The Decision to Self-Publish, by guest blogger D. Andrew McChesney

Hello, campers –

As promised, after so many weeks of concentrating on the practicalities of pitching and submission, I have a treat for you today — a guest post by self-publishing author, blogger, and all-around fab guy D. Andrew McChesney, better known around Author! Author! as thoughtful and incisive inveterate commenter Dave. He’s going to be talking about a matter I know has been dogging many members of our little community’s thoughts in the dead of night throughout these tough, tough days for first-time authors: how does a writer know when it’s time to self-publish?

I’m hoping it will engender some intriguing discussion. Before I introduce Dave and his book in more detail, though, allow me to say: wow, I’ve been stunned by the enthusiastic response to the Author! Author! Perfect Pitch Competition. The deadline isn’t until the end of the month (Friday, September 30 at midnight in your time zone, to be exact), but I guess the prospect of winning a free Mini Consult on one’s opening pages and marketing materials is a pretty strong incentive. I’m also going to be posting and critiquing the winners’ and placers’ keynotes, Hollywood hooks, elevator speeches, and formal pitches in this very forum in October, so we can talk about what does and does not work in formats that brief.

So keep those entries rolling in, everyone. I really am getting a kick out of seeing what my readers have been writing lately.

Did it seem as though my enthusiasm led me to digress for a moment? Actually, I wasn’t: if Dave’s name seems familiar to those of you who have been hanging out here for a while, but not haunting the comments, it’s probably because he took second place for adult fiction in last year’s Great First Page Made Even Better Competition and first place in the essay category of 2009′s Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. He’s taken the time to amass quite a bit of what I like to call Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy.

In fact, I believe he commented on the post in which I first introduced the ECQLC concept. If memory serves, he made the first comment, even. But that’s not too surprising, as Dave was the very first commenter on Author! Author!, period, way back in the days when I was the Resident Writer for the Organization that Shall Not Be Named. (One of the reasons it shall not be named: despite my spending a year advocating vigorously for readers’ comments to be visible to everyone on that site — technically, the difference between a blog and a column — the organization refused.)

So it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Dave was the first member of the Author! Author! community; he’s certainly one of the thoughtful commenters who has helped it grow. (The How To… section of the archives was his idea, for instance.) He’s also, as a long-time member and current president of the Spokane Authors and Self-Publishers done more than his share to help other aspiring writers.

When he told me that he had decided to take his naval fantasy novel, Beyond the Ocean’s Edge, down the self-publishing path, then, I knew it had not been a light decision. This is a conscientious writer, one who had undoubtedly paid his dues — and had devoted the time to do something that surprisingly few writers considering self-publication do, talk with a wide array of authors who have already taken the self-publishing plunge.

Who better, then, to ask to talk about what factors went into that decision, as well as what he had learned? And who better to entice those of you who are considering or have already decided to self-publish into sharing your experiences, thoughts, hopes, and fears, as well as a little practical advice for those who will tread this relatively less-traveled path behind you?

My, that was a cumbersome sentence, but you get my drift. I want to engender some serious discussion of a topic that aspiring writers too seldom discuss in depth amongst themselves.

Those of you whose eyebrows hit your hairlines upon reading naval fantasy may already have figured out the other reason I thought Dave’s literary decisions might be interesting for us all to consider: this was definitely a hard book to categorize. Fantasy novels set on ships are not unheard-of, of course, but it’s hardly a well-established category. Here’s the blurb:

Hotchkiss continued on. “Ed! You didn’t see it?” The use of his captain’s first name on deck attested to the first lieutenant’s growing apprehension and maddening confusion.

“See what, Isaac, my old friend?” Pierce recognized his comrade’s state of mind and did not correct his lapse of quarterdeck etiquette. Clearly, a more personal and comfortable approach was needed.

“The stars! The stars, sir! We weren’t just looking up at ‘em. We were amongst them. There was the sea, and then there wasn’t. An’ the stars were below us as well! And we were there, right among them, like we were the stars themselves, or the moon, or. . .”

“I’m sure you saw what you’ve described. Unfortunately, I chanced not to see it, although I have had a strange feeling of timelessness.”

Is it possible to sail beyond the ocean’s edge to another world? In 1802, Royal Navy Lieutenant Edward Pierce is ashore on half-pay because of the Peace of Amiens. He fortunately gains command of a vessel searching for a lost, legendary island. When the island is found, Pierce and his shipmates discover that it exists in an entirely different but similar world. Exploring the seas around Stone Island, HMS Island Expedition sails headlong into an arena of mistaken identities, violent naval battles, strange truces, dangerous liaisons, international intrigue, superstition, and ancient prophecies.

Quick: on which shelf would you expect to find this in a brick-and-mortar bookstore? Many a Millicent, I’m sure, has scratched her head sore over that particular problem.

