Monday, November 11, 2013

Self-Publishing for all the Right Reasons (Reporting on The Writer's Center's "Publish Now!" Seminar)

Last month I gave a talk for the Writer's Center's "Publish Now! digital publishing seminar-- such a hoppin' topic that it sold out before I could even alert my own writer friends and workshop students. Unlike how-to-get-published conferences of yore, which inevitably featured the panels of nose-in-the-air agents and the other panel of nose-in-the-air editors, all trying to out-groan the others about their Himalayan "slush piles," this one had, among the attendees, a number of previously well-published authors-- and by well-published I mean, you know, the big famous NY agent, the big famous NY publishing house, reviews in the New York Times, and so on and so forth. (Wannabes might imagine glowing reviews and invitations to glamorous parties falling like little showers of lotus petals upon said authors' heads... Uyy! That's another blog post.)

One of the speakers at "Publish Now!" was my fellow Writers Center board member, historical biographer Ken Ackerman, who found that his big NY publisher wasn't interested in reprinting his Young J. Edgar Hoover-- even though the Leonardo DiCaprio movie was about to come out (!) In the seminar, Ackerman talked about how he then plunged into self-publishing and, step by step, put together the paperback POD (print on demand) editions of Young J. Edgar Hoover-- and his other biographies, all then languishing in publisher's warehouses or effectively out-of-print-- through CreateSpace and Lightning Source, plus ebooks for Kindle, iTunes and Nook. He held up the four self-published new paperback editions of his books and my, they did look beautifully designed. Seriously, Ken, you are an inspiration.

As another well-published writer friend of mine put it, we authors are suffering from "an erosion of support" from our publishing houses. Well, in my own case, this is indeed the case with some of my publishers, but certainly not all. Over the years I've had several books placed with an array of publishers, from international corporate behemoths (Planeta and Random House Mondadori) to university presses (Georgia and Utah), small presses (Milkweed Editions, Unbridled Books, Whereabouts Press) and.. drum roll... yes, I have self-published.

It used to be that self-publishing was for those whose work was not up-to-snuff or who were too naive or lazy or easily intimidated by the traditional publishing process. Yes, there has always been some work of great but not commercial value, but in a word, "self-published" was not a label anyone with a shred of ambition would want-- unless they were Walt Whitman, but that's another blog post. And today self-publishing is wide open-- it doesn't even require money to do a Kindle, and compared to the past, very little to do a paperback, so just about anyone can publish just about anything. And therefore, we have an unimaginably vast and exponentially growing mountain of... well, let's just say I do not know how to appreciate most of it.

But I did self-publish back in the Crustaceous, I mean, 2002, with The Visitors / Los visitantes, which is the second chapter of my memoir, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico, a book that was published by the University of Utah Press in 2002 and Milkweed Editions paperback in 2007. (And much later, the ebook of Los visitantes, pictured left, by Yours Truly.) It was both time consuming and expensive-- back then POD wasn't really done, that I know of, so I had a professionally designed cover and interior and the whole thing was offset printed in Canada. (And not to mention the design and printing, boy howdy was shipping expensive.) But I was able to sell a few of the books and give away more, and no doubt this helped more readers find Miraculous Air. In all, a learning experience. I was not eager to repeat it, however. But ebooks, that is another story. Yes, some headaches with formatting and figuring out to work with the iBooks Author app and Kindle. But in all, compared to the past, it is jump-up-and-down cheap and easy. I love it! Why?

(1) No cash.
(2) No expensive designers.
(3) No printing.
(4) No shipping.
(5) No having to give up space in the garage. And best of all,

In other words, when someone orders one of my ebooks on or iTunes, all I have to do is wait... I will get paid. I don't have to provide an invoice to individual customers, I don't have to ship anything. Oh, wonderful, wonderful.

Basically, once you get your ebook up there on or iTunes, what you have is a variable rate annuity. Probably with a very low yield-- indeed, for most authors, a Kindle edition of their book won't earn back the cost of their time and trouble. But should things change, the upside is the moon. What's interesting-- to say the same thing a little differently-- is that the marginal cost of increasing supply to meet any increase in demand is essentially zero. Whether one person or 100,000 people download your ebook, it doesn't matter; they click, they get.

Another speaker at Publish Now!, also a fellow Writer's Center board member (bless his heart), was novelist Neal Gillen, author of the memoir 1954 Adventures in New York. He gave us an overview of his experience and the various pros and cons of the the various self-publishing services. (Takeaway: you're probably going to be happiest with's Createspace.)

Barbara Esstman
Of course the importance of editing-- that step so disdained, and to their detriment, by most self-publishers-- was underscored by novelist and freelance editor Barbara Esstmann.

For last year's "Publish Now!" seminar I gave the talk-- her title-- "The Manuscript is Ready -- or Is It?-- What's Next?".

My own talk focused on travel writing and interactive books. I mentioned my own ebooks, Podcasting for Writers, From Mexico to Miramar or Across the Lake of Oblivion, and others, and for examples from the cutting edge, Mary Lynn Patton's children's iBooks with sounds, including Sounds of Mexican Beaches, and Rich Shapero's Too Far.

P.S. I lifted that title, "self-publishing for all the right reasons," from Kevin Kelly. Check out all he has to say about his latest nondigital self-publishing venture here.

More anon. Much more.