Brenna Ehrlich

Here's What I Learned By Self-Publishing My YA Novel

Number one lesson: It's totally possible.

When I ripped open the package containing my debut YA novel, "Placid Girl," I cried. Like a child who has fallen down. Like someone at a wedding who has had too many glasses of wine. Like everyone watching "The Fault In Our Stars." I'm told this is a pretty common reaction -- writing is like birth, but with less physical pain! -- but holding my book in hands for the first time was, for me, the culmination of years of struggle and effort. And, you know, good stuff, too.

You see, I didn't follow the usual path that authors do when they decide to bring a book into the world: finding an agent, finding a publisher, selling the rights to some big film company (at least not yet -- call me, dudes). I decided, instead, to self-publish my book -- and start my own press and small record label in the process... because, whatever, crushing anxiety, you and I are basically married anyway.

And guess what, dudes? You can do all those things, too. I'm not going to say it's the easy route, but it is one replete with all those (good) tears mentioned above.

Why I Decided To Basically Be My Own Agent

I'm not going to lie. Once I finished "Placid Girl" I kind of expected to get an agent and a book deal and all the success right away. For those who don't know the deal, after you write a book, you can't really go to a big publishing house yourself and score a contract. Unless maybe you write some super popular fanfic or something, you have to get an agent.

A lot of agents were totally interested in "Placid Girl" right off the bat! This was very exciting and I was sure I would have a deal within months. I did not have a deal within months. Several people asked to read my book, but none of them quite took to it. None of them were like, "This is terrible. I hate this. You shouldn't be allowed to sign receipts with those vile, talentless fingers," but it certainly felt like this was the case.

I was about ready to put "Placid Girl" in the morgue in my mind filled with dead dreams when suddenly my mind protested and was all like: "Um, I like my book. I like my book a lot. I think other people will like my book. Why, exactly, do I need an email from someone else to prove that my book is worth seeing the light of day?"

So, I basically acted as my own agent -- I said to myself, "Cool, good, let's do this," and myself said, "Thanks for believing in me," and then we attempted to shake hands but stopped with that nonsense real fast because my cat was looking at me weird.

Starting My Own Press

The really good thing about starting your own press is that all you have to do to accomplish this is say, "Hey, I have my own press." At least at the level my press is at right now. When your press gets a little bigger -- and you start working with other people -- there are licenses and whatnot you undoubtedly have to get, but when you're starting out you basically just need a name. I called my project All Ages Press, after all ages DIY shows, because I wanted to release content that teens and non-teens alike would enjoy.

When I launched All Ages Press in October 2014, I didn't immediately put out my book -- we'll get to that later -- instead I put out a 'zine called "Smaller Town" with my musician/author friends. If you're just starting out in publishing/writing/making words, I highly suggest putting out a 'zine -- which is short for "fanzine" and was something people did before the Internet existed, basically. They're totally in style right now, though, in the same way that cassette tapes and record players and tattoo chokers are.

I found making my zine to be great practice when it came to working with designers (a.k.a. a good friend of mine, Barbara Geoghegan) on layout and a cover -- and it's a pretty cheap process. You can basically make all your 'zines at Kinkos, or even on your home printer (ask your parents first, as you're likely to use up all their printer ink/toner/whatever it is that printers have in them).

For those of you looking to self-publish who have roughly $0, a 'zine is a great way to kick it all off.

Making Words Work

And for those of you with a little more money saved up -- or the ability and tenacity to launch a Kickstarter -- read on. If you think writing a book is hard... well, you are right. When you're done doing that, definitely have a little party or eat a cupcake or pet a cat or something because CONGRATS. You did it. You created a WORLD. You are basically God.

Two minutes after finishing, however, you will realize that you have a lot of other stuff to do. Like... editing said book? It was personally very important to me to have a very professional book sans any typos or huge structural problems. I think I accomplished this (despite what any Goodreads reviewers might say) by having several different layers of readers/editors:

1). Beta Readers: You will need to put together a group of these people before you start writing because they're basically going to be reading your book throughout the whole writing process -- and you'll be reading theirs, if you're not a garbage person. It's symbiotic, dudes, and it's great to have someone to have a mental breakdown with during the writing process!

2). Editors: Did you know that you can hire people to edit your book? You can and I did. I hired Kat Howard, who is amazing, to work on mine. Yes, this costs money, but it's worth it to have a professional tell you that you suck how to make your book better.

3). Friends And Family: Don't make your friends and family read early versions of your book -- because you presumably love them and are not paying them money to love you. It's great, however, to have them read more polished versions as casual readers who will be able to give you their thoughts as consumers.

4). Copyeditors: YOU NEED A COPYEDITOR. Guys, there are totally going to be typos in your book. TONS OF TYPOS. And you will miss a lot of them, because at a certain point you will no longer be able to read your book without screaming and crying. I had a friend and former grad school classmate, Heather Gross, copyedit mine and she found so many errors I started to seriously doubt my own intelligence.

Not everyone will have access to professional editors to help them whip their books into shape -- I know this. In that case, band together with your similarly literary friends and help each other out. Writing is a solitary thing -- but actually getting a book out requires some level of human interaction. Sorry, indoor kids.

Making A Book Look Like A Book

They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover -- and they're wrong. You need a good cover. Sorry. Anything else looks lazy. Don't be discouraged, though. We all have a kickass artist friend we can turn to for help -- in my case, I have my childhood BFF Ashley Halsey, who created the cover and interior design for "Placid Girl." Ask your artist friend to help you out (and compensate them in some way, of course) and, BONUS, you'll help them promote their work, too.

And when it comes to actually making a book A BOOK -- I turned to Amazon's CreateSpace service, which is so easy it feels wrong. Basically, you upload all your files -- the book interior, the cover, etc -- and Amazon sends you a finished a book. You don't have to pay a cent -- or have a fancy business license (although you do need tax information and all that). When your friends/family/rabid fans go to buy your book, Amazon will print one and send it along free of charge to you -- and send you a cut of the profits. You can also create a Kindle version of your book if you're not feeling analog.

NOTE: You will need to buy ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) -- one for each version of your book, digital and hardcopy. So definitely set aside some funds for that. I used a site called Bowker, which made it really easy. Also, the name makes me laugh.

Getting People To Read Your Book

If a book is written in a forest and no one reads it -- does it make a sound? Or something. In short: It's hard to make people do things like read and spend money and carry heavy pieces of paper and cardboard around with them. So, how do you get people to pay attention to your book?

Naturally, I have kind of an edge, as I work for MTV, but I still have to fight for attention in the YA space. A few years ago, when I was writing "Placid Girl," I decided to get ahead of the game, however, and launched a blog called Teenage Writeland. On it, I interviewed YA authors that I liked and created playlists of my favorite songs for my book. This was a great way to break into the space, because authors love it when you want to talk to them -- and they also love Twitter (hint hint).

If you have the ability to create a blog/use Twitter, you can totally follow my lead. Want to get into the YA world? Start writing about YA. Start tweeting about YA. Get into conversations with YA authors. Not to go all Nike of you, but, just do it. It's totally possible now that we no longer need to rely on the printing press to communicate.

Fake it 'til you make it, dudes -- and maybe someday you, too, will be weeping all over your very own published novel.

Oh, also you can pre-order "Placid Girl" now if you want. No pressure, though.