Saturday, October 08, 2005

"Self-Publish" Isn't Always a Bad Word

Whenever anyone asks me if they should self-publish, I always tell them no. There are numerous reasons why this is true, the all-encompassing one being a learning curve.

I believe that getting published is something you earn, not something you buy. Searching for an agent and an editor, getting rejected, learning about the business, understanding the importance of structure, rewriting, and editing---all of that helps writers grow. Plunking down 400 bucks for a POD press is like giving a ten-year-old a Driver's License. Things worthwhile in life should be difficult to acheive.

But there are exceptions. Sandy Tooley is one of them.

Sandy began her own publishing company, Full Moon Publishing, and she works harder than most writers who are published through the big houses. Her books are attractive, professional, and damn good reads.

I caught up with Sandy at a recent event, and asked her about what it takes to be successully self-published. Newbie writers take note--this is a far cry from Xlibris, and proof that there are no quick-fixes to making it in publishing.

JA: Tell us a little about your books.

SANDY: I combine mystery with paranormal, fantasy, a little sci-fi, and sometimes horror. My Sam Casey series features a Native American detective who can hear the dead speak. My Chase Dagger series (written as Lee Driver) features a hottie male detective assisted by an 18-year-old shapeshifter. She can shift into a hawk or wolf. Shapeshifting is part of Native American mythology.

JA: Why did you create Full Moon Publishing?

SANDY: Fifteen years ago agents weren't too comfortable with cross-genre plots. I was told to pick one--mystery or fantasy--but don't combine them. I couldn't pick, didn't want to pick. After doing the query letter two-step for five years and rewriting my first book three times, I started researching self-publishing. In order to write my kind of book it was evident to me I would have to publish it myself.

JA: What are the differences between starting your own publishing company, and using a POD press like PublishAmerica or I-Universe?

SANDY: For starters, the first is the true self-publisher. A writer who goes with a POD publisher pays a set-up fee but that is as far as his monetary investment toward the publishing phase goes. The writer who owns his own publishing company obtains a business license, purchases a block of ISBN numbers, obtains a Library of Congress number for each book, decides which printer to use, what type of design to put on the cover, whether the book will be a hardcover, trade paperback, or mass market paperback, and determines whether to use a distributor, order fulfillment house, or handle his own stocking, orders, and invoicing. He basically is a small business and operates as a small business whether he is producing widgets or books.

JA: What are some of the challenges of running your own press?

SANDY: Getting the books into the stores and promoting the titles are the two challenges. A couple years ago Ingram, who is one of the major wholesalers to bookstores, decided to cut out most of the small press accounts. A small press had to have a certain minimum amount of sales to Ingram to be in their system. Many of the large chains order only through Ingram and if your book isn't in their system, you won't find it in their stores. A small press usually means small press run. I have a 3,000 press run on hardcovers so it is logical that I am not going to have a $250,000 marketing budget. I have to be careful where I spend my dollars, what ads to place, what mailings to conduct. I knew early on that I wasn't going to be able to travel the country to promote my books so I focused most of my marketing efforts toward libraries.

JA: How much of your time do you spend writing vs. publishing and promotion?

SANDY: I use an order fulfillment house so I don't receive the orders nor do I process them or chase people for unpaid bills. They handle it all. Months before a new title comes out I do a lot of work getting my mailing lists targeted, ads produced, postcards mailed. I try to keep my publishing expenses separate from my author expenses (conferences, travel) so I haven't quit my day job. I work three to four days a week at a retail store. If I could take that 32 hours and donate it to writing, I'd get a lot more books written. Unfortunately, I spend more time at my part-time job than I do publishing, writing, or promoting.

JA: Your books are very attractive, on a par with the major publishing houses. How do you handle layout and cover art?

SANDY: When I was researching self-publishing, I visited bookstores, checking out the display books, determining what motivated me to pick up a book. Was it the color? The design? The title? I knew I was going to publish hardcovers so I focused on dust jackets, the layout, how the plot was described on the inside flaps. I also knew I was going to write a series so I wanted one constant on the jacket that would tell people this was a book in the Sam Casey or Chase Dagger series. Enter my graphic designer in Santa Fe, NM. He chose a medicine bundle for the Casey series and a dagger for the Chase Dagger series.

While I looked at books that attracted me, I also looked at books that didn't thrill me, trying to determine if the color was unappealing or the cover art too graphic, not graphic enough. Just by looking at the cover the reader should know a book is a mystery, not a travel guide.

JA: How do you go about getting reviewed?

