"Recognizing Excellence in Independent Publishing"
The "IPPY" Awards, launched in 1996, are designed to bring increased recognition to the deserving but often unsung titles published by independent authors and publishers. Established as the first awards program open exclusively to independents, nearly 800 "IPPYs" have been awarded to publishers throughout North America. The upcoming 2003 Awards will recognize Ten Outstanding Books of the Year in categories such as Most Inspirational to Youth and Most Likely To Save the Planet, and to a winner and two finalists in 52 different categories, ranging from non-fiction categories like Architecture and Religion, to fiction categories like Multicultural and Horror. In 2002 we saw continued emergence of quality publishing from throughout North America, with Awards going to winners and finalists from 31 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces. Two e-books and five print-on-demand titles won awards last year.
Adventures in Self-Publishing
An Interview with Frederick Su, author of AN AMERICAN SIN, winner of the Multicultural Fiction IPPY AWARD 2002.One of the main aspects of independent publishing and hence the Independent Publisher Book Awards is the expression of cultural diversity. Each year we are gratified by the growth in participation and the increased quality of the books entered in our Multicultural categories. The "IPPY" Awards now include four Multicultural categories: Fiction-Adult, Fiction-Juvenile/Young Adult, Non-fiction Adult and Non-fiction Juv/Y-A.
The 2002 adult fiction winner was a stunning debut novel by Frederick Su, An American Sin (bytewrite LLC), a story about an Asian-American serving with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam. In this story of war, sin, and partial redemption, the author brings the perspective of growing up Asian in mainstream American society. From the racism he experienced as a youth in Nevada to the sin he committed in Vietnam, David Wong was driven by a need to fit in. This results in his murdering an old Mama-san and her granddaughter while on long-range patrol -- an act that haunts him for the rest of his days.
We recently spoke with Frederick Su, seven months after he received his IPPY Award, and talked about his book, his award, and the challenges of promoting self-published fiction.
An American Sin reminds readers how during the Vietnam War, civilians were murdered by American ground troops. The most egregious example, of course, was at My Lai, and there were other incidents. Why, we ask? "Maybe it was because the Vietnamese were another race and culture, therefore subhuman (pejoratively called "gooks"), and thus killable with no remorse," says Su. "Of course I also acknowledge the contributions made by the good soldiers, who were in the vast majority. But, when I began to write the book I wondered, how could someone live with himself after committing such an act? I wanted to explore this issue on a personal level. And to me there was no better vehicle than the novel."
Su didn't end up going to Vietnam himself, but his cousin did. While there, a Vietnamese civilian saw him in uniform and said, "You're like me." So, using the realm of "what if," Su put the two themes together by postulating an Asian American soldier murdering Vietnamese civilians -- murdering his own kind, you might say -- in order to prove his "Americanness."
"The concept of Right and Wrong is supposedly instilled in us by parents, educators, and religious leaders," says Su. "But very few of us, when faced with a life or death situation, will ever choose Right if, by doing so, we die. It takes a tremendous amount of self-esteem and courage, especially as a young adult, to make the right choice. Hugh Thompson, the hero of My Lai, had those qualities, and is fictionalized in one chapter of my novel. David Wong, the antihero protagonist of An American Sin, on the other hand, lacked self-esteem-from being beaten down so much because of his race. His unholy desire to be accepted by his comrades-in-arms pushed him over the edge to commit a heinous act -- his great sin."
The novel goes on to explore the psychological cost to Wong and whether he can wend a path out of his morbid self-hate and self-pity. He does, after all, have a conscience and that is, perhaps, what leads him on his path to redemption. In short, the novel is a morality tale that explores issues of racism, war, and identity against the backdrop of being Asian in mainstream American society.
It wasn't an easy story to tell, and Su ended up with a huge manuscript of 160,000 words. He shopped it around to agents and editors for 10 fruitless years before deciding to sit down and look at the manuscript agin with a more jaundiced eye. Right away, he cut 59,000 words - and he began thinking about self-publishing. While a lot of self-published work was starting to become successful at that time, Su realized that the majority of these books were nonfiction.
IP: How difficult is it to market fiction, and how have you met these challenges?
FS: Fiction is so subjective. While nonfiction usually has a niche market, there is a gamut of taste in fiction. Whether your book is a success depends on how well you market to the widest possible range of taste. It's probably best to segment the market first. In my case, since the novel is about an Asian American and Vietnam, I sent out a lot of press releases to Asian American media. But, I also discovered that many white Americans enjoyed the novel, too, so a lot of press releases went to regular media.
Realize that a self-published novel will not get reviewed in the major media. If you live in a small town, you should be able to get it reviewed in the local newspaper. But, in my experience, the big city newspapers absolutely refuse to review self-published books. They have a prejudice, and like all prejudices, it spills across all members of a class, condemning categorically rather than judging the character of the individual-be it a person or a work.
Also, in my experience, you even have difficulty convincing acquaintances to buy the book because it is self-published!
Then, what to do? Book readings are one way to get the word out. Start with your local bookstore and build on those relationships to extend your range. When pitching to other bookstores, I wouldn't mention that the book is self-published, but won't deny it, if asked.
