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Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing: How to choose?

BETTING ON BOOKS: P. Scott Cunningham, the founder and executive editor of Jai-Alai Books, a literary publishing imprint from Miami, holds a cesta with some Jai-Alai Books publications on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014 at the National Young Arts Foundation campus, 2100 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Jai-Alai Books has an office on the campus.
BETTING ON BOOKS: P. Scott Cunningham, the founder and executive editor of Jai-Alai Books, a literary publishing imprint from Miami, holds a cesta with some Jai-Alai Books publications on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014 at the National Young Arts Foundation campus, 2100 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Jai-Alai Books has an office on the campus. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

By the time John Kennedy Toole won the Pulitzer Prize for his great American novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, he had been dead for 12 years.

Toole reportedly killed himself in part due to years of frustration over unsuccessful attempts to get his outrageously funny book about New Orleans published. It was only after his mother browbeat author Walker Percy into taking up the cause that Louisiana State University Press published the book in 1980. The following year, it won the Pulitzer for fiction. It went from being considered a cult classic to a must-read: More than 1.5 million copies of Toole’s book have been printed, and it has been translated into 18 languages.

“I think if he were alive today, he might not have been so despondent,” says Mitchell Kaplan, president of Books & Books and co-founder of Miami Book Fair International, which this year will feature a discussion panel on the monopoly of publishing. These are exciting and challenging times for authors both emerging and established. Many of them are blazing their own way, creating a brave new world for authors who will not be denied. The old “publish or perish” mantra may eventually have more application to the existing publishing houses than the authors, who are seeking innovative ways to get their books to readers.

Toole or his mother may have found a way to bring his book to press, were he writing today, Kaplan speculates. “My point is that people might not kill themselves to get published today. They would go self-publishing. Self-publishing does not have the stigma today.”

Not only is there no stigma, but also there is a flood of interest in the do-it-yourself world of publishing. “There is no question self-publishing is increasing and small-scale publishing is increasing, because the cost of publishing a book has gone down and the need for having a large organization of your own has also disappeared,” says industry analyst Mike Shatzkin, founder and CEO of the New York-based Idea Logical Company. When people say self-publishing, they typically mean digital books (electronic books, or e-books), Shatzkin says, adding that there is a surge of interest in self-publishing genre fiction such as romance, science fiction, and mysteries and thrillers. Although exact figures on market share remain murky, Shatzkin says, “Digital accounts for more than half of genre fiction sales, but when you talk about serious nonfiction, it’s not more than 25 percent, and illustrated books, such as cookbooks are only 3 percent.”

E.L. James took a wrecking ball to the stigma of self-publishing with her wildly successful 50 Shades of Grey. The so-called mommy-porn trilogy started in the e-book and print-on-demand arena, and it launched a bidding war in the established publishing houses. Vantage Books, a division of Random House, won out and earlier this year announced the book surpassed the 100 million sales mark. While it will have some ways to go to surpass A Tale of Two Cities, that meandering Dickens tale with the most quotable opening and enviable sales of 200 million copies, James’ book sales put her in the same company of other illustrious authors, including Agatha Christie, J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. The film version of the book is slated to debut on Valentine’s Day.

The first thing to know about getting your book published today is that there is no set road map to doing so. You can go the traditional route of joining a writers circle and asking writers for help in securing a literary agent. You can write to agents and publishers with a blitz of mailings, which can be time-consuming and expensive, not to mention irritating. Or, you can forge your own path, as so many are doing today.

Neil Flanzraich of Coral Gables did just that when he decided to publish Geniuses, a young adult book about the fight for world domination by good and evil individuals with extraordinary mental powers. The pharmaceuticals executive and director of Chipotle Mexican Grill didn’t want to spend a lot of time courting agents and publishers. “I know the odds of finding a publisher, with thousands of submissions, is not good,” Flanzraich says. “So, I decided to publish it myself.” Now he’s working on the sequel.

He began by researching self-publishing outlets on Google. Because he wanted to sell the book both online and in bookstores, Flanzraich chose a company that could physically publish the book as well. He ended up paying roughly $10,000 for a print-on-demand arrangement, where the publisher can ship out individual orders one at a time. This avoids the possibility of being stuck with a warehouse full of books if sales do not go as expected. Flanzraich owns the copyright and splits the profits from sales with his publisher, which leaves him with just under $1 per book, he says, adding, “I’m not surviving on the money, but that’s not why I wrote the book.”

