I am a member of the Association of Booksellers for Children, since both my iUniverse titles are young-adult novels. The executive director last week asked me to tell her about my experience with iUniverse, especially as it relates to booksellers. By coincidence I was rambling around the blogosphere that week and ran across an agent’s blog who asked how an agent, or anyone else, could find good self-published books.
My debut post here at The Writers Block is my response to Kristen McLean, slightly edited. I would really like to hear from you guys whether your experience has been different from mine or much the same.
I’ll start with some background. I never wanted to self-publish. I felt and still feel
that I was/am on the bubble of getting a contract from a good publisher or
agent. But in April 2005, I went out to San Francisco for a reunion with my three best friends from college. I was whining to them about how I didn’t want to die unpublished, and how my last submission
had taken one full year to come back to me with a form rejection. At that rate I could definitely die without making more than a few more submissions.
The very day I came back from California (April 24, 2005), I picked up The New York Times
and read a long article by Sarah Glazer about self-publishing, how it’s changed, how it’s lost some of its taint. It was pretty much a forehead-slapping moment for me at that time. Here was a way to get my work out there. I was especially anxious for Mr. Touchdown, because it was the 40th anniversary of the
incidents in the book and I really felt strongly that this book deserved the light of day.
Mr. Touchdown had been rejected 18 times, most of those before it was really ready, but I had been too inexperienced to realize it wasn’t ready, and now the MS had been revised three or four more times until I was pretty sure it was close to as good as I could make it. But I felt like I’d shot my wad with most of the desirable publishers, although I realize now that there are a number of small presses I should have tried. You live; you learn.
Anyway, the Times article had mentioned iUniverse so I checked around and ended up there. Once I started working with iUniverse, I was pleased with how everything went. I signed up for the $899 package that included an editorial evaluation and was happy to get the Editor’s Choice designation on the first read, which they said is pretty rare. I hoped this would help distinguish Mr. Touchdown
from the vast number of self-published works that have little commercial potential.
Then I decided to go ahead and self-pub another of my unpublished MSS, Peace I Ask of Thee, Oh
River, which is about bullying at a girl’s camp. This one was fairly new, I hadn’t submitted it too many places, and maybe I should have kept trying. But it is based on some of my experiences at a summer camp I went to in the Ozarks, and a big reunion, the first in 40 years, was being planned, so I decided to publish it for that reunion. Peace was rejected for the Editor’s Choice on the first go-round. While I could have used one of their editors, they didn’t push that at all and I hired
a freelance editor from the SCBWI list who had worked for a New York publishing house. She was good and helpful and on the second try, I got the Editor’s Choice.
I hired my own cover designer, worked through the very easy and pleasant publishing process and by July 29, 2005, Mr. Touchdown was in my hands. A month later, Peace was out. In September, I went to Memphis, had a signing at Davis-Kidd and sold out all the copies of Peace I had with me
(35) at the camp reunion with orders for more. In October, I was on the program at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville.
Since then my novels have been featured at the Wounded in American Youth Summit at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., on Memphis television talk show WREG’s Live@9 and at the Downtown Memphis Rotary Club; the Children’s Multicultural Book Festival at The Kennedy Center
in Washington, D.C., the Writer Now Inde Pen Series at Karibu Books, and the Baltimore Book Festival. I’ve made a total of three school visits (seven groups). My books have been purchased by the D.C. Public Library and the Prince Georges Public Library system in Maryland.
Peace won first-place in the 2006 Writers Digest International Self-Published Book
Awards in the children’s/young-adult category and was also a finalist in the 2006 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award contest. Mr. Touchdown won first-place in the young-adult category of the 2006 Writers Notes Book Awards and was an honorable
mention in the 2006 Independent Publishers Book Awards in the multicultural
juvenile fiction category. In the Foreword and IPPY contests it was competing
against small presses, like Brown Barn Books, so placing was a real achievement.
This has all been great but even with the awards the push-back on subsidy-published books is intense. The bottom line is that the self-published author has a daunting task in marketing. I have a background in
journalism and PR, so I had a leg up on a lot of writers when it comes to marketing, and I’ve still been generally unable to overcome the bookseller’s and reviewer’s resistance to self-published books.
What I have found that in the world of writers self-publishing is very controversial, and generally despised, but in the broader world of readers, no one cares. The problem is reviewers are part of
that literary world and without reviews you can’t get read, you can’t get into a bookstore and you can’t get into a library without some monumental efforts.
The key with booksellers is making the personal call, even if this is painful. Most children’s book stores I’ve called have been really nice and several have ordered Mr. Touchdown and apparently sold the copies they ordered because they’ve re-ordered this February. Many will not call you back. Some will politely insult you. The bigger the fish the meaner the bite.
As for reviewers, I know so much more now and I realize that if iUniverse would add a feature to its Editor’s Choice program that allows the author to send out ARCs before publication–that would
make ALL the difference. I have suggested this in one of the feedback boxes but I’m sure it’s just gone into a black hole. This would be dead easy. The manuscript is already put into a pdf for editing and proof-reading, which takes about five to six weeks. Why not just extend that a few more months and
give the quality self-published books a shot at the big reviews, like Horn Book, School Library Journal and Booklist? These publications WILL review self-published books that have their own imprints.
