Long before frustrated indie rock bands began producing and selling their own recordings (sans the backing of major record labels), self-published authors were running the end-around traditional publishing houses for many of the same reasons as their musical counterparts. These hopeful, would-be superstars of the literary world have been writing, producing, printing and selling books on their own, with ever-increasing degrees of success, aided by advances in technology and a D-I-Y (do-it-yourself) ethos.
What do “Ulysses,” “The Adventures of Peter Rabbit,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “The Christmas Box,” “The Elements of Style,” Deepak Chopra, Mark Twain, John Grisham, L. Ron Hubbard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edgar Allen Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Christopher Paolini, and Henry David Thoreau all have in common? These were first self-published books and authors who thought the world was ready for their works, even if a major publisher didn’t. Or, at least they didn’t at first.
While mainstream book publishers ruled (and still rule) most of the 20th Century, the game is changing for would-be authors around the world. E-books, P.O.D. (print-on-demand), and Internet marketing, are all helping first-time or self-published authors get their works into the hands of readers, and they’ve been doing so for centuries. You might say the Gutenberg Bible (© God, 1454) was the first self-published book of record in the Western world using a printing press and moveable type. It was destined to be a best seller, and still does quite well.
As traditional big publishers, such as Random House, Dell, and Harper Collins are facing the challenges of the e-book revolution and declining hardback readership, according to Nielsen BookScan, self-publishing is growing quickly around the world, and is alive and well on the Grand Strand. But self-publishing is not for the faint-of-heart, and would-be authors (and readers) need to be wary. There are sharks in these waters looking to bilk unsuspecting authors, and there are plenty of lousy books pretending to be great works, too.
Although print titles are an important part of the whole self-publishing picture, e-books, which are digital books available on any device with a screen, are often cheap (free or 99-cents, on up to $14 or $15 on average). These free-to-produce e-books have blindsided traditional publishers. In April, Forbes contributor Jeremy Greenfield wrote an article on self-published e-books with this headline: “When the Self-Published Authors Take Over, What Will Publishers Do?” Greenfield went on to cite hard data on the industry. In 2011, one percent of the overall e-book publishing trade was from self-published e-books. In the first four months of 2013, self-published authors represented 24 percent of all e-book sales, and held six of the top 25 titles. Watch out Random House.
Unlike their cousins in music publishing, who faced outright piracy from file-sharing sites, such as Napster and Limewire, book publishers didn’t fear or face piracy, but rather stiff competition from the same authors they were turning down for publishing deals. What started out as so-called “vanity press” projects for wealthy and determined authors who couldn’t find a book deal, evolved into this juggernaut of self-publishing, and it’s a game-changer for the industry.
My own interest in self-publishing was born of rejection from agents and publishing houses, none too keen to pick up my novel, “Travelers of the Gray Dawn,” an action adventure, time-travel thriller. Rejection letters, or as is more commonly the case, zero response, is often the push over the edge that sends unpublished authors, including myself, down the self-published road, though there are as many reasons for self-publishing as there are self-published books.
In the Beginning
First comes some desire to express oneself in written form. It helps if there is a skill set or natural inclination toward writing, but there’s no reason anyone who wants to, can’t or shouldn’t write and publish a book. The same is true for any singer or musician wanting to record a musical project, or an artist wanting to take a brush to the canvas. Self-expression is an inalienable right, and “good” is in the eye, or ear, of the beholder. True, our artistic works may stink, but they’re ours with which to proudly stink.
Furthermore, it’s no longer necessary to order hundreds of copies to get self-published books at a reasonable wholesale cost. Anyone with a computer and a little patience can write and upload a book to a P.O.D. (print on demand) printer/publisher and order as many or as few books as they like, for around $6 each. And it’s free to get that same book placed on Amazon.com and digitally converted to sell on an e-reader such as a Kindle or Nook. These P.O.D. printers even offer free templates for basic book cover designs - again, all for free. That’s free, as in no money up front. No wonder self-published authors are coming out of the woodwork.
