From the Neanderthals who left hand prints on the cavern walls of El Castillo, Spain more than 37,000 years ago, to the G.I.’s crude drawings of a long-nosed fellow peering over a fence announcing, “Kilroy was here,” humans have sought immortality through art. The same impulse that drives the graffiti tagger in Los Angeles drives the white-haired Hamptons matron to pen a letter to the local newspaper about animal leash laws: a desire to be seen, heard, and remembered.
The digital revolution gives us an opportunity to communicate and disseminate ideas, concepts, and opinions without intermediation. Today, every wannabe Stephen King, Tom Brokaw, or Larry McMurtry can write and publish as they please. Grandfathers and grandmothers can pass down family stories to younger generations. The entire world has an opportunity to become both more knowledgeable and more expressive than ever before.
Technology and Self-Publishing
The first electronic book – Peter James’ thriller “Host” – appeared on two floppy disks in 1993 and sold 12,000 copies. Five years later, the first e-readers appeared with mediocre market success. Amazon, the world’s largest book retailer, introduced the Kindle reader to America in 2007, forever changing the dynamics of book publishing. Today, electronic books can be viewed on a variety of readers, mobile phones, tablets, and computers.
In the first quarter of 2012, net sales of ebooks exceeded hardcover sales across the industry for the first time. While paperback books remain the industry’s most popular format, their dominance is likely short-lived – according to Mashable, Amazon’s ebook sales surpassed paperbacks in the fourth quarter of 2011. The reason for the ebook’s dominance is clear: Production costs are lower and profits are higher (despite the fact that ebooks typically sell for less than half of what hardcovers sell for).
With the full support of Amazon, authors have rebelled against traditional publishing houses, seeking a higher percentage of royalties or threatening to publish on their own – Bowker Identifier Services claims that self-published book titles grew 60% from 2011 to 2012 alone. Writers who never thought they would be able to publish are taking advantage of the new technology.
The reasons people are moved to write and publish are as varied as their personalities. Some are motivated by intellectual pursuits, others for reasons of the heart, and others in the hopes of fattening their wallets. Whatever your reason, there has never been a better time in human history to write your story.
1. Document Your Experiences
Ulysses S. Grant created a new market for presidential biographies explaining his version of Civil War events. Others, less famous, have provided detailed recollections of historic and mundane events ranging from life during the Great Depression to the best barbecue joints along the Mississippi River.
My father’s stories of growing up during the Great Depression and West Texas Dust Bowl – collected and published in paperback for children and grandchildren – are the most treasured books in our family, second only to the tattered leather bible that chronicles generations of Lewises, Cards, and Forsythes.
Documenting your experiences not only offers a way to preserve your own legacy, it may help improve future lives as well. Isaac Newton was just one of many who believed he owed his success to “standing on the shoulders of giants” – building his own thoughts with those of others, available because they were preserved in writing.
2. Make a Statement
Letters allow writers to persuade, explain, and challenge a few readers. Books broadcast their thoughts to the world.
Authors from Henry David Thoreau to Ayn Rand have written to document their thoughts on subjects ranging from the environment to political institutions. Critics express opinions on works of art and restaurant service. Parents promote ideas on raising children and the efficacy of vaccinations. The field is nearly endless, and if you’ve got an opinion to make known, writing is one of the best ways to do it.
3. Inspire Others
My brother, a former business executive and first-time author of “No Greatness Without Goodness,” documented his decade-long experiences opening up employment opportunities for the disabled in a Fortune 50 company. As a consequence, companies across the globe are beginning new initiatives which can improve the quality of thousands of lives.
Another example, “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, energized the United States environmental movement in the early 1960s.
4. Earn Income
The media – print, television, and Internet – has an insatiable appetite for content, creating opportunities for bloggers, editors, and gurus of all kinds to make money. While earning an income is certainly a valid motivation to write, aspiring authors who expect to be the next J.K. Rowling need a hefty dose of reality – self-publishing is not a gold mine or a get-rich-quick scheme. Only a small group of authors are able to live solely on the income from their book sales.
5. Tell a Story
Almost everyone has a story, whether fact or fiction, that they hope to share with others. These stories help us connect with each other and discover meaning in our lives and the world around us.
The urge to write is not dependent upon one’s age or surroundings: Mary Shelley, a wife and mother at age 18, wrote “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus,” while Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote “Little House in the Big Woods,” the first in a popular children’s book series, at age 65. It is never too early or late to begin a journey.
6. Leave a Legacy
Not all books are intended for a public audience. Often, the most treasured writings are those we leave for our families and friends. Whether you write for one person or for the entire world, a book is a tangible legacy – your hand prints on the wall of time – that can link generations. The power of the written word is a testament of your existence as a person, spouse, parent, or friend. Failure to write your story is an opportunity missed, for both you and your loved ones.
