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Dirty Girls and Self Publishing: The Tricks of the Trade

By Alisa Valdes

ALBUQUERQUE: Me? I hate flying. My therapist says I’m a control freak who thinks everything crashes unless I’m in charge. There’s some truth to this. It is probably why my marriage failed and why my kid is an overacheiver. It is probably also not a stretch to compare my fear of flying/need for control to my drooling excitement over self-publishing.

Alisa Valdes

A million-copy selling author explains just how she went from St. Martin’s Press to self-publishing — just how easy it proved to be.

Self-publishing, you see, gives me control. And if I’m not in control, God only knows what will happen. My work might end up shelved under “foreign” in my own country again, or the press release might once more call it “spicy” and me “a hot tamale.” I might, again, get booked to read at a store in Arizona, only to have the manager ask me if I speak English — my native and only tongue. Shudder.

Or, worse, I might continue to feel my publisher losing interest in me because in publishing a writer is only ever as good as their last book. If that book is, say, The Husband Habit (my sixth novel and my attempt to write literary fiction that sold a mere 10,000 copies), I might even end up feeling something like the lunch lady who used to be the homecoming queen, with editors and publicists allowing me to dump mashed potatoes on their plates, but never quite looking me in the eye because they remember how pretty and promising I’d once been.

Crash. And freakin’ burn.

This in mind, I started to think about what might happen if I self-published the third installment in my popular The Dirty Girls Social Club series on my own. It certainly could not be worse than publishing The Husband Habit with a big house. Only a root canal without anesthesia could be worse than that.

The first book, The Dirty Girls Social Club was published through St. Martin’s Press and sold more than half a million copies. The second Dirty Girls book, Dirty Girls on Top, also with St. Martin’s, came in just under that. When I did the math, I realized I’d only have to sell 100,000 copies on my own to earn what I’d made for six times the sales with a major publishing house. If I sold the same number of Dirty Girls books as I’d sold in the past, meanwhile, I’d be…a goddamned millionaire. A goddamned millionaire in control of her own career and destiny.

My readers are incredibly loyal, and they love Dirty Girls. They love Dirty Girls more than anything else I’ve ever written. They want more, but my publisher, who has not met them coast to coast as I have and does not speak to them daily on social media sites as I do, does not quite get it. A series, big publishing reasons, can only be for things like mysteries.

Back in 2004, my first suggestion for a second book for me with St. Martin’s was a Dirty Girls sequel. My editor condescendingly said no and told me I had to build a “body of other books” before doing a sequel. Why? Because that’s how it had always been done. Fatal mistake on her part. Fatal mistake on mine for trusting her. My readers were not the typical readers. They were new to commercial fiction, many of them, and they saw themselves in the Dirty Girls. My fans wanted Dirty Girls, period. They still do. First rule of business? Give the customer what she wants. Big publishing did not trust me to know what my own readers wanted, and we all suffered in the end. And here I am, mid-listed and falling.

Lesson effin’ learned. I would not give big publishing a second chance to screw up my career.

The next step in my evolution was to figure out what, exactly, St. Martin’s Press had been doing for me to merit taking more than 90 percent of the profits from my work. Best I figured it boiled down to six things. Editing. Copy editing. Cover design. Marketing. Publicity. Distribution.

Okay.

The editing could be handled by my mother, a creative writing MFA who is brilliant but lacks the blue-blood pedigree, ivy-league connections and Fridays-off-with-pinot-grigio sense of entitlement that might have propelled her to, say, the top of New York publishing. Done.

The copy editing could be handled for a nominal fee by any number of grammarians I know, including several long-time fans who offered to do it for free just because they love my work. Done.

Cover design is easily accomplished with an account at iStockphoto and a few Photoshop tutorials. It might not be as fancy a cover as I’d get from St. Martin’s, but it would be guaranteed to fit my vision for the book. Done.

Marketing and publicity? I shook my head. In all honesty, I suspected I was doing the bulk of this work on my own. Every major media coverage I’d gotten for the past eight years was gotten on my own. I knew this.

