A visit to my store last week by a self-published author combined with some recent discussion on this blog about the wisdom of self-publishing inspired me to write about the bookseller’s experience with aspiring authors. Both unpublished and self-published authors appear in my store with some frequency. I empathize with them, and am willing to listen, but with a sinking heart, knowing that I will not be able to offer the encouragement or path to best-sellerdom they would like. These are people who have a dream, believe they have something to offer the world, and have put a great amount of work into their writing. They usually have no concept of the amount of work that is yet to come if they really want to succeed.
Often the aspiring author has a book written and a vague notion that the world of publishing and bookselling is so interconnected that the bookseller has phone numbers of agents and publishers available for the asking, and that “connections” count, so a word from your friendly neighborhood book lady will get you in the door. When I tell them that I don’t know any of these people, or know some only casually, they are surprised. Similar to Ben’s description last week of the cabal that meets to blackball outspoken writers is the exclusive “published writers’ club” that one joins, like the country club, through references from people who like you. Quality and marketability of the book are secondary. I make suggestions about searching out agents who are looking for the type of book they have written, researching the market, reading submission guidelines, and being sure that the product is the best they can offer. At this point their eyes are pretty well glazed over. I tell them that writing the book is only the beginning of the work, and that if they find a publisher, they will still have to do more revising and then become involved in marketing. I don’t want to discourage these sweet people who have such high hopes, but I don’t want to make them think their job is done. I am always slightly amazed at how many people believe an author drops a manuscript at a publisher’s door and has only to sit back and wait for the royalties to roll in.
The self-published authors who come to the store with book(s) in hand have usually had experience with how difficult the traditional publishing route can be. They have decided to invest their own money as well as their time in making their dreams come true. They are now in the marketing phase, having all too frequently skipped the editing process. They usually want to schedule a book signing; if that can’t be done in the near future, they want the book prominently displayed for sale. Occasionally, I will receive a self-published book in the mail with a request that I read it and contact the author; others will call ahead and ask if there is a good time to visit and show me their work. Most, however, just drop in, books in hand, relying on their in-person salesmanship.
I won’t offer a self-published book for sale without having some familiarity with it. I would love to read them all, but there is not time for that. I have had books that won Writer’s Digest self-publishing awards, and this fact at least tells me that someone saw merit in it. One 350 page book I did read had no obvious errors, but would have made a great short story; the padding was excruciating. Others were OK, but I felt I had read the same book many times before; in trying to catch the current market, the author had gone too far in imitation. The most recent offering supports Lynne’s words on editing. I, too, wonder if I get too easily distracted by errors and fail to see the merit of the whole work. This however, was an extreme case. The book I was given was self-published in 2009 and the author is touting the second in an envisioned trilogy. He tells me the second book is in editing, so I assume this time he has gone with one of the companies that offers more than printing. The books all have the same title followed by “I,” “II” and “III.” God bless the editor. I truly could not get past the summary on the back cover and the Introduction. The author believes that commas belong between the subject and predicate of every sentence. He tells the reader in the introduction that “you are worth the words, … then again maybe your not.” (My word processor is having a coronary over that last phrase; where was his?) Just one more example from the cover summary: “one of many other spiraling terror-endorsed acts of murder and devoured spirit that is committed throughout the centuries long before Christ.” What? Even with editing of the second book, the necessity of getting through the first will stop any reader from going on.
I like to believe that I have built a trust relationship with my customers, so that my recommendations are given weight. If a customer does not like a book I have suggested, she knows I want to know why and will take likes and dislikes into account in the future. Of course, I have not read every book I sell; but between reviews and customer comments, I can usually do pretty well matching reader and book. When I offer a book for sale that no one knows about, it is assumed that I think it has some merit. Needless to say, very few make the cut.
Another concern about self-published books for the bookseller is the minimal remuneration. I would love to focus on my mission of bringing great literature to the world, but the rent has to be paid. Most of these books are “print on demand” and the discount to the bookseller is about 5%. Of course, many of them have no printed price, and the seller can charge more than list. However, they run in $16 - $19 range, which is high for an unknown. It is hard enough to sell trade paperbacks by well-known authors, a format which is becoming more common, when people are accustomed to $7.99. Even when authors supply the books directly, I am stunned at what their cost per book is; one of us can make a profit, but not both. It is interesting to see that the list price for the “badly needs editing” book I just discussed is $14.99, but Amazon is selling it for $17.35.
So what does a bookseller who doesn’t want to shatter dreams, crush hope or even hurt someone’s feelings do? I confess to delaying tactics, which frequently work. Some authors are so timid that I am afraid that the truth even layered with kindness will put them in tears, so I plead lack of time or space. One characteristic self-published authors seem to have in common is persistence; this trait can be useful in pursuing the traditional route. The problem is that they have already invested financially in the book, and it is in print. Beyond friends and family, the market is hard to reach. All booksellers hope to run across that gem which we can claim credit for discovering. I haven’t found one yet, and I doubt I will. All the books I feel strongly enough about to hand sell are from traditional publishers, even if sometimes the authors have not been as well recognized as I think they should be. The only real winners in the self-publishing world are the companies selling that service. My advice to aspiring authors would be to put money into paying an editor rather than a printer, and to use that persistence in finding an agent.