Books News & Features
3:49 am
Wed December 19, 2012

Self-Publishing: No Longer Just A Vanity Project

Originally published on Thu December 20, 2012 5:44 am

They used to call it the "vanity press," and the phrase itself spoke volumes. Self-published authors were considered not good enough to get a real publishing contract. They had to pay to see their book in print. But with the advent of e-books, self-publishing has exploded, and a handful of writers have had huge best-sellers.

TV blogger Alan Sepinwall's self-published book, The Revolution Was Televised, came out just before Thanksgiving. Within two weeks he had a review in The New York Times — a positive review — by the widely read and often critical Michiko Kakutani, who also named it one her favorite books of the year. This is what book publicists and their writers dream of, and Sepinwall didn't even see it coming.

"I was sitting at my computer on the Monday, the day before it ran," he says, "and all of a sudden I see an email from a Times photo editor saying, 'Hi, The Times will be running a review of your book tomorrow, we need an author photo. Can you help us?' "

Turns out Kakutani is a fan of Sepinwall's popular blog, What's Alan Watching?, and her review almost immediately helped boost sales of his book. But that doesn't happen to most self-published writers. Hanna Brooks Olsen was happy just to see a published version her book, Hanged Man's Leap.

"It was way more exciting than I thought it was going to be," she says. "I immediately told any of my friends who I knew had e-readers, and I obviously emailed my mother too, with a link."

Brooks Olsen wrote about her self-publishing experience for the online magazine LitReactor. She got editing help from her parents, and her boyfriend designed the cover; but otherwise she did it all herself. E-publishing is the quickest way to go, and Brooks Olsen chose Amazon's Kindle Direct service because it seemed easy to use — and she liked having the power of Amazon behind her. "And it does sort of get sold randomly at times," she says of her book. "I'll get a direct deposit from Amazon every now and then for $10 or $15, and I'm like, 'Oh, I must have sold a couple more that month.' "

But the process wasn't problem-free. There were formatting issues, and Brooks Olsen had to wade through a lot of legalese to figure out the contract with Amazon. She sees the process as an experiment, but says that if you're more serious about selling a book, you might want some help.

And help seems to be out there. Do a quick search of the Internet and you'll find lots of help for writers who want to self-publish, from companies like Smashwords, which publishes and distributes e-books; to Lulu, which publishes both electronic and print books, and offers a range of services that cost up to $5,000.

"It's everything from website design, to social media strategies, to cover design, to editing packages," says Lulu marketing director Brian Matthews. Lulu has been around since 2002, long before the current self-publishing boom. Matthews says a lot of Lulu's customers just want to print a few copies of the book for family or friends, but others have seen all the self-publishing success stories and think they can duplicate that.

"Obviously ... the percentages are small, but in the democratized world of self-publishing, there are very low barriers, and if someone has a good story to tell, is able to tap into a community, an interested set of readers ... they can find that success," Matthews says.

It may seem that self-publishing companies are taking advantage of writers with little hope of making their money back. But even a writer with a fighting chance of success — like Alan Sepinwall — needs some help. Sepinwall hired a professional editor and used his blog as a publicity platform. But he wasn't so sure about designing and formatting the book himself.

"I'm a writer," he says. "I'm not a layout guy, I'm not an artist. So I could have come with something on my own, but it would have looked amateurish in some way. And so I figured, all right, I'm going to stick to my strengths, and I will bring in other people to help me."

A friend recommended a company called 52 Novels to help design and format the book. All in all, Sepinwall spent about $2,500 on self-publishing, which at the time seemed like a lot of money. "I turned down this offer from the one publisher a year ago because I thought it wasn't what I was hoping for," he says.

"And for a while, when I was going through this self-publishing odyssey, I kept sort of saying to myself, 'What a mistake. What did you do? That was money in the bank — you're never going to make that much selling it on your own!' I've already made quite a bit more than that."

