Why Self-Published Authors Know Best

I ran across this quote today, from a post that historical romance novelist Courtney Milan wrote this week as an open letter to agents.

The traditional information storehouse has been inverted. Right now, the people who know the most about self-publishing are authors, and trust me, the vast majority of authors are aware of that. For the first time, authors are having questions about their careers, and their agents are not their go-to people. 

While not having an agent, in fact having decided in the fall of 2009 not to look for an agent for my historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, I can’t really speak to this group’s effectiveness in this new publishing climate. Neither do I want to go into whether or not I think that the decision on the part of some agents to begin to publish their authors’ work has ethical or conflict of interest ramifications.

Although the latest brouhaha that just erupted when an agency threatened an author with legal action because she said they were setting up as a digital publisher, when they insisted they were just starting an “assisted self-publishing initiative,” suggests that this question is not going to go away.

What I want to address is Milan’s assertion that authors are the people who know the most about self-publishing. I not only agree, but I would take this one step further. I think that self-published authors may know the most about publishing, period, in this time of expanded ebook publishing and social media marketing.

Let me count just some of the ways:

1.  Most self-published authors know about both legacy publishing and self-publishing, which gives them a uniquely broad perspective.

In my experience, most of self-published authors have already had fairly extensive experience with the legacy publishing industry (as traditionally published authors, as authors who have spent years trying to become traditionally published, and as friends of published authors). From this experience we are in a better position to make well-informed decisions about the costs and benefits of both paths to publication, and which path to choose for a given project.

For example, since we understand the lead time it takes to get a book published with a legacy publisher, versus a self-published book, we might choose self-publishing for a non-fiction book that is very time-sensitive, but willingly pursue a legacy publisher for a work of fiction that we feel would do best in print and distributed through brick and mortar stores.

2.  Self-published authors were among the first to embrace ebook publishing as their main method of publishing, and therefore they have longer and greater experience in this realm, which is where the market is expanding the fastest.

For most of us the lack of capital meant learning how to format and upload ebooks ourselves, therefore we understand both the relative ease of this process and the importance of it. Even if we decide to pay someone else to do the formatting, our experience helps be better judges of the value of this service.

For example, we would be much less likely to be snookered into paying a high fee to an agent or anyone else for “taking care of” this for us. We understand that while most readers of ebooks are fairly tolerant of an occasional formatting error, they don’t like a lot of white space, including indents that are too large, blank pages, and unnecessary page breaks. We understand the cover design that works on a printed book sitting on a shelf doesn’t work on a thumbnail on the virtual bookshelves of an eretailer or a website, and we have had the chance to experiment to find the most effective covers for our books in this environment.

3. Self-published authors have up-to-date information about sales data, and they can and do share that information.

The turning point for me in making the decision to self-publishing came when I read Joe Konrath’s initial blog postings listing his ebook sales. I finally had the concrete numbers to determine what kind of sales I would need to pay for my capital outlay, and what kind of income I could make, compared to the advance I could expect going the traditional route.

Agents, publishers, even traditionally published authors, are very unwilling to ever talk about numbers, unless, of course, they are talking about a New York Times bestseller. The whole convoluted publishing industry accounting system, the lag in recording royalties (which go through the agent-I mean, what is up with that??), the fear that weak numbers are going to be the kiss of death for achieving the next contract, all work to keep a veil of secrecy. If you are an author this means you may never really understand how many books you sold, when and where you sold them, which covers worked, which price points worked, and which method of delivery got you the most profit.

Self-published authors working through such methods of delivery as CreateSpace for print or KDP or ePubit for ebooks not only have ready access to this sort of information, which is so crucial for designing effective market strategies, but we have no reason not to share this information. I can write that my sales have been lower this summer than in the winter, and not worry that this will hurt the chances that my next book will be published, or marketed aggressively, or reviewed positively. And I can learn from other authors if they are experiencing a similar pattern, and if so, what they are doing about it. This is one of the reasons we knew that ebook readership was going up, that certain price points worked better than others, that the Nook was beginning to claim a significant share of the market, before most of the traditional pundits did.

4.  By necessity, self-published authors have had to rely on e-retailers, but this has made them savvy about how best to attract customers in this expanding retail environment.

For example, authors published through legacy publishers are often slow to understand how important it is to get your book into the right category on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. In my experience most traditionally published authors, and their agents and editors, don’t even know that categories had been chosen for their book, and, as with most aspects of publishing (the title, the cover design, the product description), the authors don’t have ultimate control over the final choices. Getting any changes made after publication (in a cover or category or price that doesn’t work) is also difficult.

