Sunday, February 24, 2019

How to Write and Publish--9--Self-publishing, My Journey

My self-publishing journey:

Which is more dangerous:
1. Wading through an alligator-infested swamp at night, with pythons dangling from the mossy live oaks and malarial mosquitoes whining all around you?
2. Self-publishing a book, with smiling greedy helpful people at every turn insisting that for an entirely reasonable sum they can turn your work into a beautiful, polished book, edited to perfection, with an embossed cover, and available in bookstores, that the world will soon discover the wonders of, with only a tiny extra fee here and there?
You might want to choose the swamp.

One September a few years ago, a friend and I shared a table at an authors' fair. While many of the booths had authors selling their books, I was surprised at how many tables featured “publishing services.” Big well-designed signs promised to take your book from manuscript to finished product, emphasized by sample books with colorful, glossy covers. Editing! Design! Coaching! Covers! Ebooks! Postcards! Marketing!

At one table, they promised to take your files and turn them into an actual book on CreateSpace, finished and ready. For $1500.

Truth: you can turn your own files into an actual book on CreateSpace. For free.

Some of these people and services seemed legitimate, offering real services for reasonable prices. Others seemed like swindlers, preying on the desperate.

It felt like an alligator-infested swamp, and I was glad I was in my safe boat of having a trusted book designer and a well-known printer.

However, the only reason I could recognize the alligators was because I had navigated the swamp some time before and met my share of hungry crawling creatures.

In 2003, I had been writing a newspaper column for four years. A number of people had asked me if I had a collection of columns to sell, so I was thinking about publishing a book of these essays.

A friend of mine helped me pitch the idea to HarperCollins in San Francisco, but they weren’t interested. From my writers’ group, I knew that it can easily take five years of work before you find a publisher. If I already had people asking for it, maybe self-publishing was the way to go.

I went to an Oregon Christian Writers conference and found Sally Stuart, the queen of the Christian publishing world and the author, for many years, of the Christian Writers Market. “How do I know if I should self-publish?” I asked her.

She smiled. “Three things. Do you write non-fiction? Do you already have an audience? Are you ok with storing a thousand books in your garage?”

My answers were yes, yes, and yes.

This was way back when self-publishing was still considered “vanity publishing,” ebooks didn’t exist, and print-on-demand was at its beginnings. I had no idea where to start, but I knew I needed a lot of help.

I found a Christian publisher called WinePress, in Washington State, with a new print-on-demand division called Pleasant Word, all headed by a nice older woman named Athena Dean. As I recall, they used to have their materials at OCW events and seemed like a good fit for me. I decided to go with Pleasant Word.

This is what was good about the experience:
They were clear about their prices. They designed a cover exactly like I wanted it. They communicated well, with one exception. It was easy to order books. You didn’t have to order all the extras. For example, they offered all kinds of postcards, advertising, and radio interviews, all for a price. I didn’t want them, and didn’t have to pay for them.

What wasn’t so good:
I had a tight deadline for printing the books, because I wanted the books for a ladies’ retreat. I emailed in my manuscript and didn’t hear from them but assumed all was well. Someone there had dropped the ball, which I didn’t figure out until it was almost too late. I should have called immediately to verify that they got the document.

Part of the price covered the cost of an editor going through the book. I asked for an exception, since a newspaper editor had already worked on all these pieces. They said no. It was their way of ensuring a quality product. Sadly, the editor tweaked and altered in the most annoying ways, and I had to undo the damage afterwards, page by page. Later, Athena Dean told me that that editor is no longer with them.

About a year after they printed my books, WinePress was engulfed in scandal—read more here. A church took over the company, Athena Dean blew the whistle on the new publisher’s six-figure salary while employees weren’t getting paid, and worse. 

By this time, thankfully, my books were printed and I had all the inventory I needed.
WinePress went out of business in 2014.

Talk about narrowly avoiding the alligators in the swamp.

It didn’t take me long to discover the #1 drawback of self-publishing: I had to do all my own marketing. Maybe this isn’t so bad for Englisch authors, but if you’re still half Amish, sounding the trumpets in the streets about your book is simply torture. Should I advertise? If so, where and how? How could I get bookstores to carry my book? Should I do a mass mailing?

