The Savvy Self-Publisher: Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard

Debra Englander

Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard has been writing for most of her life, but after graduating from Northwestern University she pursued a career in music, working as a vocalist, flutist, and songwriter. She later became the communications director for the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery and subsequently served as the executive editor of Aesthetic Surgery Journal. Her knowledge of the plastic surgery industry inspired her first book, The Beauty Doctor, a historical novel she self-published in 2017. In December of last year Bernard self-published her second, Temptation Rag, a novel set in the early twentieth century that revolves around ragtime, vaudeville, and African American musical theater. Based on real-life people and events, the book features a character named Mike Bernard, inspired by Bernard’s husband’s grandfather, a famous ragtime musician. I spoke to the author about her experiences with self-publishing; for some perspective on publicity and marketing, I talked to Dawn Raffel, who is an independent editor, and Jane Wesman, the founder of Jane Wesman Public Relations.


The Author’s Approach

Temptation Rag was actually my first book. I started it eight years ago at the Hudson Valley Writers Center and worked on it for several years, much of which was spent completing research. But when my husband and I moved to Arizona, I put the book on hold for a year. When I resumed working on it, I hired a developmental editor; she was very encouraging but pointed out a lot of things I needed to revise. At first I was a little taken back, but in hindsight I see she was absolutely right. Meanwhile I realized that the scope of the book—thirty years and many characters—was too ambitious, so I set the book aside and started to write The Beauty Doctor. It was an easier novel to write because I knew the subject matter. It took me about two years to complete, and I learned a lot about writing along the way. I hoped to have it published by a traditional publisher, and I sent out forty-eight queries to literary agents. Seven agents asked for the manuscript, but they all rejected it. Although I considered sending out more queries, I felt well equipped to publish independently because I had a strong editing background. I had also worked with graphic designers when I was in public relations. I hired a book publicity firm, which turned out to be disappointing. The company seemed to have a one-size-fits-all approach, and I felt the publicists didn’t take the time to understand my book’s niche. The staff was hard to reach and sent out press materials without my approval. After the contract ended I continued to promote The Beauty Doctor on my own, and the book won several awards, including an honorable mention in the 2017 Arizona Literary Awards; it was also a fiction finalist for the 2018 Eric Hoffer Book Award. 

With Temptation Rag I made no effort to find an agent or a traditional publisher. I had learned a lot of the ropes already and enjoyed self-publishing. I also didn’t want to wait for months or years for the new book to be published. Perhaps because I started my writing career later in life, I’m impatient and feel it’s important to publish my novels on a regular basis. I was referred to Girl Friday Productions, a team of publishing-industry veterans who offer editing and other services for authors. A developmental editor there provided initial comments that were mostly positive and suggested some revisions. Because of the unique plot I asked other readers for their opinions too and worked on developing the characters based on that feedback. My goal was always to produce a book that was as professional as any traditionally published book. I wasn’t willing to settle for anything less than the best that I could do. The team appreciated that and was willing to live up to those exacting standards. I had my own concept for the cover and provided the designer with images of my husband’s grandmother, who is a minor character in the book. The designer gave me four different versions, and with some tweaking we finalized it together. 

I looked into several book publicity firms and ultimately hired Smith Publicity for a three-month period to help with the launch. I was involved in the writing of press releases, reviewing and approving them before they were sent out. It was important for me to get credible book reviews, which is particularly challenging for independently published books. Many major outlets won’t even consider a self-published book, especially fiction. [Use the Book Review Outlets database at to find those that do consider self-published titles.] In the six weeks since the pub date, Temptation Rag has sold about 42 percent more than The Beauty Doctor. It was reviewed by the Historical Novel Society, and I’ve gotten more than forty favorable reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I enrolled in Kindle Unlimited and did a promotion in the last week of February. I also promoted the 99-cent e-book on my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I spent $50 to boost the Facebook posts in major cities and targeted women ages forty to sixty-five and older, with interests in historical fiction, ragtime, and the Victorian Era. I feel good about the foundation we’ve laid, and it’s up to me to think of new ways to bring it to the public’s attention. 

I had to learn to be active on social media with my first book. I’m comfortable on Pinterest but haven’t completely figured out Facebook and don’t think I’ve mastered Twitter. But I am starting to enjoy and develop relationships with people who have interesting things to say about books. I have a blog and have been beefing up content related to the book on my website. I recently added music from the ragtime era, in some cases performed by the real-life characters in my book, and I promote this content on social media. I’ve reached out to several Facebook groups on ragtime music and I’ve started to share bits of my research with these groups. I am also a member of several historical fiction and indie-book groups on Facebook, Goodreads, and BookBub but need to invest more time in building those relationships, particularly in the groups geared toward historical fiction readers. I have done some simple per-click sponsored ad campaigns on Goodreads for both books, but there haven’t been many click-throughs. I plan to look into the cost of a targeted display ad, but it may be cost-prohibitive. 

