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Self-publishing offers an array of choices for authors

Barbara Filo of Spokane wrote a historical novel called “Return to Budapest.” She struck an untraditional deal with a small publishing house. (Dan Pelle)
Barbara Filo of Spokane wrote a historical novel called “Return to Budapest.” She struck an untraditional deal with a small publishing house. (Dan Pelle)

From e-books to shiny bound copies, options also have array of costs, concerns

You can hardly swing a Kindle these days without hitting a published author.

Novels, how-to guides, treatises, survival stories, childhood memories, community histories, personal memoirs – all are welcome in the wide world of self-publishing, and writers are accepting the invitation.

A writer can easily put their manuscript online for e-reader downloads or pay a self-publishing company to format their text, put a cover on it and run off some copies.

Seeing your writing in print used to take years of persistence, as you first secured an agent and then hoped they found a publisher. These days, for a fee or for free, you can upload your opus from the kitchen table, skipping all that constant rejection and delivering your book directly to the reading public.

Should you, though?

It’s easy to find a company that will turn your manuscript into boxes of bound books with shiny covers bearing your author photo and an official ISBN. But it’s also easy to get ripped off, some local publishers say. It’s also easy to put poorly written or edited work into a world already brimming with content.On the other hand, writers want readers. And for some authors, self-publishing works. Their books are in readers’ hands – far sooner than they’d be if they did ever secure a traditional publisher – and some writers, including local ones, are gaining fans and making money.

Booming business

The number of self-published books annually in the U.S. has grown 287 percent since 2006, according to Bowker, a company that provides data to publishers, booksellers and libraries.

In 2011, 148,424 self-published titles represented 43 percent of all print books published. Print still accounts for 63 percent of self-published books, the company said, but self-published e-books were gaining on them. E-book production in 2011 was 87,201, up 129 percent over 2010. Print grew 33 percent in the same period, Bowker said.

A decade ago, a printer wouldn’t talk to you unless you wanted at least 1,000 books, said Russ Davis, who runs Gray Dog Press in Spokane, which produces smaller runs of books for about 50 self-published writers a year. As digital technology advanced, on-demand publishing – letting writers order one book at a time, if they wanted – became easier and more popular.

The Internet offers an array of options for writers seeking to publish their own work, whether it’s in print, to e-readers such as Kindles, or both.

Smashwords, a big distributor of “indie” e-books, lets authors publish and distribute their manuscripts directly to e-readers. Author Solutions, the parent company of some of the biggest self-publishing companies online, says it’s helped more than 100,000 people publish more than 170,000 titles. Traditional publisher Simon & Schuster announced in November it was teaming up with Author Solutions to create a new self-publishing house.

Self-publishing companies have faced criticism for accepting writers’ money without delivering the promised services, with scores of websites offering guidance on avoiding scams.

“There are all kinds of places out there that say, ‘We’ll publish your book,’ and they’re really ripping people off,” said Kathryn Rantala, publisher and editor at Ravenna Press in Spokane, a traditional press that publishes fiction and poetry with a tendency toward experimental writing. “Not all of them.”

Some self-publishing companies are “almost predatory,” Davis said.

“And, frankly, all you end up doing is spending $2,000 or $3,000, and you end up with an overpriced book that isn’t going to sell,” Davis said.

Davis said he sometimes finds himself talking enthusiastic authors down. If someone wants 1,000 self-published books, he might suggest 200 and tell them to come back after those are sold. Some come back in six weeks, he said, and some never.

Christine Holbert runs Lost Horse Press near Sandpoint, which publishes poetry titles “of high literary merit.”

Holbert, who’s taught editing and publishing at workshops and the college level, said she warns students against printers with idle presses and online entrepreneurs peddling false dreams.

“Like a fake Gucci handbag, or a dodgy Rolex, these books might look like the real thing, but they just aren’t,” Holbert wrote in an email. “Don’t ever let anyone try to convince you that they know more about the quality of your work than traditional publishers, because they don’t. You will either get your book published, or decide you’ve had enough trying. Even if it’s the latter, at least you can walk away with dignity.”

Writers’ varied roles

When readers do buy self-published books, it’s almost always thanks to the author’s marketing hustle, Davis said – particularly through networks they’ve built on social media platforms such as Facebook.

The writing is the fun part, he said. Then comes the business part – spreading the word about your book and getting them into readers’ hands: “Because you have the book doesn’t mean the book is going to move.”

In the modern marketplace, though, traditionally published authors carry most of the marketing burden for their books, too, Davis said.

A big part of whether an author gets published depends on their online presence: If the writers aren’t already blogging or updating their social networks about the status of their book-to-be, publishers take a pass on their books, Davis said.

“The vast majority of people who read a book don’t read a book because it was published by Random House,” he said. “They read a book because they’re interested in the subject matter, they’ve engaged with the author.”

Traditional publishers might be good for getting word out to some bookstores, said Rantala, of Ravenna Press. But even larger publishers ask writers to provide lists of email addresses of potential buyers.

“More and more publishers, even the large houses, are expecting their authors to promote the books themselves using their networks and to approach reviewers and get reviews and things like that, rather than the company doing a big media blitz,” she said. “Because that isn’t really very effective anymore.”

All this begs a question, Davis said. If authors are doing the marketing and selling along with the writing – and a writer needs a marketing infrastructure online before being accepted by a traditional press – what’s a traditional publisher good for? It’s a question many self-published authors ask, too.

‘Distraction in the marketplace’

A publisher can be good for several things. That is, if you can get one to accept your book.

Along with providing self-publishing services, Gray Dog launched a publishing imprint of its own in 2008 – choosing books from among submissions, signing authors to contracts, paying them royalties and bearing the financial risk. For every 20 or so self-published books Gray Dog prints, it publishes one book under its imprint, Davis said.

