The battle has been going on for years now: traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. For fantasy and sci-fi, romance and young adult, a million different options are available to those brave enough to try.
And whether you decide to traditionally publish or self-publish, getting your book discovered is a problem. Amazon has weird algorithms. Goodreads has merciless reviewers. Bookbub promotions can be effective, but hard to attain.
But good things can happen to good books. Alec Hutson is proof. Hutson, author of the fantasy novel The Crimson Queen (December 2016), decided to self-publish after a frustrating year of trying and waiting and trying some more to get agents to read the book.
In just five months, the book has 800+ ratings on GoodReads. He’s seen spikes of 100+ book sales overnight. And he’s out-earned any advance that agents could promise him.
When my friend gave me a copy of The Crimson Queen, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s hard to find a good fantasy book. Especially in the world of self-publishing. But it was a great book. Far better than the absolutely dreadful Queen of the Tearling, which can be found recommended in New Yorker blogs and National Bestseller lists alike. It’s rated higher, too.
So how did Hutson break though? What was his journey to becoming a self-published author? I recently had an email interview with him to find out.
1. Were there a lot of false starts before The Crimson Queen? Did you know much about the publishing industry as you started out?
I made a go at writing a book in 2007 or so. Wrote some chapters I liked, but for whatever reason, the threads frayed.
I set it aside for a few years. Then, in the beginning of 2015, I figured out another angle for the story I wanted to tell. A year later, I had finished the first draft.
I didn’t know much about the publishing industry. After I finished Queen, I sent out a handful of queries. I also set myself to the task of figuring out publishing, both traditional publishing and self-publishing.
2. I loved the lore of the book. How did you write such an extensive history? Did you outline the world before or did you create it as you wrote the novel?
Much of the lore and history came from the earlier (2007) version of the book. I’m not sure how much is truly original.
I feel like I took the work of my favorite authors – Mieville, Martin, Bakker, Zelazny – and let it just mix and ferment in my mind. Maybe that’s how it always goes. Authors harvest what rises up from the loam laid out by those that came before.
3. What was the process for writing The Crimson Queen like? I saw that you had some of the book available on Wattpad before the official publication. What made you decide to start pushing the book on different channels before publication?
Ah. Good question. I was desperate for feedback, honestly. Also, I knew that I had hit a wall at around 60k words twice before when trying to write a book.
“Wattpad offered both a forum where I could get reactions and also helped create an audience that would spur me on to finish the book.”
It was successful there, featured in fantasy and peaking at #2 on the list. A couple hundred thousand reads and I gained over a thousand followers.
That said, I think there was virtually no cross-over to Amazon after I published. The Wattpad audience is not one that is accustomed to paying for books.
4. What made you ultimately decide to self-publish? Did you query agents as well?
I sent off a dozen or so queries after I finished Queen’s first draft in early 2016.
I found the process demoralizing. I tried my best to tailor my queries so that it showed I had done research on the agents I approached. I know how to write. The sample was good. The pitch was fine.
Half didn’t bother responding. A few form rejections. One request for a partial, actually from one of the two biggest agencies I queried. They rejected me within thirty minutes of my reply.
The other major agency I’d queried was silent, and I’d assumed they’d passed. (This was March 2016). In July I finally heard back from them that they wanted a partial. After I sent that off, they went silent again.
During this time I was researching as much as I could about publishing, both self-publishing and traditional. I also stalked agents and tried to figure out what they wanted.
It became readily apparent to me that my brand of epic fantasy – which, I will maintain, is actually the most popular style of epic fantasy today – was not in favor. Agents wanted grimdark or ‘non-European fantasy’. This, despite the fact you could click on any fantasy bestseller lists and see Sanderson, Martin, Rothfuss right at the top.
Nope, that wasn’t interesting agents anymore.
“What I was writing wasn’t in favor with – and I hate this term, but it is rather accurate – the gatekeepers. So I really started considering self-publishing, and began researching it.”
It quickly became apparent that there were large swathes of the reading public which were getting completely ignored by New York publishing: Military Science Fiction, Paranormal Romance, and . . . traditional epic fantasy.
Was the reason there hadn’t been a non-grimdark / young adult epic fantasy author to really emerge in the last decade because they simply didn’t exist . . . or because they weren’t getting the time of day by the few dozen people who raised and lowered the portcullises?
Why keep banging my head against a gate that just wasn’t going to lift for what I had written? Again, all this despite the fact that the most popular fantasies were still books (Game of Thrones / Mistborn / Name of the Wind / Gardens of the Moon / The Eye of the World / Wizard’s First Rule) written 10+ years ago, and resembled in theme and content my book.
Rather than start a second, more intense round of querying I began preparing my book for self-publication.
My book went live on December 3. In mid-January I finally got a response from the massive fantasy agency I’d queried. They wanted the full manuscript, which from my understanding meant there would be a 50% chance or so that they would agree to represent it.
Now, this was a full 10 months after my initial query. I responded that I had already self-published. They replied that they’d still look at my book, but I would have to un-publish it, it would take over a year to return to print, and they couldn’t guarantee an advance of more than $10,000 (which is apparently pretty standard with debuts).
At this point – six weeks in to self-publishing – I’d already hit that number.
5. What services did you use to prepare The Crimson Queen for publication?
I used the yellow pages on kboards to find the folks who helped realize my book. I browsed DeviantArt for black and white fantasy maps to find an artist I liked. My cover artist is a regular poster on kboards, and I think he does terrific fantasy art.
