Monday, February 26, 2007


by Alvin Abram

I am an author, both published and self-published of seven books – 3 mysteries, 2 non-fiction, 1 anthology and 1 children’s book as well as more than thirty short stories and articles published in magazines: Women’s World (New York), and Chicken Soup for the Parents Soul to name two, plus newspapers, tabloids and mystery and general anthology books. Since I self-published my first manuscript, I have gone on to generate more than $100,000 in sales.

Key Porter Books bought the rights to the book in 1998, which I do not include in my count because I found my years with them to be unprofitable. It was because of my experience with KP that I chose to re-enter the self-publishing market. Still, I don’t recommend that anyone undertake self-publishing unless they know what they are getting into.

I believe most don’t.

I say I am self-published, which is not to be confused with being published by one of the vanity presses. There is a difference. A big difference. Vanity presses tout the word self-published as a means of promoting their product. You pay and they deliver. Both methods can produce a professional looking product that won’t physically appear any different than published by one of the traditional publishing houses. In most cases, it’s the quality of the words between the covers that determines whether the book has merit or not. But I’m not going to argue the pros and cons of self-publishing vs vanity presses here.

I have been told that the only reason I self-publish is because no one wants to publish my manuscripts. Not always true. I have turned down offers. There are a number of reasons for self-publishing just as there are many reasons why a manuscript is rejected by a publisher. Whatever the reason, most people who venture into this field will fail in even recovering their investment. I must clarify that I do not include the production of chapbooks as self-publishing. They may be enterprising and even profitable but in comparison to what is sold on the book market, they do not have the same physical characteristics.

So what is it that you have to do to meet the challenge?

First, write a manuscript. Write it to the best of your ability. Write it as if you are about to make a presentation to Random House or another in that esteemed group. But keep in the back of your mind that you are about to enter a gray area of publishing. It’s a gray area in which the unwashed display their wares. Self-published novels have earned a reputation for being substandard. Mostly, this is because there are deficiencies in the quality of the writing when compared to books published by traditional publishing houses. I’m the first to acknowledge that. But like the birth of the infant computer, which entered the market against the quality of the linotype machine and the vandercook proof press, the writing will improve as the unwashed are weeded out when they realize that selling a book is harder than just publishing one.

Your manuscript is now finished. Your friends and relatives have read it and claim you are the next Ernest Hemmingway. In all probability your manuscript is flawed. When struggling through the creation of a manuscript, after the fifteenth re-write, the words have lost their fire and what is on paper needs a red marker. Hire a competent editor with the right credentials that meet your needs. When I say editor, I don’t mean a Mickey Mouse copy cat whose discounted price attracts you. Self-help books may improve your ability to formulate your prose, but it’s only a quick fix. Get the manuscript out of your hands and into the hands of someone whose qualifications for good grammar are self-evident – not self-serving. And always keep in mind that, as in all occupations, there are good and bad editors. Avoid the so-called editor that feeds on your ego by claiming your writing is good because it sounds like you talk. That’s rubbish! Look for a published author who will recommend an editor. The right editor can only enhance your chances of creating a better manuscript – the wrong one will take your money and destroy your credibility.

So you have been trashed and rebuilt. The next step is to hire a graphic designer whose background is not only creative but has knowledge in publishing. The cover is more important at this stage than the contents because, if the potential buyer is not attracted to the book by the cover, he will never get to know what is inside. Too often, after years of struggling to put the right words on paper, the author is more apt to choose the cheapest and not the most talented person to create his cover. The right creative designer is critical. It has to reflect the contents. Make sure the person you engage can formulate your manuscript to meet the criteria of the printer. Too many designers’ creativity is limited to a computer screen and lacks the knowledge to take their creation to the next level without you incurring extra costs.

When I self-published my first book, I commissioned the cover and the book sold quickly. When KP offered their concepts, I rejected both presentations as having a negative impact and being visually morbid. They refused to alter their last presentation and made noise that I interpreted as threats. I capitulated. The book never sold unless I sold them. I believe the cover turned people away. After my contract ended, I again self-published with a new cover designed by someone who had read the book and have sold 4,000 copies since. The cover becomes the book until the word gets out that the content is worth reading.

Now we come to the printer. Not any printer but someone whose experience extends to not only producing the product but to the bindery for the finished book. Gluing pages together is not always the recommended process. Sewing the spine may be necessary depending on the number of pages and the use the book will receive. If it’s a textbook, then the spine must be strongly attached so it doesn’t pull apart. Not all printers know about bindery. Not all printers can produce a book. The printer to look for is one who produces books, not one that will show you a book they have done.

Who will buy my book?

