Self-publishing can be fun and, for some, profitable

dmenconi@newsobserver.comNovember 16, 2013 

  • By the numbers

    More than 391,000 self-published titles were released in the U.S. in 2012, according to the latest figures from Bowker (the firm that issues ISBNs, International Standard Book Numbers).

    That’s up 59 percent from 2011 – and 422 percent over 2007.

    The rise of low-cost e-books has fueled much of this growth. In 2007, e-books made up 11 percent of all self-published titles. In 2012, that figure was up to 40 percent.

    Bowker also reports that romance was the most popular category of self-published books sold in 2012. Some 71 percent of self-published books sold in 2012 were bought by women.

  • How to get started

    Some places to go:

    Lulu Enterprises ( lulu.com): Red Hat co-founder Bob Young is CEO of Lulu, which offers an array of publishing services for electronic and print-on-demand books. There’s no setup cost, but Lulu offers editing, formatting, distributing and marketing services at costs from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

    Kindle Direct Publishing ( kdp.amazon.com): Amazon’s e-book service has no upfront charge to set up your book for electronic copies. Also free to use is Smashwords ( smashwords.com).

    CreateSpace ( createspace.com): Amazon’s print-on-demand service for self-published books. Prices start at $248 for the bare-bones “Author Express,” up to more than $5,000 for the deluxe “Marketing Pro” package.

  • What readers say

    Andy Holloman’s “Shades of Gray” has received more than 350 reader reviews on Amazon.com, 251 of them with four-star and five-star ratings, but also 54 less-than-flattering one- and two-star reviews. Some excerpts:

    “… a strikingly original and deeply moving story with an astonishing twist at the end.” (* * * * * )

    “…very fast-paced and hard to put down.” (* * * * )

    “…based on a smart concept, but its execution is amateurish.” (* * * )

    “This is not a great story.” (* * )

    “This is not my kind of book with death, drugs, and broken relationships.” (* )

Jonathan Franzen doesn’t think much of the modern book landscape. In a lengthy excerpt from his new book, recently published as an essay modestly titled “Jonathan Franzen: what’s wrong with the world,” the National Book Award winner sneers at his wannabe peers as “yakkers and tweeters and Braggers.” But Franzen’s harshest scorn is for the monolithic online merchant Amazon.com, whose founder/CEO is described in apocalyptic terms:

Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion.

One author you won’t hear complaining about this new world is Andy Holloman, because he’s thriving in it. Holloman lives in Apex and works as a mortgage lender. He has also self-published two action-adventure novels, 2011’s “Shades of Gray” and the just-released “When His Dreams Take Flight.”

Last year, “Shades of Gray” reached No. 1 on Amazon’s list for Fiction – Men’s Adventure and also cracked Amazon’s overall top-500. Holloman puts his sales at close to 10,000 copies, the vast majority in e-book form via Amazon, a feat almost any publisher would envy.

Holloman achieved this with promotions publicized through the social media channels Franzen rails against – Facebook, Twitter and his blog. Amazon has a program in which you can temporarily offer free downloads of your e-book, and those giveaways count in its rankings. Climbing Amazon’s ranking is one of the surest ways to get the attention that drives sales.

“I don’t think what’s happening now is nearly as dark and dreadful as what Jonathan Franzen describes,” Holloman said. “Me, I couldn’t be happier with social media. The first year ‘Shades of Gray’ was out, I sold 7,800 books and had a great time. It was way more fun than I thought it would be. Now you’ve got to have a good book, and it is. Not Pulitzer-winning or anything, but good. I couldn’t be happier about it all. Amazon’s been very good to me.”

Considering the options

It’s never been easy to catch on with the Random Houses or Simon & Schusters. Lightning occasionally still strikes, as it did recently for 34-year-old Garth Risk Hallberg, who got an advance of nearly $2 million for his first novel earlier this month. But for most unknown first-time authors, a big-money advance from one of the big New York publishing houses seems more unattainable than ever nowadays.

“If you want to be the next Stephen King or Pat Conroy, someone both well-respected and massively popular, it’s probably harder than it used to be,” said Ed Southern, executive director of the 1,200-member N.C. Writers’ Network. “But if it is, it’s just a little bit harder. It’s always been monstrously difficult.”

Down the ladder from the major publishers are university presses and smaller independent publishers like Durham-based Jacar Press. Most of these don’t have the means to pay large advances (or any advances at all, in many cases) or underwrite high-dollar marketing.

