I Heart Indies

Monday, February 14, 2011

Caveat Scritor: Read Before You Self Publish

Anyone who has self-identified as a writer on a profile page, blog, Facebook, or whatever, has seen them: “We Are Looking for Authors!” “Looking for a Publisher?” “Written a Book?” The ads seek us out like termites on the trail of untreated lumber, offering what every writer most wants: an audience. Or at least publication. These services eschew the label Vanity Presses, and indeed many of them are not presses as such, publishing ebooks instead of paper and print.

The promotional material for these publishers claims many famous writers – Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, William Blake – self published. (It neglects to remind us these people were either tireless self-promoters – Twain and Dickens – or mystics indifferent to commercial success – Blake.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I myself have self-published. (I realize the last was redundant, but I needed it for emphasis.) I put my surreal novella about a man trapped in a musical comedy, Scoring Bertram Wiggly, for sale through Amazon’s Kindle. It had won an honorable mention in Quarterly West’s novella contest, but my agent – quite understandably, even Stephen King had a hard time selling novellas – didn’t want to take it on, so I decided to publish electronically. It cost me nothing but time. As of the last time I checked, my sales have been – hold on, I’ll check again right now – uh, nil. I don’t regret this book – that would be like regretting a child – but nor has it done anything to advance me professionally or win the legions of adoring fans I so richly deserve.

Scoring Bertram Wiggly

The common experience as I’ve witnessed it among friends who have self-published is bitterer and costlier, both in terms of dollar outlay and disillusionment; starting with heady optimism – in spite of all our modest disclaimers, who among us does not secretly believe the world is ready to pounce on us as the Genius it has Long Awaited and Too Long Neglected? – and ending a thousand dollars poorer and wiser, with a stack of the books in the basement as a lasting reminder of the penalty for hubris.

The reason self-publishing appeals so strongly to the new novelist, is it’s so fast. Here’s how long it took to publish Endless Corvette: two years or so to write, a year to find an agent and secure representation, a year to find a publisher, and then one more year before the thing actually landed in print. Time-wise, my experience publishing Paradise Dogs (out this Summer from Thomas Dunne and a dandy gift for all occasions) has been similar. In the opening chapter, Adam Newman misquotes Walt Whitman, “I now forty-seven, and in perfect health, begin.” I was forty-seven myself when I wrote that. I’ll be fifty-two in May. The book comes out in June. Even a dedicated writer, if he measures time in days and weeks, may quail at tossing away half a decade. Longfellow’s advice, “Learn to labor, and to wait,” fits here. Writing is nothing but laboring and waiting. In fact, as long as you’re waiting, it’s a good time to get in some extra labor.

Given this, who can blame an author for seeking a shortcut?

The problem is, the traditional route, life-wasting as it is, gives the indispensable imprimatur to the author. Imprimatur originally meant the church’s approval to publish. I no longer need the Pope’s approval to write a book – although it wouldn’t hurt – but the sanction of the commercial establishment is still vital for most books. Secular authority has replaced religious.

Of course, being published has other rewards besides financial (Lord, I hope so!) but even here, self publishing comes up short. In terms of career advancement, self publishing lacks the credibility of an academic or independent press. Even though every poet on the planet has probably put together his own chapbook and run it off on a Xerox machine at some point, a scholar would be well-advised to leave self-published works off her VITA. That old imprimatur rearing its ugly head again.

Writing a novel requires a kind of mania, even delusion, and authors can’t be relied to evaluate the quality of their own work any more than drug addicts can be trusted to run a pharmacy. The name of a recognized publisher on a dust jacket is an imprimatur telling a bookseller that someone thinks this book is worth the risk – an agent who devoted her time, and a publisher his money – not just an author who understandably loves his own work in the same way all parents imagine their child is a genius.

