Award-Winning Writer Forgoes Traditional Publishing to Self-Publish

Barry Graham
For this week's Self-Published Writer of the Week, I'm excited to introduce Barry Graham, who had major success with traditional publishing before taking his career into his own hands and self-publishing. He is a novelist, journalist, poet, and Zen monk from Scotland, and his novel The Book of Man was an American Library Association Book of the Year. 

TL: You have had a very distinguished writing career. When did you decide to forgo traditional publishing and self-publish? What was your reason/s for doing this?
BG: I had long been disillusioned with corporate publishing, which I think is dying of irrelevance. I've been published by big, medium and small publishers, and had better experiences with the independents. Some years ago, I wrote my novel The Wrong Thing, which was better than anything I had ever hoped to write, but years went by and it didn't find a publisher. Two different agents represented it at different times, and publishers praised it, but they couldn't figure out what to do with it.

At last, I managed to place it with PM Press, a very small, risk-taking publisher who published it under their Switchblade imprint in 2011. They did a good job of it, and the book got good reviews, and was on some best of the year lists, but at that point I realized that there was nothing a publisher could do for me that I couldn't do for myself. All my earlier books were out of print, and I owned the rights to them, so I self-published them, and then decided to start self-publishing my new work too. That was in mid-2010. 

My novel When It All Comes Down to Dust was supposed to be published by one of the biggest houses, but they changed their mind when they signed a best-selling crime writer, saying that they thought he and I were too similar, and that he met their needs for that kind of thing. (He and I are not remotely similar.) My agent spent the rest of that year, and all of the next year, trying to sell the book to another publisher. The one who seemed most interested kept putting off making an offer, until a year had gone by. I told my agent to tell them that if they didn't make an offer by early January 2012, I was withdrawing the submission. They didn't make an offer in time, so I withdrew it and, a few days later, I self-published the book. It was chosen by Mystery People as one of the best books of the year. It gave me a wonderful feeling of freedom not to have to put up with publishers' arrogance. It's great to live in a time when you can just walk away and do it yourself, and do a better job that some publishers would.

TL: What are you working on now? 
BG: I'm finishing a very short, very dirty crime novel, called One for My Baby, about a musician in Phoenix, AZ, who moonlights as an armed robber. It should be ready in a few weeks. Then I'm going to write a cyberpunk thriller.

TL: What's the hardest thing about being self-published? 
BG: For me, the only disadvantage of self-publishing is that you don't get an advance up front. But advances have gotten lower and lower over the years, so that's not much of a problem. Everything else about it is better; the books are marketed properly, because I do it, the covers look the way I want them to, and they come out quickly. (My second novel, which was bought by a big publisher in 1989, wasn't published until 1991! I'm happy those days are over.)

If I got an offer from a publisher now, my question would be, "If I give you the rights to my book and to most of the money it makes, what, in return, can you do for me that I can't do for myself?" If the advance was big enough, I'd take it and consider the book a loss-leader. If they required me to agree not to self-publish other books during a certain period of time, I wouldn't sign.

That said, self-publishing isn't for everyone. You have to know what you're doing. By the time I self-published, I had decades' experience as an author and journalist and blogger, and I knew how to create a book and how to get the word out, and I enjoy doing that sort of thing. If that's not true of you, you might be happier going a more traditional route, and there are some good indie presses out there.

TL: You are a Zen monk who was named one of the best Buddhist bloggers by Tricycle. What advice do you have for people searching for happiness for this new year?
BG: My best advice is to give up the search for happiness, because it's self-centered, and there's no possibility of being happy while you're self-centered. Live at the service of life, not of ego, realize that it's not about you, and happiness takes care of itself. You'll still have pain, still have sadness, but that's okay. You can be happy at the center of that. Pain and sadness don't cause us to suffer - our self-centered reactions do.

TL: What inspired you to write Kill Your Self: Life After Ego?
BG: I had been teaching Zen for a few years, and people seemed to find what I taught to be helpful, so I wanted to do a book of Zen teaching in the hope that it would help more people, people I wouldn't encounter otherwise. That seems to be the case - the book has been a Kindle bestseller in the Zen Philosophy category (it peaked at #20), and I get a lot of nice emails from people who've read it.

TL: Anything you would like to add?
BG: I think this is the most important, and greatest, period in publishing history since the invention of the printing press. I laugh when nay-sayers suggest that such freedom to publish will lead to a lot of bad books being published. That's true - but a lot of bad books have been published the traditional way. Now there's a way for good, great, challenging books to be published. There's never been such a good time to be a writer or a reader.