In the mind of the self-published
Two isle writers are finding greater satisfaction in their work by direct-marketing their books
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jun 19, 2011
Don't close the page on books just yet. In a world in which the downstream current rages against bookstores, works printed on paper, novels and novelists, the act of reading and the concept of literacy in general, there are still a few brave salmon thrashing their way upstream. Every writer since the invention of papyrus has secretly believed they could do a better job than their publisher, and nowadays many are being put to the test.
With the development of e-books and print-on-demand publishing, it has become easier than ever to self-publish — and harder than ever to get books into readers' hands. We asked a couple of self-publishers here in the islands about the state of their business. Both have books we found highly readable and well produced, with a thoroughly professional approach to presentation and, frankly, better edited than many mainstream books. In short, works that should have been making a profit for a book publisher. But in even shorter terms, don't quit your day job.
John G. Rees, whose Black Water Books is Big Island-based, is writing a series of scary sci-fi novels that recently won an international horror-writing award from independent publishers. Everett Peacock, whose home is above the cloud line on Haleakala, writes amusing stories about life in the islands that bring to mind James Thurber nursing a mai tai in a tiki bar.
Since they're writers, we'll let them speak for themselves.
Why did you go the self-publish route? Did you try pitching it to the majors? "Pitching to the majors is like beating your head against a wall," said Rees. "Unless you're connected, all you will wind up with for your efforts is pain and misery — we couldn't even get an agent to show interest!
"Self-publishing is new school. Being published by one of the major publishers, that is old school. Things are changing. Unsolicited submissions are no longer accepted, and I could be long gone before either of my manuscripts ever got to a desk and more likely a round file. Publishing the books ourselves was our way to start."
"There were several reasons I embraced the self-published route," said Peacock. "First, it had evolved from the ‘vanity press' model. Specifically it got two very important new ‘genes': It became quite a bit less expensive to publish your own book and it could immediately get onto Amazon.com for distribution.
"Secondly, it was far more immediate. A book can now be online and available to buy in about 24 hours. The time line became more aligned with my personal desire to get my stories out into the wild almost as soon as I was done writing them.
"I did pitch my first book as I was writing it. I used a submission service that sucked up my dollars and spat back rejection notices. I dabbled a little with agents but found they were highly specialized as well: youth fiction, vampire only, self-help, women writers, etc. "Being a child of the ‘70s, I had no desire to fit my stories into whatever box someone else might want. I justified my lack of success with publishers and agents this way and found, quite by accident, that I could market things myself."
Did you guys do it yourself or seek professional help? What have you learned?
"It would be nice to say we did it all ourselves," said Rees, "but it's nicer still to thank the handful of people who made the production turn out as well as it did. We luckily got a couple of names from a self-help book guy, David Avrin. The good people at Self-Publishing.com started us out; we went through them for printing. Mohammad Sadath for the cover art and Danil Mullagaliev for the interior formatting; we worked with these people online. My wife, Mara, and Teddi Stransky for the grammar stuff. We also had several readers.
"One thing stands out. You cannot edit yourself. I think that is where a good book goes bad. Just because you can make all those colorful lines go away in your word-editing program doesn't mean you've edited a book. It's just the beginning and it gets a lot harder. You will rewrite it two to three times, if you're lucky, and read it over more times than you can imagine. And there will still be errors.
"I think it's part of what makes a first edition special, before another editor with bigger teeth chomps it to pieces."
"Book buying is still initially a visual experience, especially for unknown authors," said Peacock. "The cover is the last chance you have to make that proverbial first impression. I had the good fortune of living next door to a talented graphic artist, John Giordani, who took my first two tiki-themed books and captured the pitch with some fabulous artwork. Beyond the cover it was up to me. Storytelling is a visual experience in that the writer is painting inside the reader's imagination with a palette of words. "Typography has come a long way since I was the Radford High School newspaper editor. Spelling is facilitated by both spell-checkers and what I learned in my English classes. I give Radford credit for most of my grammar, as well as having read a lot.
"These choices boiled down to costs. I had to pay for a professional cover, no matter what. I am not a graphic artist. However, I did have basic editing skills to get the book up and going."
Are your books print-on-demand, or did you go the low-run route?
"We became our own publishing company here in Hawaii," said Rees. "We have the books available at our own website and also at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, JustBookz and many other online sites, in e-book form and print-on-demand. So we did both."
"Print on demand," said Peacock. "Amazon.com has a company called Createspace.com. Unless you're going to sell several thousand books right away, it's another example of cost-effective book publishing. You can literally get your book online for sale at Amazon.com for zero dollars, if you do the cover and editing yourself."
