Do-it-yourself publishing arrives

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Barbara Ruben

The brutal rape and murder of one of his students at George Washington University’s business school haunted Charles Toftoy.

Because he couldn’t put the gruesome crime out of his mind, Toftoy wrote a thriller in which a fictional professor and part-time sleuth tries to solve the murders of four Washington, D.C. undergraduates.

“I had never thought about writing fiction,” said Toftoy, who lives in Arlington, Va. “But I just started writing and researching, and it all came together.”

But what didn’t come together for Toftoy, 75, was a publishing house interested in printing his novel, It’s in the Eyes.

“I tried to get an agent, and when I wasn’t able to do so, I wrote a lot of letters to traditional publishers,” Toftoy recalled.

When he came up empty handed, Toftoy turned to self- publishing with some trepidation, recalling the days of “vanity presses” that would churn out a few thousand copies at an author’s own expense. Authors would then store the books in their basement and give them away to friends and family, while trying to get publicity from local papers and book stores.

He found out, however, that things are changing — and fast. While traditional publishers are facing financial issues, making it even more difficult to get a toehold in a major publishing house, technology — including the ability to print books on demand and to sell them worldwide via the Internet — has transformed the self-publishing industry.

In the mainstream

In the process, the stigma formerly attached to a self-published book has all but disappeared.

“I realized self-publishing wasn’t a bad thing at all,” Toftoy said. “In fact, there’s a very fast response time. With a traditional publisher, you feel like you’re just a number.”

Now he’s done readings at Barnes and Noble and other area locations to promote his book, and is at work on a sequel.

Toftoy has a lot of company in being an advocate for moving beyond traditional publishing companies.

“When should you self-publish?” asked Judy Katz, founder of Katz Creative in New York. Her public relations agency specializes in working with authors to “birth” their books. “I’m such a strong believer in self-publishing that my answer to this is: Always.”

There are dozens of self-publishing companies out there, including iUniverse.com, parapublishing.com, cafepress.com and lulu.com, but Katz urged careful evaluation of the options. She said services and quality vary.

As an example of a full-service company, iUniverse offers everything from content and copy editing (even ghostwriting), to book design, indexing, printing, public relations, Internet marketing and more. Its prices range from $600 to more than $4,000 per title, depending on the package of services selected.

Among the benefits of self-publishing, Katz said, is that in return for bearing the upfront costs for the book, self-published authors generally get to keep 80 to 100 percent of the net profit from sales, instead of the 10 percent royalty traditional publishers usually pay. In such arrangements, writers generally retain their copyrights.

A different self-publishing option is offered by the Maryland-based company PublishAmerica. Unlike companies that charge writers for design and layout services or for a fixed number of copies, PublishAmerica absorbs all upfront publication costs in return for publishing rights.

It makes its money from the sale of its authors’ books on its massive website at prices ranging from $15 to $30. However, the company expects its authors (who number more than 40,000) to promote and market their own books.

A technological revolution

According to Sue Collier, co-author ofThe Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, print-on-demand technology — which now makes it cost-effective to print one book at a time — has “revolutionized” the publishing industry.

 “Previously, authors…risked having a couple of thousand books languishing in their garage. Now, orders can be filled when they come in — no garage storage needed and no big printing bill.

“Or authors can skip the printing altogether and publish an e-book,” which is sold and downloaded online for reading on your computer or an e-reader like a Kindle.

These technologies make self-publishing rather simple, whether your masterpiece is a thriller — like the work of Charles Toftoy — or a how-to book for parents — like that of Dr. Louis Cooper of Silver Spring, Md.

Cooper’s slim book of advice, called Dear Parents: When to Call the Doctor for Your Infant or Toddler, is designed for new parents and grandparents.

“There are some wonderful parenting books on the market. The problem is they are very lengthy and they’re not as reader friendly,” said Cooper, 62. Cooper’s book features chapters that are just one to three pages long, covering everything from teething to day care, distilling advice from his pediatrics practice of more than 35 years.

He first approached the publisher of the medical journals for which he wrote, but they turned him down because he wasn’t an established author.

“So I went through the Yellow Pages,” Cooper recalled. Eventually, he settled on the Beckham Publications Group, located in Silver Spring. He was pleased with them and their advice, such as using a stock photo of a group of babies on the cover rather than one of his own grandchildren.

Cooper’s book, like many self-published works, is sold on the book selling behemoth Amazon.com as well as through his local publisher and other online sites.

Others use self publishing as a way to get their memoirs or books on local history into print. For example, Ruth Toliver tells about the African-American history of Harrisonburg, Va., through the eyes of her Uncle Charlie.

“When I was a girl, I’d sit in the evenings on my grandmother’s porch and listen to the old people talk. I was very quiet because if I said anything or asked any questions, they’d tell me to be quiet or go play with the kids,” said Toliver. She researched and verified the stories for her book, Keeping Up With Yesterday.