Another growing area of publishing is that of the small imprint publisher. P. Scott Cunningham, co-founder of the O, Miami Poetry Festival, added a publishing arm to O, Miami, this year: Jai-Alai Books. “We’re Random House minus hundreds of employees,” Cunningham says. Launched in April, Jai-Alai Books is devoted to publishing works about Miami and by Miami writers. “When we look around the world and see healthy communities, they have a strong publishing community,” Cunningham says. “Miami is underrated as a literary scene. The one area that we are lacking is in the publishing arena.” Jai-Alai is a small piece of that publishing puzzle. “We don’t have the reach of a multinational publisher,” he says, “but the advantage is we really know our backyard and can tailor our projects.” He originally expected the press to be devoted to poetry, but its first publication ended up being the beautifully illustrated soft-cover book Forager: A Subjective Guide to Miami’s Edible Plants, which sells for $24.95.

The traditional publishing world has its adherents. Attorney and author Scott Turow — famed for legal thrillers such as the superbly crafted Presumed Innocent, which was made into a film starring Harrison Ford — enumerates the benefits of letting a publisher bring your book to print.

“I think that if you are lucky enough to run the gauntlet and get a traditional publisher, you’re better off for a multitude of different reasons,” Turow told the Miami Herald. “The publisher will invest in your book in a variety of ways. They’ll give you an advance — probably not a very big one, if you’re just starting out — but they will. They will give you editorial help. They will give you marketing help. A lot of that is not what authors want, but it’s still on the other hand better than nothing.”

But perhaps the biggest advantage a publisher’s stamp of approval provides is mainstream acceptance, says Turow, who has sold more than 30 million copies of his books and appeared on author panels at past book fairs in Miami. “There’s still, in terms of the traditional media outlets, a prejudice in favor of those books, so you’ll find it easier to get an article published about your book in the Miami Herald than if it’s self-published, where 99 percent of the books that get published sort of fall off the cliff,” he says. “So, yes, traditional publishing is still the better alternative for most writers.”

However, navigating the publishing world can be difficult even for someone as talented as Turow. “The part of my story that people don’t recognize is that I wrote my first unpublished novel when I was 18 years old,” he says. “Between the time Presumed Innocent was published in 1987, I wrote at least three or four other books that did not get sold. …These days I’d be putting those books online, hoping for lightning to strike.”

His recipe for success is a combination of talent, luck and hard work, as well as the ability to get knocked down and get back up because, as with any successful artist, you’ve got to burn with a desire to succeed, he says.

“There really is no ‘right way’ to do it,” says bestselling author Hugh Howey. “The wrong way is to not write.”

Howey is another self-publishing success story. The South Florida author created the bestselling Silo series about a subterranean society that evolved when the Earth grew too toxic to sustain life above ground. Howey studied the industry from the inside-out, working at a bookstore and observing how books sold or slipped into obscurity. He opted to self-publish electronically through’s Kindle Direct Publishing so that his books would never go out of print and always be available on demand. His readers were just a mouse-click away. (Additionally, according to industry expert Mike Shatzkin, Amazon helps writers reach more readers because it commands the self-publishing market, with as much as 70 percent market share.)

Howey also wrote several novels so that when his seventh novel, Wool, took off, he had a backlog of books to present to eager readers, knowing that he would never have the same leisure to write as when he wrote in obscurity. His publishing strategy is a hybrid of reaching readers in cyberspace and bricks-and-mortar bookstores — all while retaining as much control as possible over the copyright of his writings.

“Every decision I made was just trying to figure out how to get my art in front of the most number of eyeballs,” says Howey, whose first book, Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue, was published by a small press. He figured he could just as easily do what his publisher was doing — publishing the books electronically and using print-on-demand.

“I realized that these tools were available to everyone, and that if I wanted to employ them myself, I could create the sort of story that I would want to see as a reader and really not have to work around some other schedule,” he says. “Basically, it was like a chef in restaurant wondering, can I open my own restaurant? Sure, there’s a little more work involved, but it’s the benefits of self-actualization and having complete creative control. All those things more than made up for what felt before like clocking in to work for someone else. Now, every hour I put in was for my own passion.”

