When Jennifer Bohrnstedt read the journals of Mary Laurentine Martin, a 15-year-old schoolteacher in 1850s Wisconsin, she knew she had found a treasure. She decided to write a historical book based on Martin’s life and work. But instead of following the usual path of writing a proposal, finding an agent and trying to sell the manuscript, Bohrnstedt, 55, took a different approach—she joined the booming world of self-publishing.
A two-time author of books on the Civil War, Bohrnstedt self-published Views From My Schoolroom Window, a memoir that illuminates the history of women and public education during the 1850s and 1860s in “the wild Northwest.” Bohrnstedt, who gave up a traditional, corporate job at Hewlett-Packard to write and publish her own books, says, “I’ve never felt as focused, as productive or as inspired as I am now.”
Bohrnstedt and tens of thousands like her are behind an earthquake that’s shaking the publishing industry. For the first time ever, digital publishing, fueled mainly by individuals publishing their own books, has eclipsed the output of traditional publishing companies like Random House, Penguin and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And it’s an older crowd that’s leading the charge.
A market driver
To get a sense of how large the self-publishing market is, look at the number of books published by print-on-demand (POD), a digital technique that’s economical for small press runs. “Self-publishing is the vast majority of the POD market,” says Lorraine Shanley, CEO of Market Partners International, a publishing industry consulting group. For the first time in U.S. publishing history, the number of POD books exceeded the number of traditional books produced in 2008, according to Bowker Inc., the leading provider of global book-related data.
Last year, there were 275,232 new titles and editions by traditional publishers. But the on-demand books totaled 285,394, a 132 percent increase over 2007. It is the second consecutive year of triple-digit growth in this sector, driven by the huge rise in self-publishing, according to Bowker statistics.
Unlike traditional publishing, an author who decides to self-publish hires and pays the publishing company for a range of fee-based services that may include editing, design, marketing, advertising and public relations. The author chooses the services, retaining control of the process. In traditional publishing, a publishing house directs the process, contracting with the author for his work, usually through an agent.
Because POD is much cheaper, it has become the mainstay of people who want to publish their own books. “Self-publishing is the way to go if you’re not a big name or celebrity or have a story that can get you an agent,” says self-published author Reg Green, 80. “It’s simple, it’s much quicker, you have total control and you’re not that dependent on other people.”
The urge to publish
According to a spokesman for Author Solutions Inc., the largest self-publishing operation in the world, the mean age of its authors is 56. Writers over 50 publish books for three reasons, according to Keith Ogorek, the company’s vice president: “Discretionary time, discretionary money, something to say that’s meaningful.”
“Meaning” is what motivated Green. His son Nicholas, 7, was killed during a botched robbery in 1994 while on a family vacation in southern Italy. He and his wife, Maggie, donated Nicholas’ organs to save the lives of seven Italians, all of whom were dying from various organ failures. The organ donations caused a media stir in Italy, where the practice was not an accepted part of the culture. At the time, Italy had the lowest rate of organ donations in Europe.
“There was a tremendous upsurge of emotion when this happened, the whole of Italy seemed to want to put its arms round us,” Green says.
Since then the retired newspaper reporter and self-described “late-life father” who lives with his wife and three children near Pasadena, Calif., has dedicated his life to organ transplant advocacy. The result was a book titled The Gift That Heals.
“I have decided to try to tell the story in as many different ways as possible,” Green explains. “I contacted dozens of hospitals and organ-procurement organizations to ask them for their most memorable story in transplantation. I chose the 42 that I thought were the most poignant and the most inspiring, and those are the 42 that are in the book.”
The publicity surrounding Nicholas Green’s story seems to have already had a great impact in Italy. Organ donations there have risen to among the highest in Europe. Green and his family have been invited back to Italy several times to meet with the survivors—alive because of Nicholas’ organs—and their families, and each visit provokes a surge of media coverage. Green has completed an Italian translation of his book.
Pursuits in retirement
Not everyone has such a moving—and worldwide—story to tell.
Take Bernice and Andy Tate. When Andy, 65, an IT manager at a New York investment bank, and Bernice, 66, a nurse care manager, relocated to Bluffton, S.C., they saw that children in the rural part of the state needed reading skills. “The situation with reading was abominable,” Andy Tate says. This gave the Tates an idea.
The couple published four children’s books on their own. They drew on their own personal parenting experiences, creating stories that evolved from dramatic tales and plays with original characters that Bernice had turned into homemade puppets for their son when he was young. Intended for children ages 3 to 5, the books contain colorful illustrations that Andy drew. The books tackle subjects such as diversity, bullying, consequences (if you play with matches, you might burn yourself, for example) and magic.
The Tates hope to sell their creations to parents who are interested in reading to their children the kind of stories that will spark a lifelong love of books. “Kids need to be read to in infancy in order to be able to read at age 10,” Bernice says.
Other authors wish to pass along expertise gained from long careers. Former teacher Jerry Parks, 59, from Lexington, Ky., has self-published nine books, some inspired by 25 years in the classroom.
Parks had a difficult time gaining his certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Wanting to spare other teachers similar headaches, he wrote about his experience in So, You Want to Become a National Board Certified Teacher?
“I thought perhaps I could write a book to help other teachers go through the process,” Parks says. “I’m very happy to say that it’s been the one best-selling book on National Board certification in America.”
Big sellers are rare in the self-publishing world, and only exceptional stories will make significant money. In fact, only 9 percent of all books, regardless of the publishing method, will sell more than 1,000 copies, according to Nielsen Book Scan data for 2007.
Reg Green has broken through that 1,000-book barrier. The Gift That Heals has sold 10,000 copies. The Tates have sold 3,600 copies of the four children’s books combined. Jerry Parks says he has sold several thousand copies of the teacher certification book.
But how much money do such books make? If, for example, a book sells 1,000 copies or more and it retails for $20, total sales equal $20,000. If the author’s royalties are 20 percent, the typical amount for a self-published writer, earnings would total $4,000. After deducting the fee paid to the publishing company—anywhere from $600 to $2,000—plus any money spent on travel, marketing, advertising or publicity to sell the book, the net profit might dwindle below the royalty payments.
“Don’t expect to make millions,” Bernice Tate says. “Don’t expect to be on Oprah.”
But authors find other benefits to seeing their words in print.
“The main satisfaction comes from being forced to say as exactly as you can how you feel about something, even something quite trivial,” Green says. “It sharpens your view of life and, hopefully, allows you to experience it more fully.”
Green also has his legacy in mind. “It’s nice to leave something about what you’ve observed for others to look at whenever they want to,” he says.
For Jennifer Bohrnstedt, the intended audience for Views From My Schoolhouse Window was a single man—the main character’s granddaughter’s husband. The granddaughter, who personally gave Bohrnstedt the journals of her grandmother Mary Laurentine Martin, died before the book was published—but her widower kept after Bohrnstedt about the book.
“He was 100, then 101, and he said he’d continue to hang on until I got the book done,” she says. “Part of my joy was the satisfaction of seeing him hold the first copy.”
Bohrnstedt’s book has sold between 600 and 800 copies, but she’s not so concerned with the numbers. “It didn’t matter to me if it sold three copies,” she says of the story that gave her so much pleasure to write. “This book was a labor of love.”
Tom Lombardo is a freelance writer in Atlanta. He was the founding editor in chief of WebMD and editor of the anthology After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events.