April 09, 2013

An Author's Take on Self-Publishing: Interview with Gail Gauthier

It all started two years ago, when the Cybils opened the SFF category to self-published books. Many of them arrived in eboook form. As a first-round judge, I spent a lot of time whining about them, which showed a distinct lack of professionalism, but to justify my whining, it was a lot of work getting through some of the less polished ones. There were major formatting issues, not to mention typos and such. It felt like reading the slush pile. And then, we discovered Susan Ee's ANGELFALL, and realized how editors reading the slushpile must feel - like they've found gold-plated diamonds in mud. We were THAT excited. I remember 2011 as being a nearly IMPOSSIBLE year to narrow down finalists (Hm. Just like this year.) and that we almost all agreed that ANGELFALL was definite Cybils finalist material was exciting. I remember that was the first time I realized that editors and big houses didn't make publishing gold - authors did.

You'd think I would have known that.

Since then, I've been trying to champion self-publishing and professionally produced self-published ebooks, so when I got wind that a blog-buddy was self-publishing SAVING THE PLANET & STUFF as an ebook, I got intrigued. So, in true Wonderland style, we asked a few nosy questions...

  Finding Wonderland: I know that everyone from Forbes to specific writers and/or writing entities (RWA, for instance) has said a lot of positive about ebooks and backlist publishing, but I also recall that it wasn’t all ease and freedom for you. I’d love to hear and talk about how this has worked for you, and how you’re going forward from this point.

Aquafortis (AF): In particular, as someone who has prior experience as an author in the traditional publishing arena, it must have been quite a learning experience.

Gail Gauthier: First off, I just want to say that what I found difficult was the time involved. I often have periods when I’m working part-time, so a great deal of what I did have for work time during the second half of 2012 ended up going into learning what needed to be done to publish an ebook and then actually doing it rather than working on new writing projects. That was frustrating. And I had a publishing partner/computer guy doing the technical aspects of the work, so I wasn’t even doing the really difficult and time consuming part of the job. He converted the text to HTML, which took much longer than we expected, because Saving the Planet & Stuff includes a number of different font types. Every time there was a switch, some coding had to be done. So the whole job seemed to go on and on.

Depending on what you want to do with your publication, there are a variety of different ways you can go with the conversion process and formatting, so ours isn’t necessarily a typical experience.

Tanita: Erg... that sounds grueling. But, I have to say that I’m excited to read now about the many digital imprints designed to get your work into ebook print. However, there are a lot of great places and other not-so-great places, as detailed by Writer Beware and its blog counterpart. Writers, do the work. Research. Don’t just sign any old contract, or you’ll be very sorry.

FW:So, back to your project, Gail. What was the catalyst for self-publishing your ebook?

GG: I had asked for the rights back for Saving the Planet soon after it went out-of-print in 2007, so I’d always thought I would do something with it. The actual catalyst, though, was that I was concerned about a publishing gap in my career. Except for some essays, I hadn’t published anything since 2008 or been able to sell a book since before then. I thought that publishing an ebook would keep me active in the publishing world while I continued to write and submit other work. I planned to make a trailer and work on marketing to show that I was capable of doing those things. It was only after I started reading about self-publishing ebooks that I realized that it was becoming a more common way for traditionally published authors to maintain their own backlists, since publishing companies do less of that now.

I also realized at that point that while all my books were out-of-print in the sense of no longer being available in a paper and ink format, I actually did have books “in print,” because my publisher had published ebook editions of my last three titles. I had been doing nothing to support those books, because I had been thinking in terms of Woe is me, I’m out-of-print. My attitude has totally changed on that point.

FW: Why this book for your first ebook? (I mean, aside from the obvious – that it’s about environment, and ebooks save paper...)

AF: Which give this interview great timing, by the way, with Earth Day coming up later this month...

GG: Saving the Planet & Stuff is the first of my backlist that I’ve published myself (as I said earlier, G. P. Putnam’s Sons published three of my other books as ebooks) because I thought it might have missed its audience during its first publication. I had written it as a YA book, but it was published for middle grade and up. I had no problem with that at the time. It was only after the fact, when I was trying to talk about the book in schools to 4th and 5th graders (the age group I usually speak to) that I realized that those very young children weren’t going to have a lot of interest in summer office jobs or get a lot of the environmental humor or the how-should-I-live-my-life? themes. I also thought it had some potential for crossover into the adult market, since I had had some adult readers contact me about it. So I thought it was the book with the most sales potential, since it had never been marketed to the older groups I thought would have the most interest in it.

FW: I love the idea of an eco-comedy. Have you read others, or did you make that up entirely?

