Open Letter to Brent Sampson from a Self-Publishing Author

I received this letter from one of our authors recently. I didn’t change a word (although I did insert the links).  It’s long, but there’s a lot of informative stuff in here for authors considering their self-publishing options.  

Mr. Brent Sampson
President and
Chief Executive officer
Outskirts Press
10940 South Parker Road, 515
Parker, CO 80134

Dear Mr. Sampson,

Last week, I sent Anna Ely my approval of the final revisions for my novel, Prayers of God [232894A]. I appreciate very much the help and good counsel that I received from Anna, Jamie Belt and especially Brie Curtis. I want to mention them early in this long letter because their assistance directly created the warm feelings that I have for Outskirts Press. As their boss, you need to know how splendid they have been for me, and I hope my saying so will benefit them in whatever internal processes you have for rewarding competence and empathy that went well beyond my expectations.

I think, by the conclusion of this letter, that you will understand more of why I feel that way. A little backstory. I’m 71 this year. After starting out as a reporter and columnist for my hometown paper (in Roanoke, Va.), I lived in New York City for 34 years, working primarily as a staff editor for a maritime union publication (eight years); Colonial Homes (12 years), a Hearst home shelter magazine; and American Shipper (11 years), an international shipping and logistics magazine. I also edited a journal for the American Montessori Society for 16 years, as well as doing regular freelancing for other employers. I’ve taught writing workshops for NYU’s School of Continuing Education and lectured about logistics for both military and civilian college classes. I edited an anthology of essays by Marya Mannes, a pioneering media commentator, published by a former Doubleday editor under his own imprint, and had rapport with two literary agents, Jay Garon (who launched John Grisham) and John Hawkins (who worked closely with Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates and Gail Godwin). Both men are sadly gone – I learned much from them.

In 2001, American Shipper’s New York office was in the World Trade Center. I was nearly killed by falling concrete, a life-altering event described in Prayers of God.

In 2006, I retired to live near Ithaca, N.Y., to be closer to my grandkids. I have always been a cynic, snark-mouthed and foul-witted, keeping well clear of churches, ministers and (especially) priests. So it came as a huge shock to find myself writing a novel about what might drive a deity to pray, why and how. It started with short stories that grew into each other and then became a coherent if broad tapestry. In the summer of 2011, an old mutual friend persuaded a well-known Cornell professor of comparative literature, William Kennedy, to read Prayers of God in manuscript. I had (and have) no connection to Cornell, and had never met Kennedy, who ranks with Harold Bloom in the upper strata of literary appraisers. Kennedy really liked my work, saying that it was as good as anything he taught, and told me what he has permitted, using his name, to be printed on the back cover of Prayers of God.

Professor Kennedy’s reaction shook me to the bone. If the manuscript is that good, I thought, then I must really go to work on it. Twenty months later, I reached the point of knowing I’d done all that I could.

There were three serious hurdles ahead. According to sources within major-house publishing, editors and agents play a very neat game. The former, as a rule, read no transom submissions, while the latter are not taking on new clients. That’s a convenient closed circle that can be penetrated, but not easily. Even well-known authors have trouble placing new work.

The second hurdle was the fact no agent or editor, despite Kennedy’s appraisal, was likely to scroll down the 109,000 words of Prayers of God on a computer screen.

This is a book you must have in your hands to appreciate its intent. Given the hermetic circle cited above, even a bound manuscript ($50 from Staples) would likely be tossed at the door.

A third problem would be the reception awaiting my novel if it were actually accepted in manuscript form by a major publisher. There’s a lot of satire that stings, very black humor, and enough sex to vex prudes on patrol. I would be urged, probably required, to soften if not mute the text.

