Over the past few years, I’ve come to understand that when Danielle (our events coordinator) paces back and forth in front of my desk, I should roll my chair back and prepare for a.) bad news about an author event, or b.) outrage on behalf of our quirky parallel career choices. She’s good at her job, so most of the pacing is because of outrage. Since she’s the sunniest, most optimistic, person I know, outrage seems sort of, I don’t know, weird on her, so I take it seriously and usually leave those conversations with a vague guilt about inflicting my jaded personality on her. She represents the store well, and she’s almost always justified in her outrage, so it’s worth listening to what she has to say.
A couple of days ago, she charged into my office and paced behind the person I was talking to, briefly rummaged through the kitchen area and walked back to her desk after giving me the look that says, “I have to talk to you” which incidentally on any other person might look like they’ve just seen your stalker and are trying to find a non-intrusive way to warn you to duck under the table.
I made my way over to her desk where she was pondering how nice to be to a self published author who wrote to her asking for an event and then invited her to a “Buy from Amazon Day” on Facebook. We solved that problem, and the conversation turned to the crux of the matter: Self Publishing.
In the New York Review of Books for July 14, 2011 there is a full page ad on page 51. The top declares that it’s an “Independent Press” listing. This is what folks are now calling self publishing – Indie Publishing.
Doesn’t it sound empowering? Liberating, even? Take that, corporate drone – I’m publishing on my own. ON. MY. OWN. I will reap the benefits of my work and you shall not reap a dime! I’m Independent and proud.
Writers, struggling to be heard in the cacophony of other clicking keyboards, have stopped waiting to be picked up by a publisher. No more papering your wall with rejection letters. No more editing for months or years to resubmit it elsewhere. No more relying on the opinions of those pesky editors and publishers in New York City. What do they know of the writing process?
Instead, they’re turning to Xlibris (one of the “indie” publishers mentioned in the ad) and Amazon to “publish” their books, sometimes even starting with e-versions costing only 99 cents. What a bargain!
But let’s get past the used car sales pitch for just a second and take a look at the bald tires on this idea.
Here’s what really happens to the writer’s gem:
The author writes her novel in her spare time between teaching 10th grade math and raising her twin 2 year olds. Her husband understands and tries to give her time, but life happens. She relentlessly pursues her dream, scratching out dialogue at 4 in the morning for two years before she has a decent manuscript. After failing to get much of anywhere in New York (she lives in western Minnesota), she decides she’ll strike out on her own.
She logs onto Lulu.com and decides to take the plunge. After clicking on various links to be sure her manuscript is “retail ready” she chooses from several publishing packages. The “Best Seller” package is the cheapest, and it costs $629. She’ll get a Basic Cover Design, Formatting, their editorial staff will give her feedback on the quality of the book (this portion is $200 and will undoubtedly result in the “editors” telling her she has a bestseller on her hands), one unedited proof (or galley) of her book, retail availability on “Amazon, etc.” and a pdf of her own book. She opts not to select the most expensive package ($4729) which would include editing.
She knows she needs to have some publicity. Lulu also takes care of this for her. She has three to choose from. The cheapest “Book Media Blast” option costs a mere $2,900. For this, they will “ask her questions about her book,” have a one hour conversation with her by phone, email some magazines, e-zines, radio shows, and tv producers, help her make a list of 20 of her own friends to contact, forward emails from publicists to her when their press release is answered and send her a valuable publicity manual so she knows how to do all of this herself. Of course, she’ll have to supply them with 20 books so they can send them for free to all of those contacts. At her expense, of course ($160) – and they’re happy to sell her her own book.
Since the national media is SO eager to give time and space to an unknown writer’s book (that’s sarcasm in case you didn’t catch it) they will see the emails and faxes from Lulu (hers being buried in about a hundred of them) and delete it without reading the contents.
Since the folks at Lulu haven’t contacted any bookstores or national distributors (except of course Amazon), her book will appear nowhere.
She’s read in her handy publicity manual that she should do an author tour. After some soul searching, she and her husband decide that he’ll be ok at home with the kids if she drives across the state to appear at a bookstore.
She emails the bookstore to ask if they’ll host a signing with her. She’s addressed it to the info@ email, so it gets deleted because the person reading that email has to read and hundreds of them and hasn’t heard of her. She doesn’t give up, though. She calls and talks to the owner, who has never heard of her or seen her book, but wishes her well. She buys 25 more paperback copies of her own book from Lulu ($200 plus shipping) and mails a copy to the bookstore with a nice note asking someone to read it.
