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And now: a rant.

(I'll get back to the contract, which is now entirely boring bits that are almost irrelevant, after this).

The Washington Post ran this article:

It's about self-publishing.

If you're telling yourself for the 57th time, "I could write a book," but you don't have a direct line to the editors at Random House, it may be time to consider self-publishing. Don't knock it: James Redfield's "The Celestine Prophecy" and John Grisham's "A Time to Kill" started this way. But if you're going to go to the trouble (not to mention the expense), you'll want to make sure your precious copies don't just end up in some dusty garage. How do you get your tome flying off the shelves at Borders? We asked some experts for advice:

Okay. Let's start with this paragraph. First: Grisham's novel was published by a small press; it wasn't self-published. So this is inaccurate. Second: "The Celestine Prophecy" comes under the category "New Age Self-Help", which isn't fiction. Yes, I know; it's certainly occupying a different reality than many of the rest of us do, but it wasn't published as fiction. And it was sold in large numbers via New Age seminars, where the author -- apparently a very good speaker -- sold the books as an adjunct to a course that he taught. Neither of these is therefore a good example of a novel being a success as a self-published book.

Let me put it another way. There are always successful first novelists that you can point at; they come most frequently from major publishers, and they make a lot of money. Are there less of these than there are stories of self-published books that went on to become successful? I can think of one fiction book off the top of my head -- ERAGON -- but the measure of success for that book was that it was picked up by a major trade publisher.

Okay. How many self-published novels can you point to that have cleared the self-publishing slushpile? Because that's what you're treating self-publishing as if you think you can somehow follow the ERAGON route: A great big slushpile, but the pages are bound.

Now that you have that number... how many novels can you point to that launched a successful career that were not, in fact, self-published, but instead published through traditional channels? They came from real first submissions, rather than self-published ones; I think of them all as slush because they either had to find a publisher first, or find an agent who could submit to a publisher first; in either way, the authors of these books were submitting into the regular trade channels. Think: Rowling. Or Clarke. Or King. Or Steele. Or Goodkind. Or etc. etc. etc.

These numbers are overwhelmingly in favour of publishers and reputable agents and submissions to their slush.

So then why does this myth about the value of self-publishing for novelists persist? Is it because some people can't count?

HYPE IT UP. Publicizing your book shouldn't be the last thing you think about -- you should start even before the masterpiece is finished. Begin by lining up people to blurb it -- raid your Palm (and your friends' contacts) for former colleagues, teachers or other high-profile prospects. Once you've typed those two gratifying words, "the end," call the local media, and submit excerpts to magazines and newsletters. Just be sure to target your audience, says Dan Poynter, who started out writing books on hang gliding and now publishes the book "The Self-Publishing Manual." Newspapers probably won't touch your slim volume on sewing, he says, "but if you send it to a sewing magazine, they'll pick it up in a heartbeat."

This may be true of non-fiction. Dan Poynter has been very successful in selling his own books because he writes niche-based non-fiction. When he points out that you have to target your market carefully, he's dead right -- for a non-fiction book. It's absolutely true that it's much easier to get ink/print media interested in a non-fiction book that has a spin appropriate to the readership of that magazine/newspaper section. There is no section for fiction that isn't "review". Sending out partials of your unfinished novel will get you laughed at, or will feed the recycling bin, or both; it won't get you interviews or media space.

POLISH YOUR PAGES. The buzz is out, and you've got a first draft. Now you need to whip it into shape. Hiring an editor isn't a bad idea; you can post ads on Craiglist.com, Copyeditor.com or local job boards (ask for references, and try out prospects with a few pages first). Because consumers and reviewers do judge a book by its cover, be sure to find a good graphic designer. Check out the covers of comparable books, then advertise on job boards, track down illustrators whose work you like or go through AIGA (www.aiga.org, formerly the American Institute of Graphic Arts).

… Hiring an editor to line-edit your book, and to copy-edit your book, is expensive. Finding a good editor is risky. Expect to spend a couple of thousand dollars. IF what you write is non-fiction, this may make sense; you're not trying to write a novel based on your deathless prose & story-telling skills; you're trying to write a book based on your expertise in a given arena; it may be that your sense of how to put a book together is in no way equal to the expertise you have to bring to a book.

The assumption in this case (in the Post article) is that your book will have by this point generated buzz. If it's a novel, and unfinished, it won't. I feel it germaine to reiterate the point I usually reiterate: Fiction and non-fiction are not the same beast.

