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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Going "indie" in the changing world of writing & publishing books

Yesterday I had a Skype session with seventh and eighth graders from Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland, Maine, which just finished a community read with both The Revealers and True Shoes. We had a great discussion! Then this morning, the teacher whom I worked with to coordinate the session and I had a quick exchange of emails on how it had gone. I mentioned that True Shoes is an independent publication — last year I created my own publishing imprint, Long Stride Books, to bring out this and future books. The teacher responded:

"I had planned to ask you why you chose to publish True Shoes the way you did. Would you call that self-published?  I just heard a segment on NPR about the self-publishing industry that has emerged in recent years and it was quite interesting."

Here's my answer:

Oh yes, the book industry is going through revolutionary changes, and this is part of all that for sure. There's a lot going on — part of it is the digital revolution, which has made it possible for basically anyone to publish a book, and to market it on the Internet. That doesn't mean you can publish a GOOD book. That's much harder to do, without all the professional help that a publisher gives — but that too is possible, if you put a good team together, and that's what I'm trying to do.

Another key change is the conglomeration of the NYC publishing industry. There are literally only six major publishing houses left in New York; they've absorbed all the others, and a huge merger of Random House and Penguin is about to make it five. This has made traditional publishers far harder to work with. They've become very focused on only publishing guaranteed best-sellers, as the corporate mentality is kind of dumb, focused on short-term returns and reducing risk, whereas traditional smart publishing works to develop good writers and their audiences. So a lot of authors who have sold books but haven't been blockbusters — hundreds of them — have been dumped by their publishers, and many of those are going either to small presses (of which there are hundreds, around the country) or going independent.

I and lots of others are using the word "independent" in place of "self" publishing, because the latter implies a kind of amateur, ego-centered publishing, while this emerging thing is more about professionals going their own way because, now, we can. We don't have the benefit of big marketing operations behind our books, but the big publishers are mostly demanding that authors promote their own stuff now anyway. We also don't get reviews or nominated for prizes, generally ... the book establishment is aware of these big changes, but by and large hasn't figured out how to adjust so that independent books get a fair hearing in these ways, at least not yet.

But we CAN bring out our books, and if they sell we can actually get a fair return. (Traditionally, about 95% of any money that any book makes all goes to the publishing company, only 5% to the author — so it's been very very hard for writers to make a living from even quite good books.) There are a few decent award competitions for independent and small presses, and I've entered True Shoes in those; and for the new books, I've been doing my best to find the best book blogs and independent review sites that might consider my books for review. But recommendations and reviews from real readers, on and similar sites, are especially powerful for books like these. They're often the only reviews we'll get, and also people really do read them.

I got lucky last year, and signed a contract with a national book distributor, the Independent Publishers Group, for True Shoes and my future Long Stride Books publications. This means I'm in the regular system: libraries and bookstores can find and order my books the same way they order books from the big guys. So I have a chance, and the more creative and energetic I can be about marketing and so forth, the better chance I have.

Obviously it's a challenge — you still have to WRITE new books, plus I still have to make a living, and now I'm also the publisher and the only marketer, so it's a lot. But I enjoy it and am learning every day. My books are getting out there — I've got two new ones coming out in the next school year. And if you're able to get your stuff out there, having made it the best you can make it, you never know what can happen.

That's basically the picture, as I see it at least. Thanks for asking!

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