The book arrives at the bookstore in a load of books the store ordered from actual publishers. It gets opened by a clerk, who recognizes it as an advance reading copy and puts it in the breakroom where there are two bookcases full top to bottom of recent advance reading copies from various publishers. The staff is supposed to read these things before they are published so that they can talk intelligently about them when a customer asks, but frankly, they just can’t get through 300 books a month, so they give up. Plus her book was shelved right next to the new Nathaniel Philbrick. They grabbed that one instead.
After several months, the shelves get full and some books are even on the floor in boxes. A resourceful bookseller boxes up the old books and gives them to the local women’s shelter. Meanwhile, our author has had to nurse her twins through an unfortunate bout with the flu and hasn’t followed up with the bookstore. She calls at long last and asks the owner, who doesn’t remember her, if anyone has read the book. The owner, trying to tamp down a rising panic, looks through the advance reader shelf to see if the book is still there. Alas, it is not. She tells our author that the book has been donated, and the author gets angry. I mean after all, she bought that book herself! Yes, the bookstore owes her money. They screwed up big time. After a tense phone call in which the bookstore owner politely but firmly tells the author that they do not owe her money for her unsolicited book, the author relents.
She asks the bookstore if they could put any copies on their shelves. “Possibly” says the bookseller. “Where can I order it?”
“It’s on Amazon” says our author.
“We don’t order from Amazon” says the bookseller. Then another tense discussion happens where the bookseller explains that Amazon is actually a competing business and buying books from them is like a Ford dealer buying a Ford from another dealer at full price so they can sell the car on their own lot.
“You can order it from Lulu.com” says the author.
“We don’t order from Lulu” says the bookseller. A third conversation ensues about how Lulu doesn’t offer bookstore terms and refuses returns. “But we could take it on consignment” says the bookseller (trying to get off the phone).
“Ok, how do we do that?”
The bookseller explains that the store would pay 60% of the retail cost to her if it sold, and would return the unsold to her after some time on the shelf. Unfortunately, the author will have to pay this much to Lulu to purchase more copies of her own book so she won’t make a penny. Never mind that, though. Nothing has sold on Amazon because nobody knows she’s there. It’s worth a shot.
Several months later, a bookseller will remove the three copies of the novel from the shelf and call the author, telling her that none sold. Would she please come pick up the books? The author lives across the state and has never shopped at this bookstore so she asks if they can ship the books to her. After explaining that the bookstore won’t pay the shipping charges to return her books to her, she gets angry, but decides to pay for the shipping.
She’s now stuck with a trunk full of books, no marketing, and no sales. Plus, she’s noticed that on page 47 there’s an spelling error. She can’t afford to pay Lulu to fix it, though because the twins have started daycare and she needs the money to pay for that. Plus, she’s now spent $3889 and hasn’t sold a single copy unless you count the 5 free copies she sent to her sister-in-law in Arizona for her book group., and this was the inexpensive package.
Being “Independent” isn’t so easy after all.
It turns out that even though the publishing industry is aggravating to the point of madness for all involved, it actually has a purpose. Left Bank Books hosts some events for self published authors because we believe in the writer, the book and the privilege of asking a reader to spend a few hours of their time reading a story. We make no money doing these events (see my earlier post) and in most self-publish cases we lose money.
This is where Danielle comes in again. She’s under pressure from her bosses (me and Kris) to perform well and to create good programming. She works heroically to make the authors and us look good. Her personal Facebook posts are even about bookselling. She takes it personally when something doesn’t go well and when someone takes a jab at our industry.
It makes her pace in front of my desk, fretting about how to do the best job she can with what she’s given. She rocks. She’s a professional. She usually works miracles. This is not because she sifts through all of the books in the world to select someone to highlight. Rather, it’s because she works at an independent store with relationships with publishers – independent and otherwise.
Calling self publishers like Lulu and others “Independent” is a misnomer. It’s like calling your pot dealer an independent pharmacist. There are no quality controls, no support from professional publishers, no support from bookstores – and that’s just for the writer. The reader gets the short end too. Imagine a world where all authors were their own bookseller. Then imagine trying to buy the ingredients for a birthday cake if you had to contact the cocoa farmer, the dairy farmer, the flour seller and the sugar cane farm individually. No grocery store.
I know I’ll get a lot of flak for pointing out this uncomfortable truth, but it is the truth.
Independent Publishers are businesses. Independent Publishers Group (IPG) is a good example. Some small publishers who are a part of Publishers Group West are good Indie publishers. Soft Skull Press is another good example. Those are true indies. Not the snakeoil salesmen who promise riches beyond your wildest dreams – for the right price. To call this Independent Publishing is insulting to the agents, editors, publicists, sales reps, accountants, and yes event credit reps in the publishing business, and truthfully it’s insulting to independent bookstores. Just because you borrow a term and apply it to something else doesn’t mean it’s true.
Words actually mean something.