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You Know, Twain Self-Published

As I’ve written, I recently self-published a book called Same Track, Different Track: One Adjunct’s Alternative Route to the Tenure Track. Some comments on The Chronicle’s Web site, especially in the discussion forums, have prompted me to say more about self-publishing as a viable option for writers. Then it occurred to me that I have already commented on self-publishing in Same Track, Different Track. Here’s an excerpt that deals with self-publishing:

Sleep was hard to come by after I lost my job in December 2010. But something else happened in December 2010. My mother-in-law bought my wife and me a Kindle for Christmas. I realized how easy the Kindle was to use and also how many low-priced and even free books were out there on the seemingly endless Amazon Web site. I heard all the time, on the news or in the classroom, how technology inspires people, but I had never really experienced it until I started using that little device and the dreamer inside me awoke again.

My master’s degree is in English with a concentration in creative writing. To get this, I wrote a creative thesis that consisted of 10 short stories. Some of them were better than others, and I had tried, when I was younger, to publish a few. It didn’t happen. After the Kindle and a bit of research, I discovered that short stories were all over the Kindle store. Many of them were even self-published.

I spent a fair amount of time editing and revising one of my favorite stories from that grad-school collection, called “Hard Creek Bridge.” I also spent a fair amount of time learning how to format documents for the Kindle and to create covers. I did all this at night, usually after my son and my wife went to bed. My varied experiences with the small newspaper gave me an edge when it came to learning to format and design. A little research and some friendly folks at a Web site called Kindle Boards led me to Smashwords.com as well. “Hard Creek Bridge” became my first self-published e-book. I gave it away for free.

It’s strange to know that thousands of people have downloaded this freebie. Thousands. I’m not sure how many have read it, but it has to be a few out of those who have downloaded it. I have since self-published other e-books. Most notable are Evolvement, which is a collection of nine stories (“Hard Creek Bridge” is included in this collection), and Students Losing Out: Four Essays on Adjunct Labor in Higher Education. Students Losing Out contains four previously published essays, all of which also appear in this publication. It’s my best seller, not including the ones I give away for free.

I should address the self-publishing issue because the world is still full of naysayers who believe traditional avenues to publishing are the only “real” avenues to publishing. But just like the landscape changed when music went digital, so has the landscape changed for publishing. E-books have been around for a while, but the popularity of the Kindle, Nook, and other e-readers, and now iPads and tablets, have made digital publishing and self-publishing a viable option.

With traditional publishing, the small royalties make it nearly impossible for midlist authors to survive as authors alone. But the higher royalties of self-publishing have changed that. Of course, self-publishing has its own pitfalls. There are no advances. Finding quality covers and editors can be difficult and expensive. It’s an investment, and, like any investment, it has risks. I did my own editing and my own cover design because I was low on funds. I don’t recommend doing it that way.

Many reading this have probably heard the stories about phenomenal successes, like Amanda Hocking, who started out self-published and went on to sign a seven-figure deal with a traditional publisher. But it’s really the midlist authors—the ones who sell a few thousand books a year—they’re the ones who make self-publishing attractive. Not everyone will make six or seven figures, but it seems more possible to make a livable wage. The reason is because the royalties are higher for self-publishing than they are for traditional publishing. So selling a few thousand copies of a $10 e-book can translate into $30,000 a year or more for the self-published author. I’ve never sold that many, but those authors are out there. …

Just because something isn’t normally done doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it. I had reasons for self-publishing, which I outlined in previous posts. I don’t expect to make any “best seller” lists, but at least the manuscript isn’t sitting in a drawer getting outdated while I wait for publishers’ responses.

On a related note, let’s not forget that literature has a long history of reputable self-published successes: Twain, Strunk and White, and Whitman, just to name a few. Of course, self-publishing has also produced some real duds. I’ll try not to be one of those.

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