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The increasing quality and prevalence of print-on-demand options make self-publishing an attractive route for some authors

by Darryl McGrath on August 2, 2012

As recently as a decade ago, an aspiring author with serious literary or journalistic intentions had two choices: find a publisher, or publish your book yourself. For a novice, the first option was about as likely as hitting the Lotto jackpot, and the second seemed the last act of a desperate hack.

Not anymore. Digital marketing and sales opportunities, design packages that make it difficult to tell the self-published books from the traditionally published best-sellers, and the very real possibility that a stand-out self-published book may cross over to the national big time have all made self-publishing a feasible idea.

Authors who go the self-publishing route have more choices now than even a few years ago. The big national self-publishing firms were the first in the business—iUniverse, AuthorHouse and Xlibris are the three best-known companies—but local writers can find choices very close to home now. Among the choices in or near the Capital Region: The Troy Book Makers in downtown Troy, and the Shirespress, through the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vt. In both cases, authors can select a package that fits their need, whether it’s for 150 bound copies of the illustrated family tree for the upcoming reunion, or a first novel that a writer really believes in but never could sell to a traditional publisher.

The Troy Book Makers was co-founded by Susan Novotny, owner of The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, and Eric Wilska, owner of The Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass.

“I actually have had non-novice clients; people who have some writing experience,” says Jessika Hazelton, manager of The Troy Book Makers. “I think it’s really becoming so accepted now that the stigma is going away.” Self-publishing companies are encouraging that acceptance by favoring the term “independent publisher” or “indie publisher” over “self-publisher.”

The Troy Book Makers can fill orders from one volume to hundreds or even thousands. Smaller jobs are printed and assembled on the premises; larger runs are printed off-site. No longer do self-published books have that telltale, slightly “different” look to their design and print quality that used to scream, “Self-published!” Such was the fate of the earliest self-published volumes done even by the national firms, but technology and production quality have improved so much that if it were not for the dead giveaway in local bookstores that “Books by Local Authors” are also usually self-published, the average bookstore browser could not tell the difference. As Hazelton puts it: “You don’t want to tell the difference between a Troy Book Maker book and a Simon & Schuster book.”

In addition to working with contemporary writers, the firm has also brought a number of out-of-print books of regional and local interest back to life through limited reissued editions. The staff regularly troll the Library of Congress listings for potential reprints whose copyrights have expired. One such reborn title is the delightfully quirky Representative Young Irish-Americans of Troy, NY, 1889, which is exactly what it sounds like—an illustrated little volume that reads like a contemporary “Forty under 40” listing in Business Week of up-and-coming young entrepreneurs to watch. The Troy Book Sellers printed a limited quantity for distribution through local stores.

For UAlbany English professor Martha Rozett, The Troy Book Makers was the best way to publish her deeply personal memoir, When People Wrote Letters: A Family Chronicle, which recounts the remarkable lives and careers of her mother and great-aunt against the backdrop of the family’s history and travels. Rozett paid about $1,000 for the initial design and formatting package and ordered 100 copies to start, at a cost of $11.95 a copy. She sold that, and also a second run of another 100 copies, and is halfway through a third run. While she wrote and self-published the book “as a present to myself,” she has had an unexpected result: She is now in demand as a speaker on how to catalogue and preserve family letters. At readings, she says, “People keep coming up to me and sayng, ‘I have family letters.’ I gave a reading in Clifton Park and two people had Civil War-era family letters. I think the subject has really spoken to people who knew about it, and that’s what self-published authors have to do—promote it.”

Rozett has her book listed on Facebook and is about to release it on a range of e-reader formats. The e-reader sale price will be a fraction of the printed retail cost of $19.95, but she also thinks more people may access the book.

At Northshire, writers can also select from a range of packages to have their book published on the Espresso Book Machine, which is a trade name for a popular print-on-demand device. The machine is about the size of a bulky bookcase, and customers in the store can stand outside the enclosure that houses it and watch as the machine puts a book together. Unlike The Troy Book Makers, which can produce a book as plain or fancy as you care to pay for it—from paperbound to gold-embossed leather cover—the Espresso Machine produces only paperbound volumes.

The idea has caught on: James Howard Kunstler, the well-known Saratoga author and social critic, recently self-published a children’s story at Northshire.

Northshire has published about 450 books through the Espresso Book Machine, and “we average probably an author a week, which is amazing,” says Debbi Wraga, the coordinator of the service. In addition to its self-published titles, Northshire also can access a Google catalogue of some 4 million out-of-print titles whose copyrights have expired. Looking for that obscure Latin text that you need as a reference for your Ph.D. thesis? Would you like your child to read some long-ago beloved book from your own childhood? If you can find it on the Google catalogue, Northshire can print a paperbound copy of it for you.

And for those who think their novel or nonfiction book really should have caught the attention of the national publishing world, self-publishing a book can lead to a happy ending that would be edited out of a manuscript because it’s so improbably sentimental. Take the example of Laurel Saville, a writer in Little Falls who self-published her memoir about her mother under the title Postmortem nearly three years ago. (See Metroland, “Published Upstate,” Aug. 5, 2010.)

“I thought, ‘Well, I wanted to give myself every chance,’” Saville says. “I knew it was a decent book, and I just wanted to see how it could live in the world.”

Saville went with iUniverse, a national self-publishing firm, and her venture with self-publishing took the literary turn of the supermodel who is discovered waitressing in a coffee shop. An acquisitions editor at Amazon.com saw a favorable review of Postmortem in the trade publication Publisher’s Weekly. (Saville paid for her book to be listed in an ad in the magazine, but was not guaranteed that it would be reviewed.) Amazon bought Postmortem, renamed it Unraveling Anne (mainly because crime novelist Patricia Cornwell already had a book titled Postmortem), and republished it under the new title. Amazon gave it international publicity through promotions on the Amazon.com website and e-mail alerts to Amazon customers, and Amazon now has an option on the novel Saville is writing.

Saville declined to cite her sales figures, but she sounds happy with the results.

“Can I quit my day job?,” she replies when asked about how it’s done. “No. Has it exceeded their expectations? Yes.”