In this 5 On interview, author, songwriter, and Self-Publishing Review founder Henry Baum (@henrybaum) discusses self-publishing services, the value of a paid review, why he started his own self-publishing service, and more.
Henry Baum is the author of the novels Oscar Caliber Gun, God’s Wife, North of Sunset, and The American Book of the Dead. He’s published work with Identity Theory, Storyglossia, Scarecrow, Dogmatika, Purple Prose, 3:AM, Les Episodes, and others. Both traditionally published and self-published, he founded Self-Publishing Review in 2008 and Kwill Books, a hybrid publishing service, in 2015. Born in New York City and raised in Los Angeles, he currently lives in Spain with his wife, Cate.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: In your books, there is a running theme or feeling of rage, decay, disappointment, and disgust when it comes not only to the celebrity culture, but the culture of attention-excess in general, I think. What draws you to what you write?
HENRY BAUM: I grew up in Los Angeles and went to high school with a lot of Hollywood kids (Jack Nicholson’s kid, Cher’s kid, many others). My father’s a screenwriter, mom’s a producer, so I was steeped in it. I went on to write novels about Hollywood and then about fundamentalist religion, which isn’t so far off, as my parents treated Hollywood like it was a religion, replete with its own gods.
Now that I live overseas I have a new perspective on the country, where people here don’t think America is the center of the world but find it curious and demented, which it is. Maybe it’s because I don’t recognize any of the celebrities in Spain, where I live, that pop culture doesn’t permeate me. But then I don’t think pop culture permeates anywhere as much as in America.
Your book Oscar Caliber Gun at one point experienced a title change, becoming The Golden Calf. Now, upon its recent re-release, it’s back to the original title. What prompted the title changes, and have you noticed a difference in how buyers react to the respective titles?
No one understood the original title—except those who understood it. One woman at a reading asked me, “Is your name Oscar?” It was depressing, and I kind of gave in to the stupidity. But mostly the book was picked up by Canongate in the UK, and the title didn’t translate over there at all. Then it was re-printed by Another Sky Press in Portland, OR, and I thought I’d stick with the title. All the while not feeling like I was being true to my original intention for the book, so I released a Kindle version with the original title.
I know writers around forty years old who have decided to give up on writing. This is after years—decades—of being very passionate about it. I’m thinking people around this age possibly decide that having not reached a certain level of success (whatever that might mean to them) is a signal that it’s time to say, “Okay, this is ridiculous. I’m obviously living in a fantasy land and should probably stop fooling myself.”
Have you ever had thoughts like this, and if so, will you take us through what that period was like for you and what conclusion you reached?
Actually, I think the opposite. Forty is when a lot of writers hit their stride. I’ve actually unpublished my earlier self-published novels because I think they need work, and I think only now do I have a better sense of objectivity and more-reasonable self-criticism than I did when I was in my twenties. Back then I thought I was going to be a literary phenom, and it may be depressing that it didn’t really pan out like I’d thought, but I was pretty naive and self-obsessed in my twenties, and that showed up in my writing. Full of self-doubt, but under the misapprehension that my writing was the sole place where I had it all together. I didn’t. Now I’m older, understand a bit more how the world works, and I think I’m a better writer for it.
All that said, yeah, I’ve also thought of dropping out, because who wants to write for hours on end and not be guaranteed a lot of readers, but that’s only when I’m feeling really low and don’t really mean it. I guess it’s easier to make the decision to stick with it, given I have steadier income than I did in my twenties and I was desperate to hit it big and solve my life. That’s partially why I rushed things out there, hoping to get lucky, and too certain that I would.
Generally, it makes no sense to have success determined by how much money you’ve made, how many reviews you have, how many fan letters you get. Given what’s overly successful in this day and age, I’m not quite as bothered if I’m not lavished in praise. I’ve come to terms with being a niche writer who’s liked by some people, not at all by others. So I’m not giving up writing, any more than I’m giving up songwriting, even though I’ll never be a rock star.
You wrote a song for each chapter of your novel The American Book of the Dead. What came first in your life as a writer, lyric writing or fiction writing, and how did you decide for each chapter what the song would focus on lyrically and sound like musically?
