I followed the pingback trail from my blog, to Anthony Pacheco’s http://anthony-pacheco.com/2008/08/27/the-monster-that-ate-the-pod-topic/, to here. http://fifthwind.wordpress.com/2008/08/27/day-57-an-apology/
It is a debate about POD publishing, which is a really interesting topic. There’s a lot of self published garbage out there, but for a few of us, it is actually a sound business decision. I’ve got a distinct perspective on this topic. This is basically my story.
Several years ago I sat down to write a novel that was a conglomeration of B-Movie stereotypes but tackled from the perspective tactical realism. I’m a B-Movie nerd, but I’m also a professional firearms and self defense instructor. Yeah, it does sound kind of weird. Picture a monster movie, but populated by people who actually have a friggin’ clue how to take care of themselves. The novel is called Monster Hunter International.
This was not my first attempt at writing. I’d been published free-lance in several national magazines. I had written an earlier novel, but it hadn’t been up to snuff to get published. MHI came out really good. I polished it first. I polished it a lot. I had it read by about a dozen different people, of various backgrounds, and paid a lot of attention to the feedback. I looked for the harshest critics I could find.
Everybody loved it.
So I found more people. I picked out people who were sure to rip my head off. I told them beforehand to rip me apart. I didn’t care about my feelings, I only cared about turning out a quality product.
They still liked it.
If MHI was actually good enough to publish, I might as well try to publish. So I embarked on the process of trying to sell a professional. I’m a professional, and my feelings are not easily hurt, so I was prepared for rejection. I did my homework, and made sure that I obeyed all of the rules for soliciting agents and publishers.
I was rejected by every agent and reputable publishing house in the business. (and yes, I knew enough to stay away from Publish America!) MHI was soundly dismissed by everyone, and when I say everyone, that is not an exaggeration. I was rejected by every intern and mail clerk in the business.
A couple of agents took the time to actually read my query letters and request my manuscript. I got the same basic responses from all of them. “It is too long for a first timer.” “It doesn’t really fit into any genres.” “You’re a good writer, but it isn’t marketable.”
At the same time, I had kept giving Word copies of MHI to people. At this point I had been read by about a hundred people, and it was still a hit. I started farming it out to complete strangers, and people who were not even vaguely interested in monsters or guns, and sure enough, those people liked it to. Teenagers and old ladies became fans. People who hate books and never read fiction were reading MHI in one sitting. People who read two or three books a week were finding themselves sitting down in front of the computer once they got home from work and reading until the sun came up the next morning.
So on one hand, I’m getting great feedback from actual readers. People are really liking this book. On the other hand, the publishing industry has basically told me to go to hell and that nobody would buy my crappy book. Well, somebody had to be right.
Finally I found an agent who actually liked MHI and took the time to give me a bunch of professional feedback. Spectrum Literary represents a bunch of big dogs, and even represented Heinlein, so when they gave me advice, I paid attention. They liked it, but thought that MHI was just way too long to get picked up. I needed to cut if from 205,000 words to a maximum of 150,000 words.
Now if you’re paying attention, that’s a whole lot of words. But hey, this was Spectrum, so I figured it was my best shot. So I sat down, and absolutely gutted my baby. I cut out every bit of fat that I could.
So much for that. Back to the drawing board. This time I took a chainsaw to MHI. I absolutely butchered it to get down to an arbitrary word count so I would take up X number of inches on the shelf at Barnes & Noble.
Bingo! 150,000 words.
Too bad it sucked. I was no longer proud of what I had, so I bagged that project and went with the 190,000 word version. Needless to say, I didn’t get picked up. I’m still appreciative to Lucienne Diver of Spectrum Literary for taking the time to help me out though. She was the first professional that actually gave me the time of day.
Now I was done. I felt like I had wasted a year of my life, spent a lot of postage, and all I had to show for it was a desk covered in rejection letters. At the same time I’ve got a couple hundred people telling me that I’ve got a real winner, and they can’t wait to buy a copy when MHI was inevitably published.
Screw it. Time to self publish.
I did my homework on self publishing. I’m a gun guy, but my background was as a financial analyst for a Fortune 500 company. I know how to crunch a few numbers. I checked out every outfit out there, looked at their service, their quality, their reputation, and most of all, their cost and break even points. I wasn’t going to be one of those suckers that vanity published a piece of crap and then had 2,000 copies rotting in my basement.
I knew that my only hope of success with self publishing would be if I could do a good enough job marketing my book. My research indicated that if a real publisher felt like they could sell 5,000 copies of a book, they would be inclined to purchase it. So my goal was to sell enough self-published copies that a publisher would have to notice me. I figured that would take about 1,000 copies in a year. The problem with that is that when you self-publish you are on your own. Any marketing you get is totally up to you. But 1,000 copies, with no real marketing budget, should be enough to get their attention, or so I guessed.
I decided to go POD (Print On Demand). My cost per book would be much higher, and retail for the paperback would be over $20. It would have been cheaper to just print 1,000 copies in advance, but A. that costs more. B. I didn’t have very much money. The massive downside of this was not only did I have to convince somebody to buy my self-published book, it was also going to be overpriced. Oh yeah.
I decided to go with Infinity Publishing. www.buybooksontheweb.com First off, their set up costs were low enough that my break even point wouldn’t be too hard to achieve. Second, a friend of mine had used them for his sci-fi novels, and he had been pleased with how they had treated him. (btw, go to Amazon and check out Reckless Faith and the Tarantula Nebula to help out a fellow struggling author, David’s a talented guy). Plus, by having him refer me, it got me a $50 discount. And yes, I am that cheap.
