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 Why & How I Self-Published My Collection By Sage Cohen & Tracy Koretsky

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PostSubject: Why & How I Self-Published My Collection By Sage Cohen & Tracy Koretsky   Tue Apr 17, 2012 4:35 pm

Why & How I Self-Published My Collection
by Sage Cohen & Tracy Koretsky

SAGE COHEN
“Anyone who says it can’t be done should get out of the way of the person who’s doing it.” – Chinese proverb

I am a DIY kind of woman. In my late 20’s, I founded my own marketing communications firm, which over the years has enabled me to purchase my own house, fund my own writing retreats and hobble together my own, unique expression of a writing life.
What does this have to do with self-publishing, you may ask? Everything! Having sidestepped a prescribed career path for one that makes space for the passion and practice of poetry, the process of authoring my own livelihood primed me well for launching my own books into the world. But that’s not where I started.
In 2004, I understood that I had a complete collection of poems on my hands and that it was time to start ushering them into the world in toto. I spent the next two years polishing, ordering, and conceptualizing the trajectory and shape of my manuscript: plucking poems out, shuffling them in, making mazes over my floors, reading and rereading, deciding and second-guessing until the whole body of work coalesced into the organizing principle of three sections: New York, San Francisco, and Portland –– the three cities that had framed my life and shaped my poetry consecutively for nearly 15 years.
Come 2006, I had a final poetry manuscript in hand composed of poems spanning more than a decade. A third of the poems had been workshopped and refined in a graduate creative writing program. Nineteen of the poems were previously published in literary journals and magazines. Some had taken ten-to-fifteen years to mature and ripen. And nearly every poem had been field-tested through live readings, where I learned what resonated with listeners, started to get a feel for my own voice, and gained a big-picture understanding and appreciation of my own craft.
I chose a title for the collection –– Like the Heart, the World –– proofed the whole shebang three times, printed a final, hard copy of the beautiful beast, made ten photocopies and was ready to go. Then I researched first-book publication contests through Poets & Writers, targeting the opportunities that seemed best suited to me. Out went those heavy, padded packages of hope into the blind future of judgment.
Back came the letters. They were far more personal and detailed than I expected, offering specific appreciation for standout poems and suggestions for improvement for others. Of the eight publishers to which I sent my work in the course of a year, four awarded my manuscript either finalist or semi-finalist status in their competitions. This was a gratifying endorsement of my work’s viability in the subjective world of poetry publishing.
As the encouraging rejections were rolling in, I learned that a previous MFA classmate had just published a poetry collection, and I wrote to congratulate her. She sent me a miserable reply about having struggled for more than a decade to get the book published and how it had embittered her to the final result. At the time, I was doing approximately a dozen readings, plus a handful of teaching and lecturing gigs per year. Participants at these events repeatedly approached me about purchasing my poetry; and I didn’t have anything to offer them.
When I received the note from my old classmate, something clicked. It occurred to me that I didn’t need a publisher to create a book. In fact, having been solely responsible for creating so many client communications over the years, it seemed more natural – preferable, even – to have complete responsibility for the look, feel, and results of my own, most precious communication project.
I thought through the consequences of exiting the creeping crawl of the standard publishing path:
Was I willing to forgo the validation and status of publication by a traditional press for the freedom of designing, producing and marketing my own book? Yes.
Was I secure enough in the value of my work to put it into the world without anyone else’s official stamp of approval: Yes. (After all, I had a well-seasoned collection of poetry that had been endorsed by poets I trust, published in journals I admire, and – most importantly – that I believed in.)
Was I planning to teach at a university in the next year or two? No.
Would I be seeking highly competitive funding or awards such as NEA grants or Guggenheim Fellowships any time soon? No.
Was I sure the manuscript was ready for publication? Not only was it as good as I thought it was going to get, it was starting to feel in the way of the next collection trying to come through – its time had come to leave the nest.
Was I prepared to be the one-woman sales and marketing force behind this book? Of course! (See day job above.)
Would I regret experimenting with this alternative path to publication? Possibly –– I wouldn’t know without trying. I was ready to find out.
In short, I was very clear about why I was self-publishing and how it would benefit my writing life; I felt confident in the quality of my work; and maybe most importantly, I felt excited and proud about creating a book of my own making. I was both enthusiastic about promoting the book and clear about how much work that involved, from many years of professional experience. I decided to do it.
Just by chance, at the blogher conference that summer, I stumbled upon the fine folks from lulu.com and had the opportunity to handle some of their print-on-demand books.
The production quality was stunning. These books that writers had produced themselves were far more beautiful, quirky and original than anything I had seen from any mainstream publishing house. I started to get really excited about the opportunity to make my own decisions about how my poetry collection would look and feel.
Upon doing a little research, it became clear that the fast and inexpensive print-on-demand option was far preferable to me than the standard print-and-shelve-and-wait process. Instead of printing, let’s say, 500 books, storing them in my office, and then mailing each one off as folks ordered them, print-on-demand books get printed digitally the moment someone orders one – and the vendor (in my case, Lulu.com) gets paid a flat fee each time someone purchases a book. The whole order-purchase-fulfillment process (including my own, virtual storefront) is handled online by the vendor. So there’s no inventory sitting around, gathering dust. And more importantly, there is not a large, up-front printing (or warehousing) investment required by the author. My only costs were in getting the book ready for production – and a minimal fee for registering myself as publisher and acquiring an ISBN.
I hired a friend who is an editor to proof the manuscript for grammatical and punctuation errors. (I’d seen the poems far too many times over the years to have an eye for such fine detail.) I hired my friend Gregoire Vion, a designer and illustrator I’d been collaborating with for 13 years – the one who illustrated my subsequent book, Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry –– to lay out the book. For the front cover, we simply modified an illustration that we’d created for my holiday card a few years earlier. For the back cover, we chose an illustration previously created for one of my web sites.
Then, through the lulu.com online customer interface, Gregoire submitted the cover and content, I chose a distribution package, proofed a copy of the printed book, decided how much of a cut I was going to take per purchase, and then PRESTO: it was available for sale. Within about a month, Like the Heart, the World was available for order through major book retailers everywhere, including amazon.com. I purchased a stash of books to bring with me to events and sell directly to participants; since then, I’ve never had to send anyone wanting my poetry home empty-handed.
Which leaves me with just one, unanswered question: Would I regret experimenting with this alternative path to publication?
It’s been three years since I published Like the Heart, the World, and the answer is wholeheartedly: no regrets. Birthing my book how and when I wanted made me giddy – and it still does. Through the process, I have gained confidence in my own authority: to decide when my poetry is ready for publication, and to do what needs to be done to put my book in the hands of people who want to read it.

