Ted Heller: Self-Publishing is Not Fun

If you’re thinking about publishing your own novel, consider the cautionary story by Ted Heller. This is the author of Pocket Kings, which has a 4.5 star rating on Amazon and was favorably reviewed in The New York Review of Books. But Mr. Heller decided what would happen if he tried to self-publish his new book, West of Babylon. In two words: no luck.

I can tell you that self-publishing is not fun.

As I write these words, I am now in my seventh week of attempting to spread the word about “West of Babylon.” I have sent emails to many newspapers, from the Boston Globe down to the Miami Herald across to the San Francisco … well, to just about everywhere. I’ve sent emails to newspapers and magazines in England, too, and to websites and book blogs. In each email I send, I announce that “West of Babylon” will be available online only as of early May 2013. I attach the cover image and stellar reviews of my three novels. I do everything I possibly can in about four or five paragraphs to inspire interest in whomever the email is sent to.

Sometimes I get replies. Overwhelmingly I do not.

When I hit the send button, I assume that nothing will come of it. (The lyrics from a Rogue Wave song come to me: “But it don’t matter/Because no one comes out to see us.”) Sometimes I cannot even get the correct email address or find out whom to send the book to — who at the Cleveland Plain Dealer edits the book section now? The Los Angles Times said I could email them the book and that was a truly great day for me, despite the 10 other newspapers that day that didn’t want the book.

Continuing:

After a few weeks of this 9-to-5 masochism, you lose your sense of shame. I’m no longer so hesitant about sending emails because, I figure, nobody is going to read the damn thing anyway. The worst thing they can do is turn you down or ignore you, and by now I am used to that. I sent an email to the book section editor of a newspaper I thought would find “West of Babylon” to its liking and, through an intermediary, was able to discover that the editor had never gotten the email. I have to assume that this is just one of the reasons for the great silence: I’m sending queries to people and my email is probably going straight into spam folders, right along with the ads for Viagra and Cialis. I have no idea what’s worse: writing books that don’t ever get published, or writing books that get published but don’t ever get read, or writing emails that don’t ever get read to people about books that don’t ever get published and won’t ever get read.

So discouraging. I get the purpose of having a real-life agent and going with the traditional publishing route. I also get why people would want to self-publish. It’s a delicate balance. But if Mr. Heller’s story is any indication, even if you’ve had great success in the past, it is no guarantee for future success.

I am sticking with my non-revenue generating blogging for now.

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(update: reflected that Mr. Heller still has an agent, but when self-publishing, most of us won’t have that access/luxury)

5 thoughts on “Ted Heller: Self-Publishing is Not Fun

  1. I read this article, and he certainly portrays the task as daunting. Of course, he’s experiencing self-publishing *after* having had the support of a traditional publishing house with his previous two novels, so self-publishing is probably a bit more jarring for him than it would be for an author who has never received that support.

    Just a minor correction—he still has an agent. From the article: “My agent — my real agent — and I agreed that “West of Babylon” was too good to just forget about. I’ve written many books but only three have gotten published — the others are either somewhere under my bed or somewhere on my hard drive. “West of Babylon,” I felt, did not deserve that fate. So we decided I should self-publish the book in electronic book format only.”

    • Thanks Karen! I guess my takeaway was different: even with prior experience of having published using the traditional route (agent), it still wasn’t an influential factor in getting the attention for his self-published book. Which is a shame.

      I’ve updated the post to clear up the confusion on the author’s agent.

  2. He gives self publishing the appearance of the shady underworld, where if you touch its dirty, grubby hand no one from the halls of society will want you. You’ve gone there and are forever sullied.

      • Well, he didn’t even know about Create Space. He mentions their service towards the end, but he comes across as uninformed about self publishing. Entitled? Maybe. He mentions how other big name authors have gone the self pub route and had success.
        Maybe he doesn’t want to do the work required now that he’s had it done for him by a publishing house.

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