PORTLAND, Ore. — The ebook self-publishing business has gained traction recently as writers take their work to the streets themselves in the shadow of a dismal retail marketplace.
With small and large book outlets suffering - case in point, last year’s closures of Borders - writers are faced with some tough decisions nowadays. Slug out the traditional route, clawing for a shot at the ever-shrinking shelf space, or hold their noses and jump with two feet into self-publishing an ebook?
The options for selfpublishing books have grown with the ease of doing it yourself. One of the newest ebook outlets, a startup called BookBaby (bookbaby.com), based in Portland, Ore., makes the process sound almost idyllic.
“It doesn’t hurt you if you release your work now by e,” BookBaby President Brian Felsen said recently at his warehouse oft ce near the Portland airport. “It’s the calling card for you to get future works noticed, but you shouldn’t put your career on hold and spend tons of money trying to go traditional with a work that’s completed and drive yourself crazy if it’s not imminently happening.”
Of course, this is metaphorically the nice doctor who diagnosed the disease with a scalpel in one hand. Typically seen as the low-brow option, selfpublishing companies have been the brunt of jokes and mills of poorly edited work.
But writers are questioning whether that stigma is worth putting stock in, and more may be finding the option is only as distasteful as the writer wants to make it.
At BookBaby and other self-publishing outfi tsfound on the Internet, like CreateSpace and Smashwords, a writer can spend about what it might cost for a fancy new cell phone - or less - and get published. BookBaby’s calling card is that it distributes electronic books on all the e-reader platforms - from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple - and hands back all the sales revenue after the retailer take its cut.
Felsen let me hang out for an hour recently at the headquarters of BookBaby, CDBaby and HostBaby and unequivocally made the case for what he calls “selfrelease.”
“The sort of dirty little secret of publishing is that publishers don’t add a ton of value in terms of marketing your work to the readers,” Felsen said. “They market your work to book sellers.
But so many famous authorsstill have to go to book conventions themselves.
They still have to manage their social networking presence themselves, have a website and Twitter accounts and reach out to fans and have contests and do all this stuff that they do.
But you’d have to do that as an independent author anyway, so you might as well keep the money.”
Again, Felsen is running a multimillion dollarcompany that is breaking into a competitive market, but the way he sees it, selfpublishing cuts out a lot of headaches.
Still, writers agonize over the choices. When this story was written, there were 140 responses, and growing, to a post on The Millions (themillions.com) titled “Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-12: A List.” The Millions is an online magazine off ering coverage on books, arts and culture.
The post is written by a paid staff er, Edan Lepucki, who is also a published author. It’s her second post on the subject for The Millions, and she said she wrote it to continue “to fully explore my feelings (complicated) on the topic (multifaceted).”
“You see, Reader, I still don’t plan on self-publishing my first novel, though I don’t deny the positive aspects of that choice,” she wrote.
Underlying her list is the legitimacy issue.
“As I said in the piece that started me off on this whole investigation: ‘I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book;
I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to,’” Lepucki wrote.
Writers worry they won’t be taken seriously by readers, and equally troubling, by the industry.
Felsen’s take is: Beware the messenger.
“Now, will traditional publishers look at you diff erent? Well, traditional publishers are going to tell you they’re going to look at you diff erently because you are out there eating their lunch,” Felsen said. “They’ll say, ‘Yeah, there’s a stigma to self-publishing.’ Well, of course, ’cause they’re taking an unreasonable cut with unreasonable overhead, and they’re going out of business, so of course they’re going to say that. But if you’re self-released, and you’re one of the top sellers, or if you win awards, they’re going to want to sign you so badly and so fast, they’re not going to say, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s just writing, a family memoirist.’ No, not at all.”
One of BookBaby’s success stories is Tom Watson, who self-published several children’s books in a series called Stick Dog. His success rate for downloads got him noticed by a traditional publisher, but he’s negotiating to keep his e-rights.
Traditional publishers are looking for high quality, but their model is changing. Daily. They already know that. Where does that leave traditional publishing? According to Felsen, the outlook isn’t all that rosy.
“As bookstores are going away, as the publishing houses are consolidating, the mid-tail author is becoming more and more abandoned. It’s like the shrinking middle class,” hesaid. “The pot at the end of the rainbow is a very small one nowadays, and it’s not for everybody.”
In her post, Lepucki writes that the debate often leaves out small, independent presses.
“These presses are run and curated by well-read, talentedpeople, and they provide readers with the same services that a large press provides: namely, a vote of confi dence in a writer the public might have never heard of,” Lepucki wrote. “Smaller presses, too, enjoy a specificity of brand and identity that too often eludes a larger house.”
In the end, it depends on what the writer wants. A memoir, a family history, a one-time experiment in ink (or bytes) may be better served by self-publishing. Everyone else, those trying to make a living at it or a small side income, may have to pinch their noses and look the other way.
JENNIFER FULFORD OF PORTLAND, ORE., IS A FREELANCE WRITER AND NOVELIST TRYING TO PUBLISH HER FIRST BOOK.
SHE WORKED FOR 10 YEARS AS A JOURNALIST FOR KUAF PUBLIC RADIO. YOU CAN READ HER WORK AND FOLLOW HER JOURNEY TO PUBLICATION ON HER BLOG, JENNYSOUND.BLOGSPOT.COM.