Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Self-publishing: An exhilarating experience with pitfalls: self-published novelists' guide to some of them

Completing the manuscript of a novel or nonfiction book is a creative, exhilarating, and sometimes infuriating process.

What comes after that - the publication of the book - can often be its own satisfying reward.

Why self-publish?

There are a few reasons. The first is that the author doesn't want a third party making decisions that don't mesh with the author's vision.

Or the manuscript might be a business manual intended for internal distribution or a compilation of recipes a restaurateur plans to sell to customers. It might be a family history or a collection of personal letters or photos, meant for a small audience.

Aloysius J. Ahearn, a Bolton resident who last year self-published "From Rags to Patches," a memoir about growing up in Boston during the Great Depression, says he didn't want to deal with traditional publishers. He says they "prefer celebrities so they don't have to do any marketing and can ensure a bestseller."

Ahearn also didn't want to wait the years it can take for a traditional publisher to make a book available.

"I had brothers and sisters who really wanted to read it," he says. "The point was to get it published, not to be famous. It was a labor of love."

The manuscript might also be a work of fiction a writer has had little luck selling to agents. Several writers have turned to self-publishing as an alternative, and a select few have landed major publishing contracts as a result.

N. Frank Daniels, who self-published his novel "Futureproof," recently sold the manuscript to Harper Perennial, a division of HarperCollins. Best-selling author Dave Eggers, who self-published his novel, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," later sold the book to Simon & Schuster.

POD vs. a "vanity" publisher

Print on demand, or POD, is a process used to print books. The print-on-demand company stores a digital file of the manuscript and churns out copies one-by-one as orders come in. Small publishers, self-publishers, vanity presses, and even some larger publishers use the process.

A self-publisher using a POD printer does much of the preparation for print, from editing to formatting to designing the cover - or pays fees to have those things done.

A vanity press takes money up front to do the formatting and designing and to publish the book. Some will warehouse a set number of copies, which can result in significant up-front costs.

Someone using a vanity publisher won't technically be self-published. The company's name and logo will be listed as publisher.

Companies will sell themselves to self-publishers as "supportive self-publishers," "full-service POD companies," "traditional subsidy publishers," or any number of other euphemisms for "vanity press."

But unless the outfit is strictly a print-on-demand company that requires no up-front payment for the publishing of your work, it's more than likely a vanity press.

The problem with a vanity press is that self-published manuscripts suffer from a stigma, which comes from the large number of poorly written and poorly edited books in the self-publishing market. Vanity presses are used widely enough by self-publishers for their company names to be immediately recognized - and associated with substandard work.

But a self-publisher can choose a press name. There are so many small presses that a reader won't necessarily realize that the book is self-published.


Company packages vary widely. The cost of publishing a book can range from nothing to $13,000, and publishers offer a wide variety of services. Chances are, if you choose to pay a vanity press an up-front fee of $599 for the ease and convenience it can offer, you aren't going to recoup that cost in sales.

If an author wants to sell a book in stores, it must have a 13-digit International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, which accompanies a barcode. Because the ISBN must be bought and registered, there is a cost associated with it. ISBN packages tend to start at around $100.

Daniels says he chose the POD route to publish "Futureproof" because it was inexpensive.
"The books were printed as they were paid for, and so I had very low overhead, something every starving artist needs," he says.

POD companies will sell packages offering a variety of features. For example, Outskirts Press offers a $199 package that includes a customizable author Web page, professional interior formatting, and a customizable cover, but no ISBN or distribution. The company's ISBN package starts at $399 and includes a marketing kit and a free galley proof, an initial copy of the book that the author can check for typographical errors or send to potential reviewers.

A business executive interested in distributing hardcover copies of a company manual would have no use for that package. But an author who hopes to reach a wider audience and generate sales might benefit from the Web page and marketing assistance.

But there are alternatives. You can buy a book about marketing for under $20. And you can buy your own Web site from a company like 1&1.com, with 11 pages instead of one, for as little as $30 per year. A domain name - the string of letters starting with "www" that identify your Web site - costs about $5 per year.

That's how much I pay for the website and domain name I created to market "Homefront."

"Do a lot of research," says Brent Sampson, the president of Outskirts Press. "Read as many articles as you can" on self-publishing.

Book covers

Many POD and vanity presses will provide cover art. Some will charge for it, and some won't. Some will provide templates the author is looking for, but some authors might want art more specific to their subject matter.

Professional cover designers know how to work with measurements and specifications set by self-publishing companies, and their prices can range from $350 to $5,000.

Should you decide to design the cover yourself, you'll need moderate to extensive experience with image-editing software.

"It's not rocket science, but the technical aspects of formatting for a cover are precise, and mistakes can end up costing people a lot of money," says Catherine Stevenson, book cover designer and founder of Book Cover Express.

She adds that the most common mistake made by people designing their own covers is using the wrong image.

"I often see photos of old, manual typewriters on books written for modern-day freelancers," Stevenson says.

