Circumventing the Gatekeepers: PW Select Talks to Josiah Bancroft
I decided to self-publish 'Senlin Ascends' before I started drafting the novel. I’d spent the previous 10 years sending out queries and mailing blind submissions, and I was just tired of spending most of my time dealing with the gatekeepers. The decision was really liberating because I didn’t have to worry about negotiating with editors, or appealing to trends, or wooing agents. I could just sit down and write the story I wanted to write.In February, Josiah Bancroft self-published Senlin Ascends: Book 1 of the Books of Babel via CreateSpace. The book received a starred review from PW Select, with our reviewer saying, "Bancroft succeeds amazingly in creating a baffling world that offers little tenderness or hope, but in which pursuit of instinct and love, dedication, and shared sacrifice can overcome barriers. If he sustains the tone of quirky menace in his planned sequel, the reader will find much to applaud." We recently chatted with Bancroft about the changing nature of the book business and the importance of setting specific self-publishing goals.
Why did you decide to self-publish Senlin Ascends?
I decided to self-publish Senlin Ascends before I started drafting the novel. I’d spent the previous 10 years sending out queries and mailing blind submissions, and I was just tired of spending most of my time dealing with the gatekeepers. I wanted an audience, even a modest one. For all its difficulty, self-publication pretty much guarantees that: if you put it out there, someone will read it. The decision was really liberating because I didn’t have to worry about negotiating with editors, or appealing to trends, or wooing agents. I could just sit down and write the story I wanted to write.
Once you decided to self-publish, what was the process like?
I published first with CreateSpace/Amazon, and then later I put my e-book on the Barnes & Noble Store...CreateSpace and Amazon aren’t perfect, but I found them easy to work with. Most of the copyediting was done by my wife and a friend. The cover, which sells the book, was created by one of my oldest friends, Ian Leino. He’s a genius with design and has promoted the book tirelessly. I learned pretty early on that self-publishing can cost anywhere between “No Money” and “All of Your Money.” As of now, I have spent somewhat more than “No Money,” but a little less than “All.”
What were the biggest challenges with self-publishing?
Self-publishing is time consuming, and as someone who already has a full-time job, the process has eaten into my writing time. So, I have less time to write, and my motivation for writing is more complicated than it was before I self-published. I sometimes get distracted by questions of marketability and appealing to my readers, questions that never occurred to me while I was drafting Senlin Ascends. I have to turn off the marketing part of my brain and find a way to reengage my creative process, and that takes a muscle of willpower that I’m not accustomed to exercising.
What have you done to publicize the book?
I’ve tried a little bit of everything. I started a Facebook page, a website, a blog, a Twitter account, and a LibraryThing account. I purchased Google ads, Reddit ads, and Goodreads ads. I’ve run eight giveaways, contacted dozens of book review bloggers, queried dozens of professional reviews, contacted regional independent bookstores, and joined a few genre-specific forums. Ian Leino, the cover artist, has promoted Senlin Ascends at comic book and science fiction conventions. I’ve given away about 800 e-copies and 100 physical copies of the book.
What has the reaction been to your book now that you have self-published?
The response has been generally positive. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how broad the book’s appeal has been. I’ve received compliments from readers as young as 12 and as old as 80. I have readers who’ve never read a fantasy book, readers who are devotees of the genre, and readers who prefer literary work. That’s not to say that it appeals to everyone, but I’m encouraged by the diversity of my readers.
Looking back on your own experience, what are the pros and cons of self-publishing?
There are two levels of writers who have complete control of their vision: best-selling millionaire talents and self-publishers. I self-published Senlin Ascends because I didn’t want to compromise, and in that way, self-publishing has been perfect for me. On the downside, the self-publishing market is absolutely flooded. Tens of thousands of books were self-published in 2013. The same week that I published Senlin Ascends, 460 other writers self-published fantasy books on Amazon alone. Distinguishing my work from the crowd has taken a lot of work.
What advice would you give to other writers considering self-publishing?
It's really important that you have a specific goal in mind. A "wait and see" mindset will almost certainly end in disappointment because, while you may think that you’re publishing your book to see if there’s any interest, you’re secretly harboring unspoken expectations. Writers who say, “I’m self-publishing so I can share my book more easily with friends and family,” or “I’d like to sell 1000 e-copies” are more likely to be satisfied by the process than writers who don’t set a clear goal. That’s not to say self-published writers can’t aspire to greater success; they just need to be forthright so they can develop a reasonable plan for achieving their goal.
With more people self-publishing, do you see the lines between publishing and self-publishing beginning to blur?
I think that, for better or for worse, self-publishing will put a lot of mid-level publishers out of business and that will change how big publishing houses operate. Big publishers will focus less on discovering and fostering talent, and will become the marketing and distribution machines for authors who have already proven that a readership exists for their work through the self-publishing process.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on book two in the Books of Babel series. It’s entitled Arm of the Sphinx, and I plan on self-publishing it in 2014.