While New York Sleeps, Self-Published Authors Are Taking Over Literature

A new breed of Portland writers goes solo.

By Zach Dundas January 25, 2016 Published in the February 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Matt Chase

Angela Sanders was just an aspiring novelist with a day job. Then the Savior intervened. (The following is weird, but true—she says!) Sitting at her desk at the Cascade AIDS Project, where she works on grant applications, she glanced at her lampshade. There she saw it, crinkled into the shade’s red faux-leather: the face of Jesus Christ.

“I’m not really religious,” Sanders says, “but I circled it in pencil, and canceled my contract with my book agent.”

Sanders harbors specific literary ambitions: “I want to write trashy mysteries—well-done trash.” She had pursued the traditional course, scrivening manuscripts in obscurity, hoping her literary agent could pry a paying contract out of some gimlet-eyed publisher. The prospects for success were not bright. Success itself wouldn’t be particularly bright, either. “In genre fiction,” she notes, “it’s common to get advances like $15,000 for three books.”

But now revelation called, and it called her to self-publishing. Like an increasing number of authors in Portland and elsewhere, Sanders departed from the old model of submission (consider the word) to commercial publishers. She contracted with an editor, hired a cover designer, and published her work herself starting in 2014. She used tools—online publishing platforms by Apple and Amazon, print-on-demand technology—that have turned the scorned “vanity” publishing of yore into intrepid “indie” publishing. “You should be able to publish a book that looks as good as anything for about $1,000,” she says.

Sanders’s mysteries centered on a Portland vintage shop (sample title: Dior or Die) sold well enough that one ended up on Amazon’s top-sellers list for the genre. Now, Sanders works both on her own and with a traditional publisher. “Indie publishing  redefines success,” she says. “The agent and the contract are optional.”

She’s just one of many writers who believe they’ve seen the light.

Indie publishing’s renaissance began in November 2007, when Amazon rolled out the Kindle and “direct publishing,” allowing any author to upload an e-book to sell, priced as low as 99 cents. (That speaks to one reason indie books have found an audience: they tend to be incredibly cheap.) An explosion of titles followed, especially in genre fiction, proving that the New York–centric publishing industry grasped only a fraction of the public’s reading appetites. The indie world remains heavily electronic and—though Apple, Google, and others are in the game—heavily Amazonian. The Seattle-based giant is responsible for more than 80 percent of indie e-book sales.

New paths to print opened, too. Authors can upload work to Amazon’s CreateSpace platform; the company prints copies as they’re sold. Since 2012, Powell’s has printed thousands of books using its in-house Espresso Book Machine. “Some authors print one copy,” says Eric Fischer of Powell’s. “Others are clearly selling hundreds of copies, because they repeatedly come back for orders of 30 or 50.”

But conversations with Portland’s successful indie authors tend not to dwell on numbers. Instead, these writers revel in freedom, community, and a whole new culture of authorship.

Jason Gurley, a 37-year-old Portland graphic designer, started working on a fantasy-tinged novel titled Eleanor in 2001. And kept working on it. “In 2012, my wife suggested it would be good to take a break,” he says. In short order, he belted out four sci-fi novels, designed covers, and self-published. “It was like a dam burst,” Gurley says. He rewrote Eleanor, self-published the novel in 2014, and soon found himself with an Amazon best seller and calls from Hollywood. Crown, a division of Random House, republished the book in January.

Gurley says his indie beginnings led to his mainstream success. “As a writer, doing the work taught me how to do the work,” he says. “To publish and get reader feedback was critical. And I learned almost everything about how to publish from people I met either online or here in Portland in the indie publishing community.”

Portland-area indie authors are discovering new ways to find readers and creating work that traditional publishing could never concoct. William Hertling, a tech entrepreneur, markets his sci-fi novels to tech-scene and business audiences, and sells tens of thousands of copies. “They might pick up one or two fiction books a year,” he says. “Self-publishing allows you to be more creative about marketing.” Erik Wecks, unemployed in 2011, wrote a book titled How to Manage Your Money When You Don’t Have Any—a target demographic no professional marketer would choose—and sold 70,000 copies, attracting interest from around the world.

“Indie publishing is about taking chances,” says Maggie Lynch of Windtree Press, a Hillsboro-based co-op of DIY writers. Does such an unfettered world spawn possibly dubious trends? Arguably. (One leading indie subgenre concerns “BBW shapeshifters”: voluptuous women falling in love with—or maybe turning into?—werewolves, or something.) But good, bad, or weird, indie publishing sparks new creative adventures.

Angela Sanders, for example, is now at work on a new series of caper mysteries. “There aren’t enough capers in the world,” she says. Inspiration need not always be divine.

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