Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - August 6, 2010

Getting the word out

Local authors take the initiative and choose to publish themselves

by Carol Blitzer and Karla Kane

What writer hasn't dreamt of holding that bound volume in hand, relishing the fresh-ink aroma, standing with pride at the podium of a local bookstore reading his or her own words to a loving audience?

All across the country writers today are not letting rejection by traditional publishers stop them from getting their works in print. In 2009 alone, nearly 290,000 books were included in the publishing bible, Books in Print. But about a million books are available — mainly through nontraditional means, whether online, self-published or through micro-presses, according to R.R. Bowker, which compiles statistics on book publishing.

Why are so many authors choosing to do it themselves? Because they can.

Technology is a huge factor, providing heretofore undreamed-of ease between the written word and the printed page.

For some, it's simply the speed, availability, ease and affordability of the self-publishing process. No longer are people required to shell out many thousands of dollars to invest in pre-printed book inventory.

For others it's control, the ability to have more say-so in the ultimate product — down to the design of the cover and photo on the book jacket.

And, the role of the traditional publisher has changed over time.

"If a publisher isn't going to do much in terms of publicizing, marketing and distribution — actually get it into bookstores — one should look at the self-publishing option," advised Tiburon literary agent Amy Rennert, who works mostly with traditional publishers. She says self-published authors have had as good if not better experience as authors who went through traditional publishers.

"What's happening is, because self-publishing is exploding, it's diminishing the negative reputation it had. The prejudice against self-publishing is dwindling," noted Brent Cunningham, operations director for Berkeley nonprofit Small Press Distribution.

Ultimately, some authors hold out hope that their self-published works will be snapped up by a traditional publisher who will pick up the marketing baton.

 

"Sometimes the reason to self-publish is people want to move quickly," Rennert, who represents a dozen New York Times best-selling authors, said of the trend.

She is working with an elderly gentleman on a short, nonfiction book geared for people in their 50s or older who are looking at housing issues. He wanted the book out within a year, she said.

"This would never happen if he tried to sell to Random House or Harper Collins or another publisher. Realistically, you're looking at a minimum of a year after a book is sold, sometimes two years before it's in stores," she said.

That was one of the compelling reasons why Palo Alto author Joan Bigwood turned to Amazon.com's BookSurge (now merging with CreateSpace — see sidebar) for her first published fiction.

Bigwood (aka Joanie King) spent about two years writing and rewriting "Co-opted," which deals with the twists and turns in the life of a local woman, or, to put it simply, "about the lighter side of bankruptcy, infidelity and dementia," the author said. She got the idea for "Co-opted," her debut book, when considering her own experience as a parent at a Palo Alto cooperative nursery school.

But after spending hours pitching it to agents and reviewers, she came across a message in her spam e-mail folder advertising self-publishing online. Suddenly, she found a way to get her book out in time to show to her terminally ill mother.

Adele Langendorf, at 82, didn't think she had enough time to go the conventional publishing route: sending queries to literary agents, waiting for acceptance by a publisher, going through a two- to three-year editing process.

So she decided to self-publish her first novel, "The Shipyard Murders," a mystery set in the Portland shipyards during World War II, inspired by Rosie the Riveter. With the help of literary agent Rennert, from whom she took a writing class, she invested about $3,000 to see her name in print.

Today she spends about two hours each morning moving forward on her next novel, incorporating the two main characters from "The Shipyard Murders." She's been very encouraged by feedback from her readers. Her favorite comment, she said, is: "I couldn't put it down. I stayed up all night reading it."

Langendorf said: "Writing is my passion. I do it because I love it. I think it keeps me young."

Likewise, Palo Altan Lynn Jacobson decided to self-publish his "Surviving Five Daughters," also through BookSurge, after sending inquiries out to 10 publishers and agents and receiving only generic form letters of rejection in return.

"I found that agents don't much like humor; they want tragedies," he said. "There's something inhuman about the publishing business. Plus, (with a traditional publisher) it can take two years for the book to come out after you sign the contract and you have no control."

