My wife often says I’m a contrarian, and I’m afraid I have to disagree with her.
That pretty much sums up my learning curve. It’s been hard, but I get there eventually.
When I saw a front-page article in the New York Times about David Mamet “self”-publishing through his agent, my knee-jerk reaction was: Well, that’s not self-publishing! Unfortunately, I was not looking in the mirror.
In 2009, after 20 years in traditional publishing, with over 40 titles and having hit all the best-seller lists, I was approached by Jen Talty about publishing the titles in my backlist, which I had the rights to. I said, “yeah, yeah” while I was still focused on finishing a spec manuscript and getting it to my agent. It was only when that manuscript was done in 2010 and I took a good look at what was happening that I decided to commit 100 percent to taking the indie road. But I didn’t do it alone. Jen had already been working on getting my backlist up for almost a year. In January 2011, we sold 347 e-books. By the end of the year, we’d sold over 600,000. The difference? My commitment to the team Jen Talty and I became as Cool Gus.
Cool Gus now has 10 authors, including New York Times best-seller Jennifer Probst, with whom we’ll launch a new series in 2014. Our sales have gone into the millions, but truthfully, we don’t concern ourselves with copies sold but income generated for our authors. Perhaps this is mercenary, but income pays the bills. We do everything in-house, from story editing (even bringing authors in to stay at my house) through formatting, covers and uploading. The only things we outsource are scanning and copy editing.
Thus, I believe the term “self”-publishing primarily means that the author retains most of the rights to his or her work (most particularly electronic) but teams with others in order to bring a story to market, including sometimes selling rights to print, foreign and audio (although we are big fans of Audiobook Creation Exchange). And this last bit is key: Authors create product, which is story (not book), and readers consume product through a variety of mediums. Everyone else is in between. Authors need people of value in between in order to get story to reader.
Why do authors need a team to publish?
Two heads are better than one. Seems trite, but clichés are based on truisms. I come from a military background, and having commanded a Special Forces A-Team, I was part of the best ‘force-multiplier’ in the world. We weren’t individual Rambos running around; we called ourselves the quiet professionals and worked together for a common goal. The key to team success is trust, and it’s important that those working with you to publish your stories should have more than a flat-fee, one-time concern; they should be vested in your future.
You need creativity (right brain) and technical savvy (left brain). While Ulysses S. Grant, one of the top-selling authors of the 19th century thanks to Mark Twain, had math and art as his two best subjects at my alma mater, West Point, most of us aren’t gifted that way with an even brain. He ended up being the first four-star general in our Army and president. Mark Twain (who claimed to have gone against Grant’s first command early in the Civil War during his brief stint as a Confederate) had been egging Grant to write his memoirs, and, facing a terminal diagnosis of throat cancer, Grant set about writing it in order to leave his family in good stead. He finished just days before his death; the book became one of the best-selling titles of the century.
We are in the digital age. To succeed, an author has to negotiate the digital world to reach readers. So you need both. Which means a team. Find someone who complements the way you think and act.
You need to write. This one sounds simplistic, but there’s simply more work to go around than an author can do on his or her own and still write. There’s a reason so many people work at traditional publishing houses. They do important things that help books get sold. The same is true of selling story. For example, each time you have a new release, your team should go back through every single one of your old books and update the buy links, a time-consuming but essential process. One of our mottos at Cool Gus is that the best promotion is a good story; better promotion is more good stories. So you have to focus on writing.
E-books are organic, not static. Beyond a task like inserting buy links, an e-book can be changed, updated, revised, given a new cover, even a new title, all rather quickly. The same is true with finding, learning how to use, and then engaging in marketing opportunities and mediums. You need a full-time person to work the Internet for you and take care of the overwhelming number of details needed to successfully publish digitally. It is important to note, however, that I’m a firm believer in authors managing their own social media. When I tweet or post to my Facebook page, it’s me, Bob Mayer, doing so. Your teammate works behind the scenes, finding sites, promotional opportunities and making it all cohesive for you.
Your team has bigger reach. Cool Gus goes to Book Expo America, Romantic Times, Romance Writers of America, Thrillerfest, and other industry events. For a new author with only a few manuscripts, self-publishing is viable. However, look around for similar authors in your genre and see what they are doing. Look for small publishers that might be willing to work with you while leaving you in control of your career and rights. Even consider doing what we did: Start your own small business, perhaps with like-minded authors and a person who is willing to do the grunt work.
The author is in charge. When the music business imploded a decade ago, the artists who survived did so in one of two ways: touring or owning their rights. Since I’m not likely to sell out the Meadowlands along with The Boss, owning rights is key. With a team that works for the author, the author maintains not only the rights, but the final say on a number of critical decisions (with expert advice from the team, of course) such as pricing, distribution, exclusivity, marketing campaigns and promo specials, among other duties.
The bottom line is that while many authors like the idea of going indie, the truth is that it’s necessary to have a team to help get story to readers while maintaining control of rights. As writers, our story is part of us. And a team that helps us get that story out while we still control it is priceless.
Bob Mayer is the New York Times best-selling author of the Green Beret and Area 51 series of books and the CEO of Cool Gus Publishing.