Four simple questions recently changed my life, and I hope they’ll change yours, too.
As a journalist, freelance magazine writer and author, I’ve been working for publishers for 50 years. They were shadowy figures in suits, sometimes glimpsed in the elevator, but rarely stepping into the newsroom. Often, they were just a name on my paycheck.
Nevertheless, they controlled my life, and the lives of those in the newsroom, and not just through the wages they paid. While leaving editorial decisions to editors, (usually) they ruled over the business side: printing, marketing, promotion, distribution, and all the other work required for the daily miracle of newspapers, monthly deadlines for magazines, and those for books that may stretch. for years.
This fall, dissatisfied with the marketing and promotion of my last three books, I decided that it was time for a change. I wanted to control my own publishing destiny.
I didn’t buy a suit; I bought a set of 10 ISBN numbers and created a publishing company of one. Yes, I am now a publisher, the owner of Euclid Grove Publishing, named after the long-gone orange grove that inhabited the leafy neighborhood in St. Petersburg where I live with my family.
Self-publishing, once derived as “vanity publishing” reserved for losers who couldn’t find a traditional publisher, has gone mainstream, with the number of new titles increasing every year. (To be honest, a good portion are duds, and many lack professional skills behind them).
In 2007, Amazon launched Kindle Direct Publishing, enabling authors or publishers to independently publish digital versions of their books to the Kindle store. It since added a paperback option, and hardcover, in beta. Traditional publishers have taken note. In 2012, Vintage Books, an imprint of venerable Random House, bought EL James’ erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which James had self-published. Her trilogy of her has sold 65 million copies worldwide.
There are other self-publishing outlets, like Smashwords, but I chose to put my latest book, “Writers on Writing: Inside the lives of 55 distinguished writers and editors,” in the hands of Amazon because Amazon really is the gorilla in the arena of self-publishing. My book is drawn from “Four Questions with…,” a recurring feature on my blog and newsletter, Chip’s Writing Lessons. I also created a companion book, “Writers on Writing: The Journal,” which is chock-full of inspirational quotes, coaching tips and writing prompts — 111 of them — based on the interviews, and blank pages where writers can record their answers and observations, making it an interactive writing workshop.
Although journalists — several of them Pulitzer Prize winners or the editor behind the awards — dominate this collection, I also sought out writing coaches, fiction writers, a documentary filmmaker and authors, among them New York Times bestsellers, a MacArthur Foundation “genius,” acclaimed poets, and a pair of successful crime thriller writers. The lineup includes Susan Orlean, David Finkel, Jan Winburn, Valerie Boyd, Lane DeGregory, Patricia Smith, Kelley Benham French and Thomas French, among others. The interviews pose the same four questions:
- What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer/editor?
- What has been the biggest surprise in your writing/editing life?
- If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer/editor, what would it be? (So far, I’ve gotten a Ferris wheel, a floor cleaning company, stone wall builder, miner, diver, bee, and a nail technician.)
- What’s the best piece of writing/editing advice anyone ever gave you?
Their answers are like the subjects: diverse, entertaining, instructive, and inspiring. (See a sample interview with Rosalind Bentley, a Features/Enterprise writer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)
Amazon doesn’t charge to publish, but takes part of the sales action that ranges depending on the book price. My royalties could have been as high as 60% for sales of my books. But I chose what they call extended distribution, which gives me 40%, a lesser cut, but it means the book is distributed worldwide, to booksellers and libraries. Reach was more important to me. (The interview collection sells for $14.95 in paperback and $9.95 on Kindle. The Journal, coming soon, will sell for $9.95 in paperback, while the Kindle version is $7.95.)
But that’s just one chapter of a self-publishing adventure I set out on in October that might well interest other writers.
Fortunately, I had Becky Blanton, a former journalist turned ghostwriter who has self-published hundreds of books, as my Sherpa to guide me to the top of this mountain in exchange for writing coaching on her next client memoir. She taught me how to buy ISBN numbers, the national and international standard identification numbers for uniquely identifying books. She created striking book covers. She led me to Ray Hoy, an 85-year-old self-published novelist who lives in the woods of Alaska. His Misty Mountain Productions expertly formatted my manuscript into an e-book and paperback format that I uploaded Wednesday to Kindle Direct Publishing. It sounds easier than it was, but included a steep learning curve, and lots of questions and minefields to navigate.
People who’ve learned of my decision to self-publish want to know how much it costs. It’s hard to gauge. To say I depended on the kindness of friends, old and new, is an understatement.
