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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Self-Publishing Success

Local authors go it alone

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In today's Facebook and blog-defined age, it appears vanity is less a reproachable vice than a marketable virtue. Take vanity publishing. Though it's been around for centuries, it's now evolved into a form more widespread, accessible and cheaper than ever before. Everyone and their mother can now publish their own book using iUniverse, AuthorHouse or other online imprints. And though a decade ago some people wouldn't touch you with a barge pole if you were self-published, today even major houses like Penguin and Simon & Schuster are buying into the buzz generated by self-published authors like William P. Young or Lisa Genova-both of whom ended up with lucrative deals from the aforementioned houses.

"[Publishers] are trying to look for the next Shack," says Cevin Bryerman of Publishers Weekly, referring to Young's blockbuster debut novel. "They are always trawling for people like that, for the next dark horse."

Success stories like this are transforming what was once anathema into a viable career option, given the ease and economy with which authors can now self publish. "Print-on-demand and some of these online publishers like iUniverse offer a low entry barrier point," Bryerman says. "It's all about economics."

However, he's also aware of the unique challenges facing self-published authors. "They don't have the distribution that other big houses have, they don't have the shelf space in stores," he says.

He also believes that the product quality of some self-published works leaves much to be desired. "The axiom 'don't judge a book by its cover' doesn't really hold true," Bryerman admits. "We get a lot of self-published books every day and we look at the quality and can see some of them will never get reviewed."

Nod to the Past

To maintain quality control and alleviate some of the stigmas still facing self-published authors, two Milwaukeeans decided to establish their own publishing companies. In 1998, Diane Lau founded Living Beyond Reality Press to publish her romance novels. Last year, former UW-Milwaukee Union Art Gallery curator Andrea Skyberg and her husband, Michael Greer, founded Wooden Nickel Press. Despite the struggles facing major publishing houses, Bryerman says that it's not necessarily a bad time to set up shop.

"Small and mid-sized publishers aren't having as bad a time as the big publishing houses," he says. "They're always lean. They don't have the infrastructure or staffing big houses have."

Skyberg's enterprise, geared toward children's books and travel memoirs, promotes books as artistic objects. She's used her first book, Snickeyfritz, to jump-start the new company. It's based on a story told by Skyberg's grandfather, and she produced all of the artwork for it herself, using her own home as a setting. The result is a remarkably illustrated volume whose language evokes a bygone era.

Skyberg's goal is to publish other artists and writers, working collaboratively "in creating this cohesive relationship" much like the early years of publishing houses, which often began as mom-and-pop establishments with a strong personal relationship with their authors. When it comes to distribution, Skyberg and her husband are also opting for a return to traditional markets.

"Children's books used to be primarily sold through schools, with about 20% sold through trade markets. Now all that's reversed," Skyberg says. "We're actually making a big push to get back into schools."

As part of this effort, they have been offering schools free visits if they pre-order books. "Often authors will charge a thousand dollars or more for a 45-minute assembly and then the children will have to order the book on top of that," she says. "We're having the books sold directly through us, and that way we're able to retain more money and offer the free visits."

Romancing the Industry

Diane Lau's story diverges somewhat from Skyberg's. She actually began with a traditional publisher before deciding to go it alone. Now she sells her books exclusively online. "I'm not in any brick-and-mortar stores because it is much more economical for me to have a no-return policy and it's very difficult to get into a brick-and-mortar store if you don't have a return policy," she says.

Publishing through traditional channels helped Lau build a robust readership and offered valuable insights into the publishing world.

"I became familiar with the processes of setting up a book block and pages themselves and all the marketing and distribution," she says. "There was nothing in the picture that I didn't have the resources to do myself."

She's even written a book about it, titled Do-It-YourSelf-Publishing, available in e-book form through her Web site, www.dianalaurence.com.

But she's well aware of some of the prejudices facing self-published authors. "No one other than you made the decision that this was something that someone else would want to read," she says. "I guess that's part of the reason I recommend my approach. If you've got the wherewithal to run your own company, that gives you more credibility. People might take it more seriously."

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