As debate continues on the general state of the publishing business, the problems publishers and writers face, the desolation of bookstores, and the impact of internet booksellers such as amazon. com and The Book Depository, there is also, of course, the question of the muddy business of self-publishing. Is it a legitimate branch of the publishing business, or the fishing net – so to speak – for good books that commercial publishers ignore, or is it just a new name for the old and not-so-respectable vanity press? It is easy to get carried away on both sides of the arguments.
Some are very enthusiastic about self-publishing and regurgitate the well-known examples of a few crime and erotica writers who have ‘made it’ through self-publication; that is by uploading their works straight to amazon.com and selling a million copies, such as Kerry Wilkinson (in the UK) or Christina Stoke (Australia). Recently, I found that The Guardian has a monthly award for a self-published masterpiece. The same Guardian claims that many literary awards are lagging behind the times, as not only do they overlook self-published authors, but they also insist that only hard copies can be considered as entries. Some awards also have prerequisites that exclude new and unpublished authors and, consequently, overlook new talent.
So what is really going on?
Let me share my publishing and self-publishing experiences. I was already a published writer and had been noticed by some literary critics for my short stories, essays and features, published mostly in respected literary journals, anthologies and papers, by the time I committed myself to write a book for a small trust with its own publishing house. The idea suited me, as I wanted to write a book and the trust gave me an opportunity to go on an exciting archaeological-turned-spiritual adventure in Jerusalem. I knew that it would be a book my previous publishers would appreciate because it dealt with the matter of spirituality and particularly, the topic of early Christianity. The agreement with the trust allowed me an expenses-paid trip to Jerusalem and access to information about some controversial discoveries made there by two Melbourne men. It was a fantastic and life-changing adventure and I did not regret it. However, what came after that was more challenging. While still in Jerusalem I made copious notes and felt in my element as I walked around the old city, interviewing archaeologists, lawyers, pilgrims, with my notebook always by my side. Upon my return, I began writing the book in the form of a travelogue with some spiritual content. I say spiritual, rather than religious, because the content of the book often argues with traditional approaches to religion and explores a more personal form of spirituality.
Against this background I described and commented on the discoveries made by the trust and gave them a historical framing appropriate for the topic. The Trust published the book under the title chosen by me, Jerusalem Diary: Travels in Holy Madness, which I believed reflected my slightly rebellious and unorthodox approach to the traditional understanding of Christianity. The book was beautifully designed and we had a successful book launch. Then the trouble began.
Like many small publishers, the trust did not have an in-house editor and the hired editor did not do a good job. This in itself did not have to be a great problem as, unfortunately, this is a rather common occurrence in small and not-so-small publishing houses, which often save money on the editorial process. The main problem was that, after the publication of the book, the trust decided that they did not like the way the book approached the topic. In addition, the trust faced the problem that many small publishing houses do – how to distribute , promote and publicise a book which has a very specific audience. The struggling mainstream bookstores seldom take a chance on a possibly controversial book about a topic interesting to what could be considered a limited readership. As a result, the trust abandoned the book once the traditional sources for distribution seemed too risky. I am not going to even try to describe the depth of despair I then felt. In their defence I would like to say that many small publishing houses face the same problem: some of them cannot even afford a book launch for authors and they have no resources or not enough persuasive power to convince the bookstores to distribute a newly published book. A few days ago, I received an email from a respected small publisher whose books are now available only from their website, as both distribution and publicising are too expensive.
I found myself with a published book that no one would see. I struggled with this for a couple of years and decided to take action. I invested in re-editing the book. When this was done and I was reasonably happy with the result, I explored self-publishing opportunities. Most of them were there to take advantage of writers, others advocated a straightforward upload onto the amazon.com – an approach that works for some. Discouraged by the IT technicalities of a direct upload, I decided to pay Balboa Press for the process. It was an easy, if a bit costly, exercise. But I was generally happy with the result. And most of all I liked the idea of being in charge of my book, of not having to argue about the content and, most of all, of being my own PR person and manager. I now had the book in paperback and digital versions. On my partner’s suggestion I also changed the title of the book to Jerusalem Diary: Searching for the Tomb and House of Jesus, which was a more direct description of the content and also drew attention to the fact that the search was still on, rather than the traditionalists belief that it was all already discovered.
I then submitted my book in a competition run by Hay House for non-fiction works, and mine was one of the finalists chosen from thousands of books. Christmas was approaching and this seemed a good season for the topic so I advertised the book on Facebook with some success. The following Easter a feature article of mine about my trip to Jerusalem and the book had been published in a major Australian newspaper. On the Internet I targeted groups who might be interested in an alternative approach towards the topic, such as groups interested in the Gnostic Gospels, which my book relied on heavily. Again I met with some success. For a year and a half the book was a small bestseller on both amazon.com and The Book Depository within its category. For a while, Searching for the Tomb was rated number three on amazon.com, and number two on The Book Depository. Now this felt good! I also began giving talks on the Gnostic Gospels, a topic that I had started to become obsessed with after my trip to Jerusalem. Some specialist bookstores, such as the Theosophical Society and so-called spiritual bookshops, sold the book and kept copies in their libraries.
So what is the lesson to learn from this? Was it worth it? Was it worth going on this adventure and describing the whole process and self-publishing? The answer in this case is ‘yes’.
My first book, unlike many books published by small publishing houses, saw the light after the book launch, had the honour of being a bestseller in its category and making it to some specialist bookshops, for which it was always meant. Recently, I was approached by a small European publisher who is interested in translating and a limited release of the book to check the market there. This feels good too! On the whole, did I make any money on it? Not really. Does this matter to me? No. If you are a writer because you want to get rich, you are probably in the wrong business anyway.
As for now, I have just finished writing a novel on the on the intricacies of sexual desire, passion and the spiritual aspects of Tantra (no, it is not erotica). Will I self-publish it? No. I believe self-publishing is not good for ambitious fiction, though it can be good for literature in specialist interest groups (like my first book) and for some genre books, such as crime and erotica.
Recently I went to the launch of a friend’s book; she had her work published by a commercial publisher – and I was impressed. One day, I too, want my own publicist to take care for all the needs of my book, organise my interviews, talks and tours – this is what happens when a decent-sized publisher takes your book on. And this is what I want now.
The book-publishing grounds are changing all the time and remind me of shifting sands, where boundaries are slowly abolished and constantly redefined. In the end, as in everything in life, self-publishing is a risky choice. Choose wisely if you can.