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Self-Publish or Perish


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Aspiring authors are everywhere. Lost in the sea of their own imaginations, they tap away on laptop computers while sipping double lattes, or scribble furtively in composition notebooks during lunch break. They attend writing workshops, support groups and master of fine-arts programs. If they aren’t writing The Great American Novel, then it’s their memoirs, a family history, a step-by-step guide to losing weight or a directory of the best places to do just about anything in San Diego.

Some will find their manuscripts picked up by trade publishers like locally based Sunbelt, or Random House in New York. Many others, however, will simply do it themselves.

And why not? Here you have a perfectly good manuscript and no takers. So you find a self-publishing company to typeset and bind it, and a week or two later you’ve got 1,000 copies stashed in boxes all over the living room, ready to be sold.

Sometimes it works. More often, it doesn’t. That’s why it’s often referred to as “vanity press.”

Many times, the authors don’t even care. Sherrill Greer was freelancing years ago when she wrote an article about an American nun living in a penitentiary on the outskirts of Tijuana. Each time Greer went to visit the nun, she passed a lavish villa built in the midst of an impoverished area. “The contrast between the villa and the squalor, and the colors of Baja, really got my imagination going,” she says.

Years later, after she had written a story set in that villa, Greer and her husband discussed how best to get it into print. “It was too good a story not to write, and I honed it over a period of many years, working evenings and weekends,” she says. “I wanted to keep control over it, and that’s why we decided I should publish it myself.”

And so she did. Having her husband’s financial support didn’t hurt either. In fact, it made the whole thing possible, because Greer doesn’t work, outside of promoting her book, Dry Places. Although she declined to say how many thousands of dollars were spent to realize her dream, she paid enough to have 1,000 copies printed by Morris Publishing in Kearney, Nebraska.

Larry DiRuscio, president of Self Publishing Partners in San Diego, says with a print run of that size, the cost is usually between $2 and $5 a book. Greer not only paid for every copy, she paid for every proof—meaning 40 bucks each time she wanted to make even a minor change and then look over the pages again.

Printing expenses are just the beginning. With self-publishing, everything costs something. Selling the book usually requires the services of a distributor, such as Sunbelt Publications in San Diego or nationally known Ingraham. These distributors buy the book at a large discount—sometimes as much as 60 percent—and the authors get stuck with the cost of shipping to the distributor’s warehouse.

Greer’s book is selling for $10 dollars in softcover. When she sells directly to the public through a bookstore, she gives up between 30 and 40 percent of the cover price for the shelf space.

“With a short run like this [less than 5,000 books], people say you can’t make money, and frankly, I don’t expect to. I’m testing the market,” says Greer, though it’s not clear for what—other than her next book. “I realize not everyone is in the position to do that.”

Not everyone, but more than you might think. Self-publishing in San Diego belongs as much to the retired and financially comfortable as it does to the young and struggling. Perhaps even more.

Don Hubbard, owner of C-Eagle Publishing in Coronado, has been writing and publishing his own nautical-theme books since 1987. His first did well—a reprint of a book of his previously put out by McGraw Hill. Since then, he’s published books about kayaking in San Diego and Mexico, collections of poetry and—his most recent—a full-color, illustrated, all-fish cookbook. But is anyone buying?

“Yes,” says Hubbard. “Although there’s no way I can make a living at it. My next book is a how-to of sorts, about nautical arts and crafts.” Hubbard spent 24 years in the Navy, ran several prosperous businesses and sells his artwork in the Coronado public park.

“I don’t need the publishing income to survive, luckily,” he says. “Your outlay is enormous, and if you really have expenses, you just can’t afford to spend the time chasing stuff down” (in terms of marketing).

Hubbard is a prolific writer, but on the phone he sounds downright uninspired. “You get the big magazines like Publishers Weekly and they don’t review self-published,” he complains. “That’s because there is a lot of crap out there.” (Which is why San Diego Magazine doesn’t often review self-published, either.)

Hubbard hasn’t lost money, although he says self-publishing is a losing proposition for many others he knows. “This cookbook cost me $3.25 a copy to print, and I got 6,000 copies. I’m down to 5,000 copies and just about to break even. But I’m going to remainder what’s left [sell them at a large discount in the ‘remainders’ section of bookstores] because I don’t want to build a fort with them.”
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