A few months ago, I set out to use the tools of self-publishing to release my new novel, The Thief of Auschwitz, as much as possible in the manner of a traditional publishing house. I’d been down the traditional-publishing path twice, and although critical reception to my books had been gratifying—both received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Finn was an ALA Notable Book, and so on—neither was a bestseller. Kings of the Earth, thanks to timing and availability, fell off a cliff, in spite of topping the Summer Reading List at O, the Oprah Magazine. So as I drew near to offering my third novel to editors, I grew afraid of seeing it tossed into that same neglectful abyss.
I decided that if there were a tipping point between traditional publishing and self-publishing, I was standing on it. On one hand, I had literary credibility. On the other, my audience was loyal but not enormous. I wasn’t making such a fortune for big publishing that anybody would miss me.
I’d miss things about it, though. Distribution, for one. Self-publishers usually go straight to the Kindle, and often stop there. Not me. I didn’t want to limit the book to Amazon or even to an e-book format. That meant releasing it through multiple sites, and creating a print-on-demand paperback that could sell online and in stores. (I love independent bookstores. They’ve been kind to me, and I would never cut them out.)
I’d also miss reviews. Many papers and magazines that loved Finn and Kings—even those that put them on their year-end best-of lists—shun self-published books. Nonetheless, I printed ARCs, hired a publicist, and set a release date four months out, giving time to any editors who decided to read the manuscript. (Several did, including the Wall Street Journal and the Jewish Daily Forward.)
Along the way, I definitely ran into unexpected roadblocks and bottlenecks—things that divide the mechanisms of self-publishing from the mechanisms of big publishing, things that can stand in the way of a little guy who tries to behave like a big guy. So, below are some lessons I have learned.
1. Without pre-sales, you’re losing out. Alone among the online sellers, only Apple lets independents set a future publication date and ring up pre-sales. To keep my pub-date promise to the press, then, I couldn’t make the e-book visible on the very sites where it would no doubt have pre-sold the best, including Amazon.
2. Indie booksellers hate print-on-demand. They hate the low margins and the lack of a return policy. They also hate CreateSpace, the Amazon division I’m using to print books. I reached out to hundreds of indies, and these were recurring themes. A couple wrote me to say that no book touched by CreateSpace would ever darken their shelves, and a few assumed incorrectly that I’m being published by Amazon. I wrote back each time, explaining my limitations as a small businessman with no corporate backing. (I should add that most indies who wrote said they would stock the book. I’ve linked to them on my Web site.)
3. ISBNs are forever. I made the mistake of attaching to the paperback the ISBN that CreateSpace provides, not realizing that every reference to Thief in every catalogue in the world would thenceforth show “CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform” as publisher, not my own brand, unmediated ink.
4. Time is not on your side. CreateSpace spit out November 1, 2011, as the publication date for Thief. I hadn’t even begun writing the book then. Nonetheless, some editors who expressed an interest in covering it were put off by that dating error. It looked as if my publicist were pushing an old book.
5. Leaks happen. To make Thief available to booksellers for the launch, I opened CreateSpace’s bookstore sales channel 30 days ahead of the pub date. Instantly, listings for the paperback began showing up on Amazon and B&N. It was frustrating, in light of my pub-date promise to the media. All I could do was hope nobody would notice.
Despite the glitches, the book has launched, it’s selling, and that’s that. This list of issues is far from complete, and it adds up to little when compared to the independence I’ve gained by doing all of this myself. I’ve made some mistakes, and next time I’ll do better. Perhaps by then the systems will have improved a little. I can always hope. I always do.