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Self-Published Jewish-Themed Books Come of Age

Wednesday, March 20, 2013 | Permalink

by Stephen Witt

In the brave new digital world of the book business, self-published authors enjoy a new clout. And every week this translates into more self-published titles appearing on best seller lists across the nation than ever before. At the same time, traditional publishers, reviewers, and bookstores that once shunned self-published titles are now embracing these changes or risk falling into antiquity.

“Certainly, the validity of publishing on your own is now unquestioned,” says Jon Fine, Amazon.com’s director (the first) of author & publisher relations. “Even traditional publishers regularly trumpet the authors they’ve discovered from the self-published ranks. And traditionally successful authors are increasingly using services like Kindle Direct Publishing, CreateSpace, and others to reach their audiences in new and creative ways. The opportunity to tell your story, to a few or to many, has never been greater."

This trend is also reflected in the growing number of Jewish writers who are bucking the traditional publishing business and self-publishing their books, including Arizona-based Linda Pressman, whose Holocaust-related tome, Looking Up: A Memoir of Sisters, Survivors and Skokie, was named the 2012 Grand Prize Winner in the 20th Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published Book Contest.

“I was previously represented by an agent who was unable to sell an earlier version of my manuscript,” said Pressman. “After our relationship ended I spent quite a while fixing the manuscript and building up my name recognition. I knew that the editors and publishing houses were being extremely cautious about what they were publishing and I felt it was unlikely that I'd be able to get a deal, having been turned down previously. Luckily, self-publishing had grown in the same time period and was a great option for me since I had built a reader base ready to read my work.”

Pressman’s reader base comes from both her humorous blog, BarMitzvahzilla, and her involvement as an editor and blogger for Poetica Magazine, a self-described vanity press that includes a print and online literary journal focusing on contemporary Jewish thought. But she also displays marketing savvy.

“I hired two publicists in the time period since my book was published. The cost makes this somewhat prohibitive. Of great help was one who helped me with book tours, local appearances, and submissions to various reviewers,” said Pressman.

“Much of my marketing was through social media that I did on my own. From finding Facebook Groups focused on topics in my book (Skokie, Survivors, Chicago, Memoir writers, etc.), to Twitter and blogging – these were all immensely helpful in marketing and promoting the book. An Amazon Author page and Looking Up Facebook page, both to post news about the book and author appearances, has also been helpful,” she added.

Pressman said the most amazing thing about self-publishing is the thing that's also the hardest: it's all up to you. There won't be a huge publishing house standing behind you, promoting your work, but you'll also have the satisfaction of knowing that any success is also your own,” she said.

“From a Jewish standpoint, I found that my work, being stereotyped as "Holocaust," did not find its place in traditional publishing but that there's actually a huge readership out there for Jewish writers and Jewish topics,” said Pressman.

Another self-published Jewish Holocaust author is Rimma Rose, a young Russian-American, whose debut novel, Cursed to Survive, has been garnering favorable reviews and is finding its own market. Rose’s take on the Holocaust is a beauty-and-beast story that reads more like a mystical mystery influenced by the Twilight series, and is, in fact, the first of a series of books featuring many of the same characters.

“I decided to self-publish my first book, because I was terrified of sending my manuscript to various places without knowing what would happen to it,” said Rose. “I read about self-publishing and it seemed easy and fast and I went for it. The biggest advantage of self-publishing is a total control I have over my work. The biggest pitfall of self-publishing is the fact that along with total control, the author is also responsible for promotions, public relations, and everything else.”

While self-published authors continue taking a greater market share this also means a reduced role in the book industry for editors, marketers, and promoters in traditional publishing houses along with their related network of agents, distributors, reviewers, and both chain and independent bookstores. Believers in this traditional model quickly point out its role as gatekeeper for readers, with the ability to curate what they see and judge as redeemable literature. They also point out some of the growing pains in self-publishing, such as the frequent lack of proper editing and professional book design.

