The Publishing Times, They are A-changing

Recently one of my clients read on Facebook that I had gotten an agent for my memoir.

“I’m curious about where you stand today on the subject of self-publishing vs. the traditional route,” he wrote. “Your advice to me a couple of years ago was this: Turn to self-publishing when the other options have been exhausted. It was good, clear advice, and I’m glad I followed it and got an agent rather than self-publishing. But the landscape has changed since then. Would you give the same advice today?”

Hmm. In a word, no.

When I started to write my memoir five years ago, the publishing world was a very different place. Self-publishing was still widely considered the last resort for authors who couldn’t get a legitimate publisher to consider their work. I’ve worked with other writers for all this time as a writing coach and developmental editor, and two years ago I was still telling my clients to try the traditional route first. Today the options are so compelling and vast, I am advising my clients to consider all options, including self-pubbing from the outset.

The publishing industry is as uncertain today as at anytime in recent memory. Certainly debut authors have a harder time of it, particularly novelists. But there are so many new, innovative avenues to successful publication now that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend self-pubbing first.

Interestingly, a recent study found that “hybrid” authors – those who publish both traditionally and as self-published authors – are making more money than either traditionally pubbed authors or self-pubbed.

Even so, when I finished my memoir, I was determined to try the traditional route first. I know a number of agents, and one in particular had encouraged me to write my story all those years ago. I had little more than a very rough first chapter then, but he read it and said, “Keep writing!” Over the ensuing years I approached the work intermittently, until two years ago I decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing, and I made my memoir my thesis. That was the key for me; just the motivation I needed to stay at it. Last fall I spent a month in Costa Rica rewriting and finishing the book. In January, I sent the manuscript off to my agent friend. And … waited.

And waited some more.

After a month I emailed him and didn’t get a response. Keep in mind a query to an agent typically would not be answered for two to three months. But I knew this agent. So I decided to go ahead and submit the book proposal to other agents. I had a good query letter. I made a list and sent it out to about 15 agents.  And … waited.

It was an exquisite lesson for me in patience and in learning to follow my own advice to my clients: Wait. Send out more queries. Don’t despair.

Man, we do, though, don’t we? Despair? Writers are champions at despair.

I finally got about a half-dozen responses, all of them very positive about the manuscript, but nearly all said they didn’t think they could sell it to a traditional publisher. I’m not a celebrity, and while I’m fairly active on social media, I don’t have the kind of platform they seek (meaning tens of thousands of friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter). Most said the memoir market has become oversaturated. While memoir sales have slowed down, it’s still a pretty robust genre, but that’s the conventional wisdom in the industry right now.

Thank goodness for my agent friend, my original cheerleader. He finally did read it and called me. He loves it. So, I am thrilled, but also going into this process with clear eyes. It’s only a first step. There’s no guarantee that an editor will love it as much as my agent does. We’ll have to discuss strategy and how long to try to sell it to a publisher. If, ultimately, it doesn’t sell, I will have to make a choice. Self-publish then? Absolutely.

Self-publishing Might be for You

As the publishing world continues to morph and change in response to economic and technological pressures and opportunities, self-publishing - for some writers - becomes an attractive option. In fact, the longest chapter in my book, Navigating the Rough Waters of Today's Publishing World, Critical Advice for Writers from Industry Insiders (Quill Driver Press, 2010), is about self-publishing. Print-on-demand technology and the explosion in e-books makes self-publishing a more viable option than traditional, especially for authors who already have an established platform.

When your book is accepted by a traditional publisher, the publishing house provides certain services, including editing, cover and content design, production, distribution to booksellers, and some—often minimal—level of promotion. The publisher not only pays you an advance of some amount, but also assumes all the costs of editing, designing, producing, and distributing, the book, as well as spending money marketing it. As the author, in this scenario, you are paid royalties. All other profits go to the publisher.

If you self-publish, you pay for the privilege upfront but get to keep 100 percent of the profits on any sales. However, the cost can range from several hundred dollars to more than $10,000, depending on the type of self-publishing you choose. And that should be dictated by the kind of book you’ve written, your skills (of lack thereof) in producing a published work, and what your goals are as an author.

Why, exactly, do you want your book published? Do you seek attention? Do you want to use the book to support other work, like speaking? Is it because you want to leave a family history for your children and grandchildren? Perhaps you’re tired of banging your head against the traditional publishers’ doors and you have a well-thought-out plan for promotion and marketing. Or you may have expertise in a field that is too narrow for a larger publisher to consider, for example, how to repair electric razors.

If you write fiction, you should first exhaust all efforts to get an agent and win a traditional contract. But if all efforts fail, by all means consider self-publishing. There are some wonderful stories of self-published books that were picked up by traditional publishers and became best-sellers (Christopher Paolini's Eragon is one example), but honestly, that's rare.

Self-publishing makes more sense for a nonfiction title that has a particular niche and whose author has the resources and ability to spend a lot of time marketing it.

Online POD Publishing

The newer print-on-demand companies that operate online and often refer to themselves as publishers, such as iUniverse and Lulu, offer most of the services of a traditional publisher either on an a la carte basis or in packages for which you pay a fee.