5.  Again by necessity, self-published authors have had to develop alterative methods of marketing—which have made them innovators in using social media for this purpose.

I am still amazed when I read comments by traditionally published authors on various sites saying that their books have just “been put up on Kindle,” and asking if anyone has a suggestion how to market those books. Obviously neither their agents or their editors have had much to say on the subject, beyond “set up a website.” Not surprisingly, it is self-published authors that seemed to give the most detailed advice in response to these queries. See Rob Walker’s huge thread on KDP community forum.

6.  Self-published authors are going to continue to be the innovators in publishing, no matter what the future holds, and therefore the best source of information.

We have to be innovators, because we don’t rely on anyone else-not agent or editor-to ensure our books are out there and being read. Two years ago, when I researched self-publishing, Amazon’s Kindle and Smashwords, were the two major ways open to me to independently upload my book. Since then Barnes and Noble’s ePubit, Google Editions, Kobo and many other companies have made it possible for independent authors to publish on their sites. In addition, while the iPad’s ibook store has been slow to expand, more and more people are downloading books, often using the Kindle or other aps, not only to the iPad, but more often than not to the iPhone or other similar devices. Traditional publishers are forced to deal with each of these changes slowly, often with protracted negotiations, which slows their authors’ access to these venues.  Self-published authors were able to respond immediately to these changes, as they will be able to do with what ever new twist the ebook or print on demand aspects of the industry takes.

Self-authors are intrinsically less conservative than people who work within the legacy publishing industry, where risks can ruin a career. An agent who takes on too many cutting edge writers and can’t sell their books, an editor whose choices don’t make back the authors advances, the author whose sales don’t pan out, all risk losing their business, their jobs, and their next contract. The motivation, therefore, is to choose authors and books that either fit this year’s trend (no matter that by the time the book comes out the trend may have peaked), or fit squarely into a niche market, and aren’t too long, or too short. Self-published authors have the choice to take risks, because they answer to no one but themselves and their readers.

7.  Finally, I believe that most authors are going to become self-published authors, and therefore will remain the major source of information about self-publishing. Not because they are all going to leave legacy publishing, but because more and more authors are going to see self-publishing as one of their options over their career.

Practically every author I have ever known has an idea for a book or a manuscript squirreled away, or a short story or novella they have written, that they either had failed to sell to a legacy publisher, or simply never tried to write or sell, because they knew that this work wouldn’t be acceptable. These ideas, these works, now can see the light of day. The market may turn out to be small for any particular work, but if you have written something that pleases you, that you as a reader would like to read, and you can self-publish that work and watch as people buy it, review it, and email you about it, the satisfaction is enormous.

I spoke to a college journalism class this spring about the possibilities of self-publishing, and a young man came up to me afterwards, all enthusiastic, and he told me that I had given him hope. His father had tried to discourage him from pursuing a career as a writer, telling him it would be years and years, and maybe never, that his work would ever see print. I had just told him what he had written already, what he chose to write next month, could be out there being read in a few days time.

This is one of the reasons that agents or publishers who try to lock authors into exclusive clauses, or manipulate print on demand to keep hold of copyright, are simply going to drive even more of their authors into self-publishing. Once an author has been exposed to the liberating belief that all of their work can get in print, and all the work that is good, will get to be read, they will not go back to telling themselves that the gatekeepers were saving them from the awful mistake of publishing a bad book, and that the favorite quirky cross genre manuscript they wrote really is better off never being read by anyone.

Does this mean the end of agents or publishers? Of course not. But it does mean that those people in the traditional publishing industry who continue to hold self-published authors in contempt, who continue to try to argue that all authors and all published books should go through their doors to get to the reader, who fail to turn to their authors and their readers for advice, are going to find themselves losing out in the future.

This is a reprint from M. Louisa Locke‘s site.


In their own words: Local writers are going DIY

Originally posted by Charles Hamilton,
The StarPhoenix August 4, 2011 4:40 AM
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One afternoon seven years ago, Wes Funk sat down at his computer and typed three words: dead rock stars.

He had no idea that those words would one day be the title of first novel.

“I had this epiphany, like I was onto something. I just started typing,” he says.

