By BlueInk Review Guest Blogger, Paul Goat Allen
Adam Connell published his debut novel “Counterfeit Kings” in 2004 and then effectively disappeared for almost a decade. His journey in that time is filled with invaluable insights, particularly to anyone considering becoming an author. After being chewed up and spit out by conventional publishing, the author found redemption – and perhaps a little retribution – through digital self-publishing.
Almost exactly eight years to the day after the publication of “Counterfeit Kings,” Connell triumphantly returned with the release of his second novel “Lay Saints” in ebook format. Reviews have raved, calling it a “hard-boiled but soulful fantasy thriller” and a “perfect blend of literary fiction and genre fiction.” But it’s those eight long years in between releases that tell an all-too-familiar tale.
This is Adam’s story, there and back again.
BlueInk: Adam, tell me a little bit about your experience getting your first novel published.
AC: This could become a very long answer, so I’ll try and keep it short. College was where I decided to dedicate myself to becoming an author – that is to say, a writer who can earn a decent living off his stories and novels. I wrote one or two short stories a month, every month, no matter what else was going on in my life. They were all rejected, but as I grew as a writer I began to receive handwritten rejections by encouraging editors.
After graduating college, I started writing novels. I wrote three novels before Counterfeit Kings. I sent out sample chapters to all the big houses, sometimes the whole manuscript, depending on their guidelines, but I was always rejected. It just seemed like I could never find that one editor whose tastes were in sync with my style.
I had no agent. Not that I didn’t query them, but I found the same resistance with agents and agencies as I’d found with the publishing houses.
I was, also, very naive. Extremely naive. I thought things would progress quickly for me, I thought that by this point, with so many short stories and four novels under my belt, I’d surely have been a megastar bestselling author by now. But all I had, really, was a drawer with over 150 rejection letters. Some of those letters were nice, some were even enthusiastic, but all the same they were rejections.
BlueInk: So without an agent, how’d you hook up with Phobos Books?
AC: They were looking for a second and third editor. I applied for the job over the phone, was invited to their office for another interview. I mentioned that I was also a writer. The owner, on a whim, asked to see my best novel, really as a joke. I showed her Counterfeit Kings. Rather than hire me as an editor, she took me on as a writer. I know that this is a very unconventional way to get published, but it shows that weird events like this can happen.
What it taught me, or rather the notion that it reinforced in me, was this: If you have material that is finished and you are willing to show it to an editor/agent, make sure that the material has been proofed and polished and is ready to go; make sure that this project is as smooth as can be before setting off on a new novel or short story, because you never know when someone will actually ask to see it. Be prepared; have your manuscript ready.
BlueInk: Let’s fast-forward a few years after the release of Counterfeit Kings. What happened?
AC: Why don’t we fast-forward to a couple weeks after the release of Counterfeit Kings. I had gotten a wonderful review in Publishers Weekly, a famous movie studio had contacted my publicist, and I was getting great reviews from other publications and on the web. I had a two-book contract with my publisher and was about to start work on that next book… and then I was reviewed in The New York Times.
BlueInk: Not many authors are.
AC: Not many authors are, but not everyone who has been reviewed by them comes out the other side of the experience a winner. The reviewer – I won’t mention his name – obviously hadn’t read the whole book, because the review was full of errors. It was a block review, meaning he reviewed two other books, and mine was third. They each got a column; I got, literally, two paragraphs. But in those two paragraphs he totally wrecked my novel, taking me to task for some of the same things that were in the other two books on that page. I read them both because I was curious.
I was misrepresented…I’ll tell you what happened immediately after – the movie studio lost interest, no other publications were willing to review Counterfeit Kings, my publisher refused to return my calls. It was devastating.
But I never gave up. I may have lost faith in the system, in publishing as an industry, but I never lost faith in my abilities as a writer.
BlueInk: So you kept writing…
AC: Exactly. I just kept writing. During the next four years I wrote two books. Then I started looking for agents, because that felt like the next logical step. I didn’t want to have to deal with publishing houses and editors and slush-pile gatekeepers. I wanted an agent, because they provide an imprimatur for the big houses. Agents do what they’re good at, what’s required of them, so you’re free to write. Luckily I did find one.
BlueInk: So with this agent in your corner, what happened next?
AC: More distress. The big houses told my agent that – get this – I was too edgy, too sophisticated for their readers, I would be too hard to market. But me and my agent kept at it, kept at it, kept at it. Until finally, early in 2012 he finally told me, “Look, Adam, you’re a fantastic writer and I’ll always be your agent, but I think it’s time you looked into ebooks because we’re not getting any traction here.”
