Friday, August 13, 2021

the self-publishing diaries | pros & cons

In yesterday's mail, the first batch of copies of DARK COUNTRY--a beautiful thing to behold and something that will be in the shop next week for purchase. I've spoken a bit in this space on the experience of self-publishing after previously releasing things via traditional presses for the most part--two different experiences, but each with strengths of their own. Since this is my second time around and I'm getting the hang of it, I thought I'd might lay out a few of the particulars, since this would have been great info I would have loved when I was first trying to get a book published. Also info that  even have tracked me in a different way had I known many of the things I've learned in the past 15 years of publishing--books and chapbooks, small presses of various sizes, self-publishing, etc. 

Depending on which circles you run with as a poet, self publishing is received in one or two ways--either a clever thing to do with your work in a tricky and nearly non-existent market (I've found this attititude in open mic and slam poetry circles, also among general DIY-ethos folks.) Or, its basically, especially in academic circles, a foolish, self-indulgence you will mostly regret. Some folks are really passionate on other side of the argument. Some kind of ridiculously so. For me, it was an option, especially as POD technology became more available as a viable and doable option, but I was in the thick of submitting to open reading periods and contests, one of which worked out and published my first collection.  It could just as easily have went alone, though my skillset as a designer and publisher was much less, so it might have been a rather disastrous mess of a book all those years ago.  Other books followed with other amazeballs presses, by submission or happenstance, but all along I thought eventually I might want to explore issuing things on my own for a number of reasons that I am finding to be of benefit, 


Since money is often our greatest impediment as the poet-creatures, I thought I'd hit this one first.  Getting a book into print costs money--either for you or for the press that issues your work, so there's no easy way of getting around it. Just the physical construction of the book is costly--let alone the editorial and design work, the marketing and promotion, to back it in the world and make readers aware of it.  Again, shouldered by you or someone else.  POD definitely makes things more do-able, the cost per unit not terribly high in most cases. If you do your own design and editorial work as I do--front your own marketing efforts, you can keep it manageable. feed was under $3 per copies plus shipping, while dark country was closer to $4 due to length and it's larger, square shape. POD, thankfully, allows you to place orders in small batches to keep from sitting in a pile of unsold books (particularly since the pandemic limited reading engagements.). Since I was selling them directly under dgp and out of the shop,  I only ordered 10 of feed and at first then ordered more as needed and those sold. Then more.  There is postage of course, about $10 per batch. But even with all of that I was able to finance feed with the money I got from a reading at the Poetry Foundation in Feb. This book with my tax refund money. Selling enough copies, I broke even and then some. Even all said and done, publishing both books cost less than the hundreds I once spent submitting to contests and open reading periods trying to land book #1.  In addition, I also keep all profits on the books as they sell, which given most royalty arrangements with traditional publishers is a lot.--especially since I have also published without royalties at all.  In those cases, the presses were smaller and I was totally glad they rolled them into continuing the press--but this way, these funds get rolled back into dgp or other artmaking endeavors and the circle continues. It can get more expensive, of course, if you have to hire a designer for example, or a copy editor, or pay for advertising and ISBN's, while these things in a traditional press part of the benefits you get cost-free. Though I feel they charge too much, there are also the dreaded "vanity presses" that will entirely do all the work for you for a large sum of money.  If you're weirdly wealthy and want someone else to do the heavy lifting, these might be an option, though still the brunt of promotion and audience cultivation may fall on you. (and I'd argue you're better off doing it yourself.)


When I decided self-publishing might be an option, I had decided that I wanted to distribute my books directly from the dgp shop, though many folks go through Amazon or B&N and sell on those sites. This is something I might do in the future, but I liked the idea of being able to sign books, to include swag, to have ore of a direct relationship with readers.  To be more small, as I have always been with chaps and zines and various things. To have that direct line of maker to audience. Of course, traditional presses are the winner here--distributors, bookstores, direct sales, all happening on another level.   Also, just being free of the mailing and shipping part might be appealing since these things also cost money and materials (in my case, something I was doing anyway.) As a self-publisher, all of it falls on you, and the books only go out through the channels you create, rather than the ones created by the press which can make things harder.  Presses also have their devoted readers who buy many of their books just to support them.  If you go it alone the road is rockier and less paved.  I've always mostly distributed anything I've ever sold on the web, so bookstores, beyond places like Quimby's, haven't been something I've sought out, but the best approach is to build a relationship with your local bookseller. The chain stores carry minimal poetry if at all, but indies are often champions of local authors especially, even if it's by consignment. And, of course, if we every get free of covid, sometimes the most successful places to sell books is readings and book fairs for any book, no matter who brings it into the world.  