But just because a band produces and uploads an album to Reverb Nation or iTunes, or an author uploads a book, it’s unlikely either will find commercial success. A band’s CD may only sell 20 copies to friends and family, and similarly a self-published book may only sell 50 copies at the one and only book-signing event, but either may also prove to be the next hit. Self-published books are signed and licensed by major publishers all the time, and some stories are optioned for movies while the blissfully unaware and previously unknown author sips coffee in his PJs. It happens, and this level of success is the dream of many self-published authors.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves - first things first.
After the desire and willingness to write comes the actual work. In my case, the idea for my novel came in 1989 while attending a Civil War reenactment south of Nashville, Tenn. At the Battle of Franklin’s 125th anniversary reenactment I had an idea. It would be 10 years before I started bringing characters to life, and actually committing the idea to paper, and another 10 years before the first draft was finished. With my e-book and first editions in print as of July 1, the process for me spanned 24 years, though only in earnest during the past four. Many other self-published authors move much more quickly, while some hopeful writers never make it out of the gate. With the advent of P.O.D. and mega-sites such as Amazon.com and e-book giants Kindle and Nook, there’s more reason to self-publish than ever before. But most every author has stars in his or her eyes and hopes for fame and a fat paycheck, so most, if not all, first take their manuscripts to the gatekeepers of the big leagues.
I have a friend from Nashville who has written some 12 books, all published by St. Martin’s Press. She’s sold a boatload of copies, is a “New York Times” Bestselling author, and had three CBS and Hallmark Channel-distributed made-for-TV movies adapted from her “Christmas Shoes” book series. The novellas and films were inspired by the “Christmas Shoes,” song from Atlanta-based gospel act, New Song. My friend was kind enough to put in a good word for me with her book agent. My query letter (with a few sample chapters) was answered promptly with a “thanks, but no thanks,” kind of response, although the agent went a bit further and offered one helpful suggestion: “For an action-adventure novel, it should get to the action and adventure much sooner,” he said in his response. That piece of excellent advice was the first professional, albeit brief, critique of my manuscript, and I set about a fairly major re-write. He also said he liked the concept, and thought the writing was “solid.” This agent liked the book well enough to recommend a few agents that handled sci-fi and thrillers, so I made a few more pitches and was summarily ignored by all but one who said, in essence; “Thanks, but no thanks.”
I am not alone in my experience.
“I could wall-paper my entire house with rejection letters,” said local bartender/author Troy Nooe, who self-published two of his earliest works, but ultimately landed a book deal with a small, N.C.-based boutique publisher, Ingalls Publishing Group. Nooe has enjoyed moderate success through Ingalls with his two Frankie Keller detective books, both set in Myrtle Beach in the late 1940s, titled “Ocean Forest” and “Damn Yankees.” A third title in the series, “Long Legged Rosie,” should be released in 2014. But as is the case with most hopeful authors, Nooe waited and worked for years before someone took an interest.
Rejection is part of the process and takes a little getting used to. In Stephen King’s mini-memoir “On Writing,” he writes about the rejection from publishers he endured for years until Doubleday finally picked up “Carrie.” He’d been living in a trailer in near poverty, when his wife fished the first few discarded pages of “Carrie” out of the trash and insisted that her husband finish the book. King would later say “my considered opinion was that I had written the world’s all-time loser.” King went on to become one of the most prolific and successful writers in the world, not a loser at all. J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was turned away by 25 publishers before Scholastic, a small American publisher, took a chance on this unpublished welfare mom from England. Rowling now holds the distinction as the most successful writer in history, her “Potter” books having sold more than 450 million copies in 67 languages.
These authors landed traditional book deals, but it doesn’t always start out that way.
