My Trials and Tribulations with Self-Publishing

“…and I Offer my Soul to you Wholesale.”

Copyright 2006 by David H. Schleicher

        The year was 2001. A young upstart company working under the umbrella of Barnes & Noble called iUniverse was ushering in the new fad of print-on-demand self-publishing. I was a just a kid in the midst of my senior year of college at Elon University eagerly anticipating my graduation. I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Writing had always been my passion, and I had been working on a novel that summer inspired by things I had studied in my psychology and criminal justice classes. “Publish your book for $99,” iUniverse’s on-line banner ad called to me one lonely night between composing passages. It seemed too good to be true, but I bought into it wholesale. Indeed, I published my novel for $99, and it was available for all to see by January of 2002. The result of this knee-jerk reaction to some savvy marketing was anything but a dream come true.
     Crematorium, an unfocused but fast-paced thriller about the mother of a murdered child seeking vigilante justice against the serial killer who took her son’s life and the mysterious writer working on a book about the infamous killer, was a wildly unpolished, unedited manuscript that regurgitated dark thoughts from dreams and crazy ideas from my schooling. The finished product had no right to be out on the market. It was riddled with typos and released to unsuspecting family and friends with little to no revision. I knew nothing of the finer points of publishing my own work, and from the cover that screamed “I published this myself!” to the story that boldly announced, “I’m a punk kid who thinks he can write!” it was an ugly disaster.
     Somehow, though, it was exciting to think I could conquer the world without an agent or an editor. My work would be completely mine and I would have no one to answer to. The sky was the limit, and so the very next year, I published yet another novel through iUniverse inexplicably titled, Carabolia. Still reeling from the high of Crematorium and my recently bestowed bachelor’s degree, I unleashed unwittingly into the world a complete debacle on every level. Carabolia was a total vanity project (as if I at the age of 22 deserved to have a vanity project) that was my attempt to create the literary equivalent of a David Lynch movie. This muddled story of a troubled young waitress who may or may not have found a dead body in the woods was stylistically amateur with an incoherent narrative, full of criminally bad dialogue and zero character development that tried the patience of even my kindest readers (sorry Mom and Dad!).
     Alone in a new city (the vapid New South Mecca of Charlotte, North Carolina), depressed from the reaction to the second novel (not a single person “got” it), and at a total loss as to how to survive in the post college graduation world, I retreated to my old friend alcohol, convinced on some level that it inspired my purest writing. I decided to make a fresh start with a new publisher, Xlibris, and tackled my next project in a quasi-professional manner that I had not employed before. I had a friend (a graphic artist) work on a cover, and I hired a professional copy editor to ensure that my manuscript was free of the typos and grammatical errors that plagued my first two novels. Story wise, I felt it was the first time I was showing growth as a writer, as I overcame a horrible bout of writer’s block by completely changing the original course of the novel and introducing a new character–a writer writing the very story I was writing of the young man obsessed with solving the mystery of a missing girl. Though it probably isn’t up to snuff with your best-sellers, An Accidental House had a polish that was definitely lacking in my first two attempts. I even had a marketing angle. The idea for the novel was inspired by an actual unsolved missing person’s case from my hometown of Burlington, New Jersey that intrigued me as a child. Again, perhaps at age 24, it was a bit too early to be writing novels that were so self-referential and ironic. This was the first book I was semi-proud of, though as one reviewer put it, “a good editor could be used to trim some of the fat.” An Accidental House was a true time capsule of my life at the time: full of in-jokes that I don’t even think my friends will get any more, riddled with alcohol induced dream sequences, and totally open-ended to interpretation as I, like the lead character Truman Murdoch, had no idea where I was headed next. The only thing I knew was I had spent way too much money, and I was never going to make it back through sales.
