By Scott Jacobs

I’m a book peddler now, with my books in a sack that I carry on my back, a card table and a chair, an iPad with a Square, but I don’t, as a rule, do poetry.

If you enjoy poetry, there were plenty of other writers to visit last Sunday at the Pop-Up Book Fair in the Western Avenue bar and hipster hangout better known as the Empty Bottle.

They brought along their poetry and their art books, comics and graphic novels, photo essays and stories (long and short), setting up on card tables under banners with names as colorful as they are: Criminal Class Press, Convulsive Editions, Anything Goes Publishing and Solace in So Many Words.

One table had babes in bathing suits hawking their wares. Another featured Gerry Brennan, a telecommunications expert by day, who was selling a historical novel he’s spent six years writing. And beside him, there I was too, selling my own collection of stories about Bucktown called Never Leave Your Block.

Carefully Quiet Customers

I watched as a carefully quiet customer approached Gerry and began thumbing through his 770-page tome Resistance (Tortoise Books, $19.95). The book is about a Czech plot to assassinate the little known but pivotal Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, and the passerby wanted to know the story behind the story of writing it. Gerry explained how his research took him across Europe, three times to Prague alone. To see the city as the conspirators saw it, he rented a bicycle to ride through the city as they did. For authentic detail, he poured through old Nazi archives. Then he wrote and rewrote to get the dialog right. He financed the effort with a campaign that raised $6,840. So far he has sold about 200 copies.

“That sounds . . .” the listener said, pausing to find the right word, “substantial.” Then he moved on to me. “And what do you write?” he asked.

“Insubstantial stuff,” I said. “My book is about people I run across in the neighborhood.”

“Like who?” he asked.

“Well, one chapter is about the day I went on a gambling junket to the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond with the ladies from the Bucktown Seniors Club,” I said.

“That sounds . . . interesting,” he said. Then he moved on.

And so it goes in the world of self-publishing. You pay your money and you take your chances. In most cases those chances are slim to none, but a writer’s got to write. Although that doesn’t mean he has to publish what he writes, I’ve crossed that bridge already, so let me share with you a little of what I’ve learned.

The Golden Age of Self-Publishing

They say this is the year self-publishing finally escapes the disparaging old moniker of vanity press. It is “The Golden Age” of self-publishing, Kelly Gallagher, a vice president of the ISBN issuing service Bowker, told a BEA panel last year. The proof lies in the numbers. In 2012, Bowker reported that 235,000 book titles came from self-publishers. That’s 287 percent more than five years ago, and it represents about 43 percent of all the books released last year.

The flood of new books is the result of a confluence of new technologies, not only Internet publishing services that allow authors to upload, edit and print books on demand but ebook publishers like Kindle, Nook and iBooks willing to share up to 70 percent of the sales price directly with the publishing authors.

Amazon Leads The Way

If self publishing has never been easier, it is in no small way due to the disruptive effect Amazon has had on the book industry over the last decade. The Borders bookstore chain is gone, Barnes & Noble is struggling, and countless independent bookstores have disappeared because Amazon has reshaped the way the public buys books. People may visit a bookstore to see what’s new and talk with a friendly (and knowledgable) store owner; but when they get home in front of their computer, all it takes is a one-button click to buy a book at a discount to be delivered to their doorstep the next day. As a result, Amazon today accounts for almost 60 percent of all book traffic (27 percent of all “book revenues”) and its Amazon Kindle dominates the fast-growing ebook market.

In building its online sales model, moreover, Amazon has especially welcoming to independent authors. (On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog.) The company offers its own print on demand services through its Createspace subsidiary and converts that file to an ebook for next to nothing. Independent authors who sign onto Amazon Author Central can also create their own biographies and promotional materials, change pricing and track sales using the same Book Scan service larger publishing houses use. And they are paid royalties on books sold, like clockwork, at the end of every month via an electronic transfer to their account.

An eBook Explosion

The explosion of ebooks––not only Kindles, but Nook, Sony and iBooks––is not only making the process easier for independent authors but vastly speeding the time it takes to bring a book to market. This week, for instance, you can read about the Chicago Blackhawks road to the Stanley Cup in three different Kindle ebooks produced by the sports staffs of the Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times and Daily Herald. Or if you have a book ready to publish, you can pour it into one of the free templates Apple provides in iAuthor, upload your iBook to the Apple store overnight and be selling copies in a week.

