“Why I Went DIY,” By Thomas Pluck

Recently Thomas Pluck — tommysalami on Twitter — released a book called Blade of Dishonor, and he chose to forego submitting it to agents or publishers in favor of releasing it himself as a bonafide author-publisher. Here he stops by to talk about why he did that, and how.

When I was a kid, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books. You know the ones, where you chose what the character did next. With the catchy tagline YOU are the star of the story. Choose from 38 possible endings! it was hard to resist, especially back when home video games all looked like Tamagotchi spiders having a pixelated orgy on your little TV screen. The books were very popular, but they weren’t for everyone. Enjoying them didn’t make you a smarter reader or a less creative one. They were just a new kind of book on the spinner rack.

And that is what indie publishing is like. Just one more choice for authors to make. And let’s not divide ourselves by saying “trad author” or “indie author” or “indie/trad genetically spliced hybrid lizard-monkey author.” We’re authors. That’s what we do. We auth. Some of us will be published by Hachette, others by Carina Press, others by Angry Robot, and others will do it themselves. It’s a business decision, like whether you hire a power-player real estate agent or sell your house yourself.

DIY is the choice I made for my debut novel BLADE OF DISHONOR, a pulp thriller starring Rage Cage Reeves, an MMA fighter who comes home from Afghanistan to find his grandfather embroiled in a battle between ninja and samurai over sword lost in World War II. I chose indie for a number of reasons, one of which is that the action-adventure section of the bookstore is meager. My used bookstore has one, but in Barnes & Noble and my favorite local, Watchung Booksellers, there are a few books stuck in Fiction/Lit or in the Suspense section, usually a subset of mystery, and they are Industries like Clive Cussler who need no introduction. It would have been a tough sell as a debut novelist, especially what one reader calls “an updated ’80s action movie written by Raymond Chandler and Robert E. Howard.”

I prefer indie publishing to “self-publishing” because at least five people worked on Blade of Dishonor. I hired pro designer Jaye Manus to format the e-book. She’s designed books for Lawrence Block and Chuck Dixon. She also edited the book. Chad Eagleton, Holly West, Neliza Drew, Josh Stallings and David Cranmer all contributed as first readers, proofreaders, and creative consultants. The cover was painted by Roxanne Patruznick to look like the garish pulp novels of the ’70s and ’80s like BLACK SAMURAI and THE RAT BASTARDS and BROWN SUGAR BROOKDALE #17: TITTY TITTY BANG BANG*.

I’m lucky enough to be friends with Suzanne Dell’Orto, who designs print books for a living and jumped at the chance to design a flashy pulp novel. Suzanne designed the cover and interior of the print book.

None of this was done for free; some was done for barter, some for a cut of the sales. Writing is a business. You can trade first reading, story editing, and proofreading with fellow authors whose work blows you away. You can hire Jaye, or another designer, for about $150 for a full novel. Editing is more expensive, but the best money you will ever spend. Not all readers are good editors. Some people just love a story that flies and overlook plot holes and convoluted developments, ignore clumsy sentences, and so on. You need a pro with experience who will tell you what you don’t want to hear, stuff like “how many cops are gonna be jerks in this book?” and “Which severed limb did he use as a club, and which did he throw like a boomerang?”

Traditionally published authors tell you that they end up reading and editing their book so many times before publication that it feels like they were caught smoking a page of it and got locked in the closet, forced to smoke the entire book as punishment. You will know your book’s smell. And if your book misses a few spots with the washcloth, when it bothers to shower at all, you will know it. And you will have to fix it yourself.

The other thing authors will tell you is that they have to do more promotion now than ever. This is the same whether you publish yourself or not. My friend Jenny Milchman took six months off to tour her novel COVER OF SNOW, published by Ballantine books. She hired a publicist herself, she drove her entire family across country to bookstores, making friends with booksellers, offering sweet wine and scrumptious hummus and crackers (which I devoured at her local book signing). Jenny is a mover and a shaker. She wanted a traditional deal and fought for one for ten years, with a book that publishing handles well–a regional murder mystery–but she took the publicity bull by its publicity balls and roped that SOB up tighter than a crab’s ass (which is waterproof).

