Periodically I get letters from readers who have just finished writing a book, and they want advice on where to go next. I had one today and I ended up writing her a fairly long answer, so I figured I'd share it here. Published authors, if you have more to add, please feel free to chime in!
Hi Jessica - I think where you go next depends on your budget, your goals and your connections. The reality is that anyone can publish an ebook without spending a penny, but that doesn't necessarily mean the book will be any good. I would suggest that you make sure you've actually written a viable book before worrying about publishing. (FYI - a book isn't "viable" just because your mom says it's good or a friend, but because it's been read and evaluated by a professional developmental editor or by some extremely honest and educated friends who know the craft of writing and the genre you're publishing in. For what it's worth, my developmental editing is mostly done by friends and none of them are paid. I do read their work, however, and am often as personally invested in their book's success as my own.)
Once you have the book, you need to decide if you want to do traditional or independent publishing. I don't have words to tell you how bad I think it is to sign a contract with any small publisher at this point. The market realities are such that they're going under right and left, and many authors find themselves in a position where they don't control their own books and they aren't getting paid. It's an ugly clusterfuck and it doesn't matter if the publishers are good people or not -- all of them are getting squeezed by the retailers, because they don't have the leverage to fight that the bigger publishers have. If you do sign, make sure it's a short contract and that you have an exit strategy.
If you have existing connections or you're feeling lucky, you can try to go with a larger publisher through an agent. If you have good connections and can get the right buzz, there is a one in a million chance you'll somehow be the next "it" girl, your rights will be auctioned and you'll be drinking with EL James at conferences (okay, maybe drinking near her... I'm sure she'd be highly creeped out if someone just sat down next to her and assumed she was their friend because of sales numbers! Never assume at conferences, okay?)
Odds are far more likely you'll spend months to find an agent, and then more months to find a publisher only to be offered a very small advance. I don't think it's a good plan to go with a traditional publisher unless they're offering you a shitload of money or are willing to guarantee an extremely large marketing campaign as part of their contractual obligation. Don't assume that they're going to do much for you in terms of marketing, as the bulk of traditional authors I know have to do most of their own marketing. Having said that, if you want guaranteed cash and they're offering it, it's money in the bank. They're also the only ones who can put you in bookstores on a widespread basis, but even that really boils down to whether or not they decide to push your titles.
Going indie is what many people are doing these days, which means you have full control and you get to keep all your money. It's also more risk and more cash up front for production. The bare minimum is to pay for professional copy editing. Don't cheap out on that unless you have literally no other option (at which point I guess you can ask your mom to edit it and hope that your story is strong enough that readers will push through, because true copy editing is a whole lot more than just hunting for typos). Once upon a time readers were more likely to put up with poor editing because they were so desperate for new and interesting stories. They aren't as tolerant any more, because the market is super saturated.
Beyond editing, you need cover art (you can buy stock covers for about $75-$150 or have them custom designed for $500-$1000, which doesn't cover the cost of the photos, which can either be stock or exclusive. Stock photos can be as cheap as $25 while exclusive seem to range from $400-$750. A custom photo shoot will run you into the thousands). When you release the book, you'll need help getting the word out. You can hire a marketing company for that, or you can reach out to people on your own. With Reaper's Property, I managed to gain momentum because I had friends who were readers. They read my book, they told their friends and then it sort of blew up on its own. I got very lucky. Now I pay to do blog tours, which run about $400-$600. I know many authors who spend tens of thousands on marketing, but I've never had the budget for it so I can't tell you how effective it is (probably fairly effective, as they're making enough to invest tens of thousands in marketing!)
Anyway, that's the quick and dirty. It's hard to launch a book at this point, just because the market is very saturated. You'll be more likely to gain traction if you have some friends who like your work and will tell people about it (friends who are real readers who are active online and review books regularly, not just friends pretending to be real readers). I suppose if you're quite wealthy, you can probably even hire people in overseas computer sweatshops to write a thousand reviews for you, etc. I've heard of that but don't actually have any idea how one would go about doing it.
Hmmm.... what else... Kristy Bromberg wrote a great blog post the other day with some great information, as well as what not to do. Basically it boiled down to treating writing like a business, not being a douche, don't take yourself too seriously, and if you reach out to people, don't do it with a form letter. That kind of thing. You should go look it up. She's smart and everything she wrote rang very true for me.
Finally, remember that you aren't entitled to anything from readers, bloggers or anyone else. Your book is precious to you but it's just another book to everyone else. The sooner you realize that and thicken up your skin, the less likely you are to end up on the floor crying in a fetal ball. Oh, and take the time to get to know other authors and be supportive of them. They're by far and away your best source of information in the indie world...
Hope that's helpful and good luck :)
PS - One final thought. When your book finally comes out and you get some reviews, at least a few of them will probably be negative. Such is life--not everyone will love every book and that's totally valid. Some people may even be really mean and say something like, "This is literally the worst piece of shit I I've ever read," or "I wanted to cunt punch the author." I'd tell you that this won't hurt your soul, but it will. It'll be devastating. You WILL cry in a ball on the floor while fetal... But no matter how unfair a review is, or no matter what they say about you, personally ("I hear she fucks donkeys on the side for cash"), do NOT respond.
NEVER ENGAGE WITH SOMEONE NEGATIVE.
It accomplishes nothing and makes you look like a whiner. Not only that, it validates them by giving them attention, which is exactly what the true trolls are looking for. Just ignore them and move on, because the more success you have, the more people want to tear you down. Focus instead on the people who are building you up and supporting you, and sooner or later you'll find yourself laughing about the worst of the assholes at the conference bar with all the positive and smart writer friends you'll make as you grow and develop in your craft. The meaner some online troll is, the better your story will be. You may even get a free drink out of it, so it all works out in the end. I promise.
Do I have to buy a book to talk to an author at a signing?