book promotion, book sales

Publishing Through a Start-up Independent Publisher

Our guest post today is from Tom Wolosz, writer, hiker and geologist, who kindly proposed to document his trek through the ups and downs of Bookkus…
[Let me preface this by saying that I’ve enjoyed working with Bookkus, and hold no hard feelings toward anyone there. The publishing business is tough, and everyone gives it their best shot. So I won’t use any names, but will be honest about my experience. I will always be grateful for their support, and for publishing my book.]
     My history is similar to what a number of others have described here – after beginning my novel Agony of the Gods I joined Book Country. For about a year it was a great site – lots of good friends critiquing each other’s work, lots of good advice for me. When I finished about the 6th draft I started submitting to publishers with zero success. Truthfully, it still needed a lot of work, and, since I was an unpublished writer, at over 400,000 words it was way too long for an established publishing house to take as chance on.
     At about that time a comment appeared in a thread I was following. A publisher was looking for manuscripts, but he was following a new model – the readers, as opposed to an editor, would decide what to publish. Sounded interesting so I decided to give it a try. (I should also mention that at about this time there was a major change at Book Country. The original site administrator left, and there appeared to be a shift to pushing their self-publishing services. This soured me on the site because I’ve always felt that pushing self-publishing is a bit dishonest, but I won’t go into that here.)
     I was soon devoting myself entirely to Bookkus. The concept is fascinating. Let the reviewers decide! Submit your ms. and if you get about 10-20 reviews and they average 3.5/5 or better you’ve got a shot at getting published. Now it isn’t a slam dunk because the initial reviews are available to the author. The publisher realized that very often folks might write a good review so as not to be cruel, while not really feeling the book is worth publishing. So the next step was a closed discussion. At this point the author is excluded from the group so the reviewers can be frank in their comments.
     I really enjoyed taking part. I read a number of books, many of which were clearly not publishable (first drafts with more grammatical errors and misspellings than not, poorly thought out plots filled with non sequiturs, etc.). In reviewing them I always tried to be helpful despite giving them poor ratings (what we all wish publishers would do). For those that moved on to the closed session I found the point-counterpoint discussions over whether or not to publish fascinating. Although one thought that struck me early on was that I really had no skin in the game. My cold, hard cash wasn’t on the table which made it a bit easier to argue “publish!” In the end two of the three books I thought were publishable were accepted, although only one has actually seen the light of day.
     In the meantime Agony was getting some good reviews. It went into closed session and the result was a decision to publish! Obviously, I was thrilled.
     The process after that was a bit stressful. I think the biggest problem was that in working with a start-up you’re dealing with folks who have limited experience themselves.
     My first editor started by telling me she loved the book (which really wasn’t true – there was a hole in the website program which allowed me to sneak in and read the publish-or-not discussion), and then told me to cut it by 1/3 and totally rewrite one of the main characters including discarding her origin story! Distressed, I contacted the publisher. He told me that the relationship between author and editor is often argumentative, and that I should just carefully explain to her why I felt I couldn’t follow her advice. I did, and the response I got was “Just do what I say!” That pretty much stalled progress on my book. At the same time another book I had reviewed was in publish-or-not discussion, and despite an 11 – 0 vote in favor by the reviewers, my editor insisted it was horrible and should not be published. That put the publisher in a bind because the Bookkus model is “let the readers decide.” In the end, he over-ruled my editor, and the decision was publish. My editor then resigned.
     A couple of weeks later I had a new editor, and we worked well together. Whenever he saw a problem we discussed it and reached a conclusion satisfactory to all. Granted, one reason for the big difference between editors consisted of this one being hired by the publisher on a per book basis, so I also assume his attitude was to be helpful and give advice but if I didn’t want to take it, well that was my problem.
     In the meantime, the publisher was looking for cover art. We tried a few for-hire illustrators (lots of websites out there offering cover art), but found either nothing of interest or limited ability to modify their graphic art (if they had something with potential, modifications we asked for were beyond their capability). The publisher finally did it himself. He came up with a simple cover illustration which really did the trick. I’ve always been very pleased with it.
     The final step was working with the line editor. This guy was not as bad as my first editor, but was close. I’m pretty sure he had written a book himself, which only added to his know-it-all attitude (granted to be a writer, myself included, you need a pretty large ego), and he did make some valuable comments (I do greatly overuse ‘that’) and corrections. Unfortunately, he had absolutely no concept of science fiction. In some cases I politely explained his mistakes, in others I just ignored him. He was also in love with a computer program which counts the number of times a word is used and highlights perceived overuse. I do know I often “fall in love” with words and overuse them, but recognizing this foible I work to correct it. Unfortunately, many times there are only a limited number of choices. My line editor would apparently run to the thesaurus, find a word I had not used and substitute it for mine. The problem was he ignored the first rule of the thesaurus game – when you find a nifty synonym check the dictionary to make sure it really fits. I must admit there were a number of times my annoyance was curbed by my chuckling at the words he chose. In the end I accepted about 10% of his suggestions.
     Well, Agony of the Gods was finally published in January of 2014. This is where the real problem with a small independent publisher comes into play. I think the publisher’s hope was “build it and they will come,” – that the lure of a book chosen by the reading community would be enough to ensure sales. Well, it hasn’t happened yet.
     We went through the free kindle version giveaways (a couple of times) and there was an initial spurt of good reviews, but things never seemed to take off. On the Bookkus website my book is up to around 280 members (to what degree that translates to sales I have no idea). The publisher contacted me about a book tour, but that failed to materialize despite my being willing to foot the bill. I think the problem comes down to the limited number of reviews. My book has 31 on Goodreads and 15 on Amazon, but without 50 – 100 or more it appears to be difficult to generate interest for signings, readings, etc. So there has only been very limited marketing which is a major problem.
     I also set up a Webpage running a blog about writing, and while I do get a number of visits every week, there’s no evidence that this has helped market my book.
     Sales overall have been meager, a few copies here, a few there (mostly Kindle). How does it stack up to the other Bookkus books? Hard to say since I can only look at the Amazon listings, but they all appear about the same, maybe a bit better than mine.
     What’s the overall outlook? Again, hard to say. The publisher has pretty much let the website float since November, when his last new post went up. Having now published 7 books, the publisher may be out of cash, or just waiting to see if anything takes off before pulling the plug. I don’t know, but at this point all I can do is wait and see.