Literally Speaking: Rockin’ the Self-Publishing World
It was the end of the summer of 2010, and I bumped into Karen Pokras Toz at a party. “I’ve been looking all over for you!” she said excitedly. “I have big news to tell you! I wrote a book!”
Now Karen, in real life, prepares tax returns, so I had no idea she was secretly dreaming about writing a book (of course everyone is, so I shouldn’t have been deeply surprised). I had two predominant reactions to her announcement, both of which I kept to myself (until now). The first was “Oh, no, here it comes—the usual tedious questions about how to find an agent, how to get published etc.” The second reaction was “You did? You wrote a whole book in a summer? Damn you, how did you do that and why can’t I do that?!”
What I said aloud was "Congratulations! That’s so great! Can I get you another drink?”
Karen never did ask me any pesky questions about publishing. In fact, the next I heard was many months later when I again bumped into her and she informed me that she had a self-published book about to come out.
Karen’s book, called "Nate Rocks the World," came out in June of 2011. Karen did the proper self-publishing author thing: the signings at local stores, the Facebook posts, the Amazon author page… A sequel, "Nate Rocks the Boat," came out in April of this year. The books have appealing colorful covers and lively stories written for a middle-school grade 7- to 12-year-old audience.
Karen’s latest success was just announced this past weekend: she was chosen as a winner of a 2012 Global Ebook Award in the Pre-Teen Literature Fiction category. And it was only when I reached out to her today to congratulate her on the award that I learned the story of what had happened between our encounter that summer day and the publication of Nate.
It turns out that the book Karen wrote that summer of 2010 was a different book. That one was adult fiction. “I had this idea in my head that was based on Princess Diana’s life. I kept trying to write it and I never could. Tax season had just ended and I didn’t have a job anymore, and I was sitting around getting depressed. I thought ‘I need to do something with myself. I’m going to try this book one more time.’”
She finished the book (a feat to be commended) and, because she knew she needed some help with her technical writing skills, hired a writing coach to help her. After trying to help with some grammatical and structural issues, “she pretty much told me it was horrible.” The book, however, was not totally without merit. “Some scenes I wrote were flashbacks from when the character was a kid. The coach said those scenes were really good.”
Karen set off in a new direction with the idea of writing young adult fiction instead. In a mere three months, she had written a complete book. “It all just started flowing,” she explains. “It was so much more comfortable for me.”
After she finished the book she set out to seek a publisher. “I did try the traditional route. I probably sent out 60 or 70 query letters to agents. Most I never heard back from, but I got a decent number of rejects. I started looking online to see about other options.”
What Pokras Toz found online was a supportive and helpful world of self-publishers. “Everyone wants to help each other,” she exclaims. “They were so welcoming. One person took me under his wing and showed me everything I needed to get published.”
Toz first discovered this online self-publishing community through LinkedIn, joining several author groups on that site. That led her to Facebook and a variety of blogs. “Before I knew it I had a whole support group online of authors and book reviewers and bloggers and readers who support the whole indie community.” She recommends The Indie Exchange as a resource, as well as an informative blog by Terri Long. “The biggest advice everybody gave me was to treat it as a business and put out the best possible product, and make it look as professional as possible.”
Pokras Toz hired a content editor as well as a copy editor, and added a designer to her crew who did the cover and the interior formatting. The process, however, was not flawless. “I made a lot of mistakes along the way,” the author admits. One mistake, she feels, was to start out using CreateSpace, Amazon’s self-publishing arm. “I found out it’s very hard to get into brick & mortar stores that way,” she says. “I switched to Lightning Source and now Barnes & Noble and independent stores are picking it up.”
She likes Lightning Source because it “offers the same discount as bookstores are used to and it’s returnable.” Toz recommends that self-published authors also “have your own ISBN instead of free ones that come from the distributor. Then you own it and have your own imprint.” Toz has her own imprint, called Grand Daisy Press. “It’s an indie publisher but it doesn’t scream self-published. That’s key to getting into bookstores.”
As for the life of a self-publisher, it is indeed the constant battle for PR and distribution that one would think it would be. Cautions Toz: “If you’re going to just sit down and write a book and then think you’re done, you’re not. The marketing never ends. The minute I think it’s holding its own and I pull back, the sales drop.”
The positive feedback she gets in emails from readers and reviewers sustain her, however, and she has a new book coming out this coming fall. This one has a female protagonist named Millicent Marie. Her fans clamored for a book for girls, and the author happily obliged, although not without some struggle. As she wrote, “Nate’s voice was in my head. I was trying to write this new character and he kept popping in. I said ‘Go away!’ I was talking to this voice in my head; I felt like a crazy person. But I think we’re all crazy, all of us writers.”
Crazy enough to keep self-publishing? The author says yes. “From what I’m hearing from traditional authors who I’m friends with online, they still have to do a big chunk of their own marketing, so I don’t know that going the traditional route takes that away from you and I like having all the control. I’ve been approached by a couple of small publishers and I thought: ‘I’m already doing all the work and have already put out all the money.’ I like having the control and being able to play with my price and find out what works and doesn’t.”
“I’m happy I went the way I did. If someone has a book they believe in, this is a really great option. You just have to be prepared to put in the time it’s going to take to make things happen.”
There’s also the matter of liking what you do. “I feel really fortunate that I’ve found something I‘m so passionate about even if it took me 40 years to figure it out!”
The third and final “Nate Rocks" book is now being written. For more about Karen’s books see here.