Lessons from 23 Years as a Self-Publishing Novelist | Jane Friedman

Lessons from 23 Years as a Self-Publishing Novelist | Jane Friedman

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Note from Jane: In the earliest days of my career, I served as managing editor of writer’s Digest magazine, and one of the nicest parts of my job was calling up winners of our writing contests, including the National Self-Published Book Awards. John Sundman was one of the winners I called—and one of the first self-publishing authors I came to know and consider a friend. I’m delighted that he reached out to me about his return to the writing and publishing space.

After four years of hard work with a well-known New York City literary agent, around Christmas 1999, I gave up on the traditional route and decided to publish my first novel, a Silicon Valley cyberpunk thriller called Acts of the Apostles, myself.

My agent, Joe, had guided me through endless rewrites and three rounds of submissions to publishers in New York and producers in Hollywood. We had some serious nibbles—big name editors took me to lunch, and over one weekend in April 1998, 26 producers read the manuscript in advance of an anticipated auction of the movie rights—but we never got an offer. Joe was willing to work with me on one last rewrite, believing we still had a chance of getting a million-dollar payday. But I had reached my limit. I was flat broke and my wife and children had had more than enough. My dream of literary stardom had cost them plenty.

I formatted the book, got an ISBN number, designed a cover, and somehow convinced a local printer to print 5,000 copies on credit. The printer released a few hundred books to me and locked away the remainder in their warehouse. The deal was that as I sold those books and paid down the bill, the printer would release the rest—in increments.

Desperate to generate some notice, I put the first 13 chapters of the book up on my obscure website. “If you want to read the rest of the book, send me a check for $15 and I’ll mail you a copy.”

I established an Amazon Advantage account and set off in my falling-apart car on a coast-to-coast book tour, pitching my book at hacker meets and scientific conferences, in Silicon Valley cafeterias, on street corners, and even at a bookstore or two. Over three weeks I sold enough books, barely, to cover my expenses. I made it back home by the skin of my teeth. I didn’t have enough money for a McDonald’s Happy Meal or one more tank of gas. I was defeated. I set aside my novelistic ambitions for good and got a day job, back in the world of tech, which I had left five years earlier.

But then a funny thing happened. Checks started showing up in my mailbox. They came from all over. Mostly from Massachusetts and California, but some from as far away as Italy or the Philippines. and with the checks, sometimes, came letters of encouragement. Glowing reviews started appearing on the internet too. Bookstores started faxing in orders. My Amazon ranking went from one million to one thousand.

and then one day while I was hard at work at my job at a software startup near the MIT campus, I got a phone call from an editor at writer’s Digest magazine. Her name was Jane Friedman, and she was calling to tell me that Acts of the Apostles had won that year’s National Self-Published Book Award and that a check for $500 was in the mail.

Fast forward to 2023. I’ve been a self-publishing novelist longer than some readers of this essay have been alive. In addition to Acts of the Apostles I’ve published two novellas (Cheap Complex Devices and The Pains) and an alternate universe version of Acts, called Biodigital: A novel of technopotheosis.

I’ve also had plenty of day jobs—everything from freelance technical writing for Silicon Valley startups to long-haul truck driving. Whatever it took to pay the bills as I continued to work on my books.

This fall, in conjunction with a new novel, Mountain of Devils, I plan to publish new editions of my four existing titles (in English and in Spanish, ebook and paperback), each with a new introduction by a prominent writer. With people like Cory Doctorow, Ken MacLeod, David Weinberger, and John Biggs vouching for the value of my work, I confess that I feel somewhat vindicated. Those New York publishers who took a pass on Acts of the Apostles twenty-some years ago missed the boat.

I’m not going to address tactical topics such as how to format, publish and distribute your books, or on the pros and cons of recording your own audiobooks, or even how to write a good book in the first place. There are plenty of other authors who address such things; Jane’s resources page is a good place to start looking.

What I am going to offer here, rather, pertains to the mindset required to succeed in this business. Some of it may not apply to you, but it’s a good place to start.

