When John F. Kennedy was asked how he became a war hero, he’s supposed to have replied: “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” That’s how I became a self-published novelist: A large number of New York publishers rejected Thanks for Killing Me, my spiky little crime novel about the aftermath of a con gone wrong. They did so for an exquisitely heterogeneous variety of reasons. One liked the plot but not the characters; another liked the characters but not the plot. A couple thought it moved too fast, and a couple found it too leisurely. About the only consensus was that none of them felt optimistic about their chances of selling a caper novel, and a first novel at that, in a declining publishing market. Being the self-starter that I am, I took these rejections in stride and leapt into action, throwing the manuscript into a drawer and sulking for eighteen months.
Sometime around the start of this period I had lunch with an old friend who’d done some time as a publishing executive. I told him that I was beginning to kick around the idea of self-publishing. His advice was short and sweet. “Don’t,” he said. “It’s all the stuff you hate: Marketing, self-promotion, asking people for favors.” This was enough to discourage me for a while. A couple of months back we had lunch again and I told him, again, that I was giving the idea some thought. He asked me what I hoped to accomplish. My thinking had clarified some since our last lunch, and I was honest with him: I told him that I still wanted to attract the attention of a traditional publisher (the Grail of self-published novelists) and/or the movie business. This time, maybe sensing that he could no longer talk me out of it, his advice was a little more expansive. “Okay,” he said. “First, forget everything you know about traditional media; all your experience is worthless. Take all that time you spend screwing around on Twitter and put it into marketing your book. And, at least in the beginning, sell it as cheap as you can. In fact, you know what? Give it away.”
“What?” I said.
“Give it away,” he said. “For free.”
His reasoning was hard to argue with, and not just because I suddenly had a loud buzzing in my ears and the room was all swimmy. The logic went like this: Given two facts — the odds of any self-published novel ever making any real dough were astronomically low, and the job of my novel was now to be its own loss leader — why not set its retail valuation at zero and get it into as many hands as possible? It sounded screwy, it sounded counter-intuitive — hell, it was counter-intuitive, as my intuition was to make money by my work, and as much of it as possible. But the more I thought about it the less nuts it sounded. If I was really serious about exposing my work to a broad audience and generating the kind of critical mass that would make publishers reconsider, I had to make the book almost impossible for anyone with even a passing interest not to acquire. The Get It/Don’t Get It decision had to be friction-free, and cost was the point of friction I could most easily lubricate.
In retrospect, deciding to take a whole year’s work and assign it a valuation of $0.00 was the easy part. Actually doing it wasn’t so simple. What I discovered was that however much of a crazy-ass hippie I had become, CreateSpace, the print-on-demand arm of Amazon, apparently exists to make money, or at least recoup its costs. In practical terms, this means that Amazon sets a floor below which authors are forbidden to sell. So here was my first lesson in self-publishing: While the capitalists with whom I’d gotten into business might abstractly admire my entrepreneurial imagination, they drew the line at letting me give my work away. Like Paulie Cicero’s crew in Goodfellas, they’d get theirs first, off the top. The floor for the paperback edition of my book was $7.49; I set an introductory selling price of $7.99, yielding a profit to me of $0.30 per book. Then I priced the the Kindle edition and the iBooks edition at a cheap-as-possible $0.99 each, which yielded per-unit profits to me of $0.30 and $0.35 respectively. From now until some time in the near future when I decide to raise the prices to something more sensible, the sellers will keep the rest. Which is to say, almost everything.
That doesn’t seem unfair to me. It’s payment rendered for production and/or distribution services provided. In this, they’ve executed one part of the job that traditional publishers have always done. Which leaves every other part for me. This is one thing readers may not immediately grasp about the new world of self-publishing: Printing books and getting them into readers’ hands is only one aspect of the process. To the degree that these most mechanical parts of the publishing business have been peeled off and put within reach of authors, that’s a good thing. It’s disruptive, it’s liberating, it’s downright democratic. But it’s only half the story. Self-published authors also assume responsibility for everything else traditional publishers have always done, chief among these marketing and promotion. And these are another bucket of type.
Marketing and promotion matter. They are the whole show. And they cost, one way or another. You can spend dollars to hire a specialist — there are people who do nothing but arrange “blog tours,” where authors make virtual guest appearances at sympathetic blogs — or you can spend time and energy to do it yourself. I have, at least initially, chosen the latter, rolling out the social-media equivalent of a full-court press: Website, Twitter feed, Facebook fan page, a presence at Goodreads. Shamelessness also helps; I’ve spent a good part of the last week mooching favors from influential Twitterers I have, in some cases, never even met offline. (These people have, I should add, been unfailingly generous in their responses.) Why go the blogging/social-media route? Because I have experience blogging, having written for years at my own sites, here at Boing Boing, at Huffington Post and at Forbes.com, and also because, as my friend put it, I’ve spent a lot of time screwing around on Twitter. You use what you’ve got, and these are assets I can bring to bear. What are they worth in the overall calculus? You could say they’re worthless. I prefer to say their worth is incalculable. Tomato, to-mah-to.
But this is exactly what I’m talking about, and it’s the great thing about the situation in which I find myself: As the screenwriter William Goldman said years ago about Hollywood, Nobody knows anything. You try something, you try something else, you try everything, even things that sound insane, because in an industry where the longstanding business model has been upended, everything else has been upended too, even the gravitational tug of logic. If you want to get rich, value your work at zero. Yes, okay, it reads like the last line of a Zen koan. But self-publishing’s best practices are still unwritten, so really: Why not? That tactical freedom might be the most disruptive, the most liberating part of the whole self-publishing business. I can’t wait to figure out what I get to try next.
Bill Barol’s Thanks for Killing Me is available now on Amazon and the iTunes Store. Buy it now at super-low introductory prices before he loses his nerve.
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