Frank Reiss, owner of legendary A Capella Books in Atlanta’s Little Five Points says, “our policy toward self published books might sound pretty harsh, but here it is: We almost never even consider them. Our experience is that unless the author has done a phenomenal job on his or her own of creating awareness for a book, nobody is ever going to ask for it or find it on our shelves, and we simply can't keep track of the numbers of different individual ‘vendors’ that carrying self published books would mean that we'd have to.”

Reese’s policy is shared by most booksellers, a fact which many self published authors discover only after they’ve shelled out their hard-earned dough, and have a boxful of books in their car trunks they want to place on a shelf somewhere. Not only bookstores, but most major reviewers – Publishers Weekly and Kirkus – and most public libraries won’t touch a self published book. Without access to these vital resources, most books just don’t stand a chance. Even with them, they only stand half a chance. Electronic publishing is cheaper, and doesn’t require the support of a bookstore, but still entails the monumental task of self promotion.

Franca's Story: Survival in World War II Italy
Condo Divas
It is possible to beat these odds, but it requires not only exceptional writing talent, but an eye for marketing potential, extraordinary business sense. One such success is Diane Kinman, a writer living in Seattle, Washington, whose first novel, Franca’s Story won The Benjamin Franklin gold award for best interior design using 1-2 colors, and ForeWord Magazine’s silver award for 2005 Book of the Year, Memoir. Kinman, who had worked twenty-five years as a technical editor and marketing manager for architecture and engineering already possessed invaluable experience and in addition to being an engaging and witty writer, is an indefatigable self-promoter, shrewd businesswoman, and captivating public speaker. This is a rare constellation of skills your average bookish novelist does not possess. Her second novel, Condo Divas, she confesses has been “a tougher sell.” Willing to invest considerably in herself, Kinman hired PR help for Condo Divas, which landed her on local TV stations and radio shows and gotten her featured in two national real estate magazines.

Perhaps the difference in Kinman’s levels success with her two books has to do with content: self-published nonfiction seems likely to fare better than fiction. This, sad news for us novelists, seems to be true in publishing generally, but it may be the most important lesson for the would-be self publisher. Frank Reese made an exception for A Capella’s “no self-published books” for B. Wardlaw’s Coca-Cola Anarchist, a memoir of a member of a wealthy Coca-Cola family who become advocate for the homeless. Thanks to the combination of local interest and real-life memoir, Reese says, “We've done quite well with that book.”

The wisdom of working with nonfiction is seconded by Young Adult author Valerie Storey who says, “Writers interested in self-publishing should consider starting with a nonfiction book. It’s much easier to build your platform on a specific topic you can take to conferences, trade shows, specialty stores, and adult education classes. Nonfiction books are also easier to market when it comes to maintaining blogs and web sites because you are providing information people want.”

The Essential Guide for New Writers
Storey, a writer and teacher living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had already published several young adult readers through conventional channels before self publishing The Essential Guide for New Writers. I bought the book myself when taking a course from Storey at Kennesaw State University. (Parenthetically, I will say the book lives up to its title. It has been essential; I have used it both as a teacher and as a writer.) For anyone who teaches seminars or regularly makes presentations to large groups, self publishing seems a logical and practical solution. Books can either be sold or given away, their cost included in the price of admission. Again, Storey is a multitalented person, with an eye for visual arts as well as writing talent, and a career as a teacher that melds nicely with her writing.

In sum, the writer who sees self publishing as a fast track to fame and fortune is sadly fooling himself, but won’t be able to fool himself for long; there are no fast tracks. Even for authors with a New York house behind them, promotion and publicity is a full-time job. But as Diane Kinman, Valerie Storey, and B. Wardlaw show, for the person who has an opportunity to market the book in person, particularly for nonfiction, and for that rare person who combines marketing and business skills with writing talent and indefatigable energy, self publishing may still be an option.

1 comment:

  1. Is is a daunting task to market a self-published novel, but I am having moderate success (thank you by the way, please let me know what you think when you're done). I queried several agents and got rejected, but felt like my story deserved some readers, so I went with it. You make a lot of good points though, it is not easy!

    All the best to you! Happy Valentine's Day!