The list of rejected and ultimately self-published authors since Gutenberg reads like a literary who’s who. Samuel Clemmons (a.k.a. Mark Twain), John Grisham, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Allan Poe are but a few of the well-known names with humble, non-traditional beginnings to their careers. With most of these authors, a major publishing house eventually picked up their works and placed them under contract for additional titles, after they’d proven their ability to write and promote.
Short of a major book deal right out of the gate, this scenario is the goal of most first-time authors that self-publish. It may also be the new model for struggling publishing houses; to let these new authors write and publish on their own, and when they show promise, snatch them up. This model has also been used regularly over the past decade by music industry executives, as they deal with their own issues of copyright infringement, and the loss of traditional sales channels. In fact, the music business may have provided the first use of this revolutionary approach to music publishing, but the book publishers weren’t too far behind.
Five thousand copies of Grisham’s “A Time to Kill,” were first published by a tiny vanity press, and went nowhere fast until the attorney-turned-author peddled thousands of remaindered, that is returned, books out of the trunk of his car. Grisham is now a superstar of the legal thriller genre, having sold 250 million books and nine of his novels adapted into major movie releases.
The cook’s bible, “The Joy of Cooking,” by Irma Rombauer was self-published in 1931 and some 82 years later still sells approximately 100,000 copies annually through Scribner’s, a major publisher.
Rick Evans wrote “The Christmas Box” in six weeks and self-published and self-promoted the book. Simon & Schuster was duly impressed and bought the rights for $4.2 million. The book went on to top the “Publisher’s Weekly” bestseller list. It has since been translated into 13 languages.
The erotic bestselling “Fifty Shades” trilogy began as self-published ”Twilight” fan fiction, but proved too steamy for Bella and Edward, so was re-written with new character names and placed on Web sites as episodic chapters, for free. The popular stories were tuned into P.O.D. titles and e-books and eventually made publishing history when Random House picked them up and sold 70 million copies worldwide. Here again, the list of self-published success stories goes on and on.
But will every self-published novel make literary history?
Against All Odds
Like every decent high school basketball player dreaming of the NBA, or every garage band dreaming of rock stardom, it’s highly unlikely any given athlete, musician or novelist (self-published or otherwise) will become a commercial success. Most will fail, but fear of failure doesn’t register too seriously in the minds of many self-published authors. Christopher Paolini, the 15-year-old author who wrote “Eragon,” and a half-dozen compendiums, self-published, with his parents help, and spent a year traveling to schools and bookstores dressed in medieval costume. His hard work created a market and fan-base for his fantasy novels. He beat the odds through tenacity. Paolini and his “Inheritance Cycle” fantasy series was picked up by Alfred A. Knopf, and spawned a big-budget movie released in 2006. But again, most books, even those published traditionally, fail commercially.
What about self-published books?
While there’s no large established organization, such as the ABA (American Booksellers Association), representing the self-publishing industry, many independent bloggers and industry watchers keep an eye on the ever-growing self-published marketplace. While no one can put a hard number on it, most agree that upwards of 97-percent of all self-published books fail to connect with a large audience.
But who says that’s a failure?
Self-published authors dreaming of wealth are likely to be disappointed, but many are thrilled just to have their book in print, and distributed through their hometown bookstore and to friends and family.
Memoir writing has become its own cottage industry and may be the largest sub-genre, besides romance, in the self-publishing world. Classes on memoir writing are offered through Coastal Carolina University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and countless how-to books have been written, including a self-published how-to by local author Mary Anne Benedetto, entitled: “7 Easy Steps to Memoir Writing.”
Suzanne Paradis, a Myrtle Beach resident originally from Rocky Mount, N.C., is not dreaming of wealth. For her, self-publishing was cathartic, fun, and lead to a lifestyle change.
