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The self-publishing companies generally make their money either by charging author fees — which can range from $99 to $100,000 for a variety of services, including custom cover design and marketing and distribution to online retailers, or by taking a portion of book sales, or both.
Some, like Lulu Enterprises and CreateSpace from Amazon.com, allow the author to create the book free, but then make their money on a small printing markup and a profit split with the author.
For some authors, the appeal of self-publishing is that they can put their books on the market much faster than through traditional publishers.
Of course, authors who take this route also give up a lot. Not only do they receive no advance payments, but they also often must pay out of their own pockets before seeing a dime. They do not have the benefit of the marketing acumen of traditional publishers, and have diminished access to the vast bookstore distribution pipeline that big publishers can provide.
Still, many self-publishing companies allow authors to take more than the traditional royalty of 15 percent of the cover price on hardcovers and 10 percent or less on paperbacks.
Michelle L. Long, an accountant who advises small businesses, published "Successful QuickBooks Consulting," a guide for others who want to help businesses use a software package made by Intuit through CreateSpace a little more than a year ago. She said she had earned 45 to 55 percent of the cover price on each sale and had made $22,000 in royalties on the sale of more than 2,000 copies.
During an economic downturn, books tailored to such narrow audiences may fare better than titles from traditional publishers that depend on a more general appeal.
"A lot of this niche content is doing fairly well relative to the rest of the economy because it's very useful to people who have a very specific need," said Aaron Martin, director of self-publishing and manufacturing on demand at Amazon.
For many self-published authors, the niche is very small. Mr. Weiss of Author Solutions estimates that the average number of copies sold of titles published through one of its brands is just 150.
Indeed, said Robert Young, chief executive of Lulu Enterprises, based in Raleigh, N.C., a majority of the company's titles are of little interest to anybody other than the authors and their families. "We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind," Mr. Young said.
Still, the dream of many self-published authors is that they will be discovered by a mainstream publishing house — and it does happen, however rarely.
When Lisa Genova, a former consultant to pharmaceutical companies, wrote her first novel, "Still Alice," a story about a woman with Alzheimer's disease, she was turned down or ignored by 100 literary agents.
Ms. Genova paid $450 to iUniverse to publish the book and sold copies to independent bookstores. A fellow author discovered the book and introduced Ms. Genova to an agent, and she eventually sold "Still Alice" for a mid-six-figure advance to Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, which released a new edition this month. It had its debut on the New York Times trade paperback fiction best-seller list on Sunday, at No. 5.
Ms. Genova likened her experience to that of young bands or filmmakers using MySpace or YouTube to attract a following. "It's really tough to break into the traditional model of doing things," she said.
Louise Burke, publisher of Pocket Books, said publishers now trawl for new material by looking at reader comments about self-published books sold online. Self-publishing, she said, is "no longer a dirty word."
Diamonds in the rough, though, remain the outliers. "For every thousand titles that get self-published, maybe there's two that should have been published," said Cathy Langer, lead buyer for the Tattered Cover bookstores in Denver, who said she had been inundated by requests from self-published authors to sell their books. "People think that just because they've written something, there's a market for it. It's not true."
Story credit: Rich Motoko, New York Times
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