Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Tears for Fears in Self-Publishing

I meant to post earlier on the topic of self-published books, but then I would get distracted by other subjects. Fortunately Ron Franscell wrote this thoughtful comment on my Doing My Homework #4 thread:

I occupy this rather odd niche: I am both a daily newspaper editor and a trade-published author. I am sympathetic to the promotional predicament of authors, but also a gatekeeper for what's news (and what isn't.) Those two sensibilities collide when a local writer sends his press release about a new book.The main elements of a good newspaper story will be local relevance, timeliness and impact.In a market area of some 350,000 people, we get 1-2 notices of an authentic trade-published book by a local writer every few months ... but we get roughly 1 per week from self-published writers at AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris and others. These releases are always seeking reviews and/or publicity about signings.Do we treat them differently? Yes. We simply deem self-published books -- by virtue of having circumvented the strict filters of trade publishing (which can be too strict and too commercial, admittedly) -- as lower quality products. Not always, but generally true. By the same token, we deem trade-published books as having survived the rigors of having found an agent, an editor who'll risk a publisher's money, and legitimate distribution -- as well as the expectation our readers will be able to find it in major bookstores.What do they get? We don't trash the self-published books, but rarely do they get more than one paragraph, and it's usually in a "story" about other self-published books. And we name the animal: We say in print it's self-published. And we never review it. (If you're self-published, not local, and the book is not of local interest ... don't waste my time and your postage.)The trade-published local author/book generally gets much more: A story, possible review, a fair punch on a local signing. Why? We presume the rigorous filters of the trade tested its mettle.Not every paper has a trade-published writer in charge (and some probably have self-published authors in charge), so policies vary. As a book-reviewer who's written for some of the biggest book-review outlets in the USA, I also know that the likelihood of a self-published book getting a major review is next to nothing unless it becomes a news phenomenon on its own.

On a bookstore level, especially a chain level, we feel the same way. To date, I can think of only one self-published book that has made it into my store and sold successfully. It was a restaurant and shopping guide book written by a local woman (with a graphic design background, yes this is important) with friends in high places. And when I say self-published, in her case I mean actually did everything herself and managed to produce an attractive book due to her design background (still needed a better editor, but she fixed that in later additions). With the help of her friends, she managed to get on a local morning show, along with a radio show or two, and pump up the demand for her book. By the time the eighth person asked us if we had it, and after the fifth phone call to our sister store, we knew we had to break down and order the book.

By creating a demand, she not only got picked up by all the large chains in the area, but by a distributing house, and all the independent bookstores.

She is not the norm.

Nor is the woman who just received the million dollar deal for her self-published Mary Magdalene trilogy. Kathleen McGowan’s the lottery winner of the self-published set. She and G.P. Taylor represent those people who maybe would have been published by a big house eventually if they had kept submitting (and editors weren’t over-worked and under-paid). What helps in both of their cases is that they managed to create their own publicity, do their own marketing, so in the end they are actually giving a publishing company a book with most of the work already done. It’s an almost perfect package just missing the bow.

When I receive self-published books at the store, or the marketing information for a self-published book, it always makes me a little sad. Part of me just wants to hug the author and tell them that I understand, I really, really do, but I know that this hug will be followed with the comment, “but I can’t carry your book.”

What a slap in the face.

The truth is, when it comes to chains, it is really hard to get anything in that has not already been filtered through one of the big distributions giants like Ingram and Consortium. For the most part (and perhaps completely, I’m not sure so I’m qualifying), my company ships through Ingram so if you are not on the Ingram or the Baker and Taylor list, I cannot order you in. Further more, while my giant sister stores have expense accounts specifically created for purchasing books at that level (in case they run out of an authors book during a signing and need to buy some from the author, or in the case of the self published local woman, needed to buy her book from her), but I have nothing but the cash in my drawers.

I realize that my company is not going to send me every book that is in demand in my area—when your corporate office is 2000 miles away they have a hard time keeping up on the local interests—but that’s why I can order from other distribution centers. Still if your book is not in demand, but also not available to me to order, there is nothing I can do for you.

I know that this is different for independents on both the large and small scale. The Santa Cruz Bookshop and Powell’s have different buying ideals, and their buyer is also on site. They might be willing to pick up a copy or two of your book, so you have some place to send those who are interested, whereas I do not have the space or the permission.

