The lowdown on self-publishing
"The late-blooming desire to write a book does indicate a little something about how much contempt the average person has for writing—if not for literature, in general," says Ernest Hekkanen. "Anyone who’s able to successfully jot down a list of shopping items seems to think he has sufficient skills to become an author."
April 21st, 2014
Anybody can publish a book these days. And there are lots of rip-off outfits lurking in the e-bushes to take advantage of would-be authors. Scribblers beware. It takes a lot more than getting your book listed on Amazon to make a buck or two. And don’t assume people in the book trade will take you seriously just because you got one hundred copies printed.
Back in 1987, Nancy Wise of Kelowna and Marion Crook broke new ground when they co-wrote and co-published How to Self Publish and Make Money (Sandhill Publishing/Crook Publishing 1987). It was full of hard-earned common sense. Later revised and reprinted, the book gives practical information from Nancy Wise’s perspectives as a distributor of independently published titles and as a self-publisher. Wise is the owner of Sandhill Book Marketing, for many years the province’s major conduit for independently published titles to reach bookstores. Although it was written long before the onset of e-books (and all the hype surrounding ebooks), How to Self Publish and Make Money is still well worth a look.
Meanwhile, here are four views of self-publishing from people who know what they are talking about—Ernest Hekkanen, the late Peter Grauer, Jack Schofield and Ben Nuttall-Smith.
If you have ever considered self-publishing, it’s a good idea to get the lay of the land from people who have already made the journey.
FOUR VIEWS OF SELF-PUBLISHING
As the author of 45 books—all but the first two self-published—Ernest Hekkanen of Nelson co-manages the New Orphic Gallery with his wife and fellow writer, Margrith Schraner, and they produce the unfunded New Orphic Review. Hekkanen’s intimidating versatility, productivity and staunch independence have increasingly defied easy categorization and marketing. Although Hekkanen is clearly one of British Columbia’s most remarkable writers, his work is seldom recognized in mainstream publications and Canada’s literary festivals have consistently overlooked him. His sophisticated work frequently points to dark but universal recesses of the mind. He is a prolific and serious self-publisher.
Late last year I attended an e-publishing presentation. It drew an extremely large crowd by small-town Nelson standards. I would guess eighty percent of the audience was made up of individuals over sixty years of age, many of whom have turned their attention to writing books now that they are retired or on the verge of becoming retired. I was reminded of a remark uttered by Margaret Atwood, when a medical doctor suggested that he was going to become a writer after retiring from his profession. Her reply was something to the effect that she was going to become a brain surgeon after retiring from the writing profession.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against individuals developing a late interest in life, in particular writing books. Frank McCourt managed to produce some fine literary works in his later years, namely, Angela’s Ashes, Teacher Man and ’Tis, each of which became a bestseller. Certainly, by the time an individual reaches the age of retirement, he should have acquired some experience worth rendering in words and phrases. However, the late-blooming desire to write a book does indicate a little something about how much contempt the average person has for writing—if not for literature, in general. Anyone who’s able to successfully jot down a list of shopping items seems to think he has sufficient skills to become an author. On a few occasions, when I taught creative writing to adults, I was amazed at the number of people who felt they should be able to successfully write a book without ever having read one. They were just born with a tale to tell, apparently.
This brings me back to the e-publishing presentation. The literary agent who gave the talk tried to persuade us that electronic publishing was the way of the future. The industry is heading in that direction, due to the high cost of producing books that reside between covers. The marketplace isn’t prepared to absorb all the literature being produced in the old-fashioned manner and, in all likelihood, publishers will only “jacket” the most popular books by the most popular writers. E-publishing is a stepping stone in that direction. A book that proves its worth as an e-title is more likely to be selected for jacketing later on. Apparently, for a fraction of what it costs a librarian to purchase an old-fashioned title, she can scroll down a list of e-titles, merrily ticking off the ones she intends to stock on her e-shelves and—presto—they’re delivered, without any nasty shipping or receiving costs. And, let’s not forget, library space is limited, our presenter told us. Very limited. An e-librarian in the virtual world of e-literature doesn’t have to worry about actual shelf space. It’s all stored electronically, in the up-and-coming e-world of e-libraries.
At this point, I was given cause to reflect upon the sale of my books, which are produced in the old-fashioned manner, between actual jacket covers. The number of sales to libraries has steadily declined over the past four to five years, probably due to librarians ordering e-titles from e-jobbers in the virtual world of e-literature. The intermeshing gears of e-commerce work extremely well, at a fraction of the cost, it would seem.
