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By the books: A self-publishing tale

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Once upon a time, writing a book was just for professionals.

Now, anyone who has access to the Internet and a little extra cash can self-publish a book -- and many do.

Some see fairy-tale-like success, while others quietly move copies without ever topping a best-seller list. While the degrees of success are as varied as the stories told, one thing is certain: self-publishing is growing.

"In a lot of regards, the traditional publishing model is crumbling away and they don't even realize it, in my opinion," said Sheila Buff, a freelance writer and editor based in Milan, N.Y.

Buff is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, an all-volunteer, nonprofit professional group for self-employed freelancers. Centralized data on the self-publishing industry is slippery, but a July report on says self-published authors now earn nearly 40 percent of all e-book royalties on the Kindle store, an electronic book reader by Amazon, the world's largest online retailer.

Self-publishing, though ever-evolving, is the publication of a book or other type of media by the author of the work, without the involvement of an established third-party publisher. Typically, authors retain most of the profits from book sales, rather than a percentage of sales, or royalties, that they receive from traditional publishers. Types of self-publishing include electronic, or "e-book" publishing, such as Kindle; print on-demand, or the ability to publish as many or as few copies of a work as the author wants; or so-called "vanity publishing," when companies charge a client to publish a book.

As the joblist chair within the EFA -- the association has a job-listing service for its 2,200 members -- Buff estimates that of the 461 jobs the group listed in 2013, about 30 percent -- or 138 jobs -- were from self-publishing authors. Most of those were fiction -- 25 percent -- while Buff estimated about 5 percent were self-publishing nonfiction books.

At Mitchell's Reader's Den, store Manager Katy Olson said she's seen an uptick in the number of self-published authors represented in the last six months at the independent bookstore. So far this year, she estimates about 12 self-published works have been sold at the store.

"That doesn't sound like a lot, but it really is. Not everyone can write," Olson said. "There's years when I haven't had any."

Today, the store hosts a group of ex-Hutterites who wrote a second book about their experiences for a signing from 10 a.m. until noon. The first book the group wrote brought in the biggest signing the store has had, Olson said.

"We like to have self-published authors because they're from the area and they usually write about things people around here want to know about," Olson said.

Self-publish, self-promote

Why self-publish?

Some see it as a promotional vehicle. Many health and medicine professionals, businesspeople, public relations specialists and more have embraced the world of self-publishing as a way to spread the word about themselves or their product. A personal trainer, for example, may want to improve his image and increase his name recognition. Why not write a book?

"The book is the new business card," Buff said. "For my authors, making money from the book itself is not necessarily the primary goal. They're doing this for marketing, for branding, to enhance their speaking careers."

This "enhanced business card," as Buff calls it, is much easier for authors to handle themselves now than it used to be. Publishing used to make demands like a minimum order of 3,000 copies -- now, authors can order as many or as few copies of their work as they would like.

For fiction writers, part of self-publishing's appeal is convenience, Buff said.

Buff noted many authors would rather take their chances online than through traditional trade publishers, which are slow and notoriously hard to break into.

"The process is very slow and very chancy," Buff said. "Publishers rarely consider an unsolicited manuscript."

She's worked with authors who have spent months going through the process, only to end up with an unpublished manuscript still in hand. Even if a book is accepted, Buff said it could take close to another year before the author has a book in hand. To really be taken seriously, Buff said authors should hire an agent to help them shop their book around -- and even then, it still could get rejected. Repeatedly.

It's an intimidating process, which is why Mitchell author Amanda Radke chose self-publishing for her 2011 children's book, "Levi's Lost Calf."

"After reading that the novel, 'The Help,' was rejected 60 times before a publisher decided to accept the book, I knew that self-publishing was the route for me," Radke told The Daily Republic via email.

Once she made that decision, Radke said she still had many questions -- did she want a Kindle option? Who would be her illustrator? Who would do the printing? Did she want it available in libraries? How about online? After what she described as an intense period of research, Radke decided on CreateSpace, a program through Amazon.

"I considered going through a local publishing house, but it had limitations such as the up-front expense required, the number of books I would have to purchase ahead of time, the network that I would be able to sell the book in, etc.," Radke said.

The biggest benefit to CreateSpace, Radke said, was being able to print on-demand, saving how much she spent on inventory up front.

"I just bought them as-needed for book signings and readings, and if they were purchased online, Amazon printed and shipped them out for me," Radke said.

