In October of last year, I wrote a post titled “Dead In The Water” which gave a brief account of the end of my brief POD self-publishing adventure involving my “cozy” mystery novel, A Deed of Dreadful Note. What it said, in short, was that I was unwilling to do what I finally saw needs to be done in order to give the novel even a chance of commercial success.
In today’s Boston Globe there’s a story about one, Brunonia Barry, an author who took a similar POD self-publishing route for her first mystery novel, The Lace Reader, who was willing to do what needs to be done in order to give her novel a chance of commercial success, and ended up by having her self-published novel sold to a mainstream publisher, William Morrow, in a literary auction which netted Ms. Barry a $2M advance for the novel and for an additional one in future.
And what had to be done by Ms. Barry in order to achieve this admittedly singular result? Here’s a sampling:
Barry and [Gary] Ward [Barry’s husband] were willing to do all [that needed to be done], and spen[t] freely in the process — more than $50,000 before they were finished....
By early last year, they were ready to test the market. The manager of The Spirit of '76 Bookstore in Marblehead put them in touch with store-based book clubs, whose members said they would be willing to test-read the manuscript.
"I would go to the meetings and take notes," Barry said. "I asked them to be brutally honest: 'Where did you stop reading? Did you identify with this character? What did you think of the mother?'" With the feedback, she made some minor changes.
They incorporated their company as Flap Jacket Press and planned to release The Lace Reader last September. They set up a website and hired a copy editor, jacket designer, and book publicist, Kelley & Hall of Marblehead. They attended bookseller conventions, handing out advance copies and buttonholing booksellers. Kelley & Hall sent copies to book bloggers and trade magazines such as Publishers Weekly and promotional announcements to 700 independent bookstores.
Then last summer came two big breaks: First, Kelley & Hall helped lan[d] a deal with a Tennessee distributor, Blu Sky Media Group; second, a rave review appeared in Publishers Weekly. The Lace Reader was hailed as "a captivating debut."
Still, the couple had to close the deal with booksellers. They ordered a first printing of 2,500, then began to visit stores, trying to get them to stock the book. Among the first was Salem's Cornerstone Books.
"Sandy [Ms. Barry’s nickname] dropped her book off," said Beth Simpson, events coordinator of Cornerstone Books in Salem. "I didn't know her. I like to do an author appearance to generate interest; otherwise the book will just sit on the shelf." She arranged to have Barry do a reading, then called Salem and Marblehead newspapers, which ran stories about the reading.
"That generated incredible interest," Simpson said. "We had a handful of people a day coming in, asking if we had the book. At the appearance, we had about 40 people, which was a big crowd for an unknown author. We sold out in a blink — probably 80 to 100 books. We don't sell 80 to 100 books of Stephen King or Dennis Lehane."
Word spread. Several teachers read the book, and both Swampscott and Marblehead high schools added it to the literature curriculum.
That’s what needs to be done, all right, not to mention that the novel itself has to be worth the time, effort, and money involved.
In writing this post I don’t for an instant mean to even imply that had I done the same for my novel that it would have achieved even a small fraction of the success now enjoyed by Ms. Barry’s novel. She’s apparently a genuine writer who wrote a genuine novel, not some dilettante who turned out a tiny-niche-market genre novel on a whim; a genre novel that was more manufactured to formula than written. In writing this post it’s my intention to point out that in today’s world self-publishing need no longer be a mere exercise in vanity as it has been since forever, but is today a commercially viable publishing route for an author to follow in order to get his work out to the public and make money from the enterprise into the bargain. Perhaps not the kind of money made by Ms. Barry — in that respect, her case is quite exceptional — but enough for a genuine writer to make writing and marketing his own work a profitable fulltime occupation.
It’s a brave new publishing world out there.
Despite an almost total lack of promotion and publicity, my adventure in POD publishing — the “cozy” mystery novel, A Deed of Dreadful Note — is now listed by and available for purchase from booksellers Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Borders.
Sonofagun! Makes one feel like a real author, it does, even though the listings do need some corrections (being handled now by the publisher, Lulupress).
