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Upping authors' revenue 

Over at WriterL, the listserv for writers of narrative nonfiction, they're talking about how little revenue authors get for books and what might be done about it. They're wondering again about self-publishing. Here's what I had to say:

The last time this list got excited about self- and print-on-demand- publishing, in autumn 2000, I put my book where our talk is, and published with Xlibris. "Small Town Bound: Your Guide to Small-Town Living" had just gone out of print with a commercial publisher; I was selling out of remainders and decided to keep it going. Xlibris was fairly good to work with (and back then it was free), and I'm able to report that with zero marketing effort on my part the book has since earned me… about $50 a year. A few more years and I'll have paid for the time I spent reformatting and proofreading.

But I really want to talk about marketing. (Isn't it funny how we're all so much more talkative about marketing than craft?) Back when I was with the commercial publisher, the lesson I learned was that selling lots of books requires a combination of great publicity AND distribution. I was on the "Today" show -- but it was eight months after publication, bookstores had returned the books, and my publisher didn't have the efficiency or clout to get them back out there. Mentions in USA Today and Time Magazine -- same problem. Oprah even used the cover of my book as a backdrop to one of her discussions -- but since she didn't explicitly say, "Go buy this book," nobody did. If this task of getting books into stores nationwide at a certain moment was too much for a commercial publisher, it's got to be even harder for a self-publisher.

For my next book (a historical biography titled "The Cowboy Girl"), I'm going with a well-heeled university press. I've insisted that it be edited and priced as a commercial, narrative nonfiction work, to avoid the very real problem Aaron mentions [books with $50 pricetags]. I just have to trust they'll invest in marketing.

But I expect to do a lot of traveling and talking about the book, as Caitlin discussed. A question: has anyone had any success getting paid for such speeches? I remember back when the Internet was going to erase the notion of intellectual property (back before big business got involved), the utopian vision was that writers and musicians would give their work away but still make a comfortable living on appearance fees. Elements of that theory seem remarkably silly today, but I'm still hoping there's a nugget of value there...

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