Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Self-publishing isn't so bad

It wasn't so long ago that I'd never pick up a self-published book even to skim, let alone allow to be reviewed in the Chicago Sun-Times book section. Self-published books came from what we in the professional publishing world derisively called "vanity presses." Their writers were deemed too lacking in talent, savvy or sophistication to be picked up by commercial presses.

But times have changed, and so has my mind.

With paper-and-ink book publishing in slow decline, commercial publishers have retrenched. They're offering smaller advances, ignoring niche markets and giving the boot to well-praised but slow-selling authors while focusing on a few mass-market blockbusters. "Midlisters" (like me) and regional writers (also like me) haven't many places to turn. University presses increasingly can't pick up the slack -- they are having their own sales problems.

What's left is the self-publishing industry, in which the writer pays all the printing and distribution costs and does all the promotion and publicity work -- and takes all the risks. (Some of these publishers provide basic editing and design services and call themselves "subsidy presses." But the author still has to foot the bill.)

It's a long shot. Many if not most self-published books are hopeless messes. They're full of errors -- typographical, spelling, factual and grammatical. They're poorly organized and wretchedly designed. Their audiences are undefined beyond the author's own family and friends. One wonders why they ever saw the light of day.

But I'm seeing more and more self-published books that are worth many readers' trouble. Some of them are from old pros who can't get published commercially anymore but can edit their own stuff and deliver a polished manuscript to the printer. Some of them are diamonds in the rough from talented writers and just need TLC from a good editor who knows how to shape a manuscript as well as edit it line by line. (Never trust a spell-check program. Ever.)

To be successful, these books need to be aimed at a well-defined niche of potential readers, and must be delivered with effective promotion and publicity. That's easier said than done. Even good-sized newspapers tend to avoid any kind of book coverage, because few of their readers are interested. Small-town papers, however, often will do stories on local writers, especially if their subjects are local ones.

Television? Don't even think about it.

Authors therefore need to dig in for a long, sweaty slog of library and bookstore presentations and signings, snailmailings and e-mailings, and postings on Internet forums. But not all authors, either professional or amateur, possess the sort of sunny personality it takes to make direct selling work.

Still, there is always hope for localized word-of-mouth sales, either of printed books or e-books. They are unlikely to be big, but they might bring a sufficiently satisfying return to the wallet as well as the ego.

Some advice to would-be subsidy-publishing authors: Unless you possess sharp editing as well as writing skills, you ought to find a free-lance professional copy editor who can mercilessly vet a manuscript and hammer down loose and unruly ends. That won't be cheap, but it need not be expensive, either -- there are a lot of laid-off editors out there who need to eat and won't charge prohibitive sums. Google "freelance editor" or "editorial services" and you'll find some.

Don't rely only on friends to read your manuscript and tell you their opinions. Too often they'll tell you what they think you want to hear, or focus on picayune matters rather than substantial ones. And unless they're veterans of the publishing business, any advice they might offer is likely to be amateurish.

Listen to the pros. Rewrite, and rewrite again. Then polish, and polish again. Never, ever publish your first draft.


  1. Great advice, Henry, and constructive too!


  2. Good points, Henry, but what will help readers pick the good stuff out of the crowd? Professional publishing did a lot of such filtering. But anybody with enough money in his pocket can get his book published these days.

  3. Online reviews will help. True, most -- such as the Amazon.com notices and the like -- will be crude, amateurish and based on few if any critical standards, but in many subjects (usually nonfiction) those with expertise or experience will be able to render thoughtful opinions.

    As Snopes.com has become the go-to source for validation (or, rather, invalidation) of urban legends, other web sites are likely to crop up as reliable sources of book criticism.

  4. Amen,"Bill" DuBois