Book critics and reviewers provide a valued service to readers by bringing great (and not so great) new books to their attention. With some 100,000 different books being published by 54,000 publishers each year, readers of The Washington Post are fortunate to have people out there sifting the books and panning for the gold.
Unfortunately, however, some book-review organs avoid certain types of books altogether. For example, I was told that at Book World "We generally don't review self-help books, and we never review self-published books."
Self-help is a category. If the people at The Washington Post Book World do not care for self-help books, cookbooks, or exercise books, I will not argue. We all have our likes and dislikes. However, declining to review self-published books is discriminating against an entire class of publishers.
Self-publishing should not be confused with author-subsidized (vanity) publishing, where the author pays (an exorbitant price to) a "publisher" to turn his or her manuscript into a book. Most vanity presses have a poor reputation for quality and promotion. In self-publishing, the author becomes a publisher and deals directly with the printer. Some people think that most of those who self-publish do so because several publishers have turned them down. That is occasionally true. However, most people today weigh the advantages and disadvantages of selling out to a publisher and make an educated decision to publish themselves. Those who self-publish find they make more money, get to press sooner and keep control of their work.
Many famous books got their start being published by the author; some still are. Self-publishing is an early American tradition. In the early days of the New World, the person with the printing press was often the author, publisher, printer and bookshop. Here is a partial list of books that were originally self-published:
What Color is Your Parachute?, by Richard Nelson Bolles: 22 editions, five million copies and 288 weeks on the bestseller lists. Now published by Ten Speed Press.
The Beanie Baby Handbook, by Lee and Sue Fox: three million copies in two years.
In Search of Excellence, by Tom Peters: over 25,000 copies sold directly to consumers in its first year. Then it was sold to Warner, which sold 10 million more.
Real Peace, by Richard Nixon.
The Celestine Prophecy, by James Redfield. His manuscript made the rounds of the mainstream houses, and then he decided to publish himself. He started by selling copies out of the trunk of his Honda -- over 100,000 of them. He subsequently sold out to Warner for $800,000. The number-one bestseller in 1996, it has now sold more than 5.5 million copies.
The One-Minute Manager, by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, sold over 20,000 copies locally before they sold out to Morrow. It has sold over 12 million copies since 1982 and is in 25 languages.
Fifty Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth sold 4.5 million copies in its original and premium editions.
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. (and his student E.B. White) was originally self-published for his classes at Cornell University in 1918.
A Time to Kill, by John Grisham. He sold his first work out of the trunk of his car.
The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer, was self-published in 1931 as a project of the First Unitarian Women's Alliance in St. Louis. Today Scribner sells more than 100,000 copies each year.
How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, by John Muir, sold over 2 million copies and led to the establishment of a publishing company.
Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, by Wess Roberts, sold 486,000 copies before being picked up by Warner.
Embraced by the Light, by Betty J. Eadie, spent 76 weeks on a hardcover bestseller list, 123 weeks on a paperback list, and was sold to Bantam Books for $1.5 million.
Sugar Busters!, by four Louisiana doctors and a former CEO, sold 165,000 copies regionally in just a year and a half. Then they sold out to Ballantine.
The Wealthy Barber, by David Chilton, has sold over a million copies in Canada (second only to the Bible) and two million in the United States.
When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple, by Sandra Haldeman Martz, has been through the press 42 times for 1.5 million in print.
Mary Ellen's Best of Helpful Hints, by Mary Ellen Pinkham, became a bestseller, and then she sold out to Warner.
The Macintosh Bible, by Arthur Naiman, with over 900,000 sold, has become the bestselling book on Apple products.
Dianetics, by L. Ron Hubbard, has been in print more than 45 years; 20 million copies are in print and it has been translated into 22 languages. The book started a movement and later a church.
Mutant Message Down Under, by Marlo Morgan, sold 370,000 copies before it was sold to HarperCollins for $1.7 million. It was sold to two book clubs, and the foreign rights were sold to 14 countries.
Feed Me, I'm Yours, by Vicky Lansky, sold 300,000 copies. She sold out to Bantam, and they sold eight million more.
The Encyclopedia of Associations, by Frederick Ruffner, led to the establishment of Gale Research Company.
