In fact, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was self-published in 1843. Dissatisfied with sales of his last book, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens refused a one-time payment for his book in favor of a percentage of the profits. He paid publishers Chapman and Hall to print the book on December 19, 1843, and the initial run of 6,000 books was sold out by Christmas Eve.
Other famous self-publishers include Walt Whitman, Charles Ives, Marcel Proust, Irma S. Rombauer, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and many more. Needless to say, self-publishing in the pre-digital 19th and 20th centuries was an expensive proposition. Consequently, those who managed to self-publish were wealthy enough to pursue that option.
Self-Publishing History: The “Best of Times”
Today, the internet has democratized many industries, including music and film industries. Musicians and film artists no longer require the extensive production capabilities, distribution channels, and financial resources of a major corporation. The average person now has access to an array of options for producing and distributing their work. Likewise, the options now available to authors would make Charles Dickens weep in his grave. The digital era has transformed how we publish and market the written word, and the historical obstacles have been swept aside.
Self-Publishing History: The “Worst of Times”
Now, however, a new challenge is emerging for authors — how to stand out in a sea of published works. In other words, now that the average man or woman can easily self-publish, there are a great many books on the market. According to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), self-publishing produced more books in 2012 than the entire traditional publishing industry did in 2010.
What You Can Do to Return to the “Best of Times?”
So how can a self-published author stand out from the rest? Here are three tips that will put you far ahead of the crowd:
- Write for Your Tribe. Before you start your book, consciously decide what your target audience looks like. In fact, this step is so important, you shouldn’t do it alone. Get a group of trusted friends together (or better yet, an experienced editor or fellow author) and discuss what you want to accomplish with your book and who you want to see turning those pages. Why is this important? Readers are fairly faithful people. If you write for a particular group (adventure-loving, middle-age women, for instance) you’ll not only be able to craft a better story, you’ll also find it easier to market to your audience. Your tribe will then reward you by buying your next book, and your next, etc.
- Don’t Skimp on Editing. Many self-published books are poorly edited. Readers who are not bothered by the occasional typographical or grammatical error may lose interest after crawling through the first few pages of a book that is too slowly paced, or one that has point-of-view problems. An experienced editor will help you correct these issues. Your brother-in-law with a master’s degree might be one of the smartest people you know, but he might not be your best choice for an editor.
- Get Productive Feedback. Many self-published authors have discovered the value of feedback from a cadre of supporters prior to publishing their books. However, most do not know how to do it productively. First, make sure your group of supporters includes several who fit the category of a “tribe” member. Second, give these manuscript readers specific assignments such as, “What part of the book needs more development?” or “What part of the book was unnecessary?” or “Did you identify with any characters and why?”
With a little guidance, effort, and practice, you can approach self-publishing as a professional. The market will recognize you as such, and who knows? Maybe you’ll be our generation’s Charles Dickens.
Copyright 2014, Charles J. Chamberlain