by Lyda Phillips
(Silver Spring, Maryland)
An author shares her experience of subsidy publishing with iUniverse...twice!
I never wanted to self-publish. I felt and still feel that I was/am on the bubble of getting a contract from a publisher or agent.
But in April, 2005, I went out to San Francisco for a reunion with my three best friends from college. I was whining to them about how I didn’t want to die unpublished, and how my last submission had taken one full year to come back to me with a form rejection.
At that rate I could definitely die without making more than a few more submissions.
The road to iUniverse
The very day I came back from California, I picked up The New York Times and read a long article by Sarah Glazer about self-publishing: how it’s changed, how it’s lost some of its taint.
It was pretty much a forehead-slapping moment for me. Here was a way to get my work out there. I was especially anxious for my young-adult novel, Mr. Touchdown, because it was the 40th anniversary of the desegregation incidents in the book, and I felt strongly that this book deserved the light of day.
Mr. Touchdown had been rejected 18 times, most of those before it was ready, although I had been too inexperienced to realize it.
Now the MSS had been revised three or four more times, until I thought it was close to as good as I could make it. But I felt that I’d shot my wad with most of the desirable publishers.
I realize now that there are a number of small presses I should have tried. You live; you learn.
Anyway, the Times article had mentioned iUniverse, so I checked around and ended up there.
Once I started working with iUniverse, I was pleased with how everything went. I signed up for the $899 package that included an editorial evaluation and was happy to get the Editor’s Choice designation on the first read, which they said is pretty rare.
I hoped this would help distinguish Mr. Touchdown from the vast number of self-published works that have little commercial potential.
iUniverse review - the second time
Then I decided to go ahead and self-publish another of my unpublished MSS, Peace I Ask of Thee, Oh River, which is about bullying at a girls' camp.
This one was fairly new; I hadn’t submitted it too many places, and maybe I should have kept trying. But it is based on some of my experiences at a summer camp in the Ozarks, and a big camp reunion, the first in 40 years, was being planned, so I decided to hurry up and publish it with iUniverse for that reunion.
Peace was rejected for the Editor’s Choice on the first go-round. While I could have used one of their editors, they didn’t push that at all, and I hired a freelance editor from the SCBWI list who had worked for a New York publishing house. She was good and helpful and, on the second try, I got the Editor’s Choice.
I hired my own cover designer, worked through the very easy and pleasant publishing process, and by July 29, 2005, Mr. Touchdown was in my hands. A month later, Peace was out.
In September, I went to Memphis, had a signing for Mr. Touchdown at Davis-Kidd, a popular independent bookstore, then sold out all the copies of Peace I had with me (35) at the camp reunion, with orders for more. In October, I was on the program at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville.
Since then my novels have been featured twice at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., on Memphis television talk show WREG’s Live@9, and at the Downtown Memphis Rotary Club; also the Children’s Multicultural Book Festival at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Writer Now Inde Pen Series at Karibu Books, and the Baltimore Book Festival. My books have been purchased by several public library systems and individual schools.
Peace won first-place in the 2006 Writers Digest International Self-Published Book Awards in the children’s/young-adult category and was also a finalist in the 2006 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award contest.
Mr. Touchdown won first-place in the young-adult category of the 2006 Writers Notes Book Awards and was an honorable mention in the 2006 Independent Publishers Book Awards in the multicultural juvenile fiction category.
In the Foreword and IPPY contests it was competing against small presses, like Brown Barn Books, so placing was a real achievement.
The awards have been a good way to promote my novels, but most bookseller and professional associations do not list winners of any of the contests I have won or placed in. Yet these contests are respectable and provide a way for independent and small imprints to distinguish themselves.
Even with the awards, the push-back on subsidy-published books is intense. The bottom line is that the self-published author has a daunting task in marketing. I have a background in journalism and PR, so I had a leg up on a lot of writers when it came to marketing, yet I’ve still been generally unable to overcome the bookseller's and reviewer’s resistance to self-published books.
I suppose here I need to make this distinction clear between subsidy publishing like iUniverse and forming your own company and imprint. I really can’t see much difference except in the amount of financial risk you’re willing to take and the time you are willing to spend on the business aspects of publishing rather than writing.
You can still self-publish a dreadful book under your own imprint — or a good one - just as you can with a subsidy publisher, who handles not only production but also lining up distribution with Ingram and Baker & Taylor and gets it up on Amazon and B&N, etc.
I prefer to write, frankly. Using iUniverse allows me to do that.
Anyway, this subsidy v. “real” self-publishing is a bitter, internal debate on listservs etc., and probably of little interest to anyone but self-published authors of both stripes clawing for higher ground. (Except that I think those “true self-publishers” are winning the debate and convincing booksellers and others that there really is a difference in quality. I don’t see it.)
As for calling one POD and the other self-publishing, that’s nonsense. Both use print-on-demand technology, almost universally through Lightning Source. In fact, some traditional publishers are also starting to use POD in certain circumstances.
In both cases, the author is footing the bill to see his or her book in print, and buying one’s own ISBN has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the product.
So, getting reviews was a struggle. But slowly, ever so slowly, I started getting real reviews in outlets that have some degree of respect - including Midwest Book Review and Children’s Literature.
That has perhaps helped more than anything else in easing my way.
As for marketing, I’ve had some successes, and it’s slowly getting easier. I am very close to selling 500 copies of Mr. Touchdown, which means iUniverse will reissue the book under their iStar imprint and put some of their own skin in the game.
One of the benefits of the iUniverse's iStar program is industry standard discounts and full returnability. That is one of the keys to self-publishing success. The non-returnablity is a killer.
The estimate is that only about 1 percent of manuscripts submitted to publishers are accepted, and that only about 1 percent of self-published books are commercially successful and/or picked up by traditional publishing companies. Frankly if my odds are 99-1 either way, I’d rather be out selling books and talking to kids than languishing in the slush pile in the corner of some office in New York.
So on the whole, I feel like I did the right thing by self-publishing the two novels with iUniverse. I was confident I’d written good books, and the awards validated that belief.
I had a background that gave me some chops in marketing. I have had a lot of fun at signings and festivals and schools and been touched and awed when people say they liked my books, or were moved by them, or learned something they hadn’t known before.
I’ve met a lot of other self-published writers who are very cool. I wasn’t looking for much more than that.
Nevertheless, for the two WIPs I have right now (both mainstream novels for adults) I will try to get an agent and go the traditional route.
In the world of writers, self-publishing is very controversial, and generally despised, but in the broader world of readers, hardly anyone cares. The problem is reviewers are part of that literary world, and without reviews you can’t get read, you can’t get into a bookstore, and you can’t get into a library without some monumental efforts.
And eventually the negative feedback wears down your self-esteem.
I have learned a tremendous amount in the past two years about the publishing industry—up close and personal. Since even mid-list, traditionally published authors have to work their tails off to promote their books, usually on their own dime, I will be much better prepared if I do succeed in getting a traditional publisher on this next go round.
More info on Lyda.
Read another author's iUniverse review
. This guy turned down a publishing offer, choosing instead to self publish!