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Self-Publishing: Is It For You?

~ by Thomas M. Sipos (April 2001) ~


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The best short answer as to why you should self-publish was given by Spinal Tap lead singer David St. Hubbins: “There’s no way to promote something that doesn’t exist.

If you’re considering self-publishing, and desire a longer answer, it might be best to first define our terms:

Types and Terms in Publishing

In traditional publishing, the traditional publisher screens books for quality and/or marketability, rejects most submissions, and invests in producing, marketing, and distributing the book. The traditional publisher also takes certain exclusive rights. This is true even though the copyright remains in the author’s name. Once you sell your book to Random House, you can’t sell it to Putnam.

The self-publisher does all of the above for his own book. Because there is no independent third-party screen (such as an editor), self-published books are suspect in the minds of reviewers, bookstores, and readers. Some self-published authors are very hands-on, handling their own press releases, registrations (ISBN, copyright, UPC bar code, etc.), fulfillment, and distribution. Other self-publishers contract third parties for such services, to varying degrees. Almost all self-publishers hire third party printers. The companies that charge authors to handle many of these services are derisively called “vanity presses”.

Vanity presses call themselves publishers, but they are not regarded as such by the traditional industry because they are not selective. A true vanity press will publish anything, and requires the author to pay full costs of publishing the book.

Because self-publishers/vanity presses have no third party screen, there is a stigma attached to these books. If you plan on self-publishing, you need to be aware of this stigma, and how you might overcome it. We’ll cover that further below.

A subsidy press is a traditional publisher that requires the author to pay part of the cost. As a traditional publisher, a subsidy press is selective. It usually publishes a few titles a year, and rejects most submissions. However, many vanity presses call themselves subsidy presses to avoid the vanity stigma. And it’s good for business: Authors like to imagine that they’re “special,” that they were chosen by a selective publisher, and not by a club that accepts any member who can pay admission.

The traditional publisher and the self-publisher/vanity press are the two publishing models. Now let’s talk about the two forms of print technology: Print-run and Print-on-demand.

In print-run technology, books are printed in batches. The publisher prints X number of books based on projected sales (roughly twice as many as he thinks will sell, the excess being returned, remaindered, stripped, or recycled). Print-run has long been the technology of both traditional publishers and vanity presses.

Print-on-demand technology has been getting much attention recently. In print-on-demand, books are stored on computer disk and printed as ordered. It’s a cheaper way to print books in small, sporadic amounts, although if you intend to sell 1000 copies or more in a short time span, you may want to self-publish using print-run.

Because print-on-demand’s only initial costs are the registrations and setup of your book’s computer file (rather than a print-run of books), print-on-demand has slashed self-publishing costs by roughly 90% (depending on the “frills” you want).

A few years ago, Northwestern (a print-run/self-publishing press), offered to publish my novel, Manhattan Sharks, for $4,500. Xlibris (a print-on-demand/self-publisher) did it for $600. Other authors cite print-run price quotes of $10,000 - $15,000, whereas some print-on-demand/self-publishers currently charge $99.

(As a note: Another new technology is the ebook: books to be read on your computer screen or in handheld “readers.” They exist in several formats, but as The New York Observer recently reported, ebooks are likely to remain too unpopular over the next several years to merit discussion; although The Industry Standard reports that ebooks are catching on in Europe).

As a result of print-on-demand’s lower costs, many authors who previously turned their noses on vanity presses are now self-publishing. Naturally, these new print-on-demand/self-published authors like to distinguish themselves from vanity presses, to avoid the stigma. But print-on-demand is merely a technology. Consider that both publishing models (traditional publisher and self-publisher/vanity press) use both forms of technology (print-on-demand and print-run). Some examples:

Remember, the vanity press stigma does not attach because the author pays for publishing, but because self-published/vanity press books do not pass a third party screen. Print-on-demand does not remove this stigma, not in the eyes of most traditional publishers, traditionally published authors, reviewers, or bookstores.

Major review outlets are deluged with more traditionally published books than they can cover, and even traditionally published books have trouble finding shelf space in bookstores. If traditionally published books have such a struggle, you can imagine the odds against your self-published book.

