One writer's self-publishing journey, bumps and all
The author of a memoir shares a wealth of practical tips and lessons learned
Published: December 7, 2009
|It sounded pretty simple when I first decided to do it—"it" being the self-publication of Kwa Heri Means Goodbye: Memories of Kenya 1957-1959, my book about living in what was then a British colony. |
I had landed in Kenya when my husband was posted to Nairobi by the U.S. Information Service. When he burst through the door one September night in 1957, I had no idea how the news he brought would change my life. In the next two years, my family and I would face attacks by safari ants, wild bees and a vicious monkey; visit African villages and travel over much of East Africa's wild bush country full of big game; get to know many of Kenya's rising young leaders; and be invited by the governor of Kenya to meet the Queen Mother of England.
I would also undertake a 300-mile safari that would change the course of my life. Kenya would uncover in me a strength and independence I didn't know I had, and lead to my entering graduate school and becoming a teacher and freelance writer.
Since then, I have co-authored a book, Discovering Marblehead, about my hometown of Marblehead, Mass., and my writing has appeared in many national newspapers, magazines and journals. But it is the self-publishing journey that I wish to share with you. My Kenyan memoir was published in final form in 2006. An earlier version of the book, with a different title, was a finalist for nonfiction in the 1997 Bakeless Literary Publication Prizes, sponsored by the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference of Middlebury College, and earned me a scholarship to the Breadloaf conference in Vermont.
|Tired of rejection|
Over the years I had had many of what we writers like to call "good rejections"—the personal letters from editors and agents who laud the writing, express interest in the topic, note its relevance to the times, and always end with a but … "But it's not right for our list at this time." "But it will probably not appeal to a wide market." "But books on Africa are not selling right now." There were also plenty of the standard rejections that are about as personal as the flyers you get in your daily mail addressed to Occupant.
Eventually I had had enough. I was tired of rejection.
At a writing conference in the summer of 2006, I heard a lot of talk about self-publishing, especially the advantages of the new print-on-demand (POD) companies. This kind of publishing was much more economical, it was said, with no warehouse full of expensive books sitting there unsold, and it was far easier than doing everything yourself, given the many services these companies offer.
Why not? I thought to myself. I'll do it!
|Finding a publisher|
The POD option had been in the back of my mind for some time, even before the writing conference, and I had been researching the various companies that offer this service. I had read articles in writing magazines, looked up companies on the Internet, checked which company's authors were earning the awards for best self-published books, and signed up for several company newsletters.
Once I had made the decision to self-publish, I narrowed my choice to two print-on-demand publishers: iUniverse and one other. Their prices and the publishing options they offered were similar, but I chose iUniverse (which is now part of Author Solutions Inc.). I found the other publisher's guide poorly organized and confusing, with three and a half pages in fairly fine print providing a dizzying list of options, and other information scattered on single sheets that were loose in a folder.
The iUniverse guide, in contrast, was clearly organized in sections with subheadings in red to delineate the various types of options. It moved me smoothly through each section, from publishing, editorial and marketing services to an outline of the production process, a chart on book pricing, a publishing checklist for manuscript submission, and a manuscript-to-book timeline. The layout helped enormously in easing me into the many decisions I soon faced.
After contacting iUniverse and requesting its publishing guide, I had a number of phone conversations and e-mail exchanges with my iUniverse publishing consultant, Phil, before any payment was required. There was no pressure to go with the company, and all my questions were freely and thoroughly answered. My phone messages and e-mails also got prompt attention.
I chose a "premium package" of services for $799 that included 14 options, one of which was an editorial evaluation that would prove very helpful. For an extra $200 I was able to add 100 graphics, consisting of photographs and maps. (Had I wanted to include only 50 graphics, the cost would have been $100.)
|The editorial evaluation|
At each step in the publishing process I was guided by one friendly editor after another. I was passed along from Phil to my publishing-services associate, Rachele, then to my editorial-services associate, Sarie, and finally to Mychelle from the post-publishing-services team.
The editorial evaluation helped me in several ways. A number of repetitions were pointed out—something the writer, who is so familiar with the text, can easily miss. One of the more important suggestions was that I find a way to combine some of my shorter chapters, which, in the published version, would have been only two or three pages long. Typos, misspellings and punctuation errors were also pointed out.
One thing not included in the editorial evaluation was an opportunity for a dialogue with the evaluator. I would have found it useful to discuss some of the suggestions and ask questions, but that was not an option. It was a take-it-or-leave it proposition.
