Friday, September 28, 2012

Self-Publishing:--Is It for You? Four Writers Share Their Experiences with Releasing Their Own Books

Several years ago, I was browsing through a recent issue of The Writer's Chronicle, a wonderful publication from AWP.  AWP has been around for four decades, and its purpose is to help writers become better writers, usually through writing programs in schools and colleges.  It's a good place to stay current on publishing news, see what's new in writing classes, and cheer on colleagues who have just released their new books.

The Writer's Chronicle always has ads for these new books, and I turned to a full-page ad for a recent release by a multiple-award winning writer I admired.  I scanned the page to see who his publisher was, and there in bold type was Lulu Press--a self-publishing company.
Wow, I thought, self-publishing has come up in the world!  Not long after that, I began reading articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times about writers who were making their millions from self-published books, often landing a six-figure advance and contract from mainstream houses as a result.

It used to be called "vanity press," but now it's looking like a good deal for many writers.  Why?  What are the pitfalls and the benefits of publishing yourself?  Why are so many writers considering it a great option these days? 

A Doctor's Memoir
 Therese Zink began writing her memoir,  Confessions of a Sin Eater: A Doctor's Reflections, many years ago.  She says she started "writing seriously after the effort to have a child fell through in 1997 and after an international aid mission where my boss was kidnapped in 2001."  She worked on the story for years, she said, but "could not go deep enough," so she put that book aside and began shorter stories about doctoring.

Zink had success publishing those shorter pieces in medical, literary, and lay publications, but the book was still in the background.  The challenges, she said were going deeper, figuring out "how to reveal myself."  Her writing classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis helped, and eventually she had a manuscript.  But finding a publisher was tough.  "I tried to sell to half a dozen different presses and a number of agents. A writing mentor told me, 'The publishing market has changed. You've already published a number of these.  Self-publish this.' I already had two anthologies under my belt that I'd edited and marketed, so I was ready."

She took a how-to-self-publish class and went for it.  Zink's book explores the burden, mystery, and privilege of doctoring through a collection of stories from her twenty-plus-year career.  Chapters show her diverse experiences and her honesty about the challenges of giving care:  to  patients in a domestic violence shelter, on a Navajo reservation, in Russia with Doctors Without Borders, on mission trips in Latin America, and in her clinic in rural Minnesota.

Bernie Siegal reviewed her book and wrote, "Doctors cannot cure every disease nor create immortal patients, but we can heal lives and help our patients to live between office visits. When we listen to others, we help them live and heal. This book should be read by everyone." High praise indeed.

A Children's Book about the Sea and a Vietnam Vet's Memoir     
 Mary Cumming is the author of several books published by traditional publishers.  She went to self-publishing for her book And the Baker's Boy Went to Sea
(Sparkling Press, 2006).  

"Self-publishing has many drawbacks--it also has some benefits," Cummings said. "For some people, it's the right decision for getting their book into the hands of readers who will love, enjoy, and learn from the book, and maybe even be trans­formed by what they read.  For me, it was right (though not to say 'easy'). I had editorial assistance from a freelance editor, and copyeditor. I also had sixteen WWII submarine veterans provide me with factual information, and four of the subjects also read the manuscript to check for accuracy. I hired a book designer, which, while pricey, gave the book the look I wanted."

J. Michael Orange, author of the self-published memoir Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam (2001), told me, "A friend who was a graphic artist at my work place created the cover using a public-domain photo I provided her and chose the type font. I indicated the blurbs I wanted on the back cover and also wrote the book jacket copy (synopsis)."

Michael went with as his publisher and says they produced the cover almost exactly as he planned.

He adds, "When I bought my first hundred books, I was very worried that I would not be able to sell them. I felt the same way when I bought my last supply of hundred books. I have moved 1,400 books so far."

Self-Help Book on Goal Setting    
Bev Bachel, author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go For It, said about a book she coauthored with a colleague: "We explored several different concepts, hired a designer to design cover and page layouts, reworked and rearranged copy, sent the final copy to designer, then proofed and proofed. We sent it to Bookmobile (­ for printing. They came highly recommended, so we didn't get prices from anyone else."

Bachel's book is geared to teen readers and the adults who want to encourage them in their goals.  A parenting book review said Bachel's book was "Upbeat and inspiring, . . . a must for all teens. It's also recommended for parents, teachers, youth workers, counselors, and other caring adults."  Self-publishing helped Bachel realize her dream in her own way.    
Things to Know If You're Thinking about Self-Publishing  
My own experience in self-publishing has been with CreateSpace and Lulu Press. Since I have desktop-publishing experience, I set up initial page layouts on my own computer, played with dif­ferent ideas until the pages looked the way I wanted, then hired a typesetter and cover designer for the final production.
I learned things: get your ISBN number and bar code from Bowker, be sure to get at least two prepub­lication reviews (blurbs), and don't forget important things like the copyright statement.

A brief answer to the question almost all new writers ask: How do I keep other writers, agents, and publishers from stealing my book idea? First, this rarely happens. Publishing is a very small world and word about stolen book ideas gets around. Call me na├»ve, but in my experience people in pub­lishing are generally honest; most want to help good writers succeed-because then they will succeed too. If you're really worried, add this copyright statement to your material: "© [current year] [your name]. All rights reserved." Register your book with the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., by sending them a copy of your book and a completed registration form and fee (visit Library of Congress to find out more).

If you begin to feel like a second-class citizen publishing your own book, remember the list of authors above. When I am looking over publishing options, I try to remember that Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass. Or that Vir­ginia Woolf was married to her publisher. And Marcel Proust was rejected three times and decided to self-publish.

What would the world have done without these writ­ers? Whichever avenue you choose, realize-if you can-that the outcome may have less to do with your book's quality and more to do with the industry. Find a way to get your book out to the readers who will love it.

That's the main goal, isn't it?


  1. Thank you for this Mary. I've enjoyed reading these authors' experiences with the self pubbing world.

  2. A friend of mine went the self-publishing route and it was a disaster at best. This was before print on demand was available. It was mostly a picture book with very little text. She paid an illustrator out of her own pocket and then she had to buy some number of copies of the book. When the total came in it cost her around twenty thousand dollars. I bought on just because and it was really bad. Not the writing or the illustrations but the book itself. I only looked through it once or twice and put it on a shelf in my book case. After a few months I just happened to notice it and took it down from the shelf. The cardboard that was used for the outside cover had warped the paper cover had begun to come off of the cardboard and the binding had started to fall apart. Now this book was in my home, climate controlled, I cannot imagine what happened to the books she kept stored in her garage.

  3. That's a terrible experience. It has changed a lot. Thank goodness, because who would want to spend $20K for a bad result. Sorry your friend went through this. Things are much better now, with POD. A whole lot less expensive too.