Search This Blog

Friday, September 5, 2008

One Bookseller's Take on the Self-Publishing Game

I’ve wanted to blog about this many times before, but every time I started in, I found too much to say for a posting of reasonable length. This morning, however, the program called “Points North,” on Interlochen Public Radio, tackled the subject. Two of the radio guests were self-published authors, a third the editor of FOREWORD magazine, published out of Traverse City.

Author Aaron Stander is happy with the success of his two northern Michigan murder mysteries. The second author, Mark Levine, in addition to publishing a book on self-publishing, operates a business guiding authors through the process and had a lot to say about how far self-publishing has come in the last few years. Heather Shaw, editor and new publisher, voiced the most caveats. As a bookseller, I share Heather’s wariness. The point below about review copies is one she made on the radio this morning. Some of the rest of what follows are concerns she and I have in common, but, in addition, I bring a decade and a half of bookselling experience to the question.

Let me say that my goal in presenting my view here is not to discourage anyone but to prevent unrealistic expectations and unnecessary heartbreak.

1. BUSINESS: Approach self-publishing as if you’re going into business, because that’s what it is. (If you want to throw up your hands and insist that you’re a writer, not a businessperson, you should not self-publish. Save yourself the aggravation.) Have a detailed marketing plan before your ARC’s go out. Marketing plan. Detailed. Detailed marketing plan. There are books on the subject. Read a few. If you don’t have a detailed marketing plan, you’re not ready to self-publish.

2. FIRST IMPRESSIONS: The book must be physically attractive. Cheap paper, cheap binding, bad photo reproductions all work against sales. Your book has to say, before anyone knows what’s in it, “Pick me up.” Once it’s picked up, it needs to elicit head-nodding and page-turning.

3. CONTENT: Fiction by authors not already famous is always hard to sell, with the wonderful exception of regional murder mysteries. Your self-published novel needs to be a page-turner. For a memoir to sell, the story needs to be either unusual in itself or brilliantly, entertainingly told—preferably both. If your book is nonfiction, it needs to offer new information or present it better than other books on the subject. Know your field. What’s out there, and how does your book compare?

4. STYLE: Editing is part of publishing. Without a publisher, you’re on your own, and if you’re serious about your book reaching a wide public, don’t skimp on editing and proofreading. You can’t proofread your own work. Many have tried, many have failed. Your mind reads what it knows you meant to say, not the marks on the screen or paper, and the greater the number of errors to the page (even, perhaps sadly, the more nonstandard your style), the worse for your reputation and that of your baby.

5. REVIEWS; If you hope to have your book reviewed, advance reader copies (ARC’s) need to go out THREE MONTHS IN ADVANCE OF YOUR PUBLICATION DATE. If you publish first and then send out copies for review, it’s too late. FOREWORD is not alone in holding to this policy. This is industry standard.

6. BOOKSTORES: Make it as easy as possible for bookstores to handle your book. If it will not be available through a regular major distributor (my accounts are with Partners and Ingram, and every book I have to order directly from an author or publisher outside these outlets adds another complication to my ordering system), be aware of the way booksellers place orders. (a) Provide a printed invoice form. (b) Offer at least a 40% discount. (c) Don’t expect immediate payment from an invoice. (Industry standard here is 30-45 days.) (d) Be prepared to handle returns. Painful as it is to all of us, returns are another standard procedure in the book world. Booksellers may return unsold books to distributors, publishers and authors. One publisher with whom I deal has a no-return policy, but his discount to me is 50% rather than 40%, and he has a strong track record of many years. (e) If a bookstore agrees to give you a signing, do as much as you can to help get publicity for the event. Tell everyone you know, and hand out fliers. (f) Think past simply signing your book. What else can you do to make the book attractive to potential customers? Give a talk? A reading? A demonstration?

Getting a book printed is the easy part. Selling, while very different from writing, can be almost as hard as writing, so know what you’re letting yourself in for before you decide to self-publish. Maybe there’s another way you can go.


Anonymous said...

I heard this morning's IPR story, too, and thought it was bang on. All of us think no one else can do what we do half as well as we can do it - and secretly we all believe we can handle professional chores like editing and print layouts and photo reproduction just about as well as the people who do it for a living . . .

Ha. And again Ha. Might as well remove our own tonsils.

Of course self-publishing can work - I've watched Betty Beeby and Glenn Ruggles and a whole raft of historical societies do it. They work hard at it, know their markets, and make good use of professional advice. Writing's a business. It's an art, too, but the minute the writer decides to try to make a living at it, it becomes first and foremost a business. All writers need to keep in mind that we're competing not just with movies and TV and the latest kid on the block, but with every ink-stained wretch who's put quill to parchment since the time of Gutenberg. Alas and hurrah, writers come and go, but books moulder on . . .

P. J. Grath said...

You are so right about all the competition, Gerry. Especially with fiction and poetry, it's terribly hard for an unknown author to find an audience. I would never tell anyone not to write. If it's in you, it's in you, and it wants to come out. Self-publishing, on the other hand, I would more often than not try to discourage. Very few writers are marketers. They don't want to be marketers. But self-publishers have to be self-marketers, too, and there's the rub.

Anonymous said...

As a former newsroom denizen who had to deal with countless self-publishers seeking publicity, I say: Forget about it. Write your story, photocopy enough for your relatives and kids, and let it be.

P. J. Grath said...

David's daughter did a lovely book, hardcover with photos of their family's 2007 adventures, for all us lucky relatives, but we're hoping her story of traveling, solo, the Mississippi River by road finds a trade publisher.

Anonymous said...

In general I have to agree with Anonymous, but still . . . On a hiking trip in the U.P., while the other Wild Women were buying Fat Quarters in Munising (it's a long story) I was flipping through oddments at the front of the store. I found a self-published book by a local Vietnam vet. I bought it. I read it. For all its flaws - a good editor could have done a lot - it was a wonderful book. Real, from the heart and the belly, funny and mind-bending. I expect it did him a lot of good to write it. I know it did me a lot of good to read it.

P. J. Grath said...

I think we would all agree that there are exceptions to the do-not-self-publish rule. LOOK ABOUT YOU: A MAGICAL CHILDHOOD IN MICHIGAN'S WILD PLACES, the beautiful picture book by Erin Anderson and Mary Fuscaldo, is one I'm glad its creators put out there for the rest of us. Another that I've been handling this year is LAKE EFFECT: A DECKHAND'S JOURNEY ON THE GREAT LAKES FREIGHTERS, by Richard Hill.

As for the therapeutic effect of writing one's memoirs (the same could be said of some songs people write at crucial junctures of their lives), I thoroughly understand the moving effect of some raw, unpolished stories. My wariness has to do with general economic principles. I may need to "get my story out," but can I expect anyone outside my family to care about it enough to plunk down a $20 bill? Booksellers can't afford to ignore this general question.