12 December 2016

Living the Dream: Self-Publishing II

by Steve Liskow

Last time, I discussed the potential slings and arrows of publishing yourself. If you're not used to the publishing jungle, it may have sounded pretty bleak, so now let's look at the positive side. This is what keeps me going.

Whatever you're giving up monetarily (which is impossible to gauge with any accuracy), you gain two things that outweigh almost everything else: Control and Flexibility.

If you self-publish, it really is your book, the one you envisioned and struggled for. If you worked hard and took workshops and got good advice, you have something you can display and sell proudly. You don't have to split with your agent or anyone else, and you can keep track of your own royalties and expenses. I work with Create Space, and their reporting is timely and clear. They also offer a much higher royalty and lower price for author copies than traditional publishers do.

Control and flexibility matter. I've abandoned three novels. I was only about 60 pages into one and was blocking up, which is always a red flag for me. I stepped back and realized that the two major premises contradicted each other and that without both of them the book didn't work. I put it aside. Later, I recycled several of the characters with minor changes and they appeared in The Kids Are All Right, my fourth Zach Barnes novel. That book was a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel and appeared about two and a half years after the earlier version got shelved.

If I'd abandoned a book for a traditional publisher, the seas would run red. The worst case is that the publisher would cancel my contract because I failed to deliver a MS on time. The best case is that the cover artist, editors, marketing, and everyone else would have been thrown into limbo and the production would have lost anywhere from one to three years. But with no contract and no deadline, I simply turned to my next project and came back to re-think this one later.

I was nearly 200 pages into a book late in 2014 when I decided the subplots didn't have enough at stake to justify their existence. Two year later, I reworked the premise and have completed a third draft that works much better. But that two years would have ended my career with a traditional publisher. Fortunately, I had other rejected works I could re-visit.

When you're your own boss, you determine the deadlines without several other people depending on you. If you have material ready to go, you don't have to wait for months until that traditional publisher decides to release something else so it "doesn't conflict" with your current release.

You also have control over your covers. My cover artist and I worked together in theater for years, so we know how to talk to each other. He does terrific work, and I like my covers better than many that I see at Barnes and Noble. They're different and they stand out. They also give a hint of what the story is about, unlike the generic urban skyline or girl in distress tropes.

When I finally decided to self-publish, I had six novels with a total of nearly 350 rejections in one form or another. Two of them will never see the light of day because subsequent revision changed them so much--and for the better. But I could tinker with the others, send them to beta readers, incorporate their suggestions, and send them out when everyone agreed they were ready. Once I decided to make the leap, I released four novels in about eleven months, two only slightly revised from the most recent agent rejection. Another was a re-edited version of my one traditional book, and another was heavily revised from an earlier series that didn't sell. Maybe I'll tell you about that some day.

Just to be fair, we should talk about traditional publishing, too. I have many negative perceptions and biases here, based on several years of being ignored, insulted, and generally screwed. I can't imagine any reason I would try to place a novel with a traditional publisher now, and I don't think anyone over the age of forty--maybe younger than that--should bother to fight the gatekeepers.

Publishers seldom give an advance now, and even if they do, it may not be more than four figures. It's apt to be for three books, all of which have to be delivered to them in a form they deem satisfactory. You have no vote. If they don't like a rewrite, or you're a few days late, they can cancel your contract. You may not get a cent, and now your name is out there as someone who doesn't deliver.

Those publishers do little or no promoting now, and may tell you that's your job. You'll get no money or reimbursement for anything you do--business cards, travel, whatever--and you'd be doing the same things if you self-published. They also send out fewer advance reading copies for critics (what few real critics still exist), and buy fewer ads in influential newspapers. If your first book doesn't sell in spite of this lack of publicity, they'll do even less for the next one, and may even cancel your contract.

(Since you do your own promotion, scour the Internet to find the best sites for bookmarks, business cards, and anything else you want to use. I like Vistaprint for my business cards and Gotprint for my bookmarks, but there are many others that may fit your needs better.)

