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Getting the Word Out 

Is self-publishing the cure for obscurity? Some Vermont authors say yes.

It may be no surprise that in a state notorious for flinty independence, self-publishing appears to be on the rise. Just ask Mike DeSanto: Five years ago, when he bought The Book Rack in Winooski, a couple of poets a year would wander into his store with their chapbooks. “Now I must get 20 to 25 self-published books a year,” he observes.

But, despite its suggestion of self-reliance — maybe even a thumbed nose at the mega-corporate book industry — self-publishing to many readers just signals bad books. Because no publisher would touch it, the reasoning goes, the writing must be suspect — never mind that such literary giants as Walt Whitman have done their own thing. Furthermore, with no publishing experience and a marginal budget, the author will likely produce a sad-looking little volume, with a bad cover design and clumsy typography.

The reality is surprisingly different. Sure, some self-published books do broadcast their status with a stapled cardstock cover and lack of professional details — bar code, ISBN (international standard book number) and Library-of-Congress data. But others are hardcover books with glossy paper and four-color jackets, and may even carry a publisher-sounding name — Kumquat Press, Nine-Patch Press, Plateau Press, Barnes Bay Press, etc. — that effectively obscures their do-it-yourself origins.

Some self-published books sell well, while others sit on the shelves gathering dust. DeSanto says that accepting self-published works is, for him, mostly a community service. He buys the books to support local writers, knowing that they may not sell. And he knows something about independent publishing himself; with his wife, Renée Reiner, he operates Onion River Press, which has just released its fourth book, The Mills at Winooski Falls (see accompanying article).

Bookstores almost always buy self-published books outright; occasionally they agree to take a large quantity, such as 60 books, or sell on consignment. For every book sold, 40 percent goes to the store and 60 percent to the publisher. In general, independent bookstores are more receptive to self-published books than the large chains. A notable exception is Borders Books and Music in Burlington, which has a local-interest buyer, Karen Cady.

A prominent section in the front of the store carries books about the region — New England and Quebec as well as Vermont — plus fiction and poetry by local authors. Cady is an enthusiastic buyer of self-published books by local writers, and says she accepts all but the most “hopeless cases” — books that are very badly written or poorly bound.

“Books that are spiral-bound are very hard to display,” she notes. “They flop over. And a book with no title on the spine is hard to sell.”

DeSanto agrees, emphasizing that a book needs to shelve well and look appealing. He also says books without an ISBN and bar code are less desirable. Bookstores use the code, typically placed on the back cover in the lower right-hand corner, as an inventorying device. “If the book doesn’t have an ISBN number, we have to assign one in-house,” DeSanto explains. “It’s a minor annoyance.”

Bookstore operators also appreciate authors who promotes their books. “If they’re going to be featured in an article, I will usually buy a dozen,” says Cady. “If there’s nothing, I’ll take three or four. If we’re going to do a signing, we buy a good quantity.”

Both Cady and DeSanto applaud Ed Granai, author of Letters from “Somewhere…” — a collection of his father’s missives home from the Army in the 1940s. “He believes in his book,” says DeSanto. “He did a really first-class job. It’s a hardcover and it’s not outrageously priced, and he’s been assiduous in promoting it.”

Granai himself ran a bookstore in the late ’60s and early ’70s, so he understands the needs of bookstore owners. More organized than most self-published authors, he hired a part-time marketing person and drew up a careful budget.

“Basically, I have worked full-time in marketing and distribution,” says Granai. He appeared on talk radio and television programs, such as “Across the Fence” on WCAX, and hit the speaking circuit — veterans’ and senior citizens’ groups. “Most writers are weak on marketing,” adds Granai. “They think their job is done once the book is produced. But I knew I had to create a demand for my book.”

His efforts have paid off. A majority of the thousand copies printed in May 2000 have been sold.

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Self-publishing is hard work, especially for the novice who knows nothing about design and printing. Even smaller tasks, such as registering with the Library of Congress, can seem daunting. And producing and marketing a book strains most pocketbooks. Some writers tap into an inheritance; others dig deeply into savings, borrow on their life insurance, or remortgage their house.

If the writer engages a professional designer, costs can run anywhere from $500 to $3000, depending on the complexity of the design, the length of the book and the extent of the services provided. The average cost for a 1000-book print run is roughly $2000 to $3000. And there are other hidden costs, such as the $200 fee for an ISBN, advertising, promotional materials and postage.

Clearly, making money is not the goal of self-publishing. So what is? With most writers it’s simply a passion to get their writing out into the world. And most are willing to both go into debt and risk the stigma that self-publication carries.

Susie Ransom, author of last year’s Vermont Diary of Desert Storm, felt compelled to write about her experiences as the wife of a reserve officer in the Gulf War. During the day she operated a preschool and took care of her three children; by night, she wrote — sometimes until 4 a.m. Using The Writer’s Market as a source for contacts, Ransom sent out hundreds of query letters to publishers, none of whom expressed interest in her book. Finally, she decided to self-publish, even though she knew nothing about book production.

Many writers go the standard route first, trying to land a publisher. But it’s an effort that can go on for years. Dan Neary published his book of short fiction, Rage in the Hills, in 1999. He began writing in the 1970s about the changes he saw happening in Vermont — the loss of family farms and the escalating tension between native Vermonters and flatlanders. “I tried for 15 years to get published,” says Neary. “In the early ’90s I got an agent who approached six publishers and was turned down by them all.

