In­de­pen­dents days Notes on self-pub­lish­ing


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The ease with which one can self-pub­lish a book to­day means that any­one with a few hun­dred dol­lars to spare can be­come a pub­lished au­thor. And, at times, it seems as if ev­ery­one is in­deed be­com­ing one. In 2013, the last year for which one can plumb the murky statis­tics of book pub­lish­ing, more than 458,500 books were self-pub­lished in the United States, al­most a 17 per­cent in­crease over the pre­vi­ous year and a 437 per­cent in­crease since 2008, ac­cord­ing to Bowker, a com­pany that tracks th­ese sorts of things. The United King­dom saw a sim­i­lar in­crease. There, the self-pub­lished book-mar­ket share grew by about 79 per­cent in 2013.

This ever-in­creas­ing num­ber of self-pub­lished books head­ing our way is pro­pelled by many things. But, pri­mar­ily, tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances have made it so easy to sat­isfy the an­cient hunger of want­ing to be pub­lished that count­less would-be-au­thors have jumped at the chance to bring out their own books. The flood of self-pub­lished books, how­ever, is also the re­sult of a widely preva­lent mis­un­der­stand­ing about the na­ture of book pub­lish­ing.

Self-pub­lished books are dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent from tra­di­tional books in that an au­thor, not a pub­lish­ing com­pany, pays for their pro­duc­tion and as­sumes the duty of dis­tribut­ing, mar­ket­ing, and sell­ing the works. As long as the mod­ern book has been around, many au­thors have taken to pub­lish­ing their own work.

Among their ranks are Benjamin Franklin, who hand­ily owned his own press; Wil­liam Blake, who even etched the il­lus­tra­tions onto the print­ing plates; Jane Austen, who paid a Lon­don pub­lisher to bring out her first book; Walt Whit­man, who wanted to pub­lish Leaves of Grass in his own way; Mar­cel Proust, who, to his sur­prise, dis­cov­ered that pub­lish­ers didn’t share his fas­ci­na­tion with the madeleine; and Vir­ginia Woolf and her hus­band, Leonard Woolf, who cre­ated Hog­a­rth Press to pub­lish their books.

One of lit­er­a­ture’s most en­dur­ing nov­els was self­pub­lished. In 1759, when a ma­jor Lon­don pub­lisher re­jected his manuscript, Lau­rence Sterne pri­vately printed the first two vol­umes of Tris­tram Shandy . It sold out and en­dures in print to this day as one of the great­est comic nov­els of the English lan­guage.

His­tory is a com­fort­ing salve to au­thors fac­ing re­jec­tion by big pub­lish­ers or de­cid­ing to forgo the hum­bling and some­times hu­mil­i­at­ing tra­di­tional route to pub­lish­ing a book. The rea­son Sterne’s suc­cess at self-pub­lish­ing is re­mem­bered is that it was the lit­er­ary world’s equiv­a­lent of win­ning the lot­tery. Self­pub­lish­ing may be al­ter­ing the way books are made. “But one thing has not changed: Most self-pub­lished books sell fewer than 100 or 150 copies,” ex­plained re­porter Alan Finder, who sur­veyed au­thors and self­pub­lish­ing com­pany ex­ec­u­tives for an ar­ti­cle in The New York Times . Al­most all self-pub­lished au­thors never earned back the cost of bring­ing their book out.

But prin­ters al­ways re­mained glad to part as­pir­ing au­thors from their sav­ings. The money was so good that even­tu­ally a new kind of pub­lisher came into ex­is­tence to serve th­ese au­thors. Known as van­ity pub­lish­ers, th­ese were com­pa­nies that au­thors paid to pro­duce their books. The most fa­mous of this breed of pub­lish­ers was Van­tage Press, which opened its of­fices in New York shortly af­ter World War II. It had a cadre of em­ploy­ees who called them­selves ed­i­tors, sent out press re­leases, placed full-page ad­ver­tise­ments in

The New York Times Book Re­view , and charged au­thors for the en­tire en­ter­prise.

In 1995, for ex­am­ple, a Chicago tele­vi­sion re­pair­man paid Van­tage Press $10,000 to bring out his mem­oir, The Per­ilous Life of Boris B. Gursky . “He mailed copies to the El­gin, Ill., public li­brary, the White House, and ev­ery­one in the United States who shared his last name,” wrote a re­porter who did a story on the au­thor. “Such was the state of self-pub­lish­ing in 1995.”

