Making the book
Self-publishing works — but only for some
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Within nine months of self-publishing his first book, therapist and attorney Terry Shulman was on “The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Photo: Dustin Walsh
Detroit area artists, art professors and gallery curators are excited about the potential of digital printing to easily and inexpensively produce small quantities of high quality art books.
“Self publishing today is very different than it was five years ago,” said Vagner Whitehead, 36, a new media associate professor of art at Rochester's Oakland University, who has self published two books using Blurb.com. “It's more aligned with how musicians sell music online. There's a lot of control. You don't need to buy any books and you set the price and profit.”
Print-on-demand Web-based companies like Blurb, Lulu and many others make it easy for would-be publishers to upload image and text files, use templates to design pages and covers, and create books while sitting at the computer.
Although not by much, Publishers Weekly reports the number of on-demand and short run books published (285,394) exceeded the number published by traditional publishers (275,232) for the first time in 2008. Blurb is particularly popular with artists and photographers because of its high quality color photograph reproduction.
Whitehead's second book, Selected Works 2000–2008, published in October 2008, is a sort of portfolio as well as a coffee table book for fans. He takes it to academic conferences and portfolio review days at galleries. It has helped lead to exhibitions.
“It's a neat way to present your work,” agreed Victor Pytko, a Birmingham acrylic painter, assemblage artist and owner of Porter Pytko Marketing and Public Relations. His People, Places and Things: From Realism to Abstraction 2008, published in September 2008 with Blurb, lead to the sale of a $1,400 painting to Art Space II, Birmingham. He created the book as a catalog for a show at the Birmingham Unitarian Church, Bloomfield Hills, which featured 20 paintings and an assemblage. He ordered 10 hardcover books at $34.95 each, enough to display at the exhibition and use as a portfolio to show his work to galleries and potential buyers.
“The color presentation they do is fantastic. The color clarity and resolution is great,” said Lynn Arbor, 66, a Pleasant Ridge oil painter who has published four books with Blurb since July 2008. Three were personal but one, Images: Abstract Realist Paintings, published in March 2009, depicted a body of abstract paintings based on fabric.
Arbor has sold about 40 of the books, many without a profit to friends and family. Like many print-on-demand companies, Blurb allows authors to mark up the price from the base price and keep the difference as royalties. Like Vagner and Pytko, Arbor plans to use the book to introduce herself to galleries where she'd like to show her work.
“I'm not well known enough to go to a major publisher,” she said.
Gallery art show curators also are using print-on-demand to produce catalogs for art shows. Co-curators Chris Samuels, 26, and Kevin Beasley, 24, used Lulu.com to produce a supplement to accompany “Breeding Ground," a fall exhibition of seven Detroit-area sculpture artists at the Museum of New Art, Pontiac. The 63-page paperback included images of artwork by artists from the show as well as other Detroit-area artists and commentary about Detroit art by local art experts.
“We wanted the show to leave its mark,” said Samuels, a sculpture and installation artist who co-founded the Debt Collective, an artist collective, and Org Contemporary, an artist-run gallery in the Russell Industrial Center, Detroit. The curators purchased eight books, at $22.20 each, to sell at the panel discussion. In addition, some local art professors bought copies. Copies also will be placed at the College for Creative Studies and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit bookstores.
“The potential for teaching is extraordinary,” said Claude Baillargeon, 53, an art history associate professor at Oakland University. In spring 2008, his class mounted a student art exhibit at MONA, “Translations: Art, Immigration, and Cultural Identity,” and published an accompanying 118-page hardcover, 13-by-11-inch catalog using Blurb.
“It's such a pleasure to have students with something concrete in their hands,” he said, adding that they ordered about 20 copies at $76.95 each for students and parents.
— Elizabeth Voss
His three self-published books help establish Terry Shulman, 44, a Southfield therapist and part-time attorney, as an expert on theft and spending addictions, he says. In a profession where most of his clients aren't local, having a national reputation is imperative.
Seven years ago, when Shulman looked for a traditional publisher for his manuscript about shoplifting addiction, he failed. So he turned to the print-on-demand company Infinity Publishing, West Conshohocken, Pa. Selling about one-half of the books himself and the others through a wholesaler or online booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble, he has sold 4,000 copies of Something for Nothing: Shoplifting Addiction and Recovery. His other two books on employee theft and compulsive spending have each sold 1,000 copies. Within nine months of publishing his first book, he was on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Meanwhile, Sylvia Hubbard, a 38-year-old Detroiter, has self-published 14 romance novels, all as e-books and six as paperbacks. Three paperbacks have sold over 10,000 copies. In February, Tanner's Devil, a book she self-published in 2006 with Lulu.com, will be reissued as a paperback and e-book by Red Rose Publishing of Forestport, N.Y., a traditional publisher, primarily of romance paperbacks and e-books.
Most don't succeed
Shulman and Hubbard are part of a growing number of new writers who use print-on-demand and other services to self-publish books. In 2008, the number of print-on-demand and short-run titles (285,394), for the first time exceeded the number of books published by traditional production methods (275,232), according to R.R. Bowker L.L.C., New Providence, N.J., the publisher of the “Books in Print” database and the official agency for assigning ISBNs in the United States.
