My Foray into Self-Publishing

September 11, 2020

On my journey from traditional publishing (19 books) to self-publishing (one), I promised myself that I would be conscientious and do my homework. This brave new world was brand new to me and I was determined to plan as much as possible, to learn as much as possible, and to get it right. It was a daunting goal and the results are still pending.

It’s been a time-consuming, overwhelming learning curve, I discovered, and one of the things making it so time-consuming is the seemingly endless number of blogs, videos, books and websites meant to help you do it, each one giving away or selling hundreds of hints on how to make your self-published book a success. I even found one expert who advertised, “My book can make you a best-seller author, just like me. His book, the only book he ever wrote, was basically titled, “How to Become a Best-Selling Author Like Me.”

When I first began writing, a few years after Gutenberg invented movable type, the world was simpler. Publishers paid you a decent advance and set you up with a talented editor, illustrator and copy editor. They worked with you on the title, sent you author copies, put your book in their newest, glossy catalogue and got their sales force energized about pushing your baby out into the world. They organized the radio interviews and invited you to parties and events and, occasionally sent you out on book tours. In exchange, they kept ninety-some percent of the list price and, twice a year, mailed you a check attached to a long, indecipherable statement, which you tried to understand but wound up just filing away. For me, it was the perfect relationship.

Over the years, as the internet grew, things changed. Traditional publishers cut back on their staffs and wanted the writers to take a more active part in the book-promotion process. Guest blogs became the norm, plus on-line interviews and questionnaires. The houses put fewer and fewer resources into marketing the books, and encouraged us to create, and pay for, our own advertising and marketing strategy.

Then it got worse. Before a publisher would sign a new contract with you, they would demand to know about your readers. How many followers do you have on Instagram or Facebook or on your website? Do you do email blasts? How engaged are your fans on a weekly basis? Are you active on Goodreads? And what exactly is your “platform” for this new book? In exchange for all this expense and work, the publisher magnanimously agreed to pay you exactly the same royalty as before.

As everyone knows by now, promoting a book is the most arduous part of the job, whether you’re with a traditional publisher or not. My childhood dream had always been based on the Hemingway model – to sit in a shack on a beach, create my own literary world, put out a book or two a year and be universally admired. At no point did I dream of spending half of every day promoting a piece of work that should be able to generate excitement and sales all on its own.

For me, the breaking point came on my last novel. Just as we were starting to gear up for the pub date, my editor, a woman I had worked with for years and a big supporter, found a new job and a new life in Philadelphia, leaving me pretty much an orphan at that critical moment. Dutifully, the publishing house passed me along to another editor, one who didn’t know me from Adam and who already had a full slate of new books in the pipeline. Every time I got in contact, I felt as though I was introducing myself for the first time and, before long, any pretense of marketing and promotion was discarded. It was not a happy experience, especially when I had spent the previous six months crafting that novel and dreaming of huge sales.

As a published author since the 1990s, I had always been disdainful of self-publishing. The world had set up these gatekeepers, I smugly thought. There was a system in place, I thought, to make yourself worthy of having your work appear on a bookstore shelf. After years of honing my skills, I had made the cut and was proud that someone always paid me to put my words into print and on that shelf. But, for better or worse, the world has changed, and, after my orphan experience, I finally felt that I had to change with it.

“The Fixer’s Daughter” is my first foray into self-publishing. Hopefully, it’s not my last. The early reviews have all been very gratifying. For anyone interested in the broad details, I went through KDP, Kindle Direct Publishing, settling on a combination of e-book sales and print-on-demand paperbacks. My husband, a retired ad executive, has signed on as my marketing guru. Together, we made a lot of decisions about advertising and marketing and timing, things that I’d never really thought of before.

I’m sure we’re making mistakes along the way. How could we avoid them? To follow all the Internet advice about self-publishing would be debilitating, not to mention contradictory. But I no longer feel that the one hundredth article I read on the subject will suddenly reveal the secret to creating a best-selling title. There is no one secret. If there is, I missed it. But we will learn from the experience, find out what works for us and do better the next time.

I do miss the old days, I have to confess. I miss being part of a team that knows what they’re doing because they’ve all done it a hundred times. I miss the events and the free author copies and the editors who get enthused about my every new idea because that’s their job. But those days, I keep reminding myself, no longer exist. No one, except a few writers in the top echelon, get that kind of treatment anymore.

The good news is that we’re relatively smart people who believe in what we’re doing and who are now in control of the process, even though it’s a confusing, still overwhelming process. But thanks to modern technology, the book will never be out of print or put on remainders. We, as our own publishers, will never forget about the author and go onto the next shiny thing on the horizon. We will always return this author’s calls and treat him with the respect he deserves. And let me tell you, publishers like that are hard to find.