Self-Publishing – NOT a Dirty Word

I recently attended the Jerusalem International Book Fair. And boy did I learn stuff!

I like going to these fairs. As a reader, I’ve always loved being surrounded by so many books. As an author, I felt it important to mingle with other writers, to see what they’re up to. And now, as a self-published author, I thought it critical to be there, get my book into circulation, talk it up, meet & mingle, and most importantly – find an agent or “real” publisher.

I could not have been more misguided!

I woke up to the fact that there was an important book fair happening here in Israel only two weeks before it began. Before that I had been way too busy with getting my book printed and into circulation. Okay I figured, I can handle this. No reason not to be part of this great event, even if all the deadlines have already passed. Determination! Chutzpah!

I did it. I paid the fee and got myself included as one of the participants. I got my book over to Steimatzky and a miracle worker there got it into the system in time to make its premiere appearance at the Fair. I downloaded the list of agents, editors and publishers who were attending and emailed them all – asking if it was possible to set up a meeting. Never mind that it was Thursday and the Fair was starting on Sunday. Last email received, top of the pile? Oh yeah, sure.

I got replies from all – “Out of the office until … Attending Jerusalem Book Fair. If an emergency, contact…” But I still had hope – surely they would check in with their emails? Surely they would want to meet with me – such a nice Jewish girl from Queens who actually has been published the “traditional” way four times, and lives in the Holy Land and has written a killer novel? What drug was I on when I dreamed up that scenario???

I bought a new wardrobe – something I haven’t done for years – because I was certain that my for-sure successes would require me to look fab. I booked myself into a hotel next to the Fair – after all, shlepping from where I live to Jerusalem each day would be hell. My for-sure successes would cover the costs. I shlepped my old laptop with me – no doubt all those editors, agents & publishers I wrote to would write back – dying to have a drink or dinner with me in some swank Jerusalem eatery. I had to be ready! I loaded up the car with cartons of books, brought along a wheelie thing to help with the schlepping and set off on my journey. I was going to Jerusalem – a one and a half hour drive from my home, but it felt like another country.

Traffic was not good. The 1 1/2 hour drive turned into almost 3. The hotel’s entrance was poorly signed and a bus was blocking the driveway. Many u-turns later I found the place. No indoor parking lot! Luckily I found a spot outside the entrance. It was raining, a lot! Got myself inside, registered, entered the room, unloaded the suitcase, wheelie, books, bags, raincoat, blah, blah, blah. No hook-up for the computer, only WiFi – but my old laptop never even heard of Wi-Fi. Ran over to the Exhibition Hall – which was supposed to be connected to the hotel by a covered walkway – but the covered walkway was a loooooooong walk from the hotel door. Got soaked. Registered at the Fair. Walked around and saw lots of people frantically shelving books, setting up their booths, arranging their flyers. Back to the hotel for a quick shower and donning of outfit #1- the Opening Ceremony was about to begin! And I had tickets for it!!!

Big crowd, serious security, cameras, microphones, press sections, lots of people streaming in. Women in black – the New Yorkers here to scout out new talent. Under thirty-somethings in jeans – new authors or those who just didn’t give a crap. Dark glasses, iPad cases, people scribbling notes, people checking out others, greeting old friends, government ministers, wealthy looking patrons of the arts, intelligentsia, Ian McEwen! They were all there.

I scanned the auditorium and thought – wow! Look where I am! Oy. What am I doing here? I’ve written a nice novel – it’s not Pulitzer worthy – how do I even dare to sit here with these oh so accomplished people. I’ve been writing for various newspapers and media companies for 16 years, but I still felt unworthy.

But… I was determined to meet the right people. Damn it I’ll be aggressive! I’ll go right up to them and stick my card in their face! I’ll tell them I’ve written a great novel, I’m not just a fly by night author, I’ve got credentials! I’ll hang out at the Literary Cafe! I’ll mingle in the Editors & Agents Only Room! I’ll fill up my schedule with quickie meetings – I’ll make my pitch and move on. I’ll smile a lot! Yeah, that’s the ticket!