Some self-published writers have rushed in to take advantage of a chaotic ebook market with startling results. For the first time, the #1 and #2 best selling ebooks in April were self-published and three other self-published titles made the top 10 list, according to Digital Book World. It’s true that four of these titles sold for a paltry 99 cents, but when a romance writer like Amanda Hockings can sell over a million copies, those royalties add up.

Not For All

There are other signs that self-publishing is gaining respectability. Last Christmas, New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani chose the self-published The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall as one of her favorite books of the year. Many journalists and newspapers, as well, are popping out instant ebooks on current events that never flow through an established publishing house.

But for every Amanda Hockings, there are tens of thousands of other writers who never make back even their minimal publishing investment. The hard fact is that the vast preponderance of self-published authors rarely sell over 600 books––and half the writers who self publish earn less than $500.

A Stacked Deck

What most writers who rush to self-publish forget is that bookselling is a business. Whether in print or digital form, a book needs to catch the attention of a reader. That requires a striking cover and back jacket copy or blurbs that pull a reader in. But before either can work its magic, readers have to be able to find your book among the millions published every year. Somehow, someway, self-published authors need to get into the same bookselling channels established publishing houses use: the stores, libraries, trade journals and, increasingly, landing pages of popular online reviewers and booksellers.

Traditional publishers have longstanding relationships with the distributors who work those channels. They know the codes that drive the database of books in print. They hire publicists with extensive connections in the industry. They have established discounts with Ingram and Baker & Taylor (usually 55 percent off), the two main ordering channels for America’s 12,700 bookstores and 45,000 libraries. And most have contracts with a handful of independent distributors who man the booth at trade shows, work the phones to spread news about upcoming releases, and hire real book peddlers to visit individual bookstore owners with seasonal catalogs for all the publishing houses they represent.

The reason most writers are self-published, of course, is because they could not interest an established publishing house in their work. So you nibble at the distribution channels on your own, hoping a good review along the line will break your book into the public consciousness.

Those reviews, however, are hard to come by. Industry trade magazines like Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal as a rule don’t review self-published titles. (Self-publishers don’t advertise.) The old practices are changing, but slowly. Publishers Weekly now has a bi-monthly supplement for self-published titles; and for a fee, Kirkus will provide an author with a review of his self-published title that he can use on the back jacket, but the editors offer no guarantee the review will run in the magazine.

If you are counting on a review in the book section of your local newspaper, look again to see if they even have one. Limited space and advertising (and circulation, for that matter) have forced The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, among others, to discontinue their Sunday book supplements. The sad result is you’ll have a better chance being a feature story in a newspaper about a quirky writer-type than getting your work taken seriously as a novel worth reading.

But whatever you do, be nice to your local bookstore. Bookstores are the show windows of literature, and the people who work there are scouts on the front line of reader tastes. If you can score an appearance at a bookstore, grab it. You may not attract much of a crowd, but you have an opportunity to talk with potential readers and tell them why you wrote the damn book in the first place. If they like you, they might even buy the book. And if you leave with no sales, make sure you autograph as many copies as you can––because that makes the book non-returnable.

The Good News

The good news is that as clueless as you may be about bookselling, the titans in the industry are just as baffled by the new digital environment. Yes, they have a pretty good foothold in the business. Book publishing is a $14 billion a year industry––and self-publishers see only about $100 million of it. But just as bookselling is changing, so are the trends in book buying.

Social networks matter. Blogs about books are proliferating. Goodreads (recently acquired by Amazon) is an experiment in crowd-sourced reviewing that seems to be catching on. And small press publishers are springing up daily with new and novel ideas for promoting books––and selling them.

Just remember. If you self-publish, your work doesn’t end when you put out your book. It is just starting. So tell all your Facebook friends about every favorable review; send out those self-promotional tweets, and don’t miss the next Pop Up Book Fair at the Empty Bottle.

That’s where I was last Sunday on a beautiful 4th of July weekend honing my skills­­––which now seem to include book peddling. And I think I did pretty well. I sold six books and gathered 25 email addresses for The Week Behind.

In the small world of self-publishing, that’s what I call a pretty good day.

The Pop Up Book Fair is presented by Chicago publisher Curbside Splendor. If you missed me there, you can order your copy of Never Leave Your Block (Dead Tree Press, $14.95) by clicking HERE.

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