10. Have a thick skin. You are going to encounter naysayers. Some of them may be quite obnoxious. It’s always good to listen to constructive advice, but you don’t owe anything to people who are out to bring you down.

9. Get out into the world. Make yourself known. Be proud. Don’t be shy now. Speak up! When people you’ve just met ask “What do you do?” reply, “I’m a writer.” Even if you’ve only sold one copy of your first book.

8. Get organized. This job entails writing, editing, book design and production, distribution and marketing. and that’s just for starters. Read, study, consider hiring a mentor if you can afford one.  Make a plan, and keep track of your progress. You’re now an “authorpreneur.” You’ve got a business to run. Act like it.

7. Expect some failures. Some things just aren’t going to work out. You will make mistakes, and some of them will be embarrassing if not downright humiliating. Learn what you can and then move on.

6. Don’t chase bookstores. Sell direct, sell through Amazon, and through any local retail outfit that invites you. But don’t waste your time trying to get a distributor or to get into bookstores without one. If your book becomes a colossal hit, those bookstores will find you, I promise.

5. Your book(s) must be good. It’s true that some authors have had great success with books that are objectively pretty crappy. Some book gurus even tell you that quantity matters more than quality. “Don’t waste time trying to make your book perfect!” they say. “Keep cranking out titles!” That approach might work for some people, but from what I’ve seen, having a quality product offers a higher probability of success.

4. Be flexible. The publishing world changes fast. When I put the first 13 chapters of my first novel online for free download in 1999 and started selling my novels at hacker meets and scientific conferences, I was hailed as an innovator.  There was no such thing as an ebook in those days; no Venmo or Paypal for electronic payments, and there was certainly nothing like BookFunnel to help you build your mailing list and find collaborators to work with. But as the world of self-publishing changed, I didn’t change with it, so now I’m playing catch-up. Don’t you do that.

3. Your mailing list is your greatest asset. It took me much too long to acknowledge that what all the experts were saying about this were right. Make growing your list one of your highest priorities.

2. Be kind. Be helpful. What goes around comes around. Be kind to your readers, be helpful to fellow writers, just try to be a decent person in general. I’m an old guy. I know what I’m talking about. Trust me on this one.

1. Being your own publisher is liberating. I’ve made some money doing this, but frankly, not a lot. I do have high hopes that that’s going to change with my forthcoming releases, but nobody can see the future. Maybe my big launch will be a bust. Yet I consider my self-publishing career a success, and I’m glad that I stopped beating my head against the “real publisher” wall all those years ago.

Being my own publisher forced me out of my comfort zone. It wasn’t always fun or easy, but it opened up a world for me. I’ve hand-sold thousands of books, and in so doing I’ve made hundreds of honest-to-God friends. I put together a panel at SXSW on “the future of the novel in the digital age,” and I even got Jane Friedman to moderate it. I’ve given talks at the DEFCON hacker conclave, in schools, and at the opening of a synthetic biology laboratory at the University of Edinburgh. All in all it’s been a blast.

Good luck! Let’s help each other!

There are lots of ways for indie writers to help each other out. Joint promotions, newsletter swaps, guest blog posts, podcast interviews, introductions, the list goes on. If you think you and I might be able to help each other, let me know. I’m open to suggestions.

John Sundman

John Sundman has worked in smallholder agricultural development in Senegal (West Africa), as a technical writer and manager of software engineering at 15+ startups in Silicon Valley, Boston and NYC; as a long-haul truck driver, construction laborer, and forklift operator. He was, for ten years, a firefighter on Martha’s Vineyard. His novels and essays explore the impacts of biological and digital technologies—including genetic manipulation and AI—on individuals and societies, and he has given invited talks on Art, Ethics and Synthetic Biology at the University of Edinburgh and elsewhere.

Pulitzer laureate Geraldine Brooks calls Sundman figures it out!, “without question, my favorite Substack.” Sign up now and get a free copy  of his Biodigital: A novel of technopothesis. His website is JohnSundman.com.

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