I hadn’t really considered ebooks prior to this, I always thought the ebook market was for weak writers. I was wrong about that. Totally wrong. Ebooks are freedom; ebooks are where – if you’re brave – you can write what you want and publish it. Publish your work without the huge lags that are associated with traditional publishing. And you reap your own rewards.
BlueInk: I dare say it has been the most revolutionary period in publishing to date, right up there with the invention of the printing press. At the risk of sounding obtuse, tell me the pros and cons of self-publishing digitally.
AC: You don’t sound obtuse at all. In fact, I’m asked this question all the time. It’s a good question. Talented writers who have been rebuffed by the industry for myriad reasons, they want an honest answer, so I’ll give you one.
Advantages. If you’re serious about writing, how many things do you think compare to clicking on BN.com and seeing your book for sale? As a serious writer, I can tell you, almost nothing compares. So the biggest advantage is There Are No Rejection Letters For Ebooks. Period. There is no one to tell you that your book isn’t good enough, or it’s not marketable, or you aren’t that good a writer. (And who are they to say? J. K. Rowling was rejected by almost every British publisher. Read interviews with other authors and they’ll tell you something similar, that they were denied by A-Y, but Z took a chance on them. Don’t ever give up.) There’s speed. Once you hand in a finished manuscript to a traditional publisher, it might not actually see publication for 9-12 months. Once you’ve finished your ebook, you’re proud of it, it’s your baby, you want to send it out into the world and fly–using PubIt! or Kindle or Smashwords — that book, your precious novel, can be made available that very day. That same day for all the world to enjoy it, and for you to start making money immediately.
You also receive royalties with ebooks that are substantially larger than the big houses would pay you.
BlueInk: And disadvantages?
AC: Your royalties are coming from a much lower sales point. So you get a bigger piece of the pie but it’s a smaller pie.
You’ve written your best novel to date. Congratulations. All your hard work is over, you can sit back, relax, wait for the dough to start pouring in. Wrong. Writing that great book means that your job is only half done. I hate saying this. No one wants to hear it, but it’s true.
Publishing houses have marketing departments, publicity departments, art and cover design departments, long-standing connections to influential periodicals where they can secure reviews, the money to send authors on tours and to conventions. You, as an ebook author, don’t have the keys to the machine that is a publishing house, with its concomitant cogs and history and talented personnel.
As an ebook author, you are your own publishing house. Not only that, but you are competing against Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks, Elmore Leonard. You are competing against them On Their Own Turf. So your product had better be as good or better than theirs, should look as good or better than theirs. It cannot be riddled with typos.
You get the gist. And yes, your book or short stories are product. I know artists don’t like to hear this… Writing, at the end of the day, is a business. If you ignore this fact or are lazy about acting on it, you won’t do as well as another writer who’s as good as you but spends more time on the business side of things. Tough. Too bad. You can’t fight this fact.
What this boils down to is, basically, a lot of time. Social media is free, it’s available to everyone, and it’s been proven to work. But the currency of most social media is time. You will need to spend a huge amount of time on Facebook, on Twitter, building your army. Most publications won’t deign to review your ebook because, no matter how fantastic your book is, it’s still an ebook and there is still a stigma.
So you will have to contact online review sites, bloggers, writing communities. You’ll need to acquire compelling cover art, which means, unless you are also a talented visual artist or are friends with someone who is, you’ll need to hire one. The same goes for copyeditors. This costs money, and it also costs you time – the cover artist and the copyeditor don’t work their magic in one night. Well, most of them don’t.
BlueInk: A decade or two from now, how do you think the publishing landscape will look after all of those seismic shifts? And how significant a role do you think self-published ebooks will have?
AC: I can’t see two decades ahead from now, but I do agree with most of the speculation about how the field will look 5-10 years from now — that ebooks will account for anywhere between 60-75% of the market. But I don’t dwell on this because I’m already a convert, I do prefer the “narrative freedom”… I’ve been edited by a publishing house, albeit a small one, and I didn’t think the book was much improved by their guiding hand. I was never forced to make any changes, but I was strongly encouraged to. And while I didn’t make any changes I didn’t at least partly agree with, I would have preferred the manuscript be left alone. Some writers benefit from strong editors, some don’t.