“I retired to Myrtle Beach 10 years ago,” said Paradis, “and about three years ago I had a memory of running barefoot across my front yard as a child, and started writing in a notebook. My husband said ‘What are you writing?’ I told him ‘I’m writing about my childhood.’ He said ‘Read it to me,’ and I said, ‘No, you won’t like it.’ He insisted and I read it to him and he said he loved it and asked would I please write more, and so I did. Over the next year or so I gathered these little vignettes in my composition book, and before you knew it, I had volumes. I set them out on a table, and saw that I had chapters of a book. I had a friend who self-published with CreateSpace [an Amazon-owned company]. She wrote a book about traveling across the U.S., in a beat-up R.V. I read it and I loved it, and I thought if she can do it, I can do it.”
Though Paradis is admittedly technologically challenged, CreateSpace was able to help her through step-by-complicated-step, until she finally had a finished manuscript, and a self-published book entitled “Joys and Sorrows of a Baby Boomer.” She opted to pay for author services (editing, cover design, formatting) offered by CreateSpace. While those able to do these things on their own pay nothing to reputable P.O.D. publishers, CreateSpace offers services for specific parts of the process that range from $50 to $500.
Paradis’ primary goal for writing and publishing a book about growing up in the 1950s in Rocky Mount, was to get a copy into her Rocky Mount public library, not to make millions. “They agreed to take a copy, and we scheduled a little talk,” she said, “and I ended up with a crowd. I’ve since spoken at around 20 events, and I always encourage people to write their own memories. I’ve had great success with my talks and book sales. I’ve pretty near paid for all my upfront expenses through the sale of the book. I feel really good about it. I also found out how much I enjoy the public speaking. I have another [event] at the Clarion Hotel in Myrtle Beach, 1 p.m. Aug. 24.”
Help me, Please
Bob O’Brien, a self-published author-turned self-publishing businessman offers services to authors who’d like to self-publish but don’t have the desire or skills needed to complete the task. His publishing company, Prose Press, based in Pawleys Island, now has more than 25 titles under its banner, all from self-published authors who wanted or needed his help.
“I got into the publishing business because I wrote a book and couldn’t get it published,” said O’Brien. “I wrote “The Toppled Pawn,” which is [fiction] about financial backers of the Bayer Corporation [pharmaceutical] company trying to take over a company in a small southern Michigan community. I sent out several hundred pitches over the course of a year-and-a-half, and got the typical response: “We love your book, but we’re unable to publish it at this time.” So I researched self-publishing and went with Lightening Source [Ingram]. I really liked their distribution model.”
“A lot of people are unable to format their book properly and don’t want anything to do with it,” said O’Brien, “so that’s kind of my niche. I do everything that first-time self-published authors don’t want to or can’t do. I’ve published more than 25 [titles] through Prose Press. I’m a very small company but I have a lot of work. I try to find [authors] of some quality that I’m compatible with, and move forward with them. But I’ve published works by very bad writers, but who had an extremely important story to tell, or a story that was extremely important to them. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, anything. I see myself as offering a service, kind of a mid-wife for those who want to self-publish but don’t know how. I can deliver a book, including professional cover design, editing, and formatting, for under $1,000. I get a small royalty, around 50-cents per book, for sales.”
“If you’re going to self-publish on your own,” warned O’Brien, “you’d better have a battery of proofreaders, people who can design a good book cover, and people who can format [for print]. It’s not easy. But that’s what we offer.”
“My best selling e-book author is Barry Kelly,” said O’Brien, referring to the local author and ex-CIA operative who has three titles with Prose Press. “He sells an average of one e-book a day.” Kindle’s royalty rate pays an author 70 percent on books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, and 30 percent above or below that price. This royalty rate is much higher than rates typically offered by traditional publishers. If John Doe self-publishes and sells 10,000 e-books at $9.99 each, which would be considered a flop by a major publisher, than John Doe has just earned $69,990, with no upfront costs, at all. No printing, no postage, no production.
20th Century Fox recently acquired “Cyberstorm,” a self-published sci-fi book about a global digital meltdown. The e-book version of “Cyberstorm” had been selling for weeks at the rate of 1,500 copies per day, without the backing of a major publisher. “Cyberstorm” made headlines when it became the fastest selling self-published e-book in history.
