May 20, 2013

The Elephant is Dead: A Brief (Personal) History of Self-Publishing

By Guest Blogger Paul Goat Allen

When it comes to self-publishing, I think I have a unique perspective on the subject. I’ve self-published — and struggled mightily to promote — two collections of poetry; I’ve sought out and ordered hundreds of self-published titles for bookstores that I’ve managed; and, in the last decade or so, I’ve reviewed countless self-published releases and interviewed numerous indie authors for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Kirkus and BlueInk Review.

I’m a firm believer that one cannot fully understand a subject until one has a grasp of its past — and in the case of self-publishing, I believe that is particularly true.

The landscape of self-publishing today is radically different than it was when I self-published my first collection of poetry 25 years ago. It was the Dark Ages back then and achieving success as an author — critically and commercially — was like trying to find the Grail.

Back in 1988, long before the advent of ebooks, the only alternative for self-published authors seeking to find the Grail was to print their own works, or find a vanity press to do it for them. Right from the get-go, the odds were stacked against them. The majority of the cost of printing a book was (and still is) in the set-up, and since most self-published books have small print runs, actually making a profit from a self-published work was virtually impossible: especially when you consider how little the author actually made from each sale.

A self-published author could set up his or her own book signings at indie bookstores, coffee shops, libraries, schools, and even bars, (which I did but that is a story for another day!) and keep a sizable percentage of the earnings, but to really move books back in the ‘80s and ‘90s the majority of authors had to somehow get their books into the big bookstore chains: Waldenbooks, B Daltons, Coles, etc. It was all about distribution and exposure.

Readers can’t buy a book they don’t know about, right?

But in order to get a book into one of these stores, the author had to jump through a maddening set of hoops…. and every jump cost him or her money. After the national retail chains and distributors took their greedy slices, I was left with barely a few bucks per unit sold.

After all of the money — and the time — I put into writing, editing, printing, and promoting the book, how many copies would I have to sell for a few bucks a pop just to break even?

The answer is easy: I could never break even.

Even after selling more than 5,000 copies collectively of my two poetry collections and receiving at least some local recognition, the Grail seemed farther away than ever.

Another critical issue back then was authors finding effective ways to promote their books and their book-related events. As a bookstore manager, I saw it time and time again in my stores: locally self-published authors doing literally every single thing in their power to promote their book signings — newspaper ads, posters, fliers, radio plugs — only to have the event be a bust. I did have a few well-attended book signings for self-published authors over the years, but not many.

And how many outlets did self-published authors have back then to get their book reviewed by professional critics? The best I could do was a handful of reviews written by writers from some local newspapers. .

Also, I would be remiss not to mention the elephant in the room: the stigma of being a self-published author. The term “self-published” was usually accompanied by a smirk or eye roll. I remember attending a regional Waldenbooks’ managers meeting one year and listening to some of my bosses openly joke about some of the self-published releases that had been purchased for the upcoming holiday season.

Self-published authors were largely perceived as fringy, nichey, or just plain delusional… not willing to accept the fact that their work just wasn’t good enough to be picked up and published by traditional publishers.

The truth of the matter was that, yes, there were more than a few books that were unarguably dreadful — books that should’ve never seen the light of day. (And that is still true today, by the way.) But there were also many exceptional titles that got overlooked largely because of the self-published stigma; writers that produced extraordinary works, authors that should’ve had their titles on bestseller lists, wordsmith seekers that, through no fault of their own, never found the Grail and were most likely forced to give up on their dream….

Fast-forward 25 years.

The majority of self-published authors today aren’t perceived as delusional — they’re business savvy pioneers taking advantage of a revolution in the publishing industry.

Yes, the same elementary pitfalls are still there (bad editing, lack of proofreading, ill-advised cover art, etc.) as they were back in the ‘80s but the old business model has been replaced by one that makes it much easier and more commercially viable for deserving self-published authors to find their audience.

Let me put it this way: the elephant is dead.

I have read more brilliant self-published novels in the last few years than I have in the last previous two decades — and not only releases from little-known or debut authors but from established writers who have opted to self-publish instead of going the traditional route.

It’s the dawning of a new world, my friends, and I hope that if and when you self-publish a novel that is critically and commercially successful, you remember — if only for a moment — the hundreds of thousands of self-published authors who went before you. Writers who, decades ago, were in positions very similar to your own but failed because the odds were so heavily stacked against them.

I hope you do succeed, and find fulfillment, if for nothing else than to know that somewhere the spirits of all those self-published authors that went before you are smiling…

Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books full-time for almost 20 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared in BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. Readers of this blog are offered a $75 discount on a BlueInk Review by using the discount code D7G2. (This in no way guarantees a review by Allen.)

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