Guest Blogger Chris Meeks Discusses Publicizing Your POD
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A Guide to How to Get Your Book to
More Than Just Friends and Family
By Christopher Meeks
Many serious writers get frustrated with agents and publishers who send anonymous poker-card-sized rejection slips that state the enclosed work “is not appropriate at this time.” Oh, yeah? When’s it appropriate? Without helpful feedback or an idea of where to turn next, many writers have turned to Print-on-Demand (POD), which is the focus of this whole website.
Such companies as AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, and Lulu Press make it fairly simple to upload the text of your book, get help with graphic design and distribution, and turn your dream into a real bound book. What POD offers over the old vanity presses is you can be published without needing to spend a lot of money or fill your garage with copies. The cost is anywhere between $200 and $2500, depending how crafted you want to make your book. Your book is then printed and bound in a kind of super photocopy machine, one book at a time when it’s ordered. Online vendors, such at Amazon.com and BN.com, can sell your book, and the eventual reader may have no idea it’s self-published.
My latest book, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, happens to be POD and is reviewed here earlier this year. I approached POD cautiously. I had a certain idea of the many pitfalls, and, having once been a senior editor at a publishing house, I hoped to avoid them. I’ve learned a lot since publishing the book under my imprint, White Whisker Books. What follows is my best advice in how to POD, with warnings along the way.
In 2005, just over 172,000 books were published with ISBN numbers, according to Gary Aiello, chief operating officer of Bowker, which compiles publishing statistics. An ISBN number gets you logged into Books in Print, and allows your book be distributed to bookstores and online vendors. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, one quarter of the books launched last year with ISBN numbers were POD titles.
Not everyone wants an ISBN number, however, because it’s an extra cost. In fact, Lulu Press presently publishes over 1500 titles per week, and only about 5% of the titles get ISBN numbers, according to David Spain, who goes around the country promoting Lulu Press. This number equals more than 78,000 titles per year, 3900 of which might be available through Amazon.com. Most of Lulu’s titles are distributed through Lulu Press alone or bought by the author to be given to family and friends. To get into Lulu’s all-time top 100 bestsellers takes less than 300 sales.
According to the New York Times, in an article by Gayle Feldman, the average POD book title sells just 150 to 175 copies. Lulu’s David Spain thinks it’s really less than a hundred, and I’ve heard as low as fifty. This can disillusion an author, but, hey, you’re up against the marketing arms of major companies. Print ads can cost thousands of dollars. Traveling around the country costs thousands more—and to what adoring lines of fans are you flying?
Even so, I PODed. Here’s what I did.
Step 1: Create your content
The first part of the story is the shortest and the longest: the content takes the longest time to create, and the explanation of how I did it is necessarily abbreviated. I happened to first start publishing a lot of non-fiction articles, then book and theatre reviews. I became used to writing on deadline. As a reviewer, I also learned a lot about story structure when I had to judge stories and write about them--on deadline.
I tried my first short fiction in college and kept at it off and on. I took classes. One professor said, “Write your first draft without worry. Dare to be mediocre. Then take out all the boring stuff.”
At the same time I was publishing non-fiction, I was making my living first as an editor at a publishing company then as an editor and writer of a news journal at a college. My main advice is if you want to write a book (or anything), first surround yourself with reading and writing all you can. When you’re ready to write a book, create a writing schedule of at least 15 to 30 minutes a day. If you can do more, fine, but be realistic. Allow yourself to write freely, without worry about it being great. (Read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott if you want to know more about the writing life.) Once you have a first draft, become obsessive about rewriting. Have goals with each rewrite. Layer your work with imagery, poetry, and clarity. Once the story is set, become obsessive about your editing. I’m judging a playwriting contest as I write this, and I’m amazed at some of the small mistakes I’m seeing in spelling and grammar. Only send out your best work.
Before The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, my stories went out to hundreds of literary journals. My goal was to get published in journals first. Literary journals are extremely competitive, so once you get in, you’re doing something right. I considered it a victory when I landed three stories at once in the literary journal Rosebud.
Sometime after that, I decided to publish my stories as a collection.
Step 2: Select a Print-on-Demand Publisher
I first tried the traditional route of first going through agents, but I learned quickly that agents don’t care about short story collections. “There’s no money in them,” I learned again and again. An agent wants to make money. (How many short story collections do you own?) I also learned that large publishers publish short story collections mostly as favors to their more visible authors. Some small presses, such as Coffee House Press and Sarabande Books, publish collections as do university presses, but competition is fierce. With a small press, I saw, too, I would likely get very little royalty advance, if anything. The book would come out, be seen by a few hundred people, then likely go out of print.
A friend told me about publish-on-demand and recommended Lulu Press. With publish-on-demand, my book would always be in print if I wanted it to be, and I would get a larger percentage of royalties.
Step 3: Get your Book Edited and Designed
The main downfall of almost all POD books is in the editing. As Podgirl, the highly visible yet anonymous reviewer of this site, attests that as a result of POD, “the world has seen an influx of some of the absolute worst writing known to mankind. No, seriously, it sucks. Here is where the headache begins: the lack of editing, the orphans, the widows, the cheese-ball covers, the lack of plot, the lack of common sense—and oh, dear God, the lack of talent.” That said, she only reviews great POD books and gives out yearly Needle Awards. Her motto: “Finding Needles, Discarding Hay.” The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea happens to be her first review of 2006, and it took her until April to find it, going through hundreds of others. (Read what she says at http://girlondemand.blogspot.com/2006/04/middle-aged-man-and-sea-by-christopher.html.) The fact is, there’s a good reason many books are rejected by publishers: they stink. See if you can find some trusted readers to go over your book before you put it out to the world.
