Trends: Everybody’s an Author

Sign up with Philly's own Xlibris or Infinity, and you, too, can write a book! (Fifteen minutes of fame not included.)


Why is Ed Murray smiling? I don't get it. He just blew $1,500.

But that's my opinion. It's not his. “I don't want to help you write a negative article,” he says. “I'm not disappointed with Xlibris.”

At age 68, Murray is the proudly self-published author of two books, and the Philadelphia firm Xlibris is his … publisher? No. That's not right. If Murray is self-published, then he's the publisher. So Xlibris is the printer? That's not right, either, because Xlibris doesn't actually own any printing presses. So what is Xlibris, exactly? “A publishing services provider,” says its website, xlibris.com.

In 2002, Murray enlisted Xlibris to help him publish his first book, The Second Coming of Ulysses. This spring, he used Xlibris again to self-publish his second, Kr, which is short for “Karamazov Revisited.” Do you detect a theme here? Each book is “a reinvention of a classic,” Murray says — Joyce's Ulysses and Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. He began tinkering with Ulysses “as an intellectual exercise,” he says. “The most ardent of readers finds him difficult. My version is a hundred times more readable.” As for The Brothers Karamazov, Murray calls it “a powerful story poorly told. And I tell it better” — by “throwing away 19th-century wordiness,” adding visual imagery, clarifying historical allusions, and generally chopping the text in half without losing a single character or incident. “My books,” he says, “are more entertaining to a 21st-century reader.”

He's certainly entertaining himself. When he attended St. Joe's in the late 1950s, Murray “fell in love with the shape and sound of words.” But then he went to work as a labor analyst for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry, and the world's greatest literary works took a backseat to his monthly economic newsletter on Philly's labor market.

Now, though, he's a published author, even if his books do raise a key question: Who would buy this stuff? Perhaps you're thinking: nobody. But Ed Murray is thinking, There's got to be lots of people out there! That's why he plunked down $1,499 for Xlibris's Spring Marketing Package. This was on top of the $900 he paid last fall for the Professional Service package, which got him a copyright for Kr, plus 20 softcover and one hardcover copies of the book. Part of the marketing package was an Opt-in E-mail Marketing Campaign that Murray describes as “an e-mail to, like, a million people.” Another part was an Online Listing Campaign that placed ads for his book on websites such as arkansasfreeads.com and dadads.adpost.com.

It's hard to imagine anyone going to those websites and shopping for books, or for that matter going there at all. And sure enough, six months later, Xlibris's $1,499 marketing campaign for Ed Murray has resulted in Kr sales of exactly zip. Nil. Zero.

When I meet Murray for a drink, though, he is blissfully unperturbed. He shows me a copy of Kr, with its glossy beige cover bearing only those two mysterious letters and, underneath, the name “Edward J. Murray.” He says, “You can't tell that's not done by Random House, can you?” He's thrilled with the finished products: “I think I created two nice works of art. There's a satisfaction in that.”

I ask him, flat-out, how much he loves his two books.

“How much?!” he exclaims, his hands moving instinctively from his martini to his copy of Kr.

“More than a Cadillac!”

ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE was only one way to get your heart broken in book publishing. You would send your beloved manuscript to a few dozen publishing houses in New York, and they would politely reject you. Then you would send your beloved manuscript to a few dozen agents in New York, hoping they'd plead your case, and they would brutally reject you. In time, some agents began charging you to read your beloved manuscript. They would cash your check — and then they would reject you.

Your only recourse was to pony up $10,000 or so and hand your manuscript to a so-called “vanity press” like New York's Vantage Press. Then you could become an obscure author who'd paid handsomely for the privilege of holding your book in your hands. Sure, you'd prefer to have a publisher pay you, but if you had to pay the publisher, well, “You're in elite company,” whispers the Vantage Press website. Tennyson, Whitman, Twain, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot — all of them “gained renown after publishing their work at their own expense.” And it wasn't cheap; Leo Tolstoy had to shell out 4,500 rubles to print War and Peace. That was a lot of rubles in those days. Books used to be precious, which is why the “ex libris” (“from the library of”) bookplate was so popular in Tolstoy's time. You put your name in your books because you wanted them back.