I had an audience in my newspaper readers, but how could I let them know about the book, since the paper didn't want me to write about it in my column?

Mostly, I relied on word of mouth and selling at events I was invited to. When I had sold 1500 copies, I was pretty sure a publisher would take me seriously. Impulsively, I sent the book and a letter to Good Books.

They signed me on.

I was so happy. 

The Goods at Good Books published three of my books, including the re-publication of that first one, and they were wonderful to work with, until they weren’t. I’ll write about that later.

Then I went back to self-publishing in 2012.

Everything had changed.

All kinds of websites, most notably Amazon’s CreateSpace, made basic self-publishing easy and free. Social media created an instant platform and easy publicity. Self-publishing was serious business and no longer considered vanity publishing. Ebooks were everywhere.

However, books from CreateSpace still had that self-published look, which I wanted to avoid. My friend Bob Welch recommended his friend Tom Penix, a graphic designer at the Register-Guard. “Expensive but good,” Bob said.

So I hired Tom. He found an appropriate font for the titles, laid out the pages, and wrote up all the copyright information. He scoured the internet for the sort of teapot illustration I wanted and bought the rights to the picture from the artist in England. The artist cheerfully popped the teapot lid for us and added the puffs of steam. Tom designed the cover and acquired the ISBN and bar code for the back cover.

Then he arranged with the printer, Friesens, in Manitoba, to print 2000 books. 

Tom didn’t do editing, however, so before Tom did the layout I hired an editor to go over the manuscript. 

I watched and listened, but Tom did the work, and I was delighted with the results. Later he did the same work for Footprints on the Ceiling.
Meanwhile, I signed up for an account with Kindle and put both books online as ebooks.

By the time I wanted to do Fragrant Whiffs of Joy, the newspaper was short-staffed and Tom was doing the work of four people. So I acted as a general contractor.

I emailed the artist in London to do the artwork for the cover. She agreed.

I hired our daughter to edit the content, someone else to do the line editing, and a third person to take the artist’s work and design a cover in an Adobe program.

I found a printer, AB Publishing in Michigan. Their designer did the page layout for a small fee. They helped me buy the ISBN and write up the copyright information.

And, of course, they printed the books. 3000 of them this time.

I felt like I had come into a good and pleasant land of flowers and sunshine. I hope my swamp and alligator days are all behind me.

Here’s my rule for self-publishing: ask lots of questions, do lots of research, learn from your mistakes. There’s something addictive about the process: you always want to apply your hard-earned lessons to yet another book.
Two updates: the artist in London, Laura Hughes, became quite well-known the last few years and even won an award for a children’s book. It was presented to her by Princess Eugenie. So that is my six-degrees separation from royalty.
Laura Hughes also did this artwork for my Muddy Creek Press brand.

Also, Tom Penix’s daughter Phoebe moved to Washington, DC, where our son Matt has lived for about five years. They met via a tiny bit of manipulation from Tom and me, but mostly, Phoebe’s grandma says, from the Holy Spirit, and they are now happily dating. 

Matt adds, So as Mom mentioned, Phoebe and I met and started dating due to a little helpful meddling from her and Tom Penix. 

One other detail: "Footprints on the Ceiling" has Phoebe's footprint. Tom inked her foot and used it as a model for the cover.

You never know what adventures will come from your writing.

Next: your self-publishing journey


  1. Wow!
    So. Much. To. Learn.

    The swamp with alligators sounds safer. And this from an Englisch girl!
    Brave woman, you are.

    Thanks for these posts.

    1. I agree the alligator swamp sounds safer! I'm in love with writing and have heaps of life experiences as a missionary wife in east Africa. But I've never had enough courage to go beyond blogging 😊 Just maybe this cheerful series will top me over the edge

  2. 2 questions: what is Muddy Creek Press? And what are you referring to when you say line editing?

  3. 1. Muddy Creek Press is my publishing company. I needed a company name to work with Friesens Printing, so now I put that name on all my self-published books and also my dad's.
    2. By line editing I mean checking for extra spacing, misspellings, typos, and so on.