Self-Publisher Sells Out! How and Why I sold the Rights to my Self-published Novel “Acts of the Apostles” to Underland Press

I recently signed deal with Underland Press, a new, indie publisher founded and led by  Victoria Blake, to give Underland the worldwide rights, electronic and print, to publish my novel Acts of the Apostles in any and all languages in basically any format (printed book, ebook, audiobook, etc).

I’ve been the publisher of this book for eleven years. It has sold pretty well as far as first novels (self- or traditionally published) go, and I have gotten a fair amount of attention for being an innovative self-publishing novelist.

I’ve written that as a self-publisher I get to keep the publisher’s cut as well as the writer’s cut, which means that any publisher would have to offer me a pretty sweet deal before I would consider giving my publisher’s cut to them. And I’ve noted (as have many other people) that in an age when more and more book sales are digital (that is, internet downloads of ebooks), the role of the publisher is less and less relevant.

In fact, over the last six weeks, sales of digital versions of my books have outnumbered sales of printed copies by about 60-1.

So why have I sold my rights to Underland?

Because I want Acts of the Apostles to become a worldwide bestseller. I want sales numbers in the millions. Failing that, it would be at least nice to make some money. I’m gambling that Underland offers the best opportunity for that to happen.

Why Underland?

I decided to contact Underland after discovering that they were the publisher of Finch, a novel by Jeff Vandermeer. I’m a big fan of Vandermeer’s work (fiction and nonfiction), and I really liked Finch. So, I decided to check out Underland.  It’s a new publishing house so there are fewer than a dozen titles and authors published by them. But all their books are interesting, and all their authors are top-notch. I thought, Hey, why not me?

So I decided to ping them, and went looking for their “contact” page, where I found this very welcoming note:

Submissions Policy

We’d like to be able to read everything that lands on our desks, but we can’t. We need to be focused on the books we currently have: editing them, designing them, and sending them off to the printer–plus marketing the bejesus out of them. All of that means we’re not accepting blind submissions at this time. If you send something to us, it will not be read. Harsh, yes. But true. Our lawyers tell us we have to be clear about it.

Kind of reminds you of Oz, doesn’t it? “Who are these who dare to come before me? GO AWAY! DON’T BOTHER ME! The Great and Powerful Oz has spoken!”

I knew right away Underland was my kind of people.

How Underland

With such an enticing come-on as that, how could I not send a query letter? So I did, and I must have done something right, because Victoria wrote right back that she was “intrigued” and asked me to send copies of my books.

(I’m not going to tell you what was in my pitch that intrigued her, because she really is NOT looking for new books, and really IS busy with the books she has in the pipeline (including mine), and she’ll probably be pissed at me for sharing even this amount  of info.  If you want to get by Oz, you’re on your own, soldier.)

So I packaged up a set of my books and went down to the post office and sent ’em out, going so far as to pay for first class postage instead of my usual “media mail” rate.

I expected that The Pains would be the book of mine that most matched Underland’s sweet spot, but she expressed interest in Acts. I expected that I would not hear back from Underland for a few months.

I got a note from Victoria about 4 days after I sent the books. It went something like this:

“Usually when I get an unsolicited manuscript I read the first page or two, decide it’s not for me, and go on to the next project. With your book, I sat down to read the first two pages, and ended up reading the next 100. I love it (so far)!”

It was an exciting and ego-boosting note, I do admit it.

But I was to learn that we were only in the opening stages of our courtship.

That was several months ago, and what has happened in the meantime is that Underland expressed strong interest in the book, but with reservations. Acts was almost, but not quite, good enough to become an Underland Press title.  Victoria wrote to ask whether I would be willing to revise parts of the book in order to get a deal.

Well, that deflated me, I have to say. I had worked on the book for four years, 1995-1999, during which time I rewrote it many, many, many times at the direction of my then agent in order to make it more interesting to this big-name editor or that big-name movie producer. The process nearly killed me (and my marriage (which survived, yay!)), and in the end I never got an offer and wound up publishing the book myself. (Those edits did make it a better book. But still. . . Four years!) .

I’ve since written two more books and am deep into writing another novel, Creation Science. Besides, Acts of the Apostles has sold very well for a self-published book and has gotten pantloads of really enthusiastic reviews. It’s not a perfect book but it’s pretty damn good. So really, the last thing in the world I wanted to hear about was rewriting Acts of the Apostles. Especially since the two books I wrote after Acts, Cheap Complex Devices and The Pains are part of a series (“Mind over Matter”) with Acts, so changes to Acts ran the risk of messing up its relationship with the series.