That said, the pointers to editors or graphic designers aren't bad pointers; expect to spend money on both if you feel this is for you. Again, however, the best cover in the world is not going to make a novel innately professional. Most of the self-publishers who've done well have done it by a) word-of-mouth in a b) strong niche market; they've also spent time on the road giving lectures or teaching courses (for which they're paid a lot of money on its own) and can take their books and sell them there.

How many speaking markets do you think there are for an unpublished novelist? How many people are going to pay an unpublished fiction writer five to fifteen thousand dollars to give a series of lectures & presentations? Not many. As in none.

SAVE YOUR PENNIES. Make no mistake: All this will be costly. Steve Boorstein, the Bethesda-based host of the syndicated radio show "The Clothing Doctor," says he spent $7,500 on the first printing of his book, "The Ultimate Guide to Shopping & Caring for Clothing." That covered the initial print run and paid for an illustrator, a PR firm, an editor, a designer and a self-publishing consultant, he said.

This is the only part of the article with which I don't quibble. It will be damn costly to self-publish a book of any significant quality (in terms of production -- editor, copy-editor, typesetter & cover designer) on your own. But you'll note that in this case, the author is a syndicated radio talk show host, with an audience already built-in, and credentials based on that show. He wasn't writing a novel. He wasn't writing a book on miniature railways with no other experience to back him. He was writing something for which he already had a proven track record. I'm assuming that he spent the money on those editorial services; writing isn't what he does, after all; conveying the information is. How does this relate to a novelist? It doesn't. It's not apples and oranges -- they're at least both fruits -- it's apples and steak.

This man could expect to recoup his expenses; he could speak about his book on-air; he could generate media interest through his other contacts, and the book -- once again -- is about the area of expertise by which he makes his living.

You could spend this much money producing a very professional looking book. Or a reasonably professional looking book. But if the story isn't already there, a line-editor isn't going to save it; the editors will edit, not re-write. A copy-editor can catch errors in the text, and inconsistencies -- but again, they're working with what they have. If you decide to self-publish, what you have to offer is a story, but the structure, etc., is yours. You don't have a built-in market. You don't have a radio audience (or television audience). You've got a novel, and there are many, many thousands of those published -- not self-published -- every month.

Don't forget that you'll also need to shell out at least $245 for an ISBN number (apply at www.isbn.org), the unique identifier that keeps distributors from confusing, say, "Birds of America," the illustrated guide by John James Audubon, with "Birds of America," the short-story collection by Lorrie Moore.

This seems like a high price to me. In Canada, you can get them for free. In the US, you have to pay for them by blocks, but 245 for a single number is more than I've heard it costs. If you're self-publishing, otoh, you will need that number. I believe you also need to send copies of the book to the Library of Congress. I could be wrong about this; Canadian and US publishing works slightly differently.

GO TO PRESS. Luckily, for the most part, a printer is a printer, Poynter says. Send out a "request for quotes" and go with the lowest bid. Prices typically start at $5 or $6 per book for 100 copies of a standard-size, 256-page paperback, but they drop as quantities rise.

If you're determined to self-publish, this is good advice. Get a bunch of quotes. Look around on-line. Ask for samples (the early POD books fell apart when you opened them, and this is bad). You can also specify paper quality, binding, etc., when you do this. If you want the book to look professionally published, you pay a premium for paper, for process, etc. However for 100 copies of a non POD book, you're probably looking at more money.

If you want a tiny printing, you might try a print-on-demand operation, such as Xlibris (www2.xlibris.com), CafePress.com or AuthorHouse (www.authorhouse.com). These companies can simplify the publishing process by providing layout and design services, the ISBN number, and a distribution network -- but they tend to have higher costs and lower returns.

Why on earth does the person even BOTHER with this??? If the point of the article is that the way to go is self-publishing, what, then would be the point of a tiny printing? Is it an acknowledgement that the books won't actually sell when self-published? Xlibris costs money; it costs, in theory, less money than doing everything on your own would cost. Until you have to order the books. If you want to have them distributed by Xlibris, you can do that without ordering the books; you still pay all the other associated publishing fees.

