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Allison Friedman/MEDILL

Andy Crestodina with the web marketing book he self-published.

Publish your manuscript – for a price

by Allison Friedman
March 14, 2013


Allison Friedman/MEDILL

Self-published print books still outnumber self-published e-books, but Bowker reports that the digital segment is growing more rapidly.

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When Andy Crestodina decided to publish a book about web marketing, he did not waste time shopping it around to literary agents. Instead, the strategic director of Chicago-based marketing agency Orbit Media Studios decided to release the book on his own. He hired an editor and a designer, enlisted the help of a distributor, and – approximately $10,000 later – had 500 copies of a polished book that he began selling and promoting last month. While the book is currently a marketing tool for his business, Crestodina has modest hopes that it will have wider appeal.

“My minimum expectations are that the printing, editing and design costs will all be covered by sales, which is not very ambitious,” he said. “My bigger hopes are that the book will become like a textbook – I’d like to see big sales numbers to schools.”

As large, established book publishers continue to struggle with declining revenue, self-publishing has been transformed from a vanity project into a legitimate method of bringing a book into the world. The number of self-published books produced yearly in the U.S. has almost tripled since 2006, according to an October study by bibliographic information company R.R. Bowker LLC.

“The traditional publishing industry is in turmoil and has been for several years,” said Kim Bookless, a publishing consultant and founder of the Chicago Self-Publishing Group. “Basically, a lot of them are going under or they’re merging – there’s a lot of uncertainty out there. It’s harder than ever to get a book deal.”

With lucrative book contracts going the way of the buffalo, hopeful authors have been increasingly making the decision to go it alone. But self-publishing is not as independent an endeavor as one might think: the October Bowker study found that the growing industry was actually controlled by a handful of large companies that facilitate the self-publishing process.

The major players are Inc.’s CreateSpace, Penguin Group’s Author Solutions, Smashwords and Lulu Enterprises; aside from those four, no firm controls more than 10 percent of the market share, according to Bowker. Offering everything from simple e-book production and print-on-demand facilities to a full array of editing, design and marketing services, such companies approach something resembling a traditional publishing house – without the one-in-a-million-odds selection process.

“The good news is anyone can be an author. The bad news is anyone can be an author,” said Lise Marinelli, the president of Windy City Publishers LLC in Rolling Meadows. Windy City is a boutique version of larger self-publishing firms: the company’s website explains that it provides all the support and services of an conventional publishing house but is “author-funded like a self-publisher, allowing writers to maintain the rights of their work, receive higher royalties and maintain control over their publishing process.”

Marinelli started Windy City in 2009 after hunting high and low to find a home for her first novel. Unsatisfied with standard publishing channels, she and her husband – a contract attorney – decided to start their own company to produce the book. “But what happened was I started getting calls,” Marinelli said. “And people were saying, ‘Oh, you’re publishing books!’” Realizing that there was a larger demand for the kind of company that she herself had needed, Marinelli rounded up friends with expertise in marketing, editing and design, and opened up the operation to other would-be literati.

Windy City clients can pay for publishing services à la carte – a copy edit for 1 cent per word, for example, or cover design for $699 – or purchase one of several bundled packages. The Cadillac of these is the Millennium Package: At $13,999, it provides authors-to-be with a full series of edits, a handful of distribution channels, social media mentoring and just about anything else writers might need to bring their brainchildren into being.

“The gap between what a traditional publisher can do and what a self-publisher can do is closing,” said Melissa Giovagnoli Wilson, a Chicago-based publishing consultant. “I really do think we’ve got a trend that’s just going to grow larger, because you can create such quality.”

Quality comes with a hefty price tag. Wilson recommends that authors invest at least $20,000 in the publishing process, if possible, and some spend as much as $100,000 or more.

Bookless was a bit more conservative in her estimate: “If one wants a print book and e-book together, or even just a print book, I tell them they need to have budgeted at least $5,000,” she said. “That sounds like a lot of money, and it is – self-publishing isn’t necessarily cheap. It’s just available.” Both she and Marinelli advise writers to spend a couple hundred dollars on a professional manuscript review before undertaking the costly process to get an idea of how much work it will take to take to get the book in working order.

Ultimately, however, Marinelli and her team have a policy of taking on any manuscript that it is not pornographic or graphically violent. “Who am I to say to somebody, ‘I don’t think your book is good enough, it will never be popular’?” Marinelli asked. “So my feeling is, if they want to publish, fine, but we’re also here to help if they want to make their book better.”

As with any venture, a solid investment and quality product are no guarantee of lucrative returns when it comes to self-publishing. “The thing that everybody turns around here in the industry is that most self-published books sell less than 100 copies,” Bookless said. “I would say most self-publishers – this is going to sound really negative, but – most of them will be doing good to recoup the cost of their publishing.”

Marinelli agrees. “I tell most folks, ‘This is a gamble, so if you can’t afford to lose the money, don’t invest,’” she said. “If you’re looking to do this as a get-rich-quick scheme, it’s not a very good get-rich-quick scheme.”

That is largely because producing a polished-looking book is still much easier than getting that book into readers’ hands. “The biggest challenge by far is marketing, and then by extension, selling,” Bookless said. “One of the challenges with self-publishing that affects marketing and sales is that self-publishing authors have poor distribution channels. It’s really difficult to get a self-published book into a bookstore or library.”

Unless your book catches a traditional publisher’s eye, that is. “There’s a 100 percent chance of being published through self-publishing, and if you do a good job with it – trust me, if your sales start to rank on Amazon – somebody’s going to come looking to put their hands in your pockets,” Marinelli said. Wilson agreed, estimating that authors stand to have their books picked up by larger publishing firms if they sell between five and 15,000 copies within a period of about a year.

Meanwhile, self-publishing continues to evolve and improve. “When you think about self-publishing, there are still rules to break,” Wilson said. “With the popularity of tablets increasing, it will grow more and more.”

Marinelli also sees e-publishing looming increasingly larger in the industry’s future. “I think it’s all moving towards digital,” she said. “Writers tend to be romantic in the sense of that paper book that just smells like a book, but the generations that are coming up don’t have those nostalgic ties.”

However, Marinelli said she is wary of predicting too much about self-publishing’s next steps. “I don’t know, I’m dying of curiosity – it probably won’t even be in my lifetime, and I’m not even that old – that it will take on totally new formats that I don’t even know anything about,” she said.