Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), and several Kindle ebooks.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Confessions of a Vanity-Pubbed Author

I should be ashamed, but I’m not. Some say that what I do is not legitimate—that nobody who is anybody in the publishing world will respect me. Do they want me to wear a scarlet letter—V for “vanity published”?

I confess my sin: I self-published my first book. Even worse, I used print-on-demand (POD) for the next three. Consequently, in the eyes of the some commercially published authors, I’m not a real author. I (ack! gasp!) paid to publish!

One woman, a book reviewer for the Charlottesville Daily Progress, wrote in the Virginia Writers Club newsletter, The Writer (October–December 2005) about self-published books:

. . . [S]everal self-published books come my way, and I have learned that they are not really books at all. Sheets of paper they are, sandwiched between covers, containing enough misguided, self-infatuated, ego-driven drivel to sink the heart of anyone who values language and plot.
Ouch! She continues:
Self-publishing is, if not for the birds, for the bird-brained. If one has talent, it will be recognized by those who pay coins of the realm for them to see the light of print. To believe otherwise is to be complicit with the fantasies of the self-published.
Reading between the clichés, I can tell she really doesn't like self-pubbed books.

Sure, I’d like to be legitimately published so my books would be in the big bookstores. I even tried—twice. The editors of these respectable publishing houses were nice enough. They liked my work, but they’d never heard of me. Why take a chance on an unknown who writes to a limited audience?

If I had an agent to pimp my work, maybe I could get the attention of commercial presses. Maybe if I were mainstream. Or Appalachian—that’s still hot now. Alas, my novel is set two counties too far east to be Appalachian. So what if my novel won a prize and a third of my first press run expense was covered by a grant? So what if it got great local reviews—and one national review? So what if at least four book clubs studied it and a local public radio station recorded it for the sight-impaired? It’s still self-published, and—like comedian Rodney Dangerfield—“I don’t get no respect.” At least his book, It’s Not Easy Being Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs, was published by HarperCollins, one of the biggies. His publisher is respectable.

Why did I go the self-publishing route? At the 2001 Mid-Atlantic Writers Conference, Writers Digest editor Melanie Rigney told me, “Self-publish. You’ll make more money.” I figured if the editor of a popular writing magazine didn’t think badly of self-publishing, it must be OK.

After I’d sold 500 copies and hit break-even, I made more than the average author at a small press earns in an advance. I bought a really nice computer, paid for another press run of thousand copies, and put a couple thousand into my bank account. My second press run has already paid for itself.

Despite the self-pub stigma, I’m doing OK—probably better than some authors who publish with small presses do. The late Janet Schaeffer, for instance, searched two years for a publisher for her From Shadwell to Poplar Forest before a small press in North Carolina paid her a hundred dollar advance for her well-written manuscript about Jefferson’s home. They printed her book so the type wasn’t straight on the page and her illustrations were dark and muddy. Then they slapped on a poorly designed cover that curls up at the edges. They must have spared every expense. At bookfests, she sold her own copies just like I sold mine. At least she was legitimately published, albeit badly.

My novel is printed on quality paper—I picked it myself when I visited the printer. I also picked both font type and size, so my words look good on the page. My cover is a bit bland because I saved money by not doing full color, but the cover doesn’t curl. On the back, a quote from the contest judge, Brad Burkholder, praises my work:
The writing is all but flawless. The story becomes painfully touching in places, and when all the threads are tied together at the end, the result is spell-binding, beautiful and emotionally moving. Through the course of time, the horse has been man’s greatest companion on earth, a point that those of our time do not fully understand. The novel’s use of the horse as a metaphor for human longing, human self-preservation—indeed, all of those traits within us that we are apt to call human—comes into clear focus only at the end, and when it does, the effect is breathtaking.
But my novel is self-published, so the quality of both content and paper don’t matter to some—in their eyes, my book is crap. How dare I call myself an author! Thus, I endure the shame of self-publishing.

When you’re disgraced, might as well go all the way. Thus, my second book is (Ack! Gasp!) Print-On-Demand. POD is an even easier way than self-publishing to get into print, though critics consider it even sleazier than self-publishing. Anyone with minimal computer skills and a few hundred dollars can do POD. Peevish Advice, a collection of my first two years worth of columns, is rural humor—such a tiny niche that legitimate publishers won’t take a chance on it—unless maybe Jeff Foxworthy wrote it. And even he isn’t selling so well anymore.

“Short stories are a hard sell,” Little, Brown editor, Geoff Shandler said at the 2004 James River Writers Conference. Hearing that, I didn’t feel bad that I’d POD’ed book #3—my collection of award-winning short stories, most of which had earned money from contest prizes or from the sale of first rights. Ditto for book #4, a collection of stories for young people.

As both a self-pubber and a PODer, I am my own pimp. I approach gift shops and bookstores and ask them to carry my books. However, because the POD I use has a buy-back option, several stores now order directly from my publisher; I rarely place books on consignment anymore.

Real publishers, I’m told, don’t allow authors to sell their own books. Real authors don’t go to book stores and plead with the owner to order books—or worse, sell books directly to the owner. Someone at the publisher’s takes care of all that. The only thing a real author published by a real publisher does is show up and sign books.

Small presses, I’d heard from several sources, are a step upward for the author wanna-be. They get books into bookstores! At the 2005 AWA conference, I met the editor-publisher of a small press that publishes Appalachian fiction. I looked at the books she had on display. They looked well-done.

“How much royalty do you pay?” I asked.

“Thirty per cent,” she said.

“Is that on cover price or net?” I asked. “And what is the average advance you pay authors?”

She looked a bit puzzled. “Cover price,” she finally said. And she admitted that being such a small press, they didn’t pay advances.

Thirty percent is doggone good, though, even without an advance. Then I asked the big question: “Do you have any problems getting your books distributed to bookstores.”

“We do have problems with that,” she admitted. “What we recommend is that the author buy his books at a thirty percent discount and sell them himself.”

Thirty percent! I can buy my POD books at a forty percent discount! Fifty percent on the first order. “Thank you,” I said. I didn’t tell her that my POD was a better deal.

At the same conference, I also talked to a marketing rep from a university press. I learned that they do very small runs and hope they will break even. They do some promoting—but not much—and they expect the manuscripts to already be edited before submission. I concluded that I’m better off with a POD than with a university press.

At the 2005 James River Writers Conference, I learned that not all publishing professionals look down on POD books. When audience member asked about POD publishing for poetry, Morgan Entreken, head honcho of Grove-Atlantic, admitted that commercial publishers were unlikely to buy poetry because of its limited audience and that POD could be way to go. “Two thousand dollars and iUniverse,” he said,” and you have the equivalent of a small press run.”

However, an elderly writer I know often makes disparaging remarks about POD books. When I checked the web site of his publisher, Greenwood/Praeger—whose high priced books are marketed primarily to libraries and academic institutions (a limited audience?)—I found that this press didn’t send its books to bookstores either. Their author’s FAQ makes it clear that authors will have to approach bookstores themselves. Regarding bookstore placement, the FAQ says this:

Most of the books on their shelves are from large trade publishers, who are able to provide the deep discounts (up to 55%) that they require. However, any bookstore—even the major chains—should be able to order your book directly from us. We recommend that you contact your local booksellers directly to encourage them to stock your book. Most are proud to support local authors, and are more responsive when they know you'll be checking up on them from time to time. They can contact our Director of Sales for discount and ordering information at any time.
Thus, even some legitimately published authors have to pimp their books. Maybe being a self-published/POD author isn’t so bad after all. I think I can live with the stigma.

But I don’t know about that scarlet letter. Red isn’t my best color.

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