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Author Interview: Brooke Warner on Self-Publishing

Today I’d like to welcome back Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press and founder of Warner Coaching. Today Brooke is here to talk to us today about self-publishing and the changes going on with the Big Six Five. Brooke worked in the publishing industry for thirteen years, first at North Atlantic Books, then at Seal Press, before cofounding She Writes Press in May of this year. Warner’s new book, What’s Your Book? A Step-by-Step Guide to Get You From Inspiration to Published Author, was published by She Writes Press in September.

MW: She Writes Press published your book, What’s Your Book? A Step-by-Step Guide to Get You From Inspiration to Published Author. Why would someone choose a small publisher or self-publisher over a traditional publisher?

BW: The barriers to traditional publishing are really really high right now, and I do write about that in the book. I was in traditional publishing for thirteen years, and I saw a lot of changes over those thirteen years. You have fewer publishing companies, more agents, more self-publishing options. The landscape has completely changed. Platform matters more than it ever did. Ten years ago, platform wasn’t even a term applied to what is needed to get published. And now, if you don’t have a platform, you can’t get a book deal. There are exceptions when a publisher decides to publish an author without a platform because they just love love a book, but then the publisher is encouraging the author to develop their platform so that they’ll have someplace to promote their book once it comes out.

MW: What are some of the barriers to traditional publishing?

BW: Since I started in publishing, a lot of publishers have closed their doors. A lot of small publishers have gone out of business. AMS was a huge distributor that actually owned Publishers Group West, and they went bankrupt around the time Perseus acquired Seal Press. When they acquired Seal, they shut down all of Avalon’s other trade imprints, so it was a really scary time. I went through that downsizing and you see this happening at a lot—most recently with Simon & Schuster. The big publishers are consolidating. Perseus, for example, goes around buying up small imprints. That’s their model. They buy one and close down other ones. At S&S, the Free Press imprint is essentially going way. Penguin and Random House are merging, and we’ll see what imprints they end up getting rid of. On a smaller scale, that’s happening all over the place.

On the agenting side, lots of times agents leave agency houses because they can often make more money on their own. So you have this splintering off of agents. As soon as they get a foothold, they open their own agency. So you have hundreds and hundreds of agents out on their own. So it’s easy to find an agent but very difficult to get published. So just because you find an agent doesn’t mean you should celebrate getting a book deal.

MW: What makes a self-published book successful?

BW: Being relentless about getting the word out there and not being afraid to ask people for interviews, reviews, favors. Traditionally published authors have to do this as well, but often they’re better connected. I’m working with a publicist, and I recommend that authors hire a publicist. If you’re getting traditionally published, your publisher will come to you and tell you to put together a list of every single person you know. You just have to be really proactive. I’m hoping that in one year I can sell 1000 books. I’ll more than break even if I do. I think it’s a realistic goal, and because part of my goal is to build my platform, it’s not only about selling books, but also about increasing visibility. And I think that that’s what self-published authors should be aiming for. If you can sell 1,000, you’ll earn back all your expenses and turn a profit. If you sell 3,000 to 5,000, a traditional publisher will likely take notice. I think authors have this misconstrued idea that they should sell thousands and thousands of books, but actually selling a thousand books is not that easy to do.

MW: What kind of numbers should writers be aiming for on their social media platforms?

BW: I recently wrote that 500 on FB and 1000 on Twitter would make publishers take notice. Anything less than that is not good by publishing standards. But if you have 20,000 or 30,000 on Twitter, it also doesn’t guarantee you a book deal. It’s super subjective. It’s like a college application. Publishers weigh more than one single component of your platform when considering whether or not they’re going to publish your work.

MW: Writing a book proposal really is like a college application.

BW: I’ve compared the publishing track to colleges, too. Getting published on Random House or Simon & Schuster is like going to the Ivy Leagues, publishing with a small press is like a small college, and self-publishing is like going to a junior college. None of them guarantee anything. Your effort behind it is what matters. I work with a lot of writers who have very unrealistic expectations. They’re on a first draft, and they say they want to pitch this to Ballantine. I don’t think we, as a society, have the same expectations around college. It doesn’t mean that your book sucks. The people who are publishing on the top five (since Random House and Penguin just merged) are generally previously published, or have massive platforms. The debut authors who get published usually have writing that is to die for—and editors in New York are all bidding on that same book because it’s just that good. These kinds of deals and bidding wars are still happening, but you, as an author, have to have all the right components.

MW: What kind of mailing list numbers should new authors aim for?

BW: I would probably say 500. Again, this is a baseline. By no means do I think that’s an amazing number, but in terms of putting you on the map, it’s a good place to start.

MW: How important is it to get smaller pieces published before you shop a book to agents and publishers?

BW: I think it’s really helpful. In your author bio [of your book proposal], those things look really good. It shows that you have the capacity to get published if you have had a piece in an anthology or in the Huffington Post. It’s not necessarily more or less important than your social media numbers—because it depends on the numbers. To me, 20,000 followers on Twitter would be more impressive than getting a piece published in an anthology, but getting published in the New Yorker is more impressive than that number of followers. All of them have merit. Getting published in magazines, journals, and anthologies is one category, and a valuable one. The problem is that some writers get distracted by these other ways of building their platform and don’t work on their book. How do you work and build your platform and write your book? I have strategies for that because that’s what a lot of people I work with complain about in terms of what is expected of you to become a published author.