His book came out a year and a half ago, and he said he wasn't worried about sales. "I said, 'I'm guaranteed to sell five copies or they're out of the will," he joked, referring to his titular offspring.

Jacobson's humorous and poignant adventures in daughter-raising form the basis of his book, which is mostly memoir and part guide for fellow parents.

"I had all these family stories being told over and over and my wife said, 'You ought to write this down,'" he said. After taking a writing class at Avenidas, Jacobson, 73, did just that, with the hopes that his family and friends would cherish the tales and that other parents would relate with his foibles. In parenting, he said, "you have to have a sense of humor."

Once he chose the self-publishing route, Jacobson had the book finished and for sale within three months of signing up with BookSurge. He spent around $2,800 including costs for a designer and two rounds of editing, plus an initial order of 20 print copies.

He has since ordered 300 more and has only 60 to 70 left, along with another 300 sold via Amazon.com.

Despite the time involved, some authors choose to hold out for a traditional publisher.

Suruchi Mohan, a Los Altos author, worked with an agent for five years before her "Divine Music" was finally published by a small press (see sidebar).

"The good thing about journalism was you wrote and got published the next week," she said, contrasting her earlier writing with her fiction.

 

Marketing a book for an amateur can be tricky. But, even with a traditional publisher, it's a role that writers are required to play.

"Books do not sell like iPods," said Cunningham, whose Small Press Distribution (SPD) handles 10,000 books a month, including Mohan's from Bayeaux Arts, Inc., a Calgary-based small publisher.

"There's a trend toward writing becoming a main element of marketing. They all have to go on tours now, have to shake a lot of hands, have to 'hand-sell' that thing directly," he said.

Although Small Press has an informal rule about not distributing self-published books, there's a very fine line between some of the micro-presses and self-publishing, he said.

"Part of our mission is to give access to small deserving literary publishers who couldn't get for-profit distribution," Cunningham said, noting that Small Press is the only nonprofit distributor of books in the country.

"We carry presses that are tinier that others won't consider," selling them to bookstores on consignment, he said. Small Press takes the risk and is paid only when the bookstore sells the book.

"Marketing has become much more important than mere availability," Cunningham said. "If you publish with even a very small press, there are at least two people trying to shout about how great the book is. There are plenty of self-publishers who are very active, very good at generating publicity, know how to use blogs to attract attention, and outsell titles that SPD carries."

Joan Bigwood, who used her own design team and editor, had "Co-opted" completed and available within six months, costing her around $1,000. She's now made that money back and then some, approaching nearly 500 copies of the novel sold.

"I'm in the black. The rest is gravy," she said.

To sell those hundreds of copies, Bigwood takes hands-on initiative. She gives talks to local women's groups and book clubs, sells copies from her car trunk and sells them on consignment at local bookstores Kepler's and Books Inc. It took six to eight weeks to "seal the deal" with Kepler's, she said. She also pitches the book via e-mail to friends, online groups and "local mommies" — in addition to agreeing to newspaper interviews.

Getting out the book's core message of "building community" is important to Bigwood, and the reaction has been strong, she said.

To score the positive blurbs on the back cover of "Co-opted," Bigwood turned to some of her "friends in high places" — authors and journalists, including her Stanford writing professor, to whom she reached out and asked for support.

"Getting reviews is not easy — I approached many more than I got," she said.

She isn't finished promoting the book, conceding that there is more to be done, especially using technology and social media. "I don't know anyone who's read it digitally. I need to get more into blogging and marketing. My 13-year-old is going to be my publicist," she said, laughing.

Langendorf is clearly not in it for the money.

Working through Amazon's CreateSpace, she opted for the most streamlined package (she lined up the book designer and copyeditor herself). She pays $3.95 per copy, which they print on demand. She can then sell the copies through independent bookstores for $12.95. She's already had book signings at Books Inc. in Palo Alto's Town & Country Village and M is for Murder in San Mateo, as well as at Book Passage in Corte Madera and at her local retirement community. She's spoken to two book clubs, and the book is available on Amazon.

