Self-publishing: A good time for Island authors
As traditional publishers reduce their title lists and reduce author advances and promotional budgets, many Island authors have become entrepreneurs. Self-publishing, e-publishing and print on demand are the new publishing buzzwords. They represent a new paradigm that uses myriad combinations of Internet marketing, printing technology, and small publishers to replace the traditional corporate publishing path, which is less available than ever to writers without a proven publishing pedigree.
But Island authors, agents, and booksellers say that while the marketplace may be muddled, this may also be the best time ever to be a writer. The new reality, they say, is that you can write, publish and distribute your novel, family saga or cookbook yourself for less than you'd pay for a decent secondhand car.
"Publishing is undergoing a sea change. Technology is forcing it," said literary agent Rosemary Stimola who divides her time between West Tisbury and Edgewater, N.J. "Whether we like it or not, print on-demand, e-publishing, just walking into bookstore and printing a book will be part of life".
Ms. Stimola continued: "There was a time when self-publishing had a negative connotation, that the book wasn't necessarily worthy of being published. That is the biggest change. With the current economy, self-publishing is not a statement about a book's worth."
Tom Dresser of Oak Bluffs writes books because he loves to, and knows that long hours and short money is the most likely outcome of an author's life. Like other Island authors, Mr. Dresser buys his own books from his printer and sells them to bookstores himself. He began self-publishing with a neighborhood newspaper he published as a youngster in western Massachusetts. "I had about 800 subscribers," he recalled.
Mr. Dresser is hoping for a small financial reward from his fourth book, "It Was 40 Years Ago Today," a reminiscence about the Beatle years, but mostly he just revels in the joy of writing. "I love seeing my name on a book. 'Mystery on the Vineyard' is in the Harvard University Library. Imagine that."
"Most of us think we have a novel in us," said Ann Nelson, former owner of Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven, and Island doyenne of all things bookish. "Publishers narrow the scope of their titles in order to achieve the level of profitability they require," Ms. Nelson said. "The chief executive officer of a large publisher told me her philosophy to remain profitable was to never increase the number of titles published. So rejections are way up and titles are flooding the self-publishing market."
Susan Mercier, general manager of Edgartown Books, agreed. "I think the biggest change is the availability of publishing to anyone," she said, noting that more changes, like the availability of print on demand books in bookstores, are coming fast. "As booksellers, we have to adapt to the changes that are coming," she said.
"We work at promoting Island authors and we try to showcase them but we can't buy a couple of dozen books, we can only buy a few," Ms. Mercier added. "I love to see a phenomenal success like Susanna Sturgis is having this year." (Ms. Sturgis's self-published "The Mud of the Place," a mystery novel with an Island setting, is a popular read among Islanders.)
Once dismissively known as "vanity press", self- publishing has become a muscular new industry, growing more than 700 per cent in the past five years, according to industry bible, "Books In Print." Traditional publishers released 275,232 new titles compared with 285,394 from self and short-run publishers, the journal said recently.
In 2008, for the first time in modern publishing history in the States, the industry reported that more titles were self-published than were released by more than 700 traditional publishing houses.
Last week, photographer/writer Alan Brigish of West Tisbury released "Breathing in the Buddha, Journeys in Indochina," his third self-published book. "The way the industry used to work, you wrote a book, found an agent who shopped it, then maybe got an advance," he said. "That's been finished for several years, and a new genre has developed. Many are startup companies to whom an author can go, submit a manuscript and get back a single book or three or a hundred or a thousand books."
Mr. Brigish understands technology, and has harnessed e-mail, Facebook, and viral marketing to promote sales of his books. He sees electronic reading devices, such as Kindle and I-touch as alternatives to purchasing paper books
"Books from big publishers have the shelf life of lettuce," Island author and former bookseller Holly Nadler said, quoting a writer friend. And even authors with traditional book deals have seen their lives changed. If they want to sell books, they have to hustle.
John Hough of West Tisbury wrote "Seen The Glory" a Civil War novel published this year by Simon and Schuster, which sold well and will be out in a paperback this summer. Following a traditional promotion path, he did radio interviews, store readings, and numerous signing appearances. While he's uncomfortable with self-promotion, he said, "My agent is on me all the time to get out and promote."
No Island author is more revered for relentlessly promoting her work than Margot Datz, author of "A Survival Guide for Landlocked Mermaids," published by Beyond Words, a Simon and Schuster subsidiary. "Publishers want to know what you bring to the table," she said. "Do you have blogs, celebrity connections? They want to know what audiences you will bring in. Writing the book is just the beginning. You'll work your butt off."
Ms. Datz organized her own author's tour up and down the entire eastern seaboard, cold-calling 60 bookstores as she drove from Florida to New England. (Mermaids has sold 13,000 copies, enough to make Ms. Datz the number-one seller in her category at Beyond Words.)
Change has also created a market for small publishers like Vineyard Stories, founded by Jan Pogue and her late husband, John Walter. Vineyard Stories is the publisher of the nationally heralded "Morning Glory Farm and the Family that Feeds an Island," written by Tom Dunlop and illustrated with photographs by Alison Shaw.
"Big publishers turned their back on small-run books," said Ms. Pogue. "It's a morass for authors trying to figure out how to get published. Small publishers like us love books and we coddle and love their authors." Vineyard Stories usually has press runs of 1,000 to 8,000 copies, and it will publish its 13th book next year. "We publish books that fit our Island brand. This is an endlessly fascinating place. There is no end of Island-based source material," she said.
Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Times.