We’ve talked a fair amount on this blog about the publishing aspects of Mormon Lit. Wednesday, Darrel Nelson wrote about his experience as an LDS author with a Christian-market publisher. For three years, Chris Bigelow arranged a regular Publishers’ Corner feature with guest posts from various editors and publishers active in Mormon Lit–Bigelow was even generous enough to share sales information from Zarahemla Books as of February 2012. Andrew Hall (the almost-all-seeing-eye of Mormon Lit) has assembled tables on the number of titles various Mormon presses have put out each year since 2005. Anyone willing to dig around a little on this blog can find a wealth of information on Mormon publishers, small to large.
Off the top of my head, though, I can’t remember any posts dedicated to the process and prospects of self-publication. Recent developments, particularly through Amazon, have changed the dynamics of self-publication such that it’s being increasingly hailed (or hyped?) as the next big trend in publishing, period. But what does self-publication add to the rich range of options for a Mormon writer today?
I don’t actually know, so I’ll just tell you my story instead. Most readers here know that I self-published my first novel, The Five Books of Jesus, in September. It recently won the Association for Mormon Letters’ Novel Award and is currently a Whitney Finalist. Today, I’ll follow Chris’s lead by sharing sales numbers, then give a brief behind-the-scenes look at each major step in my process. I will bold headings–feel free to skim to the parts of the process that are of interest to you.
Before deciding to self-publish, I tried to get a sense of how well a typical book like mine might sell. My book is an unabashedly literary novel, and literary novels are pretty hit-and-miss in popularity. The top twenty titles in a given year make it into book clubs, get discussed in the media, and account for about half of the total literary fiction sales in America. Literary novels that don’t break through into the top twenty don’t tend to sell terribly well–I’ve read that for a new literary writer, 2,000 copies is considered good performance. So I set 2,000 copies as my personal goal.
From late September 2012 to now, The Five Books of Jesus has sold roughly 600 copies (print and electronic). During a four-day Easter weekend promotion, it was also downloaded for free nearly 1,500 times through the Kindle store.
Channel details: Readers have bought 111 print copies through Amazon, 193 eBooks through the Kindle Store, 300 print copies directly from me, and 3 copies through Smashwords (during the five months when it was available through Smashwords in the Nook, Sony, and Apple eBook stores).
Rough timeline: I sold a fair number of copies initially to people who had been waiting for the book to come out, but not as many as I sold during December as people spent for Christmas. December was particularly strong for print copies, both through Amazon and in person. January-March were slower; I sold a little less than a copy a day on average. The Easter giveaway surprised me with its success. In the ten days since the giveaway, I’m averaging seven or eight copies per day. Don’t know if that will last.
I know that many people who read the book have liked it enough to successfully recommend it to their friends. If their friends recommend it as strongly to people three and four degrees of connection from me, I think I have a good shot at reaching my goal by year’s end.
So: there are the super-secret numbers. If you’re interested, I also have some observations about the other parts of my process: drafting, choosing a publication route, editing, getting cover art, preparing print and electronic editions, pricing, and marketing. Plus some concluding notes about audience experience and my advice for other writers.
Writing a good novel is hard work. I don’t think the publication route changes that at all.
When I started writing The Five Books of Jesus, I had no idea I would end up self-publishing it. If I had done some market research, I probably would have realized that literary religious fiction about Jesus by a new writer has about 0% chance of being picked up by any sane publisher–but I didn’t do market research, because I don’t think it’s good for a serious writer to think too much about markets.
I did think about audiences, but that’s not the same as markets. Thinking about readers I wanted to connect with helped me push myself to make the book better. I wanted to make it rich enough on the levels of idea and language to satisfy literary readers. I wanted it to have the heart and grounding in character a good book club read needs. I wanted the book to stimulate the imaginations of the subgroup of religious readers for whom imagination and wonder are important gateways to the spiritual. I wanted the book to tap into the mythic power that non-believers can connect to in another faith’s stories.
I wasn’t just writing–I was reaching for people. That meant careful attention to character and structure and world and language and all those other craft things writers study. If you want to reach people deeply, you’ve got to really crack open the toolbox.
