Experiments in Self-Publishing

“Thank you for sending us ‘Zakkai, Father of Yochanan.’ While we read your work with interest, unfortunately, we decided it’s not quite right for Menacing Hedge at this time. Please keep in mind that just because this particular work cannot find a home at the Hedge, it does not mean it would not be a good fit elsewhere.”

Indeed! Amazon’s Kindle Books website is one of the “elsewheres” in which I have published my work.

I started self-publishing in 2011. After posting a couple of inconsequential stories to see how Kindle Direct Publishing worked – I see that my story “In Pursuit of Happiness” is still there, but other stories have mysteriously vanished – I posted “Nate and Adel and Other Stories” my first of four collections of linked stories.

“Nate and Adel,” the first story I got into print, is still one of my best. The story now ranks # 2,492,647 among “paid in Kindle Store,” meaning that 2,492,646 other items have sold more. This first collection still has outsold its cousins; I am proud to say it received seven reviews, all of which were five stars!

But have enough readers purchased this collection to make my efforts and expenses worthwhile? Hardly. My experiment in self-publishing truly is over. I keep these remaining items on the website more in obeisance to nostalgia than in hope of future sales.

So how does this all come together? Let’s start with the excellent covers by Stephen Davan, the son of a close friend. He did all four of the “Nate & Adel” covers, plus the cover for “Dear Grandpa and Other Stories,” almost gratis, while still in college. I promised to pay him more, based on a formula that could have made us both wealthy if readers had flocked to these stories. Alas for Stephen, that rush of the public to the exploits of Adel Miller – diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan and young woman suffering from schizophrenia – or the travails of recent widower Gene Steiner never materialized.

For two other self-publications, novellas that I have since taken down, I paid about $100 each for covers assembled by an artist found and dealt with exclusively online. I will never come close to getting back my investment in covers, notwithstanding how little I paid.

Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing doesn’t cost a dime to use. The author gets to set the price as well, as long as it’s $.99 or above. At that price, the author receives 33% of sales revenues. At higher prices, the author can receive as much as 67% of revenues. But don’t expect a check to arrive in the mail for, say, $.99, if you’ve sold three copies at the lowest price. Amazon waits until it owes you $100, I believe, before mailing a check.

I can count on one finger the number of Amazon checks I have received over this almost six-year period since I first used the service.

There are three important costs of self-publishing not directly measurable in dollars and cents. First, there’s the cost of your time. When you self-publish, you immediately try to find ways to drive “the public” to your site. If you do this, I hope you have better luck than I’ve had. After my friends (most likely only my friends) bought copies of my stories in their first year of availability – my best month, I think, involved 15 sales – the volume slowed to a trickle, then to a drought. Ha.

All that time promoting, and what did I get? Not even a t-shirt. Second, if you publish a story online, there are very few markets that will publish it later. Almost all literary journals demand unpublished material. Third, there’s your reputation to consider. If you seek an agent for your magnum opus, and they see numbers like 3,474,512 on Amazon’s website, what are they going to conclude about your writing?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still proud of the collections and stories that I’ve self-published. The platform helped me attract readers who would not otherwise have found and considered my work. I intend to keep the books I’ve already self-published online.

When I die, I hope my estate will continue to collect one or two dollars a year. And, in a million years, my estate will owe Stephen Davan’s estate a lot of money.

 

Book design by Stephen Davan.

Bruce J. Berger is a contributing writer at Café Américain and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.

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