PUT IT OUT THERE. Unless you're on the lecture circuit and plan to pass out your book at talks, you'll need to find a wholesaler or distributor to sell and ship it to retailers. The difference: Wholesalers, such as Baker & Taylor (www.btol.com) or Amazon Advantage (www.amazon.com/advantage), handle only warehousing and shipment, while "master distributors" like Biblio Distribution (www.bibliodistribution.com), a small-press distributor, have a sales force to present books to retailers. Again, the more marketing you've done ahead of time, the easier it will be to persuade a distributor to pick up your book. Rachel F. Elson

The point of not self-publishing is that a much better distribution and sales force exists in the established publishers. The most important thing for a novelist to do is to get books on the shelves. Period. Getting B&T to carry your book doesn't mean that it will sell; it means that bookstores can order them, however. If this happens, you wait for your money.

Also: As a self-publisher, the risk of selling to wholesalers is yours. You sell the books at a deep discount from your cover price; you sell the books as returnable stock if you attempt to sell them directly to any of the chains/wal-marts etc. If the books don't sell, you get them back, and you owe the chains money. If they do sell, the chains will pay you in six months, less whatever credit they're due for returns. In the mean-time, you'll be responsible for the shipping costs, etc. And the warehousing costs.

Doing marketing ahead of time doesn't work for fiction because there's almost no way to make that marketing stand out in a sea of similar marketing. You might be lucky enough to place books on your own, but they'll be in quantities of 5, not 500 or 5000.

I honestly can't figure out what the point of this article is.

But if you've read it and you somehow think that because it's in the Washington Post, it's a reasonable thing to do -- go back and reread my earlier bookstore articles. There is an aura of unreality to this that's almost offensive. Well, okay, I find it offensive; I'm sure it wasn't intended that way. But I have to wonder how much attention the author pays to the publishing world. Or, alternately, how much this was edited to shreds so that it lost all but the patina of coherency.


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 29th, 2004 12:19 pm (UTC)
Testify, sister! Do I hear an amen?

Oct. 9th, 2004 12:06 am (UTC)
Amen again.

What surprises me is the Washington Post publishing this kind of misinformation.
Sep. 29th, 2004 12:50 pm (UTC)

I wonder...if you're doing all this, when do you have time to a) write the book and b) hold down a full-time job to live, save for retirement and, oh, have the money to pay for all this?
Sep. 29th, 2004 12:53 pm (UTC)
I honestly can't figure out what the point of this article is.

I would be 99% certain this article is geared toward self-publishing of nonfiction. The vast majority of the supporting comments are from non-fiction writers, so what the article is saying does work okay for nonfiction. As you pointed out.

I don't think the point is to talk about self-publishing in the fiction sense, because then the author of this artilce would be courting many much bad press due to the the AuthorHouse, which is currently facing a class action suit.

Sep. 29th, 2004 02:03 pm (UTC)
Oh, god...Eragon...that book makes me want to froth at the mouth and then some...I can't help but speculate that had the book been written by someone older and there wasn't the hype of him being so young, that a major company would've been bothered with it? (And I've read this book, so I'm not talking completely out of my ass here). Half the reason it sold at the bookstore I worked at when it came out was because parents plugging the fact the writer was so young. Go marketing, but *shudders*
Sep. 29th, 2004 02:04 pm (UTC)
It almost sounds like the author of the article wasn't considering fiction at all. Perhaps they only aspire to non-fiction publishing.

The one error I can give data on: "Don't forget that you'll also need to shell out at least $245 for an ISBN number ". At least as recently as 1998, Bowker was the place to go for ISBNs, and they were $100 for a block of ten. I still have eight left.

Sep. 29th, 2004 02:23 pm (UTC)
Curiosity drove me to find out that the current price for ISBNs is actually $225 for a block of ten, and you do indeed go through www.isbn.org.

Anyone who is really considering being a small publisher (because that's part of self-publishing too) is welcome to ask me about my experiences publishing Hughart's three novels. I'm very glad I did it, and that those books reached so many more people than they would have, but it was an adventure not for the faint of heart as well as very very expensive.
Sep. 29th, 2004 03:05 pm (UTC)
Anyone who is really considering being a small publisher (because that's part of self-publishing too) is welcome to ask me about my experiences publishing Hughart's three novels. I'm very glad I did it, and that those books reached so many more people than they would have, but it was an adventure not for the faint of heart as well as very very expensive.

I remember the omnibus -- and I bet it was expensive; it was hardcover, it was decently bound, it was on good paper. It wasn't, that I recall, dirt cheap on the retail end either, but overall production does make a difference to what people are prepared to spend.