The quality of content of a book published by traditional publishers and those that are self-published at one time were huge. The quality gap is shrinking. Technology and an improved knowledge have made the difference. Also, traditional publishers have lately released too many weak novels from good authors and are driving the public to look for alternative reading material. But I digress. Before you even begin to consider self-publishing, the most important aspect of self-publishing has to be contemplated.


What sense is there in publishing a book if you can’t get it to market? Before the manuscript leaves your computer, you have to have a marketing strategy; an outlet to the public. Self-published books have a short shelf life if they can find a shelf, but with Chapters/Indigo’s new policy, so do traditional books.

Those who lack the experience of selling need to find someone who can sell for them. Distributors come in many sizes. Generally, they will handle your book for about 20% of list price. They will sell you a concept. Nothing is free – Chapters/Indigo and Independents charge 40-45% of list on top of the distributors charges. Your book is placed in a catalogue for six months and you hope that through the miracle of vision, it will be rapidly purchased by the major stores. Not so. If selected, the book is consigned. Loaned.

Did I mention I don’t have a distributor? I tried it. My cover looked good in the catalogue, but my distributor has many authors to sell. His staff and his time were limited to the product that moved fast. Some subjects need a push. If the salesperson doesn’t focus a few minutes on your book, then you must depend on luck. By being my own distributor, I have only one author to focus on and I have a stake in his future. I do the work of mailing, advertising and promoting. I don’t get a statement with pluses and minuses. I do get cash and cheques whenever I make a sale. My average sale per month is $1,000 and it’s all profit because by now I’ve made enough money to exceed my costs.

Self-publishing is a lot of hard work. Selling is hard work.

The name of the game is – selling. Selling yourself and your product. Reading groups, societies, service groups and schools should be solicited, over and above bookstores. That’s the author’s job. Promotional materials, handouts, bookmarks also fall into your domain, even when you are published by a publishing house. Learn to read out loud. When you read from your book, you are still selling. How many times have you listened to an excellent author mumble their way through a reading, using “uhs”, and “you knows,” to the point of ad nauseaum when communicating with his audience.

The next step is critical. I hire a publicist for thirty days. I tell them what my expectations are and what I would like to see happen in those thirty days. I outline an area of involvement I’m prepared to drive to in the event that television is involved. For my last book, I wanted to cover Windsor, London, Hamilton, Kingston and Ottawa. During the month my publicist was engaged, I appeared on television in London, Hamilton and Kingston. I was interviewed on radio three times, I had articles about me appear in several newspapers in different cities and I was involved in three speaking engagements and signings. Thirty intense days. Ooops! Did I forget about the day job I have; the five-day schedule to make a living? I had to turn down a Windsor and Ottawa television engagements due to business. All the work to sell my book has to be squeezed into this nuisance of making a living.

The word is out. And the money pours in.

You wish. In 2004, I published a 428 page murder mystery, a Holocaust story. It’s selling well. I’ve had 28 speaking engagements since it was launched at Word on the Street. I participated in the Winnipeg Book Fair, the Toronto Jewish Book Fair and I spoke during Holocaust Week. I’ve been on radio and television. And, of course, I have that pesky job that keeps interfering with my personal time. I’ve already recovered my investment. In 2006, I released another 428 page novel and have recovered half of my investment in six months. Oh, did I tell you that the 2004 novel won the International BookAdz Award in 2005.

My first book was self-published because I had no offers. It was about six children who each had an experience during the Holocaust that defied logic. I’ve sold over 7,000 copies. Because I self-published, two Holocaust families were re-united. They thought each had died. How do you equate that in dollars and cents? I’ve donated more than $20,000 of my profits to charity. My children’s book is part of the curriculum of several schools across Canada and my first murder mystery was nominated by Crime Writers of Canada in 2002 for the Arthur Ellis Award as one of the best New Novels. All self-published. There’s more, but you must be getting the picture by now.

I returned to school when I was 58 to learn how to put the stories in my head onto paper. So far, self-publishing has been the primary means open to me. I have my stack of rejections. Why has no one else made me an acceptable offer? I like to think it’s because I’m 70 and not because of the quality of my writing. If my writing is bad, then why are so many people buying my books? If age is a factor, then that kind of attitude will destroy this industry faster than begging, which the industry is known for. The quality of a manuscript should be determined by its content. I was once told that I was a one-book wonder. That was seven books ago.

There is another avenue that I haven’t delved into. Ghost writing. Since my debut as a writer, I have received in excess of $100,000 in commissions for re-writing other people’s manuscripts. The only doors that are closed are the ones that you lock yourself between.

I recently read that it’s hard to make it in fiction when self-publishing. That’s true. But it’s harder making it through the traditional method. Self-publishing is still an avenue open to the unwashed, but lately, I’ve noticed that I’m don’t smell as bad. And, oh yes, I have another book being edited and another baking in the oven.

See you on the bookshelf.

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