much time promoting a book if you only have one book out. You can certainly experiment with promotional techniques, but it's nearly impossible to gain any kind of momentum with only one book. People might read the book and like it, but when they go look for another book...there's nothing.
- Don't obsess too much about getting reviews. Rather focus on building genuine relationships with other writers, readers, and reviewers. Build a team of people who are willing to help you because they genuinely like your writing and respect you as a writer. Reviews will come organically as these people help spread the news about your books.
It’s the question all writers considering going the self-publication route want to know, but are too afraid to ask. After all the care you take, is self-publishing sustainable? i.e. does it pay?
MASHA: The answer is the one you don't want to hear: "It depends". There are many different ways to approach self-publishing. How much money you make depends on whether you can write what sells and are willing to do what it takes to market your books. There's an enormous amount of luck involved as well, which means that there simply isn't any guarantee of success, no matter what method you follow. Publishing is a long-term business. All the overnight success stories in self-publishing actually meant years of slogging and failing and trying before the spark finally took hold. That said, there's no guaranteed road to success no matter how your books are published, traditionally or self. Be very suspicious of anyone who tries to tell you there is!
MASHA: Skolion was Nerine Dorman's brain child. It grew out of a need for a different approach to publishing, neither following the traditional route, or going it completely alone and self publishing. Instead, Skolion writers pool their skills and experience to help one another, while still retaining their independence in how their books are published.
For example, some of the beta readers for my latest book were Skolion members, and I've given feedback on some books-in-progress as well. A Skolion member has been helping me with the social media marketing of The Babylon Eye, and in the future I will probably be helping somebody else format their books. Writing is such a solitary activity, and self-publishing can be pretty lonely too so it's great to have a group of people to bounce ideas with, or ask for advice.
Masha du Toit is an artist and writer living in Woodstock, Cape Town. She was trained as a visual artist, majoring in sculpture at Michaelis and went on to study bronze casting at the Natal Technikon. After many years teaching the creative use of digital technology, she finally focused on her true passion: writing and illustrating her own stories.
If you haven't read it already, we interviewed Masha about her latest book here.
Interview by Rachel Zadok a.k.a. @rachelzadok