I suppose here I need to make this distinction clear between subsidy publishing like iUniverse and forming your own company and imprint. I really can’t see much distinction except in the amount of risk
you’re willing to take and the time you are willing to spend on the business aspects of publishing rather than writing. You can still self-publish a dreadful book under your own imprint—or a good one. Just as you can with a subsidy publisher, who handles not only production but also lining up distribution with Ingram and Baker & Taylor and gets it up on Amazon and B&N, etc. I prefer to write, frankly.
Anyway, this subsidy v. “real” self-publishing is a bitter internal debate on listservs etc., and probably of
little interest to anyone but self-publishing authors of both stripes clawing for higher ground. Except that I think those “true self-publishers” are winning the debate and convincing booksellers and others that there really is a difference in quality. I don’t see it. As for calling one POD and the other self-publishing, that’s nonsense. Both use print-on-demand technology, almost universally through Lightning Source. In fact, some traditional publishers are also starting to use POD in certain circumstances. In both cases, the author is footing the bill to see his or her book in print and buying one’s own ISBN has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the product.
So, getting reviews was a struggle. I broke down and paid for a couple early on just to have something to put on my Web site and in my news releases. Everyone knows who those reviewers are though, so for people in the know, that did no good. I wish I’d known what I know now when I started (isn’t that always true?). But slowly, ever so slowly, I started getting real reviews in outlets that have some degree of respect—including Midwest Book Review and Children’s Literature. That has perhaps helped more than anything else in easing my way.
So, as for marketing, I’ve had some successes and it’s slowly getting easier. During Black History Month in 2005 and this year I’ve been able to get three or four ABC and ABA member stores in the Maryland/DC area to carry a couple of copies of Mr. Touchdown. I am very close to selling 500 copies, which means iUniverse will reissue the book under their iStar imprint and put some of their own skin in the game. One of the benefits of the iStar program is industry standard discounts and full returnability.
· That is is the ultimate key to success. The non-returnablity is a killer. I made an arrangement with Davis-Kidd to buy back unsold stock at the end of the evening when I did the signing there in 2005. I have offered to do the same with other booksellers but still to date, even with the awards, I have had no
success in getting another in-store signing, except when I sold my own copies on consignment.
I have had no luck breaking through the barriers at Borders, although Barnes & Noble in Bethesda, Md.,
ordered a few copies last year. I am up to charging $200 for school visits and requiring the school to send home book orders. I am pretty sure I’m worth the money. I do a great “growing up in the segregated South” program and I absolutely love talking with the fifth and sixth graders I usually get.
Writer’s groups like SCBWI, of which I am a member, are still impossible to crack. This makes me mad and hurts my feelings, but I can understand it. If they let one, they have to let all the self-published authors sign and sell at conferences and many self-published books are a total embarrassment.
But on whole, I feel like I did the right thing by self-publishing the two novels and would probably do it again. I was confident I’d written good books and the awards have validated that assumption. I
had a background that gave me some chops in marketing. I have had a lot of fun at signings and festivals and schools and been touched and awed when people say they liked my books, or were moved by them, or learned something they hadn’t known before. I’ve met a lot of other self-published writers who are very cool. I wasn’t looking for much more than that.
The estimate is that only about 1 percent of manuscripts submitted to publishers are accepted and that only about 1 percent of self-published books are commercially successful and/or picked up by
traditional publishing companies. Frankly if my odds are 99-1 either way, I’d rather be out selling books and talking to kids than languishing in the slush pile in the corner of some office in New York.
Part of the problem for writers is that the publishing industry is being bled dry, in my opinion, by consolidation and the push for increased profits to satisfy shareholders. Editors have no staff, they have
been bludgeoned into being risk averse, and have little stomach for projects that don’t have blockbuster potential.
The problem for booksellers is similar. They are overworked, their margins are tight, they don’t have the time to plow through all the dreadful self-published books by earnest bad writers out there to find the few good ones. The awards are a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff, but most booksellers and professional associations do not list winners of any of the award contests I have won. This is the only real
recommendation I would make: the Foreword, IPPY and Writer’s Digest contests are respectable and in this overcrowded market are a way for independent and small press imprints to distinguish themselves.
Nevertheless, for the two WIPs I have right now (both mainstream novels for adults) I will try to get an agent and go the traditional route. I am a better and better writer all the time. I probably will not even
mention the self-pubbed books in my query letters. I have learned a tremendous amount in the past year and half about the publishing industry—up close and personal. This is invaluable. I have made some contacts with booksellers, festival coordinators, teachers, librarians. This all will help me if I
traditionally publish. And since even mid-list traditionally published authors have to work their tails off to promote their books, usually on their own dime, I will be ever so much better prepared if I do succeed in getting a traditional publisher on this next go round.
If any of you have made it all the way to the end, thanks for reading and let me know what your experience has been.