According to Statista, the U.S. publishing industry released approximately 1.76 million new titles and had total sales of $29.5 billion in 2012. Unit book sales were 2.59 billion that year, even though one-third of Americans did not purchase a book. Virtually all publishers offer ebook editions, the new economics of digital publishing providing a considerable savings over paper and ink.
The surge in ebook sales has also engendered dispute over profit splits between author, publisher, and distributor. Amazon and Hachette (the largest traditional publisher) are currently embroiled in a public fight over the spoils, the former accused of delaying shipments while the latter threatens to withhold access to popular authors such as J.K. Rowling. First-time authors and self-publishers should view the distributor-publisher dispute with interest, even though the final outcome is unlikely to have significant impact upon their initial efforts.
Multiple Platforms and Formats
Technological advances have opened new venues for authors to reach a wider audience. Many offer their work across multiple platforms – each with different price points – while others choose only ebooks, minimizing their costs and targeting specific audiences.
- eBooks. Amazon’s Kindle reader kickstarted the movement from paper-and-ink volumes to digital books – and turned publishing economics on its head. Companies such as Smashwords, Lulu, and Amazon’s own Kindle Direct Publishing provide easy-to-use tools for writers to turn their words into electronic books, distribute them to worldwide markets within 24 hours of publishing, and manage prices.
- Mass Paper-and-Ink Printing. Primarily the province of major publishing companies that produce hundreds, if not thousands, of print copies to reduce per-unit costs, other commercial printers do offer similar services to authors willing to invest in an inventory of books, hoping that sales follow. Companies such as R.R. Donnelley and Quad/Graphics are giants in the book printing industry.
- Print-on-Demand (POD). The ability to print a book as needed, rather than keeping an inventory, makes paper-and-ink books available to authors without having to invest large sums for long production runs. Today, a book can be printed, bound, and mailed to a purchaser with a 24-hour turnaround.
- Paperbacks. CreateSpace, an Amazon subsidiary, offers easy-to-follow templates for paperback formatting and cover design. The printing of this version can be coordinated with a simultaneous publication of the ebook version on Kindle Direct Publishing, with both formats subsequently available for sale on Amazon.com. Lulu, Lightning Source, and Cafe Press offer similar POD services without a major book distributor tie-in.
- Hardbacks. Self-publishers can utilize templates for a variety of sizes, colors, fonts, and bindings from printers like Gorham Printing, Book1One, and Colorwise Commercial Printing.
- Audio Books. Narrated versions of printed books first appeared on records in the 1930s with the establishment of the “Talking Books Program.” Since then, technology has progressed from records, tapes, and CDs, to MP3s and other downloadable digital formats. This market was estimated at $1.2 billion in 2011. Audible, another subsidiary of Amazon, has produced more than 26,000 audio versions of ebooks with professional narrators and is currently adding 1,000 new titles per month to its inventory. ACX, the Amazon segment for authors wishing to convert their books to audio versions, links narrators to authors, coordinates and simplifies the transaction, and offers the audio version on Amazon and the Audible websites.
Many established authors are pushing a “hybrid” approach where they continue to use the resources of the big publishing houses while offering some self-published works as well. The willingness of authors to shoulder more promotional responsibilities – traditionally the responsibility of publishers – is forcing publishing houses to negotiate new terms, many now offering self-publishing services such as editing, proofing, cover design, marketing, and publicity for a fee or a reduced share of the book price.
Top Self-Publishing Genres
If you’re a first-time author thinking of self-publishing, it’s important to know which subjects are most likely to interest readers. Of course, no subject you’re passionate about can be wrong, but the popularity of the following genres can offer some guidance in choosing fertile marketing ground when you start writing:
- Fantasy. The success of fantasy series such as “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Game of Thrones” is difficult to ignore. If you have the ability to weave a tale of supernatural worlds, mystical creatures, and magic that captures the attention of readers, this category may be for you.
- Thriller, Mystery, and Crime. This genre includes subjects ranging from espionage to murder, and mental illness to terrorism. Strong characters like Jack Reacher, Alex Stone, and Kay Scarpetta have launched the careers of a great many writers.
- Horror. Stephen King and Dean Koontz represent those authors who have the ability to make our hearts beat quickly and instill a fear of dark nights and hooded strangers.
- Science Fiction. Robots, laser guns, alien encounters, and post-apocalyptic quests are just the tip of the iceberg explored by authors such as Robert Heinlein and John Scalzi.
- Biography. Biographies and autobiographies focus either upon a person’s entire life or specific events which resonate with readers.
