Agents, Editors, Publishers – Who Needs 'Em?
By Matthew Gurewitsch
Thomas B. Sawyer is the author of the thriller "The Sixteenth Man." He is also its publisher, because he was too impatient to wait for a creaky, old-line house to do the job. And because modern technology made it easy for an amateur to navigate the world of typesetting, printing, binding and inefficient bookstores.
Two years in the writing, "The Sixteenth Man" was Mr. Sawyer's first novel after two decades in Hollywood, where as head writer on "Murder, She Wrote" he scripted 24 episodes and plotted some 80 more, collecting a cool $5 million in the process. He turned to prose fiction for a new challenge: "If I'm sure I can do something," Mr. Sawyer says, "the charm goes away." Writing a novel was "a tightrope act." Certainly, he made it one. Archaeology, the Kennedy assassination, two apparently parallel plots that gradually converge: "The Sixteenth Man" keeps the reader turning pages, all right.
Having reached those magic words, "The End," Mr. Sawyer started picking the brains of mystery-writing friends for tips on finding a publisher. What he learned was not encouraging: "If I got an agent, and if the agent sold it, it would probably be 12 to 14 months before the book came out." After a few half-hearted attempts, he hooked up with iUniverse.com and had books in five months.
"I went for speed and greed," Mr. Sawyer says. Greed? A royalty of 25%, roughly double the industry standard.
Call Mr. Sawyer the poster boy for the brave new world of print-on-demand. As Richard Tam, founder and CEO of iUniverse.com, put the matter to Publishers Weekly last year, "The economics of the traditional book industry means that a lot of quality books can't be published. We want to help correct that." Mr. Tam's cure for the heartache of nonpublication is swift and cheap. For as little as $99, iUniverse.com will transform your manuscript into a professionally bound trade paperback. Read the fliers: "You write it. You promote it. We do everything else."
Everything else? That would include designing a cover, obtaining an ISBN (International Standard Book Number), registering your book with wholesalers and tens of thousands of online and retail booksellers, from Amazon.com on down. And there's the beauty of print-on-demand. Traditional publishers ship bound books on consignment and wind up pulping or remaindering returns by the bushel basket. In print-on-demand, sales are final.
It's true that you won't find many iUniverse.com titles on display or on shelves at bookstores, but you can order them just about anywhere and have copies in your hands within days. Of course the firm has its own online bookstore, at http://www.iuniverse.com/, with links to background on individual authors and titles. (This is the place to shop for brand-new titles. Postings at Amazon.com and other outlets lag actual publication by as much as six weeks.) As always, the principle of caveat emptor applies. Quality control is strictly in the hands of the authors, who (unless they hire extra hands and eyes) act as their own editors and proofreaders, a classic blueprint for disaster.
Welcome to the brave new world of vanity publishing.
Vanity publishing. Ugh. The term conjures up stacks of dear-bought, ugly volumes that no one wants, moldering in a disgruntled author's garage. What self-respecting writer would stoop so low?
Well, Tom Sawyer could be in worse company. William Blake published himself. So, in their time, did Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust and the poet Robinson Jeffers. But those were valiant cottage enterprises. The current trend may look like the same thing, but a closer look reveals that it is really an arm of big-time conglomerated book publishing. Barnes & Noble owns a 49% stake in iUniverse.com. Random House has a partnership with Xlibris (offering a menu of options beyond the plain vanilla of iUniverse.com, at significantly higher fees). Time Warner Books owns iPublish.com. MightyWords.com distributes "secure digital documents" under the trademarked heading of "eMatter."
Numbers, as always, have an interesting tale to tell. iUniverse reports sales of 750,000 copies of 8,500 books, which translates into 88.23 copies per title. Lynn Zingraf, general manager of author services, puts this pathetic average into perspective. "We have people who get their one free copy and they're done," he says. "They're happy. They don't buy any more copies and they don't promote their books. They're published authors. That's all they wanted." Then there's Ralph Fertig, whose "Love and Liberation: When the Jews Tore Down Ghetto Walls" made the No. 4 spot on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. The imprint's biggest success to date is Danny Goodman's technical manual, "Apple Script Handbook, 2nd Edition." Mr. Zingraf declines to release figures.
And how did Mr. Sawyer fare? Sad to report, he is not exactly snapping at Ken Follett's heels. There was a serious nibble from a pair of producers of movies for TV, but they didn't like the Kennedy angle, and then they got fired. Since January 2000, "The Sixteenth Man" has sold about 1,000 copies, mostly at writers conferences where, like the vanity author of cliché, Mr. Sawyer actually hawks (and signs) them himself. But hey. In the real world, Mr. Sawyer might still be angling for an agent. "I sit on panels at these conventions with novelists whose work I know," he marvels, "novelists with five or six well-reviewed, well-received books in print. And they have day jobs! In Hollywood, they threw money at me, and I thought that's what writing was. But in this country, unless you're one of the six authors who sell 94% of the books, you're in a world of nickels and dimes."
Maybe he'll soon be saying quarters. The current issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine calls his book "outstanding." "If many more thrillers this good appear in the books-on-demand format, the world of publishing will be turned upside down," says the reviewer, "or do I mean right side up?"
Mr. Sawyer, meanwhile, is starting his second thriller. For iUniverse? "I don't know," he admits. "Obviously, I'm hoping someone will discover me. It's the dream of every artist. That people will discover how beautiful and talented you are and carry you off on their shoulders."