WARNING: This is a long post. It will appear at the end of the sixth Steve Martinez novel, The Riddle of Billy Gibbs, to be published next January 1.
In the authorship game, I’m like a journeyman ballplayer that bounced around the big leagues for a few years before being sent down to the minors for good.
In the 1990s, major New York publishing houses—Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Random House, and HarperCollins—issued my first three books, all nonfiction. Reviews were good (the New York Times Book Review praised all three) and sales were modestly successful (one book made enough to send a son to a private college for four years).
When I switched to mystery writing in the early 2000s, the first three whodunits in the Steve Martinez series—Season’s Revenge, A Venture into Murder, and Cache of Corpses—were issued by a competent second-tier publisher of genre fiction, Tom Doherty/Forge. They were well reviewed but not heavily promoted.
In 2008, when the Great Recession had thoroughly staggered the publishing industry, Forge let me go. Though my notices had been good, sales of regional mysteries—especially mine—had just been too modest. I joined a host of similarly orphaned novelists struggling to find new publishers.
Finding a fresh vendor wasn’t easy. Publishing houses are loath to take on a fiction series in midstream. Because they don’t own the earlier books, they can’t depend on revenues from them to support taking a risk on new ones, hoping their writers will someday become best-sellers. And so for more than three years Hang Fire, the fourth in the Steve Martinez series, languished in limbo until Five Star/Gale, a specialty house that markets genre fiction chiefly to libraries, rescued it for the 2013 publishing season.
Five Star has been a good choice for young writers seeking to break in as well as older ones hoping to keep their careers afloat. In 2016 it also published Tracking the Beast, the fifth Martinez novel. Both novels have done well enough to earn back the tiny advance payments and generate additional royalties.
At the beginning of 2016, Five Star suddenly decided to stop publishing mysteries entirely, and focus instead on romances and Westerns, both booming genres in the library market. Five Star did not say why, but it was easy to guess the reason: Mysteries were no longer doing so well in its market.
The Riddle of Billy Gibbs had been acquired but not yet contracted for, and so Five Star set it adrift along with a number of other mystery novels.
Rather than ask my agent to shop it around for months and even years, I decided to publish Billy Gibbs myself and get it out into the sun sooner rather than later. Although I couldn’t give myself a fat advance, the royalties I could pay myself down the line might not be so bad.
But isn’t this self-publishing? Only a decade ago, when I was the book review editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, there was a real stain to the idea. Professionals looked down on the wares of “vanity presses” as beneath their notice. Reviewers assumed that a book that hadn’t gone through an agent and a genuine publishing house couldn’t possibly be worth reading. Selling such a book was nearly impossible without reviews, and countless authors ended up with hundreds of unsold copies on skids in their garages.
As the recession has slowly lifted, some things clearly have changed. Self-publishing is no longer considered a mug’s game. The advent of easy-to-produce ebooks and publish-on-demand paperbacks have eased the task of creating a book by oneself. Of course, nothing can replace the skill and experience of a good agent and a veteran publishing house, but the alternative is a lot sunnier than it used to be.
I’d had some experience in the book game on the production side as well as the writing. In 2009 the rights to my first book, What’s That Pig Outdoors: A Memoir of Deafness reverted to me, and I decided to bring it up to date and see if I could get a university press interested in the project. That happened, and the University of Illinois Press republished it in 2010 as an academic paperback.
My agent was then attempting to sell Hang Fire, and I thought its chances to find a new publisher would be helped if the earlier books had reappeared and were building an audience. And so I won back the rights to the earlier novels and brought out Season’s Revenge, A Venture into Murder, and Cache of Corpses as $3.99 ebooks on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com in 2011.
The big job, as with Pig, was scanning the original hardcovers into electronic form and cleaning up the text. I still had the original electronic manuscripts, but the publisher’s considerable edits had been done on paper. It was simply easier to scan than to hand-insert the changes.
Next came interior design—not difficult for an author of several previous books—and then the front covers. I didn’t think I’d ever make enough royalties to justify hiring a jacket artist, so did them myself. They’ve been through two iterations so far, and they’re still not quite right.
The total cost: Nothing, except for my own labor. Amazon and B&N don’t charge a dime for production and distribution of ebooks—they just take a modest cut of sales. What's more, I don’t need to keep a large inventory of copies.
At first those three reissued mysteries brought in only enough money to take Debby out to dinner once a month (twice if it was a good month), but sales have slowly increased to the point where I can now treat her twice a week. I have done no real marketing for those titles, except for a few library presentations, but Five Star’s publicity efforts for Hang Fire and Tracking the Beast piqued reader interest in the earlier books.
In 2012 I decided to get back the rights to my other two nonfiction titles, Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America and Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet, and reissue them as ebooks.
The same year I discovered Amazon.com’s CreateSpace “independent publishing platform,” as it calls its print-on-demand paperback scheme. For someone with the skills I’ve learned over the years, it’s an easy way to produce actual printed books of reasonably high quality. Many readers, especially older ones, would rather have volumes they can hold in their hands rather than peer at ebooks on an electronic reader. Two months after the ebooks appeared, Gin Fizz and Zephyr were also reborn in CreateSpace form.
This time I had the sense to use actual photographs as book covers rather than scratch out amateurish art. The toughest part was deciding on the fonts for the title and cover text.
These two forms of self-publishing have been highly fulfilling, for it enabled me to use—and hone—the skills I had learned not only as an author but also as a newspaper editor with training in computerized page design and graphics production.
Gin Fizz has languished—books on aviation no longer command sizable audiences—but the rail buff community loves books about trains, and Zephyr has stayed afloat among it, especially since I’m able to promote the book on railfan web sites and Facebook pages.
In 2016 I republished the first three Steve Martinez novels as one omnibus ebook and as a single print-on-demand paperback called Porcupine County. The latter is a 726-page doorstop of a volume, and despite its $9.99 ebook tag and $25.95 paperback price, sales have been heartening.
I followed that later in the year with three separate $12.95 paperbacks for readers uninterested in an omnibus.
The toughest part of this enterprise, of course, is winning the attention of potential readers. I still have to go out and peddle the product, mostly in presentations at libraries. With one or two exceptions, bookstores have not seemed interested in selling print-on-demand paperbacks, let alone ebooks.
Getting reviews is still difficult. Book review sections have dried up with the rest of the newspaper industry. A few surviving magazines, including those geared to libraries, still review books—but most don’t touch self-published efforts. Neither do most literary blogs and Web sites devoted to mysteries (some will, but only for a fee, and I refuse to pay). Fortunately the five previous novels in the Steve Martinez series provide a built-in readership for every new novel, thanks to my Steve Martinez page on Facebook and my web site, henrykisor.com. Yes, the web site is self-published; I had to teach myself HTML coding.
Now you are holding the latest example of my efforts—The Riddle of Billy Gibbs.
Being a one-man publishing house has been a gratifying pastime during my retirement years. I certainly am not making a living at it, but it keeps my aging brain limber—and it also keeps all my books in print, gaining new readers every day.