A VERY Honest Look At My Publishing Journey So Far

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! :)


Connie Keller said...

Thanks so much for sharing your story!! I self-pubbed pretty much for the same reasons you did. And I'm really glad I did--it's been hard though. But the sales are continuing and slowly improving--and I've reached some sales goals.

Ultimately, I learned (once again) that I write because I love it. And I'm thankful that I can share it with others.

Rachele Alpine said...

Thanks for such an open and honest post. It's interesting to see why people choose one route of publishing over each other, and I like how you're open to multiple ways to publish your book(s)!

Cassandra Marshall said...

Congratulations on reaching your sales goals, Connie! And thank you!

Thanks, Rachele! I think being, and staying, open to options is a HUGE part of things!

Jamie Handling said...

I loved your post! I published my YA novel about 20 days ago for so many of the same reasons. I loved my book and after having quite a few betas enjoy it too, I started querying it three years ago. After over 200 rejections, I was about to just give up. Don't get me wrong, I had requests for partials and fulls. Ultimately, agents came back with rejections for various reasons. Then, about a 9 months ago, I had a cover made and contemplated epubbing, but I was still so scared of the stigma attached, so I gave it one last go querying and was rejected...again. I was so depressed I stopped writing all together. I didn't even open my laptop. I shut down my blog, walked away from twitter, and pretended I wasn't a writer. In September, the itch resurfaced full force. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I still loved my book and didn't want to see it die, so in the middle of the night when no one was watching I clicked the publish button and it was done. So far it's going well. I'd love to break 100 sales, but I'm sure that will take time. Just as I'm sure you will too.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your story. We're not alone in the process. Good luck!!!

Jennie Bozic said...

Thanks for such an awesome post! I got here via an agent's tweet and I just bought your book. :) Can't wait to read it!

Mara Rae said...

Hi Cassandra! I've followed your publishing story for a while now and I understand all of your frustrations. I just set aside my last novel after about six months of querying, and I'm in the process of moving on. It's hard getting so close and then seeing others succeed when you just can't seem to get there. On the bright side, I just purchased the e-book of TSFS and I'm looking forward to reading it :) Happy birthday!

Cathy said...

Hi, I appreciate your honest post. My word, but it must be difficult to get published traditionally these days. Holy moly.

Your book's been out only a month. I suspect sales will pick up. It has a great concept. ;)

One trend that has me wondering about are the people who enter an agreement with Amazon (KDP plan?) and allow their book to go for free for up to five days, which will boost them into the Top 100 category. Once there, their book gets great exposure.

What I've heard about, though, is hundreds if not tens of thousands of downloads on the free days, but sparse sales afterwards. So what's the point? Anyone who wanted the book already got it for free.

There are too many books being given away for free. I could fill my Kindle with free books, if I wanted to, and never buy another book in my whole life.

Anonymous said...

thanks so much for your post! I'm going w/ a small indie publisher and share your fears... no sales. OR, like 5 sales and you know exactly who bought each copy and they were PITY buys, right? worst nightmare. we'll see what happens.

christicorbett said...

Thank you so much for giving such an honest look at the journey through self-publishing.

Now I'm off to buy your book!

Christi Corbett

Rob Brunet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Brunet said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Cassandra. Your passion has already carried you farther than most. Hard to imagine it not taking you the rest of the way.

I'm curious, too, about how the gatekeeper role will sort itself out. The publishing industry is not the first to go through a digital strategic inflection point. (My thoughts on that here: Before iTunes there was Napster) It is people like you, forging your own path, that will help shape the way readers find books they love.

Best of luck on your continued journey!

Jennie Walters said...

Very interesting post, Cassandra - thanks for being so open. The self-publishing route has been wonderful for me. Rights in my traditionally-published historical series, Swallowcliffe Hall, reverted to me last year and I released them as ebooks, not knowing how they would sell. They have taken off in the US as well as the UK, and the success of Downton Abbey on TV has helped this, I'm sure. A clever choice of adwords and tags can really help your book stand out, so it's worth thinking hard about these. Good luck with the sales! And isn't it wonderful to know that at least your book is out there, being read?

