Monday, August 1, 2011

Why Self-Publish? An Interview with Noriko Nakada

Author, Noriko Nakada, reading from her memoir, Through Eyes Like Mine

Lately I have had a bit of time to start thinking about my collection of memoirs again, Searching for the Heart Radical: A Journey Between East and West. Namely I have been thinking about whether I should self-publish. I have worked on this manuscript for more years than I care to go into right now. I've sent it to agents, sent it to small presses, edited, rewritten and restructured it a thousand times, and although I've gotten good responses that have kept me hopeful and thus encouraged me to keep going in my quest to publish with a reputable press, I have not yet "won the jackpot."

It is hard, incredibly hard, to score a book deal these days. Especially if you are not famous, you are not particularly well-connected, and if the book you have written does not have bestseller/movie deal written all over it, and is instead, more of a subtle, quiet, or literary book.

There is unfortunately such a stigma surrounding self-publishing and so-called "vanity presses"; it is true that a whole lot of crap gets published that way-- as do plenty of gems. And it is also true that well-known presses also publish both crap and gems. Any way about it, authors these days have to do their own marketing and promotion (unless you are someone like John Grisham). So what it comes down to are various pros and cons about other people's perceptions, whether I still am hoping to teach in a university someday and thus need the  prestige of a reputable press, what I'm willing to put forward in terms of my own time and money, and ultimately, the question, why do I most want to publish my book?

Increasingly, as the years drag on and as I move on to new writing projects, I care less about garnering the prestige of a known press, and I simply want to get my book out there. I've worked so incredibly hard on it, I know there are damn good stories and sentences in there, and I ultimately still want to share this baby of mine with the world.

During this recent bout of deliberations, I decided to interview my friend and fellow Antioch MFA alum, Noriko Nakada, about her recent experience self-publishing her childhood memoir, Through Eyes Like Mine (TELM).

I've been following Noriko as she promotes her book on Facebook, and I have admired the way she continues to put herself out there, posting excerpts and reviews, giving readings, and generally not letting people forget about her book after it's initial debut. I can only imagine how hard it must be (despite how easy she makes it look) to try and sell your book, your baby that you've nurtured privately for so long, like some commodity. It's one thing to publish it; another thing entirely to keep encouraging people to buy it. It seems it must take enormous confidence, faith, and persistence. And so, I look to my friends and peers for inspiration and advice.

Through Eyes Like Mine is told through the eyes of Nori, a young half-Japanese and half-Caucasian girl growing up in the small (white) town of Bend, Oregon during the seventies and eighties. The book is narrated in first person, present tense, and Noriko does an incredible job of conjuring the voice of her younger self. Each chapter reads like an evocative vignette, highlighting the way a child absorbs the textured layers of emotion and nuance within her own family's tensions, silences and love. Young Nori's awareness of how her family is culturally different than the others around her is also a big part of this narrative, as are her observations of her mother's religious faith, sibling rivalries, and the adult world at large.

Here's what I asked Noriko:

How long did you work on 'Through Eyes Like Mine'? 

I started 'Through Eyes Like Mine' (TELM) during the first year of my MFA program at Antioch University. I finished the first draft as part of my final manuscript, so about two years.

When did you know you were working on a book versus just a series of pieces? 

Once I finished writing most of the vignettes, I had close to 50,000 words so I knew I was looking at a longer work. The trick was then cutting sections and writing new ones to help the reader move through the book. 

What was your writing and editing process like for this project? 

Writing each vignette started with the memory of an incident or a feeling. Then I tried to flush out scenes and determine what I wanted to say with each section. I worked on story order and flushed out themes with some new sections. Then I divided the book into three parts to help provide some needed structure. Once I decided to self-publish, the close editing began. I shared the work with several readers and even though I thought it was close to being done, it wasn't. Each time I read through the pages, I continued to make changes so I made myself read and re-read and re-read until I could read and not make a single edit.

Why did you decide to self-publish?

I actually signed with an agent right after I finished my MFA. She loved TELM and did a great job shopping the work to big houses in New York. Unfortunately editors thought it was too quiet a book so I kind of forgot about it and kept writing and working on other projects. I figured TELM was done and it would have been except I used Amazon's CreateSpace to order a proof copy of a novel I wrote with my students (I teach eighth grade English) and it was so easy I thought, hey why not do this with TELM.

How did you decide which self-publishing press to use?

I looked at quite a few after using CreateSpace to make sure it was the right one for my project and found it was the easiest to use with the lowest out-of-pocket expense.

How does the publishing process work with CreateSpace?

