Self-Publishing: Should I Join The Crowd?

I've been eyeing the explosive growth in self-publishing over the last few years, and pondering the idea of collecting together some of the short stories I've had published over the years.  I'm about 98% decided to go ahead with the idea.

One of the reasons I haven't considered it more seriously until now is that self-publishing was mostly seen as the field of amateurs and not-ready-for-prime-time writers, the people who in previous eras would have paid big bucks to vanity presses for a pallet-load of printed books that would sit in their garage forever afterwards.

The explosion started with the advent of print-on-demand publishers like Lulu.com, where the book's contents would sit as an electronic file on Lulu's servers, until -- Oh, my god! -- someone actually ordered and paid for a single copy to be printed and shipped.  Drawback: Printing books one at a time, even with largely automated and standardized printing technology, made the books pretty expensive.

Enter the spreading democratization of e-books.  The Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook, the Sony Reader, e-reading applications for computers and smartphones, all creating an increasingly large base of customers who are willing to read books off a video display instead of having an actual printed book in their hands.  Concurrent with that, an explosion of services started coming available for ordinary citizens to produce and make available their own works.  (Smashwords is probably the best known.)

The problem is making your e-book stand out from the crowd.  Traditional publishers are still able to provide better design, marketing and distribution resources, even for their shiny new e-book divisions.  Professional writers, if they can, still prefer to be published that way.  But we're seeing more and more pro writers using e-books as a way to replace the largely vanished backlist, to republish their older books that have gone out of print and had rights reverted.  This, in turn, is giving self-published e-books a new measure of respectability.  I think this is a great thing.

But there are still all the amateur and not-ready writers out there still publishing their darlings in the thousands, with their thumbnail images cluttering up display pages on numerous bookseller websites.  It's a mob out there, and you need to stand out somehow.

One way is to have a name.  That's one reason more and more professionals are putting their backlist books online; they're a known quantity, so they make (usually slow, but steady) sales based on that recognition factor.

I don't have much of a name.  People tend not to remember mostly-short-stories writers, even the best (otherwise Robert Reed would be a science-fiction superstar).  My output of short stories, even at my best, was usually only two or three a year, not all of which sold.  Scattered over thirty years, I didn't get published frequently enough to be remembered much between stories, or over my writing career (such as it was).  Google me, and the big-ticket item that stands out is the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ("Clues") I wrote back in 1990.  That's not fodder for re-publishing.

But a few of my stories still get occasionally remembered and inquired about, particularly "Death and the Ugly Woman".  So if I were to put together a collection, that be the lead story.  So I've got a little (tiny) (eensy-weeny) advantage over a complete newbie casting their work into the waters of e-commerce.

I've looked over my published stories; not all of them have a crying need to be reprinted.  I'm thinking of collecting about a half dozen of the best published stories, plus a few selections from my unsold efforts.  (Some of those unsold works deserved their fate, but a few of them... they may not have sold, but dammit... they should have!)

One of the most common things that makes people look askance at self-published books are the covers.  Designing a good book cover is a skill.  It's not a skill quickly learned.  I've got a little (tiny) (eensy-weeny) advantage there, too.  I've been putting out fanzines since the early 70's, and have been goofing around with covers and illustrations almost all that time.   Some of those goofing-arounds worked, some didn't, and I hope I've learned a little about which is which in all that time.  Plus I did the rough concept and design for COPPER STAR, the "Southwestern fantasy" anthology I edited and produced for the 1991 World Fantasy Convention.  (It got a professional tweaking before going to press.)

Looking at cover images of self-published books is great fun, if you like having your eyeballs bleed.  There are some... spectacularly dreadful... covers out there.  And lots and lots more that loudly go *clunk* or are just just unimpressive.  So one of the most important things I'd want would be a striking cover.

I've been looking at a lot of images online.  Because I'm a tightwad, I'd prefer to use cover elements available under public domain.  A detail from Heironymous Bosch got strongly considered; some other images got considered and abandoned.  I also came across a couple of pieces on DeviantArt that could have been suitable, if I decided to go ahead and pay for repro rights.  But then I stumbled across the work of Kathe Kollwitz, a German Expressionist artist in the early part of the 20th Century.  In particular, a 1921 print called "The Widow" seemed to have strong resonance with the themes of sorrow and loss in "Death and the Ugly Woman".  In keeping with the laudatory principle of K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid), I worked up a cover rough using just black and white and red.  I think it works pretty well.

This isn't a finished cover yet. The title font has some clear kerning problems, and the author-name font looks too heavy. I put this together using some of the default fonts that came installed with Word 2007, and the final fonts will almost certainly be different.  Typographical placement and size will probably be tweaked a bit, too.  But it shows what I'm trying for, and I think it works pretty well.
A cover's just one step. Final decisions on contents, supplementary material, page design, proofreading, ISBN and barcodes, pricing, etc., etc., are still ahead.  Plus considerable study and fiddling around with software and resources to make it the best I can make it.  (thebookdesigner.com has a lot of useful articles.)  I figure it will probably be several months before the collection is available, probably longer if my second shoulder surgery happens in the interim.



Will Shetterly said...

I think the basic plan's excellent. I like the design of the cover, but I'm not so sure about the choice of art: it says literary and sad to me. Which might be the right choice, mind you.

D Gary Grady said...

Bob Vardeman, who has written everything from fantasy and sf to mainstream and westerns for conventional publishers, has been experimenting with self-publishing and talks about it on his blog.

Another successful author turned self-publisher is Martin Millar. Under the name Martin Scott he wrote a series of enjoyable fantasy novels about a middle-aged fantasy-universe private eye named Thraxas who's prone to excess in beer and food. The first won a World Fantasy Award if I'm not mistaken, and the series was reasonably successful until disagreements with the publisher brought it to a screeching halt several years ago. He's now republishing the entire series as e-books, including the latest novel, previously unpublished, which I just finished and enjoyed (despite the lack of copy-editing).

I even know someone who published a (for my tastes) not-very-good first novel purely for fun, did almost no promotion, and yet sold several hundred ebooks -- obviously not exactly a best-seller, but far more than he'd expected.

I would suggest offering people at least the option of ordering a print-on-demand hard copy. Not everyone has a tablet computer or e-reader yet, and some just prefer old-fashioned paper.

Bruce said...

I definitely plan to have a hardcopy version available. Because, other people aside, -I- want an actual book to hold in my hands.

D Gary Grady said...

I understand the feeling of wanting a physical copy of one's own book. In fact, should I ever actually manage to write one, I intend to bind it in leather, or at least something like Naugahyde. (I briefly looked into bookbinding; it appears to be an interesting hobby.)

On the other end of the scale, I've been talking with an old friend for years about co-authoring a fantasy novel, and one day for the heck of it I decided to dummy up a book cover for it in the hope seeing it might inspire both of us to get typing. The result, ink-jet printed on photo paper, looked far better than I'd hoped, so I wrapped it around the guts of a crappy paperback I had, gluing it to the binding with rubber cement, and danged if it didn't look exactly like a newly printed paperback. So I mailed it to my intended coauthor and waited to hear back, and a few days later he called me cheerfully to say he'd actually thought for a moment that it was for real.

His wife later told me that when he shook it out of the padded envelope into his hands he looked at it for a moment, then said in a voice of quiet menace (and we're talking about a physically big and powerful guy, here), "What has he done?" Pause. "I'll kill him."

I suppose it's good I didn't hand it to him in person.