Over time, the seeds of an­other, more af­ford­able, op­tion for au­thors took root and eclipsed van­ity pub­lish­ing. In fact, Van­tage Press would even­tu­ally go out of busi­ness. The in­tro­duc­tion of the per­sonal com­puter in 1981 rev­o­lu­tion­ized pub­lish­ing, as it did al­most ev­ery­thing else. Now in­di­vid­u­als could de­sign and set into type books with­out hav­ing to pay for th­ese ex­pen­sive ser­vices. Count­less peo­ple with ideas for a book went to work.

This cost sav­ings also came at a time when the book busi­ness was open to al­ter­na­tive of­fer­ings. Self-pub­lished books found a re­cep­tive au­di­ence. Book­stores, which were flour­ish­ing at the time, gob­bled up th­ese of­fer­ings, es­pe­cially as al­ter­na­tive dis­trib­u­tors and whole­salers made their pur­chase easy.

Typ­i­cal of the un­usual and imag­i­na­tive books of the era was Jug­gling for the Com­plete Klutz , which came with bean­bags in an at­tached mesh bag, pub­lished on a shoe­string bud­get by three Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity grad­u­ates. The book was a huge suc­cess, and it spawned a pub­lish­ing com­pany. Small presses, or in­de­pen­dent pub­lish­ers, be­gan to flour­ish. Soon, stores were stock­ing books from such com­pa­nies as Ten Speed Press, Cross­ing Press, Chelsea Green, Gray­wolf Press, Seal Press, Seven Locks Press, and Sunstone Press, here in Santa Fe, to cite just a few.

How­ever, as the in­de­pen­dent-press books grew in num­ber, the nov­elty of such quirky and un­usual ti­tles wore off. Th­ese small com­pa­nies dis­cov­ered, when the hal­cyon days came to a close, that pub­lish­ing is a cap­i­tal-in­ten­sive busi­ness. Even the jug­glers suc­cumbed, and Klutz was sub­sumed by Scholas­tic. Oth­ers turned into not-for-profit ven­tures sup­ported by dona­tions, and still oth­ers, such as Sunstone, even­tu­ally sought pro­tec­tion un­der Chap­ter 11 of the bank­ruptcy laws.

Through­out, the de­mand to be pub­lished re­mained, with e-books re­open­ing the flood­gates. One could cre­ate a book cheaper than ever be­fore, the cost of print­ing no longer be­ing an is­sue. Be­sides, if one in­sisted on hav­ing a pa­per book, the new print-on-de­mand (POD) tech­nol­ogy per­mit­ted au­thors to af­ford­ably print books a hand­ful at a time.

Again, a new gen­er­a­tion of com­pa­nies en­tered the fray. Suc­ces­sors to van­ity pub­lish­ing, th­ese com­pa­nies — such as Lulu, iUni­verse, Xlib­ris, BookSurge, and Smash­words — saw an op­por­tu­nity to make money by pro­vid­ing soup-to-nuts ser­vices to au­thors want­ing to self-pub­lish their works. But, as dur­ing the gold rush of 1849, when Le­vis Strauss and other com­pa­nies got rich of­fer­ing goods and ser­vices to min­ers, most of whom never struck it rich, th­ese com­pa­nies are the fi­nan­cial win­ners in self-pub­lish­ing, not the au­thors.

In each of th­ese eras, au­thors have con­tin­ued to bring out their own books, even if they rec­og­nize that the cards seemed stacked against them. In great part, it is be­cause of a widely held sus­pi­cion among writ­ers that ed­i­tors don’t al­ways rec­og­nize a great work. To many au­thors, the sad tale of John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Con­fed­er­acy of Dunces is proof of this no­tion. Af­ter his sui­cide, Toole’s mother came across a de­cay­ing car­bon copy of the un­pub­lished manuscript that had been turned down by ev­ery one of the pub­lish­ing houses to which it had been sub­mit­ted. She bad­gered au­thor Walker Percy to read the work, and he con­sented, in hopes of get­ting rid of her. In­stead, he dis­cov­ered, as other read­ers would, that it was a novel of comic ge­nius. He per­suaded LSU Press to pub­lish the work. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fic­tion, and to­day there are more than 1.5 mil­lion copies in print in 18 lan­guages.

