Literature 3-20-2005

A Garage Full of Books; Or, It’s All Self-Publishing

Jean Sramek went to talk to Tony Dierckins about the ins and outs of self-publishing: should you? If so, how? and what can you expect?

Tony Dierckins

“When someone comes to me for self-publishing services, the first thing I try to do is to talk that person out of self-publishing.” This is Tony Dierckins’ wry bit of advice for would-be self-published authors.

Dierckins has spent more than a decade offering self-publishing services. He’s also written short stories and plays, been a published author (The Duct Tape Book and the alternative travel guide True North to name just two), and a publisher of others’ work. X-communications, his small publishing house located in Duluth (“X-communications” has nothing to do with lapsed Catholicism, by the way—it comes from the publisher’s college days, when a soccer coach scribbled “Tony X” on a roster rather than attempt to spell “Dierckins”), publishes a couple of titles each year, primarily books of local interest to the Duluth-Superior area. The latest titles include Duluth cartoonist Chris Monroe’s collection Violet Days and the upcoming Good Night Everybody, and Be Kind, the memoirs of popular Duluth TV news anchor Dennis Anderson. X-communications also offers self-publishing services to authors and organizations. In fact, those self-publishing services are X-communication’s bread and butter.

You’re all set to self-publish. You’ve got a book—a good book—and you believe in yourself and your book. Maybe your manuscript has been turned down by The Large Publishing House; maybe you’ve decided not going to wait around for The Large Publishing House; maybe you think you want more creative control over the marketing of your work. Self-publishing seems like a pretty good solution, but you need some guidance. So when you knock on Dierckins’ door, he’s going to turn down your business?

Not exactly. But what he will do is to make sure you do not enter into the project lightly. He’ll quiz you about your goals for the book, and about how much time and money you are realistically willing to invest. Mostly importantly, he’s going to have a talk with you about the “self” part of “self-publishing.” Any time a book is published, the author of that book is necessarily involved in the process. So in a way, all publishing is “self-publishing.” Conversely, even the most resourceful self-published author will probably end up hiring someone else, at some point, to do some aspect of the publishing. So in another way, no book is truly “self-published.”

Dierckins offers a would-be author an ala carte menu of services: book design and layout, marketing and publicity, print brokering, proofreading and copy editing. However, “most of what I do is consulting—explaining. I’ll walk clients through things like getting an ISBN number, why you have to have a bar code on the back of your book, legal things like copyrighting. I’ll ask a person whether he has a designer in mind. I give a lot of warnings about the standard ways of doing things, and about ‘shortcuts’ that end up costing more money in the long run. There are so many things that don’t occur to people—like where the title page goes, or which pages in a book should be blank.” Writers rarely consider the size of their garages, or whether their basements are waterproof and suitable for warehousing thousands of unsold books; Dierckins asks about that too.

People—even writers—read thousands of books in their lives and remain blissfully unaware of terms like “pagination” and “half-signatures,” “drop-shipping,” and “paper brightness.” But a writer who wants to play the self-publishing game will have to get comfortable with those terms, and quick. The vocabulary of publishing is a big one; if an author wishes to take a book from manuscript to bookstore shelf, he will have to learn that vocabulary. It’s certainly possible to “do-it-yourself,” but “it” means editing, illustration, scheduling bookstore events and readings, advanced graphic design, bookkeeping, shipping, sales tax laws, and dealing with customs. A rare author may happen to be adept in those multiple skills, but most aren’t and will have to pay someone else to take care of these things.

Not so very long ago, putting certain kinds of art into mass distribution was expensive. Cutting a vinyl record was a big deal, for instance. Now any garage band can put out a CD. Everyone has a blog and a website, and “publishing” one’s work is something anyone can do. The same is true of books—even more so, says Dierckins. “There’s been an explosion in self-published titles. With the advent of desktop publishing programs, anyone with a computer can publish a book. It’s easy. It’s also much easier to do it wrong.” He cites the example of pedestrian “publishing” software, which is easy to learn but which is usually rejected by book printers because the files are incompatible with their printing equipment or processes. In addition, a book has to look good (“A self-published book should not look like it’s self-published,” says Dierckins), and that’s hard for the average person to achieve with a handful of word-processing templates and a CD-ROM full of clip art.

It’s easier to publish a book in today’s modern world. But it’s not necessarily more profitable.
Dierckins explains that, if a person simply wants to “publish” a collection of family recipes, or make a few hundred copies of his memoirs, self-publishing is the way to go—provided you have the money. Print on demand (essentially, a way to obtain printed books that has a higher per-book printing cost but requires a smaller minimum order of books) might cost upwards of $500 for setup, plus $5 or $6 per book. “If you’re walking into a bookstore with your collection of poetry or fiction, you know the retail price won’t be more than, say, $15 a book. And the bookstore might pay you $7 or $8 a book. You see? Not a lot of profit left over.” In addition, Dierckens says, “Nine times out of ten, large bookstores like Barnes & Noble won’t take print-on-demand books.”

To self-publish with the intention of making a profit often leads to disappointment. Dierckins has seen a lot of this kind of disappointment, born of unrealistic expectations. “If someone is looking at this as a career leap, thinking that she’s going to self-publish a book and be able to quit her job, that’s not going to happen.

“All it takes to publish a book is money,” Dierckins laughs. “But then what are you going to do with a garage full of books? For your book to be profitable, to even think about making a profit, you have to be able to sell it,” Dierckins warns. “When you get that book in your hands—even when you get it on bookstore shelves—that’s when the real work starts.” Marketing a book is one area where all authors, self-published or otherwise, do a lot of work and subject their egos to a lot of damage. Authors who are published by The Large Publishing House will have to endure book signings and radio interviews (if they are lucky); self-published authors will do the same, but they will also likely set up those book signings and radio interviews and send out their own press kits. “Today’s acquisition editors are looking as much at what an author is willing to do to market a book, as at the book’s content or the writer’s credentials,” says Dierckins. In addition, the “life” of a book on the open market is about a year, in Dierckins’ estimation. An author cannot depend on word-of-mouth to market his books, and that goes triple for a self-published author.

There are Cinderella stories. Dierckins points to Duluth author Ellen Sandbeck’s first book,Slug Bread and Beheaded Thistles, a title for which he provided some self-publishing services. Sandbeck’s book was eventually picked up and published by a major publisher and is now in its third printing. But Dierckins cautions that, not only is being “discovered” the exception, but that Sandbeck—even among the ranks of the self-published—was particularly hard-working, and willing to pour a tremendous amount of her own time and energy into Slug Bread’s viability.

Self-publishing services, like those offered by X-communications, can obviously lessen the amount of effort necessary to publish a book. But they won’t eliminate it. No matter how you divide up the to-do list, the author is going to be in there somewhere, and money is going to have to be exchanged for goods and services.” Dierckins repeats his favorite catch-phrase. “I say this jokingly, but it’s true. All it takes to publish a book is money. But what you don’t want is a lot of books on your hands and a lot of heartache.”