In terms of events, in February I did a twenty-city virtual blog tour focused on historical fiction sites. I also did a book signing at my local Barnes & Noble and have been invited back. I’ve given some presentations, have done several book club events, and recently posted my availability to speak to book clubs on the Nextdoor network, which reaches more than 5,000 households in my area. I am also arranging to do a presentation at the local library. 

Assuming I publish the next book independently, I plan to cut some expenses from my editorial budget and trust myself more on the front end. I will also pursue more prepublication blurbs from high-profile authors and influencers and allocate more money for advertising and reviews from Kirkus and other publications that offer reviews for self-published authors.

My advice to authors planning to self-publish:

• Schedule enough lead time to build awareness and send out advance reader copies. Having them available five or six months ahead of publication is ideal.

• Remember that social media isn’t all about you. People will tolerate hearing a little about you, but you need to keep them interested in the subject of the book.

• Reviews on Amazon give you credibility and show that people are reading the book. 

• It’s easy to get caught up in the marketing right after publication, but you should still think about your next book. Don’t obsess over sales numbers to the point that you lose sight of the creative process of being a writer.


An Editor’s Perspective

Dawn Raffel is an independent editor and teaches at Columbia University. She has worked at national magazines including O, the Oprah Magazine and is the author of several books, most recently The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies (Blue Rider Press, 2018).

In assessing Temptation Rag, a few things immediately jumped out. Bernard’s first book won several awards, which should have been highlighted on the back cover of the new book. I spent many years at mass-circulation publications, and I know that it is extremely difficult for self-published authors to get reviewed in traditional media. But we would occasionally provide book coverage that wasn’t a review. Temptation Rag is based on a story in Bernard’s family history, and her husband’s grandfather is a character in the novel. But you don’t find this out until near the end of her author’s note at the back of the book. This is her big hook—it’s what makes the story interesting and hers to tell. It gives Bernard ownership and authority. She should use this hook to write a blog piece or an essay about Temptation Rag. She can talk about the family history in any media interview. Aside from the plot, many people like to research their family history, so she might have added talking points explaining how she researched the characters. Stressing the part of the plot that revolves around her husband’s family history would really catch readers’ attention. 

I also would have put the author’s note at the start of the book and mentioned the family connection early on. In addition, some of the book contains racially sensitive material, and I think Bernard could have stressed that more in her author’s note. 

The plot description on the back cover made me think the book was going to be a tale of star-crossed lovers. There are certain elements of that here, but this novel is more interesting than that—it’s about actual people, their passions, and ragtime music. The description didn’t fully capture the novel’s scope. 

To continue to promote the book, the author should be talking about the plot elements, especially to book clubs. She could discuss how she went about researching the book, explain the most surprising things she learned about this era, and create a PowerPoint presentation about the birth of ragtime.


A Publicist’s Take

Jane Wesman is the founder and president of Jane Wesman Public Relations in New York City. She has worked on publicity campaigns for many best-selling authors. Wesman is also the author of Dive Right In, the Sharks Won’t Bite: The Entrepreneurial Woman’s Guide to Success (Dearborn, 1995).

Word of mouth is key when it comes to promoting fiction. Novels are sold by people telling one another about how much they loved reading a book. Building word of mouth involves many elements, but, most important, it means connecting directly with your readers. This can be done through social media, speaking engagements, media interviews, the author’s website, and so on.

But let’s take a step back for a minute. One thing I noticed about the position of Temptation Rag is that it’s called a “historical novel” on the author’s website and in promotional materials. The adjective historical doesn’t paint a strong enough picture for prospective readers. You want to give people an image, and the most effective way to do that is by comparing the book to another well-known work. Remember Water for Elephants? Everyone was talking about it. It had great word of mouth. So instead of calling this book “historical” fiction, Bernard should say something like: What Water for Elephants did for the circus, Temptation Rag does for ragtime. Maybe there is another book that works as a comparison, but my point is that the adjective historical doesn’t help people know what the book is about.

As we all know, social media is key in book promotion. That means building a solid platform on Facebook, possibly Twitter, and, if you’re visually creative, on Instagram. As to Bernard’s social media presence, her posts on Facebook are too long. She should publish her longer pieces on her website as blog posts, then pull an interesting quote from the blog to post on Facebook, linking back to the blog on her website. Although she has paid for some online promotion, it hasn’t really boosted sales. I recommend she hire a good social media person who understands the analytics and can help her reach the right audience. Fiction writers also need to be active on Goodreads. You want to get as much coverage from book giveaways as reasonably possible. Authors should personalize their pitch for the giveaway and reach out to readers, writing a note saying they’re happy they requested the book.

