Another Leap of Hybrid Faith: New Publishing Routes

27 February 2014 iStock_000022584867Small photog OStill texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Swendson: “Upside the Head With the Clue Stick”
  2. Nelson: “We take the risk”
  3. Alternative History

“Upside the Head With the Clue Stick”

Shanna Swendson / Photo by Julian Noel

Shanna Swendson / Photo by Julian Noel

Shanna Swendson, author of the Enchanted Inc. series of books, is working what some authors might consider near-magic in a transition from traditional publishing to self-publishing.

And being professionally bewitched seems to be growing on her.

Those who know that Swendson lives and works near Dallas will appreciate one of her book titles, Don’t Hex With Texas. That play on the state’s “Don’t mess with Texas” slogan is part of the Enchanted Inc. story of Katie Chandler, a heroine “so normal that she’s immune to magic.”


Don’t Hex With Texas is one of the quartet of books in Shanna Swendson’s Enchanted Inc. series published by Random House’s Ballentine Books.

It’s the fourth book in the series. It almost was the last. Random House’s Ballentine Books had gone that far before declining to go further with the series.

“I had one more book planned” in the series “to close out the story arc,” Swendson says.

But she had nowhere to go with it. Until her Japanese publisher stepped forward and asked for it.

Swendson’s agent, Kristin Nelson of Denver=based Nelson Literary, “had to say, ‘Well, I don’t think she’s written the fifth book yet.’

“But I decided to do that book. Self-publishing? Wasn’t a glimmer yet.”

Don't Hex With Texas Japanese edition / special thanks to Becky Taylor

Don’t Hex With Texas in its Japanese Edition / Special thanks to Becky Taylor

The Japanese publisher asked for a sixth Enchanted Inc. book. And then Swendson offered a seventh to build out the series. So it is that Nos. 5, 6, and 7 were being published overseas but not in the States.

And somewhere in there, “that’s when Kristin started the water torture.”

“It took me about two years to convince Shanna to digitally publish on her own the continuing books in the series,” water torturer Nelson says. “She didn’t like the stigma attached to self-publishing. I finally asked her, ‘Is that stigma worth passing up $5,000 a month in earned income?’

“That’s when she decided to jump in with the books she had already written.”

Swendson’s version: “Kristin hit me upside the head with the clue stick.”

I first heard this story in October when Nelson was on our CONTEC Conference Town Hall panel at Frankfurt Book Fair on the impact of self-publishing on traditional publishing. Ether host and Virginia Quarterly Review (great new redesign) web editor Jane Friedman wrote a top-notch account of the panel in Frankfurt, Is Self-Publishing the Most Important Transformation in the Publishing Industry?

Nelson offered Swendson’s story to the panel as an example not only of how a traditionally published author may struggle to make a decision in favor of self-publishing, but also of how that decision might be seen to impact traditional publishing: books that might have been produced profitably by a publishing house are produced, instead, by the author, herself.

Swendson is a remarkably thorough thinker about her career and how to handle it. A delightful conversationalist with a quick laugh, her comments carry with them the voice of her blend of women’s fiction and fantasy…and that means, of course, you’re hearing a hard sell to publishers in a market that traditionally likes its genre characteristics drawn in bold, bright lines.

“That’s the all-or-nothing mentality,” she says, that can cause publishing “to glut the market.

“In self-publishing, you don’t run into that effect of everything being the same” as you might when publishing’s pile-on syndrome occurs to follow a trend. And in online sales, she adds, you can classify books with more than one categorization—”unlike in bookstores, where your book can only sit on one shelf.”

A new series she’s beginning to work on with Nelson, she says, is “women’s fiction with a fantasy element? Or fantasy with a women’s fiction element? It’s more about the Celtic legend of fairies than Disney-wingy fairies.”

And Nelson ratifies what Swendson is saying about a self-publisher’s comparative flexibility in marketing material that doesn’t niche easily:

When a work doesn’t fit solidly in a genre, it can be hard for a traditional publisher to publish simply because it has to be shelved somewhere. And they want clear parameters for how to market it. With Shanna’s work, she’s solidly on that line between women’s fiction and fantasy. She has a solid fan base that loves her Enchanted Inc. series. And they are going to love her brand new series that’s in that same sweet spot for her audience. They don’t care what genre we call it.

And this time, the non-Disney-wingy flight into self-publishing isn’t quite so daunting because she’s experienced the help of something called the NLA Digital Liaison Platform.

That would be Ms. Clue Stick at work with Nelson Literary’s own program of supported self-publishing for clients.

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“We take the risk”

Kristin Nelson

Kristin Nelson

“To be clear, NLA Digital is not a publisher.” Kristin Nelson is careful to get that point across early on in talking about the agency service she’s formalizing this week with a new Web site,

“Our author clients,” Nelson says, “do not grant us rights. They maintain full control of their rights and intellectual property. However, what we do offer is a platform that fully supports them in an endeavor to indie publish. “

Lori Bennett is Nelson’s Seattle-based colleague at the agency on all  things digital, overseeing the development of the platform.

