Writers Who Rocked Self-Publishing
Catching up with three authors who made a splash in our pages
PW Select checks in with three writers who saw significant success with their self-published books.You’ve self-published your book, you’ve accumulated reviews, and now you’re ready for the next big thing. But what, exactly, is that next big thing?
For authors—self-published or otherwise—the job is never over. Old books need promotion, new books need writing, often at the same time. Yet often, the self-publishing scene changes from one year to the next. The rules and guidelines in 2010 are now obsolete.
Now, it’s 2014, with new technologies and promotional channels and services that can aid a writer. At the same time, there are so many writers out there, it feels nearly impossible to get noticed.
This month, PW Select checks in with three writers who saw significant success with their self-published books, to see what they’re up to today.
Russ Colchamiro is building a franchise. In 2010, he published Finders Keepers, a sci-fi novel inspired by the aimless limbo that often plagues young adults who have graduated from college, but haven’t yet settled into a career. The book received a positive review from PW Select, with our reviewer calling the book “a strong debut from a very imaginative writer.” Colchamiro is now returning to that world with Genius DeMilo and plotting the third, currently untitled book.
“I already know how the third book will end, and there are a half-dozen more plot points that will occur,” Colchamiro says. “That’s really empowering because it lets me write Genius DeMilo with a lot of confidence.”
He’s doing all of this while continuing to promote his 2013 book Crossline and balancing a full-time job and three-year-old twins.
“One of the challenges of being an indie author is that you have to constantly promote yourself because readers have so many choices,” Colchamiro says. “Every day new books come into the market, and you have to stay in the market. There are only so many hours in the day. But you have to keep going, keep going, keep going, because you have to engage with fans.”
But, he doesn’t have to go about it alone. Colchamiro is a member of Crazy 8 Press, a consortium of science fiction and fantasy authors founded in 2011. Collectively, the team has 30 titles, and its members cross-promote each other at conventions and through social media.
Colchamiro has noticed that it’s difficult for many writers to flip on the salesman switch. For sci-fi or fantasy writers, who attend conventions in order to turn prospects into fans, this can be a problem. “Working a booth requires a certain skill not every author is comfortable with,” Colchamiro says. “Many authors tend to be introverts, and they’re not comfortable selling themselves in an engaging way.”Colchamiro, who’s done numerous industry trade shows, emphasizes having a prominent display and a neatly laid-out book rack. “Potential fans come up to you, you need to talk to them in a way that’s like an elevator pitch,” he says. “If you can’t do that, it’ll be tougher to get them in.”
These are, of course, traditional sales tactics. But Colchamiro is also attuned to promotional efforts that work best in the digital sphere. He’s currently in the midst of a campaign for Crossline to rev up his fans. He commissioned an artist to draw portraits of the novel’s characters, which he’s releasing one by one on his site (and promoting on Facebook), along with behind-the-scenes notes detailing how he conceived of each character.
These additional efforts are necessary. The self-publishing landscape has changed drastically since Colchamiro first put out Finders Keepers, at the very beginning of the e-book revolution. “E-books were these things where people would think: eh, maybe, but I like books,” he recalls. “Now the e-book market has much greater influence on the overall market, where people are reading on their tablets instead of hard copies.”
It’s a scenario that can create opportunities, in that all writers have a megaphone, an easy route to fire off their magnum opuses via digital channels, but also challenges, in that when everyone has a megaphone, the audience gets overwhelmed.
“I do a lot of things you have to do in today’s market,” Colchamiro says. “You have to be on Twitter. You have to be on Facebook. Some writers I know are on Pinterest, but you can’t be everywhere because there are not enough hours in the day.”
Kevin Bohacz is in the middle of the best possible mystery a self-published author can have. At this writing, his two self-published novels—which received starred reviews from PW Select—have exploded on Amazon, both occupying slots on the e-commerce giant’s bestseller lists. Immortality, released in 2007, is a bestselling techno-thriller and sci-fi book, and ranks in the low 200s among all Amazon books. The sequel, Ghost of the Gods, released late February, was the top techno-thriller for March.
Great news for Bohacz, because who wouldn’t want to hang around a few Amazon bestseller lists? The problem is, he has no idea why. “I’ve done a lot of interviews,” he says. He mentions a major interview in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in early May about his two books: “I thought maybe that contributed, but none of these things were within days when the novel took off.”
Amazon, he figures, must have taken it upon itself to promote Ghost of the Gods. “They started promoting it as the #1 big techno-thriller, but that was after the take-off,” he says. And Amazon, ever-secretive about its marketing strategies, hasn’t said anything.
“It baffled me,” says Bohacz, “and I was really looking for the cause because I’d like to be able to repeat it.”
While Bohacz is having an easier time promoting Ghost of the Gods than he did with the initial run of Immortality, it’s largely due to factors that he doesn’t recognize and that seem, at this moment, beyond his control.
