Until about 30 years ago, most people who got published began by sending carefully typewritten queries and proposals to publisher after publisher, hoping for a contract. Or they sank thousands of dollars into developing their own presses, usually starting with titles they’d written themselves. Then came desktop publishing, and the number of books being issued skyrocketed. According to Bowker, which assigns US ISBNs, new and revised titles increased from about 80,000 annually to more than 325,000 in less than 25 years. By 2012, just the number of self-published and micro-published titles exceeded that figure. Bowker reported more than 1.75 million titles published that year, 392,000 of them from publishers with no more than 10 titles in print. The self- and small publishers these numbers represent follow many different publishing pathways. Last month, we heard from some who started as self-publishers and now are publishing others’ titles, and from some who have sold self-published titles to larger publishers. This month we look at the opposite transition: from traditionally published author to self- and micro-publisher, and at people who sit on both sides of the desk, continuing to write for established presses while they self-publish some of their own work. If you’re a new IBPA member, you may be among the many authors who recently reacquired rights to out-of-print backlist titles. Other members have discovered that their decades-old traditional contracts don’t cover e-books, and they are creating digital editions of titles whose print rights have not reverted to them. Then there are members who have great ongoing relationships with their publishers—but also the urge to create something outside the current publishers’ areas, or something with a more limited market than a current publisher can afford to pursue. Still others of us, having had little control as published authors, want the experience of publishing our own titles. Each situation requires learning about the transition from author to publisher—often while continuing in the author-only role at a bigger publishing house.
From Being Published to Being a Publisher
Recognizing that a market still exists for his original titles, and that his early contracts did not cover e-books, is what led Warren Adler into publishing. His novel The War of the Roses, issued by Warner Books in 1981, was the basis for a 1989 film starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, and Danny DeVito; in 2006, it became a stage adaptation Adler himself wrote. Disappointed with major publishers, which Adler says are “reluctant to invest in non-genre novels, even by brand-name novelists,” he acquired his 27-book backlist from such houses as Warner, Macmillan, Viking, Kensington, and Putnam in the late 1990s. It wasn’t an easy process, because the books were still in print, but it was easier than it would be now, Adler says. “I came in under the radar. Today, publishers would never give back the rights to titles still in print.” In 1998, he established Stonehouse Press with e-book editions of the titles. “I didn’t want to be subject to the traditional business model, where a backlist title languishes after just a year, and since becoming an independent publisher, I have had the opportunity to reissue my novels and short stories.” Today, Adler reports, “My books are once again being optioned and in development with major film producers, and The War of the Roses sequel and my Fiona Fitzgerald mystery series may soon be developed as a television series.” Understanding contracts from an author’s vantage point is one of the strengths that Nat Gertler believes he brings to his current role as publisher at About Comics in Camarillo, CA. “By being an author on contract before becoming a publisher, I learned how typical publishing contracts look to the author: filled with provisions that seem to create opportunities for unfair treatment.” In the author contracts he writes, he avoids provisions he considers ridiculous, and he discusses others with authors. “If there's something scary-looking that I know to be necessary, I take time to explain that provision before asking the writer to sign anything,” he reports.
