The Why and How of Self-Publishing

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The following is a guest post from the grand prize winner of our 1st Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published e-Book Awards (featured in InkWell in the May/June 2014 issue of Writer's Digest).

Judith Gille is the founder and owner of City People's stores in Seattle, but her passion is writing about Mexican art and culture and immigration issues. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angles TimesThe Dallas Morning News, the Florida Sun-Sentinel, in magazines, online journals and numerous anthologies. Her memoir The View from Casa Chepitos: A Journey Beyond the Borderwas released by Davis Bay Press in October 2013.

Judith Gille

In this post, Judith reflects on her unique experience in deciding to self publish a book, and why she has been happier with the decision, more than she could ever be with a traditional publisher.

* * * * *

I signed up for the Writer’s Digest 2012 Conference in New York City with the goal of finding an agent to represent me and bring my nearly-finished memoir to a major publishing house.

Writer friends had described WD’s new Pitch Slam as the literary equivalent of speed dating. Since I’m modestly attractive, a fast talker, and had honed my pitch to three minute perfection, I figured I’d do okay.

By the time the conference was over, however, I’d made a complete about-face. I was no longer interested in finding an agent or going with a large publishing house. Based on what I heard from a number of different panelists (agents, editors and publishing experts), I was convinced that indie (or self) publishing was the direction for me. Here’s why I came to that conclusion, how I subsequently published my book, and why I haven’t regretted my decision for a single minute.

While the Pitch Slam was the big event everyone was hyped up about, I also found the panel discussions to be enlightening. It was the first time I’d attended a writer’s conference where self-publishing panels were being given equal time with the ever-popular agent and author panels. And guess what? The self-publishing types were just as enthusiastic (and maybe more so) about the future of publishing than the agents seemed to be. Literary agent and author advocate, April Eberhardt and Keith Ogorek of Author Solutions shed light on the good and bad news about the current state of traditional publishing that led to my change of heart.

Ms. Eberhardt expressed dismay at the state of traditional publishing. Few editors and agents, she said, were taking risks on unknown or emerging authors. I felt as if she was speaking directly to me when she said, “Quality manuscripts are not getting published,” and, “A tiny fraction of writers will ever be published by the traditional publishers.”

The other bad news, for me at least, was that I’d written a memoir. Word on the ground was that memoirs were no longer “de rigeur.” Unless you were a rock star or a lapsed Mormon, a refuge from a currently war-torn country or the victim of incest, chances were slim any editor would be interested. Memoirs written by middle-aged white women were a “dime a dozen,” according to one agent. What agents were looking for was prescriptive nonfiction written by experts with built-in audiences, YA books and genre novels. Thrillers, mysteries, and romances were high on their lists. A semi-literary memoir about Mexican immigrants was not.

The View from Casa Chepitos

I’d gone to the conference thinking I had at least a 50-50 chance of getting an agent’s attention but have since learned that the odds are steep: most of us madly pitching our manuscripts to agents that weekend would probably never land a book deal with a major publisher. So why bother to attend these conferences? Because you can learn about other paths to publishing, and make your dream come true all by yourself.

I learned from Keith Ogorek’s panelon Navigating the World of Self-Publishing, and by talking to a number of representatives for independent publishers, that self-publishing was the fastest growing segment of the industry. Every week companies were sprouting up to meet the demand in the independent market. Even the big guys wanted in: Simon & Schuster was developing a self-publishing arm (Archway Publishing), Amazon had hired Larry Kirshbaum to head up Amazon Publishing, and the following July, Penguin would buy Author Solutions for $116 million.

Print-on-demand (POD) had finally been perfected to such a point that it was difficult to tell if a book was produced via POD or printed on an offset press. It was faster, easier and cheaper to create a book yourself than ever before. At the WD conference, tables were set up in a hallway where Abbott Press and a number other self-publishing companies were showing off their wares. Examples of books that looked professionally produced and felt good in your hands abounded.

My own prejudice against self-publishing began to wane.

Back home I began researching my options. I looked into the various packages offered by Author Solutions, Archway and Abbott Press. I studied the websites of Bookbaby, CreateSpace, Smashwords and Lulu to see what they had to offer. For various reasons, most of them having to do with the cost, I decided not to use the services of any of the self-publishing companies. I wanted complete control of my product and royalties and figured I could get more bang for my buck by doing it myself. My husband had years of experience in the printing industry and had worked with many small publishers. I’d run my own retail business for thirty-five years and I knew about marketing. Between the two of us we had the skill and expertise to do it.

So, in the summer of 2013, we registered Davis Bay Press with the state of Washington. A few days later I hired a copy-editor and a book designer, and signed Lightning Source on to print 1500 books. By late September my book, The View from Casa Chepitos: A Journey Beyond the Border, was published in e-book form and shortly afterwards in paperback. (I probably could have done it even more quickly if I hadn’t also been working full-time at my day job.)

We officially launched the book in November. More than two hundred people packed the hall at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle that night and we threw a festive Mexican-style fiesta with Mexican fare from the local taco truck and lots of tequila afterwards. We sold lots of books that night. As a matter of fact, in less than six months we’ve sold more than half the books we ordered (in only seven stores) and many more on Kindle.

Despite the long lines at that Pitch Slam at the Writer’s Digest 2012 conference, and lots of authors going way beyond their allotted three minutes, I did manage to successfully pitch seven agents. All of them asked to see the manuscript. Several actually got back to me. Three of them referred to the book as “the next Under the Tuscan Sun.” Unfortunately, none of them offered to represent me. But I’m okay with that.

I’m okay with it because I produced a beautiful, award-winning memoir that is selling well for an independently published book. It’s second only to Tony Cohan’s On Mexican Time for the number positive reviews on Amazon in the Mexican travel category. I’ve already recouped my initial investment, and not a day goes by that I don’t get an email, a note on Facebook or a card in the mail from someone who read it and wants to tell me how much they loved it.

Maybe I could have gotten a small advance and I might have sold more books if a traditional publisher had picked it up. But I doubt if the Mexican family I write about would be benefiting from the book’s success like they are today if one had. Because all of the proceeds from the book sales in Mexico go to them.

The “windfall” enables Lupe to buy shoes for her kids and hire tutors for her daughter who is struggling in school. It helped the entire Cordova-Rodriguez clan take their first-ever vacation—to the beaches of Zihuatanejo in December. Seeing photos of my Mexican godchildren romping in the surf and my friend Gracia and her husband (neither of whom had ever seen the ocean before) dancing in the sand brought me more happiness than a $2,000 advance from a big publishing house ever could have.

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