I must admit that at that point I began to question what I was doing. When I received the editorial evaluation covered in my contract, it included the recommendation that I use the services of a content editor who could help me make the suggested changes. It was expensive—$1,373—and I was immediately suspicious. Was this just all about money after all? But the recommendation also stated that I was free to undertake the revisions myself, or hire an outside editor if I so chose, and to let iUniverse know when the book was ready to publish. So again—no pressure.
After a few days of thinking it over and conferring with other writers who knew my work, I decided to go ahead and do the editing myself. I made most of the suggested changes and also copy-edited the finished manuscript, after publishing associate Rachele urged me to take my time and be thorough. Corrections become expensive after the first three rounds of edits, which are free. (When the book was published, I realized the importance of her warning: Even after three readings for errors, I still found five I had missed.)
For the front-cover design I chose one of my own photos and requested a soft gold background to pick up a shade in the photo. When my first box of 15 books arrived (the number of free books included in my publishing package), I was completely satisfied with the graphic artist's finished design and with the background color of all but nine of the books, which were too pale. I contacted the publisher, was instructed to send a sample of the faded-looking cover, and nine books were shortly delivered to me with the correct background shade.
|A complicated process|
Did I say self-publishing sounded simple? It turned out to be far more complicated—and time-consuming—than I had imagined. But with so much help along the way from the publisher, I was able to do it.
The hard part came after the books arrived, and I had to find people to buy them. iUniverse offers considerable marketing advice, but I was so inexperienced and shy about pushing my book at first that I failed to take full advantage of its suggestions. I did send out several hundred postcards and e-mails announcing the book's publication to everyone in my address book and everyone else I had ever known or could track down.
As soon as the book came out, I began to schedule signings and readings wherever I could. It wasn't easy. I had to force myself to make the rounds of libraries and bookstores, introduce myself, and promote my book. Librarians were invariably friendly and gracious. At all but one of the 10 I visited or contacted, I was scheduled for a reading and a copy of the book was purchased for the library's collection.
Bookstores present a different problem for self-published authors. Their owners and managers vary a lot in how they view self-published books. Some will not put the books on their shelves at all. Others take books on consignment—at a 40 percent discount, which is what you, the author, pay most POD publishers. You make no profit; in fact, if you have paid shipping costs, you lose a little money. You do get your book placed on the bookstore shelf, however, and out there for the reading public to see and perhaps buy. And, perhaps, spread the word.
One way to get around this problem is to order a large quantity of books at a greater discount, or take advantage of periodic special offers from your publisher, i.e., the occasional 50-percent-off sale, or free shipping or extra books with the purchase of, say, 100 books.
There is also the opportunity (with iUniverse, at least) to buy your books at a 45 percent discount, provided you have scheduled a book "event" (a talk, reading, signing, etc.) and have entered it on the iUniverse events calendar.
The most profitable way to handle sales is to sell the book yourself. Buy the books on sale, or during a free shipping offer, or with the 45 percent discount for an event, and you will take home profits of up to 50 percent of the price of your book. For example, my book sells for $16.95. If I order it from iUniverse at 50 percent off, I pay $8.48 per book. Shipping costs $.75 per book (sometimes deferred during a special offer) and so my profit is $7.73 per book. Or if I buy the books at a 45 percent discount, my profit is $6.88.
I decided to place my book on consignment at only one bookstore—the one in my hometown, where I am known. The manager has so far taken 20 books on consignment, a few at a time, at a 40 percent discount. She also scheduled a signing for which she ordered 30 books from the distributor.
A nearby Barnes & Noble held a reading and signing, and this manager also ordered 30 books from the distributor for the event. At still another bookstore, a Borders Express, the manager liked the book's looks and topic so much that she scheduled me on the spot for a signing, ordered five books from the distributor to put on her shelves immediately, and then ordered an additional 30 books for the signing. In cases like these, when the bookseller orders the book from a distributor, the author receives royalties. My royalties from iUniverse are 10 percent of the amount the company receives from sales of the book.
How successful you are in getting your book into bookstores depends on the store manager, and you will never know until you try.
|The form-your-own-company option|
Having said all this about POD publishing, I now offer another option. It is one I will seriously consider for my next book should it fail to find a publisher. If you have the time, energy and willingness to do the research, you can form a publishing company and publish your book yourself.
This means finding your own printer, hiring your own graphic artist for the layout and cover design, buying your ISBN (International Standard Book Number), arranging for a book distributor to handle your book or being willing to distribute it yourself, getting your book listed on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble Web sites, and planning your own marketing campaign, including local appearances and a possible book tour (which you have to do anyway, no matter which way you self-publish). You can also hire your own publicist, but they are expensive.