Traditional publishers may tell you to hire an editor at your own expense. Traditional editors have evolved (or devolved) from the Maxwell Perkins template of decades ago into marketing liaisons. They help  the firm decide how to package you and write the cover blurbs. You may or may not have any say in this. You are far less likely to have a vote on your cover, and most traditional covers now fall into one of three or four basic templates.

If you sell enough books to earn through the advance, you may receive royalty payments every three, six, or even twelve months. In the meantime, you have to be writing that second and third book, which will be published an average of eighteen months after you turn them in. Your royalty rate will be somewhere around ten percent of the cover price, and you may or may not be able to order books for your events at a discount. If you can, those books may or may not be credited as "sales" for more royalties. Bookstores get those same books at a sixty percent discount and can return any unsold copies to the publisher (who pays the shipping both ways!) for a full refund. Those returns count against your sales and your value to the company.

The odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are 1 in 292,000,000. Your chances of making it big as a writer are better, but only slightly.

I love writing short stories, but because I now spend so much time editing, formatting, and promoting the novels, I've written far fewer of them since I began self-publishing. John Floyd wrote a great discussion of short stories and where to sell them on this blog a few weeks ago and it's worth checking out if you missed it the first time around.

My short stories have won a fairly prestigious award (twice), been short-listed for three others, and been named a finalist for the Edgar Award. Agents and editors no longer pay attention to such things, so I'm still self-pubbing. In fact, I'll publish a collection of those stories in spring of 2017. It may not sell many copies, but through Create Space, I have no initial outlay. I can buy the books for roughly a third of my cover price and it costs nothing to convert the book to an eBook, which can earn a royalty of from 35 to 70 percent. I don't even have to order any copies if I don't need them for an event.

Granted, it's not financing the beachfront property in Bermuda, but it beats a poke in the eye with a rusty nail.

Over the last few months, I've discovered that many local libraries only have a few of my novels, so I approach them individually and point out that if they buy the books through Amazon (Create Space is allied with Amazon), they'll have to pay shipping, usually $3.99 per book. I offer to order the books myself and deliver them. If they want several titles, I negotiate a discount. Again, it's not high finance, but it gets my books into libraries where readers can find them and it puts a few more dollars in my pocket.

When libraries like me, they're more apt to hire me to conduct my writing workshops, too, which gives me another chance to sell even more books.

When it's really your book, you can be flexible so everyone wins. That makes all the effort worthwhile.


  1. Great points, Steve. As you say, if you go trad, you still end up doing most of the PR yourself, if not all, and you have very little control. One of the few pluses I see on that route is getting your book into bookstores, but even that doesn't happen all the time. The business is in crazy flux now and it will be interesting to see where/how it shakes out.

  2. Right and right again. Mastering your craft, then mastering layout and design then promoting. Ain't easy.

  3. Thanks for sharing your considerable experience, Steve. I've learned a lot.

  4. Dave, I hope this really helps. Traditional publishing is reinventing itself almost monthly, and technology updates almost as quickly, which means lots of what I say here may be obsolete in a year. But there are several helpful sites on-line, and April Hamilton's book, The Indie Author Guide, is a good place to start. It's several years old, but she may have a revised edition now. It gave me a solid foundation 'way back when.

    On a different note, just to emphasize the flexibility, I see that Laura K. Curtis published two books ONE DAY APART. She has several traditionally published books, too, but I'm assuming this adult romance series is self-pubbed.

    Good luck if you go the self-publishing route.

  5. That was incredibly helpful, Steve. Thank you for the information and the advice.

  6. Yes, Steve! Thank you so much!

  7. That's very clever about approaching libraries. Great imagination!

  8. Hi Steve,

    As you say, a lot of aggravation with traditional publishers. I can vouch for it! I haven't had the confidence to try self-publishing as yet, but your arguments are persuasive.

  9. Yes, the publishing world is changing--and rapidly. As you point out, this change offers us a wonderful opportunity to take charge of our own writing. Great post. Thanks.


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