Glen Craney is a full-time writer with a “bent toward historical fiction and mystery-thrillers. After finding success in the film industry—he won the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences’ Nicholl Fellowship prize for best new screenwriting—he decided to shift gears and try his hand at writing novels. He self-pubbed back in 2008 and talks to IR’s Terri Giuliano Long about the challenges and changes he’s seen in the industry.
Terri Giuliano Long: Could you please tell us briefly about yourself?
Glen Craney: I’m a full-time writer, with a bent toward historical fiction and mystery-thrillers. I came to writing fiction in a roundabout way. I started out as a litigation lawyer; then, after a sabbatical at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, I joined the Washington, D.C., press corps to cover national politics as a reporter and editor for Congressional Quarterly magazine. I eventually moved to southern California to write movie scripts, and was fortunate enough to win the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences’ Nicholl Fellowship prize for best new screenwriting. My mentor, the late Harry Essex, a legendary Hollywood scribe, encouraged me to try my hand at novels, and I’m grateful he did.
TGL: I’ve just begun reading The Fire and the Light and I’m struck by the quality of your writing. You’ve won several awards, which doesn’t surprise me. You’ve also won other writing awards. Why did you self publish?
GC: Thanks for your kind comments, Terri, and for asking to interview me about my experiences in indie publishing. Fire took ten years from idea to publication. I wrote the story first as a screenplay, and in 2008, I decided to self-publish it as a novel. After living with it for so long, I couldn’t bear the thought of waiting another two years or longer to crawl along the traditional publishing timeline. I also wanted a specific design for the book. In the novel, I weave a theory that the Tarot deck was created as a code to preserve the suppressed secrets of a 13th century sect of French heretics massacred by the Church during the Albigensian Crusade. I started each chapter with a particular Tarot card that foreshadows the events to follow. The illustrations and narrative had to be closely integrated, and I feared I would lose input and control over the design with one of the large commercial houses.
TGL: What was it like to be an indie author in 2008? Would you please describe your experience?
GC: Had I known of all the pitfalls and challenges that lay ahead, I’m not sure I would have embarked on the journey. An entire industry has been spawned to profit off of fledgling writers who crave to see their name in bold letters. I saw a similar thing happen in the movie business. You can walk into any coffee shop in Los Angeles and find wannabe screenwriters hovering over their laptops, having plucked down big money to learn the “Hollywood secrets” and how to snag a high-powered agent.
My legal background helped me avoid some of the stickier self-publishing traps, but I still got a bruising education. I learned the hard way about book returns, rising warehouse costs, and freight orders passing in the mail. I also developed empathy for what publishers do, performing tasks often taken for granted by authors.
TGL: To some extent even today, indie authors are stigmatized. Of course it was far worse for pioneers like you. What sorts of challenges did you face–with booksellers? Reaching readers? How did you overcome the stigma?
GC: With the big commercial houses cutting advances and publicity budgets, an increasing number of established authors are rethinking whether it makes more financial sense to take charge of their own destinies. As a result, independent publishing is gaining in respectability.
But in 2008, I had to downplay the fact that Fire was self-published. I brought the book out in hardback because national publications at that time usually reviewed only hardback fiction. The best decision I made was hiring a good cover artist and designer, and learning from them. First impressions of any book are important, but for a self-published book they will make or break you; if you’re going to convince stores and distributors to carry it, you need a cover that stands out.
Chain store managers and independent bookstore owners were wonderfully supportive. Those I visited to showcase the novel loved its shelf appeal and were eager to host signings. Some even promoted it online. One lady who ran a small-town store here in southern California was so enthusiastic that she sold over a hundred.
At the time, the reviewing blogosphere and literary sites such as Goodreads were still in their infancy, and online marketing options for independently published fiction remained limited. I concentrated on promoting to organizations and groups with an interest in the themes of the story. One pleasant surprise was the positive response I received from librarians. Personal contact was the key, but the marketing proved extremely time-consuming and probably cost me the birth of at least one book in the hours I had to steal from my writing. It’s a hidden cost that authors need to consider.
TGL: You’ve mentioned having gotten your books into stores. How much of the work did you have to do? Did you have a distributor? We also talked about the lack of traditional PR. Was this a problem for you?