Gertler, whose first published works were comics and books for series such as the Complete Idiot’s Guides, continues to work on contract for Little, Brown, Fantagraphics, and other publishers, mostly on titles about Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. He also stays sensitive to what his authors know about market potential. “I've learned to keep authors informed about possible new markets for their books; the authors appreciate being in the loop, and can sometimes be quite helpful in finding and using these markets.” After years of working for newspapers and magazines, Larry Edwards had a book published by Ventana Communications Group, a division of International Thomson Publishing, in 1998. His Official Netscape Internet Business Starter Kit—The Eight Essential Steps for Launching Your Business on the Net, was in print for at least a couple of years, and during that time he worked on another nonfiction title. “A major New York publisher wanted it,” he reports, “but due to the subject—an unresolved murder investigation—its legal department spiked the deal.” The same thing happened with other publishers, and by 2010, having met other frustrated authors, he formed the San Diego-based Wigeon Publishing. Its first titles, both issued print-on-demand, were by others. A year ago, he self-published for the first time. Dare I Call It Murder? A Memoir of Violent Loss sold more than 6,000 copies in the first six months. This year he’ll publish at least one title by another author. There’s no guarantee of success in publishing, Edwards says he’s learned, even when your publisher is well established. The division that published his first book “went out of business the week it came off the press, and the corporate execs shuffled my book to another division within the company,” he recalls. “But that division had no ‘ownership’ of my book and it languished in obscurity; marketing was nonexistent and the book never earned back the advance.” Although Edwards believed that his background gave him the technical and editorial skills needed to establish a publishing company and the connections to get books sold, several aspects of publishing shocked him. “The biggest surprises were the challenge and the cost of distributing a book. Distributors expect large discounts and only take books on consignment. Even then, they may not be interested in an indie-published book. They expect a detailed marketing plan and an investment in marketing and promoting the book. Retail bookstores presented similar challenges.” Another issue: the difficulty in getting books reviewed in respected publications. “Although the attitude is changing, the established outlets for reviewing books cater to the big publishers,” Edwards believes. “Going from author to publisher reinforced what I had been telling authors,” he says—“Marketing is everything, and it takes as much or more time as writing the book. The marketing plan needs to be devised, budgeted, and implemented well in advance of publication—six months to a year—for a book to have a reasonable chance at financial success.” For those who expect digital books and print-on-demand to eliminate up-front costs, Edwards provides a wake-up call. “Even with the seemingly low overhead of POD and e-books, publishing a professional product requires an investment in editing, graphic design, marketing, promotion, and distribution. Publishing other authors’ work requires some serious forethought and number-crunching, and maybe a lawyer. And it requires drawing up a contract so each party knows what to expect and how the income, if any, will be divvied up.” Yes, he agrees, there is no printing cost for an e-book, but with POD, the only difference is that printing costs are incremental. “In the long run, that higher per-unit cost of POD printing can eat up much of the profit—if not all of it—if the retail price is too low.” Like Edwards, Fay Klingler was shocked by the costs that publishing entails. Klingler established Nutrire Fiducia Productions in Draper, UT, to reissue her 1982 inspirational booklet A Mother’s Journal when she reacquired the rights, and to issue two new titles, A Woman's Power: Threads That Bind Us to God, and the LDS Grandparents’ Idea Book. Buying Adobe’s CreativeSuite to format her books, buying ISBNs, and paying copyright fees was just the beginning. “I didn’t realize the number of pieces my little pie of income would be cut into—fees to an editor, discounts to the distributor and bookstores, and the cost of promotions.” Dealing with an overseas printer was another challenge. “Yes, the price was much better than the quotes I received locally,” Klingler says. “However, I lost some control over the product delivery time through their template errors, customs, and trucking to the delivery point.”
Julia Dye and her husband, Dale Dye, got into publishing when her book Backbone: History, Traditions, and Leadership Lessons from Marine Corps NCOs, was dropped by Osprey Publishing. “It was great getting an advance to work on the book,” Dye says. “The terms were quite good; the publisher did a bit of publicity, and the book was distributed by Random House in the U.S.” But, after less than a year, Osprey executives decided the title didn’t fit with its usual topics. “They didn't think they could market it effectively.” Osprey granted Dye’s request to return the rights, and the couple established Warriors Publishing Group in North Hills, CA, to reissue her book as well as her husband’s related out-of-print fiction. “It's gone extremely well,” she says. “We've partnered with Open Road Media to distribute our e-books; we've collected wonderful (and profitable) titles, and we are very happy to be in control of our own writing.” If you’re considering following this couple’s example, “You have to have tons of self-discipline,” Julia Dye cautions. “No one will be giving you deadlines.” And, she adds, you need to recognize there’s a lot of work you have to handle, either by yourself or with a team. At a minimum, you have to have “an amazing editor, cover artist, layout designer, and beta readers you trust.” Demand not only outstanding cover art, but a cover that looks good in miniature, she advises. “Remember that the cover has to be gripping in Amazon thumbnail size. We no longer have the luxury of most of our sales coming from someone holding the book at a store. I've seen a lot of thumbnails where I can't read the book's title or the author's name.” Like Dye, Janice Holly Booth notes that being published by a well-established press has benefits. There are also costs. Her travel memoir, Only Pack What You Can Carry, was published by National Geographic in 2011. “Working with a traditional publisher introduced me to what makes a book successful. But it came at a price—shifting deadlines, copious re-writes (often multiple editors giving different directions), and loss of creative control.” So, says Booth, when she wrote a true-crime story, “I knew I would not be able to endure the traditional process: I was too close to the material to agree to any sort of censorship or interference and I wanted control of the timing. My goal was one year from start of writing to release, a timeline not possible in the traditional publishing world.” Even with the tight schedule, this Charlotte, NC, author-turned-publisher used a process with a checkpoint, which she felt sure could guarantee success. “I used ten beta readers at the half-way point and they all returned the same verdict, which meant a major rewrite was in order,” she explains. “The process was arduous but curiously stressless because I did not have three editors shoving me in three different directions.” Booth, who used CreateSpace for both paperback and e-book formats, calls the creative control with self-publishing “joyful.” And, she adds, “my royalties are ten times higher than with a traditional contract; I eclipsed the lifetime earnings of my first book within six months.”