If you have a memoir or family history you want to produce in limited quantities for family and friends, this is a good option. Since you can produce one book at a time, there’s no need to print and store a large stock of books. Each book can be printed as it’s ordered online. This is also a good choice if you are a hobbyist and want to produce a limited number of informational or how-to books that you want to sell online.

But beware. Most people in the publishing and entertainment industry consider books published by iUniverse and Lulu and similar publishers as substandard.

Subsidy Publishing

If you make a living writing for other publications but want to produce a nonfiction title to either subsidize your primary work or establish credibility as an expert in a particular area, subsidy press publishing is a good option. This is also a good choice for business and inspirational speakers. A book confers instant credibility for speakers, who then can sell them “from the back of the room” at speaking engagements.

A quality subsidy press is a good place to start. Under a typical co-publisher agreement with a small press, the author pays all the major production costs, including typesetting, printing and binding. The publisher provides editorial services like editing, proofreading and jacket copy; production services like design and typesetting; marketing services like press releases, brochures, sending out review copies, sales and fulfillment; and distribution to bookstores and online retailers.

The print run is typically short, in the five hundred- to two-thousand-copy range. All copies are the property of the author, who receives a royalty of, say, 60 percent of all net receipts on book and subsidiary rights sales.

Unfortunately, this rarely turns out to be a money-making venture for the author. You have to have a very good reason to see your book in print.

Traditional Self-publishing

Before online POD publishers appeared, self-publishing truly meant the author published the book on his or her own, from typesetting to arranging for printing and distribution.

This is a good choice for writers who produce how-to and self-help books, histories of obscure people or widgets, or books that have a very narrow but perhaps healthy following, for example people who collect antique clocks.

It’s also a good option for writers who publish in newspapers and magazines but want a book to increase visibility. The key is know-how.

If you decide true self-publishing is for you, read The Self-Publishing Manual, Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual Vol. 2 (parapublishing.com). Poynter believes the current revolution in publishing will permanently alter the playing field, empowering writers and allowing them to put their work directly into the hands of the reading public.

But this kind of self-publishing is not for the faint of heart. If you have the design, production and printing experience and knowledge, go for it. You should also read Morris Rosenthal (fonerbooks.com) and Aaron Shepard’s (newselfpublishing.com) books on the process.

Rosenthal’s book, Print-on-Demand Book Publishing: A New Approach To Printing And Marketing Books For Publishers And Self-Publishing Authors, provides exhaustive information on the process of print-on-demand publishing.

Shepard’s book, Aiming at Amazon: The NEW Business of Self Publishing, or How to Publish Your Books with Print on Demand and Online Book Marketing on Amazon.com, explains in great detail how to use Amazon to sell and distribute your book.

Whether you self-publish fiction or nonfiction, be careful with whom you do business. Mark Levine’s The Fine Print of Self-Publishing compares 45 self-publishing companies, from online services to lesser-known quality subsidy presses. It also tells you what to look for in a self-publisher, explains contracts and pinpoints specific companies you should avoid.

In the end, nonfiction writers can benefit from self-publishing more than - at least for now - fiction writers. But the publishing world changes every day, and more and more already successful authors are turning to self-publishing platforms like Amazon, Scribd and Smashwords. As always, know what you want to accomplish and do your homework.

(I'll be offering consultations on self-publishing at the A Room of Her Own biannual Writers' Retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico from Aug. 8-14.)

Bookstores and Self-Published Books

One of the questions that frequently comes up when I am talking with writers groups about self-publishing is the role of bookstores in promoting your book.

Bookstores are essentially places where publishers rent shelf space and then pay a commission to the store for selling their books. Publishers can, and often do, pay extra to have their latest books placed in prominent spots in the stores, for example on front tables or in the windows. Self-published authors rarely have the funds to compete for premium shelf space; in fact they often can’t even get their books into bookstores, for several reasons. One is that because books are sold on a commission basis, any unsold stock can be sent back to the publisher at no cost to the bookstore. While bookstores can always call up an author and tell them to come pick up unsold books, the staff time it takes to take in the stock, shelve it and then figure commission on sales is often more than many bookstores are willing to do for an author who might sell a couple of dozen books.

But a number of bookstores around the country are experimenting with new ways to help self-published authors promote their books, and it is a welcome change.

Boulder Book Store in Boulder, CO, has figured out a way to help authors promote their books while at the same time generating some store revenue. The store instituted a new fee-based program that allows self-published authors to pay a $25 stocking fee and buy additional services to promote their work. Authors can choose to have their work displayed on the store’s main floor or be included in the newsletter and on the website, similar to the services they offer the big publishers. Self-published authors also can pay to have a joint book signing by two or three authors. The writers get great exposure for their books and the store makes money not only on the fees but on increased sales. It’s a great service for authors who previously have been cut out of traditional bookstore promotion.

If there is an independent bookstore in your town, go in and ask if they might be willing to offer some of the same services.

By the way, my deep thanks go to Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara and Eric Love for a wonderful and fun book signing at the store in September. Chaucer’s, like many independent bookstores, does a stellar job of serving its writing community, and offers signings nearly every week by local authors, both traditionally published and self-published. We had a great turnout at my book signing, and for that I’m grateful and delighted.

(Portions of this blog appeared in my Willow Rock Writers e-newsletter in August 2010.)