In other words, a print-on-demand/self-published book IS a vanity press book. You’ll have to confront it and deal with it, rather than deny it. But how?

Confronting the Self-Publishing Stigma

Xlibris tried one method. Until recently, Xlibris accepted books for free. Some of its authors comforted themselves the lie that this distinguished them from “lowly vanity press authors.” It was an idiotic false pride. Xlibris accepted every submission, so being “published” through them proved nothing. Yes, Xlibris, and most other print-on-demand presses, rejects hardcore porn, hate literature, and libelous material. But if that’s all they reject, they’re still a vanity press in industry eyes. Such material is not rejected because of literary quality.

Even before print-on-demand, self-published authors have long tried to distinguish themselves from vanity press authors, but have offered no real differences. Some distinctions:

  1. Self-publishers do more of the grunt work, registering for ISBNs, etc. Vanity presses do it for the author.” So what?
  2. Self-publishers are serious about selling their work, whereas vanity press authors merely want to hold a nicely printed book in their hand.” I’ve yet to meet an author who wouldn’t like to write a bestseller, or who doesn’t enjoy fondling their first book.
  3. Self-published authors keep their rights, whereas vanity presses take authors" rights.” Not always.
  4. Xlibris and iUniverse are partially owned by Random House and Barnes & Noble, respectively, so they can’t be vanity presses.” All this shows is that the giant media conglomerates are adding vanity presses to their portfolios.
  5. Self-publishers only charge a few hundred dollars, whereas vanity presses are ripoffs that charge thousands.” This is a function of technology, not selectivity. Print-run/self-publishing costs more than print-on-demand/self-publishing, but they’re still both self-publisher/vanity presses.
  6. Vanity presses don’t market books. My self-publisher does.” Not true. Examples abound across the spectrum.

Self-published books carry a vanity press stigma because no third party screened it. None of the above changes that. In my opinion, self-published authors trying to distinguish themselves from vanity press authors are like light-skinned blacks in the 1940s trying pass for white. Rather than distinguish ourselves from vanity press authors, as if the term had legitimacy, we should demand respect of all authors.

Okay, print-on-demand/self-publishing is vanity publishing.

Next question...

Is the Vanity Press Stigma Justified?

This vanity press stigma is a curious thing. Independent filmmakers pay to shoot their own films. Yet cable channels and festivals celebrate indie filmmakers“ original vision and new voices. Even if their films are inept, they’re admired for their grit and tenacity in getting it made.

Since the days of vinyl, garage bands have produced their own music, and suffered no stigma when distributing their 45s and tapes, and now CDs, to radio stations and dance clubs.

But self-published authors are “vanity” authors rather than “indie authors.” Press a CD into a DJ’s hand, and he’ll give it a listen, eager to discover new talent. Press a “vanity book” into a bookstore owner’s hand, and eyes roll. Books require a screen, whereas film and music do not. Funny, but that’s how the world sees it.

This stigma will be a hurdle in your self-publishing efforts. Two other hurdles are cost and noise. Fortunately, new technologies are lowering the costs, and even (more slowly) lowering the stigma. On the other hand, they’re increasing the noise.

Print-on-demand is only one of those new technologies. We’ve discussed how print-on-demand is lowering costs. Ironically, considering all the fuss, print-on-demand books are also the least influential, the least revolutionary in impact. The more influential technologies are: Internet retail and Internet marketing.

Internet retail and marketing are separate, but symbiotic. The Internet is where self-publishing’s real potential exists. It’s why you should consider self-publishing. I wouldn’t have gone into self-publishing without the Internet. It’s no coincidence that most print-on-demand/self-publishing services are dotcoms.

Traditional publishers also have websites, but that seems an afterthought. But the web is where self-publishers sell the vast bulk of their books.

Amazon.com and the Internet

The biggest hurdle to self-publishing has never been production, but retail and promotion. Many authors could afford to self-publish even before print-on-demand’s 90% discount, had they been willing to forgo vacations, a new car, or take a second mortgage.

