Creative Self-Publishing in the World Marketplace

by Marshall Chamberlain

Published by Grace Publishing

304 pages, 2004

Buy it online


Home Publishing

by David Hoye

Published by Level Press

220 pages, 2004

Buy it online

Publicize Your Book!

by Jacqueline Deval

Published by Perigee

308 pages, 2003

Buy it online

Putting It On Paper

by Dawn Josephson

Published by Ground Rules Press

170 pages, 2004

Buy it online

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Just Because You Can...

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Once upon a time, publishing a book on your own was a big hairy deal. Regardless of genre or slot, the first thing you'd do after deciding to self-publish would be to hire an editor to help make sure you'd gotten everything right. You'd know that you were about to spend a lot of money, and prior to making that significant investment, you'd want to make everything as perfect as you could.

With a completely tight manuscript clutched in your sweaty little fist, you'd make your way to the friendliest design house you could find to have them expertly render your carefully typed pages into a real, live book. In the olden days -- and we're jumping back to the distant era known as the 1980s -- typesetting and the support art needed for even a text-based book would set you back a not insignificant chunk of your hard-earned cash.

With your manuscript typeset, pasted up and carefully proofread -- yes again -- you were now ready for printing: which would be offset as in plate-based and expensive. You might think about getting a short run, but in the end would opt for at least a few thousand books because you'd soon discover that in offset printing, just getting your job on the press is pretty expensive: before they even start churning out copies. Once it's there, the per book cost would go down so dramatically that it just wouldn't seem worthwhile to do less.

Finally, with your life savings spent and your words ready to go out to the world, you'd be faced with a confounding reality: a garage full of books and no long lines of people waiting to buy them. What, you'd have asked, do I do now?

Things have changed since then. They've changed a lot. It's possible these days to create a whole book -- from the first idea bubble floating over your head right through to finished copies -- without ever leaving your home office. Sure: to do that would take some pretty specialized gear, but the investment would be smaller than you would have spent on the typesetting version of the earlier scenario. Hell: it might even cost less than the editing would have.

Or, for very little investment beyond the home computer you probably already own, you can do everything but the final output, simply sending your prepared files to a print on demand publisher who will print as many or as few of your books as you want for relatively little cash. The end result: a smaller pile of books for you to market.

Being editor of January Magazine for over seven years has been a very unique chair from which to watch the self-publishing movement develop. As one of the few book review venues that isn't absolutely closed to self-published titles -- a book is a book is a book, we reason -- January sees more than its share of homemade books. Some of these have been sterling: well-edited books that have been professionally executed and lovingly promoted. It's been a delight to review these books and to help them find their place in the world. Books like The Mercator Atlas of Europe, still one of my self-published favorites. Or the lovely and charming Cooking With Dogs. January was the first to review Lip Service, the self-published first edition of M.J. Rose's earliest novel: the author has gone on to a strong career in traditional publishing with a string of successful novels published by large houses, though she remains a champion of self-publishers everywhere. We were also early to give notice to What's Wrong With Dorfman?, a book that was one of my own picks for Best of 2000 and that was later republished by a traditional house and whose author, John Blumenthal, recently saw the traditional publication of his second novel, Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour. And many, many more.

But for every superlatively edited and produced self-published book we've come across, there are three or more not so good. Some are downright bad. I'm not saying the story or the concept is bad -- though that can be the case, as well -- but we see many books so poorly conceived and executed you have a hard time getting to the meat of the topic at hand. Think about it: words are my business. If I open a book and see language abused, conventions ignored -- and sometimes spelling, too -- it's difficult to look past these things to search out the good stuff. And why should I? We see more books every month than we can talk about in a year, why should we work to look past poorly conceived books when there are so many good ones to choose from?

The single largest problem, in my opinion, is money. Or the lack of money required to make a book. When anyone can do it -- and do it easily -- everyone does. And some of the results are nothing short of horrific. Sadly, many of these books are not worth, literally, the paper they're printed on.

The good news is that, increasingly, there's no reason to produce a bad book. If you insist on self-publishing, there are experts who have predicted you're going to go ahead and do it and they've decided to help you by -- you guessed it -- publishing books on the topic.

In his introduction to Creative Self-Publishing in the World Marketplace, author Marshall Chamberlain opens with some very good advice:

But I tell you up front, acquiring the tools and aptitudes of creative self-publishing should be viewed as an investment of time, like a PhD program with a required dissertation. Becoming a successful self-publisher takes commitment, concentration, and dedication. It's a bold adventure.

