Written by Shawndra Russell (March 2016)
Self publishing and independent book publishers in Western North Carolina.
The creed in the publishing community that reverberates up and down the hierarchy is that you are never 100% sure which books will become huge hits and lead to Hollywood movies or which books will barely cover the cost of creating, printing, and distributing them.
However, glimmers of a renewed interest in publishing as a viable business have been shining through recently, with The Girls author Emma Cline recently scooping up a $2 million advance and selling the film rights to Scott Rudin, producer for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Another debut novelist, Paula Hawkins, also hit it big—at least six figures, but the deal was kept hush hush—for her smash hit, The Girl on the Train. (The film of the same name, starring Emily Blunt and Allison Janney, hit theaters last fall.)
Three other authors, all female, also earned six figure deals for the books Sweetbitter, The Nest, and Behold the Dreamers, while self-published rockstar Amanda Hocking earned $2 million for her young adult four-book series deal with St. Martin’s Press. Even celebrities are getting in on the publishing game in recent years, with Lena Dunham, Gwyneth Paltrow, Johnny Depp, Chelsea Handler, and Oprah Winfrey curating titles for new publishing imprints.
Meanwhile, here in Western North Carolina, the occasional breakout success of regional authors continues to be a source of encouragement to other writers: Charles Frazier’s 1997 historical novel Cold Mountain won the National Book Award for Fiction and was turned into an Academy Award-winning film; while more recently, Robert Beatty (profiled in this magazine in October 2015) topped the New York Times best-seller list for 2015’s Serafina and the Black Cloak. The third book in his Serafina series, incidentally, is set to come out in July 2017 through Disney’s publishing arm. Set at the Biltmore Estate, the series has caused rumors to swirl that Serafina movies one day could be filmed at the famous Vanderbilt mansion in Asheville.
Does all this cash flow mean the publishing industry has recovered from the introduction of eBooks and explosion of digital distractions? Not exactly. Last year an Entertainment Weekly report, “Why Publishers are Betting Big on Debut Novels,” noted, “Given the amount of books a publisher needs to sell in order to make a profit, it’s possible that none of these novels will actually make money. But Random House publisher Susan Kamil believes that the honor of having a sparkling literary talent on your list can offset any financial loss. ‘We want to have the best writers in the world at Random House,’ Kamil says. ‘Sometimes those writers come at a premium—and we have paid it.’”
That’s music to authors’ ears after years of uncertainty and fear driving the decisions of the Big Six, the book publishers who have been the gatekeepers for eons. The Big Six included HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, The Penguin Group, Hachette, Random House, and Macmillan, but mergers and acquisitions have reduced it to the Big Four. This recovery for print books has given a renewed sense of hope to these publishers, evident by their willingness to write big checks to new authors. Just like discovering the next chart-topping singer is a reality TV obsession, scouring for the Next Big Thing in books is once again a potentially lucrative endeavor. In truth, it’s one of the last Great American Dreams: to strike it rich by the cleverness of your words, the intelligence in your ideas—something you created with just your mind and becomes your Golden Ticket to the good life.
So, it’s no surprise that the number of self-published titles has concurrently been creeping up as well, to nearly 500,000 per year. As a result, self-published books’ share of the market has risen in the United States up to twelve percent, to seven percent globally, and to 22 percent in the United Kingdom. While self-published authors undoubtedly decide why to self-publish for a slew of reasons—from capturing a family’s history, to telling the true story of his or her life, to finally resurrecting that novel manuscript that had been in a dusty box under the bed, to simply wanting to leave a physical legacy—I’m hard-pressed to believe that not even the tiniest shred of hope of “hitting it big” exists in every self-published author. Think about it: All self-published authors put themselves out there in a very public, brave, and vulnerable way.
They often put their name on their thoughts and feelings that are packaged in an attempt to win the hearts of readers across the globe, earn millions of dollars, travel to events worldwide, and see their story on the big screen.
The harsh reality, though, is that only 40 self-published authors have earned the one-million-books-sold mark since 2011.
