Self Publishing

As a struggling writer, who’s been told that my books are in a strange, unmarketable genre, I’ve long been intrigued by the concept of self publishing/print on demand/‘vanity’ publishing.

However, as most writers know, this is sort of a bad move, akin to blackballing yourself from actual publishing houses and real distribution or recognition (books are sold on consignment, and you are your own distributer/publicity house)

Then, this weekend, the Chicago Tribune had a huge article about how self publishing is becoming more and more ‘acceptable’ in the publishing world because the technology is there to offer self publishers four color covers and book construction nearly undetectable from major houses.

So for those published writers and struggling writers in the house I ask…is it still a crappy way to go? Or is it becoming a more widely accepted route?

I dunno about printed books, but when I started my website it was a way of publishing my work online, and I’ve made more than four figures doing it in my spare time over the last five years or so. It’s not a lot of money but it has really helped. Of course, I’ve done a lot of other stuff, too, but there’s money to be made if you’ve got product that SOMEONE out there likes …

It’s a crappy way to go, even if your book has a real chance to find an audience, and the “advances” in technology only make it worse.

I haven’t seen the Tribune article, but it sounds like the usual bullshit. Note that the Tribune gets paid by the electronic vanity presses (EVPs) to run ads. Now, most likely this is not a direct influence, but the EVPs are sure to have sent them a bunch of self-serving crap about how great their services are, and the reporters, who don’t know how publishing really works, can easily buy into this (I’ve seen the same sort of article in various places, with the same garbage). The reality is something else again.

You are extremely unlikely to make any money via EVP publishing. Further, you will be expected to market your books yourself. No one who might actually pay you for your work is likely to consider any of these a legitimate credit, any more than putting your book on your web page would mean anything.

Remember, all these EVPs publish all the books they get sent (even the ones who claim otherwise). That means, that, no matter how good your book is, it will get mixed in with utter, dire crap. Try reading the sample chapters of books published by these online presses and see what I mean.

And, of course, an interesting question is: “How many books have you bought from these publishers?” Usually the answer is zero. And if you’re not buying, who is? I’ve seen authors on some of these say, essentially, if they counted the books they bought themselves, they sold 100 books. They are ecstatic if the sell 500.

As far as it being worse than a traditional vanity press, the problem is that with the electronic version, you don’t get copies of the book. And you can’t market a book without copies. If, say, you do a reading and someone comes up to you and tells you they like the book, you want to be able to hand one to them and sell it right there. If the book is POD online, they’ll forget about it after they get home.

Further, bookstores don’t stock these POD books, mostly because they are nonreturnable. Bookstores will special order a copy (and I suspect they will begin to require a deposit), but they aren’t going to pay for a copy (and they have to pay a higher percentage per copy than for a regular book).

Now there is also self-publishing. As a general rule, any website that offers to publish your books is not self-publishing, since you don’t control any of the publishing process. To self-publish, go to the yellow pages to find a book printer in your area. They will tell you their price to print a quantity of your books, and with desktop publishing software (and even some word processors), you can give them a professional looking package yourself. Then you will have the books and you can go to bookstores an leave the books on consignment (most bookstores will be willing to do this). Then you market the heck out of the book, sell some via your web page, and do all the publishing work (you’d do this if you used an EVP anyway, only the books wouldn’t be in the stores or in your hands).

You aren’t likely to make money or sell many copies (especially if you’re writing fiction), but if there is a niche for your book, it’s possible. With an EVP, it isn’t.

If you want to go the POD route, Cafe Press acts as an actual POD printer. But stay away from anyone else.

jarbabyj, here’s a really interesting look at the unsolicited manuscripts editors have to look at and deal with. It also contains a list of reasons why manuscripts usually get rejected. I thought it was interesting and enlightening, and I’m not a writer at all. But I am a fan of the person who wrote the blog (Teresa Nielsen-Hayden.)

If you do go the self-publishing route, PLEASE make sure your product is decent. My fiancé is the manager of a bookstore, and the other night a local author brought in a self-published book in hopes of having the store carry it on consignment or something. It was a hard-cover book, nicely bound and with nice paper. It had kind of an ugly illustration on the dust jacket cover, but other than that, you’d think it was a book from a Big Name Publisher or something.

Until you opened the covers.