So, our agent concluded, e-books are the way to go, the way to break into the writing trade in the burgeoning world of e-literature. The notion was met with murmurs of enthusiastic agreement by hobbyists in the audience, many of whom were laboring on books and some of whom had already taken the e-publishing route. The important rule to remember is that you don’t want to deny yourself the services of a good agent who will make sure your book is in top form before being presented to an e-publisher, and nowadays agents provide all the necessary services a would-be author might require, we were informed.
One man (a former school teacher, and possibly a plant) had already gone this route. His book had appeared not only as an e-title but as a jacketed book as well and, as we eventually came to learn, it had only cost him $10,000. Instantly I thought, “This man has more money than brains.” The costs accruing to our sixty-something wordsmith covered editing, page layout and cover design, because, even in the e-publishing world, it pays to have a great cover, apparently. The costs did not include marketing, of course; that was left up to the writer, as usual.
No wonder so many boomers had shown up for the presentation! The publishing industry is in such dire straits, the focus has shifted from publishing and selling literature to finding easy marks who can be relieved of their cash, and boomers are the preferred targets in the new e-literature world. Remember the old adage, A sucker is born every minute? E-publishing is the way of the future because the focus is now on relieving boomers of their retirement income, by appealing to their vanity, to their need to leave behind an artifact that will testify to the fact that they once existed on the face of the earth. In the publishing industry, the big money is now being made by people who offer services to would-be writers of my generation, individuals who were squeamish about pursuing a writing career early in life, because it wasn’t likely to provide a sound financial future. A lucrative job was more important. Now they have too much time and money on their hands, and they’re fishing for something to do. Writing (and publishing) has become a popular pastime—like golf or fishing or lawn bowling.
Let me make a prediction: for the next ten to fifteen years, while the boomer generation is being swallowed up by old age and eventual death, e-hobbyists will attain preferred customer status in the post-literature e-world of e-publishing. The industry’s health will be determined by the number of customers fleeced of their hard-earned cash. Remember Bernie Madoff, the Ponzi scam artist of Wall Street? He’s the sort of individual who will be offering services in the brave new world of publishing—for a price, a considerable price.
Meanwhile, here at New Orphic Publishers, we will continue to defy the odds by putting text between jacket covers, and we will do it independently, without sucking down grant money from government agencies.
The late Peter Grauer’s exhaustive account of American bandit Bill Miner’s years in British Columbia, Interred With Their Bones, Bill Miner in Canada, 1903-1907 (Tillicum Publishing 2006 / $35) is a 643-page definitive work, complete with a bibliography, sources, an index and high-quality illustrations. It is one of the great self-published books of B.C. in the venerable do-it-yourself tradition of George Nicholson’s coastal classic Vancouver Island’s West Coast, reprinted a dozen times since 1962, and ranks with the self-published feats of historian Derek Hayes, ethnographer Adolf Hungry Wolf and poet bill bissett.
Based on six years of research, Grauer painstakingly recalls how Constable William Fernie and his four First Nations trackers—Alex Ignace, Eli La Roux, Michel Le Camp and Philip Toma—tracked the fleeing Bill Miner and his two accomplices for five days after their botched train robbery, enabling the Royal North West Mounted Police to capture the so-called Gentleman Bandit near Douglas Lake.
Grauer believed a mainstream publisher likely would never have agreed to publish his labour of love because, ironically, it is too comprehensive and too expensive to produce. Also Grauer wasn’t keen to endure the “interminable” waiting period between acceptance of a book project and its eventual publication.
Peter Grauer died on April 27th, 2013.
Why I Self-Published
Initially, while I contemplated the route I should take, the overwhelming emotion was that of fear.
It was that fear that smacks of unreasonableness; fear of rejection, fear of amputation, fear of confrontation and ridicule, and the fear of failure.
I was an unknown first-time author, and the thought of ever enticing a mainstream publisher from coastal Lotusland, or anywhere else in Western Canada, to deign to look at, never mind publish, my book was deemed to be almost fruitless.
To have had any editorial control over the end result would have been a ludicrous expectation. Besides, I was convinced that publishers were unapproachable by first-time authors. I could not see myself facing what I presumed to be the inevitable and personally debilitating rejection notices or requests for condensation. I was not prepared to “pay my dues” when I was convinced of the worth of what had been produced.
