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Adventures in Publishing: The Saga of Shamus

With my new book, “The Ruined Man,” coming out Friday I got a little nostalgic for my journey as a writer thus far. And though “The Ruined Man” is published by Michelkin Publishing, I started out in the self-publishing world over 10 years ago.

I began my journey into the publishing industry in 2006. I had written a book called, “Absolutely True Retellings: The Saga of Shamus.” It was a YA fantasy adventure heavy on the social satire. A lot like Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.  I wrote the entire thing out on legal pads sitting at coffee shops in Lubbock, Texas. I still write like that to this day except I write at coffee shops in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Shamus was the first novel I ever completed and as such, I thought it was one of the best stories ever told and I wanted the entire world to read it and love it as much as I did. I tackled the daunting task of copying everything I’d written into Word and passed it along to an English professor friend to edit it down.

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After that I tried tackling the even more daunting task of finding a way to publish my book and get it in the hands of readers the world over. Now keep in mind this was the end of 2006 and the first half of 2007. The publishing industry looked quite different than it does today. Self-publishing was basically unheard of and no one in the legitimate publishing industry took it seriously.  I attended seminars where I was told by agents and editors that if I decided to self-publish I would never be taken seriously in the publishing world. In short, I’d ruin any chances I had of becoming a traditionally published author.

Needless to say this terrified me. I immediately began researching how to get an agent, write a query letter and all the other hoops you have to jump through to go the “traditional route.”  As I said before, the publishing industry was very different ten years ago. Readership was declining and ebooks hadn’t become popular yet. As a result most of what traditional houses were publishing were novels ghost written for celebrities and books about wizards.  To complicate things further, traditional publishing houses weren’t taking on new writers like they had in the past. They tended to view unknown authors as a liability and any money spent on them was wasted. It didn’t take long to realize that even if I were to get the attention of an agent or the Big 5, they weren’t going to pay much, if any, attention to me. Marketing, promotion and getting people reading my book would all fall on me. So I said, “Fuck it.” If I had to do it all myself, I was going to do it all myself. I was done wasting my time trying any of the traditional methods of publishing either mainstream or independent.

Still put off by the stigmas of self-publishing, I started looking into vanity publishers and hybrid publishers. For those who may not know the term, a vanity publisher is a book publisher who will turn any manuscript into a book regardless of content or quality. A hybrid publisher combines elements of traditional publishing with vanity publishing. In both cases the services offered carried a hefty price tag that more often than not rose into the $10,000 range after editing fees, formatting fees, layout fees, cover design fees and a marketing package that was tagged on with the promise of helping you “promote your book.” These promotional packages mainly included kitschy bookmarks, flyers, fact sheets and the guarantee that the company would send a press release via spam mail to anyone on your contact list. I waded through countless offers from vanity publishers until I happened across a supposedly legitimate hybrid publisher called, BookPros.

Word on the web was that BookPros would only take on your project if they felt it was high quality and commercially viable. I submitted my manuscript and waited to hear from them. A BookPros representative called me a few weeks later. They told me they loved my manuscript and wanted to get started working on it immediately! I was stoked. I was elated. I was above the moon. The president of the company even got in on the call and told me what a wonderful author I was and that I was brimming with potential. I mean, what artist doesn’t want to hear that? BookPros went on to inform me that they worked closely with a professional marketing firm to promote myself and my book. I would be flown to their offices to undergo media training and the whole bit. At this point I was nearly in tears. This was everything I had been waiting to hear. Every naysayer could suck eggs, all my self deprecation would vanish in the presence of this all-powerful validation I received. My ego, properly inflated by all the flattery, agreed instantly. Then they told me all this could be mine for the low, low, discount price of $12,000. Didn’t take me long to say, “Forget that bullshit,” and resign myself to self-publishing.

Those early days of self-publishing were exciting and filled with promise, like when the bell rings on the last day of school and a summer of endless possibility is just over the horizon.  And believe me, the self-publishing sites creeping around at the time were definitely taking advantage of the doe-eyed authors lining up to be the next big thing. Because that’s what they were promising—no “promising” isn’t exactly the word. They never actually told anyone they were guaranteed to be a best seller; they just failed to correct everyone’s false impressions and hopeful delusions.

