Monday, March 1, 2010

Forays into self-publishing

Getting back to non-traditional routes from author to a vast and happy sea of readers...

I mentioned in my initial post that some of my author friends & family are actively pursuing self-publication. As I think about what they're up to, I naturally filter it through a 'will it work for me?' lens. Here's what each of three self-realizing authors are up to:

Kate Raphael is writing a series of mystery novels set in Palestine: the Palestine Mystery series. Kate gave me the opportunity to read the first of these, Murder Under the Bridge, in manuscript form in the summer of 2008, and since then has taken it through further full edits, worked with an agent for a time, and submitted the mss. directly to a couple of small presses. Well into writing the second novel in her series, Kate became discouraged and impatient with her lack of progress through the usual channels. I've known Kate as a political activist for many years, and I assure you she is not the type to sit idly and wait for the world to catch up with her. A couple of months ago she let me know she was thinking of serializing her novel on-line ... and now she has begun. You can check it out on her Wordpress blog (the latest chapter posted shows up top; to start at the beginning, use the "Chapters" drop-down selector on the right side of the page). I thought Murder Under the Bridge was an engaging evocation of a complicated place (the West Bank) when I read the earlier draft, and the plot was intricate and twisty in compelling ways ... but Kate has since sharpened it up even further. I'm having a great time reading it again. And the serialization thing is terrific. What worked for Charles Dickens in the mid-19th century is still a great way to lure readers through a story that tends to end chapters with cliffhangers. Kate is doing some great self-promotion, soliciting reviews where her natural audiences are likely to see them, hooking up with webzines like SynchChaos who have indicated they'll happily publish an excerpt pointing to the 'live' serialization, and using her platform as a longtime blogger on (mostly) political topics to draw readers to her fiction. Meantime, she is busily working on that next novel in her series, and is no longer being distracted by the time-consuming business of finding agents & publishers.

Quinn Dombrowski is one of the most savvy acrobats in social-media space that I've had the privilege to know. Quinn and I met as colleagues in an ongoing, multi-institutional technology project to support arts and humanities scholarship, and watching her work has been an ongoing lesson in social media. Quinn has her own website; 40,000+ photographs on; and a thoroughly entertaining blog called Women, Snakes, and Stalkers in which she deals with the fact that she can't read Indo-Iranian languages by publishing freely-associated interpretations of cover art from the Indo-Iranian section of University of Chicago's Regenstein library. Then there's the book, self-published through Crescat Graffiti, Vita Excolatur documents -- in photographs, transcriptions, and translations -- graffiti in public study areas in that same, main library at UoC. Quinn blogs about that too. You can preview Crescat Graffiti on Google books and find it in a couple of Hyde Park bookstores. Like just about everything else that's for sale, you can buy it on Amazon. As evidence of her media skills, I invite you to peruse her list of citations on the Crescat Graffiti website, which include articles in a half-dozen print and on-line local publications, and blog posts from the LA Times, Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. Quinn even got slashdotted, which for a geek approximates a cross between going to heaven and winning a MacArthur Prize, only harsher and without the big fat check. I've heard rumor of even more impressive publicity in the works, but won't spoil the surprise. The point is, it's clearly possible to get terrific attention for a self-published project ... Quinn has run out her own stock of books (which she also sells directly from her website) a couple of times I'm aware of, but the good news there is that LuLu will print as many more copies as she likes. That's the joy of print-on-demand.

David Masover is my brother. He beat me to monograph publication by going the non-fiction route and, like Quinn, electing to self-publish. His Mastering Your Sales Process debuted last month, and you can find it on Amazon, where reviewers are giving it 4.7 stars (as of this post's timestamp). David blogs about his book and the framework of sales techniques on which it is built, and has two more books in the hopper that will form a series. He has amassed an extensive collection of blurbs, and is making an impressive dent in social-media space, promoting himself through Squidoo, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. A couple of weeks ago he started running a promotion allowing folks to read 30% of the book for free, confident that the material will sell itself.

These are three authors I know personally who are taking publication by the horns. There are no end of success stories elsewhere, self-publication that nets huge readerships, but the fact that these are friends and family compels my particular attention to the question of whether one or another of these strategies is right for me. First reaction? Heck no! But I will admit that a big part of my visceral response has to do with what it "costs" to produce a novel-length manuscript in the world I inhabit. I'm not Stephen King, or Steve Berry. This Steve takes multiple years to complete a mss., not mere months.

Of the three examples given above, Kate will probably have the hardest time recruiting the number of readers appropriate to her publication category ... which has nothing to do with the quality or intrinsic interestingness of her work. It's just tough to stand out from the crowd of fiction authors. We generally don't have much in the way of platforms to stand on, not until an author morphs into a brand (like King, or Berry, or Danielle Steele, or Nora Roberts). One of the key advantages of publishing fiction with a major house is that a novel gains a certain weight simply by passing the "gating" process (agent, editor, publisher). This functions for fiction authors the way "platform" -- visibility among a community likely to take an interest in one's work -- functions for writers of non-fiction. Quinn, for example, has a natural platform among the many students, faculty, staff, and alumni of the University of Chicago; David has a natural platform among the salespeople he works with, trains, and advises through the business-oriented social media forums in which he participates.

Kate will undoubtedly be helped in her arc as a novelist by the fact that she's writing a mystery series, and she's setting her series in a place and culture that is both poorly-understood and of current interest to many western readers. She'll bring the audience built for Murder Under the Bridge forward as new books in the Palestine Mystery series emerge. Still: a tough row to hoe.

If my new novel manuscript is a compelling read (and those who have seen it in manuscript thought so) I'm not ready to launch it short of diligent effort to find the publisher, promotion, and review it can earn. To get a leg up on a platform, I'm aiming to get the mss. onto the right desk. If a key reason for my attachment to a 'traditional' publishing venue is that my next project will take years, not months, before it is complete, there's also a certain safety to taking this path -- a fallback position. Any decision to stick to finding an agent now doesn't preclude my own foray into self-publishing somewhere down the road. I can change my mind if the mss. fails to find that right desk, or if the editor sitting behind it is crabby and hung over when it rises to the top of her to-read list.

What do you think? Are certain types of work better suited to self-publication than others? Certain genres of fiction? Is there a self-published book that rocked your world, and if there is, what drew you to it?

(P.S. If you happen to have the June 8-15, 2009 issue of the New Yorker at hand, open it to page 46. If not, imagine an author sitting across a desk from his agent. She's trying to buck him up. He's looking worried. "Great news!" the agent exclaims. "Your novel is in a medium-size pile in the middle of the floor about four feet from the left side of Oprah's assistant's desk." Now laugh. Bitterly.)


  1. As a visual artist, I see self-publishing almost like signing up for a show in local cafe, or a co-op gallery. It is a slow process but can generate sales and interest. It is a way to build resume. Persevere is necessary, I am afraid.

    Matthew Felix Sun

  2. Steve, I think you make a good point when you talk about the ability to change your mind. For me, self-publishing fiction is something I'd consider down the road, but not until I'd fully explored other options (and that takes time). Making money or getting readers is (from a time/value analysis) still more likely through traditional publishing. I guess the question is what your goal is? To "be published?" To maximize readers? One thing for myself is not to quit on my first choice until I've fully explored it. I'm not expecting to make a living, so I've got time!