Time for my first collection of short stories, and I was wondering how to go about it. Simply send out the book and hope a publisher found virtue in it? Go the contest route and pay for a chance at the publishing lottery? No to vanity publishing from the start. Self-publishing? I am no printer, no subcontractor, and no distributor. Perhaps self-publishing as an e-book?
Sure, some self-published books are simply ego. Some appear to be written by squirrels mating on an open keyboard. Some are so esoteric even their authors have a hard time getting through them. But I've looked at what is on the best seller lists, and often what passes through there has little claim to authority. And most books are coming out these days as e-books shortly after the print edition is birthed.
Maybe the vehicle for "Constant Animals", my book of 42 unruly fictions, should be the electronic medium in which many of its constituent stories originally appeared.
Off to wrangle the e-book!
Publishing an e-book has been a wicked learning experience. Producing it and getting it out to the vendor sites was no problem. I went through Smashwords for most sites, and with Amazon directly for Kindle. I pretty much formatted it myself, though I ran it through E-Book Launch to make sure it was set properly. E-book Launch also did the cover, from material I selected.
My old web site had lapsed, so I set up a new one at www.kpoyner.com so I could sell the book at a discount when purchased at Smashwords, and as well direct users to other book selling sites if they preferred.
I ordered some business cards from VistaPrint, some postcards as well, and did a poster for a bookstore/kobo store whose owner I know, and who wanted to display the poster in his window (actually, he is displaying two). I even did T-shirts for the wife and I, with my book cover and directions on where to find the e-book.
My total costs, including the T-shirts and VistaPrint gallery of goodies, ran around $400.00.
I did not expect the book to do extravagantly - we all know how the literary presses are these days, and I hardly had the marketing to make much of a dent. But I figured I have been around in the field for forty years, have been nominated for three Pushcart prizes, a Rhysling award, a Dwarf Stars award, and taught on an NEA community teaching fellowship. I've published perhaps 600 poems, and 100 stories. I had one poetry book out in 1985 from an independent press, and another in 1995 from Palanquin Books (an imprint of the University of South Carolina). I have been seen from "The Iowa Review", "The Alaska Quarterly", "Poet Lore" to "Star*Line" and "Farther Stars Than These" and "Attention Please". I have given readings at Bucknell University, and George Washington University, and the Bethesda Writers' Center, and elsewhere. I am shameless in my democracy towards publishing. And, in the book itself, 39 of the 42 stories had been previously published, so I figured the content was vetted. I thought I would get a few hits.
I am still publishing these days like I were a teenager in heat chasing cheerleaders. In about fifteen bio notes since the book came out I have been sure to reference it and give my web site. In print based bio notes I have listed the book, and in more recent ones listed my web site. I even put a picture of the cover in my auto-generated e-mail signature, with a link and a price.
To this date, 5 October 2013, starting with a release of 31 January 2013, it has sold across all sites a total of 8 books.
It is an interesting dynamic. It seems the primary sales of e-books are titles by authors already doing well in print; porn series; and a few very low priced non-fiction guides. If you go out to any e-book vendor site and get a list of their top fifty sellers, it is a bit eye-opening.
It has caused me to look at web publishing a gleam more closely. Yes, there may be a lot of hits on a site, but how many of those are crawlers and spiders and people looking for something else and tapping the literary site for a bleary second or two and then out? A better gauge might be the comments that are left. I note that on a lot of literary web sites that allow readers to make comments, none do. I love the accessibility and freedom of a web based endeavor, but I wonder how literary efforts fare against YouTube videos of people falling off of porches.
Of course, I read that JK Rowling's mystery book, under a different author name, even with mega-backing, sold originally in the ethereal area of 1500 copies, and had to be re-issued under the JK Rowling name. I wonder just how much herd mentality exists in the reading public. I see that Fifty Shades of anything sells like water in the desert.
What I find odd is that my postcards fly off the information shelf at the gym that the wife and I go to (she is a national champion power lifter, and I have lifted for pure joy for 45 years). People there have never seen the Bosch style painting (it used to be attributed to Bosch, but it is now thought a student of his did it) I use as a cover: and they just love it. None of them buy the book, but they take the postcards as a novelty. Maybe one of them will actually look up Bosch and become a fan of his.
Seraphemera Press and I are dancing around the idea of doing my next book -- hand letterpress, vellum, brass brad binding: just the opposite of an e-book. Who knows how that will go?
The problem lies in part in the distribution system. Brick and mortar stores must warehouse books, ship books, and display books. If you are not a best selling author, you get little of what is called 'face time', where your book is displayed in the store with the full front cover showing. If the book does not jump off of the shelves and the cash start flowing in, the book is shifted to a rack where only the spine is showing, and the valuable face time out by the cash register is given to a book with better promise.
With an e-book, you give up the promotion you are not likely to get anyway, and substitute a lower price. E-books require no paper, no ink, no covers. They do not take up warehouse space. They do not have to be moved or shipped. On Amazon, or Barnes and Nobles, or Kobo, they look largely like a regular print book. But the price is usually much, much lower; and the author deals with the selling site, or a one-step middleman distributor, directly -- thus having a bigger cut of the profits, so he or she can sell the book much cheaper and still see more profit than he or she would out of a print book, were either of them to sell. With a print book, there are a lot of other people making decisions and taking profits, if there are any profits.
The major issue for e-book authors is the same one I alluded to above: who is really reading? For most small press print literary collections, the author is the primary customer; and then the author promotes his/her book at readings, on a web site, through a network of friends, or while screaming from a roof top. It is has been this way for most of the last half of the twentieth century, and now the first years of the twenty-first. Maybe a small network of bookstores related to the publisher will carry the book, and perhaps you can get Amazon to stock it. Then you run into the inventory problem, and worrying just how long they are going to keep a physical book around that is not moving in the market place. At least you can keep millions of authors' e-books on one relatively small disk, and you are not likely to be evicted by the hosting web site.
The real wonder that I discovered, and should have always known, is that the web is not the panacea we want it to be. Sure, two billion people connect to it. Millions of people are on line. They are playing games and watching YouTube videos. If they are reading the many literary offerings floating out there, they are saying very little and moving on to buy even less.
I'm afraid the Internet may be your path to fame only if you are Britney Spears's tangle, and a photographer is waiting as you shimmy out of a car unshielded. Or maybe if you were a cat playing the piano. Wait. Those are the same thing. Sorry.
Someone might see my e-book one day and through some unknown means drive it into a must-have phenomenon. It is sitting out there on half a dozen web sites, running on auto-pilot and not likely to be deterred by low stock or shipping charges. Luck and accident are the two most decisive forces in anyone's life. Who knows? Downloading my book might gain a reputation as a virility enhancement, and I could be rich by morning!
Ken Poyner has had fiction of late in Corium and Kill Author, and poetry in Adirondack Review, Medulla Review, Blue Collar Review, Poet Lore and about forty other places. His wife is a world class power lifter and the two together live a somewhat strange life in the right hand bottom corner of Virginia. His book "Constant Animals", 42 unruly fictions, is $4.99 as an e-book and vendor links are available at www.kpoyner.com.