Erica Verrillo has written seven books and published five. She doesn't know why anyone with an ounce of self-preservation would ever want to publish. But, if you insist on selling your soul to the devil, learn how to do it right: marketing, literary agents, book contracts, book promotion, editors, rejections, pitching your book, how to get reviews, and ... most important of all ... everything she did wrong.
"How I Became a Best-Selling Author": Self-publishing is upending the book industry. One woman's unlikely road to a hit novel.
(Originally published in the Wall Street Journal by Alexandra Alter,Dec 9, 2011)
summer, Darcie Chan's debut novel became an unexpected hit. It has
sold more than 400,000 copies and landed on the best-seller lists
alongside brand-name authors like Michael Connelly, James Patterson
and Kathryn Stockett.
been a success by any measure, save one. Ms. Chan still hasn't found
years ago, Ms. Chan's novel, "The Mill River Recluse,"
which tells the story of a wealthy Vermont widow who bestows her
fortune on town residents who barely knew her, would have languished
in a drawer. A dozen publishers and more than 100 literary agents
was willing to take a chance," says Ms. Chan, a 37-year-old
lawyer who drafts environmental legislation. "It was too much of
a publishing risk."
past May, Ms. Chan decided to digitally publish it herself, hoping to
gain a few readers and some feedback. She bought some ads on Web
sites targeting e-book readers, paid for a review from Kirkus
Reviews, and strategically priced her book at 99 cents to encourage
readers to try it. She's now attracting bids from foreign imprints,
movie studios and audio-book publishers, without selling a single
copy in print.
story of how Ms. Chan joined the ranks of best sellers is as much a
tale of digital marketing savvy and strategic pricing as one of
artistic triumph. Her breakout signals a monumental shift in the way
books are packaged, priced and sold in the digital era. Just as music
executives have been sidestepped by YouTube sensations and indie
iTunes hits, book publishers are losing ground to independent authors
and watching their powerful status as literary gatekeepers wither.
has long been derided as a last resort for authors who lack the
talent or savvy to hack it in the publishing business. But it has
gained a patina of legitimacy as a growing number of self-published
authors land on best-seller lists. Last year, 133,036 self-published
titles were released, up from 51,237 in 2006, according to Bowker, a
company that tracks publishing trends.
handful of self-published authors have achieved blockbuster status,
selling more than a million copies of their books on the Kindle.
While they represent a tiny minority of independent authors, the
ranks of the successful are growing. Thirty authors have sold more
than 100,000 copies of their books through Amazon's Kindle
self-publishing program, and a dozen have sold more than 200,000
copies, according to Amazon. The program, which Amazon launched in
2007, allows authors to upload their books directly to Amazon's
Kindle store, set their own prices and publish in multiple languages.
Barnes & Noble followed suit in 2010 with a similar program for
its Nook e-reader.
titles have been buoyed by an explosion in digital book sales. E-book
sales totaled $878 million in 2010, compared to $287 million in 2009,
according to the Association of American Publishers. Some analysts
project that e-book sales will pass $2 billion in 2013.
march of self-published authors has put publishers and literary
agents on guard. Publishing houses like Penguin and Perseus have
recently launched their own digital self-publishing programs in an
effort to capture a slice of the mushrooming market. Some agents,
including Scott Waxman, have started their own digital imprints.
self-publishing still has serious drawbacks. Though e-books are the
fastest-growing segment of the book market, they still make up less
than 10% of overall trade book sales, according to the Association of
American Publishers. Book reviewers tend to ignore self-published
works, and brick-and-mortar bookstores have long shunned them. And
very few authors have a marketing and advertising budget equal to a
successful self-published authors have gone on to cut deals with
major publishers. After selling around 1.5 million digital copies of
her books on her own, 27-year-old fantasy writer Amanda Hocking
signed with St. Martin's Press. She won a $2 million advance for a
new four-book fantasy series called "Watersong"; St.
Martin's will also reprint her best-selling self-published "Trylle"
trilogy about attractive teenage trolls.
thriller and Western writer John Locke, whose 13 books have sold more
than 1.7 million digital copies, signed an unusual contract with
Simon & Schuster in August. The publishing house will print and
distribute his books—the first title comes out next month—while
allowing Mr. Locke to remain as the publisher. Mr. Locke is paying
for the printing, shipping and marketing costs himself, according to
his agent. The print editions, which will sell as mass-market
paperbacks for $4.99, won't be edited. "The opportunity to get
into bookstores, Targets, Wal-Marts, Costcos, airports—I can't do
that as an independent author," Mr. Locke says.
Konrath, a mystery writer who has sold 400,000 digital copies of his
self-published books, earning some $500,000 a year, signed a contract
with Amazon's new mystery imprint to publish his novel "Stirred,"
co-written with Blake Crouch, digitally and in print. It recently hit
No. 1 on the Kindle top-100 list. Mr. Konrath says he was won over by
Amazon's powerful marketing machinery. "They can really blow my
books up," he says.
Chan lives in a spacious, two-story house on a quiet street in
Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. She and her husband, Timothy Chan, met in high
school, at a national science competition. They reunited in Maryland,
where he attended medical school and she completed a law degree at
the University of Baltimore.
the past 15 years, she's worked as an attorney drafting legislation
concerning clean air and water, highway infrastructure and climate
change. She squeezes in a couple of hours of writing each night.
started writing fiction in 2002, when she suddenly had a lot of time
on her hands. Her husband, an oncologist and cancer researcher at
Memorial Sloan-Kettering, was spending long hours at the hospital at
the beginning of his residency, so she spent her nights alone
came up with the story of a wealthy, agoraphobic Vermont widow who
makes anonymous gifts to the townspeople who ignore and fear her. Ms.