But in the 1990s, new technology revolutionized the 500-year-old book-publishing industry. The Xerox Corporation came out with the DocuTech, a copier that could take an electronic file and convert it directly to print, eliminating the costly setup time for traditional offset printing presses. “Print on demand” publishing — with the ability to produce books literally one at a time — was born. It is, in a sense, a return to the medieval method, in which monks in abbeys hand-lettered books individually. If you order a copy of Kr from amazon.com, one copy of Ed Murray's book will be printed, bound, covered, and shipped to you in a couple of days. (And Ed Murray will be thrilled to death.)

Dozens of “print on demand” companies have emerged to take advantage of this revolution, including the top four: AuthorHouse of Bloomington, Indiana; iUniverse of Lincoln, Nebraska; Lulu of Morrisville, North Carolina — and Xlibris of Philadelphia. Xlibris was started by CEO John Feldcamp in a Trenton business incubator in 1997. He moved the company to Old City in 1999; the following year, he sold a big minority stake to Random House Ventures — a business unit of the venerable New York publishing house that invests in companies operating “at the intersection of publishing and technology.” Xlibris makes the most of the tie. On its website homepage, right under the name Xlibris, are the words, “a strategic partner of Random House Ventures.”

Feldcamp and his competitors are racing to accommodate a pent-up hunger. Overall, the number of new books published annually has nearly tripled in the past 20 years: 172,000 new titles and editions were issued in 2005, compared to fewer than 65,000 in 1986, according to Andrew Grabois, who keeps statistics for R.R. Bowker, the New Jersey company that issues ISBN numbers and publishes the bookstore bible Books In Print. The top four print-on-demand companies accounted for some 17,000 of those 172,000 new titles. That's nearly one-tenth of all new books in this country, put out one by one and written by people like Elmer Havens (Boondocks Venus: The Memoirs of Lori Ponsonby) and John Townsend (Seeing the World Thro' a Porthole: My Memoirs) and Joan T. Williams (Love Never Dies: Working Through Grief to Contact Your Mate Who Has Passed Over) — Xlibris authors all. “Just as Americans are listening less and talking more,” Grabois says, “they are reading less — but writing more.”

The self-publishing revolution is just one piece of a larger explosion of self-expression made possible by the digital revolution, according to David Borgenicht, the co-author of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series who runs his own (non-self-) publishing company, Quirk Books, in Old City. “It's now that much easier to do everything yourself: make a CD, put up a website, write a blog, make your own movie,” he says. “So making your own books is part of that.” Maybe the largest part: A poll conducted a few years ago reported that 81 percent of Americans think they have a book inside them — and that they should let it out.

So what's stopping you? Buy the $399 (on sale) Basic Package from Xlibris, or pay the $499 basic setup fee at Infinity, Philly's other print-on-demand publisher, and you've got your very own trade paperback, an ISBN number, and availability on amazon.com and other online bookstores. Screw the big boys in New York — you're in the game! Maybe your book will be the next Christmas Box or Chicken Soup for the Soul or The Joy of Cooking — best-sellers that were self-published before being snapped up by traditional publishing houses.

Meanwhile, the print-on-demand companies make their money on, well, everything — from editing and marketing services to markups on the printing bill and a share of royalties on any books sold.

Because print-on-demand companies reject no one, and do little to dampen the fantasy of fame, they've been criticized for preying on people's dreams. Is new Xlibris title The Daenzer Story — “a dramatic and enduring true story about life in the insurance industry” — really going to be the Next Big Thing? As Bowker's Grabois notes, “There's a difference between being published and being sold. Digital printing has democratized the creative and production process. That hasn't resulted in any of these books breaking into even moderate sales. They're not even on the shelf, much less being sold.”

They're not on the shelf because with rare exceptions, bookstores won't stock them. They tend to be overpriced — most Xlibris softcovers sell for $19.99 to $21.99 — and most print-on-demand companies won't accept returns. So yes, your print-on-demand book may be “available” in bookstores — but only if you walk up to the help desk and order it. And purchases in bookstores tend to be impulse buys. Furthermore, it's tough to get your book noticed, because most book reviewers won't touch print-on-demand books, according to Inquirer books editor Frank Wilson. It's a matter of survival. In a good week, Wilson gets editorial space to review eight to 10 new titles. But he receives up to 1,000 books a week. One thousand. Books. A week. All those books get dumped in a room next to his office; “I call it the Room of Lost Dreams,” Wilson says. Every couple of months the room gets cleaned out, the books are donated to charity, and the monument to disappointment begins anew.