One won­ders: If Toole had lived to­day, would he have self-pub­lished his novel? And, more to the point, would it have sold? The prob­a­ble an­swer is that it would not

In 2013, the last year for which one can plumb the murky statis­tics of book pub­lish­ing, nearly half a mil­lion books were self-pub­lished

in the United States.

have. The re­al­ity that faced Toole when his novel was re­jected by ed­i­tors re­mains un­changed to­day. He might have come out with a pro­fes­sion­ally pro­duced book — but, like a tree fall­ing in a de­serted for­est, it wouldn’t have been heard of by any­one.

Many au­thors, par­tic­u­larly those turn­ing to self-pub­lish­ing, don’t nec­es­sar­ily un­der­stand what pub­lish­ers do. Pub­lish­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing a book are not the same thing. To a pub­lisher, the ac­tual man­u­fac­tur­ing of a book is sec­ondary to its writ­ing and edit­ing. In fact, it of­ten comes as a sur­prise to many au­thors to learn that most pub­lish­ers don’t own print­ing presses.

Rather, pub­lish­ing is an in­tel­lec­tual and mar­ket­ing busi­ness. It’s in­tel­lec­tual in that it iden­ti­fies works wor­thy of pub­li­ca­tion and shapes them to best reach that pur­pose. Pub­lish­ers then de­vise a way to reach read­ers, us­ing well-es­tab­lished means of dis­tribut­ing and mar­ket­ing books. Au­thors who self-pub­lish soon dis­cover that man­u­fac­tur­ing an in­ter­est­ing, well-de­signed, and ap­peal­ing book is only half the battle. Reach­ing read­ers takes money — fre­quently, money no longer avail­able once au­thors have sunk all their funds into mak­ing the book.

An equally daunt­ing prob­lem is that book­stores and li­braries, the tra­di­tional places for books to be sold or read, are usu­ally out of reach to self-pub­lished au­thors. As with the liquor busi­ness, where get­ting a bot­tle of bour­bon on the shelf is a com­pli­cated mat­ter, so goes get­ting a book on the shelf of a store or li­brary.

Book­stores find it ex­pen­sive and time-con­sum­ing to or­der and pay for a few copies of one book from one ven­dor, which is how they see deal­ing with self-pub­lish­ers. So un­less the book is avail­able from a dis­trib­u­tor or whole­saler, they will be re­luc­tant to stock it. A more sub­stan­tial bar­rier is that the book­store will be stuck with the ti­tle if it does not sell, whereas all the un­sold books it has in its in­ven­tory from ma­jor pub­lish­ers can be re­turned for credit.

Even li­braries, which go out of their way to put books of all sorts on their shelves, strug­gle when it comes to a self-pub­lished book. They have the same pur­chas­ing prob­lems of a book­store, but with an added cost. “If we have to do orig­i­nal cat­a­loging, it adds to that cost,” ex­plained Pat Ho­dapp, direc­tor of the Santa Fe Public Li­brary. “Just the order­ing, pro­cess­ing, and get­ting a book on the shelf has a cost of about $20 per book added onto the pur­chase price.”

The lucky au­thors who find both book­stores and li­braries will­ing to take their books may still not reach read­ers. News­pa­pers and most other forms of me­dia rarely re­view or pub­li­cize a self-pub­lished work.

In the end, as in the be­gin­ning of pub­lish­ing, au­thors will con­tinue to choose to self-pub­lish their works. Each year a few will meet with enor­mous suc­cess. But pub­lish­ers and their tra­di­tional ways will not soon de­part from the scene. When Lisa Gen­ova’s 2007 self-pub­lished de­but novel, Still Alice , about a pro­fes­sor be­set with early-on­set Alzheimer’s dis­ease, be­came a suc­cess, she didn’t print more copies. Rather, she signed a con­tract with Simon & Schus­ter.

AMONG lit­er­a­ture’s self­pub­lished au­thors is Jane Austen, who wrote at this ta­ble in her house in Chaw­ton, Eng­land.

ONE of lit­er­a­ture’s most en­dur­ing nov­els was self-pub­lished. In 1759, when a ma­jor Lon­don pub­lisher re­jected his manuscript, Lau­rence Sterne pri­vately printed the first two vol­umes of Tris­tram Shandy. It sold out and en­dures in print to this day as one of the great­est comic nov­els of the English lan­guage.

TYP­I­CAL of the un­usual and imag­i­na­tive books born out of the ’80s PC revo­lu­tion was Jug­gling for the Com­plete Klutz, which came with bean­bags in an at­tached mesh bag. It was pub­lished on a shoe­string by three Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity grad­u­ates.

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