Putting yourself on the shelf: The modern phenomenon of self-publishing and on-demand printing
Sometimes it seems as if they fall from the sky, in every imaginable shape and size and color and genre. Science fiction, crime thrillers, country cookbooks, fantasy epics, romance, how-to and many a memoir of dubious provenance.Susan Watson of Borders says she gets nearly one a day (maybe 20 per month), many from people walking in right off the street. They are self-published books, and the authors are intent on finding attention (and distribution) for their efforts.With the digital age in full bloom, self-publishing and desktop publishing have quietly established a presence — albeit an innocuous one — on the menus of American readers. Some self-published books are good, some bad and some downright ugly, and as of yet there seems to have been no surprise star. Numbers, for both circulation and accounts payable, are hard to come by and of questionable accuracy. But above and beyond issues of profit and loss, there is no doubt self-publishing is an ongoing phenomena. At this point, almost anyone can have a manuscript published, regardless of merit.Local booksellers have mixed opinions about the recent flood of self- published books. Typical complaints center on the relatively high price of the books and a consistent program on non-promotion.“Marketing is almost never a priority (with on-demand publishers),” says Watson, a buyer of locally authored books for Borders‘ Fourth Street location. However, she notes that certain titles have sold well; overwhelmingly, they tend to be non-fiction volumes with a strong local theme (David Domine’s “Ghosts of Louisville” is one).“Perhaps,” Watson surmises, “because a lot of our customers are tourists who want a book that is also a souvenir.”She sees novels frequently, but most are unsellable because they lack a UPC symbol for electronic price reading and an ISBN number (the code number that certifies the book’s publication, copyright, presence in the Library of Congress and International title identification data bank).Having no ISBN nor UPC code is the kiss of death. Watson will not buy a book to put on sale at Borders unless it has an ISBN number.Not your mother’s vanity pressWhile large, established mainstream publishers grow increasingly reliant on gossipy celebrity tell-alls and hopelessly pedantic rose- tinted historical volumes best suited for holding doors open, on- demand publishing and desktop publishing, the new forms of self- publishing, have evolved. They are distinguished in a few ways from the traditional “vanity press.” A vanity press like Vantage in New York, for example, charges writers a substantial upfront fee and prints any manuscript offered by any writer able to pay that fee. On- demand publishers often “front” the initial printing costs to the writer, charging nothing initially but recouping costs by paying the writer a royalty (per-book) rate so tiny as to be minuscule. Unless the writer scores a hit — which is, of course, highly unlikely — he or she pretty much gets exploited either way. In the future there will likely be some new paradigm for publishing novels (particularly) whereby self-publishers and tiny publishers, the ones formerly called “boutique publishers,” fuel the market. Just don’t call it a “vanity press.”Those who’ve done itDespite booksellers’ aversions to self-published works, there is certainly no shortage of new titles, local, national and international.Ben Woods, 29, is a local with tales to tell. His book “The Developers,” a 342-page comedic whodunit based on the 1990s Internet- startup phenomenon, has been out for nearly a year. Woods has been through a real wringer — selecting an honorable publisher, haggling over design and marketing (his book utilizes some non-traditional alphabetic characters — icons, if you will) and begging for help with publicity. His efforts have borne fruit: He’s sold about 200 books so far, and has managed to book five bookstore appearances in Kentucky and Indiana since the beginning of the year.Ben Woods: by robert peckOnly after two years of writing “The Developers” did Woods even begin to look for an agent or publisher (he began the book in 2002). The response was equivocal, and so a glance toward the nascent world of self-publishing seemed prudent.“They wanted to charge me too much for stuff like layout and pagination,” Woods says, “when I had planned to do this myself.“Most just want you to send them the text, and you can buy (additional services) from them a la carte. I checked with a couple of print shops, but the prices were way too high, plus I needed an ISBN. I performed a lot of Google searches for agencies, printers and self-publishing. Specialty press prices were cheaper and I could obtain an ISBN. I decided to go with King Printing/AdiBooks — good price, knowledgeable about the business and the Web site presentation was good.”This, however, was only the beginning of the process. Woods did his own layout and design, as is only apt for the author of a book about a start-up Internet company. He still had an endless succession of problems and adjustments related to packaging and bookkeeping.Mark Ian Wilkerson of Prospect had a less stressful experience — if you can call a nine-year-long labor of love less stressful. Wilkerson, 32, recently finished and then self-published an exhaustive 628-page biography of Pete Townshend, “Amazing Journey,” with Lulu Books in North Carolina. The press charges him $17 per copy; the customer pays $27, and Wilkerson and Lulu split the $10 profit at about 80/20.Mark Ian Wilkerson: spent 9 years writing â€œAmazing Journey,â€ about Who guitarist Pete Townshend. Photo courtesy of Mark Ian WilkersonThe beauty of the setup is that no front money needs to change hands. Unless the author wants a stash of his own books to sign and sell, no copy is printed until an order comes in. All commerce is done online, so tracking sales and other bookkeeping tasks are almost automatic. Wilkerson simply sent cover artwork and a complete text, each in the form of a PDF file. He makes it sound quite easy until reminding me that the research took nearly a decade.