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Self publishing: where do you begin?

The process starts with a book that is finished, and edited to perfection.

You're sure of several things:

  • The research on which the fiction or non-fiction narrative is based is beyond reproach;
  • The style in which the book is written is appropriate to the material;
  • The spelling, punctuation and grammar are all spotless;
  • There's a decent market for this kind of book (doesn't have to vast, just viable);
  • You're tired of waiting for publishers and agents who're not going to cooperate;
  • You have the time and energy to learn how to publish and market yourself;
  • You have a few hundred dollars, minimum, to invest.
If you're certain about each of these points ... it's showtime. But where in the world do you put a toe into the water?

A good place to begin is with the image in your mind's eye. How do you SEE the book? Because every part of the process, from design to printing to marketing, will be your shot to call! You're the publisher now -- as clearly distinct from the writer.

So we'll take a quick look at the job of publishing as a whole, before we look in-depth at the process via which you'll turn your manuscript into a book.

It’s no accident that “coffee table monsters” from the major publishing houses look as if they’ve been designed by a team of computer geeks who also have degrees from a fine art college. The art and craft of the page designer encompasses both of these fields: the team (or individual) responsible for laying out professionally-published books will begin with a concept ... a sketch in coloured pencils or inks ... and then the magic happens in the computer.

Perhaps you can’t expect to be quite up to the task of laying out the Encyclopedia Britannica on the desktop, but most of the techniques are within the reach of self-publishers, and your self-published book need not look plain.

It all begins with a clear idea in your mind: what is the book going to LOOK like? When you're flying solo (not working with a vanity, subsidy or joint venture outfit) no one can decide for you how things are going to appear. People can help with their advice, or provide clipart, photos, fonts and so on, but the bottom line -- the decisions about what goes where, and how big, and what colour -- all this is down to the publisher. And that’s you.

Don’t underestimate the job you’ve taken on. It’s complex, and there’s a learning curve! The trick is to enjoy the process of learning. You’ll find ways to unleash your creative nature which you might not have previously imagined. The craft of laying out a book is just as artistic, and almost as demanding, as the craft of writing and illustrating the book.

In fact, when you’ve decided to be a self-publisher, you’ve made a commitment: you’re about to make yourself a Jill (or Jack) of All-Trades. You must be...
  • The writer, without whom no book would ever make it into print
  • The editor, without whom every book will be rough around the edges
  • The proofreader, without whom every book will be strewn with errors
  • The illustrator, without whom no book would have pictures; or
  • The executive in charge of choosing the artwork, which is just as important
  • The layout designer, without whom every book would look like a manuscript!
  • The marketing and sales department, without whom all books would be pulped...
The list of jobs the self-publishing writer has taken on is daunting ... but which writer does not relish a challenge? The very act of conceiving of, beginning, and finishing a book is such a challenge, there can be nothing new about our list here. It’s just another group of skills to learn. If you’ve already learned how to structure a novel or nonfiction work, and how to perform the global-edit and copy-edit, to produce a thoroughly professional text worthy of publication, then the rest is one more learning curve to climb.

To master the above suite of skills will take time. When you're ready to publish, however, the hardest jobs are already behind you. If you've developed into a good, solid writer with excellent editing skills, the task of learning book design on the desktop is easy by comparison.

There are rules to learn and follow ... and you'll need the right software. Relax: it's inexpensive these days, and although there's a learning curve, recent software systems are better designed and very intuitive, designed to be user friendly.

Book design -- the rules to learn and stick to -- is the topic of the next post in this series: we're going to go hands on. Be on the mailing list, or subscribe via RSS, and stay up to date!

Last chance to chicken out: be sure!

Still, self-publishing is a huge step, a massive decision to make -- be sure you want to go this way! You’ve tried to make contact with agencies in New York and London, and drawn a blank. You’ve moved heaven and earth, and invested a ridiculous amount of money in mailing out reading copies of your manuscript. Perhaps you got as far as a publisher reading and liking your work, only to have it subsequently trashed by the “reader” to whom it was passed.

The who? After an editor at one of the major publishers has read and liked your (for example) fantasy novel, your manuscript will be passed on to a fantasy-specialist reader, who is an at-home booklover who gets paid by the company to read genre works and tell the publisher if, in his or her estimation, this is a good novel.

