Was self-publishing your first choice? No, I tried to find a publisher.
What has worked and what hasn’t?
The following has been my experience with self-publishing: In the mid 90s, I decided to write a book about our journey as a family caring for a profoundly handicapped child. I called it, “A Time to Weep; A Time to Laugh.” After receiving a round of rejection slips with responses like, “We already did a story like that”; “We don’t do personal experience stories” and even, “Our editor died,” I decided to publish it myself. I had my manuscript professionally edited and typeset. Sweltering in my garage during a particularly hot summer in Maryland, I attached the pages together with an old comb binding machine and made a hundred copies.
At first I felt embarrassed promoting a book to the news media that had been rejected by publishers…until the day I received my first letter from a reader: “Dear Lisa Saunders, I recently read an article…about your daughter Elizabeth. I just had to buy your book…I’ve had a hard time with accepting [my daughter’s disabilities]…Thank you for writing your book. It helped a lot.” Her letter meant the world to me. My story did have a purpose. Then, unbelievably, a publisher contacted me. The editor said, “I am attracted to your book, not only because it’s a good story that fits into our market, but because you have already laid the foundation for a good promotional campaign.”
I signed my first contract with a publisher. I gave up the right to sell my self-published version (which hurt when I received an order for a hundred copies from a hospital) and spent an entire summer rewriting the manuscript according to the editor’s specifications. But moments before the book went to press, the publisher downsized. My editor was let go…and so was my book. Utterly defeated, I shelved the manuscript. I just didn’t have it in me to pursue another publisher or to self-publish it again. I moved on. Memories of my great-grandfather’s bed clanging back and forth in his bedroom on railroad-like tracks, my aunt making me use the outhouse, and the terror of riding my ornery pony, blossomed into the children’s novel Ride a Horse, Not an Elevator. While the Sentinel newspaper in Maryland serialized Ride a Horse, Not an Elevator, I searched for a publisher. Another set of rejection slips convinced me to try getting an agent instead. Even getting one of those was difficult, but I finally did and signed a one-year contract with her. But she was unable to sell the story to a publisher within the year so I decided to self-publish again. This time I had a printer bind it to look like a real paperback book (called perfect bound) and I sold it to local school children, horse enthusiasts, and New York and Iowa featured it as part of their state-wide 4-H program called, “Horse Book in a Bucket.”
Would you traditionally publish if you had the chance? I have been traditionally published-twice. Although being published by someone else gives you some credibility with certain media, most readers don’t care. Unless you are fortunate enough to get published by a major house that will spend a lot of time and money promoting your book, I think that if you are willing to promote your book, it is better to be self-published (because you can do what you want without asking permission all of the time).