Regarding media coverage, there are many websites and blogs that focus on fiction. Bernard should look at the different blogs and book-review outlets and decide whether they appear professional and have a sizable enough readership that it’s worth pitching them for an interview or book review. She should focus more on speaking events and readings. For example, she may want to appear at one of the many local book fairs such as the Brooklyn Book Festival or the Boston Book Festival. She should research these events online and follow procedures to contact them. She can also reach out to independent booksellers to hold book signings or readings, or to visit book clubs or reading groups hosted by those stores. In short, authors need to connect with the people who are going to read the book.

Bernard has a lot going for her from a marketing standpoint, including great titles and covers. And since she has two books, she can be promoting them both. When she’s speaking, both books should be available for sale. Depending on the audience she could discuss the subject matter of either book; she has a wealth of topics from both novels, including women and self-esteem, ragtime, and family history. Bernard could talk about her favorite characters and how she created them. She has a lot of work ahead but should be thinking about doing as many speaking engagements as she can for the next year or longer.

My advice for other self-published authors:

• Don’t be put off by having to pay for a review. Kirkus is a big influencer, so consider paying for a review. If your book gets a favorable review, it can be very helpful.

• Make sure your SEO (search engine optimization) is working. Check how easily your website can be found on Google.

• Always link your writing back to your website or to a bookseller site so readers can easily order your book. 


Debra Englander is a New York City–based freelance editor, writer, and book coach. She has written about business and books for numerous publications, including USA Today, Good Housekeeping, and Publishers Weekly. She is coauthor of 143 Reasons Mr. Rogers Still Matters, forthcoming in September from Post Hill Press.

The Savvy Self-Publisher: The Complete Series


Debra W. Englander


Since 2014, publishing veteran Debra Englander has interviewed a number of authors about the decision to self-publish their work and their experiences with editing, designing, printing, publicizing, and the myriad other tasks that go along with being a self-published author. Following each interview, Englander talks with other publishing experts, including freelance editors, publicists, agents, and others, asking them for their opinions about how those self-published authors did in their efforts to share their work. The result is an invaluable collection of case studies in self-publishing that offers independent authors advice, warnings, encouragement, and inspiration.

Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard
A historical novelist discusses her experiences in self-publishing; an editor and publicist weigh in.

Ethan Senturia
An entrepreneur self-publishes a book about the failure of his business. An editor and publicist weigh in.

Vinnie Kinsella
Vinnie Kinsella shares the process of self-publishing an essay anthology, Fashionably Late: Gay, Bi, and Trans Men Who Came Out Later in Life. An editor and a publicist weigh in.

Lucetta Zaytoun
Lucetta Zaytoun discusses the process of self-publishing her debut memoir, It’s Already Tomorrow Here, last year. A publicist and a publishing consultant offer their advice on design, distribution, and long-term marketing strategies to the author. 

Jonathan R. Miller
In a continuing series, Deborah W. Englander consults an author and events manager, as well as a CEO of a book-marketing firm, to provide self-published author Jonathan R. Miller valuable book-industry advice on his novel The Two Levels.

Vinnie Mirchandani
Can the publishing industry’s traditional business model compete with today’s marketplace? The president of a technology advisory firm and self-published author tries to answer that question through an analyst’s lens. Literary agent Cynthia Zigmund and publicist Rob Nissen weigh in.

William Hertling
A successful self-published novelist talks about how he used his background in programing and knowledge of artificial intelligence to write and market his best-selling techno thriller series. Editor Jessica Page Morrell and publicist Jessica Glenn weigh in and give advice to burgeoning self-publishers.

Clayton Smith
Clayton Smith has self-published several books, including his latest novel, Apocalypticon, and used his experiences to cofound Dapper Press, a company that provides essential services like editing, design, and promotion to self-published authors. Editor Kim Bookless and publicist Lissy Peace weigh in on Smith’s process, and such self-publishing necessities.

Beau Phillips
A former radio executive writes about his behind-the-scenes experiences with rock stars, and puts his vast media expertise to work promoting the book. An editor and publicist weigh in.

Keith Devlin
When science author and NPR Math Guy Keith Devlin decided to cut a section from his soon-to-be published book on Fibonacci, he realized he had a unique opportunity—to self-publish the deleted content as an e-book alongside the hardcover book. We hear from Devlin, his agent Ted Weinstein, and publicist Amy Ferro on this uniquely challenging and exciting endeavor.

Jeffrey Blount
In the second installment of our new self-publishing column, indie author Jeffrey Blount discusses his book, Hating Heidi Foster, while publicist Anna Sproul-Latimer and bookseller Bradley Graham weigh in on how to grow a self-published book’s audience from family and friends to a wider community of readers.

