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18: February 22, 2009

Adventures in Self-Publishing

My second memoir, Summer of Marv, is now available for sale on the website of its publisher, AuthorHouse. It takes a few more weeks for a page to be set up on Amazon and other online stores. I’ll notify you when that happens.

With that out of the way, readers beware: the remainder of this post will be of interest only to two types of people:

1. Those contemplating self-publishing a book of their own one day.

2. The presumably somewhat smaller demographic consisting of people who enjoy listening to me whine on and on and on about the unfairness of life.

Well, then. Here’s my story: My name is Josh, and I’m a failed writer.

I brought my first book out on the AuthorHouse label. AuthorHouse is a Print-on-Demand publishing firm, or subsidy publisher, or, if you prefer the older and blunter term, vanity publisher. Summer of Marv’s cover bears the label of “Petty Pace Press," but make no mistake: AuthorHouse is again the publisher and Petty Pace Press nothing more than a fictional invention on the part of Gary and me to avoid the AuthorHouse stigma. For while I’ve never had any qualms about admitting that my books are self-published, I do admit to feeling stigmatized about my relationship with AuthorHouse (more on which below). My being a self-published writer is, to me, in the same category as my being a Caucasian—something to be neither proud nor ashamed of, a simple and incidental factoid of my pathetic existence and yet another thing--along with our Midwestern roots, our affection for Barack Obama, and our insatiable yearning to have our nipples gnawed by ferrets--linking me to Richard Lugar.

For the record, I did try to get any number of novels published during my twenties and thirties via the legitimate publishing world to no avail. (And understandably so. My fiction sucked.) (Notice that by making this admission I appear nobly self-deprecating while subtly implying that my nonfiction doesn’t suck. But this ploy makes me a sneaky little bastard only if you buy that implication.) (It’s okay for me to embed a series of parenthetical asides into a paragraph, by the way—I’m a real writer. Kinda. You folks—don’t try this at home.) (Back to the paragraph now.) By the time I had composed, almost by accident, a manuscript that I really believed in—the one that became How To Pick Up Japanese Chicks And Doom Your Immortal Soulage fifty was looming on the horizon and I was in no mood to once again embark on the long, rocky, uphill hike known as manuscript marketing. That journey requires an abundance of patience, emotional resilience, and a willingness to compromise with editors—three commodities that I had long since run out of—and offers no certainty of success even for those possessed of such virtues.

Ergo, I went straight to vanity publishing with that book and again with Summer of Marv, and have yet to second-guess my decision to bypass the traditional publishing industry. I have, however, taken some hits within the weird world of vanity publishing and, as I have received emails from time to time from other would-be vanity writers wondering how to get into print (and expect to get more such inquiries after the second book is fully out), I think now is a good time to make my experiences public.

The First Book

I got in bed with AuthorHouse the first time much the same way I ended up with the first few sex partners of my youth: I was desperate, I was needy, I had no patience for due diligence and but little self-esteem, and I was open-minded to a fault. Anyone loose enough to have me would do just fine. Thus, I can’t blame AuthorHouse for our hookup. AuthorHouse was just minding its own business, arching its back against the bar and guffawing at some frat boy’s jokes, not even paying attention to me until I stumbled forward and made the first sloppy move. Soon, I’d signed an expensive contract that I couldn’t back out of, and all too late noticed that there were plenty of other floozies who would have been just as happy to have met my needs.

(That original contract back in 2004 cost me $1350, mostly consisting of $900 for paperback publishing and $300 for a promotional package. Subsequent add-ons, such as correction fees and copies of my own book, would bring the final total—well, I certainly hope it’s final—to over $2200.)

Excuse me for beating the bar-floozy metaphor into the ground, but it’s the force of habit with me: I woke up the morning after my fateful encounter with AuthorHouse, looked at what lay next to me, clawed at my face and muttered repeatedly, “Oh, God, what have I done?” After a long, hot shower, I discovered AuthorHouse’s gamey legal history via a cursory googling. (A search for “AuthorHouse” and “class action” today brings as impressive results as it did back then. Note the link advertising the “Free Authorhouse Lawsuit Download.” Suing this company has in effect been reduced to a video game, for heaven’s sake.)

