Bypass obstacles to traditional publication

Various forms of self-publishing, including e-books, are increasingly offering ways to proactively take control of your writing and get it out there
By Lori A. May | Published: March 12, 2012


Whether you’re a first-time writer trying to make your debut or a seasoned author with several titles out, you know the publishing industry has changed. Houses have merged, folded, or simply cut back. Marketing budgets are dwindling, and the editorial support authors receive has drastically decreased. Writers are expected to come to deadline with a near-perfect manuscript, and even then there’s no guarantee of publication—even with a solid record of sales and readership. It’s increasingly difficult to get your work into readers’ hands. That is, unless you take control of your own publishing pursuits.

Betsy Warland, author of Breathing the Page (Cormorant Books), suggests that authors take a realistic look at what is happening in the industry. “We’re still clinging to an idealized image of what print publishing is,” she argues. “We need to take into account that it is now marketing that is making most editorial decisions for publishing houses. The larger publishers are consulting with booksellers to decide what will sell.”

Breathing the Page shares Warland’s experiences as a manuscript consultant, instructor and author. It may be surprising to learn that, as director of The Writer’s Studio program at Simon Fraser University, Warland believes self-publishing is not only an option, but a necessity. She urges writers to put their work out there through self-publishing, sometimes for free, or at least at low cost. She has taken her own advice by offering a complete book chapter for free on her website, betsywarland.com.

“With the final essay in my new book, ‘Sustaining Yourself as a Writer,’ I decided to experiment with giving it away,” Warland says. In this chapter she validates self-publishing, describing how finding a publisher can take longer than completing a publishable manuscript and that writers can, over time, sustain themselves by considering the big picture. She argues that self-publishing increases audience potential while often increasing overall income.

Indeed, offering the free chapter in advance of her book’s release has turned out very well for her. “I’ve heard from writers all over the world who’ve loved it.” Atwo-month experiment has become an indefinite offering, and Warland credits the free chapter for an increase in print sales: “In the past six months since Breathing the Page has come out, it has sold very well—better than any of my previous books.”

Her success with the free chapter has prompted her to make a bold move: She will again provide free online portions of her next book, Oscar of Between, a lyric-prose manuscript. “It’s in part due to my experience with Breathing the Page, because it took me five years to find a publisher,” she explains. “Numerous editors and publishers loved the manuscript, but their marketing people kept saying no. It was very frustrating and demoralizing.”

Warland aims to bypass publishing roadblocks and get her work to readers more efficiently. “If Oscar of Between attracts considerable traffic when I post the first few sections,” she says, “it’s possible it may shift to a pay-to-read basis with a small fee, or I may consider moving it into a print book at some point, but I will make these decisions as I go.”

A feeling of immediacy

Online isn’t the only way to go for proactive self-publishing authors, but it certainly opens up opportunities. Tung-Hui Hu, a professor of English and media studies at the University of Michigan, has written two books of poetry. He’s collaborated with other artists and worked on a computer-generated poetry project, Last Time You Cried, through Michigan’s digitalculturebooks series (digitalculture.org). “Some of the best writing comes out of [working within] boundaries and limitation,” he says, “so the potential of websites and social media is not that it defies boundaries but offers authors a new set of limitations.”

Although Hu’s poetry has been published with traditional small presses, digital media and online publishing have strengthened his audience connection. “I don’t tweet or blog, and there won’t be a book trailer for my next book,” he says. “But publishing online sometimes gives me a more immediate feeling of being read and appreciated than with a print journal, which can feel like whispering secrets to a tree.”

Hu also says the pressure to publish is eased when authors take greater control over their work. “Getting your ‘first book’ was the source of much anxiety for someone like myself studying in the ’90s and early 2000s,” he says. “We sometimes worried more about getting the book published than what to actually put in it. With the abundance of publication venues, whether friend-published or contest-published or even self-published, pretty much anyone who wants to publish a book can do exactly that. Now we can get back to worrying about content and editorial vision.”

