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More Authors Put Themselves in Print

  • Gloria Hillard

It's very prestigious to have your book published by one of the major literary houses -- like Bantam Books or Penguin. But it's not easy. Editors reject tens of thousands of the manuscripts that cross their desks. Which is why 1 out of every 4 new titles in the United States last year was published by authors themselves. Self-publishing has become a burgeoning industry, giving everyone the opportunity to get their thoughts and words into the public marketplace. Reporter Gloria Hillard, author of a self-published book herself, checked out the scene at a booksellers' convention.

Booklovers and sellers gather by the thousands at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. It's a perfect place for readers to meet their favorite authors and perhaps some new ones, which explains why self-published author Sharon Boorstin was handing out plastic-wrapped cookies to promote her novel. "The heroine is a cook book author," she told one passerby, "and so she's always thinking of recipes…" Her book, Cookin' For Love, is on display at the iUniverse booth.

The Nebraska self-publishing company has one of the larger booths here, evidence of the growing industry and the fact that Ms. Boorstin is not alone in her decision to self-publish. "It was hard at first to do it," she admits, "but I think it's been a very positive experience and people have responded that way to it: 'Good for you, you did it, you didn't let them tell you you couldn't' or 'This book is no good' or -- in this case -- 'We love the story, we just think these heroines are too old, there's no market for it.'"

Today, self-publishing companies like iUniverse, Authorhouse, Xlibris and Booksurge are finding success by presenting themselves as a viable alternative to the increasingly hard-to-break-into New York publishing houses. Carol Ash, marketing director for iUniverse, explains, "What we do is offer the opportunity for supported self-publishing, where the author is in control and has the rights to their book and can print their book and have it available in the market. And eventually what happens, is the readers decide."

Of the 195,000 books published last year, some 50,000 were self-published. According to R. Michael Johnson, manager of Communications for AuthorHouse, it's new technology that's making that possible. "With print-on-demand technology, if you want one book, someone can order one book. If you want a 100,000, someone can order a 100,000. Where(as) in the past, if you wanted to self-publish your book you were easily looking at a $20,000 investment and having 1,000 books in your basement."

Now, for an average of $400 to $500, the leading self-publishing companies will take that manuscript that's been sitting in the drawer, convert it to a book format, design a cover, and make it available to on-line retailers like Amazon.com.

For authors, it's pretty exciting having your own book in your hands, and for a moment you forget about the negative stigma of self-publishing. After all, as Steve Wasserman, who organized this Festival of Books, points out, "Every crank with a computer and printer can publish a book… it doesn't mean it's going to be very good." He agrees that new technology has democratized the production process, making it affordable for many people to manufacture what he calls "book-like objects." But he has a concern: "What that means is the filter--presumably supplied by traditional publishing houses, the editorial and discriminatory filter that can assure quality control -- is lacking."

But Howard Wall from Penguin Publishing, one of the most respected traditional New York publishing houses, takes a different view. "Any industry as vibrant as this needs to have self-published books," he insists, "because we can't watch everything. The big houses are always looking to (see) what is working as a self-published book. So if someone sells out of the back of their car and it hits… we find out about it and we can give it worldwide distribution."

Otherwise known as a book deal. It's happened before: James Redfield's bestseller The Celestine Prophecy was a self-published book, as was Richard Paul Evans' The Christmas Box. The hit 2001 movie Legally Blonde was based on Amanda Brown's unpublished manuscript of the same name. But the author says what made for a bankable film still did not attract traditional publishers. "They kept saying, ''Well, we don't know where this falls, it's not women's fiction, it's not young adult, it's not humor and we don't know where to put it.' And I kept thinking I just believed in it." So she self-published and marketed the book herself.

Eventually New York did come calling with a multi-book deal. And after the release of the film and its sequel, Legally Blonde -- the book -- is finally in stores. "You definitely have to look for it," she laughs, "but it's there!"

Getting your book printed is easy… getting it sold is a little tougher. Most bookstores won't stock self-published works and critics don't review them. One thing many here at the LA Times Festival of Books agreed on is that in today's competitive publishing world, it's all about the marketing. Of course, it helps to have a good story!

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