If you doubt me, I recommend a new book, Hothouse, by Boris Kachka, about the goings-on inside Farrar, Straus & Geroux since that firm’s founding. This is one of the few tell-all accounts of the American publishing world, printed – interestingly enough – by Simon & Schuster. I can think of no other book on that subject in which the dust jacket copy refers to S.I. Newhouse as “that dwarf” and agent Andrew Wylie as “that shit.” Although there are delectable tales within, such as Maurice Sendak sending Roger Straus a Christmas drawing of Snow White about to be ravished by her seven helpers, the general content of Hothouse would drive any sane writer to consider self-publishing.

That is what I did last May. I researched six self-publishing companies online. When I came to Outskirts, I began by reading all of the unfavorable comments about your company that popped up on Google. The more I read, the more I liked Outskirts, since the complaints and such were clearly made by people who had unrealistic expectations. Whatever alleged lapses they were barking about seemed to me quite reasonable behavior on Outskirts’s part. So, I rang up and was put through to Jamie Belt. In our first talks and then subsequent e-mails, I began to think that I was in a kind of publishing Brigadoon. There was no arrogance, no bluster, just straightforward information. I picked your Sapphire option, figuring that if I didn’t like the result, I wouldn’t be that much out-of-pocket. I had decided by then that the only hope for Prayers of God was for it to appear first in a precursory paperback edition, which could then be sent as bait to selected editors, agents and sources of writing grants. I knew that critical and merciless eyes would be reading it, and that even small flaws would have the effect of gravel in a sandwich.

Given some of its content, I was very happy when Outskirts agreed to print Prayers of God, but (unsurprisingly) required that I accept your private-label terms. For my publishing company’s name, I picked that of an outfit called ‘Omniscient Neutral Intelligence’ in the book. (It looks marvelous on the cover – I expect NSA contracts forthwith.) Professor Kennedy, who remains a fierce partisan, doubled-down on his previous comment, even insisting – when my serious marketing starts in January – that I use his Cornell e-mail should anyone want to contact him. The only major qualm I had was what the book would actually look like. Brie Curtis helped me with the cover options. She was remarkably intuitive in guiding me toward what might work best within my budget constraints. I chose a black military-style script appearing on a pure white background. Seeing that on the galley screen gave a real jolt, love at first sight. Although extraterrestrials (who may be angels) play a part in the text, I was pleased to see that the tag at the top of the back cover read FICTION / Christian / Classic & Allegory. Prayers of God really isn’t science fiction per se.

The back-cover copy went as follows:

In almost every religion sustained by fear-mongering, shamans dissuade their faithful sheep from contemplating the countenance of whatever deity they worship, citing abiding damnation as a well-deserved punishment for anyone who is reckless enough to do so. Exodus 33:20-23 suggests an alternative, albeit one that divinity students are advised never to quote publicly. The Hebrews’ Lord tells Moses that “while my glory passeth by, I will cover thee with my hand. And I will take away my hand and thou shall see my back parts, but my face shall not be seen.” Yet all caveats about viewing either end of a divine construct seem one-sided. Who warns God about looking too closely at humankind? This novel, a mosaic tapestry in which timelines and genres interweave, suggests how a modern-era deity would cope with the trauma surely induced by such exposure. According to its author, Prayers of God developed from “an odd trinity of catalysts: Rabelais, Martin Luther and Wikipedia.”

“Terrific, superbly paced, pitch-perfect, wonderful in so many ways.”
– William John Kennedy, professor of comparative literature, Cornell

Despite Brie Curtis’s assurances (well-founded, as it turned out), I remained concerned about how the proofs would look. There were traps a-plenty awaiting any designer setting my pages. Prayers of God is a mix of prose, scenes from a play, scenes from a screenplay, free-standing scripts of dialogue, and counterpoint called ‘antiphons.’ I had indicated in the text files what had to be in boldface or italic type. Much was not optional. One character speaks entirely in italic, another all in capital letters. Stylistically, it could have been a shambles.

