How I went from being a POD author to landing a traditional publishing contract.
(It’s not as impossible as it seems)
Part 1 – iUniverse
Note: This story assumes the reader is familiar with various publishing industry terms and concepts. If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I will explain further.
Note 2017: Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and Createspace have fundamentally changed the market since this was written.
This post and the ones that follow describe in three sections how I went from being a POD author to gaining a traditional publishing contract. It is a journey that has taken several years, but could be done much faster with more time dedicated to writing and promoting. This is, of course, unique to my situation, but hopefully the principles will aid other writers as well.
I’ve always loved to write. I started work on my first book, DreamQuest, in 1991 when I was in 6th grade. During high school and college I mostly concentrated on my schoolwork, but would write whenever I could. I “finished” the book in 2002 and sent it out to many publishers. As with most authors, I got a number of form rejection letters. The fact that a few of the publishers wrote helpful notes or that they liked the work but it wasn’t quite for them was of little consolation. I was fortunate that this was about the time that Print On Demand (POD) publishing was starting to become available. Print On Demand companies changed the traditional publishing model by allowing all work into the marketplace, and letting the market determine what would be successful rather than having editors determine what would sell. This made a lot of sense to me, given the fact that many books are printed, shipped to stores, sit unsold on shelves, and then have their covers ripped off and sent back as proof that the books were never sold. The whole process is terribly wasteful.
The disadvantage of POD, of course, is that some reviewers and stores don’t consider them “real” books. iUniverse and other companies aren’t selective, beyond basic screenings for erotica, hate speech, and slander. iUniverse is up front about its filter and business model, unlike PublishAmerica, which was caught in the infamous Atlanta Nights hoax. However, iUniverse still provides a valuable service by allowing books to be tested in the marketplace
I researched several publishers and drew out a spreadsheet detailing the upfront costs, profit/loss, etc depending on how many copies I sold. iUniverse was the best deal, plus I was interested in the Star Program. I published DreamQuest in the spring of 2003.
I’ll never forget the feeling of opening the package containing my first twenty copies. I was so excited. However, after selling a few copies to friends, I was soon disappointed. It wasn’t iUniverse’s fault, but mine. I found many typos, and the book was priced at $18.95. Almost immediately I made a new version, one of the advantages of POD. In the new version I reduced the font size, which brought the cover price down to $16.95. I also added a section to promote ProphecyQuest, the 2nd book in the series.
This took a couple of months, but once I was happy with it I started promoting the book heavily. I sold them to everyone I knew, set up a great website, started doing author newsletters, etc. I asked everyone I knew to write a review on Amazon, and I soon had dozens of positive reviews there. I was living in Philadelphia at the time, and went back to my home in Colorado. I sold several hundred copies in a week at signings at my old elementary, middle, and high schools. I also had a great friend, Charles DeGuzman, do the cover art and a promotional trailer. Once I showed these things on a projector, kids became really interested. I also worked on creating a role playing game based on the book, but development was halted after the release of a demo.
I had few of the illusions that plague many first time authors. I knew that things wouldn’t be easy, but I spent my time trying to really build a readership, rather than make a profit. I made a decision early on that all profits from selling DreamQuest would only be funneled into marketing, so that I could just build a readership.
I started reaching out to other iUniverse authors with the idea of reviewing each other’s books. I was fortunate in that the books I read were on the whole great books. In fact, one of the authors, Wil Radcliffe, also went on to a traditional publishing contract. I got some reviews there and also reached out to more established authors. I got some nice letters back from Terry Brooks as well as Lloyd Alexander. (Who, coincidentally lived right down the street from me.)
iUniverse had the Star Program which attempted to find their best books and market them more like a traditional publisher would. I set my sights on this first milestone by selling 500 copies as quickly as I could. The main way that I sold copies was through signings that I personally did. I also did elementary school visits in LA and Philadelphia. When in LA on vacation I visited the classroom of a friend, and in PA I visited my boss’s son’s class. On the website, I created bloopers for DreamQuest, inspired by the bloopers I saw at the end of Toy Story. I also asked all my friends to buy copies on Amazon on a certain day, to influence the sales rank. For that day at least I was the best selling iUniverse book on Amazon.com
I filled out the marketing questionnaire for the Star Program and they had a couple of people look at my book. Although they thought it was better than most books out there, they said that the quality level wasn’t quite what they wanted. I was devastated-but they were right. They also thought that the book was similar to Alexander’s work. However, since he had personally read it and liked it I thought that wasn’t much of an issue. They did give me some good insight and took the time to give me many specific details about where the book was lacking. To be fair, most of DreamQuest had been written when I was younger, and after reading a particular scene for so many years, it was really hard to imagine it any other way.
I was already working on ProphecyQuest, but after failing to make it into the Star Program I decided to take a step back and work on the craft of writing. I got Stein on Writing, one of the best books on the subject. I started focusing on saying more with less, taking out unnecessary adverbs and clauses. One of the things that amazed me about Lloyd Alexander’s letters (besides that he still typed them on a typewriter) was that the letters were so short yet he managed to say so much. There was never a wasted word. I wrote some short stories and really worked on the craft of writing. Before when I wrote DreamQuest, things would just flow out.
I had ProphecyQuest edited by Jeri Kladder, which turned out to be very fortunate. She was a friend of my librarian aunt, and she had also enjoyed DreamQuest. She went on to be the Chair of the Newberry Committee, so of course that was an endorsement I used on future books. I also used EditFast.com, who provided a thorough edit for $600. I offered a free copy to a few readers of DreamQuest if they would give their thoughts and look for any typos. Between all of these, the ProphecyQuest manuscript was a great story. I had no doubt that it could have passed the Star Program if it had been there instead of DreamQuest. I also made the story shorter, so that the cover price would be less. It ended up being only $13.95.
So, where to publish ProphecyQuest? I was grateful for everything iUniverse had done, but they had recently raised their prices, plus I was still stung with my failure to enter the Star Program. Another author had told me about booklocker.com, so I decided to check it out. Although they were also a POD publisher, they were at least selective in what they published. With a setup fee of only $199, they made the majority of their revenue in selling books to the public, rather than selling services to authors.
iUniverse was a great fit for me at the time and they did everything that I expected from them. However, it was time for me to move on to the next step in my career.