"The good news is it's much better now than before because of print-on-demand technology. In the past, to get a good price per book, you needed to print thousands. Now you can start by printing 200 books," Rennert added.

"Adele's financial commitment was less than $5,000. She will make somewhere between three and five times as much for each book sold," Rennert said. With a $13 sticker price, Lagendorf would have earned about a dollar per copy through a traditional publisher, but makes $3 to $4 per book sold now, she said.

"I'll never break even," Langendorf laughs, adding: "At my age it's somewhat of an indulgence. I didn't expect the response to be this strong."

Although money isn't a motivating factor, Langendorf said she was thrilled to report she'd sold 100 books so far.

Unlike some authors, Jacobson has not been aggressive with his marketing of the book. "I give some away and some sell by word of mouth, I don't do a whole lot," he said. "I don't want to waste time marketing; I've got other books to write!"

He said he looked into selling at local bookstores but found the wholesale markup rate unfavorable. Instead, he finds opportunities for readers simply by meeting folks in everyday life.

"When I meet someone who has daughters, I give them my card," he said. One daughter, a physician, sells copies out of her office. And despite his somewhat passive approach, the book has a dozen positive comments on its Amazon.com page.

For Jacobson, who is working on a sequel, his venture into publishing has been a success. "I like the book. I'm pleased," he said. "The average book sells 65 copies. Two hundred puts you in the top 5 percent of books sold and I'm pushing 400."

And self-publishing is no longer the vanity option it once was, since digital readers such as Kindle have taken off in the mainstream, he added.

"I don't need to be a famous author. Really my true objective was to write for my daughters. I write for the people who enjoy the stories."

 

More than 20 people showed up to hear Adele Langendorf talk about her "Shipyard Murders" at M is for Mystery in San Mateo, owner Ed Kaufman said. Kaufman is usually reluctant to stock self-published books, but now he said he plans to order more.

"The problem with self-published books is it's difficult to separate the good ones from the others, unless you read them," he said, noting that you have to rely on some independent person's judgment.

In Langendorf's case, "I knew Amy (Rennert) as a prominent literary agent. She has judgment," he said.

"I don't have a prejudice against self-publishing. I just can't separate the wheat from the chaff," he added.

"Self-publishing is kind of tricky," agreed Lori Haggbloom, book buyer for Books Inc. in Town & Country Village. "It's not carried through normal channels, not returnable."

But she said she's open to local authors or topics of local interests, such as "Nice Day for a Stroll" by the Palo Alto Historical Association and "Under the Oaks: Two Hundred Years in Atherton," a town history by Pamela Gullard and Nancy Lund.

Today, Haggbloom carries about 15 titles on consignment for about three months.

"A lot of them don't do much, but local authors do really well, if they bring their own mailing lists, especially with events. The key there is the authors need to do their own publicity," she said.

Kepler's in Menlo Park also stocks self-published books, and does some book-signing events, according to book buyer Frank Sanchez.

The key criteria for the 30 self-published books on the shelves today are that they have an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) assigned, are bound and the author will accept 40 percent of the price. The books are taken on consignment for about two months.

 

Even with successful self-publishing, some authors still crave the affirmation of acceptance by traditional publishers.

"Self-publishing is not for sissies," said crime author David Carnoy, who achieved the dreams of many a self-publisher: first, gaining many readers with a self-published edition, then scoring a two-book deal from a traditional publisher.

Carnoy, a Palo Alto native who now lives in New York City, self-published his medical thriller "Knife Music" last year. After being on the market for four months, the novel was snatched up by The Overlook Press in April 2009. Its new edition came out July 8 of this year.

Carnoy also works as an editor at tech hotspot CNET.com. He has a degree in journalism as well as an MFA in creative writing ("It doesn't do you much good," he said of his degree, laughing).

