When you approach a newspaper or large-chain bookseller for help with promoting a book, their first question is usually: “Who is your publisher?” If your publisher is not a “big house” you will be told, “Sorry, we don’t do self-published books.” Recently I undertook that uphill task for my novel, Preying Mantis (The Story of Tarissa). It was a tough sell, with mixed results. I came away chastened; above all I got an education on the pitfalls of self-publishing. The reaction of booksellers and the press is really like the proverbial error of judging a book by its cover, but they have good reasons for that prejudice.
Since my book had already been well received by critics I argued convincingly that it had a special merit deserving attention. That did not sway everyone; however, it got me a foot in the door. In those encounters I learned that my experience is typical for writers of books published by what is euphemistically called the “vanity press.” I was moved to set down a few tips, summarized here, to help some aspiring writers over that high initial hump.
Time was when writers were few and far between, but those days are gone beyond recall. Websites of literary agents caution they are inundated with dozens of submissions daily and so may not even acknowledge your submission. It seems everyone is a writer these days, and there is a cacophonous clamor for attention all around. So it is a buyer’s market. Many agency websites display astonishing instructions such as, “We seek manuscripts that grab our attention from the start and are impossible to set down once we start reading…” What can one say to a platitude like that? I was tempted to tell one such perfectionist that as a teenager I dreamed of a girlfriend with Aphrodite’s looks, Penelope’s virtue, and the smarts of Scheherazade, but that I grew up to find contentment with a mortal woman.
We also know that the pickiness of literary agents is not a reliable assessment of any book’s quality. J. K. Rowling is said to have gone through several score rejections before she hit pay dirt; and it was a publisher’s eight-year-old daughter who saw the merit of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and wheedled her dad into backing it. The rest, as they say, is history! “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise.”
Nevertheless, we know that agents have good reason to be picky. And publishers have even more reason to winnow chaff from their repertoire: they are the ones who front the capital to produce and market a book. They won’t even give you time of day until some mainstream agent and a battery of handpicked reviewers have raked your manuscript over hot coals. So, what to do? Many writers just give up and decide to publish their book by themselves, with help from the vanity press. If you do, welcome to the club — and prepare for a mountain climb!
Some encouragement may be gleaned from survey results published by Jeff Herman after he polled hundreds of agents. All the agents he surveyed affirmed an enthusiasm for self-publishing. (See Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents.) They know the torrent of books now gushing from writers far outstrips the capacity of mainstream publishers to handle anything but the tip of the iceberg. So, standard publishing houses are becoming moribund.
Nevertheless, we are just at the hardscrabble beginning of that revolution in book publishing. The day of our liberation from the tyranny of mainstream publishers will dawn only when the quality of self-published books improves markedly from what it is today. Until then, booksellers and critics will remain gatekeepers to readers, and pooh-pooh self-published books. Our task is to wean them from that attitude of disdain.
My first book was handled by a mainstream publisher, the second by a publisher of intermediate status (who arranged editing and reviews but printed “on demand”). My third book, Preying Mantis, a novel that has garnered excellent review ratings (4-5 stars across the board) has just been published by a vanity press. Because of the glowing acclaim by reviewers and readers, I am beginning to make inroads towards getting publicity to boost sales.
By publishing your book via a vanity press you are starting it off from the basement, so you must do all you can to give it a competitive head start. The first attribute that you control is the quality of the manuscript, including robust and rigorous writing skills, proofing it against errors, and using good editors. I cascaded my manuscript through three successive editors, one of whom was accessible and committed enough to discuss the book in detail and in person.
Poor editing and retained errors (“typos,” for instance) are serious impediments; but they need not be showstoppers if your narrative is compelling enough; much depends on other factors. Recently I bought a book on the basis of its title: it was about an exotic island nation that has always fascinated me. The book had a profusion of errors: of punctuation, bad grammar, fractured syntax, typos, and inconsistent spelling. Still, my fascination with the subject kept me going and I enjoyed reading that book. On the other hand, I’ve bought some self-published books I could not finish reading because the literary quality was off-putting.
The choice of a title for your book is important. One of my editors noted that my initial title (which was about the tenth one I had considered) didn’t do justice to the contents. I dug deeper and came up with a title that had a zing, Preying Mantis; several reviewers complimented the final title. Many heads are better than one, and such pointers from good editors are a sound reason you should have as many heads as possible judge your manuscript.
The bottom line is, unless you make the quality of your manuscript the best you can, you are starting it out no longer in the basement but in the sub-basement!
