Self-publishing: An alternative for independent authors

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Michael Larson knew his wife’s concept for a children’s book would be a hit if a publishing house would accept it.

Larson spent months acting as his wife’s agent, trying to get his foot in the door to get her book picked up by a publisher, but had little success. Today the book is still unpublished.

When Larson decided to write his own book, he decided not to waste his time trying to get his book published by a publishing house. Instead, he turned to self-publishing to get his creative works out into the world.

Self-publishing and eBooks have created more work opportunities for those who want to break into the publishing business as authors, editors or designers, providing authors with a way to present their work without going the traditional route. While self-publishing and eBooks allow more content to be more readily created and distributed to readers, the new digital age of books has called into question whether or not books need to be censored for an online and potentially worldwide audience.

Each year 600,000 to 1 million books are published in the United States alone. According to Forbes Magazine, more than half of these books are self-published.

Self-published books are defined as books that don’t go through a traditional publisher (a publishing house). A majority of self-published books are only in an eBooks format; however, many authors pay the overhead costs to get their books printed.

For many self-published authors, like Larson, self-publishing is a way to get one’s work out for other people to read.

“If you want to make sure that your creative thoughts get out into the world of publishing, then you kind of have to do it yourself,” Larson said.

He said many people think that becoming a New York Times Best Seller is an easy task. He said that after getting rejection letter after rejection letter, authors begin to realize that maybe it’s not as easy as it looks.

The manuscript for his wife’s children’s book had made no headway when he tried to get it picked up by a publishing house. As a result of these failed efforts, when he wrote his own novel, Larson decided he would just self-publish the work. He said he had no expectations of being the next J.K. Rowling; he just wanted his work out there.

Kristen Randle is another author working in the new digital and self-publishing world. An active author since 1992, Randle wrote several books that were published by traditional publishing houses. She received several awards for her books, but when she began to write differently, her editor stopped choosing her work. She also didn’t want to write about the current literary trends.

“When the vampires happen, I was gone,” Randle said.

After her books were no longer backlisted by the publishing house, she bought the rights back to publish and distribute her books. She then learned how to use InDesign to design covers for her books as well as to design the interior. She did this to continue to share her creative work with her loved ones and those still interested in reading her novels.

“I didn’t go to self-publishing to make a living,” Randle said. “For me, writing is not money, it’s connection.”

Randle took her books and made sure her manuscripts matched the level of editing of the published versions. She then designed her own covers, using a drawing her friend’s daughter drew when she gave an oral report on one of Randle’s books.

She said self-publishing allowed her to have more creative control of her work, pointing out that publishers don’t let authors have input on the cover of their books. For one of the books, Randle had strong feelings about the cover the publisher picked.

“I hated it. I hated it in my soul, and I couldn’t do anything about it,” Randle said. “(With self-publishing) you can make artistic calls.”

Randle even changed the ending of one of her previously published books, because she believed that initially she ended the book irresponsibly.

While self-publishing has given Randle more creative control over her work, she discovered that self-publishing books requires more money upfront.

Randle self-published physical copies of her first book, “The Only Alien on the Planet,” which can be more expensive for self-publishers than publishing an eBook. When she published the books 10 years ago, she had to buy 3,000 books, most of which she is still trying to sell. Her other books were only put into an eBook format.

One obstacle Randle has come across is figuring out how to sell the copies of her books. With self-publishing, distribution and marketing is the responsibility of the author. She tried selling her books in bookstores but cautions writers to be wary.

“They don’t send them back in the same condition that you sent them out,” Randle said, noting that bookstores will send the books that have been damaged at the bookstore. She said the process was difficult, because authors don’t have the publisher as the middleman.

Larson had similar struggles trying to get his book off the ground. When he decided to self-publish, he picked using eBooks because of their immediacy. Despite using a digital platform, the process still cost money for him up front.

Many authors pay for editors to edit their manuscripts, as well as designers to design a cover. Self-published authors may also hire freelancers or companies to put their manuscript into an e-publishing format. Unlike Randle, Larson didn’t design his own cover or have edited copies of his manuscript, so he hired people to help him perform the parts of the process he didn’t know how to do.

