When publisher after publisher told author Catherine Ryan Hyde that her new novels just weren't right for American readers, she almost took them at their word. “When a couple of editors said this was a little slow, a little subtle, a little deliberate for U.S. readers, I believed them,” she says. Transworld published her novel When I Found You in the United Kingdom in 2009, but no one bought the book's U.S. rights.
Hyde landed on the best-seller lists in 1999 with her novel from Pocket Books, Pay It Forward, which became the hit movie the following year starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt, which in turn created the pop-culture pay-it-forward phenomenon. After the wide-ranging success of the book, which inspired the creation of the Pay It Forward Foundation, Hyde continued to publish but encountered a problem familiar to successful writers: Sales of her subsequent books, while “not abysmal,” did not meet publishers' expectations. “The more seasoned authors, they just go straight to sales figures,” she says, acknowledging that “it's a high-end problem” to worry about the high bar set by Pay It Forward.
But it’s nonetheless a problem that’s had a substantial impact on her career. Doubleday “put a lot into Love in the Present Tense,” Hyde says about her 2006 novel, but U.S. sales were disappointing. When the U.K. edition was published by Transworld, though, it was a Richard & Judy Book Club selection, an endorsement comparable to Oprah's Book Club. “All at one time, I got dropped by a U.S. publisher, and everything just exploded in the U.K.” Hyde found herself sending American readers overseas in search of her latest books.
The evidence that American readers were still interested in her work, even if publishers were less enthusiastic, drove Hyde to work with her agent, Laura Rennert of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, to publish her own books in the United States. She self-published When I Found You in 2011, two years after Transworld published the U.K. edition. “Indie [publishing] turned out to be just an amazing way” to sustain a writing career, says Hyde, who has been a full-time writer since 1998.
One of the strengths of indie publishing, Hyde says, is “the fact that you are able to control your own price point.” An author can benefit even when the price is lowered to zero: When Hyde briefly offered When I Found You for free in early 2012, she saw 81,000 downloads of her book over five days, which sent her to the top of Amazon's popularity rankings. (“This was back when Amazon algorithms were such that a free download counted the same as a sale,” she explains, noting that free downloads are now counted differently.)
Offering copies of her novel for free not only sent Hyde to the top of the ranking (though she ceded the top position on Amazon's chart after the free promotion ended, her books continue to be highly ranked), but it also gave her a new angle for reaching out to potential readers. Letting people know that they could download a book for free or at a discount is “a very different experience from saying 'buy my book,’ ” she points out. “Everybody likes a bargain.” Readers who bought her free and discounted books returned to buy other titles, and since her marginal costs are limited, “I don't lose money when I discount promotionally,” Hyde says, adding that since she began self-publishing, she has not gone longer than two months without offering promotional prices for some of her titles.
Hyde's promotional success brought her to the attention of Amazon Publishing, which contacted her soon after. Amazon reissued When I Found You under its own imprint in 2013 and is scheduled to publish two new books from Hyde this year. “They very much know what they're doing,” Hyde says, and she has nothing but praise for her relationship with Amazon.
While she works with Amazon Publishing on some of her titles, Hyde has also continued to bring out her works through Andrea Brown, using CreateSpace to produce paperback editions of some titles while offering others as digital exclusives. Some of her titles are U.S. releases of books published traditionally in the U.K., while others are new digital editions of out-of-print books whose rights have reverted to Hyde. (Hyde chose to release her previously published books only as e-books since used copies of the previous editions are easily available.) “The concept of out-of-print being out-of-print forever,” Hyde says, is one of the most exciting aspects of the blend of traditional and indie publishing due to the fact that an enterprising writer can reissue past titles. “It really changes the game.”
As the author of several collections of short stories, Hyde also sees an opportunity for bringing her less commercial work to readers' attention. “Even if I did have a traditional publisher, they were not particularly interested in my story collections,” she says, but she is happy with the results of her self-published collections. “They don't sell the way my novels do, but they do sell,” she says. “At this point, I'm as hybrid as you get.”
In addition to her planned Amazon Publishing releases, Hyde, who is also an amateur photographer, is working on a collection of 365 photographs on the theme of gratitude. The collection will be published at some point in the near future, but “I've learned not to announce dates in advance,” Hyde says. Although she found few surprises when she began self-publishing, she did find that “the process takes longer than you think it will” and is appropriately cautious in promoting her work before its release.
Sarah Rettger is a writer and bookseller in Massachusetts.