The Business of Books: Two local authors compare self-publishing and using a publishing company

As one of my English professors once told me, there’s not a lot of money in fiction writing, but that isn’t stopping two local writers from pursuing their dreams of perhaps one day appearing on The New York Times Best Sellers list.

Jimmie Barnes, a local musician and aspiring author who lives in Vidor, self-published his first book, “Redbone,” in 2017.

The song “Redbone,” written by Barnes and performed by local musicians Tim Burge and Scott McGill, sets the stage for Barnes’ novel.

“I took the song and started working on the book,” he said.

The story is about writer Tim Jones’s journey in search of his deceased grandfather’s friend and “blood brother” James Mathew Trinto, to hear about a legend that he could write about — but he isn’t exactly pleased with the legend he discovers.

“Tim was so excited about seeing this man he had been looking so hard for that he didn’t realize he was smiling so big,” Barnes said.

“The sinister air like a dark cloud was also ever present,” Barnes continued. “There were so many answers to questions this man held inside. Tim didn’t know where to start. But one look inside the old man’s eyes as they drew closer, and Tim knew all his questions would soon be answered. And for the first time, Tim wondered if he really wanted to know.”

“Redbone” is the first very demon, the devil’s right hand, and is a villain gunslinger by day and werewolf by night, Barnes explained.

“Unlike the other werewolf stories, he’s got powers that the cliché wereworlf doesn’t. He can mind speak and teleport,” he said.

But what is the devil in the details of self-publishing a book like Barnes did?

“You think it’s hard to get a song recognized, it’s like a clique in Nashville, but it isn’t anything like the clique with these literary agents,” Barnes explained. “Unless you’ve already got something going and it’s already making some kind of showing, they’re not even going to talk to you.”

Barnes has invested around $5,000 in self-publishing his book “Redbone” through Christian Faith Publishing, a full-service book publisher with offices and operations in the U.S. and Canada whose mission, according to the publisher’s website, “is to discover and market unknown Christian-based authors who aspire to craft the greatest spiritual impact imaginable via the written word.”

“The costs of self-publishing would scare some people,” Barnes explained. “The initial costs of working with Christian Faith Publishing was about $3,500, but that included editing, cover design. They also put out an amazing video trailer.”

Barnes purchased additional copies of his books and a marketing package that included a radio interview.

The publishing company also helped Barnes market his book to a degree and helped him get hard copies in Barnes & Noble and on Amazon and e-versions on Amazon and iTunes.

“Without them, it would be hard to get it in there,” Barnes said. “I would not advise anyone to invest this kind of money unless they really plan on pushing it themselves. The book company can only do so much.”

To market his product, Barnes sets up book signings. He has one scheduled for Saturday, June 30, from 2-4 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Beaumont.

Conversely, James Sanderson, English Department Chair and published author, decided to publish to a niche audience through crime novel publisher Brash Books, whose motto is, “We publish the best crime novels in existence.” Brash picked up Sanderson’s novel “La Mordida.”

Sanderson’s novel sees protagonist Dolph Martinez leading a U.S. Border Patrol task force battling crime and corruption in the empty desert borderlands of Texas and Mexico where “la mordida,” or “the payoff,” is a way of life. He’s a walking embodiment of the violent, cross-cultural clash, his soul torn between the two cultures that make him a very special lawman in an unforgiving place.

But getting picked up by a publisher isn’t an easy task, Sanderson explained, and self-publishing can be unforgiving as well.

“Back in Odessa, I knew a guy that tried to make a living as a gunsmith,” Sanderson said. “A man can make a small fortune gunsmithing if he starts off with a large one. That’s sort of like publishing. Unless you hit it really big, it’s just tough. … I’ve heard of people self-publishing making $3,000-$4,000. That is doable. If you get picked up by a major New York outlet that can lead to money, but most of it doesn’t.”

According to data from a new survey from Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest, the median income range for self-published authors is under $5,000 and nearly 20 percent of self-published authors report deriving no income from their writing.

By comparison, authors published by traditional publishers had a median income range of $5,000 to $9,999 and “hybrid authors” (those who both self-publish and publish with established publishers) had a median income range of $15,000 to $19,999.

At the high end of the spectrum, 1.8 percent of self-published authors made over $100,000 from their writing last year, compared with 8.8 percent of traditionally published authors and 13.2 percent of hybrid authors.

What attracts an audience is not just genre, but also concept, Sanderson explained.

“A takeoff on the genre” is what’s important; coming up with something specific and original within the genre may lead more eyes to the product, he said.

Barnes’ concept of mixing the western and horror genres by creating a cowboy werewolf antagonist is the kind of mish-mash that readers are looking for, said Sanderson.

Amazon has also transformed the business of books by now becoming not only a distributor but also a publisher. Founded in 2009, Amazon Publishing is now a leading publisher of trade fiction, not restricted by genre, and nonfiction print, Kindle eBooks and audiobooks.

Aspiring authors can also self-publish through Amazon in these same media.

Lee Goldberg, co-founder of Brash Books, which publishes Sanderson’s novels, added, “Amazon has democratized publishing in a paradigm-shifting, cataclysmic way. … They made it possible to get on the shelves of the world’s largest bookstore on the same footing as James Patterson or John Grisham or Nora Roberts or Janet Evanovich with just a mouse click. You didn’t need an agent, you didn’t need a publisher; you just needed a book and a computer. The bad news is they put you on the same shelf as James Patterson or John Grisham or Nora Roberts or Janet Evanovich. Just because you can publish with a mouse click doesn’t mean you should.”

Amazon took a lot of the cost out of self-publishing, but that also comes with a problem, according to Goldberg.

“One of the things that publishers do for you (that self-publishing can’t) is that they are a gatekeeper and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They get inundated with slop and they find the books that have the best plots and the best point-of-view and they hone them to make those books even better,” he added.

Both Sanderson and Barnes suggest creating an author page on Facebook and Amazon to market yourself and your products, and both say that going into it for the money isn’t a plausible reason. You have to love the product and have a desire for it to succeed, while knowing that it most likely may not.

Photo by Kevin King - Jimmy Barnes, author of Redbone, poses for a photo in front of the Log Cabin Saloon at Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum.