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200 Million Americans Want to Publish Books, But Can They?

Some 200 Million Americans say they want to publish a book, but lack of attendance at the IBPA’s Publishing University at BEA suggests a disregard for the craft of book publishing.

By Justine Tal Goldberg

stack of books

It’s often said the book fairs are no place for writers. But what about at a conference organized specifically to help writers publish?

According to writer Joseph Epstein, “81 percent of Americans feel that they have a book in them — and should write it.” That’s approximately 200 million people who aspire to authorship. Excluding those who want and never do, and those who do but never publish, we’re still looking at millions of folks hungry for the literary limelight. In light of recent trends in publishing — the fact that self-published titles have dwarfed traditionally published works nearly 2:1 — one would expect that the Independent Book Publishers Association’s 27th annual Publishing University, a concurrent event with BookExpo America at New York City’s Javits Center this week, would have been swarming with author-publishers on the prowl for a much-needed literary education. Strangely, it wasn’t.

“So where are the writers?” I asked IBPA’s executive director Terry Nathan between panels. He explained that despite efforts to attract author-publishers in addition to small presses, attendance has dropped in recent years. 2011’s conference saw approximately 250 attendees, “mostly publishers and a few authors who take their publishing seriously,” Nathan told me.

What I then wanted to ask but didn’t, due to a potentially misguided sense of propriety was, “What authors don’t take their publishing seriously?” The sad answer, of course, is many; these days, perhaps even most.

I sat in on panels aimed at self-published writers (“Hands-on Guide to Marketing Fiction,” “Editorial Basics,” “Book Design that Gets Buzz,” and more) and watched in horror as panelists prompted the writers in the audience to identify themselves and, panel after panel, one or two tentative hands rose above the crowd.

It’s no easy task to determine why people do certain things, attend certain events and not others — market researchers make a good living this way — still, I’m bothered. “There’s good stuff here!” I felt like shouting, felt like running up and down 11th Avenue to shake sense into every pen-wielding, notebook-toting wannabe I passed. This year’s Publishing University was brimming with valuable information about working the market, producing a quality product, and writing like a writer that every self-published author would do well to understand:

“There are so many of us humans who are ready to self-publish or publish with little or no more thought than we would give to having a meal at a fancy restaurant,” says Cynthia Frank, independent press publishing consultant and publisher at Cypress House, a small independent press and book publishing consultation service on the north coast of California.

“Self-published books are almost uniformly badly published,” says Deb Werksman, acquiring editor and editorial manager for Sourcebooks, the largest women-owned independent publishing house in the country.

“If a book looks self-published, buyers are not going to buy it,” says Tom Dever of TLC Graphics and Narrow Gate Books, a book design, production, and distribution outfit in Austin, Texas.

And yet, where are the writers?

It seems reasonable that self-published books feel self-published and, despite some advances in reputation largely due to the popularity of the movement, continue to carry the stigma they do precisely because the authors of these works fail to take the endeavor seriously.

Epstein wonders “if the reason so many people think they can write a book is that so many third-rate books are published nowadays that…it makes writing a book look fairly easy,” and thanks to self-publishing, anyone can do it. (To wit, a brilliant video produced by open source movie-maker Xtranormal).

And therein lies the rub. The do-it-yourselfers need education in the task they’ve undertaken — they need Publishing University — but they don’t know it, and they won’t know it until they do. If book publishing really is becoming self-publishing as so many professionals predict, the book as medium may be looking at a bleaker future than any self-respecting bibliophile would care to admit.

“It’s not that easy to write a good book,” Werksman reminded her writer audience of one. Take it to the streets, shout it from the rooftops, tell every author-publisher you know. If you can find them.

DISCUSS: Should the DIY Movement Learn Traditional Publishing Techniques?

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  1. Posted May 26, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    “So where are the writers?”

    I’ll offer a few answers:

    (1) Just as many self-publishing authors skip professional editing and design because they don’t think they need it or can’t afford it, many don’t think they have to go to “school” or can’t afford it.

    (2) The people who needed to be at Publishing University didn’t know about it. In contrast, the educational sessions at last fall’s Self-Publishing Book Expo were so well-attended by new self-pubbers that many sessions had more “students” than chairs, and some students were in the hallways because they could not fit into the classrooms.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.GoodBadAndUglyBooks.com (reviews of books for writers)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

  2. Keith G. Laufenberg
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I get tons of email I usually delete, as fast as I can, sometimes however, I glance at them, like this one, to see if I have any interest. To this email I would say that the writer of this piece is a shill for something that she is either selling or monetarily involved in.