Print-run/self-publishing is still less than the price of a car, less than a year at college, less than many vacations. Painful, but do-able. Independent filmmakers have been risking more for decades. (Not so much anymore, not with consumer digital camcorders and The Blair Witch Project).

But once you printed your books, then what? For that matter, even with print-on-demand, now what? Without Amazon.com and the Internet, your distribution and advertising would have been cost-prohibitive (even more so than a print-run of books, had you wanted your book to have any impact).

Bookstores are loathe to allocate precious shelf space to self-published books, but it costs relatively little for Amazon.com (or Borders.com, or bn.com, or booksamillion.com) to list your book. An Amazon.com listing makes your book available across the globe.

Even better, Amazon.com erases some of the vanity press stigma. Your self-published book’s Amazon.com page looks just like Stephen King’s page. Amazon.com is “legit” -- surely they don’t carry vanity press books! The publishing industry knows better, but not readers.

Now, whenever I mention Amazon.com from now on, remember that I"m only referring to them because they’re the biggest online book retailer. But the websites of other established booksellers (such a Barnes & Noble, and Borders, and Books-A-Million), are equally adept at erasing the vanity press stigma.

The Internet is also great for promotion. Develop a website for your book, and again, it’s available to people across the globe. Promote your site, register with search engines, exchange links, and join web rings. (My website is CommunistVampires.com.) Suddenly, your self-published book has a fighting chance.

The Christmas Box and The Celestine Prophecy demonstrate that self-publishing can work. And that was before print-on-demand and Amazon.com. Those books were sold largely out of car trunks, eventually creeping into bookstores by word-of-mouth. They were vanity books. Yet after they succeeded, a curious thing happened. The publishing industry referred to them as “self-published."

That distinction seems to be one that the publishing industry recognizes: A self-published book is a vanity book that’s made big money.

Let’s discuss the noise problem.

Print-on-demand and the Internet have lowered both the cost and stigma of self-publishing. Naturally, there’s been a flood of new self-published authors and many print-on-demand/self-publishers eager for their business.

If you think this has resulted in much that is unreadable and illiterate... you’re right. The noise on Amazon.com has increased. Indeed, as I write this, Amazon.com is delisting all Xlibris titles -- unless a title signs on with the Amazon Advantage. Amazon Advantage is a program whereby Amazon takes such a deep discount that many authors would actually lose money on each sale (which has long kinda been Amazon’s own business model). Its “Advantage” is that Amazon keeps your book in stock ’ready to ship in 24 hours,” an incentive for spontaneous buys.

Xlibris (and others) claim that Xlibris is only the first print-on-demand company to be targeted -- that all are targeted by Amazon. However, an author reports that all the print-on-demand traditional publishers he’s contacted have reported no problems, and have even received messages from Amazon informing them that they were not targeted. So it appears that only print-on-demand self-publishers are targeted for delisting. Why? One rumor has it that the recent mushrooming of print-on-demand self-publishers has flooded Amazon with too many titles, with too few sales. (More often than not, no sales.) A web page is cheaper than shelf space, but even it costs something. And Amazon.com is reported to be hurting financially. The weak links may either have to pay their way, or go...

What does this mean for your self-publishing efforts?

If you hope to impress with your book, it’s better to self-publish sooner rather than later. For now, having a book up on Amazon.com still impresses many folks. But in time the public will learn how easy self-publishing has become. Then your book won’t impress so much.

And as it usually takes several months, to nearly a year, to get your book in print form after submitting a computer file to a self-publisher, Amazon.com may no longer be around by the time your book is released. But the Internet will be around; and so will other online retailers.

Will Amazon.com’s demise hurt self-publishing? Yes, but it needn’t kill it. The pressure will lessen on other online retailers to list every book, but competition will still exist, and new forms will arise.

All self-publishing services feature online bookstores at their websites. The trouble is that most of these sites scream vanity! Even so, Great Unpublished has shunned Amazon.com from the start, preferring to sell solely through their website, because Amazon.com demands a 40-55% discount on the titles it carries. Some Great Unpublished authors are reportedly pleased, and Great Unpublished has even managed to place a few of its books in brick & mortar stores.

