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 BookReporter.com, 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 amazon.com.