While e-books are the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry, print books are holding their own. If you doubt this, consider the retail space dedicated to books in every drugstore and supermarket. Mass-market paperbacks are a part of an annual $7 billion publishing industry, and while hardcover book sales fell in 2012, paperback sales rose by six percent, according to data published in the L.A. Times in April. Print books are doing just fine, and self-published authors are looking for a piece of the action.
Getting onto local shelves
Nearly every self-published author dreams of seeing his or her book at Books-A-Million or Barnes & Noble Booksellers, or at the independent bookstore in their hometown. How do the bookstores feel about the self-pub revolution? Seems it’s a mixed blessing.
With the patience of a saint, Justin Jordan is the Community Relations Manager at Barnes & Noble Booksellers at the Market Common on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. He is the first person a self-published author is referred to when a phone call comes in or an author with a suitcase full of books wanders through the front door. He’s been in the position on the front lines for a year-and-half, and has spoken with hundreds of self-pub authors. “I hear from at least a couple self-published authors each week looking for shelf space, or to do a book signing,” said Jordan. “We can e-mail information or answer questions over the phone, but essentially the easiest route [into the bookstore] is using a self-publishing house [such as Lightning Source] that already has distribution channels open with Barnes & Noble. If you don’t have that, your book has to have an ISBN, [an International Standard Book Number] and be available for us to order from a distributor we use. It also has to be returnable. Some people are under the impression that we’re like a consignment shop, and they can bring in five copies and we’ll put them on the shelf. It doesn’t work that way. We buy books [at wholesale prices] that meet our criteria and send them back [for refunds] if they don’t sell.”
Jordan helps educate the growing legion of self-published authors who don’t fully understand the relationship between the bookstore and the publisher, which, in the case of a self-published author, is the author.
“We see a ton of Lightening Source [Ingram] stuff. The vast majority [of self-published books] are from them. But even CreateSpace [an Amazon company] has an option if you pay them a little extra for distribution through Ingram. If we can order it, then we can theoretically stock it. We have to feel it out. Sometimes customers ask for a title, and that creates a demand. But we have limited shelf space. We can’t stock every title. People can bring in a copy of their book, and if we think there’s a market for it, and we can order it, then we will.”
“We do self-published book signing days twice a year, once in the fall and spring. We might have 10 or 12 authors in on that one day and it works much better than setting up a book signing for one local author who might have just one book out, and doesn’t have a wide audience. It’s not efficient for them or us, and doesn’t make sense to bring them in one at a time.”
While Barnes & Noble may be the Holy Grail of resting places for an author’s books, the mom-and-pop bookstore holds a place close to the hearts of many readers and authors alike.
“What we’re really interested in are well-crafted books with subject matter that our customers care about,” said Vicki Crafton, owner of independent bookstore Litchfield Books. “Where the book comes from is not as important as its quality. A lot of self-published authors have never had their book vetted; they write a book for themselves and their family, which is fine, but it might not be right for us. There are exceptions. We’ve had a few self-published books that we’ve sold a lot of, and we’ve forwarded them to major publishers, because we think they’re quite good. So, it’s not that we don’t want self-published books, it’s just that it’s more complicated than a lot of self-published authors realize.”
“[Self-publishing] has gotten out of hand,” Crafton laughed. “No one is vetting these books for quality. In most cases that’s why they were rejected by major publishers. Once again, that’s not always the case. We’ve had some great books, some real winners that we’ve liked and have done well. But some people get offended when we don’t wish to carry their books, and often times they’re people we’ve never seen in our store before.”
“We’re interested in getting the right book. We are supportive of local authors. We’ve done really well with Troy Nooe’s books, and there’s local interest with his subject matter.”
While Nooe found a winning relationship with Ingalls, his road from self-published author to small-press author has been long and filled with potholes.
