Lawrence Grobel realized everything had changed when his phone stopped ringing. As a professional writer, Grobel had been consistently prolific since the ’70s. His long-form interviews with director John Huston, actor Marlon Brando, and writers Truman Capote and James Michener, among others, all appeared in Playboy, and Grobel had so much additional material from each interview he parlayed them into books.
Around 2006, Grobel stopped getting assignments from Playboy; this, it turned out, was endemic across the publishing industry as the 16–20 article assignments he used to have yearly from various national publications all slowly began to vanish.
“Used to be I’d take a trip to New York, I’d meet with the editors and we’d have lunches and dinners, and I’d come back with a shitload of assignments,” says Grobel, who lives in Los Angeles. “That doesn’t work anymore.”
He grew weary of the book publishing industry as well, tired of dealing with publishers, editors, and agents. He recalls a recent incident when a particularly obnoxious young agent explained to him how to write a proposal. “I told her, I think I know how to do it,” Grobel says. “She says I had to do it her way. And that happens over and over again.”
Frustrated, Grobel self-published 11 of his books digitally in the last year (some had been published before, but he retained the digital rights), which he sells through Amazon. They include a memoir, his interview books, poetry, and two novels: Catch a Fallen Star and Begin Again Finnegan. So far, he’s hopeful and trying to figure out how to drive purchases through social media, giveaways, and other tactics that have been adopted by self-published authors. At least, he says, he’s not wasting his time writing something that nobody will publish. He now has an outlet for his work.
Steve Almond describes the relationship between author and publishing house as an arranged marriage. “That means each party has a different agenda,” he says. “The artist wants to make beautiful art and put it out in the world. And the corporation might be invested in the artist and his vision, but they must most centrally worry about paying the bills.”
Almond knows that a chunk of his work isn’t commercially viable. Though he’d published with Random House and Algonquin, when he pitched This Won’t Take but a Minute Honey, a collection of short-shorts about writing, it was not met with enthusiasm from the publishing houses. “When I tried to describe it to a publisher, I could tell he thought, What the fuck is this guy talking about? There’s no market for this guy’s work and definitely not for short-shorts,” Almond says.
Unfortunately, this means most marketing resources are placed into the publishing house’s top-sellers, while everyone else gets to wait in the cellar. Adrian White was ecstatic when his first novel, An Accident Waiting to Happen, came out through Penguin Ireland, so much so that he quit his job as the head buyer and marketer for the Irish bookstore chain Eason’s to concentrate on writing. But after looking at the accrued sales for White’s second novel, When the Rain Gets In, Penguin opted not to publish his third.
“That was a major setback, when you’d be expecting to submit your next book,” White recalls. “And I worked hard on it, I was pleased with it. [But] because I work in the trade, I could accept the fact that, yeah, sales couldn’t justify it.” He decided to self-publish this third book, Dancing to the End of Love, as well as his two previous ones after reacquiring the rights from Penguin.
But a publishing house’s inability to maximize its authors’ sales potential may speak more to a house’s own limitations. Unlike what publishing houses would like to believe, there isn’t a universal marketing template that can sell all books to all readers.
Perhaps the most striking example is Stephanie Bond, author of 60 projects for Harlequin, Random House, HarperCollins, and St. Martins Press. As a “hybrid author” whose novels are a blend of romance, women’s fiction, and mystery—in other words, an author without a genre—she consistently found herself languishing on the midlist.
“Publishers didn’t know what to do with me,” she says. “They didn’t know where to shelve my books in the bookstores. One of my mysteries Borders shoved into romance. Books-A-Million shoved that same book into mystery. Barnes and Noble shoved it into general fiction. My own readership couldn’t always find me.”
Bond began working with the Indie Book Collective, founded in 2010 by the popular self-publishing novelist Carolyn McCray, to better market her e-books. After she started self-publishing—including selections from her backlist—she compared the stats. Over 15 years of publishing 60 titles with traditional publishers, Bond had sold four million books. Over one and a half years of self-publishing 14 projects, she’d already hit the one million mark. She felt especially vindicated when she received a six-month royalty check from Harlequin that was less than a day’s self-published e-book sales on Amazon.
Standing Out in the Maddening Crowd
Certainly, growth in self-published titles has been sharply rising. Bowker, which issues the ISBNs for books published in the U.S., released a study last October noting that since 2006, the number of self-published books produced every year increased 287%—almost tripling, with most of the growth happening in e-book formats. However, as this pool gets increasingly crowded with authors vying for attention, it’s foolhardy to jump in without a plan and realistic expectations.
“There are so many stories out there about people who have made it big self-publishing, and there’s not enough out there about the 99% of authors who’ve self-published a book and it disappears,” says Julia Drake, director of Julia Drake PR, which provides literary publicity and book marketing services. Drake’s firm has worked with more than 100 authors, from New York Times bestsellers publishing through one of the big six (Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and Random House, though the latter two are expected to merge) to a selected group of self-published authors. Many of those self-published authors, Drake says, are shocked by the amount of work they have to do well after writing their books.
