The number one question I've been asked since the release of THE STARS FELL SIDEWAYS is why I've chosen to self publish. There are so many ways to look at it (as a writer, as an editor, as a former lit intern, etc) and reasonings behind each decision I've made, that summing those things up in a single paragraph for the blog tour interviews was impossible. I'll try to keep things organized, and I'm sorry in advance about the length. :P
I started out wanting a traditional book deal when I started writing novels while I got my MA (I did mostly poetry in undergrad.) I sat up during the parts when my instructors mentioned queries and when the actual agents came around to teach a class or two. I was a bit disappointed at the lack of what was taught about the actual process and business of writing novels, so after I graduated in December 2008, I came back to the US and got a "day job" that sucked. I barely had time to write. When I got fired in the summer of 2009, I started my own small business, editorcassandra.com Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me.
To expand my horizons, I sought out a lit internship. I was lucky enough to find The Agent in Oct 2009 and I followed just about every agent and editor blog I could find. I'm talking at least 100 blog posts in my reader a day, thats how hard I threw myself into things. I learned so very much, but the best thing I learned was that not all advice applies to everyone, and that your journey is yours alone.
Then Twitter happened and it was so fun to have actual conversations with not just agents and editors, but other writers too. Blogs like JA Konrath's pro-self-pub/anti-"legacy" publishers popped into the mainstream. Self-publishing still had quite the stigma. It was still only for writers who tried to go the traditional route and failed. They usually paid thousands for truckloads of books that sat in garages around the world and were the lamented fodder for cheap christmas presents.
The economy tanked and, like nearly every business, houses squeezed themselves to save money, laying off workers and piling their duties on those that remained. Thousands of laid-off regular workers took their free time and finally wrote those books that they had always wanted to and began submitting them to agents and publishers. If the chances of getting a book deal were slim before, they got even slimmer and the competition became super fierce.
But that didn't stop me from writing, I believe(d) that I would make it eventually, if I kept to it. During NaNo '10 I wrote this book about a girl who wins the lottery, moves to Malibu, and gets a stalker. It was a horrible book. I wanted my next book to be completely different from that, and along came THE STARS FELL SIDEWAYS, the sorta steampunk-ish lite-fantasy. I wrote it fairly quickly, revised it in January and started putting the query and first pages into all sorts of contests. People wanted to read it, begged me to send them a copy, celebrated my successes and wished me well for when I got a book deal for it.
It was the heyday of people sharing stuff on Twitter, of fans tweeting about books they loved and aspiring authors banding together and helping to promote one another just for the love of doing it.
Amanda Hocking's March 2011 deal marked a shift--publishers were digging through the ebook bestsellers for sure-fire writers to snap up for huge profits. EVERYONE and their dog seemed to put out some sort of ebook, from short 20-page "guidebooks" and "manifestos" to full novels exceeding 500,000 words. They wanted in on the chance to be picked up too, that just maybe they could be one of the lucky ones.
Around this time, I was hired by The Agent to work on things other than queries, like contracts, rights reversions, and ebook production. Seeing things from the contract-side was eye-opening; knowing what things can change, how far they can change, and how it all works.
I was also querying widely. I sent just over fifty queries in total (I did my research and only queried the agents I thought I'd get along with) (And still made mistakes, even with all my experience, so don't worry if you hiccup too!) and ended up with over two-thirds requesting at least 50 pages and over two dozen fulls over the year.
In the spring of this year, big sellers on Amazon were starting to turn down publishing contracts from the big 6. They figured that they were doing just fine for themselves and wanted to keep doing what they were doing and not share the profits with someone else. I also won the Janet Reid Backspace contest and won a trip to NYC. Everyone expected me to come home with an agent, but I didn't (see the post.) I did one last query push of agents I had learned about while waiting for the Backspace trip (if I got an agent before then, I wouldn't be able to go, and I really really wanted to go!) Including a recommendation from a NYT bestselling author to her agent and 70% of them wanted fulls, but most came back with rejections.
Agents and pub friends were saying to shelve the book and work on something new. They loved me and the book, but didn't know who they could sell it to, that they had taken something else on like it, that they were really impressed with the idea but it was just too different from everything else out there, that there was just too much of a risk and no one is risking these days. A couple of agents even said that they knew I'd get a book deal for it eventually, it was just that good, but that they just couldn't rep it satisfactorily themselves. One agent wanted to read it just because it was steampunkish and sounded fin and they don't even rep steampunk or YA. Those were the best kinds of rejections to get, if I had to get rejections at all. I put the book away and threw myself into editing work.
At the end of July I pulled it back out and cried because I loved it so much. I didn't want to see it sit in a drawer unread. From time to time I'd get an email from someone who read my stuff on the query and pages sites and they'd ask when my book was due out. I withdrew it from the agents that still had open queries and decided to go it on my own. If readers wanted it and agents didn't, I'd just skip the middleman. I felt like it was time, that things were lined up just right.
I could have saved a lot of my own time by hiring people to edit and format and do all that behind the scenes stuff for me. It's easy to spend upwards of $3000 for everything if you hire pros to do it. However, I knew the odds of making that money back were low and I had the experience of putting together ebooks and formatting print books from working with The Agent. I was an editor myself (though I did formally hire another substantial editor to give it a gander too), and had dear friends who could help me copy edit. I worked for a few weeks getting everything together. I tried my darnedest to present it like it was a regular book, making sure that it had a professional looking cover, insides, and website, that I spaced out the cover reveal and the book release and timed them with Goodreads giveaways and a blog tour with signed copy giveaways.
