The pitch was strong: My first two novels sold 147,000 copies and my latest fiction was the newly-discovered memoir of the female lead in a hugely popular literary classic. So I wasn’t surprised that half the agents receiving the query wanted to read the book.
But my timing couldn’t have been worse. With the economy in freefall, book publishers were laying off employees and freezing manuscript acquisitions in expectation of cratering holiday sales for 2008.
My longtime agent had already declined to represent the new novel: “There are beautiful moments in the story, but I felt it would be tough to position in the market: Is it women’s fiction? Historical fiction? Romance?”
“You have a wonderful prose style, and tell your story with a quiet grace that is quite wonderful,” said another, whose agency also reps many brand-name authors.
“I’ve held off writing to you because I was so tempted to take you on and give it a whirl,” said a third, whose latest discovery has been a fixture of the New York Times’ bestseller lists since July 2008 and has yet to be published as a mass-market paperback.
But despite the compliments, all of the agents I queried reached the same conclusion in the end: no deal.
Once upon a time, a similarly disappointed novelist had only two choices: sending out another round of queries or putting the manuscript on the shelf. But when the last rejection arrived in early 2009, my husband reminded me that the digital world now offered a newly-practical third way: “Publish it yourself.”
Not long ago the idea of self-publishing would have been unthinkable, the province of affluent egotists for whom the term “vanity press” was coined or the dead-end of desperate wannabes who simply couldn’t accept the judgment of acquisition editors. But my first seven novels had garnered respectable notices, including a coveted starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, and innovations in print-on-demand manufacturing, growing markets for e-books, and multiplying channels for Internet distribution meant the cost to publish my new novel wouldn’t break the family budget.
However, what proved decisive were the terms of Google Books’ proposed settlement with the authors of copyrighted works that the company digitized without permission: returning my backlist to print at a price of Goggle’s choosing for an upfront payment of $60 per title and 37 percent of sales.
In quick order I founded my own micro-publishing house – Straight Up Press – and developed a business plan: a one-year experiment to test the market for a new novel by an unknown author backed by minimal, Internet-only marketing. I spent four months designing the book inside and out, everything from the trim size and text fonts to the front cover illustration and back cover blurb. Then on July 14, 2009, at a cost of $384.29, My Phantom: The Memoir of Christine Daaé went live on Amazon.com as a print-on-demand trade paperback and Kindle ebook authored by Anstance Tamplin, a pseudonym borrowed from my great-great-grandmother who in the 1830s set sail from Bristol, England, to seek her fortune in the new world.
The marketing plan for My Phantom was simple, starting with an email announcement to family and friends, people who’d reviewed or tagged a Phantom of the Opera product on Amazon, Amazon top reviewers whose profiles suggested an interest in Gaston Leroux’s original, and individuals who’d self-identified as “phans” on Phantom of the Opera fan sites: 2,642 individuals in all. I posted a similar announcement on 14 message boards focused on fiction or the Phantom of the Opera. Another email announcement went to 106 book clubs, offering free copies of the novel in exchange for a review – pro, con, or indifferent – from each club member on Amazon. Lastly, I created a Facebook page for Anstance Tamplin and built a website offering novel’s first chapter, a reading group guide, and separate pages featuring music and paintings from the book and photographs and history from the Opera Garnier in Paris.
During the one-year experiment, several other marketing opportunities arose. In September 2009, Anstance Tamplin was interviewed by the hosts of All Things Phantom, a weekly show on www.blogtalkradio.com, and in March 2010, she announced a price cut on My Phantom ebooks on message boards devoted to digital books. Around that time Amazon teamed up with wholesale distributor Ingram to make the paperback available to booksellers and other retailers throughout the U.S., and I prepared a ePub version of the digital book for sales to online ebook retailer Kobo and the iBookstore.
My Phantom broke even in early May 2010 and continues to sell about 12 copies * each month. The first order from a bookstore came in April 2010, and on the one-year anniversary of the novel’s publication four bookstore orders arrived. To date, about one-third of the sales have been ebooks and two-thirds paperbacks. With zero effort on my part, the online stores of Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and Powell’s Books have the paperback in stock. And Kobo’s ebook version is also available at Borders online.
Book clubs proved to be the biggest disappointment and a waste of $79.83 because only one of 15 promised reviews has shown up on Amazon to date. But the book’s warm reception from Phantom phans has been an unexpected pleasure.
“I give this book 5 stars because it brought me joy, laughter, love, a new vision on two well-known and loved characters, and last but not least, I felt I was there, witnessing the interaction between the characters,” wrote Dominque in her Amazon review before friending Anstance on Facebook.
“Finally, Christine comes to life with a voice of her own, whose growth we can clearly see and whose sincere love for two very different men can be believed and understood,” wrote Cen in her four-star review on Goodreads.
Overall, reviewers have given the book 3.5 stars on Amazon and 4.25 stars at Goodreads.
From the outset I recognized the major drawback of going-it-alone: forgoing an advance which would have underwritten my current fiction project. But along the way I discovered another. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, editors provide essential support that a writer forgoes at her peril. I missed brainstorming with an acquisition editor to improve my story, and I missed having a copy editor to catch my mistakes.
Obviously, self-publishing is not the road to bestsellerdom for a no-name author, and for a professional writer who expects to be paid for her work, it’s not much of a paycheck. But for thousands of writers who hold the rights to their out-of-print titles, self-publishing is an easy and inexpensive way to make their backlist evergreen as print-on-demand or digital books.
And so Straight Up Press has just launched another, open-ended experiment that will soon have my first seven novels on the bookshelf alongside My Phantom: The Memoir of Christine Daaé.
* UPDATE: March 22, 2011 — During the holiday season at the end of 2010, sales of My Phantom doubled to a pace of 25 to 30 books per month, with ebooks accounting for 100 percent of the increase. That pace has not slackened, providing further evidence of the growing importance of ebooks in the publishing world.
Copyright 2010 © by Beth Quinn Barnard of text and photos. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.