Op-ed: How to Self-Publish and Not Perish in the Process
Are you a well-established writer with name recognition, a high-powered agent, a few best sellers under your belt, and fed up with that lackluster deal your brand-name publisher is offering you on your next book?
OK, neither am I. Maybe you’re a writer looking for work, or hustling to get someone out there to read that Great American Coming-Out Novel you just finished. But even if you’re someone who’s only thought about writing a book, you may have noticed that something’s going on in the publishing world these days. To begin with, bookstores are closing right and left — the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York (1967–2009), Different Light bookstores in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Borders everywhere, to name a few.
Another change in the world of publishing is the demise of traditional publishers, particularly notable for some of us being in the LGBT community when gay-friendly houses like Carroll & Graf (defunct since 2007), publisher of gay anthologies along with the works of Dennis Cooper, Noel Alumit, and Samuel R. Delany, shut down. Or Window Media, the nation’s largest publisher of gay newspapers, which recently closed. And let’s not forget how much the porn industry has changed, as print has disappeared and reemerged online. The days of finding your Uncle Ed’s stash of Honcho, Mandate, Playguy, and Black Inches, all published by Modernismo Publications (folded in 2009), are long gone.
All this closing and going under at the same time that writers old and new are turning to self-publishing in record numbers. And not just writers like your Aunt Irene who paid to publish her memoir about accompanying a gospel choir through the backwoods of Tennessee. Desktop publishing, print on demand, and micropublishing may be relatively new names for variations on the theme of self-publishing, but the terms “vanity press” and “privately printed” have been around for a while: Oscar Wilde had some of his work privately printed, as did a number of gay writers who wanted to share certain literary efforts that the traditional publishers of their time wouldn’t dare risk publishing. Then there was Virginia Woolf, who set up a printing press in her house to produce her own books and those of her friends, with the added bonus of giving her something to do to keep from going insane (it worked, for a while).
Now all sorts of people are writing and producing their own books, like the 20-something Amanda Hocking, who self-published her young adult novels of supernatural romance and wound up with a $2 million deal with St. Martin’s Press. Or there’s Rex Pickett, an established screenwriter and film director and author of the best-selling novel Sideways, which became the award-winning film of the same name. Pickett has turned to self-publishing for the sequel, Vertical, available in November.
The point is, self-publishing isn’t what it was when your Aunt Irene sent off that manuscript she’d banged out on an old Royal typewriter and got back 500 copies of her book bound in genuine imitation leather with the title in real faux gilt on the spine. I bet your dad still has a few cartons of My Hands on God’s Organ in the garage, next to the lawn mower and barbecue grill, and I agree it’s a shame it wasn’t a best-seller, but times have changed. These days established authors are making the switch to publishing their own work, along with first-time authors, and all of them are helping to turn self-publishing into one of the fastest-growing parts of the business.
So, more people publishing books and fewer places to sell them, with all those bookstores closing, what’s up with that? Except it turns out it’s not exactly true. Mega online stores like Amazon are thriving, and if you think it’s because of all those huge best-sellers from the big fancy publishing houses, think again. The truth is, you can buy the new Stephen King or John Grisham, Stieg Larson or Nora Roberts practically anywhere, at any airport gift shop, drugstore, supermarket, street-corner newsstand, mall kiosk, convenience store or gas station. Sure, you can get them online too, but what Amazon also offers you is all those small niche specialty market items a regular brick and mortar store would have trouble stocking, including plenty of special-order, out-of-print, small-press, hard-to-find and, that’s right, self-published books, these latter frequently being of the publish-on-demand variety that print only when you order them and so don’t need to be kept in stock. Like it or not, one-click shopping has not only changed the way we shop but where we shop and what we shop for, and your favorite neighborhood shop is finding it hard to compete.
What’s happened to traditional publishing? It’s changed. And like most change, it’s complicated. Global economic forces, shifting tastes, technological innovation, politics, the usual suspects. For me, it started one night 20 years ago, when I was one of a group of young writers who showed up for a reading of our work at A Different Light Bookstore in Silver Lake, where Santa Monica Boulevard meets Sunset in L.A. Dutton had just published a collection of our work called Hometowns: Gay Men Write About Where They Belong, edited by John Preston. It was an exciting night, I remember. I was new to L.A., new to a relationship with the guy I’d come to L.A. with, new to the idea that I could really be a writer. Exciting and scary too. The world seemed full of possibilities. The ’90s were going to be amazing.
