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Self-published is not the easy way out

Shirley McMarlin
| Friday, Dec. 15, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Author Ed Kelemen of New Florence talks with Dolly Caruso of Unity after a 2014 talk on his book, “Haunted Highways and Laurel Woodlands,” in Latrobe.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Author Ed Kelemen of New Florence talks with Dolly Caruso of Unity after a 2014 talk on his book, “Haunted Highways and Laurel Woodlands,” in Latrobe.
Nicole Peeler, director of the Seton Hill University MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program, says the first step in self-publishing a book is to hone your writing craft.
Kim Stepinsky | for TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Nicole Peeler, director of the Seton Hill University MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program, says the first step in self-publishing a book is to hone your writing craft.
Author Trevor Boyce self-published his 'Boarding School Beach Bums' through Word Association Publishing in Tarentum.
Timothy Cox Photography
Author Trevor Boyce self-published his 'Boarding School Beach Bums' through Word Association Publishing in Tarentum.
Author Heath Kip self-published his 'The Band Book' through Word Association Publishing in Tarentum.
Timothy Cox Photography
Author Heath Kip self-published his 'The Band Book' through Word Association Publishing in Tarentum.
'What You CAN Do When You Lose a Loved One,' an inspirational book self-published by Debra Milito of Jeannette, is available via Amazon.
amazon.com
'What You CAN Do When You Lose a Loved One,' an inspirational book self-published by Debra Milito of Jeannette, is available via Amazon.

You've been through a hard time and you have some wisdom to share. Your friends say you're a pretty good poet. You've come up with a totally new fantasy world.

You've heard that it's increasingly difficult for an unknown author to go the traditional book-publishing route, so you're thinking about self-publishing.

British author E.L. James's “Fifty Shades of Grey” is arguably the greatest self-publishing success story of all time.

Originally self-published as an e-book and as print-on-demand, its publishing rights were acquired by Vintage Books in 2012 and, along with the second and third installments in the series, it's since topped best-seller lists worldwide and led to film adaptations.

It's a scenario of which every author dreams but one that's rarely achieved.

So what should you know before you begin?

Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing

The trick to traditional publishing is finding a publishing house willing to invest in your product. Having an agent helps, but the Catch 22 is that it's often hard to find one if you don't have a publishing track record.

The traditional publisher bears costs, such as editing, marketing and paying any advances, but also keeps a hefty share of the profits. By self-publishing, the author pays the costs but retains a higher share of the profits.

The self-publishing author also controls the entire process from the writing and editing to the design, price, marketing and distribution. Authors can handle these tasks by themselves, which can be very time- and labor-intensive, or can pay to outsource some or all of them.

Self-publishing includes both physical books and digital media like e-books.

“The old traditional way of publishing is on its way out,” says Ed Kelemen of New Florence, a retired Allegheny County police officer who writes fiction and nonfiction on Pennsylvania paranormal themes. “You need an agent to get in the door, and it's not always easy to get one.”

Kelemen uses Amazon's CreateSpace, an online platform that provides tools for self-publishing and distributing books, CDs, DVDs and other materials.

“It gives me a very professional product at a very reasonable price,” he says.

Nicole Peeler , associate professor of English and director of the Writing Popular Fiction masters degree program at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, writes urban fantasy fiction for Orbit Books and also has experience with self-publishing.

“I would never discourage anyone from trying to self-publish, but you need to be realistic,” she says. “Self-publishing is a super-egalitarian playing field, but it's not the utopia people think it is.

“A quality ebook can still be very expense to produce. To make money, you have to stand out and you have to publish a lot.”

Hone your craft

How to stand out? The first way is to write well.

“Don't put publishing before writing. Hone your craft — write well, write a lot, get your writing as good as it can get first,” Peeler says. “It's always a good idea to network, to join a local writers' group, and then to use the skills you've learned.”

Having a quality product only clears the first hurdle.

“People forget that when you work with a traditional publisher, all those other hands are on (a book): editing, designing the cover and the pages, formatting, marketing, publicity,” she says. “With traditional publishing, I do a relatively small amount of work. When you self-publish, you're all those people.

“People think they can just slap things up and then they think, ‘I'll make all this money,' but it can be just another platform for failure.”

To get noticed, you don't just have to write well, you have to write a lot, she says.

Find your audience and sell to it

“What I found out was that my books have a regional appeal. I write about Pennsylvania because that's what I know about,” Kelemen says. “So, identify your audience and how to chase it.”

Kelemen's titles include “Route 30 — Pennsylvania's Haunted Highway” and “The Little Drummer Girl of Gettysburg.”

“So you get a couple hundred copies of your book, then you have to go out and sell it,” he says. “If you don't like people, forget it.”

Kelemen enjoys the sales part of the job and, being retired, has time to do it.

He peddles his books any way and anywhere he can — “unconventional outlets like museum gift shops, local mom and pop bookstores, nonstop appearances. Sometimes I'll get an honorarium that covers the gas.

“It's a lot of work, but I get to have 100 percent of the profits instead of 8 percent (from a traditional publisher),” he says. “But you still have to sell 10,000 books to make any kind of money.”

Have realistic expectations

Debra Milito of Jeannette was looking more to help others than to reap gains for herself when she published “What You CAN Do When You Lose a Loved One.”

After losing her identical twin sister to a brain tumor in 2011 and her son to a motorcycle accident in 2012, she started a journal of things that made her feel better.

“I decided to put it in a book,” she says. “When I helped other people, I helped myself.”

A friend of a friend recommended WestBow Press, a Christian self-publisher that specializes in books with Christian morals, inspirational themes and family values.

WestBow did the editing, cover and printing of 250 soft-cover copies of her 64-page book.

Milito declined to share the cost of having the book published, noting that costs vary according to the particular services each author uses.

“They were easy to work with and helpful when I had questions,” she says. “But it still took a long time to get it all done. Everyone can say, ‘I have a good story to tell,' but you really have to commit and be persistent, and take each step as it comes.”

A word to the wise

Francine and Tom Costello are owners of Word Association Publishers in Tarentum.

They started years ago with a bookstore that evolved into a printing and design business and finally into a self-publishing house.

Francine describes Word Association as “a little self-publishing company that has standards,” not surprising since Tom was an English and writing professor at Northwestern University and Francine was a writer/producer for a CBS radio affiliate in Chicago.

“The sad fact is that a lot of good writers will never get a contract,” she says. “The way we structured our idea was that we would be fussy about the manuscripts we accepted. You're paying for what we know, and we encourage professionalism.”

They work with freelance editors from all around the country and have two in-house designers and another who works from home.

“We can have 20 books in various stages of production at any given time,” she says. They work with writers in all genres and have a subspecialty of legal help books written by area attorneys.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750, smcmarlin@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shirley_trib.

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