The Internet is the great equalizer in the publishing industry. It affords authors the opportunity to get their words out in e-books and stand naked before the world, so to speak. The time spent trying to get your first book to print could be time put to better use, Howey reasons.

“You can spend 10 years of your life trying to write that novel that’s great enough to get a big deal and get a huge push, and you might have to write six or seven novels before you write that book,” Howey says of the traditional publishing industry. “Or, you have to work on that one novel for 10 years before you write something that gets a huge push by a big publisher.

“My thinking was, that’s a lot of years to spend on the sidelines,” he says. “I would rather do what musicians and artists in other media do, and that’s get your book out there, perform, and work your way up slowly. As the audience grows, your talents will grow, and the stage will grow for you. That was my thing going in. I would much rather have my works available and have a small audience than labor in obscurity to try to win over the right editor that would give me that big contract.”

Instead he opted to self-publish. He did his own publicity, through book signings, craft fairs, blogging and social media such as Twitter and Facebook. But the best publicity was word of mouth. He gave 80 copies to friends, who raved about the book to their friends, who in turn told their friends.

Howey’s approach worked for him. He has sold more than 2.5 million books, he says, adding that “Wool has been a Sunday Times bestseller in the United Kingdom, a bestseller in Italy and France, and the No. 1 bestselling science fiction novel of all time in Taiwan.” In addition, Ridley Scott — of Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator fame — and Steve Zaillian, who won the Oscar for his screenplay of Schindler’s List, optioned the film rights.

Several book publishers courted him, first with five- and six-figure contracts that he rejected. He could do that because his online books were selling quite well and he could track the sales on his computer. Then came the seven-figure offers: Howey ultimately chose Simon & Schuster exclusively for print because he wanted to retain the freedom to publish on the Internet through Amazon while also reaching readers who prefer the feel of a book in their hands.

Now he can reach those readers who prefer to get their reading material in bookstores rather than online and still retain creative control over his books while owning the copyright. It’s a choice between paying upfront for anything from an editor to fact-check your copy to paper stock and bookbinding — or taking an advance and ceding up to 85 percent of future the profits to the publisher, he says.

“More and more sales are going online, both in print and digital,” he says. “A lot of my friends are not even querying. They are going right to self-publishing. People are hiring editors, creating great cover art. People cannot tell these books are self-published.”

Jennifer Bisram is another example of someone who opted to self-publish. Bisram also chose a hybrid approach, but rather than go with an established publishing house, she created her own imprint. She decided to go digital with the help of existing online distributors and created Bizzy Books Publishing, where she handles distribution of her books in bulk, to classrooms and selected book-signing events.

“Writing was the easy part, so long as you have imagination,” says Bisram, who has been writing since she was 16.

Bisram, who covered the Trayvon Martin shooting for WOFL in Orlando and later worked for WSVN in Miami, is slated to appear at the Miami Book Fair International on Sunday on the Storytorium Stage in the Children’s Alley. It will be an opportunity to meet the author of the children’s book, First Day of School: Do You Want to be My Friend? Based on a true story — her younger sister Cheryl’s first day at school — the book explores how to overcome the first day of school jitters by introducing yourself and making friends with classmates of all faiths and ethnicities.

Bisram says it took her from April to August of this year to write the book and bring it to print. “I knew I had to research, research, research everything because I knew I wanted total control of my book and not deal with the time it would take to publish with a big publishing house,” Bisram says. So far, she says, she sold 400 copies in the first two months. She sells online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and has had book signings at Books & Books in Coral Gables, as well as book readings at schools in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.

Like so many authors before her, Bisram created her own path to publication. Once she wrote the book, she looked for a printing company, learning about page quality and printing costs, which can exceed $5 a page, depending on the cover, binding, color selection and size. Next she looked for a distribution company to get her book online. She discovered that some companies charge as much as 65 percent of the cost of the book to place it on the popular Amazon and Barnes & Noble sites.

