Self-Publishing to Indie Publishing

Spencer Fleury self-published his novel before it was re-released this week by an indie publisher. Here's how it happened.

For today’s issue, I spoke with my pal Spencer Fleury, author of the novel How I’m Spending My Afterlife. Spencer and I met at the Lit Camp conference in 2019, where we instantly bonded over our shared Florida roots.

Earlier this week, Woodhall Press released How I’m Spending My Afterlife, the suspenseful tale of a cocky lawyer under federal investigation for embezzling and securities fraud. But this isn’t the first time Spencer’s novel has seen the light of day—he originally self-published the book in 2017. He was kind enough to tell me all about his unusual journey from self-publishing to indie publishing.

Tell me about the decision to publish How I’m Spending My Afterlife yourself and how you found the experience overall.

I certainly never set out to self-publish Afterlife. My goal was always to land a publishing deal and go the traditional route. I looked for an agent for about a year, which in hindsight may not have been long enough—but it sure felt like a long time to me. Getting an agent’s attention is really, really hard, and there also seems to be a fair bit of luck involved. I did get some feedback from a couple agents who read it, and they said they liked the book, but they weren’t in love with it to the point that they were willing to devote a year of their own lives to selling it. And that makes sense to me—I know I’d want my agent to be passionate about my work. 

At that point, I was faced with a choice: put the novel in a drawer and chalk it up to a learning experience, or find some other way to bring it into the world. I knew Afterlife was good—I truly believed it was at least as good as, if not better than, a lot of books I'd read from the big publishing houses. (I still believe that, actually.) So I decided to put it out myself. Now, I’d read some truly awful self-published books—there’s a stigma around self-publishing for a reason, even if it’s unfair to a lot of good authors who go that route—and I was determined to make mine stand out from the pack in whatever way I could. I hired a copyeditor who turned out to be indispensable—she caught that I’d accidentally put two chapters out of order, for example, which I’d missed because I’d become manuscript-blind. I got my old art director from my copywriting days to design the cover. I learned everything I could about designing book interiors—I had to do that myself because by that point I was running out of money. I learned how book distribution works, and that indie bookstores will generally not carry your book if it’s printed by Amazon. I learned about book marketing. There was so much to learn, and the only reason I felt comfortable even trying to do so was because of my background in marketing, and because of my experience trying to launch an independent record label a decade or so ago. The process consumed most of my life for about six or seven months.

You might have noticed that I don’t mention querying indie presses. That’s because I assumed indie presses only published experimental or super-literary fiction, and Afterlife is neither of those. That assumption was wrong, of course, and if I had it all to do again, I’d definitely try to go through an independent press before self-publishing.

Can you tell us a little about the re-release process of your novel? How did Woodhall Press find out about it?

I’ve got two other books that I’m trying to find homes for. One’s a novel, the other is a story collection. I queried Woodhall about the story collection, and in my query letter, I mentioned the fact that I’d self-published a novel already. They responded about a week later and asked for both manuscripts, which surprised me. A couple of weeks after that, they sent me a contract for Afterlife, and here we are now. 

If that all sounds random and out of the blue, that’s probably because it totally was. This only happened because I happened to mention the book in my query letter, as a way of establishing my writerly bona fides. I had assumed that Afterlife had basically run its course at that point—it’d been out for three years, it had sold better than a lot of self-published fiction, and I was ready for the next chapter in my writing career. But Woodhall felt it had the potential to reach even more readers, and I’m very grateful for that. Hopefully it does well enough to encourage them to bring out the story collection too. :)

One of our newsletter readers, Julia, has a question about self-publishing: how do you protect your rights to your work when you self-publish versus signing a contract with a publisher?

When I first self-published How I’m Spending My Afterlife, I made a point to register it with the US Copyright Office. I’ve read that even this step is not strictly necessary, but doing so provides you with a very solid paper trail that will be immensely useful if a future rights dispute ever involves lawyers. (I should be clear about the fact that I’m not a lawyer, and that you should always ask someone who knows what they’re talking about—preferably with the credentials to back that up—first.) Still, the e-book showed up on those pirate sites almost immediately. There’s very little you can do about that, unfortunately.

