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

Kevin Larimer

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, 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.


so much misinformation

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. 


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,'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. 

Too many people will point to

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...

Darrell Lindsey 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)

Self-publishing ... Go ahead; write, publish, promote!

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. :)

Fantastic article on the pros

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