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Friday, May 06, 2005

Is the publisher just a middleman?

"The publisher is just the middleman!"

I've heard many an aspiring writer make a statement to this effect. And, really, who can blame them? We live in an era where print-on-demand has made hardcopy publication something that regular people can afford, and anyone can put up a web site or burn content onto a CD.

The faltering economy has made the big publishers more conservative. They've cut back, been less willing to take risks on new writers. Publishing houses have been sucked up by international megaconglomerates whose core interest is the Almighty Dollar, Pound, or Euro; art is of little concern if it doesn't sell to the increasingly text-jaded masses who turn to TV and video games for their pasttime pleasures.

So electronic publishing and POD technology and Amazon.com have been a godsend to the small press and the savvy self-publisher. Almost all of us have heard of a success story of The Little Author Who Could.

"Yeah!" many writers think. "The only thing standing in between me and my audience is those darned publishers! Who needs 'em anymore? I can do this myself!"

And I know people who have done it themselves.

Heck, if your needs are simple and you just want to have your work read and appreciated by others, you're in the right place: many places on the Web provide an instant gratification to writers that you can't find anywhere else.

But if you want to carve out a career as a writer, make no mistake: becoming a commercially successful self-publisher is several metric tons of hard, hard work. And, as promising as electronic publishing is, readers haven't flocked to it. Readers want to buy a book with real pages they can dogear and read out in their hammocks. It's very rare for anyone to make much money off an electronic book. You have to go hardcopy.

Here are some things to consider before you try your hand at self-publishing:

  • Can you get your manuscript in professional shape? Many of us make poor self-editors. It's only natural; you spend hours upon hours staring at a manuscript and mistakes start to look like they belong there. Do you have access to people who are competent, eagle-eyed proofreaders who will be willing to give you the hard news if your manuscript needs more work than just a grammar cleanup? If you don't have acquaintances willing to do this for you, can you pay a freelancer to look over your manuscript?

  • Can you properly design your book? You'll need desktop publishing and typography skills to do your book right. And what about the cover? Do you have graphic design skills and access to pro-level software? What about photography or artwork? Once again, if you want your book to compete with the books produced by the publishing houses, you have to produce a professional-looking product. If you don't have design/layout skills, you'll need to find someone who does.

  • Can you pay for a printer? POD is much less expensive than traditional printing ... but it's not cheap. You're still looking at a few thousand dollars for a print run of any size. And POD has its limitations -- you often don't get to use decent paper, and some color schemes will look muddy on the covers. If you decide to go with a regular printer, perhaps a local print shop, you're looking at more money -- and more decisions. Do you know how to choose paper? What about preparing camera-ready copy? Do you know about computer file formats if the print shop can work from a disk?

  • Can you promote your book? Have you done your research to figure out who your audience is and where they're most likely to see your ads? Sure, printing out some bookmarks to distribute at local bookstores is a good start ... but only a start. Do you have the money to take out some ads in relevant magazines? Can you design a compelling ad? Can you set up a website to promote your book? Do you have the time and money to schmooze at conventions? Can you write promotional copy and news releases to send out to newspapers? Can you set up and coordinate readings/signings at regional bookstores? Do you have the time and money to get promotional copies into the hands of reviewers? Can you promote yourself without coming off as too pushy?

  • Can you properly distribute your book? It's relatively easy to get a listing for a POD on Amazon.com or BN.com, but getting your books into brick-and-mortar stores -- where people will be able thumb through your work and buy it on impulse -- is another matter. You can get local stores to carry copies on consignment, but what about stores in other cities? Do you know how to secure a deal with a national distributor? And what about international publishing? Do you know how to reach foreign-language audiences overseas?

  • Can you handle sales? Some POD printers will offer an online shopping cart and they will process and mail orders for you. If you go with a regular printer, though, you'll have to do all this yourself. If you want to sell online, you'll have to get a shopping cart on a secure server or work through PayPal (which is pretty simple, but I've heard many trouble reports). Otherwise, you'll have to process checks or money orders. Are you organized enough to keep track in case your book does do well and the orders pour in? Do you have the space to keep the many boxes of books clean and dry and ready to be shipped? Do you have the money and time to promptly ship individual copies of your books hither and yon? Do you know how to handle the new tax issues your little enterprise will bring?

  • Do you have legal expertise? Most authors don't have to worry about charges of libel from an angry acquaintance who sees him- or herself cast in a despicable light. Nor do most writers have to worry about lawsuits from the parents of children who hurt themselves trying some dangerous stunt they read about in your book. But what would you do if you were one of the unlucky few? And what if you discover another writer has plagiarized parts of your work? Or if a foreign press translates and publishes your work without permission or payment? Do you have money for a lawyer to go to bat for you?

  • Can you negotiate for the sale of your book's rights? There's money to be made in the sale of film, audio, and foreign-language rights. Do you know how to negotiate this kind of thing?

  • If, after having done all that hard work, can you deal with scorn and disrespect? Because unless your book pulls in some serious critical accolades or sales, you'll be dismissed by many as a hack amateur who couldn't find a "real" publisher. And you'll have to resist the overwhelming urge to beat these people into a pulp.

Publishers are seeming a little less middling now, aren't they?

Big publishers and even established small presses have access to tremendous resources that you as a self-publisher will not. Yes, you will inevitably have to do some promotion on your own even with a deal from a major publishing house. But there's so much more that goes into making a book than just the selling.

Don't sell yourself (and your book) short. Take the jump into self-publishing if you feel confident in your skills; heck, you might find you have a real taste for it and discover a new career for yourself as a small press publisher. But it really might behoove you to try the traditional routes first.

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