Last October, Bohacz told PW that the biggest problem in self-publishing Immortality back in 2007 was “Marketing... marketing... and, did I mention, marketing?”
At the time, self-publishing was just beginning to get beyond its association with vanity presses, and the market for e-books was still nascent. Amazon’s Kindle, for instance, hadn’t been released and even after it was, print was largely seen as a way to drive e-book sales.
“Initially I was selling more print than Kindle,” Bohacz recalls, “even a year later when the Kindle came out.”
Since then, the self-publishing market has changed, as have the tools that enable authors to promote their books. These changes are not necessarily for the better, Bohacz says. Amazon has discontinued many of the promotional tools, especially for print books, he used to push Immortality’s success when he first released it in 2007.
These days, Amazon has two major promotional tools. One is Kindle Countdown, through which an author can offer a discount for a set period of time.
“I did that two weeks ago to see what would happen with Ghost of the Gods,” Bohacz said. “It improved sales a bit. I sold more books because of discounts I made, but if you’re trying to make money, that’s not an easy thing to do” because authors can only run one deal during each 90-day enrollment period.”
He had no desire to use the second promotional tool: the giveaway. Amazon rankings are based on sales. Free books, by definition, aren’t sold, which Bohacz fears would hurt his rankings. “And the higher a book is ranked,” he says, “the more Amazon will merchandise it.”
But Bohacz has made efforts to promote his work beyond Amazon. He tries to garner reviews from trades with a lot of reach, like PW and Kirkus. “If you get a very good review from a respected source, other people can see [your book] is worth reading,” Bohacz says. And he hired a social media marketer to push his books—because the less time Bohacz spends on marketing, the more time he’s spending on writing.
He’s currently zoned in on two new novels: Dream Signs, which he expects to be out before the end of the year. This will be a thematic sequel to his first novel, Dream Dancers, published conventionally in 1993.
The second novel is The Bridge. “It is unlike all the other novels I have written, because it will draw on some events from my life,” Bohacz says. “It will be a highly emotional ride.”
Like many self-published authors, Tim Anderson had a problem getting noticed. He spent years pitching his memoir about living in Japan, Tune In Tokyo, before finally self-publishing it in 2010. The response, initially, was modest. He’d send out copies and the occasional low-profile review might drip in from time to time.
“It was a huge challenge,” Anderson says. “Especially with somebody who’s social media–challenged to begin with. It was really hard to get attention because so many bloggers are pitched. I spent the summer sending out books for review and got little return.”
In December 2010, PW Select reviewed his book—calling it “laugh-out-loud funny”—which caught the eye of an acquiring editor at Amazon, which then republished Anderson’s book in 2011 under its Amazon Encore imprint.
“They wanted to bring it to a larger audience, which was great because I hadn’t been able to find a very large audience,” Anderson says.
Anderson took his second memoir, Sweet Tooth (“Which is about my diabetes diagnosis and the simultaneous homosexual panic I was going through at the time”), to Amazon as well, knowing he had at least one publisher who would look at it. Amazon published that memoir in March 2014 under an imprint called Lake Union Publishing.
This created a small problem, however, as Amazon launched the brand so quietly that few reviewers know about it. “My PR rep has said that the few people she’s heard from have been confused about who Lake Union Publishing is,” Anderson says.
And while Amazon has a powerful distribution network, it’s often shut out by the one place Anderson would really like to see his book: actual bricks-and-mortar bookstores.
“They tend to have an anti-Amazon policy,” Anderson says. “That’s frustrating because that’s a lot of eyeballs that do not see Sweet Tooth anywhere unless they’re browsing Amazon. The [bookstores will] order it if you want to order it, but they won’t stock it and feed the enemy.”
Anderson saw this coming. He got a sampling of the bias during the initial run of Tune In Tokyo. Before it was picked up by Amazon Encore, Anderson self-published through the Amazon-owned CreateSpace.
“I reached out to my local bookstores in Greenpoint [Brooklyn], and they wouldn’t stock it or allow me to do a reading,” he recalls. “It was an Amazon entity, as they saw it, even though I was a local author.”
These frustrations haven’t stopped Anderson from hammering away at his keyboard. He’s written historical fiction under the name T. Neill Anderson for the book packager MTM Publishing. The four novels he’s written for MTM are horror narratives wrapped around historical tragedies: the 1900 Galveston hurricane, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s destruction throughout Georgia during the Civil War, the influenza epidemic of 1918, and the Ludlow massacre of strikers in 1914. It’s not the style of broad, comic writing Anderson normally does—and it was very much work-for-hire—though the job was interesting.
“I’ve always wanted to write for kids,” he says. “So it was a nice way of discovering that I could.”
Nevertheless, he’s back to his old ways, chipping away at a collection of travel stories about being a tourist “and how hilarious, awful, and transcendental it can be.”
Ryan Joe is a freelance journalist living in New York City.