If someone really just wanted to write a story down, he or she could merely save it on a Word document on their computer, never share it with anyone except closest family and friends, and call it a day. Instead, self-published authors have to research how to self-publish—a fairly difficult process to go through the first time, as I experienced from my initial go-round in 2012 with my debut novel, Couple Friends. Authors go through hours of editing, formatting, and polishing whether we’ve landed an amazing book deal or are releasing it ourselves. Then comes the daunting task of self-promotion once it’s live, something only the Chelsea Handlers and Oprah Winfreys of the world truly enjoy, are genuinely good at doing, and net excellent, profitable results. Truthfully, a lot of writers want the success to happen on the merit of the writing itself. Yet the reality is that the most fabulous writing could be sitting on a shelf right now and we don’t know about it because the author didn’t spend much time, money, or energy promoting the book, and therefore a major influencer hasn’t discovered it yet.
So what does the ecosystem of self-publishing look like? Well, there are a lot of moving parts and not one single, perfect formula for success. Success can come in a slew of forms: thriller, romance, mystery, horror, fantasy, desire, self-help, business. It’s truly one of the most diverse fields in terms of retail success. One business might sell only the best electronics, or best BBQ sauce; but in publishing, hundreds of different recipes can lead to that smash hit that flies off the shelves and makes all your biggest dreams come true.
The Local Stage
Western North Carolina obviously has a storied literary history and has attracted creatives to its mountain lifestyle for centuries. We have great pride for local literary legends Thomas Wolfe and Carl Sandburg, and modern-day wordsmiths such as the above-mentioned Frazier and Beatty. Not long ago, award-winning author Sara Gruen (Water For Elephants, Ape House) told the Asheville Citizen-Times she moved to the area because “there’s just a magical, open creative energy here”—Asheville in particular. The nationally-recognized Malaprop’s Bookstore, located in downtown Asheville, often features world-class authors doing readings and signings; the store vows their mission is to “provide a space where freedom of expression is supported, where important literature—from authors backed by major publishers to those who self-publish—is available to all.”
Together, the ingredients are on hand for the North Carolina mountain region to make its mark in the publishing world.
Thirty-four-year-strong Malaprop’s is considered an ally to many regional and local self-published authors, yet things become complicated if that author also wants to distribute books via Amazon’s on-demand printing service, CreateSpace.
“Many indie booksellers will not carry books printed by CreateSpace because of Amazon’s predatory practices toward authors, publishers, and other booksellers. We do carry CreateSpace authors, but do not order directly from them,” explains Malaprop’s general manager, Linda-Marie Barrett. She adds that for Asheville authors only, they offer a consignment program, which has been utilized by successful authors Cecil Bothwell, Trish Brown, Charles Gershon, April Moon, and Jean Boone Benfield, among others. Barrett also offers this advice to self-published authors: “The more you talk with indie booksellers, especially the indie booksellers in your community, the better your chances of their support pushing your book out into the world.”
The reality is that these independent booksellers, just like authors, have to think about their target audiences and carve out their own niches and reputation. Like the team at Malaprop’s, the people behind West Asheville’s co-op bookstore Firestorm review indie author submissions and decide which books are a good fit for their clientele—acting, in some ways, like the gatekeepers at large publishing houses in carefully curating their list of offerings. Firestorm member/owner Libertie Valance cautions, “Indie authors should review our store contents before submitting, as we are a general interest bookstore with a very well-defined flavor, i.e. many indie titles will not be a good fit.” Plainly, publishing is a tough industry from top to bottom, but Valance emphases one of the advantages of being a local fixture compared to a chain store: “[We] have an extremely strong community of local authors—indie and traditional—from which indie authors can draw encouragement and support.”
Local Independent Publishers
Western North Carolina is home to several independent publishers. These publishers act in many ways like the Big Four, with similar publishing terms and their own set of publishable criteria. Anyone can start a publishing house; it’s just a matter of setting up your LLC, S-Corp, or Sole Proprietorship. The fastest-growing indie publishing houses typically release at least 50+ titles per year, with Nashville being home to a 2015 top-12 house in Turner Publishing. Our region boasts about a dozen indie publishers, including Black Mountain Press (seeking Thomas Wolfe-inspired authors) and Asheville’s Grateful Steps, which focuses on their mission to “provide voices for those who might not be heard and to help preserve Appalachian history.” Others are super niche, like Amazing Dreams Publishing (also in downtown Asheville, and specializing in LGBT books), or Native Ground Books & Music (located between Asheville and Swannanoa, they publish Southern Appalachian music-related titles).
