Doing it for themselves

<p>Thanks to new technology many unpublished American writers are choosing to self-publish. Their efforts, as Stephen Phillips reports, are not going unnoticed.</p><p>The history of self-publishing is nothing if not colourful. Prolific potboiler Western author Louis L'Amour, epic Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter, messianic science fiction bestseller L Ron Hubbard and disgraced former US president Richard Nixon make for strange bedfellows. Yet, for myriad reasons all elected to go direct to the reader at some point during their literary careers.</p><p>The stories from these annals are just as singular as the names on it. Radical, rabble-rousing pamphleteer Tom Paine disseminated his incendiary manifestoes amid the political ferment of Napoleonic-era London. Falling out with his publisher, Mark Twain took matters into his own hands with his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mystic poet Walt Whitman, toiling in obscurity in mid-19th-century New York, peddled his opus Leaves of Grass under his own steam, even ghost writing its first reviews.</p><p>Reprising this august tradition, the advent of print-on-demand (p.o.d.) technology, and the internet as a marketing vehicle, is turning what was once the preserve of literary lions or enterprising hobbyists into a mass market phenomenon.</p><p>Experts reckon that upward of 70,000 works will be self-published this year aided by firms such as Random House-funded Xlibris, iUniverse (part-owned by Barnes&amp;Noble), Great Unpublished, 1stbooks Library and Writers' Collective. For a downpayment of anything from $99 (&#163;60) to $1,600 (&#163;978), authors can have their manuscripts professionally laid out and bound.</p><p>Under the p.o.d. model there is no minimum print run: after initial copies are run off for the author, the text resides on a digital file to be printed out whenever orders are received.</p><p>None of this matters much to publishers, unless these books are serious commercial contenders. But if the number of self-published authors snagging contracts is any guide, the signs are that this grass roots activity is not just a commercially irrelevant numbers game. Some 40 such titles, originally hawked from car boots or conference booths, have made their way into print under the imprimatur of US publishing houses over the past year.</p><p>Recent success stories include Arizona newspaper columnist Laurie Notaro's The Idiot Girls' Action Adventure Club, which shot to number two on the New York Times paperback non-fiction list as a Random House title this September. Notaro opted to publish the collection of columns herself in January 2001 after fielding more than 70 rejection notices from publishers. Thanks to the buzz the self-published book generated, Random House snapped up the rights, along with an option on a successor, for a six-figure sum.</p><p>Texas business consultant Joe Vitale's self-published Spiritual Marketing topped Amazon.com's bestseller list for two days last June, selling 5,000 copies in 48 hours, thanks to the author's intensive online marketing efforts.</p><p>Shedding its stigma</p><p>There has also been a shift in publishers' attitudes towards privately produced work. Many concur that it has shed much of the former vanity publishing stigma. "There has been a pejorative sense that [they're] not well-written," says Pocket Books' Amy Pierpont. "But it's just very hard to get published."</p><p>At St Martin's Press, weekly editorial meetings now feature at least one self-published book--a noticeable increase on how often they previously cropped up, says senior editor Diane Higgins. "They are not in a different category [from unpublished manuscripts]; in fact, at times they've got an angle that the average submission doesn't have," she says. "Many self-published books come in with a platform--they've sold 5,000 to 7,000. For a first-time author that's taken seriously."</p><p>A proven market counts for a lot, particularly in straitened times when publishers may be less willing to wager on unknown properties. There is also a feeling that self-published writers bring a dynamism and marketing flair that makes them attractive business partners. "It's an indication of a higher energy level," says Higgins, who professes delight at the discovery of historical novelist India Edgehill from the self-published ranks.</p><p>In a measure of the faith St Martin's had in Edgehill's Queenmaker, it trumpeted the biblical saga's release earlier this year with a full-page advertisement in the New York Times Review of Books. Before issuing her p.o.d. edition, Edgehill had tried in vain to land a publishing contract.</p><p>Atlanta writer Brandon Massey, who scored a two-book deal with Kensington Books on the strength of his self-published science fiction novel Thunderland, says publishers are beginning to trawl through self-published authors much as professional American sports teams scour the ranks of "minor" leagues for future talent. In this vein, Kensington recently forged a deal with iUniverse to keep tabs on promising writers.