So let’s see what goes into the thought process of a writer professional enough to learn the ropes of traditional publishing — and then decided not to climb them. Take it away, Dave!

If I seem familiar to followers of Anne’s blog, I have it on good authority that I was the first to post a question in the days before Author! Author! existed as it does now. Over the years, the tone of my remarks should indicate that I sought publication by the traditional route. Why then have I recently charted a new course towards self-publishing?

When I finished my initial draft and realized that I might have something others would like to read, I knew nothing about getting published. Boxing up the manuscript, sending it to a publisher, and saying, “here’s my book, print it and send me the money!” didn’t seem to be the way to go about it. Serious about getting my work on the market, I bought the appropriately named Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published. I learned about literary agents, query letters and pitches. I discovered acquisition editors and editorial boards. I found that manuscripts had to survive a long road of competition and a process of elimination on the way to becoming published books.
Dangerously armed with a little knowledge, I set out to become a published author, only to discover the trail is longer, steeper, and more crooked than it seems. Writers groups, either informal gatherings or large regional organizations, smoothed many of the bumps. Online advice columns such as Author! Author! straightened the curves as I came to better understand the publishing industry. My query letters improved and I saw positive results as I sent more out. Increasingly those queries resulted in a request for pages or occasionally the entire manuscript. I attended conferences, soaked up inspiration from guest speakers, and pitched my book to attending agents.

Looking back, could I have been more diligent in my querying? There is always that unanswered question of the next query being the one that would have landed me an agent. Still, I sent out a mass of query letters over the years, even while narrowing my search parameters for agents who would possibly be interested. Of those agents who represented work most like mine, many were no longer taking on new writers. While I didn’t send as many queries or pitch as often as some, I sent enough to realize that traditional publication may not be meant for me.

I looked at independent presses, having heard that many leaned more towards the writing itself instead of the work’s money making potential. Yet a great many of them seemed to focus on writers from a certain geographic area or in specific genres. I did find a few that might be a fit for my work, and a couple even expressed a return interest. As luck would have it, nothing came about as a result of those submissions either.

I’ve been a member of Spokane Authors and Self-Publishers since first setting out on the road to publication. Primarily I joined to associate with other writers and had no thought of self-publishing. Bad things about self-publishing still emanated from many in the traditional industry. Writers opted to self-publish because their work was not good enough to be published in the regular way. Self-publishers refused to learn and work within the industry.

Having read several self-published books, I strongly assert the first assumption is wrong. Dealing with the industry for several years to no avail, I believe the second idea is not factual either.

Still, self-publishing has drawbacks, including the writer paying to be published. Being (among other things) of Scottish ancestry, I am stereotypically cheap. I’d much rather see a big publisher pay to have my book printed and distributed than have the funds come out of my pocket. I did not warm to boxes of books cluttering up my basement and carting cartons around in my car trying to sell them at flea markets and swap meets.

But the face of self-publishing is changing with time. Recently, several firms have come into being which remove many of the traditional roadblocks associated with self-publishing.

In every unpublished writer’s life, a time comes when having one’s book out there, on the market, is more important than how it got there. As 2011 began, I came as close to making a New Year’s Resolution as I ever have. Come the Fourth of July, if I did not have a valid offer of representation or any express interest in publishing my book, I would do it myself. While I could have started to self-publish then, I wanted to allow an agent and an independent publisher looking at the work time to respond. I had also just queried another independent publisher whose submission window had just opened up and wanted time to see what might develop.

As Independence Day approached, I had not had any response from the agent and first independent publisher. Once fulfilling a request for pages from the second publisher, I had had no further correspondence. Thus, on the Fourth of July, I determined that I would indeed self-publish Beyond the Ocean’s Edge. A week later, I signed up with a self–publishing service company.

The next time Anne invites me to visit Author! Author! I’ll talk about some of the other factors that led to the decision to self-publish. Somewhat entangled therein is the process of figuring out which self-publishing service company I would choose to work with. I might also detail the process involved since signing on with that company and the progress we have made to this point.

Following a US Navy career, D. Andrew McChesney continues a passionate interest in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century naval history. Long fascinated with USS Constitution, Dave was aboard “Old Ironsides” for a turn-around cruise in Boston Harbor. Touring HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England provides further inspiration as he crafts the Stone Island Sea Stories, a naval adventure series having fantasy elements. Beyond the Ocean’s Edge and Sailing Dangerous Waters are complete, while work continues on Darnahsian Pirates.

Dave spent his early childhood on a homestead forty-one miles outside Fairbanks, Alaska. In the lower forty-eight, television series such as Walt Disney’s The Swamp Fox kindled an interest in history ranging from the American Revolution through the War of 1812. Fascination with the later conflict grew when his grandfather gave him a drawing of Constitution made during the frigate’s visit to Puget Sound in the 1930s. Discovery of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower in high school solidified Dave’s interest in that era’s naval history.

