I Self-Publish and I Like It!

A Letter to Katy Munger

Dear Katy –

Well, it’s been about three months since we sat down at your writing desk in Durham, opened up the typesetting software Vellum on your computer, and over glasses of prosecco produced a publishable version of my debut novel The Coal Tower. I’m writing to thank you for making this happen; it’s been gratifying, I might almost say thrilling, to share the book, to check its sales on Amazon, to chat with friends about their favorite characters.

There’s a back story. I started writing this book as a toe in the water experiment at writing again after about 25 years away, getting up in the dark and scribbling before work. It was slow and unsteady going, but I kept at it, relearned how much fun it is to dive into the imaginary worlds between words on a page, and five years later had a completed manuscript that Chris and you and our dear friend novelist Paul Witcover said read like a novel.

I tinkered some more, but also sent it out to a dozen literary agents, some of whom Paul knows, some looked up online. I went to the James River Writers conference in 2017, did a speed date with a couple young and sharply dressed agents there, but nothing. Then at a writing panel down the hall, five authors said they’d all gotten started by self-publishing. Two were still doing so, and building a readership, one had a movie contract, and the other two got picked up by a Big Five publishing house after their sales proved they had hits. None had used an agent.

Then you allowed that you too were self-publishing, both your backlist and new titles in your series, even amidst a long and stellar career as a mystery writer, because, for you, “it’s less of a hassle, instant gratification, and I make a hell of a lot more money.” You, Katy Munger, author of the Casey Jones detective series, the Dead Detective series, you of Hubbert & Lil fame, were self-publishing? Well, alright.

So it took five years to write the book, three years of peddling it without success in the traditional way, and about two weeks to get the thing produced and up for sale on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions, thanks to you. Dang! Within a month, enough books had sold to afford me my own copy of Vellum, and a couple weeks ago I produced a volume of stories Last Rites all by myself!

KDP, Amazon’s publishing platform, makes it scarily simple, as you’d said. Yes, there was paperwork to take care of. I formed a “label” called NExTExT, an informal division of the rehab therapy company NExT, LLC that Chris and I own, bought a batch of ISBN numbers and bar codes online from Bowker, sketched out a book cover that my talented son Stephen finalized, then uploaded everything to the KDP website, and boom! I’m a published author! Even friends of mine in England and France could acquire my book from Amazon. Amazing.

So now, promoting the thing. You’ve got a longstanding readership, solid relationships with book sellers, hundreds who read your blog and write to you as pen pals. You’ve been the laureate of the Triangle, for heaven’s sake! I have friends and family who think of me as the literary equivalent of that daft uncle who plays bass in a cover band on weekends. And I’m grateful to them for buying my book. They’ve bought enough in three months so I’ve broken even from the Bowker and Vellum costs. I finally had the courage a week ago to walk in a bookstore and ask if they’d consider stocking the novel (the answer was no, that store prefers not to deal with KDP authors, but hey okay).

So self-publishing, for me, will not be a road to riches. I was never going to be Stephen King anyway. As you said, publishing companies don’t do much promoting either these days. And I’m enjoying the mom and popness of the experience. The pharmacy up the street has a nice little shelf of books by local authors, the indy bookstore in the mall says they’d be happy to hold a signing, and when I check the KDP sales graph (an addiction – as you’d predicted) and see that someone somewhere has purchased one of my books, it makes my day.

So thank you Katy. It means so much to see the labor of years propped up on my shelf rather than lost in a digital file somewhere. Heartening. And now, on to the next book! Fun!

Oh, an addendum.  Showed this to Katy and she suggested I add this comment, which I whole-heartedly endorse:

“We need a new definition of what it means to be successful as a writer today. To me, it comes down to two things: 1) were you able to say what you, and you alone, wanted to say in your book, and 2) were you able to connect with the audience you had in mind when you wrote your book, irregardless of bestseller status and traditional bookstore sales? If you can say yes to both of those questions, nothing else matters. You are, indeed, a successful writer.”