Of Kobolds, Zombies, and Rolling the Dice
Julie Ann Dawson
October 15, 2006
This whole thing has gotten way out of hand. It wasn’t supposed to turn into a business. It was an experiment…and now it’s an experiment gone horribly wrong. Yeah, I could stop, I guess. But where is the fun in that?
I started writing at the age of 13 after finding a copy of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot
at the Bridgeton High School library. I remember two distinct thoughts going through my mind. “WOW! This is a great story!” and “You know, I bet I can do better.” I started writing short fiction almost immediately after the thoughts formed, and subjected my poor classmates to mountains of horror stories involving werewolves, vampires, and sharks. They never complained. When I was young, I thought that was because they really liked my stories. But now that I am older, I realize the truth. They were afraid of what might happen if they refused.
I had the good fortune of early success placing my stories and poems, cutting my teeth with small indie publications like Gareth Blackmore’s Unusual Tales
y, as well as high-minded literary periodicals like The New Jersey Review of Literature
. People were willing to pay to print my stuff! So the next logical step was to publish a book. If all these editors were willing to publish the poems and stories, surely a book publisher would be interested, right?
Around the same time, I had decided to experiment with writing for my other hobby, roleplaying games. I had started playing Dungeons & Dragons © in college, and had branched out into a variety of different rpg systems. Being a writer, the natural progression seemed to be writing a campaign setting. So while in the middle of putting together my first story collection, I started to work on my first campaign setting as well. I finished both around the same time, alternating between the two projects as my mind allowed. Finished works in hand, it was time to start sending them off to potential publishers.
There is a difference between a rejection letter from a magazine publisher and a book publisher. Magazine publishers at least bother to sign the rejection letters themselves, and maybe even personalize the letter a little with a few reasons why the work was declined. But I think book publishers all get the same form letter when they open their publishing houses, and they send out the letters with the little faux signature pre-printed on the letterhead.
About ten form rejection letters later, I was a bit depressed. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. Because nobody would actually offer a reason for the rejections. Then I received two surprising e-mails. One was from a small publisher interested in publishing my short story collection. The other was from an up-and coming RPG publisher responding to my query involving the campaign setting.
The small publisher was offering an initial run of 500 copies with a modest royalty. It wasn’t much, but it was still a publishing contract! I tentatively agreed and asked them to send me a contract to read over.
Meanwhile, I started a line of communication with the RPG publisher. The publisher initially rejected the campaign setting. But then he did something no other publisher had taken the time to do. He explained why. Printed out, it came out to over six pages. He opened his critique with “I’m not going to discuss what you are doing right. You already know that. I’m going to tell you what you are doing wrong.” He then proceeded to tear the setting apart.
I was stunned. Not that he tore the book apart, but that he actually took the time to tear the book apart. He invited me to make the changes he suggested and resubmit it, which I happily did.
Meanwhile, the other contract had come in, and I was a concerned. Written in legalese, it asked for a lot of control over my work, with a very low promise of return. The fact is, the typical royalty deal for a writer is 10-15% of the retail price of all net sales. As I started digging into research on the publishing industry, I learned one of the industry’s dirty little secrets: up to 40% of all books are returned to the publisher unsold. 500 copy run with a 40% return = very little money.
While mulling this quandary over, the RPG publisher got back to me with an offer. Again, the offer was low, and the amount of control handed over to the publisher was high. Doing my research, I discovered this was pretty much the norm in the industry unless you were commissioned by one of the big names. But I also discovered another interesting little tidbit: most indie RPG publisher use print-on-demand printing. By harassing some small publishers in various RPG forums and making Google my friend, I eventually stumbled across lulu.com.
And really, that was the beginning of the end for me. I got the bright idea that I could take everything I learned in college and from my previous publishing experiences and simply publish the books myself. The experiment started with my fiction and poetry. September and Other Stories
was released in January 2005. By the grace of the gods, the reviews were good. But I did a lot of things wrong. I tried to copyedit the book myself, resulting in a series of rather embarrassing typos. The typesetting itself was too big. The cover design was drab. Neiyar: Land of Heaven and the Abyss
was released in April of that same year.
And then it started to steamroll out of control. I worked out distribution deals with a variety of e-book vendors, and lo and behold, customers started to buy the books. I could have just stopped. I already have a full-time job, after all. But by that point it was too late. Next thing I know I’m running an international writing contest and putting together an anthology (Bardic Tales and Sage Advice
, released February 2006). I’m hiring freelance artists and writers and producing two to three PDF products a month. The Koboldnomicon
is scheduled for August release, with the Dead Men (and Women) Walking
anthology due out the following month. What started as a little experiment to self-publish my own stories morphed into a second job running a small publishing company.
But no matter how busy it gets, I still refuse to send out a form rejection letter. Because I realize none of my current success would have happened if a publisher hadn’t taken the time to tell me what I was doing wrong. For me, the real success of Bards and Sages doesn’t come from the number of books or PDFs sold, but from the number of times I get an e-mail thanking me for offering some real feedback. Some of the best stories in the Bardic Tales
anthology and our upcoming Dead Men (and Women) Walking
were rejected the first time they were submitted. Having a young writer actually listen and seeing the result of that when they resubmit a work is a rewarding experience. One I never would have had if I had never taken the chance to do things myself.
About Julie Ann Dawson
Julie Ann Dawson
is the owner of Bards and Sages, publishers of speculative literature and roleplaying games. Dawson graduated from Rowan University in 1993 with a degree in English, LA. She also serves as a regional representative for the non-profit International Women's Writing Guild. She lives in Southern New Jersey with her fiancee, Michael, and their "son", a three year old doberman/sheppard mix named Chewy.
Julie Ann Dawson Profile at OnceWritten.com