    The reason most self-published authors, myself included, don’t react as you wish them to is because they see the Capitalist nature of the one telling them how to “do it.” Everything’s for sale, in America, & generally the world, and if you “follow the money trail,” you’ll usually find the answer to whatever question you are searching for.

    Instead of blaming the writers themselves you should question your own motives for your actions? This “Publishing University” and this “Self-Publishing Book Expo” that you mention. Are they free? Do you have any connection to them?

    I have sat in more useless, senseless “sales meetings” listening to some jerk-off talk to himself, as he preached to the group of “how to sell” etc. that if I had a buck for every one I’d be a rich man today?

    No one is, and no one can, teach you how to write. Period. I agree that it is all sales & marketing nowadays but why do you blame writer’s, or wanna be writers, for not becoming “their own sales network?” Unless, of course, you are selling something; like telling us writers how to do it?

    Keith G.

  3. Posted May 26, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    In response to Keith G. Yes, it is true that these days it seems as if everyone is trying to sell something and yes, it does become tiresome. But what also becomes tiresome is the inability of people to realize that there are some opportunities that are worth learning about…and yes, even paying for. Because although it’s a drag to be continually bombarded with useless and expensive services, it’s also important to remember than just because you have to pay for it doesn’t mean it’s a rip-off or a scam. Why do people expect that everything should be free?

    I also believe that no one can teach you to write. But from personal experience, I can tell you that there are people who can help you to write better.

    Self-publishing goes way beyond writing to cover design, marketing, etc…all areas where a writer might need to yes, pay for help.

  4. Posted May 26, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I was at BEA Tuesday and Wednesday, and it was definitely a worthwhile event if only because you have an opportunity to talk with so many professionals in the industry, including the folks at IBPA. But I am a business owner. The cost of flying to NYC, getting a hotel room, meals, and a three-day pass ($210) ran me about $1,000, and I’m a bargain hunter. That’s a lot of cash to shell out if you’re a writer trying to earn a living these days.

    That said, when you decide to make the leap into publishing, even if you’re just putting out one book, you become a business owner. A successful business owner has to invest in educating him or herself constantly. Granted, there are a lot of less expensive resources out there. And I think that if IBPA hosted regional conferences in smaller cities around the country (which they may do), I’m sure the turn out would be higher.

    One other thing I noticed about the show was the section located in front of the exhibit area devoted exclusively to self-publishing houses (vanity presses). Despite the fact that you didn’t need a badge to get into this section, every time I walked by, it was completely empty. So for those of you trusting your hard-earned money to these distributors of your work, you might want to keep it in the bank or do as the author of this piece suggests — invest in educating yourself.

  5. Rgoodman
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I can’t comment on Keith’s observations about the oppressed writers of the world. However, I can comment about IBPA and Publishing University.

    IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association) is a nonprofit trade group with an educational mission. Anyone who has been a publisher for more than a few days should know about it. Publishing University is its principle educational event, held annually immediately before BEA. Anyone who is interested can look at the web sites: and .

    I do know about IBPA and Publishing University. I am only a member today, but in the past I have been on IBPA’s unpaid board of directors. This is the first year in many that I have not attended or taught at Publishing University. I have always considered it the best deal in publishing, period. Most attendees consider it a bargain. IBPA does not pay speakers to teach classes, and it refuses to invite back speakers who promote their own businesses in the classroom. IBPA itself sells nothing but memberships at the event. It usually breaks even or loses money. The major cost to attend is housing, over which IBPA has no control. (Nor does IBPA collude with the NY hotels to exploit attendees.) IBPA also encourages its regional affiliates to stage less costly local conferences and offers to provide the affiliates with support and speakers without charge. If that’s capitalist exploitation, so be it.

    The author may or may not be a member of IBPA or a fan of Publishing University, but she has no “connection” to either. As far as I can tell, she is not a board member of IBPA or a presenter at Publishing University. She may or may not even be a member of IBPA or one of its affiliated groups. Sometimes, people write things without having any interest in the outcome (except perhaps interest in establishing their reputation as a writer or a journalist). Readers don’t have to agree with what authors say or verify what they themselves say, but that doesn’t make their suspicions true.

