Publishing Goes DIY

Self-publishing isn’t just for poetry majors anymore.

Gone are the days of angst-filled hand-stapled “zines,” replaced by angst-filled perfectly bound books. With the help of websites like Lulu.comiUniverse.com, and dozens of other specialty printers, self-published books can be indistinguishable from books created by traditional publishing houses. They can have snazzy covers, color pages, professional looking layouts, and even bar codes with ISBN’s. Without having to ask permission or seek the approval from old-school publishers, authors are taking their literary destiny by the horns and changing the face of publishing.

“The advent of indie bands and indie movies has lifted the stigma bit,” said Amy Edelman founder of IndieReader.com, in an email. “The consumer is looking for something more genuine that hasn't been chosen by a committee. And the writer wants to create something that is...and remains...theirs.”

Self-published authors usually hire a printer for a small fee. That printer will print and bind any material that you send them. There is no vetting process. There are no editors or agents to work with, and no help in selling the finished product, though those services can easily be purchased through many printers’ websites. Many “print-on-demand” printers set no minimum quantity for their orders. This allows the author to order as few as one book at a time, eliminating much of the up-front cost that weighs down traditional publishers.

“Plus you get to keep a larger percentage of the sales,” said Edelman.

The biggest player in print-on-demand is a 5-year old company called Lulu.com. Lulu states on their website that they published 400,000 titles in 2008. In contrast, traditional publishing decreased by 3.2% between 2007 and 2008, publishing only 275,232 new titles and editions according Bowker.com, widely considered the authority on tracking the publishing industry.

A traditional publisher was “able to get my book in book shops, set up reading and signing appearances, set up interviews, and send out review copies,” said Greg Prato of his experience with a traditional publisher. “All of these things are difficult to do if you put out your book yourself,” he said, having later self-published No Schlock...Just Rock!

The self-publishing marketplace has become very crowded and is taking an ever bigger slice of the shrinking publishing pie. In an industry that has been struggling for years under the weight of dwindling readership and rising costs, self-publishing is flourishing.

“It’s less expensive than it used to be and it’s much faster than traditional publishing, which can take years,” said Edelman.

“Within a month I had earned more than I had in a full year with a traditional publisher.”

The authors that have self-published vary across the spectrum from retirees to former television stars, writing anything from textbooks toromance novels. Self-publishers like to point out that self-publishing is not new. Some self-published authors include Benjamin Franklin,Ernest HemingwayD.H. Lawrence and Stephen King, according to bookmarket.com, a website aimed at promoting self-published authors.

Some authors turn to self-publishing because they are unable to find an agent or entice a traditional publisher on their own. “My Blind Melon and Tommy Bolin books I could tell were for a specific group of fans, not very mainstream,” said Prato. “I did ask around to a few publishers that I had contact info for, and they passed.”

Some have chosen to self-publish after being disappointed by their experiences with traditional publishers.

“Within a month I had earned more than I had in a full year with a traditional publisher.” Said Andrew Campbell, self-published author of the non-fiction book The Iliad of Homer: A Study Guide to Richmond Lattimore's Translation.

But self-publishers shouldn’t expect to quit their day jobs.

“I made some money - but not a life-changing amount or anything,” said Prato, whose life as a music journalist has provided the fodder for his self-published works.

According to a 2008 interview published in the New York Times, an executive at iUniverse named Susan Driscoll said most titles will not sell more than 200 copies. Most of those copies will be sold directly to the author, who then distributes them to friends, family and local book sellers.

“I would not be able to support my family on the income I make from my writing, but it is a significant supplement to my other income,” said Campbell, who writes textbooks for homeschoolers.

But not all genres are created equal in the self-publishing marketplace. Non-fiction leads the way, especially those in niche markets who already rely on the internet to reach their select audience. Of the 100 books listed on Lulu’s top sellers list, there were only three novels, one lone book of poetry and about 96 how-to books, memoirs and technical references. Most of those non-fiction books were aimed at the education and business markets. According toBowker.com new titles in the business and education categories rose 33% and 14% respectively, across the publishing industry.

Travel and fiction trailed from previous years, with new titles down 15% and 11% respectively. Analysts at Bowker.com suggest this is due to the falling economy and loss of disposable income. Readers are channeling their limited recourses to self-improvement, showing their desire to gain job security.

There are a few notable exceptions. The self–published novel The Shack by Wm. Paul Young became a New York Time best seller and is soon to be published in 30 different languages, according to the writer’s website. The novel Still Alice by Lisa Genova met a similar fate, gaining notoriety as self-published work before being picked up by a major publishing house and climbing best-seller lists.

But it seems most of these self-published authors are not in it for money or success. They have something to say and a desire to get their stories, guides, and charts out to the rest of the world. Even if the distribution is limited, and the self-promotion is difficult, many self-published writers have no regrets.

“I've gotten nothing but positive feedback. And I'm not just B.S.ing about this either - look up all my books on Amazon.com,” said Prato. “Kind words from [my subject’s families] were really fantastic as well, and made all the hard work well worth it.”