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Self-Publishing Perspectives: A Successful Author, Agent, and Publisher Discuss the Revolution in Progress

An independent author must understand that [a] book must be professional. It must read and look professional. Think of how many books are on Amazon. Now imagine your book has a run-of-the-mill cover design. That book is pretty much dead in the water. You must go above and beyond to ensure that your book is not only high quality, but that it will stand out among all the self-published as well as traditionally published books. In other words, make the best first impression you can.

Nash: Entirely agreed. When I get questions by writers starting out, I don’t really have answers; I have only more questions. What do you want to get out of it? What do you love doing? Can your friends help? And so forth.

I’m actually going to niggle a little at a comment you made earlier, Jennifer: “It’s all about the money, honey.” Now, to the extent that means you’re in charge of everything, that you’re the boss, I agree completely. But the brute reality is that this is a ludicrous way to make money. No creative endeavor—acting, rock star, dancer, etcetera—is a plausible way to make money. Sure, many who do it dream of fame and riches, and a microscopic percentage get [that], and a slightly bigger but nevertheless microscopic percentage get a little of it, but people like to dream, even as they’re doing it, because they love being in the game. Just like teenagers playing basketball, or football, or baseball dream of the professional leagues, regardless of the percentages, which are equally terrible. So if you’re doing it for the money, you’re on a pathway to bitterness. Do it because you love it, you love the process, you love the engagement, you love getting better at what you do. Now, of course, if you do get lucky, don’t be dumb about money, and at this point all the admonitions Kristin and Jennifer can give should take precedence. “It’s all about the money, honey.” But really it’s about love, and so when I first meet a writer asking the sorts of questions we’re discussing here, I want to find out more about that love and how the processes—not just the outcomes, but the processes—for getting your book out there in the world can support you in that love and passion.

Ciotta: Richard, I couldn’t agree more. I meant, “It’s all about the money, honey” in a different context. That’s what the industry is driven by: money. Traditional publishing houses and agencies want sales, sales, and more sales. As for the self-publishing mind-set, I mean that you need to have business savvy nowadays. From the get-go, the self-published author must think about the business side. No, I didn’t mean it’s a good way to make money! That’s a ludicrous idea. To self-publish the right way, you’ll put tons of money into it. You won’t see a return on your investment for quite a while!

Nelson: As an agent, I’ve been incredibly blessed over the years with the success of my authors. For almost all of them, it’s actually been a very plausible way to make money. Most of my clients write full time and don’t have to supplement with a day job. But I also understand that this is not the norm; still, it does put me in the mind-set of writing as a valuable source of income. Even more so now, with my self-published authors’ ability to produce and distribute their work directly through the distribution channels and to keep a bigger percentage of the royalties, thus making the possibility greater of actually earning a living through writing.

But in the end, no writer begins this journey with the sole intent to make money. It begins with a story and the passion to share it. And what I’m discovering is that writers, even those who are self-publishing, have a very specific preference to not tackle this journey alone. Hence, the importance of a team.

Authors need beta readers they trust or a developmental editor to tell them what sucks in a manuscript and what doesn’t. I don’t know a single writer who can create perfect art in the first draft. Wouldn’t that be a gift? Then of course there is everything Jennifer has already mentioned—the copyeditor, the proofer, the professional cover designer, an excellent tech person to convert e-files. Every writer will eventually need a team or won’t have any time to write!

So I would tell a writer who is starting out to start forming that team early. In the beginning, it might be as simple as making connections to other self-published writers. Later it might be as complicated as having an agent, a dedicated contact at Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble, and yes, even a traditional publisher. Be prepared for trial and error and for the possibility that not every connection will be worth keeping. And then be ready for that team to expand when needed.

Let’s talk about gatekeepers, which is really sort of an ugly term. I think what’s exciting about self-publishing for a lot of people is that it does away with this idea that only certain lucky writers get anointed by the seemingly self-elected purveyors of literary taste who are deciding first what gets published and then what gets promoted at the bookstore. With self-publishing, anyone with some money, know-how, and fire in the heart can produce a book and get it in front of people’s eyes. But how is the self-published author supposed to compete for the attention of readers if most of those readers are unconsciously relying on a whole line of people—agents, editors, booksellers—to narrow down the choices, albeit based on a subjective standard of quality, for them?

Nash: Well, look, we all have filters in our day-to-day lives: human filters, automatic filters, filters on our laptops, filters at the playground (“avoid eye contact with that parent,” your friend tells you). We all need filters. The exact sequence of filters represented by the funnel that is the book-supply infrastructure, though? Not really. That was never a system designed to help consumers anyway—it was a system based on the dictates of manufacturing and distributing widgets. It’s standard Industrial Revolution stuff, initially vertically integrated, shifting to a more outsourced mode in the late twentieth century. Parallel to that, in the newspaper and magazine business, there was culture and entertainment writing of various levels of seriousness that have been grafted onto a platform paid for largely by classifieds and department-store and car-dealership advertising. The bookish side of it had a culturally and socially (though not economically) symbiotic relationship. And everybody treated that as the cultural establishment, because why not? It was what was there. But it wasn’t remotely purpose-built to be a system for adjudicating culture. It just became that because it’s all we had.

