Local authors go the self-publish route

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO The boat Nirvana, docked at Preston’s in Greenport, is home to independent author Lee Carlson. It’s also where he has written much of his book ‘Passage to Nirvana,’ from which he’ll give a reading at Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport Saturday afternoon.

The Internet has spawned a growing online publishing industry powered by writers once known as self-publishers. But don’t use that term. They spurn it because of its old association with poor-quality vanity press books.
Many writers who independently publish their works online these days have previously had books brought out the old-fashioned way, by commercial publishers. But more and more of them are opting to forgo that route these days, looking to avoid the frustrations that come with trying to convince extremely skittish publishers that any particular piece has commercial potential.
“I wonder what I could have written if I hadn’t written what they told me would sell,” is how Southold novelist Mary Agria, 69, put it, quoting another published author.
As a long-published technical writer, she tried the mainstream route for her fiction but all she got was advice on how to change her work. “I tied myself in knots trying to be commercial,” she said. The frustration of it, she said “gave me the courage to say, ‘This is bull—-.’ “
Now she uses editors of her own choosing who scrupulously read her manuscripts and bluntly suggest necessary changes before she goes to press, at her own expense, using an online service that prints books on demand in any number she wants.
And now, when she works on her manuscripts, “Among the voices you’re listening to, there is not one saying, ‘It won’t sell,’ ” she said.
She is currently completing her sixth novel, “Garden of Eve,” a follow-up to her 2006 “Time in a Garden,” and what she expects will end up being a trilogy in her “Eden Series.” If there’s a common thread in all of her fiction writing, it’s “about what constitutes family and community,” she said.
She has sold a total of 2,200 books, doing readings at libraries, bookstores and civic association meetings. Each summer, she and her husband, Dr. John Agria, pack up the van and hit the road. But behind the scenes, he’s the one who talks to bookstore owners and libraries about getting her books on the shelves.
“I got my fair share of rejections,” author Lee Carlson, 52, of Greenport said about the response from mainstream publishers to his “Passage to Nirvana.” The book tells how he survived a traumatic brain injury and how he dealt with its effects on his life. The rejections were “not for the usual reasons,” he said.
Many publishers said the book was compelling, but were loathe to take a chance on a first-time author, he said. Others wanted changes he believed would have compromised the integrity of his story. He has only just begun to sell his self-published book, but his response from early readers has been very positive, he said.
Gene Rackovitch, 84, of Greenport, who has independently published several books about his World War II military experiences, now has a commercial publisher for his “Marines and Renegades,” which he originally self-published. But he had to fight his publisher, who wanted him to put in Vietnam references that didn’t mesh with his story.
Many mainstream publishers won’t look at an older writer, Mr. Rackovitch said. They also want people with several publishable manuscripts in the hopper and ready to go, he said.
Ms. Agria also stressed the importance of working on several projects at once so if you get blocked, you can put one aside and continue writing another.
Lucille Field, 81, of New Suffolk is nearing independent publication of a book of short stories, “On the Way to Wonderland,” that she initially tried selling to mainstream publishers.
“I got the best, most beautiful rejection letters you ever saw,” Ms. Field said. “If they smell that there’s a reading audience, they’ll go for an author,” she said. But if not, they will say no thanks, she said, no matter how good the writing.
While the basis of Alison Hegeman’s three books were personal columns she once published in a Huntington newspaper, when she compiled them, an agent friend told her, sight unseen, they wouldn’t sell. After reading her first manuscript, the woman subsequently admitted she would be the first reader to buy the book.
At $10 a book, Ms. Hegeman has contributed about $15,000 to Maureen’s Haven, a program providing overnight accommodations and food for homeless people. It’s too early to say what she’ll garner for Community Action of Southold Town, which will benefit from her sales of her latest book, “Act III.”
The authors have advice for would-be independent publishers about how to do it and how to finance it.
They generally recommend using a company on the web that will print single books on demand. It’s costlier on a per-book basis but it saves the cost and aggravation of putting up a lot of money in advance for a lot of copies that have to be warehoused, insured and shipped. Companies like Lulu, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and many others provide print-on-demand services through websites.
Mr. Carlson discovered, a service that lets artists and writers with independent projects seek financial support for their work. His project was accepted by the service and he offered soft- or hardcover books, signed or unsigned, to donors for various contribution levels. His goal was $6,000. He netted $12,690, referring people he knew to the site. They, in turn, referred others.
As a former magazine publisher, Mr. Carlson had the skills to publish his own manuscript, enabling him to maintain the format he wanted, rather than fitting it into a pre-set template.
If you’re using a service to independently publish, be alert to cost, Mr. Rackovitch said. Buy only the services you need. If you need an editor, it will likely cost $2.50 per page above the base cost of printing your book, he said. And proofread the copy the service sends you. He found many errors, including a book jacket reference to him as “her.”
And Google “Editors and Predators,” which will enable you to separate out the legitimate services from the charlatans, Mr. Rackovitch said.
Ms. Agria discovered that she shouldn’t try to market her own books. That falls to her husband, a former university president.
“Find someone who can protect you from the business end,” she said. After you’ve poured two or more years of your life into your book, it’s painful to put yourself on the front line marketing, she said.
“You have to have a website,” Ms. Agria said. It must look polished and should contain sample chapters of your work.
“The whole industry is changing,” Mr. Carlson said, summing up the impact that so many authors are having on publishing.
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