Saturday, October 14, 2017

Thinking Through Self-Publishing by Elaine L. Orr

In honor of Sisters in Crime Self Publishing Day, we asked successful self-published author Elaine Orr to guest for us today. Please welcome her back to WWK and read my interview with her here
                                                                                                                                                                 E. B. Davis

Like many authors, I took writing courses and wrote for decades – plays, stories, bad novels. Eventually I worked in tandem on the first two books of the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series.

Sometimes age has advantages. At fifty-nine, I figured by the time I found an agent, s/he found a publisher, and the book was issued – I could be dead. Much more fun to be alive when a book came out.

I got to the publishing point as the price of Kindles went below $300, which meant ebooks were affordable. Amazon changed my financial future. But it took a lot of work on my part.

Since I still had a busy day job, it took a couple of months to figure out ebook formatting and how to load books to the various retailers. Had Mark Coker not written the Smashwords Guide, it would have taken a lot longer. Sometimes other authors comment that they don’t want to spend time formatting. I get that. I spend less than two hours per book and like controlling the process.

Take time to consider whether you want to self-publish or work with an agent to find a publisher. Talk to authors who have done it both ways, read blogs. Self-publishing is a lot of work, and if you go the traditional publisher route (I’ve done both) you want to be sure yours works as hard as you do to reach readers.

I’m certainly not wise, but I’ve learned a few things.

  • Join or create a critique group that meets often. Mine (the Write Stuff in Decatur, Illinois) is tough but friendly. You can’t slack off when you are committed to a chapter per week.

  • Read books and articles about writing. Ideas may come readily, but structure is important in genre fiction. No need to obey every rule, but if you are going to deviate from reader expectations, do it consciously.

  • You only get one chance to make a first impression. If you can’t afford at least a proofreader and cover designer, hold a rummage sale.

  • Think of income as a bunch of baskets, sometimes small. I keep a couple of books in Amazon’s KDP Select, but most are with all retailers (including in large print and audio). I’ve heard authors say things like, “Kobo is not worth my time.” Really? You want to sell a bunch of books in the UK and Canada, use Kobo. Sometime in the next year or two, I expect the combined income of the other retailers to equal my Amazon income.

  • If you do put books on many platforms, use an aggregator (such as Smashwords, Draft2Digital). They load to all sites except Amazon and Google Play. You make a little less per book, but it saves time and frustration. You also get your ebooks placed with Overdrive, which sells to libraries.

  • Set yourself up as a publisher – at least in terms of purchasing ISBNs from Bowker. (You’ll need another rummage sale.)

  • If you use on-demand printers, use your own ISBN. You can (as a publisher) apply for a Library of Congress number for your paperback. Libraries beyond your local one may not order your book without one. I’m preparing second editions of my early books solely to include LOC numbers.

  • Beyond thinking about your audience, don’t plan marketing until your book is done and revised. At that point, pay for some marketing if you can, and pick two or three avenues to work on regularly. I strongly advise a blog – time-consuming, but you can publicize blog posts. You will put yourself in front of readers without constantly saying “buy my book.” (I could write ten pages on marketing. Don’t get me started.)

Finally, I write for me, I publish to make money. Don’t expect to make a lot quickly, and don’t give up. You’ll meet a lot of fabulous authors along the way.

Elaine L. Orr writes three mystery series, other genres, and plays. She belonged to writers’ groups for decades before she began publishing, and is still sustained by them, especially Sisters in Crime. She also lectures on writing and publishing and has online classes on the Teachable platform. One (Thinking Through Self-Publishing) is free, via a link on her web page.


  1. Elaine -- It's always nice to hear from those who have been successful and paved the way for those of us who follow.

    And, we wouldn't mind those 10 pages on marketing ...

    ~ Jim

  2. A very helpful overview. Not easy, but do-able.

  3. Jim Jackson - happy to share one of the lectures in another class I teach. Send me your email. I'm at And do share your ideas, too!

  4. Elaine, I've been self-publishing my books through Create Space since 2012, and I'm very happy I went that route Like you I got tired of trying to find an agent and/or a publisher. When several Guppies went that route, I asked them for their advice and also printed out a guideline from Create Space. I working on my tenth book in my series now, and have quite a following. Maybe not as much as those who have publishers who promote them, but enough to get two checks or more from Amazon for the print books and another two for the e-books.
    And a local book store sells my books and I sell them out of my car at a reduced rate, too.

  5. Thank yo for our thoughtful, informative comments on the. It's a dilemma many of us face, and hearing about your experiences is very helpful.

  6. Yikes! Sorry for all the typos. I'm on a borrowed device, and when I tried to go back & correct the typos in this, it posted instead!

    (Probably an indication that I lack the editing and computer skills to self-publish)

  7. Gloria Alden
    Sounds as if we have had similar paths. I do one series with a small publisher. While It's been a good experience, I miss having the control. I think I'm going to stick with doing it myself. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  8. KM Rockwood -- you are not alone.. Typos aren't an indication not to self--publish. We all make them. Calls for a good proofreader. :)
    Elaine Orr

  9. Warren -- Thanks. I read your profile. You're an inspiration!

  10. Elaine, your post is quite inspiring. Today at the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, I attended a number of mystery writer panels, and I heard a lot about self-publishing. Like you, I'm wondering if I'll live long enough to see my manuscript published by a traditional publisher and have seriously begun to consider self-publishing. Thanks for your tips.

  11. Grace -- I firmly believe that if you have the gumption to finish a book you'll be able to self-publish it. It never hurts to try the traditional publisher route. I work with one for my second series. I do like the control, though, so I think I won't try for other books. Of course, I never say never... Jealous of your conference. I used to live in Montgomery County. Went to Maryland for the Kensington Festival of the Book in April.

  12. Excellent advice, Elaine! I really appreciate how willing you are to share your secrets of success (which have a lot to do with hard work and fingers on the keyboard). You are a real inspiration for me to keep going with my own book.

  13. Lee -- Many thanks. Don't stop!!