Now, in addition to being the first novel I published, this was the first novel I’d ever written more than two pages of. But before I started, I had spent seven years writing short plays, short stories, essays, poems, and blog posts regularly. I learned the craft in short, manageable forms first and then tackled the novel form (albeit it with a largely borrowed plot). I’ve known other writers who learn to write by drafting several not-good novels before they ever have the skills to draft a good one. That also strikes me as a good development technique, so long as you don’t get stuck working forever on a novel with a poor foundation because you think you have to perfect all the drafts you learn on.
Before I ever wrote a novel, I wrote some good short work and lots of bad, half-finished short work. Again: no change in technology will change the fundamental truth that not everything you start writing is worth publishing. That said, I’d seen enough of my work performed, published, or workshopped to have some personal sense of what works for readers. I finished this project because I could tell that it would work provided I worked enough on it.
I spent about six months on my first draft, working as many as twelve hours a day during the final two months. I tend to obsess and revise as I go rather than rushing out a draft, so my first draft was pretty good–enjoyably readable for friends willing to do so voluntarily.
Querying and Choosing Self-Publication:
My initial philosophy on publication was that I wanted to be able to focus on writing, and therefore did not want the extra burden of publishing and marketing my books. I also wanted the academic credibility of traditional publication, since I plan to pay the bills through my life as a college writing teacher.
After writing a good draft, I revised the first few chapters so that my writing sample would be extra-clean, and looked for agents interested in both literary and religious/spiritual books, or who represented books that combined the two in some way (such as Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River). I went through many drafts of query letters, then wrote to three-five agents at a time until I had queried thirty or forty agents. Some never responded; the rest sent form rejection letters.
During this period, I tried modifying my cover letter pitch, researching agents’ interests to tailor it specifically to them, etc. In retrospect, I think the experience pitching my book was valuable. Researching individual agents was probably not.
After lots of form rejection, I decided to stop and ponder. Was I just failing to reach the right agent, or was there a fundamental problem with my work? I decided that given the sheer quantity of queries agents today receive, my literary Jesus book was probably easy to sort out as a bad fit for any established market. Many agents represent both literary novels and religious novels, but probably aren’t pitching them to the same houses. So my query letters were probably easy to sift out as impractical. I do not blame agents for passing.
If I wasn’t going to get the book published with a large house doing literary work, where could I turn? I briefly considered querying with the Christian market, but worried that going through that market might damage the literary crossover potential I thought the book had. I ruled out most Mormon publishers because I figured that even if they would take the book, publication with them would unnecessarily brand it as Mormon. This project didn’t need that.
It was about this time that I started learning about sales figures through traditional publishers. Many literary novels find far fewer readers than my most popular blog posts have found. Admittedly, it’s a lot more difficult to get people to buy a novel than to read a blog post. But I still gained some confidence.
I also started hearing more stories about how things can actually work through traditional publishers. Most publishers buy more work than they actually plan to promote as a sort of shotgun approach to the gamble of bookselling. I could work and work to place a book with a publisher, work and work to edit it to their specifications, and still end up having to market it myself.
If I can’t rely on someone else to promote my book, I thought, why not just try publishing on my own?
That last question wasn’t just rhetorical. One big advantage of traditional publishing I knew I’d be passing on is getting the help of a professional editor. I was a little worried, of course, about the trouble I might have with an editor whose vision for the work I didn’t buy into. But I also knew my book still had problems–serious, important problems–and I was sort of desperate for professional help.
I had put off doing a major revision during the six months or so when I was querying agents. I didn’t want to take the book one way only to have an agent or editor move me in a different direction. So when I started to give up on finding a professional editor, I realized I would need to revise the book on my own.
I had worked with two different writing groups on drafts. And I recruited non-writer respondents because the most important notes are often not prescriptive (i.e. what to change) but rather descriptive (i.e. feedback on what a normal reader actually experienced while reading the text). But when I went to work on my thorough revision, I just felt frustrated. Like: to the point of tears frustrated. And sort of worthless and pathetic as a writer. Many of my sentences were clearly a mess and instead of fixing them, I found myself just wallowing in my own inadequacy.
