5 Surprises About Self Publishing
My first six books were all published by major New York houses, including Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Crown, and Berkley/Penguin. I adored my editors and their teams, but I was a midlist writer getting midlist attention, and the midlist was starting to feel like purgatory. For my seventh book, Perfect Red, a historical novel set in 1950’s New York, I decided to self publish. Why I made that decision is a story for another day, and how it turns out, economically-speaking, has yet to be determined. But a few revelations about the process have surprised the socks off me. Herewith, the top five:
1. I underestimated the weight of having the legitimacy of a traditional publisher. When I could say, “My third novel is being published by Penguin,” I was not just a wanna-be hopeful novelist. I was legit! I was chosen! Pitching book reviewers was a breeze. Attending high school reunions was a delight. When I ran into more famous writers, we met as colleagues, exchanging e-mails, making dates for lunch. Now that I am self publishing, I am no different than the crazy cat lady down the block who has been working on her memoir for 17 years or the guy at the street fair hawking Xeroxed pamphlets of his poetry about fruit. People smile indulgently when I tell them what I’m doing. Book reviewers politely decline. My doubts about writing, which I’ve spent a lifetime overcoming, have blossomed like a drug-resistant virus.
2. I underestimated the thrill that comes with being in control – as well as the fear. I get to pick my cover! Set my own price! Make a special holiday edition for my friends and family and send it out tied up with a red bow! When I do something well, I feel like a rock star entrepreneurial author on the cutting edge of the brave new world of publishing. But book publishing is a detailed, complex enterprise requiring a range of skills completely different from writing a book. There are a thousand opportunities to screw up. Suddenly, it’s not just my writing that’s out there being judged, it’s my eye for design, my sense of how readers behave, my business acumen. I used to wonder why it took traditional publishers nine months to produce a book. Now I get it; it’s a lot of work.
3. I understand now why my covers always felt like a compromise. Photos and illustrations and super cool font treatments are expensive and now that I have to pay for it myself, I see that the economics of publishing simple doesn’t warrant that kind of expense unless you expect to sell 500,000 copies – and unless you’re Stephen King, you can’t start out with that expectation.
4. I overestimated my ability to sell books. I have lists of bookstores at which I’ve done appearances, book clubs who have hosted me, readers who have loved my work and bloggers who have reviewed my books. I didn’t think I had to build a platform. I thought that with a few flicks of the mouse, I’d quickly sell thousands of books and build a buzz that would carry me to even greater sales. It didn’t happen, so now I’m out doing what every writer has to do, which is figuring out how to connect with readers – only I’m doing it with a lot more humility.
5. The joy of getting a book into the hands of readers is absolute. Whether my book is published by a team of experts in a gleaming New York skyscraper or by me, all by myself in my office at the front of the house, nothing can dilute the feeling of having a reader connect with something I wrote. Readers don’t care about how a book is published; they care about the story. They want to be entertained, swept away, educated, illuminated, comforted and lifted up – and I want to be the person who gives them those things. When a reader rushes up to say how much they loved my book, all the doubt and angst and decision-making falls away. What remains is pure joy.
Does my experience surprise you, or confirm your notions about self-publishing? Does it make you feel more encouraged to self-publish, or less?
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Jennie Nash is the author of four novels and three memoirs. She has been an instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program for six years and has served as a private coach to fiction and non-fiction writers ranging from a British soap opera star to a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Her latest novel is Perfect Red, a historical novel about passion, obsession and the perfect red lipstick. Visit her at jennienash.com.