Two years later he had a manuscript for his first novel. He sent copies of Dead Rock Stars to 17 different publishing houses. Over the course of several months he received 17 rejection letters.

“Every letter I got was quite praising of the book,” he says. “But they told me they couldn’t afford to take on an unknown (author).”

That’s when he decided to publish Dead Rock Stars all by himself.

Any given year, a traditional publishing house, like Random House or Penguin, could receive as many as 3,000 manuscript submissions a year. Of those, it’s likely only 15 will actually make it onto bookstore shelves. And for first-time authors like Funk, it’s virtually impossible to break in. That is why more and more authors like him are turning to self-publishing.

Funk admits he was a late bloomer when it came to writing. He grew up in the small northern community of Mayfair, Saskatchewan. His family was poor and he spent his first decade living in Saskatoon working and saving money.

“I always did write. I had a little sketchbook that I carried around in my man purse and sketched little pictures and wrote things down, but I didn’t take it seriously,” he says.

While at times humorous, Dead Rock Stars is a serious piece of writing. The book is a semi-autobiographical story of a Saskatoon record store owner travelling back to his small Saskatchewan hometown. Many of the conflicts that make up Dead Rock Stars mirror Funk’s struggles: the isolation of living in a small town, family feuding and wrestling with homosexuality and identity.

And yes, Dead Rock Stars is also about rock musicians. The Nirvana tattoo on Funk’s right arm serves as an ever-present reminder of the rebellion of his early twenties.

The 42-year-old didn’t start writing seriously until the age of 30, and Dead Rock Stars was his first major attempt to sit down and write. The book had its first printing in 2008. He printed 50 copies and spent months getting onto store shelves. Funk did everything from cover design to layout to booking media releases and dealing with distribution. Dead Rock Stars is the definition of self-published – Funk did it all without the help of a traditional publishing house.

The book is now into its third printing and has sold well over 1,000 copies. It’s available in over 40 stores across Canada. He’s made it into an electronic eBook, which has been downloaded 3,200 times. And there are plans to make it into an audiobook.

“I think the digital age has dramatically altered the way we read and the way we take in information and as a result a lot of publishing houses are suffering,” he says. “Even a lot of renowned writers and authors are now turning to self publishing.”

The trend toward self-publishing can be seen on bookstore shelves. McNally Robinson bookstore in Saskatoon estimates there are at least 300 self-published titles at the store right now.

Self-publishing has a long history. Everyone from legendary poet E.E. Cummings to self-help guru Deepak Chopra have, at one time or another, taken publishing into their own hands. But today, in the ever-changing world of publishing, the ground is constantly shifting. And more and more people are looking for alternatives.

“Frankly a traditional publisher who hasn’t figured out that the world is changing is on borrowed time,” says Jeff Smith, a local author and cofounder of Saskatoon’s newest independent publishing company, Indie Ink.

His company is less than a year old, but already they are responsible for publishing a national bestseller, John Gormley’s Left Out. Indie Ink has published two other books, and Smith says there are at least nine projects in development. They include everything from children’s books, to nonfiction to poetry collections. And they will all be self-published. That’s because Indie Ink has one rule: in order to work on an Indie project you have to be a practicing artist.

“This is about creating a marketplace where artists control more of the process; where they can at least dream of making a living – without MBAs and marketing specialist, all these people who aren’t contributing to the process coming in and scooping off profits essentially for the privilege of having a Rolodex and introducing us to each other,” he says.

This business model allows his company to offer a more favourable royalty split than traditional publishing house. Smith says he is essentially in the business of pairing artists together and making self-publishing a book a more realistic goal. Self-publishing is, after all, an arduous task.

“Not only is (the self-publisher) a first time writer, but he’s got to be a first time graphic designer, and a first time layout artist, a first time illustrator, marketer, producer, promoter and shipper,” he says. “All of these job functions that used to be done for the writer by a publishing company, they now have to do it all on their own.”

Smith may seem an unlikely candidate to make it foray into the publishing world. He has worked as a computer graphics designer in Hollywood, doing special effects for Disney’s Lion King and Aladdin. A computer science graduate from Waterloo, he lived the tech bubble of the late 1990s. He helped create an email software company in Toronto that eventually went bust.

Smith is taking what he learned from the tech industry and applying it to the publishing books. This past year Amazon reported higher eBook sales than regular physical book sales online. To understand the publishing industry these days, it’s essential you understand technology.

