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Book Report: Self-publishing: Its pros and cons

I'm the last person to claim I've ever been on the cutting edge of anything -- until now.

Thirty years ago, I wrote a little book. I created a publishing company. My wife drew its logo on a wet cocktail napkin. I hired a printer and my first book came out.

It was called "Wisconsin Life Trip," supposedly an answer to Michael Lesey's weird bestseller, "Wisconsin Death Trip."

In short, I self-published at a time when it wasn't too common. In fact, my friends thought I was nuts. And my enemies wrote graffiti on my posters at the college where I taught. They crossed out "death" and wrote "Wisconsin Ego Trip."

So it goes. Times have changed. Turns out I was on the cutting edge.

I recently learned that in 2007, 134,000 books were self-published in the United States. In 2008, 285,000 hit the bookstalls.

And in 2009, 764,000 books were self-published in the U.S. Meanwhile, conventional publishing was flat, without 250,000 titles published two years ago.

I learned all his stuff when my wife and I served on the faculty at the Sixth Annual Writer's Workshop and Literary Festival in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It was quite a shindig and featured Hispanic novelist Sandra Cisneros, several inspirational speakers, ink-stained wretches like Ruth and me and hundreds of wannabe and published authors.

One of my favorite speakers was red-hot literary agent Kristin Nelson, who spoke on the subject of what publishing would be like five years from now.

She was smart enough to say she wasn't certain what would happen, but pointed out many of the indicators that have already occurred. Like the 764,000 self-published books, the imminent demise of the Borders Books chain, which has already closed 200 stores in an effort to survive, the consolidation of major New York conventional publishers, many of which are foreign-owned.

"The fewer publishers there are," she warned, "the more likely that they'll want to play it safe, which does not bode well for literary fiction."

As for self-publishing, Nelson said go right ahead. But also know getting the book written and printed (for as much as $20,000) is the least of your worries. Selling the book is the hard part. Some bookstores won't want your book because you're most likely a "single unit vendor" which means it's inefficient to put just one title into the account mix.

Sometimes reviewers will ignore your book because it's self-published, though Nelson said that tendency is beginning to disappear with the new trend.

Nelson was especially interesting when she talked about the Kindle and its effect on sales. It wasn't such a big deal, she said, when Kindles cost $400 per unit. Now that the prices have dropped precipitously, its effect on the market is very noticeable.

She gave as an example one of her clients who made it to the bestseller lists typically sold 15,000 copies per month. Once the price of Kindle hit an all-time low, sales jumped to 25,000 copies per month.

So she concluded that in five years books will still be around, but the nature of publishing will be very different from the good old days when Random House, Doubleday, Scribners and other warhorses of New York publishing held sway.

In the question and answer period, many authors asked Nelson, who has sold 100 books since she became an agent, what she looks for in a book. She wisely said she really had no idea, and gave examples of manuscripts she had turned down that became bestsellers and books she thought would soar to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list books laid very big and embarrassing eggs.

There's nothing new about that, of course. Here's what George Bernard Shaw said on the subject: "The fact that the intrinsic worth of the book, play or whatever the author is trying to sell is the least, last factor in the whole transaction. There is probably no other trade in which there is so little relationship between profits and actual value, or into which sheer chance so largely enters."

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.