The Power of Persistence in Indie Publishing

by | Jul 5, 2011

by Thomas Burchfield (@Thomburchfield)

I had the pleasure of designing a book interior last year for indie author Thomas Burchfield, who also lives nearby in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our paths had crossed at a publishing event, and I was really pleased to be able to help make Thomas’ Dracula book a reality. In this essay Thomas talks about getting his book into print and what he’s learned along the way.

Getting It Published

In December 2005, I began writing my debut novel Dragon’s Ark. In June 2009, I finished it. I then spent a year pursuing literary agents, knowing that, even if successful, my novel would likely not come out until 2012, or even later.

In April 2010, when I had nearly drained the well of available literary agents, I attended an independent publishing workshop, held at the Commonwealth Club of California, where Joel Friedlander, host of The BookDesigner, spoke. From then to now, with Dragon’s Ark available to one and all in paperback and e-book, it’s been a year and change.

The path has been challenging but reasonably, even remarkably, smooth. The end result, the book itself, a POD edition printed through Lightning Source, is a lovely production, especially for a paperback. The most stunning surprise was the cover by Cathi Stevenson of Book Cover Express, who fully understood my intentions.

Dragon's Ark by Thomas BurchfieldI encountered further success and encouragement with Joel’s excellent interior design, plus his kindness and insight (and, most significantly, patience), all based on his years in the publishing business. Long before any of us, Joel saw the new world coming and entered it fully, then turned and opened its door wide. If you’re starting here, you’re starting well.

Add to that some excellent blurbs from important writers such as David Corbett, Don Herron, and John-Ivan Palmer, and I had—and do have—a book with excellent literary and commercial potential.

The only major stumble was in the final editing, but even so, amazingly few embarrassments remain (though each one burns like a hot needle in my heart). For a rank beginner, I dropped surprisingly few stitches.

I named my imprint Ambler House Publishing, both after the pioneering genre writer Eric Ambler, and because the name evokes the era of publishing before conglomeration, when Alfred E. Knopf was an actual person who loved books more than he did a 15-percent profit margin. (That era may be returning in new form, but that’s a discussion for later).

Now I had the book. Next, I had to get it out into the world: market it, distribute it, sell it. That process continues and will continue for a long time to come.

Getting It Out There

One of my first marketing/distribution fantasies had me driving all over the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond, persuading bookstores to stock Dragon’s Ark. However, just getting to the stores in my own neighborhood was daunting enough.

Here, I’ve been reasonably successful. Not all the stores said yes, but the ones who placed it on their shelves sold all of them . . . mostly likely because I snacked on the ear of everyone I met at my local watering holes, waving my postcards and copies of the book in their faces. (One customer was a hollering drunk whom, I bet, forgot even buying it.) I’ve actually sold 10 copies out of my own bag so far.

Next, I had to get it out into the world: market it, distribute it, sell it. That process continues and will continue for a long time to come.

As for the hundred or so bookstores to whom I sent marketing e-mails—mostly silence. One bookstore invited me to do a “meet and greet” but seems to have forgotten all about me despite repeated e-mail follow-ups. One lucky break: Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, now offers Dragon’s Ark online, though I’m not sure who to credit for that. After a few scolding e-mail responses from others, I reconsidered this approach.

Add to that a couple of mixed reviews from reviewers whom I pursued, but turned out not to care for my eccentric approach to the Dracula myth, I decided to alter course. Lesson learned here: be careful of your audience, especially if your book is a little more offbeat than what they’re used to.

Sales so far have been few, for both paperback and e-book. But instead of folding in despair, I press on. Like it or not, this will take some time. When Joel announced that he was taking the “soft release” approach to the release of his own new book, A Self-Publisher’s Companion, I took the cue: play to my strengths and build from there.

The Inkspot Approach

I’ve had an online presence for years and have built a small but loyal following. So, instead of trying to fly to the moon on my handsome, but tin, jalopy, I decided to simply start with the 400 or so weekly readers I have and continue to work my way out from there, one or two readers at a time. (In counterinsurgency work, this is called the “Inkspot Approach.”)

The best way for Ambler House to sell more books is to publish more books. Starting in July, at around three-month intervals, I’ll be publishing a backlog of work I’ve created over the years—screenplays, humor pieces, critical, personal, and travel essays, and a smattering of short stories. These will appear solely as e-books (the first one will be my comic screenplay Whackers.)

The best way for Ambler House to sell more books is to publish more books.

