Talk to folks who know a bit about self-publishing books and the name Hugh Howey might come up.
The 39-year-old North Carolinian published Wool, about a post-apocalyptic America forced underground, as an Amazon Kindle electronic book. It took off -- at its peak it was earning him more than $100,000 a month, Howey claims, and optioned for a film by Alien and Blade Runner director Ridley Scott.
"There are tens of thousands of writers out there paying a bill or making a full living off their writing" by self-publishing, he told the podcast Geek's Guide to the Galaxy last year. "For me the real story -- and what I think is more fascinating [than my own success] -- is how many people are making $200 a month self-publishing."
Howey explained to me that "to make $200 a month, a self-published author would need to sell 57 e-books a month if priced at $4.99. They would make around $3.50 per sale. That's more than an author with a major publisher makes for selling a hardback."
Troubadours and prophets
The Internet is sometimes called the third information epoch. The first, of course, was word of mouth -- troubadours and prophets and ports of call. In the 15th century, Gutenberg's printing press began organizing great sums of information -- far more than a single messenger could dispel -- and in miniature, carried to distant places and left behind, so that the words existed in perpetuity. Books accumulated in great repositories, fairly accessible and free in this country. The gathered tomes all but eclipsed a soul's ability to consume it in a lifetime.
Just in the last generation, a new interface arrived. The storehouse of all available "printed" information exceeds the capacity of 20 humans to read, or 20,000. Fortunately, it's organizable by search terms and keystrokes, and accessible by video screens smaller than a grown man's hand.
Since the third epoch is composed of the same basic material as the second -- the word and picture in two dimensions -- authors of the second epoch should be in the vanguard of the third, but the opposite is taking place. Famous authors are often famously hostile to digital publishing.
In 2012, at a literary festival in Colombia, Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom) said digital products are too ephemeral. "Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around."
A paperback, meanwhile, "I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it's pretty good technology. And what's more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It's a bad business model."
Of course, the technology that most closely guards the gates separating would-be authors from fame, fortune, immortality, isn't electronic screens but human eyeballs.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
In 2002, Mara Leveritt's second book, Devil's Knot, was published by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. That book was eventually optioned for a motion picture that was released this year. On June 1, the Little Rock writer dropped her second book surrounding the trial of the West Memphis Three, Dark Spell. Two weeks ago, the Porter Prize Fund made her its 2014 winner. (What does that mean? Well, a $2,000 award, but Arkansas writers will tell
you it's really admission into the Arkansas Acropolis of belles lettres.)
Devil's Knot wasn't Leveritt's first book. In 1998 St. Martin's Press published Boys on the Tracks, a similar tale of unsolved murders, this one in Saline County in 1987. That contract allowed Leveritt to regain rights to her own book after several years if the publisher didn't reprint it in paperback. It didn't, and in 2007, Leveritt and her domestic partner Linda Bessette founded Bird Call Press. Back then, they employed Morris Publishers out of Nebraska to print their titles. Today, with CreateSpace, they "print on demand." That is, instead of a print run of 100 or 1,000, a printing and shipping warehouse in South Carolina prints a single book, and it is shipped to the buyer, for each individual Amazon order placed.
"This is like the biggest news since Gutenberg," Leveritt says.
Print-on-demand (POD) relieves the self-publisher of two of her more onerous responsibilities. The first is buying up a print run of 100 or 1,000, which can be thousands of dollars. The second is storing it.
"When the UPS truck shows up at your house with 27 boxes of books, they've got to go someplace," Bessette says.
Despite Franzen's and others' elegant defense of paper, many industry prognosticators believe books, newspapers and periodicals will largely go digital -- that is, be read on tablets and other video screens -- within a few years. Today, a book uploaded via Kindle Direct Publishing will be ready for sale on Amazon's website within hours.
Little Rock author Hope Coulter, this year's Laman Library Writing Fellow -- $10,000! -- published her last book more than two decades ago but today is shopping two manuscripts to publishers. An imprint still lends "credibility" to an author and her text, she says, not to mention editorial, marketing and distributional services.
Still, "we consume authored material in so many different ways" today. "Picking up an old hard-backed book and sitting in an easy chair and reading for three hours" is fading.
Whether it's Facebook or For Whom the Bell Tolls, "we as readers skim around."
"Jean [Cazort] at WordsWorth and I spoke about this. I love that store, and her, but it saddened her and I understand why it saddened her that I made this decision to go this route," Leveritt says. "The incentives, at least for an author like myself, just aren't there anymore to go with the big [publishing] houses."