The PRINTING itself was ok, if you discount the large type and double spacing that appeared to have been done so that the book would stretch to 248 pages. And there had obviously been no editing done to the work at all. And the first 12 pages were thanks to his Sponsors, complete with phone numbers for obtaining the products advertised. The book itself was pretty much unreadable.

It was really kinda sad that someone had obviously put all this effort into a product that was Not Good At All.

That’s the sort of thing that you want to beware of if you consider self-publishing.

Thanks for the link. For the record, I never EVER send an unsolicited manuscript, and i know exactly why my manuscript is being rejected, as three different agents have told me point blank.

It’s subject matter they don’t think will sell in the mainstream. Oh well. Back to the drawing board. :smiley:

<disclaimer>I worked for a year or so on the technology side for one of the largest and best-known “EVPs” (as Reality Chuck calls them), so I may not be the most objective source in the world. Given that they killed the project I was working on and laid me off, however, I’m not necessarily a “true believer” or booster, and I certainly have no financial interest at stake; neither do I any longer have friends or acquaintances at the company. </disclaimer>

Reality Chuck presents one side of the argument with obvious passion, as he’s done before on the same topic. I do think, however, he assumes that everyone who considers self-publishing does so from the same set of motives he has as a writer, which are apparently to achieve fame, fortune, and the respect of the literary world. And I’d agree that if your goal is to achieve those things, self-publishing isn’t the way to go. But there are as many different motivations for writing and publishing books as their are potential authors, and for some of them it may be an appropriate choice. In particular, those who are aware that their work is in a “strange, unmarketable genre”, and thus for whom traditional publishers aren’t a viable option, may find that it meets their needs, provided their expectations are set correctly up front.

The first thing to establish, in my opinion, is what your motivation for wanting to publish really is. If it’s to prove that all those publishing companies who’ve told you your stuff is “strange” and “unmarketable” are wrong by having your self-published tomes become runaway best-sellers, you’re probably the one that’s wrong. Publishers sometimes miss the mark (everyone can cite successful books that were universally rejected at first), but generally they’re pretty well attuned to what makes books sell. The odds that they’re wrong and you’re right are pretty small. Likewise, if you’re not too concerned about sales but want to establish yourself as a literary genius, you won’t likely get too far with an oeuvre of self-published books. Legitimate publications typically don’t review self-published books or books from vanity presses as a matter of policy (though they’ve been known to make exceptions). Even if your ambitions are more limited, there’s no question that self-published works lack the cachet of those produced by traditional publishers (as you note).

If, however, your primary motivation is simply the kick of having your words immortalized between the covers of a real, honest-to-goodness book, self-publishing can certainly provide that. Or, if you believe that there is a market, albeit a very small one, for your work and you believe that you know how to reach that market, EVPs can provide ways to deal with the logistics of book production and distribution that wouldn’t otherwise be available to you. Reality Chuck’s correct that the only effective marketing you’ll get on an EVP-produced title is what you do yourself (most of the add-on marketing services they sell aren’t worth half what they cost, if that), but what you do get that you don’t with self-publishing is access to standard distribution channels – listing in Books In Print, availability through both Ingram and Baker & Taylor (the two largest book distributors in the U.S. – nearly every bookstore in the country orders the bulk of their materials from these two distributors), and online distribution from both the publisher’s web site and Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The downside is, as RC points out, that you don’t necessarily have books on hand to sell at personal appearances (readings, speaking engagements, trade shows, etc.). The upside is that your book can be special-ordered from nearly any bookstore in the country, and you don’t have boxes full of hundreds of copies of your book in your garage. You don’t have to deal with credit-card processing, fulfillment & shipping, returns, etc. – in most cases, the books are drop-shipped direct to the purchaser from the printer for direct orders, or shipped to the distributor for delivery to the bookstore for in-store special orders. The other upside, and perhaps the biggest one, is that your upfront costs can be much lower, because the books aren’t produced until they’re purchased. As an example, a typical cost on a 6x9 300 page softcover with a 4-color cover would be in the neighborhood of $10; actual cost/copy will vary a lot depending on quantity produced – cost/copy will be higher on short runs (less than 500) and lower on longer runs (more than 1000). To produce 100 copies of that book, you’re going to be looking at an upfront cost of at least $1000. That’s just so you’ll have them on hand for those times when you meet someone who’s just dying to give you money for your book right away. For the EVP I used to work for, the basic publishing program is around $500 (which includes five copies of the book). (For comparison purposes, our hypothetical 300 page 6x9 softcover with 4/c cover would cost $16/copy through CafePress’s POD publishing offering). So (at least in my opinion), much of the decision would be based on my marketing strategy – if I’m going to be out there in person hawking the book at readings, speaking engagements, etc., maybe I pop for the 100 copies. If I expect most of my sales to come from indirect contacts (web site, mailings to carefully targeted lists, etc.), I’ll probably go the POD route. If you don’t know how you’re going to sell the books (and selling them matters to you), don’t do anything until you figure that out.

