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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Libraries and Self Published Authors: Part 2-- Meet Author and Librarian Sydney Bristow

As I proclaimed in my 2016 Reading Resolutions, this year I am going to make an effort to be more informed about self published authors. From that post:
Not only will I make sure I read a few self published titles in a variety of genres, but I will also be blogging about self published books and specifically how we can and should handle them in libraries.

In Part 1 I featured Robin Bradford, a collection development librarian who is a champion of putting good self published authors in libraries.

Today, I have the first of a two part series from a self published author who is also an Illinois librarian, Sydney Bristow. I thought that this was an important perspective for all of us to hear.

So here is one librarian's take on why, at least for Sydney, self publishing was the best choice.

And then check back soon for another post from Sydney, where we’ll be looking at the future of ebooks in public libraries.


My name is Sydney Bristow, and I met Becky during the wonderful Readers Advisory program she presented for our library during our staff in-service day. Becky’s knowledge is top-notch and her enthusiasm is infectious, so if you haven’t had the opportunity to procure her services at your public library, I highly recommend her; your staff will thank you for it! 

Becky was surprised to discover that I’m not only a librarian in the Chicagoland area, but also a self-published author. She asked if I’d spend a little time focusing on my life as an indie in this post, followed by a separate post about where I see the ebook market going in public libraries. 
I began work in libraries as a Page in 1989 and slowly moved my way up the ladder, so that by 2000, I received my MLS. Around that time, I began writing historical thrillers. I majored in history, and discovered that, with the exception of Ken Follett, very few authors wrote historical thrillers. Most of the “thrillers” contained very little action or suspense, and I wondered: so what makes them so thrilling? 

I spent the next decade writing five historical thrillers. No author is great at every aspect of writing: dialogue, plot, action, suspense, romance, etc. In my experience, I’ve discovered its best to pick a few areas that you’re best at and try to either limit those which you don’t excel at…or do the best you can and hope readers don’t notice your shortcomings! I concentrated on dialogue, plot, character, suspense, and action. I don’t write literary prose because I’m horrible at it, and I rarely add metaphors and similes to my work because I don’t want to spend five minutes thinking about how I should write…rather than just getting the words down on the page. 

Throughout those years, I submitted my work to literary agents, who work on behalf of authors (and take a 15% cut on every book an author sells) and determine if they would like to represent any given author. If they decide to take on any given client, literary agents contact publishing houses in hopes of obtaining a publishing contract for their client. 

During those ten years, I was rejected over 285 times by literary agents. In the meantime, I worked as a librarian, and then as a library manager, where I remain in my current position. Rejection is never fun. But after a while, it becomes commonplace. I believe in the mantra, “You can never fail…if you never give up!” 

During the 2010s, my family encouraged me to write contemporary romance novels because I’ve always enjoyed romantic comedy films. I recalled lyrics from an Aerosmith song: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got!” After heeding their advice, I decided to give writing romance a shot. 

I completed my first romance novel titled, One Step Away, in mid-2012. Taking place in a fictional Chicago suburb that is reminiscent of Bedford Falls, the fictional town from my favorite film, It’s a Wonderful Life, the book centers on a pair of best friends in their late 20s. The hero manages the Adult Services Department at a public library and is secretly in love with his colleague, who manages the Youth Services Department at that same library. 

