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

Now we’re building new filters. New retail aggregators like Amazon. New media and communications systems like BuzzFeed, Gawker, HuffPo, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. And, as usual, of course, they’re not being built for books. Just like they weren’t built for books in the nineteenth and twentieth century, either. We’re just going to need to figure out how to use the tools capitalism inadvertently provides us for our own purposes. A key way in which that will happen is that we have the human talent from the previous system, slowly adjusting to the new tools.

An important thing to remember, though, is that the old system wasn’t built to filter for consumers. It was built to sell books. We didn’t do a very good job filtering to consumers. Why else did Whitman self-publish? Why did Melville almost vanish? Why did Paula Fox disappear and reappear? Why did we publish Jewel’s poetry? Serial liars and plagiarists? And so forth. Why, if we looked at the National Book Award finalists for the 1950s and 1960s, do we recognize so few names? It’s not, by the way, that publishers suck. It’s that we’re all just human. We can’t pick winners, never could. We just get lucky and try to justify it after the fact.

What does that mean for the individual author? Yes, it is relatively harder to get attention. But don’t complain—before now you’d never have had the opportunity to be seeking the attention.

Ciotta: The answer is, don’t compete with the traditionally published authors. As a self-published author in today’s industry, you can’t get reviews from certain major newspapers or magazines, you can’t get your book in many bookstores, and a lot of media outlets won’t put you on their TV or radio shows. That’s just a fact right now, though I have a feeling it will be changing.

That’s why it’s crucial to have a well-written, professional book and to be savvy about marketing and publicity. You will learn what doesn’t work for you in the first year. I had another self-published author say to me, “You won’t know how to sell your book in the first year.” She was absolutely right...with regard to fiction (nonfiction is always easier). If you don’t have a clear, defined target audience, it can be tough. So then who are your gatekeepers? With I, Putin, I was sure my target audience was men, forty and over, who have an interest in politics. Wrong!

Yes, I do get a few readers like this...but I’m learning in the year and a half my novel’s been out, soccer moms in the Midwest to hipsters in the city to young people in Egypt and the Philippines are reading it. How do I know? They write me and rate and review it on Goodreads. These are the new gatekeepers, who have all the power. In other words, readers, by word of mouth, are the people you want to embrace you and your book.

Nelson: In the publishing lexicon, especially for frustrated writers, “literary agent” might as well be synonymous with “gatekeeper,” and both are dirty words. But I didn’t become a literary agent to be a gatekeeper. I became one because I loved books. And I foolishly thought that if I liked a story, other people might too. I’ve never once taken on a client because I thought the manuscript, once published, would become a best-seller. Not once. I’m surprised every time the magic lightning strikes and a novel I represent becomes a best-seller.

This is perhaps not the best way to sell myself as an agent, but when I’m speaking at conferences, I always highlight the list of novels I passed on that went on to great success because I want it to be clear that I’m not the sole barometer of what readers will anoint as good or worthy of best-seller-dom. Besides, not every book in the library speaks to me, and most certainly not every novel that’s currently sitting on a best-seller list is one that I would pick up and read. There are definitely titles on the list that I’m astonished to see.

And it’s easy to get tunnel vision. As an agent, I see this all the time when a submission goes to editorial board—where acquisition happens by committee and folks want what’s hot or trending rather than what will be hot in the future—and the work gets shot down.

And that’s where the new filters come in. There is now a chance for readers themselves to be purveyors of literary taste and to influence what is popular. This is how the “genre” of New Adult came to be. I put “genre” in quotations because, honestly, New Adult is just Chick Lit from a decade ago but in new clothing, which encapsulates slightly younger protagonists and now has emphasis on a relationship being an important definition of self, as opposed to girlfriends and career.

Publishing has a tendency to ride a trend like Seabiscuit into the ground before declaring it dead and not touching it for years. That’s exactly what happened to Chick Lit. But those readers didn’t disappear. They just got tired of the formula stories that were being fed to them and stopped buying. Publishers in turn stopped pubbing them. Then those readers couldn’t find any stories because writers couldn’t sell those stories, even if they had an original twist.

Self-publishing and direct distribution gave those displaced and ignored writers an opportunity to sell a story they actually wanted to read but couldn’t find being published. It empowered readers to cast their own vote, via their spending dollars, about what they wanted to read. And now we are seeing an interesting reversal, where publishers are looking for writers to prove themselves via a self-publishing-sales track record first, after which a publisher might sign them.

Now to perambulate back to the original question: How is the self-published author supposed to compete for the attention of readers if most of those readers are relying on the old publishing model to filter the content? The same way it has always worked: word of mouth. Readers telling other readers what they loved and why.

That, and only that, is how best-sellers happen, whether they are self-published or traditionally published. How we wish we could bottle that for every title.

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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