Dawn of the DIY publisher | Irish Examiner

Dawn of the DIY publisher | Irish Examiner.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Aspiring writers can avoid the traditionally tougher routes and publish their books themselves. Cover prices are lower but royalties can be generous, says John Hearne

TWO years ago, American writer Amanda Hocking needed $300 to go to a convention in Chicago. Like other aspiring writers, she’d been banging on doors for years. She’d sent out 17 novels to agents and publishers. No one was interested.

Ms Hocking uploaded her fantasy fiction titles to Amazon, hoping to sell enough to get the fare. By March 2011, she had sold over 1m books and earned $2m. Since then, she’s sold 1.5m of her books, without the support of a publishing house.

Joe Konrath is a Chicago-based self-publisher who has written thrillers, sci-fi and horror, using a different alias for each genre. Earlier this year, he published his Amazon sales figures: he made $100,000 in three weeks.

It’s all about the internet. Ebooks now outsell paperbacks in the US, and because the production costs are so much lower, the process is in the hands of anyone with a manuscript and a broadband connection.

In addition, self-publishing holds out the seductive prospect of being vastly more lucrative than the traditional route.

If you offer your book for $2.99 on Amazon, they’ll pay you a 70% royalty. OK, the cover price is very low, but traditional royalties are closer to 10%. 10% on a €10 cover price is €1. Seventy percent of $2.99 is $2.09.

Catherine Ryan Howard, from Grange, in Cork, is one of the most successful Irish self-publishers. Over the last three years, she’s published five separate fiction and non-fiction titles, and sold more than 18,000 books.

She went the traditional route with her first book, Mousetrapped, a memoir of her experiences working in Disney World, Florida.

“I got very close with one agent,” she says, “but, ultimately, they said that although they loved the book there was no market for it and so they couldn’t represent me on the strength of it. Next, I tried Irish publishers and got a similar response from most of them.”

It was while working on her first novel, Results Not Typical, that someone sent her a link to print-on-demand (POD) website, lulu.com. Ms Ryan Howard says: “When someone orders a copy of your book, Lulu prints it. Then, Amazon ships it, they both take their cut and you get the rest. No stock, no dusty boxes of books under the stairs and practically no outlay. You never even have to touch your book in the flesh, so to speak.

“Up until this point, I thought self-publishing was an embarrassing last resort for people who didn’t take rejection well. But the wheels started turning and I figured why not self-publish Mousetrapped? Even if it sold 100 copies, it was better than none at all.”

Four years and five titles later, Ms Ryan Howard is making a living from her work, all thanks to DIY publishing.

David Gaughran is another Irish writer who couldn’t get a break. He spent a year-and-a-half submitting his novel, A Storm Hits Vapariso, to publishers and agents, before going it alone. “I was still wary of publishing A Storm Hits Valparaiso myself, and experimented with releasing some short stories.

“Within a month of that, I was enjoying the process so much I knew I would publish everything this way.”

A year later, he’s close to 5,000 copies in sales.

“Each time I release something new, sales jump, but the older titles keep selling too. My self-publishing guidebook, Let’s Get Digital, is the top-seller, with nearly 2,500 copies sold, but A Storm Hits Valparaiso is gaining ground. I’m releasing a new historical novel, Bananas For Christmas, towards the end of July and that should boost sales. On top of that, I’ll have more releases between now and Christmas. I’m not making a living off it yet, but I might be at some point next year — and it staggers me to say that,” he says.

Self-publishing means becoming a publisher. Ebooks and print-on-demand may have made publishing more accessible, but to make it work a DIY author has to become expert in an area for which he may have no real flair.

How do you transform yourself from reclusive writer to high-powered publishing exec? Both Mr Gaughran and Ms Ryan Howard are sanguine about the additional work.

“The real time-consumer for a self-published author is not so much promotion,” says Ms Ryan Howard, “but general administration. Doing your accounts, answering emails, and so on. You’re essentially running a business, all by yourself. You also have to handle all media-related things yourself, which, for some writers, can be difficult. We’re shy and introverted by nature, and we’re far more comfortable sitting in our PJs at our desks, but if you want to sell your books you have to get out there and do radio interviews, meet people at events … It can be daunting when you have to do it alone.”

Mr Gaughran says that even if you have a traditional deal, with all the support that entails, it doesn’t mean that you get to devote all your time to your art.

“Honestly, it’s a bit of a myth that writers who go the traditional route can simply focus on writing. Unless it’s a headline-grabbing deal, which is a tiny percentage of them, authors are expected to bear the promotional burden,” he says.

Mr Gaughran says that traditional publishers have had a torrid time in recent years. Digital book sales have climbed, but at the expense of printed books, and many publishers are struggling to adapt to this brave new world. Inevitably, they’re cutting back.

“A lot of authors are asking, ‘If I have to do most of the work anyway, shouldn’t I just publish it myself and get four times the royalties?’ The other things I have to do — outsourcing editing and cover design, and formatting the books — take very little time. And I get to control every aspect of how the book is presented to readers,” he says.

Despite her success, Ms Ryan Howard still hankers after the traditional deal.

“In my dreams, I was always staring adoringly at a shelf in Waterstones, not the screen of a Kindle. But I really, really appreciate the fact that until that happens, or in case it never does, I can still write books, find readers and make a living as a writer from the comfort of my own home. For me, that’s what self-publishing is: a wonderful opportunity.”