Going It Alone: Authors Discuss Their Decision to Abandon Traditional Publishing
Jeff Drifmeyer, of Williamsburg, Va., has published novels such as "Civil War Comes Home" as Jake McKenzie. (Judith Lowery/Newport News Daily Press/MCT)
David Perry, the pharmacy manager at the Harris Teeter grocery store, uses his chemistry knowledge to kill people in his novels. (Judith Lowery/Newport News Daily Press/MCT)
Newport News, Va. — “I should write a book.” We’ve all heard that statement before from friends or family or co-workers. We might even have said it ourselves. We all have stories to tell, whether real or fictional.
In the past, those who wrote a book faced a limited number of options: They shopped their manuscripts around to agents and editors at publishers, a process that could take years, if ever. Alternatively, they could contract with a vanity press for production that could cost them thousands of dollars. They would have their book in print, but without the backing of publishing experts.
With the introduction of low- and no-cost publishing platforms in the past decade such as Amazon’s CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing, the publishing world has become rampant with new and reissued books by new and established authors. Editors, graphic artists and book formatters jumped on board, and a new cottage industry was born.
More than 390,000 novels were self-published in 2012, an increase of 59 percent from the year before, according to Bowker, the New Jersey-based agency that serves as the official U.S. distributor and tracker of ISBNs — international standard book number — in the United States. The ISBN is the number that is usually above or near the bar code on books.
Here, several Virginia authors talk about self-publishing, publishing methods and business models.
A Bumpy Road
David Perry, of Newport News, is a career pharmacist who has independently published two thrillers, The Cyclops Conspiracy (2012) and Second Chance (2013). When he completed his first manuscript, he searched for a traditional publisher.
“Little did I know,” he wrote in an email, “how bumpy the road would be.”
After submitting more than 150 query letters with no success, he contracted with a publishing house in Texas. “They took me on (without an agent) and started me on the road to publication.” A month before publication, he discovered the company had closed its doors.
“They had edited my manuscript, typeset and done the interior layout and page design along with cover art,” he said. “All of my work was locked inside the doors of this now-defunct business.”
Fortunately, his property was returned, but he then faced another decision: start over or publish himself. “With the amount of time and frustration I’d experienced, the answer was an easy one.”
Perry created his own publishing imprint, Pettigrew Enterprises, and contracted with a for-fee publishing company that had a solid 40-year history and offered design and marketing services. “I have not regretted it,” Perry said.
He said he’s able to write what he wants and retains ownership of his rights.
“I’m sure editors and publishers who rejected my work were convinced novels involving pharmacy and pharmacists to be drab, boring and unmarketable,” Perry said. “Indie publishing has allowed me to realize my dream and prove that the ‘establishment’ doesn’t have an exclusive grasp on what entertains.”
Eyes Wide Open
Jeff Drifmeyer, of Williamsburg, Va., shared a similar story. He said he spent the better part of a year shopping his manuscript to more than 100 traditional publishing houses and literary agents before deciding to self-publish.
“At some point you need to move (your) written work off your desk and get on with the next piece or the rest of your life,” he said via email.
Writing as Jake McKenzie, Drifmeyer since has published two books, a thriller called When Pigs Flu (2010) and a book of nonfiction, The Civil War Comes Home: The Battle of Williamsburg (2012).
For both books he used the services of a for-fee publishing company (vanity press). While he has achieved his dream, Drifmeyer cautions that authors should go into self-publishing with their eyes open. Vanity presses offer a wide variety of services and costs.
“It’s big money, and some providers could seemingly care less about what gets published or when/how as long as they are making a profit,” he wrote in his email.
Still, “Indie can work,” he wrote. “For minimal, up-front expenditures, I now have a quarterly royalty check automatically deposited in my account. It’s not much yet, still working on marketing, but my works are published and selling. I would not have any of that if I was still trying to ‘break in’ to traditional publishing with a major house.”
Freedom Is Power
By contrast, Marliss Melton of York County, Va., had nine romance novels traditionally published. Two were published by Berkley, and seven titles featuring Navy SEALs were published by Grand Central, formerly Warner Publishing.
Then her publisher told her they weren’t interested in any more SEAL stories, she said. They wanted her to switch to a different genre.
“Publishers are desperately seeking to trim the fat as trade paperbacks make less and less profits due to the competition of ebooks. They’ve given a lot of midlist, moderately successful authors their walking papers,” she said via email.
Melton declined and took her first steps toward indie publishing. “Once I experienced the freedom of writing at my own pace, using my own titles, creating my own covers,” she said, “I realized just how little power traditionally published authors really have.”
She cites several advantages to self-publishing, including creative freedom and retaining book rights. “This is huge,” she said. “You can create audio books and pitch to film producers.”
Higher royalties and monthly paychecks were additional pluses in Melton’s view. She said royalties from traditional publishing contracts can run from about 8 percent for print books and 25 percent for ebooks, whereas self-published authors can make as much as 70 percent royalties on their titles.
Melton says she pays for production costs, “but I hand-select the people I need to get the job done.”
Since going independent, Melton has published a political romance trilogy — The Taskforce Series — which includes The Protector, The Guardian and The Enforcer, and two additional novellas for her SEAL Team 12 series. She also has a novella included in a brand-new box set SEALed With a Kiss: Heroes with Heart, written with other writers who specialize in Navy SEAL stories.
Melton said her former publisher recently offered her a contract for two more SEAL stories. She said the offer would have helped to expand her fan base and given her more time to write with fewer business/production demands. Melton said the hybrid approach, a mix of traditional and self-publishing, works well for her, but the traditional publisher didn’t offer enough money to justify giving up indie publishing. So, once again, she declined.
Do Your Homework
Magazine journalist and former Hampton, Va., resident Melanie Howard has reservations about the traditional path. When considering a contract for a romance novel, editors wanted changes, including a complete change in setting and “dumbing-down the reading level,” she said in an email.
Editors “wanted a totally different book, and not one I was the least bit interested in writing.”
So several years ago when she and fellow journalist Andrea Leidolf wrote Queen of the Court, a satire about the women’s country club tennis scene, they weren’t keen on exploring a traditional publishing route.
“Currently, publishers give unknown authors relatively little support and only promote a book for 30 days. We didn’t want to expend time, effort … when we might not get results.”
They did their homework and found a publishing model that fit their needs. Queen of the Court was published in June 2013. Howard said the two are working on a prequel and sequel to the book, both of which they plan to self-publish, “unless we get a better offer from a publisher. But we aren’t looking for them. They’ll have to be looking for us.”
Hybrid author: An author who publishes by traditional and indie/self-publishing.
Indie publisher: Royalty-paying small and mid-sized presses and publishers. Handle book production and distribution; do not charge authors fees for services.
ISBN (International Standard Book Number): Unique number that identifies a published work of literature, and its various formats, worldwide. Numbers are issued by Bowker, the official ISBN agency for the United States and its territories.
Midlist author/title: The portion of a publisher’s list of new or current titles made up of books expected to have less appeal than books by best-selling and popular authors.
Traditional publisher: A publishing company that contracts with authors, usually through agents, for the rights to publish their works. Traditional publishers pay sales-based royalties and pay advances upon contract. Handle all aspects of book production and provide marketing services, which vary by author.
Vanity publisher/press: A publishing company that charges the author for services. Can provide as little or as much in services for which the author wants to pay.
Self-publishing/indie author: An author who publishes outside of traditional or small-press publishing, either through a vanity press or through do-it-yourself publishing platforms.