And regarding ebooks, let’s not forget that while publishing houses do have giant apparatus under their control, they only shine them on most of their authors for a very short amount of time. Many of these authors find themselves doing many of the same things that ebook writers do, to stay afloat, to get noticed, to make sales. As an author graced with the help of a big house, you might get an ad in Locus or PW, but in that same ad are smaller ads for other writers from the same imprint, so you are in effect competing with your own team.
BlueInk: Without a publishing house behind you to (theoretically) promote you to the masses, social media is vital to the aspiring self-published author. You mentioned this earlier. Could you elaborate a little bit more?
AC: Social media is free, it’s effective, and it’s crucial. I specifically named Facebook and Twitter earlier, because at this point in time they are the most popular. But it is the fool who is fine with the status quo. The fool sinks. Almost every week I’m learning about new avenues of social media, or hearing about new ways to use old platforms. And though it takes a while to master them, one cannot ignore them and just pray for luck.
Some other examples include, but certainly are not limited to, LinkedIn, Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit, Tumblr, Flickr, Pinterest, G+1. You can bet that more are on the way.
BlueInk: I know dozens – maybe even hundreds – of authors who have published traditionally through large houses and small presses and have been dropped due to poor sales, change in artistic direction, etc. And I’m talking about top-notch genre fiction writers. I see this digital self-publishing phenomenon as nothing short of redemption. Did you feel a sense of deliverance when Lay Saints officially began selling as an ebook?
AC: You might think so, but not really. When Lay Saints was finally up there as an ebook, it wasn’t a moment where I felt like yelling, “Aha! See? I could do it, you were all wrong.” I’m not like that. Though I was proud of the fact that I had stuck it out to this crazy point in time when I could get my books into the hands of fans and potential readers without anyone else’s help, without the big or small houses, by acting as my own publisher. I had soldiered on and here I am, everywhere.
You mentioned that the advent of ebooks is up there in history with the invention of the printing press. I couldn’t agree more. But it should be pointed out that while ebooks bring a certain democratic aura to publishing, it also equates to more competition. I can publish an ebook. So can you. But so can everyone in my building, on my block, in my city. Most of their books will be so poorly written as to make one cringe, but you’ve still got to find ways to rise above them, to get noticed. It all eventually comes back to the advantages and disadvantages we discussed.
BlueInk: I know you have another novel almost ready to launch in the fall entitled Total Secession. Now that you have Lay Saints under your belt, is there anything different that you’ll do with the next release?
AC: Total Secession, my newest baby, will be published during the first few weeks of September. I can’t think of anything I’d do differently. I was very careful putting out Lay Saints. I did a lot of research ahead of time. Two books that helped immensely, that made me feel like I wasn’t going into this new enterprise blind, were Mark Coker’s The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, and The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide. Coker owns and runs Smashwords, which distributes to just about every platform except Amazon’s Kindle. Most Importantly, Smashwords services Barnes & Noble’s PubIt! and Apple’s iBookstore.
So I was prepared. And now that I’ve passed the learning curve, putting Total Secession out as an ebook will take me half the time it did for Lay Saints. Also, I know what is needed and expected from me after the book is up there for sale. It’s an eye-opening experience.
You see, a manuscript needs to be perfect first, from a stylistic and grammatical and story standpoint. Then it has to be formatted; it has to be uploaded; there are forms to fill out and guidelines to follow. The guidelines and requirements are not the same for Kindle or PubIt! or Smashwords, so this takes time and energy. But now that I’ve been through it once already, it’ll take less time and less energy.
BlueInk: Any advice for aspiring writers struggling to get a foot in the door with conventional publishers?
AC: Try to make a go of it with conventional publishers. I did. And if it doesn’t work out for you, don’t waste your life by trying and failing and trying and trying again. The ebook market is there for readers – because it makes reading and finding books so easy and so quickly – but the market is there for you as well. For different reasons, but the market is there for you. Writing for the ebook market is a way to bypass stolid rules and tastes, and rulers and tastemakers.
Exploit this market. It wants you to exploit it; there are so few reasons not to, so go on ahead. Follow me as I’ve followed so many others. There is incontrovertible evidence that ebooks are the future. Do you want to be stuck in the past and unhappy? Wouldn’t you rather be a part of the future, and fulfilled?
Paul Goat Allen reviews books for BlueInk Review, as well as BN.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, BookPage and more. He is also the moderator for BN.com’s Paranormal and Fantasy/SF Book Clubs.