Thursday, December 24, 2015

You're not going to screw yourself...

by Giselle Renarde

A couple months ago, my mom bumped into a family friend she hadn't seen in a while. The friend asked, "What's Giselle up to these days?"

My mom proudly replied, "Giselle is a self-published author!"

When she told my sister and I this story, we burst out laughing.

My mom said, "What? Self-published--isn't that the good one?"

Classic Mom. My work has been published by imprints of Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins and even Oxford University Press, yet my mother goes around gleefully telling the world I'm a self-published author. "Isn't that the good one?"

Self-publishing has generally been more lucrative for me than placing my work with small presses. That's what my mom had latched onto, in conversation. My sister and I tried to explain the snobbery that still exists in the worlds of reading, writing, and publishing. If you go around saying you're a self-published author, most people hear "I suck and nobody's willing to publish my work."

I won't speculate as to whether I suck (my opinion of my writing varies with mood), but over the past 10 years my work has appeared in well over 100 print anthologies. That's in addition to ebooks placed at far too many small presses. I don't say any of this to brag, only to convey that there are people out there willing to publish my work.

Or, there used to be.

So much has changed since I first started writing. Just today, I got word another anthology my short fiction was accepted for has been scrapped by the published. That's FIVE cancelled contracts this year.

As I've probably mentioned, I never set out to be a writer. I started writing on a dare. I'd just been laid off from my job in the big bad business world and was having a bit of a quarter-life crisis. I felt like I needed to pick a career and stick with it.

Ten years ago, I couldn't see this far into the future. I never imagined I would self-publish my work. The erotica world seemed dominated by websites, magazines, smallish presses and largish presses. I wrote short stories to answer calls for submissions. I'd never read an ebook, but I started writing them for small publishers. I'm not saying everything I wrote just magically got published. Trust me--I saw my share of rejection letters. My book Ondine was probably rejected by 6 different publishers. But it needed to be. I got great advice from some very caring editors and improved the book incrementally.

I'd only been writing a few years when author acquaintances started opening their own publishing houses catering to niche markets. I liked the idea of getting in on the ground floor (worked well for me with eXcessica), and I also wanted to support fellow authors who were beginning their own ventures. So I submitted a few works here, a few works there.

Pretty soon, I had ebooks (short stories/novels/novellas) placed with... oh, easily 20 different publishers.

That wasn't my first mistake, but it was probably my biggest.

I've never been an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket type, but Homer Simpson's got a good point when he says, "What would you have me do? One basket for each egg?"

There comes a point where the baskets themselves become too much to carry. In writing terms, how do you keep sending new work to 20 different publishers? If you slack, you're not going to satisfy fans at that publishing house. Putting out new stuff gets eyes on your backlist. Without those eyes, sales stagnate.

There was a point where I had a bunch of royalty cheques coming in for less than $10 each. And then less than $2 each. If I'd consolidated all those efforts with one publisher I really trusted, I think I'd have fared much better.

The trouble is, with the exception of a small handful of publishers, I wasn't working with people I had a lot of faith in. That's dangerous. Some publishers seemed to take their jobs less seriously than I took mine. That's extremely dangerous. That's when you get into publishers who don't bother to send you royalty reports. Or payments. Because they don't feel like it or whatever.

One thing I've learned over the years is that you don't need to be good at business to run a business. Just because you've decided to become a publisher doesn't mean you're going to behave professionally. I've witnessed more than one publisher treat authors like shit behind the scenes. I had a reader email me one time to say they were having trouble downloading a book and when they wrote to the publisher, the response was basically, "Are you some kind of idiot? You're too stupid to figure out how to download a book?"

You think I'm exaggerating. I wish!

The real kicker? This particular reader was also a well-respected book reviewer. Save me, Jebus.

When I first started out, I found publishers on the Erotica Readers and Writers Association website and then looked them up on Piers Anthony's site to find out all the dirt. Of course, I couldn't research the startups. They were too new. No data available.

