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[whitespace] Barbara Baer
Michael Amsler

Bootstrap books: Sebsastopol writer and self-publisher Barbara Baer has enjoyed success with Saltwater, Sweetwater, an anthology of local female writers.

Writers do it for themselves in the world of self-publishing

By Marina Wolf

THERE'S A CERTAIN stigma attached to the self-published book in the minds of the masses. "Poor sap," a bookstore browser might think, should her eyes slip from the glossy cover of the latest New York Times bestseller down to the plain cover of a political sci-fi novel written by a guy from the next town over and spiral-bound at Kinko's. "Couldn't make it in the big time."

But are such snap judgments really fair or accurate? What if the writer waited three years to sign a contract, and then got tired of hoping that the lawyers would finally agree about royalties? Perhaps he was asked to pull the alien sex scene from Chapter 4, upon which the rest of the plot hinges. Maybe he's the next Kurt Vonnegut, but the world isn't ready for him.

Or maybe it's bigger than just one author. After all, the world of publishing has never been kind to the little person, but contemporary trends make getting published harder than ever. The big time is now breathtakingly huge, with advances running into the low millions. But the entities that have made that kind of money possible--the media giants conglomerating at record rates--keep the purse strings pulled tight for all but the biggest blockbusters. As the field constricts from the top down, authors are struggling harder than ever to get their work over the transom. In this environment, self-publishing seems an increasingly rational response.

The point is, there are many reasons--having nothing to do with the objective quality of a given manuscript--an author would choose to go it alone. And as a region thickly populated with literary types, Sonoma County has a writer for every reason.

Dr. Marty Griffin, author, environmentalist, and publisher of Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast, actually did find editors who wanted to take on his book. But the honest ones told him, "You'll hate me if I publish it because you'll have to promote it and you won't get very much of the returns."

Griffin self-published because he wanted the book to have a lot of photographs and maps: "Most book publishers wouldn't put all that in because it would cost them too much," he says. The end result, a beautiful, thickly illustrated book, has gotten amazing media response in the nine months since its release. It's sold well, too, considering that Griffin and his one-woman publicity crew weren't able to place the book in the chain stores until three months ago, when it was picked up by a national distributor.

"They refused to carry it before then," says Griffin with just a smidgen of satisfaction in his voice. "They said I was just too small a press. And then they started getting requests from Borders and Dalton and Barnes & Noble, so they wrote and said they were excited to get the book."

Like most authors, self-published or traditional, Griffin does his own publicity at bookstores and benefits all over the North Bay. He calls it "a work of love, not money," which is a good thing, because Griffin isn't even close to breaking even on his investment of over $100,000.

Few self-publishers have to spend that kind of dough--the more common outlay is between $5,000 and $10,000. But forget the money: Publicity is the big problem, as Barbara Baer, one of the prime movers behind the anthologies Cartwheels on the Faultline and Saltwater, Sweetwater, is discovering.

"I'm doing publicity that I never thought I'd do," she says with a rueful laugh, mentioning real estate welcome baskets and review copies to Working Assets, a long-distance company.

Cartwheels on the Faultline, the first anthology put out by Baer's Floreant Press in 1997, was written by members of the writing group she belonged to, and the work that emerged was so specifically local that self-publishing seemed the natural next step.

"I was surprised that it did so well," confesses Baer. "I thought of it as a homegrown product that would be lovely for us and for our friends and families."

Cartwheels enjoyed a very successful run; Saltwater, too, has broken even. However, the problems of publicity and distribution have snowballed, and after two books Baer is ready to step away from samizdat, at least for a while. She's got her own work to publish, and it won't be through Floreant Press.

"I don't want to try to sell myself," she says firmly. "I'm quite happy doing it with these collections because there's a purpose there and lots of help and it's really communal, but I don't want to do it for myself."

Sonoma writer Kathleen Hill also found distribution to be the hardest part of self-published success with her guidebooks to Sonoma Valley and Victoria and Vancouver, B.C.

"I set up nice relationships with several distributors, but we had no distribution east of the western states, so when we got national publicity, the book wasn't in stores when people wanted them," she says.

The two books were recently picked up, and more titles were requested, by Globe Pequot, a travel book publisher on the East Coast that started out as a self-publishing venture 20 years ago. Still, Hill is ready to return to self-publishing at any time.

"My personal position is that if Globe Pequot doesn't want to do a book that I want to do, I'm gonna do it myself," she says.

WHATEVER their reasons for self-publishing, a lot of authors are doing it. The Small Publishers Association of North America--born just two and a half years ago--already claims over 1,100 members. Last year more than 7,000 new publishers started up, according to SPAN statistics, and most of them were self-publishers.

On the local level, Jim Colvin gets to meet many of these literary optimists. As consignment buyer for all six Copperfield's Books stores, Colvin is responsible for the 300 or so titles--mostly cookbooks, children's books, and novels--sitting on the local authors' shelves. Some authors object to that placement, says Colvin: "They don't really want to be in that section. They want to be wherever their subject is. They want to be over with the rest of the books."

"Most of the people I work with really have big dreams of being successful," he continues. "They don't want to appeal just to the small subgroup that they might be a part of. They really want to be national bestsellers."

Take Linda Ward, a Santa Rosa author who received over 30 rejections of her book Choosing before deciding to self-publish; even now, she still sends the book to publishers in hopes of getting it picked up. A modest paperback, Choosing is an interactive, "choose-your-own-adventure" novel about a young woman's sexual choices. According to Copperfield's figures, the book is selling moderately well. But Ward wants more.

"I want national exposure, because as far as I'm concerned this is a book that should be used in the schools," says Ward, who even sent her book to Oprah--"Everyone sends their book to Oprah, probably."

Ironically, Ward has just taken a job teaching pregnant teenagers and teenage mothers: "I love these young women, but I wish they'd have read my book!" she says. Butshe hesitates only for a second when asked why she went the self-publishing route.

"I doubt I would have got it into print if I hadn't self-published, not without a whole lot more work on my part. And I just frankly couldn't afford to do any more than I did," she says. "But it's thrilling to finally see something come to completion."

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From the November 25-December 2, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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