06 March 2012

How Self-Publishing Got Me a Book Deal

Originally posted at TennesseeHicks.com on December 10, 2011.

This is the blog post where I’m supposed to call out all the people who said I was stupid. That self-publishing was a waste of time. That there’s no respectability in it. That I’m dooming myself to a life of obscurity in a permanent bargain bin.

But they’re not going to read this post anyway. They’re all either too busy Tweeting smug, self-satisfied Tweets or ignoring altogether what’s happening out there in the real publishing world.

So I’m going to talk to the young (new) writers. Writers who know the recent sting of a form rejection. The ones who see people achieving self-published success, but don’t know if they have the stomach for it.

Here’s the thing—I didn’t fantasize about being a self-published writer any more than I fantasized about being a high school science teacher. I used to know how to dream big—astronaut, forest ranger, Stephen King. Apparently I just couldn’t execute, otherwise I would’ve found an agent who would’ve found me a big book deal, right? So I could just write books and solve crime like Richard Castle instead of being my own publisher, cover artist, publicist, typesetter and marketer.

The thing is, I did fantasize about being a writer. But writing endless queries and trying to sort out who accepts simultaneous submissions and why this person wants this, but don’t dare send that to this other person or she’ll blast you for it on her blog, wasn’t doing it for me. It sucked the fun out of every single thing I’d worked on since 1998. I just wanted to be a plain old writer—somebody who gets to write and release the stories that he loves. Somebody who gets to live and breathe to create. I knew that submitting was part of the process, but it was killing me.

It’s ironic, I suppose, because self-publishing made writing fun again. For the first time in years I went to bed with stories in my head. I didn’t have to think about markets, which agents had gone to which houses. Self-publishing let me see myself in the day-to-day of the craft. It let me talk to readers and gave me the encouragement to keep going. Yeah, I had to format my own book. So what? I didn’t query Raw Dog Screaming Press. I sent them a finished product that had been well-formatted and proofed. I didn’t sell them on an idea. I showed them. And all those hours I spent tweaking fonts and spacing and cover art became an asset to my career, not a detriment.

Yeah, I made my first cover on my own. So what? The experience of creating my own cover let me identify the key elements I knew I needed for THE DEVIL AND PRESTON BLACK. And once I figured that out I ended up at the best print shop in America, hands down—Hatch Show Print of Nashville, Tennessee. I spent hours talking to Jim Sherraden and Brad Vetter about thumbnails and color palettes and fonts. They’ve done posters for Johnny Cash, The White Stripes, Wilco and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Surely they could manage something for my little eBook. And you know what? The cover sells books. It’s not a cookie-cutter book cover created by an art department for an anonymous piece of work. It’s art. I don’t doubt for a second the cover is a direct result of my decision to publish on my own.

You know, ‘those’ writers are going to tell you there’s no respect in it. In my opinion, the industry’s shooting itself in the foot as far as respectability goes. But Barnes and Noble and Borders (oops, my bad) devoted a lot of space to books I didn’t respect. Sorry, Snooki. From self-publishing I learned that you go out and find respect, you don’t wait for it to trickle down to you.

‘Those’ writers are going to tell you that maybe your book “just sucks.” Yeah, I heard that after I decided to self-publish even though I was pretty sure my book didn’t. Not a single one of my rejection letters said my book (or I) sucked. They said stuff like, “…the writing is good but we don’t know how to sell it; This isn’t right for us; Send me a dozen jelly donuts next and I’ll read more than five pages.”

I know how to read, and I know that “…don’t know how to sell it” is not the same thing as “maybe your book just sucks.”

So, maybe I was just stupid. Right? Just like ‘they’ said.

But did anybody actually call me stupid? It had to be implied, right? Why else would I spend hundreds of hours doing something without pay or promise of publication if I wasn’t?

Doesn’t matter (nobody called me that) because Joe Strummer said, “You’ve got to be slightly stupid” to make it. And Joe didn’t chase the flavor-of-the-month like some of the kids taking up shelf space in a Barnes and Noble. I’m looking at you Snooki, Lauren Conrad, Nicole Richie and 50 Cent. Joe Strummer chased passion. And anybody who’s going to spend thousands of hours embarrassing themselves, losing respect and credibility learns one thing by doing it themselves. They learn whether or not they love it, and if they’re willing to fight for it, even if it means going against the grain and being the unpopular kid.

And THAT’S how I got my deal. By bleeding for it. By hustling. By losing sleep and popping ibuprofen and swallowing a little pride. By taking a risk even though it meant career suicide. In other words, I got my deal by being a little stupid.

And if I had it all to do over again I wouldn’t change a single thing.

(Note: The book was the best query letter I'd ever written. Writers, it ain't 2002 anymore.)


  1. This is a great post. Thank you...very informative, inspiring, and it definitely makes you ponder.

  2. Thank you so much! I suppose I got fed up with all the negativity. Nobody gets on indie musicians or filmmakers the way they do indie writers. (Mostly other writers.) But I was confident (and still am) that this was the best path for me. Raw Dog Screaming Press is absolutely amazing to work with because we share so many of the same ideals. If a writer was considering this I'd tell them not to hesitate. This made me a writer as much as, if not more than grad school did.

  3. Any chance of getting "Preston Black" in hard copy? I have a dear friend who'd love it, but he's not a Kindle kind of guy. I'd love to gift him with a hard copy, which I know he'd treasure.

  4. Thank you so much for your interest!

    Preston will be available in paper this fall. Very excited about it. My publisher wants to release HELLBENDER first, and that will make an appearance within the next few weeks. Then we'll begin preparing PRESTON for a fall/winter release.