As with writing, the endeavor of operating an independent publishing house is a labor of love with no guarantee of breaking even, let alone earning profits. The owner of regional publisher, Pisgah Press, Andy Reed, explains, “When I publish a book that I like, the cost is on me, just like a traditional publisher. The support I ask of the authors relates to publicity and marketing.” To subsidize Pisgah Press, Reed also assists authors who want to self-publish by providing editing, designing, and formatting services. “Authors come to me needing bits and pieces and hire me as a packager—I basically serve as a vanity press in that case, and these titles are not part of the Pisgah Press imprint. That helps subsidize the real literature, and I aim to do as thorough a job that I would do on any of my books.”
For both authors and indie publishers, the key to success is reputation. “If people read one book from Pisgah Press and like it, they might try a second title, and if they like that one too, they might decide to keep buying books from Pisgah Press,” Reed explains. He also believes that Asheville has the ingredients to become a publishing mecca with the right support and efforts. “Asheville BookFest needs to grow. [The annual literary arts celebration organized by the Grateful Steps Foundation is held in December and features regional authors and local publishers.] Using the Ollie Center would be great to help institutionalize it. I’ve been on the planning committee with Micki from Grateful Steps for years, and if we could grow the way Decatur Book Festival has grown—it’s one of the largest in the Southeast—that would be fantastic.” Another necessary element in Reed’s opinion? Investors. “One of the ways to break through the glass ceiling would be for an investor to say, okay, for the next six books, we are going to do this publicity, pay for PR and reviews, do proper book tours, etc.” An interesting concept considering Asheville was ranked by Small Business Trends as a top-7 startup hub.
Vanity Presses and Self-Publishing Assistance
Publishers dubbed “vanity presses” collect a fee from authors to publish their books—often using Amazon’s services Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace. In truth, there’s little difference between self-publishing and utilizing a vanity press; authors who opt for this route to publication often do not want to deal with the details of designing and formatting their own books and would rather pay someone with prior experience to handle the execution once they’ve written and edited their manuscript. Authors are often advised to beware of vanity presses, as they can charge thousands of dollars when what they actually do can be accomplished for much cheaper, either by learning how to do the formatting and distributing through Amazon, or by hiring a company or subcontractor that charges minimal fees. Executive Director for the North Carolina Writer’s Network, Ed Southern, urges, “Rather than giving money to a ‘vanity press,’ authors can use one of several reputable online services that walk them through the process [of publishing print books], but leave control in their hands. Publishing your own eBook is even easier.”
Tom Davis, of Sylva’s Old Mountain Press (OMP), falls into the subcontractor category. He launched OMP in 1992 in order to publish his first authored book—a fairly common practice among self-published authors who want to separate their personal finances from their book publishing dreams. “Back in the early 1990s, everyone was horrendously expensive, asking around $10,000 just to do my collection of short stories. It was really hard to find a small press in those days, so I decided to just do it myself. I typeset it and got 500 copies printed.” The printer he used explained that there was quite a demand for people who could typeset, so Davis decided to assist other self-publishers as a side gig while continuing to serve in the military. Although this venture didn’t make him a ton of money, it did provide a nice nest egg, and many of his personal titles continue to provide a small revenue stream of about $100-200 per month.
At this point, he mostly spends time coaching and counseling authors. “I ask them first, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ If they answer to become famous or make a lot of money, I don’t work with them. They have to have realistic expectations and recognize that making it big is rare.” Davis says he stays in the game because he hates seeing authors get taken advantage of by predatory vanity presses. “It breaks my heart when people go to vanity publishers and the product and cost are terrible.”
Authors that decide to skip pitching literary agents and publishing houses, or prefer not to hire a vanity press or subcontractor, can publish directly through Amazon in what the company lays out as three steps: prepare, publish, promote. However, this oversimplification leaves out several important steps, the top priority of which is hiring a professional editor. For my first book, I spent about $2500 working with an editor listed on the Editorial Freelancers Association directory. Many editors specialize in either line editing (content, style, and language), copy editing (technical flaws like grammar and spelling), or proofreading (final minor mistakes). Unfortunately, many self-published authors opt to skip hiring an editor, to the detriment of their book and the credibility of the self-publishing industry as a whole. Both Pisgah’s Reed and OMP’s Davis have turned away authors who refused to have their manuscripts edited and suggested quality editing might be the most important aspect of publishing.
That, and a great story, of course.