All will be available at a low price. How low, I haven’t yet determined. Judging from this article by Laura Miller on Salon, the 99-cent price recommended for most independent books may not work anymore, thanks to the spamsters who have been hijacking the KindlePad platforms with 99-cent ripoffs and knockoffs of other people’s books, including yours, mine and the classics. “99 cents” is becoming shorthand for “spam.” We all may be forced to raise our prices.

But that’s just another kink in the always-evolving world of independent publishing. Here, only the persistent, the patient, and the flexible survive; only they can hope to prosper.

Good luck to us all.

self-publisher Thomas BurchfieldThomas Burchfield‘s contemporary Dracula novel Dragon’s Ark is available now, published by Ambler House Publishing. It can be ordered in both paperback and e-book editions through your local independent bookstore, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, Smashwords, and Scrib’d.

His original comic screenplay Whackers will make its debut on Scrib’d on July 5, 2011, also from Ambler House. He posts regularly at Blogger ( Other material can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. And if you’re still not tired of him, he can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Copyright © 2011 Thomas Burchfield. Photo by wetwebwork

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  1. Thomas Burchfield

    Thanks for that Bob:

    I’m not sure the logic of stores closing because they didn’t carry my book would apply to me, unless I was as successful as you are, or as Stephen King I am working on a much smaller scale right now so the idea of a store’s survival depending on whether or not they carry my books is not one I’d entertain. (Though it’s fun to think about: “That’s what you get for not carrying “Dragon’s Ark!” Ha!”).

    I have however, managed to place Dragon’s Ark at a few independent bookstores and while it hasn’t sold greatly, all our doors are still open. I probably help them more by buying my books from them. At least for now.

    I’d say you’re right about the mailings though. Most stores treat them like the rest of us treat our junk mail.

    Certainly you deserve credit for sticking to it!



  2. Bob Mayer

    Back in the day, before the Internet, I sent 3,500 individual letters with 40 signed bookplates in each to every indie bookstore in the country (there were a lot more back then). I received 6 responses. I was told that it was the norm to just toss such marketing material in the trash.

    Which is why when I see another indie go out of business, I think about them tossing marketing material from authors who make the extra effort into the trash. I’ve been turned down, to my face, from doing signings or even placing my books in stores, by over half the indies I approached. Most were out of business within a year, wondering what they did wrong.

    Authors create product. Readers consume the product. Everyone in between must add some value.

  3. Thomas Burchfield

    Thanks David:

    Actually, I did get an editor, but it didn’t, shall we say, work out well (and I must leave it there). I can do my own proofreading–I’m trained there–but copyediting does require a more complex and Olympian view which, of course, I can’t provide. I will add that finding an editor who is experienced in and sympathetic to your genre is *absolutely* essential.

    Good being in touch with you again!


  4. David Colin Carr

    Congratulations for following through to market, Thomas. We talked at the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association GET PUBLISHED! Institute about Dragon Arc and your other projects.

    And congratulations for ‘fessing up about running without the support of a professional editor. It amazes me that Joel, Mark Coker, Carla King, and just about every notable person who lectures and writes about self-publishing stresses the importance of EXCELLENT CONTENT and the value of a professional editor – yet how few writers figure that into their production plans and budgets.

    And something that even fewer people seem to appreciate – proofreading. (And we’ve seen that lack of appreciation even among major publishing houses for the last ten years.) When I worked for a national meditation magazine, every article had to be signed off by three proofreaders – that’s after the author and editor have pored over it. Proofreading is a special skill (not mine). Most people see content rather than problems with punctuation, common misspellings, hyphenation, spacing. It’s like trying to name printed colors when the words you are reading are the names of other colors. Recently I saw the page proofs of a book I had edited – on one page the header with the chapter title belonged to another chapter – only one page. How such a technological flaw happens is to me a mystery deeper than genetic phenomena. But it happens often enough that three proofreaders eyes are not too many.

    Before you go to “press” (what word do we use for sending a book off for electronic publication? “pixeling”?) with your backlog of writing (I’ve been calling the papers on my desk “my klog” – is it original?), start building the reputation of Ambler Press on excellence – find an editor.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good advice, David, thanks for that. When I worked in advertising, the standard practice was to have 2 proofreaders on each story, and they would read the piece to each other, one reading and the other following on the proof, just to make sure nothing had been left out. This is in addition to the normal proofreading. Over the years, proofreaders have saved many books I’ve worked on from going to pixels with errors, and they are simply indispensable in a professional production.



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