Jane Austen's table

Among literature's self-published authors is Jane Austen, who wrote at this table in her house in Chawton, England.

The ease with which one can self-publish a book today means that anyone with a few hundred dollars to spare can become a published author. And, at times, it seems as if everyone is indeed becoming one.

In 2013, the last year for which one can plumb the murky statistics of book publishing, more than 458,500 books were self-published in the United States, almost a 17 percent increase over the previous year and a 437 percent increase since 2008, according to Bowker, a company that tracks these sorts of things. The United Kingdom saw a similar increase. There, the self-published book-market share grew by about 79 percent in 2013.

This ever-increasing number of self-published books heading our way is propelled by many things. But,  primarily, technological advances have made it so easy to satisfy the ancient hunger of wanting to be published that countless would-be-authors have jumped at the chance to bring out their own books. The flood of self-published books, however, is also the result of a widely prevalent misunderstanding about the nature of book publishing.

Self-published books are distinctly different from traditional books in that an author, not a publishing company, pays for their production and assumes the duty of distributing, marketing, and selling the works. As long as the modern book has been around, many authors have taken to publishing their own work.

Among their ranks are Benjamin Franklin, who handily owned his own press; William Blake, who even etched the illustrations onto the printing plates; Jane Austen, who paid a London publisher to bring out her first book; Walt Whitman, who wanted to publish Leaves of Grass in his own way; Marcel Proust, who, to his surprise, discovered that publishers  didn’t share his fascination with the madeleine; and Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard Woolf, who created Hogarth Press to publish their books.

One of literature’s most enduring novels was self-published. In 1759, when a major London publisher rejected his manuscript, Laurence Sterne privately printed the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. It sold out and endures in print to this day as one of the greatest comic novels of the English language.

History is a comforting salve to authors facing rejection by big publishers or deciding to forgo the humbling and sometimes humiliating traditional route to publishing a book. The reason Sterne’s success at self-publishing is remembered is that it was the literary world’s equivalent of winning the lottery. Self-publishing may be altering the way books are made. “But one thing has not changed: Most self-published books sell fewer than 100 or 150 copies,” explained reporter Alan Finder, who surveyed authors and self-publishing company executives for an article in The New York Times. Almost all self-published authors never earned back the cost of bringing their book out.

But printers always remained glad to part aspiring authors from their savings. The money was so good that eventually a new kind of publisher came into existence to serve these authors. Known as vanity publishers, these were companies that authors paid to produce their books. The most famous of this breed of publishers was Vantage Press, which opened its offices in New York shortly after World War II. It had a cadre of employees who called themselves editors, sent out press releases, placed full-page advertisements in  The New York Times Book Review, and charged authors for the entire enterprise.

In 1995, for example, a Chicago television repairman paid Vantage Press $10,000 to bring out his memoir, The Perilous Life of Boris B. Gursky. “He mailed copies to the Elgin, Ill., public library, the White House, and everyone in the United States who shared his last name,” wrote a reporter who did a story on the author. “Such was the state of self-publishing in 1995.”

Over time, the seeds of another, more affordable, option for authors took root and eclipsed  vanity publishing. In fact, Vantage Press would eventually go out of business. The introduction of the personal computer in 1981 revolutionized publishing, as it did almost everything else. Now individuals could design and set into type books without having to pay for these expensive services. Countless people with ideas for a book went to work.

This cost savings also came at a time when the book business was open to alternative offerings. Self-published books found a receptive audience. Bookstores, which were flourishing at the time, gobbled up these offerings, especially as alternative distributors and wholesalers made their purchase easy.

Typical of the unusual and imaginative books of the era was Juggling for the Complete Klutz, which came with beanbags in an attached mesh bag, published on a shoestring budget by three Stanford University graduates. The book was a huge success, and it spawned a publishing company. Small  presses, or independent publishers, began to flourish.  Soon, stores were stocking books from such companies as Ten Speed Press, Crossing Press, Chelsea Green, Graywolf Press, Seal Press, Seven Locks  Press, and Sunstone Press, here in Santa Fe, to cite just a few. 