Robb Cadigan
For the first installment of our new column on self-publishing, an indie author details the route he took to self-publishing his novel, while editor Paul Dinas and publicist Corinne Liccketto weigh in with post-publication comments and suggestions.

Self-Publishing Perspectives: A Successful Author, Agent, and Publisher Discuss the Revolution in Progress


Kevin Larimer


With changes in the publishing industry brought about by advances in technology, which have altered every aspect of the business, as well as new financial realities that have tested every link in the distribution chain between writer and reader, self-publishing has soared as a viable and, in many cases, preferable option for independent-minded authors.

Still, there’s a lot to sort out about this evolving topic of self-publishing. In order to put it into proper context, I recently arranged a conversation with three successful individuals with different yet interconnected perspectives. Jennifer Ciotta is the author of the novel I, Putin, which she self-published in 2012, as well as the No Bulls**t Guide to Self-Publishing. Richard Nash is an independent publishing entrepreneur—vice president of community and content for Small Demons, founder of Cursor, and publisher of Red Lemonade who, from 2001 to 2009, ran the iconic indie Soft Skull Press. Kristin Nelson is the founder of Nelson Literary Agency in Denver, where she specializes in representing literary crossover novels, literary commercial novels, upmarket women’s fiction, romance, and all subgenres of young adult fiction. I invited them to discuss the creative opportunities, challenges, and rewards that self-publishing offers writers of all stripes and to give us a glimpse of what the future may hold.

Tell us a bit about your experience with self-publishing. Each of you brings such a unique perspective; each of you approaches the subject from a different direction.

Ciotta: In 2008 I was completing a master’s in creative writing and Russian studies at New York University. Though the academic and fiction-writing experience was fine, I felt I didn’t know the business of publishing a novel as well as I should. So I attended the New York Pitch Conference [part of the Algonkian Writers Conference] and pitched to editors and agents. I received manuscript requests from well-known editors, agents, and one film producer…but after studying the business for a couple of years, I decided self-publishing was the right choice for me. I self-published because I felt if I’m going to succeed or fail, I’m going to do it on my own. I wanted complete creative and business control. Also, after studying the industry, it was apparent that new authors who are traditionally published pay for and do their own marketing and publicity anyway. As for an agent, I felt and still feel that if the time comes to have one, I’ll need to have leverage to attract the right agent. I’m still working on building that leverage.

Nash: I suppose my relationship with self-publishing begins with taking over a company whose genesis was self-publishing. Soft Skull Press began in a Kinko’s in 1992 because Sander Hicks had written a novel in a New School creative writing class that had been rejected by everyone he sent it to. But Kinko’s had Power Macs with Aldus PageMaker and Apple LaserWriters, big Xerox machines, tape binding machines, and paper cutters, and he and his girlfriend worked the graveyard shift without a manager. Over [the course of] a month they laid out, printed, and bound four hundred copies and started selling them at gigs (Sander was a punk musician) and Lower East Side coffee shops on consignment. They liked the experience. Had friends who’d also written stuff. They published those. Then they made friends with better-known folks, like John S. Hall of King Missile and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. Did their books. And so a self-publisher seamlessly became a publisher. Follow many publishers’ histories back far enough and you may very well find a self-publisher. In other words, these terms are not nearly as binary as we might think, and this complexity is also not of a recent vintage.

Nelson: As a literary agent based out of Denver, not necessarily the hub of publishing, I was looking for a competitive edge, so I started blogging in 2006 and only took queries and submissions electronically. My colleagues thought I was crazy, but I knew that my only chance to land good clients was to get there first. It worked. In 2007 I started reading a wildly entertaining fellow blogger who read and reviewed print-on-demand self-published titles. She would write reviews about the best ones because even then, good stuff was happening in this realm.

That’s when it began for me. I would read an interesting review that she’d post and then I would e-mail that author to see if I could read the novel. I even took on a few authors that way. Then, in early 2011, it was very apparent that a publishing shift was really about to unfold in terms of authors having direct access to distribution venues such as, Apple, and Amazon. We represent authors in romance, and the tectonic shift happened there first so it was easy to be at the forefront. I knew that as an agency we needed to evolve to stay relevant in these fast-changing times. Nelson Literary may be the first agency to hire a full-time software engineer as an employee; this happened back in May 2011. That summer we launched NLA Digital Liaison Platform to support self-publishing efforts of our current authors. When we launched, it was mainly for reverted backlist titles. Now it’s both backlist and frontlist titles. Just to be clear, though, we are not a publisher. Our authors maintain full control and [retain] all rights. For a commission, we are simply a liaison/facilitator providing a supportive environment and tech expertise for clients looking to self-publish.

A highly regarded agent recently remarked that the odds are stacked heavily against self-published authors—that only three or four titles really “make a splash” each year. What’s your response to this? Tell me about managing expectations in an industry that still measures success in terms of profit-and-loss margins.

