Why I decided to self-publish: Part Three: Taken for a Ride

This is the third post in a series about why, after twenty years,  I decided to self publish my new historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune. By 2001, I had been through the standard route–get an agent, rewrite along lines suggested by agent, submit to publishing houses, collect rejections, start on new book. Unpublished members of my writers group were doing the same thing-with no success. Those members of the group who had published in the 1990s were experiencing the disappointing fate of  a growing number of midlist authors–failing to get contracts for their latest books, and in some cases parting ways with their agents. See an excellent blog posting on this experience written in 2006 by Holly Lisle.

Here are the lessons I had learned so far: 1) I needed to work on making my writing more compelling 2) getting published has a lot to do with timing-and mine was off 3) agents won’t go back to editors with books that have been rejected-even if the ms is improved and there have been changes in the market 4) even if you are published, the time it takes to sell the last book and write a new one is the equivalent of a full time job with very part time pay.

But I was not ready to give up.

I had discovered that the demands of my full time professorship didn’t leave me time to write my planned follow up to Maids of Misfortune. On the other hand, my daughter had just moved out on her own, and it did seem reasonable that I could find the time to work on rewriting my first manuscript. There were now some new small presses emerging, as the traditional houses began to focus ever more narrowly on finding and selling the next big block buster. I also had begun to read about the new possibilities of electronic books and print on demand as alternatives to the traditional mode of publishing. See Bob Spear’s posting on this trend.

This all came together when an ad in my local Sisters in Crime newsletter announced a contest by a small press (which I will call Eternal Hopes Press) that was specializing in both ebooks and POD technology. The winner of the contest would be published. I now had a newly revised copy of Maids, submission was simple, all I had to do was email an electronic copy. I then received a letter saying that the contest had been cancelled because there hadn’t been enough qualified entrants, but that the editors were so impressed with my manuscript that they wanted to publish it. This did sound like the classic bait and switch. However, since Eternal Hopes Press was offering me a limited, 3 year contract (with rights to the book returning to me at the end of the 3 years) with standard royalty payments and no cost or fees to me (unlike the subsidy presses such as IUniverse) I thought, what could be the harm?

At first all went well. Between March of 2001 and August of 2001, Eternal Hopes sent me a cover and professionally edited galley proofs, and, after I made the corrections, an ad for an electronic copy of the book showed up on their website. The contract included a provision that the book would also be available in print-both hardback and paperback-and that was what I was waiting for. In this pre-Ereader era, my friends and family  had no desire to download my book onto their computers-they wanted the “real thing.”  But the real thing never came-and neither did any ebook sales from the website.

A year later, after numerous emails and letters from me, and excuses from Eternal Hopes Press about difficulties with their printer and distributor, it became clear that this was never going to happen. The promised hardback and paperback copies never came, the ads on Amazon never appeared, no marketing was ever done, and I never sold a single book.

The contract stated that if they did not produce the promised print on demand book within a year, or I did not receive $300 in any pay quarter, that I could opt out of the contract, which I eventually did. I was a sadder but wiser author, but I concluded that no harm had been done. Big mistake!.

In, January 2004, after attending the SDSU Writers Conference, I found another agent (I shall call her Ms. Y), who after reading the entire book said that she would very much like to sign me up for her agency. But, she had some suggested revisions, and, since I had been under contract with Eternal Hopes Press, that her agency needed a letter from this press that they no longer had any rights over the book. So in February of 2004, I wrote Eternal Hopes Press a nice letter, reiterating the reasons that I had opted out of the contract, asking them to take down the posting that had remained on their now apparently inactive website, and asking that they send confirmation that the contract was indeed terminated and the rights had reverted to me. And got nothing back. Over the next 6 months I sent emails, registered letters, and finally a series of increasingly threatening letters from a intellectual property rights lawyer I had consulted. Nothing. I also spent those six months making the changes to my manuscript that Agent Y had requested. But, despite the fact that the three years on the contract was up and the lawyer confirmed that there were no residual “rights” left to the Eternal Hopes Press, Ms. Y informed me that without a letter to that effect from Eternal Hopes, she could not represent me.

To be fair to Ms. Y, I think she really was disappointed, and from the research I did subsequently, she was probably right to be careful, since most of the editorial policies regarding submissions that I have seen from major publishing houses include the requirement that a manuscript can not have been published before in any form, including electronic. There is evidence that his policy is beginning to change. Yet, as recently as last summer, at the California Crime Writers Conference, when I asked different editors about their policies towards books that had previously been published as electronic books, their answers were still that they would be very reluctant to consider them.

Lessons learned this time around? 1) my faith in the quality of my work was reinforced, because I didn’t have any difficulty finding an agent interested in representing me the two times I looked for one 2) it is very important to do your research before making any move in the publishing world-because, while I am still convinced that both electronic books and pod technology are the wave of the future-in 2001 Eternal Hopes Press and I were too far ahead of our time and 3) there is always a danger when you give away your rights to your own work.

A year ago, recently retired, I decided that I would try once again to publish Maids of Misfortune.  But this time, having learned my lessons well, I decided that I would first do two things; 1) I would rewrite the manuscript one last time, so that I was absolutely sure it was as strong and compelling, and as well written as I could make it 2) I would take the time to research the publishing field, so that whatever decisions I made, they would be informed, and I would have a clear understanding of the options and the consequences of my decisions.  The next post will detail why the research I did, added to my experiences with the publishing world over twenty years, eventually led me to decide to self-publish.

2 Replies to “Why I decided to self-publish: Part Three: Taken for a Ride”

  1. Luisa,

    I found your story (I just read part 3) fascinating and instructive. By far the strongest takeaway for me was your determination to “take the tie to research” how to publish your book, and I look forward to the next installment. I hope you’ll include information on the financial costs and repercussions of your chosen path, because this is extremely useful for other people considering this route to publication.

  2. Dear Joel,

    Thanks for your comments. I do intend to spell out the costs (which have been pretty minimal), as well as my strategies in marketing (which I have just started), and my successes and failures (including detail on sales, and what marketing approaches seem to have had the largest effect on sales.) Look forward to hearing from you again.

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