It's more popular than ever, but success depends on more than writing. marketing.
Not so long ago, the way to get a book published was clear: Submit your work, twiddle your thumbs, get back the manuscript, send it out again. Eventually, if you were very good, or very lucky, a publisher would bite and, eventually, you'd be holding a book, no longer a mere writer, but an author.
Today, the digital world has ignited self-publishing, changing everything. Why wait for New York when you can plunk down your money and get a finished book in just a few months?
Make no mistake: It will be your responsibility to market it. Many reviewers and bookstores won't take you seriously. And you may never earn back your investment, which could be as high as $20,000. Is it worth it? Apparently, it's at least worth the risk. In 2007, about 134,000 books were self-published in the United States. In 2008, that rose to more than 285,000 and in 2009 soared to more than 764,000.
In contrast, traditional publishers produced about 288,000 books in 2009, almost stagnant from 289,000 the year before, according to the firm R.R. Bowker, which tracks the book industry.
In the Twin Cities, a growing number of "contract publishers" offer a variety of services for a fee, from professional editing to layout and cover design to help with marketing and distribution.
Brio, a contract publisher in Minneapolis, published 200 books last year. It could have published more, founder William Reynolds said, but he is willing to turn away some authors, telling them if their manuscripts are, well, awful. Just as some authors resist self-publishing to avoid the taint of a "vanity press," more self-publishers want to avoid the reputation of publishing anything for a price.
"It's not fun to be a dream crusher," Reynolds said. Yet he regards dream-crushing as one of his more valuable services. Authors should expect to spend as much as $20,000 "to do it right," he said. "So if I'm going to be a dream-crusher, it's medicine that's got to be taken, because there are thousands of dollars on the line."
Even so, the move to self-publish "is not going to plateau anytime soon," he said. He likened it to how Chianti, in its trademark straw basket, was once perceived as cheap wine. Vintners improved its quality and began bottling it without the traditional fiasco. Its reputation rose.
"Chianti shed its wicker basket," Reynolds said. "Self-publishing, metaphorically, has nearly done the same."
Outside of the loop
Still, the dream of a New York publisher is hard to shake. In a writer's fantasy, the distressed damsel is a snubbed novel and the white knight is a major publisher swooping in to rescue the volume, which is read happily ever after.
Stanley Gordon West is living the fairy tale. West, 78, grew up in St. Paul and moved to Montana after college. By the 1980s, Montana was a little Hollywood, with Fondas and Baldwins and Peckinpahs. "You could go to the grocery store and stand in line behind Batman," Gordon said. "Long story short, I get the crazy idea in my head, 'What would make a good novel?' "
He wrote a book and sent it to publishers, who just as promptly returned it. One day, Peter Fonda's wife, Becky, asked about it. Long story short, she read it and it became a made-for-TV movie starring Kirk Douglas. "I thought, boy, this is nice," said West, who now lives in Shakopee.
He continued to write but couldn't nab a publisher. Eventually, "I got up the courage and decided to self-publish." He sold the book out of his car, walking into every bookstore he could find, introducing himself to strangers. "When you self-publish, you're outside of the loop," he said. "Major reviewers won't have anything to do with it." Nor will distributors, which limits which stores will carry the book.
West persevered. His 1997 book, "Until They Bring the Streetcars Back," became a local favorite. In 2001, he self-published his sixth book, "Blind Your Ponies." Over the next eight years, by putting thousands of miles on his car to meet with booksellers and readers, he sold 40,000 copies.
Amazon, noting his sales, offered to buy the rights for its new program, AmazonEncore, aimed at promoting overlooked books. West politely declined -- and suddenly became the guy who turned down Amazon. Within a week, six publishers were bidding on "Blind Your Ponies." He went with Algonquin, which published it this month and is supporting his current national tour.
More than a Plan B
The desire for creative control lures many authors to self-publishing. Dara Beevas, executive editor at Beaver's Pond Press in Edina, said that for many authors who approach them "it's a chosen tool more than a Plan B."
Beevas said their most successful manuscripts are nonfiction and have a specific audience: One is about being a teenager in a military family; another is about being the reluctant donor of a kidney to a family member. Costs vary depending on the services used, but on average, Beevas said, the price for 1,000 books "could go up to $10,000."
Brian Duren contracted with Beaver's Pond for his debut novel, "Whiteout," in 2009. It's since won the Independent Publisher Association's Gold Medal for Midwestern Fiction and the Reader Views Reviewers Choice Award for Midwestern Literature. Also, it was a finalist for the National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Fiction.
So he's golden, right?
"A lot of the success was in recognition," he said. "In financial terms, it was certainly not a success. It will take years for the book to pay for itself." Still, Duren said, "the major problem [with self-publishing] is encountering all kinds of prejudice" about traditional publishers being gatekeepers of literary quality. If an author has to pay someone to get his work in print, "a lot of people assume your book isn't any good."
That perspective is changing. The trade journal Publishers Weekly recently decided "to embrace the self-publishing phenomenon." For a fee of $149, self-published authors get their books on a listing that includes a description and ordering information. From this list, PW chooses 25 titles -- "gems worthy of attention" -- for a full review.
The shift is a boon to self-published authors, but it also highlights the need for salesmanship -- and money. "The thing that's stunning to me now about publishing in general is that it's called 'the business of being a writer,'" said Mary Logue, an author and editor who teaches writing at Hamline University. "And if anyone tells you that they know what going to happen in publishing in the next five years, they're nuts."
The shift bears watching in Minnesota, "which is such a mecca of small press publishing," she said. "We also have had some very large successes with people who started out self-publishing and then moved into mainstream, such as Vince Flynn and Steven Thayer."
Savvy writers can develop websites and work their Facebook presence. "You can even put a book out on Kindle," Logue said. "At which point you really start to ask, 'What is a publisher doing for me?'"
Duren sees a similar future as publishing becomes more decentralized. "I'm sure there are a lot of awful books that have been self-published -- that reputation came from somewhere," he said. "But there are a lot of books published by traditional publishers that are awful, too."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185