     Sometimes I look back on this trilogy of books and wonder, “what was I thinking?” I lay awake at night tossing and turning arguing with myself, “I have to cancel the contracts to get these books off the market. No one will ever take me seriously if they ever get a hold of them.” But then I realize, I would’ve never made it to this point if I had not gone through these trials and tribulations. These are a true testament to how wrong-headed publishing your own work can be when you do it without thinking or proper planning or any sense of self-discipline. “Is that what they represent now?” I ask myself before stealing a wink of slumber from pure mental exhaustion.
     Reinvigorated by a return to my homeland of South Jersey and Philadelphia in 2004, darkly inspired by some tumultuous personal events, and for the first time in my life financially stable with a decent job, I began work on The Thief Maker. I returned to iUniverse for what will perhaps be my swan song in the self-publishing craze. Sure, they’ve upped their prices, but they’ve also vastly improved their services. Again, I’ve probably spent too much money on The Thief Maker, but it’s the first time I have no shame in selling my work. With a professionally designed cover that would look good facing out on any store shelf and an editorial polish that none of my previous work has enjoyed, the tragically intertwining stories of a con-man, a nurse, a private investigator, and a lesbian couple living in a post-9/11 scarred world is by far my most accomplished work. Although I stayed true to my personal style (some might claim it to be like my first novel, wildly unfocused) I was still able to take some of the editor’s advice to heart: trimming some of the so-called fat and taking the editor’s queues on to how to better construct some of my writing so that it flows for the reader.
     I, too, became a better self-editor: revising, reworking, and rewriting to the point of nausea. I’ve learned that if you don’t get close to physical sickness from editing and revising your own work, then you haven’t been editing and revising enough. It’s also the first time I allowed the ideas to gestate properly (waiting almost three years between novels), and also the first time I allowed the story to tell itself. My characters finally became flesh and blood in my mind, and they told me where to go instead of me directing them to do what I thought they should do. I can only hope that this comes across on the page. What is my most stylistically competent work (God-willing) is also my purest most unadulterated vision (the devils I wrestled on its pages be damned). The Thief Maker is the novel closest to my heart and most characteristic of how my mind works. As such, it’s the scariest of my novels for me to consider and examine.
     Still, I lay awake in cold sweats thinking of my past self-publishing fiascos. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and check their sales rank on Amazon.com or Barnes Noble. My heart skipped a beat this morning when I saw Crematorium jump up in rank. “My God, what poor fool purchased this?!” I lament. Only out of morbid curiosity, I hope. The Thief Maker is the only thing I will discuss publicly or advertise, but that unholy trilogy from a past life will always be lurking there in the shadows taunting me. Is anyone reading them? Probably not nearly as many as my ego would like to think.
     Only time will tell of my future success or failure, but I’ve learned many things through my selfish acts of self-publishing. With new ideas dancing through my mind and stories begging to be told, I wonder if I will finally take the dive and set myself on the path of traditional publishing. Like my dreams of finding a good woman, maybe there’s a good agent out there, too. I look back on my early projects and see them as ghosts. They haunt me. They’re out there. I could take them off the market, but what would be the point? They will always be out there. I can’t change what I’ve written in the past, I can only hope to continue to grow as a story-teller.
     The egotist in me hopes that perhaps my mistakes can be a shining example to fellow writers wading through the ocean of options presented to us is this day and age and struggling to find their voice. Edit–we are or own worst critics, but also our best. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or seek professional services to help polish your writing. Avoid self-indulgent behavior involving drugs and drinking; it leads to self-indulgent writing only you will enjoy. Give your ideas and characters time to breathe. Don’t be afraid to change the course. But most of all, don’t feed off your fears of bad reviews, rejection letters from agents and publishers, or that you might put out more money than you earn and never really make a living doing what you love. Whether you toil away publishing your own writing, land a six figure deal with a major publishing house, or simply share your poetry and stories in blogs and forums across the World Wide Web, it all matters not. Write because it’s who you are, not what you do. I am a writer, and I have sold my soul to you wholesale.

