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Book World Live: Self-Publishing

Paula Span
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2005; 3:00 PM

Like mainstream book publishers, self-publishing companies are in the business of selling dreams. But what if the dream becomes a nightmare?

In Sunday's Book World, contributing writer Paula Span explores the "print on demand" (POD) industry. Many POD companies, who rely on authors to largely sell their own books, say they are "revolutionizing" an elitist publishing industry. However, many would-be authors complain they have fallen prey to misleading offers and had their dreams stolen.

Span, a former Washington Post staff writer currently teaching at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, was online Tuesday, Jan. 25, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss her article, "print on demand" and self-publishing.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday'sBook Worldsection.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Vienna, Va.: Dear Ms. Span, I really enjoyed reading your article. Isn't the real problem the fact that so many people today want to be published? If I had a dime for everyone of my friends who has said, "I want to write children's books!," I'd be rich. Also, it's like every celebrity is writing, too. I think it's more about being published and having your name in print than about the actual pursuit and art of writing. What do you think?

Paula Span: Greetings, all and thanks for joining the conversation. A lot of people have submitted questions and comments already, so let's get started.

I agree: the fact that so many people yearn to be writers (and think they can write) is what provides a ready market for POD presses, self-publishing firms and vanity presses. Hey, if Jamie Lee Curtis can do it, why not you? Whatever technology offers -- the Net, e-books, blogs -- the old-fashioned book has a pull that the years can't dent. And the desire to be published remains so strong that people will pay, one way or the other, to be able to call themselves an author.


College Park, Md.: The most important advice I ever heard:

Money flows to the author, not away.

Paula Span: Yes, that's the usual method of trying to distinguish a vanity press from a mainstream publisher.

But these categories are getting complicated. True self-publishing, in its purest form, means that the author contracts directly with a printer rand a distributor, retains all rights and receives all revenues. Classic vanity presses, the author pays the press (often a lot). Now we've got POD publishers like iUniverse and Xlibris that charge and take publishing rights, but usually are willing to return rights to the author without too much fuss.

And PublishAmerica is sort of an amalgam: it doesn't charge up front, so authors feel reassured: They're not asking me for money, so they must not be a vanity press. But in the ways I tried to delineate (and others) it doesn't operate like a mainstream publisher either. And indirectly, it does make a high proportion of its income from its authors and their friends and family. How high a proportion is unclear; President Larry Clopper says he thinks it's less than half. But he acknowledges that sales figures from PublishAmerica's distributors don't specify who's buying books where, so perhaps it's half or more. Even if authors and their circles are buying 40 to 50 percent of all the books the company sells, that's a very high percentage.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Ms. Span! The publishing industry is a tough nut to crack. I mean, I want to know more about how Suzanne Hansen did it. If I wanted to self-publish, I have the book printed, get the ISBN number and then market the heck out of it? Is there someplace that tells you how to do this? Signed, Have Story, Will Travel.

Paula Span: It IS a tough nut to crack, no question. It's designed to be a tough nut, to fill that gatekeeper function of not publishing everything by everyone.

So self-publishing allows an end-run, but do keep in mind that for every one of these success stories we cite, there are hundreds or thousands of people who invested a few thousand dollars in self-publishing and got very little in return, in terms of sales or glory.

That said, Dan Poynter's (self-published) book, "The Self-Publishing Manual," tells how to go about this. There are specialized printers and type-setters and editors that perform these services.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for an interesting article. I worked as an editor in book publishing for many years. Perhaps it would comfort would-be authors to know that the experience of being published by a major house is not all wine and roses either. I have had many painful conversations with authors upset over how many copies of their book a certain store did or did not order, how much they hated the book jacket, or typographical errors. Even trade publishers can't make a store or chain order a certain number of copies. And even a trade publisher is not going to print triple or more of the books that have been advance ordered, if they are likely to sit in the warehouse.