Now, I know that some of my readers are lawyers who feel quite at home in a litigious world, but for a babe in the woods like me, this news was quite appalling. I used to teach in a university that was sued twice in the course of my seventeen years there by part-time instructors who felt that their hours had been unfairly cut, and my superiors were all aghast at this seeming firestorm of litigation. So for me to find myself associated with an institution that draws this much ire from its own customers is…well, I prefer not to dwell on it. All I’ll say is, it takes some doing for a company to piss off a whole nation of pale, nasal-voiced, acne-pocked, semiliterate, amateur writers to the point where they will actually band together and accomplish anything.

Despite all that, I plodded gamely forward in my dealings with AuthorHouse. In the end, I must say that I was quite satisfied with the product itself. In terms of paper quality and its overall appearance and feel, How To Pick Up Chicks And Doom Your Immortal Soul looks just as smart as any paperback to emerge from Bantam or Dell Books.

(On the other hand, the $300 spent on promotion might have been better employed as toilet paper or kindling. A very nice AuthorHouse staffer crafted a very nice press release which was subsequently sent out to dozens of very nice media outlets in markets of my choosing, all of whom no doubt summarily chucked it without bothering to read it on the basis of the very fact that it emanated from AuthorHouse. If anyone out there is considering purchasing a promotional package from any Print on Demand firm, I do wish you’d consider sending the money to me instead and letting me set it ablaze for you. Or better yet, I’ll make a donation in your name to a respected and efficient secular charity.)

I chalked that one up to Live and Learn. I still wasn’t mad at AuthorHouse.

Then, in the summer of 2005 I began to receive quarterly royalty checks from the company. The accompanying statements give the number of books sold per quarter, but no breakdown. One can’t know how many were sold through Amazon, how many through other online stores, and how many through brick-and-mortar bookstores.

As the year went on, I began to receive emails from customers who reported picking up the book in stores. I was also contacted by a nice man claiming to be a manager of a Barnes and Noble that was stocking the book, where it was (as they say in the biz) flying off the shelves. Moreover, I rather obsessively checked my Amazon ranking in those days as well, and began to educate myself on what the ranking meant. My book generally hovered in the #50,000 to #200,000 range the first few years that it was out—hardly bestseller territory, but indicative of a certain number of sales per week. At the book’s peak near the end of 2005, it climbed into the 9000s for a brief, giddy spell. And let’s bear in mind that Amazon is only one of many online outlets. Nonetheless, AuthorHouse continued reporting sales in the mere dozens of books per quarter, the figure sometimes rising to a bit over a hundred. It just didn’t add up.

I politely asked AuthorHouse to make its sales tabulations more transparent, and was, in effect, patted on the head and told to go back to my word processor like a good little amateur author. Infuriated, I contemplated legal action but decided against it on the grounds that I am a wussie. Still, I vowed never to deal with the likes of AuthorHouse again.

The Second Book

Throughout the process of getting my first book out, my old friend Gary became my primary test reader, my cover artist, my confidant, my Zen priest, my consigliere, and my designated bitch-slapper during the frequent panic attacks that would come over me. Every writer should have a Gary. No, you can’t have mine. (The bitch-slapping, by the way, was of the long-distance sort via email and the occasional phone call.)

Summer of Marv was largely finished by the end of 2005. In other words, for all practical purposes, the millions of you who have been thirsting to read a memoir about a bunch of white guys sitting around Mankato, Minnesota in 1975 taking drugs and skipping class could have enjoyed that experience three whole years ago and subsequently forgotten the whole thing by, say, the summer of 2007, and then enjoyed reading it all over again by now. But you have not enjoyed those reading experiences, in part because of my own dithering and in part because of the inherent awfulness of the vanity publishing world.