I’ve been a musician for longer than I’ve been a writer, but I didn’t become a songwriter until after I wrote two novels. I played drums or bass for other people’s bands. I think being spread thin like that has screwed me in some way because I haven’t focused intensely on one thing; I always feel the pull of the other. Anyway, I really despise writing lyrics, as I’m more comfortable writing long-form prose. I put pressure on myself to be writerly in lyric writing, but it just doesn’t come naturally to me.
But I love writing melodies. The idea with the book project was to have a theme in place so lyrics would come easier, and it worked well enough. It was also fun to match the mood of a song to the chapter, so more epic songs came at the climax of the book, quieter songs in the beginning. I’m a fair fanatic of rock operas, and this seemed like an interesting way to write one. I always write the music first, plus the vocal melody, and lyrics come later, so I had a lot of unfinished songs. I’ve taken to writing instrumental music lately to avoid this issue entirely.
What’s an average day for you in your role at Kwill and/or SPR, and how does the work feed the creative part of your brain?
Running a self-publishing business entails writing reviews, posting content, corresponding with authors, managing social media accounts. The SPR office is at work fourteen hours a day—much of it by my wife, Cate, who handles editing and more hand-holding of authors. Authors can be pretty impatient if things aren’t going up immediately, and we spend a lot of time discussing their books with them on email.
To get into the depressing end of the spectrum—I also have to do dialysis three times a day for kidney disease, which is part of the reason I’ve worked so hard on this work-at-home business. I always knew at some point I would never be able to go to an office. That time started about five months ago.
At least we’re on the South Coast of Spain. Down the road’s a cathedral and a castle and the bullring. I have no interest in bullfighting at all, but I like being in a culture that doesn’t have a lot to do with my own. Virtually no one here has their face in a cell phone. I’m drenched in the internet all day, and it’s nice to be in a place with some history.
5 on Publishing
When you self-published North of Sunset, you used Lulu instead of one of the companies offering publishing/marketing packages. Have you noticed changes in how such companies operate over the years? I realize I’m practically laying out a carpet for, “Of course they haven’t changed; I never liked them, which is why I started my own,” but surely they’ve had to adjust to a community of writers who are more self-publishing savvy than they were at the onset of self-publishing.
The first self-published book I ever saw was my friend’s novel, who published with Xlibris in 2005. I thought, “Holy shit, this is a book.” I’d been struggling for years with agents (I’ve had around five) and getting traditionally published, and it was a revelation that I could do it myself. I’ve always been a DIY person—putting together fanzines, designing covers for demo tapes, and so on—so it seemed natural.
To be honest, I went with Lulu at the time because it was free and I couldn’t afford the Xlibris fee at the time. I also liked having complete control. This was back when there were literally three Blogspot.com blogs devoted to self-publishing and reviewing POD paperbacks. I don’t know how much I would have done differently then, because there weren’t too many options, though I’d never use Lulu today. I ordered a slate of books a couple years ago and the books came apart in my hands.
I’m not a person who’s against self-publishing services. There’s this echo chamber of people talking about anyone who uses a self-publishing service as not real self-publishing. Really, be quiet. If you’ve made the decision to release the book yourself, that’s self-publishing. Whether you upload it to AuthorHouse or Amazon KDP. A service like Author Solutions is awful in my estimation because they overcharge people for services that they can get elsewhere. But it’s at least understandable if people want to pay for a service that handles everything. I mean, really, tell Lisa Genova and Julianne Moore that iUniverse is a lesser form of publishing—I’m sure they don’t care a whole lot.
The reason we started Kwill was to offer a good version of a self-publishing service—an antidote to Author Solutions services. Already we’ve seen negativity about the service, for the sheer fact that it’s a service, and writers should only go it alone. Some people want help; some people don’t. It’s not taking advantage of writers to give them the option, especially since it’s reasonably priced with a reasonable profit margin and we market books in ways other services don’t. We make sure authors have a return and some sales in the three months we work with them. We also only publish a few books a season, so it’s more personalized. We spread them out over the year on a project managed schedule so we don’t overlook any part of the process and can spend the maximum time with each author.
It seems awfully weird to me that there should be such gate-keeping about the right way to self-publish. The whole point of self-publishing is that it gives people freedom to take the road they want. Certainly, you can steer people away from the ripoffs, but that doesn’t mean every single service is taking advantage of writers.
