Self-Publishing: Notes from a Sympathetic Bookseller

Who doesn’t want to be an author? In recent years, the self-publishing industry has made it easy for everyone to become just that. Having a vanity press (as they were known back in the day) print a book for you can be a wonderful opportunity or a horrible, stinking albatross-like experience; it just depends what you want from it.  

Sympathetic nervous system of the bookseller

  Good reasons to self-publish:   

  1. You want to have copies of your work produced in a durable and professional way to give to family and friends for sentimental or commemorative reasons.
  2. You’ve been working on something, feel that it has reached its potential, and either don’t wish to (or are tired of having to) submit it to conventional presses. You want to move on to other things and feel that having the work printed and bound will clear the decks and provide closure.
  3. You have great wads of cash and nothing better to do with them.
  4. You already have some kind of sales channel set up through which to sell your finished book. I do not mean e-Bay or Amazon. I mean, for example, that you are a professional public speaker/internet guru/on-line-marketing guy and will be selling the book at your gigs and on your website or something like that. (If you’re not the Gary Vaynerchuck type, this is probably not for you.)

Bad reasons to self-publish:    

  1. You want to make money.
  2. You would like to break even.
  3. You feel that your work has been unjustly rejected by publishers and agents and wish to possess it in bound form so that it may be unjustly rejected by bookstores and consumers.
  4. You think that publishers will pay more attention to it if it looks like a book already.

As a bookseller I meet dozens of self-published authors every month. I like most of them. I like some of their books — some I really believe in. I want people considering this process to know what they are getting into.    

Please, please, be healthily wary of any company promising to Make Your Publishing Dreams Come True.  Unless you have remarkably modest dreams, self-publishing houses are not able to do this. They are able to print and bind the text that you give them. So is Kinko’s, which has the decency to promise nothing.    

Why Are Booksellers Such Big Snobs?    

A number of self-published authors want to know why their books’ method of publication carries a stigma. The bookstore where I work happily holds many events for local self-published authors each year, which is why they are asking me, The Sympathetic Bookseller. I will tell you.    

1. Quality    

Self-publishing houses offer no guarantee of even the most basic standards of grammar or spelling. Do not even talk to me about plot. Flow? Stop it. You are making me snort coffee out my nose.    

Here’s the deal: you give them text; they print it. That’s all. While an author may purchase editing services from the company, not all editors are created equal. Some houses have a very good editorial staff, some do not – some vary from editor to editor. With the great proliferation of companies willing to print books for a fee, there seems to be no industry standard.    

“But can’t I do it myself?” I hear you asking. No. No, you can’t. Conventionally published authors have the benefit of editors, proofreaders and a whole grueling process of what they call “line edits,” where someone goes through and considers each line looking for inconsistencies and over-used words, among other things.    

Nobody edits their own work competently. That is why this blog, unedited by anybody but me, is full of flaws. Possibly Jane Austen could edit herself (take heart: her work was privately printed) but mere mortals should not attempt this.    

2. Trust    

As mentioned above, self-publishing houses do not vouch for the quality or correctness of your work, while I can be sure that even the pulpiest of pulp fiction from a mainstream press meets certain standards. There is no way for me to tell if you’ve so much as run your self-published book through spellcheck without reading it myself. As much as I would love to do this with every book that comes across my desk, I find that I must eat and sleep from time to time, rendering this practice unworkable.    

There’s also the issue of content. While I thank God daily for the freedom of expression we enjoy in this age and place, there are some things the traffic will not bear. Most conventional publishers have certain standards of what I can only call decency. Is your book a hate crime? I don’t know – possibly after page twelve it devolves into a screed urging the extermination of all grocery store check-out personnel. Without a respected publisher (many of whom have had a relationship with this book shop for decades and whose reps we know personally) to give me a faithful synopsis of the product, it’s again up to me to slog on through. I think people are mostly good and I don’t generally suspect that the elderly gentleman asking me to carry his novel has in fact concealed within it a how-to guide to child enticement and church arson, but I’m just saying – without a mainstream publisher, your grammar and your sentiments are both literally closed books to me.    

3. Marketing:     

Many self-publishing houses offer “marketing services” for a fee. Some of these are good, some are not. Unlike traditional publishers, a self-publishing outfit lacks interest in the sales of your book. You have bought all the copies already. Now they are offering to sell you the services of an English major on summer break (if you are lucky) to phone, email and generally harass bookstores on your behalf. It’s natural to want this. Cold calls are no fun; that is why they pay people to make them. To be fair, many of these services are perfectly adequate at contacting bookstores and other points of sale, but I will share a recent missive I received on behalf of an author (names & slogans have been changed to protect the innocent):    


This is Newbie McIntern. I spoke with you not too long ago about having an author, Rhonda Runonsentence, come into your store to do a book signing. Her book is titled Biff!: A Very special Little arachnid and is a children’s book about love and fortitude. It is currently on it’s way to press, and the ISBN is 973-867-530-9000. The date she would prefer is Nov. 12 between 12 and 5 pm. Would this be possible?     