And that’s even before actually jumping in. I’m talking about the promotion phase of my POD self-publishing experiment of course. During this period of enforced waiting until the book has made it through the distribution process and shows up (or, rather, is made available to show up) on booksellers’ online lists and on their brick-&-mortar-store bookshelves (about 8-10 weeks from now), I’ve been investigating what’s available to me promotion-wise, and just what needs to be done in order to promote the book after it’s finally made it through that distribution process, and just an investigatory dipping of my toes into those promotional waters has already overwhelmed me by the impossibility of the demands I now see clearly will be made on me if the promotion is to be even marginally successful.
I’d naively imagined that a satisfactory promotion campaign could be waged for very little money and right from my own living room utilizing the Net almost exclusively. While the Net is an important part of promoting a book today, I now see its use is mostly supplementary. The core of any successful promotion, I discovered very quickly, involves two central elements: 1) getting the book reviewed by established reviewers in established venues; and 2) getting one’s ass out of that comfortable chair in front of one’s computer, and onto The Street to Meet 'n Greet and Press The Flesh of both booksellers and the reading public. Both those elements are sine qua non — quite literally — in any successful book promotion today.
The first is, in practical terms, quite literally impossible for a POD self-published title by an unknown author, and the second, for me personally, is a virtual impossibility. Me, go out on The Street again? Me, Meet 'n Greet and Press The Flesh of actual, real-world, real-live humans?
Not in this life.
To begin with, such a situation would prove an embarrassment for everyone concerned as in short order it would be discovered that I, the author of a mystery fiction novel, never read mystery fiction, and in fact know absolutely nothing about the genre beyond what I was forced to learn before writing A Deed of Dreadful Note by reading ten-gazillion best-selling mystery fiction titles, past and present, over a three-month period — the absolutely longest three months I’ve ever spent — in order to get a grasp of the genre “formula(s)” involved. Never in my life have I been exposed to so much utter literary trash. I confess, however, that it served to encourage me to write Deed, and bolstered my confidence in its future commercial success. I mean, if that utter literary trash saw commercial publication, Deed would be a shoe-in.
Further, I’m just not a people-person kind of guy. Not my thing, generally speaking, and most especially so when my sole purpose would be to sell people something. I lack entirely the “Salesman Gene”, and cringe physically at the very thought of having to sell anything to anybody. During my younger days I had the infamous (but secretly cherished by me) reputation of not being able to sell a glass of cool water to a thirst-tortured man in the middle of the Sahara.
All too true, I’m afraid.
So, it seems I’m dead in the water even before jumping in, as I've said. Too bad, actually. The experiment’s an excellent idea. Just not with me as the experimenter.
A new Featured Past Post ("The End of the Properly-working Dog") is now up on the right sidebar.
I'd forgotten this now more than three-year-old post which, given my latest enthusiasm, is most especially pertinent as it tells the story of how the POD self-published book I'm now flogging got its start some twelve years ago, and how and why it met the destiny which is now being played out. As a BTW, A Deed of Dreadful Note now has a new webpage which I set up late yesterday under my personal domain, acdouglas.com. It can be reached by clicking on the preceding link, or by clicking on the book cover image in the right sidebar.
It's been said that elephants have long memories. Perhaps they do, but an elephant's memory is as nothing compared with the memory of a literary agent.
A Deed of Dreadful Note, the book I just POD self-published and began flogging in my last post is, as I've indicated, an old ms; some 12 years old, to be more exact. At that time, the ms made the standard lit agent and small-press publisher rounds (major houses were out of the question for direct submission by me as they all required that submissions come from established lit agents only), and was actually picked up for representation by a series of three lit agents — one after the other, not at the same time, of course — who then attempted to find a publisher for it, but met with no success.
A fourth, who chose not to represent the ms, was bluntly truthful about why she declined. She liked the ms, but held out little hope of its ever being sold. It was, she told me straightforwardly, simply out of synch and out of sympathy with the times, book-market-wise. Worse, it was a small-niche genre piece that didn't really fit its declared genre; didn't meet the genre "specs," so to speak, its worst crime being that it had a male protagonist. It in fact didn't really fit any genre, but sort of fell between the genre "cracks" with the result that she couldn't quite make out just who the finished book's audience would be. That's a virtual Kiss of Death for any work of genre fiction.
Part of my flogging of the current POD self-published A Deed of Dreadful Note involved posts on several writers forums. Lo and behold, who should contact me by eMail in response to one of those posts but that very same agent. Her entire message, which was sans salutation:
Persistent little devil, aren't you. Good for you!
