Monday, September 8, 2014

First Time Self-Publisher - Things I Wish I Would Have Known!

While writing my debut YA sci-fi adventure novel, Spartanica, I fully planned to go the traditional publishing route.  I even had a two-pronged strategy all mapped out:  

  1. First, I would submit to a big six publisher that worked directly with authors. I identified one with an imprint geared to my genre.
  2. If that didn't work, I'd submit to a literary agent I had identified with a particular interest in YA sci-fi.

As the authoring phase of Spartanica neared conclusion, I started reading more and more horror stories about working with agents and publishers, especially as a first-timer bringing nothing to the table other than a big smile and a manuscript.  Numerous articles and subsequent comments reinforced that, even if I landed a publishing deal, I might have to wait six months or more to see my book in print. Assuming that happened, the publishing house would have no real motive to put any resources behind promoting my product. Most of that was going to have to come from me.  This revelation together with the realization that I would only make 10% - 15% on each sale sealed the deal.  It'd be lot more work, but I was going the indie route.  If Spartanica didn't take off, at least I knew it wouldn't be because of lack of effort and attention.

Like any profession, publishing has a number of subtle knowledge bits only gained through experience  I expected my first pass through the process to include a few of these, and wasn't disappointed. For instance: 

Book Stores & Wholesale Returns Policies:
I mentioned this in my previous article. As an indie publisher, make sure your chosen distribution service accepts book returns from retail outlets. Most brick and mortars, especially independent stores, require this. A distribution service without a wholesale returns program is dead to the independents, and so is your book. 

Pre-Publishing Literary Awards:
I anticipated having to do the following with my book:

  1. Publish and make it widely available in ebook and paperback format,
  2. Get reviews, especially on the big hitters like Amazon and B&N, and 
  3. Win some literary awards. 

I've been fortunate enough enough to achieve all three. What I didn't know, and what likely hurt future sales, was that a number of the most prestigious awards required access to your manuscript up to four months PRIOR to publishing.  One main reason I went Indie was to get my beta-tested, copy-edited, spit and polished title to market in a timely fashion. Only after publishing did I realize I'd missed my shot.  The concept of sending my pre-published manuscript out for awards consideration never even registered.

Working with Illustrators is Challenging & Time Consuming
Given Spartanica is targeted at young adult sci-fi readers, the imagery around the characters, beasts, and locations had to be vibrant, engaging, and outright fun.  My beta readers helped me get there in the story, but I knew Spartanica-based graphics would only help.

I ended up using a combination of local and remote resources. The process was a hassle as each illustrator always had a bevy of other things to do.  What struck me most was their general inability to draw, even conceptually, from the descriptions in my book.  They simply could not do the translation. I finally figured out that if I wanted to avoid hours of repetitive discussion and rework, I needed to supply example images for the illustrator to start with.  They had a much easier time drawing my illustrations when they could start with something visual.  It meant a lot more time for me, but ultimately worked out.  See my Pinterest account for numerous examples of the resulting illustrations.

I was disappointed with the average author commissions I'd read about with traditional publishing, however, the self-publishing route hasn't been an improvement.  I'm sure this can change as a novel becomes more popular and the ebook price can be raised.  I've had the Spartanica ebook listed at $2.99 with specials at $.99. The paperback on Amazon sells for a little over $10.  Via CreateSpace and Lightning Source, I take home the usual 10% - 15%, which is comparable to traditional commissions. I take a much bigger slice of the ebook, but the retail price is so low that my piece is about the same as a paperback sale. Hence, while traditional commission weren't impressive, I haven't seen self-publishing do much better.

Would Traditional Publishing Have Been A Smarter Decision?
Knowing what I know now, I would still have self-published Spartanica.  As a completely unknown, first-time author, I believe landing a publishing deal would have been difficult and time consuming, and may never have happened.

For my next book, however, I definitely want to try the traditional route.  Now, I have a published book with a thirty-review, four-and-a-half star Amazon rating and a terrific Kirkus review. I have a website, Facebook fan page, Twitter page, etc.  In short, I have some presence and following that can hopefully lend themselves to presenting a marketable image for a traditional deal.

Why the interest in going traditional?  Access to my target market.  I've had real challenges reaching young adults en-masse. Those that I've met that have read Spartanica LOVE IT! My kids come home from school or activities each week and tell me their friends are pounding the table for book two. Based on all the feedback I've received, I'm very confident the story is a winner, yet cracking the broader market has been elusive.  I need help there, and I'm hoping the traditional route can provide the needed guidance and exposure.

I'd appreciate any feedback from other author, literary agents or publishers.

Your friend in most excellent sci-fi,


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