With CreateSpace you create an account and then they walk you through the design. You can create your own imprint to publish from (then it won't read published by CreateSpace) and they assign you an ISBN or if you already have one you can use that. You choose a standard paperback size and then format your book for the look you want (fonts, page numbers, margins, etc.) and then you save a pdf to upload. They have some cover designs you can choose or if you are savvy with Photoshop you can design and upload your own. Once you upload your interior and cover docs you order a proof copy. They send it to you and you decide if you want to make any changes or make it available for purchase. I ordered three or four proof copies before I was happy with it. 

What about costs? How did you know how to price your book? 

The price that you pay per copy is pretty low and you take home a good percentage if people buy it from Amazon. CreateSpace shows your pricing and profits once you upload your files (it depends on the number of pages). I wanted to keep it affordable and easy to sell myself so it's listed at $10. I also highly recommend making it available as both a paper and e-book. I priced my kindle version at $5.99. 

How much were proof copies and your out-of-pocket expenses? 

Proof copies, again depend on the page count but including shipping, less than $10, maybe even $5 ish. I did order several proof copies to try to get reviews, send to Antioch mentors and other readers. Those proof copies are your only out of pocket if you don't need any of their publishing services. It's a point of sale production so you don't pay anything else up front.
How much do you end up pocketing for each book you sell?

For profit, if I order books myself, they cost $2.81 plus shipping. So all of the copies I sell myself or that my family sells for me, I make about $7.00. If people order from Amazon I make about $3.20 per copy. I definitely went on the low side because profits were and are less important than getting the book out and into people's hands. 

What do you think are the benefits to self-publishing today? 

It's really affordable if you have some basic computer skills, which is great. But what is incredibly empowering as a self-published writer, is that you can get your book in your hands and into the hands of readers. You also get to control the editing process (which can also be a drawback) and make the book look exactly the way you want. You can also make it available as an e-book really easily and sell it for even less.

What about the drawbacks? 

It's a lot of work. It takes hours and hours to write the book but editing it to be copy ready is really a different level of detail. Designing the look of the book takes time and visual arts decisions can be painstaking. I got to know that book so intimately I kind of started to hate it. And then, after all of that work, some people won't buy it just because it is self-published. There is still a stigma and that is a definite drawback. I just try to remember that I want people to be able to read my book and self-publishing has allowed that to happen.  

What have you done to promote your book? 

Social media networking is where I started. I have a blog so I wrote a post to let people know about my decision to self-publish. Most of my readers are also Facebook friends so I wrote updates of the process every so often whether it was frustration with comma usage or excitement when the cover finally looked the way I wanted it too. Once the book came out, I let people know where they could buy the book. I blogged about it, tweeted about it and Facebooked about it. I asked people to spread the word (or pimp my memoir). This was actually pretty uncomfortable for me. I hadn't asked people to buy anything since I was a Girl Scout, but I figured even if I had gone with a traditional house, I would have had to do the same kind of work. Once the book was released, I set up some readings in my target areas (mostly in Oregon) and I published excerpts of the book on the blog to keep some momentum going. I also teach full-time, so I do most of my promotion during winter and summer break. My family and friends have been great at helping out and books don't sell on their own so everything helps.

Do you have any specific goals with regards to number of sales or the greater audience you want to reach? 

I started with a kind of arbitrary goal to sell 10,000 copies. I'd still like to get there but it's going to take a LOT more work. I think the Asian American and growing Hapa communities would love the book so I hope to do more promotion there.

How many copies have you sold so far?

I have sold about 450 copies in eight months.
What advice might you have for writers who are thinking about going a similar route?

Make sure it's what you want. If you are hesitant and still want to go with a traditional press, send queries to agents and test the waters. Also, know if you want to sell a few hundred copies for family and friends or thousands and be prepared to do the promotion. Let go of any stigma you might have about self-publishing and make sure your product is something you can feel really proud of. 

What has been the most satisfying part of this journey to seeing your book in print? 

It has been amazing to interact with readers about the book. Many are able to think back on their own childhoods and understand how my family's story is both unique and universal. Growing up, there were no books or characters like me. TELM illuminates the experience of growing up in a multicultural family and I now a book like that exists.

The hardest or most surprising part? 

The hardest part is motivating to promote. It's hard for me; totally unnatural.

What's next for you?  

I'm actually going to self-publish the next section of memoir. It's a middle school memoir called Overdue Apologies. I hope it will be done in November. I'm also working on a YA novel about a Japanese American family from Los Angeles during WWII called Rice Paper Superheroes.

Thank you, Noriko, for being so generous in sharing your experiences with self-publishing! If you want to read an excerpt or review of Noriko's book, or would like to check out CreateSpace, the links are listed below.

excerpts from TELM
reviews of TELM

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