They are not unique in this. I’ve placed Vampire Nation in a few bricks & mortar stores, including Dark Delicacies, and without offering consignment (more on that later). Small independent bookstores are usually more open to self-published books. Jan Starnd is another Xlibris author who’s placed his horror novel, Risen, in Dark Delicacies. Risen has since been picked up by iPublish.com, a selective print-on-demand press owned by Time-Warner Books.

Although Amazon.com’s demise is by no means certain, other self-published authors are readying new marketing & retail outlets. Xlibris author Richard S. Sternberg (The Querulous Commitment), is establishing a cooperative for Independent Authors (http://www.independentauthors.org/). Sounds kinda like “independent filmmakers,” no?

One of Sternberg’s goals is to create an infrastructure through which self-publishers can offer books to bricks & mortar stores on consignment. Most print-on-demand publishers are not financially able to offer consignment placement, contrary to traditional custom. In traditional publishing, unsold books are returned, remaindered, stripped, or recycled. Bookstores are not stuck with unsold books. But few print-on-demand self-publishing presses will print a book unless it’s already been ordered and paid for.

Think of it. A bookstore can return an unsold Stephen King book; they carry it risk free. But they’re expected to bear the risk on a vanity book. Do you begin to see why print-on-demand self-published books have such a struggle finding bookstore placement?

Online book retailers don’t have this problem, because they don’t have shelf space, and don’t carry every title in their warehouses. It only looks that way when you visit them. Again, the reader doesn’t know this. Amazon.com seems to carry your book, alongside Stephen King’s.

GreatUnpublished is also preparing an end run around Amazon.com. GU is building its own online retail outlet: Booksurge.com. The goal is to carry all print-on-demand titles, GU’s and others". It’s also intended to supplement (and bypass) the obvious vanity bookstore on GU’s website.

Amazon.com and bn.com are both losing money. What are the odds for an online retailer that only lists print-on-demand titles, mostly vanity? We shall see. For now, if Amazon.com folds, you may want to steer your customers to bn.com.

That is, unless those other rumors are true. The ones that say bn.com and borders.com may soon also delist print-on-demand self-publishers. Remember, neither Barnes & Noble (which co-owns bn.com with Bertlesman/BMG), nor Borders ever wanted to enter online book retailing. They felt compelled by Amazon.com, and felt pressured to protect their market shares. But if Amazon.com goes under, so goes the pressure to keep their money-losing online businesses afloat.

So why might you steer customers to bn.com instead of Borders.com?

For one thing, Borders.com has begun adding a $5 surcharge to low-selling print-on-demand titles. Note, I said low-selling. Online sites keep a record of book sales. Vampire Nation has sold enough copies on Borders.com to be kept in stock, and merit a 10% discount, no surcharge. That may change.

Booksamillion.com seems to have the best prices, overall. But its site is less informative than bn.com’s.

Don’t forget the small independent stores. Libertarian self-publishers should contact Laissez-Faire Books They agreed to stock Vampire Nation, without consignment -- but only after it was reviewed in several publications. HWA’s website publishes a list of independent horror bookstores around the country, such as Dark Delicacies. The list is available to non-members. Other writer’s organizations publish similar lists. Your chances of setting up a book signing at these stores increase if you’re willing to buy back unsold books.

Self-publishing is undergoing a shakeup, but that doesn’t mean you should wait for things to settle. This shakeup will likely continue for several years, and by then ebooks might cause a second rumble. If you’re a serious author, and not just looking to impress with an Amazon.com listing, you’d best pick a self-publishing provider and begin.

Here’s some advice on how to insure yourself against too hard a quake: Do not self-publish with a provider that takes any exclusive rights (such as iUniverse). Xlibris, and most of the others, take no rights. If I wish, I can simultaneously self-publish the same book with them all. More importantly, if any of them fold, I still retain my rights. Contract clauses that revert rights back to you in the event of the publisher’s bankruptcy aren’t usually enforced by bankruptcy courts.

Assuming you’re ready to self-publish, you must not only overcome the stigma of self-publishing, but you must break out of the pack and escape the noise. Your book must rise above the crowd of books, establishing itself in the minds of readers. And also, in time, in the minds of the publishing industry. Like The Christmas Box and The Celestine Prophecy.