Now you get to the subjective part of the process. A fantasy reader who loves Tolkien above all authors may easily have very little patience with Conan the Barbarian, and a million-copy money-spinner will be rejected out of hand. A reader to whom the epitome of SF is the technical reality of Arthur C. Clark may have no patience with tongue-in-cheek space opera, and yet space opera is an evergreen among SF fans. Your book is rejected right here, though the editor liked it. The editor has just been told the book is “not good fantasy,” or “not good SF,” and a rejection letter will be issued. Some purportedly conciliatory encouragement may be included, along the lines of “The writer is promising and should be encouraged to continue.” (As an experiment, a professional writer with eight published novels under his belt put this system to the test and received exactly this response!)

Having drawn a blank everywhere, and yet still having faith in your work, you’ve decided to self-publish. You’ve already climbed the learning curves associated with writing ... editing ... copy-editing ... proofreading. You’ve looked into marketing: where you can find people to buy your book, and how many of them there are. You know the sales are out there.

It's time to talk to a printer.

You’ve reached a threshold where the worlds of the publisher and the printer meet, like the meniscus between air and water.

In today’s digital world, the line where printer and publisher meet can often blur in both directions, and eBooks complicate the issue even further: publishers “print to software,” even though there is no printing process ... neither is there a bookstore!

If you’ve made the decision to self-publish, it is time to talk to a printer; but before you do, enter into the scene with a clear idea of what a printer is, and what the printshop does; and what kinds of printshops are out there. Some can help you ... some can’t. Some will cost you an arm and a leg, others will save you and your project.

Next: we go hands on, and turn that manuscript of yours into a book!

Self publishing: why would you do it -- and how?!

If you're thinking seriously about self-publishing, your mind is probably bursting with questions. How much will it cost? Which of the many options should you take? What will be expected of you? What can you expect from your printer? How do you get the books to market? Can you hope to break even -- or make a profit?

The reasons for self-publishing are many and varied, but by far the most common one is sheer frustration. You're not a new writer. You've spent five or ten or twenty years honing your craft; you're edited to perfection; you have something to say ... and to save your life, you can't connect with an agent or publisher.

This could be because you're writing in a marginalized niche where potential sales don't warrant a full-size printrun from a publishing house. It could be because you live so far away from the locations where the appropriate publishers are that you can't "do lunch" with them, or meet them at conventions. Or because you can't afford to travel to London or New York, take an agent to lunch, dressed in the kind of glad-rags that're mandatory for such meetings.

Perhaps you're hoping to earn enough through writing to fix the car, buy the kids new jeans, get broadband, so you can work properly ... sound familiar? This describes 80% of writers -- professional writers, not just the aspiring hopefuls! Very few can afford to take plane or train to the Big Smoke, dress like a business professional and pick up the tab for an extremely expensive lunch. It would blow a large hole in five hundred dollars -- in which case, the kids are certainly not going to be getting new jeans this month! And most people put the "necessaries" before the "pie in the sky" stuff, like wooing agents into maybe representing us. The worst news is that you might have to "do lunch" a dozen times to land a proper agent who will work hard to find you a proper publisher, who'll offer a proper contract ... but results are not guaranteed. You can spend years on this treadmill, spend a great deal of money and end up holding a handful of smoke.

At some point along this road, almost every writer will consider self-publishing. The ones who have begun to find the treadmill too expensive, too infuriating, or just too long (above seven years on the hunt, you must start to consider alternatives) will begin to study the craft of self-publishing --

And the first thing you learn is ... it's not a cake walk.

Detractors and doomsayers talk about self-publishing as if anyone can do it. They run down the craft as if it's so easy, and in fact -- it's not!

At least, not if you want to do it properly, with the object in mind of building a business and a career as a writer.

It is true that if you're largely without talent, and wholly without the commitment and integrity necessary to learn the writer's trade, you can self-publish at or, click a button and -- wham! You're on ... that easy.

It is also true that your book will be among the Greatest Literary Disasters of this century (and the century has already seen some horrors; you're in nasty company here).