One local self-published author, Clara Bitter, echoes this sentiment. “My advice is to invest in copy editing and get a lot of people to pre-read your book—I wish I’d have had even more pre-readers.” Restless in retirement, Bitter decided it was finally time to publish the story of her family’s 15 years of reunions at their Pawleys Island vacation home, which she titled Arrogantly Shabby: A Pawleys Island Memoir.
“I wanted to share these stories with the entire family, including the younger generations,” says Bitter. “I believe in writing your life story so your grandchildren’s grandchildren can enjoy it.” To prepare, Bitter took several online writing classes at A-B Tech, joined writing groups, and attended writing conferences. “If you go to conferences, talk to the other attendees—you’ll learn just as much or more from these authors as you do the speakers,” she advises.
Like Bitter, local self-published author Bill Ramsey (father of Band of Horses lead guitarist, Tyler Ramsey) has enjoyed publishing as an encore career. “If you start later in life, you can spend the rest of your life looking for a publisher. I had to short-circuit the process.” Besides publishing four books, Ramsey founded the Blue Ridge Bookfest that ran for eight years before closing its doors in April 2016 due to declining attendance and rising costs. “It’s just really tough—so much competes for people’s attention, and there are so many books published each year.” And not just for indie authors. Ramsey once attended a book signing with Sara Gruen on the heels of her Water for Elephants success, and, shockingly, only five people were in attendance. To grow our publishing community, this kind of low turnout just can’t happen.
Despite success in publishing being a long shot, Ramsey believes everyone should publish at least one book (“You owe it to yourself!”) and when you do, write honestly. “Honest writing is one of the hardest things to do, but we have to absolutely do it for your sake and your readers,” he advocates.
Photography presents additional challenges for publishers, both independent and traditional, since they are more expensive to produce, have a narrower audience, and publishers typically only want to print 3,000 per run. Yet seeing your vision come to fruition can make these additional hurdles all the more worthwhile. Just ask five-time published “photograuthor” Tim Barnwell. When he pitched his first book concept to traditional publishers, no one could seem to grasp what he envisioned. Not one to sit on his heels—just look at some of the stunning shots at BarnwellPhoto.com—in 2000, he hired a graphic artist to collaborate on a prototype. “I spent one night a week with him over a six-month period and designed the book the way I imagined it. I hired a friend, who was a newspaper editor, to edit the text. I took the files to an office supply store, printed it out, and had it spiral bound. I made two copies and sent them to a North Carolina publisher and my photography mentor and friend’s editor at W.W. Norton in New York. Within weeks I had offers from both companies. I firmly believe that producing the prototype was the key to getting it published.”
He went with W.W. Norton for their superior print quality and their national distribution network, publishing two additional titles with the imprint. Yet for his fifth book, 2016’s Great Smoky Mountain Vistas, Norton didn’t bite and instead suggested he self-publish. “I hired a local graphic artist and a former editor and production manager who had worked for Lark Books [Asheville-based craft books publishing house that was consolidated into its New York City parent company in 2014]. With that team, I was able to design, edit, and print the book under my imprint, Numinous Editions. While I spent more money on design, editing, and paper than a traditional book company would, I got a better quality product. And as I don’t have to allow for their cut, I can sell the title at a reasonable price and still make a profit.”
His advice to DIY-ing a successful book? “Market research and test marketing a prototype to a variety of acquaintances will give you a feel for whether there is enough interest in your theme. There are plenty of books sitting in photographers’ basements that only sold a few hundred copies of the 3,000 they printed.”
Western North Carolina certainly has the foundation to compete with some of the fastest-growing independent publishing communities like Salem, Massachusetts, and Evanston, Illinois. Both of these cities have a smaller population than Asheville, yet are home to two of the seven fastest-growing independent publishers in the United States as of 2016, according to Publishers Weekly.
Combine this factor with our growing entrepreneurial reputation, support of the creative economy, and booming tourism, and one day becoming a home for a successful independent publishing house is not farfetched. Regardless, successful self-published authors have and will continue to emerge from our mountains, further promoting the area as a hub of creativity and ingenuity.
Writing Groups and Networks
With more than 20 writing groups, ranging from critique-focused to positive-only feedback, Asheville offers plenty of opportunities to network with fellow writers and improve your writing. The North Carolina Writers’ Network (NCWN)—proud to call North Carolina “The Writingest State”—has loads of resources available to writers, including conferences, competitions, publicity opportunities, and newsletters. NCWN Director Ed Southern describes Asheville as having “such a powerful literary culture that an indie author has a built-in advantage, just by being there. You can take some classes in the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC-A, or with The Writers’ Workshop. The North Carolina Writers’ Network’s volunteer Regional Rep in Buncombe County is Alli Marshall [a published author and the arts editor of alternative weekly Mountain Xpress], and she puts together a Writers’ Social at the Cork & Keg Bar, the first Wednesday of each month. It’s a good chance to connect and trade ideas with other writers.”
