Today’s Self-Publishing Pathways, Part 1

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July 2014
by Linda Carlson

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(SEE ALSO: Part 2)

Before 1985, anyone interested in publishing had only a couple of options: work with an established press, either as an author or as an employee, or sink thousands of dollars into developing your own publishing company, usually with titles you’d written yourself.

And, then, almost 30 years ago, a Seattle group introduced PageMaker, the first desktop publishing program designed for personal computers. Suddenly, for less than a couple of thousand dollars, almost everyone could create camera-ready book files for a printer. And almost overnight, it seemed as if nearly everyone did. In less than 25 years, the number of ISBNs that Bowker assigned in a year more than quadrupled, from about 80,000 to more than 325,000, reaching more than 1.75 million for new and revised titles by 2012 (the latest year Bowker has reported on).

And despite the strong interest by all publishers in e-books, a huge percentage of those books were print on paper. Of the 392,000 titles that Bowker counted as self-published in 2012 (which include books from companies assigned 10 or fewer ISBNs), 235,000 were print.

In a report on self-publishing, a Bowker executive said that the most successful self-publishers see them- selves both as writers and as business owners. We hear exactly the same from the independent publishers interviewed for this article, the first in a two-part series that covers:

  • people who got into publishing as self-publishers and now also publish other authors’ work
  • people who got into publishing as self-publishers and now are selling their titles to larger publishing companies
  • people who were traditionally published and now have work issued by large publishing companies but also run their own small publishing companies to release some of their own writing and often work by others as well
  • myriad other people, including self-publishers who consult to other authors, serving as editors, publicists, packagers, and/or print brokers; printers who now offer editing, design, and pre- press services, and distribution; and—perhaps most common— retailers with Espresso Book Machines who offer packages including self-publishing tutorials, print book production, and distribution via their own stores and the EspressNet

If you’re a small publisher ready to shop your titles to a larger publisher or interested in expanding by offering other authors’ work; if you’re an author acquiring rights to your out-of-print backlist or considering self-publishing a title that your current publisher doesn’t want, read on for advice from others who have made the same transitions.

This month you’ll hear from those who started as self-publishers and now are publishing the work of others, and those who self-published before selling their titles to established companies. Next month, we’ll feature reports and advice about the challenges of switching roles, from traditionally published to self- or micro-publisher, and about how people manage both roles at the same time, writing for other publishers while continuing to publish their own work.

From Self-Publisher to Publishing Executive

Changing your mindset—and perhaps title on your business cards—from author/publisher” to   “publisher” or “publishing executive” may sound like an unwarranted lofty promotion when you’ve just contracted with your first author or two, but that is the time to begin thinking of yourself as a business owner and manager.

For Ben Ohmart of Bear Manor Media in Duncan, OK, the transformation came when he discovered that the publishing process is more interesting than writing—and that his niche allows him to pursue a passion, old movies and radio shows. He started out self-publishing in 2000, with Walter Tetley: For Corn’s Sake, about the star of a popular 1940s and 1950s radio program, The Great Gildersleeve, and continued with biographies of such cartoon voice actors as Mel Blanc (the voice of Woody Woodpecker, Barney Rubble, and Porky Pig, among dozens of others), Paul Frees (Bull- winkle) and Daws Butler (Yogi Bear).

“In the process of researching and interviewing celebrities,” Ohmart says, “I came across supporting players and forgotten actors who couldn’t get their life stories published, or didn’t know who to approach about being published. I published a few of these and business began to snowball. Now I’m close to my 700th title in print, with more coming out monthly.”

After printing 1,000 copies each of early titles that did not sell well, Ohmart found what he calls “the right way to do things.” Top of the list is print-on-demand via Lightning Source, which provides bookstore availability; discounts are typically 30 to 40 percent, with all sales nonreturnable.

“No returns is a big deal with me,” he says, “since I lost thou- sands of dollars a decade ago when Baker & Taylor ordered some of my iffy titles, without asking how well these titles sold.”

Ohmart credits volume of titles rather than sales of individual titles for his success, especially with e-books, “which do only a fraction of the sales of print books for me.” His most popular titles are about a porn movie star (John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches), about TV westerns such as Gun-smoke and Rawhide, and about a stage, film, radio, and television actress (I Love the Illusion: The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead).

His advice for others: “Love what you do. You have to love it, so that when you’re not making sales—as you’re not in most Februarys and Augusts—you have the passion to fall back on.”

Passion is the word Laurie Stevens uses, too. Initially a self-publisher of psychological thrillers—for which foreign rights have just been sold to Germany’s Blanvalet—she’s now contracting with authors for her own start-up, FYD Media in Los Angeles.

“It’s one thing to have a passion for titles that you’ve created, but will you have that passion and drive for some- one else’s work? You’d better,” Stevens says, “because those authors are expecting you to be as excited about their work as they are.”