But Victoria offered to hire an editor, at her expense, to read Acts, write an analysis, and make suggestions for improving it. So I said, “fine”, and she did so, and a few weeks later she sent me the result, and I had to agree that the outside editor had spotted the weak spots in the book and made reasonable suggestions for improving it. The suggestions were basically for fine-tuning the book that’s already written, not for a wholesale rewrite.

I replied, “Hey, for a decent offer, I’m willing to make corrections of this sort.”

Underland made an offer, I thought it was decent, and we did the deal.

What’s Next

I am going to make the edits that Underland wants, and at some point the book is going to be scheduled for publication. That’s about all I can say about that. I’ve been given permission to sell the remaining small inventory of the first printing of Acts, and the electronic editions of Acts in its current form will remain available for sale, by me, until sometime before the new edition is ready. This is kind of a delicate dance, because it’s in both my interest and Underland’s interest to keep up interest in the book (so it wouldn’t make sense to pull it off the shelves now), but on the other hand Underland strongly believes that the new, Underland version of Acts of the Apostles will be a better book than the one currently on sale –why else would they have asked for revisions?–and I do too. Underland wants to make money selling the Underland version, but it will take a goodly amount of time before that will be ready. Plus, in my current situation I need every penny I can find, and selling  Acts does provide a little grocery money every month. Like I said, it’s a little delicate. But we’re working in good faith to get the new version done and out there with all deliberate speed.

And I’m also working like hell on writing Creation Science, and on selling copies my other books.

The “Real Publisher” Gambit

If ebooks really are the future, and if I can do ebooks perfectly well without help from Underland or any other publisher, and if my book is already fully baked, why have I decided to leave the Indie Life for this book? Why have I agreed to share not only my ebook royalties but also translation rights, audiobook rights, and the whole nine yards? I mean, that’s some valuable capital, and I spent more than a decade building it. Why am I giving it away?

It’s simple, really. I believe that Acts of the Apostles should be an international best-seller. It’s a well-written thriller, and it has held up very well.  In fact in many ways it’s more timely today than when I wrote it. It’s a better book than the DaVinci Code, and it’s at least as good as many of Michael Crichton’s bestsellers. And yet it cannot be found in any bookstores, and for all my bluster about being a great indie self-publisher, I’ve only sold around five thousand copies of the thing (paper and ebook) over the last eleven years–about a book a day. I think if it were going to become that mythical beast, the self-published book that sells a million copies, it would have done so by now.

Finch isn’t a million-seller, by the way. Despite all the its critical praise & award nominations it’s received (it is a great book), it’s hardly selling Dan Brown numbers. Having an Underland book isn’t a magic ticket to Tom Clancyville. On the other hand, like The DaVinci Code and like The Hunt for Red October, Acts is a thriller, and when thrillers catch on, they often catch on big.

It’s my hope and belief that Underland is going to get my book into bookstores, generate some buzz in ways that I can’t, open some doors that have remained closed. And I believe that, given the right buzz and entry into some heretofore closed rooms,  this book has a real chance to be the blockbuster I think it should be. And if it doesn’t, well, I’ll certainly be no worse off than I am now, and I’ll have learned a few things too, I have no doubt.

And frankly, it’s also nice to have a partner willing to “put some skin in the game”, as they say, especially a partner that puts me in the company of writers like Jeff Vandermeer, Kevin Brockmeier and Brian Evenson.

I wish the Underland Acts of the Apostles were available for sale today. But it’s going to be a while. Whatever happens, I’m looking forward to the ride.

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3 Comments

  1. Chris Kelly says:

    Congratultions, you must be over the moon.

  2. John,

    This was a really great piece and I’m glad I had a chance to read it. Congratulations on working with Underland. I’ve met Victoria Blake. She will do a lot of good things for you and your book and work hard to make it a success. You certainly in good company. I love to hear stories like this and look forward to you future success.

  3. Harold says:

    Congratulations. And don’t take being asked to fine tune after 15 years have passed as deflating the ego. After all, you would HOPE you had grown as a writer over the last 15 years, yes?

    Looking forward to your getting the big payoff.

  4. […] Defcon, by the way, I’ve sold the rights to my first novel, Acts of the Apostles. See here for the how and why I sold the […]

  5. […] Defcon, by the way, I’ve sold the rights to my first novel, Acts of the Apostles. See here for the how and why I sold the […]

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  1. […] Defcon, by the way, I’ve sold the rights to my first novel, Acts of the Apostles. See here for the how and why I sold the […]

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