Back then, we thought that if we published through a self-publishing imprint like Authorhouse or Xlibris that our books were going to end up on the shelves of every bookstore from one coast to another. Our books would be on the shelves next to Stephen King, Clive Barker, James Patterson and Michael Crichton. We thought we were going to be able to proudly tell everyone in our lives, “I published a book. And you can go to Hastings (God rest its soul) and pick up a copy!”  We were wrong. Utterly and completely wrong. It came to light much later that few, if any, self-published books actually made it off the publisher’s website. Oh sure it was listed on Ingram and available for bookstores to order, but we didn’t understand what this meant. We didn’t realize that our books were being listed with everyone else’s books and that a floodgate had been opened, flooding an already struggling industry with thousands upon thousands of new books to choose from–most of them unedited, horribly formatted drivel with a terribly designed cover carrying price tags anywhere from $10 to $30. That was another thing we didn’t “get” at first. These self-publishers allowed us to set our own price and determine our own royalty payments. So the higher the cost, the more royalties we would receive. Have you ever seen a horribly designed paperback weighing in at 300 pages with a $30 retail price? I have. I’ve seen hundreds. Guess how many of them are the next big thing?

After the truth about self-publishing came out the industry got an even worse reputation. All the wannabe authors took it personally and believe me, we were furious. Self publishers were likened to charlatans selling snake oil and empty dreams. And in their ivory towers, the Big 5 sat smirking, thinking they had weathered the storm and would once again rule the roost. Turns out they were wrong, too. But hindsight is always 20/20.

During all of this, I chose Lulu as my self-publishing provider. Back then, they didn’t seem as plastic as the other self-publishing sites. They also had rigorous standards for including books on their global distribution lists. Authors could publish anything they wanted on Lulu’s site, but if it was going to Ingram it had to be considered “industry standard.” I had to submit my book for approval and have it evaluated. This added a level of legitimacy I felt the other places lacked. So I began the laborious process of putting together an industry standard book.

At the time I was working as an ISS teacher in Lubbock which afforded me ample time to work on formatting, editing and designing The Saga of Shamus. I worked on it for at least 8 hours a day for six months straight. When I wasn’t working on the book I was researching industry standards and practices trying to figure out how to get seen in the flotsam of self-published garbage that had washed up on literature’s shores in the past few years. I was proud of my book, after all. I still am I believed in it. I thought it was worthy of recognition (and I still do). I wanted to find some way—any way—to get it in the hands of people who would read it. Social media really wasn’t a thing yet so I had to get creative with my promotional opportunities. Naturally, for an author, the first thing that comes to mind is a book signing.

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Alas nothing was sacred in the self-publishing industry and seemingly overnight it was awash with authors clamoring to do book signings.  You couldn’t walk into any Hastings (God rest its soul), Barnes and Noble, Boarders or even down the hall of a shopping mall without coming across a self-published author peddling his books. So I jumped right in and starting slinging books with the best of them.

That experience was…ultimately an exercise in humility. People walked by purposely avoiding eye contact as if I were a bum asking for spare change. The few that did stop did so out of pity or mild interest as if I were a disabled bum asking for spare change.  And the rare few who left the table with a copy usually ended up leaving it elsewhere in the store as if I were a Jehovah’s Witness handing out Watchtower pamphlets.

But that’s not to say all of it was bad. Sitting at those folding tables with copies of my book fanned out before me filled me with pride and even a sense of accomplishment. I had done what I set out to do. I self-published an industry standard book. I took control of marketing and promotion, and even if it weren’t some nationally recognized book tour; I got out there. I met people, talked to them, told them my story and did it all with a smile on my face.

My best book signing event took place in Datil, New Mexico of all places. Datil is so small that calling it a town is being dishonest. Most of the people in the area are ranchers and live a much slower paced life than their city dwelling brethren. I had gotten some illustrations done for Shamus by an artist who was from the area. When word got out that she had done illustrations for my book, the library emailed me and asked if I would be available to do a signing during their upcoming library hootenanny. I readily agreed. It was an experience unlike any other.  There were more people there and interested in my book than at all my other events combined. I sold all the copies of my book that day while a band played country music in the next room.  I even received my first fan gift: a small pink elephant made of glass. The context makes perfect sense if you’ve ever read The Saga of Shamus (hint, hint).

To be able to move a complete stranger with something I’d written made the struggle worth it. In the end, that’s what I took away from my adventures in publishing Shamus. When you really get down to it, we aren’t writing for ourselves. We are writing for the world. For our audience. And when we meet that audience face to face and interact with them–when we see the admiration and appreciation in their eyes a writer can’t help but walk away thinking, “I did something right. Something good. Something other people enjoy and are inspired by.” And that, friends, is what it is really all about.

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