Few readers are stupid. In fact, most are getting extremely savvy. To get a sale, you'll have to make a chapter or three available for free (10% of the whole work as a sample is a good idea), and in those pages you'll give away every secret. If you don't know how to spell or punctuate; if you don't know how to copy edit for repetitions and a blizzard of confusing pronouns -- all this will be apparent to the reader. You won't get a sale.

Here is the inescapable fact: your job is to become an excellent writer before you pick up the publishing challenge. If you're good enough as a writer, and after years trying to connect with an agent or publisher you're still working alone, going broke on the hunt, and getting gray hairs as five years turns into ten --

It's time. Pick up the gauntlet.

Self-publishing offers so many options these days, it's confusing. The first thing we're going to do is take some of the confusion out of the field.

Right here, we’ll assume your book is finished, and exhaustively edited. Think about this! It’s too late to find the grammatical and typographical errors, once the book has been printed, bookbound and delivered, ready for transshipment (forwarding though to your associate bookstores). If you’re not 100% sure of your editing and proofing, the time to fix the problems is now. Remember, the printer won’t proofread for you!

It’s a wise idea to look at the difference between all the various printers and publishers you’re likely to meet in your endeavors. Today’s market is a complex place, and it’s going to become more complicated as the traditional kinds of printers and publishers are joined by the electronic, digital and e-versions.

When most people think “publisher,” they have in mind a company such as Harper Collins or Random House, but this is far from the only option; and when most people think “printer,” they have in mind a massive workshop churning out tabloid printing — but once again, this image is becoming increasingly stereotypical.

Let’s take a quick look at who printers and publishers are likely to be in this century ... at what they do, and what they don’t do!

The major publishing house... a multi-million dollar corporation with offices in London and New York, and other centers around the globe. These are the top-end, mass-market publishing houses. They don’t usually look at work which is not first ‘screened’ by an agency. If they accept your work, they do everything for you: even if you’ve already edited it to your satisfaction, the chances are they’ll edit it again. Everyone has a different opinion about what passages are critical and which inspire yawns, and when they’re paying you (which is to say, you’re on contract), they call the shots. They’ll do the layout and design, the printing and binding, and the marketing.

You get royalties at the end of the day. Accounts are settled every three or six months (depending on the publisher), and you usually get paid after a further six months, for copies which were sold in the “accounting period.”

How much you get paid depends on the publisher. A standard royalty contract is something like 10% Net. Net Price is the part of the retail price which is returned to the publisher, and is a fraction of the Gross, or RRP, Price. Net Price is largely what the publisher negotiates for. It can be as little as 10% of the gross price, if the book is proving hard to market ... it can be as much as 40%, if the publisher owns the distribution company too! If you sign with a small press (as many new writers do), a safe bet is, Net Price = 25%. So your royalty will be 10% of one fourth of the RRP.

If the book retails for A$19.95, Net is about $5 and your royalty will be in the order of 50c. You might get paid an advance of up to two-thirds of the book’s expected income ... but remember, the book then has to sell enough copies to recover the advance before you get paid again. You’ll only get paid for sold copies. Shop soiled returns, review copies and remainder copies don’t earn royalties. If you’re with a major publisher and the printrun is 20,000+, you can do quite nicely. If you’re with a small publisher, and the printrun is 3,000 - 5,000 it’s not quite so lucrative, even though the thrill of being in print remains the same.

The small publisher, or small press... a small business, or perhaps even an individual who can be publishing out of a home office. By far the largest body of listings in any of your Writers’ Marketplace-type directories are small publishers. The downside is, they sometimes only do two books in any one year, and their printruns can be under 2,000. The upside is, they’ll look at your work when the big companies at the high end of the industry won’t. The small press is still a fully professional publishing house: they don’t charge you a penny in fees or commissions ... they do pay royalties. And most importantly, they’ll give you a start when no one else will. Many writers start here, though it remains a minefield. Small publishers begin to grow and are often taken over, “absorbed” by bigger publishing houses. This is not good news for the small publisher’s writers, who usually get dropped. The whole reason for the big publisher taking over the small fry was only to get rid of competition on the battlefield: the bookstore

The so-called “vanity publisher”... a different genus, with a number of species! The rabid hyenas of this part of the market get the most coverage, because they charge the writer for everything, from the editing to the layout, and even some or all of the copies to be printed. In fact ... you have just self-published your book, they didn’t do anything for you, except take the credit for it, publish under their label — and, to be fair, if they’re a good vanity press, they’ll market the hell out of the work for you.

