Why self-publish? Your book's a startup company, that's why

Credit: mummelgrummel; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Mummelgrummel As promised in my previous post, here's an exchange that offers some interesting food for thought to any writer searching for a publisher.

For Jim Rossi, the answer is simple: Don't look on the web or in a guidebook for a publisher. Look in the mirror.

That's what Rossi decided as he prepared his forthcoming book, Crucible: The Mojave and the Quest for Solar Power. A contributor to a variety of publications (including book reviews for the Los Angeles Times Book Review during my tenure there), he declined the traditional route -- and a traditional publisher's offer -- to self-publish his first book, which is an examination of the possibilities and implications of solar energy in the 21st century.

When he first told me that he'd declined a traditional offer, I have to admit that I was a little surprised: Doesn't every author dream of such an offer? Huh?

Sort of -- if it's the right kind of offer, as Rossi explains below.

The following remarks certainly aren't the definitive last word on the subject. But I hope that you'll treat them as a fresh starting-point for your own journey as an author -- a provocation that may whet your appetite and inspire you to start thinking outside the box when it comes to the fate of your own manuscript.

And, as always, my friends, your thoughts are welcome.

 What is your book about?

The title of my book is Crucible: The Mojave and the Quest for Solar Power, due out in Fall 2014. Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

I moved to UNLV from San Francisco in 2011 to study the evolution of the solar industry as it happens – environmental history and climate change, but also business, policy, and technology. How will the lessons learned here in the Mojave – with its ideal sun, open land, and transmission lines going to innovation-rich Southern California -- affect the future of energy around the world?


That's a terrific topic. Did you think of publishing in the traditional way – get an agent, get a deal, get published – or were you already thinking of the self-pub route?

Absolutely, yes. I initially thought of the traditional route.  Writers look forward to the day that they receive their first publishing offer for their first book.

What I never expected was that I would turn that offer down.


Why did you turn it down?

It was an academic publisher: small initial print run, high price, no e-book, and no marketing plan to reach the general reader – my natural market.

There are many fine reasons to write., but the only reason that ever turned my crank is to give as many people as possible the chance to read my work – to hopefully be entertained while learning something useful to them. The academic publisher could not offer that, so we amicably parted ways.

“Marketing,” said Peter Drucker, “is seeing the business through the customer’s eyes.” Once I started thinking this way – like a businessperson – self-publishing made more and more sense. What, exactly, could a publisher offer me?


International book fair, Leipzig, 2014


Your decision makes sense the way you explain it. Your purpose and strategy just didn't mesh with what this publisher could offer.

Even so, I think it still takes courage and conviction to go it alone. What other factors were behind your decision?

Mainly, I spoke to four different people and found one book that helped me to make a business decision to self-publish.

The first person was Cosmic Ray of Flagstaff, Arizona. He’s a good friend who has sold over 200,000 copies of his self-published mountain biking and hiking guidebooks – headlined by Arizona Fat Tire Tales and Trails. He’s helped me with the nuts-and-bolts of selling books via Amazon and bookstores.

The second person was Dominic Marrocco, an e-commerce entrepreneur and Honorary Fellow at UNLV and another close friend. His advice, in a nutshell:  Treat my book like a start-up company. Why sell the rights when you can reach your customers yourself, selling them the exact book that you want to write, and keep the profits?

The third person was my buddy Jake Meltzer, a search engine optimization (SEO) guru in San Francisco. He’s taken a lot of the mystery out of how I can use internet search and social media to help potential readers around the world to find my book.

The fourth person was San Francisco agent Michael Larsen.  Larsen explained that big publishers market big names, and small publishers have small – or non-existent – marketing budgets. His advice, also in a nutshell: The publishing world has fundamentally changed. Why not publish Crucible on your own, market it yourself, and cut out the middleman?


Your strategy doesn't rule out eventually signing with a big, mainstream publisher, either.

That's right. If the book is successful, a big publisher can offer me a deal for an updated version or a sequel book. And it will be my choice.


And what about the book that you mentioned above? Which one inspired your decision? 

The book that got me thinking was Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow by Porter Fox. Here was a writer with years of experience writing for big publications – just like myself – self-publishing his work of serious, journalistic nonfiction, and finding success. That was enough for me.