According to a recent survey 81% of Americans feel they have a book in them
and that they should write it.
The New York Times, September 28,2002
and that they should write it.
The New York Times, September 28,2002
For most of the twentieth century, if writing a book was your dream, you needed a publisher to reach the readers who would buy it. To find yourself a publisher you needed a literary agent, the gatekeeper, who would usher your manuscript through a publisher’s door. Of course, if you’d never been published before, you didn’t have an agent and you didn’t even know any agents.
So you went to the library and the reference librarian would direct you to Literary Marketplace (L.M., for short), a thick book suitable for use as a boat anchor, containing lists in blindingly fine print of anybody related to publishing ó including literary agents.
Because your research had enlightened you as to the hopelessness of approaching a publisher directly, you studied up on how to write a pitch letter, the purpose of which was to interest agents in your manuscript. You compiled your list of suitable agents based on types of literary material they represented (as described in L.M.), spent hours at Kinko’s making copies of your cover letter and your manuscript (or a sampling of the best parts) bought padded mailing pouches and books of stamps, and optimistically deposited stacks of your creative expression at the post office.
Then you waited. And waited. When you decided enough time had passed that it wouldn’t seem pushy, you sent a letter inquiring if the unresponsive party had, by any chance, not received the package and offering to send another. It’s pretty much a sure bet you never heard from any of those agents, not even a “thanks, but no thanks.”
In desperation, with an oh-what-the-hell-it-can’t-hurt-and-may-help recklessness, you repeated the entire process, sending even more packages (to increase the odds in your favor) directly to the Acquisitions Departments of big and little book publishers.
And heard nothing.
Meanwhile there were the lucky ones who had, in some inexplicable way known only to God, made it through the no-man’s-land of never-been-published and who actually had an agent, a publisher and a book out there.
From the depths of despair, you’d wish with all your heart to be a member of the exclusive club of Published Authors who had found literary fulfillment.
Here’s what you would be experiencing if you were one of them.
A literary agent, convinced of your manuscript’s potential, (said agent having been acquired through a miracle of Catholic proportions) would have persuaded a publisher to offer you a contract and for so doing would have taken a percentage of your meager advance. (The full term is advance against royalties meaning that you pay the publisher back from the first sales of your book.)
An editor would have been assigned to whip your manuscript into marketable shape, a publication date would be set, a cover designed, the galleys (the bound page layouts of the book) would arrive for you to read and mark for last minute changes, and the publisher might have sent you a copy of the upcoming catalog containing a picture and description of your book (just one among scores, maybe many scores, of other books being released by your publisher that season.)
The much anticipated publication date would arrive. You’d begin haunting bookstores. Your book might appear on a shelf in a couple of your local outlets. You’d call the marketing department with helpful suggestions.
“What about the other Barnes & Noble?”
“You know that little bookstore just a mile from my house? I’d love to do a signing there.”
In return for all your enthusiasm you’d get promises, and more promises.
Your regional newspapers would send a reporter and a photographer to cover the local author angle. You would be floating on hope, like a cherry atop an ice cream soda, raring for more. A couple of reviews would show up in unexpected places, which you’d take as a sign that word was getting around. You’d pass out the ten free copies from your publisher to your family and best friends who would congratulate you and tell you how much they loved the book.
And then you’d wait. And wait.
Presently you’d begin the next round of fruitless letters.
To your publisher’s Publicity and Promotion Director:
“Hi, Sue, I’m planning to be in Denver this summer on business. Would it be possible to set up a signing at The Tattered Cover?”
To the Books Editor of the Denver Post:
“Enclosed please find a press kit and a review copy of my book, Such and Such, published this year by…”
After a few months, as doubt has begun to nudge aside hope, your publisher will have moved on to the next season’s offerings. No one is returning your phone calls. How is your book doing in California? you wonder. New England? You wait for that first royalty statement. Please, please, you pray, let there be good sales figures.
There are three seasons in publishing: A book is designated a Fall, Winter or Spring title. A title is part of the front list for the period of its season. As soon as the next season arrives, the previous season’s titles join the back list. Unless they are moving off the shelves at a decent clip, bookstores return back list books to the publisher for full credit or don’t reorder them, thereby making room for the next season’s offerings.
With such a tiny window of opportunity, it’s only a few more months before you learn that your book has been remaindered, which means that unsold copies are being disposed of for pennies just to get rid of them. At this point your book is a flat turtle in the middle of the road.
This tale of woe happens to the vast majority of aspiring authors. (Those overnight bestsellers by first-timers are the rarest of rarities.) John Grisham (a top selling novelist for two decades) is reported to have hawked copies of his remaindered first book outside Walmart’s out of the trunk of his car.
During the 1990s there were more than fifty thousand titles published annually, of which less than a third broke even. Publishers worked on the wet spaghetti principle: Throw a bunch at the wall and some will stick. The ones that stuck paid for the flops. Publishers never spent serious money promoting a book unless it already had demonstrated in the marketplace that it “had legs” or the author was already well known. Those half-page ads in The New York Times Book Review were for books that were already bestsellers.
Though every individual book by an untested author was a risk, in the aggregate publishers did well with this wasteful, survival of the fittest system. The grand old dinosaurs of the book world had big city offices and large staffs - editors, designers, marketers, sales reps, art directors, artists, and folks who handled printing, binding, shipping, warehousing, advertising, public relations, and on and on.
