Thoughts about Self-Publishing, by guest blogger James Brush

James Brush postcard coverJames Brush postcard coverJames Brush postcard cover

Hello there, campers –

It seems like only yesterday that we were talking about the pros and cons of self-publishing in the rapidly-changing literary market…oh, wait: it was just yesterday. Because we raced over the topic so very quickly, I am more than delighted to bring you an insider’s look at the subject, generously provided by poet, blogger, and self-published first novelist James Brush.

And let me tell you, this post’s a lulu. I’m tickled to death to be bringing it to you — and to introduce the Author! Author! community to the multiply-talented James.

But first, a few words about how and why I periodically bring you this kind of behind-the-scenes-of-publishing account. As those of you who have been following this month’s Getting a Book Published Basics series are, I hope, already aware, I am deeply committed to making this blog as genuinely, practically helpful to writers at every step of their careers as humanly possible. To that end, I occasionally ask beg blandish published authors into coming here to Author! Author! and sharing their first-hand experience in the literary trenches. Their wit, wisdom, and, at times, deep-dyed cynicism is collected under the GUEST BLOGS AND INTERVIEWS category on the archive list at right.

Because I love you people, I am very, very selective in offering space here. Only authors kind and community-spirited enough to want to teach aspiring writers the ropes need apply.

So why, out of the dozens of successful self-published authors I know, was James the one I asked to be here now? Well, several reasons, actually. First, he’s not only written and self-published a darned good book; he’s written and self-published a darned good first novel.

As literary risk-taking goes, that’s a triple back-flip from the highest dive — and he’s pulled it off. Here’s the back jacket blurb:

James Brush postcard cover Paul Reynolds, a photographer who creates fake photos for tabloid magazines, wakes up with no idea where he is or how he got there. He can’t even recall his name. A strange man lurks nearby, breathing heavily and slowly flipping through a book. Paul hears the man’s breath, but he cannot see him. He realizes with mounting panic that his eyes no longer function.

He remembers racing down a desolate West Texas highway. He remembers a cop who pulled him over for speeding. He remembers a shotgun-brandishing cook chasing him out of a diner. And he remembers a life abandoned, but he cannot put together the jigsaw puzzle that brought him where he is: blind, wanted by the law, and in the company of this invisible stranger.

In the backcountry town of Armbister, Texas, where temperatures hover around a hellish 110 degrees, Paul’s memory, intangible as a heat mirage, lies just beyond his reach, and God may be a coyote.

Intriguing, eh? Not to mention being an awfully good elevator pitch. (Not sure why? Okay, let me ask you: did it immediately introduce you to an interesting protagonist in an intriguing situation? Did it contain unusual details instead of generalities? And if you’d heard 150 pitches in a day, wouldn’t you remember the one where God was a coyote? That’s a good pitch.)

I also thought James might be a good fit for this series because, like so many novelists, he found that A Place Without a Postcard did not fit neatly into a single book category. Something tells me that more than a few of you out there could identify with that maddening dilemma.

Since learning how to narrow down a complex book into the appropriate marketing category is an essential skill for any professional writer, here’s a pop quiz — given the description below and the pitch above, what category would you have picked for it?

A Place Without a Postcard is an unusual story about a man who gets lost. That’s about as simple as it can be put. It’s about more than that, though. It’s about friendship, redemption, belief, and self-discovery.

It is part science fiction and part murder mystery and part myth. It takes place in West Texas. Not so much the western part of Texas, but the mythical West Texas where one might run into a coyote named Mercury or a man who dreams of invisibility.

Stumped? Well, would it help or hinder you to know that the writing is quite literary? As one reviewer noted,

His descriptions of this landscape alone are well worth the read… In fact, this book is filled with sense-based ways of looking at ordinary things and, in so doing, Brush has created a unique story, full of mystery, suspense, and outright terror. He is quite good, however, in first creating a thread in the plot and then resolving it soon or later. I recommend this book to readers who enjoy mystery stories, as well as a good old-fashioned story of the human spirit triumphing over adversity.

Tell me: what did you pick? Literary or science fiction? Paranormal or Western mystery? Thriller or regional interest?

If you flung your hands over your eyes and shouted, “Stop! Stop! How on earth could I possibly answer this without having read at least a few pages of the book?” congratulations: that is precisely what a seasoned book category-chooser would say. (And should you be interested in doing so before I reveal James’ answer, you can check out the first few pages at the book’s Amazon page.)

