My journey as an indie author has not unfolded the way I envisioned it. But that is true of my life in general! When I landed on the idea of writing a true memoir about the pandemic, An American in Pandemic Paris. A Coming-of-Retirement-Age Memoir (in contrast to Daniel Defoe’s imaginary A Journal of the Plague, which recounts detailed and sophisticated observations of a plague that occurred when the author was a child), I imagined I’d go with a traditional publishing house, the way I have previously. But those were scholarly, art historical works with limited readerships, and I envisioned this book (paperback) on the display tables of all airport bookshops. None of my academic press editors had any helpful leads. I was on my own.
I investigated methods of accomplishing this goal and discovered only two reasonable options: self-publishing or hunting for an agent. A few hours into my agent research, I felt like (here come the analogies) a deer in the headlights, Alice down the rabbit hole, and being sucked to the center of the earth in the ever-spreading quicksand of Desert of Maine, a place that struck fear into my heart every time my family drove by its advert billboard along Route 1. There were hundreds, thousands, of agents, each with their specialties, and a very unlikely chance of their responding to my queries, as I learned from joining the FB page “Authors in Search of Agents.”
Although I eventually embraced self-publishing, it was initially off-putting because I associated it with vanity publishing, where the author pays to have a book printed without any arrangement for distribution and sales. But nowadays, some indie authors rake in seven figures self-publishing, a clear indication that readers are finding their books. A seasoned editor with several indulgent editing and proof-reading friends, I suppressed my pride and dove in. It meant I’d have to grapple with choosing with whom to publish, but the field of choices, dominated by Amazon, was smaller and felt more manageable.
I invested a little time and money into game plans and timelines offered by experienced authors to help me organize the various steps, and I watched many Youtube videos to avoid pitfalls. I learned that reviews (by both professionals and customer-readers) were essential to success, so I reached out to a handful of women authors who write about France. One read an early draft and wrote a kind and encouraging missive, an excerpt from which appears on the back cover. Another suggested her British husband-wife design team, a wonderful and responsive pair whom I used for the cover design and interior formatting. I also contacted a small group of loyal friends who consented to publish reviews based on ARCs (Advance Review Copies).
Because it’s advisable to have all published texts professionally edited, I selected eight promising editors (specializing in history and who knew French/France/Paris) who assured me of their competency. I send each the same three pages, with a mix of French words, specific places, and a few built in mistakes, since I assumed the text was otherwise fine. The result disappointed. Two changed all of the verbs to present tense (I prefer tenses to accurately reflect their temporal position – i.e. past events in past tense), one, who’d never been to Europe, questioned my statement that no traffic circulated on the usually busy blvd Saint-Michel. Only one caught my built-in mistakes, and they were the only problems she noticed. As a result, I decided to go it alone, with the voluntary help of qualified friends. There are a few typos, but thus far nothing worse than in my professionally edited books.
An entire industry has sprung up to help indie authors – from ghost-writing to developmental editing and full-service marketing packages. One could easily drop a Tesla sum on a team dedicated to making your book a bestseller!
Decisions had to be made: go with Amazon, avoid it altogether (unwise!), or chose a hybrid publishing approach (‘go wide’), which is what I did. Amazon will distribute (although not privilege, unless sales so motivate) books published elsewhere, and that elsewhere is Draft2Digital, which now owns its biggest competitor (Smashwords) and distributes paperbacks and ebooks worldwide (Apple, B&N, inter alia) and lists its publications with IngramSpark, the catalogue from which independent brick&mortar shops order their inventory. Sadly, the economy of self-publishing (unmotivating profit margin, impossibility of returns) hinders bookshops from stocking such books. So, no airport bookshops for me!
There’s a daunting forest of possibilities for marketing – from paid ad campaigns (Amazon, Bookbub; books2read suggested a budget of $2800 for its service) to writing reviews of others’ books for points that then gets your book in a pool of books for others to review (pubby), as well as social media. A woman named Tina, with huge social media followings, will post your book with a buy link for small fees, a brilliant, monetized use of a commanding social media presence.
My favorite marketing strategy is www.shepherd.com, a new enterprise that I highly recommend to all readers and authors. They reach out to scholars who’ve published a book that catches their eye (for me it was my first book, Nationalism and the Nordic Imagination. Swedish Painting in the 1890s) and ask if they’d like them to promote it in exchange for something I enjoyed doing and that I find useful to others: select five books in the same thematic niche as your promoted book (for which one writes a short blurb) and write short explanations of why your recommend them. I found this fun, challenging (narrowing the field), and helpful to others, especially when I found my ‘to read’ list growing exponentially as I perused the ‘5 Best Books About’ offerings. Everything from ‘how governments collect and spend your taxes’ to ‘children’s books that adults will love’. Check it out. They survive by visitors clicking the buy buttons beneath the descriptions. Convenient for readers and profitable for Shepherd. Check out my “The best books about Paris for foodies and historians.”
While it might have been helpful to delegate the marketing bit—every bit as daunting as agent-hunting—I learned a lot doing it myself. Dos and don’ts. Should there be a next time, I’ll devote more energy to marketing and also leave a six month or more margin between receiving digital files and launching my book. This time, I was as eager as a toddler at Christmas. Still, for my next project—quite possibly Denmark and the Invention of Modern Happiness, a scholarly book I’ve been working on for more than a decade and which I may re-envision as historical fiction—I think I’ll give agent-hunting a go. I seem to have a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ personality!