When someone who knows my story asks me if I would recommend self-publishing, I say no, which always surprises them. The Lace Reader’s success story is so often mentioned in self-publishing seminars that it shocks writers to hear that, knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t do it again. Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled with the results. It’s just that there was so much luck involved in the process that I can’t, in good conscience, tell other writers that they should do the same.
Why didn’t I go the traditional route to publishing? Well, I almost did. After an early draft, I sent query letters to a few agents who then wanted to see the book. Both thought it still needed a lot of work, which it did. The problem was, the first agent took almost six months to respond, and the second took almost a year. It didn’t matter that much, because I was rewriting the entire time, but when the book was finally finished, I wasn’t too keen on waiting around for another year to get it published. So we decided to do it ourselves.
My husband and I started a small press to publish local books, both fiction and non-fiction. The first book would be The Lace Reader. The idea was a simple one. We would publish and market the books, and if one of them became a hit in our local area, we would then try to sell it to a larger publisher. The sales numbers would prove marketability.
This wasn’t a new idea. For ten years, we had run an entertainment software publishing company that created brainteaser puzzles. Our products became best sellers and won awards. Eventually, we were picked up by Hasbro.
So the business model was familiar to us. We were already publishers. How hard could it be to publish books? We like to say that we were “emboldened by our ignorance.” We were also incredibly lucky.
It was 2007, and e-books were not yet popular. We decided to print a trade paperback edition of the book, believing that readers would be more likely to spend money on a paperback by a new author than on a hardcover. We explored printing options. There were print on demand companies that would do the work for a fee, but there was a certain look to print on demand books at the time that bookstores didn’t like. We settled on a traditional printer in the Midwest.
While I tested the book with local book clubs, my husband typeset the book (in Word, not an easy task). We hired an editor who freelanced with some of the larger NY publishing houses. We contracted with a local public relations firm, Kelley and Hall. We also hired cover and web site designers.
We realized early on that we needed a distributor. It’s difficult and very time consuming for a new author to sell a book to bookstores and almost impossible if they can’t order it from their chosen suppliers, ones that give them credit and take returns. But our search for a distributor was difficult. There were many small ones out there who fed into the larger suppliers, but none of them would take on a one-book small press. We couldn’t even get it read. They all wanted to see our sales history, which didn’t yet exist.
Our PR firm knew a distributor and made an introduction. One of the partners there fell in love with the story, and they agreed to take on our small press for distribution to the indies and chains. This was our first bit of luck.
We manufactured and sent out 100 advanced reader copies. There wasn’t much response. It was difficult to get any media coverage or reviews for a new author without a request from a big publishing house. Then, with a push from Kelley and Hall and an amazing bit of luck, Publisher’s Weekly decided to read it (at the time they didn’t read self published books, but this was a small press). They gave it a starred review.
We attended BEA with our distributor. We received some orders. Our initial print run was 2,000 copies.
Publishers Weekly got the word out to the trade, but we were still having trouble reaching readers. The book clubs and the independent bookstores were recommending it, but we couldn’t get any consumer media to promote it, and we couldn’t afford the advertising budget required to do so ourselves.
Then, because book scouts read Publisher’s Weekly and saw the starred review, we began getting calls from agents. We assumed that the agents were representing the larger book publishers, but we were wrong. They represented the film industry. Since I didn’t know any of the agents, I immediately called a screenwriter friend in Los Angeles and asked for her opinion. She didn’t know the agents either, but suggested that she give the book to her agent at Endeavor (now William Morris Endeavor/ WME). They read the book and liked it but didn’t like the idea of it coming from a small press or (even worse) of it being self-published. In order to get a decent film deal, they said, we needed a larger publisher. Would we mind if they sent the book to New York and got us one?
Would we mind? Were they kidding?
My new agent quickly set up an auction. The bidding took place over the period of a week. My agent called us with offers. We hardly left the house. In the end, I was able to choose my publisher. I talked to editors, marketing departments, hardcover and paperback groups. They were all terrific. I chose William Morrow. That weekend, my new editor came to Salem to meet us.
When the deal closed, the publisher hosted a champagne party for us at the Harper Collins office in New York. As we were chatting, my husband asked how many self published books they had previously bought. We were surprised to hear that mine was the first. We were also surprised to hear that, had our print run been more than 2,000, they might not have been interested. Higher sales numbers didn’t necessarily mean that the book was a success, they said, it might mean that the book was overexposed, at least from their point of view. Morrow liked the idea of bringing out the book themselves with their own marketing and publicity plans.
Our self-published version of The Lace Reader was only on the shelves for two weeks. Though we had additional orders, we did not reprint. Morrow brought the book out under their imprint almost a year later, in the summer of 2008.
The Lace Reader has been pretty successful. It’s a New York Times and international best seller, and it was the first American novel to win the International Women’s Fiction Festival Baccante Award. It has been translated into more than 30 languages.
I don’t believe that any of this would have happened if we hadn’t self-published. Obviously, I am thrilled that we did it the way we did. The self-publishing to big publisher success story gave the book a marketing hook that it would not have otherwise had. But there was so much luck involved along the way. All told, this was a very expensive process. When our invoices were tallied, it cost us more than $80,000. Even so, we did not have the kind of marketing budget it would have taken to sufficiently spread the word to readers. Without a great deal of luck and timing, we could easily have lost our money.
With the emergence of e-books, the self-publishing process has become more accessible and much less expensive. There are several online venues for promotion that are far less costly than the broadcast and print options available to us at the time. So I have great hopes for this as a way for new writers to break in. But the big problem we faced still remains. How do you distinguish your book from the hundreds of thousands that come out every year? In nonfiction, with a platform to promote, it seems a bit easier. But how do you sell fiction? What makes your book unique?
In order to be successful, a writer has to understand sales and marketing and be willing to step into those roles. That’s a good idea for any writer these days, but it is imperative in self-publishing.
It has been done with great success by a few new authors, and more success stories will certainly follow.
So that’s my story. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Would you ever self publish? Do you know any innovative ways to successfully get new books to market?
Photo credit: Tango7174
Français : Château de Chantilly, Oise, Picardie, France. Le cabinet des Livres.
The Cabinet of Books