As I negotiated the rough waters of writing and publishing for a general audience rather than an academic one, I learned a lot. I knew I could no longer rely on a professional identity to pave my way, and that I had only made a start at building a viable platform as an author. I recognized the warning signs as publishers reacted to a faltering economy by restricting their publications to authors they could count on to generate huge sales. And I had identified my niche among potential readers.
My real breakthrough, however, came as a result of some casual questions from an acquaintance. "I'm betting that you write exactly the kinds of books you most enjoy reading," he said. "So how do you choose? When you walk into a bookstore, do you browse or head straight to pick up what you want? Do you buy best sellers or look for hidden gems? Do you buy hardbacks or paperbacks? Do you want a quick read, or a hefty volume to fill long hours? What kind of cover makes you pick up a book and examine it? If you know what kind of book you buy, you'll understand what your readers want from you."
His point was well-taken, but my answers brought me up short. You see, I have a Kindle. I'm fascinated by gadgets, and I'm frequently the first to adopt a new technology. I bought my Kindle in 2008, and since then my book purchases have dwindled to a trickle. I've bought a couple of used editions of books that are out of print, but I don't buy new books unless I can get them in an electronic edition.
That surprises even me. I was intrigued by the idea of a Kindle. But I've always loved the feel and heft and smell of books. They fill my office, every end table, and overflow the living room book case. I thought reading on a Kindle would be a novelty, but I didn't expect the device to become transparent, leaving only me and the printed word -- just the way a book does! I found it much easier to carry around than a stack of books, and my hands didn't get tired holding a heavy book. The cat quit stealing my bookmarks because they no longer dangled out of the book.
I knew I had come to depend on my Kindle in ways I never expected. Kindle provides immediate and inexpensive gratification. If I hear about a book I want to read, I can buy it and start reading in less than a minute. I upload research documents that I want to have instantly available. I now have an application that allows me to read Kindle texts on my desk computer, my iPhone, or my iPad. All those devices synch themselves, so that I never lose my place or misplace a text when I move from one device to another. So what kind of a book do I choose for myself? Obviously, the answer is one that comes in an electronic version.
And there -- staring me in the face --was the answer to all my publishing dilemmas. Kindle editions (and the other versions that are now coming out) don't require a traditional publisher. In fact, in some cases, having a traditional publishing contract limits or squashes an author's ability to jump into the e-book market. I learned that when I tried to talk the publisher of A Scratch with the Rebels into doing a Kindle edition. Eventually they tried, but they did a really poor job of it and refused to advertise that the e-book was available because it cut their profits.
I was about to become a self-published author. I have to admit that the idea made me slightly uncomfortable in the beginning, because I was still carrying around some leftover baggage from my days as an academic. Most professors have run into one or two folks who use a vanity press to publish their books because no one else will touch them. Within the university, publishing with a vanity press -- in effect paying somebody to publish your book -- was a career killer. My first hurdle was recognizing the difference between a vanity press (which charges a hefty sum to produce a book) and a self-publishing company (which allows an author to contract for services only when production assistance is necessary)
My production company of choice was CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon. If they accept a book for publication, they do not charge for the privilege. They will provide guidance on how to prepare a manuscript for Kindle, and they will carry the Kindle edition in the Amazon catalog. The author pays nothing up front; the company takes a small cut of any sales for its handling and delivery of the e-book. They offer more elaborate services, of course. I wanted my Beyond All Price to be available in trade paper, so I contracted for their printing services. That also meant that they would sell my books on Amazon, thus releasing me from the need to distribute all my books myself. I wanted the book to look as professional as possible, so I also paid a layout person to handle things like interior appearance, margins, pagination, etc. Those were services I could not do myself.
Traditional publishers, of course, do more than print a book, but I felt fairly confident of my ability to provide those other services. I already knew exactly how I wanted my cover to look, and I owned the photograph I wanted to use. All I had to do was prepare the cover art and submit it to the printer. All manuscripts need editing; traditional publishers have their own editors to proof-read, catch stupid errors, and clean up grammar and punctuation. In my case, I had years of editing experience of my own, and a couple of talented friends who were willing to comb through the manuscript to catch any errors I missed. I did not need to pay an editor. Publishers also assume some responsibility for marketing a book, although in recent years they have demanded that authors do more and more of their own marketing. Since I already had an internet presence, as well as a small but loyal base of followers, and since I was writing for an electronic audience, it was easy to do my own marketing.
Was it the right decision? So far, I have to believe it was. In the current market, bookstores are closing and e-book sales are leaping ahead. I've already sold more copies of Beyond All Price on Amazon and Kindle than the total three-year sales of my last traditionally published book. Plus, Kindle pays 70% royalties, while my traditional publishing contracts offered 5% to 12%. Oh, I'm not going to get rich from the sales I generate. But I have paid off all my publishing costs, and I am in complete control of future sales. I'm my own publisher, and I love it.