Stop Kvetching. Self-Publishing Is Here To Stay – And Vaulting Ahead
by Bernard Starr
Since the publication of my Huffington Post article on the merits of self-publishing in December 2010, I’ve received mostly positive — and appreciative — comments. But some friends and others in the traditional publishing world still dismiss self-publishing as a pesky second-class stepchild that they believe will always remain in that status — and many wish it would just go away. They are unimpressed by recent developments that have ratcheted up the status of self-publishing: reviews of self-published books in Publishers Weekly and elsewhere, marketing and distribution services, listings in traditional distributors’ catalogues, prospects for listings in foreign publishers’ catalogues, and much more. Instead they focus on a single objection — that self-publishing is a gateless portal that gives new meaning to the Cole Porter tune “Anything Goes.”
Yes, there’s lots of junk among self-published titles. It may be something that self-publishers should attend to by creating different tiers. Let’s be honest though. Traditional publishing also releases a lot of pollution. There’s an old adage in traditional publishing: “If it could sell they would publish a ham sandwich.”
But young authors — there may be a generational factor operating here — are less attentive to “anything goes.” They focus more on what they see as the democratization of publishing and an enormous opportunity to reach vast audiences through social networking, the new media, and the labyrinth of internet connections.
As more and more writers and wannabe authors get turned off by the barriers to the traditional publishing world, they find the ease of access to publishing through self-publishing, as well as the potential for a larger share of profits, a no-brainer choice.
Many are also discovering that a quality self-published book can still find its way to traditional publishing (if that’s what you want) if it generates a sales track record and is picked up by a publisher or agent. Increasingly, though, traditionally published authors are catching on to what I noted in my previous article on self-publishing: If your publisher is not doing major content editing, significant marketing or publicity, and is demanding that you do virtually all the marketing — website, workshops, speaking engagements, acquiring friends on Facebook, tweeting everyone you know (or don’t know), other social networking — then you have signed on with a printer that calls itself a publisher. In effect you are self-publishing but without the benefits of self publishing — 40-80% royalties rather than 7 1/2-15% and total control over the publishing process.
Would-be authors — especially first-timers — may also be turned off by getting caught in the clutches of editors and agents who can intimidate them into walking gingerly with hat in hand so as not to upset the plantation owners and overseers. That sorry circumstance is captured in the story about a writer who came home much earlier than usual to find his wife in bed with his literary agent. He looked at them in astonishment and said: “This is incredible, it’s unbelievable, it’s mind boggling. My agent actually came to my house.”
That explains why I increasingly hear authors rank — even those who could easily publish with a traditional house — “control” of their writing projects number one when they list their reasons for choosing self-publishing.
Tanya Wright is a good example. Tanya, one of the stars of the popular HBO series True Blood, wrote, starred in, and directed a screenplay, Butterfly Rising, that she raised financing for independently. The film has been completed and she is now seeking a distributor.
After shooting the film, Tanya decided to write a novel based on her screenplay. She then investigated the choices for publishing. She selected self-publishing with Create Space which is owned by Amazon. Why, I asked her, did she choose this route when she has a lot to offer a traditional publisher (celebrity and an impressive resume of achievements in films, TV and theater, as well as an extensive outreach of friends and followers on social networks)?
Foremost, she emphasized control. In my interview with her she said, “I’m one of the new breed of artists who are taking control of their lives.” In considering traditional publishing she discovered what I pointed to above — that she would be required to do the publicity using her networks and contacts along with personal appearances. If that were the case, she decided that she wanted the bulk of the profits. She also said that the traditional publishers she spoke to estimated as much as eighteen months for the book to be published after she would submit her manuscript. With Create Space, after completing her book with the assistance of a skilled editor who she hired, it came out within weeks.
How does she rate the self-publishing experience? “It was efficient, easy, painless and even joyful. I’m still in touch with my team coordinator.” She wouldn’t tell me what the sales were at the time of my interview, but she did emphasize that she was satisfied and added that she foresees a greater opportunity for marketing when the film comes to theaters. She also relishes the prospect of having total control over the expected synergy of the total package of film and book.
Stokes McMillan also decided to go the self-publishing route. Although he never wrote a book before, Stokes comes from a long line of journalists. In fact, he describes himself as the black sheep in the family for not going into journalism.
For many years Stokes was intrigued by a sensational murder that took place in 1950 in Kosciusko Mississippi where he grew up. A white man, Leon Turner, brutally massacred three black children of a woman who spurned his sexual advances. Since Turner was white (although Stokes says that he had a black girlfriend and eight “mulatto” half-siblings), it was not clear if this was a racial hate crime or one of madness driven by unrequited sexual lust. Stokes’s photo-journalist father was present at the capture of Turner and took a photo that won the Press Photographers Association’s award for 1950. Author William Faulkner, a native of Mississippi, got into the act by advocating for the death penalty for the murderer. In what Stokes describes as a rare instance of justice served for that era in Mississippi, an all-white jury (at that time only white males could serve on juries in Mississippi) found Turner guilty in two days — although there were a few holdouts for the electric chair.
