L.J.M. Owen, Queanbeyan cosy crime writer, has (accidentally) performed the ultimate publishing experiment: publishing a novel herself, and then again through a traditional publisher. Read on to find out her conclusions.
This article was first published in the ACT Writers Centre’s monthly member magazine, ACTWrite, April 2016. If you’d like to receive ACTWrite and read more articles like this, become a member of the Centre today.
In 2015 I published the same novel twice: once via self-publishing; once with a traditional publisher. This is what I learnt.
Like many aspiring authors, I spent years crafting my first novel. I studied story-world, plot and theme; nurtured my characters; struggled to convey emotional nuance. I revelled in the writing process.
In late 2014, the first draft of Olmec Obituary, the story of an erstwhile archaeologist and reluctant librarian solving an ancient Mexican murder mystery, was done. An absurdly unexamined question loomed: how do I send Olmec into the world?
I faced two options—learn to self-publish or throw my hat into the traditional publishers’ ring. I calculated the likelihood of a traditional publisher plucking my fledgling work from their annual slush pile of 5,000 submissions.
Self-publishing it was.
Crowdfunding a first print run
Decision made, I was confident. After completing the arduous task of writing an actual novel, how hard could self-publishing actually be? Ah, hubris.
I wanted the satisfaction of putting physical copies of Olmec Obituary into the hands of a group of readers. That meant publishing and distributing a small print run myself. That meant money.
Enter crowdfunding—a means of pre-selling your book to readers and simultaneously raising the funds to print and ship it. Setting up the crowdfunding proposal required a project outline, financial spreadsheets, creating a video and blurb to sell the book to potential readers, and a crash course in marketing on Twitter and Facebook.
In December 2014, to the strains of The Beatles’ ‘Paperback Writer’, I initiated a Kickstarter project to raise $10,000 for a 300-copy print run. As anyone who has worked on a crowdfunding project knows, it’s a moment out of time and space when hitting that financial target is all. For the next month I had little sleep. I was so exhausted, I failed basic hair shampooing twice. (Despite the limited options in the confines of a shower cubicle, I still don’t know what I put in my hair.)
The insanity worked. The project reached its financial goal and I was locked in to delivering 300 hard copies and many more e-copies in May 2015.
Unexpectedly, just five days into the crowdfunding run, I was contacted by a commissioning editor from a traditional publishing house, who asked to see the manuscript. Echo Publishing picked up the book. They would publish it in November 2015.
And thus I published my first novel twice in 2015—once as a self-publisher and once with a traditional publisher. The differences between the editing, printing, distribution and overall experiences of the two processes were stark.
As a self-publisher, I was responsible for editing my own work. I wasn’t prepared to pay an unknown online editor to carry out this all-important task, so I negotiated with friends. The editing team for the crowdfunded edition included an archaeologist with experience on an Olmec dig, an English literature major and a grammatical pedant. If there was a mistake in the manuscript, I was positive they would find it.
On the other hand, securing an editor via the traditional publisher required no effort on my part. The publisher recruited a professional with years of experience in Australian publishing who identified and tweaked aspects of the typescript that neither I, nor any of my friends, had seen. It was a far less arduous process.
I will always engage my private A-team of editors for future books. Their specialist knowledge and our level of personal relationship and trust is irreplaceable. I will also be glad of the advice I receive from a traditional publisher’s professional editing team. They bring the essential element of industry understanding.
Printing was the aspect of self-publishing that almost did me in. First I wrestled with the book’s cover. I researched the most effective cover art for my genre. I bribed tech-savvy friends to translate my ideas into an actual cover. Artistic temperaments led to a crisis of confidence. I had to purchase Adobe Photoshop™, Adobe InDesign™ and image licences. Finally, a cover was born.
I then researched and chose my printing service provider; learnt to reset all styles in the manuscript so that it would work with the printer’s mandatory software; had a small nervous breakdown trying to understand the micrometre differences between the bleed on the spine and the front and back covers; had the physical printer break down the day I submitted my first order; and worked through one proofing issue after another with support staff in an incompatible time zone. The process took months, a significant toll on my energy levels and cashing in an inordinate amount of goodwill in personal relationships.
As for learning how to render the typescript into epub, mobi and PDF versions for ebook distribution: anyone who claims it’s easy to pick up is delusional. Enough said.
When it came to printing with the traditional publisher they took care of the cover art, the formatting, the printing and the ebooks. My only role was to look over proofs. Done.
The greatest difference between the self-publishing and traditional publishing processes, however, lay in distribution.
As a self-publisher I had to choose from a bewildering array of possible distribution channels, including many that demand exclusivity. Crowdfunding an initial print run was one way of ensuring a small initial distribution of my work. Self-publishing is still frowned upon in some quarters, so after that, I faced a never-ending task of convincing bookstores to stock my book. It’s worth keeping in mind that, regardless of the distribution channels established, an independent author also has to monitor orders, returns and pricing as well as continually promote their work.
Distribution is where the perception of validity provided by a traditional publisher shone through. A traditional publisher has established distribution channels, no effort required from the author. Bookshop managers are pre-disposed to listening to a publisher who is pitching your book. Any paperwork involved is completed by the publisher. This all saves the author a significant amount of time.
Attempting to distribute my work via traditional bookstores is possibly the one aspect of self-publishing that might dissuade me from the independent author route in future.
Self-publishing v. Traditional Publishing
Ultimately, I found self-publishing as a first-time novelist to be an intense personal journey, arduous but gratifying. The stressors were internally generated. I set my own expectations and exhausted myself meeting them. I had to quickly develop new skills in editing, formatting, designing cover art, multiple ebook formats, printing, distribution, shipping, finances, social media, marketing and events. The fatigue was overwhelming.
I would do it again, though. The satisfaction of sending hundreds of copies of Olmec Obituary into the waiting hands of the crowdfunding campaign backers was unsurpassed.
The difficulties of working with a traditional publisher were comparatively few. If you are used to being responsible for all aspects of delivery, as I am, the lower level of control and transparency in the process was uncomfortable. The advantages were many. The traditional publisher brought an entire team of experts to the table, shared the risk and took care of much work that a self-publishing author has to complete for themselves. If working with traditional publishers long-term, this would allow a writer time to produce new novels faster. Working with a traditional publisher also brought an air of legitimacy to Olmec Obituary that opened doors otherwise firmly closed to me.
Overall, if you are a first-time novelist facing the decision between self-publishing or the traditional publishers’ submission process, I’d say consider the independent route as a first option. It’s more certain, more challenging and more exhausting, but if you go into it with your eyes open, utterly rewarding.
L.J.M. Owen is the author of Olmec Obituary, Book One in the new Canberra-based archaeo-biblio mystery series Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth. Book Two in the series, Mayan Mendacity, will be released ahead of Christmas 2016. You can follow Dr Pimms’ adventures on the book series’ Facebook page Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth, and converse with L.J. on Twitter @bleuddyn_coll or via the website http://www.ljmowen.com/