He was able to use innovative modern technology and social media to his book's advantage, a strategy he said will be key for future writers looking for self-publishing success. Carnoy wrote about his experience with self-publishing for CNET in an article entitled, "Self-publishing a book: 25 things you need to know," available online.

"I figured, I know about tech and I saw an opportunity to write about my book as a test case," he said.

The edgy "Knife Music" gained some further attention when it was initially rejected as a free download by Apple for containing "objectionable content." Soon, tech blogs and other media were discussing the book as an example of censorship, and buzz for the novel grew. A piece on a New York television station attracted the eye of Overlook, and the rest is history.

"Once Apple gets involved, it generates interest," Carnoy said. Eventually the book made it through the Apple process and, as a free app, soared to the top of the charts, with 1,000 downloads a week.

"It was number 7 in free downloads — right behind the Bible," he said.

"Knife Music" also made it to the number-one spot on the Kindle e-reader legal-thriller chart. Readers downloaded more than 17,000 iPhone and 7,000 Sony eBook copies before it was removed to prepare for republication.

The plot of "Knife Music" involves the suspicious suicide of a 16-year-old girl and the surgeon accused of having inappropriate relations with her. "It's not a cookie-cutter mystery," Carnoy said, "It's unpredictable." It's also local, set in Menlo Park, Stanford and Palo Alto.

He spent nearly a decade writing the book, getting and working with an agent, rewriting and editing the book and, despite initial interest, facing around 20 rejections from publishers before deciding on the self-publishing route.

Carnoy used Amazon.com's BookSurge to put out "Knife Music" and said he "tried to spend as little money as possible" in the process. He estimates his costs at around $7,000, including BookSurge's fees, marketing costs and payment to editors and designers. Thanks to his downloading successes, he said he had broken even before the book was picked up by Overlook Press.

"I wasn't in it for the money. It's very difficult to make a living," he said. "But it's really cool to have people all over the world downloading and enjoying the book."

 

Taking Carnoy's experience as an example, is the future bright for self-publishing?

"It is and it isn't," he said. "It's so easy to do now, so there are so many books out there; it's difficult to stand out and get noticed," he said. "It requires a lot of energy."

Carnoy's advice for his fellow authors considering the self-publishing route is, first and foremost, to "start with a good book. Make sure you believe what you're selling is good."

While many dream of seeing their books in print, lining bookstore shelves, Carnoy believes the emphasis should be primarily on digital editions, both to keep costs down and to attract readership through new media opportunities — even if it means giving the book away for free some of the time.

"I wouldn't worry too much about print" (other than some personal copies for posterity), he said, acknowledging the pride involved with showing off a physical project but warning that it's increasingly difficult to get independent books into stores.

"And develop your social-networking skills," he added, naming Facebook, Twitter and blogs as valuable tools for reaching out to potential readers. "Be relentless but polite."

For some, the satisfaction of seeing a book completed and available for sale is accomplishment enough, but for ambitious writers such as Carnoy, "self-publishing is still the minor leagues," he said. "The goal is to get to the next level."

And Joan Bigwood is still open to the idea that a traditional publisher may someday take interest in "Co-opted," or that it could be made into a successful film. "People have enjoyed it. There could be someone out there for it," she said.

"We will see more people self-publishing," Rennert said. "We're in the middle of a revolution in the book business and it's unclear how everything will shake out. More and more people will look at it as an option.

"(It's) no longer sell the book to Harper or put it in the drawer and never see it as a book. Everyone has options now," Rennert said.

Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be e-mailed at cblitzer@paweekly.com; Editorial Assistant Karla Kane can be e-mailed at kkane@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Robert T. Brewer, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 8, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Great story on the burgeoning self publishing phenomena. Like the way
It reached out to agents and authors for commentary. The big takeaway
(Getting marketing savvy in my dotage) is that everyone has a story to tell
And now its not up to Random House whether we tell it.


Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Now that you can take $5000 worth of computer and software and produce Gone With The Wind solo, new avenues of distribution are needed. No longer will artists be dependent on Capital Records or MGM to get before the public. The Samizdats changed Russia.


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