</p><p>Denver-based agent Jody Rein says her local independent bookseller has proved a good scouting ground for commercial self-published titles. The Tattered Cover, which stocks self-published books if customers request them, is where she found several of the self-published authors she has subsequently represented. </p><p>Sales, the key</p><p>The criteria for whether the books are viable prospects include velocity of sales and their concentration, says Rein. "If a book sold 5,000 copies in Indianapolis, it's very different from nationwide--a major house has a whole market in front of it that's not been tapped."</p><p>Diane Higgins agrees that there are potentially rich pickings to be had in bringing books with regional cult followings to a national audience. "We're a big country; authors who come to the table with very strong regional popularity have an edge," she explains.</p><p>Meanwhile, in hammering out deals Jody Rein says that she can drive a harder bargain for clients with concrete sales figures to show for themselves. </p><p>For starters, in the subjective business of assigning a value to a book, sales offer a yardstick. Sometimes, Rein says, she sets a minimum sum below which it is not worth a client signing a contract. Self-published authors can earn considerably more from sales than they would from handing over rights to a publishing house, she says, so it becomes a question of not depriving the author of an income. Her recent sale of Chris Moorman's self-published Parent Talk to Simon&amp;Schuster's Fireside imprint in 2002 protected the author's right to sell his self-published hardcover edition at speaking engagements. </p><p>Certain genres succeed better than others in self publishing, observes Rein. Her own experience of the field has been exclusively with self-improvement books. Some of her clients were, initially, unable to attract publishing contracts because their knowledge of a particular subject outstripped that of New York publishers. </p><p>The first-ever tome on adult attention deficit disorder, seven years ago, was a case of the authors demonstrating to sceptical publishers that there was a market for their book. You Mean I'm Not Lazy, Crazy or Stupid by Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramundo sold more than 25,000 copies as a self-published work, and Rein was able to sell it to Simon&amp;Schuster for a "significant advance". It is still in print and closing in on sales of 200,000 copies.</p><p>Another self-publishing variant, Rein says, is where a book's esoteric material does not easily lend itself to being expressed as a proposal to publishers. This was the case with Todd Siler's Think Like A Genius, acquired in a day by Bantam Books after the self-published title spent 13 weeks on the Denver Post's bestseller charts. </p><p>A suitable genre</p><p>More generally, the genres most suited to self-publishing are those with clearly identifiable readerships. This makes it easy for authors to display their product where the people most likely to buy it congregate. Science fiction and romance, with their active fan bases, are obvious examples. But another field in which self-published novels have resonated with readers is historical fiction--particularly where they appeal to a recognisable, somewhat culturally homogenous group. </p><p>Chicago English teacher James Conroyd Martin ran through three agents doing the rounds of publishers touting his Polish historical saga, but was told it was too niche and would be of interest only to Polish readers. Martin was convinced Push Not the River had broader appeal, so, exasperated by publishers' knock-backs, he took their comments as a cue to self-publish the book and market it to Polish communities. </p><p>Martin has sold 2,600 copies since January 2001, and reckons he can rack up a good 40 sales during a 12-hour stint at a Polish heritage event. The targeted strategy paid off. The buzz Martin generated convinced publishers that there was a wider market for the book, and last April he scored a five-figure deal with St Martin's, which will release it next autumn.</p><p>Meanwhile, some of the most dramatic US self-publishing success stories have occurred with African American books (see "Natural route for writers on the margins"). </p><p>Overall though, for every self-published author breaking out from obscurity into the literary limelight, there are legions of disappointed wannabes. Moreover, the proliferation of self-published books is lengthening the odds of authors getting picked up by the industry.</p><p>Trailblazer</p><p>M J Rose was an unwitting self-publishing trailblazer for other aspiring professional writers. The former New York advertising executive was vaulted on to the television talk show circuit and into the pages of Time and Newsweek when Lip Service became the first self-published book chosen by the influential Doubleday Book Club in 1999.