Larson went through the editing process with close friends and family members but hired a designer to create the cover of his book “Roboconjuring: The Discovery.” He said he found his designer by gathering a list of trusted designers he got from a friend and looking through their portfolios. He wanted to find a person who could create a cover to match the message of his story. Larson said the investment was worth it.

“I’m paying somebody to design this (cover), but most people decide to read a book by looking at its cover,” Larson said. “It’s a lie; you can judge a book by its cover.”

After editing the manuscript and having the cover designed, Larson paid to have the book formatted. After that, he submitted his book to Amazon Kindle and received an ISBN number.

“It’s like getting an autograph from somebody famous; there’s nothing like it,” Larson said.

The elation of publishing the book didn’t last long, because the major footwork was just beginning. To Larson, the major downside of self-publishing is having to market his own work. If a book is picked up by a traditional publisher, the publishing house markets and publicizes the book. In self-publishing, the author does all that work.

Larson is currently trying to get his books into middle school eBook catalogues. He said figuring out how to self-publish has been a learning process.

“There are so many people online that are giving advice on how to publish things like this or that,” Larson said. “It doesn’t necessarily matter when it come to your own books, because every author seems to chart their own course.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBEWwEbqF4M]

With the popularity of self-publishing, even apps are being created to share work. New apps like Wattapp allow authors to self-publish books and short stories. Even young writers are getting involved.

Abby Manning, an eighth grader, has used the app to publish her own work.

“I wrote it as a short story first, but now I’m writing it as a chapter book,” Manning said about her work.

Along with publishing her own work, Manning can read novels written by other authors who are self-publishing on the app.

Self-publishing isn’t just a way for authors to show off their work but also a chance for editors to utilize their skills. Self-publishing has given editors the opportunity to make money doing freelance work. Suzy Bills, a freelance editor, has edited a few self-published works and has even helped an 11-year-old boy with his book.

Despite the opportunities that self-publishing brings to editors, Bills recommends that authors try the traditional publishing route before trying self-publishing.

“If you can get picked up with a traditional publisher, I think in so many ways it is a lot easier,” Bills said. “They’re doing a lot of work for you; you’re not paying for the printing, the editing and all those other expenses.”

She said if traditional publishing doesn’t work out, self-publishing is a good second option.

“If you don’t get picked up by a traditional publisher, that doesn’t mean you don’t have good-quality work,” Bills said. “It just means you weren’t lucky.”

Bills advised that using a vanity press should be an author’s last resort. A vanity press, also known as a subsidy publisher, is a branch of a publishing house where the author pays to have a book published. Vanity presses are one way traditional publishing houses are trying to make money off of self-publishing authors.

Martyn Daniels, a digital and publishing executive and consultant, said authors spend more money than they should using a vanity press, while getting little in return.

“Any author should avoid (using a vanity press) unless they desperately need to produce physical copies (of their book),” Daniels said. “Even then, Amazon offers a viable option which is miles better than giving money to the parasite presses that claim much and deliver little.”

Daniels said self-publishing is a logical route to go in a digital world. He said the publishing portion is the easy part, the more difficult being marketing. He recommends traditional publishing as well and notes that having an agent could help an author’s work get noticed.

“If you know someone who can open doors it helps, but if you don’t know folk, then better to self-publish and hope, or try to get attention,” Daniels said. “Remember that ’50 Shades’ started this way, but these are far and few.”

While Larson may not be the next J.K. Rowling, it’s enough for him to have his book published for the world to see.

“The day after I put it on Facebook, I sold a glorious six books,” Larson said. “If I had sold one, and it had been to myself, I would have been happy.”

The rise of “50 Shades of Grey” is the fairy tale many self-published authors want for their own work. Originally a work of Twilight fan fiction, “50 Shades” was self-published as an eBook in May 2011. Since then, the book was picked up by a traditional publishing house and has been made into a major motion picture.

