Some of you may or may not know that my seventh Crispin Guest Medieval Noir Mystery, CUP OF BLOOD, was self-published. This was both a tough and not-so-tough decision. For the last six books, I was published by St. Martin’s with the best editor anyone could have wanted. And I had wanted St. Martin’s. They were the publishers of some of the best crime books out there and I wanted to be in that stable. The advances were very modest, certainly not enough to live on, but it was still nice to get a chunk of cash twice a year that would send me to mystery fan conventions like Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, and Malice Domestic. My editor was fabulous, the proofreaders/fact checkers excellent, the cover design divine. The publicist was easily accessible and tried very hard—within the nebulous budget, whatever that was—to get my name out there.
The problem is, I’m an author who is supposed to be writing, along with all the publicity that is demanded of me—Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, blog, website, personal appearances. And I simply don’t have the might of a big New York publisher nor the money to do proper advertising. For instance, it would have been nice to get a big New York introduction to the book buyers; getting my books placed visibly in bookstores; getting them placed in big box stores or book clubs. I don’t have the contacts or wherewithal or the cash to do that. And with a niche book like a medieval mystery, it’s sink or swim. That’s the publisher’s job. But here’s the problem. The paradigm of big publishers with a lot of midlist authors is the pasta test. Throw all the noodles against the wall to see which one sticks. If that one seems to capture the imagination of readers and booksellers, then they throw more money at it. It’s an insane way to do business. And frankly, an insulting way for authors. Yes, they are a business and they want to make money on the commodity that is a book, but hey. This is also my career you are messing with. And once those numbers are low and out there, an author is toast. Meaning, any other publisher out there who may wish to pick up your series when your publisher drops you for lack of sales, they, too, can look at those poor numbers. Poor numbers the publisher is responsible for—because I sure busted my butt getting my name out there—and then there you are. As orphaned as my character Jack Tucker.
But like Jack Tucker, I’m a bit canny, and I had no wish to roll over and die. The books were consistently well reviewed, and most all of them received nominations for industry awards from the Agatha to the Shamus. I knew that these characters were enduring, classic, and the stories exciting and different. There was no way I was going to give Crispin an early funeral. And though I had disparaged self-publishing in the past—and believe me, there is still a lot of drek out there, stuff that is unedited, unvetted, with poorly designed, amateurish covers that even a 99 cent price tag won’t cure—there were also the crop of new authors who cared about their work, who paid their dues, who researched, queried, hit the bricks, but still couldn’t cut a break, who were actually getting their self-published work into the hands of readers. And suddenly this was looking not like a last ditch effort but a viable option.
My agent was working hard to place the Crispin books with a new smaller publisher, which meant a smaller advance but a new lease on life. But with the numbers it’s been a tough sell. (We did place him, but I still don’t have a contract in my hand, even after a few months, and so still we wait.) But I certainly didn’t want a year to go by without a Crispin book on book shelves and in the hands of my small but loyal following.
The very first Crispin book I wrote was CUP OF BLOOD with its Templar/Holy Grail theme. All the characters were in place. Jack Tucker worms his way into a lonely and desperate Crispin’s life, a puzzle, a murder, a relic, and all the tangential characters were on hand. But it was being peddled at the same time as another novel had hit the bestseller lists: THE DA VINCI CODE by Dan Brown…with its Templar/Holy Grail theme. Editors were pretty sick to death of that, even though it was a mere coincidence of it happening at the same time and the rest of our plots had nothing to do with the other. So after it had been all over town, my agent and I agreed to put it to bed. Meanwhile, I hadn’t been idle and had penned the next three Crispin books, mostly because I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a series and to prove to my agent I was no one-trick pony. It had been fourteen months since St. Martin’s rejected CUP OF BLOOD when the editor contacted my agent and asked if the author had another book in that series because he “couldn’t get those characters out of his head.” And a week earlier I had just turned in my final draft of VEIL OF LIES. A week later an offer was made. That was back in 2007. Fourteen years of writing novels for publication had gone by and I had finally gotten my first real sale.
I had never forgotten that first book, the origin story of Jack Tucker. And now that I was between publishers it seemed the ideal time to publish it as a “prequel.” So I had to get to work and research what I had to do.