So how was A Place Without a Postcard categorized? James made a simple, elegant, and most market-savvy decision: it’s simply categorized as Fiction (a.k.a. General Fiction, Fiction — Other, or Adult Fiction). That’s is both an accurate descriptor of the book and gave him the most marketing leeway. (For more insight into how and why he made that choice, check out this interview; as always, if you’re looking for direction in narrowing down your own book’s category, see the posts under the BOOK CATEGORY section of the archive list at right.)

Finally, I asked James to come here and talk to you because he is a smart author with a lot of experience promoting that most difficult of book types, a novel with regional appeal. He’s thought a lot about this, made good choices, and successfully survived what can be for many self-published authors a very intimidating experience.

Peruse very carefully what he has to say. And if you’ve ever wanted to ask questions about self-publishing, this would be an excellent time to do it.

Please join me in welcoming today’s very helpful guest blogger, James Brush. Take it away, James!

james-brush author photo

In 2003, I self-published my first novel, A Place Without a Postcard, using iUniverse. Self-publishing was a good experience for me and I learned a lot. In the interest of sharing some of what I learned, Anne invited me to write a guest post in which I thought I’d answer the questions I’m most frequently asked.

Are rescued racing greyhounds really such great pets?
Yes, they really are, but we’re talking about writing and self-publishing.

Oh, sorry. Should I self-publish my book?
That depends. The conventional wisdom is that nonfiction writers do better self-publishing than fiction writers. There isn’t a strong market for poetry, so many poets self-publish.
If you’ve got a fiction book, and you want readers, then you need to think about how you’re going to get people interested in your book.

These days, even authors published by the big houses are expected to do more and more of the promotional work themselves, but they have more tools at their disposal. Whether you self-publish or go the traditional route, your sales will depend largely on the work you are willing to do to market your book. More so for the self-published author.

Since your sales will likely depend on your effort, the writer who does self-publish and is willing and savvy enough to promote himself effectively and relentlessly stands to sell a lot of books and maybe even make some good money. But there is still one thing stacked against you: bookstores.

The big bookstore chains will rarely stock a self-published book. You may be able to convince your local Barnes & Noble or Borders to sell a few of your books on consignment, but to get your book in stores, you need to approach those indie booksellers who might be interested in quirky titles by local authors. That’s where I found the most luck.

Having said that, the big box stores will order your book for a customer who wants it, and it is likely to be available through that store’s website as well.

What you’ve got going for you, however, is the internet. In the years since I published A Place Without a Postcard, e-books have become viable. The internet has grown and blogs and social networking have gone mainstream. All of these things give writers, self-published or otherwise, even more ways to reach readers and promote themselves and their books.

The question then becomes, how hard do you want to work to find readers? As a self-published author, that will be entirely on you.

Ok, I’m going to do it. What should I do before I self-publish?
Don’t jump into it. Never publish your first, second or even third, fourth or fifth draft.

I had the advantage of working out the plot and dialog in grad school, where I received awesome and painfully honest critiques. Make sure your book is read by as many people–hopefully a few of them writers who will tell you the truth about your work–as you can find.

Have it edited. As an English teacher, I trust myself to do a solid proofread, but I’ll still miss a lot in my own work. You need to have someone else edit it.

Read the entire thing, out loud to yourself from a hard copy. I’ve seen Anne give this same advice here at Author! Author!, and she is absolutely correct. Do it. Much will be revealed.

In addition to making your manuscript the best you can possibly make it, you should develop a marketing plan of some kind prior to publishing, which brings us to…

What would you have done differently?
I would have spent more time thinking through marketing before I published.

When I published Postcard in 2003, blogs were not on my radar. The internet was something for tech savvy people. No one read e-books. Those were my perceptions, anyway.

I built my website, Coyote Mercury, in 2003, after publishing Postcard. In 2005, I rebuilt the site with a blog and fell in love with blogging. I also began building a larger audience for my writing. Now, most of the sales of my book come from people who have found my blog and enjoyed my writing there.

I suspect that a self-published author (or likely any author) will sell more books if she already has a readership, even a small one, prior to publication.

If I were self-publishing for the first time today, I would start a blog, maintain it, write regularly and build a readership before publishing the book. Maybe a year or two before publishing. Remember when I said don’t jump into it? Building a website and blogging are fun diversions for you while your manuscript cools before the next round of revisions. You might also be able to find an audience who will be as excited as you are the day your book hits the market.

I would also look around at other self-publishing options. I was happy with my experience with iUniverse, but there are more companies out there with different approaches and different ways of doing things. I would research those options.

Lulu intrigues me because they will allow you to publish your book in such a way that your own publishing company becomes the publisher of record. I like that and that would appeal to me if I were doing this again.

Do you plan to self-publish again?
I always intended A Place Without a Postcard to be something I would do on my own. It’s been a very rewarding experience, and I have no regrets.