TRACY KORETSKY
Let me make this clear: I have not just self-published my collection of poetry – I am giving it away. I’ve posted a free e-book version at www.TracyKoretsky.com, and offer the perfect-bound paperback for $5, the cost of printing and mailing. Every artist should have a gift of their art to give away to the world. This memoir in poems is mine.
Sure, I gave up the rite of adjudication, the incomparable thrill of an editor or guest judge selecting, from amongst its peers, my manuscript. This is what one sacrifices when deciding to self-publish and is the true crux of the choice: which is more important to you, getting expert recognition though it might take years or getting the work out when and how you choose, but without imprimatur.
There is no right answer; I can only speak for myself. In my collection, more than two-thirds of the poems were previously published. They’d received eighteen awards. At one point I fretted that some of the older pieces seemed out of style, so I submitted to anthologies. Their acceptance was reassurance enough – this book felt pre-adjudicated!
Furthermore, I am not paid to teach poetry nor do I seek to be. If I did, self-publishing might not be the best garnish for my resume. I wasn’t convinced the contest route was the best choice either. You know the drill: send your manuscript to multiple competitions (at around $25 a submission before postage) and wait for judgment. Wait years sometimes. Then one day, perhaps, you discover you’ve won; your book will be published, and within the foreseeable future. Drop everything. It’s time to get your promotion together because, no matter how accommodating the publisher, for poetry, this work always falls to the author.
So too, with the exception of the manufacturing, do all the sundry expenses: the website, postcards, review copies, etc. Also the legwork of booking readings and getting copies into stores, if that’s how you want to go. Moreover, a publisher only produces a limited run, usually 250 copies or fewer, with which to recoup your costs. On the other hand, you can sell your print-on-demand (POD) publication at your own pace for as long as you care to. The fact is that with free software, photo stock houses, downloadable fonts, and surprisingly affordable POD fees, a poetry collection with a beautiful cover and elegantly set text can be produced for less than the cost of entering six competitions.
I also considered the many stories I’d heard of authors getting what should be very happy news at the worst possible time – or sometimes a poet just wants to move on – to put a project behind and not veer from exciting new work to promote something old. I asked myself, what if I get to decide when’s a good time. What if, after I feel I satisfied with the book’s content and design and have firmly grounded my publicity, I launch my book with greater energy and care than any publisher would? What if I feel that time should be sooner than later? What if I put my work into the world in the way I think will have the most impact? What would that game look like?
Well, for one thing, it would mean removing money from the equation. Instead, I would define success as readers – lots and lots of readers, hundreds more than if I were selling the book.
I’ll admit I was daunted. Publishing costs money; it involves technology. Yet, as it turns out, it’s the simplest part. Certainly it’s the most instant. There’s a way to handle every aspect ranging from do-it-yourself to pay-for-service depending on your skill and budget. To sort it out, I went to the Writers Market 101 Best Websites and dug in. One final thought before I get more technical: I am a poet, not a rocket scientist, and I if could do this, so can you.
Because it requires almost superhuman forbearance not to press send once the book is designed, focus first on preparing its promotion. After all, this is the major advantage of self-publishing and the difference between a gratifying experience and a hectic frenzy.
If you have no clue where to begin, take a class. Better yet, take two. Then take a breath. There is an infinite amount of work one can do. Get a sense of your options, then lob from the list the one or two you like least. Do what you feel most affective within a time limit. Attack them in batches in rotation, for example, emails for one month, booking readings the next, then sending review copies. Remember, if you promote your book for one year, that will be forty-eight weeks more than the best publisher would.