At the same time, she registered the copyright of both her book and publishing company, and she designed a website to promote sales of the book. She sought out an illustrator, which can cost upward of $2,000 for quality color work. She experimented with various fonts and color schemes for the book, particularly for the cover and spine. And she hired a researcher to ensure everything she wrote was accurate.

Once she ironed out the logistics of creating the book, she explored how best to market the book, and that involved hiring a public relations firm to write a press release and a graphic designer to create promotional items, including her website. That typically involved another outlay of $2,000 or so.

When it came time to sell the book, she encountered another barrier to entry. “Big bookstores will not always take you if you are a self-publisher, and if they do, they will usually take a big portion of your book sale — just to have it inside of their stores [they will take] 40 percent to 50 percent,” she says, adding that she also had to figure out how to break into the schools system so that children would have better access to her book.

“These are just some of the day-to-day things I had to juggle, all while working as a full-time television reporter for WSVN in Miami,” she says of the April-to-August process. “I published the week after I left the station.”

At the Miami Book Fair International

The Miami Book Fair International will be held at Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave., downtown Miami. For a full schedule and tickets, visit Keep up-to-date at

Among the fair highlights::

▪ Panel discussion: “Do Monsters Live in Our Laptops? The Dangers of Amazon and Other Monopolies” At 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Chapman (Building 3, second floor): Like it or not we exist in a world dominated by the Internet, which promised to be a democratizing force, but is dominated by gatekeepers such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. What are the dangers to artistic freedom and a diverse culture when global conglomerates and monopolies like Amazon determine what work the public can see and buy? Join authors, journalists and other thought leaders for a discussion about local and global threats to book culture, authentic media, free speech, copyright laws and independent scholarship. Presenters: Andrew Albanese, Publishers Weekly senior writer; Azar Nafisi, author of “The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books”; Astra Taylor, author of “The People’s Platform”; Oren Teicher, executive director of the American Bookseller’s Association; and moderator Christopher Kenneally, host of the “Beyond the Book” podcast from the nonprofit Copyright Clearance Center. Made possible by the support of Knight Foundation.

▪ Jai-Alai Books, founded by P. Scott Cunningham, is devoted to publishing works about Miami and by Miami writers. The booth can be found from 10 a.m. Friday through 6 p.m. Sunday in Section A. Jai-Alai authors will be reading at the following times:

Frank Báez: 6 p.m. Saturday, Room 8201, Building 8, second floor. With Andrew Durbin, Roger Reeves and Julie Marie Wade.

Dave Landsberger: 6 p.m. Sunday, Room 8201. With Willie Perdomo and Daniel Schoonebeek.


▪ Jennifer Bisram will discuss her book “First Day of School: Do You Want to Be My Friend?” at 11 a.m. Sunday, Mr. Wembly Wordsmith’s Storytorium children’s stage in Children’s Alley.

▪ Neil Flanzraich will discuss his book “Geniuses” at noon Sunday, Mr. Wembly Wordsmith’s Storytorium.

Bestseller success stories

Besides E.L. James and Hugh Howey, a few of the top-selling self-published authors are:

▪ James Redfield self-published his first novel, “The Celestine Prophecy,” in 1992. He sold the book out of the trunk of his car. It was later acquired by Warner Books and has sold more than 20 million copies.

▪ Amanda Hocking wrote 17 novels while working in a group home in Minnesota. She published them all as e-books, selling more than a million copies. In 2011, St. Martin’s Press bought the rights to her first three books, the “Trylle” trilogy, and for a new four-book series, Watersong, for a reported $2 million.

▪ Michael J. Sullivan wrote the “Riyira Revelation” fantasy, and when his agent couldn’t find a publisher, he self-published through Ridan Publishing, a company started by his wife. His sales were so impressive that he again approached a traditional publisher so he could reach a broader audience. He sold the rights to “Orbit’’ for six figures.

▪ Mike Michalowicz’s guide to entrepreneurship titled “The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur: The Tell-it-like-it-is Guide to Cleaning Up in Business, Even if you are at the End of Your Roll” was self-published in 2008. Penguin, impressed with the sales, acquired the rights to the print edition. (Michalowicz still owns the e-books rights.).

