Once an author finishes writing their novel, how do they sell it? For established writers like John Grisham, a close working relationship with their publisher, including the provision of editing and marketing resources begins well before the work is complete. Many of us try to break into the professional publishing segment by pitching our “submissions” to one of many established publication houses. But, promoting your book to the Penguins of the world can be difficult, expensive and frustrating. You need to ensure your work is error-free by hiring a professional editor. (A written book full of typos is a non-starter.) Then you must write a captivating query letter, not unlike a resume. It must be top-notch too and there are many courses or lectures on how to do just that. Then you try to unearth every publisher that could be interested in your genre. (There’s little point in me sending my thriller fiction novel to a publisher specializing in the young children category.) Then you wait. Given the volume of submissions they receive, many producers warn you up front that it could take over six months for them to respond, if at all. They reject the vast majority of work submitted. I think I understand why. Their business is low-margin, requiring high volume to turn a profit. It focuses on books measuring up to rigorous quality standards and, perhaps, more importantly, “saleability.” You could write the next War and Peace, but if today’s market wants illustrated cookbooks, too bad. Try again later.
Regardless, at some point each author must conclude that, this time at least, they won’t receive a golden ticket. That assumption leads to a fork in the road. Do they put that novel representing months or years of work “in a drawer” as many suggest?
A somewhat new technology that prints one book at a time has revolutionized the self-publishing industry, making it an attractive option to many. Approximately one million self-published print and E-books were sold in the U.S. in 2017. That seems like a big number but, while apple-to-apple comparisons are tricky, there’s no mistake that the self-published market is still a fraction of the number of books produced by traditional publishers. I’ve seen stats estimating U.S. 2017-unit sales of almost 700 million (but that includes items like text, religious, training books etc.) Consider, J. K. Rowling’s 2016 release of Cursed Child, Fantastic Beasts, an illustrated book in the Juvenile category that sold 6.5 million units world-wide. Her one novel sold six-and-a-half times the entire self-published market. The story of David vs. Goliath seems appropriate as an analogy.
Although self-publishing is an option, the thrill you get of holding your professional-looking book in your hands (because you made it happen) is not a panacea. For the record, once you go Indie, you’ve reduced your chances of signing up to the big time from slim to less than that, because most professional publishers won’t touch self-produced work. Some believe the whole idea is just bad. They warn that self-published authors won’t make any money (something like 90% to 95% of self-published books on Amazon—it is the largest self-publishing purveyor in the industry—make less than $100 per year in royalties; In industry terminology, that’s defined as a “failure.”) I found one statistic that a self-published book has about a one percent chance of being discovered by a traditional publishing house, (which is what many of us are hoping for.) The cynics carry on to warn that self-publishers are likely to produce a poorly written, unedited novel with a cover that looks like their children designed it. A comment from one of the many articles on the subject said, “I think self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists (by which I mean, novelists who take writing seriously, and love to write.)” And so on.
Despite the many legitimate reasons not to, if, after my best efforts, the establishment rejects my submissions, I self-publish. My rationale has four parts.
First, I must argue against some criticism hurled at self-published books. To characterize all such novels as trash both inside and out is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but I am serious about my work. For me to put my name on a book and offer it for sale is a matter of pride. I enlist talented professionals for support, either directly or through courses. It took me five years to find my editor. She is outstanding because her feedback is honest and direct. I have a steady bank of proofreaders who always catch something I missed. My covers and the book set-ups are by all standards industry quality. I’ve had a number of people tell me my books are as good or better than some well-known names.
The second reason is technology. It is infiltrating all of our lives, business and personal. There are many signs it is continuing to change the publishing world (well beyond print-on-demand capability.) Take, for example, the submission process. Most proposals today are electronic and many publishers are farming out the required submission website design to third-party vendors. This eliminates the cost to the publisher of, for example sending rejection letters. A growing number of book producers now accept direct submissions. In fact, some say they will consider self-published work. Production costs are declining, which, other things equal, reduce barriers to entry. That can mean more new publishers looking for books. E-books eliminate the greatest cost (printing). On-line libraries are considering self-published novels. I could go on. My favorite saying about technology is that it changes things faster and in a more profound way than anyone expects.
The third point brings up a phrase from my past. A coach used you tell me, “You have to be in it to win it.” He was talking about giving it my all in every match. In this context, that might mean something as simple as no one will ever discover your version of War and Peace if it’s in a drawer. Many rejection letters said, “Your book is not right for us now, but PLEASE don’t get discouraged by that fact. Keep trying.” I suppose this could be motherhood, but it makes sense to me that the people on the other side know this is frustrating to authors. At the same time, they also need those same writers to continue toiling away. I don’t know how this will all work out, but at least my books are live and in color. Everything you want to know about them or me is on my website (that I also hired a professional to create and maintain.)
The fourth reason is personal. Writing this post caused a healthy, introspective discussion inside my head. I had to think about my answer for a while. One thing is sure, I love to write. I have for a long time (even though the craft didn’t get its fair share of my time during my business career.) You might have read my post about why I came back to authorship after MS cut short my twenty-eight year investment management career. After my diagnosis seventeen years ago, I remember well my first sensation of enormous loss. Eventually, some part of me shifted in ways I am still discovering. I decided the way for me to fight back against the setback was to set new goals I could achieve, given my new paradigm. These aims by most measures weren’t as lofty as you find inside the investment industry, but they were my goals. Some seemed like huge mountains. I remember slinking back to my car after my first creative writing class. After discovering all that was required to write a book, I was almost certain I could never do it. Since then, I’ve learned (or remembered something I always knew,) “little victories” are essential. On my writing journey, I passed that first course and took five more over three years, finishing with a work akin to a senior thesis for judging by a panel of my professors. That document became the foundation for my first book, The Analyst. I’ve published three more books over seven years including my most recent, The Assignments. Each of these achievements is its own little victory. The reason I self-publish is that it is a recognizable milestone in a continuing journey.
Who knows? It all just might lead to greater recognition. In the meantime, I will keep writing, learning and producing the very best work I can (and self-publishing if I have to.) I’ve never been a quitter, and once got a job because the person on the other end of the line asked, “You won’t stop calling me unless I interview you, will you?” I quickly replied, “No.” But, if I never get called up to the major leagues, I’m OK with that too. I really enjoy this and have many great ideas circling in my head waiting to find their space on a piece of paper.
God willing and weather permitting, they will.