Chamberlain covers every aspect of prepublication and publication a would-be self-publisher could want. The book, says Chamberlain, "represents a two-and-a-half-year operating plan, based on experience, beginning six months prior to completion of a book's first draft."

It's obvious that Chamberlain's knowledge comes from the self-publishing rather than the traditional publishing arena. Though that's not a bad place for a book of this nature to originate, it does mean that Chamberlain has left some blind spots of which he's probably not even aware. For instance, the topic of a book's preproduction is not covered at all, but rather is just sort of lumped in with final proofing. To me this is unthinkable. When a reader picks up your book -- which hopefully they'll do -- you're asking them to accompany you on a journey of many thousands of words. Much time has been spent on developing fonts and conventions that will ease the reader's journey. And you want the journey to be as easy as possible, so the reader will complete it and -- hopefully -- come back if you decide to do it all again.

The promotion phase of Chamberlain's plan also includes advice that has -- for me, inexplicably -- become part of the conventions for self-published books. More: with the the package Chamberlain sent January Magazine, he didn't even follow all of his own advice. For instance, Chamberlain advises self-publishers to "Buy a stamp that says something with pizzazz to indicate a review copy, and stamp the outside edges on all three sides, as well as inside on the back of the front and back covers."

In the first place, you never see books from traditional publishers mangled in this fashion: only self-publishers, and usually then only with early efforts. I think it's supposed to keep nasty book reviewers from selling or gifting their review copies. (Presumably we all have houses made of books and can keep every review copy we're ever sent.) But it doesn't. Used book stores don't care about the stamps, and neither do church bazaars or orphans' funds or firefighters' book sales or any of the other worthy places where excess books end up. All it accomplishes is setting the sender up as the sort of rank amateur who is paranoid about the fate of this single book: so paranoid that they don't even care if, in the process of this book security, they make their book ugly or themselves ridiculous.

In the second place, Chamberlain didn't invest in the stamp he advised his readers to get. On my desk as I write is a copy of Creative Self-Publishing for the World Marketplace. Across all three sides of open pages, Chamberlain has vandalized his own book: someone has written review copy in all uppercase with a thick blue marker. And because the edge of a book is not the smoothest surface, the block printing is far from polished. It's not a pretty sight. And when he writes about preparing the review book presentation and says, "Assume [the book reviewer] will not remember any contact you previously made," he obviously didn't mean himself: it's hard to forget the guy who sends a message that he thinks so little of his own book he'd write on it.

Still, on the scale of things, these are quibbles. Creative Self-Publishing for the World Marketplace includes small amounts of advice across a truly wide and potentially bewildering array of topics. This is a reference that every self-publisher should have on their desk. And your copy probably won't have writing on it.

Home Publishing takes an entirely grassroots approach. In the introduction, author David Hoye tells us that:

The book you are reading is published, printed, bound, and manufactured one copy at a time ... right at home in the basement. With a lot of practice, and an equipment investment which can be as little as five hundred dollars, one hard-working person can make well over a hundred of these books a day.

And, to tell the truth, Home Publishing is a good looking book. In addition, its author takes a charming, direct approach. Even if you have no intention of creating every aspect of your book at home, you come away from Home Publishing with a fundamental knowledge of all the steps involved in publishing a book. Valuable knowledge, whatever you decide.

Both Publicize Your Book! by Jacqueline Deval and Putting it on Paper: The Ground Rules for Creating Promotional Pieces that Sell Books by Dawn Josephson are intended for all authors, not just those that opt to self-publish.

Deval's book deals with every conceivable aspect of marketing your book, from writing a marketing plan to hiring a publicist, producing press materials, doing publicity tours and campaigns, giving great interview, doing bookstore appearances and more and more and more. If you are planning on promoting a book -- or even if you're in the middle of said promotion -- you quite simply should not proceed without Publicize Your Book!

Putting It On Paper seems almost to pick up where Publicize Your Book! leaves off. Josephson's book hones in on the nuts and bolts aspects of book promotion: producing the media kit, creating an effective cover letter, writing a press release and an effective author biography, plus more besides. Josephson has also included templates for postcards, bookmarks, countercards and other printed material aimed at helping to sell your book.

Read any of these books and you'll be told that the path to publication is not easy. But if you insist on taking this path, this quartet will help ease the way. | January 2005


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.