At first, Gary and I considered two options for the second book:

1. Working with a Print-on-Demand firm other than AuthorHouse.

2. True self-publishing: i.e., finding a willing printer/bookbinder and doing it ourselves.

Gary was always more bullish on the second option, at one point dragging a lady friend off to some sort of self-help seminar on self-publishing that was self-sponsored by some old charlatan who was merely pushing his own multi-thousand-dollar scheme. Undaunted, Gary ventured all the way up to St. Cloud (For non-Minnesotans, this is like…like far, okay?) to scout a printing company that looked promising, but its owner turned out to be leery of publishing anything that contained profanity.

I became more and more ambivalent about this course. True self-publishing involves a lot of expense. The purchase of ISBN numbers alone, for example, will run over $250, while the smallest of printing runs will cost a few thousand. So here again, my patience gave out early on. I especially balked at the idea of some pious printing-shop owner poring over my prose to extract the F-word and the S-word and the T-word and the X-word (You know…Xuthus, mythical ancestor of the Ionian Greeks. Duh…)—and around this time the Print-on-Demand business started looking not all that bad to me. So all of Gary’s efforts on my behalf went for naught. Sometimes I wonder why he doesn’t just haul off and bitch-slap me for real. Then I remember that the Pacific Ocean lies between us.

I spent the year 2006 dealing with heavy day-job interference while polishing the manuscript and making contact with potential publishers. The field was getting smaller as AuthorHouse started gobbling up competitors, like the theretofore well-regarded iUniverse, which it subsumed in 2007. Some initially attractive candidates were eliminated on such grounds as their inability to handle a manuscript that contained footnotes. Others did not want to deal with an author based outside the United States. And so it went.

I finally settled on an outfit called Llumina, a small Florida-based operation. I exchanged several long emails with the president, who said everything I wanted to hear about their capabilities and flexibility, and soon faxed in a contract.

It’s painful for me to write this segment about Llumina, so I’ll be brief. It’s painful because I suspect that everyone in the company that I dealt with was sincerely making their best efforts on my behalf. Well, except for the lady whose sole function seemed to be to induce new clients to authorize credit card payment online. The site that she directed me to was disabled. I kept informing her of this and she kept responding with terser and terser emails, urging me to sign off on my payment. Further communication being futile, all I could do was to check the site daily until it was finally fixed. No apology was ever rendered me. Did I mention that I was going to do quite a bit of whining in this post?

Anyway, apart from that B-and-C-word staffer, the Llumina people were always courteous. They were also quite hapless. When it came time to produce a galley, I submitted a list of detailed instructions regarding font size, indentation, treatment of footnotes, etc., nearly all of which were cheerfully acknowledged and then botched.

Another reason for my not wanting to come down too hard on the Llumina people is the fact that their bungling turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It forced me to slow down and look more carefully at what I’d written, and after three or four read-throughs I discovered that a lot of it wasn’t up to snuff. This revelation, coming as it did in the galley-proof stage, put me in a bind. While I might have asked the Llumina staff to correct their own errors while sacrificing goats to Ba’al so as to improve the slim odds of a fruitful outcome, I could not ask them to undertake the massive editorial changes that I now wanted to make. My choices boiled down to:

(a) demanding my money back and leaving Llumina or

(b) just leaving Llumina.

Realizing yet again that I am indeed a bona fide wussie, I of course chose the latter.

I suppose I could have left the Llumina incident out of this post altogether, but aspiring self-publishers need to know this stuff. If you have a verrrrrry simple manuscript that even a child of eight could format, by all means go with Llumina. Their prices are reasonable and, apart from that dreadful harpy in charge of the website, they are real nice folks.

After the Llumina debacle, one of my trademark episodes of malaise ensued during which I came very close to abandoning the project altogether. Enter Gary, Duke Wayne-like, with a brisk round of cyber-bitch-slapping, and I was back in the saddle. By the spring of 2008 I had whipped the book into a condition suitable for publishing (at least by my standards), and, my other options having been exhausted, I dragged my sorry white ass back to AuthorHouse rather like King Lear trudging back and forth between the castles of his increasingly frosty daughters.