“When it comes to fulfilling someone else’s dream, you have to put your own ego aside and run a business,” she adds. “This means follow-through, organization, understanding laws, handling monies, and being a people-person who can negotiate. You have to transition from being a creative writer to being a hyper, intensive, fast-thinking, flexible business owner, putting out fires and developing marketing strategies. Can all authors handle this? I don’t know.”
Fall of St. Sebastian
Kelly Keady also started by self-publishing, issuing his thriller, The Cross of St. Maro, a decade ago. Last year, he and two friends formed 40 Press in Anoka, MN, which published two of his titles and eight books by others in its first year, all as trade paperbacks produced print-on-demand, all returnable. Five of the titles were also issued as e-books. Coming up: six more titles.

Keady’s experience with self-publishing helps him appreciate prospective authors’ concerns while educating them about publishing and selling a book. “I can explain to them that even if they do not pack a bookstore for a signing, their book will still sell if they focus on presigning publicity, postsigning publicity, and, most important, meeting and getting to know the booksellers.”

“Publishing is a business, so treat it like a business,” Keady says. “In self-publishing my first novel, I should have estimated costs better. For example, I did not plan for shipping costs, which ended up being as much as a dollar a book to fill wholesale orders.”

Now the marketing officer and legal counsel for 40 Press, Keady repeats a familiar maxim: “Books do not sell them- selves: people sell books.”

And, he warns, “Publishing a book is not the same as crossing a finish line. Enjoy the endorphin-filled rush with the first glimpse of your published book, and recognize that the feeling may evaporate when pallets with thousands of books arrive. Whether it is word of mouth or the hands of booksellers, you need people to sell books. It may be the best book ever written, but unless people hear about it, it will not sell.”

At Piggy Press, with locations in Miami and Panama, Pat Alvarado is more specific about who sells books. “The best salesperson is the author, and if the author doesn’t lift a finger to help sell that work, no matter how good it is, it won’t go very far. Overnight success, without lots of hard work, is a myth. It takes time, effort, and money to build a brand. It’s not for the faint of heart.”

If you’re a self-publisher considering titles by other authors, Alvarado advises careful screening: “A large percentage of writers want the glamour of being published without doing the work. The feel it is the publisher’s job alone to market and sell their work. Because of this, it is vital to interview and get to know the person before you agree to take any- one’s story on.”

And, she says, don’t ignore the basics. “What’s the grammar like? Is it a good story? Is it marketable? Does it fit your niche? How much work will be involved to produce it? How much will it cost? I always ask for advice from my tiny team of consultants, and I follow that advice.”

Alvarado’s bottom line: “Don’t be afraid to gently and courteously reject a work.”
Rounding Third
These basics and the challenges of marketing without an author must be considered by people who are expanding their lists with titles in the public domain. At MaxM Ltd., in San Diego, Walt Meyer got into self-publishing after having two books traditionally published by different companies more than 10 years ago.  Now he’s launching The Duration, a novel set during World War II, written in 1963 by a man who died in 1987.

“Getting an author who has been dead for over 20 years to do interviews is going to be difficult,” he says, tongue in cheek. “I have a marketing plan to launch it as a found manuscript and as a snapshot of history.” He’ll have the assistance of the author’s stepson for interviews, Meyer adds, “but I realize I’ll have to make a big initial splash to get it noticed.”

Self-Publisher to Traditionally Published Author

Sometimes writers choose to self-publish after turndowns from agents and/or offers involving schedules that don’t make sense, and then they manage to sell enough copies so that the agents and publishers express interest. Sometimes self-publishers find that personal or professional situations require getting someone else to take over their titles. Sometimes they write new books that aren’t a good fit for their companies but could do well on other publishers’ lists. Here’s what people report about making the transition from self-publisher to author under contract.

To sell a self-published book—either to a reader or to an agent or acquisitions editor—novelist Alessandra Torre of Destin, FL, says she relies on what she learned as a reader: “First, the cover is key. The author’s name is unimportant if there is ‘grab-your- attention’ cover art and a well-written blurb. Second, price is an important factor, especially with an unknown author. And third, reviews make a difference.”
End of the Innocence
Torre began self-publishing erotic fiction in mid-2012 with Blindfolded Innocence, which Harlequin HQN republished early this year, and she self-published The Girl in 6 in April 2013, which Redhook issued in January. She’s since self-published several additional titles, and sold rights in two of them to larger companies.

“In some ways, traditional publishing was better than I hoped,” she says. “The words, the story, my characters—those were left in my control. Suggestions were made, guidance given. But nothing was forced, and I maintained creative control over every last word in those books.”

But, the novelist also says, “That was where the control ended. My cover input? Not followed. Pricing? I often found out at the same time as the readers. Release date? Way out of my control. I am still adjusting.”

For others making the same transition, she advises, “Be prepared to lose control. You did the best you could with your book, and now accept that this is the publisher’s business.” Perhaps most important, Torre adds, promise your readers nothing. “Take it from me, readers’ anger over changes the new publisher announces will be taken out on you,” not on the new publisher.