Some (most?) people get ripped off royally by the hyenas. The bad vanity press never rejects any book. No work is so poorly conceived of or crafted that they won’t take a few thousand dollars from the writer to lick it into something faintly resembling shape, put covers around it and get it into some bookstore, somewhere. But selling copies is another question ... and you won’t get paid until, or unless, you start to sell copies.

Yet, every vanity press probably dreams of the day when a potentially major writer comes to them ... this writer, having been rejected by every literary agency in the accessible universe, is ready to invest in the publishing venture. The saying used to go that if you had a good book, it would find a publisher. In today’s flooded, top-heavy marketplace, this is no longer true. Great books get rejected. Lesser works (read: rubbish) quite often get printed ... because they’re commercial ... or they were written by the publisher’s friend or relative and are printed as a favour ... or because a foolish writer, who in fact should know he or she is not-ready-yet, sluiced money into the hands of a vanity publisher.

Focus on the italic sentence, above. Great books get rejected. Not every book produced by a vanity press is rubbish; not every vanity publisher is a conman. When great books have been tossed out by literary agencies who are “not reading at this time,” and therefore did not even read the cover letter or synopsis, many of these books filter down to the vanity presses. The honest vanity press should tell a writer when a book isn’t good enough to warrant the investment ... and they should be there like a safety net, to catch the good books, which would otherwise be consigned to the desk drawer.

Not all vanity presses are rabid hyenas. Not all books churned out by them are dross, and not all writers get ripped off this way ... but you should be aware that enough people do get conned for the very term “vanity press” to have earned a muddy reputation. No one could recommend that you publish with them -- but on the other hand (and this is rarely mentioned!) no one can guarantee that you’ll be another victim! If you choose an honest vanity publisher, and you've learned your craft, and they market the heck out of your book, and your book is as good as you think it is, you could actually fare better with a reputable vanity press than with a small publisher. (The small press might have too-limited distribution, whereas the vanity press pushed you into online book clubs and so forth.) But no matter which vanity press you choose, the bottom line remains the same: the key word is vanity.

They will charge you ... you will pay for every part of the process; and it won't be cheap.

However, keep in mind one thing: a good vanity press should have a distribution network. If your book is good, and they’re tigers rather than hyenas, there’s no reason for you to be a victim, though the risk remains and this fact is inescapable: when a book fails at market, and it was published by a “real publisher” ... the writer is never asked to pay back any advances. The publisher deems the exercise to have been a tax-writeoff and drives on. But when a book fails at market, and it was published by a vanity press, the company loses nothing. The writer loses everything. Which begs the question, where's the impetus for the press to work marketing miracles?

In fact, the impetus is there, because vanity publishers with great integrity are dying to find the next Wilbur Smith or Greg Bear or Maeve Binchy or J.K. Rowling. They can retire on the discovery! But the downside to all the remains the same -- they can't lose money, no matter if you lose your house!

The joint venture, or subsidy publisher... not a thousand miles from the vanity press, but at least the costs are shared. You put up some of the float, so does the company. The risk is shared and all parties have a vested interest in the project, so, in theory, all parties will get out there and market as hard as they can!

There are no guarantees of sales, and when a book fails, everyone loses. However, a company will carry a four-figure loss a great deal better than the writer. Once again, the words “tax-writeoff” leap to mind! Also, the subsidy publisher can spread his interests around: if he can publish 20 books in a year and only 15 succeed, while the other 5 lose money, he’s doing well. The failures cut his tax bill and five doomed writers had all shared in his investment.

But if you place yourself in the position of one of the failed writers, the picture is no more rosy than it would be for the writer who chose to go with a vanity press: you lost your investment. Subsidy publishing can work for you ... or not. It’s a gamble, and as the saying goes, ‘Only gamble with what you can afford to lose.”

