If you are thinking about self-publishing . . .

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.

But 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, there is the excellent book The Fine Print of Self-Publishing by Mark Levine, which discusses the practices of many different self-publishers and tells you what to watch out for.



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