Friday, April 01, 2005

More on self-publishing

In recent months the Independent has had quite a bit to say (I seem to remember) about self-publishing, and today there is more of the same. If you are thinking of going down that route, the article is worth reading. Subject to a few caveats, set out below.

The article consists mainly of a series of outstanding success stories, featuring authors who have published their own books and made modest fortunes out of it. All very interesting, and inspiring up to a point. I fear, however, that these tales may be somewhat misleading.

In the first place, the article does not really make clear that, if you are to publish a book successfully, all on your own, you either need a great deal of knowledge of the book trade, before you start, or you need to get that knowledge from someone else. And the someone else may need to be paid.

Secondly, the article consistently underestimates (probably not deliberately) the amount of sheer hard work, and the inordinate amounts of time, that are involved.

Third, the cost figures are a bit odd. The author of the article, Dominic Prince, tells us that you can today get a self-publishing venture off the ground for a few thousand pounds, whereas in the past you would have been talking about a minimum of £10,000. Well, actually, you can get a book printed for a lot less than 'a few thousand' these days. But the real cost, and at least half the work, is in publicising the book.

One of the examples quoted by Prince is George Courtland, author and publisher of The Pocket Book of Patriotism. Whatever other skills Courtland may have, he is certainly a dab hand at publicity, and he was apparently willing to invest a substantial sum. One of his dodges was to give a party in London, to which he invited more or less every journalist in the land, as far as I can see. This seems to have been a success, but it doubtless took quite a lot of organising and cost money. (Hint -- journalists like lots of free drinks.)

Another area which is skated over is the difficulty of getting self-published books into the major retailers, such as Waterstones. Prince tells us the story of Tim Stafford, who (allegedly) dictated terms to Waterstones. This will raise a hollow laugh in some quarters. I know of at least one full-time professional publisher, not one of the big boys, who has recently been told by both Waterstones and Smiths that they are no longer willing to do business with him on any terms, because he is too small. So the idea that you, the first-time self-publisher, can tell these firms the basis on which you will condescend to sell your books to them is a little quaint, to say the least.

Perhaps the most telling comment is that made by Betsy Bell, who put together a cookbook for her student sons. After two years she felt that the book had become a drag. 'It had gone from being great fun to being a chore. I'd made a bit of money and it was time to get out.'

I suspect that the self-publishing business, if not carefully handled, can become a drag and a chore in a lot less than two years.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

As the author of a self-published/print on demand (POD) book, I couldn't agree more. One must be wealthy and/or have a limitless amount of energy to make it work. While there are, as you say, some success stories (and fewer good books) that have shown up, the amount of pure garbage coming out pollutes the waters even more for anyone anticipating this route.

Even today, the actual cost of printing via POD is relatively reasonable, but the publishers make their real money by peddling
"marketing plans" that are extraordinarily expensive. I tried most of them--and realized I'd wasted the money.

As just another rat in the slush pile, I'll be trying "traditional publishers" on the next go-round, but will then probably follow the POD route again in the end--but more wisely.