Dan Smith is a veteran journalist, writer, editor and the founder and director of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference. Dan recently answered my questions about his new novel, CLOG!, including his journey to publication and the decision to self-publish.
Q. Tell me about your new novel.
DAN SMITH: CLOG! is the story of the adjustments a boy must make in his life as he faces a new school and all-new challenges. Eb McCourry has left his crumbling family to attend his final year of high school in a remote North Carolina mountain community, living in a children’s home. He is a good athlete and catches on immediately with the football team, but shortly he is recruited by a sharp-eyed square dance team captain trying to help fill the team’s mononucleosis-depleted ranks. The team is a state powerhouse and in the past has won three national championships.
Eb takes immediately to the dance team, working with polished dancers and developing something of a crush on the young woman who recruited him, his left tackle’s girlfriend.
He begins to take a leadership role on both the football team–where as the quarterback he helps develop a conference contender with his skill and leadership–and on the dance team, where he is learning in a backup role.
The square dance team faces a stiff threat to its dominance in the region from a huge high school in Asheville where the father of a dancer has brought in an accomplished ballet teacher from New York and she has recruited a team from the North Carolina School of the Arts, all to win the coveted Old Smoky trophy at the Mountain Youth Jamboree in Asheville for the daughter’s mantle. He has spent thousands of dollars creating a juggernaut, even as the small school struggles.
Meanwhile, Eb falls for the lovely and bright Lizetta McIntosh and a young love storyline develops.
Eb’s coming of age is at the center of the story, but the dual competitions (football and dancing) provide the core of the book and lead to a heart-thumping conclusion where both teams are playing for titles on the same day in Asheville.
Q. Why did you decide to self-publish? Take me through your process.
DAN SMITH: Initially, I went through the routine of making an attempt at conventional publishing. I contacted about 125 agents and, while I got some good feedback, nobody was buying what one derisively called “a page turner about square dancing?”
This took a few months and wasn’t the response I wanted from the book.
I went back to the beginning and thought about what I wanted from CLOG! and it wasn’t plowing through the field of agents, who’d then have to mine for a publisher, which would then have me do major re-writes (the book was re-written 10 times) before publishing two years down the road with a net gain in royalties of about 10 percent.
So, I thought, “Hell, publish it myself and get the book I want.” Since there is very little money in books anyway, and since money wasn’t my goal (I have enough), this seemed to be the right choice.
I have published five books, two conventionally, three myself, and I’ve had better experiences with the self-pubs every time, though the conventional books generally made more money.
CLOG! is a book that would have sold eventually had I been willing to put in the time and effort necessary to find an agent who believed in it. I think it is a book a publisher would be proud to publish, if I found the right company
Q. How did you decide to go with CreateSpace?
DAN SMITH: I chose CreateSpace on the recommendation of several people who have used it extensively, especially Karen Chase (Bonjour 40) and Liz Long (several novels). They have both been quite successful with self-pubs and their books are high-quality publications.
I had used Author House in the past, but found it completely lacking in almost every manner, save that it prints the books well. It is quite expensive and is constantly up-selling. I learned that many of these types of pub houses work this way.
CreateSpace does not.
I put the book together myself (I have been a journalist for nearly five decades and have worked as a layout guy as well) and had my friend and former business partner Tom Field, one of the region’s best designers, do the cover. Laying out the book took about half a day. I proofed a bound copy, approved it and the book was instantly available online as an e-book and on order from CreateSpace and amazon.com. I could have selected a number of marketing and circulation options for the book, but chose to market it myself.
From the minute I started laying out the book, to the minute it was available was less than half a day. Shipping the first books to me took three days.
My royalties are geometrically higher than they were with Author House (CreateSpace offers by far the best return I’ve seen in publishing) and I am truly happy with the experience (mostly because CreateSpace has not smothered me with marketing calls and because it stayed out of my way).
I am not selling CreateSpace, but my experience with it was quite good. I am certain that in this competitive field there are others of its quality.
Q. What have you learned? Any particular do’s and don’ts?
DAN SMITH: I haven’t learned so much new as I’ve had some ideas reinforced. Self-publishing is a great way to get your book into print if making a living and large numbers of sales are not your goals. I’m 67 years old and wanted to publish a novel–a good one–before kicking the list bucket down the road. This was an excellent way to reach that goal.
I used my network of friends who are writers and editors to create a professional book. I am extremely fortunate to have those friends and we return these kinds of favors to each other (I’ve edited a number of books for free). If you want to self-pub and you don’t have that network, for god’s sake develop it. There are plenty of writer’s groups around where you can start and the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference (scheduled next January 30-31 at Hollins University) and its accompanying Writers Series of monthly classes at Community High (information at firstname.lastname@example.org) will help you develop skills and a network in the Roanoke/New River Valley/Lynchburg region. Nearly every area of the country has something comparable.
Remember one crucial point: Don’t try to write a book by yourself. Books are team projects and must be that because writing is a lonely venture and one full of pratfalls and holes that can be filled by others.
Q. Any final comments?
DAN SMITH: The most important first question is always: Why am I writing this book? You can go in several different publishing directions once that’s answered and the publishing business is changing dramatically every day, mostly to the benefit of authors who used to be–but no longer have to be–the serfs of the industry.
Musicians laid out a new course in publishing several years ago and writers are now following enthusiastically, and the benefit here is all in the lap of the writers, whether they publish conventionally or through a service like CreateSpace.
If you have a story to tell these days, you can tell it on your terms.