'Hummel's Cross' and the Triumph of the New Publishing Democracy

Back in August of 2010 I posted an article on Big Hollywood discussing the release of my World War II novel, “Hummel’s Cross.” It is a fictional account, as told from the introspective first person narrative of an old man, of the events in the life Erich Hummel, a German youth who ends up flying fighter planes for the Luftwaffe during the war and is so skilled as to be decorated by Hitler himself.

And yet he will eventually turn traitor to the Nazi regime by first helping to hide and then eventually spirit a family of German Jews out of the country during the height of the air war over Western Europe.



What made the book’s release an interesting story in and of itself is that I decided to forgo—perhaps ‘bypass’ is a better word—the traditional route of many submissions to literary agents and then, should I be lucky enough to land representation, eventual publication under an existing publishing house. Instead I took a chance and published the book myself, through my own company that I formed called OCM Paperbacks (a division of my money management firm Occam Capital). There were several reasons for going down this road.

Why Did I Self-Publish?

First of all, it is very difficult for even the finest of fiction pieces to find an agent, let alone get published. This is a sign of the times, and I do not fault the houses for this. Like all businesses, they have limited resources and must, in the end, make a profit more than a literary statement. If given the choice between an unknown author offering up a fiction title or either the next batch of Stephen King manuscripts or a renowned (or infamous) figure in the news coming out with a tell-all memoir, of course they must go for the sure thing. So the odds are my manuscript, like the vast majority of submissions, would have died in the “reject” pile.

Secondly, I felt that Kindle provided a very low-cost entry point previously denied to authors and publishers alike. There are now over one million titles on Kindle, many of them self-published. It costs nothing to put your book up on the screen and offer it for sale, and you will keep a healthy percentage with zero operating costs. Like iTunes for music, it is a great business model for both the new artist and listing house. Every month a credit directly from Amazon to OCM’s account is a testament to the viability of this model.

I actually opted for the “hybrid” approach in that my book is available both in paperback and e-book. It can be purchased now on both Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com (only paper in the latter though, no ‘Nook’ yet) and local book stores in my area. I wanted to accommodate those readers who still like to hold the physical book in their hands. However, print publishing is costly, so I had to shell out a good amount of money to have enough paperbacks printed so that I am at a (barely) profitable price point per unit for physical book sales. The Amazon Advantage program takes a healthy chunk of hardcopy sales, but they also handle the purchase orders, book storage, and delivery (in fact, while writing this I just received via email another P/O which I will ship out tomorrow.) But these razor-thin margins are “goosed,” so to speak, by Kindle sales whose profits are much higher, and thus the Kindle version is listed as $6.99 versus $12.99 for hard copy.

Finally, I wanted to maintain the full literary rights while learning an entirely new business at the same time. Now, I am technically a publisher as well as a novelist. Life should always be a learning experience no matter how old you get. And I wish to die thoroughly exhausted.

The Downside To Self-Publishing

What are the pitfalls of self-publishing? Besides the obvious out-of-pocket costs if you go for the print route, there is the marketing, which I think is the main advantage of the traditional process. But the hurdle of anonymity can be overcome with tenacity and belief in your work. For example, “Hummel’s Cross” just made it onto Glenn Beck’s Book List of preferred reading, sharing a very flattering position with works by Ayn Rand, Corrie Ten Boom, Gavin De Becker and Andrew Napolitano among others. If you write a good book, it will get noticed.

Another pitfall that I did not anticipate was the excruciating process of editing. I am not a detail-oriented person. Yet even with the hiring of two outside proof-readers (college English majors happy for a chance to monetize their degrees), the occasional typo or grammatical error snuck through. These are easy to fix on Kindle, which allows constant editing, and is thus another advantage of e-publishing. But once in print they, are there to stay until the next batch rolls off the presses.

Also, from an historical standpoint, there are some tiny errors that only the most avid expert on the Luftwaffe in WW2 would notice but might have been caught by a more skilled reviewer at a Random House or Simon & Schuster. For example, I take historical license by awarding Hummel the Knight’s Cross and the adorning Oak Leaves at same time when an Amazon reviewer scolded me because they were never awarded together … but I needed Hummel to seem more important, so forgive me.

Also, I realized only after going to print that with one typo in an instruction to the printer, I accidentally promoted a character from an “Oberleutnant” to an “Oberstleutnant” (roughly the equivalent of going from First Lieutenant to Bird Colonel) which will be rectified in the next printing, but there’s nothing I can do about the ones already on the market (as it does not diminish from the story one iota I can live without a costly re-print, although I had an agent offer the rationale that the minutely flawed first batch which are selling out quickly may actually be collector’s items should the book become a best-seller... interesting). Perhaps a big house would have brought in an historian to go over my manuscript with a fine tooth comb before going to press. I don’t know. But to me the sporadic typo is not worth giving up most of the rights to my work.

It's About Upside

And the rights are really what it’s about for me. As an entrepreneur who owns two small businesses, I always play for the upside. Sometimes I win, sometimes not. But I know that by retaining full rights to my own book thanks to self-publishing, I have just that. Now, I’ll be the first to say that “Hummel’s Cross” is no “Tale of Two Cities.” It was intentionally written to be a fast read. It has short, staccato chapters to be digested between train stops or by the pool. I chose to set up the structure quickly and not dive too deep or wallow too long in the backstory, but rather usher the reader into the meat and potatoes of the story at a page-turning pace. And yet there is much WW2 history to be learned in the process. In short, I went for the thinking man/woman's beach read.

And if the reception to my book is any indication, very often the best of them are unjustly condemned to remain but stacks of paper languishing in some unknown author’s desk drawer while some pretty horrific crap gets dumped onto the marketplace by publishers unwilling or unable to take the risks they once could. Such wonderful success stories as J.K. Rowling are the exception. It is just too risky to not go with the safe play given the costs of traditionally bringing a book to the shelves these days - especially a work of fiction. So enter affordable self-publishing to democratize yet another source of our information flow.

I thank all who have bought “Hummel’s Cross” and the new media that made its publication possible. I am also grateful to such gracious media personalities like Beck, the Bigs editors, Dana Loesch for featuring me on her radio show, the crew at Zerohedge who brought it to the attention of an international audience, plus the many producers and hosts at Fox Business and others who are putting "Hummel's Cross" out there while the traditional publishers toil on their 800th Joan Collins release. My story, just like the e-medium through which I am discussing this process now, is speaking to many writers who may already have penned a best-seller that's sitting on their desk or stored in their laptop ... and now finally have a voice.

What more could an author want?

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