- Religious and Spiritual. The question of humanity’s relationship with a higher power has always been a powerful draw for readers. Inspiring stories of individuals overcoming disease, disaster, and hardship are fertile soil for writers.
- How-To. Instructional books on subjects ranging from computer programs to self-publishing consistently rank among best sellers.
Routes to Print
Authors have historically had two options for getting their words in print: Find a traditional publisher or distributor willing to take a chance, or publish through a “vanity press” (an earlier form of self-publishing). However, as Dan Poynter, author of “The Self Publishing Manual,” says in Writer’s Digest, “It’s virtually impossible to land a publisher unless you bring an audience with you. They’re publishing only books that’ll sell on name recognition, which is why they’re publishing great literature like Madonna’s children’s books and the book supposedly written by Paris Hilton’s dog.”
1. Traditional Publishing Houses
Traditional publishers and literary agents receive hundreds of unsolicited query letters, proposals, and finished manuscripts every week, many of which are not even acknowledged with a rejection letter. Fortunately for aspiring writers, traditional publishers frequently err when predicting commercial success, according to the website Literary Rejections:
- “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” the first in the J.K. Rowling series, received a dozen rejections before the first interest.
- Agatha Christie, Zane Grey, and Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) went through years of rejection letters before getting their first novels published, eventually going on to dominate their genres.
- “Chicken Soup for the Soul” received 140 initial rejections, but ultimately sold 125 million copies.
- “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Anne of Green Gables,” “Gone with the Wind,” “The Peter Principle,” and “Catch-22” are just a few best sellers that went unrecognized by literary “experts” and unpublished for years.
If you are inclined to pursue traditional book agents and publishers, you need to develop a thick skin and never give up on your dreams. The following are the “big five” U.S. trade book publishers:
- Hachette Book Group. This includes subsidiaries or “imprints” such as Grand Central Publishing, Faith Words, and Little, Brown and Company.
- HarperCollins. Includes William Morrow and Avon Books.
- MacMillan Publishers. With imprints such as Henry Holt and Company, St. Martin’s Press, and Picador.
- Penguin Random House. Includes Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Crown Publishing Group, and Mass Market Paperbacks.
- Simon and Schuster. Includes Free Press, Gallery Books, and Scribner.
These groups can market and sell your work better than anyone, but the gates to entry are high. Whether your primary goal is to become a popular selling author or simply to tell your story, it’s worth exploring self-publishing to make your work publicly available. After proving there is a market for their books, some self-published authors have subsequently landed contracts with big-five publishers.
Since self-publishing is relatively inexpensive and achievable, many self-published books are pretty poor – disconnected content, poor grammar, and punctuation errors. Because of this, they fail to find a significant audience. Producing a successful commercial book that rivals the “look” of books published by traditional outlets can be difficult and expensive, especially in the marketing phase.
If you aspire to commercial success, you need to ensure that all of the elements of your book – story, execution, book cover, title – are high-quality. This means you’re likely to need professional help from an editor, proofers, and designers. Since the fiction market is extremely competitive, many first-time authors opt to write nonfiction for niche markets with predefined audiences.
Even literary masterpieces are not guaranteed sales though. Commercial success depends upon recognition in the marketplace, as well as quality.
The secret to significant book sales – other than a good book – is an effective marketing and publicity campaign. Since online sales have the highest volume, expertise in social media marketing and search engine optimization are essential to gaining exposure.
Even successful authors such as Malcolm Gladwell (“The Tipping Point,” “Outliers“) and Michael Lewis (“Liar’s Poker,” “Moneyball“) spend months on publicity tours, appearing at book signings, conducting radio and television interviews, and making other personal appearances. Hundreds of free copies are distributed to bloggers, literary critics, newspaper editors, and magazine writers in the hopes of favorable reviews.
Since the majority of books fail to sell more than a few thousand copies, many aspiring authors who self-publish focus on creating a portfolio of books for sale, generally in the same genre. Each book publicizes the others – assuming that a reader who likes one story is likely to buy a similar book by the same author. Just as a manufacturer of appliances seeks to build a “brand,” successful authors try to build a consistent image in the marketplace and develop a loyal band of repeat customers.
Everyone has something to say – something for future generations to enjoy, contemplate, and vicariously experience. After all, each of us is the culmination of a long line of trials and errors, and lessons learned. Knowing how to frame what you want to say – and how to produce, market, and sell it – can help you accomplish the ultimate goal of leaving your mark.
Writing fills in the lines of history, adding colors and shades to the past. Listen to your inner self and find the stories that you need to tell. You will never regret the effort, nor find a task more rewarding.
Have you started telling your story?