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."
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."
Whitener admits he didn't even know there was a difference between conventional and POD publishing. He saw a couple of ads in the back of WORLD magazine, compared the packages, and chose one of the companies to publish his book, The Grace of Losing Your Job. He based his selection on the recommendation of someone who had used the same company and was satisfied with the results.
Nemo, author of two self-published novels, The King's Game and Miller's Miracle, tried the conventional route with both of his books. He says he came close to snagging a deal, but when it fell through he turned to self-publishing. He now teaches classes on the topic to other aspiring writers and says, "There are an insane amount of options out there. You can waste thousands of dollars paying self-publishing companies for things you can do yourself. In my opinion, you're far better off using a free self-publishing website like CreateSpace or Lulu to get your books up and selling online and available for order by traditional bookstores."
Farmer Burns turned to Sally Stuart's Christian Writer's Market Guide for help in sorting through the options. "After examining what many different publishers had to offer . . . I came up with three viable candidates but narrowed it down to Winepress Publishing (Pleasant Word division) due to excellent recommendations from Ms. Stuart."
Authors have to decide how much of the work they want to do themselves. Redlin chose to do it all. He functioned as a general contractor, hiring the subcontractors, including a printer and designer, and paying them in money, books, or a combination.
All writers need editors, but many writers view them with suspicion or eschew them altogether. Although editing won't be as visible as a flashy cover, it's crucial. Whitener hired a freelance editor to copyedit and restructure his manuscript by "getting rid of rabbit trails" and making sure the manuscript, drawn from Bible studies and journals, flowed coherently. Nemo chose to rely on friends and relatives: "You need them to be honest and not worry about hurting your feelings." Forbes "was glad to get an editor close by. We met every week for five or six months. . . . We got along well."
Pastor Redlin, the poet, credits his granddaughter Rebecca "for diligently doing the greatest share of the proofing." For those who don't have in-house editors, the self-publishing companies all sell editing services on an à la carte basis. They also include some editing as part of their packages: The more you pay, the more help you get.
Author Solutions is one of the major players in self-publishing. Its imprints include Xlibris, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and Wordclay. According to The New York Times, an average Author Solutions book sells only 150 copies-mostly to the author and his circle of acquaintances. So in one sense a cover doesn't much matter; friends will buy it regardless of its aesthetics. On the other hand, those who persevere in writing and publishing a book want it to look good. As Nemo put it, "You really do judge a book (even online) by its cover, and so I invested in a professional designer."
Whitener received custom cover design work as part of his package. He ended up paying about $3,000 up front, which included some books, some marketing and editorial help, and five hours of a designer's time to come up with an appropriate cover. Forbes used one of his wife's watercolors, painted after her diagnosis, for his cover. Redlin "chose a professional graphic designer for the cover, illustrations, and layout work. I worked with him directly as we pulled it all together in a reasonably pleasing fashion."
None of the writers I talked to published their books primarily to make money-and that's a good thing, because unless the writer gives speeches or teaches workshops, selling books is hard work.
Theoretically, these self-published books could be carried in bookstores. All of them, except for the poetry book, have ISBN numbers and barcodes. Bowker is the exclusive U.S. agent for the 13-digit number that identifies uniquely each book and publisher, and also gets the book into Books in Print. Self-published writers can either order the ISBNs directly from Bowker or use a POD company that includes it as part of its fees.
As Nemo put it: "Bookstores almost never carry anything not put out by a traditional publishing house. . . . The self-publisher puts your book into the same gigantic electronic database with about a zillion other books the bookstore buyers have never heard of. For that and a few other reasons, they are highly unlikely to put any copies of your new book in their stores."
Self-published books also don't make it into bookstores because many aren't returnable and book reviewers won't review them, for the most part. There's still a stigma attached, although that may be changing.
Redlin's marketing plan focused his initial efforts on friends and relatives, local bookstores, and local media, which resulted in sales of 500 books in the first three months: "I am extremely satisfied with that." Next he plans to contact national bookstores, religious bookstores, and Amazon.com.
Nemo has been using his professional network to "pitch my books to reporters and editors. As a result I've gotten some great national and regional media attention, from Sports Illustrated and Major League Baseball's websites to local television, talk radio and print media coverage." He estimates that he's sold nearly 1,000 books since they came out several years ago.
Forbes' memoir is nearly 600 pages long: He says selling the book has been the "most challenging and disappointing facet of self-publishing." Since his wife was an artist, he's signed books in area art centers and galleries, and also sold the book through the Jim "Catfish" Hunter ALS Support Chapter in Raleigh, N.C. He's sold about 170 copies in 10 months, and with $20,000 invested, and 5,000 books in print, he would like to sell more.
Burns sells his book at his farm's various retail locations, through his own website, and at special speaking engagements. He says that in the year since the book came out, he's "discovered how competitive the book selling world is! I am very happy with our own local sales but less satisfied with the larger venues."
Whitener's book just came out. He says the hardest thing is not knowing what makes sense to spend money on: Should he put his book in his publisher's catalog if it costs an extra $500? How about a website? Bookmarks? Business cards? Everything has a price-and since he's not in the publishing business, he doesn't know what works. He knows he has to be committed to the marketing: "People won't know about the book if you don't tell them."
Since people self-publish for all kinds of reasons, no one model suits everyone. Some like Redlin want to oversee the whole shebang. Others, like Forbes, work with a company but buy the books up front. Others, like Burns and Whitener, choose one of the complete packages. Still others, like Nemo, choose one of the low- or no-cost platforms. The common denominator: Self-publishing is a labor of love. "It gives a certain satisfaction," Tom Ford explains. "It was almost like building a house."
And occasionally success happens-look at The Shack, or Still Alice by Lisa Genova, which started as an iUniverse book and became a Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" pick. As Nemo says, "It is extremely, extremely difficult to have success in self-publishing. But if you enjoy what you're doing and surrender all expectations and results over to God, you'll do exactly what He wants you to!"