I strongly encourage authors to do their research. Find out who you're getting into bed with. If you trust no one, get into bed with alone. Like Alison Tyler says: "You're not going to screw yourself." (that's not an exact quote, btw)

Wow, I sound really down on publishers. I'm not. I've found great success and incredible support with some. But not all. Most of the publishers I've worked with haven't been jerks. They've done their best, just like I've done mine, but the money wasn't there. Sales were crappy, so we parted ways. That's business.

I'm not sure what the takeaway is, here. Do your homework? Don't get into bed with acquaintances? Don't spread yourself too thin? I don't know. I still make too many mistakes to be giving anyone advice.


  1. You most certainly do not suck, hon! :)

    It's a shame that society still has such a stigma over self-publishing, because it's brought so many authors and titles to light that traditional publishing would never have touched. When I'm reading something on my Kobo, I don't even notice who published it - they're all just stories I want to read.

    Having said that, there is something extra special about having the name Giselle Renarde staring back at you from the bookshelf.

    1. Awww thanks for the compliments! I feel like the stigma is lessening among authors, as more of us go there out of desperation and find we like the control... and the money. But I could be mistaken, as I often am about so many things.

  2. I've made a lot of the same mistakes, Giselle, and I know what you're talking about. Also, I think we would have been anthology-buddies for that latest cancelled anthology—and probably some of the other five :( One of the things that makes me particularly sad is I really thought I was doing my research. I did try. And I still didn't turn things up that I ended up finding out the hard way. So, yeah, researching publishers is always a really good idea. I'm glad self-publishing has been working out better for you.

    1. Yup, when I looked up the TOC to remind myself which story I'd written for that antho, I saw your name staring back at me. The really GRRRR thing about this scrapped antho is that my story involved a firefighter and a few months ago another editor was like, "Giselle! I need a story with a firefighter in it TODAY. Do you have one?" Yes, but it's tied up...

      I feel really jerked around when I have a contract and then it's just like oh, well, we're not going to honour that. Sorry.

  3. The trouble is, with the exception of a small handful of publishers, I wasn't working with people I had a lot of faith in. That's dangerous. Some publishers seemed to take their jobs less seriously than I took mine.

    Yeah. Low barrier to entry = fuckin' amateur hour, all too often. By the end of my career, there was almost no one among the many small and tiny publishers I'd worked with that I would have been willing to work with again, I'm afraid. Most commonly, it wasn't because of inept or negligent business practices (though there was some of that, certainly), but because of their sneaking or trying to sneak bad edits by me (in conjunction with the fact that the books didn't seem to be reaching a meaningful readership anyway—which, as an endemic problem, I can't blame publishers for, of course, except insofar as they neglect to learn enough about the business to figure out that just having a website and putting things on Amazon and tweeting into the void is not going to cut it). Of course, as I've said before, I never found self-publishing, generally speaking, to be a credible alternative for most of us. So, as usual, I have nothing constructive to offer. (:v>

    1. Who care about "credible" when you're doing this to put food on the table? heh. The most credible writing I've done has been exactly the writing that's earned me little to no money.

      I'm glad we've had kind of the same experience--not for your sake, or for mine, only that I always feel like a jerk who goes around bad-mouthing people I've worked with.

    2. (:v>

      Just to clarify: I tend to view self-publishing as not a "credible" option for most of us in the sense that I'm not convinced it's a likely path to actually selling books and reaching readers. (From what you've told us now and again, however, I know that you're one of the exceptions.)

  4. Since my first acceptance in 2012, I think I've been in print for six publishers including Cleis' Best Bondage '15 and a collection of my own stuff for eXcessica. I appreciated getting in all of them, but not much scratch has come of it. My next collection, (A smaller one) "Brand X" will be out April Fool's day, again with eXcessica. Wish I had the chops for a novel, to see where that might go. Maybe just doing short stories is a mistake?

    1. Oftentimes, a novel is just something that takes a long time to write and then nobody buys it. Short stories have always appealed to me because commitment is scary. But, god, there used to be a market for them.

