May 15, 2011

My Reasons for Self-publishing (Again)

Back in 1999, after a decade of starts and stops, I finished my first novel, Uncommon Sense. To say I was na├»ve about what came next, about the way the publishing industry worked, would be a vast, echoing understatement. I began searching for information, and was appalled when I learned how long the process took. Months waiting on agent query responses, partial responses, full responses. Assuming you snag an agent, you wait several more months on editor submissions. Assuming the book is eventually accepted, you then wait up to two years for the publisher to release it. Yikes! I wasn’t getting any younger. How long was I willing to languish in pre-publication purgatory before I saw the fruits (recognition, if not outright acclaim) of my labor?

My search yielded an alternative: self-publishing. Because I was clueless to any repercussions, the concept appealed to me. I had no one to advise me against it. As a working mom, I didn’t have time to attend writer’s group meetings, and back then, if online groups existed, I didn’t know about them. The information I’d gotten on traditional publishing was highly discouraging. The odds alone gave me serious pause; there are millions of writers out there competing for a select few spots on the bookstore shelves. Getting published is akin to winning multiple lotteries—first you win an agent, then you win a publisher, then you win fans…or not.

So I hope it’s not too hard for you to understand how I was swayed by the promises of my first self-publisher, iUniverse. They had a (paid) program where one of their reviewers would read my manuscript and if it was good enough, it would get a ‘special’ designation as an Editor’s Choice novel. When Uncommon Sense passed muster, I was over the moon. They like me! They really like me! The reviewer had wonderful things to say about the novel.

It felt like a tremendous victory, but I realize now the thing that made me happiest was that someone other than my family and friends read it and approved. I gratefully bought a ticket and boarded the iUniverse train, despite the fact that I had to accept whatever lame cover their amateurish artists threw together. In no time my baby was in print – with a $12.95 cover price, a cost much higher than the average paperback. Marketing, as a basic concept, never occurred to me.

It was before ebooks hit the scene, so of course sales were less than dismal. I can only fall back on the excuse that I really do suffer from a pervasive naivete. This explains why I chose to self-publish my next two novels, The Dragon Diary and Dessert Island. I simply hadn’t learned my lesson. The truth is that I was still caught in the gravity pull of planet Instant Gratification. The gratification in my case had more to do with putting my manuscripts in motion, launching them as it were, rather than jumping through agent submission hoops before inevitably abandoning my books to languish on my hard drive. Certainly I wasn’t gratified by my royalties!

My rude awakening occurred at the first writer’s conference I attended. At the Southern California Writer’s Conference in San Diego in the early 2000’s, I went to lectures and workshops and generally enjoyed myself…until a small-press editor got behind the pulpit and smashed my confidence to smithereens. She had palpable contempt for those who self-published and even went so far as to say that anyone who did would ruin their chances of getting accepted by a “real” publisher because their debut status would be forever gone.

I slunk away, ashamed of myself and my three books. It didn’t take long for me to come up with a plan: I would start over using my married name and hope that no one discovered what I had done.

Thank goodness the stigma of self-publishing is fading! Well, okay, the field is divided on the subject: some sneer and call it "vanity publishing," and others think it's a smart move--authors taking control of their own work. But there will always be poorly written self-published books out there dragging everyone else down. Readers who encounter one of the stinkers will likely avoid taking a chance on another self-published book. Agents and editors won’t even glance at one unless it has proven its worth through impressive sales. And some have proven themselves, although the odds show it’s just another lottery we have to win. Neither quality of writing nor extensive marketing efforts guarantee sales. There is, however, a lot of advice out there now for those considering self-publishing. Indie activists like April Hamilton have helped level the playing field.

Fast-forward to the present. I had signed with an agent in May of 2009 and she’d shopped my latest manuscript unsuccessfully. I’d won the agent lottery, but that was to be the extent of my winning streak. She rejected my next manuscript as being too similar to the one she couldn’t sell and I dropped to the bottom of her client priority list. I wrote for the market after that; a young adult dystopian with a unique premise that I was sure would wow her. After two months, she still hadn’t read past the first five chapters. I was persona non grata with my own agent! Ouch. Reality just wouldn’t stop smacking me in the face. Two years gone, poof! The lure of instant gratification reared its tempting head. I was still not getting any younger; nor any healthier to be honest. The specter of failure began to haunt me. It slowly dawned on me that the lingering shame I felt for having self-published was preventing me from going after not just the small measure of success I might get from doing it again, but any measure of success.

