by Ericka Lutz (@theedgeofmaybe)
I wrote about the design of Ericka’s book in March, in Book Design Case Study: Two Contemporary Novels. Ericka, who has published numerous nonfiction books with traditional publishers, decided to get more involved with the publication of her first novel. I asked her to tell her story, because it’s so useful for other authors who may still be on the fence about indie publishing to see the path that other authors have taken. Here’s her story.
My novel The Edge of Maybe came out in March 2012, but though it’s my first published novel, it’s not my first published book.
My first book, Baby Maneuvers, an advice book for parents on how to travel with babies and little kids, came out in 1997. Then, for the next six years, I published a book a year, all commercial advice books, mostly for parents. I worked with big publishers for whom I, the writer, was the smallest cog in the machine. You would think the writer would be the most important person in the publication process. Wrong.
The head of PR laughed in my face when I suggested my first book was a good candidate for Costco. Here’s where I learned about the importance of trim size; Baby Maneuvers was an odd size (9 x 7.25″), and all books on a Costco table—or on supermarket racks—have to fit precisely into predetermined size slots. I don’t know what the standard is, but apparently my book’s odd size meant it was not designed, or destined, for mass market distribution.
My book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Stepparenting has sold over 50,000 copies (and is still in print), others sold a few thousand and were remaindered within a year.
I was pleased to be working as a professional writer, despite the occasional frustrations, but my moderate success left me feeling hollow. I liked my books, but they weren’t my heartwork: my fiction and creative nonfiction. “Right freeway, wrong lane,” I used to say.
So, after seven books, I started teaching writing, and left the freeway, and continued to write and publish short stories and personal essays and columns, mostly in anthologies and in literary journals that only other writers had heard of. Not that I was done with the traditional publishing world; my agent submitted a novel and I submitted a short story collection, they were rejected for being not commercial enough—with great comments about the writing—at the highest levels.
My heart broke again and again. Yes, I was building a readership through my shorter work, but very slowly. And at the same time, the traditional publishing industry was flailing and ailing.
So, in the summer of 2010 when Armand Inezian, of Last Light Studio Books in Boston, offered to publish my novel The Edge of Maybe, I was delighted.
I was ready for something different. This seemed a great solution: Last Light is a cooperative micropress. In Last Light’s version of indie publishing, that meant that I would get editorial input, support, the cachet of a high-quality small press behind me, but that I would also have a huge amount of autonomy and decision-making power.
Since almost all publishers now require their authors to do the bulk of their own PR anyway, that part wouldn’t be any different. And, with my last book (On the Go with Baby) I had done a lot of media: radio and TV. I teach public speaking, I’m addicted to social media, and I perform a lot. I felt prepared.
I happily signed the contract, and we began.
Joel Friedlander had designed a few other books at Last Light Studio, plus I knew his work by reputation, so we hired him to design the book, both inside pages and cover. After all those years as the “smallest cog,” it was great fun to realize that I not only had an opinion but I also had a say. In fact, I had the say. My publisher, Armand, got to weigh in, but he and Joel left the final decisions up to me.
The Edge of Maybe launched at the beginning of March 2012.
I’ve learned a few things about myself in the process:
- All Those Years as an Avid Book Lover Gave Me a Point Of View
Wow. Apparently, I have strong opinions about typefaces and “widows and orphans” and covers. Who knew? For The Edge of Maybe, I had a strong desire for a matte cover — flat vs. shiny — which meant we ended up with two print editions, one printed through Lightning Source International so I could have the matte cover I craved, and one through Amazon’s CreateSpace so that readers buying at Amazon could get their book within a couple of days.
- I Have Good Taste, But Not Always The Best Judgment
From the beginning, I wanted the image of a fetus on the cover of The Edge of Maybe. Ew. Yes, you’re right, but it was a theme thing. Joel tried and tried to get the fetus to incorporate into the folds of the bedsheets pictured on the cover. When he finally sent me a version without the fetus, it was so much easier to look at. I realized that a fetus on a bookcover doesn’t exactly seduce a reader in. As it turns out, Joel had come to the same conclusion much earlier, but was trying hard to please me.
- I Know More about Marketing than I Knew I Knew
All that time hanging out on Facebook and Twitter, that class I taught on Social Media in Hungary last year, all taught me important things. For instance: Wet but Don’t Saturate. Yes, make sure all your social media contacts know about your book. Yes, let your contacts in on the cool events, giveaways, great reviews, and general feelings you’re having as you launch. But after they know, shut up about it. The minute you sound desperate, you also sound unprofessional, and people won’t buy your book.
- It Should Be Fun
After years of frustration, I was finally publishing a novel I loved. And I wanted every aspect of it to be fun. I wanted a book trailer, so I made two silly ones by myself, in the quiet of my own home. I had a blast. Did the trailers sell books? I don’t know. But I don’t know if book trailers ever sell books.
I also wanted cups and other merchandise, so I designed some, and all of it is for sale through my book’s website. (Oh, you’ll want to have a kickass website.) I haven’t sold many cups, but they’ve been great gifts for some of the bookstores who’ve had me come read. And I love drinking coffee out of mine.
- I Like Being in Control
I enjoy being hands-on, and that I hate it when other people have control over my creative work (well, I knew this about myself already).
- Professionals Rock and I Don’t Know Everything
Mostly, through this experience, I learned about the importance of working with professionals—my publisher and editor-in-chief, my copy editor, proof readers, and, of course, my book designer. There are huge gaps in my knowledge and skills, but, working with professionals I trusted, I didn’t have to know everything.
I can’t say I’m done with the traditional publishing model, but I like the expanded options in front of me. The Edge of Maybe has entered the world to great reviews and strong sales, and the whole adventure has brought me joy.
Ericka Lutz is the author of seven previous books, and her writing appears in many literary magazines, journals, and anthologies. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and performs her solo shows around the San Francisco Bay Area. She lives in Oakland, California, the city from which she draws much of her inspiration. The Edge of Maybe is her first novel.