A Conversation With Sarah Katherine Lewis Part II: Self-Publishing

[Article by Tapati McDaniels]

Our first installment focused on Sarah Katherine Lewis’ new book, My Boring-Ass Rehab Diary* and the issues surrounding addiction and treatment. Sarah Katherine Lewis and I discussed sexism and classism in rehab, religion and powerlessness, and explored how the current paradigm might exclude some people who could benefit from rehab programs that were less rigid. The conversation then turned to the choice Sarah Katherine Lewis made to self publish after publishing her previous books, Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It As A Girl For Hire and Sex and Bacon: Why I Love Things That Are Very, Very Bad For Me, traditionally.

TSM I’m delighted to see you self-publishing.

SKL I feel like the old publishing system is pretty much obsolete because it’s so expensive. There’s so much overhead, you’re literally paying for paper, paying for ink, paying for the physical brick-and-mortar storage of the physical artifacts of your book. I just don’t think we need to do that anymore. I think that’s really an outdated technology.  I’m really interested in what happens when we decide we’re not going to pay for that anymore. I get a small amount of royalties from books that I published traditionally. I think it works out to–when somebody buys one of my books for fifteen dollars I get about twenty-five cents. The rest goes to editors, proofreaders, people with physical jobs and benefits that they go to 40 hours a week that I’ve never met, people in cubicles, warehouse workers that stamp boxes of my books, paying rent on those warehouses, paying for forklifts to move those boxes. And just all of that is not necessary anymore. We can just cut all of that loose.

TSM Major publishing houses all have expensive offices in New York. We’re paying for that too. I put a whole bunch of links about self-publishing on my blog. Some of them break down the money and the numbers. I’m actually considering it myself because it used to be that it was worth it to go through the big publishing houses because they would send you on a book tour and do all this stuff but now they only promote what they think might become a best-seller–the key words being what they think would become a best-seller. Most people don’t fall into that and they don’t do much of anything for you. I figure well if I’m going to be marketing my own book anyway I may as well get more of the money.

Tapati McDaniels is the former publisher and editor of Uppity Women Magazine and is currently writing a memoir. Excerpts can be found at http://tapati.livejournal.com/ where you can contact her with questions or comments.

SKL What’s interesting is, they sent me on a book tour for Indecent and that is how I made a name for myself and so much of that was by touring. Then for Sex and Bacon they were like “Oh, you’re already successful so we’re going to save the money on your tour” and I was saying “No, listen, the whole thing that sells it is let me get out there, let me talk, let me sell my book.” They didn’t because they were just like, “Oh well, you know, we already did that, we already made a splash with you” and it was a really bad decision and to this day Indecent has sold more than Sex and Bacon. I don’t think that necessarily had to be the case. But what I learned from that is that if I pay other people to do my marketing, it’s less effective than doing my own. Why should I pay for a publicist who’s making eighty thousand dollars a year and working a job and having benefits while I don’t make that much and I don’t have benefits myself.

TSM Exactly.

SKL And then they can unilaterally just decide that “we’re not going to put resources into a book tour” and I have no redress.

TSM Right, whereas if you publish it yourself from the initial sales that are already happening because you have made a name and you’re on the internet, you can finance your own book tour because you’ll get more of the cut of what you’re selling, whereas before they kept most of the cut and they wanted you to do that on your own.

SKL Yeah, I’m not ungrateful. I think there’s still a legitimacy you get from being published by one of the big traditional publishing houses. There’s still a sense that if you self-publish maybe your stuff is not as good enough to be “really published,” but I think that’s changing.

TSM I think that stigma is going to die out as more and more big people are starting to turn to self-publishing.

SKL Right, and that’s another reason why I want to do it because I don’t just want things to be better for me. I want things to be better for writers that are going to be [coming] after me and people who haven’t had the luxury of having two books traditionally published. I want to hear from them. I want to read their shit. You know?

TSM Yeah, definitely. I’m starting to read some self-published things and they’re selling for anywhere from $0.99 to about $4.99 and they’re choosing those price points because those are the price points that you get people to make quick impulsive buys.

There’s this big splash because Amanda Hocking published a series of paranormal romances and St. Martin’s just signed a two million dollar deal with her because her self-publishing was so effective and she’s chosen to do this deal because a lot of her fans have wanted to see her books in the bookstores and she knows she can reach a whole new audience that don’t yet read digitally yet. This will be a good marketing ploy for her but she’s not going to give up on self-publishing. She’s going to keep doing that. It may be that people will cross back and forth as needed.

