by H. W. Moss
Self-publishing has been a default position for unpublished authors since the invention of the printing press. In fact, William Caxton may well have been the first self-publisher in the English language. Well, Middle English language anyway.
Caxton is credited with setting up the first English printing press. In 1481, he brought out “The History of Reynard the Fox” which was his own translation of the fable from the Dutch. After all, no one else would, let alone could, publish it. There were twenty-two subsequent press runs by 1700.
It was a “runaway best-seller” by today’s standards.
Limited first edition books printed by undiscovered poets, novelists, short story and screenwriters have been produced by vanity presses almost since Gutenberg.
In fact, the Gutenberg Bible might be called the first vanity press run.
What has been kept hidden is the fact that books published under these conditions are anathema to all retail, wholesale or library distribution systems. A prejudice exists and the term “self-published” has become a pejorative.
No bookstore re-stock buyer will read them or discuss them. No distributor will take them. If they are placed at all, it is on consignment and then only if the author agrees to pick them up in 30 days when they don’t sell. And there is a deep prejudice in the library system against self-published books.
Yet many authors including John Grisham, Jack Canfield, Beatrix Potter and Tom Clancy were all self-published at first. When an author achieves a level of success, usually translated into dollar sales, they can be scooped up by a pre-existing publisher seeking more success, again translated as dollars.
So in order to get started, an author may pay to have their work printed. Past hurdles with vanity publishing included the lack of distribution and the per book price which was high. In order to produce quantities that made economic sense, large orders had to be placed.
That is no longer true. Instead of ordering 5,000 copies to achieve a low individual cost, we now have the ability to turn an author’s work into an ePub which can be read on any electronic platform.
Individual copies of a work can now be produced as Print On Demand at rather low per piece prices. A 188 page paper back with a color cover cost $3.15 plus tax and mailing to produce. The POD usually requires a small set up fee, is printed on paper with a hard or soft cover and can be made indistinguishable from books created by a large well known publishing house. Perhaps best of all, authors no longer run out of room in their garage.
Having said that, the industry lie is that the book will be on bookstore shelves tomorrow. Instead, distribution is blocked by prejudicial whim.
A good example is The Commonwealth Club of California which claims to have the longest running book award contest in the country. It sounds great when you read, “Authors and publishers are invited to submit entries online.” Equally good news to an aspiring novelist is the fact there is no entry fee. But then there is this disclosure:
“Currently, The Commonwealth Club of California regrets that we cannot consider books that are either self-published or from vanity presses, nor do we accept ‘print-on demand press’ books or e-books for the California Book Awards.”
I set an appointment with Alexander Book Company in San Francisco to demonstrate my historical fiction novel, “In the Shadow of the Pyramid.”
Upstairs, Susan worked behind a desk while Bonnie Stuppin, who turned out to be the owner, stood at a computer to one side of where Susan sat. While I was introducing myself, Lissa walked in and began putting her coat in the closet directly behind Susan.
I pulled a copy of my novel out of my briefcase and placed it on the desk in front of Susan. I told them I was from NetNovels Publishing and this is the book I would like them to sell.
Essentially, they had no interest. Only Susan actually picked up “Pyramid” and leafed through it while I explained to Bonnie who never stopped working the screen in front of her, “It’s an historical fiction novel that takes place in the past and the present.”
Susan did read the back cover: “The author suggests three ways in which this book may be read. First, as a whole the way it was written in numerical order. Second, because the even numbered chapters take place in the past and the odd numbered in the present, the book may be read either as a collection of short stories or as one story.
When read in even number order — 2, 4, 6, etc. — a relatively accurate historical narrative of the Niantic, San Francisco and its denizens circa 1849 emerges. If read only in odd number order — 1,3, 5, 9, etc. — a contemporary tale of larceny on a grand scale is told.”
I explained it takes place in the past and the present and that’s how the chapters are divided.
She said, “So it’s neither.”
I never got a positive response from them. I was told local authors don’t sell. When I explained it would be available in soft and hard cover, I was discouraged from even thinking of putting out a hard cover.
On a whim, I phoned Aldine’s Books in Los Angeles. A man with New Jersey accent answered. I asked for the owner and was told he is in the hospital.
“Sorry to hear that. Let me start over. I’m a writer. I have a few books out. I wonder if you’d like to carry them?”
“No sir.” Click.
Every printed book requires an identifier called an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). This number is free in many countries including Canada. In the United States the price for one is $129. You may only buy it from Bowker which is a subsidiary of ProQuest. The price drops substantially per number if ten or a hundred are purchased all at once. If you buy a thousand for $1.50 each, you must sign a promise not to resell them.
Beat Barblan is ISBN department head at Bowker. When I told him many librarians read the number and can determine if it was a self-published book, he insisted, “No. They can look at the metadata and tell, but not simply the ISBN. Get your own ISBN to input your own metadata,” was his suggestion.
So I bought 100 ISBNs in January and created NetNovels Publishing which brought out “In the Shadow of the Pyramid.”
Neal answered the phone at Bookshop West Portal. I introduced myself and he said, “If you’re a self published author, no one here is going to have the time to read your book.”
“I represent NetNovels Publishing. We own our own ISBNs.”
Neal said, “That’s wonderful. I have access to about 30,000 titles every year. I’m going to read books I have more association with.”
“I’m just asking what publications have that influence on a decision maker such as yourself?”
“I’m going to hang up. I’m trying to be polite. I don’t have the ti. . . .”
Unfair, unenthusiastic and disapproving. There is sneering contempt for any self-published author who dares darken their door or attempts to telephone.
There is a prejudice among librarians against self published books. John Thill at the Napa County Library refused to order books that he deems are self-published. He determines that by reading the ISBN or the metadata within that number.
In May, 2014, I called Thill to offer my book, “Youth and Other Science Fiction Stories,” which was then available as an ePub. He said, “If it’s a self-published book . . .” and dismissed it out of hand.
He did ask if I had a library card or lived in the area, because then he might consider ordering it. I asked if John Steinbeck had to have a library card.
There are three primary distributors of books to bookstores in this country: Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and Partners West.
Responding to my inquiry, Ingram Content Group wrote “regarding distribution of your titles. Ingram typically requires publishing houses or distributors using our wholesale distribution service have minimum sales of $50,000 dollars, at cost, over a two year period.”
They proceeded to offer other “services” which they suggested might be what the inquirer was looking for. They offered ePubs and POD at their own companies. That’s correct: Ingram Distributing has gone into self-publishing even though they will not carry the finished product unless it has sold $50,000 worth of product.
Sam Speigel answered at Partners West. He said his group has a separate ePub contract, but tends not to strictly do ePubs. Usually they only take books already in the system as a “regular title.”
I’m sure that is Partners West-speak for “not self-published.”
For the most part, bookstores are openly hostile to alternative publishing. They are not even courteous or amiable about not wanting these books. In fact, self-publishing evinces a knee jerk reactionary negative response suggesting a threat to the system or their very existence by the new self-publishing institutions involved in getting books to the public.