The Perils of Publishing
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The Perils of Publishing

I received the following query in my e-mail today.  I'm not going to reveal the writer's name, although I do know who she is.  She raises some important questions, and I thought perhaps the best place to answer them would be here in the blog itself.

She writes: "I've been quietly following your blog for about a year now.  Your topics are fascinating!  I can get lost in historical research. . . . If I may ask, I'm quite curious to know why you chose self-publishing for your books rather than going the traditional publisher route?  There are so many history buffs in the world, I would think there's a huge market for your work, both fiction and non-fiction, and you have the credentials to back you up.  Was it to have more control over your work?  Did you go through traditional publishers at first and they weren't interested?  And, have you had success in self-publishing, volume-wise?"

I must start by correcting a couple of assumptions.  There are many history buffs in the world, I agree, but that does not mean they make up a huge market for my particular book.  I am constantly amazed at how narrowly some people limit their interests.  I've been writing about a particular regiment -- the 100th Pennsylvania Volunteers.  One descendant of a soldier in that regiment sent me a note, saying he probably would not be buying my first Civil War book because most of my characters were in Company C and he was interested in Company K. Fair enough.  He's entitled to his own interests.

Next, the writer says I have the credentials to back me up.  Again, not so fast.  I am a trained historian -- a retired Professor Emerita at a very good and well-known liberal arts college.  BUT . . .  my own specialty as a professor was in the history of Anglo-Norman church-state relationships in the twelfth century.  How's that for narrow? It means absolutely nothing to Civil War scholars, I can guarantee you.

The explanation of how I decided to self-publish is going to take some time, I'm afraid, because it was not a quick decision.  It stretched out over a period of years.  After I retired from active college teaching, I decided to follow up a long-repressed interest in America's Civil War because, for the first time, I was free to do so.  Before retirement, I had published two books, but both were controlled by the rules and standard practices of academic presses.  I found publishers for both of them because (1) I was fairly well-known within the small subset of historians who were working on topics closely related to 12th-century Europe, and (2) I was willing to accept the fact that I would never make a dime from those books.  

Academic scholars write books to demonstrate that they belong in the profession.  They write because it is a requirement if they want to get a job, and it is an even bigger requirement if they want to earn promotion and tenured status. The first publishing contract I signed guaranteed me fifteen cents per copy of my book -- AFTER the first ten thousand copies were sold. Since there aren't that many people in the whole world interested in a monograph about the diplomatic maneuvers of Bishop Arnulf of Lisieux, I knew from the start that I'd never see that fifteen cents. I was content just to see the book in print and to know that it was being favorably reviewed by other academics.

Now, let's jump ahead several years.  It was 2003 and I was working on a Civil War history called A Scratch with the Rebels.  It was based at least in part on some letters written by my great uncle.  I had a good story to tell, the facts to flesh it out, and all that history training behind me. After I had written a few chapters, I applied for an NEH grant, hoping to finance my research trips to South Carolina. I didn't get it, but one of the judges was sufficiently impressed to tell an editor at  a university press in the state where my regiment had been recruited. She was quite taken by the proposal, sent the chapters off to readers, and came back with the advice to make sure I was writing for a general audience and to concentrate on telling the story. While I waited for a contract, I finished the manuscript. Then my editor left for a better job without warning. The managing editor took over the project, put it on a back burner, and left it there for 10 months. Then she informed me they were no longer interested.  

Undaunted, I shipped it off to another university press where I had a contact, and at first the new editor was enthusiastic.  He sent it off to be read by Civil War professors (and I should have known right then that I was doomed.)  Eventually the readers' comments came back, and they all had to do with things like how much of the book needed to be more theoretical, how I had failed to discuss all the relevant research that was going on in the field, and that too much of the book was based on personal letters -- a story --  rather than "historical records." My new editor really tried, I think, to explain to my critics that I was writing a book for a general audience, not for an academic search committee, but in the end it didn't matter.  I had no reputation as a Civil War historian, and the field was simply not open to newcomers. He retired from his job, and the dog-eared manuscript came back to me.

It had been over three years by then, and I was discouraged.  A e-mail from Editor #1 urged me to give it one more try.  She recommended a small private press that specialized in Pennsylvania history and the Civil War.  Not bothering this time with a formal query letter, I called them.  They asked for an e-mailed copy of the manuscript, and six days later, I had a contract in hand.  SUCCESS?

NOPE! The press was easy to work with and the royalties were three times what I would have received from a university press.  There were drawbacks, however. I had no control over the layout or appearance of the book, which came out looking entirely too much like a high school textbook.  Quality problems existed, too -- the plastic coating on the cover began to peel almost immediately, and all the press offered was a suggestion that I use a warm iron to reseal the coating before I tried to sell my copies.  No one had EVER expected me to iron my books!

The press also turned out to be very inexperienced at marketing and distribution.  They featured A Scratch with the Rebels in their catalog, but it only appeared a couple of times a year and was limited to people who had purchased other books from them. Their chosen distributing company failed to put the books out and simply returned them after a few months. In the end, the press sold only a few books, and my total royalties amounted to about $25.00. The only books that DID sell were those I bought myself at half-price and resold to my friends and at a couple of book signings.

By the beginning of 2009, I had devoted 6 years to A Scratch with the Rebels -- with almost nothing to show for it.  I had made some major mistakes along the way, I admit, but I also had learned that the publishing market for the average writer was a minefield.  By then I was working on a new book -- my historical novel, Beyond All Price.  I knew I needed to find a new approach.  I'll save that story for the next post.