In changed book world, many authors find self-publishing works just fine
By Elizabeth Floyd Mair Special to the Times Union
More and more established writers who have previously worked with traditional publishing houses have begun to turn, whether by choice or from necessity, to self-publishing. Prominent writers, one after another, have announced recently that they were splitting with their publishers and going it alone.
This spring, best-selling thriller writer and former CIA agent Barry Eisler wrote a piece in the New York Times about why he turned down a half-million dollar advance from St. Martin’s Press to self-publish instead: He believes he can market his books better on his own.
Neal Pollack, author of several books, including “Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude,” wrote in another New York Times piece called “The Case for Self-Publishing” that “self-publication crackles with possibility as never before” and vowed to bring out his next book himself, as an experiment. He writes: “I’ve built a modest audience and a name. Now that the advances are smaller and the technology is available, why not start appealing directly to those readers?”
The stigma continues to fall fast from self-publishing. It’s often hard to tell these days which of a group of finished books was self-published. Figures released in 2010 by Bowker, which tracks trends in the publishing industry, showed the number of self-published titles rose dramatically in 2009, to more than 764,000, while traditionally published titles dropped, to just 288,729. And three books on the New York Times Combined Print and E-Book Fiction Best Seller List last month are self-published titles.
One writer from our region who exemplifies this trend is television and movie producer Robert Shanks (creator and developer of both “20/20” and “Good Morning America,” who lives in Sheffield, Mass.
In September, he self-published his novel “In the Middle of the Journey,” even though he had previously published three books with W.W. Norton, the last of which was a novel that came out in 1982. His first two books were about breaking into television and have often been used as college textbooks; he estimated, in a recent phone conversation, that the second of these titles, “Cool Fire: How to Make It In TV” (1976), has sold “28,000 in hardcover and 50 or 60,000 in softcover.” Times have changed, he believes, and publishing houses are less willing to take risks (and, as he puts it, “The little fame I had in the ’60s and ’70s is long gone, I guess”). He cited as his reasons for going the independent route “impatience, mostly, and being able to afford to do it, honestly.”
As to the cost, Shanks said, “You forego a trip to the Caribbean, or don’t join a country club.” More specifically, he paid $1,500 to Author House for their “Pinnacle Package,” which involves producing a hardcover and a softcover version, as well as Kindle and Nook versions.
He economized by copy editing the book himself “five or six times,” designing the jacket — featuring a photo taken by his wife, who is an award-winning photographer — and writing the blurbs himself.
Shanks, who is 79, believes that this novel would be well suited to film adaptation. And if he were able to interest any of his old friends in film or television in the idea of making a movie version, they would not need to share any profits with a publishing company.
By the same token, if he does want to continue to look for a publisher, he can do that, since he retains ownership of the work. So, he says, “If I send it now to maybe 10 mainstream publishers, and one of them says, ‘Yeah, we’d like to publish this,’ I can take it away from Author House right away.” He adds that it’s a lot easier to send a finished book to a publisher than a manuscript. “I think it gets a little more attention, too. We’ll see.”
One local writer who self-published after issuing several books with traditional publishing companies is Marion Roach Smith, wife of Times Union editor Rex Smith. After publishing three works of nonfiction, all with major publishers, she worked with Troy Book Makers to self-publish a small volume on writing a memoir, called “Writing What You Know: Realia” (2010). She then did exactly what Shanks hopes to do: She saw her book picked up by an established publishing company. Grand Central Publishing re-titled it “The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Nonstandardized Text for Writing & Life” (2011).
As Roach Smith explained it in a recent e-mail, she and her sister, Margaret Roach, also a writer, decided to self-publish Marion’s book together in 2009, when the recession was bad and the publishing industry was in crisis. They figured that “even with a great book proposal, it would probably not sell to a mass market publisher at that time.” Only after they had completed the book and sold most of the copies, did they “show it to our agent, who loved it, and took it out for auction.”
It was a great leap into something new, she says, “a fine gamble.” Roach Smith agrees with Shanks that having a completed book makes a huge difference when shopping a manuscript to publishers.
She cautions authors, though, to check into what each self-publishing company offers, since she has found “vast differences” among them in their rates and aesthetics, as well as the support they provide. Be willing to create a marketing and distribution plan yourself, she says, or use a company that has a proven track record for getting books onto the market and helping keep them alive.
Elizabeth Floyd Mair is a freelance writer living in Guilderland.
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