GC: I created a detailed marketing plan that got the attention of Greenleaf Book Group, a Texas-based distributor. As a result, the book also found national distribution with Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and others. Currently, I use New Leaf Distributing, based in Georgia. I also got a couple of inquiries from overseas publishers.
My biggest break came with a Hail Mary pass. On a whim, I sent the book, along with a personal note, to the head fiction buyer at Barnes and Noble. I figured my odds of getting it noticed there were about the same as winning the lottery. A week later, the Greenleaf rep called to report that the B&N buyer loved the novel and put in the largest order that the distributor had ever received from the chain. Not long after, I walked into a B&N store and stood staring at my book featured on the New Hardback Fiction shelf.
The novel garnered some award recognition, including being named Foreword Magazine’s Honorable Mention choice for Book of the Year in historical fiction. And then Amazon came calling, offering a contract to republish the book as an early selection for its new Encore imprint. But I decided to hang on to the rights.
With digital books, online promotion has exploded, giving authors many opportunities to meet readers and be discovered, opportunities you didn’t have. How did you promote your novel? Which efforts were most successful?
Fire came out just over four years ago, but it seems like a century in publishing time. For word of mouth, I had to rely mostly on the kindness of strangers, such as bookstore owners and readers who stumbled across the novel. I’ve sold about 3,000 in hardback, but I could have done much better with a different publicity strategy.
My biggest mistake was devoting a significant portion of my budget to hiring a freelance publicist with a background in traditional media. Even with a hardback and B&N’s support, I didn’t get a single review in a newspaper or a national publication. At the time, newspapers were just starting to cut back on their staff and pages devoted to books. Publishers fought fiercely for the shrinking review space, and still do. Most national journalists and reviewers wouldn’t even open a package from a self-published author. So, I ended up wasting a lot of money printing and sending out pre-publication galleys.
But the times, they are a changin’. The New York Times recently Alan Sepinwall’s self-published book based on his TV show criticism blog. I suspect some publishing executives reached for the Maalox when they saw that review. Even if it was a friendly nod from one critic to another, as some have surmised, we may nevertheless look back on it as a watershed moment.
The emergence of online marketing and social media is a blessing for those trying to break through the traditional barriers. A hungry, web-savvy publicist whose fee is benchmarked to performance incentives would, in my opinion, be the best option for a self-publishing author today. If you decide to go it alone on publicity, remember that every innovation brings unintended consequences. Lots of authors tend to be private and introverted, and hawking one’s wares in the online agora can be a soul-corroding experience. More and more, the loudest shouters seem to be the ones who thrive, and that doesn’t always translate into the most talented authors getting the readership they deserve. One truth hasn’t changed: Artists and writers still need champions. Would Thomas Wolfe or J.D. Salinger have surfaced amid the current clatter about brands and platform blogging and video book-club conferences? I doubt it.
TGL: If you had to do it now, what would you do differently? Why? What wouldn’t you change? Why?
GC: Actually, I do have it to do now. If all goes as planned, I’ll be publishing four new novels this year. And the process will be much different this time around. Instead of ordering a large print run, I’ll be bringing out each title simultaneously as an ebook and a paperback using Print On Demand. The POD technology has greatly improved in production quality, and unless B&N or Walmart surprises me with a large preorder, I haven’t come up with a good reason to pay warehousing fees. I’m also doing the design and formatting myself. It’s been a long learning curve, but I’ve learned how to typeset in Adobe Indesign, create a professional cover with Photoshop, code the ebook versions, and maintain a website and blog.
TGL: Have you considered publishing The Fire and the Light in digital format? Why or why not?
GC: Readers have contacted me asking for an ebook version of Fire. Given the book’s many illustrations, I held off initially, because I wasn’t sure if the medieval look and feel would translate into digital. But I’ve finally gotten it converted into epub and mobi formats, and I’m pleased with the results. The digital versions will be released soon on Amazon, Itunes, and other venues.
TGL: How, in your view, is the industry different today? What are the advantages? Disadvantages?
GC: The bottleneck for independent publishing used to be the cost and expertise required to produce the physical books. Now, with advances in print and digital technology, the real challenge is publicity and how to capture eyeballs, especially with so many digital and POD books flooding the market.