Chastened by experience, I approached my phone consultation with the AuthorHouse sales rep with a detailed checklist in hand. Her opening gambit was to note that the base price for a paperback package had fallen, and that if I acted NOW I could knock an additional hundred off! And given that I would not succumb to the useless promotional option this time, that meant that the whole nut came to just over $400! This was heady news indeed, but I knitted my brow and proceeded down my checklist.

I wanted two galleys produced simultaneously in two book sizes at no extra charge, so that I could compare them before settling on a size. The sales rep checked on it. No problem!

I wanted to use the Petty Pace Press logo and not have the name AuthorHouse appear anywhere in the work. Done!

I wanted to add a six-page index late in the galley-proofing process at no charge. Okay!

Oh, and I wanted a guarantee of detailed royalty reports so that I would know how many books are sold through each outlet. Well…no can do.

That was a nasty blow, coming as it did at the end of a long string of positive replies. But in a way, it worked in the sales rep’s favor. Had all the replies been positive, I would have grown suspicious. That lone “no” at the end gave her credibility, or so I told myself.

I faxed in a signed contract, after which this bright young woman’s last instructions to me were to sit tight until Author Services contacted me within “a few days” with my author ID. When two weeks had passed with no email, I contacted her again, only to be told that, her function having been completed with the submission of the contract, she could no longer deal with me. She did supply the email address of Author Services so that I could prompt them myself. (In the AuthorHouse corporate culture, no one ever forwards a customer’s email to the colleague in charge of the matter in question; instead, they drop an email address on you and order you to re-direct the message yourself. You might find this custom eccentric, but remember: anthropology teaches us to respect all cultures.) I then emailed Author Services, who responded testily that they had been waiting for me to contact them for two weeks. Where had I been all this while?

That little episode set the tone for a tempestuous relationship that will not really be over until the book appears on Amazon and rival sites. Remember that business about the two galleys in different sizes? No one bothered to tell my personal “Design Consultant,” who balked and demanded proof of such an outlandish promise. Same with the banishment of the name “AuthorHouse” from the book and its cover, and for the late addition of an index. Indeed, at every stage of the process I was passed along to a different staffer with a different title, each of whom treated me as if I had just sprung into existence from Zeus’s forehead mere moments before. To each person, I had no file, no history with the company. (I’ve not yet gotten around to reading Kafka but have the feeling that he would feel right at home dealing with AuthorHouse.) I had to explain who I was and what my special needs were over and over. I came to believe that every single staffer at AuthorHouse despises every single other staffer, and that no one is on speaking terms with anyone else. Theirs must be the office Christmas party from hell.

Late in the game, after I had sent in my fourth batch of corrections and ordered my fifth galley, my new Design Consultant (the first one having retired, apparently from the exhaustion brought on by having to deal with such an obstreperous client as me) politely informed me that the corrections policy had just been changed so that she really ought to be charging me more for my latest list of corrections—but that she would let it slide this time. Essentially, I was expected to be grateful to AuthorHouse for not changing the rules on me in the middle of the game.

Endorsement

Well, then! That was quite a fair piece of whining, wasn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I feel much better now.

Long story short: If you’re resigned to going with a Print-on-Demand firm, AuthorHouse has my endorsement. But rest assured that this is not a coked-up-spokesman-demonstrating-Shamwow-in-an-informercial type of endorsement. This is more of a Focus-on-the-Family, least-of-all-evils endorsement of Mitt Romney for president. In both cases, the endorser regards the endorsee suspiciously. In the endorser’s mind, the endorsee bears constant watching and must be nudged and prodded back on to the straight and narrow path from time to time and reminded to keep his promises.

If you’re willing to spend eight months of your life constantly monitoring a pack of dwarves all named Grumpy and badgering them into fulfilling their contractual duties, in the end getting a miserly royalty deal but a quality product out of the whole ordeal, then AuthorHouse is for you and, God help me, I just might end up going back there for my third book since I don’t know of anybody who can do it better. Does anyone out there?