But publishing is not a god-given right, either, contrary to what some would-be writers think. I would estimate that I probably read 300 or more manuscripts or proposals for every manuscript I tried to acquire. I have had many experiences of being asking for feedback on a manuscript and trying to deliver the news that it wasn't for me, or my house, and getting a lot of anger in return. Such strong negative emotions are part of the reason I'm glad to be out of that business. And now, except in very unusual circumstances I won't read anything for anyone. Ever.

Also, a recommendation: Jennifer Weiner (the author of several novels) has a great primer on her Web site about finding an agent, getting published, etc. I send all the folks who want me to give them a free read/evaluation there.

Would-be authors need to be realistic about their abilities and the deal they're being offered. It's up to them to inform themselves. While the publisher in question certainly seems to be exploiting their ignorance, they can't blame anyone but themselves when the deal that seems too good to be true turns out to be exactly that.

Paula Span: A testimonial from one of those gatekeepers. Certainly true: nobody complains more about the practices of mainstream publishers than their authors. Authors are chronic malcontents; they never feel their publishers invest enough in promotion (often true); they squawk about covers; they grouse about there not being enough books in stores (often also true). Their agents never pay enough attention to them. Their editors don't edit well enough. Etc etc etc.

But that doesn't mean that there's no difference between the PublishAmerica model and HarperCollins or St. Martin's. One thing PublishAmerica's materials tend to do is not only talk glowingly about what it offers but to portray the traditional publishing approach as harder and more onerous than it is. Take promotion, a constant source of unhappiness in the publishing world. PublishAmerica, in addition to sending out a couple of press releases and perhaps 10 review copies, give or take, gives authors a website on its site and sends out email to book reviewers. Even a smallish book by a first-time author at St. Martin's or HarperCollins gets hundreds of press releases and review copies, and follow-up calls by publicists, etc., etc.

Thanks for the reference to the Weiner website.

Paula Span: It's valuable to have your perspective.


Arlington, Va.: As a librarian, I can point to another problem with P.O.D. books: very few make it onto library shelves. Even in the catalog of the Library of Congress, the world's largest, there are only three books from PublishAmerica, and all are technical volumes. Even the vanity presses are far better represented there.

Legally, PublishAmerica may be fine. Ethically, it's perpetrating fraud. Thanks for a very interesting -- and, sadly, eye-opening -- article.

Paula Span: Ah, interesting -- thanks for pointing that out.

Plus, library sales are a significant component of sales, especially for hardcover books. So authors whose books are not in libraries not only lose the ability to reach all those readers, but they also lose a few thousand sales that libraries would have accounted for.


Washington, D.C.: Ms. Span, I thought your article was excellent. What kind of author, in your opinion, is most likely to sign on with Publish America and stay with this company as they produce new books?

Paula Span: It's hard to say, because there are so many of them. Hard to generalize about 11,000 people!

But those I spoke with had been writers for years who had lifelong dreams of being published. Sometimes they had piles of rejection slips from legit publishers; sometimes they were newcomers who'd never tried to submit a manuscript before.

They had been told that paying money to get published was the hallmark of the vanity press, so they were leery of places that are upfront about charging fees: iUniverse, XLibris, the more traditional vanity presses like Dorrance or Ivy or Vantage, etc. PublishAmerica sounded like a good deal to them: no charges up front, and claims all over the website that this was a "traditional" publisher, that books would be "available" through actual bookstores. You can see why it would have seemed like a good idea.

And some of them (without actually surveying enough authors for statistical validity, there's no way to quantify how many) are satisfied customers. And some of them feel betrayed and angry.


Macon, Ga.: In your professional opinion, is it not unusual that a "traditional publisher" like Publish America would not have one single best selling book out of 10 or 11,000 authors?

Paula Span: I'm not a publishing professional, but I have covered the industry and authors for years for the Style section and the Magazine.