However, as the independent-press books grew in number, the novelty of such quirky and unusual titles wore off. These small companies discovered, when the halcyon days came to a close, that publishing is a capital-intensive business. Even the jugglers succumbed, and Klutz was subsumed by Scholastic. Others turned into not-for-profit ventures supported by donations, and still others, such as Sunstone, eventually sought protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy laws.

Throughout, the demand to be published remained, with e-books reopening the floodgates. One could create a book cheaper than ever before, the cost of printing no longer being an issue. Besides, if one insisted on having a paper book, the new print-on-demand (POD) technology permitted authors to affordably print books a handful at a time.

Again, a new generation of companies entered  the fray. Successors to vanity publishing, these companies — such as Lulu, iUniverse, Xlibris, BookSurge, and Smashwords — saw an opportunity to make money by providing soup-to-nuts services to authors wanting to self-publish their works. But, as during the gold rush of 1849, when Levis Strauss and other companies got rich offering goods and services to miners, most of whom never struck it rich, these companies are the financial winners in self-publishing, not the authors.

In each of these eras, authors have continued to bring out their own books, even if they recognize that the cards seemed stacked against them. In great part, it is because of a widely held suspicion among  writers that editors don’t always recognize a great work. To many authors, the sad tale of  John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces is proof of this notion. After his suicide, Toole’s mother came across a decaying carbon copy of the unpublished manuscript that had been turned down by every one of the publishing houses to which it had been submitted. She badgered author Walker Percy to read the work, and he consented, in hopes of getting rid of her. Instead, he discovered, as other readers would, that it was a novel of comic genius. He persuaded LSU Press to publish the work. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and today there are more than 1.5 million copies in print in 18 languages.

One wonders: If Toole had lived today, would he have self-published his novel? And, more to the point, would it have sold? The probable answer is that it would not have. The reality that faced Toole when his novel was rejected by editors remains unchanged today. He might have come out with a professionally produced book — but, like a tree falling in a deserted forest, it wouldn’t have been heard of by anyone.

Many authors, particularly those turning to self-publishing, don’t necessarily understand what publishers do. Publishing and manufacturing a book are not the same thing. To a publisher, the actual manufacturing of a book is secondary to its writing and editing. In fact, it often comes as a surprise to many authors to learn that most publishers don’t own printing presses.

Rather, publishing is an intellectual and marketing business. It’s intellectual in that it identifies works worthy of publication and shapes them to best reach that purpose. Publishers then devise a way to reach readers, using well-established means of distributing and marketing books. Authors who self-publish soon discover that manufacturing an interesting, well-designed, and appealing book is only half the battle. Reaching readers takes money — frequently, money no longer available once authors have sunk all their funds into making the book.

An equally daunting problem is that bookstores and libraries, the traditional places for books to be sold or read, are usually out of reach to self-published authors. As with the liquor business, where getting a bottle of bourbon on the shelf is a complicated matter, so goes getting a book on the shelf of a store or library.

Bookstores find it expensive and time-consuming to order and pay for a few copies of one book from one vendor, which is how they see dealing with self-publishers. So unless the book is available from a distributor or wholesaler, they will be reluctant to stock it. A more substantial barrier is that the bookstore will be stuck with the title if it does not sell, whereas all the unsold books it has in its inventory from major publishers can be returned for credit.

Even libraries, which go out of their way to put books of all sorts on their shelves, struggle when it comes to a self-published book. They have the same purchasing problems of a bookstore, but with an added cost. “If we have to do original cataloging, it adds to that cost,” explained Pat Hodapp, director of the Santa Fe Public Library. “Just the ordering, processing, and getting a book on the shelf has a cost of about $20 per book added onto the purchase price.”

The lucky authors who find both bookstores and libraries willing to take their books may still not reach readers. Newspapers and most other forms of media rarely review or publicize a self-published work.

In the end, as in the beginning of publishing, authors will continue to choose to self-publish their works. Each year a few will meet with enormous success. But publishers and their traditional ways will not soon depart from the scene. When Lisa Genova’s 2007 self-published debut novel, Still Alice, about a professor beset with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, became a success, she didn’t print more copies. Rather, she signed a contract with Simon & Schuster.   ◀

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