Nelson: In 2007 I would have agreed. However, if this comment was made within the last two years, then I fear this agent may have his head buried in the sand. I represent Hugh Howey and Jasinda Wilder—and just recently I signed three-million-copies-plus-seller Barbara Freethy. Hugh and Jasinda are both authors who had not been previously traditionally published. They rose to fame solely through their digital self-publishing efforts during the past two years, and both have sold over a million e-books.

I also have several authors who started out in the traditional-publishing realm, Jana DeLeon and Courtney Milan. Last year, Jana was doing so well digitally publishing her backlist as well as her new frontlist titles that she was able to quit her day job for the first time in a decade of writing. She even hit the USA Today best-seller list on her own—something her previous publisher could never do for her. Courtney is having good success as well. She makes four times what she made with her traditional publisher and she even hit the New York Times best-seller list on her own. I’d say these gals are “making a splash” even if they aren’t household names. Even today, I could probably rattle off the names of fifteen self-published writers who are making it big this year. It’s becoming quite common, actually. Most of it is happening in the genre of romance, but Hugh and other rising stars are not writing in that arena and [are] finding success.

For an agent, the tough part is determining how a traditional publisher and a self-published author can work together. Some of these independent authors are making so much money on their own, traditional publishers literally can’t offer enough money to make it tempting to partner. If a self-published author is making a hundred fifty thousand dollars a month, it’s hard to seriously consider a traditional offer for, say, half a million dollars for two books—for all rights, including digital. Is having the print component or bookstore distribution worth it? Probably not. However, many independent authors would seriously consider it in exchange for something more reasonable, such as a finite term of license or a truly reasonable sales threshold…. Independent authors don’t want to give up all rights with no hope of getting their work back at some point if a publisher loses interest. It would then be lost income for them.

Now self-published authors have made the leap to traditional publishing and love it. But many are regretting it. These days, part of my job is to make sure that I routinely have conversations with publishers, and to keep the door open to any possibilities that make sense as my independent clients become even more successful.

Nash: I think it is important to look at this in the larger context. Given the dramatic increase in the total amount of content available, and the velocity at which it travels, we’re seeing a shift from a world of a few handfuls of million-copy sellers and tens of thousands that sell four figures in units, to one where there is one series every two years that will sell ten million–plus, and millions that sell hundreds, or tens, or ones.

In other words, the distribution of success has become even more skewed. This also means that publishers have to focus on “tentpole properties,” a term they stole from the film business. Now, self-publishing is actually a pretty good purveyor of tentpoles because [tentpoles are created] by consumer response. They’re memes. Gangnam Style. Although we see that for those numbers to be maxed out, you want the infrastructure of a media company. Is that necessarily a publisher? Not purely, no; it could be a movie studio. What exactly happens there is less about abstracting the attributes of publishing or self-publishing and favoring one over the other, and more a function of the specific personality of the writer and the specific cultural and economic context of the books.

In terms of the ones selling a degree or two below—say, steadily in the range of fifty thousand to five hundred thousand books—that is largely the province of institutional publishing. That’s not a stable place for a solo enterprise because velocity is critical: Sales at that stage happen because of consumer buzz, people want to eat in the Chinese restaurant that everyone else is eating in. Self-published authors either zoom through that fifty thousand to five hundred thousand unit number, or they don’t even come close to it.

Now, all the forgoing has to do with sales. There are authors publishing for reasons other than sales, so the question becomes what type of splash, what impact do they want to have on the world. And there you face a very fundamental fact that, all other things being equal, it is typically easier for a team to make a splash than a person. So whether your self-publishing goal is to raise visibility for yourself as a nutritionist or as a 
human-resources consultant or as a poet, having a team of experienced people supporting you makes it easier. At that point, then, you’re starting to make a series of judgments—appraising your own skills, ascertaining skills to which you have ready access via love or money, determining your precise goals, deciding how you want to monetize (i.e., it need not be through selling books), and so forth. These things simply aren’t binary, even though the media, and some tweets and some panel discussions, can make them seem that way.

Ciotta: I agree with Kristin and Richard. Coming from a self-published author’s point of view, there’s the terrifying BookScan that traditionally published authors must contend with. To be blunt, if you’re not selling the way a publishing house wants you to, you’re out. Even great writers are under the gun. It’s all about profit-and-loss margins.

As I discuss in my self-publishing guide, if you want to be a successful self-published or traditionally published author in today’s market, your mind-set should be: “It’s all about the money, honey.” You have to be the businessperson and the author. Your job is to write a great book and sell it. And if you’re a self-published author, it’s heightened big-time.

