Monday, January 07, 2008

Feature: Self-Publishing

Publishing the DIY Way by Jacquelynn Luben

Self publishing attracts much of the same disdain as ‘vanity publishing’, yet, a number of esteemed authors have published their own work. These days, when publishers are generally huge conglomerates with their eyes on the bottom line, many good writers are unable to place their books and end up taking the self-publishing route.
In 1992, before it became usual and acceptable, I did it on my own; I became a self-publisher, in order to bring out my previously rejected book. To write for its own sake was not enough for me. I wanted to be read and heard.

I knew all about vanity publishers from writing groups, and had even interviewed one for a Radio Four programme, Punters, so I avoided them. I had a personal reason for self-publishing. My book, The Fruit of the Tree, is the story of the birth and death of my baby daughter, my second child, born after two miscarriages. When, after the birth of my second daughter, I had recovered from my grief, I wanted to share the knowledge I had gained from my experience, not just with other bereaved parents, but with others who had no knowledge of tragic premature death. Having a few short articles published only fuelled my desire to write a more detailed account of my bereavement and subsequent happiness.

The Fruit of the Tree was written over three years, and was completed seven years after my daughter’s death. Then, in the next ten years, it was sent to several publishers, retained by them for a few months and then returned. Once, I was told it would be ‘a difficult book to sell’. I didn’t understand why.

I was in touch with the support organisation dealing with cot death, and my manuscript was shown to a publisher who wanted to bring out a self help book. My autobiographical account was not what they were looking for, but they liked what they read and asked me to write their book. Cot Deaths - Coping with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was published by Thorsons in 1986, and brought out in a new edition by Bedford Square Press in 1990.
With a track record, I thought it would be easier to find a publisher for The Fruit of the Tree, but I was wrong. I rejoined a writing group and started writing fiction, but still the book claimed my attention. I decided I would publish it in 1996, the 21st anniversary of my daughter’s death.

Having read Peter Finch’s practical but humorous book, How to Publish Yourself, I obtained quotes from printers. £3,000/£4,000 seemed to be the norm for about 1,500 copies of a perfect bound paperback of 60,000 words with full coloured cover. It was beyond my price range.

Then, in Writers’ News, I read about Anne Kritzinger, a ‘short-run’ printer with modern equipment. I met her and gave her my manuscript with an order. She scanned it into her computer and produced 300 copies at around £1,300. I followed this up with additional orders later. My publishing name was Nelson Houtman - the maiden names of my mother and my Dutch grandmother. I liked the mix of Europe and traditional England - shades of Weidenfeld & Nicholson. Interestingly, booksellers sometimes react as if the name is familiar to them.

I avoided the cost of an expensive cover by choosing a black and white photo on a plain green background (regarded as a two colour cover - black plus one colour on white card). This may have been a false economy, as a good cover is essential, and much later, I changed printers and had a new cover.Printing is the easiest part of publishing. Next, I sent out press releases and flyers to magazines and radio stations, a tedious task, which nevertheless brought about some articles and radio broadcasts. I mailed the main ‘charter’ bookshops, as well as libraries.

I had learned much from having a book published. Thorsons had distributed approximately 300 review copies, while Bedford Square had only sent out about 60, first offering a press release. My attitude was always one of caution, and I opted for Bedford Square Press’s approach.

The death of a child is an emotive subject. Many people who have experienced such a death want to know how other similarly bereaved people feel, and need ammunition to counter the expectations of others. I felt that bereaved people would be helped by reading of my experience, in either of my two books. However, I also believed that, with its background of other more light-hearted events, The Fruit of the Tree was a book that could be read by anyone. I hoped too, that professionals in the medical field would gain insight from reading such a detailed first hand experience. However, gradually, I became aware of the difficulty of trying to interest a diverse audience in such a book, and I began to understand the conventional publisher’s dilemma. No review of my book has convinced me that I was wrong to believe in it, but from a financial point of view, I could see that it was not a commercial proposition.

The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths, though they mentioned the book in their newsletter, did not regard it as a self help book, so were not prepared to sell it, irrespective of any discount that I might give them. Some medical publications failed to review it for the same reason. On the other hand, to persuade people not connected with cot death to read it was equally difficult. They shied away from the idea of the death of a child, and imagined that they were going to find it extremely grim. Those that steeled themselves to read it, were full of praise and surprise. They often used the word ‘enjoyed’, and then apologised, though I welcomed this praise. I had not intended to write a dismal catalogue of tragedy, and had deliberately included many funny and silly episodes. Life, after all, is made up of a cocktail of all these things.

Selling is not easy. Even those people who were most interested, were more likely to loan the book to a friend than recommend it. I sometimes reminded people, who weren’t going to buy it, to get the book from the public library, where, at least, there was the possibility of benefit from Public Lending Right. My efforts at obtaining publicity triggered off some unsolicited orders, but, after that, I turned to selling through other ways.

I started with local bookshops and extended to telephone sales country wide, including many independent book shops, offering Firm Sale where I could. Waterstone’s were helpful, and, at that time, each store made its own purchasing decisions. W.H. Smith, however, decided not to stock copies, which was probably just as well. They order on Sale or Return, and when sales start dropping off, return the balance. This is very difficult for the self publisher to weather.

In total, I sold around 1,000 copies of my book, but, eventually, I needed to get back to writing rather than selling. However, I enjoyed being a publisher and have returned to it again, now as a Director of Goldenford Publishers. I did not make a profit on my efforts, but I got The Fruit of the Tree out to an audience that would appreciate it, and in doing so fulfilled the ambition of many years. will be reviewing The Fruit of the Tree later this year.


Anne Brooke said...

A very interesting article by a very good writer indeed - great to see on here! I particularly enjoyed "The Fruit of the Tree", having read it some years back. It's very moving and involving.


Jackie Luben said...

Thanks for including my article, Hags and Harlots. Anyone who's interested in my writing, etc. will find me at and my blog is at

Jackie Luben said...

Thank you very much, Anne.