Getting Started in Online Publishing

No longer do you have to be published in print to get anywhere in the world of writing. The Internet has created huge audiences for writers who would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Here’s how you, too, can get started in online publishing.

Online publishing—whew! It’s a vast subject, to be sure. With the number of web sites now in the billions, it’s almost too much to even think about for a new writer, or one who may have experience in the field but has hesitated to make the transition from print. I’ve been online since 1995, and watched a lot of e-zines and e-publishers grow from casual, hastily-constructed websites to successful businesses worth emulating. I’ve seen some go live with big ambitions and fail. Many, of course, publish online just for the love of writing and the need to have their work seen and known by other people.

Even though self-publishing in the print world is also growing, there is the added element of making sure the books are available when and where readers are looking for them. Dealing with distributors, I’m hearing, can be complex, and they can make or break a writer’s career if that link in the chain from publisher to reader fails. Then there are the bookstore owners who must be convinced the book is worth carrying on their shelves. When a writer is working with limited funding and other resources, sometimes print is not the answer for those who wish to reach as wide an audience as possible. After all, even a small print publishing house has the advantage of more than one person, and a writer working alone has only his or her single set of 24 hour days!

There was a time when everything online was free, and most of the e-books and self-published material were of less than stellar quality. This is no longer the case. I’m now seeing e-books that equal or exceed the quality of the material available at your local bookstore, and some approaching the prices of hard-copy books. PDAs and other reading devices are becoming more and more popular, and some people now don’t read any other way. There ’s also the availability issue. Books and other materials online are there when and where you want them to be—there’s no extra element of distributor and bookstore to add to the writer’s concerns.

There are a lot of ways to be published online. You can contribute articles to a website, you can write book-length material and sell or give away e-books, you can have your own e-zine or help with somebody else’s. You could join or start a blog. Those are but a few of the ways to get your work out there. The possibilities are limited only by your own imagination, which is part of the beauty of online publishing. It does help to have a nodding acquaintance with the technology, but you don’t need much experience beyond knowing how to send an e-mail, and of course, some writing ability.

Because e-publishing is a fluid medium, you can also change content without a major investment of time or money. An e-published writer has the ability to correct an error of fact (or judgment!) which is virtually unheard-of in the print world.

It’s a good idea to decide first what your goals are, and what you can reasonably do on your own. Self-publishing online is, of course, much less expensive, but not entirely free. Outside of the time invested in writing, there is also the time spent in networking and promotion, some of which must be done offline to ensure you’ve covered all your bases. A writer who contributes the occasional article to a ‘zine will expend far less time and money than one who has written, promotes, and sells a book. Book authors, whether self-published or not, often work full time or more to get their book to the reading public.

Maybe you don’t want to go through the time and effort involved in creating your own website, or make your own e-books, but still would like to be published in some way. This can actually be easier than you might think, if you use your creativity. Think beyond writer’s e-zines and websites, and let your personal interests guide you here. Whatever you may be interested in aside from writing is sure to have a website or a thousand devoted to that topic, and many of them are looking for content from knowledgeable individuals such as yourself. If it’s well-written and the website visitors like it, then this can lead to writing for bigger websites, or a permanent gig with one of them. This is not how you’ll make your first million, however, since many websites are run on a volunteer basis. This is still experience, and a publishing credit, so you can list it as such when going after a paying job, if that’s your aim. You may develop your own following, and that’s worthwhile just for the gratification factor.

Eventually, though, you’ll most likely want a website of your own, whether it’s a small site to establish your identity and share your varied interests, or a full-fledged e-zine on your favorite subject.

This is a great time to go online with your work. Everything is now much easier for the non-geek to understand and do. There are web hosts that allow you to construct a website using your own knowledge of working with text and graphics on a drag-and-drop basis, and knowledge of HTML or other coding is no longer necessary. Of course, a website takes time, and you still need to learn the basics of how to put one together for the best presentation. You could also pay someone to create a website for you, if that makes sense in your personal strategy.

Then, once the website is up and running comes the task of promotion. Even if someone else builds your website, this is still a separate task. A little bit of knowledge and online savvy can save you a lot of money and effort here. Many search engines now charge for inclusion, and even if you were listed, the casual surfer is not going to know to search for “Jane Doe’s Deathless Prose.” You’re far better off joining some online discussion groups, and promoting your website with your sig line on your e-mail, and trading links with other sites in the same kind of field. Those ideas are just for starters—website promo can become its own distinct occupation, over and above the writing and the construction of the website itself. How much time and energy you want to devote to that is up to you. It all goes back to your purpose for having the website in the first place. If your main intention is to have your work in an easily-accessible place so it can be read by your friends and family, you needn’t spend much time on promo at all. If you’re using the website to promote books you’ve written, and/or to keep your readers updated on new releases or speaking engagements, then it’s important to work hard on promo, and keep refining and learning.

All of your work in promoting can be for nothing if the content isn’t good. One of the biggest mistakes newbie writers with first books or start-up websites make is throwing a bunch of content in there without getting input from anyone. Writers tend to be fairly smart people, but we also can tend to a bit of arrogance. If you want people to read and enjoy your work, make sure it’s the best work you can produce. Find someone else to read it first, and get an honest appraisal if it’s worth reading or not. Thoroughly check for typos and grammar mistakes, and don’t rely on spell check. Sometimes spell check will allow a wrong word to get through that changes the meaning of the piece, or you may have so many typos it detracts from the reading. While it’s true that online works, as in website content and articles tend to be written in a more relaxed style, and pieces are shorter, this means that mistakes stand out more. It pays to be vigilant in checking your work.

Once you’ve gone live with your material, keep in mind it’s now available for the world to see. You are presenting yourself through your written work. I often say, “you never know who’s watching.” Wouldn’t you want the world to perceive you the way you intend? Take the extra time to make sure the work is right, and readable.

One more issue needs to be covered here, and that’s the issue of copyright. Many people still believe that online works are free for the taking. This is simply not true. Websites and commercial authors are now a lot less hesitant to take legal action on pirated material than they once were. If you see a piece somewhere you’d like to reproduce for your readers, get permission from the author first. Unless the work appears on a well-known, commercial website, say, the New York Times, chances are the author will be more than happy to comply. He or she may well be a volunteer or have something to promote. Make sure you give them full credit, or better yet, a link back to their website. Developing good relationships with other webmasters and online writers can only do you good.

This kind of positive networking is what the Internet is all about. Over time I’ve met people and made contacts I never would have met in any other way. I’ve got a long list of experts I can call on with research questions for my own work, and a steady stream of ideas for future projects, not to mention some just plain good friends. In return, they also feel free to ask me about my areas of expertise. Being part of the online writer’s community has been both an education and a joy.

Trudy W. Schuett is an Associate Editor at Writer Online magazine

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