From the November 2015 issue of The Rotarian
Several years ago, I got an idea for a book, one so strange that I naturally became obsessed with it. The manuscript would consist of 30 one-page essays on the craft of writing, and 30 one-page stories. I had a title all picked out: This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey.
I was terribly excited about Minute, Honey, which I fancied as a kind of Strunk and White for the post-modern set. And thus I set about pitching it to editors at various New York publishing houses. To call their reaction negative would be overstating the case. They were simply bewildered.
So was I.
I had published five books at that point, all with well-regarded New York houses. I couldn’t imagine how to put out a book without the help of a publisher. At the same time, I was too excited about the project to let it go.
One night I was at a party, rhapsodizing about my brilliant little book that nobody wanted to publish, when a friend of mine mentioned that a local bookstore had just installed something called an Espresso Book Machine. A week later, I was standing next to what looked like a giant see-through copier, watching a red laser spray ink onto blank pages. Within minutes, the inaugural copy of This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey slid down a small chute. I picked it up. The cover was still warm, the ink still sticky. It was a little like holding a newborn.
I knew right at that instant that I had to put the book into the world. And that meant I was going to self-publish.
For years, the idea of self-publishing (aka “vanity publishing”) carried a stigma. It meant that the author had failed to sell his or her work to a traditional publisher. This was true in my case. It is also true that the publishing industry, with its fleet of agents and editors, has long acted as a filter. Those authors with the talent, dedication, and patience to earn a contract receive an instant badge of legitimacy as well.
But the book industry has undergone dramatic shifts in the past few years. Financial pressures have caused large publishers to focus on works they see as commercially viable. This has led many authors to seek alternative paths to publication, such as smaller independent presses. At the same time, technology has made book production more accessible than ever before – as I discovered watching the Espresso Book Machine do its thing. In the process, self-publishing has become a booming industry with nearly half a million new titles every year.
Even if you have never dreamed of writing a book, or publishing one, chances are someone in your circle of friends or relatives has. People often ask me whether they should consider the DIY approach. My standard response is to ask them what they want out of their publishing experience.
I realize this sounds annoyingly cagey. But it’s the only responsible answer I can offer, because the quality of their experience invariably depends on their agenda, not mine. And by “agenda,” I really just mean their hopes. The key here is to conduct a brutal self-inventory.
The first thing to realize is that the standard publishing contract comes with a lot of perks. You get paid up front, in the form of an advance against royalties. You also get a lot of help along the way, in the form of editing, book design, publicity, printing, and distribution.
The biggest shock I encountered in self-publishing was that those duties suddenly belonged … to me. I had to think about issues that had never occurred to me as an author, from whether I should buy an ISBN number to where in my small home I might store 300 books.
This led directly to what I think of as the First Law of DIY Publishing: Thou shalt have to seek help.
I begged an old pal of mine, a nationally known illustrator, to design the book. I sent drafts to several writer friends for advice and copyediting. I roped my poor parents into storing some of my inventory. I mention this because some people don’t like to ask for help. Others may not have friends and relatives as patient as mine.
The fundamental question to ask yourself is this: What constitutes success as an author for you?
For example, would success mean being reviewed in big newspapers and magazines, such as The Rotarian? Self-publication is unlikely to provide such rewards. There are too many traditionally published titles competing for attention. You might not even be able to place your book in a bricks-and-mortar store.
Or consider financial expectations. Dozens of companies have sprung up to serve self-publishers, and they all highlight books, such as Fifty Shades of Grey, that eventually became best-sellers. But those titles are exceptions to the rule. The truth is that the majority of authors who self-publish wind up spending money, not making it.
All those companies promising that your book could be the next breakout hit are trying to separate you from your money. Which is why, if you research them online, you will find that most of them want to offer you a dazzling array of services. But remember: Their economic model is the inverse of traditional publishers. Traditional publishers put out perhaps 50 books a year and hope to sell 20,000 copies of each. Self-publishing companies put out thousands of books each year and don’t much care how many copies get sold – because they get paid up front.
That’s not to say these outfits aren’t the right option for you. My aunt Meta self-published a memoir several years ago, quite happily. But her expectations were modest: She wanted to compile some memories to share with friends and family.
So think about that too: What is your goal for readership? We’d all like to have millions of readers, but what would make you happy, or at least content? A hundred readers? A thousand? And how much time and money are you willing to spend in pursuit of that goal? Because printing your book is the easy part. It’s much harder to promote a self-published book. You can’t rely on Facebook or Twitter to sell your wares; those are social media sites, not bookshops.
The real question here is how much energy you plan to devote to promotion. In 2007, Lisa Genova self-published a beautiful novel called Still Alice, about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s. It went on to become a best-seller and a major motion picture. But to build an initial readership, Genova spent more than a year connecting with Alzheimer’s organizations.
I always advise self-publishers to emulate Genova – to aim for specific populations who would take an interest in your specific book, and to devise a marketing plan based on activities you actually enjoy. If you’ve written a biography set in the Civil War era, for example, start with nearby historical societies.
But having to toot your own horn can be exhausting and dispiriting. It can make you feel more like a salesperson than a writer. The truth is that books are a tough sell in a culture increasingly dedicated to dazzling visual entertainment. They require us to arrest our attention in the midst of distraction, to invest in a device with just one app.
For me, the experience of self-publishing was tiring but ultimately happy, because I made my peace with the limitations of the process. I scaled back my expectations of how many copies I might sell, from tens of thousands to more like, well, hundreds. I accepted that This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey was never going to appear in the New York Times Book Review, and that it wouldn’t generate much money. I embraced my weird little book for what it was – not an act of commerce, or a bid for fame, but a labor of love.
Steve Almond is a regular contributor and the author of books including Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.