In 2001, when he realized that most of the people involved in the case were dying off, Stokes finally got around to writing a proposal for a book about the fascinating, multi-layered murder. He began making the rounds with publishers. The whiplash of contradictory responses he received is reminiscent of the cartoon in which an editor is talking to Charles Dickens: “Mr. Dickens, make up your mind. Was it the best of times or was it the worst of times?” One editor told Stokes that his book was suited for a university press. The university press that he contacted advised him to seek a commercial non-fiction publisher. Finally, at a book fair in Houston he signed on with an agent who was interested. But since he has a day job — Stokes is an aerospace engineer for NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas — it took him seven years to complete the book. By that time the agent lost interest. That’s when Stokes decided to go with self-publishing. His book, One Night of Madness, was published this past year.
Stokes is satisfied with his current sales, which are about 3,000 copies. He says he has done minimal publicity, since he has limited time, but plans more intensive marketing in the future. His book got a boost when Create Space named him “author of the month” in their November newsletter. Also, proving that self-published books can get wide attention, his book has been optioned for a movie. That came about through a talk and signing that he did in Greenwood, Mississippi — incidentally, although it’s challenging to get self-published books into Barnes and Noble and other chains, it’s possible to get into stores in your town or neighborhood by speaking to the managers. A woman who attended the signing operated a bed and breakfast nearby and it turned out that the production coordinator of the soon-to-be-released film The Help, based on the best-selling novel, stayed at the B&B while shooting the film. The woman mentioned Stokes’ book and showed him a copy. A movie deal soon followed. Like Tanya Wright, Stokes foresees a jump in sales for his book when the film comes out.
Walter and Marilyn Rabetz decided to go the self-publishing route with their book of photographsby 19th-century Nantucket photographer Josiah Freeman. Marilyn explains why: “It’s a niche book and we know and have access to the market for this book. So why go to a traditional publisher who would tap our sources and probably set a high price for the book of photos?” Since both Walter and Marilyn are artists — Walter a well-known photographer and Marilyn a painter who has written frequently for art magazines and has done freelance book design — they had the skills to provide first-class editing, graphics and cover design that enabled them to produce their book for the bare bones price of $5.85 for the proof. The list price on Amazon is $22. They will receive 80% of this amount minus the production cost of $5.80. A traditional publisher — which would likely price the book at $30 or more — would pay a royalty of 10% of the list price (with no deduction for costs) — far less than the self-publisher’s royalty any way you cut it.
Walter and Marilyn also believe they can market the book effectively on their own. For thirty years they headed the art department at the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor Connecticut where they supervised the construction of a showcase art center that includes a gallery and a residence for visiting artists. They curated numerous exhibits over their tenure there that included prominent artists who were in residence. Also, world-famous artist Sol LeWitt worked with students to create an installation piece that was displayed in the gallery.
Their connection to galleries throughout the United States will be valuable in marketing their book and giving it visibility. The book should also be an appealing item for bookstores, galleries and other locations on Nantucket and the surrounding areas of Hyannis Port and Martha’s Vineyard. They will also market the book through websites that appeal to photographers, photography buffs, and historians of art and photography.
Walter serendipitously stumbled into the trove of Josiah Freeman’s glass plate studio photographs at a tag sale on Nantucket. The story of the find and the fact that the photographs represent a lost piece (studio photographs) of a famous photographer’s work should also pique the interest of the art world.
For future art books that they are working on, Walter and Marilyn are disappointed that Create Space doesn’t currently offer the larger trim size and horizontal format that some art books require. There are self-publishers, like Blurb, that specialize in photo books and offer more size choices, but they are more costly for the author. So Walter and Marilyn say they will probably stick with their current self-publisher and hope that the company will expand the size offerings with a cost-effective price.
Clearly, niche books for which the author has access to the primary market are ideal for self-publishing. That’s why Rosa Celeste Raveneau decided to publish her book, Swami’s Leelas in My Life, with Create Space. The book is a memoir of her spiritual journey starting in her youth in Honduras, her flirtations with a number of spiritual paths and philosophies, including time she spent in the 1960s in Paris with Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, and culminating in her discovering her livelong spiritual guide and teacher Sathya Sai Baba in southern India.
Like Walter and Marilyn, Rosa produced her book for the rock-bottom price of $5.60. Her partner Maurice Barrett, an artist and writer who handled all the editing, design and technical details, jokes that the greatest cost for producing the book was the $39 charge by FedEx for overnight shipping.
The biggest market for Rosa’s book will be devotees of Sathya Sai Baba — estimated to be in the millions worldwide. Since Rosa and Maurice are well-known in the various “Sai” organizations, they will have a big marketing edge in getting to interested buyers — the very market that a traditional publisher would aggressively tap while taking the bulk of profits. Another asset for marketing the book on her own is Rosa’s work history. For 25 years she was VP of Sales for Univision, the largest Spanish-speaking television network in the U.S. Rosa and Maurice are currently in the process of seeking approval from the Sai organization in India and the U.S. to offer their book directly to devotees.
Not every self-published book will have the appeal or advantages of the ones described in this article, Nevertheless, their stories reveal why so many authors are turning to self-publishing — a trend that is unstoppable as self-publishers continue to add features that will eventually go head to head with the few remaining advantages of traditional publishing.
Note: this article is a follow-up of my earlier article that featured Create Space and therefore does not give a full picture of the extensive number of self-publishers. If you are seeking a self-publisher, Google the industry and check out the variety of features, ancillary services and pricings that are offered. David Conroy’s article, “Self-Publishing a Book: 25 Things You Need to Know,” although somewhat outdated — self-publishing is changing as I write — makes some excellent points that authors should consider.