And, as I’ve learned along the way, cost also depends on whether you have a full-blown idea, manuscript, as I did, or you need to write something. Do you “write clean?” It will impact the cost of editing and proofreading. Is your idea or story new, or is the market flooded with similar ideas and information? Readers want new angles, new ideas, and new approaches to the problems or challenges they face.
Once you have a manuscript, you can handle most of the tasks of self-publishing, given your skill sets. Amazon offers excellent tutorials for using Kindle Direct Publishing. You can also find a wealth of material on the web.
But here’s a ballpark figure for the essentials: I paid Blanton $400 for the book covers, one for the Kindle version, another for the paperback, and a third for the companion volume — paperback and Kindle — and another $250 for work above and beyond our barter arrangement: In addition to emails, texts and many hours on the phone, she guided me through the Amazon self-publishing contract, which is full of minefields. She also created a very cool colophon, a graphic symbol that identifies the publisher. Mine is an orange tree, fitting for the citrus state. I bought an extended license for the image for $89.
I shelled out $295 for a set of ten ISBN numbers. Bowker, at myidentifiers.com, is the best place to buy them. (Even if you plan to self-publish once, that’s the lowest amount they sell.) Buy your own, Blanton advised, as Amazon’s free ISBN offer limits your options. Formatting the books from a manuscript into ebook and paperbacks cost $398. For $95, I purchased an internet domain that hosts my book’s website, where the book is also on sale.
Total outlay: $1,527, compared to the $2,000 to $4,000 it costs most authors, according to the online author service Reedsy.
In my case, you must remember how much labor and expert guidance a large and generous group provided free. Roy Peter Clark, the king of writing books, wrote the foreword, including this eminently blurbable line: “By asking four questions to 55 of our finest writers and editors, Chip Scanlan has hosted one of the greatest writing conferences you will ever attend.”
Casey Frechette, another erstwhile Poynter colleague, who directs the journalism program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, generously created a website, thewritersonwritingbook.com.
The costs may rise exponentially if you’re a self-publishing newbie. Say you need help writing your book. A development editor aka ghostwriter may charge $3,500 all the way up to $40,000 and higher for a heavily researched and footnoted book. Copyediting and proofreading could cost $1,500 to $2,000. A marketing company could charge $4,000 to $5,000 a month to promote your book. Do your due diligence to avoid scammers.
Publicity is now my job, and given the dismal efforts by my previous publishers, I’m happy to take it on. I’ve kept up a steady stream of posts about my journey on social media, garnering promises to buy. I landed appearances on two influential podcasts — Matt Tullis’ “Gangrey” and Brendan O’Meara’s “Creative Nonfiction” — to discuss my book. I hope to arrange signings at local bookstores and libraries. I wrote this article.
Look for opportunities to speak to groups, even five or six people, who could benefit from your book’s content. The goal is word-of-mouth. The more people who get to meet you, like you, and what you have to say, the more your books will sell.
Start a blog or newsletter. This creates your platform. Blog readers become book buyers. Get on social media. Ask friends and family to talk up your book. But first of all, write your book!
Don’t expect to become rich or famous. Most self-published books sell 1,000 copies, at most, but average about 250 copies. On Amazon, a book needs to sell between 3,500 and 5,000 copies in the first 24 hours to become a best-seller. Most newspapers and magazines won’t review self-published books unless you are someone already famous. Your book won’t be in bookstores either, unless you can persuade the owner to stock some — also very possible if the bookstore buyer likes the book, or you’re well-known.
A book may establish your credibility, even if you have none, or not much. After all, You just published a book! Many of Blanton’s authors have landed well-paying, national speaking gigs, including giving TED talks. As with “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a traditional publisher may want to publish your book if it turns out to be a self-published hit.
Be aware that if a major publishing house does pick up your book, they’ll most likely change the cover and re-edit your precious prose to suit their policies or preferences. (Granted, I have writer friends who have been gratified by their publisher’s attention.) You’ll lose some control, and some money, but gain some cachet. Self-publishing isn’t for everyone, but right now it’s perfect for me — given that I didn’t want to wait a year (or longer) to get my book on the market. I didn’t want to have to find an agent who would work with me, and I sure didn’t want weeks or months negotiating a contract or having someone reorder and restructure my concept, as I experienced earlier.
I’ve already conceived my next book and feel confident enough to make the self-publishing journey myself, although Blanton is still available if I stumble. Self-publishing your first book is challenging, but, apparently, it gets easier with every book.
For those of you who have a book and haven’t been able to find an agent or publisher, or simply want to control the process, I’d recommend at least considering self-publishing. (History shows you won’t be the first writer to take the DIY route.) You can hold a book in your hands that you wrote and published yourself. You won’t even have to wear a suit.