So I decided to put off the major revision again and sought professional help in the form of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp, with long blocks of time marked out on my calendar immediately after Boot Camp for revision.
Now, Boot Camp is not designed for novels. It’s set up with two days of writing instruction, one day to write a brand new short story, and three days of intensive workshop. So I didn’t expect Card to directly fix any of the problems in my novel project. I just hoped that working with him would give me new insights. Insights I could use to name and isolate the problems in my novel instead of feeling a general sense of panic and weakness.
As it happened, the key insight from Boot Camp for my novel came from the workshop of another student’s story. In talking about the tonal choices in that student’s fantasy piece, Card referred us to an old Ursula Le Guin essay called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” In that essay, Le Guin talks about the twin traps of cheap faux-archaic fantasy style and excessively contemporary fantasy style, urging writers to search instead for a style that feels just slightly outside of our time. I had worked hard to get away from the faux-archaic style of King James Bible imitators, but frequently fell into the too-contemporary alternative. Le Guin’s vision of a style just outside of readers’ world became a guiding principle for me. It helped guide my revision process on one of the key issues in the draft. Just as importantly, it helped me approach revision more clinically as a manageable craft challenge rather than emotionally as a personal affront to my sense of self as a competent writer.
After Boot Camp, I spent three months reading the entire manuscript out loud to my wife, Nicole–who is both careful enough with language to know when something isn’t working and tough enough to tell even her own husband so. A lot of my work was for sentence-level clarity and tonal consistency. I also applied other insights from my Boot Camp experience. For example: I’d learned that writers often gloss over important potential scenes or reactions simply because they are difficult to imagine. I had to go back and expand in some places where I’d ducked. Also: I sometimes had generalized group reactions to events which needed to be replaced with individuated character reactions.
My novel isn’t perfect, of course–books never are. But having the two specific goals of applying the insights of Boot Camp and getting the language up to Nicole’s standards gave a clear scope to the revision.
One advantage to traditional publication has been the trust between an established press and booksellers. To this day, it’s far easier (though not guaranteed) for a traditionally published book to get into a brick-and-mortar store than a self-published book.
But few ordinary buyers notice the press name the way a bookseller does. And Amazon’s growing market share means that an author can sell well by making a case directly to buyers even without being stocked in brick-and-mortar stores.
Nicole’s theory was that ordinary buyers don’t estimate quality by press as booksellers might, but rather judge books by their covers. Especially for a self-published book, she said, a strong cover is necessary to quickly communicate quality.
I had initially met Nick Stephens when he designed a poster for a touring New Play Project show in 2007. I caught up with him again in early 2012 at a Mormon Literature and Arts party Teresa Gashler, Katherine Morris and I had organized. At the party’s “show and tell,” he shared some pictures of his painting “The Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever.” He and I subsequently chatted about his design process, so I had some sense not only of what he produces, but also about how he thinks.
Stephens’s visual style is a perfect fit for the style of my text and I was confident about our ability to communicate and collaborate effectively, so I called him to ask if he’d consider a cover art commission. After some initial correspondence so he could evaluate the scope of the project, he gave me an estimate somewhere between $200 and $300, to be paid part in deposit and part on completion. He did make clear that it’s important for an artist to know in advance what to do and that changes which undo completed work make it harder to stay on budget. We were able to stay on budget because I had a clear vision for what I wanted, but with enough flexibility and trust for him to work. He was wonderful at sending first sketches, then mock-ups to show different options so that we could make decisions before the detailed work was done.
I loved the cover he created. One disadvantage to working through Create Space is that we didn’t have access to their printers, so it took two or three tries to make the right adjustments to the digital file so that the cover would look good in the final print version. Nick was very helpful and supportive through that process, and was able to adjust for distant constraints.
My sense so far is that the cover image does set the book apart and communicates a care for form which leaves readers well-prepared for the text. Much of the old stigma of self-publishing is removed simply by having such a nice cover to show off on Amazon.
