Saturday, August 6, 2011

Unfinished Business # 11: One-handed, One-man Band

[This first appeared as a guest blog on Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer. It has been edited some. Many thanks to Joel for permission to repost this.]

Getting It Published

For those of you visiting for the first time, it happened like this: in December 2005, I began writing my debut novel Dragon’s Ark. In June 2009, I finally typed “THE END.” I then spent a year in grim pursuit of literary agents, knowing that, even if successful, my novel would likely not come out until 2012, or even later.

By April 2010, I’d nearly drained the well of available literary agents. During that month, I showed up at an independent publishing workshop, held at the Commonwealth Club of California, where Joel Friedlander, host of The BookDesigner, spoke. Nearly a year later, Dragon’s Ark is available to one and all, in paperback and e-book.

The path has been challenging but reasonably, even remarkably, smooth. The end result, the book itself, a POD edition printed through Lightning Source, is a lovely production, especially for an independent paperback from a shoestring company. The most stunning surprise was the cover by Cathi Stevenson of Book Cover Express, who fully grasped my intentions and delivered.

I encountered further success and encouragement with Joel’s excellent interior design, plus his kindness and insight (and, most significantly, patience), all based on his years in the publishing business. Long before any of us, Joel saw the new world coming and entered it fully, then turned and opened its door wide. If you’re starting there, you’re starting well.

Add to that some excellent blurbs from important writers such as David Corbett, Don Herron, and John-Ivan Palmer, and I wound up with a book with excellent literary and commercial potential.

The only major stumble was in the final editing, but even so, amazingly few embarrassments remain (though each one burns like a hot needle in my heart). For a rank beginner, I dropped surprisingly few stitches.

I named my imprint Ambler House Publishing, both after the pioneering genre writer Eric Ambler, and because the name evokes the era of publishing before conglomeration, when Alfred E. Knopf was an actual person who loved books more than he did a 15-percent profit margin. (That era may be returning in new form, but that’s a discussion for later).

Now I had the book. Next, I had to get it out into the world: market it, distribute it, sell it. That train rolls on, and miles and miles of track lies ahead.

Getting It Out There

One of my first marketing/distribution fantasies had me driving all over the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond, persuading bookstores to stock Dragon’s Ark. However, just getting to the stores in my own neighborhood was daunting enough. Here, I’ve been reasonably successful. Not every store said yes, but the ones who placed it on their shelves sold all of them . . . mostly likely because I snacked on the ear of everyone I met at my local watering holes, waving my postcards and copies of the book in their faces. (One customer was a hollering drunk whom, I swear, forgot he ever bought it.) I’ve actually sold 10 copies out of my own bag so far.

As for the hundred or so bookstores to whom I sent marketing e-mails—mostly silence. One bookstore invited me to do a “meet and greet” but seems to have forgotten all about me, despite repeated e-mail follow-ups. One lucky break: Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, now offers Dragon’s Ark online, though I’m not sure who to credit for that. After a few scolding e-mail responses from others, I’ve pulled my lowered my cannon a little on that front of my campaign.

Add to that a couple of mixed reviews. I worked hard pursuing these, but they turned out not be enthused about my eccentric approach to the Dracula myth. Lesson learned here: there’s a howling black chasm between fans of Stephanie Wright and fans of, say, Peter Straub. Search for and pick your audience carefully, especially if your book is a little more offbeat than what some folks are used to and expect.

Sales so far have been few, for both paperback and e-book. But instead of folding in despair, I drive on. Like it or not, this will take some time. When Joel announced that he was taking the “soft release” approach to the release of his own new book A Self-Publisher’s Companion, I took the cue: play to my strengths—the audience I already have on my three websites--and build from there.

The Inkspot Approach

I’ve been online for years and have built a small but loyal following. So, instead of trying to fly to the moon on my handsome, but tinny, jalopy, I’ve decided to keep working on the 400 to 500 or so weekly readers here on Earth and grow out from there, one or two readers at a time. (In counterinsurgency work, this is called the “Inkspot Approach.”)

The best way for Ambler House to sell more books is to publish more of them. Just last month, the company published the first in a backlog of Burchfieldiana—the comic screenplay Whackers. Over the next year, more will appear: three other screenplays, plus short, low-priced collections of humor pieces, critical, personal, and travel essays, and a smattering of short stories.

These will be available exclusively as e-books and all will be available at the low price of $1.99. Judging from this article by Laura Miller on Salon,  the 99-cent price recommended for most independent books may not work anymore, thanks to the spamsters who have been hijacking the KindlePad platforms with 99-cent ripoffs and knockoffs of other people’s books, including yours, mine, and the classics. “99 cents” seems to becoming shorthand for “spam.”

But that’s just another kink in the always-evolving world of independent publishing. Here, only the persistent, the patient, and the flexible survive; only they can hope to prosper.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by Author

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark is available right NOW, published by Ambler House Publishing. It can be ordered in both paperback and e-book editions through your local independent bookstore, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Smashwords, and Scrib'd. His original comic screenplay Whackers  is now available in a Kindle editon, also from Ambler House. Other material can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. And if you're still not tired of him, he can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

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