GG: As far as I know, I made up the term in 2003. (Though does anyone ever make anything up?) On the front flap of the hardcover we described the book as “what may be the first eco-comedy.” I’m not aware of much humor around environmentalism, other than the clich├ęd tree-huggers-as-butts-of-jokes variety. I’m not interested in point-and-laugh humor. Also, I consider myself an environmentalist, though not a very good one, so I had no desire to make fun of them. Culture clash isn’t all that amusing unless there is some balance between the two elements that are clashing.

AF: As a newbie to the published-author world, copyright reversion isn't something that's come up for me yet, but it's something writers really should know about--at least insofar as it pertains to their own books and what might happen to them in the future. Having a plan in place to regain control of your creations once they're out of print is important, because it doesn't necessarily mean your book is dead. So, Gail, what was the process of the copyright reverting to you?

GG: That was actually quite easy. Once I’ve been formally notified that a book is going out-of-print, I write another formal letter to the publisher asking to have the rights returned to me. It can take a few months for the paperwork to turn around. I’ve requested the rights to a number of my books and never been turned down.

The tricky part is that you can only get the rights back so long as there are no editions of the book still available for sale, generating income for the publisher. Thus, if there is a book in large print still available or foreign editions, those may keep you from getting the rights back, even though what you consider to be the basic book is definitely out-of-print. So I didn’t rush to ask for the rights back to some of my books, if I knew there was some unique edition somewhere that the publisher was still getting income from.

In recent years, many publishers have been requiring ebook rights with book contracts and publishing ebook editions at the same time they publish the hardcover book. They can keep those ebooks available indefinitely after all other editions of the book are out-of-print. So the question is whether authors will ever be able to get the rights back on a book that has gone out-of-print in its hardcover format, if the publisher has also published an ebook edition. The author does collect a royalty on those publisher published ebooks.

Tanita: I think nowadays for new authors that THIS will be the huge, big, EPIC issue. I tried, from my very first book, to retain electronic rights. My agent said, “No one is doing that. I won’t be able to get those for you.” He was flat out worried that I’d mess up the contract with asking for them. Publishers now are very, very, very savvy about keeping ebook rights, so it’s harder than ever – but if I was with a smaller house, or felt I had leeway to have my rights revert to me faster? I’d fight even harder for them. I think having the rights to one’s backlist is an important thing for writers.

AF: Essentially, it seems as though many publishers view the ebook as part and parcel of the print version, when in reality, we're dealing with a very different technology with distinct implications for future access and copyrights. We're glad to hear that your experience with regaining the rights was positive. Now, on to a new topic...I'm sure many authors have experienced the desire to change something in their books after it's already too late and it's gone to print. I know I've had that feeling once or twice. Did a new re-release give you that opportunity to tweak the book? How much editing/changing/updating did you do to the original manuscript overall?
GG: I did no editing of the text whatsoever. Yes, I would have liked to have changed that reference to the Olsen twins’ magazine that went bust. However, I wanted to be able to use reviews of the original edition in my marketing, and I was concerned that if I veered too much from the original text, it wouldn’t be legitimate to refer to those reviews. If there are any changes at all, they relate to the appearance of the text and are due to some kind of technical problem with the conversion process. But I can’t recall any.

Tanita: Oh ... hadn’t even thought of the fact that you couldn’t necessarily use the blurbs anymore! I’d JUMP at the chance to practically rewrite a book, but... hm. Maybe not such a great idea.

AF: What about other changes, though? It seems like there are so many opportunities for decision-making control over your own work if you're the one re-publishing it. For example, the cover...

FW: Yes, what were the processes by which you chose the cover? Was the artist exclusive to you, or were those stock images?

GG: The cover was one of the most positive experiences with this project. I would have kept the original cover, but we couldn’t reach the illustrator in order to get the rights. That ended up being a good thing, because the new cover has two marketing elements that the first one didn’t—the tagline “An Eco-comedy,” which immediately makes clear what the book is and “Author of Happy Kid!,” which helps to promote Happy Kid!, which has an ebook editon.

The new cover was professionally created and designed by Eric Bloom. I wanted a professional cover because I’d had a professional cover and pulled a diva and insisted on another one. I looked around on-line at illustrator websites. Many specialize in children’s books, and I didn’t want to go that young. Others specialize in genre, fantasy or romance, for instance. I saw a street scene at Eric’s website that I liked. He grew up with my son, is a graduate of Pratt Institute, and had digital experience, so we got in touch with him. He was fantastic. Totally professional, even though he’d been camping with my husband and sons a number of times when he was little and eaten hamburgers on my deck back in the day. He knew how to do everything we didn’t know how to do. He knew how to write the contract and what choices to offer us and what kinds of turn-around time we should all adhere to. He knew how to find fonts because, as it turns out, many of them are copyrighted, so you can’t use just anything. He knew that we should be considering that the cover would need to look good at different sizes, which is important for an ebook. I can’t say enough about how great Eric was.