A key difference: An author whose work is traditionally published gets paid, if a small amount, through royalties. A self-published author pays. Whether they make any money depends on how many of their own books they can sell.

While it’s up to self-published authors to hire their own editors, which Davis highly recommends, traditional publishers provide professional editing – although they’ve veered from doing major content editing, seeking out books that are mostly ready to go. They format and typeset manuscripts, design covers and work with distributors to get books on shelves and to online retailers.

There’s also a “stature” associated with traditional publishing, Davis said.

Rantala said so, too. Her press accepts less than 1 percent of the submissions it receives. The rest is work she and her associate editors have sought out or written by people they know, she said. Ravenna, which publishes about eight books a year, is no money-maker, she said. The only advance anyone ever gets is prize money from a contest.

What it can offer – besides formatting and cover design – is the benefit of its editorial judgment.

“It does make a difference in how a book is received by people who don’t know anything about the writer to know that somebody who has a track record … decided that this is worth paying the money to do,” Rantala said. “You don’t get that stamp of approval automatically when you self-publish your work.”

From a reader’s perspective, the dizzying amount of self-published options – mixed in with the traditionally published titles on bookstore shelves, online and on e-readers – may make it more difficult to find a book they like. If there’s no one vetting the candidates for publication, it’s harder to tell which one to pick.

“That’s one of the problems, really,” Rantala said. “If they’re really not good, you have a lot of distraction in the marketplace. You don’t know what to look for. You don’t know if this is really any good, or just eccentric, or is it really trash? … You don’t have any guideposts.”

Birth of a fan base

Jennifer Malone Wright just wanted to get her vampire book published. The 33-year-old mother of five in Laclede, Idaho, had always intended to go the traditional route, starting with finding an agent.

But she knew it would be difficult, and e-readers were growing more popular when she finished “The Birth of Jaiden” in 2010. She uploaded her manuscript through Kindle Direct Publishing. Wright built her cover and formatted her manuscript through Amazon’s CreateSpace.

Wright gave readings, papered her town with fliers and held a launch party. Sales didn’t really take off until she self-published “The Vampire Hunter’s Daughter” in 2011, offering the first of six parts of the serial novel free on e-readers. It was downloaded 11,000 times in the first month, she said. She charged 99 cents a download for each subsequent story.

“I make anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 a month,” she said. “A year ago, I was making $10 if I was lucky.”

If she’d gone with a traditional publisher, Wright said, she’d be earning less money. She hired her own editor. Every minute she spends writing is a minute she doesn’t spend with her family. She needs her work to pay.

Still, some authors steer clear.

Otis Orchards resident Steve Hughes, 70, said he submitted his historical novel, “The Sign of the Eagle,” to more than 200 agents and publishers before it was accepted by Sunbury Press in Pennsylvania.

“It’s a small publisher,” Hughes said. “It’s still a good publisher.”

In the subsequent editing process, he eliminated pages of dialogue and rewrote the ending. The publisher’s requests made sense, he said, and he was happy to oblige. After self-publishing another book 12 years ago – “a piece of garbage,” he said – he wanted to put out a good book.

“I’ve seen a lot of mediocre novels out there. I didn’t want to be part of that,” Hughes said.

Blurring lines

There’s nothing new about the stigma against self-published books – if no publishing house wants to publish a book, the logic goes, it isn’t good.

But that stigma has eroded, Rantala said. In particular, she said, the line between a well-written self-published novel and a well-written traditionally published novel is falling away. “We’ve kind of ceded the arena as far as novels go because they work really well as e-books,” which are flourishing, she said.

Meanwhile, she added, the distinction has blurred in some cases between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

Some traditional publishers – while still carefully selecting, editing and designing books – are sharing printing costs with authors or asking them to pay for a certain number of copies. Those tactics reduce the publishers’ financial risk.

That’s the kind of arrangement that got Spokane resident Barbara Filo’s historical novel into print. The retired art historian at Whitworth University spent six years writing “Return to Budapest,” based on her meticulous research.

Filo said she followed all the rules for getting published, crafting letters to agents according to specifications. All the rejection letters sounded the same, too, she said: “ ‘Nothing personal. Best of luck finding an agent.’ ”

She’d heard of self-publishing but was hesitant. “I thought, ‘I just don’t want to do that, because this is a good book, and this is a serious book.’ ”

Finally, Filo called San Juan Publishing in Seattle, which offered her a deal. It would publish her book – if she paid for 1,000 copies of her own to sell. She took it, and she’s happy. She got a good editor and quality production. She sells books at readings, on Amazon and out of her purse, where she carries two copies at all times. She didn’t want to say how much she paid for the 1,000 books, but she’ll easily surpass that amount by selling them, she said; she’s sold 400 since October.

Making it real

Although she criticized self-publishing companies, Holbert, of Lost Horse Press near Sandpoint, said she thinks they have a place. A short run could be just right for a writer who wants to record the history of their family’s business or tell the story of an unsung war hero.

The traditional publishing world can be unfair, said Rantala of Ravenna Press, as it has been historically, “especially for the experimenters in writing.” In the 1970s, people fired up their mimeograph machines to publish their own work.

Now Ravenna is concentrating on poetry and short prose. Poetry doesn’t work well as e-books, Rantala said – it’s difficult to get the lines right. “We’re sticking with those that are kind of being left behind by the (digital books).”

She said she sees the growth in self-publishing as positive. Her own work is among the titles she publishes. Her work has already been published a lot by literary journals, and traditional publishers have made two of her books. She has all the approval she needs, she said.

She uses self-publishing to pull together collections of her writings that appeared in various places, including on websites, which sometimes vanish.

“I use self-publishing to make something evanescent kind of real,” Rantala said, “in a book.”