The ’90s ended up amazing all right, but not in the way I’d planned. My life took a few turns, and along the way I decided there were other things I needed to do besides write. The relationship I came to L.A. in ended on the drive out here, around Denver I think, but I stayed in it a year to be polite, and then moved on. Things changed. Got better, got worse. Got better, got different. Now A Different Light in Silver Lake is gone, and so is the West Hollywood store. So too, as I’ve mentioned, are a number of the gay publishers whose books and publications A Different Light used to carry. Some of the writers and influential voices in the LGBT community are gone too, like our Hometowns editor, John.
And then, because I seem to have terrible timing, a few years ago I decided I’d like to get back to writing after all. In such a changed landscape, however, I balked. How to begin again? What do you do? All this perishing before you even get started on the publishing part can be a little discouraging, I can tell you that much. If you have any interest in being a writer, and even if you already think of yourself as a writer, you have to wonder what’s going on in the world of publishing. So I asked my friend Gloria, who knows about these things.
“Darling,” she said, “there’s lots of work. There are no jobs, you understand, but there’s plenty of work.”
What I found out Gloria meant was — and you need to know this — there’s a whole lot of writing going on these days, to feed the beast called the Internet. But finding an agent to sign you, hooking up with a publisher who will pay you to publish your book, landing a full-time job as a writer? Difficult. And yes, I know, I know, it has never been easy, but trust me, it hasn’t gotten any easier.
And so, because I managed to do it myself and lived to tell the tale and now have one book self-published — On Wings of Affection —and another on the way, and because I have a big heart and I’m generous to a fault and I want to spare you some of the heartache and sorrow and frustration I’ve endured, I am sharing here my Seven Steps for Publishing Without Perishing:
One: Start by Looking Ahead. Whether you’ve already got a finished manuscript or you have nothing but some notes and a few good ideas, the day is going to come when that book of yours is published, by you or by somebody else, and then what happens? People are going to ask you about it, and they are going to ask about you. So be ready. Buy a domain name — ideally your own name or the alias most people know you by. I picked up GeorgeSnyder.org because apparently George Snyder is the Dutch equivalent of John Doe, which is to say exceedingly common. Plus the dot-com was taken. Once I had that, though, I was off and running. “Do a blog, darling,” my wise friend Gloria advised. “It’ll be good exercise.” So I started blogging. Now, you don’t have to blog, but in my case it helped, because when I did self-publish my book, I had a ready-made place to advertise it, talk about it, and refer people to. Plus I had a little following of devoted fans and readers. And the other side effect of having a blog is that I did what Gloria suggested. I exercised. I developed discipline around writing. I learned to get up in the morning and write. Which, ironically, is what I said I wanted to do. I just started doing it. So do that. Do it. Get started. And look ahead. What you do today creates your future.
Two: Join Up. Join Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter. Join something, anything — sign up for Skype, instant messaging, a club, a writers’ group, a support group, a cult. OK, maybe not a cult, but some kind of social network where you can talk about your book when you’ve published it. Even before you’ve published it, but especially afterward. Social networks and platforms are the first place a smart publicist is going to tell you to go to promote yourself and your book. And I mean the publicists who are savvy enough to understand what you’re doing — plenty of them don’t, you know, because they’re used to being hired by your agent or your publisher, and they don’t know quite what to do with the guy who’s doing it on his own. I had one crinkle her brow and say, “Social networks? I don’t know a thing about social networks.” So I told her all about Grindr, which scared her.