“I got rejection after rejection after rejection,” Neary continues. “Finally, I decided to do it myself.”

He sold out his first printing of 350 books — primarily to libraries — and is now into his second. Self-publishing gave him recognition and the satisfaction of connecting with an appreciative group of readers. “I finally entered the literary arena without the support of a publisher,” he says. “And I had more control over the final product than if I’d gone to a publisher.”

Karen Lorentz did interest a publisher in her first book, Killington: A Story of Mountains and Men. In 1987, she approached Countryman Press of Woodstock, Vermont. Publisher Peter Jennison liked the book, but could not meet the original deadline of 1988, which coincided with the ski area’s 30th anniversary. He encouraged Lorentz to self-publish.

Three years later, she wrote and successfully produced her book, a four-color, glossy hardcover. Though it also missed the anniversary deadline, the book has sold well, which encouraged Lorentz to self-publish two more: Okemo, All Come Home, in 1996, and Good Vermonters, which came out last year. None of these has been a major moneymaker, but for Lorentz — as for many writers — there are other rewards.

“These books may not be best-sellers, but you have the satisfaction of telling stories that need to be told, of documenting important history that would otherwise be lost,” Lorentz says.

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Perhaps because of their genre’s long reliance on chapbooks and tiny independent presses, poets are the most likely writers to self-publish. Poetry has a limited market, and there are far more aspiring poets than there are available publishing venues.

Nadell Fishman has written poetry for some 20 years and has had work published in a number of journals and literary reviews. For three years she entered numerous first-book contests, in which winners receive a cash prize as well as publication and distribution. But though she was sometimes among the finalists, book publication eluded her.

When fellow Montpelier poet Fran Cerulli successfully self-published a collection of her own poems, The Spirits Need to Eat, in 1999, Fishman was encouraged to try it. Even so, she had misgivings.

“I was pretty resistant to it,” she says. “I felt that I needed an editor, someone to look over the poems with me. I felt I needed that publishing seal of approval.”

But Fishman knew she had an audience for her poems; people consistently wanted to take them home after hearing her read. She’s now in the final stages of producing Drive, a collection of her poetry due out this month.

Even poets who have found a publisher are opting for self-publication. Vermont poet Geof Hewitt had two books published through Ithaca House (see accompanying story). But when the company decided to concentrate exclusively on Native American literature, he was on his own. “I knew finding another [publisher] could take five or six years,” Hewitt says.

Last October he self-published 2000 copies of Only What’s Imagined. He’s already sold more than 400. “There’s satisfaction in having complete control over the whole process,” says Hewitt. “You have control over the look of the book. In the past, I’ve had to get permission from the publisher to reprint a poem. Now I don’t need to do that.”

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There are alternatives to self-publication. Xlibris, which, ironically, is affiliated with Random House, will publish any book through a special print-on-demand process. A writer submits a manuscript on disk; Xlibris designs and formats it, assigns it an ISBN, and registers it as a trade paperback with Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and other book-selling channels. The book is also made available on the www.Xlibris.com.

Whenever the book is ordered, Xlibris fulfills the order by manufacturing on demand, then pays the author a royalty on each sale. Xlibris offers a core publication service for free — that is, the writer pays nothing. The company has other service options that charge a fee to produce a higher quality, better designed book, ranging from $300 to $1200. What Xlibris doesn’t provide is marketing; that’s up to the writer.

Tom Absher, a Vermont College professor of liberal studies, has two books of poetry — Forms of Praise, published by Ohio State University Press, and The Calling, published by Alice James. He also has a chapbook, The Invisible Boy, published by Writer’s Voice Press. Absher finds the print-on-demand concept appealing and is exploring that option for his next book of poems.

“I mainly want to have my work available to friends, family and students,” says Absher. “Having a large print run is a waste in my case. You wind up with a carton of unsold books in the barn.”

He acknowledges that self-publication is not advisable for someone starting out, but for him that consideration is moot.

“Self-publishing, or publishing through Xlibris, is probably the kiss of death for someone establishing a reputation and wanting to get a teaching job at a college,” he says. “But in my case, I have a teaching job. I would just like to get my work out and get on to new work.”

Xlibris came under attack in the December 2000 issue of Harper’s magazine. Two editors, Tom Bissell from Henry Holt and Company and Webster Younce from Arcade Publishing, charged Xlibris with “obliterating whatever remains of a genuine book culture” by opening the doors wide to anyone who wants to publish, and potentially producing up to 100,000 “mostly dubious” titles a year. Their argument is flawed, however, because Xlibris prints books on demand only. If a badly written book doesn’t sell, there’s no demand and none are printed; bookstores are unlikely to be inundated with shelves and shelves of unreadable schlock.

Xlibris may or may not be a racket, preying on talentless writers desperate for publication, but the more traditional channels are not necessarily scam-free. Poets entering first-book competitions pay reading fees ranging from $10 to $20. Hundreds of hopeful poets pony up the fees, but there’s only one winner, and only a portion of those collected fees goes to publishing the winning poet’s book. If a poet diligently enters multiple contests, reading fees and postage expenses quickly add up — even the cost of repeatedly photocopying a manuscript for submission is not insignificant.

After years of this, self-publishing starts to look pretty good.

Kate Mueller is a freelance book designer, editor and writer who has worked in book production more than 10 years.

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