More — a lot more — on self-publishing

My writer friends and I have been watching the changes sweeping the publishing business from the sidelines. We’ve got books–fiction, short stories and poetry–and we wonder how to get our work into the hands of readers, especially if we’re holding down a day job while building a creative writing practice.

Literary agents are swamped and, as a result, picky about what projects they take on. Publishing houses answer to boards of directors about bottom line issues and are reluctant to take on unknown authors. Major bookstore chains and the independent, neighborhood bookshops are going out of business.

Like many hard-working writers, we wonder what to do. The Internet is full of advice and admonishment for the wanna-be’s. Bestselling authors are taking their work into their own hands. Bestselling authors are sheltering in the big publishing houses. Cripes, people are jumping off bridges.

Some say self-published books are crap that weren’t worth publishing in the first place. Others say self-publishing allows gems that expand the universe of world literature to surface. Poetry doesn’t sell. Short story collections don’t sell. Genre fiction doesn’t sell. A slight, but delightful, memoir goes viral and sells like pink Popsicles on a hot day. And so on and on. I’m sure you’ve read the same stuff.

From Nathan Bransford’s blog: Comment! of! the! Week! goes to Richard Gibson regarding traditional publishing, self-publishing and control. He has a different take on why he enjoys the self-publishing process:

“For me there were many reasons to go with print-on-demand beyond control. I liked being able to design my own cover, page layout, everything, but I certainly didn’t have to. And was happy to make many revisions based on comments from reviewers.

The niche market (as pointed out by the agents who liked it but worried about sales) was probably the main factor, together with speed to press (one month vs 2+ years) and confidence in enough sales to recoup the small investment (vs a likely small advance, if I got to that point) were more driving factors.

Once I had a POD publisher I trusted everything chugged along incredibly smoothly. Since I’m also comfortable with marketing (and expected I’d have to do pretty much the same if it had been traditionally published), I’m right where I want to be.

I’d say “control” was more a matter of my enjoying the aspects that a traditional publisher might control, rather than being unwilling to give them up, and it was low on the list of reasons for going with POD.”

E-books represent one of the few growth areas within the doldrums of publishing. Monthly U.S. e-book sales tripled between February 2010 and 2011 to hit $90 million, while sales of printed books fell by 25 percent, according to the Association of American Publishers. Forrester Research estimates that annual e-book sales could reach $2.8 billion by 2015.

Self-published e-books–the category that San Francisco-Bay Area Smashwords has helped pioneer–have been grabbing attention lately.

What is Smashwords? Company founder Mark Coker says on the Smashwords Web site that it publishes and distributes ebooks. Authors and publishers retain full control over how their works are published, sampled, priced and sold. If an author wants to charge one dollar or ten thousand dollars, or give it away for free, they have that freedom.

Smashwords was launched in May 2008 and has become the leading ebook publishing platforms for indie authors and publishers, with over 45,000 ebooks published, by 18,000 authors and small, independent publishers. Many Smashwords authors have been previously published in print through mainstream publishers, or have had their works published in well-respected literary journals.

Starting March, 2009, Smashwords introduced new publishing options for publishers who want to publish and centrally manage two or more authors. More and more writers, having slogged through the process of learning to publish their own works, are now taking on the work of friends and colleagues to form their own micro-presses.

But, what about readers? Isn’t that what writing is all about, the reason to publish? With Smashwords, Coker says readers can sample most works for free (and in many cases, read up to half of the book before they commit to a purchase decision, which seems excessively generous to me, especially with the rent due, but I’m just saying); read in multiple DRM-free formats (Digital Rights Management, term for access control  and locking technologies that limit the use of digital content and devices); create digital libraries of purchased and sampled works; publish reviews (including YouTube video book reviews); and “favorite” their favorite authors, publishers and works.

In response to the question: Why would authors and publishers give part of their book away as a free sample? Coker says: “More and more publishers realize they’re competing against free already, and they’re competing against the millions of alternative entertainment or learning options out there. The most valuable thing they’re competing for is the reader’s time and attention. Smart publishers realize if a reader invests the time necessary to read 100 pages of a 300 page book, they’re much more inclined to purchase the book to know how it ends. Some authors choose to give their entire book away for free because it’s more important to them they reach an audience, or they may want to leverage the notoriety from the book to monetize their fame in other ways.”


Sideline Heckler
courtesy Daily Mail, UK

 Fame? Puuleeze! Will I sell a lot of books on Smashwords? I need to pay the rent!

Coker says: Probably not. How’s that for an honest answer? Some Smashwords authors don’t sell a single book. Some authors sell thousands of dollars worth of books per year. Although ebooks are the fastest growing segment of the book industry, ebooks still only represent about one tenth of overall book market in the US, and less in other countries.

Authors should publish their books on Smashwords, Coker says, not because they’ll make a lot of sales today, but as a long term investment in their writing career, and at the same time they should also self-publish in print.

The Red Hen Association of Self-Publishing Authors says on its Web site: Successful self-publishing is learned–it is not innate. It is the belief of The Red Hen Association that knowledge, skills, and motivation needed for self-publishing can be taught, and more importantly, we can teach one another. So maybe before signing up with Smashwords or any other self-pub service, check out Red Hen. The association, which offers free membership, was formed for the purpose of giving self-publishers respect and a voice.

Toward that end the pledge to:

  • Provide educational opportunities for authors to learn how create and run a successful self-publishing businesses, from inception to completion.
  • Teach authors how to create products that will compare favorably with any produced by traditional publishers.
  • Advise authors against scams and deceptions that are so pervasive on the Internet and elsewhere.
  • Create a seal of approval that will become recognized as a symbol of quality and integrity.
  • Strengthen and promote self-publishers by providing marketing opportunities and opening previously slammed doors.
  • Work toward removing the stigma of self-publishing as a lesser-than, or desperate method of publishing

Digital self-publishing

Smashwords isn’t the only company helping writers create their own e-books. Here are some firms with slightly different approaches:

Fast Pencil: This Campbell company allows writers to create both e-books and printed books and offers social-networking capabilities through which family and friends can contribute to a writer’s work-in-progress. Company officials say they have 25,000 individuals with works in various stages of progress, and thousands of finished books.

Scribd: This San Francisco company allows online sharing of all kinds of written documents by converting them into HTML Web pages – a kind of YouTube for the written word. Books make up only a small part of the material posted on Scribd: There is everything from government documents to recipes. The company says it has more than 70 million readers each month, and tens of millions of documents on its site.

Lulu: This POD publishers includes in its basic service package:

• Cover Design: Includes template based cover design ($115)
• Advanced Formatting: Interior template based layout that allows up to 15 images ($299)
• Editorial Quality Review: Our Editorial Staff will review your book providing feedback on the quality of the content ($199*)
• Lulu ISBN (International Standard Book Number)
• One Galley Copy: average value ($25)
• Retail Availability (Amazon, etc.) ($75)
• Project coordinator to manage the project and publish the final version of the book
• PDF download of the book

 Price: $629

For writers who also are photographers, painters or graphic artists, Lulu offers book services for reproducing these other arts.

Smugmug offers an online photo archive and photo sharing service allows photographers to create a Web site and sell prints, which my photographer friends and I use for weddings, but that’s the subject of another blog post.

If you’ve got self-publishing advice, know of useful resources for those going the DIY route, post your info and thoughts in the comment box at the bottom of this post so we can all benefit. Let’s chat in the Word Garden!

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