You should not stint on review or editing cost. Quality concerns may be your biggest investment outlay in time and effort, but reviews and marketing will cost the most money. Good editors will charge by the word, but some will also let you negotiate a rate. At the end I requested each of my editors to provide a review and a rating also (for a little extra fee); they were in a good position to provide it since they had dissected the manuscript and knew it inside out.
There are many good review outfits nowadays and you should diversify your quest. I chose three brokers for pre-publication (“foreword”) review; the comments from those arrived in time to be excerpted on the back-page blurb. I also chose two pricey “professional” or “trade” review outfits that provided in-depth comments for posting in their journals and other sites. The advantage of the later is their name recognition, which carries clout; the former category, on the other hand, has the advantage of agility and of being closer to readers’ tastes than the touted “professionals.” I also duplicated my choice in each category. All “expert” reviewers have their conceit and it is amazing how much their opinions can differ.
The most difficult questions I had to answer included the category/genre and the target audience. Some books defy easy classification. Concerning audience, it is OK to aim at everybody if your style and content have broad-spectrum appeal. But it helps a lot if you can narrow your aim and shoot with a rifle instead of a blunderbuss. For instance, you target a textbook at academic elites and a book about snowboarding to folks in the frigid northern latitudes. For my book the determinant of audience was the prose, especially the lexicon. Preying Mantis was targeted at an audience with a good grasp of English language as well as a robust vocabulary.
In Native Tongues, linguist Charles Berlitz gave these sobering statistics: (1) English language has some one million words; (2) a well-informed user of English can boast a vocabulary of 50,000 to 100,000 words (5-10%); (3) Shakespeare used 19,000 words (2%) to craft all his work, while the New York Times (aided by a profusion of modern coinage) uses some 25,000 words, or 2.5%; (4) the average UK university graduate can manage 10,000 words (1%), but the average US college graduate makes do with about 2,500 (0.25%)! Now, in no intellectual field of endeavor would you be considered remotely literate or educated if you know less than half a percent of the subject matter. Even without judging the import of Berlitz’s statistics we see that a book written for those with ample English lexicon will leave average American readers scratching their heads.
By specifying your target audience you ask the review brokers to choose reviewers in the appropriate category. Unfortunately, that does not happen often. When my first book was published in 2006, I had tussles with editors who might have been reacting to reviewers’ comments by querying sentence construction, use of the “serial comma,” and, above all, “uncommon” words. I was urged to replace words like devolve, juxtaposition, dreadnought, obfuscation, etc. One “expert” reviewer said words like connivance, exculpate, and punctilious were “verbose” and created a “discord” when used in the same book as phrases like “mucho bucks.” One encounters such hokum!
When I balked at some synonyms the editors suggested I was called “pedantic,” but I held firm. As a life-long educator, I won’t acquiesce in the kind of linguistic “dumbing down” which Charles Berlitz alluded to. I have had to point out to critics that a serious reader should have the basic curiosity to consult a dictionary now and then, especially nowadays when dictionaries and thesauruses are freely available on the Internet. So, if you disagree with an editor or reviewer on matters of style, your informed preference should prevail since it is your book after all.
Mainstream publishers are mostly interested in the bottom line and, accordingly, they will seek the common denominator where language skill is concerned. If you publish your book by yourself and wish to maximize revenue from it, you may consider mass appeal highly important, in which case you have to write to the literacy level of your audience. But if you are after literary acclaim, you may decide to focus your aim more narrowly.
If at this point your manuscript is still wallowing beneath 3-star ratings it is in trouble, and you will have to do iteration loops. Some reviewers and editors will engage you at this point with pointers you could use to beef up the ratings. Sometimes you may have to go so far as to reorganize your manuscript to clarify sequences, remove ambiguities, add paragraphs or drop them, or change the ending. A book with a sad ending will depress most readers. (Except that Russian classics seem to really thrive on melancholy!) So, contrive to make the good guys win in the end.
When you get your desired ratings you have scaled only the foothills of the mountain. You will then use those ratings to leverage publicity where it counts. Newspapers and large-chain bookstores were skittish over my request for an airing, but they were swayed when I sent them the review comments. One assumes that they only want to know that your book won’t be a dud! When asking bookstores to sponsor book signing, you should bear in mind that they stand to lose if your book flops.
Vanity publishers print books “on demand” and won’t accept return of unsold books as traditional publishers do. So, be willing to underwrite some losses the sellers may incur. I offered to order copies of my book for the signing — a matter of putting my money where my mouth is, and it satisfied some bookstores. If such collaboration succeeds, the bookseller may not ask you to underwrite future sessions. If losses ensue, you are on your own; but then you won’t return to the sellers for another session, will you?