Changing of the Guard

Self-publishing is growing up and getting more sophisticated. Will the new breed of publishing entrepreneurs be a threat or an opportunity for your business? Drew Turney finds out.

‘If you were any good you’d get a real publisher. You must suck.’ That’s how Matthew Reilly — best-selling author of seven high-octane thrillers — explains the veiled disdain booksellers and book publishers show self-publishing in Australia today.

It didn’t used to be that way. Today’s self publisher joins very auspicious company including Margaret Atwood, L. Frank Baum, William Blake, Alexander Dumas, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Anais Nin, Edgar Allen Poe, Beatrix Potter, Marcel Proust, George Bernard Shaw, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf — all of whom published their own work at some time. Some probably did so to be rich and famous, some because they had something important to say about life and society. Lawrence couldn’t find a backer in his native UK who’d touch Lady Chatterley’s Lover and had to use a printer in Italy.

It was the days before the media age, and publishers were there to help impart knowledge to their fellow man. Now, a cynic could view book publishing as merely contributing to the share price of a media conglomerate — especially as publishers take fewer risks thanks to pressure from corporate overlords.

But after several centuries of rigourous activity, self-publishing is unlikely to go away, and it continues to deliver plenty of freshness into the trade and lift the game for everyone. Whether you’re a multinational publishing director or a corner bookshop owner, it’s inevitable self-publishing is going to affect you. Here’s how’

Not What You Think

First of all, you need to know what self-publishing means. It’s obvious, right? It’s a writer who’s decided to do it themselves after too many knockbacks from real publishers.

Dallas Robertson, who runs online self-published book marketing business Vanity Press, tells a very different story. ‘My original idea with Vanity Press was to sign people up and then market their books to a [trade] publisher, thinking that’s what self publishers wanted,’ he says. ‘I found out it was the opposite. Maybe one or two wanted to be traditionally published but most of them had actually turned down offers from publishers because there’s no guarantee it’ll get sold even if it does get picked up.’

American actor, author and computer geek Wil Wheaton offers sage advice on his website; ‘nobody will promote your book as hard as you do’ — an opinion he formed after a bad experience with a publisher who let his second book languish after printing and distributing it but not promoting it. It’s advice that could have been directed straight at self-publishers.

Then there are the writers meeting a need the economics of mainstream book publishing simply can’t fulfil, those HarperCollins publishing director Shona Martyn calls ‘regional or special interest’. Plenty of self-publishers, Martyn believes, don’t want to be Lyn Magree or Sandra Cabot, they just have something to say that a relatively small audience will be interested in.

Finally there’s the evolution of a new publishing entity that happens almost by providence. Euan Mitchell, author and self-publisher of the successful Self Publishing Made Simple ‘ now in it’s second edition ‘ also self published his first book Feral Tracks. From such humble beginnings Mitchell’s company Overdog Press is in the midst of releasing its first book by another author, so suddenly Mitchell has an independent publishing house on his hands.

The New Toolset

As it has throughout every media industry, the computer has taken the tools of the trade out of the hands of corporations and put them on your home computer. While desktop publishing software doesn’t make you a book designer, self publishing has exploded in the last 20 years, and in the last 10 years the Internet has given self published authors access to an international audience ‘ access online businesses like Vanity Press intends to capitalise on.

And for the cases where a self-published author’s knowledge is still limited, new technologies and techniques in everything from marketing to printing have bolstered what can only be termed the self-publishing industry. Some independent publicists work solely on book projects, many of them independently- or self-published. Specialist book printers can be found all over the country. Even the large printers traditionally engaged by the book trade flog specialised services to small- or self-publishers in the face of competition from Asian markets.

And services like Fastbooks — which has been going since 1991 and is said to have printed more books in its lifetime than all the major publishers between them — cater to self publishers who need to outsource all or part of the physical production process.

Along with the usual noise about how it’s never been harder to get published, there’s never been so many avenues for people to publish, promote and sell their own book.

Your Slice of the Action

Both Meredith Drake — fiction buyer for Dymocks Australia — and Joan Mackenzie — group book manager for Angus & Robertson — report that their respective employers have policies in place for self-publishers to get their products into Dymocks and A&R stores.

‘There’s a definite process,’ says Drake, who ‘ as the buyer in charge of fiction ‘ receives and must approve submissions for Dymocks to sell self-published books.

‘We have a centralised system so it’s virtually impossible to sell self-published books at the store,’ says Mackenzie. But what about if books suit particular regional tastes or markets? Even then big chains funnel decisions through a central point, a practice Matthew Reilly found worked to his advantage. ‘When I took Contest to one bookshop chain in Sydney,’ recalls Reilly about the novel that got him noticed by Pan Macmillan, ‘the head buyer looked at the front cover, looked at the back cover and said ‘yeah, give me 50’. In terms of the nuances of genre and what regional markets are looking for, people who’ve said ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ have never had to sell one.’

In a small bookshop with a shortage of shelf space and time, the last thing you want is a million self-publishers coming in and jostling for what little attention you have ‘ particularly at accounts time.

