Earlier this month, Barbara Saltzman was at the Barnes & Noble in Encino promoting "The Jester Has Lost His Jingle," a self-publishing phenomenon.
"We've been more successful than anybody except 'The Celestine Prophecy' and 'The Christmas Box,"' says Saltzman of the charming children's book, written and illustrated by her late son David. The book has sold some 150,000 copies since it was published last year.
Saltzman is something of a legend in self-publishing circles, an increasingly important force in the U.S. book business. When Saltzman's son died of Hodgkin's disease at age 22, the then-Los Angeles Times arts editor was determined to see David's book published as he had envisioned it (he had decided every detail, down to the typeface).
Even as Saltzman grieved, she had the manuscript shopped to mainstream publishers. Clearly a work of talent, they said, but verse isn't selling ("Turn it into prose," they advised). It's too long, they said, and don't expect to see it in hard cover, it would be far too expensive.
Instead of compromising the work, Saltzman and husband Joe got a $250,000 line of credit on their home in Palos Verdes Estates and published the book themselves. For Barbara, self-publishing was an education.
"The most challenging part of the whole process," she says, "has been getting the book into bookstores and keeping it there."
In that, she has been helped by people such as Lita Weissman, the Encino superstore's community relations coordinator. Weissman read a piece about "The Jester" in Publishers Weekly, the trade Bible, and called Saltzman the same day to book her for a reading.
A major break for the book came last December when the Saltzman family was featured on ABC's "Good Morning America." The segment was filmed at Yale, where the book had been David's senior project in his joint majors of art and English (he graduated magna cum laude even as he dealt with chemotherapy and the other exigencies of the disease).
The TV exposure, increasingly important in selling books, "put us over the top," Saltzman says. "We sold 40,000 books in two hours."
In March, Saltzman had the extraordinary experience of seeing the self-published book appear on the New York Times best-seller list, tied for 15th with Michael Crichton's "The Lost World." According to Saltzman, that appearance, which coincided with her son's birthday, "would have absolutely delighted David."
While she is an avowed bulldog in promoting the book and has had genuine success, she admits that the experience "has been bittersweet and always will be, because it should be David talking to you."
Had the Saltzmans tried to self-publish a book like David's 20 years ago, the story might have ended much less brightly. Until recently, a writer who couldn't induce an established publishing house to bring out his or her book had few options. Those who were determined to see their books in print often paid thousands of dollars to a vanity press for a few thousand copies of the book and empty promises of help with marketing.
Being published by a vanity was the literary equivalent of being taken in adultery by the Puritans. Chances of a title so stigmatized turning up in a legitimate bookstore were virtually nil.
But all that has changed. Just as better, more affordable technology allows garage bands to produce their own tapes and compact disks, the new technology of desktop publishing allows writers, working alone or with a team of hired hands, to produce a book that is all but indistinguishable from a traditionally published one.
Self-publishing can also mean greater profits for writers, who get to keep half or more of what a book makes rather than the skimpy 15% that is the standard royalty for conventionally published books. Self-publishing can be so lucrative that some successful authors say no thanks when big publishers try to buy them out, as happened with "The Christmas Box," which earned author Richard Evans a two-book, $4-million deal after it became a self-published bestseller.
Big chains and other stores are also stocking self-published titles as never before. As a result of the convergence of these forces, self-publishing is flourishing. By some estimates, most of the nation's 53,000 publishers are actually self-publishers. Only about 1,000 are traditional presses.
Locally, authors have successfully self-published many different kinds of books.
A HARE'S TALE
You probably know Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," a book that was originally self-published. You may be less familiar with another self-published book about a charismatic bunny, "The Beginning Volume I of the Adventures of Samuel J. Hare," by Simi Valley writer George V. Manory.
"It's nonstop, seat-of-the-pants action adventure without violence, bloodshed or death," says the 51-year-old Manory, a buyer for an aerospace firm in Moorpark. The book's hero is a handsome rabbit with one black ear who receives a sacred gold ring, and travels the land doing good deeds, with faithful companion Robert J. Otter.
It cost Manory about $3,000 to produce 300 copies of the book, which he has donated to local libraries and parochial schools.
The book is also available at one bookstore locally, Borders Books in Thousand Oaks. Or you can order it for $14.95 by calling (800) 641-HARE.
