A Whale of a Tale – A Cautionary Story about a Small Press

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Ships at sea are tiny, isolated communities; thus, while ashore, sailors like to gather and exchange stories, bragging of exploits and warning of dangers. Writing is also a solitary adventure, and there is a lot to be learned. Thankfully, there are many other writers out there, and we can learn from them. So I hope you will enjoy this guest post, and will take the lessons to heart as you set forth on your own writing journey. 

The Story of An Author and the Many Mistakes She Has Made

After I wrote my first book, I submitted it to several publishers, and received form rejection letters from most. The others, I didn’t hear back from. To be honest, I knew not many would be interested in a Regency era romance with no sex scenes. Of course, I didn’t know what else to do with the manuscript besides send it to any and all companies I could find

At the time, my cousin’s wife was pursuing self publishing for her Rapunzel retelling. She suggested that I could do the same, so I did.

Here is where the first of many mistakes were made. I didn’t research self publishing beyond how to do it, and I didn’t learn anything about marketing. Since I was broke at the time, I couldn’t afford an editor. My mom, who had worked as a proofreader for a small newspaper, edited for me. (She still never lets me forget that I misspelled the word ‘dining’ every time I used it.) However, we both missed the fact that I had two chapter twelves, instead of chapter twelve and then chapter thirteen

I also couldn’t afford a cover designer, so I did it myself. I used a photograph of a woodsy area, since my main character enjoyed walking in the woods. I also did the formatting for ebook and print copies.

When I look at it now, I am amazed it even sold enough to cover the fees for distribution through Createspace. I was reasonably satisfied with how things went. After all, my book was out there for readers to find! My book was in two libraries (that I knew of). I hadn’t lost money. At the same time, though, I knew it could have gone better. I just didn’t know how.

Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for being an author. I loved to write and tell stories. My fanfiction had fans, and I’d been told I was good. Maybe that was all I would be able to do.

Two years pass. I had to move back in with my parents due to health issues and lack of a job. Even though I kept writing fanfiction stories in that time, I didn’t feel I was ready for a big project. Until I opened a word document I hadn’t opened in a long time. My second novel attempt.

It was different from my first book. I was telling it in first person,  something I had only done once on a short fanfiction story. I didn’t feel like I could trust myself on whether this story, initially titled Family Ties, was a good idea or not.

I printed off what I had (about 15K words), and took it to my mom. The next morning, she handed it back to me and asked, “Where is the rest of it? I want to know what happens next.”

So, at the very least, I needed to finish it just for my mom. I spent a month, April of 2014, doing just that. Mom said it was better than anything I’d ever asked her to read. I put it on Wattpad, just to get unbiased opinions from people who didn’t know me. The readers loved it.

But that bug to get more readers had bit and I had to decide what I wanted to do with my newly finished manuscript. A brief search for an agent interested in a “clean” Regency era novel yielded no results either. I knew the big publishing companies wouldn’t take unsolicited submissions, so I started to look lower.

My next search found a small press that looked promising. The focus was on books with clean content. One of my favorite authors was with them. They accepted unsolicited submissions from an author. Everything seemed perfect for me.

Oh, if only I could go back in time and warn myself not to do it.

After reading and signing the contract, I was sure I understood what I was getting myself into. The publisher would provider an editor and cover designer. Once published, I would receive a portion of the royalties. If the ebook performed well enough in the first year, a print edition would be arranged.

It sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

As my first time working with editors, I learned a lot about the faults in my writing. I learned not to be so emotionally attached to characters that helped me through bad times. I learned I had a lot more to learn about writing and being an author.

What I didn’t realize until several months after my book was released was that all marketing was going to be on me. No mention of marketing was in my contract but I had assumed it would be part of the publisher’s role. There were a few posts on the publisher’s Facebook page and on Twitter, but nothing else.

I dipped into my meager savings and paid for a blog tour. I paid for a twitter blast because that’s what all the other authors were doing. I paid to be in several book newsletters. I started a Facebook author page, because ‘readers need to find you somewhere’. I wrote posts for other authors’ blogs to reach new readers.

The results were underwhelming, to say the least. I did get some lovely reviews from some truly wonderful book bloggers, but overall, I made just about as much as when I self published my first book.

It was not the grand release I’d dreamed of for this book. A print edition was looking more and more like a dream that would never be realized.

“Every author is struggling right now,” I was told. “The best marketing you can do is write another book. The more books you have, the better visibility you will get.”

I had been working on a trilogy, but I didn’t want to send out the first book before I had the other two at least as first drafts. So, I started work on a new character for a completely different series (because ‘series do the best’ is what I kept hearing).

