The Great (Self-)Publishing Debate – Round Two: A Tale of Two Manuscripts

I’d like to immediately demolish some silly notions.

The first is that literary agents and publishing houses are the gatekeepers of quality: this is nonsense. The astonishing amount of truly terrible books published by New York houses all the time, year after year, is proof enough of the speciousness of this argument.

Probably the best that can be said is that a traditionally published book is likely to be technically readable—i.e., that the language and formatting will be fairly clean. But as regards content, good luck. Take out the handful of bestselling and celebrity authors, and the rest is hit-or-miss: as Keith Gessen put it in his excellent article, ‘How to Create a Literary Star’ (Vanity Fair, Oct. 2011), ‘no one has any idea how many copies of a book will sell’. In the same article, Daniel Menaker, ex-New Yorker Magazine, ex- Random House Senior Editor, compares publishing to gambling: “You put your money down, and most of the time you lose. But when you win, you can win big.”

On the other hand, I personally know of a few first-rate, agented writers, some with an established readership, who have fine books languishing because they won’t easily fit into a category—acquiring a title is often a group decision, and it seems a publisher’s marketing department can often trump an editor’s judgment and result in a potentially winning book being turned down. This is especially true at a time when the industry is in deep turmoil.

Nonsense notions also abound in self-publishing. Although there are authors—some of whom, I suspect, get a good many readers for their books by this ploy—who try to convince everyone that self-publishing is the only way to go, that’s the furthest thing from the truth. The reality is that most writers lack the objective measures to determine whether they’re ready for an audience (this doesn’t necessarily validate the ‘Ocean of Dreck’ argument); and even those that do have a good book may be temperamentally or otherwise unsuited to the rigours and demands of successful self-publishing.

Also, forget about getting POD indie books into bookstores—yes, there are a very few who’ll work with indie authors on a consignment basis, but you’re just not going to get distribution unless you get to the point of having a catalogue of at least 15 or 20 titles—and even then, the economics of POD and the complex, ugly realities of the bookselling business make it a very tough proposition. Your only real chance is in digital editions.

Let’s take two case histories (though ‘war stories’ might be a better term), one in traditional publishing, one in self-publishing.

Around ten years ago, I was hired to do the initial, fairly substantive, copyedit on a self-help book written by a friend, a medical practitioner with a very successful practice specializing in stress management and hard-to-treat hormonal disorders. He had the knowledge, he had the platform (critical in the nonfiction arena), and his timing was perfect*.

I helped him put together a proposal, and before long he’d snagged an agent. My friend’s agent did some further editing, buffing the book till it gleamed. After doing the rounds, the book was acquired by an imprint of Penguin Putnam.

Initially, it was a love-fest. My friend was offered a $20,000 advance, a very healthy sum for a first-time author, and told he’d get strong marketing and promotional support. The editor assigned to the book said it was the best-presented book she’d ever seen and that it was good to go.

But then, an editor who had summarily rejected my friend’s book just months before while working at another publishing house was hired by Penguin Putnam and put in charge of the imprint.

As the book inched towards production, the whole deal turned frosty. The book was given a truly awful, absolutely generic cover that made it look like a technical manual; my author friend was allowed no input on title; the person assigned to do the press release on the book hadn’t read it, and asked my friend to write his own press release; and the book—despite the hefty advance paid—received virtually zero marketing support from the publisher beyond sending out a few reviewer copies. They were going to let it sink or swim on its own.

My friend, a very proactive man, isn’t one to flounder for long. When he saw what was happening, he talked to his agent, who pointed him to a PR firm that promised the moon. Faced with the need to self-promote, he signed a contract with this company, which specialized in setting up radio and magazine interviews for authors. He spent the next several months working his butt off writing articles and doing interviews at all hours with countless obscure small-town radio stations and local papers: at the end of the contract, he’d spent over $40,000 on marketing. The book never earned out its advance. His comment on the publishing industry? “I’d be very happy to see them all go out of business. I’ve never seen an industry that’s more incompetent.”

Now let’s look at the other side.

Self-publishing, friends, is damned hard. I’ve done it. In the three years since I founded Panverse Publishing, I’ve edited and published four Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies and my own nonfiction book, ‘Aegean Dream.’ Nonetheless, and despite these attractively-packaged anthologies getting some very good reviews as well as several award nominations for the stories, three of the four anthologies lost money; even the most successful sold less than two hundred copies. Why? First, because the SF field is tiny, and I was an unknown, publishing mostly unknown authors; second, because I had no visibility in bookstores; and, third, because I’m not a great self-promoter. Ah, hindsight.

My nonfiction book, ‘Aegean Dream’ is a different story.

I’d originally taken ‘Aegean Dream’ the traditional route: after all, here was a non-genre, mainstream book, a bittersweet true story that read like fiction set on an idyllic Greek island, the very island that the mega-hit movie, ‘Mamma Mia!’ was shot on. The book featured food, love, eccentric locals, intrigue, corruption, social commentary, an antagonist, and even cameo appearances by Pierce Brosnan (the movie was shot during our last months on the island). Its theme—escape from the rat race to a Greek island—is a universal one. And finally, it wasn’t the typical, sugary, Year-in-Provence travel memoir, but an unvarnished, tragi-comic story. So I believed I had a very marketable book, and had every confidence I’d do better publishing it via the traditional route. I was also fortunate in having a pro critique group who took my first drafts  to pieces and pointed out a number of issues, all of which I addressed in the book’s many rewrites.