Okay, how to do it?

There’s no secret. Just hard work. Promote your book. Garner book reviews. Win awards. Yes, easier said than done. It’s hard for traditionally published authors. Much harder for self-published authors burdened with the vanity press stigma. But as David St. Hubbins said: “There’s no way to promote something that doesn’t exist.” First, you make your book available. Then worry about the stigma and the noise.

Should you self-publish? No, not if you have a choice. If Viking is offering you a $1.7 million dollar advance, take it. If HarperCollins is offering $15,000, and you’re an unknown, again, take it. If some small press is offering you $200, well, then you may want to consider self-publishing. Especially if you believe in your book and this small press wants too many exclusive rights.

The vanity press stigma can be overcome, and amid all the noise is much professionalism. Print-on-demand (and Amazon.com, and the Internet) has attracted many previously published writers to self-publishing. I’ve been published in Filmfax, Midnight Marquee, Liberty, Horror, Sci-Fi Universe, a couple of Barnes & Noble anthologies, so one may assume I can write. Manhattan Sharks found an enthusiastic New York agent, but while many traditional publishers said my book had merit, all said that a comedic novel by a first-time author was too risky. As for Vampire Nation, it was rejected by all the major, and many small press, traditional publishers -- unread.

Susan Taylor Chehak published Don Quixote Meets the Mob through Xlibris after having five novels published by traditional publishers (Houghton Mifflin, Ticknor & Fields, Doubleday). Her agent had submitted it to 12 publishers, but all rejected it because, “they couldn’t see a way to market it in a niche that is already quite full from a writer who is virtually unknown.

Self-publishing provides an afterlife for out-of-print traditionally published books. Chehak plans to self-publish several of her out-of-print traditionally published novels. Being reprints, they won’t suffer a vanity press stigma, and already have past reviews available for promotional use.

Self-publishing is also a second chance for books that suffered under previous publishers. Donald Allen Kirch’s mummy-on-the-Titanic horror thriller, Still Waters, was originally published under Commonwealth, which folded. Kirch regained the rights, polished his manuscript, and self-published it under the new title: Ka-Re.

Again, one of the nice things about self-publishing, as opposed to traditional publishing, is that you usually keep all rights to your book, including the right to simultaneously self-publish with several presses. If a traditional publisher folds, you’re at the mercy of the traditional publisher’s bankruptcy trustee (regardless of what your traditional publisher contract says). You must go to court to regain your rights. If a self-publisher folds, then you lose your investment, but usually retain your book without trouble. Hence, I’d avoid iUniverse.com.

Lee Zion writes for the San Diego Business Journal, so one may assume he too can construct a sentence. His self-published book, Ferriman’s Law, is a hardboiled sci-fi noir thriller in the tradition of Blade Runner. Is it any good? Good enough to find shelf place in several San Diego bookstores. (Yes, on consignment -- Zion promised to accept unsold copies. But even traditional publishers, offering consignment terms, have trouble finding shelf space.) Good enough for Ray Bradbury to mail Zion “some brief but favorable comments on the book.

Best-selling fantasy author Piers Anthony self-published Volk through Xlibris. He did so because traditional publishers shunned the controversial nature of his World War II novel. Naturally, Anthony need not worry about a vanity press stigma -- he’s amply proven himself to readers and reviewers. And his fan base enables him to successfully promote his self-published book. After releasing Volk through Xlibris, on whose board Anthony sat, Anthony went on to publish Volk through Pulpless.com. His second book through Pulpless.com.

Janis Jaquith self-published Birdseed Cookies, a collection of essays initially broadcast on NPR. This assured her of both a fan base and some legitimacy. If your self-published book contains reprints that previously appeared in a traditionally published book, or magazine, or radio broadcast, then it loses some vanity press stigma. In Jaquith’s case, NPR was a third party screen in the minds of readers, so literary quality was assured.