Since independent authors are becoming so business savvy—and, as Kristin noted, many are making much more money using print-on-demand services, other print services, and being digitally published than being traditionally published—self-
publishing is only going to keep flourishing. Are more than three to four self-published books making a splash in a year? Absolutely!

If, as Richard says, it’s easier for a team to make a splash than a person—and Jennifer, you discuss in your e-book the various people and services you employed during the publishing of I, Putin—then what would you say to a writer who is starting out, alone, on the path to self-publishing a book?

Ciotta: Always start with this in mind: Write a good book. Make sure the book is professionally edited, preferably by an editor who has knowledge of The Chicago Manual of Style. With regard to the technical side of self-publishing, if you can do it yourself and do it well then go for it. For example, I’m a book-manuscript editor by day, thus I edited my own books. However, I’m not a book-cover designer at all, nor am I a formatter. So I paid for professionals to do these tasks for me.

An independent author must understand that [a] book must be professional. It must read and look professional. Think of how many books are on Amazon. Now imagine your book has a run-of-the-mill cover design. That book is pretty much dead in the water. You must go above and beyond to ensure that your book is not only high quality, but that it will stand out among all the self-published as well as traditionally published books. In other words, make the best first impression you can.

Nash: Entirely agreed. When I get questions by writers starting out, I don’t really have answers; I have only more questions. What do you want to get out of it? What do you love doing? Can your friends help? And so forth.

I’m actually going to niggle a little at a comment you made earlier, Jennifer: “It’s all about the money, honey.” Now, to the extent that means you’re in charge of everything, that you’re the boss, I agree completely. But the brute reality is that this is a ludicrous way to make money. No creative endeavor—acting, rock star, dancer, etcetera—is a plausible way to make money. Sure, many who do it dream of fame and riches, and a microscopic percentage get [that], and a slightly bigger but nevertheless microscopic percentage get a little of it, but people like to dream, even as they’re doing it, because they love being in the game. Just like teenagers playing basketball, or football, or baseball dream of the professional leagues, regardless of the percentages, which are equally terrible. So if you’re doing it for the money, you’re on a pathway to bitterness. Do it because you love it, you love the process, you love the engagement, you love getting better at what you do. Now, of course, if you do get lucky, don’t be dumb about money, and at this point all the admonitions Kristin and Jennifer can give should take precedence. “It’s all about the money, honey.” But really it’s about love, and so when I first meet a writer asking the sorts of questions we’re discussing here, I want to find out more about that love and how the processes—not just the outcomes, but the processes—for getting your book out there in the world can support you in that love and passion.

Ciotta: Richard, I couldn’t agree more. I meant, “It’s all about the money, honey” in a different context. That’s what the industry is driven by: money. Traditional publishing houses and agencies want sales, sales, and more sales. As for the self-publishing mind-set, I mean that you need to have business savvy nowadays. From the get-go, the self-published author must think about the business side. No, I didn’t mean it’s a good way to make money! That’s a ludicrous idea. To self-publish the right way, you’ll put tons of money into it. You won’t see a return on your investment for quite a while!

Nelson: As an agent, I’ve been incredibly blessed over the years with the success of my authors. For almost all of them, it’s actually been a very plausible way to make money. Most of my clients write full time and don’t have to supplement with a day job. But I also understand that this is not the norm; still, it does put me in the mind-set of writing as a valuable source of income. Even more so now, with my self-published authors’ ability to produce and distribute their work directly through the distribution channels and to keep a bigger percentage of the royalties, thus making the possibility greater of actually earning a living through writing.

But in the end, no writer begins this journey with the sole intent to make money. It begins with a story and the passion to share it. And what I’m discovering is that writers, even those who are self-publishing, have a very specific preference to not tackle this journey alone. Hence, the importance of a team.

Authors need beta readers they trust or a developmental editor to tell them what sucks in a manuscript and what doesn’t. I don’t know a single writer who can create perfect art in the first draft. Wouldn’t that be a gift? Then of course there is everything Jennifer has already mentioned—the copyeditor, the proofer, the professional cover designer, an excellent tech person to convert e-files. Every writer will eventually need a team or won’t have any time to write!

So I would tell a writer who is starting out to start forming that team early. In the beginning, it might be as simple as making connections to other self-published writers. Later it might be as complicated as having an agent, a dedicated contact at Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble, and yes, even a traditional publisher. Be prepared for trial and error and for the possibility that not every connection will be worth keeping. And then be ready for that team to expand when needed.

Let’s talk about gatekeepers, which is really sort of an ugly term. I think what’s exciting about self-publishing for a lot of people is that it does away with this idea that only certain lucky writers get anointed by the seemingly self-elected purveyors of literary taste who are deciding first what gets published and then what gets promoted at the bookstore. With self-publishing, anyone with some money, know-how, and fire in the heart can produce a book and get it in front of people’s eyes. But how is the self-published author supposed to compete for the attention of readers if most of those readers are unconsciously relying on a whole line of people—agents, editors, booksellers—to narrow down the choices, albeit based on a subjective standard of quality, for them?

