The Painful Pleasures of Self-Publication
By DOROTHY JANE MILLS
For fifteen books, she did as she
was told. Some of them are still making money 35 years later --
but not for her.
Book #16, however, is her own business.
|Her 15 Books| |Tips for Self-Publishers| |Self-Published Hits|
"We will not be reviewing
your book," says the famous journal's editor.
"We will not be carrying
your book," says the manager of the popular downtown bookstore.
These rejections are
being directed not to a neophyte, not to a wannabe writer, not
to a producer of trash or pornography, but to an experienced author
who has published fifteen other books with commercial publishers
and considers the new one her crowning achievement. In a word,
Moreover, this new
book is getting raves from readers in several countries--readers
who say the story is "thrilling," "riveting,"
"a very fine book indeed," "an irresistible tale,"
"fascinating," "a really good reading experience,"
"extremely interesting," "a wonderful story,"
"a magnificent accomplishment," "an enormous endeavor,"
"a truly remarkable achievement," "a real page
turner," "a stimulating book."
Yes, these are actual
quotations from their letters to me. Yet I can't get this book
reviewed by the magazines where one would expect to see descriptions
of important books, books that readers find valuable and appealing,
books they re-read a second and a third time.
Why is that? Why would
big-name magazine editors shy away from a stunning new achievement?
Why would chain bookstore managers refuse to carry this book?
It's because outdated
policies in the book world make entrenched publishing people afraid
of a book that is--dare I whisper it?--self-published.
have questionable reputations in the conventional publishing world.
They are linked in the minds of commercial publishers with vanity
or subsidy publishing, in which a writer pays a company thousands
of dollars to prepare a book that publishers believe isn't worth
their investment. And they're the ones who usually decide what
ideas are going to be made available to readers.
weren't always in charge of bringing books to the attention of
the public. It was back in the Middle Ages that publishers and
printers began their work of supporting authors--or making money
off authors, depending on the way you see the relationship. That's
when the invention of movable type put Luther's anti-Catholic
books and pamphlets of the 1500s into many editions. In 1583 the
first important publishing house, Elzevir of Holland, came out
with its first published book. The Elzevir family owned printing
presses, employed printers and editors, and soon began spreading
their functions to several countries, with similar organizations
springing up in other important cities like Edinburgh, Leipzig,
In the Colonial Era
of the United States, the person who owned a printing press often
combined the functions of journalist, editor, printer, publisher,
and sometimes bookseller. In the 1700s a printer named Ben Franklin
began publishing his own work, and the work soon overshadowed
Writers vs. Publishers
Writers write because
they have something to say that they believe the world needs to
hear. Making money from their work is wonderful but secondary
to the primary purpose of writing. For publishing houses, of course,
it's just the opposite: making money is the primary purpose, and
disseminating ideas is secondary. For that reason publishing and
writing began to diverge. From the end of the sixteenth century
on, says Alberto Manguel in A History of Reading (Toronto:
Knopf, 1996), "publisher-booksellers were no longer concerned
with patronizing the world of letters, but merely sought to publish
books with a guaranteed market." By the 1900s commercial
publishers, especially in cities of the Northeast, dominated American
increasingly separate from writing because of the divergence of
purpose that Manguel described. Writers gave up their rights to
manuscripts in order to get their ideas presented to the world
in a form that others could supply for them. The publishers literally
bought the authors' words: the contracts they designed, and required
authors to sign, gave them ownership of the authors' creations.
Over the last two
decades the book industry has transformed itself through mergers
and consolidations. About six mega-publishers, some of them only
units in great conglomerates, now command the field. Their sales
account for about sixty percent of all adult books sold in the
This tight situation
gives the editors in large publishing houses the power to pick
and publish only those few books that they believe will make the
most money for their companies. That discriminatory policy increasingly
leaves out the authors of books that, despite their quality, might
attract a smaller market: the so-called mid-list.
Rejection Gets Tiring
Authors ignored by
the high-end publishers, tired of collecting enough rejection
slips to paper the walls of their offices, have been casting around
for an alternate way to get their words out to the public. As
a result, 7,000 new publishers open for business every year. Seven
thousand! Small or even tiny publishers, to be sure--some of them
publish only one book, or two or three--but they serve a purpose.
