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

Kevin Larimer
From the November/December 2013 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

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.