The woman who did my interior layout also hangs out on kboards. All in all, I think I spent around $1,500 preparing my book for publication, and I think it compares favorably with what is put out by the big houses.
6. Word-of-mouth seemed to travel fast. The book has over 800 ratings on Goodreads! Did you pay to advertise the book or would you say it just started snow-balling?
I started using Amazon AMS ads a few weeks after publishing. That resulted in a spike of interest.
Also, I had enrolled my book in KDP select, and I do think that’s a good way to get noticed. Kindle Unlimited readers try out your book, and if they like it they continue. Luckily, a lot of them seemed to like my book.
“Even today, about 60% of my income comes from Kindle Unlimited. I’ve also started a Facebook Ad, but I question the efficacy of it.”
Marketing is not my strong point, I’m afraid.
7. What did you find most effective when you started spreading the word about the book (blogs, social media, email, etc.) Did you build a comprehensive promotion plan or did you just go with what seemed to work?
It’s been almost completely organic.
I did have a massive stroke of luck in mid-January – my book had been gradually gaining in popularity (I was selling 10-20 copies a day, with 10-15k page reads in KU) when all of a sudden a very prominent indie fantasy author was handed my book by a reader.
He read it, and raved about it on Reddit, his blog, Amazon, Goodreads . . . it was incredible. I went to bed one day after selling 15 copies.
“I woke up to 172 copies sold and 70,000 page reads.”
This tickled the Amazon algorithms. All of a sudden, Amazon started recommending my book. That’s the real secret to indie success – get into the recommended books emails that Amazon sends out, and the also-boughts of popular books in your genre.
8. Do you maintain an email list or any other kinds of channels to keep readers interested?
I started an email list, but I haven’t been aggressive in pushing it. I worry that I’ll look back in retrospect and realize what a massive opportunity I missed. I have about 200 organic sign ups, and we’ll see when I have my next release in June / July if they translate into sales.
I’m not great with the self-promotion or social media thing, honestly. I guess I hope that my books keep readers coming back, not my online persona.
9. Are you planning on a sequel? If so, are you going to do anything differently when you publish it?
Yes. Wrote 1200 words tonight, actually. I’ve been forging a lot of great relationships with other fantasy authors, so I guess I’ll try and leverage those links into a larger audience through cross-promotions.
10. What advice do you have to authors who are on the fence about self-publishing?
If you don’t need the validation that traditional publishing brings, and you write popular genre fiction, it is the better option.
“Honestly, I cringe every time I stumble across a mid-list fantasy author with a half-dozen books out who posts publicly about their income from publishing.”
It’s obscene that NK Jemisin had to start a Patreon in 2016 so she could quit her job and write full-time.
11. In the next five years, do you think most books will be self-published? Or will the market become saturated?
I think most books are self-published right now.
‘Saturated’ . . . do you mean that there will be too many books out for the good stuff to be found? There are already too many books getting self-published. Many are not very good. Some are.
I do think there is a need for a mechanism to separate the wheat from the chaff.
12. On this blog, we talk a lot about book discovery & reader retention. What do you think really works when it comes to getting your book noticed and making sure that readers remember you?
If you self-publish, you need to get your book into the virtuous cycle that is the Amazon algorithms. You have to get noticed to be noticed. Not fair, I know. For me, I lucked out and got recommended by a popular author.
For others . . . massive ad spends? An incredibly gripping book? Word of mouth or a big recommendation? A really good cover and blurb?
Reader retention . . . . write a good book.
13. How do you think traditional publishing can adapt better to the model of eBooks, digital marketing, and self-publishing?
‘Better’? From their abysmal mishandling of the situation so far?
They started with a seemingly insurmountable advantage, and they’ve largely frittered it away. Their obsession with limiting eBooks has completely hamstrung them.
The price gouging (14.99 for an ebook?) is ceding huge market share to the indies, but you wouldn’t know it from reading The Guardian or The Huffington Post because the Big Five crow about their shrinking eBook numbers.
“Anyone remotely in tune with the industry knows that it isn’t eBooks that are shrinking, but the Big Five’s share of them.”
The Author Earnings Report lays it out in black and white. But the big houses refuse to listen, so they’ll keep losing. Is print dead? No. But they could have had digital, too, if they had watched what had happened to the music companies and planned accordingly.
Well, their mistakes have allowed authors to lay claim to a fiefdom where they actually reap the majority of the rewards for their labors. I’m not complaining, and I hope they keep their heads firmly buried in the sand.
14. Are there any particularly innovative self-publishing platforms or channels that excite you?
I like Pronoun, but I’m not sure what MacMillan is up to by creating it. When it comes down to it, Amazon is at the vanguard – for self publishing and traditional publishing.
Once Barnes & Nobles goes under they will have tremendous influence over the Big Five and really every aspect of the industry.
15. Do you belong to any self-publishing groups that helped push and promote the book when it was published?
Since publishing I’ve joined a few private author groups where we discuss the intricacies of self-publishing, but I haven’t used any groups or services to push my book.
Genre Fiction, Realigned & Redefined
Hutson is one of many authors discovering that self-publishing can be equal – if not better – than traditional publishing.
This especially seems to be the case for genre books like fantasy. There are a lot of dedicated readers across so many different platforms that the agility and interactive nature of self-publishing can actually be a huge boon when it comes to promoting your book.
And, as Hutson shows, you don’t necessarily have to do the promoting yourself – sometimes, you can just write a good book that people want to read and let others do the promoting for you.
Want to check out The Crimson Queen? Buy it on Amazon and get started!