Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Letting Deirdre Saoirse Moen do the Talking

Thoughts on Self-Publishing by Deirdre Saoirse Moen

The brave, new world of self-publishing your work electronically has given a lot of writers hope they'd lost after hearing tales of editors, agents, slush piles, and long publishing lags. But is it false hope?

There's no question that it's a rush to click send on your book and have it appear in the store within a few days. It's also a rush to be in some trendy coffee shop and have a friend of you show you that she did, indeed, buy your book. I remember the first time I did that with an author, back in 2005, as a relatively early e-book adopter. As the author, this first happened to me in August.

Question is: how many people who don't know you from Adam (or Eve) will be buying your e-books?

Let's look at some of the common scenarios leading to becoming self-published:

Re-Publishing Your Backlist

You have works for which you've either still got the rights to re-publish or you've gotten the rights reverted, and you're going to re-publish works that are out of print or were in print in overseas markets. A number of established authors are doing this; one of the best I've seen is the co-op Book View Caf'e. Obviously, this is relatively easy money if you're in a position to take advantage of it, but the process of getting to this point is long and arduous.

I recently re-published my short story, "A Sword Called Rhonda," in an e-book of the same name. To give you an idea of how long the process can be: I wrote the first draft of the story in summer, 1997 when I attended the Odyssey writers' workshop. It was overwhelmingly disliked, with 17 of 20 people in a row giving it negative feedback. Ouch!

When I got to Clarion in 2002, I re-wrote the piece from scratch, keeping only the main character Karma, the sword, a few concepts, and the first three paragraphs. I axed a major character, the entire plot (which was, as you might guess from the title, based on the odd plot of the film A Fish Called Wanda), I changed the setting from Southern California to Northern, and I struck the ending, which was the primary thing people hadn't liked before.

While it was more favorably received, it still had issues. Leslie What worked with me on developing the piece, and I learned a lot from her. Still, I trunked the story when I got back home because I was in the middle of writing a novel and needed some time to unpack what I'd learned at Clarion.

In 2003, I heard that Esther Friesner was looking for stories for Turn the Other Chick, so I pulled out all the Clarion critiques, really worked on the piece, and sent the story through the local critique group. I made some more changes, then sent it out. A few months later, a check arrived along with a contract. Baen published it in hardcover in 2004, then in mass market paper in 2006. I re-sold the short to This Is My Funniest 2, edited by Mike Resnick, published by BenBella in 2007. Submitted twice, bought twice.

A few months ago, I noticed that Chick wasn't listed in stock anywhere, so that's when I thought I'd look into e-publishing Rhonda. I found a cover artist, did the markup myself, and submitted it to iBooks, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

In this era, it's likely that any new work will be available in some e-book format, so it's not something you need to do yourself until your work goes out of print.

Publishing New Work as an Established Author

Authors who've published some titles via traditional means forge out and release one or more new titles via self-publishing. An example would be Shelley Adina's book Lady of Devices. Shelley's a well-published novelist, but this book is in a different genre, so she self-published the book.

Publishing New Work as a Never-Traditionally-Published Author

Of the recent boom of authors publishing through Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords, PubIt (Barnes and Noble's Nook self-publishing venture), iBooks, etc., most of the authors have never been traditionally published. Unfortunately, many of the works that have been published this way would never have been published traditionally for quality reasons. Let's assume that that isn't one of your issues, and that your prose is crisp and clean.

Let's also assume you're able to find a cover that works for you rather than against you, and that you're able to get an ISBN for the sales outlets that require it.

Given that, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing your work?


  • Quicker route to publication. This has both a plus and a minus to it: though your work will be available more quickly, you will also develop as a writer during the traditional long submission process, so it's entirely possible that, by the time the novel reaches the right desk, you may be able to edit it into a stronger book.

  • A bigger share of the pie. No question about it, royalty rates on self-publishing are higher.

  • More control.

  • Ability to address niche markets (e.g., anthropomorphic fiction, paranormal erotic comedy, steampunk murder mystery, regional sf/f) that may not be large enough for a publisher to be interested. Back when I started, the Catfantastic series was very popular, but other markets would say, "no cat stories." Although Catfantastic stopped after several volumes, there was still a market for new cat-related sf/f fiction -- just not big enough for publishers to be interested, apparently.

  • You can write (and publish) what you want.


  • Left out of major recognition venues of most kinds. You'll find it more difficult to get speaking engagements, major awards, and other perks you may care about.

  • The pie is smaller for nearly all self-published writers. Sure, there are the exceptions who sold a million books, but they are exceptions.