And that, as Martha
Stewart might say, is a good thing. For the literary world would
be a poor one without authors who self-publish. The famous words
"Mark Twain" might not be in our lexicon if Samuel Clemens
hadn't decided to self-publish Huckleberry Finn. Many early writers
found it necessary or even advantageous to publish their own work
(see sidebar). Other books published by their own authors attracted
a standard publisher only after success as a self-published work,
when commercial publishers discovered their income-earning power
and acquired them as properties.
Many writers, increasingly
frustrated with the difficulty of finding commercial publishers
open to mid-list authors, are today deciding to keep the rights
to their own work instead of trying to sell them. They do this
An increasingly popular
alternative to the use of vanity presses, self-publishing puts
the author back in charge of his or her work--as once was the
case, before publishers took over the fabrication and issuing
of printed materials. And by using the newest publishing techniques,
self-publishers incur much less expense than they would if using
a vanity press--a few hundred rather than several thousand dollars.
Two astonishing new
technical developments have opened an exciting avenue for thwarted
writers who decide to self-publish. One is "on-demand"
publishing. Because an entire book can now be stored on a computer
chip the size of your fingernail, a book can be printed and shipped
within 48 hours.
intrepid enough to try the new process of putting books on computer
chips find that they need not print and warehouse thousands of
unsold books. Instead, they can simply store the chips, which
take almost no space, and can very quickly publish only the number
of copies ordered by a customer. No more returns! No more unsold
books remaindered or destroyed! Publishers Weekly is predicting
that on-demand printing will make "out-of-print" and,
eventually, even "out-of-stock" into "archaic concepts."
A few publishers are
having their backlists placed on computer chips so that only those
books customers order will be printed. The big distributor named
Baker & Taylor has set up a company called Replica Books to
buy the rights to out-of-print and out-of-stock titles from the
publishers who own them, repackage them, and put them on computer
chips so that they can publish them "on demand."
who continue to resist the new on-demand technology are locked
into the standard mathematics of "unit cost." Before
the new electronic method of printing came into use, publishers
accepted the truism that the key to profits was finding the lowest
cost per unit. In this theory, they had to sell a certain minimum
number of units in order to reach a break-even point, called "the
nut," the point where the cost of each unit became low enough
to guarantee a profit. But if they printed more than they could
sell, then unit cost became less important than other costs that
should have been considered: distribution, warehousing, returns.
If they guessed wrong on the number they printed, even if the
initial "unit cost" seemed low, they might still lose
their shirts. With on-demand publishing (also called print-on-demand,
or POD), warehousing disbursements amount to almost nothing, and
returns are zero. On-demand publishing cuts costs significantly.
is the basis for the other new technological development in publishing
that is making self-publishers out of many writers: publishing
entire books electronically to appear on a computer screen and
sold on the internet. Several electronic book specialists have
formed companies to place writers' books on the internet for a
relatively small fee. There the books reach a potential market
of millions of web surfers, who can purchase a "virtual"
book by entering a secure site, leaving their credit card numbers,
and downloading the book cheaply and almost immediately into their
own computers, where they can read it and/or print it on their
Virtual Reality Check
Electronic book vendors
sell "virtual" books or "ebooks" for a third
to half the price of a physical book, yet because their expenses
are so low they can pay royalties at three or fMAD LAUGHTER the
rate of traditional bound-book publishers. Some of them also (for
an additional fee) produce the same works in the form of bound
books. The number of these electronic companies grows daily (see
sidebar). And the potential market for ebooks is huge: a hundred
million people are now on-line, and nearly half of them live in
the United States.
So all of a sudden,
authors can again become their own publishers whenever they want,
for fees that are tiny in comparison with the charges of vanity
presses. They are bypassing commercial editors and deciding exactly
what will appear in their own books. And they are keeping the
rights to their work instead of signing those rights over to publishers
in exchange for what would have been a small royalty and the services
of the publishers' editorial, promotion, and sales staff--services
that might or might not prove effective in the marketplace. As
a result, the on-line book companies and their client authors
are growing so fast that Bill Gates is predicting 50,000 book
titles in "print" electronically by the year 2001.
