Friday, June 18, 2010

On Self-Publishing, E-books, and Politics and Prose

Our guest today is Shawn Orenstein. Later on this blog, in a few weeks perhaps, we'll deal with the issue of self-publishing head on. It's a touchy subject to some, but, for what it's worth, it's one that deserves some attention from writers. Because, as you can see here, a lot of people are self-publishing. Here's Shawn's bi-weekly column on what's happening in the world of books & publishing:

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about Garrison Keillor’s response to self-publishing, which was far from positive. In some ways, I agreed with him. While I see the benefits of self-publishing in that you do not have to bother going to a big-time publisher and most likely get your work turned down, I also did not understand how people would promote themselves while there are thousands of other unknown writers trying to the same thing. This past week, however, I stumbled upon two self-publishing success stories.

One was the story of M.J. Rose, the author of the best-selling Reincarnationist series and the founder of, a marketing company for authors. On the homepage of her website, a question pops up: “How can I promote my book directly to hundreds of thousands of reads and to thousands of bookclubs, booksellers and librarians?” She comforts the aspiring writer responding, “Every author asks that question. The answer is AuthorBuzz.” 

Rose started to self-publish in 1998; she was one of the first people to use the Internet to publish a book. She started by making her own website and attaching a word document and selling it for $9.99. After a short time, it became painfully clear that her work was going nowhere. She decided to print the novel herself and take it around to various bookstores. Most bookstores refused to even look at her self-published book. Eventually, after serious self-promotion, she caught the attention of The Literary Guild and the Doubleday Book Club and soon enough she had a book deal.

Now the author of eleven novels, Rose tries to help aspiring writers publish their books. Having gone through all the struggles of self-publishing, Rose is confidant that she can guide writers lost in the dark. She has been in the book-writing business for twelve years and she has a background in advertising. Through these experiences, she remains skeptical about self-publishing. Last year, there were over one million books published and about three quarters were self-published. Rose says that it should be hard to get to the top in the world of books. She says, “You are going to have to break through, but if you want to make a career out of this then you have to make sure you are doing it in a very professional way.” She bluntly says, “if it is really easy to write a book in self-publishing, you are doing it wrong.” To listen to the story, find it here.
The other story I found was from a different perspective, one that started in the 21st century. Before Boyd Morrison got published, he went through the process of self-publishing an e-book. However, unlike many self-publishers, this was not his first approach. He started by going through twenty-five publishers, all of which turned down his thriller novel, The Ark. At first he was going to build his own Web site, intending to allow people to download it for free. However, he discovered that Amazon gave the opportunity to unpublished authors to sell their manuscripts to the Kindle store and give them a segment of the proceeds. Morrison’s expectations were low, desperately trying to market by selling his books for less than two dollars. However, through word of mouth, his book became a hot topic of discussion on boards such as Kindleboards and Mobileread. The popularity of his novel, eventually rising to the top of the Kindle stores technothriller bestseller list, finally got the attention of Touchstone books, a division of Simon & Schuster. The Ark was one of the first self-published books that started on Kindle and eventually climbed the ladder to a big name publisher. Find the full story here.

Politics & Prose, the iconic independent bookstore in Washington DC, announced what long-time, dedicated customers have feared: it's now up for sale. Despite the threat to the independent bookstore industry, Barbra Meade, the co-owner, reported, “there are no financial problems here. We make a good Profit.” In fact, their sales have jumped over this past year. Two years ago, Politics and Prose sold 141,000 hardcover books for $3 million. This past year, the store sold 156,000 for $3.3 million. According to The Washington Post article covering the story, book sales nationwide have fallen nearly 2 percent from 2008 to last year. However, Michael Norris an industry analyst for Simba Information, said that he predicts that independent bookstore may survive because of the relationship they have with the community. He said simply, "I think they will survive because it’s Politics and Prose.” Since it first opened, Politics and Prose has formed a strong, loyal following and became a popular stop for authors on book tour. While they have held ex-presidents and Nobel laureates, the store also makes an effort to present less-known local authors.

Jeffery Mayersohn, a retired tech company executive and new owner of Harvard Bookstore (not associated with the university), responded to the news: “I believe all these devices are here with us to stay. But I also believe physical books will coexist with digital books for a very long time.”