Many people write for fun, for recreation or for keeping records, and they leave it at that. Diaries and letters, little poems, notes and cards never make it outside the writer's desk drawer or narrow circle of friends and family. But as their production grows, some writers end up longing for a broader audience, which leads them to that crucial step from simply being a writer to becoming a published author.
"I think the writing process in itself is more for the writer than for the reader. But still, I think you write because you want that one other person to read it," says Dale Forbes, who self-published her first book, On Exhibition, last year. "If you write a book and you go through the process of polishing your work, you end up with a piece of work you are reluctant to put in the bottom desk drawer. I mean, after all that work, why would you?"
Like many first time authors Forbes submitted her manuscript -- a compelling story about an emotionally wrecked girl who survives abuse and abandonment to finally take charge of her own life when her estranged father dies and she's called upon to settle his estate -- to several agents. But no one was interested in taking it on.
"[Agents] are being deluged with manuscripts. It seems like the thing you need to do is to show them that you have written a bestseller already, then they'll take you seriously," says Forbes. "Agents only service so many clients. And to justify their investment in you, they also look to see if it's likely that you'll write yet another book that's just as good."
She says the perceived mentoring relationship between the publisher and the struggling writer is a myth, and that the large publishing houses tend to follow popular trends in writing, rather than look for manuscripts that fall outside of these style trends.
"Agents tend to specialize in certain niches that sell, like romance or mystery or whatever it is. If you fall between niches, they'll say, 'You gotta change this and that.' In my case, an agent wanted to turn the story into a romance," she explains. "Those were by far the most discouraging responses I got, the ones that said, 'I like it, but change this and that.' Why should somebody in New York that you have never met change your book? I guess you can cross me off for the romance novels."
And Forbes is by no means the only local writer who had a stack of rejection letters to show for her first efforts. Don Anderson, who wrote The Price We Pay -- a quirky murder mystery injected with a large shot of old-fashioned moral standards -- was at first also unable to interest any agents in his book.
"I thought originally that a book had to be R-rated or kind of smutty to be published, but I don't think that anymore. In the area that I'm writing in, there are many successful writers and the publishers simply go with a known product," says Anderson, who has a background in income tax and law before he decided to pick up the pen. "The market is being limited because the publishers are interested in making a profit and not in a gamble on a manuscript that's different."
So you can't get an agent -- then what can you do? Determined to get his book out, Anderson paid his own way to publish on what's derogatorily referred to as 'The Vanity Press' -- in his case a digital printing company in Las Vegas, where he put out 200 copies. The flip side of not having a major publishing house back your book is that all of the marketing and promotion of the book rests solely with the writer. Most of Anderson's books now sit in his garage as he is trying his hand at marketing to local bookstores and media.
"It's hard," he says. "Auntie's took in a couple of books on consignment before Christmas, but it's hard."
Anderson -- like any other self-published writer -- is also fighting the stigma attached to self-publishing: Many readers assume that because the writer couldn't swing a deal with a major publishing house, the book is probably no good.
This may be true in some cases, but before passing judgment on the next self-published book on the shelf, consider the fact that rejection letters from the publishing houses may have more economic reasons behind them than stylistic ones.
"It's an interesting game that big publishing plays, what it does with the marketplace," says Forbes, who also went the self-publishing route. "But I guess Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com do serve a purpose for the two million books they carry."
Only the quality of the writing will eventually beat the stigma attached to self-publishing, and Forbes is an adamant defender of the quality of her own and other self-published writers' work.
"People forget that you don't just skip the steps in the writing process because you self-publish. I had probably close to 30 people read my book, and if one person said, 'This thing bugs me,' then you can be certain other readers will feel the same way, and you've got to change it," she says. "But bad stuff can come out through editors and publishers, too. The only thing that will show if you've done it right is if the book can stand on its own after awhile."
Not interested in footing an enormous printing bill on her own, Forbes chose a new venue for her publishing adventure, one she highly recommends to other writers. She published through Xlibris, a publishing on demand company on the Internet.
"Publishing on demand limits your risk. I got my two authors' copies, and then I told my friends that the book was now available," says Forbes. "If my friends read it and like it, then you get a ripple effect when they tell people where they got it." She says if she sells 100 copies, she's cleared her cost. So far she's sold nearly 500, and her book has been out for six months.
In publishing on demand, the book is only actually printed when someone orders it. From the time the order is entered until the book arrives on the reader's doorstep, the turn around time is about a week.
"This is a whole different way of publishing that has never been done before," says Roland LaPlante, marketing director at Xlibris. "Today, there is a confluence of desktop publishing software and Internet connectivity that at least theoretically allows any one writer to get in front of their market any time they want to. Xlibris' core publishing plan is free, the company simply gets a cut of any sales. The most expensive publishing plan runs $1,200 and includes consultations with designers about the cover and other layout features such as photos and graphics.
"We have over 4,000 authors that we are working with, and we've sold about 200,000 copies of books since '97," says LaPlante. Xlibris does not edit the manuscript once it's submitted and, surprisingly (especially considering Xlibris is owned by publishing giant Random House), LaPlante is not too concerned about the literary quality of the books the company puts out.