Like Ron, I’m not against self-published books, but I do treat them differently. I’m not going to sit an author down and tell them why their book can’t be on my shelf, or go over the quality of their paper, print and editing. This is their baby and they wouldn’t hear me anyway. I’m just going to politely decline or tell them I can’t due to corporate’s structure.

I realize that this might mean I’m missing the McGowans and Taylors of the world, but I already cannot keep up on my reading. One or two missing from the stack doesn’t bother me that much. I long ago acknowledged that I cannot read every book in my store, let alone all the books in the world.

What I’m saying is, if you or someone you know really believes in their book and their writing, don’t turn to self-publishing. Keep submitting. Look to some of the smaller, quality houses. Really target what your book is about.

And don’t make me cry by sending me a Press Release or a copy of your book from iUnivers, Xliberis, or AuthorHouse. You have better things to do with your money than give it to a vanity press.

Booksellers? Readers? Writers? What are your thoughts on the current state of the self-publish universe?


lady t said...

I'm had some experience with AuthorHouse-my store had held a couple of signings from people who published with them(these people were also friends with the owner of the store so you can imagine how that was set up)and for months afterwards,we kept getting faxes,promo packages and e-mails from other AuthorHouse clients wanting a signing and/or us to carry their books.

One of the probelms with that is the store is located in a small section of NY and many of these authors were from Alabama and other southern states(also,there were no local connections or interest attached to either the author or the subject,making a signing worthless on both ends). I had to send AuthorHouse an e-mail asking them to please take us off their mailing lists,which they atleast did.

My advice to anyone self publishing is be prepared to do plenty of self marketing-the few sucess stories I've heard(there was one in the NYT today)about self published folk getting the major book deals were from people who did the door-to-door,pounding the pavement,literally hand selling their book until enough word of mouth reached the right people. Years ago,a woman asked some of us at the store if self publishing was worth her time(a friend recommended it to her)and she said"I don't want to do it if there's no guarantee"-wrong attitude,hon!

To readers,I say if you want a self pub/vanity press title you've heard about,your best bet is to order it online or directly thru the publisher.
Just as BSC says,if the distributors don't have it,it's hard to order. Even if you have a bookstore order it for you,chances are that(due to shipping charges and whatever-if-any discount is given to the bookstore from the publisher)you're going to pay alot more for the book than you would if you did it yourself.

I even had to place orders for out of print titles(not that we were an OOP dealer;we ordered from an website that carried them)and was told to double the actual price of the book ,plus the shipping which bothered me in some cases where I really felt the customer would get a better deal if they ordered the book themselves(which I encouraged some to do and occasionally,someone listened to me).

Charlie Anders said...

I did know of one small (a few books a year) publisher that printed its books through a POD printer, but managed to get Baker and Taylor to distribute them. It's not impossible, just challenging. This wasn't a vanity press, just a very small press with limited resources. (The owner started out publishing his own book, and then published some books by other authors.) Also, I publish a small indy magazine, and we're distributed by Ingram. It's not impossible to get distribution, you just have to be professional and persistent.

Eileen said...

I believe POD works best if you have an established platform (you're a speaker etc) and can use that to market your book. Otherwise I would forget it.

As a reader I rarely choose POD books as the back corner of my mind is whispering "if it was really good it would have been picked up." Not always true- but in a world full of good books and too little time- I'm choosey.

Anonymous said...

Shout. Shout.
Let it all out.
These are things we can do without.

jarvenpa said...

Yes, self publishers are difficult to deal with and difficult to place, and nine out of ten times the books are--looking for polite word here while my fingers freeze--shall we say, um, unexceptional.
But there have been, as you point out, exceptions.
Local history has been an area in which a few regional authors have done good work here, and done well placing & selling their work.
And, for the California north coast, there is always the tale of Ecotopia, which Callenbach selfpublished in his garage before Bantam (I think it was Bantam) finally took it on. It is not a great book in terms of writing, but at the time of its coming out (70's)it did capture the imagination. Still kind of a cult classic amongst the tear up the urban streets and reclaim the universe crowd.
And, of course, one has to think of literary people who actually set up their own presses and self published in that context(think of Virginia and Leonard and Hogarth Press).
But most of what I've seen is--oh, it is sad. And the authors are unpleasant. And I get bitchy.

Ron Franscell said...

The biggest exception to the "unexceptional-ness" of most self-publishing is the "Celestine Prophecy," which went on to become a fabulous trade-published success.

The vanity industry isn't devoid of quality or commercial value, but like BC, one must devote far more energy to finding the needle in a hundred thousand haystacks.