To test my theory, I released All That Glitters, a book I’d had sitting around the house for a couple of years, with no media coverage at all, and sent word out only via my email list and social networking sites in January. Sure enough, that book sold just as well, if not better, than the St. Martin’s paperback that had been published the month before. Furthermore, the book was the first I’d ever had that cracked the “multicultural romance” bestseller list for Kindle on Amazon, after years of having publishers suggest I not try to include African American characters in my book, but rather stick to Latinos. Whoops for them.

The publisher, it turned out, either wasn’t doing much PR for me, or the PR they were doing was ineffective. The proof was in the sales. So, marketing and publicity? Done.

That just left distribution. With news of Borders imminent demise on the wind, and with e-books outpacing physical books at Barnes & Noble, this concern grows smaller with each passing day. Most of my readers are young and have e-readers, with a preference for Nooks because they come in pretty colors. I started investigating how a writer might format and upload their own book to various websites. People told me it was “too hard” and that I would need to hire someone to do that for me. My fear of flying kicked in, and I instead spent a total of two days learning how to upload my novel as both an e-book (Smashwords, Amazon) and a physical book (Amazon, Lulu) on my own.

Two days.

In less than a week, I had taught myself how to publish a book that was comparable in quality to what you might get from a traditional publisher, all the while keeping most of the money myself. I’d uploaded my novel All That Glitters as an experiment. Within the first 48 hours, I’d earned $600 – with no fanfare whatsoever.

In May, I will release Saints of Dirty Faith, the third in my The Dirty Girls Social Club series. On February 1, I began to market it my way, with a Web site where I am publishing a couple of chapters a week as text and audio. The plan is to give half the book away over the next three months. Feedback has been tremendous so far.

While I will continue to go with big publishers for my young adult books (I am under contract with Harper Collins for three books right now) I am very curious to see how the Dirty Girls experiment goes for me. I suspect it will go well enough to merit a national tour, which makes me think I should probably start taking pilot lessons now.

DISCUSS: What Advantages Can Traditional Publishing Still Offer to Established Authors?

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55 Comments

  1. Posted March 6, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    Okay, I’ve never been pubbed by a ‘real’ house. At the present time, I don’t know why I would submit to one. Thousands of previously-published authors are also competing for what might be the last production slot ever. At a lot of houses, promotion always was up to the author. In the past, authors knew nothing about distribution. But that’s all changed.

  2. Posted March 9, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your amusing and encouraging treatise. It sure seems like you are headed in the right direction. Ebooks aren’t going away anytime soon!

    When my (first!) book is completed, I will probably go ahead and submit it to publishers, but you can bet your bippy I’ll be looking into self publishing at the same time!

    In Joy,
    Sara McGoodwin

  3. Posted March 10, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    I chuckled and laughed outright at you article. You are SOOOO right! I selfpubbed in the beginning and then went with a snall press. Big mistake there! I should have kept going on my own. I have to say, the pub did little for me and made the lion’s share of the cake! No more! I have two new books that will be released under the KDP program with Amazon in ebook and paper. I like ebooks, though I do have a paper following, so I will do that end of things to continue appealing to both sectors. The publisher tends to only want to go eBook and quite frankly, it annpoyed the snot out of me. Hence my trip back to self pubbing. I think it takes nerve to do what you (&I) have done, but I like to be in the driver’s seat, too. Onward & Upward!

  4. Posted June 17, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    I sold over a million books with Random House, but according to their business ‘rules’ they didn’t want me to write what I wanted to. I now sell over 1,000 ebooks a day, making more in a a week than I did in six months with them. Traditional publishing is clinging to a business template that if it isn’t dead yet, is on life support.
    After 20 years in traditional publishing, I still don’t understand how they do business. I’m not sure they do either. Yet we also still see the big celebrity book deal, aka Snooki, happen, while they pretend to know the business and what people want to read?

  5. Amanda
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much, Alisa! It’s so nice reading about authors with a readership. Have you ever read Austin Nights by this dude named herocious? It’s a great love story that involves renegade publishing.

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