Russell Reich, co-author of Notes on Directing, writes:
As long as self-publishing remains a viable and potentially lucrative
alternative for many writers, I’m having a hard time hearing Gal Beckerman bemoan the standard failures of
publishers and the publishing industry as a whole.
For writers who are already willing to take some responsibility for their
book’s design, marketing, and even editing, the additional work required for
a self-published book (printing, fulfillment) is relatively benign as long
as you believe in what you’re doing and hire good people to help. When I
co-authored, designed, and published my own book,
I felt that no setback during the process ever rose above a level of minor
inconvenience; I was simply having too much fun to let printer glitches or a
few bumpy legal negotiations bother me much.
I had a number of reasons to go the independent route. One was speed. When
you go to a traditional publishing house, you’re lucky to have a book on the
shelf within a year of the contract, even with a completed manuscript. But
my co-author was elderly and ailing; it was vital to me that he hold a
finished book in his hands and I didn’t know if I had a year to gamble.
(He’s fine.) I also had a clear idea about the object I wanted to create, but no good
publisher was going to give a first-time author like me full reign over all
editorial, design, and packaging choices. I believed in what I was doing
and didn’t think a publisher, in this circumstance, could do anything
other than muck up my plan while grabbing a hefty share of my profits. So I read a
couple of books about self-publishing, joined the Publisher’s Marketing
Association, and got to work.
Yes, I have to do my own marketing–that would be the case even if I hadn’t
self-published. Yes, I have to manage my book as a business, but it’s my
baby and having my own finger on the pulse of the market for it is a joy.
When it no longer is a joy, THEN I can shop it around to publishers at what
are likely to be much better terms, since by then it will be a proven
There was a time commitment involved in self-publishing the book and a
personal investment of about $15,000-$20,000 to cover the vendors who helped
me create it. But look at the return numbers: instead of a 7-12% royalty,
I’m making close to a 50% margin on every book sold. I made back my initial
investment on my first printing of 2,500 copies within nine months (thanks,
in part, to kind endorsements like yours). We’re now on to our third printing.
But even if I had been wrong about my book and it flopped, the experience
and exercise of investing in myself and in what I believed would have been
enough, which is why I took the risk in the first place.
I recognize the value and resources that established publishers can provide.
They’re a good choice for those who have not the time, means, or inclination
to self-publish or who truly believe they’ve got a potential international
blockbuster on their hands. For everyone else, why not self-publish? I
wonder about the extent to which insecurity among writers–a fundamental
disbelief in their own work–leads them to pursue a publishing contract not
for the book’s sake, but for the approval of others that the contract
represents. If their book truly expresses something of personal value and
significance, a failure to self-publish strikes me as a self-betrayal.
The bottom line is, if you believe in your book, there’s relatively little
standing in the way of your realizing your dream. In some cases, however, it
appears that complaining about your publisher holds its own rewards.
I can’t add anything to that. I’ve never heard the case for self-publishing by serious writers put better–and as Web-based technologies make it easier and cheaper, Russell Reich’s prophetic words will become even more relevant.
(I might add, by the way, that I praised Notes on Directing in The Wall Street Journal as follows: “Though it’s meant for use by theatrical professionals, not playgoers, I have never read a clearer, more straightforward description of the craft of directing, and the layman who longs to know what happens in a rehearsal–or what ought to, at any rate–will find it informative and illuminating.”)