Thursday, September 27, 2007

Lessons From the Little Rock Nine

Fifty years ago this week, nine black students entered an all white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. They didn't wait to be invited and warmly welcomed. They walked bravely into the school through sneers, scorn and worse to claim the rights the Supreme Court had established. The rest is history.

Now there's no way I'm going to try to equate the bias against self-publishers with the prejudice and discrimination black people have endured in this country. (Okay I may be a bit intense on this topic, but I'm not deluded). But as I've listened to some of these nine black former students speaking out in interviews this week recalling their experiences from a long-ago time, I've been struck by how their comments describing the feelings they had when prejudice hit them seem to be universal.

  • One woman said that she thought that she would be welcomed to the Central High School, but instead was rejected in a way that was beyond her imagination.

  • Another said she had been taught to look to adults for help, and she did, but the woman she thought was kind spat on her.

  • A man said that because they were entering the school a year or so after some changes had already been made, none of them expected the governor to use troops with bayonets to bar their entrance.

What? Despite the segregation and horrible injustices that had been done to blacks in this country up until then, these people thought they would be welcomed—or at least accepted—in this up-until-then all-white school? Of course they were children, so perhaps they were understandably naïve.

But aren't human beings often naïve in this way? We know we are good people, doing good things, selling good products or whatever. And we (perhaps naively) expect other people to recognize that—or at least to give us a chance to show them.

I think we as self-publishers have similar feelings—or at least I did. We write our books, get them critiqued and edited, re-write them, do (or hire someone to do) the layout and the cover to get them ready for printing—and we are proud of our books when we send them out into the world. Sure we've heard about the bias against self-published books, but we don't realize how bad it will be.

Now I'm not talking about having difficulty getting self-published books into bookstores. That's a complicated issue, especially because of returns, which can be a costly problem for a small publisher. The discrimination I'm talking about is more insidious and more unexpected. It's being told you can't join an organization of authors, or enter your book in a contest, or get it considered for review. It's being told that most self-published books are rubbish so they can't be bothered looking at any self-published books. It's being told your book doesn't measure up before anyone bothers to actually measure it. It's having someone spit on your hopes and expectations.

Bottom line—discrimination hurts. And it's hard to push on in the face of it. It's easier to say, "That's the way it is," and hope it will get better in the future. But, as a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch once told me after I told him I was hoping the market would go back up, "Hope is not a successful strategy." So we self-publishers need to act. We need to speak out against discrimination. We need to rise above it as the Little Rock nine did. Otherwise people will continue to spit on our books.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Is Bob A Self-Publisher, a POD Publisher, or What?

If you believe what you read on some discussion groups, a self-publisher is someone—let's call him Bob—who writes and pays a company to publish a tedious, badly-written, book about his Grandpa Sam's struggle to save his family's farm—let's call it Fighting For the Family Farm: Grandpa Sam's Struggle to Survive. And, since no one outside Grandpa Sam's immediate family and maybe a few neighbors has any interest in wading through Bob's narrative, Fighting For the Family Farm sells only a few copies at inflated prices to people on a list the company requires Bob to provide.

Wrong. Bob is not a self-publisher. Bob has paid a subsidy or vanity press, sometimes called a "publishing service provider" to publish his book. That company—let's call them has charged Bob a fee to edit and set up his manuscript for printing, design a cover, and print the books. On top of that, YourBookInPrint has used their own ISBN number for Bob's book, has sold him a marketing package, and has set the book's selling price, which is higher than similar traditionally-published books. Bob can buy copies at an "author's discount," but even then, they are expensive.

If Bob were a true self-publisher, he would have started his own publishing company, bought some ISBN numbers, maybe paid someone to edit and typeset his manuscript and design a cover. Or, if he has skills in layout and design, he may have done those tasks himself. Then, when Fighting For the Family Farm was ready to go to print, Bob would have chosen a printer—either offset or digital (POD technology)—to print his books. He then could set the cover price and decide how and where to market the book. In both cases, Bob has paid the costs of publishing his book. But only when he is a true self-publisher does he have control of all aspects of his book.

Either way, Bob's book will be subject to negative prejudices, but as a self-publisher, his book will get more of a chance for reviews, etc. than it would through YourBookInPrint. But what if Bob, as a self-publisher, chooses to have his book printed digitally, through a print-on-demand (POD) printer? Is Bob now a POD publisher? You hear a lot of derogatory comments about POD publishers. And authors report that bookstores turn them down "because my book is POD." What does this mean?

There is a huge amount of confusion about self-publishing these days. It is common to use the term "POD publisher" as synonymous with "subsidy" or "vanity" publisher. Actually, POD means print-on-demand. It is not a method of publishing, but rather a method of printing. Any publisher can use it, and some traditional publishers do use it to keep old books in print without stockpiling thousands of copies. Most subsidy publishing companies now use POD printing. But it's actually not correct to call them "POD publishers." Many small publishing companies such as mine (PMI Books) use POD printing to avoid the book-storage problem.

