Everything You Wanted to Know About Publishing, But Were Afraid to Ask

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ivor_new_headshotby Ivor Davis

You risk being swallowed up whole, maybe never to be seen again, if you venture to the annual Book Expo America without a serious game plan.

In May, I headed to Chicago’s McCormick Place to see what the publishing world had wrought—or was about to unleash on the (diminishing, perhaps) book-reading public. It was the first time in twelve years the book event had been held in the Midwest.

Although last year I’d traveled to New York’s Javits Center, even with a master plan, I found that in Chicago, I succumbed all too easily to the blandishments of the army of publishing booths that await the innocent book voyeur. Expo offers lots of free book signings, free bags and catalogues, and well-known scribes happily autographing their works; for example, Jamie Lee Curtis (This Is Me) and music man Kenny Loggins, who has turned his hit song “Footloose” (from the l984 movie) into a book with the same title. Both offerings were for kids, and celebrity signings add up to long lines.

Jay McInerney

Jay McInerney

Towering above everyone at 7 feet 2 inches—not difficult to spot—was Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who started life as Lew Alcindor playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. Serious stuff here, as Jabbar had the longest lines of all while autographing his book of essays, Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality, Beyond Black and White. The mix also included Jay McInerney (Bright Precious Days), Jodie Picoult (Small Great Things), Sebastian Junger (Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging), and O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark with her novel (Blood Defense).

I survived BEA, and despite risking a hernia by toting home the bags of freebies, there was a benefit: I took copious notes and am about to spill the beans about what went down in the Windy City.

Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult

But first full disclosure. I am a self-published author (my book is about my travels with a famous rock band from Liverpool half a century ago), so much of my research, interrogation, and attendance at BEA seminars leaned in the self-publishing direction.

The intriguing news is that many big authors appear to have taken up actor Peter Finch’s cry, delivered so memorably in the 1976 movie Network: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” These authors revealed that they’ve deserted or are planning to desert their traditional publishers in order to self-publish. Yes, you heard it right.

Best-selling legal-eagle writer Scott Turow complained that conventional publishers “deliver less and less of what used to make traditional publishing worthwhile.” Novelist Barbara Freethy says she has sold six million books, mostly romance and romantic suspense, in the last four years, noting, “The more middlemen between you and your readers, the less control you have, and the less money you make.”

Jamie Lee Curtis

Jamie Lee Curtis

Both Freethy and Joe Konrath, who scored with ten novels in the Jack Daniels thriller series and also pens horror books, said they made the switch because conventional publishers just weren’t doing enough. “I decided to take control of my publishing career,” noted Freethy, who revealed she took that step after reading Konrath’s self-publishing blog. After getting “500 rejections for nine novels,” Konrath said, he self-published his catalogue of rejected books, and hey presto, “I pull in $80,000 a month.”

One of the best seminars I attended was “How to Sell Your Book Now It’s Published”. Author Brooke Warner (head of the hybrid Berkeley publishing house She Writes Press) offered much sane advice, including her new must-read book, Green-Light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing. I received an advance copy, and it’s well worth getting the book (available June 14) because it’s packed with no-nonsense advice from someone who knows her business following a long time in the publishing trenches. The book’s contents are worth the cost of the entire trip.

Warner’s company offers wise advice on marketing a book, which is a key ingredient in any writer’s campaign to sell a finished work. You may have a fantastic novel or memoir hot off the presses, but you simply must hire a marketing whiz to help you spread the word. At BEA, I met and was impressed with Jill Lublin from Novato, California. She is a dynamic speaker who offers writers a crash course in marketing their book. Check her out at www.JillLublin.com.

The common theme I heard again and again was:

It’s okay to self-publish, and don’t feel like a second-class citizen if you go that route.

I agree. I had a terrific experience with my Beatles book. I worked with Jose Ramirez, who is with Pedernales Publishing. My energetic publicist (SPAWN president) Kathleen Kaiser, booked me on so many nationwide radio shows that I kept losing my voice.

My only complaint is that I seemed to spend far too much time shipping books to stores around the country, and hanging out in my local post office to mail books. And don’t even talk to me about the paperwork involved in computing how much I owed in sales tax.

Nothing is perfect. When you weigh traditional publishing against collecting a much healthier chunk of book royalties by doing it your way, then who can complain?


Ivor Davis a former foreign correspondent, New York Times Syndicate columnist, and the author of The Beatles and Me on Tour. He is currently working on a children’s book, and is based in Ventura, California.

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