Three: Shop Around. How hard is that, right? A little research, and then off to the mall. A lot of the bookstores have closed, true, but you can probably find a newsstand. Or go to the library. And go online. Google “self-publishing” and you will find lots you don’t need me to tell you. You’ve got lots of choices. I went with Blurb.com for my first effort. Then I switched to Lulu.com (see Step Six, below, about changing your mind). Check them out. You’re smart, plus they were designed for people who want to do this. And there are plenty of others. Some assume you know something about computers, word processing, Photoshop, ISBNs, and so forth, and some figure you don’t know very much. But there are books about how to self-publish and websites and so forth. Shop around, and —
Four: Ask for Help. Please. Don’t tell me you’re shy; I was the epitome of shy until you gave me a couple beers and then I had no problem doing anything you wanted to. So what do you want your book to look like? Go back to Step One. Look ahead. Then look around and find a book that looks like the book you want yours to be and be like. And be liked. Then ask someone who’s read something they’ve liked what they liked about it, ask the cute bookstore clerk what’s selling, and ask your friends about the books they like, how much they’d spend on a book, and what they one-click on impulsively. When I got to the place where I had enough of a manuscript to call a book, I started asking around. I asked for help. I couldn’t bear criticism, so I asked friends I trusted to read what I’d written, and I avoided the friends I know who’d be brutally honest (Really? You think that’s helpful?). So ask wisely, yes, but you can still ask. And when the book was done and I needed a JPEG for the cover, I asked a friend to help me. Then I asked a dear kind friend named Christopher what he thought of my first attempt (see above, right): and he said, “Oh, honey, it’s nice.” And I told him I thought the artsy marbled paper and handwritten label my friend Bianca had helped me turn into a JPEG looked just like something Virginia Woolf would have whipped up on her own printing press in the basement. He nodded encouragingly.
“But have you thought,” he began cautiously, kindly, compassionately, “have you thought maybe about putting something on the cover that might let people know what the book is about?”
“Such as?” I asked.
“How about a hot naked guy on the cover?” our mutual and slightly more brutally honest friend Jim suggested. And when I said I didn’t know one, they both laughed. Then Jim said he’d ask a guy at the gym if I didn’t, and he knew a photographer too. Before I could say no, we had a photo shoot booked. I brought some bottled waters and snacks and helped hold the big piece of shiny cardboard to bounce the light. The rest is photo history.
So, yes, ask for help. Ask a hot guy who spends all his time at the gym if you can put him on the cover of a book. If you’re gay, then you already know lots of people who know people who can help you. “Girrrl,” as another friend likes to say, “we know plenty of boys who’ll take off their clothes for the camera. Or even without a camera.” And trust me, you know the people who can make them look good too. You know hairdressers and artists and photographers and graphic designers, or you have friends who do. Just ask around if you think you don’t. And if you really don’t, then see Step Two and join something. They’re out there. The professionals and beautiful, talented men and women who can help you. Maybe they can’t help you write the damn thing, but they can help you make it pretty to look at. Which can’t hurt when what you want is someone impulsively clicking on that thumbnail image of your book cover.
Five: Don’t Listen to the Critics. OK, this is critical, no pun intended, so listen up. Do not listen to the people who will tell you what you want to do is difficult or a bad idea or ill-advised. And when they say that lots of the self-published books are no good, walk away. So what? Seriously. So WHAT? It has nothing to do with you or what you are doing. William P. Young’s self-published Christian novel The Shack was on the New York Times best-seller list for 70 weeks. Is it any good? If you’re not into Christian inspirational stories, you might not think so, or maybe you do, your choice, whatever, good for you. But hello? Best seller. Ditto Amanda Hocking’s books I mentioned earlier, the ones about trolls falling in love, the $2 million deal with St. Martin’s. Call me crazy, but it took me nearly 20 years before I decided that worrying about what other people thought about my writing wasn’t really getting me anywhere. I finally realized that what other people think creates their reality. What I think creates mine. And if I am going to worry about what other people are going to think, I am not going to be doing much. So my advice to you is, don’t listen to what other people think. It’s hard to hear anyway, most of the time, unless they say it in their out-loud voices. And if they do? If they feel they have to tell you? And it’s not loving and supportive? Ignore them.
While promoting my book, I sent out emails to friends and groups I’m part of. I got a message back from someone on the distribution list of a literary group I’m a part of. “Remove me from your list,” it said. OK, not exactly a criticism, but I took it badly, I admit it. Clearly he’s a very serious writer or easily offended by what I’m trying to do, or simply not interested, or he gets a lot of junk mail or something else entirely. I have no idea. His reality, not mine. His loss, maybe too, but who cares? I took him off the list and moved on. I had another acquaintance I told the good news to, when my book first appeared on Amazon. He drew back and frowned as though I’d just tried to hand him a turd. “You wrote a book?” he asked with doubt and maybe a hint of contempt. “But, but who’s your publisher?”