In 2017, I submitted book one and signed my second book contract, with terms just like the first. I thought, ‘I have a stronger foundation now. This will go better.’

If anything, it was worse this time around. The timeline to get this book published was insane. The first two rounds of editing happened in four weeks, each time I had a week to complete the edits. And then came content editing. For this round, I had two days to accept/reject edits, respond to notes, and send it back.

Two days. For a 59K word document.

I cried.

Somehow, I did it. I sat at my computer for twelve straight hours because that’s what I was supposed to do. If I wanted this book to get published, I had to keep to the timeline.

But by the time I was finished with those content edits, I thought my main character, who was going to lead an entire series, was the worst idea I ever had. I hated him and everything associated with him. He wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t good enough.

I had to do more content edits the next week because I may have gotten angry in some of my responses to the editor. (I still maintain that a guy would not notice details about a girl’s dress, let alone know exactly what kind of trim embellishes it.) Now, for the most part her suggestions and insights were valid, and I knew it was all making my novel better.

But I felt so broken. So exhausted. So…worthless.

Two weeks later, I was sent the final copy for review. I had a week to read it and make sure there were no mistakes that we had missed. This file was corrupted when I opened and everything I had done with the editors was a complete mess.

This, as you can imagine, did not improve matters.

In the end, Book 2 was released on schedule. Again, I did everything I had done before: blog tour, blog posts, newsletter submissions, submissions for editorial reviews, book swag giveaways to build exposure. I had all my other books priced at 99 cents to get noticed.

Sales for this book were even lower than the previous book, despite everything I had done.

It was one of my lowest points. I couldn’t write. What was the point if I was never going to be good enough? I didn’t have any more money to put into marketing that wasn’t yielding results. Maybe I was only ever going to be good enough to entertain my sister with my stories.

My writing partner had been dropping hints about a writing podcast she had been listening to, The Bestseller Experiment. It was at this time that I finally tuned in for myself. I listened to two episodes every night at work, soaking in the advice of bestselling authors and giggling at the waffling about of the two hosts. Mr. S. and Mr. D. were seeing if they could write a bestseller in a year.

If they could do it, why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t I use the strategies they were sharing to be better?

I started writing again, working on the last book of my trilogy and a YA story different from anything else I’ve written. I felt more myself as the words took shape on the screen.

My frustrations with being published by the small press continued to grow as I realized just how much control I had signed away without realizing it. At the beginning of the year, I saw a Twitter post where I was named by a narrator who said she was excited to be working with me on the audiobook version of Book 2. This came as a complete shock to me. I knew nothing about an audiobook in the works. I had to email the publisher to confirm this. I had no part in any notes of how the characters should sound, or pacing, or anything at all. The narrator did lovely work, and though I have no complaints, I was left completely out of the loop as to what was happening.

Perhaps this is normal for most publishers, but it hit me out of nowhere. In fact, I only knew the audiobook had been released when I checked my sales rank from my Amazon author profile and and discovered that a second version of my book was available. Again, I had to email the publisher and ask for a code so that I could hear my own book without having to purchase it.

When the small press asked for the authors to help out with running the Facebook page, Twitter profile, and generally market the small press brand, I refused. I can understand the mentality of making the company stronger by everyone investing in the success in marketing the company, but that is not what I had signed up for. I shut down my Facebook author page because I had no time for it. (Also, I dislike Facebook and find it a difficult platform to work with.)

Whatever expectations I had signing with a small press—and to be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure what I expected anymore—I wasn’t finding it. In time, I came to the realization that what I wanted was not the direction the small press was going. The publisher wanted to be exclusive to Kindle and put all books on the Kindle Unlimited program. Feeling no control over what was happening with my books while still being asked to spend my own money on advertising, I respectfully asked for my rights backs.

The publisher agreed and as of August 1st, my second and third book are back in my hands. They are mine to republish how I think best to reach my readers. I will finally be able to have them in print for the readers who prefer not to read electronic files. For the readers who don’t use Kindle, I will have alternative forms to point them to. And, maybe, I will even have audio versions where I have had a say in how things turn out.

Now, as I continue to juggle work, health problems, and life in general, I have a lot of work to do; everything the small press editors had done does not belong to me. I need new editors, book cover designers, reformat my books and publish them once more, this time on my own terms. I am trying to learn how to create Facebook and Amazon ads.

It has been a long journey, one which continues on. I have learned a lot, and hope others can learn from the mistakes I have made. Like with anything in life, know what you are getting into before you commit to anything.

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One thought on “A Whale of a Tale – A Cautionary Story about a Small Press

  1. Pingback: Julian Barr

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