Warren Adler

Self-Publishing, My Third Act: Reflecting from the Trenches

December 2, 2015
Written by
Warren Adler

Warren Adler, bestselling author

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Too bad he didn’t live beyond the age of forty-four. He would have had to correct himself.

  Many people have disproved his famous statement. Case in point: yours truly. Actually I may have had three acts. Please pardon the mini bio.

   Act One.

Although all I ever wanted to do was write works of the imagination, meaning novels, short stories, essays and plays, I was forced by circumstances to support a growing family. I went into various moderately successful business endeavors and made a good living. All the while, I wrote and wrote (and drew nothing but rejections).

   Act Two.

 At age 46, I suddenly got lucky. A small publisher picked up my novel, then I got a bigger publisher, then the movies discovered my books and I was off to the races. I had twenty-seven novels published by major publishers, translations into more than twenty-five languages, twelve books bought or optioned for the movies, three of which were made and one, The War of the Roses, a giant enduring hit, that is still going.

   Act Three.

 In my sixties, sometime in the late 1990s, I discovered e-books. It was long before Kindle had burst onto the scene, although there were devices around that allowed people to read books digitally. By then I had become somewhat disenchanted with the sluggish pace of the traditional publishers. I sensed, too, that I had a lot more novels to write.

    My ultimate goal was a desire to preserve my authorial name beyond my lifetime and hand over a working publishing operation to my heirs. Copyright law preserves the rights to an author’s work for seventy years beyond his or her lifetime. How does an author keep his name alive and his works read for these seventy years?

    Considering how quickly an author’s name can disappear from public memory, their works completely forgotten, I might be pursuing a futile obsession. Indeed, few bestselling authors are remembered more than a few years after their coronation by the public.

    Besides, imbued with the entrepreneurial spirit, a hangover from my first act, I thought it would be a cool idea to control my own publishing destiny and not have to hang around the telephone to get an acceptance of my next work and then put up with all the bureaucratic hang-ups and snail’s pace of the publishing business. My literary mind was still in a passionate mode of creativity.

    Somehow I believed that there were still many novels left in my mind’s creative vault and I gave up all distractions to pursue that obsession. I decided to go about setting up my own publishing company exclusive to my work and marketed via e-books and print-on-demand technology.

     By sheer luck, I had contracted for my earlier novels before digital publishing was a factor and I was able to get my rights reverted. In other words, I owned my own library world wide and I set about digitalizing my books in the English language.

     I had acquired enough bucks earned from Act One to finance the operation and became one of the first authors in the world to take the plunge. I’ve been at it for more than twenty years now. Most people thought I had lost my mind. The e-book revolution was in its infancy. Like many pioneering ventures most of the early startups failed.  The portable devices were clunky and unwieldy, although it was possible to read a novel digitally.

    Nevertheless, for better or worse, every one of my early novels has been digitalized. There I was, all traditional publishing bridges burned and my entire literary output waiting for cyberspace to mature and enhance distribution channels.

   I tried my best to be an evangelist for the digital idea and was widely ridiculed when I spoke before groups who loudly rejected the idea. While the dead bodies of eager e-book entrepreneurs multiplied around me, I persisted in my belief that digital books were going to make it.

   Even the dominant brick and mortar national chain Barnes and Noble, wanting to get in on the ground floor, started a digital department. The attempt fizzled and management decided to abandon the process, much to their regret. I remember meeting Barnes and Noble Chairman Leonard Riggio at a cocktail party and politely berating him for abandoning e-books. It might have made a dent. Unfortunately, when the company tried again with the Nook, the train had already left the station.

      SONY approached me in 2007 and demonstrated a device they had created that was actually a forerunner to what became the Kindle. I was impressed and persuaded to introduce the device to the public at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronic Show that year. I persuaded my friend Nick Taylor, then a leader of the Author’s Guild to join me on the platform. With some reluctance, since he wasn’t sure the idea of digital book reading had legs, he agreed.

   Like a good soldier, I did my duty in addressing a fairly indifferent crowd in Vegas. By then, I truly believed that SONY had the long awaited device solution for easily disseminating book content digitally. A few months later Amazon introduced its first Kindle and backed up its introduction with total commitment.