The paperback that the previous owner of our store published to celebrate its 30th anniversary was interesting. Yes, as in Interesting Times <wry g>. It was shorter, it was smaller, it wasn't in hardcover -- and adding it to the running of the store? Hectic would be a kind word <g>. I wasn't as involved in that, though; I was just at the store when he frequently wasn't when running around trying to get things done.

I admit I'm curious, though. Did you approach him? Did you have to license sub-rights from someone else?
Sep. 29th, 2004 10:32 pm (UTC)
I used my telepathic weasel-rats to determine that, while the individual book rights were still either taken or questionable, the omnibus rights were available. Then I contacted the author directly.

He was not very interested in the idea, much to my disappointment, and I had to drop the idea of including a new story, even of having him do an Author's Note. But he signed anyway, and he cashed the checks quick enough.

The first printing had a signed hardcover run of 500 copies and an unsigned tradepaperback run of 1000. A year or two later the SFBC did a run of 6000 (at least, they said they planned to do that many). Then about a year ago we did another run of 1000 tradepaperbacks.

While there's still some interest, I don't expect I'll be doing another run personally - but there's a good chance that someone else involved in the project will take it on.
Sep. 29th, 2004 02:58 pm (UTC)
It almost sounds like the author of the article wasn't considering fiction at all. Perhaps they only aspire to non-fiction publishing.

I would have said that had they not mentioned Grisham (apparently incorrectly) as one of their first authors. Had they gone out of their way to make it clear that this advice is for non-fiction writers with a clear market and some expertise in their field (experience does count), I wouldn't be pulling all my hair out .

But when I hit the "send your unfinished book out"... well. Words fail me.
Sep. 29th, 2004 02:46 pm (UTC)
I mostly love it when you rant, btw.

The only author who came to mind was E. Lynn Harris, who self-published his first novel, INVISIBLE LIFE, and hand-sold it by driving to various beauty shops and such. The book, involving gay and bisexual African American folks, was mainly bought by straight black women in the Atlanta area. On the strength of the sales it was picked up by Doubleday. Harris' books now regularly make it to the Top Ten of the mainstream hardcover fiction bestseller lists in the U.S.
Sep. 30th, 2004 08:06 am (UTC)
Self-publishing bad! Pimping yourself on eBay worse? Maybe? I give you this link because he shows off his potential contract with "Author's House" in the listing. And also, because I thought the whole thing might make you boggle.
Oct. 1st, 2004 06:18 pm (UTC)
If you go to "Making Light", you'll see what else he's "written" - that is, after Teresa disemvoweled his comments. It's beyond boggle, it'll make your eyes bleed.

Oct. 1st, 2004 06:21 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for the link;I've been following it! I can't believe that guy, except in that way I totally can, oy!
Sep. 30th, 2004 09:14 am (UTC)
A fine example of what can go wrong with self-publishing with an *already published* author is Sharon Green's Lady Blade, Lord Fighter sequel. Editing issues, printer errors of several shapes & sizes, high cost for substandard end product all earning her (from what I can discern - her email address changed and is no longer published on her website) a fair number of grumpy fans.

Now, if she'd just write a non-fiction book on the pitfalls of self-publishing, and what to watch out for, she might have something....
Sep. 30th, 2004 11:39 am (UTC)
I believe you also need to send copies of the book to the Library of Congress. I could be wrong about this; Canadian and US publishing works slightly differently.

Actually, the only real reason you would need to send your work to LC (1 full paper copy of an unpublished work, or 2 of published works, in a good physical condition, with the fee and filled out form) is when you register your copyright with them. Copyright is automatically secured as soon as your work is put in a fixed format (printed, recorded, etc.), even without sending your work to the LC Copyright Office.

There are advantages to paying and sending your material to the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress however: if your material is ever plagerized, or reprinted or published without your OK, or if someone claims that they wrote the story first (this same issue holds true for patents), you will have proof of Copyright registration. Proving you were first is important, and if you don't have proof that you can show in court, if it comes to that, it becomes a "he said/she said" argument.

For more information: have a look at the Copyright Office's Copyright Basics. Or go to http://www.copyright.gov/ and see what there is to see!

Oct. 1st, 2004 04:22 pm (UTC)
What I don't understand is why anyone would think that

(a) Self-publishing is less work than finding a publisher


(b) That they can still sell it to an audience even when they can't sell it to a publisher (either directly or through an agent.)

At least for fiction, anyway. Buh. O.o
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )