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October 14, 2013
By Ryan Joe
Since the SPBE’s inauspicious beginnings, the self-publishing industry has nearly trebled, according to research released late last year from Bowker.

Brittany Geragotelis had every mark of the aspiring author: a will to write, six unpublished novels, and nine years’ worth of rejection letters.

When her agent—who hadn’t been able to sell her books—dropped her, she had a minor crisis of faith that resulted in putting her dream on hiatus. Six months later, when Geragotelis felt the compulsion to write again, she had a different understanding of herself: she would write simply because she wanted to.

Around 2009, Geragotelis volunteered with a friend at the Self-Publishing Book Expo, a nascent exhibition founded by two women who had more than 50 years combined experience in the traditional publishing industry. Geragotelis spent much of the time guiding audience members into rooms where panels were held, giving her the opportunity to listen in.

“It was so inspiring to me, for someone who’d just been told No and You’re not for us, to see other people who’d taken their dreams and their career into their own hands,” she recalls.

When Geragotelis returned to the SPBE last year, much had changed. Her YA novel Life’s a Witch, self-published through an online author platform and reader community called Wattpad, had garnered 13 million readers. Off the strength of that book, she’d signed a three-book six-figure deal with Simon & Schuster. And Geragotelis returned not as a volunteer but as a speaker.

Planting the Seed

"It was so inspiring to me, for someone who’d just been told 'No' and 'You’re not for us,' to see other people who’d taken their dreams and their career into their own hands."
On November 9, the SPBE will host its fifth show, this time at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City. The show is the brainchild of Diane Mancher, a 20-year veteran of the PR departments of traditional publishing houses. Mancher was freelancing herself when she thought of the conference as a way to publicize photography books.

“Then I thought, why limit it? It could also include cookbooks,” she recalls. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought I could broaden it out, include fiction. And the idea got bigger in my head. I thought about it on and off, but then I realized self-publishing is getting a lot bigger—it’d be great to have something big.”

She enlisted the help of her former co-worker Karen Mender, whom she knew from their time in the 1980s at St. Martin’s Press. Mender had also served as assistant publisher at Dell and HarperCollins, and had helped found the Simon & Schuster imprint Atria Books. Both women had noticed the numerous self-published authors that got no attention whatsoever, in part because they lacked basic information on marketing and publicity. “That was our vision,” Mender says, “to have a learning center where people could gather and mingle.”

Since the SPBE’s inauspicious beginnings, the self-publishing industry has nearly trebled, according to research released late last year from Bowker. Writers like Geragotelis who’d initially struggled attracting publishers’ interest have thrived as this explosion has changed the rules for distributing their work and finding an audience.

Pride and Prejudice

The fortunes of the self-publishing industry coincide with the misfortunes of the traditional houses. “It’s the last industry to go digital,” says Miral Sittar, CEO and founder of BiblioCrunch, an exhibitor at the SPBE. “Because of that it’s going through the quickest transition. There were overnight new companies popping up with new solutions while legacy publishers tried to hold onto the processes they were the original gatekeepers to.” One of these new companies is Sittar’s own, an online network that links indie authors with editors, designers, and other service providers.

Mancher felt the industry quake in 2009 as friends began to lose their jobs. Many publishing pros—particularly editors—went independent. At the same time, self-published authors began to seek out those people. “The two kind of met up,” Mancher says. “The smarter authors were availing themselves of help, and suddenly there was help.”

Nevertheless, the stigma against self-publishing was still pretty strong. Mancher and Mender noticed it when they tried to attract agents and representatives from traditional houses to speak at various SPBE panels. Many they solicited didn’t want to be associated in any capacity with self-publishing.

The common refrain from Mancher’s friends and colleagues was that indie authors were simply failed writers who couldn’t get book deals. These prejudices weren’t entirely unjustified. As a freelance publicist, Mancher had herself been approached by self-published authors in need of assistance. “I’d get the books, and they weren’t very good,” she recalls. “The covers were bad and they were poorly edited. I never took any of them on.” The only exception was If I Knew Then in 2004 by Amy Fisher aka the Long Island Lolita, which Mancher helped get onto Oprah.

Since then, the perception around self-publishing has shifted, and traditional houses have created their own divisions specifically devoted to self-publishing. Simon & Schuster has Archway Publishing. HarperCollins’s Christian division Thomas Nelson adapted its WestBow Press imprint into a self-publishing arm in 2009. And Penguin Random House launched Book Country in 2011.