Filling Two Roles at Once
Marketing. As Larry Edwards said, it’s everything. And knowing how she’ll get a new book to its target audience is essential for veterinarian Carin Smith when she’s deciding whether to offer a manuscript to a publisher or publish it herself. Based in Peshatin, a small central Washington town, Smith Veterinary Consulting & Publishing issues professional titles. “My niche business books for veterinarians have a higher price point and it makes sense to publish them myself since I know the market, I’m a speaker, and I can distribute through veterinary channels,” Smith notes. Her titles include The House Call Veterinarian’s Manual, a business guide for how to start a house call practice, and Career Choices for Veterinarians, targeted to graduate vets who are actively looking for jobs. For books with broader markets, including Career Choices for Veterinary Technicians, Smith works with publishers such as AAHA Press. That book is targeted to high school students, current vet techs, and people considering mid-career transitions; it accordingly has lower price points and different marketing requirements, Smith explains. “That’s an example of a book where I really don’t want to deal with direct sales. It’s not worth selling it myself. I’d just get irritated with high-school moms calling to place orders, and the marketing would be much broader in scope, taking more time and effort.” Eventually, Smith says, she’ll reevaluate whether e-book options mean she can profitably self-publish more titles. “Theoretically I should be able to create and sell directly any and all books to any and all markets without the inventory headaches,” she says, “but still there would be the marketing issues that are nice to share with another publisher.” I have to agree. Having just launched my first self-published title since 1998, I find that the dramatically changed industry makes marketing feel like much more work—even for a book about marketing. My first nine self-published titles were regional in scope, and the Puget Sound area had dozens of independent bookstores where the titles were hand sold and where I could make presentations. Today the market seems extremely fragmented, especially for a title for readers nationwide. Although email and social media advertising appear to make promotion less expensive than postal mail and print media advertising, they are usually less effective in the cluttered marketplace. As many publishers have pointed out, discoverability is a huge challenge. Major book review media still seldom mention titles from micro-publishers. And, as an upcoming Independent article will show, the effects of publicity are often limited, both in terms of number of titles sold and in terms of duration.
To be successful in publishing, the professionals interviewed for this series advise:
Understand your contracts.
If you’re an author, understand what control you do retain, what rights you’re selling, and at what point those rights can revert to you. If you’re a publisher, make sure you and your authors understand the responsibilities of each party, the deadlines, and the compensation.
Carefully evaluate manuscripts and their authors.
When you’re expanding from self-publishing to issuing others’ work, “choose wisely, making sure that their work fits comfortably in your own publishing niche,” says Réanne Hemingway-Douglass, now of Cave Art Press in Anacortes, WA. With her husband, Don Douglass, she founded (and recently sold) Fine Edge Productions to publish mountain biking guides.
Run the numbers before you make commitments.
If you’re publishing, examine projected costs and market prices for competing titles to determine whether a project is financially feasible. Use guidance from this series of articles and many other Independent articles available at ibpa-online.org, as well as guidance available via the IBPA LinkedIn page. If you’re an author considering a contract, estimate your costs, which may include travel and research, as well as the costs for what you’re obligated to provide, which often includes photographs and other graphics, and factor in fees both for the images themselves and for the reproduction rights.
Be realistic about sales.
A couple of years ago, the Huffington Post reported that the average U.S. nonfiction book now has annual sales of fewer than 250 copies, and lifetime sales of fewer than 3,000 copies. Although a title that sold poorly with an inattentive large publisher may sell well when its author takes over and markets it effectively, it’s also true that a title that sold well through an established press may have limited sales the second time around if its market has been saturated or if distribution options have changed for the worse.
Set high standards.
“Your books should be indistinguishable from those published by the Big Kids in New York—even outshine those books,” says Larry Edwards. “Too many indie-published books,” he points out, “have embarrassing errors or poor-quality production and design, and that reflects on all of us.”