A few weeks ago I was looking over the eBook of The Liar’s Bible. I came across a piece I wrote in the early 1980s, “Getting By on a Writer’s Income.” When I posted it on my blog, it got touted and tweeted and reposted to a fare-thee-well. If my site had sustained any more hits it would have wound up punch-drunk.
Then a week or two later I wrote a new blog post and called it “All Changed, Changed Utterly,” about the revolution in self-publishing. It drew an even stronger reception than “Getting By”, careening around the blogosphere, gladhanding its way through the social media, and going—well, if not viral, then at the very least bacterial.
So I had another look at The Liar’s Bible, and found a piece I hadn’t even glanced at since I wrote it in 1986. It appeared the following year in the 1987 Writers Yearbook, and should give you an idea of the very different process that self-publishing was a quarter of a century ago:
ARE YOU SURE ALFRED KNOPF STARTED THIS WAY?
It was a Monday, the 20th of January, 1986, and the country was celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday, but on Estero Boulevard ij Fort Myers Beach, Florida, it was just another day on which my books were not arriving from the manufacturer. When the Ryder van began backing into our driveway, a little after noon, though, I decided it was altogether fitting and proper that the day be observed as a national holiday.
“The books are here!” I cried. And rushed out to greet the driver.
There were 107 cartons of the little darlings. My daughter Jill was visiting, and she joined me and Lynne to form a sort of box brigade, shuttling the cartons from the back of the truck up a flight of stairs and into what a previous owner had thought was the house’s fourth bedroom, but which was clearly intended to be a stockroom and shipping room.
Twenty-five years earlier I’d been writing soft-core sex novels under a pen name. I had a publisher who wanted to give me more work than I could handle, and a friend introduced me to a fellow he thought might be able to subcontract some of the books from me. The friend’s friend was delighted with the opportunity. He had a wife and infant daughter, and had been forced to shelve his dream of writing; he was then making ends meet by unloading trucks in a warehouse.
Now, a quarter of a century later, I was unloading trucks in a driveway.
“I dunno,” I said to Lynne. “Are you sure Alfred Knopf started this way?”
For many self-publishers, the alternative is no publication at all. Writers turn to self-publishing when they’ve been unable to interest commercial publishers in their work.
My own circumstances were somewhat different. By the time I was thinking of writing Write for Your Life, I had published more than 30 books with commercial firms. Two were instructional books for writers, Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print (Writer’s Digest Books) and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit (Arbor House). Both books had sold well and remained in print, and with both publishers I enjoyed an excellent personal and professional relationship. I had every reason to anticipate that a book version of my seminar for writers would be welcomed by either of the two.
It seemed to me, though, that self-publishing would serve me better. I had several reasons to think this.
First of all, I had cause to believe that I could merchandise the book very effectively myself. The book struck me as an ideal mail-order item. Whether or not I published it myself, I would want to sell it at my seminars and through the mails.
I knew how to do this, and I knew that I enjoyed this sort of thing, because I was already in the mail-order business, having already sold more than 2,000 copies of my cassette Affirmations for Writers. Even before that, I’d bought up remainder stocks of a couple of my out-of-print novels and peddled them through the mails. The mail-order business is more efficient when you can offer more items to your customer, and the book I wanted to write was wholly compatible with the products I was already selling.
If I let someone else publish Write for Your Life, I couldn’t sell it effectively by mail. I could at best buy copies from my publisher at a 50% discount, and you need a larger margin than that to come out ahead in mail order. (Ideally, your total cost on your product, including your mailing expenses, should be no more than a third of your price, and it’s best if you can keep it down to a fourth. Otherwise you don’t have a sufficient cushion to promote your product effectively.)
I would probably lose store sales by self-publishing my book, but I decided store sales were secondary. Besides, if the book did well, I figured it would be easy enough somewhere down the line to get a commercial book distributor to take it on. First things first; my primary market was reachable through mail order, and self-publishing looked to be the best way to go after that market.
But that was just one reason. Time was a strong second reason. I hadn’t written the book yet, but I already knew one thing. I wanted copies in a hurry.
The sooner I had books, the sooner I could start selling them. More to the point, the sooner I sold them, the sooner they could start selling the seminar. One of my chief motives in writing the book lay in the fact that I had trouble explaining to people what the seminar was and wasn’t. I wanted to write the book so that it would put people in a position to decide whether or not the seminar was something they could use.
I also wanted to make the book available to graduates, so that they could take the seminar home with them. And I wanted to make the material accessible to the overwhelming majority of writers who would never have the chance to take the seminar. All of these factors made me want books as soon as possible. I certainly didn’t want to wait a year or more, and I had to expect at least that much waiting time with a commercial publisher.
I wanted books in time for the seminar season in the spring of ’86. I wasn’t going to be able to start writing the book until August of ’85. A glance at the calendar provided a powerful argument indeed for self-publishing.
Finally, and perhaps most important, I wanted to do it because I wanted to do it.
Most of the writers I’ve known have had fantasies of self-publishing. Here was a chance to fulfill that fantasy, and with a book that seemed to lend itself to that treatment. I had learned a lot and had a lot of fun making my affirmations tape.
And I’d enjoyed selling it, too.
One of the processes in the seminar consists of coming up with actions one can take to add to one’s bank of experiences. A way I could add to my own bank of experiences was by publishing my own book, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
As a first step, I read The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, by Tom and Marilyn Ross. Then I very nearly decided to say to hell with the whole thing.
The book is excellent, let me say, and I recommend it wholeheartedly, and without reservation. It tells you exactly how to contend with the entire business of publishing your own work, from writing and product development through the whole process of book production, and on to advertising and promotion and distribution. It’s all there, and it’s presented clearly and concisely.
And it almost scared me off.
It was the material on getting the book produced that intimidated me. The authors explained just how to deal with typesetters and printers, how to get bids from various firms, how to make decisions about paper and page size and type. The more I read, the more I felt incapable of handling all of that. It sounded impossibly complex.
A week or so after I read the book, I was having lunch with a friend named Richard, a sales rep for a major trade publisher. I talked about my desire to publish Write for Your Life myself and my concern about my ability to handle the production adequately.
“It seems to me,” I said, “that there ought to be people who handle that whole process for you.”
“There are,” he said. “I know a lot of guys who work in the production departments of publishing houses. They do all of this every day for their employers, and they handle book production for self-publishers on a freelance spare-time basis.”
“Could you recommend one?”
“I could recommend several,” he said, and did.
I called only one of them. It was, after all, the third week in July already, and we were moving from New York to Florida on the 25th of the month. So a couple of days after my lunch with Richard, I sat down to lunch with a fellow I’ll call Lou. I told him what I wanted to do, and he said he’d be delighted to help me do it.
“The book’s not written yet,” I said. “I’ll be able to start work on it around the first of the month, as soon as we’re settled in our new home. I know what I want to say in it and I don’t think it should take more than a month, two months at the outside, so I can have the manuscript to you by the end of September.”
In that case, he said, I could probably have books in February…