Five Things I Learned When I Became My Own Publisher
In the long calendar of my life, 2018 was the year I seized my passion and ran with it. I published my novel “Beneath the Wild Blue” through my own imprint, Carpe Diem Productions. Publishing my own novel marked an epiphany, a shift in my world view. I stopped chasing traditional publishers, stopped querying agents, crafting nifty synopses, looking through Publishers’ Marketplace for writers who got advances and the agents who represented them. I’d played that game for a long time, and my losing streak was unbroken.
I live in flyover country. I don’t have an MFA in creative writing. “Beneath the Wild Blue” is the story of a family and its evolution before and after a great tragedy, within the structure of the military-industrial complex of the 1950s and 60s. The book has no shiny buttons, no psychodrama, little potential to become a binge-worthy Netflix series. In subject matter and setting, my is comparable to Pat Conroy’s “The Great Santini” and Sarah Bird’s “The Yokota Officers’ Club.”
My epiphany came at a local writers’ conference. I signed up to pitch my novel to an agent with a reputable New York agency, looking to build her client list. She was not yet thirty, with an impressive education, including an MFA from an Ivy League school and a stint at a venerated literary thinktank. By the time it was my turn to pitch, she was weary from the steady stream of writers eager to make the grade, but I was determined to awe her with a dynamic log line and, of course, my mention of comps by Pat Conroy and Sarah Bird. She was polite, but told me she hadn’t heard of “The Great Santini.” I thanked her and left her to listen to the next contestant.
At first, I was angry, but it wasn’t the agent’s fault. The story, setting, and subject matter of “Blue” simply didn’t interest her—she wasn’t passionate enough about it to sign me as a client and sell the work. She had plenty of new clients who needed book deals; she didn’t need a Baby Boomer debut novelist with a book outside her cultural radar.
I am a patient, resilient person with a thick skin, but on that day, I gave up my Quixotic quest for an agent. I could no longer stand to be that hopeful author/contestant, trying to convince someone else that my book was worth publishing. I’d paid my dues: a journalism degree, a long career as a technical writer, writing consultant, ghost writer, ad copy writer, editor, and free-lancer, some award-winning short stories. I wrote four (unpublished) novels, just for practice, before “Beneath the Wild Blue.” I am a voracious and critical reader. I belong to critique groups. I had beta readers. Kirkus gave me a good review. I knew “Blue” was publishable, but if it was going to happen, I would have to do it myself.
So I did. I was about a decade late to the fast-growing world of independent publishing, so I had to learn fast. My mind expanded as I discovered the generous community of writers/entrepreneurs who make decent money writing, marketing, and publishing their own work. They taught me to see “Blue” as both my product and my brand. I began to climb the steepest learning curve of my life. Along the way, I slipped a few times, but found footholds in five key principles that guided my journey from creator to publisher:
1. Produce a quality product. Invest in everything you can afford to make your book worth the time and money readers spend on it. Hire a professional to design the cover. There are plenty of resources available. (I chose https://99designs.com— discovered the delightful Dino Buljabasic, a cover artist who lives in Croatia.) Hire a content editor, a professional who can read your book and help you with structure, plot, pacing, and characterization. Hire a copy editor for grammar, spelling and usage. The Curiouser Author Network is a free resource with editors at different price points.(https://www.facebook.com/groups/CuriouserAuthorNetwork/).
Then, get at least two sets of eyes to proofread your manuscript. Find advance/beta readers who will read and comment before publication. (Enlist the help of a local book club. They might like being on the inside of book publication). Yes, these steps can take weeks, or even months, but chances are your book wasn’t written overnight. Give it the time and space it deserves to make it the best product you can.
2. Know who your ideal readers are and make friends with them before you try to sell to them. In my case, I found Facebook groups of military “brats” who were likely to identify with the subject matter of “Blue.” I was welcomed by several groups, but I was also respectful of their group rules. When it was time to launch my book, I simply posted a link and an invitation to check it out. The members of these groups were generous in buying and reviewing my book because they are military brats, a demographic hungry for fiction that reflects their experience.
3. Plan the book’s launch and usher it into the world with the best chance of success. There are plenty of online resources to guide you. Beware of vanity publishers, companies that will charge you thousands to edit, publish and market your book. Jane Friedman is the expert here. https://www.janefriedman.com/book-launch-plan/. Shayla Raquel has a great checklist for free: https://shaylaraquel.com/prepublishingchecklist/.
4. The platform is not your publisher. You are. Obviously, Amazon is the giant. If it’s your first book, consider “going wide,” ie: publishing with all the online platforms, including Barnes & Noble, Kobo, I Books, Smashwords. Investigate the royalties they offer and how the audience will find your book. Listen to free podcasters like Joanna Penn https://www.thecreativepenn.com/podcasts/and Mark Dawson, who has a whole course on Amazon ads. https://selfpublishingformula.com/category/podcast.
5. Own your entrepreneurship. After years of querying agents, this was a hurdle for me. I had to stop thinking of myself as a reject from traditional publishing and start thinking like a publisher. Because I had produced a quality product, I found my ideal readers who were eager to post five-star reviews. As I began to get good reviews, I gained confidence. Now, I represent myself to bookstores, media outlets, and readers as the real deal: writer and publisher. Author and entrepreneur. I’m at work on my next book, the first in a mystery series. I have my weekly writing goal, but I also make time to stay on trend with marketing and laying the groundwork for the series launch. In the meantime, I’m still earning royalties from “Blue.” I’m no longer hinging my own success on an agent choosing me. I’ve chosen myself.
Marian McCarthy is the author of “Beneath the Wild Blue” and the upcoming “Undertaken” series. For more information, visit https://marianmccarthy.com.