“Me!” I replied and laughed out loud. Out loud and sort of in his face. Remember that one of my greatest fears was what? That someone would disapprove of what I’d done. Well, fear is a magnet, and that is exactly what I’d attracted and exactly what he was giving me. And what happened? It was a cathartic moment. I realized I didn’t care. I realized I had to focus on what I’m doing, not what other people are thinking. And that’s what I’m telling you: Focus on what you’re doing. What you’re doing is writing and publishing your book.
With that in mind —
Six: Change Your Mind. And closely related to that: Have fun. Seriously. If I had to boil this simple list down to one thing it would be, Be Open and Have Fun. Change your mind. I did. Hello? Learning curve with the book cover, right? You’re learning. It’s OK. You can change your mind. From tasteful, Virginia Woolf, what-the-fuck-is-this-a-book-of-poems to hot-guy-with-the-word-novel-on-his-peen. And speaking of Step Five above, I had a lesbian friend tell me I had to change the cover immediately, for crying out loud. “ Look at that, oh, God,” she explained, pointing to the model’s manhood with loathing and disgust and horror. I told her it was so big we had to Photoshop it down to what she could see, and she screamed. I rest my case.
But truly, dear writer friend: Change your mind, try different fonts, styles, looks, ask around, shop, change friends, change models, enjoy the process, and for heaven’s sake, have fun with it. Writing is brutal enough. It’s a lonely process, sitting and typing, or sitting around thinking about typing or scribbling notes and surfing the Net on your laptop at Starbucks while you flirt with the guy at the next table. Writing isn’t easy. But learning how to publish what you’ve written doesn’t have to be a nightmare. It can be fun. Or not. Your choice. But you could try to have fun, at least. By not listening to the people who will tell you it isn’t fun. Or giving attention to the people who tell you to take them off your list. You know what? Fuck them. Sure, you have to learn some things. Yes, it can be frustrating the first time you download your files into the Blurb or Lulu or Somebody Else’s template and get stuck with a formatting problem. Yes, you will need to find out what a JPEG is. And an ISBN. Yes, there are rules and guidelines. Yes, you are going to have to do a little research. I call it shopping. It sounds nicer. Like something I enjoy doing. But come on, think: a photo shoot? Guy says to you, should I take off this underwear? And you aren’t going to like doing that? I can’t tell you how to make the writing easier. All I can tell you to do is do it. Get started. Go back to Step One. Look ahead. Look forward. And ...
Seven: Don’t Stop. True story. I know you’re thinking (I’m psychic, I know these things) I am making this sound way too easy. What’s the catch? I’ll tell you. The whole thing ends when you stop. I don’t know how long it will take you to finish your book and publish it yourself. But I do know it will perish and never see the light of day and land in the hands of readers if you stop. I live in a town that is full of people doing lots of things. And lots of them have an unfinished script and a dream. An unfinished novel and a gut feeling it’s good and worth publishing if they could just find the time, the money, the right agent, the right publisher and so on. I personally know wonderful people with amazing stories to tell, if they would just put them into words and get them out there for the world to read, but they’ve been frustrated and disappointed by the traditional methods, turned down by the usual suspects, and discouraged by well-meaning critics.
Here’s the bottom line: the actual mechanics of producing a book yourself aren’t all that complicated. Daunting, maybe, the first time, but it’s not rocket science. So what happens once you’ve done that? Go back and look at Steps One and Two above. You looked ahead, you built yourself some kind of platform, and no, don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking a traditional publisher would be putting up billboards all over town or have you out doing book signing tours, those days have come and gone if they ever existed. I personally know published writers who are hustling to sell and promote their book and they have agents and real-live publishing houses behind them. But here’s the thing: don’t stop, once the first copy of your book arrives. If you don’t stop, you will not only have a book, you will be selling it. And you might have fun in the process. And don’t hesitate to ask your friends. You can ask me at [email protected]. I know some cute guys who might take their clothes off for you, if you ask them. I just did the photo shoot for my second book. Gloria was there, and Jim was there, and Christopher. And you know what? We had fun.
George Snyder’s next book, Down the Garden Path, is due out from Lulu.com October 1st.
George will be appearing at the 10th Annual West Hollywood Book Fair, on the panel “Taking the Book by the Horns: Choosing to Self-Publish” with Rex Pickett and others, moderated by the novelist Eduardo Santiago, at 10:30 am, Sunday October 2nd, West Hollywood Park.