Saturday, September 20, 2008

Self-promotion and distribution

I recently read most of J. A. Konrath’s A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. I say “most” because it’s long*, but it’s very enthusiastic on the topic of self-promotion. There was also information about Konrath’s novels, characters, book covers and so on, but because the guide was well-written and provided plenty of advice, it never came off as simply an advertisement.

Then a few days ago, I went to the library and decided to check the mystery/thriller section to see if there were any Konrath books. Sure enough, there was a copy of Rusty Nail, so I checked it out.

And that got me to thinking. Konrath’s self-promotion made me interested in checking out his books, but what if I’d gone to the library and the book hadn’t been there? I might have looked in the local Indigo bookstore, but what if it hadn’t been there either? I wouldn’t have plunked down money on Amazon for something I hadn’t read through first, especially if I had to wait for it to be shipped.

If publishers don’t made books available to wholesale buyers and to libraries (e.g. making sure the books are reviewed, have LOC CIP data and so on), the only way I’d have access to those books will be if the authors talk stores into carrying the books, or if authors donate them to the library. Konrath is a tireless self-promoter, but I don’t think flying to Canada to drop off copies in individual stores would be very cost-effective.

In other words, self-promotion doesn’t go far without the muscle of the publisher’s marketing department and distributor backing up the author’s efforts. That’s one reason POD or vanity presses wouldn’t work for me (and why I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone wanting an actual career in writing). Vanity presses derive their profits from the author, and therefore don’t need to put books in stores. POD presses rarely if ever have the funds to support a marketing department and salesforce. So most of their book sales are made to the authors instead.

Authors who have been printed through vanity presses or PODs sometimes defend these business models by claiming that word of mouth is all that’s necessary to make a book a success. But what’s the point in being aware that a book exists, if you can’t obtain it? Or if, to read it, you need to shell out $25 for the paperback (yes, POD books can be this expensive) and then wait for it to ship? Unless the book is something the readers really want, how likely is it that they’ll spend and wait patiently?

An author who wants more than local recognition (i.e. within the family/community/town) is nearly always better off with commercial publishing. All the self-promotion in the world won’t get an author past the stumbling blocks of POD or vanity publishing.

*It has some funny moments, though. I especially like the part where Konrath stayed in a friend’s house, ate all the food and built a fort with the sofa cushions. :)


Loren said...

I think that self-publishing may be able to work under certain conditions:

* One already has a big website, especially one with lots of regular blog-entry responders and other fans.

* One's book is related to that site and one's fans are interested in its contents.

But in that case, one has already done one's self-promotion.

Richard Carrier has had some success with that approach with his book "Sense and Goodness without God", and Ebonmuse is in the process of that with a book version of his essays.

But that won't work for your average aspiring novelist, it must be said.

Marian said...

Yes, self-publishing is quite different - though it's best for specialized non-fiction, rather than for novels.

With self-publishing, the author can decide on the unit cost of books and can handle their distribution. With a POD or vanity, the author is usually at the publisher's mercy where sales and distribution are concerned. As long as authors know what they're going into with self-publishing, have a platform and have the money to invest, they should be all right.

Not a good choice for novelists, though, as you point out.

Loren said...

I think that there is a terminology problem here. A self-publisher would likely use some POD company to do the actual work of printing, at least an honest one like Lulu or AuthorHouse or iUniverse, as opposed to the likes of PublishAmerica.

That reminds me of when I ran into a POD company's representatives at a trade show a few years back. I forget the name of the company, but it specializes is making picture books from collections of pictures that its customers send -- you set up the books using its webpages or something like that. It does not ship to bookstores; instead, one orders online from it.

I talked about the company with one of them, and she was up front about how her company wasn't in the publicity business.

Marian said...

A self-publisher would likely use some POD company to do the actual work of printing

Right now, POD is much more expensive than offset printing, so if an author can afford a print run (and has some place to store the books), this might actually be more economical in the long run. The per-unit cost of books is lower with offset printing, which is one reason a book from a major publisher (despite the editing, copyediting, cover design, advertising and distribution) is going to be cheaper than a POD-printed book with the same number of pages.

It all boils down to what the author wants from writing, though. And some people might be happy with iUniverse or PA - though IMO, they're less likely to be happy if they're hoping for commercial-type success without a commercial publisher.