Newbie McIntern                                                                                                                                 Lax Publishing, Inc.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         “We Promise the Moon, but Never Proofread!”    

 Mmm. Has “Good Impression” written all over it, huh? File under: More Harm than Good.    

 So What’s an Author to Do?    

1. Polish, polish, polish    

First of all, put every bit of care and time into your book before you think it’s done as is humanly possible. This applies if you’re submitting your work to a publisher or agent or if you plan to self-publish. Getting feedback is invaluable. Ask people who know. Not your mom; she loves you. How about the professor who teaches the writing or literature class you’re taking (you are taking one, right)? Ask people you respect to look at it and mark it up with a big, red pen and not to spare your feelings. Librarians are good to ask for guidance. They can often tell you about writing programs and opportunities in your local area — it’s quite likely that one or more meet at your library. Many colleges and universities offer residents of nearby communities the chance to audit their courses for free. If you don’t know anybody you think qualified to look at your book (or nobody wants to) a college-level writing or lit course is a good way to make connections with people who can give you a useful opinion.    

2. Don’t give up on conventional publishing    

If you’re not in this game just for a book-shaped souvenir, think again about submitting your manuscript to an agent. Writers Digest is very good at pointing out agents who accept unsolicited things. Be sure to pick one that fits your book (no romance novels sent to non-fiction agents out of misguided thoroughness, please). Most now take submissions in electronic form, so this Does Not Cost You Anything but Your Time.    

Publishers have been through the ringer lately. Big-box price slashing, the hits taken by Borders and Barnes & Noble, and the uncertainty that is E-books have all thrown the industry for a loop. Add the recession and it’s a real party. Getting a mainstream publisher to look at a manuscript these days is a bit like trying to date someone who’s just gone through a messy divorce… and then been mugged by a motorcycle gang. This could take some time. That might be a good thing. Time means you can have more qualified people take a look at your work. Time means you can devote more hours to making it the best it can be. Time means maybe publishing will get back to normal, or normal-ish. Your novel is not milk. It will not go bad.    

If you are going the self-publishing route    

1. Find a good self-publishing house.  Buy one or two of their titles (preferably at your local book shop) and read them. Do you want your book to look that way? If yes, fine. If no, try another. Ask other self-published writers about their experience. Shop around.    

2. Realize your work will not be done with the writing.  Marketing is now your job too (even if you did contract the services of Newbie McIntern). If you want local bookstores to carry your book, try to build a relationship with them. Buy a book, or at least a card. Sign up for their frequent shopper program or newsletter (the first thing I do when a new self-published author approaches me is look to see if they are in our customer database). Browse the store thoroughly to see if your book would be a good fit. If you find yourself asking Sage, Sin and Pseudoscience: Purveyors of Fine Books, Marital Aides and Dowsing Supplies Since 1978 to carry your how-to book, Carpentry Projects for the Missionary Priest, you should maybe reconsider.    

3. Love your Indie bookseller: Independent booksellers try harder and do more for self-published authors than anybody else I know. When we have an author here for a book signing (either singly or in a group of writers), I send out press releases, design fliers and posters, and generally shout from the rooftops on their behalf. Then I give them cookies when they show up. Let us know you appreciate it. Thank you notes are lovely. Your patronage is better. If you place your book with a shop, send people there to get it, not to Amazon. Please care about the merchants in your community – they are what keep it friendly. Wall-Mart is cheap, but they won’t sell your book.    

4. Don’t be random.  I’ve gotten calls from authors out in California who have no connection to our local area – never lived here, don’t know anybody – who found our shop online and thought they would call and ask if I would carry their book sight unseen. Don’t do this. It’s annoying. We try very hard to support our local writing community. We can’t be the last resort of everyone who self-publishes a book. We would need an indoor football stadium.    

5. Don’t let success be your master.  Self-publishing costs money. If you are luckier than most, you may break even. Like any gamble, you have to be prepared to lose what you bet, and if your self esteem is tied up with the success of your book (no matter who publishes it), you can lose that too. I’m sure there’s some kind of Zen lesson there.    

So, that’s The Sympathetic Bookseller, signing off and heading for the tub. As dear Hunter S. would have said, Selah  


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