When I was twenty-two, I wrote a thinly-disguised, semi-autobiographical novel about a young writer who runs a coffee shop out of an abandoned church with a bunch of bohemian artist boys. When I wrote it, I was living in Portland, Maine, just a street over from a whole apartment filled with those very same bohemian artist boys. Nights, we’d hang out whilst smoking the occasional illegal substance, the fellas playing their guitars or banging their drums or painting their paintings, while I wrote. Shortly after I finished the novel, I ran into a shady guy at a party who happened to have his own small press. He read the novel, liked it, and said he’d publish… If I paid the printing costs and handled all the marketing and distribution. He’d even take part of his payment in books.
Not really knowing any better at the time, I decided to go ahead with this little scheme. I’m sure there are any number of ways this could have gone wrong, but I took the experience for what it was worth: Yes, I was paying the printing costs, but my book was getting out there, I retained all the rights, and I was getting the rare opportunity to be completely in charge of all aspects of the publishing process. I was running an artist’s cooperative at the time, so my bohemian boys and I decided to go in on the whole experience together. One of the guys was a singer/songwriter; he wrote an entire soundtrack for the novel, along with some of his singer/songwriter friends. We packaged the book and the CD together, one of the artists in the co-op did the CD design, and a photographer in the group took both the author and the cover photos.
When the whole thing came out, we had a huge musical/reading extravaganza in our hometown, and over the course of the summer did interviews, sold at fairs, and did whatever we could to get the word out. Though I never made a lot of money on the project, I broke even by the end of the summer.
I also learned a powerful lesson:
Being in control of your artistic destiny is heady stuff.
This was way back in 1996, when self-publishing was still a dirty word. I rarely told people I had paid for the printing myself – someone else owned the imprint, so who really needed to know that I had to foot the bill for production costs? I wasn’t ashamed personally, but I’d seen the stigma self-publishing carried with it. So, I reaped the benefits and kept my mouth shut.
Fast forward ten years. I went to grad school and got my MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine in 2005. Even then, self-publishing was still very much a dirty word – especially in literary circles. When the tide began to turn around 2010, I watched that shift eagerly. I had a novel I’d been working on for years, and a whole series of novels to follow that one. I pitched it to two agents, who were enthusiastic but said that the mystery market was just too crowded right now. I never sent it to a single publisher. Instead of spinning my wheels trying to convince one of the big six that I was worth the risk, I spent that time cultivating an online audience, honing my craft, learning the business, and developing a marketing strategy.
I released the first novel in the Erin Solomon series in mid-February of 2012. Since that time, I’ve gotten (to date) sixty-two Amazon reviews, with an average of 4.7 stars. During my first two-day KDP Select free download days, 33,100 people got the book. I hit #1 in Mystery/Suspense and #1 in Women Sleuths and #3 overall in the Kindle/Unpaid store, and then — much more exciting to me — managed to snag the #5 spot in Women Sleuths and #11 in Suspense in the Kindle/Paid store after the promotion was over. Though I’m hardly rolling in cash, I still made more money in the month of June from ebook purchases than I’ve made in a month’s time at any “real” job I’ve ever had. And now, four months later, I’m ready to release the second novel in the series. If I were with a traditional publisher, I would be biding my time for the next year and a half to two years, waiting for that next release date to roll around.
To me, going indie has nothing to do with frustration with traditional publishing or a lack of talent on the author’s part, and everything to do with understanding that you as a writer are always going to be more knowledgeable about what you write and who you write for than a third party with only a (relatively minimal) financial vested interest in your success. That’s not to say I’m against traditional publishing – on the contrary, I think it’s swell for the one-percent of writers out there who actually earn a fabulous living from it. For the rest of us, how refreshing is it to know that in this brave new world, we are the ones responsible for writing great material, finding our audience, and putting that great material in their hot little hands?
Jen Blood is author of the Amazon bestselling mystery All the Blue-Eyed Angels, free for Kindle on July 3rd and 4th. Her second novel in the series, Sins of the Father, will be out this week. She also does social media consulting for authors, and reviews mysteries and thrillers for Awesome Indies and her own website, http://bloodwrites.com/.