Self-publishing Mistakes You Should Never Make

July 2, 2012

This week I was on vacation in the D.C. area, and happened upon a book signing by someone who had some very prime real estate. By which I mean, the book was about fighter pilots, and he was standing in front of the gift shop at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. I was interested in the book, until I took a closer look and discovered that the summary on the dust jacket was riddled with typos – I caught three or four in about fifteen seconds. A minute or two later (after the author was done talking to me), I said, “I’ll think about it,” and I walked away.
In many instances, a pro will be able to tell you almost instantly if a book was self-published. Usually, a non-pro will be able to tell, too, although they might not be able to language it quite as clearly. But if they could, here are some of the ways, editorially, to make sure your book doesn’t get dismissed off-hand:
  • Proofreading – When you’re self-publishing your book, don’t hire a proofreader, hire seven. For the last book I edited, I performed 3 substantive edits and then hired a copy-editor, a pre-layout proofreader, 3 post-layout proofreaders, and 4 post-proofreading volunteer proofreaders. And they all caught different things. So spending the money on proofreading is absolutely worth it.
  • Ellipsis – An ellipsis is three dots in a row: “…” So many self-published books will have their ellipses look like this: “I stood there … and waited … .” And it’s actually dead wrong. This error is supported by the fact that if you type in three dots in Microsoft Word, it will transform into a single ellipsis character. So although you typed this: “…” Microsoft Word is giving you this: “…”. You may not be able to tell the difference, but when you start playing with font types and spacing in between words (as in the example above), it starts to matter. The correct way to do it, according to Chicago style (which is used for most books, excluding academic publications), is to insert spaces between the periods, with an extra period before or after if it’s marking the end of a sentence: “This is right . . . as is this . . . . These are the right ways to do it. . . .” The distinction between the second and third examples (i.e., whether you include a space after the last letter in the sentence) is subtle, but basically it’s determined by whether the sentence is trailing off before the pause happens, or whether the sentence ends normally, and is then followed by a hesitation. It’s important to note that spacing it like this will likely result in occasions where a line breaks in the middle of your ellipsis. You correct this by forcing the line break either before or after the ellipsis. Which is why you should hire a professional to do your interior layout.
  • Em-dashes, en-dashes, and hyphens – In my first book, a parenthetical phrase was offset by a space, an en-dash, and then another space, like this: “When we first started south – the direction of the mountain – the slope was quite shallow.” But this is incorrect. First, for the uninitiated, a few definitions:Hyphen: –
    En-dash: –
    Em-dash: —See the difference? An en-dash is the width of an “n”, an em-dash the width of an “m,” which is why they’re called those things. Now, here’s how they’re used: A hyphen joins two words into a compound word: The well-made play, a low-budget movie, etc. An en-dash joins two numbers: He won by a score of 41–38, this school is for 12–16 year olds, etc. An em-dash (without spaces!) offsets a parenthetical: “When we first started south—the direction of the mountain—the slope was quite shallow.”
  • Spacing after periods – One space after a period. Not two. If you type with two spaces after a period, get out of the habit now, because it’s wrong. “But why?!” You ask. “When I learned how to type, it was always two spaces after a period!” Well, the only reason you say that is because you (a) learned to type on a typewriter, or (b) learned to type from someone else who learned on a typewriter. Here’s your history lesson: For hundreds of years, typography has dictated one space after a period. But when the typewriter was invented, since it technologically has to move the same distance every time you strike a key, they had to create a special font where all letters were the same width. This led to the invention of Courier and other monotype fonts. Suddenly, an “m” and an “n” were the same width, as was an “i” and a period. This made it harder to distinguish between sentences, so people started adding in extra spaces, making it easier to read.But even thenm at the height of typewriter usage, when someone’s typewritten manuscript was turned into a bound book, the typesetter used a proportional font (where the letters are all different widths), and would remove the extra space after the period, displaying everything the way they had done for centuries (and the way that, quite frankly, looks better).

These are the big ones that I see on a regular basis. Don’t let these sorts of things be the reason someone just “thinks about” buying it. Correct them now, and have them know they’re going to buy it.


Playing a Big Game

January 1, 2011

This time last year I discussed successes & failures from 2009, and began to create goals for 2010. Met some of them, didn’t meet others. As I begin to create a strategic plan for 2011, it’s time to complete on my plan from 2010, to see what worked and what didn’t, to acknowledge what I’ve accomplished and create a new one for next year.