The hardest part about getting someone to buy your self-published book is that readers automatically assume that self-published = crap. And they’re usually right. The majority of self-published books I’ve read are absolute tripe. I knew that the key to getting this thing some buzz was marketing.
But how do you market? Advertising costs money. I needed a way for people to really want to buy my book. I wanted people to be excited to buy my book. And they were only going to do that if they thought I was a good writer. So, how do you show somebody that you know how to write? Write something.
I wrote an online fiction serial, in conjunction with another wannabe writer friend of mine, on www.thehighroad.org. The Mr. Nightcrawler saga was pounded out over a couple of months. We got 100,000 hits. I kept dropping hints that if they liked the serial, then they really needed to buy MHI when it came out. Buy the end of the serial, I had a couple hundred readers ready to jump on anything I wrote. That was enough to get the initial buzz going.
At the same time, a reader of the Mr. Nightcrawler serial on THR had gotten the Word copy of MHI. Tony Van Kragg had previously worked for a large independent bookstore. He passed MHI on to his former boss, Don Blyly, who ended up printing off all 400+ pages on his laser printer and loving it. Don isn’t just an independent book seller, he’s one of the biggest and best known in the country.
Tony and Don knew Toni Weiskopf, boss at Baen Books. Don basically said that Baen was stupid if they didn’t buy MHI, since he could sell the hell out of it. Toni agreed to read it. I never made it past their slush pile the year before when I tried. She gave me a bunch of constructive criticism, and asked for me to revise it in a few specific ways. I did so, sent it back to her, but then it kind of dropped off.
I didn’t hear from Baen for awhile. Toni was really busy, which is really understandable for somebody with that kind of job. I was just glad that she hadn’t just beaten me over the head for bugging her. Now I was torn. I was finally to where my book was being read by an actual professional publisher, but at the same time, I had just wasted a couple years of my life getting rejected over and over, so I figured I was just going to get rejected again. I decided No More Waiting. I took the plunge and self-published. I knew that with Infinity, I retained the rights, and if Baen or somebody else decided to make me an offer later, I could always cancel the POD version.
I started this blog. Originally it was a place for me to pimp my writing. Then it became a place to make fun of stupid people, which is actually very cathartic. I used the blog to take preorers, which helped bankroll me buying extra copies to have on hand.
By the time MHI hit, I had a bunch of folks really excited to get their copies. I sent a letter with every preordered copy (along with an MHI patch) asking them to post reviews online or on Amazon if they liked the book. Positive reviews starting popping up everywhere. The patch was a stroke of genius, and my readers thought they were just awesome.
The book was published in December ’07, but nobody got any copies until January.
MHI took off. It started doing better and better on Amazon. I kept posting here about the Amazon stats, which were strangely fascinating. In fact, for a POD book, it was doing really well. I had 38 reviews, and was still averaging 5 stars. My lowest review was 4 stars, and that ain’t bad! I had a few people zing me for having small “unprofessional” mistakes. No kidding! 195,000 words, and I think we found 8 errors after it went to press. Bob Westover, who was my proofer, and Kathy Jackson, who was my editor, actually did a super good job! In fact, a couple of the errors that were pointed out were actually in dialog, given by a high school dropout from rural Alabama, which totally shouldn’t count.
Toni from Baen contacted me again in February. This time she wanted my most recently revised version, and she told me that she was contemplating picking me up. In March, she offered me a contract.
Now I do not honestly know how much of a difference the critical success of my POD version influenced Toni’s decision. I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that if I hadn’t been promoting the heck out of my book for self publication, I would never have met the people who eventually introduced me to her.
When I mentioned on the blog that the POD MHI would soon be discontinued, people freaked out, and cleaned out every place on the internet that carried my book. By March I was #34 in Contemporary Fantasy, and #5,031 in all books. I was able to get MHI into a bunch of different bookstores, and all of them were sold out. Word had spread.
On April 16th, I was #3 on the Entertainment Weekly bestseller list. Not bad for a POD. That was mostly luck though, since Entertainment Weekly’s list was calculated by each week going to a different huge independent bookstore. I lucked out and they picked Uncle Hugo’s, where Don Blyly was a big fan, and had really been pushing the book.
Once I had signed my contract with Baen and discontinued my POD version, I’ve been bugged daily by people trying to get a copy. I figure that, conservatively, I probably could have sold another two thousand copies since I shut down the POD version, and that is all from the buzz that was originally generated.
This is actually really kind of cool, since nothing makes people want something, quite like not being able to get it. Someone is selling a copy of MHI on Amazon right now for $199. If somebody buys that, you’re friggin’ nuts, that’s all I’m saying. A copy of MHI went for $160 on Ebay, and I don’t know who bought that one, but damn, you are the man. I’ve got a case of signed POD versions in my basement, (under a bunch of Ewok style booby-traps and nanotech enhanced guard weasels, so don’t even bother asking) but I’m holding onto those just in case I’m someday worth Stephen King money, and my kids can sell them to pay for college or something.
So the Baen version will be coming out in Summer 2009. As a result of fans harassing Toni, she’s agreed to do an E-Book version before that. I don’t have firm dates on either.
Now all you guys need to do is buy lots of copies of MHI: the Baen version, when it hits stores, that way they’ll publish MHI:2. (which by the way, the rough draft is done, and it totally rocks).
Now back to the original topic. I think POD publishing is a good tool, but it is just one tool in the tool box. The main thing is that it still has to be a good book. POD worked for me, but only because I’m a self-promoting, guerilla marketing son of a gun. If you write a bad book and self publish, it is still going to suck. If you write a good book, and you self publish, nobody is going to read it, unless you convince them to read it.
Even traditionally published writers have to self promote. POD writers just have to do it on their own.