There are thousands of presses, so perhaps it's not unusual that PublishAmerica doesn't have a "best-seller," if by that you mean a book that has landed on one of the nationally recognized best-seller lists, like Publishers Weekly or USA Today or the NYTimes Book Review. Lots of smaller but very legitimate presses, like Grove or Algonquin or university presses, don't have tons of best-sellers.

But it is certainly unusual that out of 7500 books published, the number one sales leader has barely topped 5000 books sold. That's a number that, for an author at a big mainstream publishing house, might make it difficult to get a second or a third book published at all. If PublishAmerica's Larry Clopper is correct, and a few dozen authors have topped the thousand mark in numbers of books sold, then most PublishAmerica authors are selling fewer than 100 or in the low hundreds. That's not a level that most mainstream publishers can tolerate.


Washington, D.C.: What did you feel the aggrieved authors want out of their publishing experiences with Publish America? While Publish America engaged in some shady tactics, I wonder if the authors aren't more upset at themselves that anything else for not performing their due diligence on Publish America before signing a seven-year contract with them.

Paula Span: Well, hope springs eternal among writers and would-be authors, so I think what a number of the unhappy authors want is to have their rights returned so they can submit their work to other publishers, non-vanity presses. Whether other publishers are interested is an open question, of course.

Are they upset with themselves? Sure, several expressed to me their embarrassment at their naivete. But in truth, it's pretty hard to do "due diligence" about this company. When you read the Web site, how is an ordinary person to know that the sentence -- "Now PublishAmerica can make your next book available in all bookstores for free" -- doesn't mean that books will be on the shelves at Waldenbooks? Yet it doesn't mean that. Several authors called the Better Business Bureau of Maryland and were told there were no complaints against the company. (Now there are.)

So sure, if you were somewhat sophisticated about how various branches of publishing work, you might be wary. But 11,000 people in the past five-plus years thought it sounded like a good deal. (And some of them are satisfied customers, of course.)


Beverly Hills, Calif.: I had an incredibly positive experience with iUniverse. I POD published my novel "Cooking for Love" with them because the New York publishers said the two heroines were too old -- at 49 -- that there was no market for a book about them. The book did so well on BN.com the first weekend -- thanks to an e-mail campaign among women -- that it soared to #23 in sales ranking. It did so well that in December, iUniverse decided to move it to iUniverse Star and bring the book out in stores -- May 18 as "Cookin' for Love" - not POD, but fully returnable. This hasn't cost me any money. And they've hired a publicist for me.

Paula Span: So here's a publishing tale with a happy ending. Congratulations.

It also shows a mini-trend within POD houses: some of them are beginning to offer selected titles to stores on a returnable basis. (PublishAmerica is starting to experiment with this, too.)

If more POD publishers follow suit, this could be another channel for people who self-publish or go the POD route to eventually cross over into mainstream publishing.

As it stands, though, the number of POD books that are offered on a returnable basis is still quite small, as far as I know.


Petersburg, Va.: Are there any plans for an article on literary agents? If so, I'm more than willing to share information with you on hundreds of agents, both real and fake.

By the way, if you need more information on PublishAmerica or some other problem publishers, please do contact me. --Dave Kuzminski, Editor, Preditors & Editors (tm)

Paula Span: None that I know of, but it could be a fertile subject. The Authors Guild has had a lot of experience with phony agents -- sometimes they refer authors to also-phony book doctors who edit their manuscripts at exorbitant prices. All kinds of scamsters target would-be authors.

Mr. Kuzminski's Web site Preditors (sic) & Editors is one of the sites where people can get information on other authors' experiences. Ditto Writer Beware.


Washington, D.C.: This was a great article, very eye opening about the self-publishing world. I have often heard that John Grisham, the mega bestselling author, got his start by self publishing his first novel, "A Time to Kill," and sold copies out of the trunk of his car. How did he make the leap from that to the bestseller list?

Paula Span: I've read that about Grisham, and then I've also read that no, even though he was selling copies out of his trunk, he did have a publisher and the copies he was selling were not self-published.