Publicity about the book can come via press releases or by paying for ads. In my experience, a paid ad works better if it is used in conjunction to announce a local reading. They are expensive and should be used sparingly. Another tactic is to get together with a couple of other small publishers to run an ad showcasing each publisher's book, thus splitting the cost of the ad.
Press releases are best because they're free. Send them out to local, regional, and even national media. They should have the title of your book, author, publisher, ISBN, a short description, any review bites, and announcement of any awards.
No one will know your book exists unless you tell them. And, while you see hundreds of people on television promoting their books, realize that most of them are celebrities and are usually pitching nonfiction books. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to get on television for a first-time author of a self-published novel.
IP: Has winning the Multicultural Fiction IPPY award helped?
FS: Yes, you bet. Winning an award or being a finalist for an award brings recognition to the work and the author. The author may believe his or her work is good, but there is always a lingering doubt in one's mind. Winning an award gives affirmation to the author that the work is good. Now the author can go out and write those press releases and ads with mention of those awards. It carries weight with bookstores to line up readings. It carries weight with prospective readers because they know someone in the trade has read the work and liked it. It sets your work apart and gives it prestige.
IP: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages in self-publishing?
FS: The great advantage in self-publishing is that you're finally giving birth to your work. It's popping out into the world after many, many months in the womb. Moreover, you're aware of its value. You don't need an acquisitions editor to look it over and judge its fate. So, you don't need to send out multiple copies to different publishing houses and wait as much as 18 months before you hear back from them.
The flip side of the coin is that editors do serve several functions. And, as a self-publisher, you're going to have to fill those shoes and/or hire people who can fill those shoes.
The first question that needs to be answered is, is your novel any good? Whether you're a New York publishing house or a very small publisher, it boils down to (1) is it a good, compelling story, and (2) is it well written? All else is based on those two cornerstones. How do you answer those two questions? Well, that's where the writing class comes in. Also, let your writing/editing/bookselling friends and acquaintances read the manuscript. Pay them a nominal fee, say, $100. Some will read it for free. Believe me, you don't want to go through the expense, time, and aggravation of becoming a publisher if the book is so badly written it ends up in the recycle bin.
Also, I know a lot of people who have written novels but are shy about letting other people read it, as if by so doing they might have their hopes dashed by an honest critique. Well, it's not gonna sell unless it's good; and it becomes good by honest critiques.
Okay, you've determined that your novel is good, or several people have said so. Now what? The greatest trap in self-publishing is not hiring outside copy editors and proofreaders. Good writing is better writing with good editing. Never, ever, go to press without having outside editors and proofreaders go over your book. You, as author, are too close to your work and, for some reason the brain shuts down when examining your own work. Believe me on this point. Having worked as a technology writer and editor for 13 years, I consider myself a decent editor. But it was amazing how many errors sneaked by me when I edited my own voluminous work. Time away does help. But outside readers have fresh eyes and will provide more insight on your work.
A copy editor or line editor will go over your whole novel, examining structure, flow, grammar, characterization, and scenes. He or she will easily spot extraneous passages or scenes that you find absolutely fascinating. Of course, you have final say and will accept or decline his or her suggestions. In my case, I incorporated most of them because they made the copy and story clearer.
When all of the editing is done, there is still proofreading. Proofreading is the final read by someone who will spot the little glitches that occur in almost all books. These include grammatical errors missed by the copy editor, repetition, typographical errors, misspellings, omitted letters, improper paragraph/page breaks, et cetera. The proofreading should be done when the manuscript is in final typeset form as a bound document. I took mine to the local photocopy firm and had them coil bind the manuscript so that it looked similar to the final copy.
New York publishers typically have only a handful of errors in their final product. Aim for that. From experience, it is not easy.
Another trap is ordering too many books in the first printing. I was warned about that. I suggest a first print run of 500-2,000 copies to test the market. You can easily do another print run if there is demand. You're going to be competing with about 15,000 other fiction titles, so don't expect your novel to fly off the shelves within six months' time. Rather, think two to five years. In all that time, you have to market, market, market.
IP: What trends do you see in the future for multicultural publishing?
I think there is a sea change occurring in publishing. You only have to look at the big New York publishers with their multi-million dollar advances to celebrities who want to write about their glorified lifestyles to realize the state of necrosis big publishing is in. And, wonder of wonders! Just because you're a celebrity doesn't mean you can write well (even with ghostwriters).
The saving grace is that small publishers, very small publishers, and self-publishers are filling the gap. Here in the Northwest, some self-publishers and a very small publisher are stirring the waters. India Treasures by Gary Worthington (www.timebridgespublishers.com) is a wonderful historical novel. Another wonderful novel is Chance, An Existential Horse Opera, by James Knisely (www.mwynhad.com). Then there is Islands, by Sara Stamey (www.tarragonbooks.com), a whodunit set in the Caribbean.
As more and more self-published and small press novels mature in content and execution, the center of the publishing world will shift from New York City. Many more wonderful voices will be heard. I don't know about you, but to me, that's good news and will signal a new resurrection in fiction based predominantly on, dammit, the story and its writing rather than the almighty dollar. All for the love of fine fiction.
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Frederick Su was trained as a physicist, but somewhere along the line discovered his penchant for writing overtook his fondness for equations. He is an ex-Marine of the Vietnam era.
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An American Sin
335 pages, Trade Paperback; $15.00 U.S