SKL Right and that was what I really loved about the sex industry is the idea of professional autonomy. I could decide what I wanted to do, how hard I wanted to work, what I wanted my work to be and I was allowed to set my own prices. I think that’s something that ideally all workers should have the right to do. I feel like, working for fast food is hard work and nobody really likes doing it and what if all the like fry makers at McDonalds said “You know what? This job sucks so I want $25 dollars an hour to do it.”

TSM That would be great–and then we would have to pay more for McDonalds and then we wouldn’t be eating it to excess because it would cost a lot.

SKL Right. I’ve always been interested in labor issues and I think that the power to negotiate your own payment is one of the really, really essential things that speaks to human dignity, not to make a big overblown thing about it. I like that I’m able to say “This is how much I’d like for my writing” and I like that I’m able to say “but if you don’t have that much money, that’s also o.k.” I like that people have donated a hundred dollars for my book and people have donated a dollar for my book. I’m happy when they have the kind of resources that they can give me a hundred dollars for it–but I’m also happy with that one dollar because I know how hard it is to make a dollar. I like that I can say that. I’m not being held hostage by an outdated publishing system that insists that if you do not have fifteen dollars you cannot have a copy of my book. I just think that’s ridiculous and I think that’s outdated.

TSM I think it also prevents poor people from getting a hold of some of the very books that they ought to be able to read and that would change their lives. I think it’s one of the many things that poor people don’t have access to that they desperately need in many cases, especially poor children. I think it’s just as important as food and air and water.

SKL Right. Right. So that’s where I’m at with the whole self-publishing thing and I feel like I am really lucky because if anyone wants to accuse me of being inferior because I’m self-publishing I can say “Well no, I tried it the real way. I tried it the legitimate way.” I feel really lucky that I’m able to do that. I’m excited to see what’s going to happen because what I’m anticipating is a return to the ‘zines days where anyone can publish and I’d love that.

TSM I’m getting really excited about it because I have such an off-beat memoir that I don’t think traditional publishing will even know what to do with me. I think I could get somebody to publish me but I don’t think they’ll quite know how to market me.

SKL Right, and that’s almost worse than not getting published at all because contractually if they want to bury it you can’t do anything about that.

TSM Yeah, and my book would then be a hostage. I’m hoping to get it finished this year and I definitely want you to edit.  I understand one of the self-publishing criticisms is “Oh, you’re not getting it edited.” Well, why not? You can get it edited, you just have to pay.

SKL Oh yeah, I’m getting my stuff edited and it’s hard but it’s necessary because if you’re self-publishing, you know you can justify that every single word you write is perfect and should not be changed, and that’s going to make an inferior product. I feel like you have to suck it up and get it edited, even though it hurts. [Laughing]

TSM I value editing. I know editors make me a better writer.

SKL I’m so excited. I feel like writing and storytelling are kind of going through a renaissance right now and it’s directly because of the internet. I never would have met you without the internet. I never would have known of the coolness of you. I never would have known about your story–and now I have access, I have access to that, I have access to you, and here we are talking on the phone. I feel unbelievably excited and lucky to be writing now as opposed to writing in the 80’s or the 70’s.

TSM Writers’ communities used to be limited to the people in your area.

SKL Right, and big fancy, New Yorker approved, East Coast college-educated–I mean, that’s gone. That’s over [laughing]

TSM Yeah, it’s so much more democratic and I feel so blessed to have a chance to get to know you and to know Fran [Varian]. I got to know Fran just because I posted about [the anthology] Without a Net and she Googled her name and I had written about her there and so we’ve become friends. It’s wonderful how all these connections are being made.

SKL Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing from John Updike. I don’t just want to hear from only him. [Laughing]

TSM This gives us a chance to hear from people whose experiences are similar to ours, people you don’t usually get to hear about unless they can convince a big publisher that their life is worth hearing about.

SKL Right, the odds of that are pretty low. I feel bad because I have a lot of friends in publishing and they’re going the way of the typewriter, they’re going the way of the compact disc. It’s essentially like what they’re doing was over a long time ago. I feel bad, but also I’m excited because it just, it means so much more freedom.