It doesn't matter to me whether Bob starts his own company and becomes a true self-publisher or goes with YourBookInPrint; or whether his book is printed through offset or digital POD technology. I have my opinions, but the decisions are his. What does matter to me is that he makes an informed choice—that he understands what he is getting and the trade-offs he is making if he chooses a subsidy press rather than self-publishing.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Why Self-Publish?

So why do people self-publish, given the stigma associated with it and the difficulties it creates in marketing books? In my own case, I got into self-publishing in 1984, with the demise of a small publishing company that had published a stress-management book, Stress? Find Your Balance, that my husband and I co-authored. The original publisher had printed an initial run of 10,000 books, but was doing no marketing and selling no books. Meanwhile we had developed a computerized stress assessment that we were selling to medical centers, hospitals, and businesses, and that referenced the book. We had the opportunity to sell books in bulk to the purchasers of the stress assessment, but the publisher refused to discount the book price sufficiently for bulk sales.

When we had the opportunity we bought the 10,000 books and the publication rights back, sold those 10,000 copies and then revised the book in 1988 and printed another 10,000 copies through our own business, Preventive Measures, Inc. To date, we have sold 50,000+ copies of Stress? Find Your Balance in this country, and we sold the rights to an Australian edition to Queensland Teacher’s Health Society in 1994. (Interesting side note: That Australian insurance company selected our book and stress assessment for their members because we owned the rights to our book and could negotiate more favorable terms than a traditional publisher would. This was a lucrative contract for us that we would not have gotten had our book been traditionally published.)

Through the mid-1980s and 1990s we were happily selling our self-published book through bulk sales and taking the profits to the bank, without ever thinking about the stigma of self-publishing. We got lots of good comments on the book from health, mental health, and wellness professionals who gave it to their clients and from readers themselves who said it had changed their lives. They didn't care who published the book, only that it got results.

Eventually we got to the point where we no longer wanted to have 10,000 books printed and delivered to our doorstep, although we wanted to keep the book in print. In April 2005, I read with much interest an article in the NYT Book Review entitled, "How to Be Your Own Publisher," which described the new print-on-demand (POD) technology. The article inaccurately equated POD with subsidy publishing, but oddly-enough gave a mostly favorable review of what they called "self-publishing."

This was the first I'd heard of POD technology. I began to investigate and soon found that the companies described in the NYT article had control of both ISBN numbers and cover price for the books they "published," and that their prices for the books were so high that selling many copies would be difficult. I kept looking and eventually found Lulu and then Lightning Source, which we eventually used to print out revised (4th) edition.

Even though the printing costs are higher with POD, we are delighted to have found a way to keep the book available without having to print and store another 10,000 copies. And being able to have boxes of books shipped directly to our customers though a simple online order is a luxury we definitely appreciate.

I was still naïve about the stigma of self-publishing, probably because it wasn't relevant to the sales of that book. It was only when I created an imprint—PMI Books—and published my novel Too Near the Edge and my daughter's novel Following My Toes that I discovered the bias and the problems self-publishing creates for fiction, which is dependent on reviews, awards, signings and other author appearances for its sales.

Even so, I would have made the same choice for my novel, based on my experience with my other nonfiction book, which was published by a big New York publisher, had limited sales and is now out of print. I like having control over the book's title, price, look, when it comes out, and most of all how long it will be available. But I don't like the stigma, which is why I started this blog.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Beware of Overgeneralizations

I appreciate that publicity expert Bella Stander responded to my August 23 blog about being excluded from her Publicity 101 workshops because I am a self-published author. (You can read her comments below my August 23 blog entry, "No Self-Published Authors Allowed.") But I do not appreciate the line of thinking she expressed in her comments.

She maintains that in the past she did allow self-published authors into her workshops, but "their books were so poorly written, produced and distributed that they had no chance of success in the marketplace." Obviously I can't speak to the quality and/or market success of the books written and published by the self-published authors who came to her workshops. But I can say that it is neither accurate nor fair to assume that they represent the universe of self-published books.

Many authors have chosen to self-publish books that have become big success stories in terms of numbers of copies sold and/or selling the rights to a major publisher after originally self-publishing. Here are some examples:

  • The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield

  • The One-Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

  • Life's Little Instruction Book by H. Jackson Brown

  • The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer

  • What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Nelson Bolles

  • In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters

  • The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans

  • Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris

  • My Brother's Keeper by ReShonda Tate Billingsley

  • What's Wrong with Dorfman? by John Blumenthal

  • Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett

  • The Whole Earth Catalog by Stewart Brand

  • Legally Blonde by Amanda Brown

  • The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron

  • The Lazy Man's Guide to Enlightenment by Thaddeus Golas

  • Life 101 by Peter McWilliams

You can find lots more of these on John Kremer's Self-Publishing Hall of Fame These books obviously had the potential for success in their original self-published form. We know that because they actually became successful books in the marketplace. So weeding out self-published books from contests, conferences, workshops and such would have eliminated these books as well as their lower-quality companions. And that would have been a mistake.