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Back in May of 2010, author Gary Ponzo visited The Whine Seller to talk about why he turned down his traditional publishing deal to self publish instead. He came back a few weeks ago to give us an update on how his book was doing and why he felt it was the right decision. As a companion piece to that article, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about the exact opposite situation. As I recently mentioned, I recently found myself faced with the decision of whether to traditionally publish my already successful self published book.

The publishing industry is in a state of flux right now. The query to agent to traditional publishing deal is not as clear as it once was and a lot of authors are wondering if self-publishing is the way to go. Unfortunately, there is no right answer. I invited Gary back for the same reason I tell you the following story: I want to demonstrate that there is no one-size-fits-all answer or correct decision to be made when it comes to traditional publishing versus self-publishing. In the end, all you can do is review what other authors have done that worked for them and then make decisions about how that would apply to your book.

I think it’s impossible for me to give you a clear picture of what led me to this decision without giving a brief history of why I decided to self publish in the first place. I wrote and directed The Love of Three Oranges during my senior year of college as part of my honors thesis. After college, I got a 9-to-5 job and was running my online business on the side and didn’t particularly put any thought into what I was going to do with the play.

To my surprise, I started to receive e-mails. At first, they were from friends and friends of friends who’d seen the production show at school. Then e-mails from complete strangers started. To this day, I have no idea how they started to hear about the play. See, The Love of Three Oranges is a play that’s based on commedia dell’arte scenario from 1761 by an Italian playwright called Carlo Gozzi. At the time that I wrote it, there hadn’t been a modernized script version of the show for a very long time and there was apparently a market for it, though a very specific niche market. It was a bit like the Central Park watch salesman, people would send me e-mails that were the equivalent of “Psst! I hear you have a good copy of Three Oranges. Can I see it?” like we were all doing something illegal.

I found myself in a strange position. People wanted to get their hands on this play: some just to read it, some to teach in the classroom, and some to perform it. It didn’t seem to matter to any of them at this play only existed as a Word file on my computer. At first, I started e-mailing people the file before I realized that was probably a bad idea since I wasn’t making a dime doing it that way. Should I see about publishing it? Sure, there was interest now, but it really was a niche play only of interest to a very select group of people. Once they all had a copy, what then?

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It didn’t occur to me to get an agent. I spent one afternoon googling traditional play publishing options and when I saw that most of them wouldn’t publish a rewrite as a first play, I decided it would be impossible to publish it unless I wrote another play first. I realize today that that was a stupid conclusion to reach but, at the time, my few minutes of research led me to believe that. In my mind, there wasn’t any point to traditionally publishing it. I saw it as only being of interest to a select group of people and surely I could just get copies of the play into the hands of those few people myself.

I researched print on demand options and finally settled on Lulu.com. (This was the start of a long and complicated relationship with Lulu, which is story for another time.) I formatted the script, designed the cover, and set it up to let Lulu start printing it. This way, whenever people e-mailed me asking for copies of the script, I would just direct them to Lulu site where they could order a copy themselves. When some people complained that they didn’t want to order from Lulu and why couldn’t they order from Amazon, I set-up greater distribution to get the book in stores like Amazon to make them happy. Mostly everything I did at this time wasn’t really thought out, I was just trying to fill needs as they came up while I lived my life in the foreground.

When people wanted to perform it, I started to research what the biggest play publishers charged for performance royalties and then started charging a fraction of that. My philosophy was, I just want people to perform it, I’m not looking to make buckets of money. Performance request started coming in pretty rapidly. I started offering a discount offer where I cut the royalties drastically if the school or theater group also ordered scripts for me. I started doing sales at such a volume that Lulu was becoming cost ineffective and so I made relationships with several other short run printers that churned out bulk orders for me a few times a year.

One of the things I’d never considered when I thought of this play is a niche play was that it was a school’s dream come true. It was simultaneously enjoyable and educational and its large cast size made it very popular for high school theater. It was also somewhat self marketing and each performance ended up generating additional performances in the future as neighboring schools wanted to do the show that got such good feedback one town over. I ended up licensing productions in England, Canada, Germany, Australia, Romania, Taiwan and Sweden, as well as productions all over the United States. I started to realize the play may not have been as niche as I’d first thought.

But even as the play started building momentum. It never occurred to me to look into traditional publishing beyond my first very brief look. My reasoning was simple. As a businessperson, it didn’t make any sense to me to put a middleman into my already successful business operation. As long as I could handle the volume in-house, why did I need to traditionally publish? Why shouldn’t I continue to make 100% of the profit?

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One year, at Book Expo, I found myself speaking to a representative from one of the biggest play publishing companies. When he heard about my play, he became very interested and asked if I had a copy on hand as they would be very interested in considering it (my play is apparently like crack to a very select group of dorky theatre people). When I handed him the Lulu printed copy I had on hand, he flipped it over, looked at the Lulu barcode (which, may I add, used to be insanely ugly in the early days) and all but tossed the book back to me in disgust. He told me that there was such a stigma to self-publishing that I had cursed my entire career. He informed me that without a traditional publishing contract my play would never be performed and would never sell a single copy. When I informed him that my play had already sold many copies and was in fact being performed all over the world, he scoffed in disbelief.

I guess that guy thought he was sending me a clear message about why I needed a traditional publishing deal but instead I left with the realization that I really didn’t need one at all. I walked away from that exchange with a clear conclusion in my head: if all a traditional publishing deal could get me were sales and performances and I was already getting them on my own, I didn’t need them.

Understand that this was the early 2000s, self-publishing is MUCH more accepted today and it’s still considered taboo.

But no one told all people buying my script that it was taboo, in fact, most of the theatre groups and bookstores I dealt with told me they preferred dealing with me than the big publishers. See, while I had absolutely no idea what I was doing back then when it came to publishing, I already knew a thing or two about selling, retail, marketing and return policies because I’d been running an online business on eBay and Amazon since the late 90s. The Retail Details if you will (which was totally the name of the workshop on this I used to teach for Lulu by the way) are usually what trip self-publishers up but I was very lucky in that what I lacked in knowledge about publishing I made up with business instinct. I knew my book was never going to be Harry Potter but I had a steady stream of sales, performances and merchandise sales.

At the time when I self-published, the average book sold 100 copies. I was doing bulk orders of twice that size several times a year. I’m not trying to brag, I’m just trying to be transparent here so you understand where I was when the traditional publishers came knocking.

Over the years, several different traditional publishers approached me about publishing with them (because you can’t sell that many self-published books without someone noticing ;-)) and I finally said yes to one of them in late 2010. I’m going to tell you the God’s honest truth: I’ll be making less per book AND per production by going the traditional route than I was by doing it on my own. I’ll be losing money and control.

So, you may ask, why the heck did I do it? It boils down to 3 things but since this post is getting insanely long, stay tuned, I’m going to break it down for you next week.