Why Self-Publishing Was the Best Thing I Could Have Done for My Novel

It’s 2011. There’s a shoebox under my desk filled with rejection letters. In defiant bold letters I’ve labeled it Reasons to Keep Writing. I spent last year writing my first novel, Concrete Fever this year revising it. My colleagues in the Greenpoint Writers Group think it’s ready. I think it’s ready. But not a single agent nor publisher is willing to take it on.

I start thinking,

Why am I waiting on the approval of people I don’t know?

I look into Print-on-Demand options and find three major companies to choose from. They’ll keep my book on file and only print as many copies as I need at a time, which will reduce upfront costs. Done deal, I think — until I do the math. For every copy sold in stores, I’ll take home between 50–60% of the retail price. At the rate the companies charge per copy, my book will need to sell for over $20 to avoid losing money, whereas the typical price for a paperback falls within the $16–19 range. Additional costs such as shipping and promotion will bring the price higher. Unknown author that I am, I have trouble picturing that special kind of customer willing to shell out an above average asking price for a book they’ve never heard of, and wonder whether bookstores will even carry a self-published title selling at such a high cost.

Out of curiosity I start reading the companies’ Terms of Agreement. And keep reading. I grow increasingly uneasy. I find discussion boards online filled with customers’ horror stories. The materials look cheap, the formatting looks unprofessional. ISBN’s are manufactured in house and at times recycled from book to book. Some authors report their books being sold wholesale without notification nor compensation. Others report not being able to reprint their book elsewhere because they’ve unknowingly given up their ownership rights.

This last grievance hits me hard.

I believe in the value of my work despite the shoebox full of rejections.

To have worked so long on a book only to have it taken away and misrepresented seems unthinkable. The same might be said of a large publishing house that attaches a lackluster cover or misrepresents the subject of the book in an attempt to make it more marketable. As the author, I realize that I am my own best advocate. No one will work as faithfully nor as tirelessly on behalf of my product as I will. I do a new search: how to bind books.

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***

It’s 2012. I’m halfway toward stitching 250 copies of the novel. My wife is painting each and every cover with a unique combination of colors. The process is gratifying, albeit time-consuming. I have creative control over my product and know to the number how many copies have sold and to whom. Three stores — WORD, Spoonbill & Sugartown, and Better Than Jam — agree to carry the book and show a humbling amount of enthusiasm, giving it prominent placement on the shelves and scheduling workshops for me to teach bookbinding. The book sells faster than we can make new copies. It’s a problem we’re grateful to have.

We explore options to increase productivity, including bribing our friends with pizza and beer to cut, fold, stitch, and glue our pages. It’s fun and thrilling to build a community around the book, but we still fall short of the numbers we need. If we’re ever going to stay in stock and move beyond three stores, we’ll need to invest in a trade paperback edition.

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***

It’s 2013 and momentum is building. Through M. Craig, another independent author and the founder of The Papercut Press, we learn of a venue that can print an aesthetically-driven run of the book. In The Sheridan Press in Hanover, PA, we find kindred spirits. For months we gush over textured cover stocks and layout ideas. We are the muse and they are the muscle. Whatever our vision, they have the means to execute it.

In the end, thanks to a good deal of scrapping and saving to cover the upfront costs, we have a tremendously well-crafted book and the cost per copy is a fraction of what the POD companies would have charged. We stand to make our investment back after only a third of the run sells, which looks to happen much sooner than expected.

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Concrete Fever can now be found at more than 20 locations nationwide including Strand Book Store, where it managed to sell 65 copies in its first 2 months. Our investment in the look, the feel, and the delivery paid off. Without ever getting the permission of the established publishing industry nor having a large promotional machine on our side, my first novel is reaching readers the way I always hoped it would — on its own terms.

And the shoebox has long since been burned.

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Order paperbacks or limited-edition copies of Concrete Fever here.

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