Lori Bennett

Lori Bennett

She stresses that the Web site is brand-new—as in work-in-progress new—and perhaps won’t have everything in place quite yet as we get this early look.

Clients pictured on the site include Swendson, Barbara FreethyHugh HoweyCourtney MilanAllison Winn Scotch, plus Jack and Jasinda Wilder.

Nelson outlines two specific tracks for clients using NLA Digital, distribution-venue-only and full-service:

Clients can use the distribution-venue-only option [to] share their files and we simply publish the titles in outlets they currently don’t have access to for a commission. This mostly translates into library outlets such as Overdrive, 3M, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor as well as POD.

Then there is the full-service option [which Swendson uses]. In this track, we are a full partner with the author on cover art, copyediting, converting of files, publishing the work on all venues available, etc. All for our commission. Some authors really aren’t interested in navigating all the fine details of indie publishing so they love working with us.


The self-published Much Ado About Magic, fifth in the seven-book Enchanted Inc. series, has the same cover artist, Nina Berkson,used by Ballentine Books for the four original novels.

Nelson tells me she the agency has 17 clients currently using NLA Digital platform.

The costs are shared by the agency and the client, with the agency making the initial outlays. “In the full service option,” Nelson says, “NLA Digital fronts all costs and the author reimburses us for half of those costs via the royalties they earn. This way money always flows to the author. And if we don’t recoup the costs, then we don’t. We take the risk.”

As Swendson notes, one of the great advantages to an author in such a service as NLA Digital is its catalog of books made available to library distribution services—one of the most challenging sectors for a self-publishing author to get into.

And in a particularly interesting observation, she says that working with Nelson’s NLA Digital platform “is a lot like working with a publisher, only when it comes time to make a decision, it’s mine, the buck rests with me.”

In the three self-published Enchanted Inc. series books, for example, Swendson says, “We could hire the same copy editor and cover designer” that Random House had used, so the look and feel artist Nina Berkson developed for the series plays out seamlessly in the final three books, the self-published trio.

Kiss and Tell in its Japanese edition as Spell Bound / special thanks Becky Taylor

Kiss and Tell in its Japanese edition as Spell Bound / Special thanks to Becky Taylor

A distinction in working with NLA Digital? — “The decision on cover art and all was up to me,” she says.

That’s more  control—and more responsibility.

But in a very nice compliment to Nelson, Swendson says her agent is such a good developmental editor that “I hear Kristin’s voice in my head now as I write” guiding her on various points.

“Tell Shanna thank you!” Nelson says, but clarifies that developmental editing isn’t her key priority.

“For several of my authors, when they were with traditional publishers, the editors were overwhelmed so I ended up doing most of the editing anyway. Trust me, it’s not my preferred method of working! I want my client to have a great editor partner. That’s the way it should be and for 95 percent of the time, that is true.”

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Alternative History

All is not self-publishing, even now, for Swendson.

Both she and Nelson are proud to tell you that her debut YA novel, Rebel Mechanics, is to be released by FSG Books for Young Readers and the Margaret Ferguson Books imprint.

Set in the late 1800s, the piece is what Nelson describes as “a YA alternative history steampunk setting” in which the American Revolution “hasn’t happened yet. The British ruling class have magic and control New York but the rebel Americans have steam technology.”

The steam of self-publishing’s stigma can still fog up a writer’s viewpoint, too, Swendson says.

“There are still a lot of media venues that don’t take you seriously” as a self-publisher, “and don’t even want to talk to you” when it comes to review requests. “They still treat you like the little old lady who published a book of poems about her cats and is wondering why the newspaper won’t do a story about her.”

Therefore, for her new series, the one with the Celtic legendry?

“Shanna wanted to explore traditional options,” Nelson says, “so we did.” In an interesting agent-eye’s-view on industry procedure, she adds:

Half the editors who have the novel still haven’t gotten back to me and I submitted it this past summer. This, despite repeated follow-ups on my part. That’s really egregious. If an editor doesn’t have time to read, just decline looking at the submission. Leaving an author in limbo is not good business.

Well, that new series may well be traditional publishers’ loss anyway, Nelson says, at least at the outset:

Shanna just emailed me this week and she said she would prefer to indie-publish.

For context, it took me two years to convince her to indie-publish those Enchanted Inc. novels she already had written. Now it’s 18 months later…[and she] has changed her mind.

The message on the email from Swendson, Nelson says, “joked that I shouldn’t fall off my chair at this decision.”

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Main image – iStockphoto: OStill

Posted in Writing on the Ether and tagged , , , .

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

View posts by Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.

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[…] Another Leap of Hybrid Faith: New Publishing Routes. […]

Anne R. Allen

Agent-assisted self-publishing does seem to be the sweet spot in publishing right now. I’m very interested to read about Swendson’s great experience with NLA Digital. Catherine Ryan Hyde and I have just published a new version of our “How to be a Writer in the E-Age” with Fast Foreword, the publishing-assistance wing of Foreword Literary. Very easy and pleasant way of launching a book. We’re very pleased (except for a small problem with Amazon reviews not yet migrating from an older version formerly with a small publisher–not Foreword’s fault.) We had control every step of the way.