POD -- what is it?
... The acronym stands for publish on demand, or print on demand, which are two very different things.

Print on demand is used by a publisher to minimize risk. It's also called "empty warehouse," because books are physically produced only if, and when, they're ordered. A printrun can be 1,000, 100 or 1. The books have been properly edited, designed and published -- they're just waiting for print orders. Hence -- print.

Publish on demand is used by a writer who is genuinely self-publishing. There's no publisher involved, just the writer, the printshop and the customer. In this case, a printshop like will actually be quoted as the publisher! This is the "iffy and dodgy" end of the POD trade. When absolute rubbish finds its way into publication, this is usually where, and how, it happens, because no one at a printshop (like or is watchdogging the process. Spelling mistakes, bad grammar, hopeless storytelling and all, the book is just "published." (And this, unfortunately, is where POD has earned a bad reputation which is actually far from warranted.)

The Print on Demand (empty warehouse) publisher... a newcomer to the field, and not to be confused with the vanity or subsidy press. The Print on Demand publisher is a real publisher ... in a thimble. And that’s an accolade, not a criticism! The warehouse is empty, if it even exists at all. Every book in the catalog is in software form ... and so is the catalog. The brochure is more than likely a webpage. Readers find the book in which they’re interested either by performing a search with an engine, or via links pages.

Let's say you wanted a book teaching you how to write shorthand. You’d go to Google and type in the search field something like “shorthand tutorial” ... click GO. Everything from tertiary courses to manuals will be offered to you. You can start there and surf online bookstores for the next fifteen minutes. Many of the books they will ship to you will have been mass-published ... many will have come from POD publishers instead.

When a POD publisher gets an order via its webpage, the computer sends a message to another computer in a printshop across the country, even across the world. One copy is send to the laser printer, and then bound, all completely by automatic.

These are top of the line digital systems. The book is finished as it comes off the printer. The whole thing then goes into some form of binding machine (there are numerous kinds; and they fall into the realm of the printer, not the publisher, so we’re not concerned about them here). The book is bound, and guillotined on three open edges, and it’s ready to ship, in an issue of ONE.

Is a POD publisher a “real” publisher? Most certainly. The author was charged nothing to get the book into shape. The publisher marketed the heck out of it (on the Internet, which is where these books are sold in their largest numbers. Which writer could possibly object to where sales are generated, so long as copies are shipped and all parties get paid?) ... and at the end of the day the writer was paid royalties. The risks of publishing were minimized because the big investment in printing was not made. Every copy manufactured was pre-sold.

And these are real books: glossy color covers, top-quality paper, indestructible binding. The only differences between them and bookstore books is, they were laser printed on bond paper, rather than on Bog (newspaper) stock. In twenty years, the laser printed book will not have aged ... the book done on newspaper will be yellow. And of course, the printrun was small.

The main downside to POD publishers is still the price. POD books are expensive because they're printed, bound and shipped one at a time. Whereas a mass-printer would get the price down to $5, the POD printshop will charge $8 - $10 for the same item, which means they're also going to be correspondingly expensive at the checkout.

Also ... and maybe this is important to you! ... you don’t often find those books in stores; you’ll seldom be asked to meet the people, shake hands and sign books. In other words, there's little opportunity for the writer to show off!

The upside is, the risk is minimal for all concerned, so the books happen, and you will get royalties.

The eBook publisher... a little like a POD publisher, but different insofar as no physical books are produced. Any book, from a novel to an encyclopedia, is generated in software, and published to software, and it’s made available to the reader as a download. If it’s too large to be downloaded ... say, 20MB or more ... it can be sold on CD-Rom, but broadband access has made files up to 50MB downloadable. There is no printing process whatsoever -- but the publishing process should be just as stringent as if the book were about to be mass produced by a major New York company.

Today, eBooks are being made in many formats, not all of which suit all readers (in this context, “readers” being the screen device displaying them, not the human doing the reading). The format which still reaches the most people is probably Adobe Acrobat, which can be read on any PC or Mac, desktop or laptop, and a Palm device can be “synchronised” to the main computer (meaning, eBooks can be downloaded from the computer to the Palm handheld device). But the Adobe format is being challenged by Mobipocket, Kindle, Stanza, and many more. The field is expanding fast.

