Editor's Note: When discussing self-pub, few pundits consider nonfiction books. In his guest posts on The Digital Reader, William D. O'Neil will help to correct that oversight.
The great majority of indie self-pubs are genre fiction, and a large proportion of nonfiction in self-pub is about how to write and sell genre fiction. Some say self-pub is no good for nonfiction, surely not “serious” nonfiction. I listened to the arguments but decided they were wrong, or at best half true.
I’ve backed my conclusions with action, publishing three more or less “serious” nonfiction titles. The first two were largely test runs, to see what was really involved, but I’ve recently published a book on the disastrous German decision-making before and during the early days of World War I, and am working on one about AIG. The World War I book has done reasonably well and gathered praise from pros in the field.
Self-pub means no advance, but unless you’re an established bestseller you don’t get much of an advance these days, certainly not enough to finance lots of research. It also means missing out on the trad-pub publicity and distribution machine. Few mid-list titles get advertised these days, but simply appearing in the catalogue is worth a good deal.
The other supposed advantages of trad-pub are mostly not for midlist nonfiction. Very few titles get any real editing, and what they do receive is rarely of good quality. You can buy or barter better editing services. The same is true for indexing, art, and layout, and these you also have the option of doing yourself.
The biggest advantage of self-pub for nonfiction is agility. You can get a topical book out in self-pub in less time than it would take to shop the proposal around the trad-pubs. And you can have a new edition of your book out as soon as you can make the changes in your manuscript. This agility can be used to produce exploitative trashbooks, like the wave of titles on Ebola and other trendy subjects, but you can use it for better purposes.
Many trad-pub e-books have notably bad art — muddy, thumbnail-sized images. Many conclude from this that Kindle, etc., are inherently bad platforms for art. In reality, trad-pubs have simply been lazy/cheap about it. Art on a good e-ink screen can be fine; the e-reader software poses no real barrier. You have to live with some banding, but its effects can be minimized. And on the LCD screens of tablets and phablets art can display better than in any trade book. Most of what you read about art in e-books is obsolete (at least for Kindle) or never was true at all; it takes some experimenting as well as careful reading of the documentation to get the best results.
Nonfiction calls for print as well as e-book editions. Print accounts for around a third of my sales and I hear similar reports from elsewhere. Since I do my own art, layout, etc., I use CreateSpace. They produce a good book, integrate with Amazon, and charge me nothing for setup. But I’ve seen samples of high-quality books produced by other POD outfits too. CreateSpace only does trade paper, but there are others like Virtual Bookworm that also offer good-quality hardbounds. Major POD publishers now list their titles with Ingram and Baker & Taylor (for wider distribution). I’ve had sales to bookstores and libraries.
Parallel production of e-book and print editions raises workflow issues. You want a single manuscript that can quickly and easily be used for both. Any sort of serious nonfiction title involves much more complicated book layout than nonfiction. (I’ve done both). Some authors I know write in page layout systems like Adobe InDesign or Serif PagePlus; they offer easy routes to both e-book and print output. So far I’ve written in Microsoft Word formatted (per CreateSpace’s directions) for print. But rather than send the .DOCX file to CreateSpace (which works for simple-format books) I’ve produced a .PDF and edited it a little in PagePlus to do the things Word won’t. Then I’ve produced an HTML version in Word and edited it a bit before uploading to Amazon. You need different versions of most images, tailored to print and screen. It all takes less than two days.
The advice given for promoting self-pub fiction is probably largely applicable for entertainment-value general nonfiction too. If your book falls into a category like military history or Americana you probably already are connected into interest groups that can be a great way to spread the word. Much nonfiction lends itself to homebrew book events than can do a lot to build your audience.
image by streetwrk.com