Why a best-selling traditional author chose to self-publish on the Amazon Kindle

slightly-exhausted-but-still-boyishly-optimistic

Slightly exhausted but still boyishly optimistic

A guest post by William Kowalski
This is a tale of two worlds, two centuries, two distinct epochs in the history of publishing, and one author–that’s me–who stands with a foot planted firmly in each age, a devil-may-care grin on his slightly-exhausted-but-still-boyishly-optimistic features, doing his best to appear as if he knows what he’s doing and hoping like hell no one figures out he hasn’t a clue. And it contains, at the end, an Amazing Discovery, certainly the most amazing discovery of my authorial career. So keep reading!

Our brave author–that’s me again–is heading out of the familiar and comforting land of Traditional Publishing, wistful for the old days but mature enough to realize that they are gone forever. He is striking out into the frightening wilderness of Self-Publishing, which is not only scary in and of itself but also seems to involve a neverending foray into the even more frightening world of The Internet, that vast space filled with pictures of cute kittens, videos of baby monkeys riding backwards upon pigs, and approximately 1.9 squillion other self-published books.

Wait! What? How did all this happen? How did this come to be? Our intrepid author (Hi!) remembers all too well the luminous glow that surrounded him during what he realizes now were the last days of a glorious age, in the final moments of the twentieth century. When he was just a stripling of twenty-eight, you see, he wrote a book, and some Important Publishing People said to him, “What’s that? You’re completely unknown, have no platform from which to promote yourself, might not ever produce a second book, and aren’t even thirty years old? Well, in that case, we’d like to dump this large bucket of money on your head.”

Well, said our author modestly, you may certainly go right ahead and do that.

He rather thought, in his youthful optimism, that things were always going to be that way. They say the worst thing that can happen to a man is to win a lot of money on a horse race at an early age. A similar statement might be made about young writers who publish the first novel they attempt to write. Our young author moved to New York and took up the business of living just like a Real Writer. It was great fun: cigarettes and smoky bars (you could smoke places then), cool artists, trendy openings, literary cocktail parties. Then came big box bookstores and the home entertainment revolution; then 9/11, George W. and his wars; and then the crash of 2008. All of it was reminiscent of a long, long water slide with no end in sight, and quite possibly no pool of water at the bottom, either. The publishing world, like so many other worlds, was essentially turned upside down and shaken like a snow globe.

Fast forward (that’s a VCR-related euphemism, soon to be meaningless to all but the toothless and doddering) to the present day. Our author is no longer quite so young, but is still incredibly good-looking, and his talent has only matured in the manner of a very expensive French cheese. (Or at least that’s what he tells himself.)

“What’s that?” say the Important Publishing People to him now. “You’ve published nine books, including one international best-seller, you have a global readership, and you’ve just finished a new book that critics and readers alike are hailing as not just Really Sorta Good, but also relevant to the pickle our modern society finds itself in? Welp, sorry, chum. We might be able to cough up a few bucks to print twelve copies of it, if you give us a year or two to think about it first. Then again, we might not. You’ll just have to wait and see.”

The Hundred Hearts

This book is available to buy, you know.

That’s the situation in a nutshell. My latest book, THE HUNDRED HEARTS, which is my ninth published title and my fifth work of what I refer to with eternal optimism as Literary Fiction, was published in Canada in 2013 by Thomas Allen Publishers. Just after it came out, TAP was promptly gobbled up by another house, whose job it then became to do all the things TAP was supposed to do–all the things publishers have historically done, such as, oh, I don’t know, SELL BOOKS.

Yet that didn’t seem to be happening. Why not? I don’t know. Neither does anyone else. One might be forgiven for getting the impression that publishers buy books these days not to put them out, but to suppress them. “We hate this book!” I imagine them saying. “We hate its guts. We detest it. So we’re going to buy it, and we’ll pretend to publish it but really we’re going to stick it under this rock here, and because we own the rights, the author won’t be able to touch it!” And they snigger and snogger and pat each other on their hunched backs before turning to their lunches of boiled child.

Well, no, they don’t do that at all. But really, when I got my last royalty statement and realized that the number of copies sold in the last sales period was lower than my shoe size, and when I got on the phone with my agent last week and further realized that the chances of an American publisher putting this book out any time before my children become parents themselves were about equal to Sarah Palin’s chances of being made an honorary member of Monty Python, I knew with a great and mighty knowingness that the time had come. If anyone outside Canada was ever going to read this book, it would have to be self-published.

Once I said the phrase “self-published” nine or ten times out loud in the mirror, it didn’t sound so bad. Not nearly as bad as the word “unpublished,” anyway.

Why not, after all? thought I. I know how to make websites. I know, vaguely, how self-publishing works. It’s no longer considered the domain of the hopeless crank, the type of person who still often buttonholes me at social events to explain the sheer genius behind their scheme of writing a ten-volume series of novels in which they never use the letter E. There are plenty of perfectly respectable writers who self-publish, and in fact there always have been. Perhaps it was my own snobbery that needed to be laid to rest. After all, I had nothing left to prove. I could boast publication by the largest houses in North America and the U.K. Even books I’d ghost-written under false names had been published by major literary houses. It was proof, to me if to no one else, that I could really write. That was something I could whisper aloud to myself as I lay in bed at night, staring up into the darkness, remembering the warm caress of the last rays of golden light as the sun went down on twentieth-century Manhattan. I would have to hold that memory close to my heart. Lord knows I couldn’t buy groceries with it.

