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February 16, 2006

Self-Publish or Perish – Progress Report

Tonight I’m speaking at the Harvard Club of New York on self-publishing.  I would’ve invited you but the club only allows members to its meetings.  In all its snooty and somewhat faded splendor, it’s the venue for two scenes (one of them somewhat racy) in my novel hackoff.com: an historic murder mystery set in the Internet bubble and rubble – but they didn’t know that when they invited me.

A long time ago, just before I began the online serialization of hackoff.com, I blogged my reasons for self-publishing.  I had been advised by many already-published friends and acquaintances that publishers don’t promote books by debut authors (or even many experienced ones); that, even once I found a publisher, they would take a year to get my book out; and that I’d have better luck if I established a track record as an author with my first book and then looked for a publisher for my second book. Now, one hundred episodes later with the online serialization complete (although still available for you to read or listen to online at www.hackoff.com) and five thousand copies of hard cover edition at the bindery ready to move into distribution – preorders being taken at Amazon and 800ceoread, it’s time for a progress report. 

Here are the plusses of self-publishing:

  • You know your book IS going to be published.
  • No rejection slips (unless you first try traditional publishers which I didn’t).
  • You, not your editor, make the final decisions (see below in minuses).
  • You make ALL promotional decisions.
  • You make ALL production decisions (quality of paper, cover art, etc.)
  • Book gets out faster.
  • You MIGHT make more money than you would with royalties.

Here are the minuses:

  • You pay out money instead of getting an advance. You could easily end up losing money.
  • You, not your editor, make the final decisions (with hindsight, I should’ve given in more).  You’re also paying the editor you may not be listening to.
  • You are losing out on the logistical promotional help a publisher might give you.
  • You are missing out on the chance to be advertised as part of a list of a publisher’s titles and advertising a single title is often impractical.
  • There are a lot of printing and distribution details you have to worry about that a publisher WOULD take care of.  I’d like to be writing the next book now and I’m not yet.
  • Self-published books are DISRESPECTED.

OK.  The three things that matter are the money, the time involved, and the disrespect.

I chose the expensive route of going hardcover with Smyth binding, hiring Rodrigo Corral – a top cover artist, and offset printing.  Also chose to engage publisher Kelly Evans to set up dotHill press and developed some technology to do fancy serialization on demand.  You don’t have to do all that.  You can publish on a free blog platform if you want to. You can use print on demand (PoD) technology rather than building expensive inventory.  A print on demand publisher like Lulu will take care of most production and distribution headaches.  Frankly, if I were a penniless writer at the beginning of a career, that’s what I would’ve done. I risked more money because this is my second career. Like many entrepreneurs, I’ve chosen to self-fund, maybe overfund this follow-on venture.

It’s an illusion to think you can live on an advance from a publisher.  First of all, you don’t get it until you find a publisher who wants to give you an advance.  Second, from what I hear, if you are not an ex-President whose sex life people are curious about, you’re going to have to spend the advance on publicity even if you have a publisher.

So the bad news is that a debut author needs a day job before she becomes the toast of the town even is she has a publisher.  The good news is, with the Internet and print on demand, as long as you have a day job, you can afford to self-publish.  Money isn’t really the determining factor.

What I have been surprised at and what you should consider seriously is the disrespect in which self-published books are held.  Most publications won’t consider them for review. I was astonished when a prominent blogger and author told me that he never considers requests to provide cover blurbs for self-published books. Book tours are harder to book (although not impossible) if you’re self-published.  I’ve not yet succeeded in recruiting an experienced book publicist (although now I have some leads); my impression is that they’re afraid their reputations will be sullied if they flak for a self-published book.  Even most BLOG tours for books don’t allow self-published authors on the bus. Frankly, that was the unkindest cut of all.  Blogs ARE self-publishing. See here for details of the tour we’re setting up for blooks (books on blog platforms).

What’s happening, of course, is that publishers are the gatekeepers for the book industry.  It is convenient to let publishers screen out all the millions of books that aren’t worth reading.  The problem with that is that publishers have hit mentality.  It’s not even the next hit they’re looking for – it’s a book like the last hit (I’m over-generalizing, of course).  Publishers let a lot of crap through their gates and block a lot of good stuff.  Used to be that there was really no alternative unless you were really rich since printing was so expensive.  But the Internet and print on demand have changed that.  Books can now be successful financially (not to mention artistically) without being a hit.

The question is, if self-published books don’t get reviewed, how do readers find them? From an author’s point of view, how do you find your readers?  One possible answer is the Internet, particularly using the Internet to distribute part or all of your book free to build buzz.  Even then, you need to attract the attention of bloggers and others to help you be found.  A-list bloggers are gatekeepers, too. But, since bloggers are investing only attention in you, they can afford to take more risk than a publisher.  The blog community is also more diverse in its tastes than the traditional publishing community. Bloggers have been very generous in helping to promote hackoff.com. 

There have been many thousands of online readers; new people are coming to the site all the time and reading online, listening to the podcasts, or subscribing to text or audio by RSS or email. Even been movie feelers. But whether the online readers become buyers is another question.  It’ll actually be OK if they just recommend the book to other people who then buy it since I have no incremental cost for the free copies I give away online.

Net. You CAN get attention for a book online. Both traditionally-published and self-published authors know that now.  The next question is can online attention, blogger attention, create a path around the traditional gatekeepers and overcome the disrespect with in which self-published books are held.  My guess is yes – whether that works for me or the next author who tries it or the next. 

Was self-publishing a good idea?  Am I glad I did it?

And is the Internet going to disrupt fiction publishing the way its has disrupted other industries like telephony, music, and some kinds of retailing?

Short answers:  I’m glad I did it.  Jury still out on disruption; Random House HQ not up for sale yet.  Of course, I’ll know and report more once the book is actually shipping and I do a tour of bookstores.  If publishers are clamoring for my next book (there WILL be one), then self-publishing will have been a successful entry strategy for me as it was for Andy Kessler and my co-speaker at the Harvard Club tonight. M.J. Rose – both of whom self-published their first books and have had subsequent books successfully published in a traditional way.

If traditional publishers want my second book and I choose to self-publish that as well, it may be a sign that the industry IS being disrupted.  We’ll see.

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