I have a second novel now, A Short Time to Be There, that I’m shopping around to agents. I intend to do the traditional route for this book for a variety of reasons. I don’t have the same DIY desire for this book, though I know that when it is published, I will still have to do much of the marketing work myself and apply much of what I learned from A Place Without a Postcard.

I do write poetry, which I publish on my blog, and I’ve had some luck getting my poems published in various e-zines and journals. At some point, I will have a complete collection of poetry, and I may publish that myself.

Anything else?
I’ll say it again: make sure you’ve gotten other people to read and critique your work. Pay them if you must in dollars, chickens or eighteen-year-old Scotch because if you’re self-publishing, you’re going to have to accept the fact that some people consider all self-published books to be failures. This is simply not true, but you have a duty to make sure that you aren’t providing the world one more reason to categorically reject all self-published works.

Ultimately, you need to believe in your book, maybe even more so than when you submit to agents and editors. When you do that, you are looking for someone else to believe in your work and help you make it even better. You won’t have that when you self-publish. You’ll be on your own and you have to know down to your core that your book is good enough for you to look a stranger in the eye and tell him that your book is worth his time.

Mine is, but it took almost ten years to get it there.

Finally, the most important advice I know for anyone seeking to publish anything by any means:

Be patient and keep writing.

james-brush author photo James Brush is a writer and teacher living in Austin, TX with his wife, cat and two greyhounds. He teaches English in a juvenile correctional facility, and was once a James Michener Fellow at the Texas Center for Writers. He published his first novel, A Place Without a Postcard, in 2003. His writing has been published by qarrtsiluni, Thirteen Myna Birds, ouroboros review, Bolts of Silk, a handful of stones, The Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing and Good Gosh Almighty! He can be found online at Coyote Mercury.

21 Replies to “Thoughts about Self-Publishing, by guest blogger James Brush”

  1. Hi Anne!

    What a fascinating interview. My library has been substantially enriched by reading recommendations such as these and I can’t wait to read “A Place Without A Postcard” (I am currently reading “The Help” and have “The Pinball Theory…” waiting patiently in line).

    It seems that the harder it is for the author to formulate his/her pitch, and the more vague the category chosen, the more richly written the book turns out to be. Am I wrong?

    Anyway, If Mr. Brush is still reading on and can answer questions, I would like to hear his take (and yours too, Anne!) on the new “online video pitch” phenomenon. Is this going to slowly become a required tool in the already-weighed-down toolbox of the self-published/self-marketed author?


    1. @Nuria, I am checking in. Thanks for your comment. I’d say that a book trailer/video pitch couldn’t hurt, especially if it’s well-made and engaging.

      I once bought a self-published book precisely because of an awesome trailer, which was a work of art in its own right.

      I’m not sure it’s a must have, though, like I said it could give you an edge especially if you could get a variety of blogs to link to it or even display it as part of something like a blogsplash.

      1. I’ve seen some great book trailers (although I’m wary to think of them as pitches, since it’s hard to imagine agencies or publishing houses changing how they acquire books enough for writers to think of approaching them that way), but I suspect they’re not going to be a very wide-spread phenomenon anytime soon. I could be wrong, of course, but what tends to happen with web-based promotional ideas is first, someone has a bright idea that works because of its novelty, then the publicity departments at the majors get wind of it and start doing it to death, resulting in the tactic’s losing effectiveness simply because it’s become so pervasive.

        Book giveaways, for instance: originally, they were a clever idea to help drive traffic to an author’s website. The author would post notice of the contest on forums dealing with the book’s subject matter, ask bloggers to announce it, etc., telling potential readers that they could win a free book if only they follow the attached link to the book’s website. Few would win, in theory, but many would visit the website and learn about the book.

        This still happens, of course, but it’s not typically how the major presses have started to use book giveaways on the internet. Now, a marketing department will tell an author that there are books to give away, and the author will approach, say, a handful of bloggers and tell them they can each give away a few books. Would they each run individual contests? The result is usually that the potential reader never goes anywhere near the author’s site; the giveaway is basically just incentive for the blogger to help, since some of their readers will get something tangible out of the deal. In terms of the amount of information getting to the end reader, it’s substantially less effective. Yet both processes are commonly referred to as book giveaways — and aspiring writers are now routinely told that book giveaways are indispensable marketing tools.

        Then, too, we’re always being told that the next new thing is going to change marketing forever. Remember when businesses’ getting their own websites first hit the mainstream, and we were all told that in a few years, nobody would be buying anything in brick-and-mortar stores anymore? Didn’t happen, did it? What did happen was that SOME retail is done that way, some the traditional way. So I tend to wait until the latest marketing trend has had a little time to mutate before assuming it’s the wave of the future.

