A nation of sidewalk publishers

For less than $500, anyone can become a published author. But how many self-published books make it to the mainstream?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In Larry Layman's self-published westerns, the cowboy always gets the girl. In real life, the married Illinois cop has another goal - to get a real publisher.

The problem? Mr. Layman's six novels tend to play only in Peoria, where he writes his books in his police car during slow periods on patrol. He's still an unknown outside the Land of Lincoln, despite spending thousands to print copies of his westerns.

"I don't think I'll make a bestseller list, but I'd like to be on the bookstore shelves at more than one Barnes & Noble" - that is, the one in Peoria, says Layman. And it would be nice to be paid by a publisher instead of the other way around.

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Layman currently pays iUniverse about $500 to print each book. Only a tiny percentage of the company's offerings are picked up by traditional publishers. "If you go into [self-publishing] thinking you'll be rich, you'll be in for a rude awakening," Layman says.

But not every Louis L'Amour, John Grisham, and Barbara Cartland wannabe fully realizes the difficulty of achieving financial success. Interest in self-publishing is taking off like a runaway bestseller. IUniverse, which prints several thousand books annually, reports submissions are up 17 percent in the first six months of this year.

In many cases, authors "don't really understand how the [publishing] industry works, and they're very angry when it doesn't work out," says Charlotte Abbott, senior editor at Publishers Weekly. To make things worse, "there are people preying on their dreams."

Publishing your own book hasn't always been easy. Just a decade ago, it wasn't cost-efficient for publishers to print less than a few hundred copies, so a run of a book could cost $10,000 or $15,000. In return, hundreds of unsold copies might stack up in the author's garage.

But the advent of "print on demand" technology in the late 1990s allows dozens of self-publishing companies to print small numbers of books. For as little as $459, anyone can produce a so-called "vanity press" book. Editing services are often available at extra cost.

Not everyone is a fan of this nearly do-it-yourself industry. Publishing insiders either ignore the books or scoff at their questionable quality. In fact, while iUniverse prints 350 to 400 titles a month, fewer than 50 titles are picked up by traditional publishers each year - that's about 0.5 percent.

On the other hand, there's no denying the rare success stories, which frequently inspire hopeful authors. Most notably, the self-published bestseller "Natural Cures 'They' Don't Want You to Know About" continues to top the sales charts despite author Kevin Trudeau's history of legal problems, including a prison term. Last year, Mr. Trudeau paid a $2 million federal fine over unsubstantiated medical claims, and officials banned him from any form of advertising about health products or programs.

Like almost all self-published books, "Natural Cures" fell under the radar of reviewers at major newspapers and industry journals, which tend to ignore anything not printed by a mainstream publisher. But unlike almost all self-published books, its author had the resources to distribute and promote the book, says Publisher Weekly's Ms. Abbott.

At iUniverse, employees try to make sure authors understand the big picture, says president and chief executive officer Susan Driscoll. "People have big dreams and grand expectations," she says. "It's up to companies like iUniverse to provide them the education, but not pull the wool over their eyes."

Fledgling authors complain that some publishers don't have their best interests in mind. Several firms have been accused of defrauding authors and failing to provide promised services.

Then there's the matter of quality, or the lack of it, in self-published books.

Most self-published books "are bad in ways that even the worst commercially published novels are not," says Vermont horror novelist Nick Mamatas. He tells scary stories of seeing typos in titles - like "Creation's of a Madman" - and a heavy reliance on "ancient clich├ęs and amateur-hour designs."

Earlier this year, a group of science-fiction writers wanted to see if a self- proclaimed discriminating publisher, PublishAmerica, bothered to read submissions. So they produced "Atlanta Nights," which came to be dubbed the worst novel in history. The authors were told to write badly and had no idea of the novel's plot or where their chapters would appear. Some chapters were duplicated or had no copy at all, and one featured random gibberish created by a computer.

PublishAmerica initially sent an acceptance letter, but rescinded its offer the next day. "Atlanta Nights" - harmless, except to the reputation of the publisher, perhaps - has now been self-published.

But some publishers express concern about authors who can easily publish books without any layer of editing. As a result, books containing dangerous and incorrect information about important subjects such as health could easily appear on the market.

"If publishing is available to many people, you're going to get the good with the bad, there's no question about that," says iUniverse's Ms. Driscoll. "It puts more of the obligation on the reader. But the Internet has made that true anyway, with all the websites out there. Being able to tell the good from the bad is a reality of our life."

Of course, plenty of low-quality books - not to mention inaccurate and misleading ones - were available to the public well before the self-publishing craze. The difference is that more authors like Peoria's Layman have a chance to show that they're special.

"I happen," he says, "to be unique."

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