Radke declined to specify how much she spent to self-publish, but noted that she made back her personal investment within the first month of the book's release, and has sold close to 20,000 copies. CreateSpace offers different packages for authors to choose from, ranging from $800 to $4,500, and Radke said she saved some cash by hiring her own illustrator versus one of CreateSpace's illustrators, who could charge $400 per page. A book must be at least 24 pages long, Radke said. If each page included an illustration, that would rack up $9,600, just for the illustrations.

Judging a book by its cover

Buff said she's sympathetic to writers trying to save money by using templates like the ones offered on CreateSpace. However, Buff and other industry experts advocate strongly for aspiring authors to hire a professional for every aspect of their work -- from a professional proofreader and editor to a professional designer. People don't understand why they should pay $35 per hour to have their book edited by a professional, Buff said -- until they try to market their work.

"Nothing will destroy the value of a book in the eyes of the reader faster than seeing glaring typos and bad grammar and bad design," she said. "If you're using the book as a marketing tool, it should be just as good as any other marketing tool."

Design is also key, she said. Defying the cliched adage, Buff said people do, in fact, judge books by their covers.

"Once I started working in publishing, I realized that's kind of wrong. I think that saying was started by a disappointed author," she said with a chuckle, referring to the expression.

Another factor pushing self-publishing is economics. Buff rattled off a list of figures, making a strong case for the lucrative side of self-publishing.

Hard covers, she said, are expensive -- they typically cost about $27.99 in stores. Through a traditional publishing house, the author would make about $3 of that from each book sold; but royalties go up as sales go up. But if you self-publish, Buff said, the entire profit beyond the cost of printing the book -- likely $8 to $10 -- is yours to keep. And while the pricing for e-books varies widely and is shrouded in controversy within the industry, Buff said if a writer already has any kind of following, it often makes more sense to sell the book themselves.

"Publishers are making a lot of the same errors as music industry," she said. "There's a lot still to happen in the e-book end of things."

With those factors at play, more aspiring writers cling to Cinderella stories like that of E.L. James, hoping to be the next big name in books. Though not self-published, James, author of the erotic romance sensation "Fifty Shades of Grey," originally posted the first of her work online in 2009 as "Twilight" fan fiction. It was later acquired by an Australian publisher, The Writer's Coffee Shop, which released them as e-books and print-on-demand paperbacks. Since then, James' book has sold millions of copies worldwide, lingered on the New York Times bestseller list and garnered a movie deal.

For writers just getting started, however, the economics of self-publishing are still a gamble.

The Rev. Max Miller, former pastor of New Home Lutheran in Mitchell, self-published his post-apocalyptic novel "Eli's Tears" in 2012 through Xlibris, a self-publishing and on-demand printing services provider.

"I'm a pastor, so I didn't want to stop being a pastor to become an author," Miller said. "I would say Xlibris was the best avenue for what I wanted to accomplish."

The 46-year-old Michigan native said he took a creative writing class at Michigan State that opened his eyes to the world of self-publishing, and the risks of choosing poorly.

"There are companies that will take your work and steal it. You have to really be careful," he said. "I didn't make the choice lightly, and it took a lot of research and it took a lot of leaps of faith."

Xlibris handled the editing and cover design and offered different levels of marketing, Miller said. With the package Miller chose, Xlibris sent out press releases, promotional posters and mailings.

He's not sure how many copies he's sold, but Miller knows the book has not yet paid for itself.

"I didn't do it to make a million dollars, I did it because I enjoy writing," he said. "It hasn't paid for itself yet, but the more effort I put into it, it could."

"Eli's Tears" is the first in a trilogy, Miller said, but he waited to publish the first book until he had the second one written. In September 2013, Miller relocated to be a pastor in Miller, and decided he didn't have the time or money to self-publish the sequel.

His parents have expressed interest in bankrolling the project, but Miller said he's not in a hurry. If anything, Miller said retirement will afford him time to continue writing, and see how much he wants to pursue more aggressive means of marketing his books.

Perils of self-publishing

For Douglas O'Neill , self-publishing was a good idea -- until the company he and co-author, Dan Gilbertson, used went bankrupt.

"It wasn't bad until the point when it was bad," he said with a wry chuckle.