First off was looking at my St. Martin’s contract. They had a non-compete clause, the most insane clause for an author ever. An author doesn’t compete with herself in the marketplace. Readers don’t think to themselves, “I’ll buy this one but not this one from my favorite author.” They buy everything from that author, because books are like potato chips; you are never satisfied with just one. Be that as it may, I didn’t want to break any contracts, so the earliest I could release a new book was in late spring, six months after the last release. Fine. It would take me that long to rewrite the book, get it edited, and figure out how I was going to do this. To be on the safe side, I scheduled my release for the summer, thinking that the summer was a good time to catch people for their beach reads. More on that choice later.
I had decided that my easiest (for me) choice was to go with Amazon.com’s Createspace self-publishing platform. For one, I needed an ISBN, that identifying number associated with the book, the number that booksellers and libraries use to order individual books. If you went exclusively with Amazon for your print books, they gave you this number for free, a $150 savings. Fine. And they offered distribution through Baker and Taylor, one of two big distributors (in an outdated paradigm) wherein booksellers and libraries order the books. They don’t order them directly through the publishers, but through these distributors with which they have accounts. Booksellers can return books through these channels, books that don’t sell in that small allotted window when a book is fresh and new. If it doesn’t sell within that six week period they aren’t stuck with it. It’s a crazy system but it affords authors a chance to be in bookstores in a practical and cost-effective way.
However, a self-published print book is created by print-on-demand, or POD. That means you can print one copy or many at the same time. The digital file gets sent to the printing press—along with everyone else’s digital book files—and in three minutes or less, your one copy is printed, bound, put together with the four-color printed cover and ready to ship out. At the same time many other books are being processed in the same way. Yeah, it’s that good and that quick these days. But when it’s created in this way, you can see how when an order is placed, the book is printed and shipped, there is nowhere in the system to send it back. Where does it go? There is no warehouse full of them. And so bookstores are traditionally uneasy taking a chance on a self-published book unless they carry it on consignment, which means you the author pay for the book, pay for the shipping, and hope they sell it.
I made myself a list of the things I had to think about:
- Get postcards made to send to booksellers and libraries
- Make a list of reviewers with contact info
- Get advanced reader copies printed (ARCs) to send to book reviewers
- Book myself into bookstores for the launch in the summer
- Design a book cover and do photoshoot (here is a blog post I did about that process)
- Book myself into libraries for events for the tour
- Create press releases for the local papers and local NPR station
- Stash some money away to be able to purchase books to sell for my events or to give to bookstores on consignment
I was lucky in that I had already been published by a New York publisher. There were a few things I already knew (like about ARCs and lists of reviewers) and had made a lot of friends in the industry through years of networking. I had done multi-state book tours (my publicist with St. Martin’s could book these for me with bookstores they knew well, but it was always on my dime. I had to get myself there with flights, motel accommodations, and car rentals. And it wasn’t cheap.) So I was far ahead of the game of newbies. I never would have done this indie publishing thing if I was starting out. It would have been impossible to make more than a handful of sales.
The gears were rolling. I had a list of reviewers both industry, newspaper, librarians, booksellers, and bloggers. It wasn’t a huge list. After all, it meant my buying and shipping out books myself to these venues. It turned out to be about twenty-six in all. At $4.57 a copy plus mailing costs, you can see how that could add up, and for someone already on a tight budget, that was truly all I could afford.
I wanted a figure on the cover and a design reminiscent of the covers done by St. Martin’s just to keep it all in the same theme. I had loved those covers but they didn’t belong to me. They belonged to the publisher and to the photographer who created them. But I was a graphic artist and art director in my earlier career before I ventured into this insane one of writing novels, and my husband is a commercial photographer. A work acquaintance of my husband, who had the right build and the long hair, offered to be the model, so the huge expense one can incur from a photoshoot shot down to zero. I did have to purchase the costume and that did run me some $400 but that was something I knew I could also bring on my gigs when I made my many presentations throughout the year. And it’s all tax-deductible.
The cover design was well under way, the rewrite was on track, and I headed out to a mystery conference in Monterey. One of the panels I attended was made up of industry reviewers for Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, etc. Like St. Martin’s, I was going to be focusing a lot of my promotion to libraries. A library is a good sale. They don’t send the books back and if it’s checked out enough times (circulated) and gets worn out, they might order more. And if they have many branches in their system, they might order books for all their branches. A GOOD sale. St. Martin’s would send out 3,000 postcards to their libraries (though I had to supply the postcards) and sales were made from that and from a good review in Booklist or Library Journal. For the last few years, however, I wasn’t getting reviewed anymore from Library Journal or Booklist. I don’t know why. And library sales were never as brisk as we had hoped.
