If your New Year's resolution includes publishing a book, take a deep breath. You can.
When the best-selling series of 2012 (billionaire, bondage; that one) started out as a piece of self-published fan fiction, it's clear that the publishing world has undergone a tsunami-like sea change. Woodstock's Robert B. Wyatt, a veteran editor with a glittering string of titles at Avon, Dell, Random House, and St. Martin's, says "no one knows" what the next wave will be. "People are not going to stop writing books; people are not going to stop reading books. But the way of making books will be different."
A generation ago, "self-publishing wasn't respectable," Wyatt recalls. "They had something called 'vanity presses'—you paid them to make your book and filled your upstairs room with hundreds of copies." That all changed with the advent of print-on-demand technology. Wyatt's upstairs room now sports a compact display of his twin novels Jam and the Box and The Fluffys and the Box, which he self-published without apology.
For many writers, self-publishing is no longer a last resort, but a way of taking control. This is part of a larger cultural shift: Musicians now build careers through YouTube promotion and self-produced downloads; visual artists sell artworks online. The DIY business model eliminates the middleman—the record label, the gallery owner, the publishing house—letting artists produce and promote their own work.
According to publishing newsletter Bowker, more than 235,000 self-published print and digital titles are released every year, and that figure keeps growing. But are authors pleased with the books they've created? How much did they spend on the process, and is their work reaching readers?
To find out, I sent a brief survey to more than two dozen area writers who've gone the self-publishing route. Their responses were as varied as their work, which includes literary fiction, nonfiction, memoir, poetry, plays, fantasy, children's books, art, humor, photography, self-help, and such nonpareil genrebenders as "fiction-ish epistolary memoir" (Betsy Robinson's Conversations with Mom) and "illustrated crime novel graphic hybrid" (Donald Rothschild and Bill Ayton's Shadow Bay).
Nearly half have released other books with traditional publishers. Most chose self-publishing for more offbeat personal projects, to forestall a collection of "glowing rejection slips," or for a sense of empowerment. "I wanted to see if I could do it," says novelist Laurie Boris (Drawing Breath), whose first novel came out with a small press. Graham Blackburn self-publishes fiction and a long list of woodworking titles, many first published by trade houses. He cites "more control—editorial and design; more profit, and better marketing strategy" as his reasons for making the switch. For first-time authors who don't have direct access to agents and editors, it may feel like the only viable choice.
Making the Book
Once you choose to self-publish, figuring out where to start can be daunting. Do you want a print book, an e-book, or both? Whichever you choose, you'll need an uploadable digital manuscript. Tech-savvy writers may do the formatting themselves, while others barter services with knowledgeable friends or hire freelance professionals. Stefan Bolz (The Three Feathers) spent $750 for New Paltz artist Matt Maley's striking cover design, and hired Donnie Light of ebook76.com to handle print layout and e-book conversion for an additional $280.
Others may prefer to avail themselves of the in-house editing, design, and technical services sold à la carte by many self-publishing companies, or choose an "assisted self-publishing" company that offers a full-service package.
Amazon's CreateSpace dominates self-published book production in much the same way that its mother ship dominates sales: More than half the respondents used it to produce their books. Satisfaction was generally high among those who chose its "free, fast, easy to use" DIY option. Those who paid for in-house services, à la carte, or in Total Design Freedom packages starting at $728, were somewhat more critical. Not everyone liked the offered cover and interior designs, and several requested multiple proofs to fine-tune the book's look. (Customer service got almost universal praise; One Hundred Thousand Lights author Garnette Arledge says, "They must have been hired for their calm in the face of the author's storm.")
Jay Wenk printed his memoir Study War No More with Lumina, which took nine months (most print books take just weeks to produce, and e-books are virtually instant). Robert Wyatt and Dara Joyce Lurie (Great Space of Desire: Writing for Personal Evolution) chose Lightning Source because of its solid reputation and distribution network through industry giant Ingram.