“My first book, “Chickens from Mars,” came out about nine years ago through Publish America,” said Nooe, “and I don’t have a lot of good things to say about that [relationship], but it was a learning experience. The book was about the making of a low-budget science fiction movie, which turns out to be the worst movie ever made. My second book I self- published in 2006 through I Universe, and it was called “I Buried Paul: Sex, Death and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” My experience with I Universe was OK, and if you ordered enough you got a decent discount, but it’s nothing I wanted to do again. And then I wrote “Ocean Forest,” and I thought I had something special there, and I held out and pitched it to every publisher and agent I could find, hoping for a more traditional book deal. Finally I pitched it to Ingalls, and they were interested.”
While he has had some success with Ingalls, he’s free to consider other options. “I think I sold my first two Frankie Keller [Ingalls] books, locally, as well as anyone could expect,” said Nooe, “but I’m also considering self-publishing for a few projects I have in the works.” With the release of each book (“Ocean Forest” and “Damn Yankees”) Nooe ruthlessly self-promoted seeking (and getting) reviews and putting the word out on the street. “I was the guerilla book-signing guy,” he said. “I did book-signings anywhere they’d let me: restaurants, hamburger joints, bars, bookstores…I’ve probably done several dozen.” Nooe said he never got skunked, but did have a few book-signings where he only sold a few copies, but most were successful, some extremely so. “My best book-signing experience has been at Fosters, [a Kings Highway sports bar and local institution in Myrtle Beach]. For both books I did the launch party at Fosters and I think I sold around 80 or 90 copies [for $15 each] at each one.”
Nooe realized early on that self-promoting was important to the financial success he sought. Other local, self-published authors are not nearly as engaged and have self-published for reasons other than profit.
A question of balance
With a background working for a variety of federal agencies in war-torn regions of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa, and as an Air Marshal, Bob Freeland, of Pawleys Island, knows the horror of real war from first-hand experience. He self-published “Balance” with the help of O’Brien’s Prose Press. He says he did so for “catharsis.”
“I probably spent one year too long at War,” said Freeland. “I came back with an anger, I don’t know how else to explain it, but I also saw it on the faces of the kids I was serving with over there. So I decided to get it out, warts and all. The book is fiction mixed with reality. It’s a microcosm of war atrocities in combat, and I tried to explain it.”
By his own admission Freeland says he was “not a great writer,” but he worked at it and feels he has a good book and an important book. “I had a break from Iraq in 2008, and got started,” he said. “I took some writing courses through Coastal Carolina University’s Olli extension, and I found them to be very helpful. I met other writers who were trying to get their books published. I knew I wanted to self-publish, but didn’t want to mess with all that goes into that. It was lucky for me I met Bob O’Brien.”
Has “Balance” sold well?
“I’ve given away more than I’ve sold,” said Freeland. “I haven’t broken even on it yet. It’s been out for around a year. I’ve got one more book in me, kind of a follow up to “Balance.” If my stock in Bacardi (rum) doesn’t run too low, I’ll start writing my next book in a week or two.”
O’Brien is brutally honest with his clients, which is why he doesn’t have much trouble with expectations that are out of synch with reality. He also warns everyone to beware of what he calls “predators” who charge outrageous sums to unsuspecting self-publishing victims and make promises they can’t keep.
“I shoot straight with everybody that’s considering this,” he said. “If you have a hundred friends, you’ll break even, and if you don’t you could lose money. Your chances of getting [national attention] are about the same as becoming an NBA guard. I get some people who tell me ‘I’m retired and I’m going to live off the royalties of my book,’ and I say ‘You poor soul. I’m going to make more money than you are, and I don’t make squat.’”
Paul Grimshaw is a musician, freelance journalist, and newly self-published author. His debut novel, “Travelers of the Gray Dawn” is available via Amazon.com or Kindle. Visit www.travelersofthegraydawn.com.