This one varies depending on how deep your skillset in layouts and design. Because I have much experience here, this part was natural to me and cost me no extra funds. Not that it was easy, by any stretch, but only that it was do-able.  I was stabbing blind at formatting when I put together the first file for feed, but  by the time the second rolled around, I was better at figuring out margins and such.  Typically, printing chapbooks, you can just do it over if the margins are outta wack.  With print galley copies also being something you have to pay for, you don't get as much freedom to experiment, I also have the knowledge and abilitiy to design my own cover from years of doing it for other people's work. With a traditional press, beyond your input in the process, most of this is handled by the designer or design team and comes back to you only in proofs. Since even with traditional publishers I often had a hand in the cover imagery, this was not that far of a stretch for me. Some presses, not those I've worked with, are more or less likely to involve the author, so self-publishing definitely gives you more creative control in the finished product. .  It varies. If you are not up to it as a self-publisher, there are ways that you can hire outside designers to make your book look fabulous, but it will be out of pocket. Ditto on the interior design and editing. 


This may be the one area where traditional publishing comes out far ahead of the game, in that they are already good at running the promo machine for their titles in most cases.  They can see to things like press releases, social media marketing, advertisements and review copies and usually front funds, and/or efforts for these things without the writer doing much at all.  This is true in theory, though as most poets will attest, even the traditional presses with huge promo budget rely on their authors to some some of the legwork in the form of hosting their own websites and social platforms, doing readings to sell books, talking it up to their friends. As a self-published author, its all you, and this is what mostly in the past, beyond technical capabilities, gave me some reservation--what good a beautiful book if you cannot get it to readers.  Things to consider- the audience for your work--your social engagement game.  Whether or not you are willing to hustle a little more to get books into hands.  While hard for any author at any stage, this is particularly true of emerging and authors new to publishing, who might not already have interested audiences or marketing experience.  These are also, if desired, things you can outsource to professionals.


Moreso than the practicalities of issuing your own work, there are other things to consider as you decide the path for your book. What do you want?  What do you want to get as a result of putting the book out in the world?  Things like tenure and jobs often poo-poo self-publishing, so if you are looking for those things it might be best to seek out a traditional publisher.  If you just want to distribute your work, to have a book for interested audiences to purchase, either path works about the same. If you're looking for the security (for you or readers) of a publisher's seal of approval, that also is a factor. I make fun of the legitimacy monster all the time, but for many poets, they need that feeling that someone is willing to invest in their work. And that's totally okay, esp. if you are just starting out. Also, you might not feel comfortable just putting things out there without an editor's hand guiding you in the right direction--making edits and suggestions and greasing the wheels a bit. If you want to participate in Pobiz (with a capital P) and run in the circles of fancy prizes and high places, then you'd probably be best to emulate it's denizens. (I would argue though that the poetry community is far larger and more diverse than Pobiz and it's possible to have an amazing career in that community) And actually, that there are many audiences and many communities--whatever the kind of work you write.  


For me, self-publishing, though it took years to come round, was a kind of natural choice.  The reasons were many: Less time struggling up the river and past the bottleneck of books that are just as good--many better-- as mine.  Less frustration as a midcareer author in a publishing world where so much focus is on the next new thing and first books even in the tiny sliver that cares about poetry at all.  While I've had publishers who usually gave me imput on design anyway, it was nice to have total control over timelines from the start.  I found myself at the close of 2020, having just released a new book with my regular publisher that spring, with a build up of projects that I wanted to see in the world as full-lengths.  I had sent a couple to my BLP for first dibs but they had passed. I did not then want to spend 100s of dollars playing the open reading periods/contest submissions.   While I suppose I could have sought out traditional publishers for all three, I am not sure I was keen on waiting years and years for them all to be released.  My takeaway from pandemic year is not  that any of us are vulnerable to death or disaster at any time--so seize the day--but also to try to live that life free anyone's permission or approval that these books are somehow less than my other traditionally published ones becuase I am putting them out there under my own imprint, (I call this my FOOF era, ie "fresh out of fucks"). Sometimes you talk about self-publishing and seizing the means of production and people look at you like you just threw up on their shoes.  Whatever.  Since I had the means and the ability to make books happen after years of publishing chaps, something of a following of readers (small, but why not do it?

I don't know what road I'll take after these books.  Maybe a little of both is nice.  I love the community aspect of publishing with an existing press and the design stuff is a heavy load, so it's nice to have someone else in charge of it (formatting the book took many, many days and then still needs work once you're in galleys.)  Things like review or promo copies are nice to not have to worry about. Sales figures were about 30 percent less with feed overall than sex & violence a year earlier (which was a bestseller at SPD after all) , but the earnings were significantly more since I get a larger portion of profits. I like being able to control the timeline, but it's not the most important thing going forward since this weird clustering of projects isn't always my reality.  

Ultimately,  launching a collection is hard even with a publisher backing you up, but double that if you're on your own. I feel like selling books now is hard anyway with a lack of readings and events, so I've no idea if one approach is better than another in the long term--so we shall see...I'm just making it up as I go along...

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