Porter Anderson

@annerallen:disqus Hey, Anne, Really appreciate this input, and I do think that Kristin Nelson, Lori Bennett, and Shanna Swendson’s experiences make a compelling case for agency-supported approaches of this kind. The real key, as you could see me emphasizing, is Nelson’s clarification that the author retains all rights. This is for many of us the key differentiator in what would constitute a transformation from agency to publisher (if the rights were actually transferred to the author). Since that’s not happening, and especially in light of Swendson’s descriptions of how she’s responsible for the key decisions (cover art, developmental edit suggestions,… Read more »

Nina Amir

Very interesting. I, too, am exploring literary representation with the possibility of agent-assisted self-publishing as part of the package. I can do it myself, and I have, but why? As I’ve just now taken the plunge and hired VAs to “do what others can do better than I can do,” why wouldn’t I also want to have help with self-publishing? It’s a pain in the rear and very time consuming, which is partly why I like traditional publishing; it allows me to just write. Not only that, there are times when self-publishing is the right choice, as Swendson learned. And… Read more »

Porter Anderson

@ninaamir:disqus Right on all points, Nina – I thought Swendson had good things to say about the cross-genre advantages of selfpub, too. And I think that over time, it’s going to be harder for traditional publishers to justify that tight focus on “where it belongs in the store,” as well. Here in the UK, I told a group of MA and PhD students today at Bath Spa University about how as a reader, I much prefer shopping for books online because I can input several different keywords and/or categories and get blended results for books — and that search can… Read more »


I agree with Anne that agent-assisted self-publishing is the sweet spot. Still not sure if what I’m looking for is a manager or an agent, but I guess when I write the job description for that position, I’ll know. 😉 I had to laugh at Kristin Nelson’s comment about the “egregious” behavior of some publishers who had not responded to her pitch many months later. This is what authors go through every single day, but with agents: sending out queries and proposals (some eagerly requested, too) and then being rewarded with silence and a stern “don’t call us, we’ll call… Read more »

Porter Anderson

@Victoria_Noe:disqus We may need the Author Hub bar open at 10a, Viki. 😉 These are good points, and it’s probably worth thinking of what Swendson is describing in working this way with Nelson — when she’s on an NLA Digital project — as a cross between an agent and a manager. Swendson’s responsibility for the final decisions establishes an important autonomy at the heart of the relationship, to my mind, that reflects what a lot of self-publishing independence is but without having to sacrifice the kind of backup and professional assistance the agency can provide. And yeah, I agree on… Read more »

Nina Amir

Those of us authors who appreciate agents who can be managers are looking for that REAL sweet spot–someone who can help us decide what book to publish next and HOW to publish it. And then someone who can take that manuscript and run with it so we can go on to write the next book. I know that is me, for sure. I think writers who look down their noses at agents are missing the value of good representation, especially in this day and age. They think they don’t need them because they can simply do it all themselves. That… Read more »

Bob Mayer

Agent assisted publishing seems to be consistent with what Cool Gus has been doing for four years. Sort of like the term hybrid has now been appropriated by authors, publishers, agents, and Martians. Smart agents understand they have to adapt and Kristin Nelson is certainly a smart agent.

Porter Anderson

I believe you’re right, Bob, I think that the Cool Gus approach, like NLA Digital, is a form of assisted or supported self publishing — yours housed in the track record of your own work as an author, and Nelson’s in the framework of her agency. As you say, she is one smart agent, indeed.

[…] Table of Contents Swendson: “Upside the Head With the Clue Stick” Nelson: “We take the risk” Alternative History H.M. Ward Joins BEA’s uPublishU Author Hub (and you can, too!  […]

[…] In an interesting section of the talk, the agents seemed to agree that as long as agencies don’t require clients to sign over their rights to them, that certain agency-publishing programs can be effective. (One of interest is the newly formalized NLA Digital program in Denver, written up here in Writing on the Ether.) […]

Carolyn V. Hamilton

As a “senior” person, I was attracted to self-publishing because I didn’t want to wait the two-year average from being accepted by an agent to seeing my book on the bookshelf. Now, I’m seeing more and more of my writer friends self-publishing with some success (though admittedly, some not). I think it’s a very positive sign that there is now “agent-assisted self-publishing.” It supports what I think is a steadily growing trend. Thanks for all the good insight in this post.

[…] Writ­ing on the Ether: Another Leap of Hybrid Faith — New Pub­lish­ing Routes […]

[…] (Porter, not Cooper) points us to stuff like this great read on a traditional publisher overcoming the “stigma” of self-publishing because the extra $5,000 a month made it seem like a […]

[…] Read the full post: […]

[…] Jane Friedman’s writings on pathways to publishing. In one recent case, I wrote about author Shanna Svendson, who had to be persuaded by her agent, Kristin Nelson, that she could make good money by […]