Want to know what happened? Some background first. If an agent or an editor or a publisher even smells that you’re a self-published author, they will steer clear of you so fast, if will make your head turn. Speedy Gonzalez has nothing on these people – they break all speed records avoiding you – hell – they’ll even avoid eye contact! THEY DON’T WANT TO TALK TO YOU!

They’ll be scanning the room which is set up to help people meet and make deals. They’ll be looking for their next ticket to stardom – big client, big fees. They’ll be watching their competitors wondering what she has up her sleeve. Who has signed a deal with who? One woman even stopped her conversation with me mid-sentence when she spied someone she wanted to meet. Guess where my ego was going? Definitely down south.

After a day of trying to avoid rejection and keep my spirits up, I had an epiphany (I just love when those happen). First of all – I met terrific people there. Like the Steimatzky group, the American Cultural Section people, the organizer of the fair who was friendly and encouraging, an editor I know from here who was delighted to see me, a woman publishing children’s’ books who was extremely generous with her time and advice. But the most important thing I learned? Self-publishing is not a bad thing! I definitely was on the right track.

It also helped that I did a bit of number crunching. I figured out, quite unscientifically but using my previous experience as a basis, that in order to achieve a decent sum of royalties, a publisher would have to sell 200,000 of my books compared to me selling maybe 5,000 on my own. Are you getting this? I realized that even though big house publishing comes with “yiches” – name recognition – it doesn’t offer much else. Okay, yes, maybe your book will be considered the real stuff – its been properly edited (hopefully) and believed in by someone other that yourself and your husband/wife/kids/favorite aunt. But that’s about it, sorry to say.

My experience with publishers is that they don’t really go out of their way a whole lot to push your book. Maybe at the beginning, they’ll be enthusiastic and push it (no doubt my book “Pomegranates” received great publicity initially). But after a while, they have other books to push and yours is no longer on the top of the heap. Anyway, they expect you to do tons of marketing – you have to spread the word. And another little secret? No one is paying authors to schlep around to book signings these days unless your name starts with J.K….

So… if you’re going to do the marketing and the schlepping and the calling and the begging and the talking and the signing and the whole shtick of it – WHY DO YOU NEED THEM??? And today? In the glorious (?) age of Internet? With e-books? There’s a virtual universe of virtual sites for you to plug away and sell through. Getting a book up on Kindle? Took me less than an hour.

So.. I wouldn’t discourage you if you have the novel on the century. Go for it – find a literary agent who loves your work and believes that he/she can get your book straight to a great publisher. Then get yourself another agent who knows how to get you on Oprah – at the very least. And then whenever they call you – run to the next book signing or launch or whatever they have planned for you.

But… you could also do it my way. SELF-PUBLISH! Enjoy the process. Learn from it. Take pride in your work and work it till you exhaust every single option. Get that book out there by yourself. Come on! You can do it! I just did!!!

3 comments on “Self-Publishing – NOT a Dirty Word”

  1. silverandsage Reply

    Sorry Michy – but me thinks thou doest protest too much. You’re being unnecessarily harsh.

    I’ve been published the traditional way – four times. And my experience is that its not all its cracked up to be. Shelf space in a bookstore does not mean display space – which is a lot more significant. And store sales in these days of bookstores going bankrupt? Hello?

    You’re bitching about $1.27 per book royalty? I bet a lot of folks would be damn happy with that.

    Did I say that self-publishing is better? No, I don’t think so. It’s better for me right now – I’ve taken it on as a challenge and I’m totally enjoying the process. Tons of work? Yes, definitely. Tons of satisfaction – absolutely. Am I an expert now on the subject – no way. Are there any? Yes, maybe a few – like Morris Rosenthal of fonerbooks.com.

    Until the dust settles, no one knows what will come of the self-publishing industry. But according to the discussions I’ve been privy to, it is certainly a wave of the future.