Preparing the print version:
The older model of self-publication was to work with a small press or copy shop to order a certain quantity of books and then sell them. Today, print-on-demand options like Amazon’s Create Space and Lulu allow any author to prepare a book with no more costs up front than for a few proof copies to check layout.
Laying out a book for publishing is boring but important work. Because I had decided to self-publish, I needed to spend several days learning the basics of the craft to make sure the book interior looked nice and read easily.
We used the first printed proof for a careful copy edit. There are at least three errors that made it into the final printed text after the copy edit, though some of them may have been introduced in last minute style revisions.
I chose Create Space largely for the easier integration with Amazon and partly for slightly better pricing. The book printing only costs around $5, though Amazon takes a cut on books sold through their site and charges shipping for author copies such that I decided to price print copies at $12.95 on Amazon and $10 in person (or on email orders to me for batches over 5 copies) in order to still make money on the book while keeping the price low to encourage higher sales.
Preparing the eBook:
Another advantage of Create Space was that they automatically converted my print text into a Kindle Store eBook. Though I could probably have made the electronic version look better by investing time and energy into preparing it personally, the automated system worked pretty well.
I initially made the book available for Nook and other devices by publishing through Smashwords as well. Prepping the text for Smashwords turned out to be more difficult: it took me several tries to detect a minor error which held up distribution to the outlets where I wanted my book.
The fault may lie with my publicity failures, but in four months I only sold three copies through all the Smashwords-related channels. In March I decided to take it down so I could enroll my book for a three-month contract in Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Select program. KDP Select demands that your eBook be available exclusively through Amazon during each three-month contract period and offers authors two perks in exchange: 1) getting the book in the Amazon Prime Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, with the author being paid for each borrow and 2) giving the author the option to set the book to free for up to five days during each contract period as a promotional tool.
Since Kindle reader apps seem popular on iPads and phones, Kindle books can reach a surprisingly large audience. I’ve been quite pleased with KDP Select so far and will probably renew every three months for the foreseeable future.
I don’t think marketing can make up for a book that fails to connect deeply with its audience. Most “poorly-written” books that succeed do so because they are only poorly-written on some levels: on other levels, they truly are reaching people–who respond by sharing the book. My guess is that only a few readers of any book are directly influenced by marketing they have no connection to. Most books seem to spread through social networks (the real kind, which may or may not resemble their online counterparts). People read what friends have told them is good.
As a self-publishing author, then, I suppose you could say my first marketing strategy is to have lots of friends. Part of this I can take no credit for–I just happen to come from several large extended families where people support each other. Some of the very first copies of my book were bought by Sikh cousins who may or may not ever read them, but who will stand for a relative on the basis of shared family culture and blood. Some were also bought by Mormon relatives, who are more likely to read and recommend the book, by former ward members and mission friends, etc. The only sense in which I can claim credit for my relationships with any of these people is that I try not to be a jerk, so I haven’t actively undermined the relationships I have with most of them.
Other relationships I can take more credit for. Over the past three years, my blogs have developed a fairly strong readership. Many blog readers trust me because they’ve seen me articulate ideas they share but had never put quite so sharply into language before or because I’ve spoken to issues they care about or just because they enjoy my relationship with words. I’d imagine my blog following has done a lot to help convince an initial critical mass of people to read my book. I’ve also developed other relationships in the Mormon Arts community–if you’re a regular reader of this blog who has read my book, odds are you did so because of our past relationship and not just because the cover is so pretty.
The initial critical mass of readers that allows your book to spread will probably come from people who already know and enjoy your voice. Of the 137 likes for my book’s Facebook page, 99 are from my Facebook friends.
What have I done to promote The Five Books of Jesus other than having friends?
Not as much as I had hoped to do, but life has been crazy. I’ve sent out twenty or so electronic and print review copies to bloggers and scholars. I made a Facebook page for the book and have posted things like quotes and related historical trivia to keep it visible. I let lots of free eBook sites know before the Easter giveaway and made digital pass-along cards on Facebook, which many readers shared. I put a poster outside my office telling people about the book and have a link as the signature on my email. I’ve gone to a handful of book clubs where my book was being discussed.