Other authors I talked to and corresponded with have expressed their unfailing disappointment in dealing with mainstream publishers. Their most-often quoted criticism was the perceived rape of their work by unskilled and uncaring editors. This was quickly followed by the almost complete lack of monetary reward, despite reasonable sales, and a lengthy wait until publication.
I was adamant that I wanted to maintain editorial control over the content of my work, and the integrity of the work as a whole. I was convinced that it would take over 600 pages to tell this story, and I also wanted to help influence the publishing of my book, including design, distribution and marketing.
Expert advice from professionals, friends and fellow writers, as well as my own convictions, convinced me that I should exert some ownership over such minutiae as book dimensions, font size and type, paper quality, cover graphics and design as well as cover weight and surface treatment. These decisions, as well as the actual cover design with its fold-in flaps, were conceived in conjunction with the book designer well in advance of the actual time of printing.
I wanted to be able to control the number, quality, size and placement of all of the photographs in the book, as well as to incorporate original artwork. This writer was more resigned to the financial failure of the book as the result of his own efforts, rather than to suffer the effects of possible lacklustre marketing or indiscriminate editing on the part of a mainstream publisher.
There is no doubt that the decision to self-publish was eased by the knowledge that a professional book designer and a retired copy editor both volunteered to practise their various skills for the writer, as they believed in the value of the project. The masterful handling of these responsibilities by all the individuals noted in the copyright page of the book was critical in easing the decision to self-publish.
The anguish and worry that resulted from the decision to self-publish has largely been alleviated by a resulting book that has earned many positive comments from store owners and readers alike. Sales are continuing to be strong and steady, and the response of readers to the comments section of author’s website (www.billminer.ca) has vindicated my persistence in maintaining the integrity of the book.
Jack Schofield has written five books on aviation; three with Sono Nis Press and two that are self-published. He flew, for 20 years, as a commercial seaplane pilot along the full stretch of coastal British Columbia and throughout much of North America including the Canadian Arctic. He founded and edited B.C. Aviator magazine. Coast Dog Press is the name under which Schofield has provided authoring and design services and distribution to self-publishers in both paper and digital books.
How to Become a Famous Author
The term, “self publish” is used a lot these days. It is a misnomer. For the writer, the “self” soon includes the cost of an editor to perform a substantive and a copy edit on your manuscript, which can run into a minimum of $1000 depending on the type and length of book. Then, a designer must be employed to lay-out your manuscript in book form. A book designer is an artist with a software program called InDesign or Quark. He will put his artistry to work designing your cover and laying out the contents of your book in a manner that will make it fly off the shelves. He put out a grand and a half for the software plus the cost of an up-to-date iMac and invested at least two years of studying to master the program so his services come at a pricey price. The “self” in self-publishing is starting to fade.
Now that you have an InDesign file print-ready you send it to the book printer of your choice, and you are smart enough to know that it must be a “book” printer—not the guy who says he is, but a bona fide company who can translate that pricey file into a piece of art that will, as we mentioned, jump off the shelves. Let’s say your child is an illustrated, 200-page full colour epistle measuring 8 inches square in hardcover (they call it casebound) with a dust jacket displaying all that fine artwork you just paid for. The price to print your little darling depends on the number of books you order and the plan to “start small and see how it goes” flies out the window when you see the price of a short run. The price starts to look better at 1000 copies—probably about $7.00 per book for the book described, and is decidedly more attractive at 2000 copies when the unit cost drops to $4.00. You have forgotten the item at the end of the quotation explaining how much per book the printer will add to deliver it to your door, but when the big day arrives and the truck pulls up to your garage you find they have packed the 2000 copies in 56 boxes of 35 copies each, weighing just about that many pounds per box. (if you are metric-do your own conversion). Your brand-new SUV will just have to stay outside until you have sold all those soon–to-be-referred- to by your wife, as “bloody books.”
Now comes the funny part. “What are you going to do with those bloody books?” There are bookstores all over Canada and the United States just crying to have your book on their shelves—you know that, but they haven’t heard the news, so you start looking at the marketing plans offered to you by a plethora of little spring-up companies who keep emailing you expressing their keen resolve to solve your distribution problem (and their bottom line). You are starting to think that you should have just published it as an ebook, so you check with a little company owned by the giant. Amazon, called “Createspace,” They will be happy to convert your manuscript into what they call an ePub file so that it will display on the Kindle tablets—”oh, it has photographs with captions? Sorry, our $99.00 special doesn’t apply. We will have to look at that and give you a quote and, “No, it won’t turn out like your designer laid it out because he did so for print books, which are fast disappearing into the sunset,” he says, and then adds, “No, it won’t automatically appear on Apple’s iBooks either because we are mad at them. And, Sir, you must do your own marketing because nobody will know your book is available unless you send them to it. Kobo? How do you spell that. sir.”