"If people can't get a traditional publisher, it may be true that their work isn't that good. But do we have concerns about the stuff we enable into the market? Generally no, as long as it's not pornography or readily identifiable as hate literature or instructions on how to make bombs," says LaPlante. "I mean, who's to judge what's good literature? Many books were turned down by publishers, like The Diary of Anne Frank and Gone With the Wind, and later became bestsellers. The market is human, it'll pick its own favorites over time."
Anyone can submit a manuscript to Xlibris, as long as it is more than 100 pages. No editing is done at the publishing house, where the text is simply turned into a manageable computer file, which can be sent to the printer as needed. Xlibris doesn't do any external marketing of the books, except entering them on almost 200 booklists and search engines -- including Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.
"We have helped a lot of people realize their dreams. But we always remind people that we don't do any of that setting up signings and tours and stuff. The writers have to do that," says LaPlante. "But we also don't take any of the [printing] rights from the writers, so you can shop the book all over and once you get a deal, you can just take it off the list with us."
Many of the manuscripts published by Xlibris appeal to a rather narrow, but still perfectly legitimate market.
"We get many first person accounts of events in peoples' lives, like memories of what happened to them during World War II," says LaPlante. "So maybe people want to publish the story of their life for the grandchildren to read. This may not be great literary art, whatever that is, but as human beings, we love to have these stories as part of the record. If this type of publishing wasn't an option, many of these stories would be lost."
Once the book is listed with Xlibris, it never goes out of print. As long as the orders keep coming, Xlibris keeps printing.
There are many self-published writers in the Inland Northwest, and some have joined forces in an organization called Spokane Authors and Self-Publishers (SASP).
"Our group is a group of authors and publishers, and we have approximately 40 people who have self-published books, but I don't know of anybody who's made a lot of money on it," says one of SASP's founders, Chuck O'Connor. "It's a matter of marketing the books, we have good cooperation from the local bookstores, but to make money takes national distribution." O'Connor has published two small books of poetry, Fortuisms and Missed Fortunes and Other Calamities.
"When we started the group, I was interested in learning from the other three people who were part of this: Joe Meiners, Elmer Freeman and Dan Vollmer," says O'Connor. "In the fall of '98, we put a little thing in the paper saying, 'Join us for lunch.' Today there are more than 120 in the group, and we are having a ball. We are learning a lot from each other, it's like a self support group."
He says that locally, the people who publish niche books about history or a specific local person do the best, when it comes to selling their work. These books are often the ones that wouldn't stand a chance at a nationwide publisher, he adds, because of their local angle.
"The military guys, like Elmer Freeman and his Those Navy Guys and Their PBYs, do really well," says O'Connor. "But he has also marketed the book a lot on bases and museums and bookstores. He's worked himself a nice string of distributors, and he has sold about 6,000 copies." Other success stories from SASP include Ray Kresek's Fire Lookouts of the Northwest, which O'Connor says has sold about 8,000 copies. Others like Bill Elston and Jerry Dolph have also found some success by mining the local history vein.
"I think the key is marketing -- you've got to sell yourself and the book," says O'Connor, who has sold about 500 of his own books. "You must send out introduction letters, try to get your book in bookstores and get publicity in newspapers and TV to promote the book. We have members that are pretty successful, like Tony and Suzanne Bamonte, but I don't know of anybody who's made a lot of money on self-publishing."
The Bamontes come up very frequently in conversations with local writers. The couple has self-published seven books about Spokane and Inland Northwest history.
"Yes, we have quite a good niche going here, but we were just talking about last night how we couldn't possibly do this if I wasn't retired," says Bamonte. "We did a book on Manito Park, and that was on the bestseller list. It sold close to 4,000 copies. And Spokane and The Inland Northwest sold about 2,000. We accomplish nice little things."
He says it's a passion for the topic -- in his case, local history -- rather than dreams of publishing 10,000 copies that keeps him going. But regardless that his books can be picked up at Barnes and Noble, Bamonte has had no success with national publishers.
"Oh no, none [of the publishing houses] do the local and regional books, they don't do them because there is not enough money in it, but there is a big demand for it," he says. "But publishing these books is something that is very important to do, to leave something good behind and make a record."
The Bamontes have just put out a book about Miss Spokane and are currently working on a book about the Davenport Hotel. They publish on their own, in the traditional sense, putting out "a couple of thousand books at a time."
In the end, it's the passion for writing that's going to keep the books coming regardless of how they are published.
"That's what I say, you write for the 20 minutes when you are totally connected with the character you are writing about," says Forbes. "It's like being in a movie, the character can do anything and you are right there to see it."
And technology is only going to make it easier for writers like Forbes and Anderson to reach their audience. Xlibris' LaPlante predicts that very soon, digital presses will be available on-site at bookstores allowing readers to simply request the book they'd like on site. "Then they go and get coffee and come back 20 minutes later and the book is there," he says. "The key is all this technology. We can do things today nobody would have thought of just 10 years ago."