Megan Bostic made the decision to self publish when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt didn’t take her second book. For Tom Llewellyn, he decided when the Penguin editor he’d been working with for six months got a new job and dumped his book back on him. Erik Hanberg, meanwhile, decided to self-publish from the beginning.
With a plethora of Internet publishing sites and the demise of the book industry due to Amazon and e-books, self-publishing has never been easier for authors — and plenty are choosing to do it. Some are vanity publications that are sold to friends and family. But some are excellent books written by published authors who are tired of feeling a lack of support from the industry. Three Tacoma authors – Bostic, Llewellyn and poet Hans Ostrom – are among them, releasing self-published books this month and joining Hanberg in going indie.
“I finished writing ‘A Matter of Life and Seth’ a year ago,” says Llewellyn of the teen murder mystery he’s just released on Amazon, his third published book. “It was in really good shape, and after shipping it around we had quick results with Penguin Young Readers. I worked with an editor there for six months. ... He was saying, ‘I’m so committed, I love this book.’ Then silence for a month, before an email telling me he’d gotten a new job, and good luck with my book. It was incredibly frustrating.”
Llewellyn, a Tacoma writer with a day job at Russell Investments, was no stranger to frustrating publishers. His first book, “A Tilting House” – which, like “Seth,” is set in Tacoma – was a middle-grade novel that took three years to get through the Random House (Tricycle Press) publishing cycle – two of them without a contract. Released in 2010, the book got reasonable reviews and sold 14,000 hardback copies, surpassing what Llewellyn calls “the magic number” of 10,000 copies needed to justify a paperback edition.
Then Tricycle Press closed. “Tilting House” went out of print, but Random retained the rights so they could continue to earn e-book revenue. They also rejected Llewellyn’s second book “Letter Off Dead,” which he’d published chapter by chapter in blog form a few years ago. It fell outside their reader categories, Llewellyn says. He plans to self-publish that next year.
About the only good part to the experience was that Llewellyn’s Tricycle editor Abigail Samoun continued to work with him as a private agent.
“You think, I’ve done this incredibly hard thing and it should get easier now,” Llewellyn says. “It doesn’t.”
So Llewellyn went indie, self-publishing “Seth” via createspace.com. It’s initially available just at Amazon, though he’ll have an informal release at the December poster sale party for his artist partnership, Beautiful Angle.
Bostic had a similar experience. Harcourt Mifflin had picked up her first novel, the young adult “Never Eighteen” (a teen cancer story set in Tacoma), in 2012. But her next book “Dissected” – about a teenager who deals with pain by cutting herself – was considered “too dark” by both publisher and agents, though they liked Bostic’s writing. After raising $1,000 on indiegogo.com, Bostic self-published, releasing “Dissected” at Tacoma’s Garfield Book Co. earlier this month.
“By going indie, I was able to release my book to the public sooner,” Bostic says. “I’m also free to write what I want. ... And, of course, there is the factor that as an indie writer I get a higher percentage of royalties on my books now than with a traditional publisher.”
Selling traditionally, Llewellyn says, he gets $1 per book, a $6,000 advance, plus $8,000 on second-run sales. Self-publishing, he makes $3 per book and can set his own prices, going straight to e-book and paperback and printing on demand. Both he and Bostic say it’s possible to sell about 2,000 copies and make the same profit they’d make on an advance – without waiting three years to see their words in print.
“You can get your book out there and get it read,” Llewellyn says. “That’s why I write – I want people to read my stories.”
Self-publishing sounds like a lot of work since the author does all their own editing (or hires someone else), formatting (“stressful and overwhelming,” says Llewellyn), sourcing and paying for reviews (“you need about 100 to be credible”) and marketing. But a lot of that is work they’d do even with a book contract. These days, publishers only mount tours and marketing campaigns for their top authors, leaving the rest to sink or swim on their own. Bostic – an experienced blogger, vlogger and digital marketer – created a lot of the buzz for “Never Eighteen” on her own.
“The hardest part is doing all the marketing yourself,” says Hanberg, a Tacoma author with six self-published books and 15,000 sales under his belt. His most recent, “The Lead Cloak,” was just released at a launch at King’s Books. “What works one month may not work the next. Personally, I enjoy the process of it, but some authors who publish ... find that they can’t just post their book on Amazon and rake in the sales. It takes work to sell a book.”
Of course, it helps if you have a big local network and are writing about local places. “Never Eighteen” was set primarily in West Tacoma, with references to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the Puyallup fair. “Tilting House” pulls in Tacoma Art Museum and the North End, while the hero of “Seth” lives behind a Hilltop gym and mooches around that neighborhood: Sixth Avenue cafes and businesses, Trinity Lutheran church, Stadium High School (under an alias). Even Sweet Pea Flaherty, owner of King’s Books, gets a cameo.
“I set things in Tacoma because it ties into my local network,” says Llewellyn. “And I love helping the town.”
Maybe the hardest thing about self-publishing, though, is the stigma. Traditional media (such as newspapers and magazines) tend to ignore indie writers who don’t come with a stamp of publishing-house approval, though that is changing. Readers and reviewers are influenced by things they recognize, like the Penguin logo. Instead, indie writers try to get their book out digitally through blogs and social media.
“It’s about relationships and networks,” Llewellyn says of self-publishing. “But distribution is the nut that no one’s found out how to crack.”
Going indie helps in genres other than fiction. Ostrom, an English professor at University of Puget Sound and a published poet, novelist and screenwriter, has just released a book of poetry – “Clear a Place for Good” – using a print-on-demand press co-founded with a colleague.
“Publishers of full-length poetry collections aren’t abundant,” Ostrom says. “After publishing in literary magazines and anthologies for 30 years, I think I’ve paid my dues and learned my craft, so I enjoy the freedom and autonomy of having my own press.”
It also helps writers who push genre boundaries. Says Ostrom: “Major publishers are looking for books in carefully defined niches, such as romance, fantasy, and vampire fiction; nonfiction; and so on. So it’s a tough environment for writers outside those niches and for books that don’t fit neatly into money-making categories.”
Does the rise of indie publishing mean the death of traditional publishing?
Not necessarily, says Hanberg. “Traditional publishing will be around for a long time,” he says. “I think self-publishing is the new ‘slush pile’ for traditional publishing houses. They will look for popular self-published titles and take them to a new level.”
Bostic disagrees. “Where it takes a traditional publisher (two years) to publish a book, an indie writer can get a book or even two out in a year,” she says. “We can stay ahead of the trends and beat traditional publishers out of the gate, so by the times their books hit the stores, the trends have run their course. I think if traditional publishers don’t start taking indie publishers seriously, they will die out.”
Where to Find The Books
Tom Llewellyn’s “A Matter of Life and Seth” is available in paperback and e-book at Amazon.com, as well as at the annual Beautiful Angle poster sale 6 p.m. Dec. 7 at B Sharp Coffee House, 706 Court C (Opera Alley), Tacoma. It’s on order at Tacoma Public Library and King’s Bookstore.
Erik Hanberg’s “The Lead Cloak” is available in paperback at Amazon.com and King’s, and in e-book through Kindle, Apple, Nook and Kobo. It’s on order at Tacoma Public Library.
Megan Bostic’s “Dissected” is available in paperback at Garfield Book Co., 208 Garfield St. S., Tacoma, and at Amazon.com. It’s on order at Tacoma Public Library.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568