Although Manory's is self-publishing on the most modest scale, it has opened up a whole new world for him. A first-time author, he now finds his head swimming with story ideas. (He plans to do four trilogies featuring Samuel J. Hare.)
The subject of feature stories in the local press, Manory has also discovered the exotic pleasure of having fans. One young reader appeared at an event at her elementary school dressed as her favorite character, Samuel J. Hare.
And Manory has large ambitions for his micropress, Storyteller Publishing. In the future, he hopes to publish other authors unable to find traditional outlets for their work, albeit with the caveat that it eschew violence. Eventually, he says, he hopes when people think Storyteller Publishing, "they will know that means safe, creative literature for the young mind."
Special interests create opportunities for self-publishers. There may not be 100,000 people who want to read a book on the care and feeding of koi, but there are probably 10,000 koi fanatics willing to buy a book on the subject. Successful self-publishers identify their niche, produce their books cost effectively, and then market the dickens out of them.
RIDING THE RAILS
The unlikeliest titles can end up in the black. Earlier this year, Edward J. Simberger of Agoura Hills self-published "A Complete Guide to the Los Angeles MetroLink Commuter Train System." An aerospace engineer who works in El Segundo, Simberger rode the trains and buses from Oxnard to Lancaster, San Bernardino and Oceanside, taking pictures and exploring things to see and do at every stop along the way.
Simberger wrote his book, which is full of maps and timetables, on his Mac. It cost about $24,000, mostly for printing, to produce 3,960 copies of his paean to public transportation. To defray costs, he sold $20,000 worth of advertising to restaurants, city bus companies and other patrons.
Calling himself Yerba Seca Publications, Simberger persuaded B. Dalton and other large booksellers to stock his book, and he hand sells copies as well. He has targeted libraries, for instance. As a result, the book is on the shelves of all 88 branches of the Los Angeles County Public Library.
Simberger says his favorite part of the self-publishing process was fact checking the book. "I got around to all the places I didn't even know existed in Southern California." Had he never done the project, which has been enthusiastically supported by MetroLink, he might never have discovered the Lancaster Poppy Festival or the pleasures of Claremont. "It's like a little Eastern college town," he enthuses.
Simberger tracks sales on his computer, and, to date, has sold more than 1,800 copies. "I'm probably $10,000 in the black," he says. He chooses not to demoralize himself by calculating exactly how many hours he invested in the project. "I'm probably up to making five whole cents an hour!" he says, with a laugh.
COLLECTION OF ESSAYS
Encino writer Jonathan Dobrer recently published a collection of essays, titled "Out of My Mind." Dobrer, who teaches comparative religion and other courses at the University of Judaism and does motivational speaking, found a small, local publisher for his book, D'Anca/Wells & Associates, and even got a decent advance. Unfortunately, the couple who ran the mini-press suffered damage in the Northridge quake and were unable to promote the book (as Dobrer quips, "the fault, dear Brutus, was in the fault").
Until the company gets back on its feet, Dobrer has taken over. Now his own publisher, Dobrer is doing what everybody who self-publishes discovers they must do--market their books like crazy. "The extent to which you have to market yourself is a surprise to the virgins," says Dobrer.
Some of those naifs are people who have a first book published by an established publishing house and are shocked to find that the publisher does little or nothing to promote it. "They throw 50 books out there and hope one sticks to a wall, and they'll promote that one," Dobrer says of mainstream publishers.
Dobrer hopes to publish "Still Out of My Mind" in the spring. Meanwhile, he has sold the audio rights to both the current collection and the sequel. All in all, he estimates, he has grossed more than $40,000 from the essays, which include meditations on having his sperm tested and the feelings elicited by the tattoo on the arm of his mother-in-law, a Holocaust survivor.
Dobrer writes every morning in a Sherman Oaks coffee shop, the Horseshoe, part of an ad-hoc writers community fueled by latte and bran muffins. He is almost ready to publish two additional books--one a Jewish interpretation of the Gospels, the other a book on civil litigation called "Courting Disaster." ("In this society, everybody has two jobs--whatever they do and [as] litigant," he opines).
If the life of a self-published writer is not the most lucrative imaginable, it can be one of the most satisfying. Self-publishers get the last word on how their work will appear.
And says Dobrer, expressing a sentiment common among writers who decide to do it themselves, "I enjoy the checks I get from Barnes & Noble, Bookstar and Borders much more than the much larger checks I get for speaking and consulting."