In the initial installment of this saga (which can be read here), I related how I discovered the new publishing phenomenon of POD self-publishing when, by happy accident, I stumbled across the online POD self-publisher Lulu.com, and subsequently "published" a trade paperback of an old ms of mine. I was so impressed by the ease with which one could self-publish a book, and even more impressed by the physical product produced by that process, that I determined right then to investigate the matter more thoroughly to see whether an author — specifically an author of fiction — could overcome the strictly-for-losers stigma attached to self-publishing, and actually make real money by self-publishing his own work. Toward that end, I embarked on an informal research project to attempt to discover just what it is that's required to accomplish both.
The first thing I learned is that if one wants to see one's book for sale in markets other than Lulu's own Marketplace, one has to get one's physical book into the proper shape to meet industry standards, and then get that book entered into the book distribution system so that it's available for purchase by booksellers — both the online and brick & mortar sort — worldwide.
Turns out that latter, which sounds dauntingly formidable, is actually a piece of cake with Lulu. One simply buys one of the two distribution packages offered: Published By You (cost: $50), or Published By Lulu (cost: $100).
With the former, you are the publisher; with the latter, Lulu is the publisher. In both cases you as the author retain all rights to your work, and with each you make the same amount of money from sales of your book. The only significant difference between the two distribution packages is that with the former you must first register yourself as the publisher and apply for an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for your book, an absolute necessity as nothing can be done with a book in the book marketplace absent its assignment of an ISBN.
Well, that's a royal pain in the ass, and a two- to three-week wait before the ISBN — which you will then own for that one book — is assigned. With the latter distribution package you don't have to do anything, and there's no wait involved. Lulu is the publisher, and the ISBN for your book is assigned instantly but is owned by Lulu as the publisher, not you, which is a mere technicality.
With both distribution packages, once the ISBN is assigned Lulu will then,
1: Place a scannable Bookland-EAN bar code on the back cover of the book.
2: Feed the bibliographic data on the book to the major international bibliographic databases so that the book will be findable by booksellers worldwide.
3: Convert your retail price (which you set yourself) into five currencies (US dollars, British pounds, Australian dollars, Euros, and Canadian dollars) to facilitate global availability and purchasing.
4: Ensure a listing of the book in the catalog of the major US wholesaler which gives access to the book for purchase by all US booksellers including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Needless to say, I purchased the Published By Lulu distribution package.
So far, so great.
Now, about getting that book into physical shape to meet industry standards, there are two areas of concern: the book's cover (back, front, and spine), and the book's interior (the "inner matter"). In my case, the cover was a no-brainer as I simply used one of Lulu's standard templates which is guaranteed to meet industry standards (and not so incidentally, in terms of the physical materials used, exceeds them; the perfect-bound Lulu trade (6x9 format) paperback, both cover and interior, is simply gorgeous). I merely customized the cover with the background color (I use no images on my cover), text typefaces, font sizes and font colors of my choice (the text being my own, of course).
The inner matter required no work at all as my original formatting met industry standards. The only iffy part is that I created the required PDF file directly from Word by using Word's own PDF file generator which sounds like it might be something complicated but is another no-brainer as one simply clicks on SAVE AS PDF instead of the normal SAVE which latter saves the file as a regular Word document (. doc or .docx file). The iffy part is that while the resulting PDF file generated in that way is perfectly OK for printing a book for the Lulu Marketplace, Lulu tells us that to meet industry standards (i.e., to comply with the requirements of industry-standard print converters) the PDF file must be "distilled" using the Adobe Distiller which would mean purchasing from Adobe (the inventor of PDF) an almost $400 piece of software for which I've no other use, or uploading my .docx file to Lulu (instead of a PDF file) who will then do the PDF distilling for me.
I'm fairly certain, however, that I won't need that pricey piece of software or need Lulu to do the distilling as Word's PDF file generator generates a PDF file that's in compliance with a PDF standard called PDF/A which is a PDF standard set by the digital printing industry itself. I'll know within two weeks whether I'm right about that or not. (The printer for the book wholesaler — not the same printer Lulu uses for printing books for its own Marketplace which books, as I've already noted, exceed the physical standards of the books printed for the wholesaler — will examine the PDF file to make certain it's OK for their use, and if not report back what needs to be changed.)
Well, I just uploaded my final-proofed inner matter PDF file of that old ms to Lulu (the cover is generated by Lulu themselves), approved all the things that Lulu requires one to approve (a matter of a simple button click, actually), and within seconds got this eMail back from Lulu:
Thank you for approving "A Deed of Dreadful Note" [the book's title].