While the book garnered success all on its own, having a publishing house backing and promoting the book brought the book out of a niche market and into a wider readership, demonstrating the power and resources that traditional publishing houses still have with regard to book promotion and setting literary trends. These literary trends affect what self-published authors are writing as well.

The wide acceptance of the book’s erotic theme by a traditional publishing house has led to the production of similar works among self-published authors. In 2013 The Kernel published an article highlighting an investigation it performed into the searchable content made available by major eBook distributors. What it found were hundreds of books that author Jeremy Wilson described as “filth.”

“Not only Amazon, but practically every major bookstore, many household brands included, stock vast collections of deeply disturbing books, including rape fantasies, incest porn and graphic descriptions of bestiality and child abuse,” The Kernel said.

What Wilson found most disturbing was that a market for books with that kind of content exists. Wilson attributed the ease of publishing eBooks as one reason these books become available. He also pointed out that with many eBooks being uploaded daily, companies may not have the resources to patrol what is being uploaded.

With the ready availability of books and the current trends of novels, parents are becoming concerned about the content that is available to children. In September 2014, the Riverside Unified School District banned the book “The Fault in Our Stars” from its middle schools after a parent complained about the content. Karen Krueger felt that the plot of the book was too morbid, the language too crude and the sexual content too inappropriate for children in that age group.

“I just didn’t think it was appropriate for an 11-,12-, 13-year-old to read,” Krueger said in an interview with Vanity Fair. “I was really shocked it was in a middle school.”

While the librarians in the school district pulled the book from the shelves, the Internet allows students to have access to the books elsewhere. With built-in e-reader apps on most smartphones, teenagers have access to a variety of reading material.

Even though inappropriate content is not exclusive to self-published novels, the digitization of books has allowed young readers access to books their parents would not allow them to buy in a bookstore. For kids with Apple products, having an Apple ID is all they need to purchase books, and many books are free.

Screenshot of Common Sense Media’s rating for “The Fault in Our Stars.” (Common Sense Media)

Mackenzie Manning, a mother of four, said she is concerned about what her children can find on the Internet and their e-readers. In an effort to keep her children reading age-appropriate material, as well as material without inappropriate language, Manning has programmed her children’s Kindles to ask for a password from her before downloading a book or article.

In addition to that, she does research on all the books her children read, before they read them. She uses websites like Common Sense Media and The Literate Mother to decide whether or not her children should read the books.

Manning said eBooks have changed the way her family reads. With print books, she can edit out offensive material with a black marker, but eBooks are different. As a result, Manning gets a hard copy or digital copy on a case-by-case basis.

“I can get rid of those words in a hard copy, so I don’t let her have an electronic copy,” Manning said.

Other parents have taken a different approach to a similar issue. Jared and Kirsten Maughan developed an app called “Clean Reader.” The app, now no longer available, used a highlighting function to find offensive words, which it then covers with an opaque box.

The Maughans developed the idea because their daughter was reading at a seventh-grade level while still in the fourth grade. They found it difficult to find books that were at her reading level but still appropriate to read. When their daughter found some of the language in the books she was reading offensive, they began to wonder if an e-reader that censors bad language existed.

While the app was finding some success, it was removed from Apple’s App Store in March due to the backlash the company received from authors who viewed the app as censorship, even though the app only covered obscene words.

A screenshot of the features provided by the Clean Reader app

Martyn Daniels, a digital publishing executive and consultant, said censorship is present in all industries and markets but is ineffective because those looking to read the material can find it elsewhere. He added that the debate on censorship is a big issue.

Daniels said there are some situations where censoring material would be advised. “The case for censoring may be relevant in international markets, which have to acknowledge different cultures and values, but this is easier to do using geo blocking in digital, whereas in physical there may be one print run for all.”

While some may think that publishers and authors should be conscious of the morality of the content they produce, Daniels said publishers don’t censor at the source, unless it’s for a certain market like education.

Daniels said the only people who can censor what they read are readers themselves. “The best censors are the consumer, and they vote with their purse.”

The evolution of the eReader

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