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How The Other Half Successfully Self-Publish

Uncle Mike has some things to say, people, and you’re not prying this karaoke mic from his hand until he’s done.

Is this thing on? Right, okay. Hello. My name is Michael McClung, but for the duration of this little talk, you can think of me as Uncle Mike. In the self publishing world, I’m that one relative that you don’t see very often, because when he shows up, uncomfortable things get said. Things like “No, that’s not baby fat anymore, Darlene, unless you’ve been eating babies since you hit puberty.”

You may or may not know me as the guy who won the inaugural SPFBO. I’d fully planned to rest on my laurels and watch from afar the doings of the latest round, as I did for the previous. But a recent spate of articles on self publishing dos and don’ts have made their way to my eyeballs; articles that go into great detail about what newbie self publishers must do if they want to be taken seriously/be successful/eradicate the heartbreak of psoriasis. It is, apparently, a long fucking list.

Uncle Mike’s here to call bullshit on all of it.

I’m kind of an impatient guy. Okay, I’m short tempered and have a miserable disposition. But only when it comes to bullshit. So I’m just going to hit the highlights for you.

You have to have an editor/copy editor/proofreader/beta readers, or you will never be successful.

Bullshit. What you have to have is clean prose, an engaging storyline, and a main character the reader can connect with. The reader doesn’t give a flying fuck how you get those things.

I did not have any sort of editorial help with the book that won the inaugural SPFBO. I did it all myself, because that’s what you do when you have no money and few word-inclined friends. You sweat over it and edit until your eyes bleed, and then you get some fucking Visine and you edit some more. If your grasp of the language is shaky, well guess what? It’s time to hit the books and relearn all that shit you daydreamed your way through in high school. Respect your craft, yourself, and your readers. Don’t give them a shitty product. And when the inevitable typo slips through, remember two things: first, remember the last time you read a traditionally published book, and found typos. (I’m guessing that didn’t take long.) Second, remember that you can go back and fix your typo in minutes for future readers. Dan Fucking Brown sure as fuck can’t.

Will an editor/copy editor/etc./ad nauseum give you clean prose, etc.? Some will. Some’ll just take your money. Some’ll actually make a bad situation worse. Am I saying don’t hire, bribe or blackmail a professional to help you with your book? Of course not. I’m saying if you can’t, you can’t. So you have to work around it, with the operative word there being work. It’s good for you. Like broccoli.

You have to hire a professional cover artist and cover designer and formatter, or you will never be successful.

Bullshit. What you have to have is a cover that a) fits with the genre of the book and b) does not look an eight year old discovering MS Paint. Again, the reader has no fucks to give regarding how that’s achieved.

I’m gonna share with you the cover for my first-ever book. It was published by the Random House imprint Del Rey, not self published. Only click on the link if you have a strong stomach. This right here is why I don’t listen to people who tell me I must have a pro artist for my covers.

The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids (cover)When I decided to self publish, I had no money to spend on any of the fine and deserving artists who offer their services to self-pub writers. What I had was free photo editing software and a bloody-minded determination not to be laughed at. Are my covers the new hotness? No. Do they have to be? No. They have to do their fucking job. They have to say ‘here’s a fantasy book that wasn’t written in finger paint.’ And they do.

They do that after many, many iterations and incremental improvements. They do that after hours of Youtube tutorials and mother-humping years of just experimenting, doing the best I could with what I had, trying and failing and trying and failing to figure out how to achieve this or that effect. Because when you have no money, you invest time and effort.

As for formatting? You can learn everything you need to know about formatting in about two days, because the interior formatting doesn’t have to look pretty, it just has to not be distractingly bad.

You have to have your own ISBN to—

Just fucking stop right there. What you’re going to do first, if you’re smart, if it’s your first time publishing, and if you have no money, is release your book as an ebook.

Just a goddamn ebook.