Then there’s author-financed self-publishing, which has exploded in recent years, especially with the rise of low-cost e-books. There are self-publishing success stories that dwarf Holloman’s, such as Hugh Howey (a native of Monroe, N.C., who now resides in Florida).

In a recent Huffington Post essay titled “Why You Should Self-Publish,” Howey estimated he’s sold 1 million books the past two years. “Dust,” the latest book in Howey’s science-fiction series “Silo Saga,” also made The New York Times bestseller list this fall.

For those who go the self-publishing route, there are numerous companies to use – including Raleigh-based Lulu, which has published well over 1 million titles since 2002. Options include digital, paperback and hardback editions, with seemingly limitless choices about covers, designs, editing and price. At the high end, even Simon & Schuster has a self-publishing division, Archway Publishing, in which authors can spend up to $25,000 to have their book published by one of the majors.

Holloman spent a lot less than that to bring “Shades of Gray” to market, although it was a time-consuming process. He finished writing the book in 2005 and spent several years trying to get a traditional publisher to pick it up. He had a few small-press offers but decided he could do better on his own.

Holloman paid an editor and a book production company “a couple thousand dollars” and set up shop as Triple J Press (named in honor of his three kids, all of whose first names start with the letter J). Dispensing with traditional bookstores, he used Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing for e-books and Amazon’s CreateSpace for hard copies.

He more than recouped his investment, although he declines to say how much he earned.

Finding an audience

Mary Lambeth Moore of Raleigh spent about the same range of money as Holloman to publish her 2010 novel “Sleeping With Patty Hearst.” Feeling daunted by the logistics of design and manufacturing, Moore contracted with Seattle-based Tigress Publishing for editing, production and distribution.

Moore was happy with how the book turned out, if disappointed in its distribution. “Patty Hearst” picked up a lot of good reviews on reader sites like Goodreads.com, but the book didn’t make it into many stores. And Moore had to handle virtually all the publicity work herself.

“There are pros and cons to traditional publishing and self-publishing,” Moore said. “Both involve a lot of effort from the writer. Any writer today should expect to have to do a lot of their own promotion. I did not break even, although I came close and it was definitely worthwhile. I was more interested in finding readers than making a lot of money, and I feel like I have a good start.”

Moore recently started writing another book and isn’t concerning herself with publishing logistics yet. But she doesn’t rule out going the do-it-yourself route again.

“Traditional publishers do still carry more prestige, but they don’t own readers anymore,” she said. “On Goodreads, you’ll see a lot of readers don’t care where books came from. Especially with genre books like mystery or romance, you can do very well self-publishing.”

Hustling your own book

For many writers like Moore, just publishing a book is enough, even if it doesn’t make money. And whether one is self-publishing or working with a traditional publisher, most writers other than Jonathan Franzen (who seems like the publishing industry’s “1 percent,” railing against the other 99 percent) will find themselves doing their own promotional heavy-lifting.

“If self-publishing makes it easier to get the work out, it’s not any easier to find an audience,” said Richard Krawiec, publisher of Jacar Press. “It might even be harder now because there are literally millions of e-books out there. Everyone wants to be an artist, but no one wants to support it. If as many people who self-published bought and read books, we would not be having this problem.”

Southern of the N.C. Writers’ Network points out that authors hustling their own work is hardly a new phenomenon. For example, he cites “Leaves of Grass,” poet Walt Whitman’s signature 1855 work.

“Whitman wrote reviews of it himself under pseudonyms, and it seems like ‘Leaves of Grass’ has held up pretty well,” Southern said. “A few years ago, a well-respected author said, ‘I’d love to be an author in 1955, but I have to live in the 21st century.’ It would be nice if everyone could just concentrate on the writing and not bother with the rest of it, but this is the world we live in.”

Holloman is hoping for a repeat of his “Shades of Gray” success with “When His Dreams Take Flight,” which is set in the fictional North Carolina town of Mount Rutgers. Inspired by last year’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn., “Flight” has a science-fiction plot about a high school principal who can see and even stop real-life shootings in his dreams.

“Creating a story that turns out well, better than you thought it would, is only the start,” Holloman said. “What you don’t realize at that point is how far behind you are. Maybe you’ve created one decent book – other writers have done 20. There are an ungodly number of titles out there and getting any attention is a struggle. It’s all a matter of perspective.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/onthebeat

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