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

Credit: mummelgrummel; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Mummelgrummel
Credit:image courtesy of  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
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.




10 thoughts on “Why self-publish? Your book’s a startup company, that’s why

  1. I just left and came back, and I see that my question is waiting moderation. So I must not have left a response the first time I read this. Strange.

    I think your friend made a wise and thoughtful choice. I’d heard Liz Weil talk about her career recently, saying that she didn’t know if she’d become a journalist/NF book writer is she was just starting out now. Couple that with the grim stats reported in The Guardian about midlist authors not being able to make a living unless they have a second or third job, and it sounds like midlist writers are going the way of the middle class. You’ve either got to be the blockbuster or go bust.

    The panel of editors talking about the future of publishing at Squaw Valley this week didn’t want to be recorded. There wasn’t really much of anything new disclosed that hasn’t already been mentioned in the news. Writers are no longer going on multi-city book tours unless they’re big names already. Social media is where it’s at. There are far fewer advances of say, $50,000. More often than not now, it’s closer to $7,000. Hmmmm. It’s not looking good for the home team.

  2. You’ve made some really important points for all of us to consider, Jil.

    I’m going to piggyback a series of posts onto this q & a with Jim because it’s very much on my mind as I finish up my manuscript and think about my next steps. It all comes down I think to expectations. What do you hope to achieve? Jim seems pretty focused and clear about his priorities, but I think that most aspiring writers aren’t. What do they really hope to achieve? What are they basing their expectations on? If social media makes it easier, then why aren’t they using it? Folks like Dan Brown or Khaled Hosseini make it seem like there are wild riches out there, which is totally unrealistic. I think you have to be able to honestly answer the questions that I’ve presented or else you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

    More to come in my next posts… And I hope we’ll get some good insights from people in this thread!

  3. This is very interesting, particularly the metaphor of book publishing as start-up company. The more I thought about it, the more it began to make sense, particularly since I’ve approached my own writing precisely as I approached starting my own business, twenty-four years ago. I didn’t mean to take that approach to writing, I just did. It was the model I knew.

    When I began varnishing boats, I knew nothing about the trade. I had to do two things: teach myself the craft, and find customers. Sound familiar? I could just as easily say, I had to learn how to write, and I had to find readers.

    The biggest difference is that I needed my business to support me financially. I’ve never wanted a “career” in writing that would do the same. That uncomplicated things, a good bit.

    On the other hand, I wanted to grow my readership just as I grew my customer base. Again, my assumption was that quality work would do that on its own, and that word of mouth and personal engagement with my readers would get the ball rolling. It certainly has.

    Just in the past week, I had a piece accepted for publication in a local magazine — you know, with a real cover, and an editorial staff, and paper pages. It was so easy, I queried two other magazines about pieces I think will be good for the Christmas season. Both were interested, and I sent those off. Then, today, I found my current post linked in an online magazine, and received a query from another online mag about doing a related but different piece for them.

    So here we are. The first book project I’m imagining is a photo/poetry compilation, using only etherees that I’ve written. It’s a perfect choice for a self-published work. Then? Who knows. I have three book titles and “ideas” knocking around — lack of material isn’t a problem.

    I’ve had readers saying for about two years now, “You need to write a book.” I’ve always demurred, saying that when the time is right, I’d think about it. I’m wondering now if I shouldn’t start thinking.

  4. Shoreacres, it seems like the time is definitely right for thinking about it. What Jim points out, and that I hope other readers take away from this Q & A, is that everything depends on the writer’s expectations. I’m still enchanted by the notion of validation via a NYC publishing firm, but Jim’s points — and your experiences in connecting with editors and readers via the internet — show why this is an exciting time to be an author. Anything’s possible.

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