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A Literary Love Affair

 

 

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, me.

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It's because outdated policies in the book world make entrenched publishing people afraid of a book that is--dare I whisper it?--self-published.

Low Standing

Self-published books 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.

Middle-Age Spread

Commercial publishers 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, and Zürich.

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 the printing.

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 publishing.

Publishing became 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 United States.

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 by self-publishing.

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.

Technology Helps

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.

Commercial publishers 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."

Traditional publishers 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.

On-demand publishing 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 own paper.

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.

FirstBooks Library

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.

Two entrepreneurs 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.

Traditional Publishers Nervous

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 version.

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."

Exclusivity Required

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.

Ingram's Requirements

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.

"Reorders will 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."

Book Reviews

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.