‘We get approached by a lot of people,’ says David Hall, manager of Sydney’s Abbeys bookshop, ‘it’s just hard to take them all on. If you take five books and you sell two, by the time you write a cheque for them and send back the other three you haven’t made a hell of a lot of money. But if we already have an account with a supplier and we deal with them on a regular basis that makes it easier. It’s so much easier to just get another book from Penguin or HarperCollins.’

Conscious of that need, another industry has matured along with self-publishing; distribution. Smaller distributors who handle self-published books operate on a smaller scale than trade publishers use, but one that can collect many publishers together into a single point of contact for overworked bookshops. Dennis Jones, of Dennis Jones and Associates, describes his business model; ‘we offer people’s work to a retail marketplace in an environment where that marketplace doesn’t want to deal with every individual self publisher.

More succinctly, Matthew Reilly points out the three reasons he accepted an offer from a mainstream publisher; ‘distribution, distribution, distribution’.

A Double Edged Sword

So what can trade publishers get out of self-publishing? Obviously, Pan Macmillan buying Contest at a Sydney bookstore and offering Reilly a two-book deal on the strength of it is great for them and great for Reilly. But what about Sandra Cabot, who racked up massive sales with The Liver Cleansing Diet by publishing it herself, sales the trade publishers must have ogled enviously? B&P asked Shona Martyn from HarperCollins if self-publishing’s a good or a bad thing.

‘It’s a good thing,’ she exclaims without hesitation. ‘The more books that are capturing a market, the better for us. What you want as a publisher is people going into a bookshop and finding a book they want to buy. If they have a good experience and buy a useful book they’ll return and buy another one, which will hopefully be one of ours. There’s so much competition out there among the big publishers ‘ when other people come up with innovative ideas and offer something we haven’t thought of it can only be a positive.’

Euan Mitchell’s experience with Feral Tracks highlights another aspect to how a daring publisher could do well out of self published projects. ‘Big publishers have such a thing as a fit with their lists,’ he explains. ‘Feral Tracks had a paedophile ordeal in it, and I knew from working in publishing that would be really pushing the boundaries of what big publishers would accept. No big publishers have been willing to take up Feral Tracks, and just quietly I think that’s the reason.’

Self-Publishing’s New Groove

Matthew Reilly’s experience with a buyer looking at his cover before taking five percent of his total stock seems to support his advice for giving a self published book the best chance it can. ‘Make it look as much as possible like a professionally published book,’ he says. All respondents to this story agreed the axiom ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ doesn’t apply to book sales, and most ‘ from publishers to bookshops ‘ have a story about poor or amateurish design letting down a book’s chances of success regardless of the content.

When a product comes through your bookshop door that looks as professionally made as those from big publishers, half your work is done for you. The self-publishers who make sure their book is something shoppers want to pick up are those who will most deservedly join the ranks of the book publishing profession. Book marketing comes down to publicity, and it’s very hard to publicise a book that fails to grab people’s notice.

And that doesn’t just go for the book, but whatever the author produces to get people to talk about it and buy it. In the absence of a dedicated publicity department with money to spend, getting the media to talk about their book is often the only publicity a self-publisher can afford. And as Catherine Keenan, books editor for the Sydney Morning Herald explains, you might be one of a large crowd. ‘The thing about self published authors is they don’t really know how to tell you why something is good quickly,’ she says. ‘Publishers have entire marketing departments whose job is to do that and sometimes self published authors are too close to the work.’

Above all, self-publishing is coming of age because it shows dramatic similarities with other DIY media grabbing headlines over the last few years such as music and film production. ‘It’s punk publishing at it’s best,’ Euan Mitchell says. ‘It’s this do-it-yourself attitude. Don’t let corporations define what’s going out on the street, just bung it out there in shops. Look at the people starting bands. They make their own CDs, they don’t expect a record company to come in and make them rock stars. You get yourself going, and if you build up a reputation, [record companies] want to pick you up.’

The Niche Rush

The nature of business is growth. They say even if your business is staying the same size, you’re actually going backwards. As trade publishers were snaffled up by the global media behemoths, they’ve had little choice but to get out of the small, local trade. Their shareholders demand another Da Vinci Code, which can then become a movie, video game and lunchbox design. And if they manage it, their shareholders are just going to demand two Da Vinci Codes the following year.

Self-publishers have exploited the gaps left behind ‘ sometimes in specialist or locally-targeted projects, sometimes with broadly targeted projects that seem obvious in hindsight, such as Pocket Basics for English and Maths . Self-publishing has grown to fill the vacuum left by corporate publishing, in many cases maturing into independent publishing houses in their own right.

Euan Mitchell’s self publishing venture Feral Tracks has grown into his company Overdog Press, and Mitchell plans further expansion after taking on his first new author.

Two things might happen to Overdog Press. Its list might become so popular Penguin or Random House will offer Mitchell millions for his properties and transform them into the new Da Vinci Codes they’re constantly seeking. Or it might end up in their league on the strength of its success, producing books that stand beside theirs on bestseller lists.

Self-publishing will continue to make those waves, and as it matures and fills niches, today’s self-publisher could become tomorrow’s specialist imprint in a constant process of market correction. Just who holds the mantle will depend on the foresight of booksellers to support them.

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