    The Kindle dramatically changed the publishing business. Digital content was now off and running on an easy-to-use device backed by a persistent and committed company driven by its CEO to create an alternative to the traditional publishing business. I will never understand why SONY did not commit its full resources to its device. In the end, they lost the battle and the SONY reader disappeared.

    What I learned from the get-go was that merely posting book content on Kindle was no guarantee of sales and getting discovered by potential readers was like a far- sighted person’s attempt to thread a needle.

   Nevertheless, I persevered. I wrote and wrote, digitalized all my newly composed novels, along with creating print–on-demand volumes. Amazon was a juggernaut. Besides knocking SONY out of business, its commitment was and is total. It has radically changed the publishing business and now dominates the reading environment.  

        Of course, I could go on and on about my adventures in cyberspace, but rather than show you my scars and bruises, I will tell you what I learned and skip the ups and downs. My third act has produced almost exactly the number of books that I wrote in my first act. After all, writing is my calling and I am still alive and kicking to pursue it.

   So here is what I learned from this experience.

  1. I underestimated the yearning for self-expression that afflicts the human race; there are now at least two million books, many of them novels, memoirs, short stories and every other conceivable genre category, fiction and non-fiction, many self-published, many owned by traditional publishers who have put all their front and back-list titles up for sale on Kindle.
  2. The pipeline is choked with e-books and neither the self-published or the traditional publisher will ever need to declare these books out of print. This will mean that millions of e-books will arrive in the cyber market within the next decade. Imagine competing in a digital market place with millions upon millions of books on offer. One wonders how new authors will get traction and how older authors will retain their authorial identity.
  3. The internet is like a bullet train moving so fast that getting one’s attention is the primary challenge for anyone entering the fray. There are thousands of self-appointed book reviewers who have set up shop on the net, and getting their attention is a slog in itself. Genre writers are dominant. Many talented writers with dreams of literary fame, many attending the creative writing courses at universities and elsewhere will face uphill battles to sell their work. Of course, there will be exceptions, but, despite all the hype, authors in general, will have a tough time making a living.
  4. Although it is dangerous making predictions, there is no question in my mind that the brick and mortar book chains like the dominant Barnes and Noble stores will shrink. Small bookstores with personalized service seem to be enduring and expanding and I hope they continue to do so.
  5. A dangerous sign for authors is the tremendous surge of the visual arts in story telling via streaming and film. I grew up in the golden age of movies and although the pickings today are a lot slimmer for my generation, the future of storytelling seems to be moving more and more toward the visual. Worse, for the future of the novel, educators are less prone to encourage reading fiction as the Common Core agenda suggests. Nevertheless, I continue to make my stand. There is nothing like words to stimulate the imagination. Literature is an art form that searches beyond the obvious to find the truth of the human experience.
  6. People who join the fray as individual authors in self-publishing will have to think of themselves as being in business on their own and pursue strategies as with any business venture. It will cost money and there are lots of eager entrepreneurs who will sell you their version of the magic bullet to make your publishing effort pay. Caveat Emptor is all I have to say about that. Exploitation is rampant and authors generally are not trained in business.
  7. At the moment there are many downsides to publishing on your own. You will not be shelved by the still existing stores since the retailers have more to gain by working with traditional publishers and many retailers avoid self-publishers like the plague. You will not be reviewed by those major newspapers still reviewing books. They are still beholden to their publishing advertisers. You will not be interviewed on those programs that talk about or review books. You will be considered lesser, literary orphans. There have of course been authors who have leaped into the traditional publishing arena. Good for them. None of this will mean you are bereft of talent. Besides it is all changing.
  8. Lest I be accused of propounding a doom and gloom scenario, I encourage all those who believe in their talent to tell their stories, and publish them to the world. At least your stories will be out there, and there is a sense of great achievement and wonder in a book’s creation. There is also great satisfaction, prestige and joy in authordom and everyone who believes in her or himself should reach out to catch the brass ring. Go for it, but temper your expectations.
  9. I can say a great deal more and God willing, I will. Keeping my authorial name alive involves some pretty heavy lifting, investment and optimism. As for the fourth act….it probably will be accompanied by harp music.

 

 

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This post was written by Warren Adler