SANDY: Connie Shelton has a great book titled, Publish Your Own Novel. She had a list of the major and secondary reviewers. Some of the major reviewers only review hardcovers, which also helped in my decision to publish hardcovers. Also, Connie stressed the importance of getting the review copy into the major reviewers hands at least four months prior to publication date. This is probably one of the major mistakes made by publishers. They fail to adhere to submission deadlines. There are many great secondary reviewers who only want the finished copy. I usually do a 100-200 print run of POD trade paperbacks of the new hardover which I send out to reviewers and independent mystery bookstores.

JA: Why do you publish under two names?

SANDY: Another suggestion Connie made in her book was to use a fictitious editor name because authors don't usually send out their own review copies to the major reviewers, nor should correspondence to Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and other vendors come from the author. And there are one or two of the major reviewers, mainly large newspapers, who will not review a self-published book.

JA: Have you ever thought of giving up the press and going the traditional publishing route?

SANDY: I keep making a plus and minus list. On the one hand it would have to be enough of an advance so I can quit my day job. The one book a year is a tough pace to keep if you still work 32-40 hours a week. I know some people do it and I'd love to know how (must only be men), between the cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry...and I don't even have kids to take care of. On the other hand, I own all the rights to my books. I have sold the audiobook rights and large print rights. There are writers I love who have been cut by their publishers. It's frightening knowing if those great writers can't survive the budget cuts, how would a newbie fare?

JA: What's next for S.D. and Lee?

SANDY: I need my head examined for starters. I'm working on the fourth book in the Sam Casey and the Chase Dagger series plus I'm working on a new young adult mystery series, all simultaneously. Being a gemini, I keep thinking I can split myself into two or three people and still keep my sanity. I am entertaining the idea, though, of sending out my young adult mystery to a traditional publisher.

JA: Thanks, Sandy!

If anyone has more questions, contact Sandy through her website, And be sure to pick up her books to see how to do self-publishing the right way.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the strategy pursued by Tooley and others (lying to reviewers and publications about the self-published status of their books) ends up hurting the legitimate small presses. Many reviewers and publications simply dismiss books from micro presses because they don't know if it's a vanity project or not. (And they often are, as Tooley proves.)

I recommend authors tell the truth and be up-front about themselves and their books. It might cost you a review or two, but at least you'll be honest.

JA Konrath said...

How is Sandy's press not legitimate?

A vanity press is one where an author pays a publisher money to get into print.

Sandy has not bought a vanity service. She has formed her own business.

As for 'being up-front,' any reviewer who has ever read the lies printed on the backs of ARCs and galleys knows that stretching truths is part of the publishing business, whether they published 2 books a quarter, or 2000.

I've talked to many authors, and their galleys promised 50k print runs, ten city tours, and extensive print advertising. The reality is that their pub printed 15k copies, advertised in the back of BookPage, and arranged two signings in the author's home town.

This practice is also emplyed by the 'legitimate' small presses.

The publishing biz is about many things, but honesty isn't in the top 10.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the dark side, Joe.

JA Konrath said...


I have over 500 rejections. I joined the dark side 10 years ago.

Anonymous said...

True, she's able to target a market niche that is probably too small for a standard publisher to pursue. That's the advantage she has by becoming her own publisher, and more power to her.

I have to gently disagree with your assertion that her books are "on a par with the major publishing houses," however. I visited her website and checked out the images of her book covers. They were good, but they were still far from the standard I'm used to seeing in the bookstore. That's not a ding on her or her graphic designer, just a recognition that a publisher is going to be better at covers, if for no other reason than the advantage in experience.

After reading your interview, I also felt a little weird reading her website. In the "About Us" page, she lists several people who "work" for her press. I have to wonder, are any of them real, or are they all just pseudonyms?

Stacey Cochran said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stacey Cochran said...

Hey Joe,

This was a neat interview. Great work!

Personally, I think some of the most interesting writing in the U.S. is being done by self-publishers. It's the pulps of our era.

Keep up the great work, Sandy! Your books look great...

Check out guys like Jeremy Robinson and Mark Jeffrey for two of the hottest indie writers in the country right now.

Great interview, Joe!


Anonymous said...

So Joe, what exactly is your advice on self-publishing? It's okay to do it, as long as you do it right?

JA Konrath said...

I think that paying a POD outfit to vanity publish your book isn't smart, unless you're 100% sure what you're getting into.

For example, if you have a memoir, or a book of poems you want to pass around to friends, then vanity is fine.

But if you want to get into bookstores, make money, and have a career, don't vanity publish.