The benefit of hiring a cover designer is the level of experience a professional brings to the project. But Stevenson says covers provided by self-publishing companies can often be just as good.

"Some of the PODs use the same cover designers the big-name publishing houses are using," she says. "What an author should watch out for is who controls the cover if he or she decides to leave that company and take the business elsewhere. An author also needs to be aware of the licensing and copyright issues involving the design, images, and fonts."


Some writers may not need editors. Aloysius Ahearn didn't. An English teacher at East Hartford High School from 1960 to 1991, Ahearn felt reasonably comfortable editing his own work.

"I've done writing," he says. "I'm a good editor and a good proofreader, so I didn't need anyone to do that for me."

Those who do need editing would benefit from paying for it, if no qualified friends are available.

Many vanity presses offer editing services. Dorrance Publishing, a well-known vanity press, is one of them.

"We edit for the mechanics of the language, essentially, to make sure the book complies with the Chicago Manual style, which means making sure there's tense agreement, good punctuation, that sort of thing," says David Braun, Dorrance's author-relations representative.

More important, usually, is what's called "content editing," which involves looking at the work as a whole and deciding what needs to be added or changed to improve it.

A good freelance content editor, who may or may not be able to work on the author's timeline, can command an average of $800 per book.

An editing company, on the other hand, can offer a team of full-time editors who charge one to two cents per word, work quickly and efficiently, and are able to offer a variety of editing levels, from simple proofreading for typos and grammar to making suggestions on content.

JoEllen Taylor, an editing consultant for FirstEditing.com, stresses that English as a first language and editing-specific training are important things to look for when choosing an editor.

"We had a really great black-genre book that we outsourced to an editor who was very well trained and who spoke excellent English," Taylor says. "But because English wasn't his first language, a lot of the voice from the original work was lost."


* If you're approached by a publisher offering to print your manuscript for a fee, you're being solicited by a vanity press. Real publishers rarely approach authors, and when they do, they offer to pay you.

* Some companies will have hidden costs for revisions, returned copies, special services, etc.

* Some offerings made by vanity presses in their higher-priced packages are benefits you would receive by default if you used a low-cost POD publisher.

* Watch for "deals" that aren't. One company's "platinum" package includes "bookstore returnability." But this assumes your book makes it to a bookstore in the first place, which no vanity press can guarantee.

* As a self-published author, your work isn't likely to be considered by most bookstores, people who don't know you, or big-time reviewers.

Unless you're lucky, like Daniels.

"My book was reviewed by PODdy Mouth, then the most influential POD reviewer on the Web, and it just so happened that two weeks later Entertainment Weekly did a small piece on PODdy Mouth and highlighted her last five book reviews," Daniels says. "'Futureproof' was one of them."

Anything can happen, but don't expect fame and fortune, or even a publishing contract. The chance that a self-published author will sell a work to an established publisher is slim. Very slim.
But that's no reason not to try.

"I had literally not a month earlier given up on getting 'Futureproof' published," Daniels says. "Sept. 20, 2007 - a day I'll never forget. It was like all that work had finally paid off, and in the most unexpected way."

Whatever your vision for your work - a personal memoir, a catalogue for your store or business, an account of your summer travels - every decision you make as you move through the self-publishing process will lead to the day your creation arrives in the mail, bound, covered, and complete. Then you're holding the book - not a stack of dog-eared, 8½- by 11-inch pages, but a book - in your hands.

Here are some tips on self-publishing a book:

* Assess your needs and determine your audience. An audience of 10 doesn't warrant the use of a vanity press that will warehouse 100 copies of your book.

* Ask questions. If a company says, "We edit," ask, "What kind of editing do you do?" If a company says, "We offer several book cover designs," ask, "Are they included in my up-front costs? What if I want to design my own?"

* Don't be swayed by fancy company Web sites. Base your choice of publishers strictly on your needs. There is no one vanity or print-on-demand press that will give your work more credibility than the other. Do, however, read reviews on product quality.

* Check prices. Compare what's offered in vanity-press packages with the costs you can find online for individual services. For example, one very high-priced package offered by a vanity press includes business cards. At Overnight Prints, you can get 1,000 full-color business cards for just $39.95.

* Determine how many services in a package you will use. Postcards, bookmarks, posters, and business cards sound great, but will you use them? Where will you hang your posters?

* For any writer hoping to sell your work: Be prepared to be your own publicist, unless you can afford to hire one.

To publicize "Homefront," I made fliers that I dropped on local bookstore counters and slipped under neighborhood welcome mats, got write-ups in town newspapers, and collected as many reviews as I could. I also managed to get several radio interviews, including one on the Faith Middleton Show on Connecticut's public radio stations, collectively known as WNPR-FM.

* Try everything. You never know who will say yes.


Λύσιππος said...

A single post - with so much condensed information! Thank you for the effort, I appreciate it.

Vanessa D. Alexander said...

I'm glad I found you. And I know sincerity when I see it. Heck, my best friend and I are both Christians and we don't agree on everything.

Thanks for your comments. And I am buying the book by the way. You inspired...