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Forget agents and big-time publishers, today's savvy writers are authors of their own destinies

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A few years ago, the term "self-publishing" was often used disparagingly. "Oh, they couldn't sell their book to a publisher, so they self-published." Can't you hear the disdain?

However, with the coming-of-age of digital publishing, more and more writers are flocking to its call. These writers aren't lemmings, though, jumping off a cliff into the digital ether. No. These are marketing-savvy writers, local and otherwise, who understand the exact scope of the opportunities that direct access to unlimited readership creates, all thanks to the technologies available today. And they're making huge strides in legitimizing self-publishing while having a fantastic time doing it.

The godfather of self-publishing

To talk to Hugh Howey is to hear kindness, generosity, self-deprecation. He's so in demand, all emails to him get a robo-response detailing why he might not get back to you. And yet, when he does he's more than willing to share his story, his success, and his joy.

You've probably heard of Howey by now. All the local Barnes & Nobles display his Silo series on endcaps, highlighting books by the man who claims Charleston as his once and future home. His books sell like wildfire on Amazon, and he'll be one of two keynote speakers at Charleston's PubSmart Writers Conference this week, April 16-18.

But what you may not know? Howey, whose books have been translated in more than 30 international markets, and who's inked a movie deal with Ridley Scott, is entirely self-published.

Yes, that's right. All his books are written, edited, and published by Howey himself, using many of the tools found right here in Charleston at Amazon's self-publishing arm, CreateSpace. If that doesn't have your jaw on the floor, it should. Because though self-publishing is growing every day, Howey's success is unprecedented. Unexpected, even to Howey himself. "When I say that I'm living my dream, it's because this is beyond fantasy, what happened to me," he says.

Just a few short years ago, Howey worked a day-job, publishing his first book with a small press and selling to a couple hundred readers. And to him, that was fine. "Man, I was so happy just working in a bookstore and having the ability to hold a copy of what I wrote in my hands."

But Howey's career was about to change. "I had a great experience with the small press for my first book, but one of the things I saw was that everything they were doing to publish a book was available to me. I also noticed that all the sales were up to me, and I was going to have to do my own marketing. This is true even for a lot of the big publishers. They ask authors what kind of Twitter following they have, what your author platform is. And they simply can't promote all their books. If they're not paying you six or seven figures for your manuscript, they're just not going to do much marketing."

So when the time came to publish Howey's second book, he went the self-publishing route. He explains, "At this point I'd sold hundreds of copies of the debut, so I had hundreds of readers waiting for the sequel, and I thought, 'Well, there are my readers. A hundred or so readers.' Most were friends and family and people who knew me through friends and family. So I self-published the second book for those readers."

But he never could have imagined what was about to come. The second book did well enough, but it wasn't until he published a short story, "Wool," one he thought had no commercial potential, that his rapid success began. The short story later became the basis for a book of the same name. That work alone made Howey an industry name. Since its release Wool has graced the tops of bestseller lists around the country, including the prestigious New York Times. It's sold so well, Howey never has to work a day-job again.

Nowadays, to help him handle the media contacts, foreign rights, and movie deals, Howey works with a literary agent, Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency. And though working with an agent sounds like he's now going the more "traditional" route of publishing, Howey remains committed to self-publishing. "I go to readers first, and if publishers are interested, they can read while the readers are reading and decide if they want the work."

A writer, putting his readers first. It's an interesting concept, but one we'll see more and more as self-publishing goes mainstream.

The up-and-comer

S.K. Falls has sold more than 15,000 copies of her self-published book world of shell and bone - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • S.K. Falls has sold more than 15,000 copies of her self-published book world of shell and bone

S.K. Falls isn't a household name — yet. But the Charleston-based author of speculative fiction hit the ground running last year when she self-published her sci-fi novel, World of Shell and Bone.

Like Howey, Falls' journey to self-publishing had some twists and turns, but in the end, the indie route made sense. "I indie published my first official novel in December 2012. At that time I also had an urban fantasy and a short story contracted with a small press publisher. As I went through the process with a small press, I realized I could do what they were doing for myself, and maybe have it a little closer to my personal taste," Falls says.

The self-publishing process is faster, too. With World of Shell and Bone she says, "I wrote the story, got it edited, found a cover artist, and published it before the small press published my urban fantasy."

Self-publishing has given Falls more of a choice in what she's writing. Her novel is dystopian, in line with ultra-successful books like The Hunger Games and Divergent. But often, when a book market (i.e. dystopian) is filled with major bestsellers, publishers assume the market's too glutted, and they stop buying. But Falls knew that when it came to dystopians, "readers are still hungry."

Thanks to a big-time blogger's well-timed tweet about World of Shell and Bone, the novel leaped onto best-seller lists, right there beside Howey's Wool. With it performing so well, Amazon contacted Falls to do a major promotion, and it reached even more readers. And though most self-published writers are fortunate if they sell, as Howey described, a couple hundred books to a couple hundred readers, World of Shell and Bones sold over 15,000 copies. And with Amazon commissions in the area of 70 percent of each sale going to the writer, we're not talking about chump change.

That's the thing. With self-publishing, writers have the opportunity to reach readers fast and to have a viable, even lucrative career. In the past, those same writers may have been bogged down for years in the worlds of agent submissions, publisher submissions, rejections, and the endless loop of the editorial process.

Now, Falls has an agent submitting one of her novels to major publishers, a serialized novel called Fevered Souls, and she's just released the sequel to World of Shell and Bone called Land of Masks and Moonlight. By diversifying her career, she's constantly moving forward, and letting her momentum build and carry her farther than she imagined possible just two short years ago.

The 'hybrid' authors

The pull of diversification has been felt even by mainstream writers who've gone the traditional route. Agents and big time publishers will always have a place in the world of publishing — as Howey puts it. While we don't need regular travel agents anymore, we still need travel coordinators for large companies, much the same as we still need traditional publishers for certain books and markets. But many traditional writers are looking to self-publishing as well, building momentum and readership for their other books.

Author of the Blud series, Delilah S. Dawson recently self-published The Lumberfox under a pseudonym - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Author of the Blud series, Delilah S. Dawson recently self-published The Lumberfox under a pseudonym

For Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds blogger and author of the highly acclaimed Miriam Black series via Angry Robot Books, self publishing came first, at least chronologically. His intent was always to publish traditionally, but, as he was selling his first two books, he decided to release a short story collection independently. "So, technically, indie came first in publishing order, but that was intentional," he says.

Delilah S. Dawson, whose steampunk Blud series is published via Pocket Books, an imprint of Big Five publisher, Simon and Shuster, came to self publish from the other direction. When an idea came for "something short, sweet, sexy, and ... weird," she decided to publish it herself, as it was a departure from her traditional series. The experience, while new and still developing, has been exciting. In a post on Wendig's blog, Terrible Minds, she writes, "Like anything new, self-publishing for the first time can be scary. But once you've done it and lived to tell the tale on Chuck's blog, you suddenly realize that it's just one more string in your spider web, one more arm stretched out toward hope. You have infinite stories and very few rules, and you can feel free to write and play and publish and un-publish and tweak and change it up as much as you want while continuing the other aspects of your career. The part of you that says, 'But I can't,' suddenly says, 'But maybe I can because why not? This is fun.'"

The future is unknown — but big

As more and more well-known, professional authors lend their talents to the independent publishing world, self publishing's reputation will grow. The stigma surrounding the selfies will have to change. Careers will be made, and careers will be broken, but the future is exciting, especially for those handful of writers who are suddenly able to write the stories they love and share them with the readers who love them. The face of digital publishing is vast, and the writers who call Charleston home are thrilled to be a part of it.

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