Oh, I nearly forgot, your wife is having a garden party and you stacked all those 56 boxes in front of the lawn chairs in the garage.
Ben Nuttall-Smith is the president of the Federation of BC Writers and the author of the historical novel Blood, Feathers & Holy Men (Libros Libertad, 2011) and the autobiography Secrets Kept/Secrets Told (Libros Libertad, 2012). In 2013, he published two books of poetry, A Moment in Eternity and Postcards (Silver Bow Publishing). After he self-published a memoir and three books of poetry, a B.C. publisher accepted his first novel and then suggested turning his memoir into a second novel by changing names and places. Here Nuttall-Smith provides an overview about the perils, pitfalls and practicalities of self-publishing. “There is no fast and easy way to become a published author,” he says.
The Perils of Self-Publishing
Okay, so you think you have written a book and you’d like to get it published. You’ve heard so many discouraging stories about finding a publisher that you’re ready to give up before the rejection letters pile up. You’ve heard exciting stories about doing it yourself so you decide to self-publish. Here is some advice.
1. How to Recognize a Publishing Scam
Many book publishing websites are aimed at novice writers, who are eager to become “published authors.” “We’ll turn your book into a bestseller and sell it on Amazon for a small reading fee.” Vanity publishing charges authors a fee to have their works published. Vanity publishing is not legitimate publishing. It is not even self-publishing. Rather it’s expensive and the ploy is to get you hooked. Such publishers will sell you add-on services and you’ll pay way more than you would if you went to a legitimate editor and had your book designed by someone qualified to help. Also, you’ll pay many times more per copy than you would with a commercial printer.
If you sign a contract with such a company, you will never be able to take back your manuscript to have it self-published or trade-published. Also, you’ll never be able to use your vanity book as a means of getting a real publisher interested in anything else you might write.
Reputable publishers will not ask for money to read your manuscript. If they like what you’ve written and decide to publish you, they’ll work with you and hope to make their money when your book is printed. Even then, the author will be required to do much if not most of the promotion and sales work. There is no free ride.
There’s nothing wrong with companies or individuals selling writers services such as editing, book design, printing, publicity and so on. If you are self-publishing, then you will have to pay these costs. Most authors who have self-published eBooks will tell you the process of listing and selling books on Amazon is simple and costs nothing. If you’re unsure, Google “company name – publishing scam” and see what other writers have to say.
I began writing my memoir when I retired more than twenty years ago. I wrote and rewrote and cut and wrote more until I thought I could go no further. Writers I know share chapter-by-chapter with their friendly writing circle. After the first ten years, I shared mine with my spouse. I asked her to be my most critical reader and she complied. The process was a work of love and it took months. I was surprised and humbled by the many suggestions she made. “I don’t understand this.” “You’re repeating yourself.” “This is not what you said on page 237.” I followed her suggestions page by page. Then we both read through it again.
A good manuscript can take years to complete. When I thought I was ready, I sent out query letters with sample chapters to publisher after publisher. Within a year and a half I had more than 35 rejection letters. Those were from the publishers kind enough to respond.
I read online advertisements by a number of “independent” publishing companies who were only too willing to take my money and help me reach my dream of becoming a “published author.” I decided to go with Trafford. Author Solutions owns the AuthorHouse, Trafford Publishing and a full set of variously named “publishing houses.” To save money, I did my own layout and designed my own cover.
Within a year I knew I needed to rewrite. I did, and republished. Unfortunately, Trafford kept promoting the old edition, even converting it to an eBook. As time went on, I began to see more badly written books published by such companies, which caused me to regret being in the same crowd. It would take countless emails and letters and several years to get them to withdraw my file.
Next, I wrote an historical novel about Mexico and was determined to find a legitimate publisher. This book required extensive library research and three trips to Mexico. Once more my wife became my primary editor and I went through several rewrites. Characters changed names and some had to go.