The Lazy Man's Way to Riches, by Joe Karbo, who never sold out and never courted bookstores. He sold millions of his books via full-page ads in newspapers and magazines.
The Christmas Box, by Richard Paul Evans. This 87-page book took him six weeks to write. He published it and promoted it himself. It did so well he sold out to Simon & Schuster for $4.2 million. It hit the top of the bestseller list and was translated into 13 languages.
Twelve Golden Threads, by Aliske Webb, was rejected by 150 publishers. After self-publishing and selling 25,000 copies, she signed a four-book contract with HarperCollins.
Life's Little Instruction Book, by H. Jackson Brown. Initially self-published, it was purchased by Rutledge Hill Press and reached the top of one bestseller list in hardcover and paperback at the same time. Over five million copies were sold.
The Jester Has Lost His Jingle, by Barbara Salzman, was turned down by eight publishers. It became a bestseller.
Let's Cook Microwave, by Barbara Harris, sold over 700,000 copies.
Juggling for the Complete Klutz, by John Cassidy, has sold over two million copies and led to the establishment of Klutz Press with over 50 award-winning books.
Travel Free, by Ben Dominitz, who then founded Prima Publishing. Prima now has 1,500 titles, 140 employees and does $60-million worth of business a year.
How to Flatten Your Stomach, by Jim Everrode, was self-published before he sold out to Price\Stern\Sloan. Since then, the book has sold over two million copies.
The Self-Publishing Manual, by Dan Poynter, has 132,000 copies in print after 11 revised editions since 1979. As a result of this book, I have been called "the godfather to thousands of books."
Other well-known self-publishers include: Deepak Chopra, Louise Hay, Mark Twain, Ken Keyes Jr., Gertrude Stein, Zane Grey, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stephen Crane, Mary Baker Eddy, George Bernard Shaw, Anais Nin, Thomas Paine, Virginia Woolf, e.e. cummings, William Blake, Edgar Allen Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Henry David Thoreau, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Alexandre Dumas, W.E.B. DuBois, and Robert Ringer.
Often, the self-published book is superior to the New York-published book. Self-publishers are closer to their markets. They may be skydivers writing parachute books or auto mechanics writing car-repair books. They know who the reader is, what the reader wants and, most important, where the reader is.
If the paper is not reviewing them, then some of the best books are being hidden from your readers. According to the Book Industry Study Group/Publishers Marketing Association poll, 78 percent of the books published last year came from small presses. In the United States today, there are six large publishers, 300 medium-size houses and over 53,000 small ones. Last year, some 9,000 new publishing companies were established. A significant portion of them were self-publishers. The large (New York) publishers are consolidating, downsizing and going out of the business while the self-publishers are proliferating. I wonder how you can tell a self-publisher from a publisher. No one keeps track of these classifications or their numbers. In light of the reality of the ever-evolving complexion of the book trade, your readers and the majority of publishers will benefit if Book World amends its policies.
Santa Barbara, Calif.
Book World editors respond:
Book World's policy of not reviewing self-published books has to do with being a small staff operating on tight deadlines. We simply do not have the time and personnel to give each self-published book a full or partial reading in order to decide whether it warrants sending out for review.
To be sure, we don't have time to give a full reading to bound galleys of books from "mainstream" publishers, either. But we can rely on the professional system by which those books come to us: in most cases, having been taken up by an agent, sold to objective acquiring editors, vetted by copy editors, and invested in by publishers, each of whom has made an independent judgment as to the manuscript's quality and likelihood of appealing to a general readership. Having crossed that threshold, such a book arrives with a basic presumption of merit, appeal and adherence to professional standards of research, writing and editing. Relying on that presumption, we can assess the book for its likely appeal to Washington Post readers.
Publishing is by no means a perfect industry, and it probably discourages authors with quirky subjects or avant-garde viewpoints from getting into print. But for now it is, as someone once said about democracy, probably better than any other system we can think of. We are grateful to Dan Poynter for his thoughtful letter and meticulous list, which has got us thinking about these matters. As Poynter notes, self-publishing is a rapidly growing way of getting books out. Along with the many other changes going on in the publishing world, this growth may at some point warrant a change in our policies. In the meantime, the editors of Book World would be happy to hear other readers' views on this subject.
Send your opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org.