In the Blog
Solo Flight: Why self-publishing is empowering
Illustration: Beena Mistry
Late last year, my memoir about working on Broadway – aptly titled Front of House – made its debut. It is a hybrid of sorts: the electronic book was released by a traditional publisher; the print version was self-published. Both editions came out within a few weeks of each other and are linked on Amazon, Goodreads and my own website.
I originally had no intention of independently publishing any version of the book. When Front of House was edited and ready to face the world in late 2014, I researched publishers that dealt with Broadway-related topics, vetted them online to ensure they were legit and ethical, and made a list of the order in which I would approach them. I was lucky; Front of House was accepted and offered an eBook contract by the first publisher to which it was offered; a smaller house with a good reputation for releasing books about show business.
My original plan was to go forward with the eBook, try to gain traction/sales from that, and then approach an agent or another publisher for a print contract. However, once we got into production on the eBook – where I designed my own cover and edited my own manuscript – it dawned on me that I perhaps didn’t need to take that route. I was already doing almost all the work. I had a grasp of what needed to be done. Did I really need anyone else to publish the book for me?
I scrapped the idea of going after another traditional contract and set about designing and publishing the print edition myself. I’d already edited the manuscript for the eBook, but I went back to it and made sure that it was even tighter.
My budget for the book was less than $50, so I knew that I would be doing everything myself if I wanted it to see the light of day. I really wanted to use a particular piece of classic artwork but knew I’d never be able to afford the licensing, so I turned to Plan B. I researched free fonts and book layouts until I found one that worked for me. I signed up with a print-on-demand company – Amazon’s Createspace, in my case – purchased an ISBN and registered it to my own imprint, got a P.O. Box, modified the cover I’d designed for the eBook, bought a domain name and got to work. I researched library call numbers and how to put together a Cataloguing-in-Publication block. Amazon could get me a Library of Congress Control Number for a three-figure-fee; I researched and discovered I could get it for free directly from the LoC by doing the (electronic) paperwork myself. It took about a half hour, in total. When I decided that the book needed a trailer, I put one together on Windows Movie Maker – a free program – with royalty-free music I’d sourced online and footage shot in my kitchen.
Could it have been better? I did the best I could with the resources I had. Did it still work out? Sort of. Earlier this year, the book won a runner-up prize – a Red Ribbon – from the Wishing Shelf Awards in the UK, with compliments paid to the story and writing. It’s being carried at a few local bookstores. Someone actually gave it a great rating at Goodreads, which made me smile all day.
However, between the time the book was completed and the time it was released I fell ill, and I have not been able to market it the way I’ve wished. I’m not happy with the cover and have received some good con-crit from the WSA about it, so I will be changing it. The book’s not selling well, and that’s probably due to both the subject matter (the exciting adventures of a blue-collar worker…) and the fact that I’ve just not been able to advertise it as I should. I’m buoyed by the knowledge that many books don’t take off immediately, though, and I’m still trying to get it out there.
Having said that, would I do another independently published book? Yes. In a hot second. In fact, while I will continue to write for traditionally published anthologies, magazines and journals (hopefully!), I really can’t see myself ever deciding to take that route for my own books again.
Having a traditional publisher’s mark on your book’s spine – or eBook title page – gives it some extra cachet. It lets the audience know that someone else read, vetted and approved your book. Unfortunately, independently published books still have a bad rep in some circles because they lack that oversight. Elitists in the publishing world look down on them, many publications won’t review them, and they cannot be submitted for consideration for many literary awards. Similarly, getting a self-published book into a library or a chain bookstore can be a daunting task. It’s a shame, because it means that a lot of truly excellent work gets completely dismissed out of hand.
Are there some self-published books that aren’t well designed, edited or written? Sure. And there are some traditionally published books that fit that description, too. The list of respected authors who have opted to self-published has continued to grow: Cornelia Funke, for instance, the best-selling author of the Inkheart series, recently opted to self-publish the English edition of her newest book.
Independent publishing mirrors what has happened in other creative fields. Many successful recording artists, for instance, now opt to go it alone instead of dealing with corporate record labels. Some of the best music I’ve reviewed in Shameless, for instance, has been independently released. It’s not at all unusual anymore. Why not? They have total control, they can place their product in the same outlets as the major companies, and they keep their masters. Similarly, on YouTube and other video outlets, some of the best Web series and blogs are those done without the backing of any major production companies.
