Self-publishing, Part III: Compare and Contrast

Hello, readers —

Today, we continue our series on the pros and cons of self-publishing with an interesting discussion between two published nonfiction authors:
Jim McFarland, self-published author of DO OR DIE: THE BABY-BOOMER MAN’S GUIDE TO REGAINING HEALTH, HAPPINESS, VITALITY, AND A LONGER, FULLER LIFE, and Gary Graf, author of AND GOD SAID, “PLAY BALL!”: AMUSING AND THOUGHT-PROVOKING PARALLELS BETWEEN THE BIBLE AND BASEBALL, published by Liguori/Triumph last year. (Both of these fine titles are available on Amazon at this very minute. Just think of THAT!)

Jim and Gary have been kind enough to share their respective publishing experiences with me, so readers of this blog can see for themselves the differences between pursuing the traditional publishing route and going it solo. As those of you who have been following Jim’s adventures over the last couple of days and this blog over the months know, either way a nonfiction author chooses to go has inherent benefits and risks. Here, we are lucky enough to be able to listen in on an intelligent, thoughtful discussion between two writers who have been there.

So, apart from throwing out the first ball and the occasional follow-up pitch, I’m going to back off and let them speak for themselves. Enjoy!

Anne: How was the writing process different for each of you?

Jim: I had total control over my material. The publisher with whom I worked offered an editorial evaluation for a price. I paid for this evaluation and received a very candid and honest assessment from the self-publisher. I am glad that I purchased this service.

Gary: By way of contrast to Jim’s experiences about self-publishing let me offer my thoughts on following the traditional publishing path. Like Jim, I too am a first-time author. In fact, when he was working on his book, DO OR DIE, I was writing mine, AND GOD SAID, “PLAY BALL!” — AMUSING AND THOUGHT-PROVOKING PARALLELS BETWEEN THE BIBLE AND BASEBALL.

As you might guess from the title, my book blends aspects of the Good Book with those of the great game. In it, I explore themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, prayer, redemption, service and more through connections the sport and scripture share. For instance, I examine the Book of Ruth with the career of Ruth (Babe), Joseph of Egypt and Joe DiMaggio, Moses and (Hank) Aaron. Admittedly, some sections are definitely tongue in cheek, yet most take serious spiritual themes and make them much more accessible by associating them with the game of baseball.

Oftentimes in the non-fiction arena, books are purchased based on outlines and sample chapters, depending upon the perceived interest and marketability of the subject matter and/or author. In my case, I had a completed manuscript to submit. As such, I had complete control over the initial draft. Working off and on at nights and on weekends, the book took between 12 and 18 months to write. Upon completion of the manuscript, I engaged in a developmental edit to prepare my rough draft for submission. This added another six months to the process, resulting in a 10% reduction of content.

Anne: How was the contract process different?

Jim: My contract provides me with (1) total ownership and copyright of the material, (2) My granting of licensing rights to the publisher to have the book printed and be made available in e-Book formats, (3) payment of royalties in several different and optional plans, (4) requirements for proofing material, and other minor provisions.

I had my contract approved by an intellectual property lawyer and he said the contract was very common and acceptable in the publishing industry and afforded me the proper protections.

Gary: Never having published a book before, everything about the process was new to me. Most daunting was the contract. I assume most publishers have a boilerplate agreement that they issue to their authors. Seeing so many clauses and contingencies was enough to boggle the mind. Issues presented were ownership, timing of ownership, royalty rates, rights and permissions, the publisher’s rights of production and more.

I had to weigh my desire to be published against what I was willing to give up in terms of rights and royalties. I must say that Liguori was quite amenable to most of my suggestions and we arrived at a contract with which we both could live. To be honest, as a first time author with only one publisher interested in my work at that point, I had little if any leverage in negotiations!

In my particular instance — a non-fiction book that occasionally excerpts from or refers to other sources — I was responsible for obtaining author/publisher permissions to reprint. This was an arduous task entailing a number of phones calls, faxes, emails, and the like to track down the proper people to contact, negotiate reprint fees, and sign agreements. A number of my references, being 300 words or less, fell under a free use category. Even so, I needed to obtain the appropriate permissions. I have to say, that while time consuming, the effort proved worthwhile. The only unfortunate aspect of it, obviously, was the out of pocket expenses. Fees ranged anywhere from $20 to $250. Depending upon how many sources you need permissions for, these fees can add up.

