With changes in the publishing industry brought about by advances in technology, which have altered every aspect of the business, as well as new financial realities that have tested every link in the distribution chain between writer and reader, self-publishing has soared as a viable and, in many cases, preferable option for independent-minded authors.
Still, there’s a lot to sort out about this evolving topic of self-publishing. In order to put it into proper context, I recently arranged a conversation with three successful individuals with different yet interconnected perspectives. Jennifer Ciotta is the author of the novel I, Putin, which she self-published in 2012, as well as the No Bulls**t Guide to Self-Publishing. Richard Nash is an independent publishing entrepreneur—vice president of community and content for Small Demons, founder of Cursor, and publisher of Red Lemonade who, from 2001 to 2009, ran the iconic indie Soft Skull Press. Kristin Nelson is the founder of Nelson Literary Agency in Denver, where she specializes in representing literary crossover novels, literary commercial novels, upmarket women’s fiction, romance, and all subgenres of young adult fiction. I invited them to discuss the creative opportunities, challenges, and rewards that self-publishing offers writers of all stripes and to give us a glimpse of what the future may hold.
Tell us a bit about your experience with self-publishing. Each of you brings such a unique perspective; each of you approaches the subject from a different direction.
Ciotta: In 2008 I was completing a master’s in creative writing and Russian studies at New York University. Though the academic and fiction-writing experience was fine, I felt I didn’t know the business of publishing a novel as well as I should. So I attended the New York Pitch Conference [part of the Algonkian Writers Conference] and pitched to editors and agents. I received manuscript requests from well-known editors, agents, and one film producer...but after studying the business for a couple of years, I decided self-publishing was the right choice for me. I self-published because I felt if I’m going to succeed or fail, I’m going to do it on my own. I wanted complete creative and business control. Also, after studying the industry, it was apparent that new authors who are traditionally published pay for and do their own marketing and publicity anyway. As for an agent, I felt and still feel that if the time comes to have one, I’ll need to have leverage to attract the right agent. I’m still working on building that leverage.
Nash: I suppose my relationship with self-publishing begins with taking over a company whose genesis was self-publishing. Soft Skull Press began in a Kinko’s in 1992 because Sander Hicks had written a novel in a New School creative writing class that had been rejected by everyone he sent it to. But Kinko’s had Power Macs with Aldus PageMaker and Apple LaserWriters, big Xerox machines, tape binding machines, and paper cutters, and he and his girlfriend worked the graveyard shift without a manager. Over [the course of] a month they laid out, printed, and bound four hundred copies and started selling them at gigs (Sander was a punk musician) and Lower East Side coffee shops on consignment. They liked the experience. Had friends who’d also written stuff. They published those. Then they made friends with better-known folks, like John S. Hall of King Missile and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. Did their books. And so a self-publisher seamlessly became a publisher. Follow many publishers’ histories back far enough and you may very well find a self-publisher. In other words, these terms are not nearly as binary as we might think, and this complexity is also not of a recent vintage.
Nelson: As a literary agent based out of Denver, not necessarily the hub of publishing, I was looking for a competitive edge, so I started blogging in 2006 and only took queries and submissions electronically. My colleagues thought I was crazy, but I knew that my only chance to land good clients was to get there first. It worked. In 2007 I started reading a wildly entertaining fellow blogger who read and reviewed print-on-demand self-published titles. She would write reviews about the best ones because even then, good stuff was happening in this realm.
That’s when it began for me. I would read an interesting review that she’d post and then I would e-mail that author to see if I could read the novel. I even took on a few authors that way. Then, in early 2011, it was very apparent that a publishing shift was really about to unfold in terms of authors having direct access to distribution venues such as Barnesandnoble.com, Apple, and Amazon. We represent authors in romance, and the tectonic shift happened there first so it was easy to be at the forefront. I knew that as an agency we needed to evolve to stay relevant in these fast-changing times. Nelson Literary may be the first agency to hire a full-time software engineer as an employee; this happened back in May 2011. That summer we launched NLA Digital Liaison Platform to support self-publishing efforts of our current authors. When we launched, it was mainly for reverted backlist titles. Now it’s both backlist and frontlist titles. Just to be clear, though, we are not a publisher. Our authors maintain full control and [retain] all rights. For a commission, we are simply a liaison/facilitator providing a supportive environment and tech expertise for clients looking to self-publish.
A highly regarded agent recently remarked that the odds are stacked heavily against self-published authors—that only three or four titles really “make a splash” each year. What’s your response to this? Tell me about managing expectations in an industry that still measures success in terms of profit-and-loss margins.
Nelson: In 2007 I would have agreed. However, if this comment was made within the last two years, then I fear this agent may have his head buried in the sand. I represent Hugh Howey and Jasinda Wilder—and just recently I signed three-million-copies-plus-seller Barbara Freethy. Hugh and Jasinda are both authors who had not been previously traditionally published. They rose to fame solely through their digital self-publishing efforts during the past two years, and both have sold over a million e-books.