Are you the next American Idol? :
Some things to think about before you decide to self-publish your book
I tend to run a bit behind the curve when it comes to popular culture—this is the only way to account for the fact that this spring is the first time I’ve watched American Idol from the beginning. (OK, I’m a lot behind the pop culture curve. And I also have to confess that I’m really enjoying the show, but that’s neither here nor there.) However, watching it for the first time, you can’t help but be struck by the number of pathetically, horrifically bad singers who seem to think they are good singers. There are some people going into that audition room who clearly just want to get themselves on national TV. But for every attention seeker there are dozens who leave the room in tears, because they really believed they would make the cut. And they all absolutely believe that the judges are making a mistake. They can sing. They can! Someday they’ll be a big star, and all those judges will feel stupid, because they’re wrong, wrong, wrong. All of which kind of goes to show that some people aren’t the best judge of their own talent.
I know I’m not. When I write something—particularly when I first write something—it feels like it’s either brilliant or dreadful, and sometimes both at the same time. After letting it rest for a month or so, I can read it a bit more objectively. After five years, I’m appalled at the state of a manuscript that I really thought was good at the time.
In the novel world (thank goodness!) there is no talent show where you can embarrass yourself in front of millions. But there is a rough equivalent. It may not publicly humiliate you, but it can cost you thousands of dollars, crush your dreams, and maybe even worse, it can lure you off the rocky path of taking critical advice and trying to improve your writing until someone will buy it. You don’t have to go through all those long, tedious years of critique and rejection. All your friends say your book is fabulous. You can publish it yourself!
Let me insert a few quick definitions here. Self-publishing is when you come up with the idea of publishing your book yourself, contact a printer, and shell out cash. Vanity publishing is when someone else contacts you and tells you that your book is wonderful and they really want to publish it—but you’ll have to shell out the cash. The primary difference between them is that with vanity publishing someone else is scamming you. With self-publishing, you’re probably scamming yourself.
At this point, I’m sure that everyone who has self-published their book, or is about to self-publish their book, or wants to self-publish their book is getting ready to throw something at me. They probably know of several people who have successfully self-published books and made tons of money and become famous—so there! I’ve heard some of those stories too. I’ve heard self-publishers speak at writing conferences, and there’s a woman in my writers group who has self-published her picture book, successfully. But when you look at those stories, you’ll probably find that all the successful self publishers have something in common—they have professional, or near professional, credentials in marketing.
If I remember her speech correctly, the author of a series of popular cosmetics books had worked with the talk radio industry for a number of years, before she and her husband bought a motor home and spent an entire year traveling around the country promoting her book. She knew exactly when and how to approach local radio stations and persuade them to put her on the air. And she knew how to be witty and entertaining enough to persuade listeners to go out and buy her book once she reached them. Are you a marketing or advertising professional? Are you a professional public speaker? Have you spent hundreds of hours on talk radio, entertaining and selling an audience? And can you afford to spend a full year traveling around the country promoting a book?
Are there successful self-publishers who don’t have exactly these credentials? Sure. Let me tell you a bit about the woman in my writers’ group—not so much about her book, as about the level on which she operates. A couple of years ago, she decided that Denver should have a big book fair, and that she’d put it on. She started by going to the governor. Yes, the governor. Of Colorado. She contacted the governor and asked him to decree a certain day, which corresponded with her proposed festival date, as Colorado Authors Day—and he did. Then she went to several major corporations and talked them into being sponsors, to the tune of several thousand dollars. She rented indoor convention space at Invesco Field at Mile High, home of the Denver Broncos, and put on an event that drew crowds in the thousands and featured 250 Colorado authors. Can this person successfully self-publish her book? You bet! If you’re a mover and shaker on that level, you can probably bring off most things. But are you the kind of person who could walk into a corporate mogul’s office and walk out with a promise of sponsorship money? Can you even get to someone in the governor’s office, much less persuade the governor to do anything once you get his attention?
Let me take another example from my writers’ group. A man approached one of our professional artists to illustrate a book he was self-publishing. He was an engineer, of all things, whose wife liked lingerie. After a number of years of going into lingerie stores with no clue how describe what he was looking for—and considerable embarrassment in the trying—he decided to self-publish a book about buying lingerie, for men, and sell it in lingerie stores. We figured it would be purchased primarily by women, to offer as a hint to the men in their lives, but there’s no problem with that. Sitting on the counter by the cash register it would probably sell quite a number of copies—and if the writing was a bit rough, who would care? Sold in lingerie stores, it would easily reach its intended audience. If you have a non-fiction book that will sell well in some niche market outside of the bookstores, you can do very well with self-publishing. Is your book non-fiction, that will fit a niche market outside the book stores?