Probably the biggest
of these electronic book companies is FirstBooks Library (www.1stbooks.com),
which advertises itself as "the world's leading international
distributor of virtual books. . . [with] more than 100 books downloaded
[purchased on-line]every day." The site is registered with
more than 900 search engines and linked with hundreds of newsgroups.
founded this company in 1997. One is Tim Jacobs, an author of
children's books frustrated by his inability to get his books
placed with a conventional publishing house despite their high
quality. His partner, David Hilliard, has 30 years of experience
in traditional publishing.
Unlike on-line booksellers
like Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble, which use the internet for
marketing ordinary books, First/Books delivers virtual books online;
Customers can start reading within minutes of ordering.
To authors who have
been searching for some editor who might like their work, FirstBooks
Library is a revelation. The company accepts nearly every manuscript
submitted. Dan Snow, FirstBook's director of communications and
planning, points out that this policy avoids "making value
judgements about the literary merits" of submissions and
permits the decision as whether a book is good or not to devolve
upon readers. It also prevents turning over control of publications
by "an elite clique of editors and agents, as is often true
in traditional publishing." Beyond declining to handle "inappropriate
material" (pornography), the company accepts most submissions
and publishes all but about nine percent.
Because in only a
few years on-line book companies have proliferated, traditional
publishers are a bit nervous. According to Doreen Carvajal of
CyberTimes, March 18, 1996 (www.search.nytimes.com/books),
"Publishers may not be feeling panic, but they are clearly
edgy about the prospects of the new technology." Naturally,
they're edgy: Electronic books are cutting into their market.
A few traditional
publishers are beginning to use internet publishing themselves,
testing out titles on line before publishing them in hard copy.
Time Warner Electronic Publishing ran a serial novel, Delirium,
on the net to find out how much interest there might be in a hard-copy
Books published on-line
are considered real books and are listed by Amazon.com. One of
them, The Angels of Russia, by Patricia le Roy, shocked
traditionalists by winning a 1998 literary award, the prestigious
Booker Prize, in England, where many believe the words that appear
on a monitor cannot be considered on the same level as those that
appear on paper pages in an object you can hold in your hand.
But even the prestigious Times Literary Supplement of London
has begun to review books published online.
Authors who've already
published successfully with traditional publishers are starting
to use electronic companies for publication of books they find
difficult to place: Lynda Trent, best-selling romance novelist,
formerly published by Harper-Collins; Senator Richard Lugar, formerly
published by Simon & Schuster. Or they use internet companies
for additional exposure of books that have done well in print:
Michael Hyatt's The Millenium Bug, a New York Times
#7 best-seller, is now available on the Xlibris site, www.Xlibris.com.
Agents in the Act
Agents are starting
to use internet publishing, too. David Rogelberg, an Indianapolis
literary agent, founded Studio B, an on-line agency that, he boasts,
has "in several instances" successfully altered "who
owns the content" of books. In traditional publishing, "Once
an author assigns rights to a publisher, the publisher earns the
profit and owns the equity built in the property." This arrangement
devalues the author, Rogelberg feels, so he attempts to "set
up unique relationships" in "the publishing game."
Rogelberg is not behind the door in making money off authors,
for in an online article by Mary Tudor in CyberTimes, he anticipated
earning $1.5 million in revenue during 1998 (www.search.nytimes.com/books/).
Bookstores, too, are
considering how they can benefit from the immediacy offered by
printing-on-demand. As Publishers Weekly has reported more than
once, Denver's Tattered Cover bookstore plans to install an on-demand
printer called a Book Machine that can produce ten-dollar trade
paperbacks for their customers within ten minutes of the order.
The machine, demonstrated at a recent book show, is only four
feet by eight--certainly small enough for most bookstores. So
pretty soon, if your corner bookshop is out of the book you are
looking for, a salesperson may be able to simply lift the book's
computer chip from a file and, with an in-house publishing machine,
print that book within a few minutes. At least three companies
are building machines designed to print books "on-demand"
right in your bookstore.
Tattered Cover's plan
gives me an idea: Maybe authors will soon keep computer book chips
and publishing machines in their home offices. Is that too far-out
to consider? Well, isn't the millenium coming?