The most important aspect of eBooks is security; writers are naturally concerned about having their works out there, copied willy-nilly and printed out in batches of hundreds, for sale on the other side of the world, without the behest, or even the knowledge of the originating author! This can happen, and there will always be ways to get around a document’s security ... but good encryption settings on the eBook file will handicap thieves.

The eBook is sold via an online point of sale, and royalties are sent back from the publisher to the writer on a regular basis, usually on a "delay 30" or "delay 60" agreement. This means that the writer will be paid at the end of March for books sold the month, or two months, previously.

Or, the eBook can easily be hosted on the writer’s own website, and the writer then receives the money directly via an “e-commerce solution.” However, the key to selling eBooks is the same as the keys to selling any other kind of books: marketing. It’s very possible to have a glorious website which attracts no visitors at all. You have to market hard, but if you have a website, you at least have something to market; and since eBooks involve no physical printing, your investment is almost all about time, not money.

Do get a reputable website designer to build your website. They know tricks of the trade you couldn’t possibly know. (How will your site look in other browsers, such as Opera, Firefox and Netscape? What’s stopping your Javascript from working? Why are some people “whitescreening” on your pages? Some visitors can’t download things at all, what’s going on? You set out to be a writer, not a programmer! Stick to your job.)

If you intend to self-publish eBooks, do your homework. Learn how to do it properly -- don't just throw the project together. You'll need a beautiful cover for catalog pictures, proper interior design, and bookmarking. In short, you'll need to know your DTP program inside and out, even if you don't intend to print anything.

DTP for book design is a whole 'nother topic, and one we'll get to very soon! Be on the mailing list and keep up with this blog; we'll keep you posted when new items go online.

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Self publishing: where do you begin?

Flying solo: when you're ready to self-publish...

The decision to self-publish is a courageous one. It demonstrates any writer’s or artist’s confidence in his or her own abilities, and a firm belief in the project.

This faith may not have been forthcoming from publishers to whom the work was shown -- but even the smallest understanding of how the major publishing houses operate should remove the feelings of failure and doubt which are suffered after the receipt of the first, or the thousandth, rejection slip.

In fact, writers across three continents have amassed a set of horror stories regarding their experiences with publishers -- stories which chill the bone marrow.

A rejection slip feels, to any writer or artist, like a rejection of oneself. Publishers and agents of integrity respond politely, with a few encouraging lines, even through the medium of a form letter. But many publishers and agents in today’s difficult market don’t see fit to respond at all.

In a majority of cases, your work will be returned to you in the SASE you provided, without any letter at all (which is certainly better than the worst-case scenario, in which an agent or publisher is actually insulting and abusive; it's not professional behavior, but it happens) and you wonder, did anyone even look at your work?

The answer is frequently, no one did, and the reasons for this are many and varied.

Publishers are not “reading” all the time. They have financial budgets, and lists which are filled for the whole year, frequently by March. When the lists are filled, they stop looking at manuscripts. You didn't know any of this when you submitted to them -- if you'd known, you'd have saved your time, money and nerves.

To prevent themselves drowning in the tide of manuscripts coming in from first-time writers (some of whom are genuinely “not ready yet”), most major publishers only read materials which are first filtered through by agencies.

Your problem swiftly becomes one of finding an agent who is reading! And, an agent who is not going to charge three-figures (in Australian dollars) per hour to read and edit. Understandably, most agents who serve the American and European markets would prefer to be sitting at a desk or restaurant table with you, and thrash out the pros and cons of your project over coffee. It can be extremely difficult to edit a book by remote control via email or physical mail; and one can forgive these agents if, being inundated with local New York and London writers, they choose not to collaborate with a writer on the far side of the world.

The reasons for the hundred-and-two rejection letters you’ve received could have nothing at all to do with the value of your work, or its publishability. They could easily be about business, budgets, and even about geography.

You might have an absolutely wonderful book ... but it will languish in your desk drawer if you don’t grasp this bull by the horns and wrestle it down yourself. Landing an agent has become as long and hard a chore as landing a publisher used to be. Some writers are never lucky enough to make the connection, and this failure can have nothing to do with the quality of their work.