  5. Even having a well-established and professional publisher doesn't necessarily translate into sales, Giselle. I've found that over the past six years and I'm moving more and more toward self-pubbing and working with Excessica (which is sort of half-way between working with a publisher and going it on your own). I don't want to write according to someone else's rules anymore. Been there, done that, didn't sell. So if I'm not going to sell anyway, I might as well have some fun.

    Oh, and publishers folding... SO common. Some due to incompetence, some due to visions that didn't translate into commercial viability (like Freaky Fountain).

    And I agree with Sally, I read for the author and the story. I don't care who published the book (as long as the typos and formatting problems are not too bad).

  6. Even having a well-established and professional publisher doesn't necessarily translate into sales

    Indeed, that's been my experience, too. I have several stories that were anthologized by bigger companies in books that, as far as I could tell, went nowhere. Now, I have to assume that the ones that saw conventional bookstore distribution must at least have sold some copies—I mean, a couple hundred copies sold is a dismal failure for a conventional publisher, but by my standards—sadly—it's nothing to turn up my nose at. But the bigger-publisher anthos I was in that were e-book only? Frankly, I'm not sure that anybody read those.

    1. I've been repubbing my stories from anthologies as stand-alone shorts, or in themed collections. It might not get me any money, but at least it keeps my work in view and gives me frequent "new" releases. See my discussion on the care and feeding of your back list at ERWA last month:

    2. I actually have compiled the majority of my scattered stories into a series of book-length collections. But I deliberately didn't self-publish them in the usual sense, because (as you've heard me moan before) I am quite sure the factors you identify in your column do not apply to writers in my position. I could self-publish till I was blue in the face (as Wodehouse would say), and those self-published books would be even more invisible to the people who might like them than my non-self-published books are. What I did do with these story collections was put them up on my website as unofficial, free .pdfs, so that in theory the 2 or 3 people who care enough about my work to go deep might find them someday. I intentionally limited their availability to my own website—and did not promote them— so they wouldn't have a general Web presence as freebees, because I don't want to get a gazillion downloads from people who snapped them up just because they were free and who would most likely never open them or, if they did, would not be at all the right audience for them.)

  7. It's looking to me as though the folks who still buy books want only novel-length works they can be immersed in, while those who used to read short stories fill their reading time bobbling about online. As, in fact, do I, all too much. Whatever the reason, anthologies are doing poorly. I know writers who are making more putting single short stories on Amazon that can sell for two or three dollars than they could have made selling to an anthology. Tempting, in a way, but I can't convince myself that the investment in cover art and the learning curve for the technical aspects would be worth it in my case, and in fact these days I only seem to be able to write when an anthology call sparks my interest rather than having story ideas dancing in my head like visions of sugarplums. Ossification, that's what it is.

    But things keep changing, and there's no telling today what, if anything, will work tomorrow. Publishers are in flux, even publishers that used be pretty trustworthy, as we all know. Reading between the lines in the above comments, I'm thinking things may be even worse than I knew in certain areas.

    1. Sacchi, it's much harder to edit a collection than it is to format a book for self-publishing.

      And I've gotten most of my covers via barter, editing for art. Or I've done the simple, one-photo versions myself.

      It's really not at all as daunting as it might seem.

  8. Depressing news, all, but nothing I hadn't heard before. Your impulse to rewrite older work seems very understandable, Willsin. I plan to do that during my upcoming sabbatical. (My novel of 1998 satisfied me at the time, but I don't want to send it out again as is.)

    I'm also reluctant to self-pub on Amazon because 1) Amazon, the giant publishing bully, 2) my lack of tech savvy, 3) my lingering dread of being considered a "vanity" author who can't find a "real" publisher, 4) the pleasure I get from having work accepted by smallish publishers I know and seeing it in anthologies with names I recognize (including anyone here on the Grip). Self-publishing would feel like leaving the mothership to brave the ocean in a homemade rowboat. However, maybe NOT going there is a mistake. (I don't think I understand how Excessica works. I will take another look at the site.)

  9. I think some day I will have to look into self publishing as well. My problem right now is just trying to get myself to write. I do find this post to very educational and I kind of wish I'd had it available years ago.



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