  • More decisions rest on your shoulders. If you are not a decisive person, this may be paralyzing to you.

  • Need for a wider range of skills. Even if you don't do your own copy editing, artwork, cover design or book style, you'll need to make decisions about how these are done and what your budget is for getting them done.

  • You don't have as much information about the market as an established publisher does. In some cases, this may work to your advantage, though.

  • While sales of e-books are increasing, they are still a minority of the market. In 2010, e-book sales from major publishers accounted for 6.4% of the market. I've been told that number has doubled in the first six months of 2011, but I don't have a reference I can link to for that. That's still 1/8 of the overall book market, though.

  • Publishers bring distribution; in the e-book world, they also bring recognition and trust. Because I know anyone can upload to Smashwords, I don't trust manuscripts from Smashwords as much as I trust books from Tor. I'm more likely to pay $11.99 for a major publisher's e-book (in fact, I just did, for Charles Stross's Halting State) than I am for a Smashwords book that costs $2.99. Without an excerpt, there's a 0% chance I'll buy the Smashwords book.

What Skills Do You Need?

To paraphrase Jaym Gates, in a talk about marketing and promotion, "You learned to write. You can do this."

These days, getting a book into good e-publishing shape is easier than ever. I've never made a Kindle file from scratch, but here's the elements of an EPUB file: it's a set of XHTML files (one per chapter is common), a cover image, any CSS and Javascript, as well as some XML manifest documents, all in a specific order in a ZIP file. It's technical but not especially difficult if you've managed to wrap your head around HTML already. That said, I would recommend using existing tools if you don't already feel comfortable in XHTML and XML, especially as distinct from HTML.

Threepress Consulting has two excellent articles: the first discusses using Apple's Pages for generating an EPUB file and the second is about using Scrivener. I tried Pages layouts, but I'm not particularly familiar with creating new layouts within Pages and I felt a bit constrained with the templates I had, so I used Scrivener to generate my EPUB file and my Kindle file. I was able to use the same EPUB file for both Apple's iBooks and Barnes & Nobles's PubIt.

Beyond that, you need the ability to upload those files using your web browser of choice. You also need the ability to fill out all the numerous little boxes for each of your potential markets. Compared to the EPUB file, this part is easy-peasy.

After that, it'll take a few days (or, in the case of Smashwords Premium, possibly a few weeks) to go live, then you get to check back obsessively for sales numbers like the rest of us.

How Many Sales to Expect?

This is the big question, isn't it? Unless you've got a substantial following already, the biggest issue is going to be getting sales. I have had a web presence since 1998, and began blogging in 2002 (though my blog archives only go back to 2004). I have been active in some corner of the net since early 1994. I volunteer at conventions, everything from regional to Worldcon, and have been doing so for ten years. In other words, my presence is as known as it can be for a writer who's published so little fiction under her own name.

So far, I've been self-published for six weeks. My total sales? 16 copies of my story: 4 on iBooks, 9 on Amazon, and 3 on Barnes & Noble. As I haven't signed up with Smashwords, I haven't yet penetrated other markets. So far, my royalties total $7.15, which is enough for a Peet's mug and a cup of coffee to go in it. An interesting point, though: as iBooks pays the highest of the three royalty rates, 39% of my royalties are from iBooks even though only 25% of my sales are; 44% of my royalties are from Amazon, but 56% of my sales are from there. Some people think these sales numbers are good; I disagree, but I also realize Rhonda is a niche story that has sold through to much of its potential audience through hardcover, book club, and paperback sales.

Absolute Write's forums have a number of people self-reporting sales, some less successful than I, many more successful than I. That's the point, really: there's no predicting sales, except that people who have multiple titles get more repeat sales.

Obviously, there's the promotional basics: mentioning it on your web site and facebook page, adding an e-mail signature that includes your book's information, and linking to your web site in your online profiles.


Only you know what your career goals are, and therefore only you know how self-publishing fits in that overall scheme. For me, I'm still seeking traditional publication for new work, though I may make the occasional related piece available solely through self-publishing.

Deirdre Saoirse Moen helps make the web safe for mere mortals. Her most recent short story publication, "A Sword Called Rhonda," appears in the Turn the Other Chick anthology from Baen and the This Is My Funniest 2 anthology from BenBella. Her other hobby is photography, where she's thus far managed to resist the lure of SLRs in favor of rangefinders (some vintage) and mirrorless cameras. She lives in Menlo Park with her husband, their cat-who-is-not-a-kitty, and a large plush crab.