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

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.