But self-published authors counter that they enjoy a more mobile advantage and lower financial overhead than the traditional publishing model with its layers of decision makers. They are free, for example, to redesign covers and include stronger copy and story editing in subsequent editions at manageable costs. They can even utilize these improvements to re-launch their book, garnering even more promotion.

On the promotional end, self-published Jewish authors can easily find a multitude of Jewish-themed websites and blogs that cater to everything from the most observant Jews to the most secular and alternative Jewish lifestyles.

On the manufacturing side, Amazon’s CreateSpace service has been a game changer. With price ranges that fit almost every self-published author’s budget, CreateSpace will design and format both the cover and interior of the work plus carry it for distribution and sales on its website and list it on their promotional networks. They also give good discounts for author copies and a much higher royalty rate than traditional publishers through sales on Amazon.

Amazon is also a leader in e-books with its Kindle device, while other companies, such as BookBaby, convert an author’s work into other e-book formats compatible with such devices as the Nook, Sony Reader, and Kobo.

“I've found that, with the lower price of my e-book version, I sell many more of them than the hard copies per month,” said Pressman. “Due to the size of my book (348 pages) and the manufacturing costs, I can't lower the price on the physical book to encourage greater sales, but I can do so with the e-book version.”

My road to self-publishing began in 2002 when I started chatting up the African-American self-published novelists and poets who sell their books on the Fulton Mall in downtown Brooklyn. At the time I was a full-time reporter at a chain of papers in Brooklyn and every night I’d go home and squeeze out 500 words writing my first novel, American Moses. My mindset back then was I wanted a mainstream publishing deal. After hundreds of rejections a small agent finally agreed to take on American Moses and then the rejections started pouring in from publishing houses big and small.

Meanwhile, as I wrote draft after draft, the Fulton Street authors shared with me their triumphs and pitfalls to self-publishing and recommended books about it, which I read. Finally, in 2008, I decided that if these writers of contemporary urban literature were being locked out of the publishing industry for whatever reason then I was in excellent company. So I fired my agent and took the plunge by registering Never Sink Books (NSB) as my publishing business.

In 2009, I published American Moses to very good reviews, and a YouTube interview of me about the novel has over 20,000 hits and counting. American Moses has made its money back and continues to sell.

Then in 2010, I took a buyout from my job as a reporter to write my second novel, The Street Singer: A Tale of Sex, Money and Power in a Changing Brooklyn, which I self-published in September 2012. It’s a satire about a subway musician who gets involved with helping Brooklyn land a basketball team. Both the daily Metro and the Daily News wrote stories on it and the Daily News gave it an excellent review. In November, I sold the book publishing rights to Changing Lives Press.

Currently, I’m on a guerilla marketing plan in that I sell both of my novels in the subway, car-to-car. You may have even heard my pitch. “That’s right, ladies and gentleman – for ten dollars – the price of two cups of Starbucks coffee – you can enrich your mind.”

By far, the coolest thing about selling my novels in the subway is the people I meet. They include agents and readers, doers and dreamers. A number of people have given me their positive essence in the space of one subway stop in the form of words of encouragement and/or purchases of my books.

Also cool is the fact that I have two published novels on the market and I’m working on my third. As Pressman says, the bottom line is that how an author is published now means much less than what it is that the author publishes.

“I believe that, because of consumer demand, books will become lower priced, creating more of an equal playing field, and I don’t know exactly how this will look, but I know there will have to be some web-based method of finding the books, like Internet bookstore browsing, where perhaps the site owners curate the offerings (much as independent bookstores do now) and readers trust their recommendations,” she said.

Stephen Witt's Top Five "Online Resources for Writers Looking to Self-Publish" can be found here.

Stephen Witt is an award-winning journalist with two novels. This includes the self-published American Moses (2009) on his Never Sink Books imprint, and The Street Singer (2012) published by Changing Lives Press. Reach him at info@NeverSinkBooks.com.