I had the misfortune to finish writing a novel in 2008. That was the year the economy collapsed, taking a good chunk of the publishing industry down with it. In the glow of completing the work I felt ready to share with the world, I followed advice from seasoned novelists of my acquaintance, and also from some of the many tomes available on the subject of selling a book.
Never mind that the techniques involved in marketing and selling work are completely alien to most fiction writers, who tend to spend their time creating works of art. I threw myself into the task of learning to promote myself with high hopes.
And I found that I could not sell my work through traditional channels. The agents and editors I solicited felt they couldn't do anything with it in "the current market."
Self-publishing had been discussed with disdain during my university writing education - it was known as vanity publishing back then. I wouldn't have considered it without the encouragement of my daughter and technically adept son-in-law. With his help, I shrugged off my apparently outdated thinking, and in early 2011 I uploaded my novel as an e-book on Amazon's Kindle Direct, offering it at the defiantly low price of $2.99. Finally, and in a most unexpected way, Travel for Agoraphobics was published.
Self-publishing is a flourishing industry. According to Publishers Weekly, 750,000 self- or micro-published titles appeared in 2009. CreateSpace, a self-publishing outlet owned by Amazon, published 22,000 that year, and the number grew to over 39,000 titles in 2010. Author Solutions, an umbrella firm that includes the self-publishing operations iUniverse, AuthorHouse and Xlibris, told The New York Times last year that the company was on target to publish 26,000 new books.
It should come as no surprise, then, that there are growing numbers of self-published authors here in Madison. They look to self-publishing companies for help with editing, distribution, design, marketing and other services.
Kurt Haberl, a former high school English teacher and recent Madison transplant, is the author of Hibernal: A Winter's Tale, a suspense novel based on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Haberl knew he wanted to publish it himself, since he'd tried, without luck, the route of agent and publisher queries when he wrote his first book, the young-adult novel The Newman Assault. Eventually The Newman Assault ended up at a subsidy publisher, meaning Haberl paid a portion of the publishing expenses. He never saw a return on that investment, aside from the 250 copies he managed to sell on his own.
Haberl selected a self-publishing package at CreateSpace that provided book design, marketing and 50 print-on-demand copies. Hibernal became available in December from Amazon, in both print and digital formats.
For his substantial financial investment - "around $5,000" - Haberl is happy with the experience. "I felt like I had hired them, and they were working for me," he says.
He's been especially happy with CreateSpace's marketing effort, which includes a video about the book that appears on his Amazon page as well as press releases sent to hundreds of contacts. He says he will break even if 1,000 copies are sold. If he can sell 2,000, "I'll have enough to finance my next novel." He has sold 80 books on Amazon so far, and about 10% of them are e-books.
By day, Madison's Ren Patterson is a creative director at SVA, the professional services company, and he also works as a filmmaker. He had mainly written plays and screenplays before turning to novels. His debut novel, Raining Up, is a literary thriller in which an advertising drone and aspiring photojournalist moves to Ireland's west coast, where he becomes entangled in new love - as well as the escape of a feared IRA leader from prison.
"I never expected writing to be my métier," Patterson says. Perhaps this is why didn't feel the need to try the traditional route to publication.
True, he attended a "pitch slam" at Book Expo America in New York, where a roomful of editors listen to writers give three-minute descriptions of their projects. Though three editors did ask to see the full manuscript, he decided to publish the book himself.
"I talked to people who'd gone to bricks-and-mortar publishers that had no marketing budget unless they thought your book was bestseller material," Patterson says. He did not think his manuscript - long at over 600 pages, and hard to place in a specific genre - would be treated as a potential bestseller. Rather than worry that the book would languish without proper promotion, Patterson took control of the publishing process himself.
He turned to the self-publishing outfit BookCrafters for help. The editing turned out to be extensive, and the company handled digital formatting for Kindle, Nook and iBooks. Lightning Source, a print-on-demand publisher, put the book into printable form for a fee of $125. The fee is waived if authors order 50 copies at $5 per book. Raining Up was published last month.
In the recent history of publishing, it's a story that has become too familiar. Madison writer Bridget Birdsall had two young-adult novels in the early stages of development at Farrar, Straus and Giroux when she learned that her editor there had been fired. It quickly became clear that the editor who took over was not seriously interested in the manuscripts. Soon after, another YA publisher expressed interest. It looked as if both books would proceed to publication - when that house went broke.
Determined to have her work published before her 50th birthday, Birdsall decided to take matters into her own hands with yet another manuscript, Ordinary Angels, the story of a young girl who comes to terms with her baby brother's death and her own mysterious connection to him. "It was a very personal book," she says, explaining why she chose it when she began to experiment with self-publishing.
Like most of the authors I talked to, Birdsall concluded that if she was going to be expected to take charge of her own marketing and create her own platform - as most agents now advise - she might as well have control over the whole process. She wanted the book to look professional, and she paid local graphic design firm Flying Pig Productions $1,500 to do the design. She then hired CreateSpace for another $600 to publish it on Amazon, where it became available in January 2011. Birdsall also ordered print copies to sell on consignment through A Room of One's Own bookstore.
To date she has sold 42 copies of the book on Amazon, about half in digital format. She has sold another 29 through A Room of One's Own, and 250 copies on her own through readings and appearances that she arranged (She was on the program of the 2011 Wisconsin Book Festival.)
Her biggest triumph came from sending a copy of the book to Kathi Apelt, the former chair of her MFA program. Apelt liked the book so much that she connected Birdsall with literary agent Jonathan Lyons. Lyons, who has gone over all three of Birdsall's completed manuscripts and suggested some revisions, believes he can negotiate a publishing deal for her in the near future.
Self-publishing has become relatively easy, with detailed instructions and all the help money can buy. The ease of the process varies greatly from site to site, though, as do the fees and packages.
But with thousands of books published this way every year, it falls substantially to authors to figure out how to draw attention to their books. They can manipulate search terms and search engines, or use more traditional marketing strategies: advertising, selling books through local and regional bookstores on consignment, scheduling book readings and appearances. These tasks are expensive and time-consuming.
On the other hand, as Ren Patterson points out, most publishing houses have pulled back dramatically on their marketing and promotion budgets. Many authors of traditionally published books end up spending a great deal of their time, and some of their own money, arranging book tours and appearances.
Which raises the question: How can self-published authors measure their success? Kevin Weiss, CEO of Author Solutions, reports that on average, books from the firm's self-publishing outlets usually sell around 150 copies. That may not seem like a lot, but numbers like that are in keeping with self-publishing companies' strategy. Whereas traditional publishers sell many thousands of copies of a few books, self-publishing companies make money by publishing a few copies of thousands of books.
True, some authors have sold hundreds of thousands of copies of their self-published books through Internet sales, ultimately winning bricks-and-mortar contracts as the presumptive reward for their success. There are established authors, too, who now publish their work themselves rather than relinquish control of their books and their profits. Last year, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling announced that she would self-publish the Potter series e-books.
None of the writers I talked to expect to make a lot of money. Enough to cover their costs, was the most common answer I got.
Most writers, like me, just want their books to be read, and thanks to readily available tools and services, publishing a book is now something anyone can do. Success or failure, of course, still rests on authors' ability to manipulate these resources with skill and finesse. And most of them wouldn't have it any other way.