Even though I’ve been an editor, one truth I’ve learned is it’s extremely difficult to edit your own work. Hence, I hired a professional book editor, Nomi Kleinmutz (BodyToThePage@yahoo.com). She loved all but one story, and I swapped that one out for one of my first stories, “Dear Ma,” which I could never get published. Forty rejections. She loved it. In fact, it motivated me to send it out again, and the next journal I sent “Dear Ma” to called immediately with positive news of publication.
With my book contents proofed and the stories in an order that I liked, I had five other people read it for their impressions, and based on their feedback, too, I changed the order and dropped one story that was too much like another in theme. I polished another story, “High-Occupancy Vehicle,” which I inserted.
I gave my nearly final version to published authors who I knew in order to get quotes for the back cover. I received them—great quotes, in fact. My goal in this whole process was to make a book that looked as if it came from a top publishing house. I also spent a lot of time on the verso page, the page with all the copyright information. I joined the Library of Congress to get a control number.
Professional designer Daniel Will-Harris (http://www.will-harris.com/) then designed the back cover and spine. We uploaded a single cover unit to Lulu Press. This is the point I printed a few copies of the book using Lulu’s Basic Distribution plan.
Step 4: Get Initial Copies Printed and Send out Galleys
I was far from ready to start with Lulu’s global distribution plan. Before your book is published, if you’re hoping to be reviewed in any of the big newspapers such as the New York Times or Chicago Tribune, or in any of the publishing industry magazines or library journals, such as Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus Reviews, you need to send your book out in galley form three or more months in advance of publication for consideration. (See example.)
Reviewers want copies in “galley form,” which is the book usually with a plain cover and with basic publishing information on the front. I simply made copies of my book as it was—it doesn’t have to be perfect at this point—and I used labels for the publication information, which I stuck on the front cover. With Lulu, you can go with basic distribution first, and create a plain cover. You’ll then get your ISBN number, which is part of the information you need to give on a label on the cover.
Global distribution can take up to two months to set up after you pay for it. I sent out review copies in early October 2005, and I gave a publication date of December 6th, hoping my book would appear on Amazon.com and other places by then. I wanted a part of the Christmas shopping spree. The book didn’t come onto Amazon until December 22nd—not an ideal date for distribution because I missed the Christmas season. Oh well. I’ll plan better next time. I did get a review in the Los Angeles Times on January 2nd, and, shortly thereafter, stunning reviews from elsewhere, a recommendation in March by Michael Silverblatt of radio’s Bookworm, and an online award for best fiction of 2005 alongside Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (author of The Remains of the Day). I used these to get more reviews. To see my reviews, go to http://homepage.smc.edu/meeks_christopher/Review%20Page%20for%20MAMATS.htm
Step 5: More Marketing and Publicity
In a sea of books being published in America—remember, over 172,000 in 2005—how do you plan to make your book get noticed? It takes far more than getting it printed. The first thing to do is tell everyone you know—family, friends, and acquaintances. Use whatever form you feel best: e-mail, postcards, letters, telephone calls. These are the easy ones and where most people stop. If you want to go beyond this, it takes work. Send out galleys, as outlined above. Then there are more steps.
When I was the senior editor for a small publishing company, Prelude Press, one of the things I learned, which goes against the grain of most authors, is give your book away. That is, you need to get your book to people who can recommend it. In the first few months, I gave away about 150 books to:
· People I knew in publishing (editors, authors, illustrators).
· Book reviewers, from major papers to book blogs.
· Family and friends, and I encouraged them to tell others. I realize you hope these are the people you want to buy your book, but if they like it, they’ll buy extra copies to give to other friends. Your investment will grow.
· Influential friends of friends. The six-degrees-of-separation phenomenon is real. You’ll be surprised who your friends or their friends know. You can get your book this way to movie stars, agents, reviewers, and more. I even got mine to J.D. Salinger (but I won’t tell you how).
· Bosses and their assistants. I teach in a number of places, so I have a number of people I work for. When you give your book to them, you appear kindly, and it won’t hurt your career. Bosses’ assistants really run things, and they talk to a lot of people. There’s also the good-will factor.
· A publicist. When I ran out of people to give my book to, but I saw I was getting good reviews, I hired a publicist.
I’m still finding other ways. I recommend you read a book on promoting your book, such as the fabulous The Frugal Book Promoter by Carolyn Howard-Johnson (www.tlt.com/authors/carolynhowardjohnson.htm). Writing is only one-third of book publishing. The second third is paying attention to details in polishing and printing, and the last third is promotion. If you really want your book out there, I recommend going the traditional way, though an agent. If you are impatient and have a lot of fortitude and self-promotional skills, POD can work. There are success stories out there. The Sweater Letter, a true-crime story by Dave and Lynn Distel published by iUniverse, sold over ten thousand copies. Laurie Notaro’s Idiot Girls’ Action-Adventure Club reached number ten of the New York Times paperback bestseller list. There is not a lot of such success.
However, there’s a new thinking forming. Not everyone equates success with best-seller lists. As novelist and playwright Sandra Tsing Loh (Aliens in America) told me, “I myself have been moving away from Art As Commerce and towards Art As Community Engagement, because I feel the old model is a poor fit for actual artists in this Time Warner/Desperate Housewives age, and no longer works. While there is a dwindling supply of eyeballs (and straight book buyers), there are burgeoning numbers of isolated people who yearn to engage on another (the non-Time Warner) axis. There are people out there who NEED your book, not just as fine literature but they need to find community. . . in your book. Middle-aged men? Women? Those yearning to start a new creative journey? You need to find them and serve them and your wonderful book will sell itself as part of an incidental part of this grand tribal journey.”
So consider your options, and good luck to you.