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Culture Vulture

Easier than ever to publish a book

Crowd-funding and self-publishing are increasingly popular

Published on Jun 24, 2014 3:01 PM

It has become easier than ever to publish your own book in Singapore. What, then, is the value of sending in a manuscript to an established imprint, hoping it will make it out of the unread slush pile?

On June 14, violinist and former national gymnast Eileen Chai launched a memoir, Teach A Life, For Life, as well as an associated music recording. Both were made possible through the $13,000 she raised through Pozible, an Australian crowd-funding site.

Asked why she chose this route rather than go through a traditional publisher, she told me she would rather pay people who understood how she wanted the book presented than "start cold" with someone who might want to change the way she wrote it.

More authors are of her opinion these days, and a surprising number have been proven right in their desire to do things their way. Gone are the days when the so-called vanity press spat out only books of turgid, badly edited prose. Comics creators more often than not bring out books themselves - American writer Carla Speed McNeil's awardwinning Finder graphic novels come to mind, as does the early work of Singapore artist Andrew Tan, better known as drewscape.

Local writer Eliza Teoh's self-published Ellie Belly series of children's books often appear on Popular bookstore's bestseller lists. She has also championed other writers, such as Jessica Alejandro, through her home-grown publishing outfit Bubbly Books.

Singapore cartoonist and writer Otto Fong has been living off self-publishing for almost seven years now. He is the author of the ongoing Sir Fong series of comic books, which marry science lessons with zany adventures, as well as young adult novels such as Bitter Suites, published last year, and the new Black Peony series, launched last month.

Self-publishing can be big business for some. American author Amanda Hocking sold a million copies of her self-published teen fantasy romances online before landing a multiple book deal with Pan Macmillan in 2011.

New authors need not even invest much of their money to start with. Popular crowd-funding websites such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo help would-be writers pitch their ideas and raise money to print and market their books. Funds in hand, they can have their books edited, typeset, designed and printed by highly qualified freelancers or firms such as Partridge Singapore, a new self-publishing imprint set up here in March. It is backed by global publishing giant Penguin Random House and self-publishing company Author Solutions.

Surgeon Ti Thiow Kong paid to have his book, Singapore And Asia - Celebrating Globalisation And An Emerging Post-Modern Asian Civilisation, published by an Author Solutions imprint. For an initial investment of about $30,000, he received more than 500 copies of the book, a spot on overseas radio as well as print advertisements. "Everything you pay for, but the book remains yours," he says, explaining why he prefers self-publishing to trusting the traditional publishing model.

Traditional publishing models involve the publisher taking most of the financial risk in printing a new book. Publishers edit, typeset, design covers, launch marketing campaigns, work with distributors to put books in stores or online, and subsidise author appearances on promotional tours. They do the accounts, haggle for prominent positioning on shelves, stock hundreds of unsold copies and pay myriad other costs including legal fees, transport, food and fire insurance.

In return, authors receive between 8 and 12 per cent of the profits on the books they sell.

Both publisher and author want the book to do well, but the publisher is deeply invested in profitability, while the author may be more concerned with staying true to an artistic or personal vision. This can lead to conflict and some authors to feel they are better off striking out on their own.

I doubt publishers mind. Publishers here and overseas are inundated with manuscripts and e-mail from hopeful authors and literary agents. As bookstores close not just in Singapore but also worldwide, publishers and booksellers prefer to bank on proven authors before risking money on a new name. As I was told earlier this year by Ms Joanna Prior, managing director of Penguin General UK: "It's become much harder to persuade people to give things a try."

One of the ways of finding new names, she added, is looking out for authors who do relatively well on their own.

Penguin Random House's tie-up with Author Solutions, Partridge, is a neat way of increasing revenue while also allowing the publisher to keep an eye on hot new names.

Another big publisher, Harper Collins, has yet to invest in a self-publishing imprint, but does invite authors to put up unpublished manuscripts on Authonomy.com for feedback.

Why would a successful self-published author comply? The fact remains that bringing a book out may be easy but new titles remain a tough sell.

Established publishers have the best distribution infrastructure. I have yet to encounter a self-published author who would not gladly work with these institutions to conquer new markets.

Take Hocking, author of the Trylle fantasy series, who sold a cool million copies of her books online. It was the Pan Macmillan deal which actually led to translations and more sales overseas, not to mention a movie option.

Closer to home, writer Fong told me he would have to work with an overseas publisher to sell his books in other countries - it would be near impossible otherwise to establish new networks and contacts from scratch. In Singapore, he not only writes and illustrates his books, but he also has to work with distributors to get them in stores, not to mention do author readings and promotions to sell them.

Apart from distribution, traditional publishers are often better able to afford professional editors and designers. Good editing can make the difference between a book which is chucked in the recycling pile and one which is read until the final page. It is not just a matter of grammar and spelling, but also of refining narrative structure and style.

Another point is that for many authors, nothing compares to the feeling of winning that first disinterested fan - the publisher, editor or agent who first picks up a manuscript and vows to sell it, not because they are paid by the author, but because they believe the author's work will eventually pay off.

Positive reinforcement like that cannot be bought. It is priceless, even in the publishing industry.