MW: Should self-published authors print books or e-publish?

BW: I think anyone who wants to make a serious go at this needs to have a print book. I think it’s fine to do a Kindle Single to make money or to publish a few chapters in an ebook to create buzz, but I’m not a fan of e-only unless for very specific reasons. I’m a big fan of print, even if it’s print-on-demand. It’s so easy, and if you only sell 100 books, you only have to pay 100 books. The reason to have a print run is for economies of scale.

MW: What service would you recommend for print books?

BW: Lightning Source for POD. If you want to do a print run, you have to partner with a printer. She Writes Press is partnered with a printer, so your rate is going to be better through us than if you went directly through our printer. In terms of quality, Lightning Source is way better than Create Space. These are the kinds of things that authors can sometimes have a hard time figuring out on their own. And I hope my book sheds light on the process and helps aspiring authors think about what they need to do and know to make their book a success.

What about you? Have you self-published? Do you have print copies for sale? Which service did you use?

32 comments to Author Interview: Brooke Warner on Self-Publishing

  • This sounds like very solid advice.

    The portion about a platform makes sense and I would add that 20,000 followers doesn't necessarily mean 20,000 people following you. There are people who build up massive follower counts and don't connect with any of them. If they tweet something, it won't get RTed, or even paid attention to, because their followers are junk.

    A better measure, is the Listed:Follower ratio. People don't game the lists, so when a person decides to place someone they follow on a list, it means that person is interesting to them. I look for a ratio of 5% or greater.

    This means one needs to monitor who they allow to follow them (because it is the denominator in the ratio). If one of those "Follow Back" junk twitter accounts follows me, I block them. If someone has a completely automated account, then they are blocked and possibly reported for spam.

    My question, then, other than the "Vanity" of being traditionally published, what is the value?

    It seems, based upon what you've said, one needs to be able to sell books on their own. One must have a polished novel, before submitting (which means hiring an editor), and other than providing cover art, what do they do?

    The self-publisher will keep 70% on the dollar. If they choose to go the traditional route, they will get to brag, but won't that number drop to 15%, with the same amount of work, and likely the same results, sales wise?

    Isn't the reality that most people will be mid-listers and thus, receive little advantage from being part of the Big 5?

    I don't know if my perceptions are accurate or not. I've published one book this year, the sales are just over 1300, which got the book in the black, just like you said. Of course, I had a really great editor working on the project (winks at Meghan), so that helped. Would my book have done better if it had a "Vanity" publisher on the spine? Would I have been able to NOT do one of the 40 signings?

    It just doesn't seem like they have much to offer, but I freely admit I may be wrong.

    • Kristan

      Beyond the "vanity" of being traditionally published is the distribution. That's (IMHO) the biggest appeal.

      Will that factor change in the years to come? Probably. But for now, the Big Five are the only ones who can get you into B&N, Walmart, Target, etc., and that's valuable.

      • And they do that for the mid-listers, too?

        • meghancward

          I think they do, Brian. Your book won't be prominently displayed at the front of the store, but it will be on the shelf at the major chains. And although they want you to do much of the marketing yourself, they do some marketing, which can make a huge difference (one friend's publisher – not one of the Big 5 – took out an ad for her book in the New Yorker. That's HUGE and costs a lot more money than an author can typically afford. Of course, that was mid-2000s, back before the publishing apocalypse, so who knows if that would happen today.)

    • meghancward

      I love your method for measuring Twitter success, Brian. I have no idea how many times I'm listed. It used to be listed on my profile, but now I can't find it. And as someone who has a 59 Klout score, I think you know what you're talking about. That said, self-publishing is sounding more and more tempting every day.

      By the way, I need your address so I can send you the English Toffee you won in the Writerland Challenge! Please email it to me at meghan (at) meghanward (dot) com.

  • Kristan

    Great interview, particularly in regards to the idea of platform, and what's valuable and what's not. It's nice to discuss with concrete numbers (whether they're 100% accurate or not — although they do sound reasonable to me) AND, more importantly, to remind ourselves that it's all relative. (Small mag publication vs. no pub and 2000 followers vs. no followers and New Yorker publication, per the example.) I think it's this kind of big picture thinking that more writers need to embrace, rather than the self vs. traditional mentality, or the numbers games, or whatever.

    (Also, for what it's worth, I've had experience with CreateSpace and been satisfied with them in all aspects, from setup to design to distribution to finished product.)

    • I really like CreateSpace, too. I just thought I'd chuck my two cents worth in.

    • meghancward

      Thanks, Kristan. I think it's important for authors to remember that social media is ONE tool in their toolbox, and not the only one. Getting published in magazines and journals is important. Being interviewed on the radio and TV is important. They're all pieces of a larger puzzle. And glad to hear you were happy with CreateSpace!

  • I like the college comparison. On the platform issue, I worried about that for a bit. Once I quit fretting over it, I wrote more. I don't have the numbers yet to require any monitoring on my part. It's one less thing I have to do at the moment.

    • meghancward

      I think that's smart, Stacy. It's important to begin developing your platform three years before you will publish (as Seth Godin recommended), but you can always ramp it up once you have a book coming out.

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