He edits the Rear Engine Review, the Inland Northwest Corvair Club’s monthly newsletter. His essay, Tennis Balls and Broadsides won first place in the initial Author! Author! Periodic Awards for Expressive Excellence, and was published in Gray Dog Press’ Spoke Write. Sailing Dangerous Waters garnered second place in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Contest. Dave is President of Spokane Authors and Self Publishers (SASP), and a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA).

He resides in Spokane, Washington with his wife Eva, daughter Jessica, a Quaker Parrot named He-lo, a corn snake called Teako, a 1962 Corvair Rampside pickup known as Tim, and a 1965 Corvair Monza coupe identified as Ralph. Patiently waiting to win the lotto or for his book(s) to become best sellers, Dave works in janitorial services with a local private club.

11 Replies to “The Decision to Self-Publish, by guest blogger D. Andrew McChesney”

  1. Thanks for bringing up this important issue. My husband is self-publishing his civil war non-fiction book about the life and loss of one southern family. I continue to hold out for a “real” publisher. How many queries did you send out before you chose this path? I have set the bar at 100!

  2. My original thought was to keep querying or pitching until I came up with an agent. I had heard from Anne that the average number of queries was somewhere around 150, and I was determined to reach that. However, as I narrowed my search to agents who would apparently be interested, I found it harder to keep querying. So, it wasn’t reaching my fiftieth query or so with no luck at landing an agent, it was the entire process that turned me in the self-publishing direction.

    It also just felt right to pursue an alternative form of publication. I do know of other writers who have sent out a handful of queries and upon not having any success have opted to self-publish.

  3. After commenting above, I found my query folder. The fifty or so I mentioned above was somewhat of a guess. Upon counting submitted queries, rejected queries, requests for pages, and pages rejected letters, the total count comes in at eight-seven.

    1. I’d be very interested to learn what the average number of pre-decision queries was. My guess is that it would be closer to 20. You’d be amazed at how many aspiring writers give up after one; that would definitely skew the statistics.

    2. It seems to be pretty common amongst serious writers, Dave. You’d be surprised, though, at how many people give up after one book.

      In my experience, good writers tend to go through a fairly predictable cycle, if they stick with it. First, they send out queries and submissions without knowing the rules, assuming (usually wrongly) that their writing is the only reason they could possibly have been rejected. If they don’t give up after early rejections, they often move on into an information-gathering stage, learning the marketing ropes. They tend to start getting many more requests for materials, but still get rejected at the submission stage. If they don’t give up at that point, they may devote themselves to revision, taking craft classes, etc. That often results in more thoughtful rejections, but not necessarily being picked up.

      Then there’s a stage — and a LOT of the long-time membership of the Author! Author! community does some serious time in this part of the cycle — when the manuscript’s been polished, the query and submission process continues unabated, yet the manuscript still is not being picked up. And it occurs to the savvy writer that perhaps literary tastes have changed since she first started marketing the book, or that this type of book just isn’t selling very well right now, but might in a couple of years. Being enterprising souls, they will often begin writing a new book at this juncture, one more geared to the current literary market.

      So as odd as it may seem, to professional eyes, being on one’s second or third manuscript can actually be a good sign. It shows stick-to-itiveness, and it’s often an indicator that the writer has put in the time to learn how the industry works. Or is simply prolific.

      I’m not saying that this cycle isn’t darned frustrating, or even that it tends to produce the best writing by the time those who have been through the mill get picked up. As I said, plenty of very talented writers get discouraged long before this point. I do think, though, that it explains why so many really dedicated writers like yourself have been opting for self-publishing over the last few years: a certain outcome can start to make a lot more sense than continuing to spin around that frustrating cycle. It’s an interesting development, and I’m intensely curious to see whether over time, the previously frowned-upon self-published fiction market starts to be an earlier stop for writers. It would make a lot of sense if there were certain types of stories, especially hybrids like yours, that everyday readers got better than Millicent does. It might turn out to be the best way to reach a niche market.

      The future might be pretty exciting. As people in publishing used to say fifty years ago, if you don’t like current literary taste, wait a minute — it’s sure to change.

      1. I do see myself in the cycle described. However it has never occurred to me to set aside my current projects and go on to something else. Oh, I do have ideas for more, but much of what would come in the future is based on what I have already written.

  4. Noooo! I dont’ wanna self publish!

    I am preparing to do one more round on this book (the police procedural) with a bit more of a targeted focus. But after that, it WILL go in the trunk, at least until the next one (or the next) gets an agent and he/she asks me “So what else do you have?”

