Sheer hubris is what it takes to publish without the gatekeepers of the publishing world saying yes, you’re worth reading.
I decided to start this press years after a number of agents told me that my work was quite good, but not something they could market successfully to publishers in a “very tough fiction market.”
Meanwhile, other folks were telling me they stayed up all night reading it.
Since then, I’ve watched some very talented authors get published, only to see their literary careers founder. The big publishers are under enormous pressure to return strong profits to their stockholders. They often feel they can’t afford to wait for new authors to build a readership over time. So most debut novels — especially those that didn’t win huge advances — simply get thrown up at the wall like spaghetti to see if they’ll stick. And many good writers, especially if they are not also great marketers, soon discover that their publisher is no longer interested in them.
I know something about how to market other people’s books. I worked for over 18 years as a project editor, acquisitions editor, marketing manager, and copywriter/creative director at various publishing companies and freelanced at an ad agency. Still, the thought of doing that for my own books was always kind of horrifying. So rather than persist — the number one requirement for successful traditional publishing — I moved on to other things. (It helps that I enjoy plenty of other things, especially teaching.)
In 2013 I considered hauling out the old rejection binder and trying one more round with agents and publishers, if only to cross it off my list of things to do.
Then I thought: Why?
Technology had made it easy to create your own publishing company. As noted above, I already had a lot of the skills required. It wouldn’t take a huge investment to e-publish. This way, I could afford to find my readers slowly, even if it took years.
And that’s what I’m doing now. This isn’t to say that I disparage traditional publishers or bookstores or any of the complicated, valuable work that they do. As a reader, I’m grateful for authors and booksellers who manage to prosper under the current system. That’s part of the reason I originally steered clear of a paper edition. But some of my readers only wanted to read paper, so I went ahead and did that, too.
Borrowing a technique from the world of fanfic, I started out offering a PG-13 edition for readers who would prefer to avoid explicit sex and bad language. I still believe this is a good idea in a perfectly digital world. Unfortunately, it led to trouble with Amazon, which didn’t consider it different enough from the original edition. It also created twice the amount of product management, while producing only 2% of the sales. So I abandoned that idea.
So how’s it going?
Not too shabby. Since publication in 2013, there have been over 50,000 free downloads during free days. I have to tally up the copies actually sold (mostly during promotions), but at this point I believe I’ve gotten past 3,000. I invested in a new cover by a real cover designer, which may or may not have helped. As of this update, “The Awful Mess: A Love Story” has over 100 5-star reviews at Amazon (4.3 average), made it into the five semi-finalists for general fiction in Amazon’s 2014 (and last) Breakthrough Novel Award, and was picked up as a highlighted selection in Library Journal’s SELF-e Program. In my second year, I actually turned a small profit on the business. For a first time indie author with no access to traditional bookstore channels, that’s pretty good.
My second novel, “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire” has not done as well in sales yet, partly because I never offered it free, and partly because it’s a literary coming-of-age story rather than women’s fiction that crosses over into romance. (Critically, it has done fine.) Still, I feel I’m on track to eventually do fairly well with this, either sticking with Sheer Hubris Press or crossing over into traditional publication someday when I’ve built enough of an audience. In the meantime, I get the pleasure of hearing from new readers who are excited about my work. Who can beat that?
No, I haven’t been able to quit my day job yet. But few traditional authors can, either.