My friend Peter (of MyWritingSpot fame) had been sending me a series of ever-more-insistent emails encouraging me to self-publish again. What follows is his latest attempt, which I initially rejected out of hand because I had yet to sever ties with my agent:

“Hey there,

It's Sunday, so it's time to nag you about self-publishing some more. I have been following this phenomenon for the last two years, and I really think that you are in a place to take full advantage of it. Why? A few reasons:

1. You write books that (are) in genres that are currently selling extremely well in this market (romance, teen paranormal/fantasy). This woman writes teen paranormal/fantasy and is currently selling 100K books A MONTH. A MONTH. At $2.99 a pop, she takes home $2.10 per book. Do the math. http://www.novelr.com/2011/02/27/rich-indie-writer

Oh yeah - and she was never published "traditionally." If a traditional publisher approached her with a book deal today, there is no way that they could offer as much as she's currently earning by publishing herself [insert: this author, Amanda Hocking, recently did accept a book deal from St. Martin’s press].

2. You have multiple books already written and waiting to be sold. One of the keys to being a successful eBook author is to have multiple books available. Especially with your books, you're hitting different markets and can therefore cast a wider net. Once you've hooked a reader, they will want more, and you have several other books that they can purchase now.

3. Traditional publishing is dying, and is not as financially beneficial to the author (not by a long shot).

Gosh, I'm such a nag. I know, but I really feel strongly about this. I think that you should re-issue ALL of your already-published books and all your unpublished books and put them in several different eBookstores. Since I seem to like numbered lists, here's how you might go about doing it:

1. I think you need new covers for some of the books so that you can tie them to your brand. One of the keys to a successful eBook is a catchy cover. But that cover should also be somewhat consistent with your other books, so that the reader can immediately recognize it as one of YOUR books.

2. Reformat the books and get them into all the most popular eBook formats. ePub, mobi, pdf, etc, etc.

3. Put up a website to promote all the books. Tie a blog to the website and start capturing eyeballs.

4. Submit the books to all the major eBookstores - Kindle, B&N, Smashwords, etc.

5. Figure out where/how to promote your book. Send out review copies, get some reviews on GoodReads.com, etc.

6. Promote, grow your fanbase.

7. Make money doing what you love.

If any of the technical aspects of any of this are giving you pause, I'd be happy to help get your books out there. Just let me know.

OK - nagging done. For at least a week, that is. :)

Peter”

It wasn’t the technical aspects that gave me pause. This was in February, and I had just finished my YA dystopian and had high hopes my agent would love it. I was also under the delusion that the odds would somehow swing in my favor and I would eventually be traditionally published. I sent Peter a rather final-sounding reply that I didn’t have the strength or temerity to accomplish his list.

However, once I accepted the fact that my agent and I were not a good fit and requested she release me from our agreement, I wallowed in uncertainty. As much as I felt I didn’t have the confidence to self-publish again, I felt even more strongly that I could not re-subject myself to the traditional ringer. The thought of querying other agents and beginning the process all over again made me queasy.

Writers are compelled to write, even if hardly anyone reads our efforts. You might say we suffer from Einstein’s definition of insanity; we keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. So, at the end of this story I’m confronted by the same two choices I had to begin with, neither of which I am all that enthusiastic about! Damned if I do…

I’ve chosen to self-publish again, solely in ebook format through Smashwords and Kindle, beginning with my YA dystopian, Xenofreak Nation.

My honest assessment of my chance of success is that I have no idea if I will win this particular lottery this time around. I can’t help but think I’m due, but like my grandfather used to say, “Spit in one hand and wish in the other. Which hand has the most in it?”

And since I’m not quite the Pollyanna I used to be, I won’t be sitting around wishing and waiting. The word “marketing” is in my vocabulary now, and I even have a basic idea what it means in today’s world! I have Facebook friends and Twitter followers! Since I’m an artist as well as a writer, I have the skills to create cover art and book trailers. I also have some damned good books to hawk, even if I do say so myself.