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Making Books

Self-publishing companies are in the business of selling dreams. But what if the dream becomes a nightmare?

By Paula Span
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page BW08

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

It was a jubilant day when Kate St. Amour learned that her novel, featuring "a psychic witch who solves crimes," had been accepted for publication. She'd been quietly writing fiction since high school, socking her efforts away in drawers, but last spring she took a deep breath and, for the first time, sent a manuscript to a publisher recommended by online friends. Bare Bones had "the three M's: magic, mystery and murder," says St. Amour, a Fredericksburg, Va., nurse with an unusually felicitous name for a writer of a book that is part mystery, part romance. This book, she thought, might finally be good enough.

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The Success Stories

The self-published books that go on to become bestsellers are few, but they never cease to inspire:

Celestine Prophecy, by James Redfield. The novel was self-published by the author in 1993 through Satori Publishers, which sold 100,000 copies. Redfield re-sold the rights to Warner in 1994. As of 2004, it has sold over 5 million copies in its Warner edition after well over 50 printings; worldwide, nearly 12 million copies in print in more than 40 languages.

Feed Me, I'm Yours, by Vicki Lansky. This cookbook was self-published in 1975 by Meadowbrook Press, an imprint the author founded and continues to manage. In all, it has sold 3 million copies worldwide.

Invisible Life, by E. Lynn Harris. This successful African-American novelist self-published his first book in 1991 and sold 10,000 copies. In 1994, Doubleday offered him a mass market contract and went on to sell more than 500,000.

The Christmas Box, by Richard Paul Evans. Evans orginally conceived of this story as a gift for his family in 1992. He printed 20 copies at a Kinkos, and ultimately published and sold 250,000 paperbacks himself. In 1995, Simon & Schuster bought the rights and sold more than 7 million copies worldwide.

-- Compiled by staff researcher Julie Tate

In June, a publisher in Frederick, Md., agreed. "I'm happy to inform you that PublishAmerica has decided to give your Bare Bones the chance it deserves," it announced via e-mail. "To say I was excited is an understatement. I've wanted to be published my entire life," recalls St. Amour, who is 31. "I called everyone I could get on the phone; I e-mailed everyone I knew."

Doubts first arose when she began receiving e-mailed exhortations offering special, limited-time discounts if she agreed to purchase many copies of her own book. Would Avon or Pocketbooks do that? she wondered. She grew suspicious, too, when the proofs of her novel arrived -- riddled, St. Amour says, with spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors.

And when she visited her local Waldenbooks to schedule a book-signing, an assistant manager checked her computer, "looked at me and said, 'That's POD.' " In industry parlance that means "print on demand," books that are most likely self-published. "We don't do signings for POD authors," the employee said.

Perhaps, St. Amour thought at first, the manager misunderstood. PublishAmerica does use POD technology -- saving manufacturing and warehousing costs by not producing a book until a consumer actually places an order. But it calls itself "a traditional, advance- and royalty-paying book publisher." Its trade paperbacks, its Web site says, "are available through most major bookstores," though it adds this qualifier: "Availability is not necessarily the same as bookstore shelf display."

St. Amour, who acknowledges being "very ignorant about the publishing industry" at the time, believed she was contracting with a press that was small but could launch her new career. Yet a major chain bookseller -- and the nearby Borders concurred -- was telling her it wouldn't put her book on its shelves.

"The excitement," she says now, "was short-lived." PublishAmerica operates differently, she has learned.

To Larry Clopper, president and co-founder of PublishAmerica, the company, in relying on its authors to largely sell their own books, is "revolutionizing" an elitist industry. It has, he says, "always operated on the highest principles of honor and integrity." PublishAmerica's authors often knew "decades of failure, dozens of rejections and life-changing disappointment," adds Clopper, who twice failed to find publishers for his own books. "Now they hold their books in their hands, and they are sneering down at the publishing industry that shunned them."

Many of his authors have no complaints. Humor novelist H.B. Marcus of Burton, Ohio, for example, says that his royalties amount to "cigarette money twice a year" but believes that if he just keeps plugging he can build a readership. Yet others are sufficiently angry to launch a campaign against the 5-year-old publisher.

"I am beyond distraught," says St. Amour. "To think my dreams were realized, and then to find out I made a horrible choice, was horribly misled -- it's crushing."

The Self-Publishing Universe

Weren't writers supposed to be bypassing publishing houses and dead-tree technology by now? Shouldn't the industry have evolved to something other than the book as Gutenberg knew it? Somehow, though, writers' most potent fantasies still involve pages between covers, not e-books and blogs.

"The immortality of the book, the permanence of the book draws people in," says Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild.

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