Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Alternative Publishing Routes: Self-Publishing Realty Check

A couple of Fridays ago, I posted an interview with Heather Howland, one of the editors at Entangled Publishing.  She told us all about her small press and it's big plans.  (See interview here.)  But for those of you who are for some reason leery of the small presses, I thought you'd like to hear about self-publishing from a pair who has just journeyed that route.  Meet Renee and Harrell (Hal) Turner.  This husband & wife team writes under the super-secret (yeah, not-so-much) pen name: Renee Harrell.  (And they are no relation to me, I might add.)  If you've ever been curious what it's like to self-publish, read on. You may or may not be surprised.  (And let me just say, I am surprised to hear stories like this!  I apologize in advance that this is a bit longer than usual, but it's all interesting IMHO.)
(They use these oils in place of pictures - I'm already amused.)

Tell us a bit about your publishing history.

Can we share a little about our writing history, instead? For years, we did very little writing for the commercial market. Then, Harrell discovered a book packager looking for writers for the company’s ongoing YA mystery series and asked Renée if she’d like to work with him on a novel. We wrote an outline, sent it in, and received our first book contract. A few months later, we collected our fee, the book was published, and we learned that work-for-hire writers are frequently rewritten by their editors. The storyline remained intact but there was a plot twist in the novel that just didn’t make any sense....

[Interjection here -- I naively would think that once you've been picked up to write a story by a book packager, you're basically "in." Not so, apparently.] 

Since we’d already written one YA mystery novel, we decided to write another but, this time, we wanted to create our own characters. Our heroine wouldn’t be super smart (because we can’t relate to people who are super smart), she’d have some body issues (because we can relate to body issues), she’d only have a couple of close friends and she’d have a close and loving relationship with her one surviving parent. Ann Lippens wouldn’t be edgy or dark, she’ be a more like normal person: Not anti-Miss Popularity but not really Miss Unpopular, either. In other words, a lot like we were in high school.

As the book grew, we added some paranormal elements, some horror elements, a twist of Jack the Ripper (although, really, we think most of our audience will miss it) and a touch of romance to the book, because we like those things. When we finished the novel, we contacted a handful of agents. Happily, we timed the market well and three of the five agents quickly asked to see the full manuscript. By the end of a week, we were signed with a solid and respected agency. Four months later, the book was submitted to all of the big publishing houses and we signed a huge contract and now we’re famous.

It would have been exactly like that except that all of the big houses passed on the opportunity to give us a basket of money. (The folks at Penguin said nice things about our work but they didn’t offer a contract. We still feel kindly toward the people at Penguin.) A few weeks later, our agent disappeared – or, at least, we think that must be what happened, since she no longer answered our emails and never called us again. Several months after that, we formally ended our relationship with her. We’ve since met two other writers who had a nearly identical experience with this agent. 

Meanwhile, our YA novel, whis•pers, was back in our hands. We spoke with an agent who told us the manuscript was “cooked” and we should “forget about it” but we liked our story. So we looked around for an electronic publisher of Young Adult novels. There’s more interest these days but, in 2009, not so much. We found someone we liked, signed a contract...and things went badly. 

A year later, we asked for our rights back, they were given to us, and we changed the name of the book to Something Wicked. We decided, then, to publish the novel ourselves. 

What fueled that decision?

It wasn’t our first preference, not at all. If Something Wicked had a Scholastic sticker on it, we’d be delighted. When traditional publishing didn’t work out, and our agent decided we weren’t part of the in-crowd, we were stuck. Even then, we didn’t want to publish the thing ourselves. It’s too much work! So we went with an electronic publisher, someone who could pay for an editor, a cover artist, a tech guy or girl, a team of publicists....but, as we said, things went badly. Here’s that story:

The Acquisitions Editor loved our book, said delightful things, and – left the company before a new editor could be assigned. A few months passed and we drifted about, editor-less, wondering what would happen next. (So we continued writing other novels.) Finally, we were assigned our first, official editor. Before the book would really be edited, we were asked to remove redundant words and words the editor herself did not like to read in books. We did this. Then our editor left the company for personal reasons.

A few more weeks drifted away. We wrote and sold a spicy romance novella (just to see if we could) and a new editor came on board. She didn’t like our prologue – prologues aren’t popular these days, not with anyone, but our opening is vital to the story – but we fought and kept our beginning, worked on eliminating more “bad” words...and then this editor abruptly left the company. 

Our publication date drew closer. Our publisher sent us a jpeg of the novel’s cover and a friend asked why we were using someone else’s image on our novel. Turns out, the design was so similar to the cover of a best-selling Dean Koontz novel that it made us cringe. We notified the publisher and she agreed to make some changes. Weeks away from our publication date, we were assigned a new editor. This gentleman had never been an editor but, ever willing, decided to rewrite the beginning of the novel. Without telling us. And surprised us further by chopping out some important bits. This was not okay with us. 

