One year later: Reflections on self-publishing

On August 16 of last year, a somewhat harassed man with a station wagon pulled up on the busy street in front of my house and unloaded eighteen cartons. They contained 1,000 copies of The One-Way Rain, the novel I had written and published. I was forty-two and had been writing books for roughly twenty-six years. I had a Master’s in creative writing from U.T. Austin and several files, both paper and electronic, filled with rejection letters from agents, journals and publishers. I knew my work was solid, and when a poet friend offered to help me publish under her imprint, I leapt at the chance.

In many ways, I was a little kid when I published this book. I’m an awesome writer, but a year ago I didn’t know shit about being an author. Now I’m a grown-up and, as grown-ups are, sadder, wiser, and slightly battered—but also more capable than a kid could ever be. Here are some of the lessons I learned this year.

What I did wrong

Misfit expectations. I wanted my book to get the literary reception I felt (and still feel) it deserved. Sure, I knew that self-publishing carries a stigma. Nobody knew that better than I, who had dreamed of being featured in the New York Times Book Review almost as soon as I could read it, and to this day considers a typo in a published book to be an offense against nature. I struggled (and still struggle) with shame and regret about publishing myself. Nevertheless, I thought that I could game the system and get my novel into the hands of people who would be impressed with it and would help me find readers. That turned out not to be true. If I had to limit this post to a single lesson learned, it would be this: The publishing industry exists for a reason. Traditional publishing not only gives your work a level of perceived legitimacy that is virtually impossible with indiepub; it also provides crucial institutional support in the form of reviews, online presence, marketing dollars, bookstore sales and word of mouth—the last of which, while it may seem the easiest to achieve on one’s own, in fact depends on all the other support that goes before it.

The cover. I asked a friend to design the cover of The One-Way Rain for me. Not just any friend—he’s a gifted graphic designer and I had loved his work for years. But, as he told me frankly, he had never worked on a trade book cover before. We were both busy and I didn’t spend as much time on the cover as I should have. (Loving type as much as I do, I was much more focused on the inside of the book, which was an understandable but still serious mistake.) I was insecure and didn’t want to be a nag, so I didn’t bother him about small changes; in fact, I didn’t look closely enough at his work to notice the things I wanted to change until it was too late. I made another mistake in not printing out the pdfs he sent me, which meant that I was taken aback when what had been a beautiful shade of green on the screen turned out muddy in real life. Worst of all, I was unfamiliar with the need for high-resolution photos, so I didn’t think much of it when my friend told me that the picture of Devynity was not very crisp (I had downloaded it from the photographer’s Flickr). To this day I can’t look at the cover without wincing.

Pre-publication reviews. Here again, misfit expectations and a lack of experience led me astray. I know now that even if I had produced advance reading copies, chances are the traditional pre-publication outlets—Kirkus, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly—would have identified my book as independent and rejected it. But last summer I didn’t even know how necessary pre-publication reviews are to a book’s success. It stuns me that I made this mistake, because I get most of my reading material in the form of ARCs due to a fortunate hook-up at a client. (Constantly reading unpublished proofs has also contributed to my intense loathing of typos, misspellings and errors. As Kyle and I often say: “Editing is dead. Mrs. Iting is a widder.”) But I made it, and as a result the book cover has no reviewer blurbs (though it has one from my publisher that almost made me cry when I saw it), and the vicious circle continues to spin: I have no reviews, so I don’t have credibility, so I can’t get reviews.

This lesson also involves my failure to secure a publicist. Basically, if I wanted to position Rain to get as close to an institutional welcome as is possible for a self-published book, I should have spent money on a good literary publicist. That probably would have cost a fortune, and choosing the right publicist would have been essential, but a savvy professional who knew the ropes and was motivated to work with a self-pubbed, politically radical work of literary fiction would have been a godsend for Rain. I even exchanged e-mails with one such person, but she told me she only works with books prior to publication, for all the reasons outlined above.

My author photo. When I was at U.T. Austin, a classmate who was already published told me her author photo had been taken with a Polaroid. I was greatly impressed with this salt-of-the-earth anecdote, and twenty years later I asked my partner Kyle to take some pictures of me with their phone while we were walking the dog. I selected one that wasn’t too smiley, turned it black and white with iPhoto, and sent it to my designer to use on the back cover. At the time, I had no idea that I would shortly join Twitter, then Facebook, and expand what’s now called my online presence into a part-time job. When I used my author photo in these spaces, it looked dull and fuzzy; on the back of the book, it’s unprofessionally large (another fix I didn’t bother to make) and strangely shadowed. On Facebook I switched to an Instagram, also taken by Kyle, but that wasn’t much better. I should have paid for a professional photo.

The printer. I was not crazy about the physical books when they finally arrived. Without going into details (there are many), I think I should have chosen a printer more carefully, and perhaps sought recommendations from other authors or small publishers.

Believe it or not, these were not my only mistakes. But I also did things right.

What I did right

I wrote a great book. I’m proud of Rain. My politics have changed and developed since I finished it, but I wrote with my heart and soul. It’s unusual and a little bit of a genre-bender, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

The cover photo. I am forever grateful to two women, Johnette Ellis and Devynity, who allowed me to use their work and image (respectively) on the cover of Rain. Now I would probably hesitate before putting a Black woman on the cover of my book, not because I’ve heard it leads to lower sales (that got my back up and is one of the main reasons I did it), but because I would question my own white privilege in publishing a book and then advertising it with the face of a woman of color. However, I’m glad I blundered ahead because I love the picture.

The inside. I worked with typographer Eben Sorkin, another friend, on the interior book design. Eben basically forced me to pay the attention I didn’t pay to the cover, and his warm but driven personality, along with his insane amount of talent, is the reason for the book’s high-quality typography and design. Because he dragged me into full participation in his process, I got to review and approve almost every aspect of the design, from typeface to gutter width to running heads and page numbers. (You can read more details in Publisher’s Progress.) Aside from some printing glitches I’ve already mentioned, the inside of the book makes me very happy.

The editor-publisher. I was blessed with the opportunity to work with Letta Neely. Her generosity, wisdom and grace made Rain a better novel; as my publisher in every sense but the financial, she provided invaluable technical assistance. As I acknowledge in the book, I owe her more than I can say.

Giveaways. If there’s one thing I’m in an excellent position to do, it’s giveaways. I sent about fifty copies to newspapers across the country, and although I didn’t get any reviews (see above), many of those copies made their way to used booksellers, and one even got onto the shelves of the Los Angeles Public Library. None of these mean sales for me, but I would rather have the readers than the money. I also did Goodreads and LibraryThing giveaways. The latter wasn’t very productive, but the Goodreads giveaway resulted in several reviews and also in hundreds of people “adding” my book, which gladdened my heart.

I never gave up. I’m still learning how to do this. What’s helped me most has been shoehorning an extra half-day dedicated to promotion into my weekly schedule. Because I do marketing, as opposed to writing, on a computer connected to the Internet, I’ve learned what a powerful distraction social media are for me, and I’ve stuck up my share of post-it notes telling me not to go on Twitter during marketing time, EVER. Still, I manage to get things done. I currently have two events scheduled for the fall, neither of which would have happened if I hadn’t forced myself to make cold contacts. Social media has absolutely been worth about two-thirds of the time I’ve invested in it, though I’m also learning it takes a long while—in my case, almost two years—to gain a foothold.

If you’re thinking about self-publishing, courage! Go in with open eyes, a significant amount of money, and a lot of nerve. And good luck.

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