I spent three years writing a book; then, I couldn't find a literary agent to represent it. It's a cliché, really. But there were extenuating circumstances. The subject of my book, The True Adventures of Gidon Lev, was in his mid-eighties, and there was some kind of mysterious virus beginning to make headlines. Gidon's dearest wish was to hold his book in his hands, and it was up to me to make that dream come true for him. I queried over fifty agents. Those who responded said the same two things over and over. 'A book about this subject is too depressing' or 'there are too many books about this subject.'
There's a saying in Hollywood: 'If anybody knew what made a hit, every movie would be a hit.' It goes without saying, now as then, that nobody knows anything at all. I knew that my book was good. Maybe even Oprah good. It's not a typical Holocaust story by any stretch of the imagination. My pitch described the book as hopeful and uplifting, a book in the vein of Tuesdays With Morrie or The Choice. No go.
Publishers and, by extension, agents are risk-averse. I get it. I was a story analyst in Hollywood for ten years. In essence, my job was to decide very quickly what kind of material was both well-written and likely to grab the attention of movie fans or, conversely, poorly conceived and likely to be an expensive bomb. I was one of Hollywood's hundreds of underpaid gatekeepers, and it was a great job. I went on to become a developmental editor and book doctor.
In Hollywood, there's another saying: 'Viewers want the same. But different.' There is a hunger for content that is both familiar and fresh, challenging and comforting. I knew that The True Adventures fell into the latter category but with a twist: it was also likely to be one of the last books with the words of a living Holocaust survivor. In these tumultuous times, these stories matter now more than they ever did.
But I didn't have time to wait for someone else to have faith in Gidon's story, not to mention the eighteen months to two years it would take to get the book out should I get so lucky. So I didn't give up as much as go rogue. I decided to publish independently. The decision was right for Gidon and me both. It got the book out there in the world, which for Gidon was the proudest moment of his long life.
But publishing independently was a strike against the book right out of the gate. A noteworthy and exciting project on Facebook to help authors with canceled book tours during the Coronavirus refused to consider supporting The True Adventures because it wasn't published traditionally. The majority of high-exposure book review media outlets, as a policy, will not review independently published books. Many awards and book competitions either disallow independently published books or put them in their own category. 'We have to draw the line somewhere,' the refrain goes.
I understand. It's math, really. A torrent of content needs gatekeepers, and gatekeepers cost money. It's simply more efficient to use the "off" switch on content with no barrier to entry. Profit, loss, and creativity make for uneasy bedmates.
Creatives tell themselves that "the cream rises to the top," but that's a myth. Good work doesn't "find its audience" magically. There are algorithms and keywords. Publicity is costly and time-consuming. Traditional publishers have the highest barrier to entry for writers and pockets deep enough to set that marketing and publicity machine into motion.
A manuscript is like someone trying to hitch a ride on the highway. Literary agents pass by without a glance. Unless writers already have an attractive, almost impossible collection of achievements: A platform, a strong presence on social media, and the most essential thing - a book that just so happens to have threaded the tiny, dancing needle of "what's selling right now." Having all of those things lined up is like nailing a moonshot from across the gym.
For independent writers, there is no barrier to entry, per se. Anyone can publish a book. But the next hurdle – getting it read at all – never mind reviewed well, recommended, and talked about, is a tough row to hoe. Writing is one thing, but navigating the complicated world of publicity, marketing, advertising, rankings, and keywords on dashboards over multiple platforms is what people have built entire careers around doing. For those writers who know for sure that they don't want to spend the time attempting to learn these difficult, essential skills in a hurry, there is no shortage of services that will do it for you. But if you don't understand the landscape, how do you know what you do and do not need? Who can you trust? What is reasonable to pay?
Online, Amazon and its algorithms are not democratic, actually. It takes considerable time and know-how to figure out the right keywords and how much to spend on your "sponsored" ad "bids." It takes a distinct skill set to write copy for a compelling book description. It takes connections to get some good blurbs and cold hard cash to get trade reviews.
There are plentiful services and resources to help an indie writer get the word out about the book. But the field is crowded, confusing, and not inexpensive. And there are opportunists. I was offered a service in which, for the cost of several thousand dollars, my book would be a "best-seller." Turns out, with the use of mass emails, advertising statistics, and a short-term boost of your sales, you too can be a best seller – for 24 to 48 hours.
Those who can write equally as well as navigate or afford book marketing and publicity in the 21st century like a seasoned pro are rare. Those are the outliers.
I wish that the barriers for independent writers would come down some. If the author of a book published independently has the chops to write a book and write excellent copy about the book and pitch it effectively to major media book reviewers, that writer has already jumped through some major hoops. The book should be eligible alongside traditionally published books to be reviewed, rather than bounced back because of outdated "policies" and rules.
I also wish that the road for independently published writers was paved with more straightforward guidelines and had more places to find trustworthy, vetted service providers and resources. For example, try to find one book about Amazon marketing or marketing independent books, and you'll find fifty titles, all claiming to be the best. Try to find a good formatter, and you'll find packages that sell covers, formatting, and keyword generation all lumped together. It's a confusing, overwhelming, time-consuming maze out there. However, I will note that The Alliance of Independent Authors is a pretty helpful and friendly place for writers and that I have a list of resources based on my experience that you might find useful.
It's not news that the publishing world is changing quickly; every other day, we hear that nobody is buying books, that everybody is buying books, or that Amazon is taking over the world. Of course, nobody knows anything for sure, and it's all true and not true simultaneously. But what is evident is that content: books, movies, podcasts, essays, and articles are in demand. Sometimes in new, innovative forms and sometimes quite traditionally. We need stories. Writers, both consumers, and creators of content, know this better than almost anybody else.