Underscoring this shift, the keynote at the upcoming SPBE—which has doubled in size from 200 registrants when it started to 400 registrants today—will focus on how traditional houses view the rise of self-publishing, and will be delivered by Judith Curr, president and publisher of Atria.

“Now we have people coming to us, asking us if they can speak,” Mancher says. “If we say speaking slots are full, they ask about next year. And it’s people from traditional publishing.”

The Business End

Numerous factors have diminished self-publishing’s inferiority complex. On the one hand, the rise of digital channels like Amazon and social media have alleviated distribution and marketing headaches, creating more opportunity for readers to find what they like, and for authors to cultivate fans. And a large audience garners respect. Explosively popular writers like Stephenie Meyer, William P. Young, and Hugh Howey were picked up by traditional houses after self-publishing. Furthermore, major authors and personalities like Stephen King, Guy Kawasaki, and David Mamet have, for select projects, published independently. As more authors choose indie publishing, it’s increasingly difficult to fall back on the common refrain that it’s all about vanity.

But ultimately, the audience for indie books exists because the quality of those books has improved tremendously. While the influx of freelance, professional-quality services have helped indie authors turn out a premium product, there’s also a growing community of indie authors who tend to their work—which includes marketing, publicity, and sales as well as writing—with the attentiveness of someone building a viable career. And this seriousness generates respect.

“In the early days, [indie authors] had little idea this was a business they were about to go into,” Mender says. “They didn’t know how important it was to have editorial consultation, design, and a plan.” That may still be true today for some; Mender has found her fair share of self-published authors who don’t define their goals.

But goal defining played a large part in Geragotelis’s success. “The concern with self-publishing comes when people aren’t looking at it as a business in the same way traditional publishers do,” she says. “I look at my writing as a business. My brands that I’m creating—this is my business. I’m treating it the same way as if I were starting a restaurant.”

Half of the advance Geragotelis received from Simon & Schuster as part of her three-book deal has already gone back into her business. She’s hired an outside PR company and has funded some marketing efforts out of pocket. “Self-published authors have to continue to keep the same level of professionalism that traditional authors want to have,” she says.

Even the process by which Geragotelis wrote Life’s a Witch, the novel she published on Wattpad, demonstrates the intersection of writing as a passion and as a business pursuit. At the time, she’d been through enough frustrations with the traditional publishing industry and the constant stream of rejections. She wrote Life’s a Witch with the idea that she simply wanted to put her work directly into the hands of her audience, whoever and wherever they might be.

“I had been told traditional authors would never give away anything for free,” she says. “But I knew that if I adhered to those rules, I wouldn’t be hitting my goals. That wasn’t where I wanted to be, so what did I have to lose?”

She looked at what people were reading online and saw that it was paranormal romance—a genre that by happy coincidence she personally enjoyed. She published Life’s a Witch—a high school drama with parallels to the Salem witch trials— incrementally, uploading a couple of chapters at a time with two or three more always in the hopper.

“Writing and posting at the same time forced me to adhere to a schedule,” Geragotelis says. “When you have a day job, you have to carve out that time. I would write one chapter a week and post it up there every Saturday.”The comments from readers allowed her to focus the story and make modifications if something she wrote didn’t have the effect on her audience she was trying to create.

“It was a very interesting process because my main character is pretty and popular, but I didn’t want her to be a bitchy character,” Geragotelis says. “I had goals with characters. [The comments were] instant feedback on whether I was reaching my goals as a writer and hitting my mark on what I was hoping to create.”

In six months, she got six million reads. And in 18 months, she had 11 million and people began asking where they could purchase the entire book. Geragotelis chose Amazon’s CreateSpace for official publication in November 2011—and last July, after a multihouse bidding war, Simon & Schuster’s version of the book hit store shelves.

Future Proof

The maturation of self-publishing as a multidisciplinary practice, one that encompasses writing, editing, design, PR, and marketing, has created a need for know-how that’s more in-depth than the basics of, say, setting up a Goodreads profile. “There’s still a need for basic information,” Mender says, “but many more authors have become very sophisticated. They talk and mingle online, and lots have experimented with different marketing tools. They want more sophisticated information.”

One can see it in the types of panels now offered by the SPBE, which cover the gamut from legal matters to metadata. As authors take up more responsibilities, they’re quickly becoming publishing companies in their own right.

“The idea of calling this self-publishing after a while might not stick,” Mancher says.

The SPBE will be held Saturday, November 9, 9 a.m.–5 p.m., at the Hotel Pennsylvania, 401 Seventh Ave. at 33rd Street, in New York City.