At that panel the reviewers mentioned the timeframe: the books had to be in their hands three to six months prior to release. Holy smokes! I had to get ARCs out and pronto!
And here’s where Createspace falls down on the job. I quickly uploaded my uncorrected proof—as even the big boys do—and waited for its approval. I had twenty-six places to send ARCs to. But once approved, Amazon only lets you order five copies at a time. Five. In order to get more, you had to re-upload the manuscript, wait for approval and order five more. That process took twenty-four to thrity-six hours each time and the proofs were printed and shipped to me on the slowest boat ever. I had to do this five times! And then I discovered that the distributor, Baker and Taylor, required six to eight weeks before they uploaded your title to their lists. I wanted it to be available to booksellers (believing like a ninny that they would order them) well before release date, which was July 25. Amazon falls down on the job on this, too, because in order to make them available, I had to hit the “Publish” button in May. Well, what choice did I have, so I did. And now, on all info from Amazon, my July release book was actually released May 22. This might have had a domino effect on the reviewers I sent to, because magazines don’t want to review books already on the market. Oy! And then it still wasn't available from Baker and Taylor in the time allotted even if they had wanted to order it. Double oy!
You do what you gotta do. And you learn valuable lessons. Secretly, the book was out there and available from May 22 on, print and digital. And it was selling, without a word from me. Later I learned how to format for Nook and Smashwords, which makes the ebook available on iTunes. I am still working on getting a narrator for the audiobook, which I am publishing myself through Amazon’s Audible arm, ACX, where you can find narrators to work for a 50/50 share of royalties rather than shelling out money upfront, which I was not prepared to do.
What’s the upshot? Well, sales are decent. I found out that actually releasing a book in the summer rather than my usual fall release meant that many of my normal readers who would have been at the event were on vacation. Oops. That traffic getting to my bookstores in southern California was heavier with beach traffic than it is in the fall (I was almost late to my own parties). I discovered a lot of these reviewers are wonderful and truly love the books (thank you Richmond Times-Dispatch!). I also discovered that the blanket statement covering self-published books makes no sense (some magazines flat out don’t review self-published books. Even though they know me personally and have reviewed me before. Even though it’s the same author, the same series, the same characters, the same writing style with the only difference being there is no publisher. Yeah, this needs to change.)
I also discovered that my eagerness to make sure Baker and Taylor had the book on their list made no difference whatsoever because the bookstores wouldn’t order them because they couldn’t take returns. I had to buy a boatload of books to bring to stores on consignment, which is a chunk of change for me. Not only that, at the bookstore where I launched, where I’ve launched all my books, they insisted they be on consignment too, and wanted me to bring them a week early so they could put labels on them and inject them into their system, so I had to make sure I had enough to bring to the other stores and events. One mystery bookstore that I know of in another state did order them. Bless you! Another store in another state with which I have a good relationship, couldn’t manage to order them, but wanted them on consignment, but wouldn’t give me the 60/40 deal that everyone else did, plus I had to ship it to them. Oh well. I hope they sell.
I am still marketing to libraries with more postcards going out in intervals. I discovered—what I couldn’t seem to tell from St. Martin’s royalty statements, a labyrinthine Sudoku of Excel doc columns that never seemed to add up—that I sell far more ebooks than print. I never thought I sold more than 10% of my sales in ebooks but I was wrong. In fact, they are still making good money on my ebooks. Not me, but they are.
And with my distribution of ebooks through Amazon it gets the book into far more countries than the publisher could, so email me if you live outside the U.S. and can’t get the other books in he series digitally.
I like that I get monthly checks—on time!—rather than those twice a year feeble royalty checks based only on the first book that was the only one to sell through its advance. I like that I don’t share that money with anyone but my husband (my agent is out of the loop with my self-published books, which makes him unhappy but this is my career, my hard work and I make no apologies).
Authors like me will become hybrids, being traditionally published and self-publishing. I still like that big chunk of change from an advance, even as small as those advances might be, and I like that they take care of the editing, book and cover design, and all the review mailings. But I also know that if go it alone I must, it isn’t as scary as it was, and my modest following will slowly grow as I write and release other books from my vaults.
It’s an interesting time to be published.