We protested, things grew a little heated, and we asked to be released from our contract. The publisher agreed and returned all of our rights. She didn’t have to do this and we appreciate it greatly – and that’s why we would prefer not to mention the publisher by name. We think she tries hard and this period of time was a rough stretch for her company. We’ve talked to another of her writers and his experience was much more satisfying.

It was after all of this that we decided to publish the book ourselves.
For anyone considering self-publishing, what should they know going in?

We wondered ourselves so, a few months ago, we did an experiment. We put together a three story collection of science fiction stories (called After Things Went Bad), Renée grabbed a stock photo and designed a cover, and we had it on Amazon in a couple of days. 

We learned, it’s not that hard to publish your own book. Which is a shame, really, because you don’t have to be very committed to do it poorly but you have to be really committed to do it right. There are all kinds of resources out there to help you. Dean Wesley Smith, for example, has a whole series on being your own publisher. 

Know, too, that there’s absolutely no caché in being self-published, your family and friends really don’t want to buy your book, no matter what they say, and you’ll probably be disappointed by the royalties you receive. After Things Went Bad has yet to collect enough money to pay for the stock photo we used.  

Was this a lot of work? For example, did you have to hire your own editor, find your own cover designer, learn how to do digital typesetting, etc.?
It isn’t that hard to make your book available on-line but it was a lot of work to get Something Wicked ready for publication. 
There’s dozens of how-to-format your book blogsites and plenty of tech-savvy people willing to do it for you (usually for under $100) if you can’t or don’t want to make the effort. It’s a little tougher to prepare a print version, Createspace or Lulu, but still very doable. That’s how it seemed to us, anyway, and we are not computer masters by any stretch of the imagination.

An experienced editor runs $1500 and up, for a typical YA novel. We know because we checked. Because we couldn’t afford either of the people we wanted, we turned to fellow writers and beta readers for help. Of course, our novel had already been semi-edited by then but we still trimmed nearly ten percent of the word count to tighten and improve the story.

For a cover, there are cheaper people available but the designers we like start at $300 - $350 for a basic layout. (We approached an artist to do the cover for After Things Went Bad but he wanted $2000!!!)  (Let us say that again: !!!) Our son, Matthew, is a graphic designer so we asked him to build the Something Wicked cover for us. He did a great job and the paperback is lovely. 
 How are you planning on marketing SW?

We’re going to rely on the kindness of strangers. Really.

When we signed our contract with the e-publisher, she told us we should anticipate selling thousands of digital downloads. To help us do this, she wanted us to be on every social networking site available. We did as she asked but we also contacted several of the writers she’d published. They were quite open with us, telling us the sales for most of their novels were in the two digits. Not always the high two digits, either. It was discouraging. 

So we thought we’d try a different approach: We’d write a story we’d like to read, make it complete in itself but open to a sequel – Something Evil – because a series builds a readership and because we want to know what happens next, give our novel a good cover and try to build some sort of awareness of the book’s existence. If we can get a few reviews (from kind strangers, see above), we’ll be happy because somebody, somewhere, may be interested enough in what we’ve written to download the story or buy the book. If they like it enough, they may swing back for the next one...and the one after that. 

It’s very much a “tortoise” philosophy. We don’t have to win the royalties race with this novel but, over time, we hope to do well enough to continue the line of mysteries.

Would you do it over again? Why or why not?

Absolutely and here’s why: At the end of the day, we’ve created and produced a book we like. Unlike our work-for-hire assignment, we won’t find “surprise” additions to the story. Unlike our experience with the e-publisher, we get to use a cover we like and we can keep the words we want to use in our mystery. It’s wonderful to be able to tell your own story your own way.
Still, things may change in the future. Our science fiction novel comes out in September from Proxima Books (UK). Five months before publication, they’re discussing ways to raise awareness about our book. We’re impressed. We’re not five-months-in-advance kind of people. We can barely keep the weekend in sight.

Bonus question: You’re stranded on a desert oasis and you can only bring one novel (that someone else has written!) – what do you pick?

Renée: Irving Stone’s Lust for Life. Vincent Van Gogh fascinates me and I’ve been meaning to read the book for months. I keep getting distracted. But put me on a desert oasis….
Harrell: I’d grab Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Because the book is one of my favorites, and it’s fairly long (might need the paper!), and it’s written by a guy with a pseudonym.

To learn more about Renee and Hal, visit their website (which is quite humorous) and you can read my review of Something Wicked here.  And there you have it folks.  The low down on why one couple decided to self-publish and the unfortunate events in the publishing world that led up to their decision.  Did you learn anything new or surprising? What are your thoughts on self-publishing?  


  1. Great interview. It's always interesting to hear publishing stories.

  2. Very interesting! I love hearing authors' various ways of reaching their audience. :)


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