Friday, July 19, 2013

Steps to Self-Publishing: Is It the Choice for You?

In my thirty-plus years as a published writer, I've released my books in three ways: 
1. finding an agent and selling my manuscript to a major publisher
2. selling my own manuscript (sans agent) to a small press
3. self-publishing

Each has advantages and disadvantages.  We'll explore them here so you can make an educated choice about your own book.

Agented Manuscripts
My first agent signed me when I was a brand-new writer.  Because I knew virtually nothing about publishing, my agent educated me.  He had his "stable" of editors at the big houses and successfully pitched my books for me.  He looked over the publishing contracts and corrected any problems, so I got better rights and more money in my advance.  For the years my books were in print, my agent tracked everything, from submission to publication and eventually to serialization. 

I loved working with him.  Then he retired.  He passed me on to a second agent, this one well known on the New York publishing scene.  From the start, I didn't feel the same rapport, although I was flattered to be represented by him.  Eventually, we disagreed about next steps for my next book.  I decided to break our contract.

That left me without an agent.  But, fortunately, one of my former publishers contacted me about doing a series book with them, and I soon got too busy to worry about it.

Small Presses
When that success run ended, I wondered how to work my way back into the world of agents.  A colleague suggested just directly approaching a small press with my next book idea.  No agent required.

Small presses are often regional, sometimes tied to an academic institution, releasing fewer but carefully selected titles each year.  Small presses specialize in certain types of books--so it's very important to research and find a good fit for your book before you begin submitting.  I went online and asked a lot of questions of writer friends, researched small presses in my book's genre and subject.  I ended up selling my first memoir to a small press.

I worked with three small presses for ten years.  I loved their good editors, who almost took the place of my former agent--although I had to hire outside counsel to go over the contracts (easy to do). 

Small presses have also kept my books in print for a lot longer than most major houses.  They release fewer books so their backlist can be bigger. 

I had to market the books myself, and nobody paid for the book tours, but one small press did hire a publicist for me and I got booked on over 100 radio and television shows, plus print media.  I learned a lot about marketing, just in time for the small presses--and most other publishers--to stop funding publicity for their authors.

My run with small presses lasted for quite a few books, in three genres.  I enjoyed the relationship.  When I marketed a lot, the books sold well--one was even the press's best-seller that year.

Small presses give writers good support and good editors, careful handling, and steady communication--no small benefit in today's publishing world. 

I'd been leery of self-publishing for most of my writing career.  It bore the stigma of "vanity press," meaning only vain writers would use it--those who didn't know how bad their writing really was. 

But I kept meeting more and more accomplished writers who were self-published.  I read about writers like Amanda Hocking, who self-published her e-book and eventually got picked up by a major publisher.  I learned from an editor friend that publishers routinely scanned the new self-published books for good ones to acquire. 

It seemed worth another look.

Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing
Self-publishing gives the writer control of the entire process.  There are quasi self-publishing companies, like Beaver Pond Press in Minnesota or Epigraph in New York, that require submission and do not accept every manuscript.  They will help a writer through the steps, supplying editor and designers. 

Whether a writer goes with a regular self-publisher or a supported one, he or she pays upfront for the publication costs; in traditional publishing, the writer does not pay anything--royalties, or a percentage of sales, are paid out to the writer after publication.  (Many publishers do not offer much in the way of advances anymore, except for top-of-the-list titles by writers with an exceptional platform.) 

Self-publishing also requires that you know your way around--or hire someone to help you.  A very good primer on self-publishing is Guy Kawasaki's A.P.E (Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur).  Since I had worked behind the scenes as both acquisitions editor and copyeditor for small presses myself, I felt very comfortable at the helm of my publishing process. 

Costs up front were about $2500.  Returns after publishing have more than paid that back.  A lot depends on marketing--but since I now was doing all the marketing for my traditionally published books that were still in print--what was the difference?

And self-publishing has matured a lot over the past few years.  Companies use state-of-the-art print-on-demand (POD) printing, and most self-published books are  indistinguishable from offset-print books from major houses. 

Many self-published writers opt for just releasing a Kindle version, since 60 percent of book sales--and climbing--are now in electronic books. 

So I went for it.  I figured, I'd tried the other two avenues.  Why not this?  I hired an editor, I hired a typesetter and cover designer, I did my own marketing.  And, truthfully, self-publishing has been by far my best publishing experience--perfect at this stage in my writing career.

It may be for you.  It may not.  But in case you'd like to learn more, here's a great article from Libby Fischer Hellmann of the Maine Crime Writers on six steps to self-publishing.

Read it this week, as your weekly writing exercise, just to see if it's possibly the best choice for your book.  Libby's experience is slightly different than mine, but she's covered the bases very nicely.

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