There have been more and more self-publishing successes recently, and the audiences are growing by leaps and bounds, says Carolyn Reidy. She's the CEO of Simon & Schuster, which recently announced that it's launching a new self-publishing service. If traditional publishers want to survive, Reidy says, they have to keep up with the rapid changes taking place in the industry. The growth of self-publishing is one of them.

"We actually understand that it is a different world than what we do," she says. "We want to understand it, and if it is going to ... be a threat to our business, we definitely want to understand it and also see how we can turn that to our advantage. And one of the advantages is, it is a great way to find authors, also new genres and new audiences."

The new company, Archway, will also offer a range of publishing packages to aspiring authors. Reidy says no one from Simon & Schuster will be directly involved in publishing or editing Archway books — though they will keep track of sales.

"And one of the advantages to actually having this relationship," she says, "is that we will begin to see sales velocity and other things like that earlier in the game."

And that is an important point, because while self-publishing may be all the rage right now, the truth is that the ultimate goal for a lot of writers is a contract with a traditional publishing company. Sepinwall is already considering that possibility.

"It would put it in brick and mortar stores, it would put it in college bookstores, it would put it in other places, it would make it more widely available to people," he says. "It depends on what deal would be presented to me to make it worth giving up the rights to it, which I have right now."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's take a look next at our daily business bottom line. In the publishing world, a big part of the bottom line is who takes the financial risk up front. A publisher takes a chance that a book will sell, pays the author in advance - occasionally a big one - pays to design and print up copies, pays to distribute them to bookstores or online. But there have always been people who self-publish, pay for the book themselves.

It used to be derided as the vanity press for writers who couldn't interest a publisher, but still burned to see themselves in print. But thanks to eBooks, self-publishing has exploded, and a handful of writers have had huge bestsellers, which explains why the big publisher Simon and Schuster decided to launch its own self-publishing company. Here's NPR's Lynn Neary.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Alan Sepinwall's self-published book, "The Revolution Was Televised," came out just before Thanksgiving. Within two weeks, he had a review in The New York Times, a positive review, by the widely read and often critical Michiko Kakutani, who also named it one her favorite books of the year. This is what book publicists and their writers dream of, and Sepinwall didn't even see it coming.

ALAN SEPINWALL: I was sitting at my computer on the Monday, the day before it ran, recording my podcast, and all of a sudden I see an email from a Times photo editor saying, hi. The Times will be running a review of your book tomorrow. We need an author photo. Can you help us?

NEARY: Turns out, Kakutani is a fan of Sepinwall's popular TV blog on the Hit Fix site. Her review has helped boost sales of Sepinwall's book. That doesn't happen to most self-published writers. Hanna Brooks Olsen was happy just to see a published version her book, "Hanged Man's Leap."

HANNA BROOKS OLSEN: It was so exciting. It was way more exciting than I thought it was going to be. I immediately told any of my friends who I knew had e-readers, and I obviously emailed my mother, too, with a link.

NEARY: Brooks Olsen wrote about her self-publishing experience for the online magazine LitReactor. She got editing help from her parents and her boyfriend designed the cover, but otherwise, she did it all herself. E-publishing is the quickest way to go, and Brooks Olsen chose Amazon's Kindle Direct because it seemed easy to use and she liked having the power of Amazon behind her.

OLSEN: And it does sort of get sold randomly at times. You know, I'll get a direct deposit from Amazon every now and then for, you know, $10 or $15, and I'm like, oh, I must have sold a couple more that month.

NEARY: But the process wasn't problem-free. There were formatting issues, and she had to wade through a lot of legalese to figure out the contract with Amazon, especially royalties. She viewed the process as an experiment, but says if you're more serious about selling a book, you might want some help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Have you written a book that you dream of publishing? Every day, we help people just like you publish the book of their dreams and sell it from online stores like Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com.

