Op-ed: How to Self-Publish and Not Perish in the Process
BY George Snyder
September 23 2011 4:00 AM ET
Are you a well-established writer with name recognition, a high-powered agent, a few best sellers under your belt, and fed up with that lackluster deal your brand-name publisher is offering you on your next book?
OK, neither am I. Maybe you’re a writer looking for work, or hustling to get someone out there to read that Great American Coming-Out Novel you just finished. But even if you’re someone who’s only thought about writing a book, you may have noticed that something’s going on in the publishing world these days. To begin with, bookstores are closing right and left — the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York (1967–2009), Different Light bookstores in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Borders everywhere, to name a few.
Another change in the world of publishing is the demise of traditional publishers, particularly notable for some of us being in the LGBT community when gay-friendly houses like Carroll & Graf (defunct since 2007), publisher of gay anthologies along with the works of Dennis Cooper, Noel Alumit, and Samuel R. Delany, shut down. Or Window Media, the nation’s largest publisher of gay newspapers, which recently closed. And let’s not forget how much the porn industry has changed, as print has disappeared and reemerged online. The days of finding your Uncle Ed’s stash of Honcho, Mandate, Playguy, and Black Inches, all published by Modernismo Publications (folded in 2009), are long gone.
All this closing and going under at the same time that writers old and new are turning to self-publishing in record numbers. And not just writers like your Aunt Irene who paid to publish her memoir about accompanying a gospel choir through the backwoods of Tennessee. Desktop publishing, print on demand, and micropublishing may be relatively new names for variations on the theme of self-publishing, but the terms “vanity press” and “privately printed” have been around for a while: Oscar Wilde had some of his work privately printed, as did a number of gay writers who wanted to share certain literary efforts that the traditional publishers of their time wouldn’t dare risk publishing. Then there was Virginia Woolf, who set up a printing press in her house to produce her own books and those of her friends, with the added bonus of giving her something to do to keep from going insane (it worked, for a while).
Now all sorts of people are writing and producing their own books, like the 20-something Amanda Hocking, who self-published her young adult novels of supernatural romance and wound up with a $2 million deal with St. Martin’s Press. Or there’s Rex Pickett, an established screenwriter and film director and author of the best-selling novel Sideways, which became the award-winning film of the same name. Pickett has turned to self-publishing for the sequel, Vertical, available in November.
The point is, self-publishing isn’t what it was when your Aunt Irene sent off that manuscript she’d banged out on an old Royal typewriter and got back 500 copies of her book bound in genuine imitation leather with the title in real faux gilt on the spine. I bet your dad still has a few cartons of My Hands on God’s Organ in the garage, next to the lawn mower and barbecue grill, and I agree it’s a shame it wasn’t a best-seller, but times have changed. These days established authors are making the switch to publishing their own work, along with first-time authors, and all of them are helping to turn self-publishing into one of the fastest-growing parts of the business.
So, more people publishing books and fewer places to sell them, with all those bookstores closing, what’s up with that? Except it turns out it’s not exactly true. Mega online stores like Amazon are thriving, and if you think it’s because of all those huge best-sellers from the big fancy publishing houses, think again. The truth is, you can buy the new Stephen King or John Grisham, Stieg Larson or Nora Roberts practically anywhere, at any airport gift shop, drugstore, supermarket, street-corner newsstand, mall kiosk, convenience store or gas station. Sure, you can get them online too, but what Amazon also offers you is all those small niche specialty market items a regular brick and mortar store would have trouble stocking, including plenty of special-order, out-of-print, small-press, hard-to-find and, that’s right, self-published books, these latter frequently being of the publish-on-demand variety that print only when you order them and so don’t need to be kept in stock. Like it or not, one-click shopping has not only changed the way we shop but where we shop and what we shop for, and your favorite neighborhood shop is finding it hard to compete.