Minefields of self-publishing

Although I’ve been a writer for decades, Renting Dirt is my first foray as an “author”–that is, someone who writes and publishes a book. So with that personal history, I found the writing part familiar enough; it was the publishing and distribution end of things that’s been an eye-opener.

Because Renting Dirt explores a niche subject of limited interest, with a primary target audience of campground owners (and RVers, to some extent), I knew I’d have a hard time interesting a publisher in a book that might sell just a few hundred copies. Fortunately, we live in an age when there are technologically-enabled alternatives to the old-school paradigm of finding an agent, generating extensive book proposals and selling an inherently conservative industry on something as idiosyncratic as a book about–well, about renting dirt. Unfortunately, embracing those alternatives means learning numerous new skills that take time and money and have nothing to do with writing–that, or hiring from the vast number of third-party providers willing to provide the missing pieces: editing, interior book design, cover book design and artwork, formatting for e-book publication, obtaining ISBN codes, registering copyright and Library of Congress forms, hiring a printer, and on and on.

Figuring I’d just as soon spend my money to hire some pros as spend it on software and instruction to do the job myself, that’s the path I chose initially. It wasn’t long, however, before I reversed course and decided, for better or worse, to tackle it all myself. What pushed me down the DIY path?

After researching various companies that offer fee-based services to help authors self-publish, I finally settled on BookBaby, which was well reviewed, reasonably priced and had a full suite of services from which I could pick and choose. Then I got their terms of service–all 10,000 words of them. And what those words made explicitly clear, contrary to their verbal representations, was that if I paid BookBaby for its services I would be awarding it the exclusive distribution rights to my work–an astonishing grab by a company I was supposedly hiring to work for me, and not the other way around. Specifically, BookBaby stipulates that anyone using their services “appoint[s] us as your exclusive authorized representative for the sale and other distribution” of their work “in any manner, including via ebooks and online or physical distribution.”

There was more. If I decided that I no longer wanted to use BookBaby, I would have to give it written notice–and then wait “4-6 weeks or longer” for my book to be removed “from retail outlets around the world.” Until that had happened, I would be barred from distributing my book in any other way. Moreover, there was additional language that seemed to suggest that BookBaby would retain ownership of any materials I had provided, including my text, artwork and descriptive material. All this was so over-the-top that I emailed BookBaby, asking if I had read its language correctly, and in response was told that its terms of service were based on 70-year-old contract language that I shouldn’t take too seriously. “We do have hundreds, maybe thousands, of authors who publish their ebook with us, and publish the print elsewhere, and vice versa. It is not a problem in the least,” I was assured.

Which, of course, begs the question of why that language is in there in the first place–so it was bye-bye, BookBaby. And given its relatively high marks among its peers, I decided I’d be just as well off steering clear of the entire sector.

The other eye-opener was my belated understanding of why Amazon is kicking the butts of local, independent book sellers.

Once Renting Dirt had been published, I identified three non-chain bookstores in my area that I thought might be willing to carry a local author on consignment. I sent each an emailed query, following up with a second email after 10 days or so when I didn’t get any responses. Bookstore number one finally responded with a two-page agreement I was asked to fill out, to be returned with a $25 “handling fee” and a copy of the book for the owner’s review prior to acceptance. What if the owner decided not to carry the book, I asked–would the “handling fee” be returned, since there would be no handling involved?

No, came the answer. But without the $25, the book would not be screened–meaning, in essence, that the “handling fee” was actually a “reading fee.” As I pointed out to the owner, that turned the whole author-reader dynamic on its head, since authors expect readers to pay for reading their work, not the other way around. That ended that discussion.

Bookstore two didn’t respond to my second email, either, so after several more weeks I wrote a third time, somewhat peevishly inquiring why I wasn’t given the simple courtesy of an acknowledgment of my request, even if it came with a “thanks, but no thanks.” This time the bookstore owner did reply–to note that the “tone” of this last email had convinced her we would not work well together. She was undoubtedly correct.

Bookstore three, meanwhile, was so initially receptive that my heart skipped a beat. Let’s see the book, she said, so I hustled it right over, together with a newly-minted business card, and asked her to get back to me once she’d had a chance to evaluate the book. Weeks passed without a word. I finally sent a third email, asking for an update. That was in mid-November. Still waiting for a response.

Amazon, meanwhile, has sold approximately 500 copies of Renting Dirt, which at least covers my expenses to date. That’s no way to make a living, I know, so it’s a good thing I’m retired. But it has all been an education.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

2 thoughts on “Minefields of self-publishing”

  1. Great blog Andy! So many individuals out there ready to take your money or signed contract, but not ready to fulfill their side of the bargain. You wrote and created a great informative book — all on your own. I am full of awe and admiration. Thank for pointing out the pitfalls with at least one of these companies!


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