Self-publish or Perish

By Scott Nicholson

I’m one of those writers teetering between two worlds. I was inducted into this writing game with the typical professional mantras: Write what you know; never pay an agent to represent your work; never self-publish.

About 700 rejection slips later, I sold six mid-list mass-market paperbacks. Some sold well, got award notice, and earned fans; others faded with barely a trace. Somewhere along the way, my career lost its momentum. I am captain of the ship, so it all starts with my lax hand on the rudder.

After parting ways with my agent and going several years without a book sale, I was at a crossroads. Giving up wasn’t an option, since I’d been writing new novels, screenplays, comic books, and short stories and had a mountain of material. I queried a few agents and publishers and found the industry had changed a lot since I broke in—now not only did industry professionals takes six months or more to respond, they often didn’t bother to reply at all.

I’d followed the developments of the Kindle, but I was still too doped from my industry indoctrination to seriously consider self-publishing. Every professional writing organization I’d ever been in had a list of "approved publishers," and you couldn’t call yourself a "professional" unless you sold a book to someone on the list. It didn’t matter that some of the publishers on the list might only pay a $500 advance, and that you might earn $20,000 from selling the book yourself—it’s shunned within the tribe.

After I got the rights back to my first and best-selling novel, the supernatural thriller The Red Church, I kicked around ways to get it back out to the public. All of them looked difficult or costly, and I know I didn’t want to print a garage full of books and drive around servicing commission accounts of two or three books per store. Luckily, the e-book phenomenon was taking off, mostly in the underground, where independent authors could release books with little overhead. Amazon also made it very easy to publish e-books, and even set up paper books through its print-on-demand press.

After a little research, I put out a couple of e-books on Amazon, including The Red Church and some older story collections. To my utter delight, the novel quickly reached a new audience and sold steadily. It sold so well that I predict I will earn more from it this year than I did from its original advance paid by the print publisher. After a couple of months, I released The Skull Ring, a psychological thriller in which a flawed heroine is targeted by a sinister cult. The novel always seemed to slip between the cracks and had been around for a while, but never got shopped. Today, with the click of a few buttons, I can send it on its merry way to e-book audiences in multiple platforms and formats.

I never dreamed I’d self-publish, much less release an original novel. I had to step out on the tightrope and realize no one—agent, publisher, or another writer—was going to save me. If I wanted a career, I’d have to risk it.

The mere act of taking action rejuvenated my writing, put control and outcome back in my hands, and opened an entire new world. The only limit to my growth is my ability to connect with an audience and please it. If readers like the work, they buy it and I write more books. Shortly after that second novel was released, I was contacted by an agent, and hopefully I will be releasing paper books through New York again. In the meantime, I am preparing two more original novels for release while working to get back rights to my older novels.

It’s a new era, and the old-school phrase "Money flows to the writer" can now be absolute—it doesn’t have to detour through agents, publishers, corporations, distributors, or bookstores. The successful writers of this new era will move in both worlds and take more responsibility for their careers, and they will choose their industry allies carefully.

In this new era, you can actually say "No" to a book offer—something nearly unthinkable a decade ago—because you know what your books are really worth. The audience tells you.

That sounds like a sustainable career move to me.

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Scott Nicholson is publishing books and comics though Haunted Computer Books, serving as U.S. imprint of Ghostwriter Publications. Check out their titles at http://hauntedcomputerbooks.blogspot.com. He has signed copies of The Skull Ring or Drummer Boy for $9.95 plus $2 shipping, as well as other books available through www.hauntedcomputer.com. His e-books The Red Church, The Skull Ring, Burial to Follow, Ashes, The First, and Flowers are available through Amazon and Smashwords.com. Digital comic books, including the Dirt and Grave Conditions series, are available through his Web site and DriveThru Comics. The novels Drummer Boy and Disintegration will be released in April and May 2010. For writers, he operates the freebie download manual at http://writegoodordie.blogspot.com.

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