It’s also true that you (and only you) are ultimately responsible for the book content that’s delivered. I never had the chance to compare a “before” manuscript with the “after” output from the copyediting or editorial review service offered by the publisher I worked for, but I’d be highly skeptical that they’re worth the cost. If you want the book to present you in the best possible light, I’d forgo the publisher’s offerings and hire a competent freelance copyeditor to do the job (call a few publishers whose offerings are the closest to your material and ask for recommendations), or at worst find someone who likes you enough (or owes you enough) to read and revise gratis (keeping in mind that you generally get what you pay for with free help).

The biggest problem with EVPs, to my mind, is that their marketing does play to the authorial ambitions of potential customers, with tales of their authors being picked up by major publishers, and the prospect of having the publisher invest additional marketing resources in the author once sales of their books reach certain levels, etc., and with their “add-on” services that are standard parts of the publishing process at traditional publishers. There are a few success stories that the EVPs make much of, where an EVP book gets picked up by a traditional publisher, but there are a few lottery winners every year too – ain’t likely to happen to you. What you really get from an EVP is pay-as-you-go production and fulfillment services – nothing more, unless you pay extra (and as I said, I’m skeptical about the quality of the “extras”). Essentially, it’s the unbundling of book publishing services, with the author rather than the publisher absorbing the cost of any efforts that are invested in the book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, as long as the author understands that, but the marketing of the EVPs (particularly their positioning of themselves as “publishers” and their offerings of additional publishing services beyond production and distribution) blurs the distinction rather more than is quite right, in my opinion.

As for your book being “mixed in with utter, dire crap” (to quote RC again) as an offering of an EVP, that’s true, but what does it mean, really? Given the way any book published by an EVP is marketed (i.e., primarily by the author), a prospective buyer is never going to even be aware of the existence of all the “utter, dire crap” that’s also produced and distributed by the same publisher. As an EVP author, you’re not marketing the publisher’s list, you’re marketing yours.

It’s a viable position (and one I’m sure RC would take, given a chance) that since the author is assuming so much responsibility for the content and marketing of the book, they’re entitled to more than the relatively modest royalty provided for by EVP contracts (generally 20% of the actual retail sales price of the book, minus shipping and handling and taxes). If making money from a book were my primary motivation, I’d agree. However, I’d argue that for some authors, getting the book published and generally available without having to deal with the logistics of production and distribution is the main goal, and that if they’re willing to accept a smaller financial benefit from the book in exchange for that, they’re entitled to make that choice.

I know that personally, I’ve been tempted for years to research and write a history of lower-level minor league baseball in Arkansas. No publisher in their right mind would touch this project. If I ever did do it, however, I’d consider using an EVP to produce it. My motivation would be primarily to capture a piece of history that’s rapidly fading away – it wouldn’t matter to me if I didn’t make a dime on the deal – or even if I lost a bit. The total market would likely be the libraries in the towns covered, former players in those leagues (a rapidly diminishing group) and their relatives, and a very few hardcore minor-league history buffs. I have a pretty clear notion of how I’d go about selling the book to each of those groups. What I wouldn’t want to do is plunk down several thousand dollars of my money to print the 250-500 copies I’d expect to sell overall. I’d much rather pay $500 up front and eventually recoup some part of that in the $2-$3/book I’d get in royalties. CafePress’s offering provides much of that, but the downsides their are the lack of any access to traditional distribution and the higher cost/book (with a COGS of $16/book, the price would have to be somewhat higher than the typical EVP softcover title).

jarbabyj, have you thought of looking for specialty publishers? Your book might not be mainstream, but lot’s aren’t. If you are submitting to a mainstream agent you won’t have much luck.