I also think that if you want to start a publishing compnay, like Sandy did, you need to realize how much work/money/time is involved.

Would I do it? Maybe. It depends on the novel I was trying to publish. If it didn't fit into any distinct genre, yet I felt that it would sell, I might give it a shot. But I'd exhaust the traditional publishing routes first.

I'm not anti self-publish. I'm anti quick-fix.

There are no easy ways to get published.

Jim said...

Joe, I'm woefully disappointed in your lack of ability to follow the trend. You're supposed to bash anyone who isn't published by a big NY house. Do it in the name of protecting them from themselves and saving them from their own delusions. Try it. It will do wonders for your ego.

Mark said...

I reject the memoir cliche. Memoirs and first person essays get published all the time, and probably easier than first novels. Any book is tough to sell for real, and vanity presses don't count. True self-publishing still garners no respect, and costs a bundle. No to few sales rivaling the vanities are the norm. I recognize the difference and argue it frequently. No thanks.

I don't have 500 rejections but I keep rewriting the last book in hopes of scoring one day. That's the ticket in my view.

Mark said...

Agreed on the covers. They look like Publishamerica's.

JA Konrath said...

NIGHT LAWS by Jim Michael Hansen is another self-published book that I really liked. It reads better than much of the stuff the NY houses are chruning out.

Again, Jim went the same route Sandy did--forming his own business.

As for memoir--perhaps I'm missing a trend here. I thought memoirs were damn near impossible to publish unless you're already famous, or have had some unspeakable tragedy occur in your life.

Mark said...

Well, sure, those things help, but it's not chiseled in stone. Hansen's book, which you endorsed, made others cringe, me included. Goldberg was particularly harsh on the writing. Look Joe I've seen your books onshelves so my hat's off to you, but all the more reason not to patronize these folks who will only meet with failure going this route.

Why couldn't the sell their writing to a real house like you did? That's the only goal with a self-published or vanity book. (Some say they're the same thing)

Stacey Cochran said...

I just want a seven-figure book deal, so that I can poorly manage my money, end up bankrupt, divorced, walking up and down the streets of Vegas mumbling about the dam'b government, and have an E! Hollywood True Story done of me and what a failure my life became...

Is that too much to ask?

Anonymous said...

I blogged on Lee Goldberg's site on this and I'll just add here my thoughts that self-publishing is not something that's black and white, ie., big NY publisher (Good), self-publish (bad). There is some nuance there.

Maria said...

I have seen Sandy's books in my library--the covers are fine. They did not stand out in any way as self-published. I didn't know until I saw this article that the books were self-published. I also don't know why so many people have issues with self-publishing. Writing a book is hard, whether it is picked up by a NY publisher or not. It's an accomplishment whether it was done well by the standards of publishers or the standards of whichever reader reads it. Too many people view publishing with a regular publisher as proof of something. Yeah, it's a great thing, but it's a far cry from guaranteed success money-wise or by any other meter. It's also a far cry from guaranteeing that the book is good, that the book will be widely read, etc. I don't like vanity presses because of their high prices and false promises, but I don't automatically disrespect someone that choose a different path to publishing.

Mark said...

The path is usually chosen because the work wasn't. The two aren't in any way equivalent regardless of who thinks they are.

Anonymous said...

Chosen??? I haven't been "chosen" for many a job that I've applied for. That doesn't mean I wasn't qualified and it doesn't mean I couldn't do the job. What it means is there was one job and more than enough applicants. Writing is no different. Some people get the "job" and their product is good, some get it and they aren't as qualified, but most people do the best they can. Some people start their own business and some are very good at it. All I'm saying is that you can't judge a book until you read it, whether it was "chosen" by a publisher or not and I don't understand the attitude that a "chosen" one is somehow magical and meaningful. There is a supply/demand issue in the publishing industry and by default that means that some people will have to be creative to get their product to market. Whether their product is great, good or so-so, I admire that they tried.

Erin O'Brien said...

I published wih a fine little POD house called Zumaya Publications. I did not pay them one dime. Zumaya is just like any other tiny indie press, except they utilize POD technology. Somehow, someday, POD and self-published will mean the two different things they are.
And a comment or two about connections and talent and luck and publishing: My brother John O'Brien authored the novel "Leaving Las Vegas". What did Johnny's death and being being that close to a glittering statue named Oscar do for me? No small thing, it put the fire in my viens and for that I'm thankful. But I still had to add eight years of mind-numbing work and perseverence to achieve this humble end.
Erin O'Brien
Harvey & Eck