The process of creating a finished book was labor intensive, time consuming and complicated. For instance, the copy that appeared on a finished page took many months to prepare. It was produced by typesetting machines that set text in columns on paper sheets that were literally cut and pasted by hand into page layouts. The designers who did this work were highly skilled and incredibly meticulous.
Publishers were the exclusive masters of all the intricate facets of production and delivery. The industry’s lifeblood, the inventory, was transported along their distribution networks from warehouses to retail outlets all over the country. Among themselves the major publishers had a virtual monopoly on access to the one place where all the rest of us went to buy books: the bookstores.
And that’s how things stood on January 24, 1984 when a gray gizmo smaller than a breadbox and named for a fruit was introduced. The reasonably priced Apple Macintosh, or Mac, worked with easy-to-use software that alchemized the look of finished layouts and real typesetting from pages of ordinary word processing. Literary wannabes everywhere immediately embraced the unprepossessing chunky cube with its revolutionary technology and the entire world of publishing changed overnight.
As the end of the century approached, books were being written, designed and laid out on Macs in home offices, garages and basements all over the country. Page layouts were mailed to offset printers, mainly in the middle of the country, from whence books could ship most economically both east and west. By the turn of the Twenty-first Century the Internet would break the stranglehold on the market held by brick and mortar bookstores.
Distribution companies sprang up to pre-sell small press titles to the chains, like Barnes & Noble and Borders, and the independents. The distribution companies’ warehouses received finished books from the printers and fulfilled orders from big wholesalers, like Ingram and Baker & Taylor, and the nation’s bookstores.
Meanwhile the little publishers deposited fat checks in the bank and continued to come up with successful titles. That’s about the time I wandered, pretty much by accident, into the wildcat world of independent publishing.
Today we are at the leading edge of another wave of change in publishing, this one being driven by the Internet. Everyone with a product to sell can make it available to be found by those interested in purchasing that product. On the Internet, everyone, even those without money to invest, can be a marketer supreme.
Among the entrepreneurial front runners in taking advantage of the new technology are the music makers, led by a bunch of kids who cut their teeth on a computer mouse. Like the publishing industry, the music business has always been controlled by the major labels and the radio stations. These were roughly analogous to big publishers and bookstores. To make a record you needed a contract with a recording company. The recording company would then do its best to secure airtime so potential buyers could hear your music. An artist on his own had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting so much as a minute of airtime and thus a chance to sell records.
The Internet has changed all that. Unknown basement bands can make a CD for pennies, put up a web site with samples of their music and sell downloads on the spot. Music blogs, run by enthusiastic fans, expand the exposure exponentially by sampling bits of their idols’ work (sometimes more than bits, which raises issues of copyright infringement) for other fans to download free, thereby spreading the word to tens of thousands more potential fans. Tiny music labels and unknown groups have risen to stardom and riches in a matter of days.
The star-maker machinery, in the words of Joni Mitchell, has been retooled to give the independent press (known as "indies") a big boost. Amazon, the company that revolutionized the way people purchase books (and grabbed itself a huge market share in the process) is now expanding the breadth of kinds of books people will be able to purchase. Advantage, a special Amazon program for the small press sector, offers all the advantages a big publisher’s books enjoy. Amazon will list any title with its own web page and provide an account to process sales, collect and remit money and ship books. And Google, that Goliath of the Internet, has a “Partner Program” designed to “help users discover your books by matching content with user searches.” The program offers to “preview samples, drive buyers to bookstores, online retailers and your own web site.” Indie authors are also making one or two minute promotional videos and posting them on Google Video and YouTube.
The New York Times Book Review will consider reviewing titles that sell at a rate of as little as one hundred copies a week. Kirkus Reviews, an influential trade publication, will consider indie books that have sold as few as 500 copies, or review any book for the modest fee of $350.
The independent book world is riding the lip of another towering tsunami. “Self publishing was once considered as bad as vanity press, but with so many self-published successes in the past few years it is now possible to self publish with respect,” according to John Kremer, indie (independent) press marketing guru. “Publishers Weekly [the industry bible] will now look at self published books, something they would never have done five to ten years ago. And now with print on demand [POD: the ability to print, in a short period of time, small numbers of books as needed] it’s possible to self publish at little cost. In fact, many larger book publishers now scour the shelves and Internet for self published and POD books that could fit their publishing program.”
In his book "The World Is Flat", three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman chronicles the enormous changes the Internet and World Wide Web have made in just the first few years of the Twenty-first Century. Friedman sees the Internet as a great leveler that bestows on the meekest among us the same ability to participate in the great flows of information and commerce as that traditionally enjoyed exclusively by high and mighty individuals, institutions and corporations. "This newfound power of individuals and communities to send up, out, and around their own products and ideas, ofter for free...is fundamentally reshaping the flow of creativity [and] innovation... More than ever, we can all be producers, not just consumers." He adds, "And you ain't seen nothin' yet."
Kremer's optimism is consistent with Friedman's. He tracks indie press success stories, maintaining a list of Top Indie Publishers who do $50 million to $200 million in annual sales, as well as a Self Publishers Hall of Fame and an extensive Indie Bestsellers Hall of Fame. His enthusiasm knows no bounds. The whole system, he believes, has become one big wide-open field of possibilities to sell books and make money.