Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Guest-Blogger Deborah Batterman: "Self Publish (?) or Perish: 5 Links on the New Digital Imperative"

Like many readers, my book buying habits have been evolving with the digital revolution. As much as I adore the quirky character of my local independent bookstore, I now buy the majority of my books directly from the publisher, the author, or For price, convenience and selection, sorry, those factors usually outweigh beautiful shelves, the bodacious gift card selection, and the coffee (and let's face it, many of the indie bookstores are more café than bookstore). And another change: with the ease of on-line ordering, I've also been buying more rare books, off-beat and artist books, and, if not many, then many more self-published books. More than ever before, a book can do mighty well without a publisher and the traditional distribution channels, especially when the author can summon the savviness and stamina (it's not a lark in the park) to promote her book and when she can count on a loyal following from her workshops and newsletters. Just to give an idea of three successful self-published nonfiction niche books (in paper): check out Rose Rosetree (Aura Reading Through All Your Senses), Stephanie Bennett Vogt (Your Spacious Self) and Carol Olmstead (Feng Shui for Real Life). And, alas, more than ever before, large publishers, with their cumbersome and expensive scale, caught in the triple tsunami of recession, mergers and acquisitions, and the digital revolution, are passing up the chance to publish books that, a decade ago, would have been snapped up, and from an agent. Several of my writer friends who have had works published by notable houses have found their latest novels, memoirs and short story collections, accomplished as they are, going unsold--- not an encouraging development for anyone. So Deborah Batterman, one fine fiction writer, and a blogger (The Things She Thinks About), has a timely story to tell about taking her short story collection, Shoes, Hair, Nails (published in 2006 by Uccelli Press) digital. Over to you, Deborah--


Back in 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts published a survey with a curious finding: literary reading is down, creative writing is up. With the explosion of blogs and web sites (literary and otherwise), the impulse to write has gained not only a new medium but one that stands to grant immediate gratification: if you build it, they will come. By logical extension, self-published books are flying to the page via print-on-demand (POD) technology and/or being downloaded to the latest and greatest eBook devices. As a writer with a short story collection that went the ‘defunct-small-publisher’ route before it had a chance to get off the ground, do I seize the moment, hitch a ride on this wave of digital books? You don’t have to dig deep to find those stories of writers disappointed with traditional publishing experiences, who took the leap into self-publishing. Likewise for those writers who, frustrated by years of rejection, decided there has to be a better way. Call it timing. Call it faith. Call it going digital.

And yet I admit to some reservations about going full-throttle into digital DIY mode. As a reader I love the feel of a book in my hands, the reflective nature that seems diminished by the visual nature of reading on-screen. As a writer I love the way words take shape in my mind and on the page. The ‘page’ as it exists on a digital reader is not the same: differences in the technology that drives each eReader result in variances in formatting. If I go this route, am I sacrificing my sense of what a book IS and everything it takes to bring one to fruition? Yes. At the same time, as a writer seeking ways to increase my exposure, why not tap that market of readers shelving their paperbacks in favor of viewing books on portable screens? And even if my plunge into the world of self-published digital books carries the risk that my own work (now a thumbnail image in an eBookstore) may get lost in a sea of ‘vanity’ books, all it takes is one good wave to lift it out of the water.

1. It was a recent article in the Wall St. Journal, ‘Vanity’ Press Goes Digital, following on the heels of an e-mail I received re: Apple looking to give more presence to self-published authors in its iBookstore, that got me thinking, what if? Some of the key players noted in the WSJ article were listed as Apple-approved ‘aggregators’ (don’t you love that word?). A good starting point for choosing a publishing/distribution platform.

2. Aggregators offer a variety of services, both for indie publishers and authors going digital. I opted to go with Smashwords, mostly for its cross-platform technology and very user-friendly site. The Smashwords blog, maintained by founder Mark Coker, is a good source of information and links relevant to self-publishing. His July 13th post is worth reading for its insights on traditional publishing vs. self-publishing.

3. The rationale is even more colorfully spelled out by DIY success story Steve Almond in his column at The Rumpus, Presto Book-O (Why I Went Ahead and Self-Published). Using POD technology (Harvard Bookstore’s Espresso Book Machine), Almond produced books (with two covers) to be sold only at readings. Sometimes less really is more.

4. The bottom line: As Diane Gedymin, founder of The Publisher’s Desk, noted at BookExpo America 2010: The Changing DIY Ethos, some 83 percent of Americans dream of writing a book. Ninety-three percent of those who actually make the effort and get published via traditional channels will sell less than 1,000 books. There’s a reason that taking a more proactive role in controlling the means of publishing and distribution is on the rise.

5. All of which brings me back to a simple premise: yes, writing (unless it’s in a journal or diary, for the writer’s eyes only) demands an audience, and yet the impulse to write – steadily, draft after draft, with heart and skill that (hopefully) matures with time – demands solitary hours in a room of one’s own. For a reminder of what drives that impulse, I’ll go back to Janet Sternburg’s The Writer on Her Work, in particular one essay that sparkles with Didion-esque insight, "Why I Write." And all it takes is one click of the mouse to bring readers right to Amazon, and into the book.

--- Deborah Batterman

To read about and order the e-book of her collection, Shoes, Hair, Nails, click here.

For the archive of Madam Mayo guest-blog posts, click here.