You have completed your portion of the Published By Lulu process.
Your book information will be sent to Bowker's Books In Print [the publishing industry's "bible" of bibliographic data] and once approved by Bowker, Lulu will upload your title to our distribution network. Should there be any problems with your title in Books In Print, we will contact you. This process is generally completed within 2-3 weeks. You can expect to see your book listed on Amazon and other online retailers within the next 6 to 8 weeks.
Assuming everything goes well with that, then the truly daunting, positively scary, but sine qua non business begins: the promotion of the book.
What's that I hear you saying? How am I going to go about doing that?
Not a clue — yet. Except to give you all a link to the web page I've set up for A Deed of Dreadful Note which provides a general description of the book, permits you to read Chapter 1 complete, and contains the link to A Deed of Dreadful Note's Lulu Marketplace page where you can purchase the trade paperback. A Deed of Dreadful Note's web page can be accessed here.
[Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 7:33 AM Eastern on 12 Oct. See below.]
The thing began innocently enough. I'd just purchased a copy of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007 ($125 from Amazon) mainly to get a copy of Word at the lowest possible price. I've been using Word as my word processor since it's inception and this 2007 incarnation is the first major redesign of the product in almost a decade, and all the changes looked just spectacular and the right way to go. Now all I needed was a project that would allow me to put it through all its paces, but had none in the works that would permit that.
Shortly thereafter, I was doing some small research on Berg's Lulu, and by mistake entered into Google the keywords, lulu opera book, instead of entering the correct keywords, lulu berg opera book. And the very first item on the list that came up was, Browse Books - Lulu.com. Aha! A site devoted exclusively to books on Lulu. Perfect! And so I clicked over.
Needless to say, Lulu.com is nothing of the sort, but is instead a Print On Demand (POD) publisher. I'd of course heard of POD publishing, but only in a very general way, and I didn't pay a lot of attention to it as it seemed to be something of interest mainly to book publishers and sellers for the most part. But Lulu is not set up for book publishers and sellers. Quite the contrary. It's set up for authors themselves as a way to self-publish, but not to be confused with that justly vilified self-publishing entity, the so-called vanity presses, most of which are largely scams, and hugely expensive ones at that.
Well, this seemed to offer a perfect way for me to wring out my new toy. I'd take an old ms typescript and massively reformat it as a POD paperback in my new Office Word 2007.
But on first investigation, Lulu simply looked far too good a deal, which of course made me instantly suspicious: No fees involved, up-front or otherwise, except as a small commission on your sales; the offering of valuable distribution and marketing packages the purchase of which are entirely voluntary and at prices that are almost too reasonable; and an online physical publishing process that's so fast and simple even a trained chimp could manage it (well, not quite, but you get my meaning, I'm sure).
After the matter of fees, the very next thing I thought suspect was the quality of the physical product that would be produced by this amazingly simple online publishing process. No way could this process produce a physical book that could pass as the same product from a major publishing house. I mean, c'mon!, give me a break.
And so I took that old ms, reformatted the typescript in my new toy, saved it as a PDF file (a technical requirement of this publishing process), and "published" it. It took me all of two hours to reformat the thing (Word performed like the champion application it's always been, only easier to navigate and operate than with former incarnations), and exactly nine minutes to "publish" it as a 6x9 trade paperback (for the cover art, I simply used a standard Lulu template as I have neither the software nor the expertise necessary to do my own cover art).
Oh yeah. This is going to work. When pigs fly, maybe.
I then ordered a copy of the 178pp book (cost: $8) to see what I and Lulu had wrought.
I received the book a week later (shipped UPS). When I opened the Amazon-style package, I simply couldn't believe what I was looking at. The physical book was absolutely, and in every way, indistinguishable from any trade paperback put out by any of the best major houses in the country.
I'm now investigating more deeply this whole POD self-publishing phenomenon to see whether it can possibly overcome the justified stigma attached to vanity publishing (which POD self-publishing can be, but is not necessarily), and actually make real money for authors. If it can do both, it's a whole new publishing world out there, and one I want to be a part of.
Update (7:33 AM Eastern on 12 Oct): Part 2 of this saga can be read here.