Some chafe at this, but I loved it. Imagine getting to know all those bookstores! I can’t take that kind of time off, but I have a signing at Watchung Booksellers on Sunday, November 3rd at 4pm. There will be sake and pocky and chop-socky. There may be pie (It may be stolen by ninjas. Arrive early). I have books on consignment in Austin at BookPeople, a fantastic store, especially for crime fiction readers. They will be for sale at the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC. How did I do this? With a courteous email to people who work there. They love books, see. They don’t love prima donnas with chips on their shoulders. You have to act like a publisher, because that is what you are now. Publishers essentially sell on consignment: they take returns. Most bookstores buy at a 40% or 45% discount, which leaves you 55% or 60% of cover price. A steep cut, but you reach readers you’ll never touch otherwise. And you’ll make friends with awesome people who love books.

I’m making this sound too easy, and it isn’t. It took 6 months to write, revise, and edit Blade of Dishonor, a 95,000 word book. During that time I published two story collections, wrote several stories, blogged weekly for a local foodie zine, and a lot more. And held down a full time job where I am on call 24/7. I researched, read, and asked successful authors for advice. I politely contacted book bloggers, review sites, and like-minded weirdos who love samurai films and MMA fights for guest spots, or offered review copies. I made a special page for the book with blurbs from established writers, the snazzy cover, and a tight pitch to show people before the book was published. I carried 20 copies uphill in Albany at Bouchercon, both ways, and sold out of them without pushing one book at friends or strangers. I did however print out posters of the cover and my wife made postcards with Vistaprint, and those were everywhere book promotion was allowed. People came and asked me for copies of the book. (No offense to the bigger publishers, but no one else had sweet book cover posters. Remedy this.) Other writers asked who did my publicity. Yours truly, baby.

It is a lot of work, but it is work that replenishes your enthusiasm for this whole writing thing. And it is the same work that I’ll do when my next book is published traditionally. BURY THE HATCHET, a hardboiled crime thriller, will be pitched to agents soon. In it, Jay Desmarteaux gets out of prison 25 years after taking the fall for the murder of a vicious high school bully, and goes looking for payback and answers with his two bare-knuckled fists. It has no ninjas. It would still make a good movie starring Joe Manganiello (yum yum, amirite ladies?) raising hell in a quiet suburb in a banged-up Challenger, but crime fiction fans are a bigger audience than people who would dig an MMA fighter taking on ninja and samurai and getting dragged into the Kumite deathmatch. Crime fiction fans go to bookstores. Ninja fans tend to collect on internet forums, Facebook groups, and reddit. Easier for an indie publisher to find.

Just remember, if you do it yourself, you have no one to blame but yourself. Never settle for “good enough.” You get one chance to make a good impression on the reader. You earn them with every word, every line, every page. Whether you publish yourself, or team with an editor at a publisher of any size.

YOU are the star of the story.

*an actual story I wrote for Blood & Tacos

15 comments

  • Love it. I’m a children’s picture book author who went straight to an animated, narrated, musical book app through a publisher. They have worldwide distribution rights on the app. I’m not aligned with a conventional publisher and I own traditional print rights. Any recommendations on the printer who ran your book?

    • I used Createspace. I considered LightningSource, but Ingram recently changed its rules and forces authors to use IngramSparkTM* which no longer allows you to set a discount that would be appealing to bookstores. They do offer more printing options, like the snazzy matte cover.
      Bookstores CAN order the book, but it is unlikely they will do so through their distributor, because the discount for them is not the standard.
      What I do is contact indie bookstores who specialize in my genre, politely ask if they would be interested in carrying my book on consignment, and see what they say. I offer a print copy for the store employees to read.

