Ken La Salle is active on a variety of artistic fronts, and his book, Climbing Maya, premiers today from Solstice Publishing. Ken recounts his journey to self-publishing, recommends some vendors he’s used, and points out which methods you should avoid in your marketing.
1. Give me the “elevator pitch” for your book in five to ten sentences.
Climbing Maya asks the question: “What is success?” and doesn’t let go until it has the answer. Is it fame? Is it family? Do the old answers of career and money really hold up? How can we have one word for something that means so many things? How is it the dictionary gets it wrong? When I lost my job, I looked to one friend taking care of his dying wife and another friend killing himself with alcohol, and decided to find the answer. Climbing Maya weaves my search for an answer in the storyline of what happened to my friends and myself as we came to terms with this pivotal question.
2. Why did you become an indie writer?
I certainly did not become an indie writer out of any choice. As a matter of fact, I’ve always pushed marketability and accessibility in my work. I thought those two goals would help me find the mainstream. As it turned out, however, they had little to do with it.
When I first conceived of Climbing Maya, of writing a book about success, I was unemployed and trying to think of ways I might be able to sell my writing. I sat with my wife one night and said, “I could write a horror novel or I could write a philosophical memoir on success.” You know, I wanted to give her clear choices. Not surprisingly, my wife who is an incredible supporter and friend said, “Write what you want to write.” So, I wrote Climbing Maya. I later went back and wrote the horror novel, a zombie book called Wormfood Island.
Wormfood Island was picked up by Northern Frights Publishing, a small publisher out of Canada that is run by one of the best guys around. Unfortunately, Northern Frights had to exist in a rotten economy and Wormfood Island did not come to pass, which hurt a great deal because I thought the horror novel would be the most marketable. Around this time, I had a lot of my writer friends tell me I should be self-publishing. You know, get on the digital bandwagon. While I felt (and still feel) that mass exposure through a larger venue is the way to go, I knew there was some work that I could release myself, work that might have been too far from the mainstream for some and other work that I hadn’t considered approaching a publisher with, such as my compilations.
In the same month that Northern Frights had to back away from Wormfood Island, I got word from the woman who is now my agent about how much she loved Climbing Maya. Climbing Maya is now being published by Solstice Publishing.
I guess the short answer to why I became an indie writer, then, is that this is the avenue my life has taken. While I started out just wanting to write that one best seller, I have subsequently found that my talent allows me to do all sorts of fulfilling work: from philosophical memoirs to horror novels, from inspirational essays to comedic plays. My attitude now has become one in which I do the work I find valuable and, rather than try to sell the “brand” of being just one thing, let people know I am going to come at you from all sides and hit you with everything I got. I may still end up in a larger venue, I have certainly only started, but being an indie writer is really essential to my story.
3. Have you been traditionally published? Why or why not?
What is traditional, anyway? When I was starting out, I thought “traditional” was getting your book in a huge, chain store. There are fewer of those each day. Solstice Publishing, who is publishing Climbing Maya, will be releasing a paperback as well as a digital version of the book. But we do not have a brick and mortar distribution deal so I am encouraging everyone I come in contact with to pick up a copy from their favorite online e-tailer. And I’m guessing this may be the new “traditional.”
One thing that’s hard for some people to keep in mind about many different kinds of arts is that what we grow up thinking of as traditional is not the reality we live in when we finally enter that field. The world of literature is changing. The world of theater is changing. And I as an author and playwright have to accept this and embrace it or get used to the feeling of falling behind. And that’s okay. Life is about change and change, I think, is the only real tradition.
4. How have you liked self-publishing so far?
I’ve self-published about a dozen books now, covering an interesting spectrum of genres and topics. I’ll be releasing three more this summer, stay tuned. When I first began self-publishing, I found it a real inconvenience. There was so much I had to do that, as I recently conveyed to a friend, “I understood why some people get paid to do that full-time.” But that quickly changed because I realized I could do things a traditional publisher wouldn’t let me do. I could make the cover of The Incarnations of Death look like a comic book, which I think is cool because the book is like a comic book. I could release a compilation of the poetry that has meant so much to me.
And I have realized it just goes on from there. It just gets better. Here’s an example: on (or around) June 1st, 2012, I’ll be releasing a digital copy of The Worth of Dreams, The Value of Dreamers. This book is a collection of my first year of essays written for Recovering The Self on the topic of pursuing your dreams. Since I’m self-publishing, I get to include bonus material of my choosing. After having so much fun putting together the trailer for Climbing Maya, I realize I can make a trailer for The Worth of Dreams, The Value of Dreamers. But best of all, I’m looking into self-publishing an audiobook version. I’ve wanted to do an audiobook forever and this option is now available to me, allowing me to grow my audience and enter into a new venue.
5. Tell me about the marketing techniques you’ve used to sell your books. Which ones have been the most successful?
I can certainly tell you what has not been successful, and I find this to be pretty sad to tell you the truth. With Climbing Maya coming out, I’ve been canvassing local book stores and libraries to do readings and signings of the paperback version. My thought process here, in case you’re wondering, is, “This is where the books are so I should be where the books are.” It may be where the books are but that’s where logic falls short. A great many book stores don’t want writers until you can give them something (I’ve even been asked to pay rent on a signing table) or unless you’re with a big publisher. They only want a sure thing; they don’t seem very interested in serving their community. Libraries, on the other hand, have become so vastly underfunded that they don’t have the staff to host anything. The conversations I’ve had with a few local libraries have been pretty sad in that regard. They want to do more but they can’t.
