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Self-Publishing Gets Some Respect
Written by
State of the Art
October 2011
Written by
State of the Art
October 2011

Sarah Glazer Wonders if Self-publishing is Losing its Stigma

Back in 2005, I wrote an article for the New York Times about a new phenomenon: An author who was sure her book would be a best-seller had spurned traditional publishers, lured by the higher profit share she could garner with self-publishing.

Admittedly she wasn’t a conventional author. The writer was Amy Fisher, who had been dubbed the “Long Island Lolita” when, at the age of 17, she shot her lover’s wife. Her book “If I Knew Then” was her account of those events, which had made national headlines.

In those days, however, the shameful taint of the old-fashioned vanity press still lingered around self-publishing. The New York Times refused on principle to review such a book, and a writer only turned to an “author services” company if her work wasn’t good enough to find a publisher.

Now, publisher Perseus Books has found a way to let those authors grab a bigger share of the pie but get rid of the vanity stigma—at least for e-books. Perseus’ new distribution and marketing arm will let authors self-publish their own books digitally, giving them a 70 percent share of the revenues instead of the standard 25 percent traditional publishers usually grant for e-books.

The respectability veneer? The offer is only open to authors whose agent has signed an agreement with Perseus. The publisher says it’s already signed an agreement with Janklow & Nesbit, which represents Ann Beattie and Diane Johnson. That sounds pretty respectable to me--at least if those venerated fiction writers jump at the offer. But why would an established author have to turn to self-publishing anyway?

“We’ve heard from authors that they may have a book that’s never been published, but it doesn’t fit what their existing publisher is looking for,” Perseus President David Steinberger told the Times. The option is also attractive to authors  for their books that have gone out of print.

Without this new offer, Perseus would be right to worry that some of its writers might turn to other outfits that specialize in e-books, as the family of William Styron did recently. Their decision to abandon Styron’s traditional publisher, Random House, and turn to e-book specialist Open Road to bring out best-sellers like “Sophie’s Choice” in digital form, created quite a stir in the publishing world.  At the time, Styron family members said they were attracted by Open Road’s commitment to marketing e-books to a whole new (younger) audience as well as the 50-50 revenue split it promised.

Perseus’ new self-publishing arm, Argo Navis Author Services, will market an e-book on web sites and convert the book into digital form, but it won't provide many of its other traditional publishing services available to authors on standard contracts. But as most of us know, many of those services-- from publicity to editing to indexing-- have been disappearing anyway unless the author pays for them.

And the news that Amazon has now signed up 122 authors, cutting publishers completely out of the deal, seems like a logical development as traditional publishers offer less and less to their established authors while keeping talented newcomers out.

One of the authors Amazon signed up for publication this fall is an unknown business writer, Laurel Saville. She caught Amazon’s attention after her self-published memoir about her mother’s descent to street person and murder victim was reviewed in Publishers Weekly.

Amazon sent her an e-mail offering to republish the book and they’ve given it a re-edit, a new cover and a new title “Unraveling Anne.” On her own, Saville only sold 600 copies of the book, but with Amazon’s powerful marketing machine behind her, Saville hopes for success that would never have been possible without her self-published start.

As she told the Times, “I assume they want to make a lot of money off the book, which is encouraging to me.”

I expect we’ll be hearing more stories like this as writers find new ways to connect with readers and dispense with traditional publishers as middlemen. My perennial question--how a reader is supposed to discern quality writing out of the massive number of volumes self-published each year--is starting to be answered by experimental forays into this world by the likes of Perseus and Amazon. I'd be interested to hear: Have SheWriters found other ways to distinguish their self-published works?

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