The most painful thing was to admit that I really had nothing to lose, either. Despite stellar reviews, generous blurbs, and even some most welcome press coverage from the likes of Lainey Lui at LaineyGossip.com, THE HUNDRED HEARTS had only sold a double handful of copies in the land of snowy beaver pelts. If I sold even one copy anywhere else, it would be an infinite increase, percentage-wise, over previous non-Canadian sales, which were zero.

So, here I am. I’ve been wearing this new identity of Self-Published Author for precisely three days. It still feels strange, but is decidedly pleasant. I don’t know what the Other Writers are going to think of me now. Will they giggle into their hands as I walk by? Actually, I don’t care. Other writers don’t buy my books, after all. I strongly suspect they don’t even read them. Well, how could they? They’re too busy writing books of their own.

Most surprising has been the reaction of the people who do read my books. They seem even more excited by this venture than I. I flatter myself into thinking it’s because they are happy to have another book by me to read. Certain friends of mine have been urging me to self-publish for years, and couldn’t understand why I clung to the old ways as if they were a floating matchstick with the name TITANIC printed on it.

The fact is this: readers don’t care who publishes a book. They only care that they get to read it. That’s the Amazing Discovery I want to share. The imprimatur of the publishing elite is growing increasingly irrelevant. Publishers and authors once needed each other to exist. That is no longer the case. People will always want to be told stories. They will never care whose colophon graces the front page of a book. So guess who will still be standing when the dust clears?

I have plenty more to say about self-publishing, but that will have to wait for another post, perhaps. In the meantime, I have to send some emails out to reviewers, I have to finish converting the manuscript to yet another format, and I need to interact with fans on Facebook. Am I busy? Yes. Am I happy? Deliriously so.

Onward.

William Kowalski’s novel THE HUNDRED HEARTS is available through his website at WilliamKowalski.com or, for readers in the UK, directly from Amazon.co.uk either in paperback or Amazon Kindle edition.

This entry was posted in Literary agents. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Great post, William. Good luck with the book.

  • My God, someone actually read this! Hello, Emma, and thank you for your kind words.

  • Good luck, William! Yes, your email is being read!

  • You’re reading my EMAIL??? Who are you, Moira, the NSA?

  • Fantastic writeup that confirms what many of us have learned through other means. My favorite (Eureka) quote:
    “…readers don’t care who publishes a book. They only care that they get to read it.”

  • Great post. Thanks for the insight! I have been turning this whole “traditional publishing vs. self-publishing” dilemma in my head quite a bit lately, as I work to finish my first book. I appreciate the read!

  • Amy

    Awesome story, and perfect reasoning. Thanks for the lessons and laughs, and good luck!

  • Thanks, Eduardo. Like so many other breakthroughs I’ve had in my life, it seems like purely common sense. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never bought a book simply because of who published it.

  • I hope this is helpful to you, Elizabeth. I do not envy new authors who are trying to decide which path to pursue. The nice thing is, one way does not preclude the other. You can be both self-published and traditionally published during your career.

  • Thanks ever so, Amy. Glad you stopped by to read.

  • Pretty much exactly my experience here in the UK, having won an award with my debut novel fifteen years ago. Good post – though I think there’s probably room for both routes to readers? Publishers might still be the most effective route for certain books.

  • Katherine, I have no doubt that you’re right. For me, at this juncture, this was the right move. That’s not to say I believe everyone should do what I’m doing. I’m just grateful I live in a time when this option is possible.

  • Pingback: Routes to publication – writers share their thoughts | Write Edit Seek Literary Agent()

  • Stephen Mark

    For this relief much thanks, William. More novel, less grovel appeals more with each passing day.

  • Pingback: Why Authors Walk Away From Big 5 Publishers()

  • Kim

    So helpful! thank you. I’m split 50-50 on which way to go. thanks for your insights, and best of luck with your new publishing venture!

  • Jen

    Bookmarked this to my bookmarks bar. Most hilarious thing I’ve read in a long time (and I scroll through about 5 Buzzfeed “articles” a week). I was in a terrible mood this morning. Thanks for the laugh – and the info.

  • Shawna

    I know this is an old post, but I just found it. Entertaining and informative. I especially liked the bit about readers not caring who publishes a book. I’ve recently decided to take the plunge and self-publish (after not having much luck getting through the traditional gatekeepers and getting less interested in working with them anyway, due to some things I’ve been hearing).

    I sure hope the trend of quality writers moving to self-publishing continues, as it’s hard for a reader to find the good stuff amongst an awful lot of not-good stuff.

  • I believe the future will look back at the present as a time when there was actually a lot of good literary material out there, but much of it was being ignored by established avenues. Rare today is the Max Perkins or a Frank Norris. Of course, they were likely rare then too but now for financial reasons everyone already knows publishing houses are taking on fewer and fewer “sure bets.” This has resulted in a sameness in much of what is published today. My favorite contemporary author, Deborah Eisenberg, has often alluded to the fact that she is grateful she 1) has never worried about being published–she just writes and 2) did not come up through the traditional channels, i.e., a college literary program. And I think she is the freshest and most vital voice today, even if relatively few know her name. I can only sigh when I think what they’re missing without knowing it as they heap praise on the latest literary flavor of the month.

    I have just ordered The Hundred Hearts, and I am *not* from Canada! I found the preview promising and cannot wait to dig into this novel when it arrives. It appears to be one of those gems I alluded to, passed over for more “sure fire” prospects. Best of luck with your transition to self-pub. It’s looking smarter for more and more of us, as we can increasingly get much of the same publicity that The Big Boys promises, and with more control, too.

    Best,

    John Grabowski