06/14/2010 10:59 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Field Notes From a Published and Self-Published Author

On a fairly regular basis, a friend will ask if I might be willing to spend some time talking to someone they know about the ins and outs of self publishing. It's a red-hot field and topic regularly covered by the mainstream media because the phenomenon can no longer be ignored. According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, over half a million books were self-published last year. However, the publishing bigwigs haven't quite surrendered their 20th century thinking on the matter. Here's an excerpt from the article:

"In mainstream literary circles, self-publishing is generally considered the realm of egomaniacs, eccentrics and failures--those who've been rejected by mainstream outlets but are too deluded to realize the worthlessness of their work."

Right. This is the same circle of people who have no problem displaying their utter contempt for literary talent, quality and honesty, shamelessly doing pranam to greed by offering million dollar advances to literary giants like Sarah Palin. But I digress.

I am always happy to chat with people considering self-publishing because I've been down that uncertain road a couple of times with the scars to prove it. But before I let loose with advice on the pitfalls and high notes of self-publishing, first a little background.

My first two books were published by one of the Big Boys (Random House), and by a little guy (Wildcat Canyon Press/San Francisco). Yours truly, aka Kouraj Press, published the last two.

First up, Random House. To an unknown and first-time author, a $25,000 advance was quite the thrill, even though I knew that my book would be left to sink or swim once it was put on the market. I figured if it found an audience, the Big Boy would shell out a few marketing dollars in appropriate markets. But I was wrong. Since 1998, when Mehndi, the Art of Henna Body Painting was released, through my creative marketing efforts 2010-06-08-mehndibooksmaller.jpgalone, the book has sold an average of 500 copies per month, or about 5,000 books a year. I don't know about you, but as far as I'm concerned, that's a best-seller! Most writers I know agree. I'm making money from my book. To the Big Boys, though, those numbers amount to chicken shit.

So, when Wildcat Canyon Press came along and promised me a next-to-nothing advance but aggressive marketing, I said sign me up! Well, for reasons that shall forever remain in that vast mystère known as the difference between the way writers and publishers think about books, Aggressive Marketing came to resemble its evil twin, Passive Marketing, or next to none. Although several copies of that book, Ceremonies for Real Life, still exist on for $.48 and up (!), the publisher let it go out of print; and, although I worked my tail off, I never did figure out a way to find a big enough audience for it.2010-06-08-ceremoniesbooksmaller.jpg

I had good reason to think my third book, Sex, Cheese and French Fries, would be able to find itself some readers. It's a humorous look at the challenges of a cross-cultural couple based, in part, on my French husband and American me. I mean, if you are not in one of these relationships, you know someone who is, right? It's a burgeoning trend. Plus, I had roughly 20 billion people read it (most of them strangers) and 99% of them reported it was a great read, and that it made them laugh out loud. My former agent did her best to sell it, but after receiving enough letters that said something like, "It's charming, funny, and well-written but... You fill in the blank. The blank I remember most said, "If only the husband was someone famous..."

2010-06-08-scaffbooksmaller.jpgNow, keep in mind that by then, I was roughly seven years into selling 500 copies per month of my first book, and I figured I had a pretty good database from which to consider self-publishing a viable alternative. So, even though some would say I was too deluded to realize the worthlessness of my work, I took the plunge.

The print-on-demand formula is very appealing: for an up front fee and percentage of sales, these companies do all the hard work for you--they offer editing services, design and illustrate your book and your cover, apply for ISBNs and UPC codes, register you in all the proper databases, get you into and all the major online bookstores, provide distribution relationships, as well as a storefront, plus you only print a book when you need it (ending the dilemma of thousands of unsold books in your basement). But I opted to form my own press for one reason: I wanted to own the thing completely. I knew how to hire a good editor, find an illustrator and book designer; I wanted to own the ISBN. Plus, I knew I had an audience. But I was wrong.

Turns out the niche audience for my book on henna tattoos was not necessarily interested in a funny book on cross-cultural relationships even though it was written by an author they know and like. I spent a lot of money and worked my ass off to sell the thing. And even though I live in Hollywood, where it seemed like 20 billion people told me it would make a great movie or TV series ("It's a modern I Love Lucy!" they said. "No, really!"), I only sold about 1500-2000 books. Without a lightning bolt of luck or deep pockets for continued marketing and advertising, there wasn't much more I could do. I made my money back but that wasn't the point now, was it?

So, why would I do it again? Not because I'm deluded that my work isn't worthless (no, really!). It's because my newest book appeals to the same niche market that keeps buying my book on henna. This book, Jagua, A Journey into Body Art from the Amazon, is about a new form of natural temporary body art that stains the skin blue/black and is a dead ringer for a permanent tattoo, only it fades away in two weeks. It's written in a lively memoir style, takes readers on a magical trip into the Amazon jungle, and with all its expensive color photography and stylish design, the book is gorgeous, if I do say so myself. Plus, tattoos continue to be all the rage.2010-06-08-jaguabooksmaller.jpg

Hey, twelve years later, I still have to buy my henna book from Random House. Why would I want to do that again when I already have access to the most potential buyers? (Aside from my 20-year-old art gallery, I co-own a business that manufactures a line of temporary tattoo kits with 15,000 registered online customers, 1500 stores that retail our products, and numerous distributors.) My new literary agent thought she might be able to sell my jagua book but self-publishing was my preferred path. I said if she wanted to try finding a publishing house for wider distribution purposes, that would be great.

In the meantime, this agent had been shopping another book of mine, a novel, without any luck. It's not like she spent months and months on it, mind you. It was sent to one round of editors, who liked but didn't love it, and that was enough for her. Not that I blame her. Agents make money off substantial advances. If the Big Boys don't go for it, it's not worth the time investment for them. I could start sending the book out to smaller publishers myself, but we all know the system is skewed. Only agented work gets a fair shake. It's a hard, cruel world out there.

My agent suggested I self-publish the novel. Even though there is a gigantic appetite right now for otherworldly characters, and my story is partially narrated by the Haitian Vodou spirit of death and sex, I thought self-publishing it was a terrible idea. My ego doesn't give a damn about getting published anymore. I can't say I wouldn't be happy to have the work out there -- writing fiction is hard for me, and the manuscript was long years in the making -- but I'm in it to make money from my writing (which must be why I blog!*).

In the meantime, how's my new book doing? It's a little soon to tell if it will be as popular as my first book--right now, jagua tattoos are still a fairly obscure commodity. But I am encouraged. Just a couple of weeks ago, one of our distributors ordered 100 copies. So, what's my advice to aspiring self-publishers? Tread lightly, very lightly.

*Writing for free on Huffington Post does have its advantages. One of the Big Boy publishers once contacted me after following my blogs. Did I have any books in the works? she wanted to know. After I woke from my dead faint, I sent her my novel; but she wasn't interested in fiction. Only in memoirs--anything do with relationships; anything to do with the French, she suggested. I thought I had just the book for her. But I was wrong.