Case Study: How Self-Publishing Led Author Jonathan French to Hybrid Success

Jonathan French's approach to self-publishing played an important role in how editors and agents perceived his book, and persuaded French to reevaluate his perspective on how authors can, and should, break into print.
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Jonathan French's approach to self-publishing played an important role in how editors and agents perceived his book, and persuaded French to reevaluate his perspective on how authors can, and should, break into print.

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author photo credit: Monica Nwaigwe

On a Sunday night in October 2016, Jonathan French stepped into the spotlight on the small stage of the Highland Ballroom in Atlanta. He sat on a wooden bar stool, turned to page one of his epic fantasy novel The Grey Bastards, and captivated the room.

French evoked crisp, cinematic images of Jackal, his half-orc protagonist. Flanked by two half-breed comrades, Jackal prepared to face off with an arrogant cavalry captain: a human who would learn never to provoke a Grey Bastard. On stage, French proved to be a gifted storyteller controlling the pitch and tone of his voice like a seasoned raconteur. At the end of his reading, the crowd applauded with an enthusiasm that had been absent during his introduction. Little did French know that his career was on the edge of a breakthrough.

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French completed his first novel, The Exiled Heir, in 2010. At the time, his wife worked as a ghostwriter and beta reader for a midlist thriller novelist. Her position put him in contact with some good-to-know folks. “I did the traditional pursuit first because I wanted to see if we could make that work,” French explained. He pitched to agents and editors at writers’ conferences and even captured the interest of a few agents, but failed to secure a deal.

In 2012, after a solid coaxing from a well-trusted friend, French self-published The Exiled Heir. “Sales weren’t phenomenal,” he confessed, but by then, he was fully committed to finding success as an independently published author. French made himself visible the best way he knew how: by attending conventions and book festivals across the country.

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He started earning supplemental income from the sale of his books and joined indie publishing panels as a guest speaker, fervently expressing the need for authors to write quality books and invest in professional packaging to compete in the marketplace. He went on to write The Errantry of Bantam Flyn, a sequel to The Exiled Heir, and a brand new first-in-series novel, The Grey Bastards, which turned out to be a game-changer.

French entered The Grey Bastards into the Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog-off (SPFBO), an annual contest hosted by grimdark fantasy novelist Mark Lawrence. Similar to the Self-Published Book Awards hosted by Writer’s Digest, the concept for SPFBO is simple: provide a platform where indie writers can be seen and heard by community influencers. Lawrence recognized that established authors face less of a challenge promoting their books than new or self-published writers do, so he wanted to level the playing field.

The lack of visibility was a struggle French knew all too well. “I was doing some things right, but I was not able to do enough on the side of it, to where my signal was outdoing any noise,” French said. “I wasn’t hitting that critical mass of readers.”

Over the course of the contest, The Grey Bastards climbed the ranks with stellar scores from influential fantasy book bloggers. According to French, something odd happened halfway through the judging process. “I get this email with the subject heading ‘Hi, from an Editor.’ That was all it said,” French recalled. “The signature line was Penguin Random House.”

Julian Pavia—editor of The Martian by Andy Weir, Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, and City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett—discovered The Grey Bastards through SPFBO and loved it. “I’d vaguely followed the contest in its first year and had checked out one or two [writers] of that first batch of finalists,” Pavia said, “so I already knew it was finding talented writers. As I saw how the judges were responding to The Grey Bastards, I was intrigued enough to pick it up.”

French’s approach to self-publishing played an important role in how Pavia perceived his book. When looking for talent, Pavia, who casually browses blog reviews, contests, and the also bought section on Amazon, said, “I mostly just want to feel that an author’s made an effort to put together a real product, [and] that they hold themselves to a high standard. That was definitely the case with the package Jonathan had put together… it’s important to get the little things right.”

Pavia expressed a desire to have the book formally pitched to him. “Within four days,” French said, still astonished by the rapid response and genuine interest in his book, “I’m getting emails from agents who are not only interested, they’ve read it [Grey Bastards] within that short amount of time and know it backward and forward.”

In the end, French chose to be represented by Cameron McClure from the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Although French is not the first self-published author McClure has taken on, he is the first for whom she secured a two-book deal. On pitching the story, McClure says, “The Grey Bastards opens with a very strong and distinct narrative voice that I knew would make people sit up [and] pay attention.”

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The experience persuaded French to reevaluate his perspective on how authors can, and should, break into print. “I admit it,” he said. “I was that guy that used to go to cons, railing against the gatekeepers, then I started dealing with these people, and it was like, I’m wrong—at least about the people who really know what they’re doing.”

Going forward, his advice to writers is one that nurtures an open mind and a hybrid approach. “If you find success in one and never want to cross [over] to the other, fine,” he said. “But if you do [cross over], each side is making you better at the other. Being a self-published author makes me a better traditionally published author, and now I'm hopeful that what I learn being a traditional guy is going to make me a better self-published guy.”

Learn more about Jonathan French at

Find success in self-publishing at indieLAB.

If you’re confident in your craft and are ready to explore self-publishing options, or are looking for ways to earn a living with your writing beyond book sales, indieLAB is the conference you’ve been looking for. indieLAB—the newest conference from Writer's Digest—is curated especially for entrepreneurial authors, freelance writers and independent publishers seeking to develop a publishing strategy, build a platform, grow an audience and get paid for their work.

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