July 9, 2012
Chasing Your Book Dream
How Self-Publishing Is Breaking Down Book Barriers
Wendy Hinman reads from her self-published title Tightwads on the Loose at Third Place Books.
In 2000, Wendy Hinman and husband Garth boarded their 31-foot cutter, Velella, and set off on what would be a 34,000-mile, 'round-the-world odyssey.
Upon returning to Seattle seven years later, Hinman embarked on a journey of a different sort – penning a book about the couple's adventures at sea, inspired by the strong following she’d amassed through years of blogging and sending email updates along the way.
Hinman plunged headfirst into her project, enrolling in the UW Certificate in Memoir Writing, joining writers' groups and dissecting the work of established travel authors, word by word.
When the manuscript of her book Tightwads on the Loose neared completion last summer, Hinman faced a difficult decision: whether she’d hire a literary agent to pitch the book to a traditional publishing house, or go the increasingly popular self-publishing route.
The Path Less Travelled – Until Now
Even after hearing only positive feedback about her story from agents and editors, a friend's ordeal helped seal her choice.
Wendy Hinman’s self-published book chronicles her seven-year voyage at sea.
"For an entire year, she waited while this agent ran it past one publisher after another," Hinman said. "And they all really liked the book but declined to buy it, saying, 'You know, it's not quite right for us,'"
Hinman didn't have a year to spare. As word of her voyage spread among yacht clubs, rotary groups and others, Hinman became a sought-after speaker. These engagements were a prime opportunity to publicize and sell physical copies of her book, so she decided to take matters into her own hands, publishing Tightwads on the Loose using Amazon’s print-on-demand service CreateSpace.
An ebook version is in the works.
"It was so exciting when that first copy came," Hinman recounts. "I got really excited about it, took pictures of it, called a bunch of people. All of that kind of stuff."
A Writer’s Best Friend: Mom
The rise of tools like Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing, as well as on-demand print services and a low barrier-to-entry, are enabling indie authors to bypass the gatekeepers of old.
Seattle writer Erik Dane Wirsing, 36, has self-published two fiction titles and a psychological thriller – available in both print and ebook format – and has a fourth book on the way. The pseudonym Dane St. John is found on the covers.
Like most self-published authors without the backing of a big-time publisher, Wirsing has taken on the task of marketing his own work.
"Writing the book is the easy part," he explains. "Marketing it and selling it is the hard part. I think that’s where people get lost because they think, 'If I just write it, it’ll be a bestseller.'"
Central to Wirsing's outreach strategy is getting his books into the hands of as many readers as possible. The more readers, the more reviews. And the more reviews, the more favorable the ranking on Amazon, he said.
Self-published author Erik Dane Wirsing likens the ebook revolution to a parallel shift in the music industry a decade ago.
In practice, that means giving out free copies to friends and family, to book clubs and readers on Craigslist in exchange for a review.
Recently, Wirsing added a second member to his marketing staff, who happens to work for free.
"My mom does something really embarrassing," he says. "She gets cards printed at Kinko's and they have the graphics of my book on it, the Amazon URL, my name, all of it. And she hands them out to strangers. It doesn’t matter if she's at the store or the airport, she’ll find people and say, 'Hey, do you like to read?'"
"She’s out there hitting the pavement and trying to get a groundswell for me."
Wirsing, who spends months buried in research before sitting down to write, views every idle moment on the bus or at a restaurant as a chance to inch a project closer to the finish line.
Asked how he would define success for himself as a novelist, Wirsing arrives at the answer most people would expect: book sales.
"But I'll give you the cheesy response – I think I'm already successful," he says. "I just love to write. I actually have something I can point to, both physical and digital. I can get behind my own stories, even if the fan base is small. I think the success is actually in finishing and publishing a book. It’s something tangible that you’ve completed, that you’ve poured your heart into."
The Stigma of the Vanity Press
Self-publishing has come a long way since the days of the vanity press, when individuals – many of them wealthy, Wirsing says – would fork over sizeable sums of money to have their work published.
Theo Pauline Nestor, an instructor with the UW Certificate in Memoir Writing, believes some of the stigma has endured.
"Let's say your goal is to be recognized by others for your literary accomplishments," she said. "Self-publishing might not be the best route. It's hard to get books reviewed if you're self-published, because they haven't gone through the route of a juried process. There isn't a stamp of approval that people see on the book."
She adds that it is possible for self-published authors to be picked up by traditional publishers later, citing perhaps the most famous example: Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.
Wirsing disagrees, contending that most of the stigma has dissipated. He likens today's self-publishing movement to a parallel shift in the music industry from a decade ago.
"It used to be uncool if you didn't have a label. Now it's really cool to be an indie artist," Wirsing said. "And this is when digital empowerment happens, when people can take the reins back and say, 'I want to take control of my own destiny. I don't need anyone to validate me and tell me I’m good.'"
Self-published writers can earn a serious buck for their work and claim a far bigger chunk of the book's royalties. Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing system, for instance, concedes 70 percent of returns to authors.
Both Wirsing and Hinman are also hoping to have their books placed in local bookstores for sale on consignment.
As of June, Tightwads on the Loose was the top-selling book at Magnolia's Bookstore and no. 8 at Third Place Books. Amazon sales are also strong, she said.
Of course, tasks ordinarily reserved for a publisher now fall on the self-published writer: hiring a copyeditor, designing a book cover, formatting the book and marketing the work.
For that reason, Seattle author Abigail Carter, an alumna of both the UW Certificate in Nonfiction Writing and Memoir Writing programs, and business partner Kelsye Nelson founded Writer.ly.
More than 500 people have signed up to use the service – modeled after the popular Elance marketplace – when it launches later this summer.
Writers will be able to post projects and vet incoming bids based on the experience level of the freelancer, his or her fees, portfolio and reviews.
"There's been a groundswell for a number of genres — romance, science-fiction and fantasy,” Nelson said. "The self-published pieces are just as wonderful and they have rabid demand. Now they're getting mainstream acceptance."
Veteran journalist Michelle Nicolosi has also responded with a new endeavor. In January, she left her role as executive producer of Seattlepi.com to launch ebook publishing and marketing firm Working Press.
Nicolosi is an instructor and advisory board member with the all-new UW Certificate in Digital Publishing, which prepares students to create, distribute and market a wide range of digital content – eMagazines, blogs, multimedia and ebooks.
While consumers have been reluctant to pay for online news, they seem more than willing to buy journalism in the form of ebooks, Nicolosi said.
"To me it just makes sense to get your content in front of this rapidly growing – and paying – readership," said Nicolosi, whose clients include mainstream press organizations such as Village Voice Media and a number of established authors.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
For Hinman, the writing process was a slow and steady grind of three years.
Each week, she'd write up a memorable scene from her travels totaling six or seven pages, using strategies gleaned from the UW memoir writing program.
"Some of the scenes that I thought I would write about fell away because I felt less inspired to write them," she said. "Others emerged because I woke up in the middle of the night and I just said, 'I have to write about this. This is important to the story.'"
Most of the book was written atop a small secretary table in her home office, the floor teeming with papers. Gradually, Hinman strung individual scenes into chapters. And eventually, those chapters formed her book.
Her advice to other aspiring writers: take it one day at a time.
"If you write a scene every few days, or a scene every week, eventually you'll have a whole bunch of material you can massage and improve," she said. "Over time, you will have basically climbed to the top of your hill, and you can turn around and look back behind and you and see how far you’ve come."
To explore a variety of UW Professional & Continuing Education certificates, degrees and courses that can help you write and publish your first book or break into digital publishing, visit www.pce.uw.edu/finder.aspx or contact us.