Anne: Tell us about how you submitted your work.

Jim: The publisher spelled out the submission process to me in advance. My responsibilities and their work were clearly defined in terms of task and timeline. I found this to be very helpful and desirable for making it through this process in a timely manner.

Essentially, they would send me a PDF copy of the book for review along with a word template review form. I would review the PDF copy page by page and then submit review changes. They would then update the manuscript and send another copy for review within several days. I went through several PDF copy reviews from mid-June to early August 2005. Then I submitted final approval and moved on to having the book published.

Gary: Initially, I put together a letter of inquiry, an outline of my book, and a sample chapter and sent it off to a handful of agents and a couple of publishers. Like many naïve authors, I waited for the bidding war to begin. No such luck. To an agent, all passed on representing me. The two publishing companies also declined to pursue my work.

At this point, I decided I had better do a better job of marketing my book. Given that both Jim and I are partners in a Seattle advertising agency, you would have thought that I would have taken a much more careful and professional approach the first time around. No doubt, I fell under the false notion that my book would sell itself. Not so.

Anne: A lot of first-time authors are under that impression, alas.

Gary: I suspect that the agents I queried decided that my book would appeal to too narrow an audience to be worth their time, if it appealed at all. So my new first task was to determine who the best market would be for my work. Given that PLAY BALL explored two subjects, baseball and the Bible, I figured it would appeal to those fans and faithful alike. However, in marketing, you really need to prioritize your target audience. Chances were that PLAY BALL would appeal more to people interested in the Bible who also enjoyed baseball, than to fans of the game and wanted to learn more about the Bible.

With this in mind, I sought to find publishers who specialized in works of a spiritual nature. To do this, I researched Catholic/Religious publishers via Jeff Herman’s GUIDE TO BOOK, PUBLISHERS, EDITORS, & LITERARY AGENTS. From the many such publishers he profiled, I selected my Top Ten.

Next, I prepared a proposal that not only well represented my manuscript but also showed why there was a market for it. I referenced how well Mel Gibson’s PASSION OF THE CHRIST did at the box office as well as how many millions of fans attended baseball games each year. I included an outline of my book, three sample chapters, marketing approaches, publicity ideas, and personal information. Then I waited.

Over the next few months, I received a variety of responses. There were those who stated that the book did not fit their publishing criteria. One editor at a well-known publisher commented that they took both content and marketability into consideration when weighing a proposal. And while he found the premise creative, he noted that I was neither a theologian nor a baseball player (items I noted myself in my book) and thus lacked a platform from which to launch the book. Another publisher decided that the book was not something they would pursue but thought enough of my proposal to offer the names of two other publishers that they thought might be interested.

In the midst of all these replies came a phone call from Liguori Publications. Located outside of St. Louis, they expressed initial interest and asked that I send a complete manuscript. Some weeks later, an editor called and left me a message that he had some good news. They wanted to publish the book!

Little did I know how rare a decision this was. My book had come “over the transom.” In other words, it was unsolicited. Liguori publishes only 30 books a year and reviews 12 times that number of submissions. What’s more, they review proposals on twin tracks: the economics of production and the potential of sales. Fortunately, both review committees wanted to PLAY BALL.

Anne: I’m going to stop us here for today, because this is a LOT of information for those new to the process. I suspect that readers who had not yet learned from personal experience just how much work is involved in getting a book to press — through either the self-publishing or traditional publishing routes — might be a trifle stunned.

Thanks, Jim and Gary! Tomorrow, we shall move on to the nitty-gritty, the practical details of the two types of publishing.

Before I sign off for today, here are a couple of things I would like to underscore here. First, obviously, neither route is for the lazy, as I think their respective stories abundantly illustrate.

Second, as Gary points out, it is extremely rare for an unsolicited manuscript to be picked up by a publisher. Gary did it the right way, submitting a proposal first, but still, most NF books come to traditional publishers via agents or by solicitation. Before you go to the time and trouble of submission — which, as you may see, is considerable — do check that the publisher will consider unsolicited manuscripts.

And if your book is fiction, don’t try this trick at home. Never send an unsolicited manuscript for a novel; always, always, ALWAYS query first.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S. to Marcille: Excellent question! I shall tackle it next week.

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