Since September 2006, the Leicester Review of Books has been conducting a survey to find out what readers and writers think of self-publishing and self-published books.
Among other things, we are asking writers to tell us their experiences of self-publishing. What benefits have they received? What are some of the disadvantages or challenges that they have experienced?
We are also asking writers to talk about the reasons that motivated them to by-pass the literary agent and the mainstream publisher and publish their books themselves.
And, which is equally important, we are asking for readers’ experiences of reading self-published books.
How do the books compare with those that have been published by mainstream publishers? Are they just as good or are they inferior? If they are inferior, why is this?
Wikipedia defines self-publishing as “the publishing of books and other media by the authors of those works, rather than by established, third-party publishers.”
The encyclopedia goes on to explain that although self-publishing represents a small percentage of the publishing industry in terms of sales, it has been present in one form or another since the beginning of publishing .
“… many works now considered classic were originally self-published, including the original writings of William Blake, Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, William Morris, and James Joyce.”
Hugh Griffin, who works for the Los Angeles engraving and printing company, Stuart F. Cooper, adds that in the United States “self-publishing” refers to the practice of buying one’s own International Standard Book Number (ISBN) to protect publishing rights and having the printing done by one‘s self.
“Many authors produce books for low prices and sell them successfully…but almost without exception, they use genuine ‘self-publishing,’” Griffin says.
The question of self-publishing is even more important today because advances in technology have made it easier than ever before for writers to publish their own books and make what they are writing available to a wider audience. As Wikipedia contributors point out, the tools which facilitate self-publishing and which are at writers’ disposal have been made possible by advances in technology associated with xerography, desktop publishing, print on demand technology, the internet and blogging.
From the discussion that is emerging, there are strong concerns that a lot of what is being self-published is of a poor quality.
Anna Creech, a librarian and blogger, is strongly opposed to self-published books.
“I’ve read only a handful of self-published books, so admittedly my experience with them is limited,” she says. “However, all of those books needed the heavy hand and red pen of an editor before they could be palatable. As a result, I refuse to read any more self-published books.”
She advises writers to get an editor who is not related to them before they decide to publish anything.
Wikipedia contributors suggest that the problem of sub-standard self-published books is in part due to the fact that it is often very difficult to differentiate self-publishing from vanity publishing.
“The latter term is a pejorative one, usually referring to situations in which a publisher contracts with authors regardless of the quality and marketability of their work,” the encyclopedia explains. “They [vanity publishers] appeal to the creators' vanity and desire to become a ‘published author’, and make the majority of their money from fees charged to the creators for publishing services, rather than from sales of the published material to retailers or consumers.”
Linda L. Rucker, like a lot of other writers who venture into self-publishing has had her own brush with a vanity publisher.
She has published two novels, What the Heart Wants and Dark Ridge as well as a collection of short stories, Words out of Time. Her short stories have also been featured in the anthologies, Forget Me Knots, Romancing the Soul, the 2005 Riverdale Short Story Annual and in April Rollins’ Coffee Camp Review Magazine.
She says she was horrified when What the Heart Wants came out.
“Like a great many of the un-initiated, I too went with PublishAmerica for my first book. At first, I was elated that a so-called traditional, royalty paying publisher wanted to publish my book, but when I held the finished product in my hand, I was horrified.
“No editing, was the worst of what I saw. As a new writer, I had no idea about editing. I figured that if the spelling was correct, then the manuscript was good to go.”
For her second novel, Linda L. Rucker shopped around and managed to secure an agent.
“She was a good agent, but patience has never been one of my virtues, so waiting for her to find a publisher just didn’t work for me. But, more [than] that was the notion that when she did find one, it could be anywhere from eighteen months to three years before my book hit the stores. As I said, patience is not a virtue for me. So, I chose to release my agent from her contract and go with self-publishing. Most folks think that term is a death knell, but is it really?”
Shawn Street, a PublishAmerica public relations officer disputes Linda L. Rucker’s claims and asserts that the company does edit books for grammar and spelling.
“We do not change the content of the book. When the Text Production Department edited her book, Ms. Rucker had two opportunities to review the work and approve any changes that were made.”
Street argues that PublishAmerica markets the books it publishes and makes them available to online bookstores and to bookstores across North America through the wholesalers Ingram, Brodart, and Baker & Taylor.
“PublishAmerica sends out press releases announcing a book’s release, as well as announcement letters to the author’s family and friends. We also send review copies to legitimate reviewers daily. Further marketing is a joint operation between the publisher and the author,” Shawn Street says.
Lilian Masitera, one of the most versatile Zimbabwean writers, has published a collection of poems, Militant Shadow; a novel, The Trail; and a collection of short stories; Now I Can Play.
Her writings tackle contemporary issues in Zimbabwean culture and she does it in a manner that is clear, straight forward, no-holds-barred and forceful.
Her books are examples of high quality self-published works.
She argues that because a book has been self-published does not mean it is sub-standard or of a poor quality.
Another author, Irving Karchmar says he decided to self-publish Master of the Jinn: A Sufi Novel because mainstream publishers did not want to be associated with it.
“I can’t do anything about the relentless commercialism of modern publishing, especially since it is a Sufi novel, about Muslims, published after 9/11, that no one wanted to touch. So after a couple of years of sending it out to agents and publishers, I decided to publish it myself.”
The novel since been has translated into Russian; Bahasa, Indonesia’s national language; Turkish, and into Malayalam, the language of the Indian state of Kerala.
Karchmar identifies a number of factors behind his novel’s success.
“I think I did it mostly in a smart way. I had a friend design the interior and cover, ($500.00) [I] did my own editing, along with friends, and paid only $99.00 for the initial fee for putting it in their system, which included an ISBN. I also decided to pay an extra $75.00 to get a Library of Congress I.D. number, and a bit more to get into Baker and Taylor wholesalers, so anyone going into a bookstore could order my book. They have deals with other online sources and are now owned by Amazon.com so my book is on Amazon, and Abebooks, Alibiris, Borders, Target.com and many small websites that affiliate with Amazon.”
He advises writers who want to self publish to invest in a good website, to market themselves and join discussion groups as well as invite bloggers to review the books.
“Booksurge pays 25% of the cover price as royalty, so it is not too bad a deal, and by many hours of working at it, I have managed to sell well over 500 copies online and to a few bookstores. I also got a few bloggers to review the book and some magazines,” Irving Karchmar says.
Wikipedia contributors support Karchmar’s views when they observe that self-published works that find large audiences tend to be rare exceptions, and are usually the result of self-promotion.
They give The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield; The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer; What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Nelson Bolles; In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters; Photoshop Efx: What Side You're On? by Dhanang Rah Wibowo and Eragon by Christopher Paolini as modern-day examples of self-published books that have been successful.
Another example is Graham P. Taylor who earned a publishing deal worth 3.5 million pounds after he had self-published his first novel, Shadowmancer. Taylor’s books have since been translated into over twenty different languages and are also going to be turned into movies.
Irving Karchmar says, “It can be done! It just takes work, like anything else in life.”
Writers who are contemplating self-publishing need to investigate the industry thoroughly and make sure that their work has been sufficiently edited and critiqued before they take it to the printers. They should also be prepared to market and promote their books aggressively.