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December 20, 2010
By Natalie Danford
Six authors who have gone from self-publishing to a major house discuss how they made the leap and the differences between the two.

With self-publishing increasingly accessible and publishers always looking for a sure thing, the number of authors who start out by publishing their own books is on the upswing. Bowker reports that in 2009, non-traditional channels (including self-publishers and micro-publishers) were responsible for 764,448 titles. Based on 2009 statistics, Bowker expects books from nontraditional channels to outnumber those from mainstream publishers by three to one in 2010. Yet the mainstream still offers a few things that self-publishing cannot. Six authors who have gone from self-publishing to a major house discuss how they made the leap and the differences between the two.

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

What's the difference between self-publishing and having a book handled by a mainstream house? Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, author of the April Ballantine paperback Broken Promises, says, "Well, it's the difference between crashing the party at the castle and arriving in a coach made by one's fairy godmother."

Hoffman hastens to add that iUniverse, the service she used to self-publish Broken Promises (under the title In the Lion's Den), selected the title for its Editor's Choice and Rising Star lists, and, she says, "iUniverse was consistent, kind, and encouraging, but working with Random House is utterly different. The manuscript is no longer just words on a page, but something I am sharing with others who feel as passionately about the characters as I do and are able to make the book visible to a vast readership."

Hoffman began writing the Civil War novel while teaching in Ireland on a Fulbright, and she had two different agents for the finished manuscript, neither of whom managed to place it with a publisher. When Hoffman read a New York Times article about self-publishing, she says, "I tamped down my pride (as a Harvard University Press nonfiction author) and signed on for what I once thought was the last refuge of the vain."

She continues, "I wrote to a few authors asking for blurbs, and Joseph Ellis replied that he agreed that self-publishing was the ‘last refuge' and so, although he wished me well, he could not write a blurb. I thanked him for his kindness in responding and sent him a few chapters anyway. I was astonished to get another e-mail from him a week later with a very enthusiastic endorsement." The novel also won a Director's Mention from the chair of the Langum Prize (as a self-published book, it did not qualify for the main prize) and the San Diego Book Award for Best Historical Fiction.

Still, the author had all but given up on finding a mainstream publisher when a friend introduced her to agent Michele Rubin at Writers House. Within a week, Hoffman had signed with the agency, and within a month signed with Ballantine.

Broken Promises isn't the first self-published book Ballantine senior editor Caitlin Alexander has acquired. Alexander observes. "Self-publishing is not a substitute for writers honing their craft, though—they should be working with critique groups and freelance editors and attending writers conferences to get feedback on their work. But for writers who have done all of that, and perhaps even had agents shop around their projects unsuccessfully, self-publishing can serve as an effective test case to demonstrate that there's an audience for the book and that the author is someone who can promote his or her work effectively—a skill that's increasingly crucial for all authors in this age of social networking."

Vince Flynn

Vince Flynn's American Assassin, published by Atria in October, is his 12th book and his 11th featuring CIA super agent Mitch Rapp. It comes with the full publishing machinery behind it, as is only appropriate for the work of an author who has consistently hit national bestseller lists (after debuting at #1, Assassin as of December 13 had run for eight weeks on PW's Fiction list).  But it wasn't always so.

Flynn says self-publishing was his "backup plan" from the time he began to write, not as an end to itself,but as a way to draw attention to his work. His first book received rejections from more than 60 publishers, agents, and editors. Eventually, fed up with the process, he fired his agent, withdrew the manuscript from the few houses that still had it under consideration, and began his writing career by self-publishing Term Limits in 1997 and selling the books himself.

"Look at how the music industry is run, or professional baseball," he says. "Very few people go straight to the big show. Most of them have to prove themselves in local markets first." In three weeks, he sold 2,400 copies.