Like Ramsey, Reed, and Davis, Southern also urges authors not to pin their hopes on massive success with a book. “Too many authors hear the one-in-a-million success stories of The Martian or Fifty Shades of Grey, and assume that will happen to them,” he explains, referring to two of the self-publishing industry’s greatest success stories.
The story of this mountain region has long included heralding local literary talent right alongside our amazing makers, artists, musicians, brewers, innovators, chefs, and a wide variety of inherently talented folks. As a result, we honor Thomas Wolfe and Carl Sandburg in our storytelling, have one of the top indie bookstores in America, and have a thriving, well-rounded cultural scene that continues to attract record-breaking numbers of visitors. Plus, authors enjoy coming here as a getaway, so bookstores and events held here have a better chance of attracting notable authors. Several literary landmarks also entice visitors, including Black Mountain College Museum, the Omni Grove Park Inn (for its long history of hosting authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald), Oakdale and Riverside cemeteries, Carl Sandburg’s home in Flat Rock, and the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.
Combined with numerous educational opportunities and literary events (see sidebars) we appear to be primed to continue our literary tradition in the digital age.
Warren Wilson College
2-year, low-residency and highly competitive MFA Program.
Great Smokies Writing Program
Offered through UNC Asheville, this program offers university-level classes taught by professional writers.
Lenoir-Rhyne University Asheville
Offers a Master of Arts in Writing program to prepare for a career as a professional writer across multiple disciplines.
The Writers’ Workshop of Asheville
Offers workshops, seminars, retreats,
contests, readings, and more.
A-B Tech Continuing Education Writing Classes
Varies by semester and includes genre-specific
as well as skill-specific courses.
Wildacres Residential Summer Writing Workshop and Retreat
Running for 25 years, this 2-week program is a working workshop where manuscripts are critiqued by professionals.
- Spring Literary Festival in April: Held at Western Carolina University, this festival aims to bring together local and national writers and continue the tradition of their Visiting Writers Series, the oldest of its kind in North Carolina. LitFestival.org
- 2017 NC Writers Network Spring Conference in April. The North Carolina Writers’ Network partners with the MFA in Creative Writing Program at UNC Greensboro for a full day of workshops & conversations, including a workshop on “What’s the Right Publishing Option for You?” Ncwriters.org
- Looking Glass Rock Writers Conference in May. Hosted by Brevard College, there will be a collection of workshops and keynote speakers to inspire writers in Western North Carolina. Library.transylvaniacounty.org/lgrwc
- Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in September: Held annually in Burnsville, NC with free readings and several ticketed events including writing workshops by genre and keynotes. CMLitFest.org
- Asheville BookFest in December: Features regional authors and local publishers and organized by Grateful Steps Foundation. AshevilleBookFest.com
A QUICK SELF-PUBLISHING CHECKLIST
-First and foremost, write your story and edit it several times yourself.
-Hire a cover designer. Many authors opt to do the cover themselves, but these sometimes look amateurish. Graphic designers, illustrators, and/or artists sometimes offer cover design services, or even a very affordable online marketplace like Fiverr can produce good-quality results.
-Find a professional editor to line edit. If this editor doesn’t also offer copyediting or proofreading, hire a second editor for a final edit.
-Before your final edit, have 3-5 unpaid pre-readers (likely, family or friends) read it and give you detailed feedback. Alternatively, you might opt to do this step before hiring any editors.
-Set up your Kindle Direct Publishing account and follow their step-by-step instructions to publish your eBook (or hire a contractor). Option to also publish with Barnes & Noble and other eBook vendors.
-If you want to release printed copies, decide between an on-demand printing service like CreateSpace or IngramSpark, or find a printer directly.
-Create a marketing plan that includes building a website, marketing on social media, contacting bookstores, book clubs, and book reviewers, and other opportunities to spread the word about your book. The sooner you do this, the better.
-Register your book with the Library of Congress.
-Never stop promoting! (Or, be happy that it’s published and move on with your life.)
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