Regina Morris said...

Thank you for this honest account. I have heard that most self published books only sell about 100 copies. That fact scares me so much. I have written three novels and paid a professional editor to review the first two. The publishing world is changing so fast that I have been advised to self publish the first book in my series and then try to find an agent for the second. Sigh, it's also hard to develop your platform. You can ask friends to join/follow you and to write comments on your blog (you can even pay people) but it's two tiny steps forward and a big leap back most days. Teaming up with many other writers and guest blogging and sharing in contests and such can almost seem like a full time job. I know others are struggling too. It's just really nice to read an honest posting about it. Thanks.

Regina Morris said...

I just thought of something else to add. I took a class on self marketing. The idea of the class was mostly how important it is for the author to promote the book themselves (even if a publishing house has picked them up). I'm just curious how many self published authors out there hire a publicity agent. Getting placed on Amazon and giving your book away for free for 5 days, may get you some recognition ... but what about the long haul? YA authors can always try schools and youth groups to pitch to, but other genres (like memoirs, romances, etc) would be harder to find nitches to promote to. I'm new to all of this and the idea of self publishing seems to me like you'd have to quit your day job and focus on nothing but your book, contests, promotions, and social media just to get noticed. I don't want to be negative. I'm just really curious as to what people do to promote their "brand name" and their book(s) when they do it themselves. Like all of you reading this, I believe in my books. I know I will eventually self publish or find an agent. I'm also willing to work on my craft, my platform, hire an editor, etc to get the job done. I just had never thought about hiring a publicity agent.

madameduck said...

Thank you so much for sharing! It's nice to see an honest opinion of the options from someone who's been on all sides of the business. And I think your post does a great job of showing the reality of the situation - Nothing is black and white in this business! Things are changing so rapidly, decisions often feel like leaps of faith. Congrats to you on self-pubbing and good luck!!

Cassandra Marshall said...

Best of luck to you on breaking 100 copies, Jamie!

Thank you so so so so much for buying a copy, Jennie and Mara Rae!

Cathy, the thinking with the free days is that people download it, read, it, maybe leave a review (which can spur sales), and get people talking about it. They can also use that sales rank (especially if it goes under 100 or reaches #1) in their promo stuff, and that's worth it to so many hopeful authors. I've got a collection of three short stories that I sometimes let go for free, but I don't think I'd ever put up my own book for free. One being that I like having options on places for readers to buy it (to be eligible for the promos, you have to sell only through Amazon) ilk B&N, Kobo, Diesel, etc.

I'll take pity buys, Anonymous! Maybe the buyer will be surprised? But a sale is a sale!

Thanks so much, Christie! <3

Thanks, Rob!

Jennie, I think things are different for reverted rights ebooks. Those usually have a built-in audience who bought the book the first time and are already willing to share the word and get excited about the new version. Either way, I'm glad you're finding success!

Regina, do NOT try to self-pub the first and query the second. If you're super lucky, that second book may land you an agent, but a house editor won't take on a second book in a series. You'll have to write a new book for submitting to editors anyway, why not query with that one? I plan on writing a sequel to STARS, but my current WIP, the one I plan to query next, is not a sequel, it's completely different.

Thanks, madameduck!

Lindsey R. Loucks said...

I love your honesty, Cassandra. I haven't begun the roller coaster of emotions that accompany a book release, so I can only imagine what it's like. I suspect it's hard for every debut author, self-pubbed or not, until your book and your name are "out there" and have been for awhile.

One of my writer friends decided to self-publish partly because she didn't want an agent telling her to cut thousands of words because debut authors' books shouldn't be over such and such word count. She wanted her vision to remain true. So while self-publishing has a stigma (which is fading, imo), the traditional route kind of does too.

You're welcome on my blog any time - you know that right? :D