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Are You Thinking About Self-Publishing?

by Carly Cantor

If so, continue to think about it, very seriously. It is a good option, a better option than ever before. But you need to go into it with your eyes open.

Perhaps you have tried to find a publisher and have not succeeded. You are not alone. The reality is that unless you are a celebrity or have a ready-made marketing platform that is guaranteed to sell thousands of books, it is difficult to get published by a mainstream press. Some people in the business argue that if you are not getting accepted by a publisher, it is because you just “don’t have the goods.” I don’t believe that is necessarily the case. Book publishing, which used to be a labor of love, and as much about intellectual pride and literary quality as about business, has over the last few decades become more and more of a bottom line–obsessed enterprise. And, because of the consolidation in the industry, with huge corporations buying up independent presses, compounded by the “mall”-ing of America, which resulted in the demise of independent bookstores, book publishers have been forced to try to conform to a business model that doesn’t suit its unique characteristics. (I recommend Jason Epstein’s excellent book The Book Business, which explains the whole evolution.) As a result of these changes, many good books don’t get published because they are seen as “not commercially viable in today’s climate.”

Perhaps you have been published by a mainstream press but found that as a “midlist” author (i.e., Not John Grisham), you were given very little editorial and/or promotional support from the company, and your book just withered on the vine. I have known many published authors who ended up very disappointed by the experience. The truth is that, in today’s penny-pinching climate, authors are more and more often expected to hire publicists and become marketing machines. Some authors find themselves wondering how exactly the publisher is earning such a high cut of the royalties and feel that they (the authors) might as well print and market the book themselves. Yes, mainstream publishers will get your baby into bookstores, but it is so honored for only about two months and then gets dumped to make room for the next wave. The author is then left to fend for herself.
Self-publishing has become an increasingly viable option. Print-on-demand (POD) technology has rendered the printing up of small quantities of books economically feasible, while the relationship between Ingram and Lightning Source (the actual POD printer behind every do-it-yourself publishing company except Amazon’s BookSurge) ensures every self-published book a distribution channel not previously available to small-fry books. POD technology eliminates the need to stock hundreds of books as well as the nightmare of processing and shipping orders.

If you decide to self-publish, there are numerous options. However, you have to do your homework. You can decide to truly self-publish—i.e., “produce” your book all by yourself, hiring a designer to do the cover and interior layout in the proper printer-friendly program (using Adobe InDesign, not Word) and an independent editor to ensure a quality product, and then use a POD company to actually make the books. Alternatively, you can go with a “vanity press” or a “subsidy press” to give you a full package of services that includes cover design, etc. The choice will depend on how much control you want to have and how confident you are that you can find good professionals to support you. And nowadays, with e-books becoming the fastest growing area of publishing, it might make a lot of sense to choose a company like Smashwords and simply do an e-book.

Whatever you choose to do, go into it with your eyes open. There are a lot of unscrupulous companies to watch out for. Don’t just sign up with the first press that comes to mind or the one that some acquaintance of yours used. Do some research and find out about all the different options.

I do believe that the more widespread self-publishing becomes, the more the general public will become alerted to bad business practices. Already there are self-appointed watchdogs keeping tabs on who is doing what. For example, an excellent book titled The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, by Mark Levine, discusses the practices of many different self-publishing companies and tells you what to watch out for.

A FEW WORDS ABOUT EDITING: Be mindful that if you choose a package that includes editing services, you are taking a leap of faith and may not get the kind of quality attention your book deserves. Editing is a labor-intensive activity and an art; there is no way around that. Editors vary greatly in their skills and taste. It’s not like hiring a mechanic to fix your car; it’s much more personal. Most POD or self-publishing companies or “vanity presses”(whatever you want to call them) offer editorial services charged at a fixed rate (cents per word) with a two- to three-week turnaround time. They operate like editing mills. You have no personal relationship with your editor and no back-and-forth communication. If you choose the POD editing service, you have no say in who your editor is—it could be anyone, perhaps someone only qualified in proofreading but not editing—and there will be little if any personal contact. The editor gets paid only a portion of the total charge and will want to finish up with you as quickly as possible to move on to the next job. This approach treats an organic process as though it is simply a one-size-fits-all commodity. Almost all books end up needing more attention from an editor than is at first apparent. The editors who work at quick-turnaround mills may fix your grammar and obvious errors but won’t have the time to really “become one” with your book and make it the best that it can be. I would recommend that before self-publishing, you hire an experienced hands-on editor, who will not be rushing through your project and will engage in a back-and-forth process of communication with you about your book for as long as you need it. This is the only way to ensure a quality product that you are proud to release to the world.