Self-Publishing 101 (part one)

28 Jul

During most of the 20th Century, the term ‘self-publishing’ was almost synonymous with ‘dirty word’ (insert your own choice word, if you like). Some of this was even well-deserved. There were numerous folks who were very creative indeed at finding ways to separate would-be authors from their hard-earned money, and who would then end up with either nothing to show for it, or else a garage full of boxed books that went nowhere. Granted, the books did have the author’s name on them, but not much else favorable could be said about them.

Such companies overcharged for ‘editing’ and or the actual manufacture of the books, because the poor author had no knowledge whatever of the publishing process, and so was easy game for the unscrupulous. I have in my possession a book sold by a non-profit museum for an outlandish price, that nearly defies description. It’s a hard-cover, with a dust jacket – truly a handsome volume to look at, mostly well-written, as it should have been. The writing of the book was paid for by a grant to the museum, with some left over to pay for x amount of books to be produced and sold (hopefully for profit) and thus generate funds to purchase yet more of these books. I have no idea if the plan was successful or not, but the book itself is an indictment against such endeavors.

Why do I say this? The book is quite thick- lots of pages! –has a goodly amount of photos in it, and feels substantial in your hands. As I say, it was very expensive – $30. as I recall – some twenty years ago, even, but at the time I bought it, there was no other or similar source of information about this particular museum, and having more money than brains at the time (a very rare occurrence for me, believe me!) I decided I had to have it.

There was no index, of course, which I now know to be a major omission for a reference-type book, and as I made my way through the many pages, it seemed as though they were turning very fast! And indeed they were. The book is a 6½ x 9½ trim size, but once I took a second and third look at it, with an analytic eye, I quickly realized that the margins were more than an inch on each side and nearly two inches at top and bottom! All that white space! Mercy goodness!

Now, it’s true that white space is a desirable commodity, but come on – that was milking the customer who didn’t know any better! The cost of a book is determined by how many pages it has in it, and obviously, the fewer words per page, the more pages required to house the text and the photos! Sneaky, not to mention underhanded. Oh, and did I mention the fairly large type size? Not quite Large Print, but not far from it, either!

The ‘editing’ also left a bit to be desired, as there were typos throughout. Not excessive, but they were there. For an organization of the sort that put out the book, it wasn’t very representative of a first-class museum.

This is just one example, from my own personal knowledge. I’m sure there were other little tricks that could be employed as well. It’s hardly to be wondered at that the industry earned an unfavorable reputation for itself.

To this day, there are a goodly number of mostly older authors (who have happily been commercially published) who insist that if your book is good enough, there’s a commercial publisher out there who will be happy to have it. Well, that was then. This is now, and it’s a whole different world. For the next couple of weeks, we’ll be addressing the topic of self-publishing, and especially the advent of POD or Print on Demand.

In the above paragraph, I mentioned ‘commercial publisher’. By that, I mean one who pays an advance to the author for the rights to the book, and then, after a while will hopefully be able to forward even more monies to the author, by way of royalties earned from book sales. Of course, one might be paid an advance, and never ‘earn out’ as they say. In other words, the book didn’t sell enough copies to earn any royalties for the author, who will not usually have to refund the advance, but will never be paid more than that first minimal payment.

Until perhaps 1980 or so, this was the standard of the publishing industry. The author wrote, submitted a manuscript to an editor at the publishing house of choice, and if the editor liked the manuscript (and it was appropriate to the house) then a contract was offered, and away we’d go! This scenario is a rare occurrence these days. Why? In my opinion, it’s because the advent of computers made the writing process infinitely easier.

Once the words were in the computer, printing out (hopefully) clean copies could be accomplished just by pushing a button or two. Wow! True, early printers used a lot of ink very quickly (some inkjets still do!) and paper was considered expensive, although at that time, I think it was less expensive than it is now. Furthermore, the poor typist no longer had to cope with carbon paper! Yay! And also, we mustn’t forget the proliferation of copy machines – at the touch of another button, yet more copies could come tumbling out!

And suddenly, everyone was a writer! Editors and publishers were bombarded with (I’m sorry to say) mostly inferior submissions. Wannabe writers are sometimes so desperate to be published that upon hearing of a new (to them) publisher, off would go a submission or two or three. Never mind that the publisher wanted only science fiction or some other tightly-proscribed genre, and said so very clearly on their author guidelines. In this situation, some authors are notoriously poor readers. They see the word ‘fiction’ and off they go. Their book is fiction, and that’s sufficient for them, even though their book could very well be anything but sci-fi! Result? Editorial overload!

Bring on the agents! Actually, agents aren’t exactly a new phenomenon. The first known literary agents appeared on the scene in Great Britain in 1875, but they became an essential part of the publishing world about 50 or so years later. Come back again next week, for part two of Self-Publishing 101. Okay? See you then!

If you have questions or comments, please write to me at: bookmechanic@gmail.com Also, please feel free to send this along to anyone you think might like to know about it. Thanks!

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