It was speed that brought David Vinjamuri to self-publishing his novels—or, rather, the lack of it. After publishing a business book in 2008 through Wiley, Accidental Branding: How Ordinary People Build Extraordinary Brands, he showed his agent at the time his next project, a military thriller. The manuscript arrived just as the agency went through a major staff turnover. Although the agent did make some attempts at submitting the novel to publishers, it was a halfhearted process, thanks to the agency's disarray. “I didn't really get a lot of 'no's on it, but it was two years,” Vinjamuri says.
Those two years were a time of rapid change in the book world, and Vinjamuri, who also writes about self-publishing for Forbes, saw the change in his own reading habits. “I had been reading self-published books without realizing it,” he says. “I realized that a lot of important things had changed.” He became part of that change, publishing Operator by himself in 2012, with a sequel, Binder, released on December 2.
Vinjamuri hired an editor and a designer to get the book ready for publication in both print and digital formats, but he handled the book's promotion himself. With his marketing background—in addition to writing, he teaches at NYU and works as a branding consultant—Vinjamuri went into his self-publishing effort with a clear idea of what he needed to do to make Operator succeed. “Word of mouth is the most important thing,” he says. “Make it easy for people to tell your story.”
To do that, Vinjamuri promoted Operator through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing Select program and submitted the book to Kirkus Reviews and other venues. He also lowered the book's price to 99 cents for a short time. That had immediate results, sending Operator to the overall Kindle paid best-seller list and earning it the top spot in the thriller subcategory. “It was selling ahead of Fifty Shades of Grey for a day or two,” he says. It was gratifying to see a marketing campaign pay off quickly, but Vinjamuri is even more pleased with the long-term result: “I've already sold more of Operator in the first year than I've sold of Accidental Branding in the last five years.”
Operator, which follows ex-soldier Michael Herne as he draws on his military training to investigate a friend's death and battle the Russian mob, has received plenty of positive reviews, including one from Kirkus. “The novel handles its dark subject matter straightforwardly, and while justice is certainly a theme, the hero also harbors a dark side,” the review says, calling Herne “a new breed of hero.”
The novel has its origins in some of Vinjamuri's own experiences, including a fortuitous connection made while he was on a speaking tour for Accidental Branding. After a talk in Norfolk, Va., an acquaintance suggested he look into a local business, which had been founded by a former Navy SEAL and produced specialized equipment for several elite military units.
As he explored the company, Vinjamuri got to know several veterans of those elite units, and he found them to be far more ordinary than he had expected. “They weren't at all what I thought they would be,” he says, more like highly focused athletes than Rambo. He spent time training with the men, even taking the opportunity to run the Naval Special Warfare Center's obstacle course. That experience gave him insight into Michael Herne's character.
While Vinjamuri is focused on developing his fiction career, he remains part of the broader conversation about self-publishing. He takes a particular interest in how libraries can effectively incorporate self-published books into their collections, and he has spoken at conferences hosted by the American Library Association and several state associations. “I've been going around trying to persuade libraries to discover new authors,” he says.
Plenty of librarians agree with him. In October, Illinois librarians announced the “Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author Project,” a statewide effort to bring attention to high-quality self-published works. The project credits Vinjamuri as an inspiration, and he recently recorded a video for the website.
Vinjamuri sees libraries as a crucial factor in finding and drawing attention to the best self-published books. “You really can't trust peer online reviews,” he says, noting that it is not uncommon for authors to attempt to manipulate ratings. But “20,000 libraries, working together, can review 300,000 books,” he says, and bring some clarity. “The question is, how do you find the next Confederacy of Dunces when it's probably sitting out there on Amazon having sold 50 copies with five reviews from relatives.”
Vinjamuri raised some eyebrows in the publishing world with a recent post at Forbes, “Is Publishing Still Broken? The Surprising Year in Books.” It was a response to a post he had written more than a year earlier, “Publishing Is Broken: We're Drowning in Indie Books—And That's a Good Thing” (in which he wrote about the difficulty of finding quality books among the thousands being self-published).
The industry is not broken, he writes now, and that applies to traditional publishing as well. “Output and sales of traditional publishers have not gone down,” he says, while self-publishing is maturing as a platform. “In the last year, there are more examples of people who've written good books that have gotten noticed.” Some established authors are adding self-publishing to their repertoires, while top-selling indie authors continue to sign deals with traditional publishers.
And as it becomes easier to find the best self-published books, Vinjamuri sees indie publishing as a real career path for himself and other midlist authors: “If they can sell directly, they can make a living at it.”
Sarah Rettger is a writer and bookseller living in Massachusetts.