UsingAmazon’s CreateSpace

One author who has taken things into her own hands is novelist Becky Wolsk. Using Amazon’s CreateSpace, a self-publishing service, to publish Food and Worry and Six Words has meant not only print books, but Kindle editions as well. “I was pleasantly surprised by how cheaply I was able to self-publish with CreateSpace, since I did the paperback formatting myself,” she says. “I was happily surprised by the excellent Kindle help that I received for just $70. I’m equally delighted by the 70 percent royalty rate that I qualified for.”

Wolsk didn’t assume that self-publishing meant freedom from a rigid editorial process. She enlisted the help of critique partners and writing workshops and hired book editor Caroline Tolley, who offered outstanding advice.

Wolsk also has realistic expectations with marketing and distribution: “At this beginning stage, I am satisfied selling on Amazon, rather than paying for a distributor. I think that since I’m in the beginning stages of my promotional journey … my novels would get lost in the shuffle if I tried to sell them in humongous bricks-and-mortar bookstores … . That said, they are for sale in my local independent, Politics and Prose.”

In addition to using social media and her blog, textislepatchworkblog.com, to promote her books, Wolsk also includes a promotional postcard in some 300 holiday cards each December.

With no pressure to earn back an advance, Wolsk says her sales pressure is “self- imposed.” Her up-front costs have been minimal, since she self-formats, self-markets and self-promotes. Additional costs she considers include a photographer and editing services.

A creative approach to publishing

For writers seeking a middle ground between editorial vetting and creative independence, Richard Nash has an answer. For the past decade, Nash ran Soft Skull Press, for which he won the Association of American Publishers’ Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing (2005). Earlier this year, Mashable.com—a leading media outlet focused on online trendsetters—named him the No. 1 Twitter User Changing the Shape of Publishing. Nash has recently launched Cursor (thinkcursor.com), an umbrella portfolio of social-publishing imprints in which members decide on editorial acquisitions. Red Lemonade is the first imprint to result from Cursor’s online collaborations. “This year Red Lemonade is publishing four titles,” Nash says, “though in 2012, I expect it’ll be more like 18 to 20.”

Each of Cursor’s imprints allows members to submit work for the entire community to read and select new titles to publish. “You’re gaining feedback, attention and comradeship whether or not the publisher in fact picks your book,” Nash says. The imprints are invitation- only to start, but writers can visit redlemona.de to request an invite. “Red Lemonade is a niche, so it won’t be for everybody,” he adds, “but … I hope, be-tween our offerings and our partners, there will be something for everyone.”

Nash has argued that online publishing is changing as rapidly as its print counterpart. He predicts, in fact, that all online content will soon be free to access and that it is the “non- hackable event” of public interaction writers will need to focus on providing as a complement to their printed words. “You get ahead by connecting to your readership as much as possible,” he says. “Learn who your fans are. Basically, what you’re trying to do is create different products that connect you and your readers.”

Whether authors seek out collaborative, independent publishing opportunities or go it alone with self-publication, Warland urges writers to give the same care and attention to the process as they would with a traditional publisher. “I would never publish online without a top-notch editor,” she says. That shortchanges your work and your readers.

“You have to be prepared to put in way more time, as you are handling all aspects of editing, design, formatting, promotion and distribution, all of those things a publisher traditionally manages,” she adds. “What’s great about self-publishing is you don’t have to put so much time and effort into finding a publisher. You don’t have to become stalled when the manuscript is finished, and tread water for months and years when you know you have a readership.”

Print-on-demand, e-books and online content are affordable options for new and established writers, and you don’t have to have an either-or situation. As Warland has shown with her free online chapter, even a sampling of self-published content can increase readership in the long run. “There are a lot of reasons to consider self-publishing,” she says. “It has become a far more viable and respected option, but I think the number one thing is to do your research and become very well informed about its pros and cons. If you choose to do it, do it brilliantly well.”

Lori A. May is the author of The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students (Continuum Books, 2011). Web: loriamay.com.