How I Found My Terrific Publisher ... and the Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing

Since my book Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind came out, a number of people – most of them authors or aspiring authors – have asked me about my marketing budget and strategy and about how I found and chose my publisher.  I have answered the question on marketing in this blog post and I thought I should publish something now on how I came to work with my publisher.

The simple answer is that my publisher is Rivertowns Books, though one might also say it is Kindle Direct Publishing, an arm of Amazon.  In order to understand a more nuanced and complete response, a little background about the publishing industry (or at least my experience of it) and how it has evolved since the 1990s is in order.

I got my first book contract from Times Books, then a division of Random House, in 1993 with the help of my terrific agent at the time, Joel Fishman.  Random House outbid three other publishers for the right to publish Give Us Credit (later republished by John Wiley & Sons as Small Loans, Big Dreams).  I received a $20,000 advance (equal to about $34,000 today), of which Joel got 15% and I received the remainder in three installments. 

Back then, it seemed that publishers were often willing to take a chance on first-time authors with writing ability and a decent idea.  I loved getting the advance (as it helped underwrite my simple lifestyle in Bangladesh for two years), outstanding editorial support (mostly from a man named Ian Jackman), and other quality and value-added services such as marketing, cover design, legal review, and so forth.  (Though as I mentioned in passing in another blog post, the marketing effort was effectively suspended within a few weeks of publication since my book was not selling fast enough.) 

What I didn’t like so much about going with a traditional publisher was the long time it took to turn a completed manuscript into a published book, and the fact that over time they let it go out of print without ever coming out with a paperback version that would be more likely to be assigned as a secondary text in college courses. 

Now, fast forward to the present day.  Traditional publishers (and even literary agents) appear much less willing to take chances – by which I mean putting time and effort into books by authors who are not yet proven money-makers for them.  They tend to demand ironclad promises to have other organizations promote the book and for authors to commit to buying a certain number of their own books at a discounted rate (but high enough that the publisher makes money on those sales).  The bottom line is that authors that can finagle a contract with a traditional publisher get less and have to promise more, compared to twenty years ago – unless they already have a track record of selling lots of books.

The other major development is that it is much easier for authors to self-publish today.  I discovered this when I was getting at best lukewarm responses (sometimes after waiting for up to three months) from traditional publishers and as a result, began looking for alternatives.  In the past, self-publishing was the domain of rich people who could pay whatever it took to get their manuscript turned into a book, which they might use as promotional tool professionally or as a way of writing up their life story for their extended family and future generations. 

Through Kindle Direct Publishing and similar avenues, self-publishing is now within the reach of many more people.  It is cheaper and faster than it used to be, and has several noteworthy advantages over going with a traditional publisher.  These include that your books are faster to market, lower cost to consumers, never go out of print, and are available in paperback from day one. Furthermore, corrections can be made to the manuscript anytime and all future copies sold will reflect those enhancements. And not least, there are higher royalties to the author.    

Last fall, I was studying how I could take advantage of the self-publishing option.  I learned that once you master the process, you can turn a Word document into a book available on Amazon (both as e-book and as a print on demand paperback) within a matter of hours.  I was gearing up to learn how to do that (in part by buying and starting to read this book).  But I had concerns, too.  At the time I had 800 pages of material that I was struggling to edit into book of reasonable length and quality.  I also didn’t have a lot of spare time to learn how to interface with Kindle Direct Publishing, and to also figure out how to get a good cover design and in general, how to ensure that my book not appear or be perceived as amateurish. 

Around this time, I reconnected with Karl Weber, a literary heavyweight who had collaborated brilliantly with my mentor Professor Muhammad Yunus on this last three books (the most recent being this one).  I had a friend who was looking for a “ghostwriter” and asked Karl if he would have an exploratory conversation with him.  During the conversation, Karl asked me about the status of my book, which I had told him about a few years earlier when I was just embarking on it.  I was impressed and flattered that he had remembered it, and told him where it stood and that I was seriously looking at self-publishing. 

Over the course of that and a few more conversations, he proposed a hybrid solution that would involve a partnership with him as part of a new line of his literary business.  Basically, after reviewing my manuscript, he proposed that in exchange for a fee, he would publish my book on the KDP platform. 

This would entail him providing significant editorial support and also leveraging his knowledge of how to work with Amazon, cover design artists, bulk order firms, and other distribution channels (Barnes and Noble, wholesalers that serve independent bookstores, etc.).  While his price tag for all this gave me momentary pause, I was thrilled to have this option and in short order we had signed a simple agreement that involved no lawyers or other formalities.

Essentially, Karl agreed to become my editor and publisher.  I was the second author he worked with in this way, and by the time my book came to market, he had named this line of publishing his “Rivertowns Books” imprint.  Overall, I have been thrilled with his support.  He has earned every penny I have paid him, and then some. 

He has been a model professional, and on the few occasions he made mistakes or realized that he still had kinks to work out in his model (e.g., he has since decided that he should hire someone else to proofread the book to ensure that few if any typos litter the published work), we worked through them in a transparent and collaborative way.  Along the way, he provided many affirmations, pieces of advice, mild and constructive criticisms, and valuable insights about publishing and life in general.  As much as possible, he made a demanding process stimulating and fun.

Over time, other literary types of his caliber will offer similar services, and a few are already.  They represent a fertile middle ground between self-publishing on your own and going with a full-service publisher.  Karl can provide more, fewer or different services than I received, based on the needs of the author (though he of course reserves the right to not take on a client). 

The only two caveats I can see are these: First, I would have been reluctant to have someone I didn’t already know well to rework my manuscript, which was what was required.  Since I had seen Karl’s work with Professor Yunus, I had little doubt that he could do a great job.  (And he did.)  Second, the fees I had to pay him will mean it will take much longer to get to break even on the entire project.  These are things other authors should consider being going down this road with a collaborator like Karl. 

Overall, I am very satisfied with the final result and have already recommended a few aspiring authors to contact Karl and explore this option.