Taking Extreme Measures to Find the Self-Publishing Holy Grail

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By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World

In early 2011, Alex de Campi approached literary agent Ethan Ellenberg with a graphic novel.

De Campi, a 39-year-old music video and commercial director and graphic novelist based in Durham, NH, hoped that a publishing house would pick up Ashes, a follow-up to her critically acclaimed 2005 graphic novel Smoke. After making the rounds at publishers with Ellenberg, de Campi realized she would have to fund the Ashes project herself; while some publishers were interested, they would not agree to pay the artist while the book was being drawn, she said.

These days, self-publishing is common. Once stigmatized as “vanity publishing,” the practice has lost some of its stink with authors such as Amanda Hocking and Barry Eisler self-publishing their way to big-time book-sales and commercial success.

What is less common are some of the extreme measures authors take to fund their self-publishing projects. Some sell their possessions – even the clothes off their back – while others enlist the help of their family, friends, clients and colleagues. The point isn’t, as the name “vanity publishing” would suggest, merely to see one’s name in print – the rewards today for a successfully self-published book, some authors believe, are potentially great: a deal with a major publishing house. Hope springs for this self-publishing set, despite the fact that the number of self-published authors who are picked up by a major publisher is dwarfed by those who are not.

Getting creative in the case of de Campi meant turning to Kickstarter, a crowd-sourcing website where entrepreneurs can raise money from the public for their projects. As was widely reported in book blogs, de Campi set up an account on Kickstarter to raise $27,000 to publish her book. Much of the money is to be spent paying James Broxton, the graphic artist for the book. Through Kickstarter, those who want to support de Campi’s book can buy a limited-edition hardcover copy plus a serialized digital edition for $30, or a cameo for themselves as a minor character in the book for $1,200, for instance.

“Next year there will be this little club of people getting chapters of the book,” said de Campi. “Once the book is done, we’ll be sending out hardback editions. This then lets us still have room for a trade edition down the line.”

For de Campi and others, this is the goal: Get picked up by publishers who once rejected them and reach a mass market.

Michelle Dunn, a 45-year-old author who writes about credit and debt collection in Plymouth, NH, risked nearly everything she had for a shot at this goal.

In 2007, she sold her profitable debt collection business and in an ironic twist the buyer soon failed to make his monthly payments to her. High and dry and running out of money, Dunn tried her hand at writing. Publishers weren’t biting and her family needed an income.

To bridge the gap, Dunn literally sold the clothes off her back – on eBay.

“I had some nice, quality, expensive clothing because I had worked in corporate America,” she said. “I was writing and so I didn’t need it anymore.”

Her book, Become the Squeaky Wheel, came out soon after. The title is almost out of print and its success, in part, helped her secure a deal with John Wiley & Sons for her most recent book, The Guide to Getting Paid, which came out in May of 2011 in hardcover and as an e-book. The Guide is Dunn’s 14th book.

“I self-published 12 books. By doing that, I gained a platform,” said Dunn.

It’s the “Blair-Witch” model all over again.

In the late 1990s, Mike Monello, now-executive creative director and partner at New York-based creative agency Campfire, was a struggling filmmaker. He and his film-school friends were just about ready to give up their dreams of careers in movies.

Blair Witch was one, true, last-ditch effort,” Monello said. “We thought we got to make one last one and make it work or else we have to get real jobs.”

Monello and his film-school friends raised $30,000 from friends, family and other investors to make The Blair Witch Project.

Due in part to a strong grass-roots marketing campaign and a product that was called by critics “the scariest movie ever made” and “ingenious in its simplicity,” the movie was optioned by a major studio for $1 million, plus a percentage of the overall take for the filmmakers, an unheard-of deal for first-time content-creators like Monello and his team.

Anthony Meindl, a 40-year-old acting teacher and writer-director in Los Angeles, also hopes that he can tap the resources and creativity of his family, friends and colleagues to hit it big.

When Meindl met with agents and publishers about his project, At Left Brain, Turn Right, a book meant to help readers achieve success by activating the creative sides of their brains, he was told it was too niche to work for a mass market.

Undeterred, Meindl convinced some of his contacts to provide services usually handled by a traditional publisher. His acting student, Randy Raphael, for instance, designed the cover for the book. In exchange, Raphael is taking classes from Meindl for free.

With the help of those around him, Meindl hopes to publish the book in print in January with an e-book roll-out soon to follow. He and his team plan on sending out review copies and organizing an online advertising campaign.

The goal? Build a publishing empire a la Timothy Ferriss, the self-help author who has sold millions of copies of The 4-Hour Workweek and similar titles. Until recently, Ferriss was published by The Crown Publishing Group, a New York-based imprint of publishing giant Random House. In a twist of the narrative – self-published obscurity to big-time publishing house – Ferriss announced in August that his next book would be published by Amazon, a company that has been a platform used by so many who publish their own work.

Will de Campi’s Kickstarter gambit work? For the funding to kick in and the project to move forward, the graphic novelist will have to raise $27,000 by Sunday, December 18 at 5:02 p.m., according to her Kickstarter page. She has raised almost $12,000 as of November 8. With 40 days to go, she has to raise nearly $400 a day to make it.

Even if she does make it, her agent, Ellenberg, said that there’s no guarantee her novel will then be picked up by a publishing house and re-released to the mass market.

“There are a limited number of slots of the three or four or five publishers who do graphic novels,” he said. “There is a percentage of worthy projects that don’t get published.”

De Campi is optimistic, which is why she left the door open to trade rights in the first place, and, besides, “Part of making art happen is leaning on friends and family,” she said.

Write to Jeremy Greenfield

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2 thoughts on “Taking Extreme Measures to Find the Self-Publishing Holy Grail

  1. I wanted to correct an inaccuracy in the article. We did actually have comics publishers very interested in putting out the book (Ashes), but as is the case with most indie comics publishers, they do not pay an advance and thus there was no way my artist could survive for the nearly a year it will take him to draw the book. In some cases they do not pay an advance AND want 50% of all rights in the property, a sacrifice we were not willing to make.

    Unlike most graphic novel writers, I am lucky enough to have a literary agent so we did take the book out to prose genre publishers . We did not hold out much hope of success, as Ethan says, because those publishers tend to do only four or five graphic novels a year…

    So to say we had to go to Kickstarter because we were rejected is, while journalistically more exciting and more fitting with the article’s desired angle, simply not true. We had to go to Kickstarter to fund the book being made, which in comics/graphic novels is a whole other battle from getting it published. We are confident when the book is finished we will get an indie comic book publisher on board to put out Ashes, as well as reprinting the preceeding (but now out of print) book in that universe, Smoke — which was nominated for an Eisner (comics’ highest award) in 2005.

    Anyway. I hope that makes things clearer. If readers are interested in finding out more about Ashes, they can read about the project and download a 22 page sample here: http://kck.st/ndlCYT . Smoke is out of print but available on Comixology (web, iphone, android, ipad) for $2.97 for a 140 page graphic novel: https://comics.comixology.com/#/series/3285

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