But when you sign with a publisher, it’s different. The time to protect your IP rights is in the contractual negotiation stage. You’re actually giving a publisher the rights to publish your work and allowing them to pay you for that privilege, which you probably already know. But what you may not know is that these rights can last forever. They can outlive the publisher—in the event that the publisher goes out of business and sells off assets to pay its debts, one of those assets could be the rights to your book. They can even outlive your book itself, if the publisher takes it out of print, leaving you unable to find a new home for it. I made sure my contract included a few escape clauses—there’s a built-in expiration date, which we can agree to extend if we both so choose. If my book goes out of print and remains that way for a certain period of time, the rights revert back to me. If my publisher goes out of business, same deal: I get my book back and can shop it around to another house of my own choosing.

I’ve been lucky to work with a reputable, transparent, and flexible publisher who truly does value their authors, so they were willing to work with me on these issues. If you find yourself dealing with a publisher who is not all of these things, and who does not want to work with you to address these possibilities, ask yourself why. And always, always, always get a lawyer to look over your contract.

What advice do you have for writers with completed manuscripts who find themselves Googling “self-publishing vs. traditional publishing” late into the night?

Self-publishing is hard. I know everyone says that, so you probably think you’re ready for it, but I guarantee it’s harder than you think it is. Promoting your work—promoting yourself, really—with no institutional support takes a lot of time and effort, and I found it to be terribly draining, to the point where it seriously interfered with my writing for a while. And here’s a paradox I found—if you promote the hell out of your book and it actually does start selling, you’ve got to write something new to keep that momentum going. So the more successful you are as a self-published author, the harder it can be to build on that.

One other thing I didn’t anticipate but probably should have is just how lonely the self-publishing experience is, at least the first time you do it. It’s just you out there, shouting to the rest of the world about your book when they have countless more important things to care about. You really need a specific personality type to do that well and to enjoy it, and I don’t have that.

Order yourself a copy of How I’m Spending My Afterlife, and while you’re at it, subscribe to Spencer’s own (hilariously titled) newsletter, Spencer Fleury is Making Sh*t Up Again.

Mini 1000 in October

If you enjoyed my last issue on the mini #1000wordsofsummer challenge I embarked on in August, consider signing up for the next round of the Mini 1000 occurring October 2-7. During those days, writer Jami Attenberg will send you emails nudging you to write a thousand words each day. It’s a great challenge, especially if you’ve been away from writing and need some encouragement getting back to the page!

Sign up here (and mark your calendar so you’ll remember that it’s coming up).

Tell me about your lonely victories.

“I sold my first book in May 2020 and then I spent the next year polishing it with my editor at Simon & Schuster. I was waiting on notes from the most recent revision, and when my editor came back and said it was done and ready to go into production, it felt weirdly abrupt and I felt lost. It was as if I hadn’t fully imagined the next step in the process or the book ever being really done. I flailed for a couple of days, unable to get into another project.

Then I realized I have these shows scheduled where I have to get on a stage in front of 2,000 people and make them laugh. I went through my files and saw that I had way more material in notes that I’d been taking here and there for a full year. I forgot how much I had written down for the specific purpose of turning it into funny essays I could read on stage. It was like a gift I gave myself and forgot about. I immediately stopped feeling lost because I had so much to work with. It made me recommit to carrying a notebook around and keeping separate files for all of my future projects where I can jot down any tiny thought that might be shaped into the future work down the road. I know that I’ll save myself with these raw materials when I have to start something new.” —Cindy

Cindy, that is such an enormous victory. I can’t wait to read your book.

Readers, I want to hear about your wins in your writing life! Submit your lonely victories below.

Tell me about your lonely victories.

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“Writing alone can give you a very deep sense of satisfaction and lonely victory.” —Greta Gerwig