How long do you walk this rocky road? The hunt for an agent or publisher should be given at least three years; but if you're still beating your head on this wall, throwing a lot of money at this problem, after seven years, it's time to seek out alternatives. Go on much (or any) longer, and you'll "burn out," lose your desire to write, and quit.

Understand that the leviathan of the publishing industry doesn't care if you quit. There are tens of thousands of writers just like you. They're skilled, with good stories to tell. However, the world does not have enough eager readers to support enough professional publishing houses to accommodate every good writer.

More and more, as times get harder, publishers are cutting their losses, amalgamating, merging, sacking staff, all in an effort to stay in business. The hardest part of this is that they will obviously choose to run with established writers who sell lots of copies.

Marginalized writers, or small niches, have been "feeling the chop" for more than a decade now. If this process is of interest, read this series of posts by Mel Keegan, in which the whole process of decay is discussed -- as well as the new industry which is still arising, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the old:

PART ONE: New York Publishing: Worms in the Big Apple
PART TWO: Learning to think outside the corporate box
PART THREE: Independent publishing- local goes global
PART FOUR: Digital publishing comes of age
PART FIVE: Publishing as sheer entrepreneurialism
PART SIX: POD Publishing -- getting megatrendy

Self publishing. Flying solo. The idea raises goose bumps, doesn't it?

Taking the first step in this process -- making the decision to "just do it" -- is difficult. For decades, there has been a stigma attached to self-publishing. It’s been labelled vanity publishing, and we are all warned against getting involved with it.

It was said (and forty years ago this was probably true), if your book was good, it would find a publisher. Many years ago, publishers were in command of publishing houses; they prided themselves in discovering new talent, and were always on the lookout for a gifted newcomer. In the golden days of publishing, such people could also afford to take a financial risk -- make a gamble on a new writer or a new book, and not suffer terminal economic wounds in the event of a mistake.

In these days of global recession, you’ll find accountants at the helm of the big publishing companies. Accountants have little interest in art, and are looking for the most marketable book; they’re hunting for high sales, big returns. Previously unpublished writers (or writers from modest-sales genres) are very low on their list of priorities ... and there are just so many fine, aspiring writers out there. More are churned out, degree qualified, by the world's colleges every year. The accountants can always fill their publishing quota with what they want and need. Celebrity books and best selling novelists come top of the list; and the list itself is much shorter than it used to be.

So where is the newcomer who is in no way connected to anyone on the inside to get a start? How does one break into an apparently impenetrable bastion, if you don't know someone on the inside? Having a friend of relative in the business has always been a wonderful opportunity, but most of us aren't so lucky. Doors are not about to swing open for us.

Which leaves many writers looking for viable alternatives.

The good news is, things have been changing lately, and changing quietly, behind the scenes, where it can be easy to ignore or not even see what’s going on.

The Internet has brought access to worldwide markets to your door; virtually every desk has a computer on it, and modern software is unspeakably powerful. The world has gone digital, and it’s suddenly possible to print very small numbers of a book. Or one. There are “empty warehouse” publishers. There are digital publishers and eBooks, and ebook "readers" which sit in the palm of your hand with nine hours of battery life before an hour's recharge, and these devices are actually (more or less) affordable.

(We'll look at the hardware in another post. We're going to review the reading devices and the software that runs on them ... be on the mailing list, and don't miss a thing!)

Little about the publishing industry is the way it was even five years ago, and it’s more possible now than ever to take on the “big guys,” play them at their own game ... and go into it with the expectation of winning.

It can be done. It's being done every day. It takes skill, determination, faith in yourself and your work, an enormous amount of energy, ingenuity, a spirit that won't be beaten, and a few bucks. But first, it takes a kind of epiphany -- an awakening...

You must hurl yourself over the first step, and turn a deaf ear when you should hear the term “vanity publishing.” In many ways this is an obsolete term. It harks back to the era where a good book would be published, and where a veteran publisher took a great joy in discovering a new writing talent.

