Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 9


In 2001 the computer networking startup I was working at was bought by Lucent Corporation, and it looked like I was going to make a lot of money. It didn’t happen—by the time we could sell our options Lucent stock had tanked and I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to buy call options to lock in my gains, but the experience did make me think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and it came back to writing. I had two books, In His Shadow (Fast Lane) and Bad Thoughts stored away, both of which I thought could be published. Around this time iUniverse and MWA had set up an arrangement where MWA members could have there books self-published free with iUniverse under their Mystery and Suspense Press imprint. I had convinced myself that the publishing world was a private club closed to me, that it was pointless sending my books out again, but if I sacrificed one of my books to self-publishing, I’d be able to get enough positive blurbs and comments on it that I would be able to find interest for my other book. This was wrong thinking on my part—once again the publishing world had changed from ’97 to ’01. There were more legitimate small presses I could’ve considered, plus some excellent UK houses like Serpent’s Tail and No Exit Press which I had never tried, as well as some of the NY houses being more open to darker material than they were a few years earlier. I decided that of my two books, Bad Thoughts was the better of the two, so I joined MWA as a full member since I was eligible from my New Mystery and Hardboiled sales, and I had In His Shadow self-published with iUniverse under the MWA program. I had no expectation of sales—my sole reason was to use the book as a kind of resume to get Bad Thoughts sold, and while some good things came out of it, it was a mistake. I don’t want this to become a debate over self-publishing, I know with some people it’s pretty much like debating religion. I’m simply going to state my observations after having gone through it, as well as my sentiment that no serious writer should ever take this step, but beyond that I’m not going to enter into any debate over self-publishing. Here are a few general observations before going into more specifics:

Most bookstores obviously won’t sell these books except possibly under consignment basis. The reason for this—outside of the general opinion that most self-published books are crap—because of the no return policy PODs typically have, as well as the low discounting.

Major newspapers will not review self-published books. All you do is open yourself up to frustration trying—I had a reviewer at the Rocky Mountain News who liked In His Shadow and submitted a good review for it, only to have her editor pull it because of their policies on self-published books. The reason major papers won’t review self-published books, outside of the general opinion that they’re all crap—they’re not going to be in bookstores, so why review them?

Most legitimately published writers look at self-published books as crap, as well as most of the industry, and you’re going to be looked at as a joke or pathetic going this route.

A first-time writer only has a chance to be a first-time writer once. The industry treats first-time writers specially—both with reviews, awards and attention, and I can’t think of a bigger waste for a writer than to throw away this opportunity by self-publishing.

I self-published In His Shadow in ’02, and have no complaints with iUniverse—they did everything that they were supposed to, in fact, they even did a little more by getting the book reviewed by Publishers Weekly. Again, I never looked at this book as published, just as a 263-page resume, and I started sending out letters to see if I could get some people to take a look at it, and found a few very generous people in the industry who were willing to—Gary Lovisi, who published my second story, Next Time, in Hardboiled, Bill Crider, who I appeared with in New Mystery #2, and Vicki Hendricks, who selected a noir story of mine when she guest-edited an issue of PlotsWitGuns. All three of them ended up liking the book and writing me very generous blurbs. With those blurbs in hand, I bought a small ad in Mystery Scene, which ended up getting Jeff Gelb contacting me, asking if I could send him a copy, which got me an invite to his Hot Blood 12 anthology, and my first anthology sale. Jeff also ended up recommending the book to Joe Hartlaub at, where I ended up with a very nice review. I actually ended up with a lot of good reviews on the web and in a couple of small newspapers—as well as a mixed review from PW. All this led to my book being discussed on the Rara Avis hardboiled/noir fiction discussion list, which led to Luca Conti, who was translating for the Italian publishing house, Meridiano Zero, buying a copy, recommending it to his publisher, and me selling the rights to them. So there you have it, that’s how I ended up selling to the Italian rights of my first book before ever selling the English.

This led to more stuff which I’ll talk about in future lessons learned, but it was still a mistake self-publishing, and I would’ve been much better served either finding a small press for In His Shadow or writing more books until I could break into a NY house. In my general observations above, I used the word crap a lot—that is not necessarily my view on self-published books—I’ve been there, I under the frustration and temptation to do it, but you’re kidding yourself if you think that’s not the way most people (authors, editors, reviewers, bookstores) view self-published books. Shortly after I started getting blurbs and reviews for In His Shadow I had someone from iUniverse call me about a program he was trying to start up to get the worthwhile books they print (can’t call it publishing!) into chain bookstores, as well as more attention. He was calling me to let me know that he was trying to get In His Shadow in this new program, and that I should be patient and not try to find a legitimate publisher for it. During our phone call, he mentioned out of the 1000s of books that they print, maybe 100 of them deserved to be published. This alone should tell you how small the odds are on having any self-published book looked at seriously.

