As professionals, it is helpful to know our industry and the people we serve (i.e., readers, and sometimes authors). As publishers, it is helpful to be aware of the entities competing for our respective niches. Self-publishing has in recent years become a more viable competitor to traditional publishing, especially for trade books, and the number of reasons behind the decision to self-publish is as high as the number of authors turning to self-publishing to realize their goals. Perhaps in learning these reasons lies the way to help publishers survive the sea change and come out intact on the other side.
Last April, Colin Sandel self-published Tales from the Securemarket(tm), a sci-fi/fantasy romantic comedy novel. This in and of itself is not terribly unusual; after all, the decentralization of the publishing market has made such a thing almost commonplace. However, less commonly, Sandel has enjoyed a bit of success in his venture; while he claims that he has sold "a statistically insignificant number of books," as of this writing he has personally sold over 100 print copies of Tales in person, and has reached more readers by making the entire work available online, for free.
Sandel's Tales actually began through a blog he keeps for a series of short stories written in the same universe as Tales, the Age of Corporations. As he kept writing in that environment, responding to requests to portray the lives of everyday people in it, he eventually realized that "[he] had written half a novel and still had plenty of plot arc left to resolve."
Once the novel was written, the author decided he wanted to share it with more than just the blog's readers. However, as Sandel explains, he didn't trust himself to have the patience to go through the traditional publishing process: "I had written a book. I wanted it out there.... I saw (after my first round of rejection letters from agents) that there was a very real danger that receiving a second round of such letters would put me in danger of losing so much momentum that I never picked up the project again. Self-publishing was a route by which I could actualize my project without the danger of losing momentum while waiting for someone to notice it."
This taking-notice seems to be a guiding principle for him: "it's more important to me that my work be read and experienced than that I make a living off of having written it." To this end, Sandel and a few volunteers (in particular Dani Church, cited as patron and publisher) have made the entire 300-page book available in HTML and PDF formats online.
"A lot of people don’t like to read on a screen, but won’t buy a book without knowing a little bit about what it's like. Having the book available in full on the site means that they can get a taste of the book, then have a physical copy when they’re willing to commit to reading it," says Sandel.
The biggest driver of sales, however, has been of the person-to-person variety. Far and away, the biggest sales have come from author-hosted events and bigger convention events related to the book. Sandel ran a live-action role-playing game (LARP) at Intercon J set in a Securemarket like the one in Tales, and "even though the LARP didn't go as well as I wanted, I sold 35 books." Most of the marketing for Tales has come from word-of-mouth, and by publicly planning parties; people outside of the author’s personal network have bought the book because he mentioned it on a blog and people followed his link.
The blogosphere's role in this is rather unsurprising: "My initial target audience was somewhat geeky, the critical intersection of sci-fi/fantasy nerds with fans of Kevin Smith movies," Sandel explains. "In truth, my real audience for the book seems much wider. Something about 'sci-fi/fantasy romantic comedy' seems like it should scream 'niche market,' but some of my best compliments have come from the parents of my little brother’s high school friends, and one from a lady in her sixties, who called the book 'so realistic.'"
When asked about what he might do differently now that the book has been out for several months, Sandel replied, "Not a whole lot. I think it went very well. As a publisher, Dani did an amazing job. I worked really hard on editing and so did my volunteer friends. I guess the only other thing I can think of is that I probably would have done well to push harder on advertising. Getting on the reading list for Arisia 2010 would have been very valuable. I plan on doing so for Arisia 2011, and hopefully other cons too."
Having learned a few lessons from this process, it's no surprise that Sandel has several plans for future projects. Right now he's working to expand exposure for Tales through further marketing and cons, as well as adding formats:
"I've been meaning to convert [Tales] to ePub for a while now, and have that available too. There’s a PDF version available on the site right now....I also plan on recording an audiobook, although I haven’t yet decided how exactly I want to handle distribution. It'll take up a lot of my time and it'd probably be wise to charge for it somehow." He's considering a "ransom" model to monetize the audiobook effort. In a "ransom" model, an author solicits donations for a work in progress on the premise that once donations reach a certain threshold, a new installment will be released, usually free of charge. The concept as previously been successful for some webcomic artists, as well as some independent role-playing game publishers.
Sandel is not against the idea of publishing future projects in the traditional way, although he says he would be very wary about losing creative rights: "I’ve heard some serious horror stories. But I have no real problems with the idea, and it certainly wouldn’t pay me less."
Tales from the Securemarket (tm) is available through Amazon and through the book's website. The website also has a link at the bottom to contact Colin Sandel directly.
Author's Note, in the interest of transparency: Colin is a friend of mine, and has been for a few years. I attended one of the aforementioned author events last summer, and I own a copy of his book. Many thanks to Colin for taking the time to let me pick his brain on the process behind the publication.