On Wednesday, May 17, 2023, Word for Word, Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) online literary series, convened a panel of indie-publishing experts to explore nontraditional paths to publication. Hosts Jacob Powers and Paul Witcover, the associate deans of SNHU’s online creative writing programs, welcomed three distinguished panelists: Gavin Grant, Michael La Ronn and Terry Maggert.
The following is part III of an excerpted transcription of the interview with Gavin, Michael and Terry, edited for the page (Take a look at Part I and Part II here):
W4W: A lot of times we think of a self-published author as somebody who’s got tunnel vision. They want their book out there. That’s what they’re focusing on exclusively. And yet what I’m hearing from all of you is that there’s actually more of a sense of community and even responsibility, maybe, for each other and for the health of the publishing industry itself on the indie and small press level. Is that accurate?
La Ronn: I would say so. I would say that tunnel vision you referenced, it still does exist.
When you publish your first book, in a way, that tunnel vision is actually helpful because by focusing on getting that first book out there, you can make all the mistakes in the world. And then when you publish that first book, then you really start playing the game, so to speak. So the sooner you get that first book out there, it’s actually a good thing.
W4W: We’ve talked about the money that it takes up front to spend on the various components of self-publishing your book. And obviously, we could see from Gavin’s response that these costs don’t go away when you’re dealing with a small press, it’s just that they’re not borne directly by the author.
What about the other side of the equation, though, which is getting your book out there, getting it into stores, getting it in front of readers? How is that done? What are the costs involved in that? And again, what are some of the positive steps you can take and what are some of the dangers to avoid?
Grant: I would say that everything you can do before the publication date is worth three times as much as everything that comes after the publishing date. The getting the word out.
People are simple beasts. If everybody is talking about something, we want to know what that thing is. So you want to try and get as many people talking about your book before the book comes out so that when the book comes out, people are like, ‘oh, there’s that thing that everybody’s talking about. I want that thing.’
This, of course, is immensely hard, because everybody else is also saying, ‘but you should talk about my thing. You should talk about my TV show. Have you heard about kombucha? It’s fascinating.’ No, no, no, stop, talk about my books, my books, my books. So I really liked what people were saying there about the community.
Year in, year out, we sell about 65% print books, 35% e-books. Even when we have an e-book that takes off, it still comes out to about that.
A lot of our time is spent reaching out to independent bookstores. And we now have an independent bookstore in East Hampton. One came up for sale, and we were like, well, we cannot afford a bookstore, and then it turned out we could afford a bookstore, because this lady really wanted to retire. So good news for us. But it’s really hard to stock an indie-published book in a bookstore if no one’s heard of it.
It’s been a real sort of eye-opening reminder that you need to get the books out to other booksellers before the book is published. You need to send (it) out through the American Booksellers Association, through their monthly books of galleys. You need to send it through your distributor. You need to find out that Emma at Books Are Magic loves this kind of book; send it to her. Daily at Common Books in Minneapolis, they love this kind of book; send it to them.
Maggert: There is a group of people out there that are waiting to make you a success. They will evangelize for you. They are called librarians. Every state in the United States has a library meeting where all the librarians get together and decide what they’re going to buy that year. And most of them, they let you walk in. If you’re wearing shoes, you can walk in.
So I found out. I said, wait a minute, let me get this straight. This is an entire group of people with purchasing control over the budget for the state of Tennessee, and all I have to do is take some galley copies and shake hands and be myself and say, ‘hey, I’m Terry, this is my fifth novel; it’s way better than my first novel,’ and that was it? And that was it.
When I travel, I look up the small libraries on that route, Central Mississippi, Louisiana, Iowa, wherever I am, and I stop, meet the librarian, and give them three books. And I say, the only thing I would like from you is a picture for my social media.
La Ronn: That’s a great tip. Librarians are great.
Another thing I would also say is don’t forget readers. There are lots of ways to reach readers directly in today’s age. So on the self-publishing side, it doesn’t cost you anything to list your book on Amazon or on Barnes & Noble or on sites like Kobo or Draft2Digital, which is a book aggregator where they take your book and distribute it to places like OverDrive and lots of other places that authors can’t get to themselves.
There are lots of readers out there. Ten years ago, people struggled with e-books. It was difficult to get people to understand the value of e-books. Now people love e-books. What we find on the self-publishing side is, at least on Amazon at the time of this video, you make 70% of each sale for e-books.
And you make—it depends on the size of your book—somewhere around 30% to 40% royalties off print after printing costs and after Amazon and IngramSpark, places like that, take their cut. So you can reach readers directly as well.
That’s how many self-published authors are making a living. They’re bypassing the traditional routes altogether and getting directly to readers. And then they have things like mailing lists and social media groups so they have a way to communicate with their fans when they have a new book.
So list your book directly with these places. Get readers that way by advertising or making sure you’re doing everything you can, as Terry said, to have a really good cover, and you can start to build your own tribe and your own community that will advocate for you, just like Terry and Gavin said.
W4W: What about the introverts though?
Maggert: I’m an extrovert, so I will talk to a stump. However, you can let somebody do your speaking for you, and it’s in the most critical way possible, and that’s through audio books.
There is an entire market of people who introverts can reach by having someone do their speaking for them, a professional actor who performs the book, and it gets out there via the audio sample and to librarians and everybody else. It reaches people you would never reach otherwise.
La Ronn: One of the ways a lot of authors are building their community and making money is through newsletters. You don’t have to talk to anybody to write a newsletter. Just get readers on a newsletter list.
When you have a new book, write them a letter, because that’s what we do as introverts. We prefer to be in front of a keyboard. You can write them a letter. You don’t really have to engage with people that much on social media either. Or, at least, you can engage with them on your terms. I have a YouTube channel, and I’ve built a community of over 40,000 subscribers. I do that by posting videos I want to make, communicating with people on my own terms.
You don’t have to be out there shaking hands and kissing babies. You just have to connect with people in the way that works best for you.
W4W: But it does seem like regardless of whatever mode of connection you’re most suited for, it has to be mediated through the internet. If you want to have a newsletter presence, there has to be a website that your potential readers can go to and sign up for. And you have your YouTube channel.
So how important is it? How much of your time as a writer should be devoted to that side of the business, keeping whatever your hub is fresh and attractive to potential readers?
La Ronn: One of my secrets that has paid dividends throughout the years is mastering automation.
Learn how to build a website that takes care of itself. Learn how to build things that take care of themselves so that you don’t have to spend as much time working on them and you can spend time focusing on your craft instead.
There are so many tools out there, so many website plug-ins, so many different ways you can build things. And if you think about it like that, then it just makes things a lot easier. It allows you to focus on the main thing, because I think the hardest thing about this life, at least for me, is that there’s a million things you have to do.
You have to be a writer. You have to be a marketer. You have to be a business person. I got to be a dad. I got to be a husband. I have a million things I have to do. And anything you can do (to) cut that time down adds up in a big way over time.
W4W: And speaking of time, we are out of it. Thank you to our panelists, Gavin Grant, Michael La Ronn, and Terry Maggert, for a fun and informative night.
This concludes our interview with Gavin Grant, Michael La Ronn and Terry Maggert. Thank you for reading and stay tuned for more Word for Word events!