Continued from page 1

She published herself after agents said they loved her writing but couldn’t sell another memoir. “My mother is a writer and editor. I’m a graphic designer. Between us, we had all of the publishing skills we needed,” she says. Her book, based on her humorous blog, has been described as “Erma Bombeck meets Bridget Jones.”

She admits it’s been tough going: “When I sell a book, I can buy a Big Mac, and that’s about it. My last quarterly check, which is sitting on my desk waiting to be deposited, was $24.”

She worried about the stigma, too. “It’s almost like marrying beneath yourself,” she says. “It’s a matter of public record, and you can’t take it back once you’ve done it.”

Now that she’s been on “Oprah,” though, she has agents calling her. “One woman said, ‘If you want to write anything else at all, call me,’ ” she reports.

Both Mr. Wheaton and Ms. Roberts have published with, a Raleigh, N.C.-based print-on-demand publisher that has no upfront charges and keeps just 20 percent of profits on books sold.

Gail Jordan, Lulu’s director of public relations, says the recession is certainly helping her company. “Unfortunately, people have more time on their hands than before to finish that great American novel. Then people are taking it into their own hands and like the control they get. With Lulu, you control your copyright, you control your price,” she says. “Even people who haven’t lost their jobs are looking to supplement their income.”

She says the Internet has made people “savvier in general,” which encourages self-publishing. “Who needs a travel agent when you have Expedia? We’re much more used to taking things into our own hands and controlling them. Lulu is not going to tell me they don’t like Chapter 10,” she says. “It’s up to the marketplace to decide if it has value.”

Anyone can self-publish, too. “It’s so ridiculously easy. We have 6-, 7-, 10-year-old kids publishing on our site and doing it themselves.” Those who want help for formatting or cover design can buy those services through Lulu.

The majority of self-published books aren’t selling like “The Da Vinci Code.” Neither are most mainstream books — and there certainly are self-published successes. Ms. Jordan confirms that Mr. Wheaton’s “Sunken Treasure” is “selling hand over fist.” And the Lulu-published “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor went on to get picked up by Viking Press.

“Penguin and its subsidiary imprints all have self-published books in their catalogs past and present,” says Viking and Plume President and Publisher Clare Ferraro, who discovered the book when hearing the author’s “incredibly affecting” talk at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference. “There isn’t a belief here that self-publishing is stigmatized.”

“Jill’s incredible story and its mainstream appeal were immediately evident. Coupled with the remarkable viral effect of the author’s TED conference online and the universal and profound messages in ‘My Stroke of Insight,’ Viking could not pass up the opportunity to give such a deserving book a large-scale publication,” she says, adding that Viking is not trimming its list.

An author can get his or her Lulu book in days. One also can self-publish within minutes, thanks to the increasing popularity of e-books. allows authors to upload a book in minutes and see it for sale in its Kindle store within hours.

April L. Hamilton has done just that. Her two novels are available as Kindle books and paperbacks, and she has published the IndieAuthor Guide to help others do the same. “At last, we’re living in a time when authors can go ‘indie,’ just like musicians and filmmakers before them,” she enthuses.

She had an agent but couldn’t get published — like Ms. Roberts, she found people liked her work but thought it couldn’t sell. She entered Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award contest on a whim and got dozens of glowing reviews from the site’s customers.

“I decided maybe New York editors don’t really know what the book-buying public wants,” she says. “I think the publishing industry is looking more like the movie industry all the time. Big, mainstream publishers want blockbusters and sure things. They can’t cover their overheads on books that only sell a few thousand copies. But that doesn’t mean a book that’s destined to sell only a few thousand copies isn’t a good book that would be very much enjoyed by its audience. And many an aspiring author would be very happy with a loyal readership of a few thousand.”

Story Continues →