    2. I think the complex book/difficult pitch formula you propose is a trifle too simple to work as a general rule, Nuria, and too flattering to writers. After all, the single most common reason that writers find it difficult to come up with a pitch is inexperience doing it. For someone new to the game, the very concept of having to boil a book down to a few sentences is often overwhelming, no matter how complex or straightforward a plot or book concept may be. (And I’ve rarely met a writer who considers his own plot anything BUT complex.) When you’re the person who planted the trees, it’s pretty hard to see the forest as someone approaching it for the first time might.

      The same holds true of the book category: usually, the difficulty lies in the writer’s not being all that familiar with what the categories are. To someone who reads manuscripts for a living, the book category is usually obvious right away. It’s just a conceptual container used to market a book, not a judgment call on the book’s quality or complexity. Assuming otherwise (as a hefty percentage of queriers do) can lead to miscategorization, which in turn leads to queries ending up on the wrong agents’ desks — and accounts for a good 90% of what’s queried as literary fiction being dismissed by Millicent on the grounds of not being what agents and publishing houses regard as literary fiction.

      Which is why I tend to steer clear of this-equals-that formulations — they’re too liable to lead aspiring writers astray. In this case, for instance, if some unwary web-based advice giver started telling aspiring writers that the broader the category, the richer the plot, evert time, novelists who read that advice would be likely to say, wrongly, “Oh, so if I call my book just Fiction, I’m telling Millicent that it’s a multifaceted tapestry!” And then they’d miscategorize their books.

      1. I see. Thanks Anne!
        I think it was Carolyn See (or was it you? – oh boy, my sources are starting to mix up in my brain) that suggested to write a synopsis after the first few pages of the book? I think the theory is that at that point we only have the big picture in our brains of what the story is about and do not have enough details to get lost into them…

        1. That was me, although I think I suggested doing it a few chapters in, rather than pages. I stumbled upon the strategy inadvertently, when I was in a pitching seminar, many years ago. Since I was already pitching one book, it seemed like a waste of a good feedback opportunity just to give it, so I wrote a new one for the novel I had just started. I read it — and everyone in the room applauded. Somewhat jealously, as they were struggling to wrestle huge plots into just a few lines.

          It’s also nice to have something to say during the writing process when someone asks, “So, what do you write?”

      2. Oh, and about book trailers, is there a chance that they become so ubiquitous that eventually every author will be “highly encouraged” to have one, (like nowadays it seems we all need a website, twitter account, a facebook page and, if you’re lucky enough to have enough content or one, a blog)? I truly hope you are right and that, like a well-used fad it will disappear, but for a newbie, everything seems possible at this point…

        1. That’s why I went to town on the subject, Nuria — it can be so very hard to tell what is and isn’t essential for a new writer to prepare.

  2. These last two posts have been very interesting to me – I admit to being frustrated by currently having a novel without a home. I’ve queried more agents than I can count, had a few nibbles, but no solid bites. I fear the economic timing is against me.

    Conventional wisdom would have me put this one aside and start on another – which I have done, yet I find the idea of self publishing seductive. What writer is satisfied only to write? I want to share my story with the world. And if that is my only goal then why not self publish (except of course for all the reasons mentioned in your previous post, Anne)?

    I am no stranger to the problems of self-marketing since I have three novels published by a small digital press – none of which has broken any records but all of which continue to sell.

    With regard to self publishing, what I wonder is whether it would be better to deal with a POD company or to go with something strictly digital like Kindle and perhaps even use the story as a promotional item?

    1. @Jenyfer, I haven’t forayed (yet) into the world of ebooks. I plan to do that this year. I’m trying to decide if I want to kindelize (and now ipad-ize) my book through iuniverse or just do it myself since I hold those rights.

      I’ve wondered if self-pubbed ebooks might sell better than paper since they can be sold cheaper and are therefore less of risk for the purchaser.

      Your experience marketing your books will surely help you if you chose to use a POD publisher.

    2. I don’t quite understand perhaps even use the story as a promotional item, Jenyfer. Do you mean trying to spin the decision whether to go all-electronic or also POD into a news story, or to try to ramp up interest in the book by doing promotion related to its plot?

      1. “I don’t quite understand perhaps even use the story as a promotional item, Jenyfer. Do you mean trying to spin the decision whether to go all-electronic or also POD into a news story, or to try to ramp up interest in the book by doing promotion related to its plot?”