Here's How I Navigated My Challenge
I used the chewing and gum and paperclip strategy. I am relatively tech-savvy and already had a website and blog. I have a solid social media presence and have been published as an essayist in some high-profile publications. I figured out how to set up my Amazon author page and studied keywords. I asked a successful indie writer friend for advice, which he gave me very generously.
After much consideration, I took a risk and spent something like $3,000 for trade reviews. I lucked out – the reviews were stellar.
"In this elegantly conceived memoir...is a remarkable tale of survival and unexpected kinship. A vitally important Holocaust story eruditely captured." --Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Inventively structured and impeccably written, THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF GIDON LEV is a must-read book for anyone interested in Holocaust narratives." -- IndieReader (five star review)
"...the compelling biography of a Holocaust survivor who attests that human beings are capable of both incredible evil and transcendent love". --Foreword Reviews
"Author Julie Gray gives voice to Gidon Lev's story of resilience and hope in this uplifting portrait of Holocaust survival. ...readers will find Gidon's story an inviting, eye-opening look at an important chapter in Jewish history." --Blue Ink Review
But good trade reviews only put so much fuel in the tank. These things must be leveraged. I emailed a long list of book marketing and publicity services and had a long hard think about what I could afford to do with what little money I could afford to spend. The number of copies I would have to sell to pay for these costs was just too high. I couldn't afford the risk. But I wouldn't give up. I emailed a list of over 500 churches and synagogues about the book. Nada. A waste of time. I donated 25 copies of the book to a California State Prison just because it felt like the right thing to do.
I began writing articles related to topics and themes in The True Adventures of Gidon Lev and pitching two and three articles each week to different magazines and publications. I had a few successes, and my book sales responded in kind.
I entered my book into several competitions. Mostly, the book did not win. Until it received the Indie Reader Discovery Award in 2020 and was included in the Best Books of 2020 by the Kirkus Review. Those wins were enough to get me some fancy stickers to put on the book, resulting in more sales.
I created a marketing calendar, matching upcoming holidays or other events to the themes in my book. I didn't have an overall budget; I simply did what I could with what I had, incrementally. That made it challenging but also interesting.
My big breakthrough was when on a whim, I decided to take on Tiktok. Within months of creating a channel on the platform, it went viral. And yes, many, many book sales, as well as a feature documentary about my life partner have resulted from that. But I must say that Tiktok is another ball game entirely. While some authors have had success on the platform, I believe The True Adventures has been so successful because it has the face of Gidon himself, a Holocaust survivor who teaches about Holocaust education.
My Advice For Writers
First, as best you can, try to understand the landscape of traditional versus independent publishing. Ask yourself how much time, energy, and money you have to put into getting your book out there. And yes, all of this costs money. Don't let anybody tell you differently. If you go with a hybrid publisher, of course they charge you for their time and work on editing, marketing, etc. If you decide to publish independently and do the grunt work yourself, of getting an ISBN, cover art, formatting, a copy edit - etc. - you will also pay out of pocket for that. The benefit of a hybrid publisher is that they know and understand each step that is needed. But writers need to be aware that the marketing a hybrid publisher will do is not the alpha and omega of your book's life. You still need to put in the time to talk about your book on social media, to get exposure through writing articles related to your book, as I did, and even to pay for marketing on Facebook or in a publishing trade magazine. I have dear friends who used hybrid publishers and got what they paid for. And that's it. The book sales went up - and then down precipitously. I think this is because we tend to believe that one-stop shopping should mean that we, the writer are now off the hook. Not true.
I work with writers from every walk of life, from all over the world. Whether traditional publishing versus independent publishing is right for you depends on many factors. Just because you decide you'd rather publish traditionally doesn't mean this gambit will work. It might. Or it might not. You need to invest a lot of time and patience in constantly querying. You might never get more than a bite. Or you might be the next big, hot writer. The element of sheer luck and timing is enormous with traditional publishing. With my book, I wasn't willing to make that gamble. But if you decide to publish independently, you are taking on a considerable expense financially, and you are also gambling. Just because you go with a hybrid publisher and your book is on Amazon does not mean it's going to SELL. You must sell your book at every opportunity as a part-time job.
It's important to ask yourself - over and over - what you expect from this book.
Do you want your friends and family to read it? Or do you want it to start a cultural revolution and be critically acclaimed? Do you have other books in you? Or other ancillary creative projects connected to your book or the subject of it? For example, I produced a podcast series of The True Adventures of Gidon Lev. That cost me money - and time - too. I did the narration because I have done some voice work in the past, but I still had to rent a recording studio and pay for editing. Has the podcast gone gangbusters? Not really. But I received an offer from a BBC podcast producer to do some writing for another project. I call that a win.
I realize this is a long blog post and that, according to stats on attention spans, you may not have gotten to the end of it. But I hope you have. Because as a writer, you are a many splendored rarity. You are expressing yourself on the page. But, like a gladiator, once you're done with that part, you must enter the arena of actually selling your book. For many writers, this bit is queasy-making. Our hopes and expectations are high, but the task is intimidating. There is no one way to approach this, and there is also no magical answer. Elbow grease and creativity will be involved.
I am proud of The True Adventures and honored to have brought an important story into the world. The book is not a best seller, but I have earned back my investment, and perhaps more importantly, I feel the book has made a difference in the world and created future opportunities for me as a writer and creator. I can't ask much more than that.