For 2010:

  • What I said I’d do: “I’d like to continue my existence/time management structures. The goal is to have my time measured every day, without gaps. Realistically, I will get upset with myself some day for not doing something I was supposed to do, will make myself wrong, and won’t do it. But I will be back on track within a week, because I have enough people holding me to account for doing it. If I can go the entire year having missed, 30 days, I get a bronze star, 20 days a silver star, and 10 days a gold star.”
    What I did: I actually went quite a bit further with this, and began to train myself in Mission Control, a well known time-management system. As soon as I implemented it I got super-productive, so then I took on more to do, and immediately got confronted again by how much I had to do. Ratfarts. Anyway, I am now pretty reliable for tracking billable hours and scheduling my time.
  • What I said I’d do: “Finish the novel I’m working on with my dad, a short story/novella I started right before my dad’s and my scheduled start date, and Charisma.”
    What I did: I did finish that short story, although we ended up quitting on the novel pretty quickly because it wasn’t very good. And I still haven’t finished Charisma – Barely worked on it last year. I have, however, been working on some other projects, and I just finished the bible and first three episodes for a Web series, which I’m going to begin shopping around.
  • What I said I’d do: “Exceed this year’s 64 blog posts and 407 4th-quarter visits, without being one of those annoying people who posts what color shoes they’re wearing every day.”
    What I did: 55 blog posts, which was a little bit less but still respectable. But my big win, I blasted through my 4th quarter visits goal with over 1,000 4th-quarter visits.
  • What I said I’d do: Attend, in some capacity, the 2010 Writer’s League of Texas Agent’s Conference, the Austin Film Festival, San Diego Comic-Con, two comic book conventions closer to home, and two more authors/publishers conferences/conventions.
    What I did: Attended WLT Agent’s Conference and AFF, but not the others. AFF in particular proved to be extremely valuable for me this year.
  • What I said I’d do: Continue reading every day and log every book I finish.
    What I did: Don’t think I read every day, but I did log the books I finished, ending the year at 21. Perhaps not a lot for a professional writer, but I’m continuing to develop the habit.
  • What I said I’d do: Come up with a marketing plan for Ups & Downs that gets the two stacks of books out of my office as a result of sales.
    What I did: Um. No.

Other accomplishments not reflected in the above:

  • Closed my first ghostwriting contract, developed my website in such a way that it’s proactively driving customers to me, started leading workshops on how to write a nonfiction book, and performed stand-up comedy–doing very well at it.

Goals for 2011

  • 55 blog posts and  average 500 visits a month for the 4th quarter.
  • Finish three screenplays, one in time to submit to AFF, Nicholl, and several other screenplay competitions.
  • Attend San Diego Comic-Con, Austin Film Festival, WLT Agents’ Conference, the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, and the WLT Summer Writing Retreat, as time allows (some of those my be on conflicting dates).
  • Start acting again. And get paid for it. God I miss acting. And getting paid for it.
  • Edit 12 books.
  • Close sales on two more ghost writing projects.
  • I want to produce $25,000 in revenue in the month of January. This will require, rather than just surviving at the game of being a professional writer, growing a pair of balls and creating something completely new. It’ll mean finding clients who  really recognize what good content is worth, and who recognize that I can provide it.

Here’s to 2011.

10.21 – A Texan in Hollywood

December 31, 2010

Several weeks ago I attended the Writers League of Texas Christmas Party. As part of the party, there was a grab bag – for $5, you could reach in and grab a present, which would be a book, or perhaps a signed book, or perhaps, if you were really lucky, a really awesome book with a $25 gift certificate to some local business.

I got just a book. And given the books that WLT has to give away (It’s not uncommon for them to get a box of books dumped in their office with a note saying “I’ve got 500 of these in my office, please, just take it!”), I was fully expecting it to be a pretty lame one.

But I was very pleasantly surprised.

The book I unwrapped was Call Me Lucky: A Texan in Hollywood by Robert Hinkle, a West Texas cowboy who wound up as a stuntman, dialect coach, actor, writer, director, and producer. In 1955, when George Stevens asked him, “Do you think you could teach Rock Hudson to talk like you do?” he became the dialect coach for Hudson, Jimmy Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and a young Dennis Hopper for the movie Giant, and then did the same for Paul Newman and the cast of Hud as the Academy Award-winning film’s cultural consultant. He made friends with the likes of Elvis and LBJ, and helped with Evel Knievel’s rise to fame. He doubled for John Wayne, Charlton Heston, and Robert Mitchum.

Of course, an interesting life/career doesn’t necessarily mean that the book will be good. But this one was. You really hear the West Texan voice coming through in the writing. Each chapter was introduced with a quote that would show up sometime later: for example, at the top of Chapter One, “Mr. Stevens, to tell you the truth, I’ve been going to a speech coach to try to lose this damn accent.” Each chapter featuring its own main storyline, not worrying so much about a chronological telling as much as telling the interesting anecdotes in interesting ways.

As I’m ghostwriting someone else’s memoir right now, this helped me along some. It’s let me get away from the rigid way I’ve been thinking about structuring this book, and maybe taking a completely different tack–having the memoir be about the author’s journey in re-telling his life story, rather than just being about the story itself.