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16 comments on “My Trials and Tribulations with Self-Publishing

  1. Thanks for this sharing this. Very personal experience but at the same time valuable on a general level. Actually makes me want to get your first novels out of sheer curiosity.

    James,
    Thank you. But for the love of god, don’t torture yourself…just buy THE THIEF MAKER instead. People seem to like that one.–DHS

  2. wendy says:

    Wow! Thank you for such a truthful article. Thank you for sharing your trials which have led to growth in ways which are not material, but are important to you as a person.

    Wendy, thanks for taking the time to stop by and read it. It seems the truths it contained spoke to you in some way, and that’s all I can really ask for as a writer. -DHS

  3. Ralph L. McNeal, Sr. says:

    Just about finished my first novel. Being courted by all the self-publishing houses you mentioned. Trafford, IUniverse, Xlibris, Vantage-Press. It’s perplexing. Don’t want to pay for windowdress, just want to get the novel published and distributed.

    Ralph, I wouldn’t call it courting. They just want your money. Any one of those outfits (and many others) can publish and distribute your book. Be careful, and don’t self-publish just because you can. Anyone can use one of these outfits and be published nowadays. I learned the hard way that not everything I write should be printed for consumption–however, you have to write a lot of crap before writing anything good–as I hope The Thief Maker is proof of that. Good luck with whatever path you take in your writing career. –DHS

  4. Ralph L. McNeal, Sr. says:

    Thanks much DHS;

    I am retired and this is my first foray.

    Ralph

    Ralph, Gail’s path below may be of interest to you for some more tips or ideas. –DHS

  5. Gail Phillips says:

    Thanks for fast reply. I AM an ex-English teach and have good friends and writer’s group for editorial support.

    Am thinking of taking big splurge with
    i-Universe $899 package offering special promotion of 40 novels to author if purchased by Sept. 29.

    Plan would be to keep 10 for gifts and sell rest at $15 each. I have no expectations of getting rich but also no budget for any hidden costs with self-publishing. I can’t afford more than about $500. write-off for hobby.

    Does this sound reasonable or am I likely to get screwed?

    Thanks, Gail.

    Gail, sounds likes you have a good game plan and reasonable expectations! Just be careful, don’t get sucked into add-ons you don’t want or have the budget for. –DHS

  6. Gail Phillips says:

    David,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with self-publishing. I have spent hours reading the websites of self-publishers, trying to decide between i-Universe or the traditional route.

    I have spent the last four years writing and rewriting the rewrite of my first novel. I’m not delusional enough to believe I have created a best seller, but I have an engaging historical romance.

    My problem is I am an old woman (not to be revealed to the editors, of course) and don’t believe I have the time to wait for the slow process of traditional publishing.

    Unfortunately, I am not affluent and cannot afford those optional extras to the basic self-publisher’s package. Yet it is important to me to have an end product I can be proud of.

    Any advice?

    Gail

    Gail, as for the editing, do you have a trusted friend, perhaps an English teacher or History teacher you know that would be willing to help you edit/proofread your manuscript? You may just have to take the risk and do the best you can if you are not able to get a professional involved.

    As for finding the most affordable POD service provider with the quickest turnaround, I have heard Lulu does a decent job in that respect.

    Again, the bottom line is be realistic with yourself and what you want and don’t expect miracles. Set up a budget for yourself on what you can afford to spend and then shop around.

    Good luck! I hope I have been some help.

    -DHS

  7. […] can read about Dave and the trials and tribulations he encountered with self-publishing at his blog, where he also reviews books and […]

  8. […] Today, Floyd M. Orr’s iUBR blog led me to a wonderful older post on author, D. H. Schleicher’s blog.  Schleicher’s success story inspired me and I wanted to bring it to your attention.  (He […]

  9. Found you via the Lulu Book Review site, but I’ve also found you previously, on MySpace; you’re from nearly the same area of Jersey I am (Gibbstown).

    Your article corroborates something I believe deeply; to undertake an endeavour like putting a book out there is huge, and something a lot of writers vastly underestimate. I published my own collection via Lulu, but I drew on years as a professional editor (albeit in a completely different context) to do so. It isn’t something that should be undertaken “just to get something out there,” as a lot of writers do; it’s something that needs to be afforded great care and greater effort, with great attention paid to the marketplace and the potential audience.

    I’m vastly happy with my book and experience so far, and, yes, proud of what I did, but all that came from how much effort I put into it.

    I wish the same for everyone who tries it.

    Will, thanks for stopping by. I agree with your sentiments, and because I finally learned that, I am very proud of The Thief Maker and the positive response it has received. It’s always nice to come across fellow writers originally from this area. –DHS

  10. I just want to say I was going through this because I have written 2 novels and my first book and I am very scaried at who I can trust to publish this for me. I have looked at Xllibrisis, Mill City Press, IUniverse, Authorhouse, and many others but still don’t know who to trust and some asking price is not what I can afford. Could you give me a little insight on what I should do with my completed work?

    Melody, my advice would be to do all the research you can, have a clear list of what you want and what you don’t want, and set a budget. Keep expectations realistic, and if it doesn’t feel right to you, don’t do it! You might want to check out my “closing thoughts” on my self-publishing experience in the following post:

    https://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2007/08/19/the-verdict-on-self-publishing-and-the-thief-maker/

    Wishing you all the best in your endeavors!–DHS

  11. Vicki says:

    David! I love this blog. You mind if I post a link on my MySpace account to this article? I’m looking at the self-publishing road myself.