Oct. 1st came and went and on the 14th, I had sold a grand total of eight copies, total, from all sources. That kinda bummed me out. My goal wasn't to sell a billion copies. I know that most self-pub'd books don't sell over 100 copies and that sales are slow, that it's about sales over time. But only eight? Papyrus font was nowhere near my project. I had over twenty people tell me they picked up a copy for Kindle, but only six sales from there. Was there a delay in reporting? Were they just lying to me? Did they not want my book after all? WHAT WAS WRONG WITH ME?
I trusted that all those writers that I helped promote over the years on my blog and on Twitter would be there for me to tweet and blog about my book, but it felt like pulling teeth to get anyone to say anything, that I had to really push people into helping me out. What was going on? I spent full days researching book blogs that reviewed self-pub'd books and sending properly researched and personalized emails and I didn't hear back from any of them. It's been more than a full-time job promoting the book this month. Up until recently, I hadn't written a single word since July, that's how much time it took.
I got a review here and there. People told me they didn't give it five stars because they didn't want it to be rated too highly and other readers wouldn't pick it up, thinking the ratings were inflated. This was just as the sock puppet and paid-for reviews news hit. I got email requests from people who said they'd review my book if I gave them a free query critique. Some said they'd be on my blog tour, but only if I was on theirs too. When did people become so selfish? When did the shift happen that made people want to guilt others? What caused people to be so jealous that they leave drive-by ratings? (Those are the low-rated ones from people who open accounts just to leave low reviews for books they haven't even read.)
Seems like everyone is hosting twitter pitch parties. There are so many contests and giveaways and promotional chatter going on that some have even remarked on the social media hangover, that the luster of so much info has worn off and they don't even see posts like that anymore. There's been a marked shift in twitter uses using twitter only to talk, that they are moving on from being link lists and RT machines. So how do you stand out in a crowded room? Write the best book you can, give the design process your best shot, and hope for the best.
It's near the end of the month now, and I've sold twenty copies total. That was month one of a virtually unlimited selling time. Where can I go from here? Who knows.
I got a bit down about it the sales numbers. I seriously cried myself to sleep a couple of nights because I was so down about the whole process. "What doesn't kill us makes us bitter," right? But then I thought, screw that, what's the point of being depressed about it? Me being a miserable grump isn't going to change things. I don't want miserable grump in my life. I don't want this experience to be clouded by that kind of stuff. So I took one last sniff and set that stuff aside. I can't control what happens with STARS, so there's no reason to worry about it. I did my best, and I can be proud of that.
Would I do it all again though? Yes, absolutely. I'm glad that it's out there. I hope that the people who wanted to read it have had the chance and that they were entertained. I hoped that there'd be a bit more on the sales front, but it's only a month in. I would have been happy to break 100, and that's still possible. I do still plan to promote it as best as I can. I'm still offering free e-copies to people, even if they aren't regular book bloggers, that want to review it on Amazon and Goodreads. Those reviews should start trickling in soon (I've given away over 50 copies so far) and who knows where that might lead. I've given it the best that I can and all I can control from now on is my next book.
Yes, I'm working on another book. It's YA retelling of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey--IN SPACE! and I'm really excited about it. When I'm done and it's been edited and polished and everything, I'm still going to query it. I still want an agent and a book deal. There's a great deal that publishers can offer writers, one major one being promotion and getting your book in places that self-pub'ers can't. This is assuming that you get the promotional push, and many authors don't, but I'm willing to take that chance. For that, I'd be happy to share my profits. It's like Apple fans buying an Apple product--there's a bit of a status thing in it, and you're glad to pay a little more for that.
If I do end up selling a bajillion copies of STARS, would I accept a traditional publishing deal for it? No, I don't think I would. I'm in the writing business for the long haul, I'd want a deal for a second book. And I'd make sure that STARS and anything related to it, including sequels (one is already planned) is exempted in the non-competition clause.
But by then, who knows where I or the industry will be? Things have changed so much in just these past five years, there's no telling how things are going to change again and how fast they are going to get there.
I have friends, client friends, who have self-pub'd and their experiences vary wildly too. One is shooting for 30,000 copies sold. Another has broken the 100 copy barrier. Another has hit #1 on the Amazon bestseller list. Some have agents, some don't. Some want agents, some don't. Everyone's journey is different. Blog tours are working for one, and seem to be a colossal waste of time for another.
I think the journey is what you make of it. If you constantly worry about sales numbers and frantic promotion, I think your journey is going to be filled with worry and frantic-ness. I've proactively chosen to take things as they come. If it doesn't bring me joy, I'm going to steer clear.
Do I think that the major publishers are doomed? No. They might change a lot, they might go under, they might merge, they might become unrecognizable from what they are now, but I don't think traditional publishers will ever die off. And I don't want them to either.
I honestly have no idea what's going to happen in the future. Maybe something will emerge that's a gatekeeper for self-pub'd books. Maybe you can get some sort of "badge of honor" if you fulfill certain criteria of professionalism that will separate you from the slap-dash "Papyrus self-pubbers." Who knows?
Have you self-published? What has your journey been like?
*I may be wrong. I am probably wrong. Please keep in mind that this is my take on things. Your take may be different, and that's perfectly okay. Your take and opinions are perfectly valid too. Just because these are mine and those are yours does not make us enemies, I promise! :)