Why won't reviewers review self-_published books? “The vast majority of unpublished material is terrible — it's unpublished because it's unpublishable,” says Martin Shepard, co-owner of The Permanent Press in Sag Harbor, New York, a boutique publisher that gets 6,000 submissions a year but puts out only 12 books. “But that doesn't mean there aren't good books that don't get published. The traditional publishers are looking for formulas. Their taste is up their ass. They're run by accountants and salesmen.”

Which is why the response of those heeding the print-on-demand siren song is: So what? This is America. Just give me a shot. The new cultural mantra is: Put Yourself Out There. See what happens. Isn't that what really matters? Look at that hot bitch from Laguna Beach, Kristin Cavallari, and that nice doofus with the tin ear from American Idol, William Hung. Fifteen years of reality TV have given us hordes of people who have no business being famous. But they are. So why not me?

In that sense, self-published authors are exactly like the long lines of people waiting to get into American Idol auditions. A few can really sing, and with some hurry-up voice coaching, they're ready for prime time. But most sing badly. And they don't know, or they don't care. Simon Cowell tells them they can't sing, they tell him to go screw himself. I'll be a star without you, they think. Yes, self-published authors are a lot like the audition line. Only older and grayer.

And in the end, poorer. “It's almost impossible for somebody to make money with those print-on-demand packages,” says Ron Pramschufer, a New York printing broker who caters to truly self-published authors, who bypass print-on-demand companies, order ISBN numbers from Bowker themselves, and go directly to printers for runs of 2,000 books that they sell on street corners or at speaking engagements. “If you were to sum up most self-published authors in one word, that word would be 'naïve.'”

So which is it? Does self-publishing democratize a business that has been in the thrall of snooty literary types and, more recently, the bean-counters who run the big trade houses in New York? Or does it seduce (mostly elderly) people with false promises of fortune and fame? Not even Xlibris's authors can make up their minds about that.

BACK IN THE SPRING OF 2002, Walter Bjorkman paid Xlibris $980 to print his autobiography, 75 Years an Average Guy. An Average Life. As with most self-published authors, Walt's subsequent sales were to family and friends. But last spring, four years after his book came out, Xlibris contacted Walt again, to invite him to participate in a marketing campaign. He paid his $1,499 — and like Ed Murray, he hasn't seen a single sale. “You would think there would be something from all that,” says Bjorkman, 81, on the phone from his home in Bath, Pennsylvania. “I'm not a happy camper.”

Tracey Rosengrave, senior marketing manager with Xlibris, counters that the success of the Xlibris E-mail Marketing Campaign should be gauged not by the number of books sold, but by the number of “click-throughs” — potential customers who click on the link in the e-mail to read more about the author's book at Xlibris's online bookstore. The goal, she says, is “to get your book and the name out in the online world as much as possible.” Rosengrave says authors should realize that those million e-mails “are just a hook. Our ability to sell your book for you has sort of stopped there.” Walter Bjorkman's Post Fulfillment Report in late May informed him that his million e-mails gleaned him 2,842 click-throughs. Which, as noted above, resulted in zero sales. A 2004 Wall Street Journal article gave the average per-publication sales of any given Xlibris title as 130; only 352 of the 10,269 titles the company put out from 1997 through 2004 sold more than 500 copies.

Rosengrave wouldn't talk sales numbers, but like everyone else in the print-on-demand business, she bemoans the widespread notion that a book can just magically take off. “At the end of the day,” she says, “if the author isn't actively involved in the process, I'm less confident in his success in selling the book.”

Successful self-published authors are pests: They badger independent bookstores and local libraries into allowing readings and book signings, and go at it like Amway salesmen, pitching to everyone they ever knew and selling books out of the trunks of their cars. That's how Karen Quinones Miller made it big. In 1999, the longtime Philadelphia resident self-published her first novel, Satin Doll, after 50 rejections from traditional publishers and agents. Self-publishing, she says, “is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I sold 24,000 books in eight months. I'm insane, but I did it.” Her hustle won her a $165,000 two-book deal from Simon & Schuster. (Her latest release, Satin Nights, just made the Essence best-seller list.) Because traditional publishers focus on past successes, Miller notes, new genres such as black erotica and urban fiction — the literary equivalent of gangsta rap — have emerged out of self-publishing. Their authors' motivation, she says, comes largely from “desperation to have their voices heard.”