One advantage of publishing your book yourself is that it may be cheaper that way, depending on how well you seek out bargains and negotiate prices. But the chief bonus is that you will be better able to sell your book to booksellers. One reason is that you can decide, based on your investment and how much profit you want to realize, what discount you are willing to offer. A friend who recently published her book herself offered it to booksellers at a 50 percent discount, which gave them a bigger profit than the usual 40 percent discount. She was able to do this because she found a local printer (which saved shipping costs, since she could pick up the books herself), had an artist friend do a painting for the cover, and found a graphic designer at a reasonable price.
Even more important, you can guarantee that you will buy back (at the same price) any unsold books after a specified period of time. This is a big advantage, since one obstacle to booksellers ordering self-published books from distributors is that they must order at least 20 books to get their 40 percent discount, and they cannot return the remainders, as they can with traditionally published books.
There's one other thing to be aware of when considering publishing your book yourself versus a POD company. Both iUniverse and Authorhouse, now owned by the same company, retain the rights to your book-production files. Should you wish to take your book elsewhere or reissue it yourself, you will have to buy back the files, sometimes costing several hundred dollars.
|Giving talks and readings|
Right now, I continue to market my book. Some of my book talks and readings are at senior centers, retirement communities and assisted-living facilities, which have led to some heartwarming experiences as well as some comic moments. The people who attend are friendly and appreciate my just being there—most of the time—and I usually sell a few books.
But I also have to be prepared for the unexpected. Recently, at an assisted-living residence, I was reading along at what I thought was tortoise pace, when one of the ladies requested that I slow down even more. "Our brains don't work that fast any more," she said.
Another white-haired woman who had been dozing off for a brief after-lunch nap suddenly opened her eyes, sat bolt upright, and announced loudly, "I don't LIKE to be read to!" Then promptly went back to sleep. No one took any notice and, suppressing a chuckle, I continued to read.
At another assisted-living facility my audience consisted of three elderly men. One was stone deaf; the second, a retired postal worker, wanted only to tell me his life story; and the third sat with his eyes closed, mumbling to himself until, after five minutes or so, he stood up and tottered out of the room, muttering, "Time to take my medicine." He never did come back.
The startling follow-up to this story is that the activities director at this same home called me recently and asked if I would return for another reading. Some of the residents who missed my earlier visit, she said, had heard how interesting my book was and would like another opportunity to hear me read. I have agreed to go back in a few weeks and look forward to discovering who my audience will be this time.
I have to say, though, that wherever I read, I almost invariably receive a warm and enthusiastic welcome, and perceptive questions and comments about the book and about Kenya. I come away energized and full of gratitude to the people who have attended.
An exception to these glowing experiences came during a street fair on a summer day in a neighboring town, where I set up a table with my books spread out on a bright length of African cloth, a stand-up poster featuring my book cover, and a couple of African carvings for atmosphere. All day I waited behind my table, as a steady stream of people passed by. Some were young couples with children, and most looked to be under 25. All of them passed me by without a glance, more interested in the stilt walker, drummers and cotton-candy vendors farther down the block. And who could blame them for not being interested in an old lady's book about ancient history? I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Late in the afternoon, a friend came by and perhaps out of pity, bought one copy.
But I learned my lesson. I won't go to that street fair again.
Fortunately it isn't usually like that. One of my more memorable experiences was a visit to the tiny town of New Ipswich, N.H. I drove there on a soft September Saturday afternoon, along country roads, past apple orchards and horse farms. New Ipswich, when I reached it, was a crossroads with a gas station, a bank, a convenience store, a pizza parlor, and the small, red wooden library built in 1887. At this one and only intersection in town, the huge billboard that loomed over it stopped me in my tracks and almost caused me to run off the road.
"DOROTHY STEPHENS," it proclaimed in big letters. "MEMORIES OF KENYA: 1957-1959." Saturday, September 21, 1:30 P.M.
Despite such prominent publicity, my audience consisted of only about a dozen people, among them a white-haired lady bent over a walker, a smartly dressed gray-haired woman in a tailored suit, and a youngish couple with two teenage boys. I noticed the boys while I was reading and wondered why they were there. I asked them later if they'd come willingly or under duress. They looked at me blankly and didn't answer, but their father said, "We've been down to Walmart and they were in the truck with us, so they didn't have any choice." Which answered my question.
Though I may be a long way from being a well-known author, I have had the satisfaction of seeing my book in print and of having several hundred people like it enough to buy it and read it.
And I did, after all, have my 15 minutes of fame, with my name on a billboard one Saturday afternoon in New Hampshire.
Dorothy Stephens is a freelance writer who lives in Marblehead, Mass. Web: www.dorothylstephens.com.
--Posted Dec. 7, 2009