- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

Headlines bring news every week of another industry failing. One, though, is doing better than ever — self-publishing.

On Tuesday, the bibliographic information company Bowker released statistics showing that last year, for the first time, more books were released by on-demand publishers than by traditional ones.

Traditional publishers released fewer books in 2008 than in 2007 — 275,232 new books, a drop of 3.2 percent. However, on-demand publishers, the route many writers take to self-publish, released an astounding 132 percent more — 285,394 in 2008.

Self-publishing used to be derided as “vanity publishing.” No longer. Self-published books finally are getting more respect, thanks to two things — belt-tightening in the publishing industry and technology that makes it easier to publish and promote books electronically.

The big publishers have laid off scores of employees since last year’s financial meltdown, and at least one, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has announced a freeze on buying new manuscripts.

“Publishers are going into hibernation right now,” said Jason Boog, an editor at the publishing blog GalleyCat, to The Washington Times a few months ago. “While they hibernate, a lot of writers aren’t going to have a place to publish.”

Some already are looking elsewhere. Wil Wheaton declares, “The incredible ease of distribution online and the fact that more authors — and actually, all creative people — can reach their audience and their customers more easily and more directly than at any other time in history, I think makes self-publishing an option that can be considered in the first round of choices rather than the last resort it’s been perceived as up until, let’s say, 1998 to 2001.”

The writer and actor — best known as Wesley Crusher on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” — has self-published all but one of his books, which include the memoir “Just a Geek.” Mr. Wheaton, who made a new name for himself as one of the earliest bloggers, researched the industry after deciding to publish eight years ago. “What I saw repeated was the truism that books sell as well as their authors promote them,” he says, “whether you’re publishing yourself and receiving the lion’s share of the profits or published by a big publisher and receiving a tiny portion of them.”

He thought his renown as an actor actually would hurt his chances of being taken seriously as a writer by a big publisher, so he decided to go it alone.

“The first book was an overwhelming success,” he says. “If you combine ‘the long tail’ with what Kevin Kelly calls ‘the 1,000 true fans model,’ it’s really realistic and reasonable for creative people who are willing to work really hard to be successful via self-publishing, whether that’s books or music or movies.” In other words, an artist can make a living selling his or her niche product to a small but devoted group of people.

Mr. Wheaton’s one experience with traditional publishing — for “Just a Geek” — he found “frustrating and disillusioning and disappointing.” The book was promoted just to “Star Trek” fans rather than a general audience.

It seems the books he sells himself have sold better. He doesn’t want to talk sales figures, but he says his latest — the short sampler “Sunken Treasure” — has “sold like crazy.”

He points out that it’s easier to get noticed with online retailers — authors aren’t competing for the finite shelf space at their local chain store. Also, sites such as GoodReads.com allow readers to tout their favorite authors, no matter who publishes them.

Mr. Wheaton makes a comparison between his two fields. “If I’m represented by the same agent who represents the gigantic, above-the-title box-office multimillionaire actors that can open a movie no matter what the movie is about, an agent is not going to waste any time working for me,” he says. “It’s just an investment-return math problem.” Certain sellers get the promotional dollars at most publishing companies.

Melinda Roberts last month got what she calls “the holy grail” for authors — an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Her book? The self-published “Mommy Confidential.”

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