Thanks to my experiences with my memoir, I knew I had to find a good story editor. Since I’d written a historical novel, I needed an editor who knew the genre and was even willing to fact check where he or she had doubts. I wouldn’t want to be tripped up by an irate reader later on.
The story editor was very thorough. We went through the entire manuscript twice. It’s a bit like plowing and harrowing. First dig deep, then smooth into place. She suggested both deletions and additions. The outtakes went into my scrap file for future consideration.
What did all of this cost? At that time, 114,000 words x 2 came to just over $3,000. Since my name would be on the finished work, I considered the editing a worthwhile expenditure.
I asked some of the published authors I’d befriended over the years to read my manuscript. I’ve had fellow authors blurb (endorse) all my books and I will forever be indebted to every one of them. I have since endorsed other new writers. It’s all in the family and good promotion. My name appears on other book jackets and people might look for my books.
5. Primary Jacket and Book Design
I have self-published three books of poetry as well as the memoir with Trafford. In each case, I examined a number of published books and copied the opening pages: inside title, copyright page, dedication, index, introduction or prologue. Selecting a six-by-nine inch book size, I contacted a book printer in Victoria to find out about margins and spacing. I found Printorium Bookworks to be very helpful in this regard. Next, I googled the Canadian ISBN Service System and was given a series of numbers for my own use. I found a barcode generator on line with instructions to insert an ISBN number.
With everything else ready, I had a most important task left. I needed to design a worthwhile cover. The cover had to be eye-catching and it had to tell my story, at least in part, with one image. If the cover doesn’t catch potential readers’ eyes, the book will sit on a shelf until the author is asked to take the book back. Since I also paint, I produced several illustrations for each book before deciding on a suitable cover.
I went with Printorium Bookworks print-on-demand. This way my costs were reasonable and I was not obliged to purchase more copies than I could handle. A proof copy was in my hands within three days and, once I had read through from cover to cover, I gave the go-ahead and had my copies within another week.
7. Promotion, Promotion, Promotion
Here are a few pointers:
— Develop a web page. Be colourful. A blog can be a great help. This should be undertaken when you first begin writing. That way you’ll build up a following, especially if you’re not too shy to share your trials as well as your triumphs.
— Open a Facebook page and build up friends and likes. These people will be there when your book comes out.
— Join a writing group. Become involved. Volunteer. I found my two publishers (they found me) through my involvement in Writers Helping Writers. I would recommend joining your provincial organization and the Canadian Authors Association – you do not need to be a published author to join.
— Attend book launches and readings. This will pay off when you need to organize your own book launch.
— Attend workshops. The Federation of BC Writers organizes several each year throughout the Province of British Columbia.
— Attend writers’ conferences such as the Surrey International Writers’ Conference each October.
— Carry bookmarks wherever you go and give them out like candy.
— Make sure to have copies of your book in the car and don’t be shy to talk about your book. It’s called shameless self-promotion.
— Get working on your next book.
There is no fast and easy way to become a published author. It takes time and effort to learn the craft of writing. The most important point: Rewrite those stories and polish them until they are perfect, then find a good editor.
If you require editorial services, Patti Osborne’s Vancouver Desktop has been helping people prepare their manuscripts for more than twenty-five years. As for book printing, Island Blue / Printorium Bookworks in Victoria, run by Craig Shemilt, is an outfit that has established a track record that makes them easy to recommend. Long reputable as a book printer for conventional trade publishers, Friesens Printing of Altona, Manitoba, also has service for self-publishers called Friesen Press.
If a self publisher doesn’t have distribution, they will have the supreme problem of trying to get their books onto bookstore shelves. A couple of years ago, one of the booksellers came up with the idea of charging new authors for consignment shelf space – so that to get into the store, there’s an upfront starting fee of $150 that goes up if you opt to have your book placed in the window. Once this was communicated at a B.C. Booksellers Association meeting, other booksellers followed suit. Booksellers say they are fully justified because of the amount of time they have to spend administering the account for one book. And if you are a new vendor to Indigo, the automatic discount is something like 55%, even if they’ll consider taking you as a new vendor in the first place. It’s an administrative nuisance for a book company to add a single-book vendor to their system.
So be very, very careful. If you don’t get to shake hands with a human being while getting your book published, you could be asking for trouble. Ask around. And, for god’s sake, develop some sort of marketing plan before you print any books. For starters, ask yourself what is newsworthy about your book. The world will not beat a path to your door and celebrate your genius. There are millions of people like you getting their own books printed these days, all around the world.