Wednesday, November 14, 2007

If You're Thinking About Self-Publishing

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg had another column on the publishing industry in yesterday's Wall Street Journal . This time he took on self-publishing.

Trachtenberg examines the case of C. Ben Bosah, an environmental engineer living in central Ohio. Mr. Bosah, who was born and educated in Nigeria, is married to Ngozi Osuagwu, a gynecologist. Ms. Osuagwu wrote a non-fiction book called Letters to My Sisters: Plain Truths and Straightforward Advice From a Gynecologist. Instead of seeking an agent or publisher, Mr. Bosah decided to self-publish his wife's book.

"Mr. Bosah's lack of familiarity with the publishing world didn't worry him -- but it should have. Despite his determination and hard work, he made a succession of mistakes, from failing to line up a distributor before publication to selecting a title for the book that limited the potential readership."

Trachtenberg talks about the self-publishing business today. "To launch their careers, most fledgling authors these days turn to Internet businesses that offer print-on-demand services. The appeal is that authors only have to print the number of copies they actually need -- they can even order just a single copy -- rather than having to store cartons of unsold books."

Mr. Bosah hired an artist named Lesley Ehlers to design the book cover, but ignored her advice about the industry. Ms Ehlers recommended the Maple-Vail Book Manufacturing Co. as one she had worked with before, but also suggested an initial print run of only 5,000 books. "'You could always reprint,' she says."

"A sales representative at Maple-Vail urged a similar strategy, but Mr. Bosah placed an order for 15,398 books. He now says he knew this was a lot of books, but printing that many allowed him to set a retail hardcover price of only $16.95, just slightly more than the $15 or so that Bertelsmann AG's Random House Inc. and other top publishers charge for quality paperbacks."

The book was published in April, 2006, but because Mr. Bosah had not arranged for a book distributor before its release, most bookstores refused to stock it. Mr. Bosah and his wife were forced to handsell the book wherever they could. When Mr. Bosah managed to get an article in the Columbus Dispatch, readers were unable to locate copies of the book in local bookstores.

Like many newbies, Mr. Bosah put the book for sale on with the expectation that this would promote sales. However, without buzz to drive readers to look for the book, there weren't many sales.

Mr. Bosah failed to send galleys to places like Publishers Weekly or The Library Journal for early reviews. And he didn't get blurbs from well-known medical people, which might have lent the book credence.

"Even the title Mr. Bosah picked for the book ultimately limited its appeal, he now believes. The word "sisters" was meant to convey the universality of the book's subject material. However, many potential readers associated it solely with black women. A more basic title, "Letters: Plain Truths and Straightforward Advice From a Gynecologist" might have attracted a larger audience..."

Despite all this, things are looking up for the book. He finally found a distributor, and the book is now in 190 stores owned by Borders. The book also was a finalist in an award offered by the Independent Book Publishers Association.

Mr. Bosah claims to have recouped the $40,000 or so he spent on producing the book.

I think the most telling thing about the WSJ article is its title: "Writing the Book on Self-Help: A Publisher's Cautionary Tale."

1 comment:

Heather B. Moore said...

The biggest complaints I hear from self-published authors are about getting their books into the stores. It's hard enough to compete when your book is readily available. But impossible when its not.

A friend of mine recently self-published. A major store chain told her they didn't like her title or her cover.

Sometimes we writers have to leave the graphics to the pros.