I very much hope that as self-publishing continues to grow, it will gain the same level of respect as indie music or videos. In the meantime, here’s why I decided to go it alone with the print version of my book.
I have total control over the book’s design and presentation.
This can be seen as a good or a bad thing, in all honesty. As I mentioned, I really don’t like the original cover for my book, and I plan to change it. In contrast, I’m very happy with the interior design, which was created by adjusting a free layout template. However, the point remains that I had full control over it all. Writers with traditional publishers have little, if any, say in the covers that are chosen for their books, much less the layouts and fonts used, and are sometimes very upset with the final results. As an independent publisher, the ball is completely in my court, and I’m limited only by my budget and/or my own design capabilities.
I have total control over accounting.
Through Amazon’s author program, I have access to Nielsen BookScan and other tools to help me track my book’s progress. I don’t have to ask anyone for sales figures. Similarly, my earnings are reported and delivered directly to me, quickly, without any middlemen.
I can choose an editor who will work well with me.
I’ve worked with a lot of editors in my writing career, and quite honestly, without trying to be a kiss-up, 95% of them have been amazing. My work hasn’t generally needed a lot of editing, but when I’ve overlooked something or completely missed the mark, they’ve been there to help me polish out the rough spots.
The other 5%, however, have not been as great. In one or two cases, editors did such hack jobs on my work, and changed it so completely, that I was embarrassed when it was published and didn’t even keep copies for my personal portfolio. I’ve heard and read numerous stories of writers with traditional publishers who have really clashed with their editors, or who have been steered in directions they didn’t want to go with their work.
When you are independently publishing, you can choose an editor who is going to work effectively with and for you. You’re not bound to comply with their edits or requests. You can even edit your own work, if you really think you have the chops to do so. Most self-publishing guides strenuously recommend that you don’t do this, for what it’s worth, and there are very good reasons for that. It’s probably a better idea to have someone else at least read through your manuscript before it goes out. However, some people can and do edit their own work. Even the traditional publisher with whom I worked on the eBook trusted me to police my own stuff. It needs to be said that I have a background in editing, and that probably helped immensely. I’m also capable of detaching myself and being absolutely merciless with my own work.
I do all the promotional work myself, anyway.
There’s a rather unfortunate misconception that traditional publishers will spend inordinate amounts of money promoting your book. You’ll be sent on book tours, the publisher will bankroll a flashy website, print ads and commercials, and their publicists will get busy lining up interviews for you in all the major media outlets. Unless you’re a major best-seller or celebrity, or you’ve written a book on a controversial or topical subject, it really doesn’t work that way most of the time. It’s incredibly common for a publisher to release a book with little to no fanfare. If the author wants anyone to know it exists, it’s up to them to tell the world.
Most publishers now expect writers to actively and aggressively promote their own books – and to do so out of pocket. Some even request marketing plans and take an author’s social media presence into account when they consider manuscripts for publication.
Since my book came out, I’ve been doing almost everything for it. My eBook publisher sent out a press release, but 99% of the promotion for both the eBook and the print version has come from me. It begs the question: if I’m doing all the work either way, why do I want to split the profits with anyone else?
I can get my book into most, if not all, of the same outlets as traditionally published work.
As mentioned, it’s sometimes hard to get an independently published book into brick and mortar stores or libraries. It is not, however, impossible. In addition, some librarians and independent booksellers love promoting local authors and books and can become formidable allies. In Los Angeles in 2015, for instance, there was a local literary festival that featured a pop-up shop with books from local authors from both traditional and independent publishers.
And online, there isn’t any difference at all. My book can be looked up and purchased just as easily, and from the same exact retailers, as the major publishers’ offerings.
What if I’ve written something that isn’t usually sold on bookstore websites, like a ‘zine? Many brick and mortar booksellers will sell those on consignment. There are ‘zine festivals and libraries that can expose my work to larger audiences. In addition, there are distribution companies that deal specifically with ‘zines and comics who can help me sell my work online.
I know that I have a choice.
…and the point is, there is a choice. If I change my mind next year and decide to submit my novel’s manuscript to traditional publishers or seek out an agent, the door is open. If I decide to expand my imprint and make my own publishing company, I can do that too. There are many routes to sharing my work with the world and/or making money from it, and traditional publishing is only one of them.