Almost as soon as
I thought of this idea, I saw it mentioned in Publishers Weekly
in an article by Mike Shatzkin called "Fasten Your High-Tech
Seatbelts" (May 24, 1999). He's predicting it will happen
for books that publishers, "correctly or incorrectly, deem
not commercially viable" or with "markets too small
to be worth publishing." That includes books custom-published
for a tiny market, such as a college class, as Paul Hilts describes
in "Selling to an Audience of One," in the same issue
of P W.
Drawbacks to Self-Publishing
Of course, self-publishing
authors find some drawbacks to suddenly becoming their own publishers:
little or no editing help, nobody to promote the book to bookstores
and other outlets, nobody to send releases to the media, no advertising
unless they pay for it. But these are hurdles that can be crossed
by study, work, and learning the ropes. Authors can find free-lance
editors to check and evaluate their writing. They can hire agents
or learn how to promote and advertise their work. What they can't
do is force bookstore chains to carry their books, and they can't
make journal editors decide to review them.
Bookstore chains don't
carry every book published, contrary to what some book buyers
believe. "Why doesn't my local bookstore have your book?"
asked a friend. "I've checked the fiction shelf many times,
and it's not there." I guess she thought the book would appear,
magically, as soon as it was published. But bookstores are constrained
by agreements with distributors to be selective about the books
they will carry. Most of them are part of an entrenched system
reinforced by contracts in which booksellers agree to carry only
those works furnished by a distributor, like Ingram Book Company,
which calls itself the world's largest distributor of printed
books, a billion-dollar wholesaler with seven huge warehouses.
Ingram supplies more
than 24,000 bookstores in the United States and more than 1,700
abroad. So when I go into a bookstore associated with Ingram and
offer to make a book presentation if the store will carry my latest
book, the first thing the manager does is look into the computer
to see whether Ingram lists the book. When the manager discovers
that my book is missing from the list, the usual answer is "Sorry.
We can't handle your book."
The big distributors
also require authors and publishers to give them exclusive rights
to distribute books. "For the big book chains and the independent
booksellers," says Bookworld on its web site (www.bookworld.com),
"exclusivity is required or the sales force won't continue
selling a publisher's line. . . .most sales people may decline
to sell your line of books if they feel you are competing with
them at the same markets to which they sell."
Getting a self-published
book carried by one of the big distributors isn't impossible;
it's just improbable. Their requirements are so stringent that
your book already has to be selling well before they will agree
to sign you up. You must demonstrate in advance, with orders,
invoices, letters from bookstores, and a marketing plan, that
you are selling the book successfully.
Says Ingram's information
sheet describing its "Express Program" for small publishers:
"The Ingram buyer will NOT order unless our system records
a demand; therefore, you will need to market your titles to as
many bookstores as possible. . . .You must simply prove that you
can move product." (www.ingrambookgroup.com) In other words,
we'll sell it for you only if it's already selling well.
be initially placed," says Ingram's contract, "when
backorders and demand reach a designated level." And you
know who designates that level. Baker & Taylor's standard
letter to new publishers warns that "Baker & Taylor do
not inventory new titles until a consistent demand pattern emerges."
Both distributors require a special barcode incorporating your
International Standard Book Number into it and a price printed
or stickered on the back cover. Ingram requires payment of $225
per title, and submission of four copies of the book.
To market your book
you are asked to hire a marketing firm like Publishers Marketing
Association, which is made up of representatives from (guess who?)
the big book distributors, the big bookstore chains, and independent
bookstores. These groups, not you, will decide whether to list
your book and help sell it.
The charge for distribution?
From forty to sixty-eight percent of every book sold, according
to Attorney Ivan Hoffman, J.D., who has studied many distributors'
contracts. If you're accepted. Ingram's contract and Baker &
Taylor's letter both call for fifty-five percent. Hoffman points
out that "Unfortunately, for the small and independent publisher,
it appears to be a distributor's market. There are fewer of them
than there are publishers . . . [so] the publisher needs them
more than they need the publisher."