O'Neill, of Brookings, and Gilbertson, of Denver, collaborated on "Grief Odyssey," chronicling what it's like to be a widower with small children. It was published through WinePress Publishing in 2012. O'Neill estimates many authors have used WinePress, a reputable company with about 20 years of tenure in the industry.

"It was a big shock to a number of people," he said. "It wasn't a fly-by-night; we were at the wrong place at the wrong time."

O'Neill said the company was great to work with, until he and Gilbertson stopped receiving royalty checks. A statement on the company's website cites an "onslaught of destructive lies and gossip, which has finally destroyed the company," and WinePress is now embroiled in legal proceedings as authors try to retrieve royalties never received from book sales.

O'Neill said he and Gilbertson's biggest concern was to get all of their files back, which they did successfully. Once they had their copyrighted materials back, they debated their next move.

"We were really frustrated and pretty burnt out, so we just kind of sat back for a few months," O'Neill said.

Even without the legal trouble, O'Neill said he and Gilbertson didn't expect to hit it big.

"It's not a money-making proposition," O'Neill admitted. "There's so many books self-published every year. You've got to somehow make your book available on the big market, like Barnes and Noble. Without getting that kind of recognition it's very difficult to make any money, if that's your desire, or even break even."

Because of WinePress' difficulties, O'Neill said he's not sure how many copies of "Grief Odyssey" have sold. He estimates that he and Gilbertson jointly invested about $10,000 into their book. Like many self-publishers, O'Neill and Gilbertson were able to choose a package of sorts, for what their investment would include. For their $10,000, they received promotional materials, proofreading help, cover design assistance, a video trailer posted on YouTube, a Web page and hardcover and paperback copies of their book.

"It's like a small business venture," O'Neill said. "You're gambling that you have something people want to buy."

Promoting a product

Though the ways and means authors use to tell their stories are myriad, experts and authors agree on one key component of book sales: marketing.

For Radke, that was a hands-on effort. She visited schools and libraries, sat in booths at conferences and cross-promoted with businesses on social media.

"The hard part wasn't writing the book, it was putting the miles in and selling it," she said. "But, I continue to receive royalties from Amazon now that I've completed my 'book tour,' so it was time well spent promoting the book."

Miller agrees, and recently invested more funds into another round of promotion for "Eli's Tears." O'Neill and Gilbertson realized there was still interest in their topic, and have selected AuthorHouse Book Publishing Company to give their book a second chance. O'Neill said AuthorHouse is a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, one of the traditional book publishing industry powerhouses.

He said they made the choice, in part, because of the stability offered by a parent company like Penguin Random House. They hope to see success with a targeted social media campaign through their new publisher, but he worries that re-releasing the same book will make promoting it even more challenging than it was two years ago.

"If you can't tell people your book exists, you're dead in the water," he said. "You've just got to be fortunate."

Favoring tradition

Some challenges self-published authors face are exactly why Mitchell author Jean Patrick prefers the traditional publishing route.

Her first book, "The Girl Who Struck out Babe Ruth," was published in 2000 through Lerner Publishing Group and is still in print. Since then, Patrick has published a total of 12 books, 11 through traditional publishing and one through self-publishing. Once Patrick writes a manuscript, her agent looks for a place to sell it.

There are pros and cons to both methods, she said, but traditional publishing means Patrick doesn't have to worry about the final editing, design or marketing, which allows her to focus on her writing.

"That's the advantage of traditional publishing," Patrick said. "You get paid for your work, and I am one piece of a big puzzle of how a book is produced."

It still takes time and effort to find a reputable agent, and Patrick said she still deals with plenty of rejection from publishing companies.

"If you don't like rejection, traditional publishing is not the route to go. It's hard," she said.

"The irony is that people who are good writers tend to have very sensitive hearts," she added with a laugh.

In the years since Patrick became a published children's author, she has noticed the market grow even more difficult. That's why, even though she prefers traditional publishing, she's grateful aspiring authors have increased options to get their work on the market.

"It's an exciting time. I'm excited that people have the opportunity in many different ways to publish their work," she said. "I think it's important for people to know the pros and cons of each approach to publishing."

Still, even if she were just getting started, Patrick believes traditional publishing is still the best fit for her -- no matter how hard it is to get a foot in the door.

"Once I sink my teeth into something, I never let go. I never give up," she said. "I would still place my goal and my hope in being traditionally published. That would be the mountain I would aspire to and want to climb, but I would be very encouraged to know there were other opportunities."