Monday, February 18, 2008

From Spiral-bound Paperbacks to Million Dollar Contracts

The radio commercial seemed to run every-hour-on-the-hour for a good five years: "Are you an unpublished author? Do you have a book-length manuscript ready, or almost ready, for publication? If so, Vantage Press, a leading New York subsidy publisher, is looking for you."

I always wondered how many aspiring writers -- amazed to hear a publisher actually solicit manuscripts on the radio -- immediately reached for a pencil and copied down the contact information for Vantage Press, not realizing that "subsidy" meant they would end up paying for the privilege of having their manuscript published.

Working in a library, I've seen my share of vanity press books. Once the aspiring writer pays to have his or her book published, then fills the basement with boxes of all those bound copies, they need to find a way to get rid of them. First they approach neighborhood bookstores -- which might agree to take a couple books on consignment for the "local writers" shelf. Next they give copies to every person on their family tree...every friend, neighbor, or acquaintance, until finally -- in desperation -- they end up leaving the book as a tip at restaurants. The last step seems to be donating copies to libraries. That's where I come into the picture, cataloging the book for our "storage" collection, which means it's one scant step away from being sold at the library booksale for a quarter.

All of the self-published books I've ever seen have been beyond awful. I remember one that was passed around for the entertainment of the library staff -- a polemic on the virtues of remaining single -- in which the author gave a detailed description of her healthy diet ("For breakfast, I eat a grapefruit and a piece of dry toast. For a treat I may add a hard-boiled egg."), her sensible clothing ("I have a blue suit with a blue skirt and a white suit with a white skirt. Sometimes I wear the blue suit with the white skirt and sometimes I wear the white suit with the blue skirt") and a recitation of each man she'd ever dated and why she rejected every one of 'em. (I'm inclined to think it was the other way around.)

However, about ten years ago, I stopped laughing at self-published books, as I began to hear more and more stories about "vanity press" publications that were achieving mainstream success. At first they were holiday books, such as A CUP OF CHRISTMAS TEA and Richard Paul Evans's THE CHRISTMAS BOX, which actually made the New York Times bestseller list.

But I really sat up and took notice when a number of self-published children's and young adult books were purchased by major publishers.

Patrick Carman's THE DARK HILLS DIVIDE was self-published (by Amped Media in Walla Walla, Washington) in 2003. Scholastic later bought the rights to this and future books in the series for somewhere around a quarter-million dollars.

Michael Hoeye's TIME STOPS FOR NO MOUSE (Terfle Books, Portland, 1999) was released as a two-volume spiral-bound softcover. Putnam paid Hoeye over a million dollars for a multi-book deal.

Jordan Sonnenblick first published his young-adult novel DRUMS, GIRLS, AND DANGEROUS PIE with a small literary publisher, but when that company went out of business he self-published the book (Turning Tide Press, Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, 2004) before it was snapped up by Scholastic; the author has gone on to publish other well-regarded novels for young readers.

Perhaps the most famous self-published young adult book is ERAGON by Christopher Paolini. Released by "Paolini International LLC" (Montana, 2002), the teenaged author personally promoted the book like crazy, selling over 10,000 copies on his own before Knopf bought the rights for half a million dollars. Now there's an ERAGON movie and Paolini is working on the fourth book in his fantasy series.

These self-publishing success stories are of great interest to book collectors, who usually try to get a copy of the book "as close to the author as possible" (which is why, for many of us, a first edition is better than a second edition, why a personally inscribed copy is better than a generically signed copy, and why a generically signed copy is better than an unsigned copy.) That's why many collectors will try to track down the original self-published editions of these books.

Sonnenblick's DRUMS, GIRLS, AND DANGEROUS PIE can be found for about $75.

Carman's DARK HILLS DIVIDE can run $100 to $200.

Hoeye's TIME STOPS FOR NO MOUSE can cost as much a $500.

But hold onto your hats (and open your checkbooks) if you're seeking a self-published copy of Paolini's ERAGON. It sells for as high as $12,000.

That's right...not twelve hundred: TWELVE THOUSAND!

I don't think I'll ever be as dismissive of self-published books as I was in the past. In fact, if I come across one that looks promising, I may even buy it.

A $15 investment today could be a $12,000 book tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

I find it easier simply to publish online, but it will be very hard for a blog to become a collector's item. However, you won't have to invest $15 either, should you choose to read Mortal Ghost, or my new YA novel, Corvus, which I plan to begin serialising later this year. Are they perfect? Hardly. Beyond awful? Well, I'm not likely to thinks so, am I?

And surprise! I'm not looking for a conventional publishing contract.

Anonymous said...

If you're curious, here's the blog:

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Thanks for the link, Linda. I'll take a look at your book, though I'll probably end up printing it off and reading a hard copy rather than reading it from the screen. (I guess I'm old-fashioned!)

Serialized a novel on the internet is an interesting idea. Dickens and others did it in the newspapers, and you're just adapting the idea for today's technology! Peter

Lee said...

Heh, Peter, I have to admit that I also print out a great deal that I read from online sources. Perhaps this will change when I can afford an e-reader.

What YA fiction have you published?

(Lee is my middle name, which I usually use online - when I don't forget!)