FEB 11, 2016. PUNTA GORDA. By Evan Williams.

Self-publishing a book used to indicate a more distinct line between good and bad, amateur and professional writing. A self-published author was less likely to be taken seriously if she didn’t make it past the vetting of a traditional publishing house. Self-publishing indicated you might be a B- or C-list writer. There is still truth to this. If your work is rejected by traditional publishing houses, it could be for commercial reasons, bad luck, bad timing or a bad agent, but could also indicate you need to improve.

At the same time, many factors have eroded the idea that self-published authors are lesser writers, less financially successful. The democratization of the arts through the Internet — anyone can be a writer, a musician, a moviemaker — and do it yourself culture created a climate where self-published authors rather than being seen as lesser have a sheen of “indie” artistic integrity.

“There used to be a little stigma with self publishing and there’s not anymore, if it’s done right,” said Judy Borich, who along with her husband, Bruce, founded Middle River Press in Oakland Park. “That’s kind of our motto, Middle River Press, ‘we do it right.’” Middle River is one of a growing number of boutique and small presses that are hybrids of traditional presses and selfpublishing. It allows authors to retain the rights and sale income while offering editing, design and marketing help to create a custom, professional product. 

An author who publishes through a boutique press also may benefit from having the imprimatur, that mark of professionalism and approval that bookstores, reviewers and customers may look for. For instance, Middle River has helped sell more than 100,000 copies of Palm Beach County attorney Harvey E. Oyer III’s series of books for children. “The Adventures of Charlie Pierce” series is a hit. 

How did he do it? Simple but not easy: a compelling storyline, careful editing and beautifully illustrated covers, Ms. Borich said. But he’s also willing to do the legwork marketing the work, crucial for any self-published author serious about selling copies.

“He works his heart and soul out selling that book,” Ms. Borich said.

Aside from authors who want to skip the marketing side, she calls poor editing and cover design “the two biggest downfalls of self publishing.”

Crucial covers

Sandman Books in Punta Gorda carries 185 plus or minus local, self-published authors. Heidi Lange, who owns and runs the store with Scott Hill, observes customers choosing books based on the cover. They can make decisions in the space of a glance about whether they want to investigate that book further and possibly purchase it. Her advice to self-published authors serious about selling books: don’t try to design the cover yourself.

“I would tell them they really need to spend more on the art and its cover,” she said. “It’s true that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but it’s all that we have. You don’t have much time to grab their attention and the cover really matters.”

Sandman offers self-published authors on consignment. They get shelf space at the front of the store for no upfront cost and no time limit. The only requirement is that they autograph the book, which helps sales. When someone buys a copy, the author keeps 60 percent of the sale and Sandman gets 40 percent. Sandman also hosts monthly open houses where writers mingle with customers.

One of the authors Sandman carries, Malcolm J. Brenner, self-published an offbeat romance novel. “Wet Goddess” is a love story between a young man and a female dolphin. With its controversial story line and intriguing cover photograph (by Mr. Brenner, who is also a photographer) it has sold consistently in the store and online, about 1,300 copies, since its first printing in January 2010.

“Self publishing is the perfect outlet for something like this,” Lange said. “It’s a one-of-a-kind. There’s nothing else like it.”

After years of looking for an agent and a small press publisher likely to be open-minded about his storyline, Mr. Brenner did the job himself. That proved to have its own struggles. He dropped one editor after he got his proof back with every single use of the word “ain’t,” which had been used in dialogue, nixed. His first printing had hundreds of typos that Mr. Brenner fixed in three subsequent printings.

“I was very embarrassed,” he said. “I don’t think there’s more than two or three left in the book at this point.” 

His latest book is a memoir, “Growing Up in the Orgone Box,” about growing up in a pseudo-scientific cult. He’s working on another novel that concerns a UFO, “The Mel-Khyor Chronicles.”

It’s the writer, not the publisher

Especially with an indie DIY ethic rising in the culture, the Big Five trade publishing houses (Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Macmillan Publishers, HarperCollins and Hachette Book Group) seem increasingly corporate and commercial. Like big movie production studios, they are more likely to bet on best-selling formulas and sequels rather than take a chance on an artistic vision. (It’s also possible to do both at the same time.)

“The trouble with the publishing industry is like all industries that I can see is they’re only interested in commercial fiction,” said Charles Sobczak, a Sanibel Island-based author, lecturer and Realtor who started self publishing his novels (and later non-fiction) in 1999 through the imprint he created for that purpose, Indigo Press. “I have zero interest in commercial publishing. I wanted to write about people, about life, and I never wanted to write a series because I always felt if you’re doing that, you’re just an employee. Seeing no other recourse, I decided to go ahead and self publish.”

Now he’s working on a novel called “Between Floors” about seven people stuck in an elevator overnight at a courthouse.

However a book comes into existence, some say, consider the art, not the publisher.

“It’s always wise not to dismiss a book because it’s been self published, so I never do,” said Naples-based author and book critic Phil Jason, who writes regular reviews of Florida authors for this newspaper. “It doesn’t take long to discover, whether a book is self published or trade published, whether it’s going to hold your attention and whether I think my readers are going to get something out of knowing about it.”

No matter what form it’s published in, making money writing books is difficult in a flooded market. Aside from a relative handful of superstar authors, it’s rare for someone to make a living let alone become wealthy writing books.

On the traditionally published side, the stars include authors like Stephen King and Donna Tartt. On the self-published side, there are success stories such as “The Martian” by Andy Weir and “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James that became huge best-sellers, were eventually picked up by traditional publishing houses and turned into slick Hollywood movies.

In the last decade self publishing exploded with print-on-demand services such as Amazon’s CreateSpace.

Discovering indie authors

With so many indie authors to choose from, how do you pick what to read?

With that in mind, and in an effort to provide a central location where readers can discover indie authors, Patti Jefferson opened P.J. Boox in South Fort Myers in April.

Authors’ work is presented more like in an art gallery than a bookstore, the covers facing the customer and surrounded by empty wall space. P.J.’s is entirely dedicated to indie, self-published and small press authors, nearly 300 of them both local and from around the world. The books are vetted for quality, taking into account the professionalism of the cover, editing, Amazon reviews and the author’s social media presence.

Her business model offers writers a consignment deal, not unlike an antique-mall model. The authors pay a small registration fee and $20 per month for four months for a space on her shelf. The author retains 100 percent of the sales.

For Fort Myers-based novelist Judy Loose (who self-publishes under the name J.C. Ferguson), making money is second to love of writing.

“My mother says I started telling stories when I started to talk,” she said. “And I started writing stories when I was very young. But then I didn’t really write except for business until I was 50. And I went to an adult education class on writing. And the whole class ended up forming a writers group.”

A fan of mysteries and thrillers, she published her first novel, “The Janus Code,” in 2013 and “Mangrove Madness” last year. Both are sold at P.J. Boox.

She had looked at traditional publishers first.

“It’s not easy,” she said. “It’s hard to get anybody to even read your book.”

A few of the publishers showed interest, but the book sat around for a few years unpublished.

“So I finally got disgusted and took ‘The Janus Code’ and published it under my maiden name because the agent didn’t want me to publish another book under the same name. Then I finally dropped the agent because she wasn’t accomplishing anything and published ‘Mangrove Madness.’” 

Ms. Loose recommends you hire an editor. “Nobody should edit their own work,” she said. “You can’t see your own errors.” 

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