Our local B&N does not carry self-published books, even when the author is local and does an event. And, with rare exceptions, you won’t make money. Someone in my old writing group self-published a memoir, and did a fantastic job publicizing it in his home town and locally. He even got some reviews and some radio interviews. But the book wasn’t very good, and he never sold many copies, and, worst of all, six months after publication he looked at the many flaws and regretted publishing it.

Oh, this is a subject close to my heart.

I am now a self-published author. Me! Amazing.

I wrote a non-fiction “how to” book on a specialized subject that I happen to know more than a little about. It’s a tie-in to my website on the same subject. The site’s vistors liked the site and asked for me to put the site in book (or eBook) form. I chose the traditional book route.

I looked for a long time at your run-of-the-mill Vanity Press Print-on-Demand publisher (the one that seemed most attractive to me was Virtualbookworm). But I hemmed and hawed, because I knew that they’d be in charge of the design of the book and print quality of the book and I would basically have to pay them a lot of money and hope that they’d do a good job. I didn’t know if I was comfortable with that.

Then I discovered Cafepres and Both offer to print books, one at a time. There’s no big “up front” cost, but it is all do-it-yourself. But that’s okay. CafePress is more expensive, but their perfect bound books look a little more professional than Lulu’s. But either will do.

With CafePress or Lulu, you can produce your book using Word and having it converted to PDF with fonts embedded. (Lulu will take a Word file and do the formatting themselves, but I’ve heard that the results are sometimes iffy.) I ended up buying InDesign (I already owned an older version and upgraded) which I really like. It makes great PDF files, which apparently these electronic POD printers like.

I’m tinkering along with both of these printers and because my book is directly tied in with my website, I’m selling okay (I think) just to visitors on the site. My next plan (within the next few weeks) is to finally buy that block of ISBN numbers, set myself up as my own publisher (approx. $240 for 10 ISBN numbers) and find a different Print On Demand printer to print my book. (I have my eye on Lightening Source. I think they’ll charge about $4-5 per book.) Then I’ll go through the process of signing up with Amazon to sell my books through them. (Fellow Doper toadspittle told me all about this process last year. He is also a self-published author.) I hope to expand my readership through!

In my case, I’ve got a non-fiction, “how to” book. I’ve had it professionally edited. It’s based on a website (some parts of it are verbatim from the website) that has already received good feedback by its visitors. I’m not deluding myself that I’ll make the Big Time with this book, but I think I’ve got a good scenario here and so far the sales from the book (just through my site) are okay by me. I’m not raking in the dough (I refuse to have lofty expectations—I just don’t think about it), but so far, so good.

I know things are different when you are writing literature, but I think that if you are willing to do it yourself, get your work professionally edited, and have created a website or otherwise “strong presence” on the web, then you might just do well. I am glad I went the self-publishing route rather than paying some vanity press to do my book for me. I am in complete control of this book and I like that. Besides, I’ve heard horror stories with vanity presses—some drag their heels in getting your book through production and layout and ready to print (in some cases, months and months). They may be very slow printing orders out, making your customers wait. They may do an unprofessional job in the layout and cover art of your book, and by the time you discover that they SUCK, it’s too late—you’ve given them several hundred dollars.

For the same amount that I’d pay a Vanity press, I’m going to get ten of my own ISBN numbers, which feasably means that I could publish ten books. (I don’t think I have ten books in me, but that’s a different matter.) I think this is the way to go, if you don’t, for whatever reason, want to try get your book published by a “mainstream” publisher.

What about photography books? I’ve got a good portfolio and I know people like my work, so I don’t think it would look bad in a book. I realize the market for fine art photography books is really specialized, but does anybody have any advice on where to go as far as printers? I know enough to know that printers specialize and one that would be good for a text-book (not a textbook) might not be equipped to handle a book of photographs.

Any suggestions?

Suggestions? Sell the idea to a publisher. The technology for self-publishing text-based material is good enough. But doing a photo book would be next to impossible to do yourself with any quality. I explained why in another thread about a year ago.

Actually, my book is heavily illustrated and I think the reproduction quality is quite acceptable.

Bear in mind, the illustrations are not all photographs. There’s some line art and sketches. But I’m very picky and I like the reproduction just fine. I only wish the paper was thicker.

If you want to do a “coffee table” type book, I’m not so sure that print on demand is the way to go, but perhaps there’s a place that I don’t know about that would do a good job.