Nash: Well, look, we all have filters in our day-to-day lives: human filters, automatic filters, filters on our laptops, filters at the playground (“avoid eye contact with that parent,” your friend tells you). We all need filters. The exact sequence of filters represented by the funnel that is the book-supply infrastructure, though? Not really. That was never a system designed to help consumers anyway—it was a system based on the dictates of manufacturing and distributing widgets. It’s standard Industrial Revolution stuff, initially vertically integrated, shifting to a more outsourced mode in the late twentieth century. Parallel to that, in the newspaper and magazine business, there was culture and entertainment writing of various levels of seriousness that have been grafted onto a platform paid for largely by classifieds and department-store and car-dealership advertising. The bookish side of it had a culturally and socially (though not economically) symbiotic relationship. And everybody treated that as the cultural establishment, because why not? It was what was there. But it wasn’t remotely purpose-built to be a system for adjudicating culture. It just became that because it’s all we had.

Now we’re building new filters. New retail aggregators like Amazon. New media and communications systems like BuzzFeed, Gawker, HuffPo, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. And, as usual, of course, they’re not being built for books. Just like they weren’t built for books in the nineteenth and twentieth century, either. We’re just going to need to figure out how to use the tools capitalism inadvertently provides us for our own purposes. A key way in which that will happen is that we have the human talent from the previous system, slowly adjusting to the new tools.

An important thing to remember, though, is that the old system wasn’t built to filter for consumers. It was built to sell books. We didn’t do a very good job filtering to consumers. Why else did Whitman self-publish? Why did Melville almost vanish? Why did Paula Fox disappear and reappear? Why did we publish Jewel’s poetry? Serial liars and plagiarists? And so forth. Why, if we looked at the National Book Award finalists for the 1950s and 1960s, do we recognize so few names? It’s not, by the way, that publishers suck. It’s that we’re all just human. We can’t pick winners, never could. We just get lucky and try to justify it after the fact.

What does that mean for the individual author? Yes, it is relatively harder to get attention. But don’t complain—before now you’d never have had the opportunity to be seeking the attention.

Ciotta: The answer is, don’t compete with the traditionally published authors. As a self-published author in today’s industry, you can’t get reviews from certain major newspapers or magazines, you can’t get your book in many bookstores, and a lot of media outlets won’t put you on their TV or radio shows. That’s just a fact right now, though I have a feeling it will be changing.

That’s why it’s crucial to have a well-written, professional book and to be savvy about marketing and publicity. You will learn what doesn’t work for you in the first year. I had another self-published author say to me, “You won’t know how to sell your book in the first year.” She was absolutely right…with regard to fiction (nonfiction is always easier). If you don’t have a clear, defined target audience, it can be tough. So then who are your gatekeepers? With I, Putin, I was sure my target audience was men, forty and over, who have an interest in politics. Wrong!

Yes, I do get a few readers like this…but I’m learning in the year and a half my novel’s been out, soccer moms in the Midwest to hipsters in the city to young people in Egypt and the Philippines are reading it. How do I know? They write me and rate and review it on Goodreads. These are the new gatekeepers, who have all the power. In other words, readers, by word of mouth, are the people you want to embrace you and your book.

Nelson: In the publishing lexicon, especially for frustrated writers, “literary agent” might as well be synonymous with “gatekeeper,” and both are dirty words. But I didn’t become a literary agent to be a gatekeeper. I became one because I loved books. And I foolishly thought that if I liked a story, other people might too. I’ve never once taken on a client because I thought the manuscript, once published, would become a best-seller. Not once. I’m surprised every time the magic lightning strikes and a novel I represent becomes a best-seller.

This is perhaps not the best way to sell myself as an agent, but when I’m speaking at conferences, I always highlight the list of novels I passed on that went on to great success because I want it to be clear that I’m not the sole barometer of what readers will anoint as good or worthy of best-seller-dom. Besides, not every book in the library speaks to me, and most certainly not every novel that’s currently sitting on a best-seller list is one that I would pick up and read. There are definitely titles on the list that I’m astonished to see.

And it’s easy to get tunnel vision. As an agent, I see this all the time when a submission goes to editorial board—where acquisition happens by committee and folks want what’s hot or trending rather than what will be hot in the future—and the work gets shot down.

And that’s where the new filters come in. There is now a chance for readers themselves to be purveyors of literary taste and to influence what is popular. This is how the “genre” of New Adult came to be. I put “genre” in quotations because, honestly, New Adult is just Chick Lit from a decade ago but in new clothing, which encapsulates slightly younger protagonists and now has emphasis on a relationship being an important definition of self, as opposed to girlfriends and career.

