A few times a month, aspiring authors contact me for advice on projects they have already begun, and they usually want me to help them self-publish their first book through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program (KDP). Most of the time, these authors face challenges that can be summed up in one sentence: They do not know nor understand the technical requirements for KDP, nor how to meet those requirements. In all cases, these authors have been lured by the oft-repeated idea that now “anyone” can self-publish. This idea is both true and false, depending on how you look at it, so I want to give you some insight about why it can be false, and how it can be true.
Saying that “anyone” can do something is part of the problem. Consider these statements: Anyone can play a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Anyone can play basketball like Shaquille O’Neal. Anyone can be an astronaut. Anyone can be a university professor who lectures about quantum mechanics.
See the problem? All these professions require years of study, training, and practice. They require technical skills and long-term dedication to the craft. While I enjoy reading the works of Richard Feynman, Steven Hawking, and other noted physicists, I will never be on their level of understanding the subject. I don’t even want to spend the time learning the math required to have an intelligent conversation with them. And if you put me on a basketball court with NBA players, I would get my ass handed to me. Heck, a bunch of random high schoolers could defeat me on the court.
But I’m pretty good—though not great—at making music with a guitar. People who are lured into self-publishing by the “anyone can do it” mentality remind me of all the times I was asked by someone over my twenty-plus years of performing, “Show me how to play that.” People assume that if you make something look easy, then it must be easy, so surely you can show them how to do what you do in a couple of minutes. But they don’t realize how much they don’t understand about rhythm, harmony, scales, and the language of music, and they definitely don’t realize how long you need to train your hands, muscles, and brain to play an instrument.
My experience in the world of self-publishing is no different. Someone might say, “Show me how to make a Kindle ebook,” but they don’t have the most basic software skills that take anywhere from hours to years to learn. Someone might say, “Help me set up my book on KDP,” but they have files that are completely unworkable for technical reasons they do not understand. They often do not know the language or terminology needed to even explain the problems. They have no idea what “image resolution” means, or what “Styles” are in MS Word, or the basic conventions for a properly formatted manuscript.
One author asked me on the phone about an “Izbin”, and I had no idea what he was talking about. He was trying to pronounce “ISBN” like an acronym. That was somewhat less frustrating than the people who ask about “ISBN Numbers” without realizing the “N” in “ISBN” stands for “number”. I often wonder if they use their “PIN Numbers” to operate “ATM Machines” in a universe where the usefulness of acronyms has been destroyed by redundancy.
When it comes to printing paperback books, the problems compound. Have you ever tried explaining a “bleed” to someone who has no background in graphic design? I’ve encountered freelance “designers” who still don’t understand how to set up their files to meet bleed or resolution requirements, and “designers” charging way more than I do per hour but don’t have the first clue about the technical requirements for paperback covers. They might be talented artists whose creativity surpasses mine, but they don’t understand making books.
It isn’t like I was born with this knowledge or learned it all in a day. My first print-on-demand paperback in 2013 left a lot to be desired in terms of design and editing, and I’ve since taken it out of print to save myself the embarrassment. My first full-color art book was rejected by the printer for technical problems, and I couldn’t fix it for the life me, no matter how many hours I spent. It wasn’t until I had another year or two of experience that I was able to re-open the old files, realize what the problem was, and fix it in about five minutes. That five-minute fix took me years to build up to.
Then we have the problem of quality. The biggest complaint about self-published books is that the writing isn’t very good and has never been professionally edited. One author contacted me because she was upset that her ebook wasn’t selling on Kindle, and she asked if I had any marketing advice. I looked her up on Amazon, found her book, and used the “Look Inside” feature to see what she was trying to sell. The text had a ton of obvious spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors on the very first page. Plus, the cover was unappealing, and the description in the Amazon listing was even worse.
As is so often the case in my line of work, it fell to me to be the bearer of bad news and explain to the author all the ways in which her design, description, and the text itself were sending huge red flags to potential buyers. Everything about the book screamed, “Don’t buy me!” Fortunately, I was able to help that author with copyediting, formatting, and a cover re-design. Now she has a book she can be proud of.
I understand authors with a do-it-yourself mentality. If I didn’t have the same mentality, I wouldn’t be where I am today. But I came to the world of self-publishing with a few decades of experience in writing as a professional, making art as a hobbyist, and using relevant software in both capacities. And you know what? My first book still sucked. Despite all I had learned, I had miles to go before I could competently make a book, even farther before I could communicate all the requirements to others, and farther still before I could lead an entire project team in a logical, organized way where things went smoothly.
In the years since, I’ve focused on helping other authors. I’ve looked for ways to share what I’ve learned or put my knowledge and experience to good use so other authors can experience the profound joy of holding in their hands a book they made and can be proud of—and confidently sell. Even so, that rarely happened without a team.
While it might be true that “anyone” can self-publish, few people can successfully do it on their own. A team might include an editor, a graphic designer or illustrator, a marketing consultant, and even a ghost writer or co-writer. Since all those people tend to speak their own language, the team usually needs a project manager, too—not the author, who probably does not speak any of those languages fluently, but someone who can help everyone involved stay on target because he knows the entire process from start to finish.
Can anyone do what I do? Sure. It is far from impossible. I encourage my fellow authors to get into it all the time. But people getting into self-publishing for the first time rarely realize just how much there is to know, and they become easily frustrated when they encounter obstacles during the production, or if nobody wants to buy their book.
Maybe anyone can play amazing guitar like Joe Satriani, but it isn’t necessarily easy or quick to get there. Believe me. I tried to learn a few of his songs and still can’t do them justice even after months of practice. Even if I could compose and shred like Satriani, he never goes on stage without a team to support his performance, from his fellow musicians to the stage crew and his management team.
Maybe anyone can do what Satriani does, but only if they are willing to invest the years of study and practice, take the time to find a team to help them succeed, and persevere in an insanely competitive marketplace. They should also be willing to accept that their first album might not be their greatest album, but it can be a learning experience and a steppingstone to truly great things.
For more insights into writing and becoming a better writer by workshopping with others, check out my recent book My Life as an Armadillo. For a quick orientation to the world of self-publishing that will save you from a lot of headaches and wasted money, see A Passion for Planning. Good luck on your writing journey!