Self-Publishing Lessons

Writing a book was the last thing that I thought I would ever do, until a thoughtless, throwaway comment from a friend changed me, and I felt the urgent need to write about it. “You must be relieved,” she said just after I had arrived home from dropping my teenage son, who has autism, at a special residential school many miles from our home in California.

But I wasn’t relieved. I felt heartbroken and lost and like a failure of a mother. Maybe, I thought, if I wrote just one story about what it was like to raise a son like Matthew it would help. In the year that followed, I joined a writing group, took writing classes and published a number of my stories. I crafted my stories into a book, A Regular Guy: Growing up with Autism, and after having it edited by my writing group and the legendary Alan Rinzler, I started pitching it to agents.

Isn’t it funny how new writers think that once they get an agent they will get a publisher?

That is what I thought when the highly-placed associate at a very prominent agency said she would like to represent me. I’d gotten carried away with marketing the book even before it was published and was signed up at a number of conferences where I assumed I would sell it.

The day that my agent said “I’m so sorry I have not been able to place your book,” I actually thought she was kidding. We’d had so many close calls, SURELY someone would eventually see the light. “What do people do,” I asked, “when an agent can’t place a book?”

She paused and said “I think you should self-publish.”

That was three years ago. My book has been out for nearly two years and I’ve sold about 6,000 copies. This is what I learned:

Writing, designing and printing the book is the easy part. Finding distributors and marketing the book is the hard part.

It sounds like a great idea just to sell your book for the full retail price (mine $14.95) on your website and at events, but people want to buy it on Amazon for $10 or less, or from bookstores or in e-book form. You must make it available to them.

Some independent bookstores will let you sell your book on consignment, but in my experience, the independents aren’t good at paying. And it is a pain driving around to restock or nag about payment.

Marketing is important, but it is expensive (especially when you spend on marketing that doesn’t work.)

I found that the best bang for my marketing buck was facebook ads, articles in national publications with a link to my book and guest blog posts on prominent website.

Biggest waste of my marketing buck?

Buying a library flyer from IBPA for distribution to 4000 libraries. I got very few sales from the flyers and it cost me a few thousand dollars to participate. What about publishers “picking up” your book? I was under the impression that after selling a few thousand copies (which happened quickly) that a publisher would pick it up. This has not happened—yet—but there is interest in my second and third book. I’m in the midst of writing book proposals. If I had to do it over again…I would have tried to sell foreign rights for my book. I was intimidated by the process, but would have learned how if I tried and I would have sold a lot more books. I guess it’s not too late…I would have gotten it into e-book form earlier. I would have made pod-casts to help market the book (am doing that now).

Biggest challenges?

Distribution. I think I would have sold a lot more books if it was available more places and if people knew about it.

Accounting. I’m not good at it.

Marketing. I am good at marketing, but it is something you need to be thinking about and doing every single day!!!

Did I make money?

Yes, but not as much as I thought I would.

Would I do it again?

I do not regret doing it the first time, but the NEXT time I’ll hold out for a publisher. I will still need to market it like crazy, but that’s OK!

Final words of wisdom?

I heard it once said that the difference between a writer and an author is that a writer just writes, but an author writes and promotes. Don’t just self-publish a book because “you want to get it out there.” It’s not just going to get out there by itself. Put on your marketing hat and shoot for the stars!

Laura Shumaker is the author of  A Regular Guy: Growing Up With Autism, a memoir about raising her autistic son, Matthew, to young adulthood. She is a regular contributor to NPR Perspectives and writes a nationally recognized autism blog for the San Francisco Chronicle. A columnist for,  her essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, the Contra Costa Times, The Autism Advocate, on, and in myriad anthologies including Voices of Autism, Cup of Comfort and Gravity Pulls You In. Laura has two more books in the pipeline, and speaks regularly to schools, book and disability groups and lives in Lafayette, California with her husband, Peter, and her three sons.