Except that it wasn’t. The galley pages surpassed what I had hoped for. The chosen typeface was easy on the eye and yet not clinical-appearing. Brie Curtis’s design team had made all of the right aesthetic choices. The overall format of the text was absolutely on target. (The eventual look of the published book is stunningly effective.  A friend who had brought her copy to read while waiting for a medical appointment had it yanked out of her hand by her doctor, who demanded to know what it was.)

What happened next was basically my doing, since I had not taken Outskirts’s editing option. I had sent the text in two Word files. For reasons that Outskirts could not be blamed for, there were numerous line drops and a slew of typos. There were 94 edits before the first publication run. It’s amazing what you see that didn’t register before when your work actually goes into type. After publication, I had to go through two tranches of revisions: 18 more edits in the first go-round, and a final five corrections in the second. Those post-publication revisions cost $305 that I would rather not have spent, but they were necessary. Outskirts’s correction fees are certainly not unreasonable. My total outlay thus far, for the paperback’s initial printing and subsequent corrections, is $902.50. That, in perspective, is less than the cost of a replacement tooth.

That is also an interesting commentary on the supposed high costs always cited by major publishing houses in justifying their alleged overheads, usually at an author’s expense. I was particularly interested to see what Outskirts would charge for substantial reprint orders, let’s say, for so many thousand copies. I don’t have to repeat in this letter figures that you know very well, but they certainly suggest that major publishers cite amounts greatly in excess of actual printing costs.

One other point. In the word count cited – over all of Prayers of God’s 470 printed pages, I found on my first reading only six unacceptable hyphenations on the justified right-hand margins. No one that I’ve told in the traditional print world will believe me, but it’s true.

Thus far, I have not pursued your marketing options because at this point, bookstore or online sales are not my prime concern. It’s certainly a plus to have Prayers of God up on Amazon, but – as I’ve explained – this paperback edition is basically bait for a hardbound sale. If I need Outskirts’s options, they are available to me. What I’ve read from your marketing coaches sounds helpful for authors in general, just not applicable to me at the moment.

So, we’ll have to see what happens now to Prayers of God. Meantime, I do have some recommendations for other writers who might be contemplating using Outskirts, as well as two suggestions that pertain only to your company. Let’s start with my advice to authors:

(1) Have realistic expectations. They will be met. I took Outskirts’s next-to-cheapest option and received a level of support that truly surprised me, as well as a fine-looking paperback in the end.

(2) While the company seems to accord the same respect and diligence to all of its authors, you will most appreciate Outskirts’s efforts if you have actually had substantial publishing experience.

(3) If you haven’t had that, a fair question would be ‘so, what is realistic?’ My answer: Keeping your focus on the book you want to be published: its content, internal format, outside cover. Once you’ve decided what you want done from the options available, Outskirts will not try to nudge you toward an upgrade.

(4) If you are genuinely uncertain about what you want, your Outskirts representative will offer counsel, but not as a personal trainer. Don’t expect vanity stroking. Also, Outskirts does not employ psychiatrists.

(5) Understand the logic of Outskirts’s processes. Initially, you’ll want phone contact. After that, e-mail works faster for everyone, although my phone calls were always returned within 24 hours. Two notable points: The company’s online proof-correcting procedures are writer-friendly, not daunting to use. Also, an author’s account history can be easily accessed and printed for off-site files, which can be very helpful for tax-preparing purposes.

(6) Make certain that the manuscript you send online to Outskirts is as clean as possible. You don’t have to right-justify margins, but you should check for any dropped sentences that may have occurred online which might not appear if you’ve been working from the same text in printed form. Try to send your work to Outskirts in one Word file. Also, what is sent should be your final version. You’ll get a reasonable number of free line and word edits at first, but any substantial shifts of text, or moving content around, will incur delays and extra expense.

(7) You will not be the only author on your Outskirts representative’s radar. Accept that reality, and work within it. Patience and a willingness to be flexible are also learning tools. Whatever your ego, or your belief in your book, you will have to work with other people to achieve the best final product. Yes, you are paying Outskirts to print your book, but publishing in any venue is not an instant gratification business.

(8) Finally, authors frequently complain that publishers don’t do enough to market their books. Outskirts offers a number of outreach and marketing options that will give your book a kick-start if you use them, but there’s no guarantee of success. There never is. If you care enough about your book to pay to have it published, then I think that in today’s world you are better positioned to maximize its chances. The hard truth is that no one knows why certain fine books become bestsellers and others do not.

Here’s my advice for Outskirts:

(1) The only internal procedure that I think you should improve is the way that corrections are made after an initial printing. My frustration – only with myself, as I’ve made clear – at having to go through two tranches of further revisions flared into real angst only when I saw the narrow-lined spreadsheet of ‘errors to the left’ ‘corrections to the right’, which was very different from the side-by-side ‘error’ and ‘correction’ boxes that made proofing the first galleys easy on the eyes. Also, the narrow lines on the spreadsheet didn’t allow for indicating dropped sentences. And, to top it off, my computer (which uses LibreOffice) will accept Word files for reading but not editing.

Fortunately, Anna Ely assured me that I could send the revision corrections to her directly by e-mail. I did so following the format used for proofing the first page galleys: listing each error and then its correction with enough space to show a dropped line or to make a comment to the designer in brackets.

It would be easier if you could have the same proofing format for initial page galleys available to make post-publication revisions.

(2) My second suggestion concerns how Outskirts could attract substantial new business. Without knowing who most of your other authors are, I run the risk of preaching to a crowded choir here, but bear with me. Your website seems designed to attract first-time writers. I’m sure saying that does an injustice to many professionals who already publish with you, and no offense is intended. After all, Prayers of God is my first novel, so who am I to complain? It is commendable that you treat all authors the same, whether they intend a family memoir, a gardening book, a volume of poetry, a remembrance of a lost loved one, their take on history, whatever – no matter if the project is their first or tenth foray into print.

A close friend of mine has counseled troubled children for many years for a Western state agency. On occasion, he receives a grant from that state to print a journal of peer-approved essays. The publisher he uses has routinely charged five times what Outskirts would, even at the level of your most expensive option. When I told him how well Prayers of God had turned out under your auspices, and on Outskirts’s next-to-bottom option rung at that, he went to your website and was put off by what he called its “obvious pitch to amateurs.” He may yet come around when I mail him the novel.

I’m also told, on excellent authority, than university presses [and I’m not speaking of Cornell here] are rejecting books by distinguished professors who have had no trouble in the past in placing their wares. A number of those rejected, once they’ve swallowed their indignation, are beginning to self-publish. I suspect more than a few have come your way already. I also know of blue-chip public relations firms that increasingly outsource their clients’ printing needs to far-flung vendors, even billing a client in full for such (beyond their own service fees).

So, my suggestion is that you create a quadrant on your website specifically pitched toward academic (or collegiate-oriented) authors, and other professionals in government, public relations, law, health, etc. This would in no way detract from your approach to people interested in more personal projects. I think you would be astounded by the inflow of new business. Most professionals in those fields want no-nonsense turn-arounds (which I certainly obtained from you). In my experience, your delivery time (less than five months) would be more than agreeable for anyone implementing a well-planned publishing project. (I’m not speaking of CEOs who wants fast overnight printing for a board meeting the next day – Kinko’s you are not.)

Finally, I realize that Prayers of God does not qualify, because of its Sapphire option and private-label lineage, for consideration of awards – or attention being called to it – within Outskirts. That’s quite all right. My satisfaction comes entirely from knowing that the first edition of what others say could become a world classic has been handled so well. Again, I want to congratulate Jamie Belt, Brie Curtis, Anna Ely, Michelle (I only know her first name) and others in the Outskirts production department for their fine work. My thanks to you, as well, for setting the standards you have, and for reading through this long letter. Feel free to quote from any of this for your own purposes.


Robert Mottley