Nevertheless, Shulman and Hubbard's success stories aren't typical. Most print-on-demand books sell fewer than 200 copies, said Victoria Strauss, 54, a Massachusetts fantasy and historical novelist who wrote about self-publishing on Writers Beware, a Web site about writing scams for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
“Self-publishing is an enticing idea for a lot of people,” said Tom Stanton, 49, a New Baltimore baseball author and assistant professor of communications at the University of Detroit Mercy. “There are just enough success stories to encourage aspiring authors.”
But even if a writer produces a high-quality book, distribution and marketing issues usually doom self-published books to failure except as personal projects, he said.
“It depends on what your expectations are,” said Phil Pochoda, 69, director of the University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. If a writer only wants a physical book to lie on the coffee table and give to friends and family, self publishing can be satisfying, he said. Digital production processes have made it a lot easier and less expensive to produce books in smaller quantities, he explained.
Wayne State University Press Director Jane Hoehner, 42, agreed the self-published book that becomes a word-of-mouth success and is picked up by a big publisher is the rare case.
Eric Novack, operations manager of the Russell Industrial Center in Detroit, estimates he lost about $2,000 or $3,000 from 2004 to 2006 when he tried publishing two books by other authors under Elitest Publications, a company he formed to self-publish his own novel, Killing Molly, 2003. He managed to sell 3,000 copies of his book by peddling it to local bookstores and coffee shops, doing readings and signings, and finding local book reviewers to review it. But despite his marketing efforts on behalf of the other two books, neither sold more than about 300 copies.
“It's very exhausting to continually push your product,” said Novack, 35, who dissolved Elitest Publications in 2006. Nevertheless, he may resort to self-publishing again if he is unable to find a traditional publisher for the new novel he is writing.
Finding your audience
For Shulman and Hubbard, self-publishing has worked because both authors are very good at marketing themselves. Shulman also has a unique audience, people with theft and spending addictions. Experts agree self-publishing works best for writers who can reach particular niches.
Shulman says he is one of only a handful of therapists for recovering shoplifters in the country. His unique specialization and strong Web presence (he has 10 or 11 Web sites) leads to requests for media interviews at an average of one a week. He frequently appears on television and radio, as well as in newspaper and magazine articles. The publicity leads to book sales. He personally sells about one-half of his books and the other half through a wholesaler or online bookseller such as Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com. Once or twice a month, he buys about 20 books. He sells the books for $25 and offers free shipping. Each book costs him between $8 and $9. He grosses about $1,000 a month in book sales. After subtracting the costs of the books and shipping and handling fees, he nets about $600 a month.
“Having a book out helps you to be viewed as an authority,” he said.
The national publicity is important because most of his clients are not local. About 80 percent to 90 percent receive therapy over the telephone. He also has a part-time criminal law practice. In total, his yearly business revenue has remained between $100,000 and $120,000 in the last five years.
Romancing the Internet
About 10 years ago, Hubbard had written four manuscripts but couldn't find an interested publisher. She saw an ad for e-books and decided to publish one. Now this is her pattern: First she publishes her manuscript as an e-book using Lulu.com, Smashwords.com or E-junkie.com. This costs her nothing. She uses a volunteer editor to keep costs down. She prices the book from free to $5, raising the price as demand grows. Readers download the books onto their computers, mobile phones or e-readers. She averages about $300 a month in e-book sales.
After 5,000 downloads, she publishes an e-book as a paperback using Lulu, Lightning Source or CreateSpace. She hires an editor at $1 to $4 a page, and uses stock photography and Microsoft Word or photo programs to design book covers. Her monthly paperback sales average between $100 and $200.
Hubbard generates sales by doing online and offline marketing. She has six Web sites and participates in five or six more. She publishes serial “live stories” on her Web site, updating them four times a week for 150 readers who return every day. After four or five chapters, she quits writing the book online and publishes it as an e-book. To attract male readers, she keeps an advice blog called, “How to Love a Black Woman.” Repeating characters and sequels encourage repeat customers.
To attract new readers, she participates in numerous reading and writing discussion groups online, belongs to 150 social networks including Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and networks in India, Japan and China, and calls into live Blog Talk Radio shows about books, romance and writing.
Offline, she attends writing conferences and sends audio books and stories to readers' groups and writers' groups.
In 2000, she founded the Motown Writers Network, Detroit, also known as the Michigan Literary Network. The group, which boasts nearly 10,000 members, helps writers reach their literary goals and readers connect to writers. In 2001, she started Hub Books, a literary service so she could offer paid Internet marketing consulting.
“I always tell people that being a writer today is 15 percent writing and 85 percent marketing,” she said.
She estimates she makes about $40,000 annually from all her literary endeavors, including consulting and speaking engagements. A divorced mother of three, she also maintains a job as a nonemergency telephone operator for the Detroit Police Department.
“I'm in this more because I love to write,” she said, explaining that money isn't a primary motivator but adding that she also loves having devoted readers.