TSM I think people with editing skills, copy-editing skills, marketing skills, will hang out a shingle for self-publishing writers to make use of their talent so I think they’ll end up making more money than they were making with their employer.

SKL I hope so. But you know what I’m really interested in? I’m interested in the possibility of not having to connect your art to payments. Essentially what the internet has done has completely disrupted that whole “I have a story but you can only read it if you pay me money” thing. I’m really, really interested in that because I think ideally art should be freely consumed by those who want it. You know what I’m saying?

TSM Yes, in that spirit I have been putting a lot of stuff online, but on the other hand, I’m not bringing in any money, so I do look forward to being able to also get paid. I think we can do both.

SKL Right, right but I mean something like Radiohead. I’m not a huge fan of them as a group but they’ve been releasing their stuff online and basically just saying “Hey if you want to pay for this cool, if you don’t , that’s also cool”. What they found is that they made enough from that to make that financially viable.

TSM I think you can do that if you’re Radiohead. I have a PayPal link and I’ve gotten a few payments but many more people read than contribute. So at some point I’m going to have to put something out in a form that you can only get if you pay something. But I’m probably going to charge under five dollars for it because I want it to be available to as many people as possible, in particular to battered women so I’m going to make sure I price it accessibly, and I would rather that many people gave me a little. I haven’t put anything up there that can only be sent if you pay. It’s already up there so they’ve already read it. Maybe your way of actually sending it means that before they ask for it they’ll feel obligated to send you some money.

SKL I tell you one thing, though, doing the pay-what-you-can-donations thing that I did for the ebook, I made more doing that than I made on my advance for Indecent.

TSM That’s great!

SKL I feel amazingly blessed on that, and I also just feel like that shakes up the whole idea of how you accept payment for your art.

TSM It says a lot about the advance that writers get that you actually made more self-publishing. The other point I wanted to make about it is that it allows you to publish shorter pieces that publishers wouldn’t even touch because they want it to be a certain length.

SKL Novella length. The ebook I just put out was 41,000 words and normally a publication–non-fiction– is about 90,000. But yeah, I mean, like, you know I’m not paying for paper, I’m not paying for ink, I’m not paying for warehousing so I can put out like whatever length I want. I could make it like 400,000 pages if people wanted to read that.

TSM Yeah and people can put out little collections of short stories or essays or whatever, things that publishers would often say “Oh, you know, those don’t sell very well, we’re really not interested”. Well, it doesn’t have to sell huge if you’re keeping sixty, seventy percent of what you’re getting from an ebook on Amazon.

SKL Right, yeah absolutely. And one of the things that I will regret, probably forever, is that Indecent was about twice to three times as long as what it was eventually published as, simply because they were like, “We’re willing to take a certain amount of financial risk on you” or “we’re willing to pay for a certain amount of paper and ink, but we’re not willing to pay for more.” So the book had to be hacked down to fit what they were willing to pay for. I love that that doesn’t ever happen again.

TSM You know it’s interesting because when I was reading that I almost sensed that there were things unsaid, that you could say a lot more than you were saying about it and I didn’t know it was because the publisher—

SKL –It’s because physically it got down to x amount of pages cost x amount so it’s gotta be x number of pages.


SKL Yeah. I love that I don’t ever have to do that again.

TSM Were there whole chapters that you just had to chop?

SKL The original was probably twice to three times as long as what actually got published.

TSM Oh my god…is there a possibility that in the future you could take that material and have a follow-up that you self-publish?

SKL I couldn’t use the material that was published by Seal because that belongs to them.

TSM Right.

SKL But all the stuff that got cut is mine.

TSM And so you could put that together and say, Indecent 2.

SKL Yeah it would be the extended dance remix [laughing]

Yeah, I could, I could, I just haven’t been wanting to revisit that because part of me just sort of wants to let it be the book it ended up being–you know, the pain.

TSM I can imagine it was a painful thing that you had to cut it. I mean, my god.

SKL Yeah, some of the stuff that was cut, I really, really felt like it would’ve been a better book had it been able to have been left in…but, so the question was do I get published or do I not, and as a first-time writer, I didn’t have any ground to stand on. If I said no it’s got to stay the way it was they’d say “Well thank you very much but that’s too much of a first-time investment, that’s too expensive.” And then what? Then it doesn’t get published at all?

TSM I can see the hard spot you were in, and how long do they retain the rights?