But I would hate to leave this question on that sad note so let me give you a positive answer with: web presence. It’s just essential. I’ve been writing a couple of blogs for a while now and have always considered those to be places where I could be found: twolivesonepath.blogspot.com and kenlasalle.blogspot.com. I was hesitant to take the next step with my own website but once I created kenlasalle.com I found it essential in creating a label and defining me as an artist. My blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts told you what I was thinking at any given moment but my website says “Who is Ken La Salle and what’s he about?”
6. Are there any marketing techniques you intentionally avoided or discontinued, and if so, why?
You know, there are so many scams out there for fledging writers, I made a choice from the get-go to avoid paying for anything unnecessarily. (Mind you, this decision came after I got burned but better late than never.) So, I’ve avoid special software such as Final Draft for good old Word. (For a while, I even used Open Office, which is kinda great.) I use a free press release service (www.free-press-release.com) and generally avoid any claims of “Pay us and we’ll give you…” As someone once told me, “You write to make money, not to pay other people.”
7. Which services or vendors do you recommend for the marketing methods you used?
Well, in addition to those mentioned above, there are two I can mention. I have built and maintained my website with HostGator, whose software is easy to use and services reasonably priced. I recently created some promotional postcards with nextdayflyers.com; they were professional, prompt, and very helpful. Aside from that, I’d say don’t overlook the free things. Heck, blogs are free! Twitter and Facebook are free! Use them.
8. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about self-publishing that you didn’t know when you started out?
Self-publishing affords a great deal of freedom but makes no promises. Actually, it’s worse than that. If you look at the overwhelming number of self-published authors out there, self-publishing almost promises you that you will get lost in the shuffle.
And yet, the most important thing I learned is that this is a price I am willing to pay for the freedom I’m allowed. Listen, before I started self-publishing, I thought that if a certain number of agents or publishers turned me down, that was it. The rejected piece of work would suffer a quiet, sad little death and be completely forgotten in my pool of “almosts”. Once I realized I could self-publish, I became the final judge of my work. I had the final say. In the case of my Rynia series of fantasy novels, I couldn’t get a publisher to look at them all because I didn’t have the name recognition. So, I got to make the call to put them out there. With the forthcoming The Worth of Dreams, The Value of Dreamers, I get to decide what format it goes out in (text or audio), how it’s marketed, and what form it takes.
Sure, I’ll keep writing books to pitch to agents and publishers. It’s what I do. But they don’t have to have the final say. That’s the most important thing I learned.
9. If you could do one thing differently in publishing your books, what would it be?
I’d make print-on-demand easier and more accessible. I hear so many people inside the business talk about how important digital books are but there is still a huge part of society that still likes books on paper. As supportive and wonderful as the digital world has been, I want to grow as wide an audience as I can and a simple-to-use POD service would certainly help me get there.
10. Indie authors face the challenge of marketing their books without the resources of traditional publishers. What advice do you have for an indie just starting out?
I honestly can’t imagine myself as any authority on marketing books. If you look at how well mine have sold, I’d say that backs me up. So much is changing all the time, I’m just doing what I can to stay ahead of the eight ball.
But I do have some advice on starting out because I sometimes feel like I spent twenty years of my life starting out and I learned a couple of things. I think we spend so much time when we start trying to overcome everything that put us there. Either we have unrealistic expectations or we have self-esteem issues that make us question ourselves. I had both and spent twenty years simply trying to get past them. Mind you, I haven’t known a writer worth anything who didn’t have something going on upstairs but there are pragmatic things to keep in mind as well. Understand you are in for a struggle. Things are going to suck sometimes. Remember that you are doing this for a reason and that reason is you. Accept who you are and the path you’ve chosen and know that your business is to believe in yourself. Ignore anyone who doubts you. Foster relationships with those who believe.
When it comes time to market your work, understanding these truths will help you a great deal.
11. What are you currently working on?
That’s a tricky question. Part of my summer 2012 plan is to come out swinging and hit things hard. Here’s a list:
- Climbing Maya is coming May 1st from Solstice Publishing. So, I’ve been working a lot on trying to get the word out. (And thank you, Kris, for helping me do that.)
- I’m also self-publishing three new e-books (and a possible audiobook) this summer.
- I’m starting a new novel called Work of Art, about the way art touches us and the art we create when we touch others.
- I’m starting a new memoir, a sort of follow-up to Climbing Maya, about my father’s memorial service called The Day We Said Goodbye.
- In addition, I’m writing new plays, getting ready for some new productions this year (including Murielle’s Big Date produced by Writing Man Productions at The Dark Room Theatre in November, 2012), and
- I have an aggressive, one hundred plus submission goal each month. I firmly believe you’ve got to get the word out.
Short answer: I’m working on a lot.
12. If you could market your brand – not just one particular book, but your overall brand of writing – in one sentence, what would it be?
“Finding answers. Finding humor. Finding meaning.” (Not one sentence but a pretty solid tagline.)
13. How can readers learn more about your books?
The easiest way is to check out my website at kenlasalle.com. I’m available in all digital formats, and with Solstice Publishing releasing Climbing Maya in digital and paperback formats, you can get even more information at solsticepublishing.com. (Be sure to let them know if you like my work so they can publish more of it!)