Caffeinated publishing

Getting the word out

Exploring today’s world of book publishing

An Espresso machine is whirring in SoHo, but nary a bean is in sight. It’s not the coffeehouse kind this time, but the Espresso Book Machine at independent bookstore McNally Jackson. And it’s churning out chapters to self-publishers’ delight.

The machine, which has printed more than 21,500 books since its installation in January 2011, is just one symbol of a shifting paradigm in book publishing. Once this was a realm reserved for agents and publishing houses. Now first-time authors need only their manuscripts and the “interwebs” to get the process going. Deep pockets are not necessary.

“It is very cost-effective to publish a printed book because of print-on-demand publishing,” says Leigh Cunningham, executive director of the Association of Independent Authors (AIA).

Leigh suggests new authors employ online publishing tools like Lulu, Outskirts Press or Amazon subsidiary CreateSpace. When a manuscript is complete, authors must pass their pages to a professional book editor for proofing – a process costing around $2,000 that’s non-negotiable for any serious writer.

“We always feel that an objective person is a wise investment,” Leigh says. “If you’re going with that DIY (do it yourself) process, that is just one expense we don’t think you can do without.”

Meanwhile, users can outsource a cover design starting at around $500 or stick with the indie approach and produce their own using free and funky-named software, GIMP. Once pages and cover are complete, a simple upload to one of the print-on-demand websites – or machines – prepares the book for hard copy. When readers order the book, the site will print and send it, bidding good riddance to the days of mandatory mass ordering just to have dust-collecting volumes sit in the garage.

So what could be easier than that? E-books, Leigh says – the next generation of publication. A recent AIA member survey shows most members in fact veer the way of virtual words.

“You’ll find that going back three years or so, 75 percent of all books sold were printed books,” Leigh says of the industry. “Now it’s closer to 25 percent. So it makes perfect sense to simply publish an e-book.”

The medium, it seems, is less important than the product itself. And the product won’t sell, she reminds us, unless authors do the legwork to sell it. The marketing component need not be costly but rather, strategic. Think submitting to niche reviewers and award programs or participating in audience-targeted web communities.

“Say you write science fiction,” she says. “Go to numerous websites and blogs out there that are all focused on science fiction and participate in the community – not flogging your book, but getting a profile and actually participating. People will get interested in you, and therefore, your book as well.”

Self-published success stories include Hugh Howey and his novel “WOOL,” a sci-fi narrative that’s sold 300,000 copies in the United States and been optioned by film director Ridley Scott. When traditional publishing houses started offering seven-figure advances, he in turn – already enjoying a 70 percent royalty rate – offered them a “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Still, many authors would jump at the chance to be picked up by an agent. Many, like Howey, tried tirelessly before diverting themselves to the path of self-publication. And for good reason: Having an agent has its perks if you can get one.

“We are the liaison between the writer and the publisher,” says Thornwood-based literary agent Gail Fortune with the Talbot Fortune Agency. “It’s my job to sell my clients’ projects, but also to shepherd them through the publishing process.”

And the process can be a lengthy one – at least 12 months during which agents earn their 15 percent. The yearlong course begins after fruitful pitching has, in a perfect world, found a match for the manuscript. This is followed by contract negotiations, marketing implementation and general cheerleading all the way to store shelves.

“I think writers need somebody on their team who is always there for them, and that’s what their literary agent is,” she says.

And a teammate like Fortune is imperative for authors who want their books to wind up with names like Putnam on the spine.

“If your goal is to be published by Putnam or Doubleday or Knopf, you need an agent,” she says. “They don’t take unsolicited manuscripts.”

So to live a dream where your paperback is front and center at Barnes & Noble, Fortune suggests starting with a polished manuscript before using the stepping-stone of self-publishing to get noticed or simply persevering at landing an agent best suited for each work. Writers with beloved books grasped tight will likely send more than 100 queries – Fortune receives 50 to 75 a day – but just one agent needs to love it as much as its creator does.

“If your agent isn’t in love with your book, then how are they going to convey that enthusiasm to the editors – who you really want to love your book?” she says. “That’s why finding the right person is the key.”

Then again, there’s always a shot at Espresso.


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