THE XLIBRIS AUTHORS I TALKED to tended to choose the company because it's local. These days, it's about as local as Philadelphia brand cream cheese. In 2004, Publishers Weekly reported that John Feldcamp was moving Xlibris's customer-service jobs to the Philippines. “It's just too hard and too costly to staff a business like ours in downtown Philadelphia,” Feldcamp said. Subsequently he moved his U.S. office from Walnut Street to a space on the third floor of the old Scott Paper headquarters next to the airport. Today, that International Plaza office supports just 20 employees, while the Philippines operation, in Cebu City, employs some 300 people, according to Tracey Rosengrave — who is part of the Cebu City operation. Cebu City handles the lion's share of the work involved in producing Xlibris's approximately 400 titles per month. Even without the pricey promo packages, that's about $2 million in sales a year. (Xlibris grossed an estimated $9.9 million in 2006, according to OneSource Information Services.)

I spoke to Rosengrave because John Feldcamp didn't return my phone calls asking about the offshore move and the role of Random House Ventures in that decision. Random House Ventures, by the way, is one of more than 600 companies owned by Bertelsmann AG, a German global media giant.

Tom Gregory, by contrast, gave me a personal tour of Infinity Publishing, which sits on a hillside in West Conshohocken near I-76. Gregory is the sole owner of Infinity, having founded it with his son Mark in 1997, after 20 years in the printing business. When I ask him to compare his company to Xlibris, he says, “We're like night and day.”

Infinity only prints about 70 titles a month, attracting customers through ads in Writer's Digest and on the Internet. Gregory's staff of 14 does it all — editing, copy-editing, design, and printing on a Xerox DocuTech. Books with titles as diverse as The Pilates Encyclopedia, Environmental Due Diligence and A Private Diary: Our First Year in Swinging are stored at the offices, for sale on the company's Internet bookstore, buybooksontheweb.com. The retail price of a typical 280-page paperback is $15.95, significantly less than at Xlibris. Infinity has other competitive edges: It has an audio books division, it accepts returns from bookstores, it holds an annual authors conference in Valley Forge, and it pays author royalties monthly (30 percent retail, 15 percent wholesale).

Infinity authors may not be selling more books than Xlibris's, but at least they're not getting nicked as badly. The company's optional Marketing Package, priced from $125 to $470, supplies you with postcards, business cards, bookmarks and posters, plus how-to info on pushing your book at readings, trade shows, conferences and speaking engagements. No mass e-mails or faxes? “Why? So somebody can move the trash can under the fax machine every night?” Gregory asks. “That stuff doesn't work.”

LIKE HE SAID, ED MURRAY isn't disappointed with Xlibris. If he writes a third book, “I would consider their basic price,” he says. “But I wouldn't buy the marketing program again.”

That's right: Murray's muse is still visiting him. “I have the first page written,” he says. It's an adaptation of Crime and Punishment. But this one's no mere rewrite. This time, Dostoevsky's classic tale of murder and a guilty conscience will be set in Fairmount.

This go-around, perhaps he should consider the services of an independent book publicist — someone like Mary Lengle, who's done PR for Quirk, Rodale, Warner Books and McGraw-Hill. Lengle doesn't go in for mass e-mails. What matters, she says, is placement: “There are maybe 25 core media outlets that drive book sales” — The View, the three national morning TV shows, of course Oprah, and even The Montel Williams Show. Lengle's strategy is to get her authors placed in one of those core outlets, “to get that one great hit.”

It was appearances on Montel and Oprah that shot Jude Stringfellow's With a Little Faith to the top of the Xlibris online bookstore's best-seller list. With a Little Faith isn't well-written, or slick, or literary. It is, however, the inspirational story of a two-legged mutt named Faith who learns to walk upright. You can't go wrong with a book about a cute dog; ask John Grogan.

There just aren't enough canines in Joyce or Dostoevsky. Maybe Ed should try reimagining Old Yeller instead.