If you have a fan base, if you have contacts with publications and review outlets, self-publishing makes more sense for you. I have some reviews assured for Halloween Candy, my upcoming collection of horror reprints, from the magazines that originally ran them. I also mention my novels at the end of my articles. And the relationship is symbiotic. A self-published book can buy you credibility if you seek to write for a publication. Perhaps not as much as a traditionally published book, much less a traditionally published bestseller, but some.

Of course, the ultimate example of the advantages of having a fan base is Stephen King’s self-publication of The Plant, which drew enviably copious downloads despite being not only self-published, but a self-published ebook. Most established authors have barely sold even 100 copies of their ebooks. Even unknown vanity authors have done better with their print-on-demand titles. Clearly, unless you have a King-sized fan base, paper books are the way to go. At least, for the foreseeable future.

Self-Publish for Profit?

Don’t self-publish if you expect a big profit. The odds are against it. Don’t expect readers to stumble onto your book at Amazon.com and buy it. You must steer them to your book, and promotions are costly. Few self-publisher authors sell 1000 copies; most sell under 100. To date, Vampire Nation has sold in the hundreds. Self-publishing is a gamble. But what do you want to bet on? Some smelly racehorse, or your masterpiece that redefines hard science fiction?

The real money in self-publishing comes when you “sell out” to a traditional publisher. That’s if your horse comes in. The Christmas Box and Celestine Prophecy were both sold to traditional publishers after they proved their salability as self-published books.

Traditional publishers don’t look for good books; they look for saleable books. You prove your book is saleable by racking up reviews, awards, and sales. A successful self-published book is your calling card. Indie filmmakers have long gone this route, using their films as calling cards to Hollywood. Vampire Nation is earning reviews and has been nominated for a Prometheus Award.

Ever want to write a media tie-in book, film novelization, or game book? Publishers usually require two published books under your belt before they’ll consider you for an assignment. A self-published book doesn’t count... unless it wins awards or garners impressive reviews.

Remember, self-publishers carry a vanity press stigma because they lack a third party screen -- such as a reviewer. Enough good reviews, and some impressive awards, can overcome the vanity press stigma. (When I say reviews, I assume we all understand I"m talking about respected third party reviewers, not friends and family posting on Amazon.com).

Many respected awards do not discriminate against self-published books. The National Jewish Book Award jury accepted Xlibris author Stephen G. Esrati’s The Tenth Prayer for consideration, dropping it only because of his late entry. Esrati is a retired journalist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Longtime sci-fi author William Sanders’s The Ballad of Billy Badass and the Rose of Turkestan appeared on the SFWA’s Nebula Award preliminary ballot. Xlibris books have also appeared on the HWA’s Bram Stoker Award ballot.

Hollywood doesn’t care if your book is self-published. Out here, they even buy film rights to unpublished manuscripts. Of course, it helps to have a powerful agent. But if you don’t have an agent for your unpublished manuscript, then awards and book reviews help.

Hollywood producers, agents, and development executives (or more often, their assistants) scan book reviews for potential film properties. It’s their job. And sometimes lightning strikes. Agents and executives occasionally buy books at airports... or on Amazon.com. But as lotto officials say: “You can’t win it, if you’re not in it.” Or to quote David St. Hubbins: “There’s no way to promote something that doesn’t exist.

Academia is open to self-published books. At least two Xlibris books have been assigned as college texts, including Canadian poet/musician/author Quinn Tyler Jackson’s experimental novel about the Kurds, Abadoun, which was assigned reading at Simon Fraser University. Jackson has since moved Abadoun from Xlibris to PlaneTree Press. His next book, The Succubus Sea, will be released under traditional publishing terms (once again, through PlaneTree, a print-on-demand press). Jackson also edits Inner Sanctum.

A professor at Louisiana State University requested a copy of Vampire Nation for inclusion in her study: Hooked on Horror: A Guide to Reading Interests in Horror Fiction. Vampire Nation has also been requested for inclusion in The Vampire Bibliography, published by Transylvania Press, and has been cited in an academic German online article on libertarian science fiction, published on Telepolis.de.

Subsidized university presses, unlike traditional commercial publishers, have long been more concerned with a book’s intellectual content rather than its salability, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that academia treats self-published books with more respect. On the other hand, some authors report that academic literary journals, at least some of them, do refuse to review vanity books.

