Self-publishing grows during recession

In her 15 years as a veterinarian treating horses, Dr. Marcia Thibeault knew she had the makings for a book.

There was the time a junior high class came to visit on a day they just happened to be castrating a horse. One boy who didn't faint "was so fascinated by it that I thought he was going to fall into the incision."

And then there was the retired racehorse who dug a hole, fell into it and managed to get his head wedged in so tightly that the fire department had to be called.

"I thought at that point that I should probably start taking notes," she said. "I wasn't writing the book. The horses were, and I needed to be their secretary."

But when she inevitably wrote the tales, she found a familiar scene that flummoxes many authors: "I spent about a year trying to go through traditional publishers and couldn't even get a rejection letter."

It's an experience that has become even more frequent during the recession with publishers cutting back, less willing to take risks on unknown authors.

But it was hardly the end for Thibeault's horse tales. She self-published her work, taking pointers and tips from a number of advisers, including Lexington's Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning and its writer-in-residence, Neil Chethik.

How authors like Thibeault have been published, despite the recession, will be discussed at an event Saturday at the Center. Speaking will be Alice Pope, managing editor at Writer's Digest, which produces helpful guides for authors about contacting agents and publishers.

"There used to be a stigma about self-publishing, but now more authors are getting discovered," she said.

The costs of printing have come down significantly and certain printers specialize in just that. Chethik estimated a person could print a couple of hundred copies of a book for as little as $1,000.

And self-publishing can be just as much the author experience as those who are picked up by major publishers. Because even if you're picked up, "these days, it's really mostly up to the author to publicize the book and market it," Pope said.

"There are just not a lot that publishers are able to do with smaller staffs and smaller budgets," she said. "There have been so many layoffs at publishers over the past six months."

Thibeault has become her own marketing machine for the books that she says "celebrate the connection between the horse and the human."

She started with a budget of a thousand dollars and decided that her books — I Make Horse Calls and More Horse Calls — could best be sold at, what else, horse shows.

Ever since she picked up her order of 4,500 copies from a Nebraska printer specializing in helping authors self-publish, she's been on the road.

"I've been to the Atlantic and Pacific twice and all around the Midwest," she said, noting she bought a fuel-efficient vehicle.

The books sell for $14.95 each and have been so well-received that she just had another 3,000 printed.

She started off at BreyerFest, the annual Lexington show for model horse collectors, and sold 200.

"I'm shamelessly telling people, 'Don't lend it to your friends. Make them buy it,'" she said. "It's been about break-even and I can't complain about that."

She plans to write a third for publication in 2010 followed by a fourth in 2012.

Travel and reader interaction, like Thibeault's, have become the standard that some aspiring authors don't seem to understand, said Carnegie's Chethik, author of FatherLoss and VoiceMale.

"They think you essentially write a book and let it go out of your fingers and something happens, and the money starts coming in," he said. "That's so far from reality."

While Chethik's books were accepted by a publisher, he still roams the country for book signings and speaking engagements.

"What I've seen is the successful writers are also lovers of people," he said. "They love to talk with people and meet them, hear their stories and tell their stories."

Today's tools also include promoting yourself and your work through Web sites, blogs, and social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, Pope added.

Lexington author Steve Demaree is another who chose the self-publishing route but went decidedly more low-tech years ago in promoting his works like The Hilltop Murder Mystery.

"I went door-to-door in Wilmore for three weeks and sold 200 books," said the author of mysteries, short stories and more. "It was a very short-lived thing. I tried it in Lexington and found that in Wilmore, people said 'Hi. Come on in.' In Lexington, if they opened the door at all, it was a different response."

Demaree, like Thibeault, attends events like craft fairs and the annual Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort.

In the nine years he's been writing, the 60-year-old has published eight books and has three more finished.

"Sales have increased each year and almost doubled last year," he said, "but I'm not to the point where I make as much money compared to someone my age working at a good job for 20 to 30 years."

But for him and Thibeault, it's become the love of writing, meeting readers and being able to make their own decisions about their works.

And, as Pope says, more and more highly successful authors are following the same route.

"If people have the time and energy and some money to devote to it, they can make it work," she said. "Still, it's the exception rather than the rule, but you're seeing more ...exceptions than you did three, four or five years ago."