I'm not clear which is true, but take a number of these supposed self-publishing triumphs with several grains of salt. Sure, maybe Walt Whitman self-published some of his poems, but I'm not sure Civil War-era publishing models are much of a guide for current authors.


Annandale, Va.: Hi, Paula.

So you've scared me off the POD and vanity publishers. I have a book that is of a new genre. Possibly, it's new because it's been tried before and failed. I don't know. I do know I want to try to have it published. The audience is kids 10-18. So what do I do now?

Thanks for the enlightening article.

Paula Span: Well, this is the problem -- one that's existed probably as long as the printing press and one that gives rise to various attempts at self-publishing, etc. The mainstream publishing industry already publishes too many books, about 150,000 new titles a year. Critics can't review them all; bookstores can't stock them all (but the average Barnes & Noble, interestingly, does stock about half of new titles, at least for a few weeks); most of them go unheralded.

Even so, hundreds of would-be authors get rejected, probably, for every one that lands with a big mainstream house.

But if you're looking for recognition, for a shot at bookstores and libraries, for reviews in mainstream publications -- in short, the whole experience we think of as being a published author with a reputable house -- the mainstream publishers are still the way to go. And the way most people scale that citadel is with an agent. And agents turn away most authors, too.

Discouraging? Well, sure. But this gatekeeper function -- that the major publishers *don't* take most people -- is why there's more attention paid to the books that do get published by Holt or Scribner's than by iUniverse or PublishAmerica.

I don't actually like to be discouraging, as a fellow writer. But not everyone who loves basketball and yearns to be part of it can play for the NBA, either.


Potomac, Md.: Dear Ms. Span, great article! And long overdue. As a published author I am always amazed at how many people do not conduct due diligence when approaching such a major venture. I think the biggest red flag would be the fact that this publisher wants money under the guise of buying back copies of one's own book whether at a reduced rate or not. Advice to others trying to get in the game: Review The Literary Marketplace. It's a reference guide that lists agents, legitimate publishers, etc., and tells who's accepting (or not) queries, submissions, etc. It's available at any library and online. Also, I wouldn't call the publishing industry elitist so much as a major industry. And like any other industry it looks hard at the bottom line in terms of huge profits. It's no longer a gentlemanly sport as they say. Unfortunate yes, but it is the only system we have. And let's face it, it probably does separate the wheat from the chaff. Am I being too harsh? Your thoughts?

Paula Span: No, I don't think you're being harsh about wheat and chaff. But nobody likes to think of herself as chaff.

The mainstream publishing industry puts out a lot of questionable stuff. And probably there are, indeed, many undiscovered gems that get self-published or POD published or vanity-published -- and few people ever hear of them. It's unjust, perhaps, but there it is.

Still, on the whole, I think most self-published and vanity books are not being rejected (if they were) because they're too experimental, or publishers are too narrow-minded or elitist. Most are getting rejected because the publisher just doesn't think it can make any money on it.


Annandale, Va.: I am an author who has been published by Publish America. I knew from the start that they were a smaller house and more likely to take a chance on a new author. I was thrilled to be accepted and published. I think we all know how hard it is to get that first job without any experience. Thank goodness for Publish America for helping me to realize my potential and make a dream come true. I have had no problem in finding a book store in which to have signings, and have had great reviews from all that have read my work. Yes, I have to do the leg work, but how great it is for me to meet my potential readership in person rather than their reading someone that they don't know. I thank Publish America for their encouragement and the opportunity that they have given me. Just think about how many great books are out there that never get read because the big houses don't think that they can make a big profit quickly.

Paula Span: Here's one of those happy PublishAmerica authors.

However, I would venture to say that most people who want to be authors, while they might enjoy meeting a few hundred of their readers at local events, want to have a broad national readership, thousands of readers. They may never meet them all face to face, but the point of publishing and shipping books around the nation or the world is that you don't *have* to rely on face to face communications.