“The book in its present form is really my version of an advance copy,” he says. “Thus no ISBN or UPC. In another four to six weeks, I’ll add positive review quotes to the back cover, plus the ISBN, a UPC and a Library of Congress number. Without the UPC/ISBN, I can’t sell in stores. Without the Library of Congress number, I can’t sell to libraries. I’ll then purchase a distribution deal from my publisher, www.lulu.com, which will make the book available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble(.com), and will list the book through various distributors. At that point I will promote the book aggressively, and will approach local booksellers to see if they’re interested in selling it.”So far his efforts have not yielded a royalty check, since technically the book has not been released yet. He is, however, sending out the above-mentioned promotional copies and says he has a shot at being reviewed by Mojo, the prestigious British music mag.Don Decker is another Louisvillian, who at 70 years old has a tale to tell and a book that tells it. Decker is known to some folks who run into him routinely down at Fourth Street Live, where he works at TGI Friday’s. Decker’s experience with publishing is at once less stressful than Woods’ and less cavalier than Wilkerson’s. Decker is, after all, not writing a novel or a paean to his favorite guitar player. He has written his life story, a frightening and difficult tale of a life spent as an entertainer, bail bondsman and would-be bank robber. His 558-page book, “Forfeiture,” is a journal of 30-plus years as a mid-level criminal and addict and the measures he took to remove himself from that sort of activity.While Decker’s deal with PublishAmerica does not require him to put up front money, the publisher can recoup that by paying a low royalty rate. Still, Decker is relatively happy with his published book, although he hates the cover art and wonders why the price has to be so high — $35.Promoting work in the new vanity pressWhen it comes to promotion, self-published authors are definitely at a disadvantage. Marketing for many of these books is either based on word-of-mouth (which can sometimes be effective) or else is non- existent (never a good thing). Woods lists sales to friends and family members as important targets. Obviously this is not the most direct path to The New York Times bestseller list.In fact, the realm of so-called vanity publishing (a term self- published authors disdain, by the way) has yet to issue forth anything like a literary or commercial superstar. Inquiries at local bookstores drew silence on the subject of breakout self-published authors. It seems that in a world where anyone can get published, almost everyone does. This may serve to increase the power and importance of the old-style publishers whose imprimatur may be more helpful than ever in separating a particular title from the rest of the pack. This may even explain the continued existence of smaller — but still old-model, numbered-print-run — publishers (such as Louisville’s Sarabande, or Published in Heaven), which manage to thrive while selling only minimal copies of their titles.In the end, the road of the self-publisher is a lonely one, it seems, but so, perhaps, is the road of any writer. The newest technology allows almost anyone to put out a book; obviously this is a boon to the novice novelist (or non-fiction author, for that matter), but it can be a mixed blessing for the reader. As on-demand publishing takes hold, the range of available titles increasingly attests to a more democratic menu of books, a more turbulent pool of public voices. It doesn’t necessarily mean that more good books are going to be printed. It does certainly mean that more diverse books will be printed, but the reader will still have to look hard and dig deep.NOTE: Ben Woods will read from and sign copies of his book, “The Developers,” at 4 p.m. Sunday at Carmichael’s, 2720 Frankfort Ave. It’s free. Call 896-6950 for more information. Forfeitureby Don DeckerPublishAmerica$34.95558 pp.ForfeitureA harrowing taleDan Duncan grew up in a vaudeville family, became a singer with ambitions aimed at Broadway, changed vocations, became a bail bondsman and a drug addict and then got arrested robbing a bank (under truly bizarre circumstances). Duncan is the fictionalized name of local author Don Decker, whose strange and frightening memoir, “Forfeiture,” is in bookstores (some of them, anyway) now. Perhaps Decker is best known for his post-prison gig here in Louisville: he works as a greeter/host most nights and afternoons at Fourth Street Live and is decked in fancy jacket and top hat that have garnered him the nickname “the Colonel.”Decker says he changed the names of the characters in “Forfeiture” to “protect the guilty.” That is surely an exaggeration — not everyone in the book is a scoundrel — but perhaps a good idea just the same. His Dan Duncan stumbles through a lot of muck before settling in Louisville in his 60s.Don Decker: tells compelling stories from his own life in his book â€œForfeiture.â€ Photo by Elizabeth Kramer“Forfeiture” is one of those books that is compelling, though not terribly well-written. Decker is not a great writer by any stretch but he is a good writer, sometimes very good. What he has, though — and a formidable weapon it is, indeed — is a story so harrowing and so incredible and so totally removed from the mainstream that it will amaze and thrill almost anyone from any walk of life who picks up and reads the book. It takes a great man, not a great writer, to walk away from a life like Decker’s and embrace the tedium and anonymity of the so-called “straight life.” Decker has done that, and his book will demonstrate it sure wasn’t easy.