Those days and over, and it's possible they might never return. Yet in 2009 there are more aspiring writers and artists on the fringes of the market than ever. What's to become of them? It's true that 90% of them are "not ready yet," or simply not good enough to make grade. They might have nothing new to contribute, or not enough integrity to settle down and learn a new trade -- the trade of the professional wordsmith. But 10% are good enough to make the grade, and this percentage works out to thousands of writers -- perhaps tens of thousands, globally -- for whom the opportunities to get into the traditional publishing industry are far too few.

After years of trying, the most determined writers arrive at the point where they think, "I can publish it myself and sell copies on the Internet. Why can't I do that?"

And you can -- if you can get past the stigma of self-publishing, which is still confused with vanity publishing, even now.

For marginalized writers (newcomers or niche market authors), the traditional publishing is a risky game. You may begin to break in professionally, with small printruns from a small publisher, only to find that corporate mergers close your publisher down or curtail their list. This is a very common scenario. All at once, after ten or twenty years dealing with a "proper publisher," you’re starting over, even though you have several or many published books to your credit. You can find it difficult or impossible to find another publisher, and after years of trying you'll reach the same point as the new writer who never found a publisher at all: "I can publish it myself and sell copies on the Internet. Why can't I do that?"

It's most important not to confuse self-publishing with self-marketing, or to confuse either of these with Vanity publishing. Vanity publishing can be a recipe for disaster ... self-publishing can open the door to fantastic success -- and we're about to look at the ocean of difference between all three of these types of publishing.

As someone once said, there is no better revenge than success!

The whole endeavour begins with information. If you're on this post, we assume you’ve already climbed several learning curves to get here:

  • you’ve made yourself into a good, solid writer;
  • you’re a good copy editor, too: your work is ready to go, and you know it;
  • you’ve computerized yourself and your workspace;
  • you've bought, and mastered, the DTP software...

In fact, you’ve arrived at the very last step in a thousand-mile journey. The only problem left is, this step is as wide as a river ... and you’re searching for a bridge. On one side is yourself, with a book (or more likely a pile of books, since you've spent the last 3 - 7 years trying to get a decent agent who will actually represent you instead of wasting your time and sending you bills), and the ambition to turn the damned books into earners.

On the other side of the river is The Reading, Buying Public. You need to connect the dots. These books need to find their way into the hands of those readers, and the Internet is the way to make it happen. But, damned if you can make the dots connect up. You're hunting for that bridge to bring it all together.

This bridge is made of several components, and by far the most important is information. You already have the faith in your gift and your work, or you wouldn’t be reading this. The financial costs of pre-press and printing won't be so high that some useful elbow-space on your Visa or MasterCard won’t cover them. A few hundred dollars, max. Maybe less.

In fact, the intention of this series of posts is to cut those costs down to size and get the manuscript to morph itself into a book, the way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly ... and then to get the book out there in front of readers. The decision -- to buy or not to buy? -- will be made not by an editor, publisher, or the buyer for bookstore chain. In the new marketplace there's just YOU and the READERS. You find them, you impress the hell out of them, and they'll happily give you $10 for the fun of reading your book.

After the sale, you must give them their ten bucks' worth. It better be a good book, because to make a living at this, you need what marketers call returning customers. You need to build a client base of readers who loved your first book and are dying for your next one. So it behooves you to double-check everything, make sure you're as good as you think you are, before you slap a cover on this novel and go to market.

Information is the key, and the most crucial component of this bridge. With information, you can bring self-publishing within your reach, physically and financially.

This series of posts is not about the marketing aspect! We're going to call this "Metamorphosis: From Manuscript to Book." When the printing process is finished, you’ll have something to go out there and sell -- this is the goal of this series. Marketing is a whole 'nother subject: you sell copies, make back your investment start to see a profit. That's a vast subject in itself, and we'll tackle it separately.

Marketing-wise, at this point we assume you’ve done your research, you know your markets. You are sure the sales are out there, if only you can figure out how to get the project off the ground. You're confident of your work: you're good enough to publish professionally, and have been good enough for some time now. It's killing you, not being able to find a decent agent or a publisher.

Time to fly solo. Your thousand-mile journey is about to end. Be on the mailing list or subscribe via RSS! And now --

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Self publishing: why would you do it -- and how?!

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