It’s never too early to begin. Every time you attend a writer’s conference, take a class, or join a forum, capture the email list. Every time you look at a poetry magazine, scour the authors’ bios for addresses. Also take note of what publications feature poetry reviews. Any database program can help you keep track of where you know the person from so you can personalize the messages.
If you’ve never done any of this preparation, seek out colleagues in similar situations. Pool your lists and share the research required to place reviews.
Test run everything, from your announcements to your thank-you notes. If you type “spam filter words” into your browser, you will find lists of words and practices to avoid, such as multiple fonts or embedded images. A mass-mailing program like Turbo Mailer will send to each address discreetly, another way to avoid spam filters.
Some items you will need: your book’s description and personal bio in a couple of lengths to suit everything from postcards to your Amazon page, a press release, and a half-sheet review slip with all of the above. It can be helpful to have several guest blogs prepared. You guessed it; you can get examples of all of these online. I even found tips on how to improve my handwriting.
To prepare your book, several steps are required. Its interior must be proofread and typeset, and its cover, designed. (Though, as a self-publisher one can reload the contents of a book for about $40. So if you find mistakes after the fact, or want to update your cover, unlike standard publishing, you have that choice.)
Take your time; proofreading requires patience. If it’s not your strength, hire someone. One post on Craigslist will garner more than enough applicants. To weed them, create a short test by embedding errors into a poem. Of course, grammar within poetry is often non-standard; no one says you have to take every suggestion, but input can help.
Typesetting requires desktop publishing software – word processing is not acceptable. First, study published collections to determine your tastes (a separate font for titles, or maybe all caps?) Then search the Internet for free downloadable packages. Most have online tutorials, even videos, to instruct you. If you still find yourself stymied, In-Design – the industry standard – is supported by more than ample classes and tutorials. Before purchasing, try taking a class, then returning to one of the free alternatives.
You will also use your desktop publishing software to produce your cover. Warning: this is so much fun it can become addictive. Create several rough drafts then ask people whose taste you admire for feedback before screwing down the details. The variety of exquisite images and typefaces available from free Internet stock photo and font sites will astonish you. Furthermore, unless explicitly specified, you do not have to take these images as they are. You are permitted to crop or manipulate using Photoshop or similar free software. It is polite to notify the photographer and credit his or her work on the cover and website. While you’re at it, provide publicity material for the photographer to share with his or her list.
In addition, you require an ISBN, the unique code assigned to each book. Unfortunately, Bowker is the only vendor for this, and only offer packages of ten.
On the other hand, you can choose to skip all this stuff. Co-publishing may be the most expensive option, but can be very complete. They can set your text, design your cover, even incorporate images you supply. If your co-publisher provides the ISBN, you’ll save that expense. Some also offer author webpages or inclusion in their catalogs—a definite asset.
Above all, if you want to be a successful self-publisher, you require the ability to convince yourself that you are having fun when you are learning new software or taking a class on promotion. Here’s a test: let’s say you locate a journal that asks for a review copy even while warning that they may not review it. Do you think: “What a waste of money” or, “Yay, someone who loves poetry is going to read me?” If you chose the second, you’re going to love this game.

SAGE COHEN is the author of the poetry collection Like The Heart, The World and the nonfiction books Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writer's Digest Books, 2009) and The Productive Writer: Tips & Tools to Help You Write More, Stress Less, and Create Success (Writer's Digest Books, 2010). She has won first prize in the Ghost Road Press poetry contest and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Sage received her BA from Brown University and her MA in poetry from New York University. Learn more at www.writingthelifepoetic.typepad.com, www.writingthelifepoetic.com and www.sagesaidso.com. TRACY KORETSKY is the author of the poetry collection Even Before My Own Name.

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