Forty to sixty-eight
percent! Can you imagine the volume you'd need to reach in order
to pay such an amount to a distributor, besides covering your
other costs? To sign with distributors, publishers must also agree
to pay all freight charges of books sent to distributors and to
accept the return of all unsold or damaged books. Baker &
Taylor charge a one-time $125 database fee and state, "We
reserve the right to withhold 25% of payment for returns within
the first year of business," evidently just in case a publisher
balks on accepting the return of unsold books. That's because,
as Attorney Hoffman points out, distributors' contracts are not
really sales contracts, they're consignment contracts, since the
publisher has to accept the books back again if the distributor
or bookstore manager guessed wrong on potential sales.
Some managers do defy
the system. I've had successful signings at B. Dalton, Barnes
and Noble, and several Books-a-Million stores, although my book
isn't listed with their distributors. But last week's offer to
hold an autographing session at a Waldenbooks store in the town
of New Philadelphia, Ohio, was regretfully withdrawn by Manager
Melissa Bullock this week when she discovered that, "Sorry,
your book isn't in our ordering system," which was Partners
Book Distributing (see sidebar). Gary Gotch of Parma, Ohio, emailed
me, "We would be delighted to host a signing of your book,
The Sceptre, but I need to be able to find a company-recognized
book vendor that carries it. Distributors that our company recognizes
would include Ingram, Partners, Baker & Taylor. . . ."
When I talked on the phone to Gary, he admitted, "We are
pretty much allowed to buy only from vendors listed in a book
that we are issued, and yours isn't listed."
Getting reviews is
more problematic. A good review can be used in ads to promote
sales. But sending a review copy of my self-published book to
journal editors, along with the usual promotion material, usually
nets me nothing, not even a rejection. I've never received a review
on the weekly book page of my home town newspaper, the Naples
(Florida) Daily News. Occasionally I receive a turn-down by e-mail.
The reputed policy of the New York Times is to pay no attention
to self-published books, but Dwight Garner, a reviewer, adds,
"We do on occasion [review self-published books]."
Authors are beginning
to react against the system in creative ways. A group of thirteen
novelists, many of whom are published by major houses but who
also own their own presses, have banded together to form a publishing
association called The Authors Studio (TAS) to help members attain
greater control over their intellectual property by retaining
all rights, and to assist with the printing, distribution, and
marketing of their books. Julie Tetel Andersen, a professor at
Duke University and the author of fifteen historical novels, inspired
the association to form. TAS is beginning to act like a combined
self-publisher/printer/distributor. Its spokesperson, Patricia
Wynn Ricks, explained in Publishers Weekly, May 3, 1999, "We're
just reacting to the new developments in the business." Actually,
they're using new developments in the business to react against
the old system.
Authors Ask Concessions
Whether forming associations
of author-publishers like TAS will help self-publishing authors
obtain attention for their books remains to be seen, but combining
against the system may be the only way. In the past, other authors'
unions haven't gotten much for members, though. The work of committees
appointed by unions to try improving the position of authors in
the contracts (which are of course written not by authors but
by publishers) has consisted primarily of attempting to wheedle
concessions out of publishers or simply grumbling to the media.
In the spring of 1999 the Authors Guild complained about the low
royalty structure offered to writers who sell books for use in
the new hand-held computer called Rocket eBook, which is backed
by two huge investors, Bertelsmann and Barnes & Noble.
According to Publishers
Weekly, authors get no increase in royalties from their books
when their works are sold to appear in the new digital reading
device, while the two publishing giants and retailers will "profit
enormously" from the financial arrangements. In 1989 the
National Writers Union, a trade group of about 5,000 freelancers
affiliated with the UAW/AFL-CIO, spoke up about authors being
victimized by little or no income from work of theirs that appeared
on the web: "writers do not have to give Web rights away
or license them for a nominal fee." Of course they don't.
But what choice do they have, if that's all web hosts offer?
Combining into associations
may help, but many intrepid authors have reached success independently.
From the experience of those authors, it seems that victory over
the odds depends on taking charge of their own destiny. For unless
authors defy the system by retrofitting to the style of Ben Franklin
and becoming self-publishers/printers/distributors/promoters/advertisers,
the commercial publishing industry will remain in charge of which
new ideas will reach the eyes and ears of the public.