Monday, January 25, 2010

Guest Post by James Chandler: Self-Publishing Upstarts

San Francisco, 1977. I walked into a funky house in the Sunset to a seminar on self-publishing, hoping to fulfill a dream of self-expression. More than 30 years later, with the camaraderie of twenty other writers and a new technology called Print-On-Demand, I finally accomplished that elusive goal.

The Fallen Leaf Anthology is the tangible inspiration of authors attending the Stanford Write Retreat in the Spring of ’09. On the shores of the lake by the same name, we met three years ago to share our love of writing and learn new techniques. Initial discussions of “getting published” shifted more recently toward self-publishing. Stumbling over hurdles of editing, design, administration, and author sensitivities, we succeeded. Each of us now has a book to send to mothers, brothers and of course Aunt Martha who insisted we hold the pencil correctly and knew we would become writers one day.

I knew. Why else had my teacher dragged me across the hall to recite my essay on cranberries to the other fifth grade class? He was still laughing from my reference to 50,000 in a crate and a name change to “cram-berries.” For this, I became famous in my grandmother’s circle of friends who would greet me with the recollection, “Oh yes! You’re the young man who wrote about the strawberries!”

I’ve never stopped writing. It’s in my blood, or more accurately, in my mind, my philosophy, my perspective on life. Observing, thinking, writing it down is just a part of me. This perspective helps me address life more fully, just as a photographer sees more clearly through the frame of a lens.

After the first Write Retreat and the beginning of the Kepler’s Writers Group, I began to send out stories to new found, eclectic online journals. I was excited and sure that one of these would recognize the brilliance of my creative mind. Not!

At Kepler's last year, an editor of a mainstream publisher described the business in terms that sounded like a sinking ship, with publishers making wrong choices 90% of the time. He further noted the need for authors to develop their own “platform” online. When I asked what advantage a large publisher brought to the equation, he sidestepped unconvincingly. I began to question the worth of submitting stories to dozens of journals so that an agent might become interested in presenting me to a publisher who would ask me to do the marketing so he could keep the profit and rights to future works. Then it occurred to me: selection by an entity that was 90% wrong might not be such a kudo!

It is at this point that I dust off my old motto of “screw ‘em!” and proceed boldly forward. Admittedly, this doesn’t always work, as my wife will ardently attest. Yet given the odds, I find it far better to use available tools and the smattering of small companies willing to assist. You may not get limousine rides or be sent on a 7 day tour of 12 cities; but you will indeed end up with a book in hand, a tangible product of your own creation. Mothers, uncles, sisters and friends will turn the pages, proof that you are not only a writer but also a published author. Your daughter can take this legacy off the shelf to read to your grandson, as mine will do for Alex (in photo below). All this for only $500 and a few months of painstaking work – ironically less effort and money than sending out all those stories to endless journals fostering intense competition with a global call for reader’s fees.

There are downside risks. Self-publishing is a distraction from writing. Agents and editors do offer valuable counsel. Yet friends and writers’ groups can fill the gap, and time for writing resumes after the book is published. Grabbing the proverbial horns of the bull is daunting, fun, educational, frustrating, manageable and effective. We did it, rather in the style of co-operative efforts I recall from the Age of Aquarius. The irony is that having a book out there and creating your own “platform” could just get New York to give you a call. You might just hear yourself answer, “Thanks but no thanks. I’ll do it myself.”

Such is the empowerment of self-publishing. Write on! Write now!


  1. As a lively online conversation, this is the point where literary agents, publishers and even published authors come in to declare my ramblings anathema and to explain why the mainstream publishing route is still superior. Go ahead, fire away! My only request is that comments refer to publishing at the current moment, considering the status of the bookstore channel, marketing budgets today and publisher openness to new versus publicly established authors. Let's hear it! Dialogue is more fun than a monologue. --jim

  2. I'm not a literary agent, publisher nor, a published author. However, I'm a pretty darn good chef, I have a regular column in Vine Times Magazine and I'm a really cool person as well. Does that count?

