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Encouraging Words

More authors are finding that self-publishing puts them on fast track to a literary career. But self- promotion is required.


Earlier this month, Barbara Saltzman was at the Barnes & Noble in Encino promoting "The Jester Has Lost His Jingle," a self-publishing phenomenon.

"We've been more successful than anybody except 'The Celestine Prophecy' and 'The Christmas Box,"' says Saltzman of the charming children's book, written and illustrated by her late son David. The book has sold some 150,000 copies since it was published last year.

Saltzman is something of a legend in self-publishing circles, an increasingly important force in the U.S. book business. When Saltzman's son died of Hodgkin's disease at age 22, the then-Los Angeles Times arts editor was determined to see David's book published as he had envisioned it (he had decided every detail, down to the typeface).

Even as Saltzman grieved, she had the manuscript shopped to mainstream publishers. Clearly a work of talent, they said, but verse isn't selling ("Turn it into prose," they advised). It's too long, they said, and don't expect to see it in hard cover, it would be far too expensive.

Instead of compromising the work, Saltzman and husband Joe got a $250,000 line of credit on their home in Palos Verdes Estates and published the book themselves. For Barbara, self-publishing was an education.

"The most challenging part of the whole process," she says, "has been getting the book into bookstores and keeping it there."

In that, she has been helped by people such as Lita Weissman, the Encino superstore's community relations coordinator. Weissman read a piece about "The Jester" in Publishers Weekly, the trade Bible, and called Saltzman the same day to book her for a reading.

A major break for the book came last December when the Saltzman family was featured on ABC's "Good Morning America." The segment was filmed at Yale, where the book had been David's senior project in his joint majors of art and English (he graduated magna cum laude even as he dealt with chemotherapy and the other exigencies of the disease).

The TV exposure, increasingly important in selling books, "put us over the top," Saltzman says. "We sold 40,000 books in two hours."

In March, Saltzman had the extraordinary experience of seeing the self-published book appear on the New York Times best-seller list, tied for 15th with Michael Crichton's "The Lost World." According to Saltzman, that appearance, which coincided with her son's birthday, "would have absolutely delighted David."

While she is an avowed bulldog in promoting the book and has had genuine success, she admits that the experience "has been bittersweet and always will be, because it should be David talking to you."

Had the Saltzmans tried to self-publish a book like David's 20 years ago, the story might have ended much less brightly. Until recently, a writer who couldn't induce an established publishing house to bring out his or her book had few options. Those who were determined to see their books in print often paid thousands of dollars to a vanity press for a few thousand copies of the book and empty promises of help with marketing.

Being published by a vanity was the literary equivalent of being taken in adultery by the Puritans. Chances of a title so stigmatized turning up in a legitimate bookstore were virtually nil.

But all that has changed. Just as better, more affordable technology allows garage bands to produce their own tapes and compact disks, the new technology of desktop publishing allows writers, working alone or with a team of hired hands, to produce a book that is all but indistinguishable from a traditionally published one.

Self-publishing can also mean greater profits for writers, who get to keep half or more of what a book makes rather than the skimpy 15% that is the standard royalty for conventionally published books. Self-publishing can be so lucrative that some successful authors say no thanks when big publishers try to buy them out, as happened with "The Christmas Box," which earned author Richard Evans a two-book, $4-million deal after it became a self-published bestseller.

Big chains and other stores are also stocking self-published titles as never before. As a result of the convergence of these forces, self-publishing is flourishing. By some estimates, most of the nation's 53,000 publishers are actually self-publishers. Only about 1,000 are traditional presses.

Locally, authors have successfully self-published many different kinds of books.



You probably know Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," a book that was originally self-published. You may be less familiar with another self-published book about a charismatic bunny, "The Beginning Volume I of the Adventures of Samuel J. Hare," by Simi Valley writer George V. Manory.

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