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David Parry/Press Association via AP

Do it yourself

2009 Books Issue | Self-publishing is the bright spot in a gloomy bookselling environment. Here's the story of some who have tried it, and succeeded

Issue: "2009 Books Issue," July 4, 2009

Greg Burns, owner of a small family farm in northwestern Pennsylvania, wanted to show people "that they can have an intimate relationship with the God of the universe and His Son and still practice sustainable, organic and environmentally sensitive farming methods."

John Nemo is a sportswriter who wanted to "tell stories about the games I loved in a way that pointed others toward Jesus Christ."

L. Dale Redlin is a retired Lutheran pastor who says his parishioners had long encouraged him to write a book: "I felt that displaying the jewels of Scripture in the framework of poetry may be spiritually inspiring to some."

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Burn, Nemo, and Redlin all chose to self-publish their books.

Retired tobacco buyer Tom Forbes cared for his artist wife while she was dying of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He kept a journal and eventually came to see that publishing Irene's Night would be a way for her to live on after her passing: He wanted others "to see Irene desperately clinging to each wasting facet of her shrinking world-hands, fingers, her potter's grip. . . . And having seen and felt Irene's loss, then I hope the reader begins to thank God for every good facet of their own lives."

Forbes chose to self-publish his book.

Andy Whitener was an All-American runner in college who went on to become a physical therapist and hospital administrator-and then he lost his job. His men's Bible study teaching about learning to trust Christ suddenly became excruciatingly practical. He kept a journal of his experiences while unemployed, and occasionally sent it along with his Bible study notes to people who were struggling with similar issues. They encouraged him to publish it.

Whitener also chose to self-publish, joining the hundreds of thousands who have made self-publishing the bright spot in a gloomy publishing environment.

In the old days a writer had two routes to publication. The conventional route meant an editor liked a manuscript, thought it could make money, and was willing to pay a writer for the privilege of publishing it. Conventionally published books filled bookstores and brought their authors respect and royalties. The second route had a pejorative name-vanity publishing. It required the author to fork out money in advance for a certain number of books that almost always would sit unsold in a garage or attic.

Today those two options still exist, but changes in technology have made "vanity" publishing cheaper and more marketable, so more people-including some not so vain-are doing it.

The popularity of self-publishing today is due largely to new print-on-demand technology (POD) that allows publishers to print one book at a time. The cost per book is higher, but POD means that authors don't have to purchase all their books up front. POD quality can compete with that of conventionally published books-and some conventional publishers use POD technology to help them better manage inventory. When Scott McClellan, press secretary to former President George W. Bush, wrote a book, his publisher issued a small first printing. It quickly sold out, so the publisher used a POD company to meet demand until the second printing arrived.

Just as POD has made publishing easier, so the internet has made marketing easier. Self-published authors can better reach their target audiences, even if their books aren't carried in brick-and-mortar bookstores-and they rarely are.

Three of the self-published writers I interviewed used POD companies, and two chose to print larger editions of their books, paying for them up front. Only one, Tom Forbes, had been previously published by a conventional publisher. J.B. Lippincott published his young adult novel, Quincy's Harvest, in 1976, but this time around Forbes decided to publish on his own. His memoir of his wife's illness is a personal story, and he wanted control over it: "I kept hoping for something I could live with. . . . I wondered if I would even recognize my style of writing and my style of life, too. Would I have to compromise my theological declarations? . . . That was very important to me. I wouldn't have compromised."

Forbes met an editor he liked, which led to his decision to use a small regional vanity press that required him to purchase books up front. Redlin also cited control as his reason for choosing self-publishing. "I determined that one would need to sacrifice much of the control over the project to contract with a publisher. Besides, I wanted the experience of every aspect of the work involved."

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