Roanoke, Va.: How is having had a book published by PublishAmerica likely to impact my future as a writer? Is that information something that I should hide as much as is practicable?

Paula Span: It won't do you any good with a mainstream publisher, so I wouldn't brag about it. But I'm not sure it will do you much harm, either. Your future as a writer will depend on whether you have a good agent and a strong book proposal or manuscript. If Random House thinks it can sell 20,000 copies, it won't much care about your PublishAmerica past, I don't think. And if it thinks it will sell 200 copies, it will take a pass.


Chesapeake City, Md.: Dear Paula Span,

A comment more than a question: I read your article about POD because my novel, "Rebel Fever," was published by PublishAmerica. Unlike many of the other authors, I was happy with the result. The people at PA were professional and produced a quality book.

I guess I knew what to expect because a previous novel, "Sharpshooter," was published by Penguin Putnam. I have two more books due out this year, not from PublishAmerica.

My only gripe with PA is the high cost of the book. $21.95 for a trade paperback? I got around this by buying in quantity and putting my own price on the book.

Getting published and being an "author" is not for everyone, nor is it easy.

Thanks again for your well-written article.

David Healey

Paula Span: The prices are high, yes. Average price for a trade paperback is less than $16. PublishAmerica's average price is closer to $20. PublishAmerica says this means royalties are higher, but high cover prices may also serve to depress sales.

Otherwise, if you had a good experience, I'm glad to hear it.


Washington, D.C.: I noticed that the article did not mention AuthorHouse, another well known print-on-demand publisher. Was AuthorHouse included in the investigation? If yes, what were the findings?

Paula Span: I didn't investigate, but I looked at the Author House Web site. Like a number of vanity presses, it seemed pretty honest about what it was offering; unlike some, it didn't actually list prices on the site.


Kingstowne, Va.: Congratulations on an excellent expose. One thing, however, that I must have missed: If PublishAmerica doesn't charge up-front fees, how do they make any money? Usually these types of mills make their money by charging up-front fees that can run into the thousands. Does this entity do that as well or did I miss something?

Paula Span: It doesn't charge fees upfront, no. And since it's a partnership, not a publicly-traded company, it doesn't have to tell us how much money it makes or how.

But it seems to operate on a high-volume basis. It doesn't make very much money per title, because with 7500 books published -- or let's say it's 8000 by now -- and sales of about 1 million, we're talking average sales of 125. Some are more, obviously, but Mr. Clopper tells me that 1100 titles haven't sold any copies at all.

But it doesn't have to sell a lot of copies of each title in order to make money (he says $4 million to $6 million in sales annually) because there are so many thousands and thousands of titles -- much more than even the longtime industry leaders. HarperCollins doesn't publish this many titles. Random House doesn't publish this many titles. So if an author sells 100 copies or so, and say about half of them or a bit less are copies he bought himself or his friends did, well, that's apparently enough for PublishAmerica to make a profit.


Colebook, N.H.: Hi, Paula. Background for you: Grisham's first novel, "A Time to Kill," was published by Wynwood Press, 1989, (a New York publisher that also published Charles Berlitz, Isaac Asimov, etc.) It was a straight advance-and-royalties deal, just like any other legitimate publisher.

After Mr. Grisham's success with his second book, "The Firm," "A Time to Kill" was rereleased in hardcover by Doubleday and in paperback by Dell.

The story that Grisham self-published his first book is persistent self-publisher folklore.

Paula Span: Okay, thanks for the information.


Alexandria, Va.: Paula: this is not a question but an observation. I have used a POD publisher (Authorhouse in Bloomington, Ind.) for two years now to publish my AP Government students' essays and found them to be highly reputable, responsive and helpful. I am not looking for a best-seller but use the publication technique as a great motivational tool for my high school seniors (West Potomac High School, Fairfax County, Va.) And what I have found is that the sale of last year's book on immigration ("And Still They Come") has essentially paid for this year's hardcover ("White House Under Fire"), so not all of the POD's are quite as direputable as one might think.