Some years ago I said to myself, "Self," I said, "you really ought to sit down and write a novel. No, not the Great American kind. Something a bit more modest. A nice little murder mystery, perhaps. Shouldn't be too difficult, and pretty much everyone likes to read a good murder mystery, right? Of course right."
And so I sat down and wrote a nice little murder mystery. A neat, by-the-formula, by-the-numbers genre piece, more manufactured than written, the genre I chose called in the biz a "cozy". Piece of cake, actually, even though I'd never so much as read a murder mystery before.* Not all the way through, anyhow. That might be evidence of a streak of snobbishness in me, but I tend to think not. It's simply that each time I attempted to read, say, even a Christie (that master of the so-called puzzle mystery or whodunit, and the fons et origo of the cozy), I had the identity of the murderer, and why he (or she, or they) dunit, by page fifty. I mean, what was the point of reading further?
So now I have this nice little small-niche murder mystery written, and the next thing to do is sell it. This, it turns out, is not a piece of cake. No more direct-to-the-publisher with your precious manuscript, its pages still damp with your blood, sweat and tears. No more a reading by a qualified editor or editorial assistant to determine its suitability for publication. The major houses don't maintain the staff necessary for that anymore. They now depend on agents to perform that function for them, and won't even look at a fiction manuscript by an unknown author unless submitted to them by a bona fide agent. It's the publishing house's almost-guarantee the manuscript is, at minimum, of publishable quality and worth at least a look. Ninety-nine percent of fiction manuscripts submitted to agents for consideration aren't, by the way, as dismaying and disheartening a piece of news as that might be for starry-eyed wannabes.
And what primarily determines whether a fiction manuscript is of publishable quality? Strange to relate, not the quality of the writing. That's some way down on the list of requirements. At the top of that list is how well the manuscript will sell when made into a book. If an agent determines a fiction manuscript has high potential in that regard it's ipso facto publishable. If not, not, even were the quality of its prose and construction such that it might have been written by a latter-day Joyce.
Is something wrong with this picture?
Just about everything, as a matter of fact. It's classic tail-wagging-the-dog, but it's what today overridingly controls the acquisition and market practices of major publishing houses; in the U.S and Britain, at any rate.
You might be tempted to ask if things were ever any different. And the answer would be, yes, they were. During the era stretching from the turn of the 20th century up to the early 1940s; the era that saw the emergence of the great American publishing houses — Knopf, Random House, Scribner's (begun in an earlier era, but whose zenith period as a book publisher began during this era), Simon & Schuster, etc. — things were different indeed. Those houses were founded and run by men who first and foremost loved books. Great books especially. Books whose most salient characteristic was the stellar quality of their writing. And these men held as their primary role the sale of those books to as many people as possible, not only to make as much money as possible, but because they were great books. Which is not to say those men were any less ruthless and conniving than their most crass commercial brethren, both then and today. But it was their love of books rather than profit that turned them into publishers in the first place instead of purveyors of you-name-the-product, the manufacture and sales of which would have brought them far more filthy lucre with far less trouble than they could ever earn by making and selling books.
This is a properly-working dog, and these men not only did good, but made a great deal of money doing good.
So, what happened? Why is the dog now working ass backwards, and what made it work that way?
The facile answer is corporate greed, and while that answer may be facile, it has much to recommend it as the answer that most pointedly and most accurately answers the question. The men who founded those great American publishing houses are of course all gone now, their houses purchased and run by huge, multi-national corporate entities, and with them has gone the dedication to the Great Book — that is, the Great Book as understood in that era of great books. Great Book today means any work of fiction that sells, or has the potential to sell, at minimum, 50,000 copies in hardcover, and the threshold number for admission into that exalted category is fast rising.
So, what chance, then, my nice little small-niche murder mystery given numbers appropriately scaled down for its niche (genre) market? Not much as it turned out. And three agents tried peddling it, two of them first-rate, seasoned veterans. And what was the remark most heard against it by publishers? Too literary(!), which was, I'm certain, merely their more polite and dignified way of saying — their code for saying — no sex, car chases, shootouts, perverted acts, and things blowing up. Or to not put too fine a point on it, a slow-paced and boring read.
Well, I get it. I understand perfectly, and I can see their point.
In a pig's eye I can.
* I'd read all the Holmes-Watson tales, of course, dozens of times. But that classic saga is something quite apart, and in substance and spirit not to be classed as belonging to the genre of the ordinary murder mystery.