Toliver, who lives in Olney, Md., and said she’s “70-plus,” wrote her first book in 1998, a history of the Harrisonburg church where her grandfather was a minister. She self-published that one with a company in Gaithersburg, Md.

But with Keeping Up with Yesterday, Toliver took it straight to a printer, bypassing the design and marketing services many self-publishers offer. Her former publisher’s “price was right, but I just wasn’t as happy with the quality of the photos and other things,” she said.

Trying both routes

Some authors have used both self-publishing and traditional publishing houses.

Steven Michael Selzer published his first two books with publishing companies, but by the time he finished his third, his agent had retired. The writer and lawyer, who lives in Rockville, Md., spent a year trying to peddle to publishers his book on African-American baseball pioneer Joe Black.

Despite a foreword written by Bill Cosby and a good sales history with his previous books on relaxation and civility, Meet the Real Joe Black had no takers. Selzer decided to publish the book through iUniverse.

Selzer met Black, the first black pitcher to win a World Series game, after Black retired from the big leagues and taught at Selzer’s junior high more than 50 years ago. They became lifelong friends until Black’s death in 2002.

“He was a great teacher and mentor. I always admired him… so when he passed away I knew I wanted to write a book about his life,” said Selzer, 63.

Like many self-published authors, Selzer spends a lot of time marketing his book. He’s given readings at libraries and other venues in the Washington area and in New Jersey, where Black lived. He’s been on 45 radio shows and his book was recently selected as “pick of the week” featured on “Larry King Live.”

Now that his book is better known, Selzer says an agent has contacted him about getting it published through a traditional publishing house and that he has another book in the works.

Like Selzer, Mollee Kruger has gone both routes with publishing — even starting her own press for her books back in 1970.

Her first books were volumes of light Jewish verse. “It seemed to me that I was wasting time beating the bushes for a publisher to do a genre of book that most publishers wouldn't touch,” she said.

She has published six of her eight books with the press she created, Maryben Books. Kruger’s latest, The Cobbler’s Last, is a memoir of growing up in Bel Air, Md., where her father was a cobbler.

“I have more control over what happens to my books and can keep them in print. Something must be working because I've sold thousands of copies over the last 40 years,” Kruger said.

Kruger, who lives in Rockville and is now 81, has worked to get her books into bookstores across the country, even placing one as far away as Fairbanks, Alaska.

“A writer has to divide her efforts into areas and say to herself, ‘Now I'm going into my production department, or now I put on the promotion hat or the accounting green visor or the circulation/delivery cap.’ Self-publishing requires a personality split more than a half dozen ways,” she said.

But Kruger said that despite the work involved, she prefers self-publishing to the traditional route, where she felt she had less control over both the content of her books and how they were marketed.

With self-publishing, “at the end you have a wonderful sense of accomplishment, a kind of energizing freedom from the experience.

“You did it all yourself. You created it from start to finish, your own cottage industry.”

Additional reporting by Carol Sorgen.

Comments

Self Publishing Comes of Age

Thanks for an informative and upbeat article. I've also had success publishing my memoir "Professor Cromer Learns to Read: A Couple's New Life after Brain Injury" with Author House. Publishing the book, combined with years of experience as a psychiatric RN, has led to invitations to speak to 1,000 people this year at family caregiver and brain injury conferences, hospitals, support groups, and community events.

Publishing independently allows many more people to share their stories in ways that may enlighten, educate,empower, or entertain others.

Janet Cromer
Bethesda, MD
www.janetcromer.com

Self Publishing: Pluses and Minuses

I wrote a book, at the insistence of my Mother. No one would even discuss publishing it. So, I did what I usually do in such circumstances: I took matters into my own hands. I started a publishing company: Pearl River Publishing, located in Bethesda MD. (www.pearlriverpublishing.net).

The mechanics of writing a book of virtually any size, shape, on any subject, is surprisingly easy. In these days of computers and electronic communication it is easy to take your thoughts, hesitatingly written down, and with some time, effort, and editing, you can have a book in your hand.

There are a few difficulties. First, the publishing community, in the large, thinks that any self published book is worthless. They are over 60 years behind the times. If you look carefully at the publishing community as a whole you will note that all the publishing companies are teetering on the edge of extinction. If you find that statement questionable, think about the current and future state of newspapers.

Second, the selling of books through Mom and Pop book stores is gone. All books are sold through giant, nationwide organizations. Barnes and Noble and Borders rule the world. Borders is virtually bankrupt, while Barnes and Noble are reputed to not doing well. Where are books sold today? Electronically, on the NET.

What was the biggest seller on the NET last year, in Xmas 2009? Kindle, an electronic book reader. And, any author who publishes their book electronically actually makes money on the very first sale. That is certainly not true with books published using paper.

The future of self publishing is certain; the next few years are a little vague, but self publishing and the rapid growth of electronic books is certain.