So four stars to Robert Hinkle and his ghostwriter/literary agent Mike Farris, who’ve produced a really solid specimen in the memoir genre. Well done.

3 Tips for Finding Work as a Ghostwriter

December 9, 2010

Just saw this article from Publishers Weekly, dated February of this year, with three tips for finding work as a ghostwriter. Two of these I’d never even considered.


The Jack of All Trades Is a Master of Trading

November 6, 2010

They say that a jack of all trades is a master of none.

But I don’t think that’s true. I think that a jack of all trades becomes a master of trading.

Over the last 5 years, I’ve been calling myself a professional writer and editor. In that time, I’ve gotten written or edited an animated sitcom, my book, other people’s books or book chapters, a few white papers and technical manuals, hundreds of magazine articles, a bunch of Websites, an annual report, academic papers, some 130 blog posts, about 10 minutes worth of a stand-up comedy routine, a four-hour writing workshop, and many other things I’m sure I’ve forgotten.

If any one person comes to me and asks, “How much experience do you have doing x,” the chances are good that the actual, hard and fast answer comes down to, “Not a lot.” Which may occur as a disadvantage. The jack of all trades is the master of none. But in truth, my experience goes way beyond that answer. Because really, what I’ve become a master in, is the ability to do anything. What I’ve mastered is the process for figuring out how to deliver an amazing writing project. What I’ve mastered is the ability to be a chameleon to your needs, fitting any and every tone, because a travel memoir sounds different than an article on how to upgrade your landscape equipment.

The jack of all trades is the master of trading.

How to Get Started Writing Your Book

August 3, 2010

Got this question recently:

I am a 24yr old single mother to two wonderful boys. For the past two years I have advocated, fund raised and raised awareness for prematurity. Both of my children were born very early and have had a long journey to having a stabilized life. I have a passion for getting the boys’ story out to the public, recently I have found myself really wanting to write a book more than usual. There are various books published about being a premature parent and the journeys the preemies go on. I thought my book would differentiate based on the fact that I was a single mother during both births, and I am not a medical professional, so unlike most of the books out there I was a regular girl in a very unknown world. Yet I have made it to a place where I know I am able to help others, and I feel as though my story will be able to relate to others.

My question to you is: I have no idea where to even begin to do this project. Do I write a book, do I sell my idea, do I take classes? I am lost. Please help!! I read you do ghostwriting. What are the costs for your services? If I need to save up I will do whatever it takes to accomplish this. I want this to be a life changing project not only for my family but most importantly for the future parents of preemies. Again please help!

I generally think that there’s a very specific situation that makes it a good idea to hire a ghost writer, and from the sounds of it, this person is not in that situation, so I most definitely would not recommend hiring a ghost writer. You’re talking about spending 5 figures, and unless you’ve set up a business talking to people about this subject for a couple thousand dollars a pop, there’s a 99% chance you won’t come even close to recouping your money.

If this person wants to get the story out, then there are a couple of things I recommend.

One, read a lot of books – not just on the subject of preemies, but things that are on different subjects but similar in tone/style/genre to what you want your book to be. Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother by Jana Wolff comes to mind. I’ve never read it, but from what this person described, it sounds like one she should check out.

Two, read some books on writing, take some classes, attend conferences (the Writers League of Texas Agents’ Conference, the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, the Texas Book Festival in the fall, and I’m sure there are plenty of others around the state). Personally, I wouldn’t spend a lot of money on classes that are only a couple of hours long. I think you get far more by, for example, spending $300 on the WLT Summer Writing Retreat, which gives you a whole weekend of classes and time to actually work on your book. Also, you will ALWAYS get more out of volunteering for a conference/festival than you will attending it. You get to sit in on the sessions for free and you get excuses to talk to important people about something other than your book, which sets you apart from the crowd of attendees.

Three, if finding the time to actually sit down and write the thing is a challenge, create structures for doing that. NaNoWriMo is a good one for some people, but far more people quit partway through than finish their book that way. Most people are better off putting something at stake, that they stand to lose if they don’t fulfill on it. In the past few months I’ve started promoting myself as a writing coach, with the idea being that the person pays me a set monthly fee, and I talk to them every day to make sure they’re writing and then I read and edit whatever they write, so they’re learning as they go along. So far I’ve had a couple of people say yes to this but none have started yet (they’ve all got stuff going on during the summer and are putting it off – which I’m starting to realize is something I need to push people out of).

I’m teaching classes on “Kick-Starting Your Nonfiction Book.” It does wonders to focus ideas and move you in the right direction, and if you sign up for my “every whenever-I-get-to-it newsletter“, you can find out when the next one is. Also, check out this article, which discusses what we cover in the workshop:

Thanks to Melissa Overy for the question, and if you’re interested in supporting her cause, please visit

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