Putting yourself on the shelf: The modern phenomenon of self-publishing and on-demand printing

Feb 8, 2006 at 2:24 am

Sometimes it seems as if they fall from the sky, in every imaginable 
shape and size and color and genre. Science fiction, crime thrillers, 
country cookbooks, fantasy epics, romance, how-to and many a memoir 
of dubious provenance.

Susan Watson of Borders says she gets nearly one a day (maybe 20 per 
month), many from people walking in right off the street. They are 
self-published books, and the authors are intent on finding attention 
(and distribution) for their efforts.

With the digital age in full bloom, self-publishing and desktop 
publishing have quietly established a presence — albeit an innocuous 
one — on the menus of American readers. Some self-published books are 
good, some bad and some downright ugly, and as of yet there seems to 
have been no surprise star. Numbers, for both circulation and 
accounts payable, are hard to come by and of questionable accuracy. 
But above and beyond issues of profit and loss, there is no doubt 
self-publishing is an ongoing phenomena. At this point, almost anyone 
can have a manuscript published, regardless of merit.

Local booksellers have mixed opinions about the recent flood of self-
published books. Typical complaints center on the relatively high 
price of the books and a consistent program on non-promotion.

“Marketing is almost never a priority (with on-demand publishers),” 
says Watson, a buyer of locally authored books for Borders‘ Fourth 
Street location. However, she notes that certain titles have sold 
well; overwhelmingly, they tend to be non-fiction volumes with a 
strong local theme (David Domine’s “Ghosts of Louisville” is one).

“Perhaps,” Watson surmises, “because a lot of our customers are 
tourists who want a book that is also a souvenir.”

She sees novels frequently, but most are unsellable because they lack 
a UPC symbol for electronic price reading and an ISBN number (the 
code number that certifies the book’s publication, copyright, 
presence in the Library of Congress and International title 
identification data bank).

Having no ISBN nor UPC code is the kiss of death. Watson will not buy 
a book to put on sale at Borders unless it has an ISBN number.

Not your mother’s vanity press
While large, established mainstream publishers grow increasingly 
reliant on gossipy celebrity tell-alls and hopelessly pedantic rose-
tinted historical volumes best suited for holding doors open, on-
demand publishing and desktop publishing, the new forms of self-
publishing, have evolved. They are distinguished in a few ways from 
the traditional “vanity press.” A vanity press like Vantage in New 
York, for example, charges writers a substantial upfront fee and 
prints any manuscript offered by any writer able to pay that fee. On-
demand publishers often “front” the initial printing costs to the 
writer, charging nothing initially but recouping costs by paying the 
writer a royalty (per-book) rate so tiny as to be minuscule. Unless 
the writer scores a hit — which is, of course, highly unlikely — he 
or she pretty much gets exploited either way. In the future there 
will likely be some new paradigm for publishing novels (particularly) 
whereby self-publishers and tiny publishers, the ones formerly called 
“boutique publishers,” fuel the market. Just don’t call it a “vanity 

Those who’ve done it
Despite booksellers’ aversions to self-published works, there is 
certainly no shortage of new titles, local, national and international.
Ben Woods, 29, is a local with tales to tell. His book “The 
Developers,” a 342-page comedic whodunit based on the 1990s Internet-
startup phenomenon, has been out for nearly a year. Woods has been 
through a real wringer — selecting an honorable publisher, haggling 
over design and marketing (his book utilizes some non-traditional 
alphabetic characters — icons, if you will) and begging for help with 
publicity. His efforts have borne fruit: He’s sold about 200 books so 
far, and has managed to book five bookstore appearances in Kentucky 
and Indiana since the beginning of the year.

Ben Woods: by robert peck
Ben Woods: by robert peck

Only after two years of writing “The Developers” did Woods even begin 
to look for an agent or publisher (he began the book in 2002). The 
response was equivocal, and so a glance toward the nascent world of 
self-publishing seemed prudent.

“They wanted to charge me too much for stuff like layout and 
pagination,” Woods says, “when I had planned to do this myself.
“Most just want you to send them the text, and you can buy 
(additional services) from them a la carte. I checked with a couple 
of print shops, but the prices were way too high, plus I needed an 
ISBN. I performed a lot of Google searches for agencies, printers and 
self-publishing. Specialty press prices were cheaper and I could 
obtain an ISBN. I decided to go with King Printing/AdiBooks — good 
price, knowledgeable about the business and the Web site presentation 
was good.”

This, however, was only the beginning of the process. Woods did his 
own layout and design, as is only apt for the author of a book about 
a start-up Internet company. He still had an endless succession of 
problems and adjustments related to packaging and bookkeeping.
Mark Ian Wilkerson of Prospect had a less stressful experience — if 
you can call a nine-year-long labor of love less stressful. 

Wilkerson, 32, recently finished and then self-published an 
exhaustive 628-page biography of Pete Townshend, “Amazing Journey,” 
with Lulu Books in North Carolina. The press  charges him $17 per 
copy; the customer pays $27, and Wilkerson and Lulu split the $10 
profit at about 80/20.

Mark Ian Wilkerson: spent 9 years writing “Amazing Journey,” about Who guitarist Pete Townshend.   Photo courtesy of Mark Ian Wilkerson
Mark Ian Wilkerson: spent 9 years writing “Amazing Journey,” about Who guitarist Pete Townshend. Photo courtesy of Mark Ian Wilkerson

The beauty of the setup is that no front money needs to change hands. 
Unless the author wants a stash of his own books to sign and sell, no 
copy is printed until an order comes in. All commerce is done online, 
so tracking sales and other bookkeeping tasks are almost automatic. 
Wilkerson simply sent cover artwork and a complete text, each in the 
form of a PDF file. He makes it sound quite easy until reminding me 
that the research took nearly a decade.