▪ Other bestseller success stories that started out as self-published books: “The Joy of Cooking” (Irma Rombauer); The Tales of Peter Rabbit (Beatrix Potter); “A Time To Kill” (John Grisham)

Source: THE BLOG: Ronald H. Balson, at

Where to publish: pros, cons

Traditional (Publishing House, which provides editorial and marketing assistance)


▪ In-depth knowledge of the market and what readers will buy. Editorial assistance to make a manuscript more enjoyable to read.

▪ Marketing, including placement in bookstores, book signings, radio and TV appearances, newspaper coverage.

▪ Book reviews. According to bestselling author Scott Turow, there remains a bias in mainstream media, which favors reviewing books produced by traditional publishing houses.

▪ Advance payment, which varies depending on the name recognition of the author, and is usually minimal for first-timers.

▪ Literary agent representation can spark a bidding war among publishers, thus increasing profits and the possibility of multimedia interest, including television and movie production of the book.


▪ Loss of profits, as much as 85 percent of sales.

▪ Loss of editorial control.

▪ Time-consuming rewrites that can take years for your book to hit the bookshelves.

▪ Ceding copyright to the publisher.

▪ Limited publishing run could result in the book going out of print.

▪ Rejection: Traditional publishers may reject your book, leaving self-publishing as the only option.

Self-publishing (either in conjunction with an e-publishing company that provides support services, or directly through Amazon or Barnes & Noble)


▪ Higher profit margin. The more books you sell, the more you make.

▪ Editorial control. You decide the length and the exact wording.

▪ Prompt publishing. You can publish with the click of a button, by uploading your manuscript to an online publisher.

▪ Copyright ownership.

▪ Print-on-demand, which allows the book to remain in print in perpetuity.


▪ Overall profits are contingent upon overall sales, which tend to be less in self-publishing.

▪ Time-consuming. The author does all the work from selecting paper stock (if you opt to sell hard copies as well as online) and cover design to obtaining the copyright and promoting the book.

▪ Up-front costs associated with hiring copy editors, researchers, editors, paper stock, binding, copyright. Further costs associated with travel and opportunity cost of promoting the book.

▪ Editorial control absent hiring an editor could make for a mediocre manuscript.

▪ Bricks-and-mortar bookstores tend to charge a percentage of the sales before they allow most self-published books on their shelves, according to self-published author Jennifer Bisram.

How to publish


▪ Find a literary agent. Most publishing houses will not accept cold calls or solicitations. Select your agent based on the genre. Research who acted as agent for books similar to the one you wrote.

▪ Send query letters to the agent asking for representation.

▪ Have something to show the publisher. Some publishers want to see a sample chapter or chapters. Some want to read the entire book before committing.

▪ Settle in for the editing process. You may have to rewrite chapters or even the entire book.

▪ Proof the galleys. Once the book is in an acceptable form for publication, you and the proofreader should scour the book for typos and grammatical errors, as well as incorrect information.

▪ Find appropriate art to illustrate the cover and/or photographs to accompany the book, especially if it is nonfiction.

▪ Find fellow authors to read and comment on the book prior to publication so you can include their blurbs.

▪ Go on a book tour and submit to radio, TV and newspaper interviews to publicize it.



▪ Go online and research which electronic publisher best suits your needs.

▪ Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble are the best known, but there are other outlets as well.

▪ Follow the instructions provided.

▪ IMPRINT (creating your own publishing company for books you can hold in your hands):

According to first-time author/publisher Jennifer Bisram, whose costs ran under $10,000:

▪ Research on the Internet the various ways to publish your book.

▪ Register your book with the U.S. Copyright Office.

▪ Obtain an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) to track inventory and sales.

▪ Register the name of your publishing house.

▪ Research paper stock for your book’s pages (ask for samples).

▪ Select an illustrator, if needed.

▪ Hire a researcher/fact checker to ensure accuracy.

▪ Hire an editor to ensure your writing is readable and understandable.

▪ Go online and hire a distribution company for printing and binding and online distribution.

▪ Personally handle bulk, classroom and book-signing distribution through your publishing company.

▪ Or, you could follow Hugh Howey’s approach, which he says cost him nothing: Create print books of your own design via CreateSpace. Sell enough of the print books to live off the sales. He also initially published e-books through Nook, iTunes and Kobo. Additionally, he created his own audiobooks using professional narrators through ACX.

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