With self-publishing increasingly accessible and publishers always looking for a sure thing, the number of authors who start out by publishing their own books is on the upswing. Bowker reports that in 2009, non-traditional channels (including self-publishers and micro-publishers) were responsible for 764,448 titles. Based on 2009 statistics, Bowker expects books from nontraditional channels to outnumber those from mainstream publishers by three to one in 2010. Yet the mainstream still offers a few things that self-publishing cannot. Six authors who have gone from self-publishing to a major house discuss how they made the leap and the differences between the two.
Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman
What's the difference between self-publishing and having a book handled by a mainstream house? Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, author of the April Ballantine paperback Broken Promises, says, "Well, it's the difference between crashing the party at the castle and arriving in a coach made by one's fairy godmother."
Hoffman hastens to add that iUniverse, the service she used to self-publish Broken Promises (under the title In the Lion's Den), selected the title for its Editor's Choice and Rising Star lists, and, she says, "iUniverse was consistent, kind, and encouraging, but working with Random House is utterly different. The manuscript is no longer just words on a page, but something I am sharing with others who feel as passionately about the characters as I do and are able to make the book visible to a vast readership."
Hoffman began writing the Civil War novel while teaching in Ireland on a Fulbright, and she had two different agents for the finished manuscript, neither of whom managed to place it with a publisher. When Hoffman read a New York Times article about self-publishing, she says, "I tamped down my pride (as a Harvard University Press nonfiction author) and signed on for what I once thought was the last refuge of the vain."
She continues, "I wrote to a few authors asking for blurbs, and Joseph Ellis replied that he agreed that self-publishing was the ‘last refuge' and so, although he wished me well, he could not write a blurb. I thanked him for his kindness in responding and sent him a few chapters anyway. I was astonished to get another e-mail from him a week later with a very enthusiastic endorsement." The novel also won a Director's Mention from the chair of the Langum Prize (as a self-published book, it did not qualify for the main prize) and the San Diego Book Award for Best Historical Fiction.
Still, the author had all but given up on finding a mainstream publisher when a friend introduced her to agent Michele Rubin at Writers House. Within a week, Hoffman had signed with the agency, and within a month signed with Ballantine.
Broken Promises isn't the first self-published book Ballantine senior editor Caitlin Alexander has acquired. Alexander observes. "Self-publishing is not a substitute for writers honing their craft, though—they should be working with critique groups and freelance editors and attending writers conferences to get feedback on their work. But for writers who have done all of that, and perhaps even had agents shop around their projects unsuccessfully, self-publishing can serve as an effective test case to demonstrate that there's an audience for the book and that the author is someone who can promote his or her work effectively—a skill that's increasingly crucial for all authors in this age of social networking."
Vince Flynn's American Assassin, published by Atria in October, is his 12th book and his 11th featuring CIA super agent Mitch Rapp. It comes with the full publishing machinery behind it, as is only appropriate for the work of an author who has consistently hit national bestseller lists (after debuting at #1, Assassin as of December 13 had run for eight weeks on PW's Fiction list). But it wasn't always so.
Flynn says self-publishing was his "backup plan" from the time he began to write, not as an end to itself,but as a way to draw attention to his work. His first book received rejections from more than 60 publishers, agents, and editors. Eventually, fed up with the process, he fired his agent, withdrew the manuscript from the few houses that still had it under consideration, and began his writing career by self-publishing Term Limits in 1997 and selling the books himself.
"Look at how the music industry is run, or professional baseball," he says. "Very few people go straight to the big show. Most of them have to prove themselves in local markets first." In three weeks, he sold 2,400 copies.
Flynn recalls, "When the book was #1 on the local bestseller lists I started cold-calling agents in New York. I narrowed the list to four. One of them declined, and three days later I decided Sloan Harris was the clear-cut choice. He put the book out for a weekend auction, and Emily Bestler swept in and made three bids on Friday. All of the publishers were in Frankfurt, which added to the hectic feeling, but Emily kept pressing. When she raised her offer for the third time, she told us the offer was good for 15 minutes. We thought about letting it go till Monday, but in the end wisely decided to go with Emily." Flynn has gone on to publish all of his books with Atria and Pocket. Sales have increased from book to book.
For her part, Bestler, Atria executive editorial director, recalls, "Sloan Harris at ICM sent me Vince's first thriller, Term Limits, after it had been turned down by basically everyone else in town. I read it and adored it and the rest is history." She notes that she currently has two other previously self-published authors on her list. "Self-publishing is a path a number of writers take each year," she says, "and thank goodness, because otherwise we might never hear of them."