Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Self-Publishing Success

I have repeatedly posted warnings on this blog to newbie writers about self-publishing.

The mistake newbies make is in assuming that a physical copy of their book is the end goal. They don't understand that creating a print copy is simply a step in the process.

The real problems begin when it comes time to market that print copy. Merely having a website on the Internet or a placement on isn't enough. You MUST have a way to drive traffic to your book.

Without major buzz, it is unlikely that people will flock to those sites in search of your book. More importantly, when you self-publish, you do not have access to the venues through which most new releases find homes: Libraries and large retail outlets like Barnes & Noble or Wal-Mart.

Some bookstores, under financial stress, are selling slots on their shelves to self-pubbed writers, meaning that now the "author" not only has to pay for the printing of the book, s/he is also paying for space in a bookstore.

Having said all that, I have also repeatedly indicated that self-publishing can be a viable alternative for non-fiction writers who are a part of a specific niche. Because they are connected to a well-defined segment of the market that is already interested in the subject matter, non-fiction writers have a potential leg up on sales.

Although the fiction market is divided into genres, it's tougher to harness that power because the market is so large and diffuse with many, many websites and social networking opportunities.

Even so, the New York Times had an article earlier this week about a self-publishing success. I thought it well worth the time to look at how it happened.

The book is The Shack, an inspirational novel written by William P. Young, an unknown author. Here is the Times' description of the storyline:
Early in the novel the young daughter of the protagonist, Mack, is abducted. Four years later he visits the shack where evidence of the girl’s murder was discovered. He spends a weekend there in a kind of spiritual therapy session with God, who calls herself “Papa”; Jesus, who appears as a Jewish workman; and Sarayu, an indeterminately Asian woman who incarnates the Holy Spirit.

God is an African-American woman in the novel who sends a note to Mack, inviting him to the shack.

Mr. Young admits to a painful background that includes childhood sexual abuse and marital infidelity. He says he wrote The Shack as "a metaphor for 'the house you build out of your own pain'."

He gave copies of the book to his family and friends who shared it with others. Eventually, he decided to seek publication of his novel.

Back on June 20, 2006, I did a post titled "When Should I Self-Publish?" here. I listed five reasons for writers to consider going the self-publishing route, including two that I thought were entirely legitimate professional reasons:
4) Niche Market: The writer has produced a work on a subject that is not commercially viable for a traditional publisher. There is a market for this work, but it is very limited in size or scope. This frequently involves academic works in some arcane subject.
5) Cross-Genre: The writer has produced a work that traditional publishers simply do not know how to market. This is usually a work that crosses multiple genres.

Here is the line from the New York Times article that I found most interesting:
[Young's writer friend] showed [The Shack] manuscript to several publishers, but it was rejected everywhere — both by Christian publishers, who found it too controversial, and secular publishers, who thought it was too Christian.

Eventually Young, his writer friend, and another former pastor decided to form their own self-publishing corporation. They sent copies of The Shack to "influential Christian friends," tapping into the niche market to which they were already connected. Word-of-mouth spread and book sales grew. People buy copies for their friends who, in turn, buy more copies for their own friends. It doesn't hurt that at, approximately 250 pages, the book is a fast read.

Last month, the Hachette Book Group USA, a division of Hachette Livre--one of the seven largest media conglomerates--signed an agreement to publish the book. With the advertising power and reach of a major publisher, The Shack's future is now almost assured.

Read the New York Times article here.

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