    So, here's what I have to say.

    Right On! You made it happen!

    You took the bulls by the horn and went straight into the dusty, dark, foreign arena of self publishing! You did it and, I wish you and your fellow writers much success!

    This morning I passed by Kepler's and pointed out your book to a friend, she asked what 'Fallen Leaf' referred to and, I told her that I thought it was Fallen Leaf Lake-- which I know now to be true as I just read your post-- Fallen Leaf Lake happens to be one of my favorite places.

    My friend stopped, looked over at me with a tear in her and said "mine too; I didn't think too many people knew of that place."

    Fallen Leaf Lake happened to be the spot where she told her husband that she was expecting their first child. How cool is that? She was glowing like an expecting mom the whole way home.

    It's truly amazing when you witness a memory being unlocked.

    So, now I must get on over to Kepler's tomorrow and pick up two books. One for my friend, and of course, one for me. I hope every time she picked up this book, it will unlock all the wonder and joy from that very special day up at Fallen Leaf.

    So, Jim. Want to meet me at Kepler's and sign my books? I'll buy you a cup of coffee at Barone or a glass of wine; maybe we can locate Ms. A as well.

    I know the stories within the cover are going to be as magical as the cover itself.

    Again, beautiful book, nice post & great photos!

  3. I'm enjoying the stories in the book so far. Started with Bobbie's "Imagining the Moon" and just finished your own "Kindergarten Cop II."

    Very nice and fun to read!

    How long did it take-- once you decided to self-publish-- to get the book in hand?

  4. Denise,
    Glad to sign however many books you buy! Profits go to a scholarship fund for the Retreat, which this year is scheduled for April 29-May 2. Check the Stanford Alumni site for info (see the url in your book) and no, you don't have to be an alum.
    The original schedule was to email notice in June and July, receive manuscripts by Aug 1, read all by Sept 1 and have the book out by mid November.
    In actuality, the submissions started to dribble out to a half dozen readers after removing names and standardizing word versions in mid-August, finally got all out by the end of the month. Then I made an evaluation sheet to make sure all were up to passing. We discussed several, nixed two, argued over some, assuaged hurt feelings for a couple, decided not to "edit" for significant changes but just for typos and grammar (time was gone anyway), and lurched forward once again.
    In October we re-edited for typos and formatting, and hired outside checkers. I sequenced the stories, wrote the intro material and circulated that around to the readers.
    I had selected a self-publisher based on a book called the Fine Print of Self-Publishing by Mark Levine. The difficulty here was that the publisher revealed very little about the expected format until we were accepted. Lulu has more public info on that score. But basically one big word file for the content and one pdf out of illustrator for the cover.
    We didn't get the content to them until early Nov. They accepted us (Booklocker only accepts 10% of submissions) a week into Nov. We had to do a few turnarounds to clean up things like an inconsistent TOC (some titles were caps and some caps/lc), one author name incorrectly attributed and a font issue in the cover. It wasn't until early December that we had received the proof, resubmitted and received a second and final proof on the 13th. We chose to expedite for a 10% surcharge and hoped for Christmas delivery. The shipment arrived 12/24, so everybody received books by the end of the year. Whew!
    Does that answer your question on "how long?" The related question is, "how much time?" My co-editor is an ER doctor and single parent who had very little time to invest. Our cover designer was great, but she has a life too. I ended up doing most of the work and had to push other things out of the way, to my economic detriment. But it was a worthwhile investment. The cooperative effort was great for collecting the content; however, if one has written the content already, it would be much faster to self-publish without all the time delays implicit in a group effort.
    The cover layout requires a graphic designer, but the self-pub companies have them lined up if you don't know an artist. I had a general idea for the cover and used my photo of the lake to get a deep, mysterious and hopefully inviting look. Then I let our designer do the spec. Even then, I had to catch the font problem or the end product would have been embarrassing -- something about outline fonts not printing well.
    Now I'd like to get back to writing!
    Cheers, jim