Maybe, but mine aren’t.
I write standard genre novels, that wouldn’t sell anywhere except where novels belong—in a bookstore. And bookstores almost never carry self-published or vanity books. If you visit them personally they might, in mercy, agree take a few copies on consignment. But you can’t make money that way, or sell enough copies to matter. Not even if you do spend a year, traveling from city to city—unless you can also get yourself into the local papers and onto talk radio.
And there’s a final category of self-publishing—though it actually comes more under the heading of printing—where you have no delusion that anyone will buy your book. If you want to shell out some cash to print up the history of your family and hand it out to all your aunts, uncles and cousins at Christmas, more power to you.
These are the success stories, dealing with people that I know or have heard speak, about self-publishing. Now let me tell you about some of the failures I’ve encountered.
One was a friend of my grandmother’s, a very sweet woman in her eighties, who had written a lovely lovely story about a happy happy little girl who…anyway, it was bad. A vanity press offered her a contract, where she put up several thousand dollars that she really couldn’t afford, to get the book printed. The vanity press told her that was how it usually worked, that it was almost impossible for a new author to sell a picture book without putting up cash. Once her book had sold thousands of copies, then a publisher would pay her for the next one. This vanity press probably even sent out the books to reviewers and chain store buyers, like their contract promised they would. Denver’s biggest independent bookstore took ten copies to sell on consignment. And this nice lady ended up as most self-published authors do—with a thousand copies of her books in cartons in her garage—and she had no way to sell them. When you end up with a thousand books sitting in your garage, do you have a concrete, realistic plan for selling them?
In fact (just in case I’m wrong, wrong, wrong) before you pay someone to print all those copies, go to the places you’re thinking of selling your books and ask the buyers how many copies they’ll purchase. If you’re talking to a bookstore, and they’ll only take books on consignment, ask them how many copies they think will sell, based on their past experience with self-published fiction sold on consignment. And if the sources you thought you could sell books through give you depressing answers—listen to them! And don’t print books that you can’t sell.
This next story is the one I find most painful. My grandmother’s friend is long dead, but if by some weird chance this author recognizes himself…well, remember I’m trying to save people from your fate, and please forgive me. After the library where I worked closed one night, the librarians came out and found copies of a paperbound book, wrapped in a plastic bag, sitting on the hoods of all our cars. Inside was a note from the author informing us that we were receiving this free gift because we were readers and this book needed to be read. That we should tell our friends about this wonderful book, and that they could pick up a copy at the large independent bookstore that so kindly takes books on consignment, or we could order from the publisher—who, needless to say, had a local address. A friend who knows something about the printing industry told me that this author paid at least five dollars per copy. I never got much past the first paragraph. No one I ever handed it to has ever gotten farther, because that paragraph contains a simile that is so…overwrought that everyone who reads it bursts out laughing. And no, sadly, the author did not intend for you to laugh.
I can just imagine what Simon would have said.
I’m not going to address online publishing here, because: A) more and more legitimate markets are opening online, particularly for short stories. And legitimate means they pay you money for your story. You don’t pay them, and it’s not free. B) it doesn’t cost an arm and an leg, even if you do decide to pay. But don’t go into any market where you pay them thinking you’re going to make lots of money when your story sells. In fact, publishing online will probably make it impossible to sell your story to a print market, because they want to buy first publication rights—and even if only ten people read your story online, those rights are now gone. But at least you’re not losing thousands of dollars. And C) I’m not going to address online publishing because I don’t know enough about it.
Some people will probably say that, never having self-published a book, I don’t know enough about that either. And I never have self-published a book so they may be right. But I do know that neither you, nor your friends, nor your mother is the best judge of your talent—or whether or not you are ready to be published. I know that spending your time working on improving your writing is a lot more likely to bring you success than trying to spend your way over the hard parts. Most real singers don’t come to success by way of American Idol—they come to success through years of small gigs at weddings and proms, then in bars and clubs, and they spend those early years honing their craft to the finest possible edge. And most writers who achieve success don’t do it with self-publishing, they do it through years of short stories and contests and critiques, and hundreds and hundreds of rejections. So before you go out there and scam yourself, make sure you can sell those thousand books sitting in your garage. Or you may find yourself putting them on the hoods of cars in dark parking lots.