In any event, if you’re a professor who lives by the “publish or perish” rule, you may wish to consider self-publishing. It may advance your career even if your book doesn’t turn a profit. And unlike Jackson and myself, you can pretty much assign your self-published book to all your classes. Guaranteed sales to a captive audience!

Being Serious

Naturally, some self-published books more easily rise above the noise than others. Some authors think they have a decent shot because their books are “a good read.” Regrettably, there’s no market for “a good read.” You won’t find the “a good read” section in your local bookstore. Sure, buyers want “a good read” -- as defined by them. They want their favorite genres and categories.

If you’re serious about self-publishing, you’d best consider your genre. Certain categories are easier to market than others. Nonfiction is usually easier to market than fiction. If a reader wants an illustrated history of bathtubs, or a biography of Metternich, he won’t care about the publisher, just about the accuracy.

Perhaps that’s why Joseph Mullen’s Psychic Secrets -- Your Guide to Dreams, Hunches, and Spirit Contacts is one of Xlibris’s better sellers. Poetry, essays, and personal punditry are especially difficult to sell. Few readers will care to pay for your opinions, not unless you’re Rush or Dr. Laura or Oprah.

Genres are easier to market than mainstream fiction, some more so than others. Vampire books have an especially rabid following, although even there, it helps to have an angle. My Transylvanian roots helped Vampire Nation to rise above the noise. A vampire book, written by an authentic Transylvanian. It was enough for some readers to take a chance on an unknown author.

By contrast, Manhattan Sharks isn’t doing as well. Mainstream review outlets are especially prejudiced against self-published books by unknown authors. Genre outlets are more open. But I use the term broadly. Christian, gay, and black novels are “genres” for our purposes.

Self-publishing works best if you can target a niche audience with a unique book; a book that a specific group of readers want, but that isn’t offered by traditional publishers. Tougher than it sounds. Contrary to what you may have heard, there’s a huge diversity of traditional publishers out there, especially when one considers the small press.

Timing is also important. My Transylvanian background helped me to secure a radio interview last Halloween, enabling me to promote Vampire Nation. Naturally, I plan to have Halloween Candy ready for a Halloween 2001 promotion. Mullen also received some Halloween media attention last year. Other books are more appropriate for a Christmas push, or Mother’s Day tie-in.

You’d better know your audience; who they are, how you will reach them. What magazines do they read? What web sites do they browse? Will those outlets likely review your self-published book? Can you afford advertising in them? I identified three groups of readers that might be interested in Vampire Nation:

  1. conservatives/libertarians, with an emphasis on anti-Communists
  2. horror fans, with an emphasis on vampire fans
  3. people interested in Hungary, Rumania, or Transylvania

For Manhattan Sharks, I’ve yet to identify specific groups interested in a satire about 1980s New York yuppies, aside from those who want “a good read.” Bonfire of the Vanities did well, but being a traditionally published book by a famous author, it enjoyed a large promotional budget and was reviewed extensively.

Readers buy nonfiction because of the topic, whereas they buy mainstream fiction because of the author. Thus, it’s very difficult for an unknown author to self-publish mainstream fiction. My chief marketing strategy for Manhattan Sharks is the inside flap of Vampire Nation, wherein I mention Manhattan Sharks. I am no longer unknown to readers of Vampire Nation.

In Summation...

Is your book unique? Does it narrowly target a niche audience? Do you know how to reach them? Do you have a fan base? Do you have media contacts to ensure reviews? Finally, it helps if you’ve written a great book. An exceptional self-published book will struggle to rise above the noise; “a good read” will fare worse; crud hasn’t a chance.

Print-on-demand, Amazon.com, and the Internet have placed self-publishing within easy reach of everyone. Don’t let easy publication make you sloppy. Don’t be impatient and publish mediocrity on the theory that your next book will be great. That betrays the reader who’s risked money on your book.

Self-published books have a tough time finding readers and building word-of-mouth. If your book finds a reader, you want the word-of-mouth to be positive. Selling crud ensures no reader will buy more than one book from you.

That’s no way to build a fan base, or a writing career.


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