        You mean you can’t read my mind, Anne? 🙂

        I wasn’t totally clear – I was thinking out loud (so to speak) and suggesting that I could do what some other authors / pubs are doing and use this current as-yet-unpublished story as a promotional item for my other earlier released stories. Though by putting it on Kindle for any price at all, it’s not promotion, it’s just for sale – and since it’s not in the same genre the promo angle is probably just a way for me to rationalize self-publishing.

        1. Oh, I see. The authors I know who have used this technique successfully have given away short fiction on their websites, sort of like a bakery’s handing out fudge to people who are already coming in for chocolate cake. It’s a way to say, “I think you might like this, too.” But for it to work as promotion, the authors have to get people to come to their websites.

          Which would be my reservation about regarding e-publishing as promotion. The trick is getting potential readers to find out about the promotional piece, right?

    1. I usually read several books at a time. I just finished Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor. Very well drawn characters in that one. Stunningly so.

      I’m reading an anthology of 17th & 18th century American poetry, and I’m about to start Everything’s Eventual by Stephen King.

  3. Tons of useful information here! Thank you for sharing.

    I’m from Canada, so we have a mere handful of literary agents to choose from. For my particular manuscript, I could only find six! (I also approached one agent in NY) My queries were sent out the end of October, last year. I’m waiting on two responses, plus the verdict on a full read of my manuscript.

    A couple of the agents liked my work, but it didn’t fit into their ‘current list.’ Maybe they’re having a difficult time picturing what category it belongs to.

    Right now, I’m researching the self-publishing alternative. Problem is, I’m not the greatest in self-promotion, but it sounds like something I will have to improve on if I am serious about pursuing writing professionally.

    I’m also considering querying a few agents outside of Canada, but I don’t know if that would be a disadvantage to me as a writer, from an agent’s standpoint.

    1. Welcome, Vivian! (And what a literary-sounding name you have, by the way — it will look terrific on a dust jacket.)

      To set your mind at ease: many, many Canadian writers find representation in the US or UK, for precisely the reason you mention. Usually, the only competitive disadvantage they face on this side of the border is adherence to British spellings, which tend to be read as typos here. (So do scan any New York-bound queries for them — they might well be triggering rejections.)

      The sorry, but this does not fit into our current list line is pretty common form-letter boilerplate; I wouldn’t read too much into it. But I was intrigued by something else you mentioned: Maybe they’re having a difficult time picturing what category it belongs to.

      Aren’t you telling prospective agents in the query what your book’s category is? That’s expected; agents typically don’t try to guess. In fact, not including that information, or being vague about book category (it’s a Western/romance/thriller) can alone get a query rejected. It might be worth tweaking your query accordingly before sending it out again.

      1. Hi Anne,
        Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

        I was reluctant to jump outside my comfort zone by querying outside of Canada, but I will continue querying elsewhere.

        I hadn’t thought of the British spelling issue. I’ll keep that in mind.

        As for not mentioning the category, I’ve read a few articles where it’s been suggested more than once NOT to state what we believe the category should be. It’s a decision that should be made by the agent. Perhaps that kind of information is outdated in this current climate of publishing. Without suggesting the category, it likely makes it harder for an agent to imagine a list of perspective editors.

        I will mention a proposed category in my next round of queries. It’s going to be a bit difficult, as it has cross-over appeal.

        I’m finding out every situation is different!

        PS – as for my name, I’ve appreciated it much more as an adult than when I had all kinds of nicknames going through school.

        1. I can sympathize on the nickname front! My parents kept telling me that my name would look terrific in print, but that didn’t make me feel all that much better in elementary school.

          That’s so interesting about the book category — I’m guessing that these articles came out within the last year and a half. About a year and a half ago, agents on the conference circuit suddenly began complaining bitterly about how many queries they were getting that omitted the book category; a shift like that that usually means there’s a new flurry of advice on the subject online.

          And that would be an easy one for a conference attendee to have misheard: agents are certainly not shy about recategorizing their clients’ books. But the notion that they don’t want to be told up front what kind of book is being offered because they MIGHT not agree with the categorization doesn’t make much sense, from a professional point of view. Books are sold by categories, so that’s how everyone affiliated with the publishing industry thinks of them.

          I can sort of see the argument from the querier’s side, though: since agency screeners are trained to reject books that aren’t in their boss’ chosen categories automatically, not mentioning it in the first paragraph (where a screener would expect to see it) might prompt her to read a few lines more than she might otherwise. At least the first few times it happened. Like so many other fads in catching agents’ attention, though, it would only work the first few hundred times; I would assume that the agents’ complaining about it means that it no longer works as a Millicent-beguiling tactic now.

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