Given the experience and connections you have, the ability to guarantee Amazon bestsellers, and the skepticism still surrounding the idea of pay-to-publish companies, why not either create a traditional publishing company or a marketing/PR company, both of which can generate percentage-based earnings, rather than a pay-to-publish company?
Because we’re self-publishers. We love the tools of self-publishing and want to improve on the whole system. I don’t want to be a gatekeeper of other people’s writing. I hated being on the other end of that, so I wouldn’t really want to be part of that model. They’re still in complete control of what’s released. We customize every single part of a Kwill package as we go along. Traditional publishing doesn’t give you that control.
Kwill and SPR are marketing companies. What you’re paying for at Kwill is editing, book design, and Amazon marketing, plus 100 percent royalties as if you did it yourself. Additionally, the press is registered as a publishing house by epigraph; we’re not just a website that does it for you like most services. Authors get the perks of publishing with a publishing house, such as more Amazon categories, so it’s a hybrid model, and that interests me a lot more than something that conforms to the old model.
About that Amazon bestseller thing—there’s was a viral post going around that could make it sound like we do the same thing, make a book a bestseller in an obscure category. We don’t—we get a bestseller in a top-tier category, plus sales and reviews, within Amazon’s terms and conditions. We’ve met with their lawyer. We’re careful about this.
It’s an uphill battle. Just as self-publishing had to fight for notice in the publishing world, our services need to fight for legitimacy within the self-publishing community. But the internet is an outrage machine.
Kwill offers “Guaranteed bestseller listing on Amazon using unique marketing techniques.” What can you share about those marketing techniques that might be useful to authors doing their own marketing and publicity?
Well, not a lot, actually, in the same way that what BookBub does is not applicable to what authors can do themselves. BookBub has a list of people who are willing to buy a book, and so do we. The advice these days is that starting a newsletter is the best way to get repeat customers. What people with us are doing is buying access to a proven newsletter with people who are guaranteed to buy the book and, 7/10 times, review it. We also tweak Amazon keywords and categories to get a book a higher ranking—again, not just in some obscure category that’s easy to rank. We use mostly BISAC high-tier categories combined with sensible and logical keywords. That is something authors can do themselves and very often get wrong. Having access to readers willing to buy a book on demand is not something writers can do themselves without building up their own list.
An initial Kwill contract lasts as long as Amazon’s exclusive KDP Select term (three months), at which time the author has the option to renew for a year and expand distribution. Why not offer a full year at the start with the option to make the manuscript file available for expanded distribution (print, other ebook sellers, audio) after the KDP term ends? Are authors likely to recoup the cost of the contract in those three months, or as a result of those three months—or is earning money secondary to simply getting attention? Really what I’m asking is, if not money, do they get attention even possibly from agents that could lead to a contract and eventual income? Or is it, in the end, ultimately vanity (I ask possibly on behalf of my shadow)?
The reason we have a short window is to give writers as much flexibility as possible, if they want to take the reins after we do the launch. The first three months of the book are the most important on Amazon, so we handle that initial push.
There is no way that you can guarantee an income for a book. The fact that a writer gets an agent and a traditional publishing deal does not then guarantee a career for that writer. We give a book attention, but we can’t guarantee every single book makes thousands of dollars in the first three months.
For some reason, this is the sort of question asked to self-publishers. Would you ask an independent press if they can guarantee thousands of sales right off? It’s a miracle for small presses to sell 3,000 books over a book’s lifetime. So writers might not be guaranteed to recoup their investment, but they’ve gotten editing, design, and a launch that gives them a better chance. That’s valuable, even if it doesn’t pay back immediately.
Is that vanity? I don’t think so. What that question is implying is, if a book isn’t making money, then it’s vain to bother. Money isn’t the only kind of value—that’s much darker an idea than self-releasing a book. It’s not vain to express yourself and want people to read it. It’s vain to get plastic surgery.