    What the author said in her discussion of Publishing University is true. Authors ignore publishing processes and concerns at their own risk. It’s not like this is insider information. Authors don’t have to join IBPA or attend Publishing University to learn. There are plenty of free or low cost alternate resources available, even books and LinkedIn groups.

  6. Posted May 27, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    As a writer and self-published author I cannot afford to attend any “universities” devoted to the craft and cannot travel everywhere. If the BEA chose to exhibit in Los Angeles, I might be tempted to attend. But the fact is that everyone with the knowledge has already published many versions of a basic self-publishing course and therefore the very people you are trying to reach don’t feel the need to attend.

    I myself have just completed and published my latest, “PRINCIPLES OF SELF-PUBLISHING: How to Publish and Market A Book or Ebook On a Shoestring Budget”, in which I do discuss the nuts and bolts of manuscript preparation. But I don’t teach anyone how to write because that has to come from within, and any good high school English course (or one in a native language) should have given a writer the basics already.

    Editing is an essential part of the whole, but many people who aspire to write do not take the necessary steps to self-edit or to hire an editor. The majority of these are usually young people or teenagers, who as a result of an inadequate system of education are not interested in learning the right way to write, but are keen to get their words on paper (or a word file) without any interference whatsoever. So your concern about good writing skills and editing will likely fall on deaf ears. They also cannot afford to attend a conference like that so you won’t see them there.

    The only way to make sure that books of quality are allowed to shine is to ignore the chaff. I have always said that it is the readers who usually determine how good a book is by how many copies are sold, not printed out, which they recommend to others. You can publish stacks of books but the pile will not diminish if they are bad books. If you really want to promote good books, you should stop calling self-published books inferior and pigeonholing them into a literary cul de sac. When the distinction is dropped there is no difference in quality except by what is contained within the book itself, and that is what is most important. I have read books published “professionally” which were no better. You can’t tell me that the difference only lies with where and by which house it was published.

  7. Posted May 30, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    This is a useful discussion.

    For perspective, many self-publishers just want to publish a book for friends and family, with no expectation of selling more than 64 copies or so. A few decades ago, lots of people–including some who happened to be very good writers–would publish there material on mimeographs and sell them on street corners, or, if they had plenty of money to live on, give them away. Today, thanks to desktop publishing, they are able to produce something that looks like a book or an eBook and sell it or give it away on on the Internet. There is nothing wrong with that–it’s actually a very nice thing to do.

    However, these days it is common to hear a self-publisher complain bitterly about how difficult it is to sell his/her wonderful book. How the elite establishment has conspired in favor of the multimedia corporations and against the little guys. Many of these same people also say they don’t need to take any classes in publishing.

    Publishing is a little like the restaurant business–everybody who knows how to cook thinks he or she could run a great restaurant, but the mortality rate of new restaurants is staggering. Similarly, if you are a writer with talents appreciated by your friends and family, you have no need for a professional education. But if you want to make a living as a publisher, why would you think you can succeed in a business with no education in the business?

    There are lots of con artists out there picking the pockets of aspiring writers; these include almost all vanity publishers, but also many expensive consultants, fake literary agents, etc. Buyer beware. But there are also helpful professionals, and excellent nonprofit organizations–the biggest and best-known bing IBPA and many of its regional affiliates–who will share information and educational opportunities at bargain prices.

    I’m a micro-publisher–a traditional, royalty-paying publisher that has come out with an average of two or three new titles per year for the last 26 years. As such, I hang around with a lot of self publishers, some of whom are very successful. Those of us who must make a living at our craft recognize the need not only for basic education in publishing, but for continuing education, as the field changes constantly. I attend Pub-U almost every year, as well as events put on by the local affiliate in my region. I would not be able to support my family with publishing if it were not for the information and education I gain from these events.

    The bottom line is that if writing and publishing are your hobbies, and you have the luxury of not having to make a living by selling books, more power to you. Sharing your creativity with the rest of us free of charge is a marvelous thing to do. But if you are frustrated by your inability to sell enough books to pay your rent and put peanut butter on the table, then it’s time to re-think your opposition to the educational opportunities provided by nonprofit organizations such as IBPA.

  8. Posted May 30, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    I wish I had known about IBPA or my local affiliate IPNE when I started out. For me, it was “trial and error.” Now, with seven books self published, I have a much better handle on the “how to” of book publishing. Unfortunately there is still a bias against self-published books.