With the small buzz I was getting for In His Shadows--over a dozen positive reviews, print ads, blurbs, discussions on Rara Avis, PW Weekly review, how many copies of In His Shadow did I end up selling? Maybe 200. And the book still haunts me like a bad case of herpes--after canceling the contract once I sold it to Point Blank Press in 2003 (published under the new name, Fast Lane), the book still shows up on


pattinase (abbott) said...

Still reading and wondering and worrying and getting depressed. But thanks.

Anonymous said...

Every book shows up forever on That's the beauty of long-tail commercialism.

It seems to me that the real issue with the In His Shadow wasn't that it was self-published. It wasn't: you paid someone to publish it for you. That's the major difference genuine self-publication and the vanity press. Hardluck Stories, on the other hand, is self-publishing; you did it yourself and got it out there.

What bothers me about some authors' attitudes in this case is their misplaced scorn. Rather than consider writers who fall for pay-for-publishing scams as "a joke or pathetic," to use your words, authors ought to save their venom for the companies that take advantage of a bad situation by offering a poor solution.

Rather than castigating the poor bastards victimized by a lousy industry -- and you made a note of how fickle and subjective it is in a previous post -- authors who want to make a difference ought to concentrate on opening the market to accomplished new voices. Not lowering the bar, but offering better opportunities to clear it.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Patti, I'm certainly not doing this to depress anyone--I'm writing these lessons partly as a cathartic exercise, but also hoping that by sharing the long road I went on before ending up with Serpent's Tail, that I can give writers who are also on this long road some hope, while also avoiding some of the mistakes I made and benefiting from some of the things I did right. A few people get lucky and sell their first books right away, most don't--that's the reality, and you have to be prepared for that long road. Brett Battles has a good post on Murderati about the 10/4 rule--that it usually takes 10 years of writing and 4 novels before an author sells their first book.

Sam, the barrier has always been high. It's also always been fickle, and there's always been a lot of luck involved in breaking through with a good publisher. I remember when I started writing in '92 reading a statistic that only 100 first-time novelists are published each year. I don't know how accurate that was, but that's what I saw. The words "joke" and "pathetic" that I used were the way I perceived industry people viewing me for self-publishing --it's not the way I look at it, and I left out a couple of "interesting" stories of people in high places going out of their way to ridicule me over the book, only to find out later that they never bothered to read it. The way I look at it is as a realist--that the writer is hurting themselves by going that route. Every once in a while a self-published author makes it, but it is so rare.

Kate Stine, Mystery Scene said...

Hi Dave,
You're so right about the disadvantages for a writer in self-publishing. If anything, I think you soft-pedaled it.

Here are a couple of more things to consider:

The indy mystery bookstores are a huge source of promotion that self-published writers lose. A lot of their income comes from collectors so these booksellers really like to highlight first novels. These booksellers are also quite influential with the media -- from small magazines like Mystery Scene to newspapers to NPR, etc. Many of indy booksellers also review books for various publications.

A number of fan conventions have decided not to place self-published authors on panels and some authors organizations have restrictions on self-published writers using various promotional programs, etc.

There are a lot more options for authors these days including small presses such as Akashic Books, Busted Flush, Bleak House, Creeping Hemlock Press, Creme de la Crime, Deadly Ink (just launched), Crime Express, Hard Case, Level Best Books, Permanent Press, Ramble House, Ransom Note Press, Rookery Press, Serpent's Tail and Stark House.

If a writer asks me about self-publishing I always counsel against it. Yes, there are exceptions -- and in some ways you're one of them -- but as you say, the negatives far outweigh the positives.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Hi Kate,

Very good point about mystery bookstores--once I had In His Shadow published by Point Blank Press as "Fast Lane", I had Poisoned Pen Bookstore making it one of their crime club selections and selling a lot of copies , as well as Kate Mattes at Kate's Mystery Bookstore strongly supporting it, neither of whom would've been able to do anything with the self-published version.

Also in the list of publishers willing to look at unagented material would be Dorchestor Books, TOR, and Kennsington, although the odds of Serpent's Tail looking at unagented material is about the same as most of the NY houses--it was a fluke, as well as a lucky string of events that I was able to get them to look at Small Crimes, and I think I'm one of only a small handful of US writers that they publish. BUT, these types of breaks do happen.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Also forgot to mention Poisoned Pen Press and Five Star, and there are others as well. About Hard Case, I don't know--last time I talked to Charles Ardai he was sounding a lot like I was when I was trying to figure out how to pull the plug on Hardluck.

duke said...

Jeeeeziss, Will Suzanne Warneke EVER go the fuck away? Duke

Dave Zeltserman said...

This has got to be THE Duke R., right? Yeah, I hear you about Warnick (sp??). Laurie ever show you Essence?