    I did post the first two chapters on my blog, and have gotten favorable comments on them so far. Not many, but good. And thank you, Anne, for all the first page posts. I have made major changes to my first page and it is WAAAAY better. 🙂

    1. I’m so glad to hear it, Elizabeth!

      That’s such a hard decision, figuring out when it’s time to stop pouring energy into marketing Book #1 and move on to writing Book #2. Dave’s books are a series, which renders the decision even more difficult.

    2. I was in the “I don’t wanna self-publish” camp for a long time. Had I been writing something different from what I am writing, I may well have made the choice to bury it and move on to something new. I believe it is quite common for writers to do that… to have a first and possibly a second unpublished book that will never see publication or even any more effort made towards publication.

      I can’t say it was a difficult decision to move into the self-publishing world, but it surely wasn’t a quick one.

  5. I am just starting the process of marketing my “self published” book and thought I would start with the gal and the blog that I read religiously for about 2 years as I prepared to query and submit to agents. Anne Mini has given more REAL information than any other blog or website I’ve found.

    Anne, you said in the preface to Dave’s blog that you hoped it would encourage others to share their stories. Well, here’s mine.

    The first time around, I spent many months writing query letters, proposals and sending requested material out to well over 50 agents (frankly I lost count). I felt that my query was good because I had so many agents contact me to tell me how intrigued they were with my concept. So, after a break to attend to an ill family member, I started up again. I honed my query, revisited my agent list and hit it hard. I carefully targeted agents that represented books in my genre. I continued to receive terrific response, but no agent. I did this for 2 years. Things are tight all over and from everything I’ve read and experienced, a new author has an uphill battle trying to convince the publishing gate-keepers to let her in. At the beginning of this year, the thought of diving back into that process was uninviting, to say the least.

    To confirm my feelings, an agent wrote me an extremely kind, honest and thorough email. She said she really liked my book concept and wanted to represent me. However, she explained at some length the current situation with the publishers. She said that they expect a new author to have such a strong platform that she can sell at least 20,000 books on her name and efforts alone!? She said I had the beginning of a platform, but she didn’t think she could convince a publisher that I could move that many books.

    Well, that did it. What the heck do I need an agent and a publisher for if I’m going to be responsible for my own sales anyway?

    At about the same time, a friend of mine sent me an incredibly detailed article in the Wall Street Journal that explained the whole process of e-publishing your own book through the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Apple, Sony, etc. The article was so unusual because it didn’t just report on it, it actually explained how it works and what the basic steps are. Many writers who have aggressively pursued marketing their own e-published books have been successful — even previously unknown authors! I spent a few days researching and concluded that was the route to go for me. It doesn’t cost a thing to get your book up and running — then the ball is in your court to sell it. Why should I spend additional months trying to find a suitable agent when I could spend that time selling my book instead?

    In the process I also discovered that Amazon has a subsidiary called CreateSpace where by you can also offer your book in paperback through the POD (Print On Demand) technology. Ahhh, new technology – you gotta love it! In fact, I recently got the proof of my paperback AND IT LOOKS BEAUTIFUL – just as good as anything you would see on a bookstore shelf! This whole new Print On Demand technology is AMAZING! They shipped it to me 2 hours after I ordered it – and all for no money whatsoever! (which is REALLY a good thing).

    So as I write, my book is available on the Kindle, the Nook and through other e-pub outlets, as a paperback through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. Whew! What a relief to see it in print after all this time! It took some time to ferret out the proper formatting information to make all of this work, but it was worth it. I’m ready to go.

    It is now my job to sell it. But, as I understand, that would have been my job anyway if I had landed an agent. You have some great tips about marketing, Anne, which I will use and I have to say that the process of putting together proposals for agents, thinking through the whole Marketing Plan, was very helpful when it came to putting my website together and writing the blurb for the various sites my book can now be purchased from.

    The self publishing world has changed because of technology. I believe it will revolutionize the book world as much as the ability to download songs changed the music world. We shall see! In the meantime, thanks again for all of your no nonsense advice, Anne, and the encouragement you give to all of us who love to write. I’ll let you know how it goes in the coming months.

    1. I’m so glad that it has been such a positive experience for you, Marsha! And that you were open to taking that kind agent’s advice.

      One of the interesting offshoots of the rise of POD self-publishing is that agents and editors have been getting more wary about platform. I was chatting with an editor from Amazon the other day, and he mentioned that if a self-published book has sold 20 or 30 thousand copies, then they might be interested in taking it on as a publishing project. He seemed flabbergasted when I asked, “So why would the author agree to that? Essentially, you’re saying that if the author is willing to bear the initial expense and does an incredible job in promoting the book, you might be willing to share in the profits down the line.” He murmured something about their greater book promotion capacities (which I’m sure was true), but honestly, it was as though he had never thought about what they were expecting authors to do.

      But back to you: if you would like to post your book’s description and the links to where to buy it on the most recent post here, that’s fine with me! Best of luck with it!

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