    In my local writers’ group, almost everyone is still trying to “nail” a mainstream publisher. That takes a huge amount of time. In my opinion, the book industry is to blame. I’m a member of SCBWI (Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators). They have different levels of membership, especially if one is “published and listed.” That excludes self published authors. Other mainstream venues like Library School Journal won’t review self-published works. Happily, Publishers Weekly recently started a self published section. On that positive note, I’ve been asked to speak at schools, libraries, teacher groups, and I was the keynote speaker for almost 300 people at a fund raiser – all because of my books and their content.

    In general, I think that most writers don’t realize there is “another way to go” regarding book publishing. Most are still trying to get noticed by a major publisher. My picture books can stand next to any mainstream published book and if mine are noticed, it’s usually with admiring comments. At BEA when I showed my books to others the usual comment was, “Who publishes these?” For the general population if people notice and like books, It’s unimportant to them “how” they came into being.

    “Where are the writers?” I think that most aren’t aware of wonderful organizations like IBPA or its affiliates. For me, it’s about marketing. Without marketing where would we be? We have to let people know our products exist -no matter what they are – food, clothing, books, or terrific groups like IBPA that can help us learn more about our craft.

  9. Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Umm…I would be willing to bet that most indy book publishers are not living in Manhattan and can’t afford a hotel room there. What do you think the odds are on that one?

  10. Shann Palmer
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    What a silly article! Since most people don’t live in NYC and are trying to flee the path to oblivion most NY publishers seem to offer, I can see why it was underattended.

    In Richmond, Virginia we have the James River Writers who offer a 3 day conference is offered that routinely sells out, along with monthly meetings and other events that specialize in helping writers work on craft and climb the publishing mountain.

    Reach the people by coming to THEM. Even the Mormons have figured that out.

  11. Posted June 25, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    I think I stumbled on the right people here. I am trying to find a publisher for my book about the insane Arizona real estate market. I have looked into the self publishers online, many scams I am reading and I have emailed several small local companies. My question is, do I need an agent and if so can someone recommend a good one? I noticed some companies don’t want to even look at the Table of Contents unless you have an agent and if they did I think they would want to read more but I need to protect myself from lawsuits. I don’t name names, just tell it like it is, but some of the people will know who they are. I also am too old to try and remember where commas go so it needs editing, do self publishing companies have editors. People are missing out on some good reads because, as someone said, people are too lazy to lift and finger and find things out. I find people that people that have had good or bad experiences are ready to share and maybe there is a new agent out there that would find my book perfect. Luckily I don’t have to eat from my work as a writer but a nice vacation would do. Any help or guidance is appreciated so I can move on to Chapter 3, Cancer and Prison Shoes.

  12. Posted June 25, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Okay perfect example of why I need an editor, never type when your blood sugar is so low you can hardly crawl to the fridge….

  13. TF
    Posted June 27, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    A few people have mentioned that the costs associated with getting to Manhattan, staying at a hotel, and attending the IBPA Publishing University may have had a lot to do with the low attendance. I agree. Why not have regional offerings? I could get to Denver. Someone else mentioned they’d have gone had it been in Los Angeles. I’m guessing that if they were held in these cities and others (Minnesota, Portland, Austin, for example), people would attend.

    Doing so could take care of the problem of marketing (not everyone who might have attended was aware of the University). Local and regional advertising often reaches people that national adverts don’t. If you need someone to help put this together, let me know. I’m passionate about independent publishing, have the knowledge and skillsets needed, and would love to help make the IBPA Publishing University a real force in the independent publishing world.

  14. Posted September 24, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    As cofounder of the free resource, http://IndieBookCollective.com, we strongly encourage all our authors to use professional editors, beta readers/reviewers, and graphic artists to put out the highest quality work possible. Through the internet, tons of valuable information is available to authors without travel, including step-by-step guides on self-pub, ebooks, formatting, and social media.

    We offer free and low-cost workshops to help authors learn as much as possible about self-pub, as well as our twitter, Facebook, and goodreads sites. Tons of free tips and help @IndieBookIBC.

    There’s no reason for any author to feel they have to be lumped into the category of being uneducated or alone, or dismissed as poor quality — yes, there’s homework to be done, no doubt. We teach you how to fish, so to speak.

    But there are resources out there at the flip of a switch. No travel required.

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