In today’s post, we continue our look at the 2011 Writers’ Day events, run by New Hampshire Writers’ Project. We started this series with “Write What’s Really There,” in which I reviewed Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Harding’s keynote speech on his approach to writing. In the next post, “Write the Drama of the Ordinary,” I shared tips from Union Leader writer John Clayton on being a columnist. Today, I’ll share information learned in Viva the DIY Revolution!, led by Steve Almond.
Steve Almond is the author of six traditionally published books, including Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life and Candy Freak. In addition, though, Almond has self-published several books, including This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, a collection of short essays on writing and flash fiction stories that demonstrate the writing lessons.
Why should you self-publish your book instead of going through a traditional publisher? There are many reasons. Almond self-publishes to make a personal connection with his readers. During the workshop, he spoke about how he reads from his books to audiences and loves the give-and-take of conversations with his audience about the books’ topics and about reading in general. He seems to thrive on it, and he enjoys meeting his readers as he’s selling the books.
Almond also self-publishes for creative control. No one can tell him no. In This Won’t Take But a Minute, the essays are printed in one half of the book. Finish the essays, and you’ll have to flip the book upside down and to the back (the front?) to read the stories. The book sports two covers per book, and Almond has printed the books with three different sets of covers. He finds it interesting which covers readers choose.
Why print a book this way? Why not? With self-publishing, you can choose a concept without worrying that the publisher will nix it because of high costs, or because it won’t mix well with the publishers’ other books, or because it won’t fit right on the shelf. As the author-publisher, you make your own choices and they don’t have to fit into a publisher’s formula for success.
There are other reasons to self-publish your books:
- Because you want to write the book you want to write
- Because your book will only sell to a niche audience and a traditional publisher won’t see profit from it
- Because you want to control the entire process for your book
- Because you’re a glutton for punishment
Why does self-publishing make you a glutton for punishment? Because it is a lot of work. You’re responsible for everything to do with your book: building an audience, writing, editing, designing, printing, transporting, marketing, selling, accounting, and so on. On the other hand, you can control everything: building an audience, writing, editing, designing, printing, transporting, marketing, selling, accounting, and so on.
Whether you personally do each step in the process or hire out, you have final say about—and final responsibility for—everything. You’ll have to financially invest in your book before you make a dime. As a writer, you’re probably already accustomed to not seeing any money until well after you’ve written something (unless you’re a salaried writer). As your own publisher, you’re going to have to pay for services for the book and then sell it. You may hire an editor or a designer. You’ll definitely hire a printer and maybe some PR help. None of these vendors will wait until the sales roll in to be paid—and it’s unprofessional to ask them to. So be prepared to put some money behind your book.
Don’t expect to make a ton of money self-publishing, either. Even if you sell your book through online bookstores and local bookstores, you don’t have the publisher’s marketing machine behind you. Yet you might not become rich from traditional publishing either. It takes time to become the next Stephen King, and very few do. Many writers who have gone the traditional route have seen only small returns on their books for one reason or another. If you’re into writing for the money, switch careers.
There are DIY exceptions out there. It is possible to not only sell a lot of books but also get big traditional publishers interested in you. Amanda Hocking has sold over a million copies of her novels, which she calls “young adult paranormal romance and urban fantasy.” A million copies! Now she has a four-book deal with St. Martin’s.
Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice, is another exception. She had a very personal experience with Alzheimer’s and wanted to write about the disease from the patient’s point of view. Publisher after publisher turned her down, so she published the book herself. She did her own editing, had her husband design the cover, hired a print-on-demand printer, and marketed the heck out of her book, always having a copy with her. She believed in her project and went for broke.
It paid off. Ten months after Still Alice was first published, Genova found an agent, who sold the book to Pocket Books. She says that Barnes & Noble sold more copies in the first two days than she had in the first 10 months.
Hocking, Genova, and a few notable others are rare exceptions, and they worked hard to become those exceptions. If it sounds like I’m against self-publishing, I’m not. But to be successful, you have to define what success is for you. Know why you’re self-publishing and what you hope to get out of it. Know what kind of work is ahead of you, and be prepared to not only take on all the work but also to financially back your project. Go in with your eyes open, and you’re more likely to come out successful.