Publishing has a tendency to ride a trend like Seabiscuit into the ground before declaring it dead and not touching it for years. That’s exactly what happened to Chick Lit. But those readers didn’t disappear. They just got tired of the formula stories that were being fed to them and stopped buying. Publishers in turn stopped pubbing them. Then those readers couldn’t find any stories because writers couldn’t sell those stories, even if they had an original twist.

Self-publishing and direct distribution gave those displaced and ignored writers an opportunity to sell a story they actually wanted to read but couldn’t find being published. It empowered readers to cast their own vote, via their spending dollars, about what they wanted to read. And now we are seeing an interesting reversal, where publishers are looking for writers to prove themselves via a self-publishing-sales track record first, after which a publisher might sign them.

Now to perambulate back to the original question: How is the self-published author supposed to compete for the attention of readers if most of those readers are relying on the old publishing model to filter the content? The same way it has always worked: word of mouth. Readers telling other readers what they loved and why.

That, and only that, is how best-sellers happen, whether they are self-published or traditionally published. How we wish we could bottle that for every title.


What’s the biggest misconception about self-publishing?

Ciotta: The stigma. Slowly, the industry is breaking away from the stigma that if a book is self-published, it’s not worthy of a publishing house, or it’s not worthy to read at all. Now that many self-published authors are businesspeople, too, their books are well written and professional and they can certainly uphold or go above and beyond readers’ standards. That being said, both traditionally published and self-published books can be amazing, good, or just plain bad. So it’s an author’s job to do his best to be in the “amazing” category and blow readers away.

What’s the future of self-publishing look like? Where are we headed with this?

Ciotta: Since self-publishing is making a ton of money, it’s only going to get hotter and hotter. We’ll see more self-published titles than ever. I believe self-published authors will bust through some major industry barriers. Perhaps the New York Times will start reviewing a self-published book once in a while, in the future. Or we’ll start seeing a few more self-published authors being interviewed on NPR or on Jon Stewart.

But most of all, self-pubbing in the future will give the power back to the readers. What the readers demand, the readers will get. And that’s the beauty of self-publishing.

Nelson: Back in 2007, my fellow agents assumed that print-on-demand was only for those who couldn’t find an agent or a “real” publisher. I never thought that. And you know why? Because over the course of my career, I haven’t been able to sell any number of projects for a variety of reasons. But I thought those novels were always worthy and ready for publication, otherwise I wouldn’t have offered representation! Now if a client wants to pursue a regular publishing deal, we go for it. But if it doesn’t happen, we aren’t necessarily despondent. We have a host of other options available to help this author find his or her audience. Traditional publishing is simply one avenue. That’s why I launched NLA Digital in 2011. It’s a platform that not only supports the reissuing of client backlist titles but also supports clients launching new frontlist titles. And, according to Bowker stats from the 2013 Digital Book World Conference, on average the hybrid author—an author who is both traditionally and self-published—will make anywhere from 10 to 20 percent more in income than authors who are just in one camp or the other. My job is to not only guide an author’s career but to also help my client make more money. Through my agent filter, hybrid looks like the future to me.

When a traditional publisher gets 100 percent behind a title and the launch is a major event, the results are unparalleled. Hands down. It’s magic, and a completely unknown author becomes a household name in less than a year. The problem is that this treatment only happens for a handful of titles in any given year. Self-publishing is the empowerment of the midlist author who would have been dropped by a publisher for sales underperformance. Now that author can find the right price point for the audience, have ultimate control, and make a decent living.

And for me, here is the last word—for now: I have yet to see a self-published title become a worldwide, juggernaut best-seller without the backing of a major publisher. Now this isn’t to say it will never happen, but as the publishing world stands right now it would be hard to achieve. Until the first one…

Nash: The future of self-publishing is the same as the future of publishing. The two are inseparable; they aren’t, in fact, even two. They are these terms of convenience becoming increasingly inconvenient, at least in terms of describing reality. Walt Whitman, Sander Hicks, Hugh Howey, E. L. James, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Guy Kawasaki have nothing in common, except that they’re all, technically, self-published. But the reasons, the tools, the goals are all radically different. You could create an equally absurd cross section of so-called traditional publishing. Some self-publishers have agents, some don’t; some are in print, some aren’t; some do “distribution” deals (as opposed to “publishing” deals), some don’t. I know, in order to have this conversation, we have to agree for the moment to talk about self-publishing as if it existed in contradistinction to selfless-publishing, but I do hope we abandon the term quickly, so we can proceed on to helping individual writers realize their goals, matching their skills with peers and intermediaries without regard for how closely they mimic what was once called traditional publishing. We’re all publishers now. That’s both a desire and a prediction.

Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.

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  • April 9, 2019