Rather than submit this novel to agents, I decided to self-publish for many reasons:
  • I didn’t like that it could take 3-4 months to hear back from an agent.
  • I didn’t like having to interview to get an agent, who then regards you as the client. I mean, as an entrepreneur, I would be responsible for hiring an agent and paying him or her to work for me. But when it comes to the publishing world, it’s the other way around. That said, if you’re a pretty successful author, you will probably need an agent to help with foreign sales, contracts, film/television contracts, etc.
  • Five years ago, Publishers Weekly tallied a financial breakdown of a $28.95 John Grisham hardcover. After adding up all of the production and distribution costs, Grisham ended up getting about $4 per book. Think about that: Grisham writes the entire book and through the publishing house, he basically hires editors, a marketing team and more, not to mention his agent, and he only grosses about 14%...before taxes are taken into account. And he’s only making 14% because he’s a bestselling author! Take a look at another traditionally published author, Alan Jacobson, who isn’t nearly as popular as Grisham (but how many are?) to get a more typical breakdown.
  • Ever notice how most traditionally published YA book covers look awesome? Not only are YA authors putting out some of the best books nowadays, but the publishing houses hire incredibly talented graphic artists to represent their work. That’s not the case with adult book covers. Most look like absolute trash, as though the publishing company hired a middle-school kid to slap a photo and some words onto a dust jacket. Since readers judge a book by its cover, it’s mandatory to have a pleasing, if not amazing, book cover. Publishers ask for insight from the author regarding book covers, but writers don’t get to make the final decision when it comes to a book cover. Needless to say, I am not impressed with many of the designers some publishing houses use.
  • Unless you’re a bestselling author or an upcoming author with a lot of in-house buzz, publishing houses don’t do much in the way of marketing. It’s up to the author to build their own platform: website, social media, online newsletters, etc. 
So back in 2012, I thought: why should I continue wasting my time trying to get an agent, who if I’m lucky might get an advance (usually $5,000 or less per book for unknown authors) from a publishing house, that will probably not spend much effort on creating an eye-catching book cover and do little, if any, promotion for my novel? I mean, why would I hand over so much control of something I created, especially if I only earn so little from the deal? 

After all, I could hire an editor, a book designer, a website designer, and contract out for book promotion. When it comes to the editor and book designer, I pay them once. I pay a website designer and book promotion companies on an as needed basis. But again, under a traditional publishing contract, an author pays each of those services for every single book they sell…for as long as a publisher controls the rights to their books! 

Not only that, but my books don’t need to get loaded into a truck or plane, driven to bookstores, and placed on book shelves. If those books don’t sell, they then go back on the truck and get flown or driven back to the publishers. Why not just print on demand? There’s no need to move product all over the country (or world!) And if people buy the ebook, there are no costs for paper, ink, or the machines that create the binding, much less manufacture the book. For those reasons, authors typically get about 25% of the cover price of every ebook sold. (Indie authors, through Amazon at least, make 35-70% of the cover price.)

Yet publishers sometimes price an ebook similar to that of a print book. Why? Because they want to maintain proprietary rights over the print book industry. When you think about it, that’s what they excel at: producing paper books in large quantities and having distribution channels that indie authors do not have access to. That’s where their power lies. If they price their ebooks high enough, some people may be dissuaded from buying ebooks. And if customers do buy their ebooks, they make a big profit. It’s a win-win for them.

Since that first romantic comedy, I’ve added two more in that series. I recently finished my first urban fantasy novel, Nightwish, and I’m in the editing stages of the 2nd book in the series, tentatively titled, Silverthorn. (Note: in this novel, I set a suspense scene and an action scene at the Schaumburg Township District Public Library…because how many cool scenes are set at a library?) My fantasy series is sort of a mash-up of every paranormal television show you’ve seen on the air in the past decade or so: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, etc.

How has my luck panned out? Meh! It’s difficult for any author to gain visibility, whether self-published or traditionally published. A lot of it comes down to being in the right place at the right time…with the right product. Throw in a little bit of luck, and no matter who you are, or what you’ve written, you can breakout. I’m convinced that 2016 will be the year I break out. 

Since I’ve supplied background as to why I decided to self-publish, please don’t get the impression that I’m anti-publisher. The decisions I made were based on my personal experiences and the available information I had available starting in 2012. My circumstances are certainly different from many other authors, and each of us has factors (and interests) that sway our decision-making processes. But technology changes. So do business models. Therefore, if a publisher approached me with a book deal, I would definitely consider it, given the right circumstances.  

You can find more information about me on my website or my Amazon page.


Anonymous said...

Hi all, it's Sydney Bristow, and I just noticed a factual error in my post regarding how Amazon compensates authors. Amazon actually pays authors between 35-70% of any given book, depending on the price the author sets...rather than the straight 70% I'd noted in my post. Sorry for the mistake!

Becky said...

I fixed it Sydney. Thanks for the correction. Becky