November 11, 2010

Adventures in Self-Publishing Part III

I’ve been reading with interest Julie’s posts about where the ordinary editor fits into the publishing world. I’ve also been thinking about the changing role of authors and the new ways in which they may be interacting with all kinds of freelance editors, designers, and printers, as they become the editorial and production managers of their own projects. And I’ve naturally been thinking of my own recent experiences as a self-publisher.

I wanted to try self-publishing not only to get my own book out (though that’s been an important part of it), but to learn first-hand about the new print-on-demand technologies and other formats. When I work with authors as a developmental editor I sometimes have occasion to mention the possibility of self-publishing. But I’m not sure I’ve really had a handle on it. Although I’ve been involved with the world of print for much of my adult life, the publishing world has lots of new opportunities to explore.

This has been a chance to learn about some of them.

My own experience as a published author has been, for the last couple of decades at least, pretty predictable. My books sell to one editor or another, I get a small advance, the book is edited, copyedited, designed, and proofed. Most of my books sell decently but they’re hardly bestsellers. Important for readership but discouraging for income, they also circulate in the ever-widening secondary market and in libraries. I do some marketing myself and the publisher handles distribution. Some titles go out of print. Others trudge on, year after year.

Getting back into hands-on publishing has reminded me of my early roots in the small press movement in the 1970s, when Rachel da Silva and I started Seal Press. After the first years of letterpress poetry printing, we didn’t typeset our books or bind them, but we did everything else, from designing them, to making plates for the offset presses, to learning to market and distribute them. It was fun when I was twenty-five. It was even fun when I was thirty. After that I was glad Seal Press grew large enough to hire book designers, copyeditors, and publicists.

I still love lots of things about book publishing but this experience with getting An Editor’s Guide in print has reminded me of my early days of learning on the job. I don’t feel quite so sanguine suggesting to authors that they consider self-publishing, at least not until they may have tried some other routes. I still think it’s a viable option, but some aspects of my recent experience have already made me less airy and more cautious in suggesting the self-publishing route, at least when it comes to book production (I know less at the moment about the in's and out's of electronic publishing).

First, it costs money to publish your own book. Complain as we writers might about low advances and slow sales, at least if you’re accepted by a publisher, they pay you. Or at least you don’t have to pay them (some university presses aside). The important thing is that they pay all the people who produce your book: the editor, copyeditor, designer, printer, and publicist.

Second, if you self-publish you not only have to be a writer, you have to become a general contractor, hiring editors, book designers, copyeditors, proofreaders, setting deadlines and figuring out how to pay all these professionals. You not only have to pay these fine people, you have to know something about how they work, what to expect from them, and even where to find them. You have to investigate printing companies and decide on print runs or whether to just upload your text to Lulu and choose a format. You have to learn about pricing, where to get an ISBN number, and what should go on the copyright page.

That’s all before the book even gets to the printer or printer-equivalent.

Third, you have to learn about distribution and marketing. How is your book going to get reviewed, into libraries, into Amazon or Baker & Taylor? You may have to construct a website and start blogging. You might have to create a Facebook page or begin to tweet. You’ll have to knock on e-doors and make phone calls, risk rejection, and work on your personal attitude about success and failure.

I am only mid-way, actually maybe less than a quarter, through # 3 on my list of what I should be doing next to market my book. I know the steps ahead to get the word out about An Editor’s Guide, but do I have the time? Or the strength? Will authors that I work with have the stamina to get their books not only printed but in their readers’ hands?

Some authors definitely have the stamina. Others will find the whole thing exhausting and overwhelming. Me—I’m somewhere in the middle.

Barbara Sjoholm


  1. Julie and Barbara, I've been enjoying your posts about self publishing. Keep them coming!

    Julie, I, too, wonder how and if my role as an editor will change as publishing and self publishing change. My question to anyone reading this: In light of the wave of recent changes, how do you see your role as editor changing?


  2. When I was a kid, I was taught that a "Renaissance man" [sic] was skilled at oh many many languages and trades and scholarly disciplines -- as opposed to being a specialist at just one. Perhaps this is a new renaissance for writers of books. It certainly seems that success at self-publishing demands many different skills and commitments apart from being able to write a whopping good story.

    Thank you for this perspective, Barbara. I've thought at times that the enthusiasm for new choices in self-publishing seems to not fully appreciate the role of "general contractor" that the writer must take on. I'm glad to see this topic discussed