</p><p>Rose parlayed brisk sales, the book club coup and the resulting media circus into a high five-figure deal with Simon&amp;Schuster's Pocket Books and her own media franchise as e-publishing pundit for Wired magazine.</p><p>However, the days of a self-published author winding up on America's nationally broadcast "Today Show" (as happened to Rose) are long gone, says Brandon Massey, who counsels authors to consider self-publishing only as a last resort. "There's a glut of self-published books," he observes, and getting your work noticed entails intensive legwork.</p><p>In fact, self-publishing success stories are typically tales of rugged entrepreneurship, dogged persistence and a long and arduous road to a publishing contract.</p><p>Rose opted to go it alone after publishers deemed her tale of a housewife turned phone sex worker too racey for their readers. Initially, she peddled electronic copies from her own website, but when consumers balked at downloading text, she sunk her life savings into ordering a print run of 3,000 hard copies. To drum up interest she cranked out articles for women's websites in return for reviews and links to her own website.</p><p>"Unless people are willing to get out there and be their own promoter they'll be disappointed," says James Conroyd Martin.</p><p>Several of the self-published writers who have broken through the ranks had lucky breaks that no marketing campaign could have engineered. India Edgehill, for instance, got mentioned in an article on self-publishing in the New York Times Review of Books. Her case was also helped by a glowing review from bestselling Mists of Avalon author Marion Zimmer Bradley.</p><p>But as Martin discovered in submitting Push Not the River to the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, the doors of the main conduits for introducing new books to the reading public are pretty much closed to self-published authors. The New York Times, for instance, has a policy of reviewing only books that are widely available in general bookstores.</p><p>Up against the economics</p><p>Herein lies another obstacle to self-published writers: the economics of the book trade are stacked against them. Booksellers are reluctant to stock self-published books as they cannot return unsold copies, says M J Rose.</p><p>Brandon Massey resorted to a loss-leading strategy to convince retailers to carry his book, cutting a deal with a local store by offering them copies for less than they cost him to buy from his printer.</p><p>Self-publishing is clearly not for the faint hearted. Still, perhaps its blossoming popularity owes a little to increasingly entrepreneurial attitudes among authors. Horror fiction writer Douglas Clegg, for example, recently courted new readers by offering story instalments by e-mail.</p><p>Then there is the impulse to exercise more creative and business control. Stephen King self-published his novella, Riding the Bullet, online in March 2000. While in 2002, San Francisco's Dave Eggers confounded the literary establishment by self-publishing You Shall Know Our Velocity, the follow-up to his bestselling A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.</p><p>Michael Cader, book packager and industry commentator, cautions against drawing too many conclusions from such experimental forays. For the most part, he says, they are eccentric one-offs that defy generalisation.</p><p>Keeping hold of the purse strings</p><p>But while Eggers may have had his own reasons for self-publishing, the modus operandi of his online literary quarterly and publishing vehicle, McSweeney's, perhaps crystallises a broader trend of which self-publishing is part. The writer-friendly operation ploughs the vast majority of its profits, after publishing costs, back to authors.</p><p>In Book Business, his treatise on the future of publishing, former Random House editor Jason Epstein paints a bold picture of the internet, e-books and p.o.d. rendering the pricey distribution infrastructure of the current industry obsolete and of authors contracting with independent publishers to sell directly to readers. One problem with this vision is that "most writers don't want to be business people", as M J Rose points out. </p><p>Nevertheless, she may have put her finger on something when she despairs of haphazard marketing in publishing. "I know of no other business that would invest in a product, spend a year developing it, then throw it up on the shelf without serious marketing to see if it lives or dies." For writers emotionally and professionally vested in their product, self-publishing offers a way of sitting in the driving seat and leaving less to chance. </p><p>Stephen Phillips is a US-based British journalist. He can be contacted at journalist@stephenphillips.org.</p><p></p><p></p><p></p>