Flynn recalls, "When the book was #1 on the local bestseller lists I started cold-calling agents in New York. I narrowed the list to four. One of them declined, and three days later I decided Sloan Harris was the clear-cut choice. He put the book out for a weekend auction, and Emily Bestler swept in and made three bids on Friday. All of the publishers were in Frankfurt, which added to the hectic feeling, but Emily kept pressing. When she raised her offer for the third time, she told us the offer was good for 15 minutes. We thought about letting it go till Monday, but in the end wisely decided to go with Emily." Flynn has gone on to publish all of his books with Atria and Pocket. Sales have increased from book to book.

For her part, Bestler, Atria executive editorial director, recalls, "Sloan Harris at ICM sent me Vince's first thriller, Term Limits, after it had been turned down by basically everyone else in town. I read it and adored it and the rest is history." She notes that she currently has two other previously self-published authors on her list. "Self-publishing is a path a number of writers take each year," she says, "and thank goodness, because otherwise we might never hear of them."

Cathie Beck

A book critic and columnist who has published work in such magazines as Glimmer Train and Zoetrope, Cathie Beck wrote her sassy-yet-moving memoir, Cheap Cabernet, a decade ago. She wrote and revised the book, and her then agent submitted it to publishers, who inevitably made suggestions for Beck to rework the manuscript. So she did. But the sale that seemed so tantalizingly close never materialized. Beck says the process was akin to "tearing your skin off with no anesthesia."

For 10 years the manuscript sat in the proverbial drawer, and then Beck read an article about an author who had self-published and won a few awards. Beck knew her book was publishable, and sensed she could do a good job of promoting it. (Indeed, she now estimates that "2% of this book's effort was in the writing, editing, and rewriting; the other 98% is what I'm doing right now.") Beck recalls she thought, "What if I treated it like a small business and just did an exhaustive marketing campaign online, and I got everybody to buy the book one day on Amazon so sales rankings would go up, and I created buzz around that and put that buzz in front of agents and publishers?"

Beck dedicated five months to the project and finally settled on Amazon's print-on-demand arm, BookSurge (now called CreateSpace). In October 2009, she published the book, driving up Amazon sales as planned. Flush with that success, she let the book make the rounds of publishers one more time, and an auction ensued. The victor, Hyperion/Voice, published Cheap Cabernet in paperback in July.

Barbara Jones, editorial director of Hyperion and Voice, says, "When Dorian Karchmar at WME sent Cathie's Cheap Cabernet, noting that it had been a ‘heat seeker' on Amazon, we noticed several factors that would make it a great book for Voice. Not only was it a true, stirring, spitfire of a story about female friendship but her entrepreneurial chutzpah had made it a success even in its self-published form. In every way, in text and in entrepreneurship, this is the story of a woman who makes things happen for herself."

Hilary Thayer Hamann

Unlike most self-published authors, Hilary Thayer Hamann didn't turn to self-publishing after a round of rejections from the traditional publishing industry. Instead, after she finished writing Anthropology of an American Girl, which she describes as "a coming-of-age story set against a broader cultural investigation," she and her former husband decided to publish it themselves through his specialty print and design company.

"When the book was printed" in 2003, Hamann says, "we got some interns and sent it out—to everyone. It got excellent reviews and great feedback from booksellers and readers. It quickly took on a whole new weight, and demanded a staff to meet demand, sell-through to stores,  build new relationships with the media. In the meantime, I was trying to write my own books and publish other people's work. It was all beyond our capacities, and eventually, we had to close the [publishing] company" set up to publish her book and a couple of others.

Finding backing from a major house was almost accidental, says Hamann: "A week after I closed the company, I received an inquiry from a major film company about the rights to the book. I met with a producer who'd read the novel and loved it. Though nothing came of it, she encouraged me to seek a second publishing life for the book, which had never occurred to me." Hamann quickly acquired an agent, Kirby Kim of WME, who equally quickly sold the book to publisher Cindy Spiegel at Spiegel & Grau. The house will publish it in May.

Spiegel doesn't see the number of self-published books crossing over increasing appreciably, but she does have another in the pipeline, this one by the son of the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, John Moynihan, died from an allergic reaction in his 40s. Spiegel explains, "His mother, Elizabeth Moynihan, going through his papers, found his senior project from when he was a student at Wesleyan. Liz designed and printed 100 copies of the book as a tribute to her son's life and gave them to her friends. One of them was the cousin of a friend of mine—that's how it happens."