NEARY: Do a quick search of the Internet, and you'll find lots of help for writers who want to self-publish, from companies like Smashwords, which publishes and distributes e-books, to companies like Lulu, which publishes both electronic and print books, and offers a range of services that cost up to $5,000.

BRIAN MATTHEWS: It's everything from, you know, website design, to social media strategies, to cover design, you know, to editing packages.

NEARY: Lulu marketing director Brian Matthews. Lulu's been around since 2002, long before the current self-publishing boom. Matthews says a lot of Lulu's customers just want to print a few copies of the book for family or friends, but others have seen all the self-publishing success stories and think they can duplicate that.

MATTHEWS: Obviously, when you get into hundreds of thousands of titles, and there's hundreds to thousands of real successes in a given year, the percentages are small. But in the democratized world of self-publishing, there are very low barriers, and if someone has, you know, has a good story to tell, is able to tap into a community, an interested set of readers, certainly, we've seen again and again, they can find that success.

NEARY: It may seem that self-publishing companies are taking advantage of writers with little hope of making their money back. But even a writer with a fighting chance at self-publishing success, like Alan Sepinwall, needs some help. Sepinwall hired a professional editor and has his own very popular blog as a publicity platform. But Sepinwall wasn't so sure about designing and formatting the book himself.

SEPINWALL: Yeah, I mean, I'm a writer. I'm not a layout guy. I'm not an artist. So I could have come with something on my own, but it would have looked amateurish in some way. And so I figured, all right, I'm going to stick to my strengths, and I will bring in other people to help me.

NEARY: A friend recommended a company called 52 Novels to help design and format the book. All in all, Sepinwall spent about $2,500 on self-publishing, which at the time seemed like a lot of money.

SEPINWALL: I turned down this offer from the one publisher a year ago, because I thought it wasn't what I was hoping for and also I didn't get the sense that maybe they were that enthusiastic about the book, anyway. And for a while, when I was going through this self-publishing odyssey, I kept sort of saying to myself, what a mistake. What did you do? That was money in the bank. You're never going to make that much selling it on your own. I've already made quite a bit more than that.

CAROLYN REIDY: The audience has been growing by leaps and bounds, and there have been more and more signal successes in that world.

NEARY: Carolyn Reidy is the CEO of Simon and Schuster, which recently announced it is launching a new self-publishing service in partnership with Author Solutions, Inc. If traditional publishers want to survive, Reidy says, they have to keep up with the rapid changes taking place in the industry. The growth of self-publishing is one of them.

REIDY: We actually understand that it is a different world than what we do, and we want to understand it. And if it is going to or possibly could be a threat to our business, we definitely want to understand it and also see how we can turn that to our advantage. And one of the advantages is it is a great way to find authors, also new genres and new audiences.

NEARY: The company, Archway, will also offer a range of publishing packages to would-be authors. But Reidy says no one from Simon and Schuster will be directly involved in publishing or editing Archway books. However, Simon and Schuster will keep track of sales.

REIDY: And one of the advantages to actually having this relationship, as opposed to merely watching the self-publishing authors published by others, is that we will begin to see sales velocity and other things like that earlier in the game. So we saw it as an advantage to us in finding talent. Hopefully, that is an advantage to the authors. But they are not being published by Simon and Schuster.

NEARY: And that's an important point, because while self-publishing may be all the rage right now, the truth is, the ultimate goal for a lot of writers is a contract with a traditional publishing company. Alan Sepinwall is already considering that possibility.

SEPINWALL: It would put it in brick-and-mortar stores. It would put it in college bookstores. It would put it in other places. It would make it more widely available to people, and I think that would be nice. It just - it depends on sort of what deal would be presented to me to make it worth giving up the rights to it, which I have right now.

NEARY: And you have the total rights, so all of the money comes right to you.

SEPINWALL: It is my book. There is no one else involved. The formatting company, that's work-for-hire, cover artist, copy editor, all of that was work-for-hire. This is my book.

NEARY: And he can do with it what he wants. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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