On a hot July afternoon in the summer of 2006, two of my daughters wanted to go to the swimming pool; my middle daughter, who was not quite 14, did not. As a result, she ended up with both the house and our one and only computer to herself. She began to write a story, hardly an unusual activity for her, but this time the story would grow until it was a novel called Legacy. It would also take us on a two-year roller-coaster ride through self-publishing to land the book in the hands of AmazonEncore, Amazon’s new traditional publishing arm, as its launch title.
The reason we decided to self-publish was simple: we needed to get a work of young adult fiction noticed, and we recognized very quickly that hooking an agent in the hope of hooking a publisher would not work for us at the outset. Why? Cayla Kluver, my daughter and the book’s author, had no credentials at the time she finished the book (she was a no-name graduate from a small-town high school); no previous publications (not a poem, story, magazine article, newspaper column . . . nothing); and she was 15 (we were convinced that no agent was going to pull a teenager’s work from the slush pile when a manuscript from an adult has a far greater likelihood of being well written).
While there are many facets to our adventure, I think our essential strategy is what led us to where we are now. In simplest terms, that strategy was: define, prepare, implement, adjust, and persist.
Define: What Do You Want to Achieve?
Like most self-publishers, we didn’t have a lot of money. We needed a clear vision to help us spend our limited dollars wisely. We needed a clear vision so that production decisions, pricing and distribution decisions, and marketing decisions pursued the same goal. The only thing worse than having to row your own boat is not knowing how to work the oars. If one oar pulls back while the other pushes forward, you won’t make much progress; in fact, you’ll expend a lot of energy and time going in circles.
In our case, the long-term goal was the one we sidestepped in the beginning: to attract an agent and obtain a traditional publishing contract. To achieve this overall objective, we felt we needed to:
- get reviews and (hopefully) awards for our self-published edition to evidence the quality of the book
- set up the best distribution system we could to get the book into the hands ofconsumers
- have a respectable sales record to establish the viability of the book in the market
These objectives drove every other decision we made.
Prepare: What Do You Need to Do, and by When?
When people ask me about my self-publishing experience, I often tell them it was a leap of faith, but that isn’t quite accurate. It was a well-thought-out leap of faith.
Cayla and I did our research. We learned as much as we could about the mechanics of producing a book; we looked at how established publishers market and distribute their books; and we looked at books with which ours would compete, in terms of both content and design elements. In other words, we learned about the industry, learned about the process, and learned about the competition.
Given our primary objective, this information led us to a number of decisions. We decided to form our own publishing company and launch a Web site in order to look as professional as possible (designing our own Web site saved money and was fun). We decided to work with a local printer since we were learning along the way, and ready access to the printer made it easy to talk about issues and maintain quality control.
In addition, since publishers in the young adult fiction market launch what they believe will be their best books in hardcover (something we could not afford to do), we decided to give the book a look similar to the look of its hardcover competitors. This affected production decisions, including the outside dimensions of the book, cover design and copy, interior layout, paper weight and color, and binding. We also priced the book higher than softcover competitors, given its larger dimensions, but lower than comparable hardcover titles. As we weren’t in this to make a profit at the start, we priced it with an eye toward breaking even on the overall endeavor.
We gathered information on when, how, and from whom we should solicit reviews. This helped us lay out a timeline for our book, as we knew how far in advance of publication reviews had to be solicited. It also led to our decision to produce galley copies to send for review prior to publication, and to obtain a ForeWord Clarion review and a Kirkus Discoveries review (both paid for) as a check on our sanity (if we couldn’t get a reasonable review when we were paying for it, maybe the book needed more work).
We learned about distribution, decided it was very important for us to have a major wholesaler, and used one of the benefits IBPA offers its members to accomplish this. The small-vendor program with Baker & Taylor allowed us to place our book with it; the sales we generated drove B&T to stock the book on an ongoing basis.
We learned about promotion and marketing opportunities and decided which ones made the most sense for us in terms of effectiveness and cost. Again, IBPA services helped; a number of marketing opportunities were of interest, including book fairs and mailings to target market groups.
Implement: You’ve Planned It, Why Not Do It?
We produced our galleys as bound copies without the final cover, which hadn’t yet been through final proofing, and sent them to the prepublication reviewers we had identified, as well as to Clarion and Kirkus. When our Clarion review came back at five stars, and our Kirkus Discoveries review was highly complimentary, we went ahead with the rest of the plan and produced the book in accordance with the timeline we had already mapped out.
In some ways, the most difficult part became tracking everything that was under way. We used a calendar for this purpose, marking, for example, the date we sent a galley to a reviewer and the date we could reasonably expect the review to be completed; the date by which we had to have the PDF files proofed and back to the printer; and the date by which we had to have a copy of the book to IBPA for a book fair (along with the date we needed to get the copy in the mail to meet that deadline).
Adjust: What Is Working and What Is Not?
You need to know not only if your expenditures and efforts are getting results, but which particular marketing and promotional activities are getting results, so that you can decide where tomorrow’s dollar will be best spent. The whole idea is to get as much mileage as you can out of each dollar.
We knew this meant we had to track sales to the best of our ability, including the sales that were generated from book fairs; from mailings (we did a mailing to independent bookstores and a couple of library mailings); from promotion on specific Web sites (such as the banner ad we ran on a site catering to teen readers); and so on.
Other things we tracked were the number of hits per day on our Web site, surges in sales following particular promotions, and how many books sold at signings. In addition, we were always looking for new opportunities and revising our tactics as necessary. For example, when we had a number of strong reviews, we used them to obtain newspaper, radio, and television interviews—all terrific, and free, promotion.
Persist: Was Rome Built in a Day?
I called our experience a roller-coaster ride because we had both highs and lows along the way—days when we wished we hadn’t started this project, and days when we felt just as strongly that it was the best thing we had ever done.
The trick is to learn what you can from negative experiences without fixating on them, and to keep your eye on the prize (your objectives). Are you making progress? Are you having some fun? Do you believe in what you’re doing? If so, persevere.
I’ve occasionally been asked what I would have done if Legacy hadn’t been picked up by a big publisher (actually, it was picked up by 15 publishers, as we retained foreign rights and at this point have signed contracts with publishers in 14 other countries). My response: I would have kept promoting it; but I also would have self-published Allegiance, the sequel to Legacy. If the glowing reviews and the four awards Legacy won, along with its growing sales, hadn’t been enough to attract the notice of a larger publisher or to connect with an agent, then maybe the two books combined would have been. (Note: there will now be three books—the Legacy Trilogy.)
In truth, I didn’t expect things to happen as quickly as they did. While I’m thrilled to be where we are, I also thought of the books as a way to establish Cayla’s writing credentials, and her next manuscript might well have been the one a large house picked up. In other words, if Legacy hadn’t won a contract from a major house, I would have refocused my objective to make it: Launch a career and not just a book!
About the Author
Kimberly Kluver owns Forsooth Publishing, the original publisher of Legacy by Cayla Kluver. With a bachelor’s degree in business and a graduate degree in law, she started her career as an attorney, eventually becoming a university professor. She reports that she is enjoying her venture into publishing so much that she has resigned her tenured position. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.