Reader Comments

  • Janelle Fila says...

    Fantastic article on the pros and cons of self-publishing.  I have always been leery of self-publishing  because it is such a lonely endeavor with no outside support.  But I love the idea of becoming a hybrid author, with an agent who understands and even encourages self-publishing!  Who says the publishing industry isn't getting more progressive?  Janelle www.janellefila.com

  • writercassandra says...

    Self-publishing is the way to go today. I started back in 2008 with a property preservation book -- and that initial title made it possible for me to quit my day job. 

    Self-publishing opened up a whole new way of life for me:   live about half the year in the Caribbean (other in Atlanta, writing still), with the sea just in the distance, working on romance novellas -- and non-fiction works when I need a creative break. I pay my bills and fill my belly with income from the books I've written. I'm certainly not rich, but the point is you can earn a decent living self-publishing your own books -- and have the freedom to do what you want with your time when you're not writing. And contrary to what many believe, it does not have to cost you an arm and a leg  to publish and promote your work.  Personally, I spend less than $20 bucks producing each of my books. To upload to BN and Amazon is free; you can create your own ebook covers using simple programs like Paint; you can buy photos for less than a few dollars on internet photo sites; and you can promote your books yourself with article marketing and social media. 

    Mind you, it's not easy (re: self-publishing is a REAL business), but it's soooo possible. 

    The key, I've found, personally, to be a successful self-publisher, is production/volume and marketing.  You have to produce -- and you have to produce A LOT -- and you have to market, period.  (You also need a thick skin because you'll have naysayers in both ears.)

    Good Lord, go for it! With outlets like Amazon and BN, it's such a viable option for the writer ready to get their stories in the hands of actual readers -- vs. just in the hands of agencies and pub houses that can turn your work down for a myriad of reasons that, ironically, may not have anything to do with your story or your writing.

    Go ahead; write, publish, promote! Good luck to you. :)

    http://www.CassandraBlack.com

  • DarrellLindsey says...

    Self-publishing is the easy way out for some people. But there is no substitute for good writing and good marketing. Those who have had self-published book success could probably teach some of the major publishers a thing or two!

    Darrell Lindsey
    Author of Edge Of The Pond ( Popcorn Press, 2012)

  • shadowwalker says...

    Too many people will point to the outliers as "proof" that self-publishing is a grand success for all, when the truth is that most self-publishers will barely sell anything. Some because they just can't write, others because they don't know how to effectively market or publicize, others because their books are poorly produced (again, through lack of knowledge). The lack of print editions, or audiobooks, is another drawback. Many have been told it won't cost them a dime, when in fact, to produce a professional level book, most writers haven't a clue, and that means laying out some cash for editing and cover design, at the very least.

    I wouldn't actively discourage a writer from self-publishing, but I would strongly encourage them to educate themselves about publishing first, and that includes trade publishing. Look at the biases of the people pushing one into SP. And as always, remember that if it sounds too good to be true...

  • ewent says...

    Actually, the famous author Stephen King self-published. In my view self-publishing can be a first step in the career of a writer. When you consider that the publishing industry has only 4 major publishers who much prefer scandal bios these days or celebrity names, it's the publishing industry that's done itself in. Too many editors in these publishing houses act like maniacal, autocratic powermongers. When the attitude is "I have your writing career in the palm of my hand," self-publishing begins to look far more appealing than dealing with editors of the major publishing companies. 

    Also, there's the bizarre conundrum for writers who are unagented. No agent? No solicitation of your work to publishers. No published work? No agent wants an unpublished author. What kind of nonsense is that if not overzealous commercialism of the literary world. When money is the only reason to write, sorry...it's not good enough for me. I write my novels because they interest others. Those who are not interested? So be it. Writers are like starving artists...we know going in there's a dearth of competition out there. Those who can stand it, do. Those who can't don't make it. 

  • eyeswideopen says...

    The only thing true about this article by these 3 interviewees is when they say self-publishing is here to stay. Other than that, there's quite a bit of hypocrisy and misinformation being thrown about.

    If self-publishers are bringing in millions, it's news to the millions who have self-published. It's actually the self-publishing industry that has grown up around self-publishers making the millions: Cover artists, fly-by-night editors, author services charging exhorbitant rates, only to have these books languish, known only to friends and family, never to be seen by strangers. Sockpuppet reviews. Dismal Amazon ratings. Haranguing of friends and family on Facebook to buy/review whether they've read the book or not "just drop me a 5".

    I'll continue to trust the gatekeepers to continue publishing authors I like, books I like, and I'll depend on word of mouth from trusted friends, none of who have ever recommended a self-published book. 

    Now, why not do an interview about the real truth of self-publishing? About how only a very few sell even in the hundreds. Look at the dismal Amazon ratings of self-published books, pick a few and then interview THEM. That's where you'll find your millions. 

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Self-Publishing Perspectives: A Successful Author, Agent, and Publisher Discuss the Revolution in Progress (November/December 2013)
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