With news of award winning author John Edgar Wideman using Lulu to self publish his latest collection of short stories, many in the industry will be watching with interest to see how well he does. Vanity publishing, self publishing, print-on-demand publishing: call it what you will, it's here and it's not going to go away. I've looked into the process in various forms over the last few years and it has taught me a few invaluable lessons: what you should and what you shouldn't use it to publish, being the two most important. For new writers, self publishing a novel or short story anthology will probably be a waste of time and words, but there are ways to make it pay, if you take the right approach.
At the top of the self publishing game are Lulu.com and Amazon's Createspace.com; both allow the writer to publish their work with ISBN numbers, in either hardcopy or e-book formats, as well as offering distribution via Amazon. These sites offer the individual an ability to write, format, publish, print and distribute their work, giving them complete control of the whole process. Of course, the practicalities of this god-like power are much more mundane; the level of competence needed to write, format and publish a book is beyond the capabilities of most mortals (even if they believe it isn't), and even established publishers have difficulty selling books in the current climate. But perhaps this is where it may be worth stepping away from the standard view of publishing. The truly dire wannabe-publishing that these sites encourage occludes the potential that they can offer. Niche markets exist that mainstream publishers traditionally avoid; the associated sales volumes are just too small. But such niches often have dedicated followers who will happily pay higher fees for almost anything that is written about their area of interest. Sales may even be helped by the small scale of the niche because it's members frequently communicate through online forms, clubs, and newsletters, and word-of-mouth sells better than any advert. Hobbies, local history, genealogy, role-playing games, re-enactment, animal breeders, alternative life styles, fan-stories for specific sci-fi, horror and fantasy genres, or even specific computer games or worlds are fertile places to investigate. The following were pulled from the list of top selling titles on Lulu.com, note the prices:
The Boeing 737 Technical Guide, price: £68.82 –pretty self explanatory
The Ultimate Tattoo BIBLE, price: £56.39 –a book about tattoos and tattooing
Memories of the Future, price: £12.66 –a serious Star Trek fan book
The Havanese, price: £30.49 –A book about a breed of fluffy dog
Writing for such niches does require specialised knowledge and formatting the book may take a lot of time, but as a simple example: if only ten thousand people keep Burmese cats, and you make £10 on each copy of your book on the subject, you only need to sell to ten percent of that niche, a thousand copies, to make the proposition worthwhile. If they can be made aware of a book's existence and if it is reasonably well put together, there are ready audiences out there who will be happy to spend the money.
Trying to compete with publishers in mainstream fields and genres is still most likely doomed to failure. Whilst established authors, tired of poor publishing deals, may yet succeed in successfully selling their own work through these avenues, self publishing can be made to work for the first time writer if they are disciplined enough to do the job well and work hard to sell the book once it is published. Identifying the market is key.