Some current advantages and disadvantages spring from one development in particular: the rise of the online reviewer. This has democratized the review process, but it has also decentralized and splintered publicity and marketing channels. Publishing today reminds me a bit of what happened to the television industry. With so many cable and network options, audience share thins and spreads out, making it more difficult to reach a critical mass.
I’ve also grown ambivalent about the cult of customer (often anonymous) reviews posted on sites such as Amazon. It’s been beneficial to have the grip of the traditional media cartels in cultural taste loosened. Yet some interest groups with axes to grind and no accountability have learned how to target, and even destroy, a book with negative review campaigns. Other changes are more positive: digital review galleys now avoid the waste of money and paper; self-publishers enjoy the assurance that their books never have to go out of print; and the cost of correcting errors after going to print had been significantly reduced with ebooks and POD.
TGL: Do you have any predictions for 2013?
GC: I suspect we’ll continue to see lots of changes in publishing, if not in 2013, then eventually. Here are a few to watch for:
1) As digital books gain market share, publishers pressured to cut the cost of selling physical books will rethink the inefficient system of accepting returns.
2) With newspaper and magazine book-review sections continuing to downsize, and the legitimacy of reader reviews coming under increased scrutiny, the time is ripe for a brilliant entrepreneur to devise an innovative yet fair and professional way to winnow the published wheat from the chaff;
3) Commercial publishers will develop a better method for finding and nurturing new authors. The bizarre kabuki dance that writers are expected to perform to court the traditional gatekeepers—literary agents—is outdated, inefficient, and dispiriting. Some agents, seeing the castle walls starting to crack, are now expanding their services by offering to shepherd clients through the self-publishing maze for a fee. But paying an agent who has not sold your book is fraught with conflict-of-interest issues;
4) Increasingly, the logistics of writing will evolve to accommodate the independent-publishing option. I’ll share one anecdote as an example: A couple of years ago, an agent asked to see one of my manuscripts. When I told him it was formatted in Adobe Indesign, he was incredulous, and insisted on reading it in Microsoft Word. I tried to explain that editing in the leading commercial typesetting program dispenses with wasteful conversion steps and allows the author to work with the text as it will appear to the reader. But he couldn’t get his head around such flouting of tradition—just as many agents once balked at accepting digital submissions. About a year later, I read two stories in the trades. The first recounted how more and more novelists were writing their first drafts using Indesign. And the second was a notice announcing that the agent in question had quit the repping business.
TGL: What advice would you give aspiring authors and/or self publishers?
GC: Companies that cater to self-published authors know more about their business model than you do. Their contracts and fee structures are designed to limit their exposure and make their money up front. Unlike an agent or lawyer, they don’t owe you a fiduciary duty of promoting your best interests, even if they promise to take you under their wing. You will always be the last to feed at the trough. Carefully analyze their recommendations to determine who stands to benefit. If a company suggests a large print run, determine if it will earn warehousing fees for books that sit unsold. The more middlemen you can eliminate, the better chance you have making a profit. Hold on to all rights to your book, own the ISBN, and never sign an exclusive distribution agreement.
Depending on your genre, consider publishing an ebook first. The digital world is more cost-effective and welcoming to self-publishers. Then, if you get some traction, explore markets for a paperback using Print on Demand.
If you’re in it for the long haul and intend to sell several books, think about becoming a small publisher. Invest in software programs such as Indesign and learn to typeset. Become proficient in Photoshop, HTML website coding, and ebook formatting. If you have money left in your budget, bring on a motivated publicist who is hip to social media and will invest blood, sweat, and tears—first and foremost, by reading your book.
TGL: What’s next for you? Your forthcoming novel, The Spider and the Stone, sounds fascinating! When do you plan the release?
GC: I’ve got a busy year ahead. I’m planning a spring release for The Spider and the Stone, a romantic epic about the daring exploits of the Black Douglas, a swashbuckling Scottish hero who terrorized England during the 14th century wars of independence. And three more novels will be coming out this summer: The Virgin of the Wind Rose, a mystery-thriller set in 15th-century Portugal during the sea explorations of Henry the Navigator; The Yanks Are Starving, a historical novel about a ragged army of homeless World War One veterans who marched on the nation’s capital during the Great Depression; and The Lucifer Genome, a mystery thriller (written with fellow Columbia grad John Jeter) set in the seedy underworld of meteorite trafficking.