  2. Michelle Devon Reply

    It DOES come with a lot more than name recognition. It comes with built-in distribution and your books will be on bookstore shelves. Even if you personally never sell one single book from one of the mid-sized to full trade publishers, who have distribution (I’m not talking about POD presses, but real, honest-to-goodness trade publishers), then you will automatically sell more books through distribution alone than you likely will sell for the entire life of the book if you try to sell it yourself.

    If you manage to get your book stocked on a bookstore shelf through a major distribution channel when you have self published, you are an anomaly. MOST self-published authors sell fewer than 200 copies. Many sell far fewer than that.

    So let’s assume you sell 5000 copies of your book. Let’s say your POD printer let’s you print the book for a cost of $4 (which is cheap, cheap). Then let’s say you give a 55% discount to Amazon (required to sell with them) and a standard 50% to wholesales. Let’s also say you have warehousing at one pallet of books in stock and you have distribution through a mid-sized to small distributor. You pay the warehouse 18%, you give discounts of 50% to the purchaser, and you pay about 5% in postage and incidentals. That is 73%-80% of your suggested retail price going to someone else, but you’re still having to do ALL the work. So let’s go with the 80%.

    A $4 book your cost that retails, let’s say, for $9.99, means your profit per book is a whopping $1.27 per book, AND you run the risk of having to pay for the postage and a restocking fee for the return of the book if it doesn’t sell.

    And that is assuming that you don’t give any away for book reviews, don’t do any sales where you mark down the cost of the book, and if YOU charge the CUSTOMER shipping instead of paying it yourself.

    Now, if you increase the price, of course, you get more money, BUT… when a trade publisher can sell your book as a mass paperback at $4.99-8.99 per book, anything more than that can automatically cause the book to not sell. Also, you’ll have a hard time getting any bookstore to buy it from your distributor if the price is too high, because they’ll figure it won’t sell in stores, so why waste the time and money.

    Of course, you can always opt to store the books at your home, if you have the space and facilities to keep the books there, and then you can do all the work of mailing them out to the customers when they order, maintain a website yourself, handle all the taxes and laws and requirements involved in record keeping and bookkeeping and such, and save some money. But if you do, then you don’t get distribution (distributors almost always require you warehouse with them).

    Without distribution, you do NOT get into bookstores. Period. There’s no way around that. You might get lucky and physically walk into a local bookstore and get the manger there to keep your books in stock, but you won’t find them on the shelves anywhere else in the country.

    So my point is, while I agree that self publishing is not a dirty word, and for the right person (like someone with a very niche market, a difficult sale market, or a local interest market), self publishing can be a great thing.

    But if you write fiction, general fiction of any kind, and you want your books in bookstores, you absolutely need a publisher that has distribution in place. You need a publisher who will get the books into stores for you. You need a publisher who will put money into doing a large offset print run, so the per-cost price of the book is low enough that you can offer a reasonable price and discounts. You need a publisher who will send out at least 100 free copies of your books for review copies.

    When publishing with a small POD press, your blog is 100% correct. Self publishing is almost always better than giving up part of your profit to a small POD press that has no distribution.

    But saying self publishing is better then the large publishers who do offset printing and have distribution and actually get your books in bookstores… that’s fallacious and/or based on misinformation about the industry.

    I got a tiny $5000 advance on a book with a major publisher once. 5k is small for this type of publisher. Even so, the 5k advance I got was more profit than I made trying to sell a book of essays that a small press picked up of mine. I made 200 bucks from that small press book TOTAL. The ADVANCE on the major publisher was more than my total five year run on the other book. Big, huge difference. And I KNOW how to market. I own a writing forum, have over 3500 friends on social networks and have a double opt-in very popular newsletter with over 2200 members.

    I’m not trying to be discouraging. I’m trying trying to say, there’s much more to it than this simplistic look at it that isn’t being considered here.

    Keep writing,
    Michy

  3. miriamshaviv Reply

    Great blog entry, Anne! I’ll definitely be sharing it with some of my clients. You have the best possible attitude and that’s why you’ll succeed.

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