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working writer wending her way through the labyrinth that is self-publishing

Friday, March 25, 2011

interview with Bob (BK) Mayo

1. Tell us about yourself--are you a full-time writer?

I retired, after working in education for twenty years, to become a full-time writer. The irony is, once you've published a book you can no longer write full time-that is, assuming you care to sell what you've published-because of all the time you have to spend marketing your book. Frankly, I had no idea how much time and energy I was going to have to devote to book marketing. This is partly because I self-published my novel by starting my own publishing company rather than going with a publishing service or an online publisher like CreateSpace or a POD printer-distributor like Lightening Source. So for the past year or so since my novel came out, I've been wearing two hats-my publisher hat and my author hat. Each job has its own responsibilities and demands.

As publisher, I've had to shepherd my book through the production process, solicit reviews, establish a distribution system, arrange for book signings, set up media interviews, package books to ship to my distributors, pay all the bills, invoice for sales, and maintain all the book and records of my publishing company. And that doesn't include the countless hours spent designing business cards, postcards, sell sheets, media kits, websites, and promotional ads.

As writer, I've had to attend all those book signings and interviews my publisher self set up for me, which has involved a considerable commitment of time and some travel. And I'm still trying to find the time to do all the social networking I'm told I need to do to sell more books.

But even if I hadn't started my own publishing company, I-as author-would have had to do many of the same tasks I performed with my publisher hat on. The reality is, books don't sell themselves. And, for the most part, publishers don't sell books either. Authors do. So, the short answer to your question is, no I am not a full-time writer: I am a full-time writer/book marketer. If you want to sell the books you write, you have to wear both hats.

2. Did you try to publish your book, "Tamara's Child," the agent-publisher way before you decided to self-publish?

Yes, I tried the traditional agent-publisher route. I'd had a literary agent years ago for another book, a non-fiction manuscript that ended up not getting published, so I knew the process: query (wait) receive rejections/query some more (wait some more) send requested partials (wait) receive rejections (repeat process). After about two years of this, I had accumulated a litany of reasons why agents weren't interested in my novel, which can be summarized thusly:

(1) The book is too long for a first novel. (In the traditional publishing world, first novels are expected to be about 90,000 words. At that time my novel was about 175,000 words. I eventually cut it down to about 143,000.)

(2) Although it's a compelling story, the novel doesn't have blockbuster potential.

(3) The novel is essentially women's fiction and we can't get behind women's fiction written by a man.

(4) You don't have enough writing credits.

So, at that point, it was either give up on seeing the novel in print or self-publish. I probably would have given up on the novel and moved on to my next writing project had it not been for my wife and some close friends who'd read the manuscript and argued convincingly that the novel was worthy of publication.

But let me add one thing here-a word of caution/advice to writers out there who desire to be published traditionally. I committed a cardinal sin in my efforts to get my novel published through a literary agent. I submitted my manuscript before it was ready. I thought it was ready, but it wasn't. It wasn't until after it had been rejected by all those agents that I hired a professional editor to help me improve the manuscript. After two rewrites, it was ready for submission to agents or independent publishers. But by then, I had decided to self-publish. So, my advice: Don't submit any manuscript until you are sure it is ready. How will you know? Hire a professional to edit your manuscript. When the professional editor says it is ready for submission, then it is ready. But not until then.

3. What has been your experience in the self-publishing world? Was it hard to find the information you needed?

The information one needs to self-publish is out there-in books and in the digital cloud. You have to do a lot of work digging it out though. I referred to two books extensively as I prepared to publish my novel: "The Self-Publishing Manual" by Dan Poynter and "Self-Publishing Fiction" by Gavin Sinclair. I found both books useful, but because Sinclair's book is geared toward fiction, I found myself referring to it more than Poynter's book. There are other books available on self-publishing-more all the time as self-publishing becomes a more accepted route to publication-but these are the ones I used.

I also visited numerous websites on self-publishing and gleaned information from them. You have to be vigilant here though, because most of the sites want to sell you something-full publishing services, printing, book shepherding, book design, etc. But you can still get some useful information there.