SKL I believe that they retain the rights for the book Indecent as it is now. I mean I think that that is something that I could never go back and just publish my own edition of Indecent without, sort of, being, umm, in violation of their rights.

TSM Hmm…I thought that there was a time-limit on how long that they could control that.

SKL Sort of like–what is that thing where it’s like common anybody could like publish it? I don’t know.

TSM At some point you should look back at your contract because it’s probably spelled out. I know there was this horrible thing in science fiction where the publisher published one book in a series and decided that they didn’t want to publish the rest of the series. Somebody else was willing to publish the series but only if they could get the first book. The first publisher wouldn’t release the first book. After about 30 years the rights to the first book reverted to the author but he’s so bitter about the whole thing he doesn’t want to go back and deal with it at this point.

SKL [Laughing] I can’t blame him.

Yeah, and the first book ended on a cliffhanger and it’s a sore point with me as a reader.

SKL That’s just horrible.

TSM I remember that it was published in the mid-80’s and now supposedly he has the rights to it so maybe someday you can have your version of [Indecent] as an ebook. In the meantime I suppose you could publish the remainder of it, the part that they didn’t publish, but that that’s horrible. That’s horrible and I can see how you haven’t wanted to revisit it much for the same reason that gentleman didn’t.

SKL No, it would have been a much more interesting book had it been able to stand because I went much more into some of the like feminist stuff that I was only able to brush on because they wanted a story that people would be like “Oh my god I can’t believe she did that.” “Oh and then what.” You know.

TSM They wanted salacious details.

SKL They didn’t want what does it mean? What does it mean that we have this? What does it mean that we do this?

TSM I wanted the analysis.

SKL I wrote the analysis! [Laughing]

TSM It’s so frustrating because I sensed that there was more to [Indecent] and if I’d really thought about it I would’ve probably realized as a first-time writer–I know first-time writers go hat in hand like please-please-please publish my book. “Ok well only if you do this, this and this to it” Everybody says “Oh well as a first-time writer you should get legitimized by the publishing industry” and I’m thinking legitimized? It’s more like sodomized.

SKL [Laughing] and not in a good way either.

TSM Yeah exactly. Not in a consensual I-enjoyed-it-too way. [Laughing]

SKLYeah. This is how weird it got because when you’re physically making books in a factory, it goes in series of four pages because you use a big sheet of paper that gets folded and cut down into four individual book pages. So literally, they had to trim it down by fours because they were not willing to pay another big sheet of paper and then only have like one quarter of that be a page and then the other ones be blank. Literally, it gets down to that, which is something I never had even thought of.

It’s sort of like a visual artist being told “Well, you know, we only have room to display three quarters of your painting so do you mind cutting the last quarter off the bottom or the side?”

SKL Right. “I’m sorry, yes it’s just the canvas is costing too much money. We want to take off ten percent of it.”

TSM Oh my god [laughing]

SKL They were literally [saying] “Ok you can either do four more pages here or we can take…” I mean it was nuts, it was absolutely nuts.

Well I feel like I’m just eating up your whole morning.

TSM I feel that way too. I realize I’ve kept you much longer than the time we had originally set aside.

SKL I had a blast talking to you, believe me, I could talk for six more hours but you’d be dozing.

TSM [Laughs] Thank you so much for your time and I so much appreciate this.

SKL Bye Tapati. You have a great day.

A little research on reversion of rights to the author led me to an interesting discussion of changes the traditional publishing industry would like to make. Traditionally rights have reverted to the author when a book went out of print. Recognizing the increasing profitability of ebooks, at least one traditional publisher would like to change the terms of new contracts to grant them publishing rights for the length of the copyright. For new works that means the life of the author plus 70 years!

Writers who might be thinking about traditional publication for their books should be very careful about what they sign given the small percentage they receive from a traditional publisher. Another issue is whether or not the contract is worded in such a way that ebook sales count as if the book were still “in print.” Now more than ever it’s important for writers to be educated about contractual language and perhaps engage a lawyer to protect their interests.

For more information about self publishing options, issues and resources you can check out J.A. Konrath’s blog, A Newbie’s Guide To Publishing.

*My Boring-Ass Rehab Diary can be purchased directly from SKL for $20.00 U.S. via her PayPal account: If you prefer another payment option you can contact her at her email address to arrange it.