To Self-Publish or Not To Self-Publish…That Is the Question

When I asked the previous question about self-publishing, Gayle generously gave an in-depth response based on her experiences. It deserved a separate post. Read on for the nitty-gritty about self-publishing.

G.B. Pool

Self-publishing isn’t just a vanity press. To publish one book you have to put in a good year’s worth of research, planning, designing, editing, and production before the presses roll. And remember, you have to write the book, too. After it’s published, you have to promote it. That’s called work. I started a real business when I started SPYGAME Press. I paid taxes. I put in 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week. It was hard work. Sometimes it was frustrating. But it’s the American Dream to do what you really want to do.

Before I decided to self-publish, I tried getting a literary agent. I paid a couple of them up front before I learned you don’t pay anything until they produce. I also got taken in by one of the top “book doctor” scams in the country. It cost me $1100 to learn that lesson. For a dozen years I saw the literary agent business go from people who just wanted my money, to people who didn’t bother sending back my self-addressed stamped envelope. The most frequent reply I received was that they already had enough clients. Nobody said they didn’t like my work.

Ninety-five percent of these literary agents weren’t interested in reading a few chapters of anything. The other five percent were still after my money. That’s when I decided to go in another direction. I checked out POD (print-on-demand) publications and e-books, but I didn’t think I would have as much control over my material as I wanted.

I saw a self-publishing class listed at the Adult Community Center in Glendale, California. I took the class that was given by a very talented teacher named Belma Johnson. He describes himself as a motivational speaker. He certainly motivated me. I took the class in September of 2003. I bought a few books on self-publishing, searched the Internet, and took notes. By the end of January of 2004, I had gotten most of the technical aspects of the business out of the way. That meant setting up a business account at my bank, getting the proper paperwork from the state, a Post Office Box, and securing ISBNs.

I located an editor, a woman who had worked in publishing in New York for many years. She edited the book. When she was finished, I went back over the manuscript several more times and fine-tuned it. Edit, edit, edit.

I found a printer in New York with a very good price who did the printing. They were affiliated with a wonderful cover designer who took my very simple idea and turned it into something I really liked. I made no changes in his original design. Six weeks later I had the books.

I have been asked: How many people self-publish? Many people do it now, especially with P.O.D.s or e-books available for download on places like iUniverse or even the way I did it by starting a company.

There is a rather long history of self-published books. There were no big publishing houses in early America so many newspapers printed books for local writers.

Here are some early writers who self-published: Mark Twain, Zane Grey, Carl Sandburg, D. H. Lawrence, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Wolff, Alexander Dumas, Edgar Allen Poe, Kipling, Thoreau, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Paine.

Today, most of the big publishers are gone and smaller imprints are turning out books. The main reason is cost and the other reason is people don’t read as much. There are two fundamental culprits: One is known as television and the other goes by several names: XBOX, GameBoy, Nintendo, not to mention cell phones and I-pods. They devour time, leaving people with no time to read.

Here are names of a few self-published books: The Elements of Style – handbook for writers, What Color Is Your Parachute – handbook for corporate bigwigs, A Time to Kill by John Grisham, The Joy of Cooking, Mary Ellen’s Best of Helpful Hints, Dianetics. And The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poytner. That’s one of the books I used to get my own publishing company started.

Samizdat is Russian for self-publishing. It started in late 50’s. It was unofficial, it circumvented censorship. People turned out fiction, poetry, petitions, and religious material. The movement spread to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. All those countries are free now.

Is there an advantage to self-publishing? Yes. You get published. If not, you would be relinquishing your fate to someone you don’t know who can turn thumbs down on your manuscript for no more reason than they got up on the wrong side of the bed that day. Why should you rest your entire future on someone who doesn’t know you, who might have an agenda, or who might not even bother to read your work?

The large publishing houses get hundreds of manuscripts a month. They don’t have time or staff to read every one that comes through the door. Many hire people outside the business to read for them. Most publishing houses will only take referrals from literary agents. And there are far more writers than there are agents, and most agents have all the clients they can handle. It was that Catch 22 element that left me with no alternative other than to self-publish.

In the course of five years, I have met a lot of people in various stages of writing and getting their book published. I was at the No Crime Unpublished Conference of mystery writers in June 2005, and Lee Child, the author of the “Jack Reacher” novels, was talking about self-published books. He said it’s always better to be handled by a big-time publisher, but being self-published is just another way to circumvent the usual torturous route to the big name publishing houses by being able to show a big name publisher you can complete a book and present it well. Remember, John Grisham is no longer self-published.

Try as hard as you can to get an agent or publisher, even a small publisher, to publish your work. It is your best option. Starting a business and dealing with the government and learning all aspects of the business is the hardest work there is. And remember, after you publish you have to promote yourself. That is tough and time consuming.

But the lessons learned will help you immeasurably if a regular publisher picks you up. It will be your effort to sell those self-published books and your actual sales that will attract a publisher. They are looking at their bottom line and they want someone who will work on their own behalf to market their book. Most publishers expend zero dollars for new writers. It will be all on you.

There are drawbacks of course. The cost of starting a business can be prohibitive. POD might be cheaper, but you don’t have total control of your work that way. And some publishers and agents scorn the self-published author. It might take a while for everyone to come around to accepting the self-pub. And if you don’t put out an exemplary product, meaning no misspelling, the correct format, a terrific story that adheres to correct grammar, you will look like an amateur and it will be hard to overcome that first impression.

But if you have it in your heart to get published…do it.

I’ll give you some free advice: Don’t listen to anybody who tells you to forget your dream. To tell you the truth, they’re probably afraid of the competition. Listen to people who give you encouragement. Never give up. Because…there is a number inside every published book: A Library of Congress Control Number. That means the book is sitting in the Library of Congress along with Gone with the Wind, The Maltese Falcon and The Hunt for Red October. A self-published book is really published.

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