Even before authors submit to the extremely boring task of converting their document to a readable e-book format, they must invest in copyediting, cover design, and, for nonfiction authors like Grobel, legal vetting. When he was compiling Conversations with Capote for its 1985 release, Truman Capote’s fellow author and rival Gore Vidal—having not read the manuscript—assumed Capote had spoken unfavorably about him and immediately threatened to sue. Lawyers for the book’s original publisher, Penguin, told Grobel to tone down some of Capote’s insults. But when Grobel self-published an e-book documenting the making of Al Pacino’s 2011 film Wilde Salome, called I Want You in My Movie, the legal burden was entirely on him. He wanted to use an outtake from the film’s set on the cover, but was warned that the film studio could claim it was a shot from the movie. Grobel also wanted to incorporate the famous poster of Uncle Sam pointing his finger, only to learn the rights were owned by a manufacturing company. “I had to get permission,” he says. “I wrote to them, but it took a while.”
Though even these initial steps—and the marketing, promotion, and sales that inevitably follow—seem daunting, author Carolyn McCray wonders if this is conditioning from the publishing houses. “Authors think, Only a publisher can do this, only a publisher can take your book out,” she says, “and they bought that hook, line, and sinker. Maybe [authors have] been hand-held by their publisher and they don’t want to do it.”
McCray first self-published her work when it was still dominated by vanity presses. By 2010, as self-publishing gained legitimacy, McCray already had 10 books in the hopper. As of this writing, she’s ranked 22nd in Action & Adventure in Amazon’s Author Rank feature, which lists the most popular authors on an hourly basis. That’s one ranking behind James Patterson, two rankings above Lee Child.
McCray, whose work includes international thrillers like her seminal novel, 30 Pieces of Silver, and techno-thrillers like Encrypted, has been experimenting with online marketing techniques to push sales. She discovered, for instance, that readers just want the essence of the book, which is why she ripped out the long description that typically populates the back of a book in favor of three punchy sentences. She tries to figure out what mood readers are in when they do an online search for her work, so she can make sure there’s resonance between the keywords her prospective reader is searching for and the book description.
Bond’s status as a hybrid author—a handicap in the world of traditional publishing—proved to be a self-publishing boon, as she was able to tailor keywords and product descriptions to the various genres her books inhabit, essentially increasing her audience. Keying in phrases like “funny mystery” or “romantic mystery” brings up her books, even if the reader doesn’t know Bond’s name or the title of anything she’s written.
McCray emphasizes the elements of trial and error. “I’m the queen of 2%,” she says. “If something can get me 2% more sales, I would do it.” Incrementally add a series of 2% changes and suddenly there’s an exponential sales increase. This philosophy—and McCray’s experiences when she was unable to act fully on it—explains why she’s unsatisfied with publishing house marketing and selling apparatus. For a while, she had a seven-book deal with Amazon’s mystery and thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer. “It didn’t work out,” she says. “How they sell is very traditional. They have some fairly strict rules in how they price, and what the cover art should be.” Amazon changed the art on McCray’s novel 30 Pieces of Silver, thinking it hewed too closely to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Amazon also removed the book’s subtitle, “An Extremely Controversial Historical Thriller.”
To McCray, this was a mistake. “Because they weren’t subtitling, 30 Pieces of Silver could be a number of things,” she says. “It could be a religious book. And I had a warning because I had pushback from the Christian community—that if they were concerned about Passion of the Christ or The Da Vinci Code, don’t buy this book.” These warnings, she’d also discovered, generated sales.
Unlike books marketed by traditional publishing houses whose imprint is a badge of legitimacy, self-published authors have to build that respect.
“My nephew says my e-books don’t count,” Grobel says. “I say I have seven new books. He says: No, they’re not books. He’s an assistant attorney general in New Jersey, one of the smartest guys I know. I know he’s teasing me. But there’s a part of him that isn’t.”
White associated self-publishing with “horrible nasty paperbacks with shiny covers that don’t feel like any book you’d see at Barnes & Noble.” It was a prejudice he’d harbored from his years as a bookseller.
But this opinion seems to be shared by literary trades that treat self-published work as a bastardized art. Consequently, the standard review track for most conventionally published books aren’t available to self-published authors. Drake points out that Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly don’t review self-published books in their regular trades. “We encourage our authors to go with PW Select and Kirkus Indie,” she says. “When they do that, they get some reviews before the book comes out and that really helps us get attention from media.”
But increasingly, online user reviews have gained influence over literary periodicals. In a recent PW Select profile, author Guy Kawasaki said, “The proxy of quality is the number of stars in the Amazon rating, and the first few reviews.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by McCray. When Amazon reissued 30 Pieces of Silver without the subtitle, her book got slammed with one-star reviews from Christian readers. This was especially disappointing. Four- or five-star reviews in quantity (“Around 20. Three five-star reviews are your mom and your sisters,” says McCray) add legitimacy. Moreover, 30 Pieces of Silver was the title that traditionally drew readers further into her library so its success affected the success of her other books.
For Our Husband, Bond experimented with three cover variations before settling on the one she thought was most successful.
Authors making their first foray into self-publishing ultimately need to stop thinking of a book as a static object. “It’s hard to get out of that mindset,” Bond says. “As big as the e-book audience is, you could relaunch your book every single day. If you put the e-book out there and it’s not selling as well as you like, something is wrong. It’s the wrong cover, your product description is wrong, your SEO [search engine optimi- zation] is wrong, or it’s not tagged correctly. Something is wrong. You can keep tweaking it and all the elements of the book until something hits.”