AF: It's fascinating to read about how you went about the cover art process as an author-publisher, and it's wonderful to hear how positive the experience ended up being. Of course, doing the publishing yourself means you pay out-of-pocket for these expenses, right?

FW: How much (ballpark only is good) would something like that run a hopeful ebook self-publisher?

GG: I’ve read in a couple of different places that for a professional cover like the one we went with a self-publishing author should expect to pay $500 to $2500. Our price was on the low end of that range and it included the cover design/layout/fonts as well as the illustration, so I suspect we got quite a bit for our money. I don’t know if I would expect to get that much for that price from someone who wasn’t a family friend and starting out in his career.

I believe you can hire someone to create a cover for you from stock images for something in the $300 range. My publishing partner says you can also just find and purchase stock images and fonts and create a cover yourself for even less, which is similar to what we did for the book trailer.

FW: What's the biggest marketing challenge for ebooks?

GG: Time, time, time and the fact that you’re competing with thousands of other writers for attention.

Tanita: In essence, that’s the truth of ANY publishing – that competition for readers. But, it does sound like it takes time to do everything else.

GG: In terms of on-line, social-type marketing you have to spend a great deal of time looking for bloggers who will take ebooks, who will take self-published books (Are books like Saving the Planet, which were originally traditionally published but are being self-published as ebooks, considered self-published?), and who aren’t interested in specific genres that don’t include your book. Bloggers appear to be similar to agents and editors now—so many people come to them, they don’t even need to respond to queries.

I do expect to take out some paid advertising at some point. There’s a time suck involved with that, too, because I’m going to need to do some research on where and how to do it.

AF: We'll be interested in hearing your take on that when the time comes--as someone who's never done any real paid advertising, I wonder how it works for the individual author and how you can get your message across. Reaching the right market must be a major key to success, and it looks like in your case you'll be able to try again in reaching out to an older audience of young adults this time.

FW: What are your thoughts on the YA/children’s market and ebooks?

GG: I’ve read that the market is better for YA ebooks than for children’s, which makes sense. Teenagers are more likely to own ereaders, either because they have the money to buy them themselves or the adults in their lives feel more comfortable gifting them with an ereader than, say, gifting an eight-year-old with one. The big sellers in self-published ebooks are supposed to be in genre—thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, and romance, and I believe we’re talking adult fiction here. I suspect that if a self-published YA ebook is going to do well, it’s going to be in one of those categories as well.

Tanita: Now, this is the part where I wonder how much the time/effort of putting one’s backlist into ebook form is worth. My niece is twenty-three now, and she reads tons of things on her iPhone, but she’s a lot older than much of our target audience. From the sound of things, it won’t be very worthwhile for someone like me, who hasn’t written fantasy or SF yet to bother putting my work into ebook form. HOWEVER, if I self-pubbed a romantic/urban/fantasy/thriller, I’d be all over it.

FW: Are you thinking you'll write other self-pubbed ebooks, or take other parts of your backlist to ebook?

GG: My publishing partner/husband is hot to get started converting some of my other older titles to ebooks because he enjoys messing with HTML, he now knows how to create an ebook, and my other books should be dramatically easier to do because they don’t involve the large number of font changes Saving the Planet did. I, however, want to write again. I’ll be marketing Saving the Planet for a long time, and that’s going to compete for my work time as it is. I want to put off self-publishing anything more for at least a year.

FW: How will self-publishing your backlist change how you deal with traditional publishing for your next books, or will it?

GG: I hope that my self-publishing a backlist title will make traditional publishers view me as a writer who is familiar with the contemporary book business. For what that’s worth. Unless I see some remarkable sales figures, having self-published a backlist book—or anything else—isn’t going to change my dealings with traditional publishers. It’s not going to give me more leverage, and it’s not going to make publishers more interested in me. But I knew that going in. I can sometimes be an experience junky, and the Saving the Planet & Stuff ebook is definitely a case in point.

FW: Well, we really appreciate your sharing your experiences with us! This is an area of publishing which only seems to get more and more attention as time goes on and as the entire publishing and writing field grows and changes. Being part of an online community of writers who help each other through information sharing is a huge bonus. Thank you again for giving us the inside story. Tanita:Thanks for being an "experience junkie" and taking the DIY hit on this one for everyone. I'm sure this blog post will be a refer-back-to for a lot of people. Best of luck with your next project!


Gail Gauthier said...

I enjoyed doing this a great deal and love how it turned out.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us!! We had fun putting the post together.

tanita✿davis said...

And thanks to the loads of people who have come by and checked this interview out. Good luck in your epublishing and other publishing endeavors!