Paula Span: Sounds like a smart use of the technology and the business model.

I don't want people to come away thinking that self-publishing or POD publishing is an evil that should be stamped out. Not at all. In cases like yours -- high school students benefiting from their appearance in a book but not looking for publishing careers -- it can be a very useful alternative. You'd never get a big mainstream publisher to put your students' work between covers. Now you can, for not a vast sum.

I just think that publishers -- all of them -- need to be very honest and clear about what they're offering and what it costs. And authors need to be cautious and wary and not just sign on dotted lines.


Chicago, Ill.: Reading your recent article about Publish America, reminded me of network television. It is obvious that you (Paula Span) do not research YOUR work before publishing it either. Your article belongs in the tabloids.

There are a few authors who even admitted they had little knowledge of publishing when they signed up with PublishAmerica. Instead of making a PublishAmerica look bad, they only succeeded in making people across the world laugh at how ignorant they were about the publishing business.

I am proud to be an author with Publish America. Publish America has followed the contract, between us, to the letter. They made no false promises and it is not a self-publishing company. They paid for the publishing of my two books of poetry, and I will be submitting all my future books to them. My books are in a number of bookstores, as well as available online in the U. S., Europe and Australia.

ALL authors have the opportunity to buy their book at discounts, why shouldn't they? I'm sure Stephen King gets a great discount. But at least we get a discount. We don't sell to family and friends, we sell at bookstores, libraries, book fairs, and many other places where a sale is likely to be made simply because the author is there and can sign the book for the buyer. This is how it works for new authors, and the people putting down PublishAmerica are simply looking for five minutes of fame. Instead they show how ignorant they truly are about publishing.

Out of 11,000 authors, you will find very few who are dissatisfied. So what does THAT tell you? PublishAmerica authors are among the happiest authors in America.

Paula Span: Hey, if you're happy, I'm happy.

But let's be clear about a couple of things. The fact that 130 or so PublishAmerica authors signed a petition to the Maryland Attorney General's Office asking for an investigation doesn't mean that the remaining 11,000 are happy. 3000 or 3500 of them haven't been published yet at all. Of the rest, without doing the sort of survey that would yield statistically-valid data, we don't know how many are thrilled, how many are upset and never went back, how many are feeling so-so. I don't know and you don't know.

But to me, whether people are happy or unhappy is only part of the story. The rest is, can PublishAmerica credibly claim to be a "traditional" publisher? I tried to show certain ways in which it operated very differently from what that phrase suggests to most folks.

A couple of other points: all mainstream publishers offer their authors discounts, but those discounts (50 percent is standard) don't come and go. They're not special offers; the author's discount is available whenever.

And while it's certainly true that all authors, whoever publishers them, have to work hard to promote their work, remember that MOST sales, over half, still take place in stores. Authors hustle, but they do not generally account for most of their sales. Bookstores and nonbookstores (like WalMart and Costco) do the bulk of the selling.


Washington, D.C.: Does Amazon or BN.com stock PublishAmerica books, or make them available to people who want them?

Paula Span: PublishAmerica titles can be ordered through Amazon or bn.com, yes. And also on PublishAmerica's own Web site.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I presume the industry does not release these figures, but you have any sense of who is buying vanity books? Would it be safe to presume that, for the vast majority of vanity publications, the majority of sales of those made by the author?

Paula Span: The majority of sales, we're told, are to authors and their circles -- friends, family, coworkers, perhaps neighbors and local residents who turn out for a signing if they can persuade a local bookstore to hold one. And this isn't a bad way to start; lots of authors are local phenoms first, with regional followings. They get coverage in local papers, stage local events.

The problem with vanity or self-publishing is that it's very difficult to get past your local contacts to reach a broader audience. Maybe you can spread the word in your own town, if you're very entrepreneurial, or in a few adjoining towns. But how can you let readers, booksellers and reviewers in Denver, Chapel Hill or Tampa know that your self-published or vanity-published book exists? Not easy, even if you are very energetic.

