On Saturday September 5th, at the Borderlines Book Festival in Carlisle, I’ll be running my first workshop on self-publishing. I’m delighted that they asked me to do something at this event. I went last year and did a very short session on writing local fiction. It was too short to do any justice to such a complex topic, but I enjoyed it, and the rest of the festival was really good too, so I was glad to be part of it.

This time I have a little longer, and the topic is quite specific, or so I thought when I said I would do it. But the more I think about self-publishing, the more complicated and multi-dimensional it seems to become. I’m trying to create some kind of sequence of sub-topics as the basic structure of what I offer, but it’s looking more like a flow chart, with binary choices to be made a various points. The people who present themselves, assuming that some will sign up for it, will all be very different in their motivation, confidence, prior knowledge and aspirations, and I’m struggling to create something that will have a chance of meeting such disparate needs.

The first stage in the flow chart has to be the existence of a ‘product’ – novel, short-story, poem, whatever it may be, – that will actually be worth publishing. Without a well written and crafted ‘thing’ any kind of publishing is premature. We’ll have to address the issue of quality, and the importance of professional editing, although I know right from the off that some people want to self-publish with as little financial outlay as they can possibly manage. How do you persuade someone that getting their well-meaning but amateur friend to edit their work is not a good start?

Given a quality ‘product’, the next step is to consider whether self-publishing is the best choice, rather than putting more energy into finding an agent and thence to ‘traditional’ publication, with most of the decisions taken out of the author’s hands. We will need to look at the pros and cons of self-publishing in some detail, to make sure that anyone choosing that road understands what they’re doing, and why.

If self-publishing is the best option, then another host of variable and choices present themselves, which is where the diversity of the people in the group will probably be most manifest. Some want to publish just for family and friends, others only as ebook, others again – myself included – prefer the paperback as well as ebook option, aware of the costs that can be incurred, including storage if you don’t want to be falling over boxes of books in your home. Keeping precious books in a damp garage isn’t a great idea, and mice love paper.

Whichever self-publishing choice the author makes, books don’t sell themselves. Unless you’re extremely fortunate and well-connected, reviews will be hard to come by, and the mainstream booksellers may not want to put an unknown writer’s self-published stuff on their shelves. So how do you get people to buy your book, once you’ve run through those who know your name and want to support you? At this stage, under the heading of ‘promotion and marketing’, off we go into the development of the ‘author platform’, the very idea of which will make some wince and others lose heart. If you’re starting from scratch, the work involved in developing and connecting the various components of a ‘platform’ – website, blog, Facebook and Twitter presence, and much more – looks daunting, and it takes time.

And after all that effort on the laptop, the digital presence will need to be supplemented with personal appearances, anywhere and everywhere. I sold more books last year at meetings, events and so on than by any other means. and really enjoyed doing so, but I know what a nightmare they might be to others with less experience and practice.

Does self-publishing pay for itself, or even generate some real money? It can, certainly, but that takes a great deal of work and time that could – or should? – be spent on the real business of the writer – writing!

See what I mean? It’s not easy. My challenge is to plan three hours or so of pertinent activity and discussion that will raise these issues and give the participants a chance to work on a plan to take away. If you read this far and fancy joining us, hit the website link at the top of this post and follow the stages to book your place. There’ll be other great sessions to sign up for too, if last year’s successful Borderlines event is anything to go by. I heard Rory Stewart there last year, and Alan Johnson, both talking very impressively about their new ‘conventionally’ published books. For those of us with less clout, the road to publication is more difficult but offers far more control and more income per book too. If self-publication appeals to you, come and work with us on September 5th and we’ll learn together.