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The brave new world of the self-publishers


PIONEER: Benji Bennett at the Irish Book Awards 2009

PIONEER: Benji Bennett at the Irish Book Awards 2009

PIONEER: Benji Bennett at the Irish Book Awards 2009

Once upon a time, 'self-publishing' had a slightly seedy air to it. It conjured up images of men in corduroy jackets hawking their books out of the back of a Toyota or worse, slimy vanity publishers extracting money out of naive writers with promises of literary superstardom, which were never fulfilled.

Now, advances in technology have ushered in a brave new world, where those who want to publish their own work can do so successfully and cheaply.

Has self-publishing really come of age and if so, is it the end of 'conventional' publishing as we know it?

Vanessa O'Loughlin of Inkwell Writers clearly feels that self-publishing has reached a critical mass. Along with Eoin Purcell, industry analyst and editor of irishpublishingnews.com, she has planned a one-day conference on self-publishing at Fitzpatrick's Castle Hotel, Killiney, on October 16.

Eoin explains the reasoning behind their idea: "I was interested in exploring self-publishing because I felt the market had changed considerably over the past few years... with some of the new entrants to the market that were providing services to authors that were... the word I'd use would be less 'predatory' than some of the vanity publishers who were out there."

And the key to this change, as far as Purcell is concerned, is print-on-demand technology, or POD, which allows prospective self-publishers to typeset, design and upload pdf files of their work onto self-publishing websites and either sell these online, or have copies printed to fulfil firm orders. "Whereas in the past, you had to invest €2,000 in a run of books to have stock to supply the market, now you don't. If you get an order, you can print those books and supply a bookshop or a single individual."

Catherine Ryan Howard chose this route when she self-published her memoir, Mousetrapped, an account of her year working on a J-1 visa in Disneyland Florida. She explains: "I'd sent Mousetrapped to four or five Irish publishers: they all said exactly the same thing. They really enjoyed reading it it, they thought it was funny and well written, but there was zero readership for it." And, as she candidly admits: "I totally saw their point -- there's no point in investing thousands of euro on a print run of 3,000-5,000 copies, when most of the readers would be in the States.

"Even though, I was a total self-publishing snob," Howard laughs, (not least because of the poor quality of any self-published work she'd seen), the thought of "all that work and all that time languishing in a drawer" niggled and print-on-demand technology made it possible. As she explains, "it's not 'self publishing' more 'self-printing'". POD is a minimal initial outlay, so there was no risk involved.

She uploaded her pdf files onto createspace, Amazon's self-publishing website (www.createspace.com). And hey presto, with some checking of the interior and the cover, her book was ready to be printed whenever somebody ordered it.

Although she did not print actual copies, with the exception of a quantity for her local Cork bookshop, Howard made sure she did a professional job. She hired a copyeditor to tidy up her text and a cover designer to design the smartly professional cover, which she sent as a pdf file to createspace. The message from Howard is that if you are going to self-publish, do it properly.

But how does this compare with doing things the old-fashioned way? Benji Bennett is an excellent example of a successful self-published author. His first book for children, Before you Sleep, was motivated by the sudden death of his four-year-old son, Adam. In his grief, Bennett found that "there was a message that I wanted to get out there" about parents loving and spending time with their children. Initially a private and therapeutic experience, he had no designs on being a published author, but slowly the idea of a book took shape. And then he wondered: "How am I going to get this book done? It's impossible to get published. It's not about whether you are good or bad, but millions of publishers have different ideas. So I went ok... you can't expect publishers to invest the time and energy -- editors and marketing a book -- if you are not prepared to do it yourself."

Although he admits: "I hadn't a clue but I have a degree in business and had worked in marketing in the communications industry, and I'd had that sales and marketing wherewithal, to have a fair idea that I knew what I was doing." With some chutzpah, he took out a business loan, and printed a whopping 10,000 copies of Before You Sleep, commissioning Oscar-nominated Cartoon Saloon to do the illustrations. It's clear that Bennett's professional experience stood him in good stead, allowing him to approach Eason professionally, with a sales and marketing pitch and a printed copy of the book.

Before you Sleep became a huge bestseller, followed by several other books, including the latest, Adam's Pirate Treasure (www.adamsprintingpress.ie).

Admittedly, few writers would have Bennett's or Howard's energy and dedication, but if you can self-publish successfully, why bother with publishers at all? Well, for starters, if you self-publish, you pay. If you are lucky enough to have an agent who sells your novel to a publishing firm, it's the other way around. They pay you an advance, as well as covering all the costs involved in publishing your work.

Paying for your work to be published used to be considered madness, but now, according to Eoin Purcell: "The way the technology has changed means that it is facilitating transparency in the self-publishing process... ." In other words, you may be paying for it, but you can see exactly what you are getting for your money. The difference between the POD services, such as blurb.com or lulu.com and conventional 'vanity' publishing is, according to Purcell, "they are not charging you 2.5k to print a hundred copies. You print what you want and they charge a margin on each copy they sell you". But of course you will still need to do your homework to make sure you are getting value for money.

Another reason for going it alone is the sheer difficulty of getting published nowadays and Purcell thinks this will only get harder in years to come. "It's very likely that they [larger publishers] will only cater for large authors, their Stephenie Myers, Jeffrey Archers and their Dan Browns... but everyone below that won't make enough money for them to justify the expenditure. We are moving in the direction where a lot of the mid-list will be self-publishing or certainly digitally publishing." Whether the future is really that stark is debatable, but there's no doubt that, as Howard discovered, you can have a strong product, but there is simply no perceived market for it. She cites the example of the multimillion-selling Chicken Soup series. When its author first approached publishers, they said no, because at the time "there was no track record for a book of short, heart-warming stories -- but they really believed in it". And the rest is history.

But, if you abandon any notion of 'conventional' publishing, it's not hard to see that standards will slip. Writers need readers, and professional ones at that, to help them become better writers, something which only a good editor can do, not your mother who thinks you're great. And, arguably, writers and readers need experts to exercise their taste, even if it is not shared by everyone, to raise the standard of what is being published. Interestingly, Howard says that whilst she was happy to publish her non-fiction herself, "I would never self-publish a novel which had been rejected universally by a mainstream publisher. Novels are different. It's impossible to tell if your novel is good."

Many self-published authors would trade in the hard graft and the expense of self-publishing for a book published by someone else, who can do all the hard work for them, but if self-publishing is for you, do it right. According to O'Loughlin, the idea of the self-publishing conference is, "to show people who are interested how do to it properly. How, if you use good editors, good designers, you can get a product which can compete out in the market place with the best of professional publishing".

Details at www.onestopselfpublishing.com.

Sunday Independent