Chan says she was inspired by the true story of a resident of Paoli,
the small Indiana town where she grew up. "The Mill River
Recluse" takes place in a fictional Vermont town with a quirky
cast of characters—a kleptomaniac priest with a spoon fetish, a
dotty woman who tries to sell her neighbors love potions, a bad cop
whose off-duty hobbies include stalking and arson.
novel took her 2½ years to write. After seeking feedback from family
and friends, she sent queries to more than 100 literary agents. Most
rejected it as a tough sell. "It didn't really fit any genre,"
Ms. Chan says. "It has elements of romance, suspense, mystery,
but it falls into the catch-all category of literary fiction, and of
course that's the most difficult to sell."
finally landed an agent, Laurie Liss at Sterling Lord Literistic in
New York, who represents cable-news host Rachel Maddow. Ms. Liss
submitted the manuscript to a dozen publishers, all of whom turned it
down. Ms. Chan stashed the manuscript in a drawer, and buried herself
in her legislative work.
years passed. Then, this past spring, she started reading about the
rise of e-book sales and authors who had successfully self published,
and decided to give it a shot. She fashioned a cover image out of a
photograph her sister took of a mansion in Paoli, and she and her
husband used Photoshop to add some gloomy ambience. Then she
nervously uploaded her manuscript to Amazon's Kindle self-publishing
program. She sold a trickle of copies. A few weeks later, she started
selling it on Barnes & Noble's Nook and through SmashWords, a
self-publishing program that distributes to major e-book retailers
including Apple's iBookstore, Sony and Kobo. Her first royalty check
from Amazon was for $39.
noticed that a lot of popular e-books were priced at 99 cents, and
immediately dropped her price from $2.99 to 99 cents. The cut would
slash potential royalties—Amazon pays 35% royalties for books that
cost less than $2.99, compared with 70% for books that cost $2.99 to
$9.99. But sales picked up immediately. "I did that to encourage
people to give it a chance," she says. "I saw it as an
investment in my future as a writer." The strategy worked.
Several reviewers on Amazon said they bought the book because it was
99 cents, then ended up liking it.
checked her sales several times a day, obsessively refreshing her
Amazon page. In the first month, it sold 100 copies. When Ms. Chan
saw the sales figure, she danced in her kitchen with her husband and
were saying, 'Wow, this is really cool. What if you sell 1,000? That
would be awesome,' " her husband recalls.
at the end of June, "The Mill River Recluse" got a mention
on a site called Ereader News Today, which posts tips for Kindle
readers. Over the next two days, it sold another 600 copies. Ms. Chan
realized she might be able to drive sales herself. She spent about
$1,000 on marketing, buying banner ads on websites and blogs devoted
to Kindle readers and a promotional spot on goodreads.com, a
book-recommendation site with more than six million members.
learning that self-published authors can pay to have their books
reviewed by some sites, she paid $35 for a review from
IndieReader.com (IndieReader no longer offers paid reviews). She paid
$575 for an expedited review from Kirkus Reviews, a respected
book-review journal and website. The review service, which Kirkus
launched in 2005, gives self-published authors the option to keep the
review private if it's negative. Ms. Chan decided to have hers posted
on their website. Kirkus called the novel "a comforting book
about the random acts of kindness that hold communities together."
She used blurbs from the reviews on her Amazon and Barnes & Noble
pages. "I hoped it would lend some credibility," she says.
"Most other reviewers won't touch it."
kept climbing. In July, it sold more than 14,000 copies. That month,
it was featured on two of the biggest sites for e-book readers,
generating a surge of new sales. In August, it sold more than 77,000
copies and hit the New York Times and USA Today e-book best-seller
lists; it later landed on the Wall Street Journal list. In September,
it sold more than 159,000 copies. To date, she has sold around
Chan and her agent decided to resubmit the novel to all the major
imprints, citing robust sales figures and rave online reviews. Some
publishers have responded warily. A representative of one publishing
house feared the book had "run its course," Ms. Liss
recalls. Others worried about the novel's bargain basement price,
arguing that an e-book that sells for 99 cents likely won't command a
typical hardcover price of around $26.
few major publishers made offers, but none matched the digital
royalty rates of 35% to 40% that Ms. Chan makes on her own through
Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Typically, most publishers offer print
royalties of 10% to 15% and digital royalties of 25%. Simon &
Schuster offered to act as a distributor, but Ms. Chan wants the book
to be professionally edited and marketed.
Liss says that the offers from U.S. publishers so far don't improve
much on what Ms. Chan is making on her own. She's made around
$130,000 before taxes—substantially more than a standard advance
for the average debut novelist—and she's getting a steady stream of
royalties every month. "I told Darcie, at this point you're
printing money. They're not. Go with God, we'll sell the second
book," Ms. Liss says.
the meantime, there's interest from other corners of the industry.
Multiple audio-book publishers have made offers. Six film studios
have inquired about movie rights. Two foreign publishers bid on the
book. Ms. Chan is holding off on such deals, for fear they might
sabotage a potential contract with a domestic publisher.
Chan still wants to see her book in print. Several librarians have
contacted her seeking print copies after patrons requested her book.
"I have people writing me begging me for a hard copy, book clubs
and libraries calling me, and I don't have a hard copy to provide for
them," she says.
Liss advised her to work on a sequel set in the same town, with some
of the same characters. Ms. Chan has written two chapters. While she
would love to write full time, for now, she still sees writing as
more of a hobby. When people ask her what she does for a living, she
says she's a lawyer. But she's still holding out hope that a
publisher will buy "The Mill River Recluse," edit it and
sell it in brick-and-mortar stores.
hardest part for me is uncertainty," she says. "I deal
better with rejection than uncertainty."