      • Thank you and much appreciated! I’ve been talking to a company called Mira Digital Publishing. They offer full creative, distribution and web services. While my book is a custom hard cover with heavyweight pages (picture book), I was impressed with their pricing for novel sized books (since I’m working on a YA novel now) from a postcard I received. They can run as few as 50 copies of a 5.5 x 8.5 for $3.50 each, perfect bound, 50 lb.black and white interior pages and full color UV coated cover. 50 at $3.50, 100 at $2.84, 250 at $2.37, 500 at $1.99, 1000 at $1.89 and 2000 at $1.68. Sounded reasonable. Wondering how prices compare?

  • You wrote “People came and asked me for copies of the book” which leads me to this: I’m sure some asked you for FREE copies of your book. What has been your approach to giving out copies to reviewers, how do you establish their credentials, and in this age of e-books, is it OK to make the free review copies e-books rather than physical copies?

    • I did give away some freebies to friends and several reviewers with a track record of reaching readers. This is something you have to judge yourself; I view my first novel as a promotional opportunity. I thought of James Ellroy, who poured his first big advance (for The Black Dahlia) into a Variety ad and other promotion. Giving the book to booksellers and publications that review books is simply the cost of doing business, and it’s no different than reaching readers with a free on Kindle sale.
      I ask them if they want e-book or paperback. Many prefer the e-book! If you review a lot of books, your house gets cluttered with them. You should know the book bloggers, review sites, and publications of your favored genre ahead of time, but if an unknown asks, I do a quick Google or a mental vetting if we’re in person, and figure what’s a few bucks? You’re not guaranteed a review, anyway. And if you find out later that it’s a reader who just started a blog, you might feel “why give them a book?”
      Because if they like your book, they will buy your next book.

      • That sounds like a good approach. I’ve heard of other authors who made their first book less expensive to get readers to invest in an unknown quantity, so to speak, with the idea that if they like the first book, they’ll be more comfortable with buying the next book at a higher price point.

        • That’s why despite the apparent disdain for eBook first publishers, it may be best for writers, because readers are more likely to try someone new if it doesn’t cost the price of a hardcover or even a trade paperback.

  • Okay, this is getting weird… but then, here at Chuck’s blog, we expect weird, so duh…

    I met Thomas a few weeks ago at Bouchercon, where he was adding his book postcards to the pile of promotional material on the big tables. He wasn’t pushy- I had to ask him about his novel. Just another hard-working authorpreneur spending his time, money, and energy to get the word out about a book he wrote and published.
    (I’d say he showed pluck, but that would be a terrible pun-crime…)

    These days, with limited funds, I screen my book-buying. I’ll check out a website and read a sample before purchasing, to make sure I get a quality product for my money. So yeah, I went home to vet the book first. I liked what I saw and bought Blade of Dishonor.

    Now the weird part- Thomas and I had connections before we met. We were both published in the anthology Nightfalls last Fall. If the editor Katherine Tomlinson accepted his story, I knew he had some writing chops.

    And his writing buddy Holly West, mentioned here, is someone I connected with a few years back at the Crime Bake conference when we were both unpublished and pitching to agents. What are the odds? So then I meet him, and next I see him popping up on the blogs I read.

    A lot of Chuck’s readers here like action- so check out Blade of Dishonor, and if you like what you see, put down the price of a coffee for a good read and a win-win. I come to this blog for good value, and sometimes get unexpected bonuses. Today it was fun– and so’s this incestuous little writing/publishing business we’re in.

  • Great post, Tom. I love reading about author’s paths to publishing, especially since I’m pretty sure I’ll go DIY one of these days–perhaps sooner than I think. I think you do an especially good job with self-promotion. It’s something I know that’s going to be difficult for me so it’s nice to have you as a guide.

  • Well said sir. Do I really have to smoke the whole book? Yes. Now I’m addicted. Getting a good editor can not be stressed to much. They help me not to show my ass again and again. Keep on authoring!

  • Tom — I can call you ‘Tom’ can’t I? I mean — Lawrence Block does (perhaps now I know why) …

    You had me at “We auth”.

    From there, you told/sold the story swell of the making of a worthy story — in all its components of collaborative wills and ways. You do realize, you’re the poster-pal of DIY’rs.

    Soar … as intended, Mr Pluck at Chuck’s
    ~ Absolutely*Kate

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