Even so, what I experienced was this: No matter how much research I did, I never felt that I fully understood all the aspects of the book publishing process. I guess that's just the way it is when you do something for the first time. And looking back now, as happy as I am with my book and how it has been received, I can see that I made some mistakes. My biggest mistake was not soliciting more pre-publication reviews for my novel. Because I have found the old adage to be true: What sells books is reviews. But at the time I was producing my novel I thought, "Here I am publishing a first novel by an unknown author-who will care enough to review it?" So I passed on submitting the book for review to places like Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, School Library Journal, Foreword Magazine, and other print journals that may very well have reviewed the book. And I was late in submitting to the pre-pub reviewers I did submit to. Pre-publication reviewers want to see an advanced copy of your book six months prior to publication, and I just didn't plan for that. So the best I could do was to get a few post-publication reviews. There is a reason a traditional publisher takes a year to publish a book. I rushed the process by skipping a key component. I will not make that mistake again. With my next book, you can be sure I'll have plenty of advanced copies printed and sent out in time to get some pre-publication reviews-the kind that go on your book jacket or your back cover, the kind that create buzz about your book even before it's published.

4. How have your sales been? Will you make money on your book?

For the first printing of "Tamara's Child," which was published in early 2010, we did a print run of 1500 copies. We still have about 400 books left. Take into account the ones given out as review copies and complimentary copies to booksellers and the reality is that we are still counting sales in the hundreds and not the thousands. Most of our sales have been to public libraries, which was the primary target market for the book. Sales through bookstores have been minimal; sales through Amazon have been consistent, but
 moderate in number.

So will I make money on the book? That remains to be seen. If print sales continue to the point where I need to do a second printing, that would help. The cost of those first 1500 books includes all of my publication costs (publishing company set-up, editing, book design, printing) plus my marketing costs to date. Even if I sell all the books I have left in inventory, I will still be in the hole. But if demand continues and I have to do a second printing, I will have fewer costs to absorb with those books (printing plus other production costs not absorbed by first-run sales). I could make a profit. But that's still iffy.

Realistically, my best bet for making a profit lies with ebook sales. I've just published the Kindle and Nook versions of my novel. I'm selling the ebook for a bargain price of $2.99 in hopes of attracting buyers, and early sales figures are encouraging. Amazon pays a 70% royalty on Kindle sales (Barnes and Noble pays 65%), so even with a low price of $2.99, I end up making nearly as much on an ebook sale as I do on a print sale through one of my distributors. This is because my print distributors pay me only 45% of retail for the book and, to arrive at net proceeds, I have to deduct printing costs as well as packaging and shipping costs. You don't have any of those added costs with ebook distribution. You have only your original conversion fee, which isn't that much.

But the truth is, I published my novel because I passionately believed it deserved an audience. I didn't know at the time if I would sell 10 copies beyond the ones my friends and family would buy so as not to hurt my feelings. So profit or no profit, I am thrilled with my self-publishing experience. "Tamara's Child" is on the shelves of hundreds of public libraries around the country (whose online catalogs show it is consistently being checked out) and in the personal (print and ebook) libraries of a growing number of individuals. And because of that, my novel has been or soon will be read by thousands of people, many of whom have let me know how much they've been touched by the story. My God, what more could I ask for!

5. What made you decide on Kindle and Nook?

Putting my novel on Amazon's Kindle was a no-brainer. Amazon sells more ebooks than anyone. And they sell more ebooks now than printed books, by an ever-widening margin. Ebooks, in my opinion, are not only here to stay, they will continue to grow in popularity even as sales of print books continue to decline to a point of stasis as determined by that dwindling number of readers who demand a printed copy because they like the way it feels in their hands. But that group doesn't include today's young people. They do everything on digital media. Not too many years from now, I think, the word "book" will mean something different than it does today. In fact, some popular authors are already passing on print publication altogether and publishing in electronic format only. I think this will happen more and more.

As for Nook, I just wanted to cover my bases. Same with GoogleEbooks, which account I'm in the process of setting up. But I suspect that most of my ebook sales will be Kindle books, which can be read not only on a Kindle reader, but on a host of other e-readers, as well as on PCs.

6. Did you have your book professionally edited?

I answered this question above, but I'd like to add something here. I worked with a professional editor when rewriting my manuscript and readying it for publication. Then I hired a second editor to proofread the text prior to publication. It never hurts to have a second pair of eyes looking at your book. The result of all this editorial scrutiny was a clean, professionally prepared text. And that's really important, especially when you are self-publishing, because it goes to credibility. The harsh reality is that self-published books still have a ways to go in overcoming the bias against them exhibited by reviewers, distributors, booksellers, and even readers. It doesn't help the cause when self-publishers put out a less than professional book package. So, if I might be allowed to make a plea here, I would exhort all my fellow self-publishers to commit to putting out a product at least as good as the books being published by traditional publishers-and, preferably, better. That is the best thing we can do to further the cause of self-publishing.

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