Most books don’t sell. Most self-published books also don’t sell. This isn’t a controversial statement. The fact that Author Earnings can tout that more self-publishers are making more money does not mean that’s the case for the average writer. So Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler may be inspiring, but they’re also anomalies, and saying their huge platforms are then applicable to every writer doesn’t make sense. The idea that there are some self-published millionaires has pushed this idea that self-publishing is about making a lot of money. I mean, that’s why I got out of traditional publishing—all the talk about “the market.” It’s a shame that that’s where much of the self-publishing talk is, even if it has given self-publishing a lot of legitimacy. And it’s great that more writers are making money than before—but more writers aren’t as well. But there are a lot of reasons people self-publish, and it’s not all profit motive.
So to give authors a chance to see how their book does after three months with our best marketing efforts will inform whether they want to spend more on their hard copy version, or if they are fine with being e-only. It’s better than a heartbreaking scenario we see all the time of authors telling us they spent a lot of money on print books and don’t know what to do with them now—even print on demand isn’t always necessary at first.
SPR offers paid book reviews, and a Kwill package provides, as one of its promised book reviews, one from SPR. In recent discussions both here at JaneFriedman.com and at the website of Porter Anderson, you’ve defended the paid book review as a critical first domino: not only does that first review from a respected, if paid, source lend validity to the work, but it also encourages more reviews.
In the comments following Jane’s article, “Are Paid Book Reviews Worth It,” you first quote Jane:
A positive review from a known or trusted source can help lead to other reviews—or interview opportunities, or other media coverage. Or you could use the review in advertisements to the trade.
Then what’s the argument against paid reviews, given that the majority of authors use a review exactly like this? You mention in passing things like back cover copy/Amazon Editorial review/marketing materials like those are small issues—those are huge parts of a book release. I obviously have skin in the game of paid reviews, but this really isn’t looking at what paid reviews offer in the current market.
Is that what paid reviews offer in the current market—the domino potential, interview opportunities, other media coverage—or is there more/something else? What is being missed about the value of a paid review, and does any of it translate into income?
In short, yes. The gist of the debate I had with Jane was she was saying that paid reviews are not a very good avenue to get noticed by the trade. My response was the most authors don’t care about trade outlets, they care about their Kindle page. And a paid review in the Editorial Reviews section of a Kindle page is very useful—certainly more useful than having an empty Editorial section.
They talk about marketing services as if there’s an exact cost-to-benefit ratio—as if something that doesn’t pay back immediately has no value. But that’s not how books ever work. Books should be about an entire career, not just the latest book. That’s always been my frustration with the traditional publishing industry, as writers need to be nurtured over time.
But the Kindle has a very short window as well. So if you release a book with nothing in the Editorial Reviews section and zero customer reviews, it’s going to be very hard to get it to take off. We can’t promise that the book will take off, but we can promise that you’ll have reader reviews and an Editorial Review—even a low-rated review will have something to excise for a blurb.
The misconception is that it’s easy to get free reviews. There are thousands of books self-published every week, so review blogs can’t really take on everything. SPR is a site with a good amount of traffic, unlike small book blogs that might review a self-published book. Bigger sites will often review more popular books. So with a site like SPR or IndieReader, you get a review on a popular site, which some people use like a manuscript critique, and something to put in your Editorial Reviews section, whose reviews are posted before customer reviews on Amazon.
I’m repeating myself, but I really don’t understand why this is such a big deal. It’s more helpful to have extra coverage than not. BookBub is also a decent way to spend money on marketing, but that’s just a day’s newsletter, whereas a review is permanent.
Does it lead to income? Again, that’s not the only measure of something’s worth. And the answer is, it will lead to book sales for some books, but not others. This week we had one lady write in to say her book got to number one on Amazon because of our review. Last week a guy jumped from the hundred thousands to just a few thousand within hours of his review being shared. Some people, yes, don’t sell a lot. All books don’t sell the same, whatever their marketing. But to remove tools from the box of self-publishing when there are so few seems like you’re not giving yourself a chance to get in front of readers. Self-publishing is a pay-to-play system—even free services require paying for editing and book design. Marketing is part of that. No one source of marketing is a cure-all. Facebook ads, newsletters, BookBub sites, Goodreads, the usual things. It seems obvious that using all types of marketing will help writers more than hurt them.
All that said, there are some paid review services that are way too expensive. But if you can afford it, why not? However, no one should have the illusion that any marketing will sell a book automatically. Nothing’s automatic in publishing.
Thank you, Henry.