One way I have heard that this can work is if someone has an active public-speaking career. If you're a dermatologist who addresses large gatherings every month or two, and you want to take your self-published guide to skin care along and sell copies in the back of the auditorium, maybe you can sell enough to make back your investment.


Palmyra, Va.: My second Publish America book was just released. My first was published in 2001, when Publish America was a new company. The changes in PA, from the beginning to the present, have been negatively dramatic. In 2001, I had a real editor whom I could contact by phone and e-mail. By 2004, PA had dropped its 800 phone number. In fact, it is now impossible to speak to anyone at PA; e-mails only. My first book was good enough to make a published list of the 70 best works of fiction involving architects and architecture since the mid- 19th Century. It was also good enough to get me into Barnes & Noble for several days of book signings and readings, and onto a panel of writers at the Virginia Festival of the Book. On my own dime, I managed to get my first book reviewed by real reviewers, and my ratings were tops... however, fortunately, I am retired and do not need the book income to pay for food and shelter. But with all my paid advertising and promotional travel, my net loss is substantial. Also, at age 67, I wasn't about sue PA. But I had had more than enough of them, so, when it came time to honor my first contract obligation, giving PA the right of first refusal on book two, I spent about two weeks modifying one of my earlier "practice" manuscripts. That was to be book two. And I was sure they'd never print it. I was wrong. No questions in all of the above, but I felt obligated to share my experiences with everyone who wants to see their books published.

Paula Span: Okay, thanks for chiming in.


Chapel Hill, N.C.: You write, "I'm not sure Civil War-era publishing models are much of a guide for current authors."

You're revealing the limitations of your research here. With your article on PublishAmerica you've done an excellent job of outlining the pitfalls of self publishing. But before you dismiss the idea out of hand, as a good journalist you should at least take the time to familiarize yourself with some real success stories, among them Andy Kessler's "Wall Street Meat" and Christopher Paolini's "Eragon." Both these self-published books eventually wound up in the hands of conventional publishers, but both started through viral marketing as self published books. The Internet is a powerful tool for independent publishers. There are many, many success stories -- both large and small. Every book is different, and an author's goals in publishing a book in the first place have to be taken into consideration in evaluating the success of his efforts.

Paula Span: I don't dismiss self-publishing out of hand. I agree with you that a would-be author has to consider what his goals are. Do you have a book you'd like to give away? Or, will you be happy if you spend weeks promoting and hustling your book and 200 or 400 or even 600 people buy it? Then maybe it makes sense.

Do you want to have a years-long writing career, with national distribution of your work, thousands of readers you've never met, perhaps translation into other languages, an editor you actually meet, etc.? That can happen with self-publishing -- especially if a larger publisher later picks up your self-published book-- but it doesn't happen often.

The latest example I've heard of is called "Treasure's Trove," which is selling to kids and adults like crazy on Amazon.

But does self-publishing produce "many, many success stories"? Not if we're talking commercial success or launched careers, in my opinion.


Clifton, N.J.: Great article!

You're being trashed on the PA boards. Much is being made of the fact you're a "former" Washington Post writer; also that the article is just part of the conspiracy of big publishers to keep them down.


Paula Span: I'm not surprised. However, I don't benefit in any way from keeping PublishAmerica authors down, and I'm not part of any conspiracy. I wish them well.

As for the "former," I retired from the Post in November, after 16 years. I wasn't fired, if that's what's being implied.


Paula Span: We've gone over our allotted time, but there are still tons of comments, so I will try to get to a few more.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Ms. Span,

What about the contention of some ex-Publish America authors that copies of their books are being sold after their rights were returned to them? This is documented. That was left out of your article.

Paula Span: It's a contention that I chose not to explore, because the story was already getting awfully long, and because it seemed to me less interesting than the whole question of what a vanity publisher is, what a traditional publisher is, and where PublishAmerica fits on that spectrum.


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