“It’s impacting marketing, it’s impacting the consumer and the reader, and it impacts the way you work with an author, the kinds of products you can sell, where you can sell them. Everything changes in technology,” he says.

And that seems to be the mantra of the selfpublishing industry: everything changes and the smaller you are the more adaptable you are. Wes Funk has gone out a limb to publish his book – he put up the money, the time, the resources. But in the end, he’s the one that get’s the reward.

“It’s not as easy as it looks, and I warn (people) against shunning the traditional publishing houses because they can do great things for you,” he says. “But for me this particular path was somewhere I had to go down.”

Funk is in the process of writing his second novel. And he even admits he will likely feel out some traditional publishing houses. But if that fails, he at least knows he has the resources to do it himself.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

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In defense of hairy chests

Repost of original post from Salon.com Thursday, June 9, 2011 11:01 ET

The hairless Weinergate photos call for an ode to the sexinesss of unwaxed men

Weinergate raises concerns about many important things — marital infidelity and politicians’ lack of integrity, for starters. But I’d like to take a moment to address an admittedly much less important issue: male hair removal. Bare (or bear, as the case may be) with me. Consider the sheen of Weiner’s chest — which prompted speculation that he waxes — and the seeming lack of hair in the new X-rated shot alleged to be of the congressman’s junk. I have no idea whether he actually waxes his chest (he may be one of the 6 percent of Caucasian men with naturally hairless pectorals) or whether that is really his nether region. What I do know is that depilation is increasingly visible among straight men, and it’s a damn shame.

I don’t pretend to speak for all women; there are plenty of ladies who love nothing more than a man as smooth as a Sphynx cat. I’ve certainly gotten looks of revulsion from friends when expressing my fondness for unshorn men. But given the extreme visibility of denuded beefcakes — everywhere from underwear ads to pornography — it’s easily forgotten that there are also women with a special appreciation for hirsute hotness. I love resting my head on an undepilitated chest, whether it’s a thick forest or a slight scattering of curlicues in between the pecs. The same goes for running my fingers over a man’s facial hair, be it a wee bit of stubble or (only in my dreams) a legendary thicket like “The Beard.” As for the undercarriage, trimming can certainly be practical for certain carnal endeavors, but visually speaking, shaving and waxing takes away that earthy sensuality, the primal snarl.

I appreciate men’s body hair in the same way that I relish their size and strength. It’s just another signifier of difference. That isn’t to say that women are naturally un-hairy, but they are generally much less so. Part of the charge in heterosexual sex is the distinction, the joining of opposites. I see a man with hair on his chest and I think (or rather feel, because this is where my rational, feminist brain checks out): You man, me Jane. It’s not that hairiness necessarily makes a man more attractive — please, no one run out for pectoral hair plugs — it’s that natural is sexy, and unvarnished maleness is incredibly erotic. To me, excessive hair removal signals an insecurity and uneasiness with our wild, primal selves. It’s anesthetized masculinity and lust — the total opposite of sensual.

The truth is that the male body in general gets a bad rap. There is this bizarre cultural notion that the female physique is innately and objectively more beautiful or artful. I can’t tell you how many times a boyfriend or straight male friend has said to me, “I don’t know how you women put up with this [gestures towards his own body].” Ancient Greek sculptors would have a thing or two to say about that, something along the lines of, “Are you fucking kidding me?” and “Get out of here with that nonsense” —  at least that’s how I’ve always responded.

Then there is the porn factor. Shockingly, there are no scientific studies on this, but I’d be willing to bet that a man who has waxed genitals is far more likely to also subscribe to certain other porny norms, like speed-of-light pounding and cheesy dialogue (or, you know, taking close-up shots of his junk). There’s a nauseating superficiality to it — like a man who watches himself in the mirror while having sex. In the same way that many women are repulsed by mainstream porn because it’s so narrowly targeted toward male viewers, I can’t help but associate “man-zilians” with straight men’s discomfort with the maleness of the male body (although I do realize that gay porn can be very waxed as well).

I suppose it really comes down to an appreciation of the natural body — blame it on my Northern Californian hippie upbringing. On that note, there is nothing sexier than a man who doesn’t give a crap whether a woman regularly shaves. But now we’re getting into the subject of female body hair and, believe me, you don’t want to get me started.

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter. More: Tracy Clark-Flory


A humorous look at potential advertising. With many companies now getting on the bandwagon to support GLBTQ citizens and youth, perhaps a new ‘safer sex’ campaign is in the works.