Largely, I think the work I’ve done has helped the book move out to friends of friends and maybe even another degree or two away from me in some cases. The Easter giveaway probably also reached some people looking for free Christian books: before Easter weekend, the Amazon “also bought” listings on my book’s page were all Mormon books but since Easter weekend, books like the NIV Real Life Devotional Bible have been showing up.
In the next few months, I’m hoping to do a reading at the Orem Library with Steven Peck in the hopes that our combined fan bases plus people who will come to see two AML Novel winners are enough audience to justify the drive from Pleasant Grove. I’m also planning to schedule a signing at Eborn books with Stephen Carter and maybe some other local authors. Since the book has won an important award now, I may make more media contacts. But I think the book’s success moving forward will depend more on the depth of experience current readers have with it than on my direct attempts to win new readers.
A good book is not a trinket people will tend to buy on impulse. A good book demands a reader’s time and attention as well as money, so it’s a hard sell. My hope and belief is that my book rewards time and attention enough to spread like a good seed, so that one reader now might turn into sixty down the road.
Reflections on Audience:
Has self-publishing been worth it for me so far? Absolutely.
And not just because I’m pretty happy with the sales numbers–though they have been nice. And not just because the book won an award–though that was very nice.
The most satisfying part of having published the book is seeing specific reactions to it.
One of the counselors in our bishopric is not usually into novels–but he read it and was very moved. That means a lot to me. A friend of mine mentioned wanting to dig into her Bible after reading it. That felt good. A friend of my grandmother’s said the whole book felt like poetry while a favorite NICU nurse, who happened to be dyslexic, loved it for being so “easy to read.” Another friend’s mother felt totally gripped by the book from the first moment John walks out of the Jordan river. And Jonathon Penny gave a presentation that made my book sound cooler than I’ve ever made it sound in a pitch.
A friend from a previous ward loved reading it with his kids and bought copies for his siblings at Christmas. My brother called me one day excited about an obscure Old Testament story he’d just run across because of the echoes of it he’d seen in my book.
What self-publication has meant to me, above all else, is the chance to share these joys with people. What else am I writing for?
Tentative Advice for the Prospective Novelist:
I feel good about having self-published my own book because it falls outside the traditional boundaries between markets but still speaks to people I love. The past few years have made self-publishing easier than ever, and it’s a very useful tool for projects like mine.
The past several years have also seen cutbacks in the traditional industry that make the skills of successful self-publishing harder for any writer to avoid. Even if you’re going to go the traditional route, you’ll need to do more revision before getting to an overworked editor than a writer would have twenty years ago. You may also be expected to contribute significantly to your book’s marketing–it’s certainly not the norm to sit back and let the publisher take care of that anymore.
Should you self-publish your next book? I have no idea. That depends entirely on the book’s context and on the human resources available to you.
It seems to me, though, that many Mormon Lit writers are probably in good positions to self-publish. We tend to naturally have large numbers of relationships–mostly with people who also have large numbers of relationships. The structure of our community can ease the social process of building an audience from the ground. Activity in the church also gives you a greater proximity to other people’s lives and opportunities to see their struggles and come to know what might speak to them. And it gives you free everyday draft readers: at a minimum, your home and/or visiting teachers ought to be willing to read a chapter or two.
In my case, participation in the Mormon arts community allowed me to find a great cover artist and get my first round of reviews. And while Mormons are not the only audience my book is designed to resonate with, literary Mormons are an under-served niche ready to embrace a book that brings together quality craft with their culture’s deep values.
I don’t know what the future holds. But I’m excited by the possibilities contemporary self-publication offers to writers in Mormon Lit. And I hope we’ll see many more writers take the plunge into self-publication on projects they care deeply about, or else bring the same energy they would bring to self-publishing into their work with a small press.
The model of a writer as a solitary genius who leaves the work of audience-building to others may be dying. But it wasn’t a great model anyway. I hope we’ll see writers become more social and proactive as they build a stronger Mormon literary culture in the early 21st century.