Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why self-publish?

Back in the “gilded age” of the late 19th century, self-publishing was a leisure activity for rich businessmen and politicians. These men produced expensive, leather-bound, gilt-edged books for their own homes, to give to family and friends, and to donate to libraries.

Edith Wharton and other women self-published because most publishers favored men. In 1921, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. That was four years after the first man won the prize.

Mark Twain is said to have become his own publisher because he thought another publisher had cheated him.

Because of sexual content and “dirty words,” British publishers refused to print D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Lawrence arranged to have it printed in Italy in 1928 (allegedly, the print shop employees couldn’t read English).

“Chatterley” was judged to be obscene in Japan in 1957 and in India in 1964. Copies were confiscated by the U.S. Post Office until the publisher won an obscenity trial in 1959. The book wasn’t openly published in Britain until 1960.

You can get a copy of an ordinary paperback “Chatterley” for less than a buck, but copies of the original self-published book were offered for sale at over $30,000—not bad for a do-it-yourself book.

Walt Whitman’s self-published Leaves of Grass is one of the most important collections of early American poetry. In 1855, it was printed in a Brooklyn print shop where Whitman did some typesetting himself—perhaps because he wanted more control than other publishers would have permitted him. A copy of this edition was on the market for $175,000—not bad for a do-it-yourself book.

In the early 21st century, as it becomes harder to make a deal with a traditional publisher, thousands of writers are taking advantage of economical printing processes and publicity opportunities to publish their own work.

I’ve had deals with three traditional book publishers.
  • One cheated me.
  • One tried to cheat me.
  • One didn’t cheat me, but the book that finally came out was so unlike what I had expected it to be, I was sorry I got involved. I also didn’t make much money and had to wait a long time for the little money that I did get.
  • The publisher that did cheat me did such a bad job on the book, and it was so unlike the vision I had for it, that I refused to let my name be printed on it.
There are lots of reasons why writers want to self-publish. Here are several:

More control: The author determines the title, cover design, page size, number of pages, price, marketing plan, publication date—everything. You even get to write the “about the author” section and choose the promotional blurbs (endorsements) that go on the cover. You are the boss and can’t be fired. There is a downside to all of this control, however. If your book is ugly or filled with mistakes, you have no one to blame but yourself! Even if you hire people to help, you are the ultimate designer, editor, fact-checker and proofreader.

Personal attention: At a big publishing house, a new book from an unknown author may get little or no attention from a sales force which is responsible for dozens or hundreds of books. A self-publishing author can concentrate on one book. She can work as hard as she wants to in promoting the book to the public, booksellers, the media and book reviewers.

Complete freedom: Self-publishing allows authors to write about anything, without needing approval from anyone. (Self-publishing companies may refuse to publish books they consider obscene or libelous.) There’s also freedom to ignore publishing traditions if the author wants to try something new.

Fun: Many people who could afford to pay for an oil change like to work on their own cars. Many people who could buy beer or wine or pizza like to experiment with their own special recipes. Lots of people who can buy food like to grow vegetables or go fishing. Do-it-yourself seems to be a common human urge, and now it is possible with publishing. My first book was published by Doubleday in 1976. I’m much prouder of the books I published myself starting in 2008—and they were a lot more fun to work on.

Niche marketing: Because of personal, professional or business connections, a writer may feel she or he is better able to market books to a specific group of potential customers than a traditional publisher could reach through traditional sellers.

Speed: With conventional publishing, it can take years to find an agent and a publisher. With independent self-publishing, a book can be on sale a week after it is written. If you use a self-publishing company, it usually takes a few months.

Durability: The author determines how long a book remains on the market.

Keeping the book current: The author determines when a new edition should be published.

Regular income: With conventional “trade” publishing, royalty checks (if there are any) arrive twice a year. With self-publishing, money can come in every day, week, month, or every three or six months—depending on the sales channels.

Higher income: Book royalties from traditional publishers pay about 8% of the cover price. Self-published authors can make more money, even from books with lower prices. (You may make more money per book if you are an independent self-publisher than if you use a self-publishing company.)

Rejection: The vast majority of books submitted to traditional publishers are rejected. Major publishers are driven by “hits.” They want books that are bought in the tens of thousands, but their judgment is not perfect. Most books do not become best-sellers, and in a few months they’re sold on the buck-a-book tables. Aside from bad writing, there are other reasons why a book may be rejected—such as an unknown author, a subject’s limited appeal, a too-controversial subject, an abundance of other books on the subject or the inappropriateness of the book for a particular publisher. But a rejection doesn’t mean that a book shouldn’t be published at all.

Keeping an old book in print: At some time, the sales volume of almost every book drops to the level at which its publisher decides to discontinue it. It becomes “out-of-print.” If that has happened to a book you wrote, you may be able to negotiate a deal with the original publisher to return the rights to you so you can republish it yourself. When sales drop to the point where the first publisher kills the book, there may not be much demand for the self-published version. But even a little demand can create income for the author; and proper marketing and/or updating may be able to boost the sales.

Chance of attracting a traditional publisher: According to the New York Times, “Louise Burke, publisher of Pocket Books, said publishers now trawl for new material by looking at reader comments about self-published books sold online. Self-publishing, she said, is no longer a dirty word.” At least one book from a self-publishing company was later re-published by a mainstream publisher and got on the New York Times Bestseller List. While dreaming of writing a bestseller is a pleasant diversion, and perhaps a good motivator to write a high-quality book, it should not be your prime objective. Realistically, you probably won’t sell a lot of books and won’t make much money, so you’ll have to have other ways to define “success” and “satisfaction.”

Some of the reasons above are my reasons. I established Silver Sands Books in the fall of 2008 to publish one book. In less than a year, I published four books, started three others, and had more on my to-do list. After two years, I had published ten books and more were “in the oven.” I've now published more than twenty. I don't know how that compares with the first years of Random House or Simon & Schuster, but I think it's pretty good.

(Morgan photo from Images of American Political History)

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