Leveritt was decidedly underwhelmed by the marketing of her books with St. Martin's Press and Atria. She was led to believe there was a dedicated marketing scheme at work; yet there was no evidence of it.
"At one point, I went to New York and was introduced to a person [with Atria] I was told was going to be the marketing person for the book. ... If anything was done, I never became aware of it. All the publicity fell to me.
"I've heard many, many other authors say the same."
Still, CreateSpace doesn't boast a marketing solution. In this way it's not unlike MySpace for indie music.
More than 390,000 novels were self-published in 2012 alone -- or one for every 800 Americans, according to Bowker, the New Jersey-based agency that serves as the official distributor and tracker of ISBNs -- international standard book numbers -- in the United States. Just one year earlier it was fewer than a quarter million. In 2007 it was fewer than 75,000.
"As an extremely lightly networked person, I'm at a huge disadvantage in getting the word out," says Ian King, a retired Hendrix College professor living in Conway. His The Last Eucharist went up on Amazon in paperback and e-book in May. "I've looked into hiring a publicity firm, but it's very expensive -- at least given that I've no idea as yet if I'd ever get my money back if I splurged on such help."
At $3.99 for a Kindle download, King's whole novel costs the same as three or four song downloads or a couple of episodes of The Bachelor Season 18 in the iTunes store. A hard copy of the book is only $8.54.
That's not the real price point, though, says social media expert Kristen Lamb, author of We Are Not Alone: The Writer's Guide to Social Media. Most people read only a handful of books a year. To that audience, a book purchase is more than the cost in dollars and cents. It's an investment in time.
Occasional readers have to be convinced that a book is worth their time as much as, or more than, their money. For those readers, Lamb said, book selections are often based on the recommendation of a friend who is an avid reader. If a writer is brand new to an audience, she has to win readers the way politicians win votes, by meeting people in a social environment, making friends and building relationships. Authors have myriad opportunities to connect with potential readers through live events and in the world of online social media.
Leveritt today has a social media footprint that includes her website, MaraLeveritt.com. She tries to stay on top of it. The media attendant the Porter Prize announcement will help, of course.
How has Dark Spell sold so far?
"Oh, we don't talk about that."
And neither does Amazon, which provides no information on sales, said spokesman Brittany Turner. Not even in the abstract, as in, how much does the average CreateSpace book earn?
"We don't share demographic or sales information on our members."
To make "$2,000 a month, you would need to sell 570 e-books at [$5 each]. That's not unreasonable, especially once you get four or five books out there," Howey says.
That's ... heartening?
There must be some money in it, or else Kerry Brooks of Little Rock wouldn't be doing it.
Brooks is not an author. He's a former Alltel accountant who, in 2013, in retirement, founded his own publishing company, River's Edge Media. To date, River's Edge Media has printed four books. It has another 18 "in the pipeline."
Asked if his operation was self-publishing, Brooks reacted with a little disdain: "No-o-o," he said. "Anh-anh." But he doesn't print his books. In fact, he doesn't even store his books. Brooks is a client of Pollock Printing in Nashville, Tenn., who handles all of the manufacturing, storage and fulfillment. (In online sales, "fulfillment" is the act of shipping a product to a shopper along with a bill of sale.)
River's Edge Media's largest print run to date is 3,000.
"In my opinion, the whole publishing business is disaggregating. That's what happened to Alltel. The phone business disaggregated to wireless, and it all kind of deconstructed, and there was a lot of money to be made if you could see it coming.
"I don't think you have to have the intensive capital that you had to have as a publisher years ago."
At their most successful -- lucrative -- authors create markets, reliable markets. When the last Harry Potter book dropped, Scholastic didn't have to do anything to sell millions of copies. It did, and perhaps that push helped it sell tens of millions of copies. But most authors are pretty poor marketers.
Each River's Edge Media book sent to media and other tastemakers in the literary world is accompanied by branded gimcracks and a news release. Waffle House Rules by Joe Formichella comes with a couple of Waffle House paper garrison caps and an authentic-looking mug. All the Way to Memphis by Suzanne Hudson comes with an ashtray and a pack of candy cigarettes (smoking's a motif). The effect is to make a book feel like more than reading. To make it multi-sensory. To make it an experience.
"There's a big discovery process to find an author, but once you found one you like, you tend to read their whole canon," Brooks says.
So discovery is tricky, even serendipitous, but making a book "is all pretty mechanical."
Making a buck is another story.
Leah Price of Daily Press in Newport News, Va., contributed to this story.
Style on 08/03/2014
Print Headline: I, book