“The book in its present form is really my version of an advance 
copy,” he says.  “Thus no ISBN or UPC.  In another four to six weeks, 
I’ll add positive review quotes to the back cover, plus the ISBN, a 
UPC and a Library of Congress number. Without the UPC/ISBN, I can’t 
sell in stores. Without the Library of Congress number, I can’t sell 
to libraries. I’ll then purchase a distribution deal from my 
publisher, www.lulu.com, which will make the book available through 
Amazon and Barnes and Noble(.com), and will list the book through 
various distributors. At that point I will promote the book 
aggressively, and will approach local booksellers to see if they’re 
interested in selling it.”

So far his efforts have not yielded a royalty check, since 
technically the book has not been released yet. He is, however, 
sending out the above-mentioned promotional copies and says he has a 
shot at being reviewed by Mojo, the prestigious British music mag.

Don Decker is another Louisvillian, who at 70 years old has a tale to 
tell and a book that tells it. Decker is known to some folks who run 
into him routinely down at Fourth Street Live, where he works at TGI 
Friday’s. Decker’s experience with publishing is at once less 
stressful than Woods’ and less cavalier than Wilkerson’s. Decker is, 
after all, not writing a novel or a paean to his favorite guitar 
player. He has written his life story, a frightening and difficult 
tale of a life spent as an entertainer, bail bondsman and would-be 
bank robber. His 558-page book, “Forfeiture,” is a journal of 30-plus 
years as a mid-level criminal and addict and the measures he took to 
remove himself from that sort of activity.

While Decker’s deal with PublishAmerica does not require him to put 
up front money, the publisher can recoup that by paying a low royalty 
rate. Still, Decker is relatively happy with his published book, 
although he hates the cover art and wonders why the price has to be 
so high — $35.

Promoting work in the new vanity press
When it comes to promotion, self-published authors are definitely at 
a disadvantage. Marketing for many of these books is either based on 
word-of-mouth (which can sometimes be effective) or else is non-
existent (never a good thing). Woods lists sales to friends and 
family members as important targets. Obviously this is not the most 
direct path to The New York Times bestseller list.

In fact, the realm of so-called vanity publishing (a term self-
published authors disdain, by the way) has yet to issue forth 
anything like a literary or commercial superstar. Inquiries at local 
bookstores drew silence on the subject of breakout self-published 
authors. It seems that in a world where anyone can get published, 
almost everyone does. This may serve to increase the power and 
importance of the old-style publishers whose imprimatur may be more 
helpful than ever in separating a particular title from the rest of 
the pack. This may even explain the continued existence of smaller — 
but still old-model, numbered-print-run — publishers (such as 
Louisville’s Sarabande, or Published in Heaven), which manage to 
thrive while selling only minimal copies of their titles.

In the end, the road of the self-publisher is a lonely one, it seems, 
but so, perhaps, is the road of any writer. The newest technology 
allows almost anyone to put out a book; obviously this is a boon to 
the novice novelist (or non-fiction author, for that matter), but it 
can be a mixed blessing for the reader. As on-demand publishing takes 
hold, the range of available titles increasingly attests to a more 
democratic menu of books, a more turbulent pool of public voices. It 
doesn’t necessarily mean that more good books are going to be 
printed. It does certainly mean that more diverse books will be 
printed, but the reader will still have to look hard and dig deep.

NOTE: Ben Woods will read from and sign copies of his book, “The 
Developers,” at 4 p.m. Sunday at Carmichael’s, 2720 Frankfort Ave. 
It’s free. Call 896-6950 for more information.

by Don Decker
558 pp.


A harrowing tale

Dan Duncan grew up in a vaudeville family, became a singer with 
ambitions aimed at Broadway, changed vocations, became a bail 
bondsman and a drug addict and then got arrested robbing a bank 
(under truly bizarre circumstances). Duncan is the fictionalized name 
of local author Don Decker, whose strange and frightening memoir, 
“Forfeiture,” is in bookstores (some of them, anyway) now. Perhaps 
Decker is best known for his post-prison gig here in Louisville: he 
works as a greeter/host most nights and afternoons at Fourth Street 
Live and is decked in fancy jacket and top hat that have garnered him 
the nickname “the Colonel.”

Decker says he changed the names of the characters in “Forfeiture” to 
“protect the guilty.” That is surely an exaggeration — not everyone 
in the book is a scoundrel — but perhaps a good idea just the same. 
His Dan Duncan stumbles through a lot of muck before settling in 
Louisville in his 60s.

Don Decker: tells compelling stories from his own life in his book “Forfeiture.”   Photo by Elizabeth Kramer
Don Decker: tells compelling stories from his own life in his book “Forfeiture.” Photo by Elizabeth Kramer
“Forfeiture” is one of those books that is compelling, though not 
terribly well-written. Decker is not a great writer by any stretch 
but he is a good writer, sometimes very good. What he has, though — 
and a formidable weapon it is, indeed — is a story so harrowing and 
so incredible and so totally removed from the mainstream that it will 
amaze and thrill almost anyone from any walk of life who picks up and 
reads the book. It takes a great man, not a great writer, to walk 
away from a life like Decker’s and embrace the tedium and anonymity 
of the so-called “straight life.” Decker has done that, and his book 
will demonstrate it sure wasn’t easy.