The Ins & Outs of Self-Publishing

The Writers’ Union of Canada voted in 2014 to make self-published writers eligible for union membership, a move that generated controversy at the time. 

Self-published writers have not passed through the gatekeepers of the publishing industry, opponents argued, nor have they have undergone the rigorous editing process with an experienced professional.

But the fact is that many self-published writers have turned out commercially successful books loved by millions of readers. How does one go about self-publishing? What challenges does the self-published writer face? This week I decided to ask local writer Gail Robertson, the first in our spotlights on local artists and writers.

Robertson is the self-published author of five books—two science fiction novels, a middle grade novel, and a book of poetry. Her latest, Immortal Wound, is a metaphysical novel, which “weaves wisdom recorded in parahypnotic levels into the tale of a ‘loose cannon’ and the love he can’t live without but will not accept.”

Robertson is a Master Hypnotist and Hypnotherapist, and this expertise has often become part of her writing process. It is in her own hypnotic states, for example, that she records dialogue and feeds it into her books.

She is also what is known as an organic writer.

“It’s when you’re writing,” Robertson explained, “and you haven’t a clue what you’re about to write. It just flows. It’s like dictation. Where it’s coming from, I don’t know. When I start a book, I don’t know what it’s called, who the characters are, or what genre it is, what the storyline is, anything. It just flows. And then I spend the next months editing the daylights out of it.”

Self-publishing a book often means working without an editor.

 “Unlike a lot of writers, I love editing,” Robertson said. “But I run into a problem. I get caught up in the book again, and I forget I’m supposed to be editing.”

Indeed, an editor plays a valuable role in focusing the writer’s attention on those areas of the work that need development. Often a writer’s intention doesn’t make it onto the page, and it’s the editor’s role to question and coax and collaborate with the writer until the story reaches its full potential.

Robertson admitted that she doesn’t always have the required objectivity to edit her own work and thinks it would be excellent to have that insight into her writing.

“One thing I do pride myself in is that I accept critiquing quite well, and I take it to heart and say, okay how can I improve it then? Because you don’t learn anything from ‘Gee, that’s great.’ If somebody says, ‘I liked it, but—’ It’s the ‘buts’ that help you improve. So I look for buts.”

Nowadays, with the staff cuts at many publishing houses and the growth of self-publishing, there are many excellent editors for self-publishing writers to hire, but they don’t come cheap. Robertson chooses to work solo, and her decision to self-publish was strategic.

“Self-publishing was for me a way to beta test my writing. If you just send somebody a Word document,” Robertson said, “it doesn’t feel professional. If they’re holding a book and they get caught up in the story, and they get to the end of the story, they’ll come up to you in the grocery store—some of them—and say, ‘Hey, I loved your book, when is the sequel coming out?’”

There are many self-publishing options out there. Robertson’s preference has been Lulu.com. The more you do yourself, the lower the costs, and Robertson has learned to do it all from designing her covers to formatting the text. The design stage costs nothing. Each book costs the wholesale price plus tax and shipping.

Robertson explained that Lulu.com’s global reach option is a valuable route to getting her books in the hands of readers through digital distribution. “It goes on Irwin books, iBooks, because you usually make an ebook version as well, which is also free,” she said, “and it goes on Amazon.”

Despite her good experience with self-publishing, Robertson is always on the lookout for a traditional publisher or literary agent, or both. A traditional publisher’s ability to market a book is one of the biggest reasons.

“If we’re spending all our time marketing, we’re not writing,” Robertson explained. “Writers don’t necessarily have the skill set for promoting books or the connections. You stay extremely local unless you promote, and most of us don’t know how.”

It can take years of rejections before a writer breaks into traditional publishing. In light of this, Robertson’s use of self-publishing as a beta test is savvy. This way, as she admitted, she could check her own doubts before investing time and energy and emotion into pursuing traditional publishing.

Robertson had put it to herself this way: “Am I kidding myself, am I going to be the only one who enjoys my writing?”

Judging the responses from local readers, Robertson is not kidding herself.

If you want to purchase any of Gail’s books, they can be found at PORTALS, the art space located in the Island Savings Centre, or through her Lulu page, easily accessible through www.gailprobertson.com.

First published in the Duncan Journal in 2015