Why? Because nobody is going to buy your print book yet, as they don’t know you from a sheepherder in Outer Mongolia. Because you don’t know anything about marketing yet as you’ve been too fucking busy making your eyes bleed turning out a book that readers will enjoy. Because however hard and diligently you’ve worked, there will be mistakes – and they will be immortalized in print rather than quietly swept under the rug with a simple electronic update.

After you’re sure you aren’t the next Robert Stanek, you can start thinking about print. And then audio. And how to find the money to do both properly.

Which brings me to my next point: All of the things on the “Thou Shalt” lists cost money, fucking heaps of it. For most people, if you wait to publish your book until you have enough money to do everything on the “Thou Shalt” list, you will never publish your mother-humping book. (I’ve always liked mother-humper better than motherfucker. Gives a more satisfying visual.)

If you’ve got that kind of bank, I’m genuinely happy for you. I’ve even got a suggestion for those aspiring, well-to-do self publishers who don’t want to take the time to learn all the various aspects of the trade: Just hire a freelancer to ghostwrite the thing. Then you’ve got the next best thing to a fully automated writing career!

Ahem. Right, sorry. Uncle Mike gets a little carried away sometimes. I yell because I care.

Look, let me just sum this up for you: Nobody can tell you what you have to do to be a successful self-published author (whatever that is). At best, they can only tell you what they did, if they are by any measure successful. And if they aren’t, by any measure, a successful self-published author, then what they are really telling you is what they think you have to do. Which is an opinion. And you know what they say about opinions.

If you want a formula to follow for a writing career, here is what my fifteen years writing, being published, and self publishing has taught me: 

  • The most important thing is the story. All the other stuff is (varyingly) necessary, but not all-important.
  • Do the very best you can with what you have. Don’t let no money become an excuse for sloppy.
  • Use a fuck-ton of foul language (optional, but highly recommended).
  • No one can read a book that never leaves your hard drive.
  • No one can guarantee any level of success no matter what you do.
  • Self publishing is the long game. You get unlimited chances to win, and you get do-overs.
  • Don’t automatically listen to anyone who tells you what you “must” do unless they’re putting up money to go along with the proclamation.

For the love of Uncle Mike, be yourself. Think for yourself. Write for yourself. If you do, you’ve already found success.

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How The Other Half Successfully Self-Publish, 9.3 out of 10 based on 35 ratings
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8 Comments

  1. I FUCKING KNEW IT!

    -ahem-

    Err… what I mean to say is, thank you very much for this insightful and experience-based article, Uncle Mike. Much obliged. ^-^

    • Baird Wells says:

      Determination. It’s how all the best shit used to get accomplished. If you want to successfully self-publish, you’re damn well going to do it if you have determination.
      Thanks, Mike! This was spot-on 😀

  2. H Gibson says:

    Loved this post. Thank you.
    Michael and I will get a long quite well. Same type of personality.
    My books check all the boxes except foul language. And printing was forced on me because readers wanted books.
    I’ve hit a snag though with my latest book (5th in series). Courage. It seems that some books need courage to start reading them. So absolutely weird.

  3. Nice, Uncle Mike.
    One day when I grow up I want to be like you! 🙂

  4. Seán Gray says:

    Great advice Uncle Mike! It’s nice to have someone so honest and upfront around!

    Now excuse me as I gather my shattered assumptions of the floor, they’re making a terrible mess.

  5. […] Fantasy Faction writes on How The Other Half Successfully Self-Publish. […]

  6. Michael McClung says:

    Thanks all, for your positive responses. I was raised by wolves, so courtesy is a foreign language, but thanks. I hope this helped someone just starting out.

  7. Nancy Foster says:

    This article made me chuckle. I can see why this author won the first SPFBO, he definitely has a knack for attracting your attention and gets to the point with just a few words.

    I am iffy about swearing, but perhaps it’s because I like to write for the YA crowd. Oddly enough I like Matt Shaw novels that are full of decadence for older audiences. Love the pep tough love talk for authors and cheers.

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