A good many agents bit on my query but balked at the book’s length—the ms. was 135k words, at least 1/3 over optimum length. One complained it didn’t fit the formula, and was too unvarnished (by which he meant I told too much truth: go figure). But eventually I found an agent who utterly loved the book and felt it was good to go as it stood.

After a dozen or fifteen rejections from major houses, all of whom said the book was well-written but the travel memoir category was overfull, or the book didn’t quite fit the category, or it was terribly long, I’d had enough. I decided to publish it through Panverse.

Now, I’ve done several stints over the years as a paid copyeditor, and, after working 25 years as a painter/colourist, I have an eye for good artwork, as well as good contacts in the graphic art field. By the time ‘Aegean Dream’ was published, in July of 2011, it was clean, well-formatted, and nicely-packaged, a professional-quality book in every respect.

For six months, hardly anything happened. I sold a couple of hundred copies, and couldn’t get the book reviewed anywhere, despite the fact that I had some short story credits and some track record as an editor of well-received anthologies. Yes, even if your book is professionally copyedited, proofread, and has an attractive, well-designed cover, mainstream reviewers still won’t touch you: the stigma attached to self-publication is both pervasive and strong. At least 40 print ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) must have ended up in recycle bins.

But then, in January of this year, long after the point at which a publisher would have pulled the book from store shelves, I noticed an uptick. It began slowly, going from a book every day to two, to four, five… and by midsummer, to a very healthy peak of twenty copies a day, six hundred a month, on Kindle in the UK (it’s currently still selling almost a hundred a week, and was Kindle UK #1 nonfiction book on Greece for over three months, getting well into the top several hundred Kindle books on several occasions).

‘Aegean dream’ did all of this with no marketing and no reviews, beyond those that readers voluteered on Amazon. In just a few months, the book has sold over two thousand copies, and I have every reason to believe it’ll keep selling, especially in the summer holiday season. I’ve had fan mail. I’ve started getting inquiries from foreign travel book publishers about foreign language rights, and Amazon sends me a nice check every month, like clockwork. And not a single reader has complained that it’s a long book!

I believe my book’s (moderate) success is due to several things. One, I happened to write a book with the potential to appeal to a wide demographic; two, I believe that after years of writing and critiquing and editing I was ready as a writer; and three, as an editor and self-publisher, I did everything possible and co-opted some talented people to put out a high-quality finished product. As a result, when, near the end of the gloomy British winter, readers thinking about holidays in the Greek isles started looking for books on Greece and found and subsequently enjoyed mine, they told friends; and growing word-of-mouth, along with rising Amazon visibility, bootstrapped me the rest of the way.

I picked these two anecdotes because I have personal knowledge of the details. From everything I’ve read and the many writers I’ve spoken to in both camps, I’d say that my friend’s experience with traditional publishing, while perhaps not typical, is far from unusual; he did everything right but was unlucky. My own self-publishing experience, on the other hand, is atypical, an outlier: I did a few things right, and I got lucky.

*          *          *

To read Round One (part one of this article), click here; to read Round Three (Conclusion) click here

In Round Three, on Wednesday, I’ll talk about the emerging wisdom on just how to give your self-published book the best possible chance of success in the market, as well as some ‘Third Way’ options.

* The book was in fact groundbreaking, ahead of its time, and it would be several years before some of the topics it dealt with—internal inflammation and Cortisol, and their part in the stress response—became mainstream subjects.


Filed under Writing

5 responses to “The Great (Self-)Publishing Debate – Round Two: A Tale of Two Manuscripts

  1. Great post. Thanks for laying it all out. Very interesting stuff. I think if we have a book and no one will touch it, why not self publish. Even if only 200 people read it, that’s better than letting it sit on the hard drive unread. But I do think it’s important to put out high-quality product and I think it’s wise to not be in it for the money. I want to make money, but I’m not going to be heartbroken if I don’t, whether I go traditional or indie. Most authors don’t make much. Regardless of the route they take.

    • Sally, thanks. 🙂 I agree with all your points; most of all the fact that it’s very critical to disabuse people of the notion that writing is a way to riches. Writing is an art, a form of self-expression, a way of filling the human need for story and understanding, a self-therapeutic process… and the rest is icing on the cake. People really, REALLY need to understand that making a living as a writer is no short cut to riches (and typically quite the opposite!).

  2. Excellent article, Dario. I’ve heard similar stories of quality self-published books that have languished for months before gaining traction. I look forward to reading Aegean Dream.

  3. Pingback: The Great (Self-)Publishing Debate – Round One | Dario Ciriello

    • Paul, thanks so much for your kind comments. It seems time is definitely an important factor with indie, and especially digital, publishing; whereas with traditional print, there’s the expectation of a big initial spike, then a fast tail-off, and you’ve been pulled from the shelves. It’s a very different experience.

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