    I loved this statement, “Whether you toil away publishing your own writing, land a six figure deal with a major publishing house, or simply share your poetry and stories in blogs and forums across the World Wide Web, it all matters not. Write because it’s who you are, not what you do.”

    You are correct. Writing is who I am whether it’s Random House or Lulu…..it’s what drives me. Great encouragement for someone who feels less than worthy just because I’ve never been published the traditional route. There are times I feel much too small next to published authors, but at least I’m on level ground here with others.

    Great post!

    Vicki, thank you so much. I wrote this article specifically for other writers, so I am glad you have found it useful. I don’t mind any linking, in fact I am honored you would wish to do so, as long as it is directly to the source here on my blog. I look forward to hearing about your writing experiences out in the blogosphere and in the ‘Space. –DHS

  12. […] Floyd M. Orr’s iUBR blog led me to a wonderful older post on author, D. H. Schleicher’s blog.  Schleicher’s success story inspired me and I wanted to bring it to your attention.  (He […]

  13. Adrien says:

    Hi there,

    I know this article is quite old, but still I have to comment!

    Two days ago, I was browsing Amazon.com, searching for more unconventional books and I came across your books: Carabolia, Crematorium and An Accidental House. Crematorium and An Accidental House seemed interesting, but the one who really caught my attention was Carabolia. From the moment I read the description I felt like I was inside that world. I could clearly see the diner, the forest and I could feel the dreamy/nightmarish atmosphere. It never happened to me before (at least so fast) and I though “I MUST get this book!”

    When I tried to get more info about the book, I found this blog (and nothing else!) and I read this article and now I got mixed feelings about the book! How can a book be any good if the author himself tells you it’s not? I’m a big fan of David Lynch and I like books that don’t follow the “rules”, so Carabolia really seems my type of book.

    I live in Portugal and English is not my native language (as you might have noticed) so maybe the fact that I don’t fully understand the subtleties of the language helped me to build the atmosphere of the book(?!?). Anyway, I’d like to ask you if there’s any information you could give about the book? Maybe the first chapter? I know you just want to “get rid” of your first three books, but this one really got me hooked!

    Thanks,
    Adrien.

    Adrien, hmmm…wow…ummm…what can I say? Writers are their own worst critics. Please check your email. –DHS

  14. […] alone. From authors describing the painstaking efforts of getting their cover art to upload to one discussing his vain attempts to self publish, and one who admits that most self-published authors dirty the pool for other self-published […]

  15. Floyd M. Orr says:

    This is an excellent old article that I stumbled onto this morning, D. H.! I hope you are still writing. The Thief Maker was certainly one of the best books I have reviewed. I can certainly understand your feelings about your earliest work. I completed my first book at about age 22, but fortunately I never published it until after my retirement. That book evolved into a work that had very little in common with its original manuscript of more than thirty years earlier. The final version became my third book, The Last Horizon.

    My review site has gone through many changes over the years. Most of these are the result of changes within the industry or changes in the writing careers of the reviewers. The iUBR site became PODBRAM (Print On Demand Book Reviews & More) several years ago. I just recently reopened submissions after shutting them off some time ago to allow the reviewers, including myself, to work on our own projects.

    http://www.podbram.blogspot.com/

    The two most significant changes in the industry since I reviewed The Thief Maker have been the introductions of CreateSpace and Kindle, both by Amazon of course. Due to the many advantages CS has developed, I no longer recommend any other POD publisher.

    • Floyd – hey, great to hear from you! Glad to see you are still out there doing your thing. I’ve always been very grateful for the kind words you bestowed upon my book.

      Yes, much has changed in the world of publishing! It’s become so democratic 🙂 I actually publish my digital literary magazine, The Stone, through Amazon’s Kindle Direct publishing. The problem now is that there are SOOOO MANY people doing similar things it’s hard to bring attention to it and get a steady stream of quality stories submitted for publication (from a writer’s standpoint it’s hard to know whose magazine is legit or not). I fear it’s fizzled out after three issues…but we’ll see…it certainly is a brave new world out there and the ability to change and adapt is the key I think.

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