Sales rankings and reviews helped Torre get larger publishers interested in her books, she reports. “Once my first book hit the top 20 on Amazon, my phone started ringing—and understand, that’s the top 20 overall, not in my genre. I got lucky, too: I had strong sales and strong reviews.”

If you don’t have the sales and the reviews, “self-pub your books, all of your books,” says Torre. “Only have one book? Then write two, then five, then ten. Every book will bring you more readers, and eventually you may have a reader base that will attract publishers.”

This strategy may be most successful in genres like Torre’s, where books may be described in such terms as “Steam Level: Molten (graphic content, explicit sex)” and priced at a few dollars. In an April feature on romance titles, Publishers Weekly quotes a bookseller about romance readers: “They have more loyalty to their authors than you get in other genres.”
Capturing Love
Writer Kathryn Hamm and photographer Thea Dodds also made the move from self-publishing to being published. Prompted partly by legalization of same-gender marriages in various states, they had formed Authentic Weddings in Arlington, VA, to self-publish Capturing Love: The Art of Lesbian & Gay Wedding Photography in March 2013. Within months, it was acquired by Amphoto Books, an imprint of Crown Publishing/Penguin Random House; The New Art of Capturing Love: The Essential Guide to Lesbian & Gay Wedding Photography came out in May, expanded and revised from the original 86 pages to 224.

“Our deal came just as we needed to switch to a full focus on sales and we realized the challenge to get our book into brick and mortar stores,” Hamm says. “It’s very difficult to compete as a self-published author, especially with our print-on-demand price point. So, we were ready to write a better, bigger version of our book and we knew that the book could be sold by retailers with less hustle on our part, leaving us freer to do our ‘real’ jobs as photographer and gay wedding expert. We were ready to let the publishers be the experts they are.”

Like Torre, Hamm and Dodds were surprised by the loss of control, and by what they considered a slow publication process—despite a timeline that sounds fast-tracked by industry standards. Hamm also notes, “I was surprised how much emphasis there is on presale of the book.”

For those who want to sell self-published titles to publishers, her advice is: “Have a strong Website in place; be ready to show the strength of book sales and the results of media coverage, and have a strong platform you’ll continue to use to market your books.”

Ultimately, she emphasizes, “What’s hardest is that you must become a successful publisher in order to make the best case for why a publisher would want your titles.” This “means that, even as an author, you should start with a business plan. We knew we were open for a deal, and we built our first book accordingly, but we were also willing to do everything required to make the book a success on our own. It goes without saying that our timing served us well.”

Shel Horowitz, co-author with Jay Levinson of a marketing guide that was originally self-published and is now still in print with John Wiley, has a diff rent word of advice for anyone selling a title: Make sure what you’re selling and the provisions for reversion of rights are both spelled out clearly in your contract.

Horowitz speaks from experience; a book he self-published was later expanded and issued by Simon & Schuster, which then sold the rights and the unsold inventory to Horowitz—who later sold it to Chelsea Green as Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World. Today the title is back in his hands, but “the reversion of rights from Simon & Schuster to me was ambiguous, and that caused problems later, when they brought out a POD edition.”
It Gets Easier
Claudine Wolk, who self-published It Gets Easier and Other Lies We Tell New Mothers in 2008 and sold it in 2009 to AMACOM, echoes much of what other self-publishers-cum-traditionally-published authors have said: “No one will care about your book as much as you do.”

Like Hamm and Dodds, this Doylestown, PA, writer was astounded by the publishing schedule. Hers is “a book for new moms, and we were trying to meet an April deadline to tie in with Mother’s Day. It didn’t happen; the book didn’t publish until November. As a self-publisher, I had moved heaven and earth to meet my April pub date the previous year.”

Understand the tradeoffs you’re making when you sell a title, Wolk advises. “Know your goals going into this. Know that a publisher will assume many tasks—production, cover design, printing, editing, distribution, and galley review process.”

“You will receive (we hope) an advance and then, based on sales, royalties, “she adds; but she warns, “Your profit share of each book will decrease dramatically with someone else as publisher. So, if your goal is tens of thousands of dollars, it might take a while.” Still, an established publisher “has the ability to get exposure to a wider audience than you could. You are also betting that the time you would spend on administrative tasks can be more productively spent elsewhere.”

And, she emphasizes, “Use this time to do everything in your power to promote your book. I continue to promote mine—with blog posts, Facebook and Twitter posts, a reach-out to a blogger, or something bigger like an interview. I do something every single day!”

Wolk’s efforts pay off. Her book is in more than 725 libraries around the globe, in English, Portuguese, and Polish, and it’s still in print, now available POD.


Linda Carlson has had her work published by Prentice-Hall, Wiley, and the University of Washington Press, among other companies; she self-published nine job search guides, and she has just self-published Advertising with Small Budgets for Big Results: How to Buy Print, Broadcast, Outdoor, Online, Direct Response & Offbeat Media. After more than 30 years, she continues to be surprised both by her publishers and by the work involved in self-publishing.

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