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Brave New Books 

Hudson Valley Self-Published Authors Take the Reins

click to enlarge From top, left to right: - Gary Allen, Douglas Nicholas, - Joan Reynolds, Jay Wenk, - Sheila Dinaburg-Azoff, Erin Sinnott, Polly M. Law, Donald Rothschild, Bill Ayton, Robert B. Wyatt, Ina Claire Gabler, Graham Blackburn, Dara Lurie, Brent Robison, Puja Thompson, Paul Keskey, Garnette Arledge, Laurie Boris. - ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel
  • From top, left to right:Gary Allen, Douglas Nicholas, Joan Reynolds, Jay Wenk, Sheila Dinaburg-Azoff, Erin Sinnott, Polly M. Law, Donald Rothschild, Bill Ayton, Robert B. Wyatt, Ina Claire Gabler, Graham Blackburn, Dara Lurie, Brent Robison, Puja Thompson, Paul Keskey, Garnette Arledge, Laurie Boris.

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. 

Paul Keskey printed his lushly illustrated fantasy A Field Guide to Chrysalies: They're Not Faeries! at Wisconsin's employee-owned Worzalla Press. He used a Kickstarter campaign to raise printing costs, as did fellow artist Polly M. Law (The Word Project: Odd & Obscure Words Illustrated).

Several local publishers offer assisted self-publishing to authors eager for a steady professional hand on the tiller. Rebecca McBride (Traveling Between the Lines) and Shadow Bay's creators chose Epigraph, the self-pub wing of Rhinebeck's Monkfish, which offers editorial and design services and distribution through Lightning Source/Ingram; packages currently start at $1,297. Judy Staber published her memoir Silverlands: Growing Up at the Actors' Orphanage through Troy Book Makers, which custom prices each project.

Though most authors launched their books in both print and e-book formats, Gary Allen's e-only "botanical humor" book Terms of Vegery "had so many color illustrations that its cost would have been prohibitive for a printed book." Brent Robison, who published others' books under his Bliss Plot imprint before self-publishing his story collection The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility with Lulu.com, lauds Smashwords as "a great free DIY e-book service with wide distribution," noting that "next time I'll start with a Kindle e-book, then add other e-book formats through Smashwords. Then I'll launch the paperback."

The 28 survey respondents reported up-front costs ranging from "none" (for e-book uploads) to upward of $10,000 (for professionally edited and designed projects, and/or bulk book orders). Most authors invested between $200 and $900, but there's an apples-to-oranges quality to price comparisons. It's wise to do lots of research, consulting experienced authors and networking websites like Indies Unlimited. Dara Lurie, who leads writing workshops, advises first-timers to "embrace the DIY spirit as much as possible, but understand where and when to spend money for outside services." Money that makes your book better is money well spent, avoiding such gaffes as typographical errors, inadequate margins and gutters (white space at the centerfold), ugly fonts, and spines without titles and author names.

Getting it Out There

Publicity is a challenge for self-published books, although—with the exception of certain anointed Big Books—most trade publications don't get major reviews or ad campaigns either. Ina Claire Gabler (whose Unexpected Return is reviewed here) points out, "The average writer needs to exert the same energy for promotion whether the book is published by a commercial house or is self-published." 

Self-published authors promote via Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads, author websites, blogs, mass e-mails, press releases, and review copies to local media, Amazon author pages, YouTube book trailers, radio interviews, Kindle free promos, group readings, postcards and bookmarks, and old-fashioned word-of-mouth. Some pursue niche-marketing strategies. Carol O'Biso (A Well-Seasoned Life) held a book signing at Little Italy's American Italian Museum, which sent out 8,000 invitations. Erica Manfred targeted Jewish media for Interview with a Jewish Vampire. Joan L. Reynolds and Sheila Dinaburg-Azoff met with parents' groups to promote Parenting in Your Own Voice: Finding Your Inner Parent to Bring Out the Best in Your Child. Polly M. Law sells The Word Project at galleries showing her work, as does fine-art photographer Juliet R. Harrison, who printed Equiscapes and four other books with Blurb.com

Getting books into stores can be difficult. Big-box retailers like Barnes & Noble rarely stock self-published books, citing low sales. Most independent bookstores sell them on consignment (60 percent to the author is standard), and some will host author events.

Jackie Kellachan of Woodstock's Golden Notebook says, "We're thrilled to have author events for self-published authors, if they're truly local, and it's a really good way to sell books." Scheduling an event ensures visibility on the store's website, press releases, and e-mail blasts. Books are often displayed in the window as the event nears, and Golden Notebook keeps them on consignment for six months. Kellachan advises authors to e-mail in advance, rather than showing up unannounced with a box of books.

Rhinebeck's Oblong Books & Music also works with self-published authors, but charges $50 to display five copies for four months and an additional $150 for events. Suzanna Hermans defends the fees, saying, "I can't afford to give feature placement to a book if it's not going to move. We need to have the author invested, urging friends to buy it at Oblong instead of online. As long as their books keep selling, we'll keep them in stock."

Industry-wide, the expectation is that self-published books rarely sell more than 100 copies. "This is not a way to fame and fortune," cautions Brent Robison. "It is merely a way to get your writing to its potential readers." But half of the local respondents have already sold more than that number, and several have broken out big.

Literary agent Jean Naggar self-published her memoir Sipping from the Nile in 2008, with CreateSpace forerunner BookSurge. She did many readings and speaking engagements, earning enough sales and five-star reviews to attract an offer from Amazon's Encore Publishing platform. With the support of Encore's marketing and distribution team, she now reports sales of some 20,000 e-books, print copies, and audiobooks.

Naggar is not the only local author to make such a leap. Rhinebeck native Lucy Knisley's graphic novel French Milk, which launched with Epigraph, was snapped up by Simon & Schuster. And Rosendale poet Douglas Nicholas's self-published debut novel, the medieval thriller Something Red, was recently reissued in hardcover to glowing reviews, as the first of a two-book deal with Atria; he's currently writing a sequel.

What does Robert Wyatt, the publishing veteran with the house full of books, make of all this? "This time of reinvention provides profound opportunities for writers. Oh, the joy!"

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