Are you making any money at this, breaking even, losing-your-shirt-but-still-have-your-dignity? "We'll have to go with the losing your shirt, but that's not to say we're naked!" said Rees. "It's definitely a tough market to break into, but we're still trying. Sales are steadily slow in all formats, but they are happening.
"The future looks good, and the third book is being edited to be released in the fall. We have had some fabulous reviews and feel it is a matter of time and patience. With two more books in the pipeline, we're running full steam ahead."
"I read about two important data points regarding book sales," said Peacock. "The so-called best-seller probably moves around 20,000 copies. The typical self-published author moves about 200 copies. I'm in between and doing better than I expected. I'm not losing money, but I feel the books could do better.
"Bookstores — physical bookstores — are part of the distribution challenge we have. It's funny: Barnes & Noble and a few independents will sell all their copies but not reorder as I would expect. Their overhead is so great they really need to focus on the hot topics."
What about e-books?
"Both ‘Anoxic Zone' and ‘Halocline' are e-pubs available through the sources mentioned above. Too soon to tell, but it seems to be the wave of the future," said Rees. "E-books surprised me, especially when I began selling more e-books than paper late last year," said Peacock. "Then Amazon.com announced they are selling more e-books than paperbacks, which already outsells hardcovers. That prompted me to release my third book (‘Death by Facebook') directly to the Kindle first and the paperback later.
"My sales were awesome in March, slow in April and then rocketing in May. In fact, I doubled the price on my best-selling title, ‘The Parrot Talks in Chocolate,' and sales continue at 90 percent of the previous rate. Adjusting my pricing is another advantage of a self-published author; I can do it in minutes. My e-book sales are still 6-to-1 against print."
Every real author knows that writing the book is only half the battle. Is your wife/partner sharing this production with you?
"Without Mara none of it would have happened!" said Rees. "A few hundred pages of juicy horror on a word program isn't anything until she sinks her teeth into it. She is the hacker in the family. Every author needs one. I'm just lucky!"
"My dear wife, Della, earned the dedication in my first book," said Peacock. "Her artwork, as a wedding designer at Dellables, is more financially successful than mine. I write when I'm not helping her, delivering flowers and such. Will work for food, that's my motto!"
How are you actually making a living these days?
"I'm not, really," said Rees. "When not writing, I do high-end residential painting. In this economy, however … I have a lot of time to write."
"If I was single, living in a communal treehouse on the North Shore of Oahu,subsistingon fish and rice, then I could say yes," said Peacock. "But I'm not. I help my wife with her business."
If a major publisher came knocking, what would be your response?
"I'm an equal-opportunity capitalist. I'd open that door right up," said Rees.
"I actually make more profit as a self-publisher, per book, than I would with any major publisher," said Peacock. "However, they have the volume angle that would make such a partnership most welcome.
"Amazon.com has now entered the publishing business as a full player, competing directly against the likes of Random House and others. This is huge since it gives little guys like me advantages I did not have a few months ago. They want to promote from within, looking for books with great reviews but, for some reason, relatively low sales. They approach those authors and offer to sign them to a promotional and marketing deal on their dime."
Is control important? "At this point the self-publishing journey is teaching us so much it might be hard to think of doing otherwise," said Rees. "You get used to making your own decisions. Do you make all the right ones? Of course not, but they are yours."
"Self-publishing is empowering, to be sure," said Peacock. "However, I am just an old surfer living on the side of a remote mountainous island. My marketing influence is obviously restricted. There are talented promoters, scriptwriters, filmmakers and actors that could take any of my stories to places quite beyond what I could."
Are you fixed for Christmas presents for some time to come?
"Without a doubt!" said Rees.
"I am. I keep several dozen print copies of each of my books in a closet to give out as gifts," said Peacock. "They are inexpensive for me to purchase, and since I created them they have that homemade feel that makes presents special."
Any hard-learned advice for other self-publishing wannabes?
"Keep writing. If it's good you'll know it," said Rees. "Have a reader or two who will give it to you straight. Don't give up or let criticism make you cave; use it. Sending your manuscript to an editor is one of the scariest experiences I've ever had. It's like standing naked for inspection. Hang tough. No one wants you to fail."
"Remember that your success is really measured in the fact that you get your story done," said Peacock. "Complete your project. Don't let fear hold you back. You can always read it when you're an old geezer sitting on the beach. Your kids and grandkids can read it decades from now and get a kick out of it. And when you publish it — on a blog, on a Kindle or on a stone tablet — you have contributed to human culture. And for that the universe will thank you."