Stanley Gordon West

Stanley Gordon West was no neophyte in the publishing world when he wrote the book being published by Algonquin in January under the title Blind Your Ponies. Not only had his first novel, Amos, been published by a New York publisher but rights had sold to CBS and Kirk Douglas. But by the time West finished his next manuscript, his agent had retired from the business, and he could find neither representation nor a publisher that was interested.

That second book was based on West's time at St. Paul Central High School in Minnesota in 1949. One former classmate read it and passed it on to another, and several of his fellow alumni encouraged West to publish the book himself. He spent a year planning the launch. He hired a graphic designer to create a cover, and ordered 3,000 copies in May 1997. The book went on to sell more than 40,000 copies.

Like many self-publishers, West did back-breaking work, and his efforts had a snowball effect. "I found a distributor in Minneapolis, the Bookman," recalls West. "They liked it enough to stock it for six months. I put a pile in the trunk of my car and began hunting down every bookstore in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. I met with some booksellers who were ho-hum, but others who showed a real enthusiasm, not the least of whom was the regional buyer for Barnes & Noble."

West wrote two additional novels set in St. Paul during the same era and two others set in Montana, where he lived, including Blind Your Ponies. In total, his six books have sold 153,351 copies.

In the summer of 2009, West continues, "Amazon contacted me and wanted to buy and feature one of my books because so many Amazon readers were reading it and raving. That started a buzz, and several publishers got in on the bidding for the rights. After 13 years, Blind Your Ponies will be published by a major house. I was as surprised as anyone."

Algonquin executive editor Chuck Adams says, "Because Algonquin is one of the few houses that still accepts and reviews unagented material, we have always gotten a fair number of self-published books for consideration. Because of the ease of self-publishing, I suspect we are seeing more of them, and because also of the improved quality of many of these books, we probably give them closer scrutiny than in the past."

Peter Merry

Wedding planner Peter Merry became interested in writing a book about weddings out of frustration with what was available to him and to his clients. "Every time I would go to the bookstore to see what they were saying about my line of work, I'd notice that everyone was telling brides and grooms how to create an image, but nobody talked about atmosphere."

Working from notes that he had written for a 1999 seminar, Merry initially created a fold-over booklet to send to clients. He sharpened the image by adding a photo of a bride on the cover, and then over the next seven years he occasionally worked on the text. A Learning Annex class with Dan Poynter motivated him to finish it as a book, including chapters on setting the pace and making a grand entrance.

Merry self-published The Best Wedding Reception... Ever!: Your Guide to Creating an Unforgettably Fun Celebration in paperback. He began with 1,500 copies, then ordered 10,000 copies and placed the book on Amazon, though most of his sales continued to occur at his speaking engagements and appearances at bridal shows. A few wedding vendors purchased caseloads of the book at a discount.

After selling the 10,000 copies, Merry put together a press kit detailing what he'd done with the book and what his future plans were and mailed it to six publishers that published wedding books.

In September, Sellers Publishing launched a $22.95 hardcover edition of Merry's book. The transition has been "a challenge," according to Merry, but extremely beneficial. He says, "They made it a much better book: it's full-color and hardbound, and it's got more professional, streamlined content. They also encouraged me to update and revise it, so it's more current."

Sellers senior editor Megan Hiller says, "It was clear right away that Peter had an original book idea for the wedding category. There are many planners and books that detail how to get the right look for various parts of your wedding, but there aren't books that tell you how to create a fun wedding. We already publish into the wedding category, so we knew this was an original idea."

"Even though the book is written specifically for brides and grooms," she continues, "Peter didn't have the contacts to place the book in traditional book markets and other retail outlets."

Hiller doesn't see the number of self-published titles coming in over the transom exploding, however, though she points out that self-publishing is "certainly easier now than it used to be, which means more authors are going that route." Clearly not all self-published volumes are right for traditional houses, she says, adding, "Very few have the right combination of ingredients to make them a book we would take on."