Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

As self-publishing thrives, it's easy -- but expensive -- to put 'author' on your resumé

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Theirs is an enduring love affair, but writers and readers no longer have the traditional relationship they once did.

More and more of them are meeting electronically, for one thing. And, as with Internet dating, self-publishing is becoming increasingly mainstream and acceptable, so a growing number of would-be authors are bypassing the literary matchmaker altogether.

Who needs an agent and a royalty-paying publisher when you've got a manuscript and a credit card?

Winnipegger Mary Anne Appleby says she always knew she'd self-publish if the story that had been percolating in her head for 20 years ever made it onto the page. It did in November 2011, when 3,200 copies of Winnie the Bear rolled off the presses at Friesens Corp., in Altona.

The hardcover, colour-illustrated book ($34.95) tells the true story of the famous bear cub named for Winnipeg that became A.A. Milne's inspiration for Winnie the Pooh. Around 1,700 copies have sold thus far, mostly on consignment at bookstores and gift shops. Appleby says she sold 700 books on her own, just by tapping the friends-and-family market.

The retired mental-health worker, who had no previous writing credits nor publishing experience, prefers to call her book "independently published." The term "self-published" still carries a stigma, she says, harkening back to a time when the "vanity press" was seen as the last refuge for failed authors or substandard works that no legitimate publishing house would touch.

"I literally started my own publishing company (Dominion Street Publishing) and did everything exactly as a publishing company would do it," says Appleby. That included hiring a professional editor, designer, illustrator and printer to produce the book, then pounding the pavement to sell it. She even sent a copy to the Queen and applied to be on Dragon's Den in hopes of reaching a national audience.

She didn't want to reveal the precise amount, but Appleby did say she spent "tens of thousands" of dollars to bring Winnie the Bear to market. She pockets $28 from every book she sells on her own and $14 for consignment sales, compared with the $3.50 per book (or 10 per cent) she says she'd get if she'd signed on with a traditional publishing house.

Relatively few authors get in that door.

"In a typical year, we get around 150 manuscripts and we publish three," says Maurice Mierau, associate publisher at Great Plains Publications, which specializes in Prairie history and biography.

Appleby is far from alone on the independent path.

The number of self-published books produced annually in the United States has nearly tripled, growing 287 per cent, since 2006, according to a recent report by Bowker, the agency that issues all International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) in the United States. Ebooks showed the greatest gains, up 129 per cent since 2010, while print grew 33 per cent in that same period.

"Self-publishing is now supported by a sophisticated and highly accessible support structure. It's provided everyone who has a story to tell with a method for sharing it and levelled the playing field to an unprecedented degree," Beat Barblan, director of identifier services for Bowker, said in a news release, which also noted that a number of self-published authors have landed their titles on the prestigious New York Times bestseller list for ebook fiction.

The poster child for self-publishing, of course, is E L James, whose Fifty Shades of Grey erotica trilogy began life as an ebook and has since sold 35 million copies (print and digital) in the U.S. alone and brought in more than $200 million to publisher Random House. Publishers Weekly, the bible of the American book trade, named James its Publishing Person of the Year for 2012 -- the first time the accolade has gone to an author.

Critics might say that self-publishing has lowered the bar on quality writing by removing the gatekeeper and filters that the conventional publishing model represented. Getting a publishing contract, after various editors had deemed the subject matter and content worthy, used to mean a writer had passed the test.

Now, even publishing giants like Penguin Group and Simon & Schuster offer aspiring authors a fast track into print.

There's no shortage of companies selling design, editorial and marketing services. They'll even take care of such tedious tasks as registering copyright and assigning ISBNs and bar codes.

"It's definitely gone from a very slow trickle to incredibly busy. We do about 200 books a month, and that's growing month after month," says Tammara Kennelly, president of FriesenPress, the vanity-publishing subsidiary of Manitoba-based printer Friesens Corp. It has published around 1,200 books since opening in Victoria in 2009.

FriesenPress offers self-publishing packages ranging from $899 for an ebook or a "personal project" to more than $4,000 for the "all-inclusive package," which might be a full-colour, hard-cover commercial product.

Where self-publishing really differs from the conventional publishing model is, of course, financially. Self-published authors take on the risk and the reward, says Donovan Bergman, sales representative with Friesens Corp.

"Part of the whole process with self-publishers is making sure they have realistic expectations early on," he says. "If it's just a pet project they've dreamed of doing, that's very different than somebody who wants to go on a tour and do readings and who is really interested in the marketing and distribution side.

"A lot of people think that once the book is done, their work is done, but realistically, the work has only begun."

Winnipeg educational assistant Marla Paul-Merasty is finding that out, following the recent release of her first children's book.

The mother of two, who had no formal writing experience, says she literally dreamed up Chuck the Different Vampire, which tells the tale of a young, sneaker-wearing vampire who eschews blood and likes sunlight. The caped youngster discovers the special power that allows him to be outside in the daytime is activated through good manners and politeness.

"I dreamed this," says Paul-Merasty, holding up one of the colourful softcover books she self-published through FriesenPress. "It was this little vampire running around the Exchange District doing good deeds -- helping people and opening doors. Everybody says write your dreams down, but nobody ever does anything with them."

Paul-Merasty, who works with special-needs children and is also known as Miss Marla, says her book carries a message of diversity and acceptance. She's been doing readings at schools and libraries around the city, has a website (chuckthedifferentvampire.ca) and is working on a YouTube video to promote the book. Chuck even has a theme song.

When all is said and done, she says, she'll have spent close to $10,000 to produce and promote the 500 copies of Chuck that rolled off the press last Halloween and are for sale on Amazon and through McNally Robinson Booksellers ($11.99). The colour illustrations for the 32-page book, which were done by Illinois artist Alan Margolis and feature the Manitoba Legislative Building and other landmark buildings in the Exchange District, cost $1,500 alone.

But whether or not it turns into a profitable venture, Paul-Merasty says self-publishing a book has taken her out of her comfort zone and on an adventure she knows is only beginning. There may even be a Chuck series.

"It was something that was near and dear to my heart and I followed through with it," she says. "It's not a cheap process, but it's something I wanted to do."

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 26, 2013 C1

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Updated on Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 10:48 AM CST: replaces photo, changes headline, adds fact box

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