Should You Publish Your Book With a Subsidy Press?

I'm a humor writer. My work appears everywhere from The Funny Times to the New York Times. Because I work at a public library, I've published a number of essays about library life. Enough, in fact, to fill a book. Several have gone viral. I've even been on The Today Show.

So naturally, Random House and Penguin have been vying with each other for the opportunity to publish a collection. "Please let us pay you a fat advance!" their editors implore me.

In my dreams.

A collection of book-related humor by a mild-mannered librarian, does not, alas, scream "Surefire Best Seller!" Even though, over the years, I've published twelve humor collections with three different terrific small presses, and all sold well.

Several writers I know have happily embraced subsidy publishing. "You spend a little money up front," they tell me, "but you get more control over how your book turns out. And you get to keep a bigger chunk of the sales."

When I decided to follow their lead, I was faced with a staggering number of options. Did I do extensive research, then carefully consider the pros and cons of each publisher before making a well thought out decision?

Nope. I had coffee with Donna, the owner of HumorOutcasts Press, mulled it over for five minutes, and went with her.

Because? I liked her. She was enthusiastic about promoting her authors. A writer friend of mine was pleased that he'd published with her. Most important? Donna, a fellow humorist, is sharp, upbeat and clever.

Working with Donna would be fun.

It all happened quickly. I signed the contract in February. The book was published in April. Am I happy with it? I'm thrilled! Over the moon! Delighted! It's exactly what I wanted, from the book's design to the cover art (a vintage photo of 19th Century librarians actually climbing the shelves) to my hero Gina Barreca's enthusiastic "Hilarious!" on the front.

And as a control freak, getting to select the font was deeply satisfying.

So how are book sales?

In a word? Abysmal!

Two months in, I've sold fewer than 400 books.

But here's a reality check -- that's actually pretty damn good for a humor book by an unknown author published by a tiny (but determined) boutique press. According to Publishers Weekly, the average American nonfiction book sells under 250 copies per year. (And fewer than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.)

Which means? OUR BODIES: OUR SHELVES: A COLLECTION OF LIBRARY HUMOR is already above average.

Still, all of my prior books sold at least 6,000 copies. (One, Women's Glib: A Collection of Women's Humor, sold 20,000!)

Donna and I do whatever we can to boost sales. We send out review copies. We line up interviews. We tirelessly spread the word via social media.

And how effective is all this? Every time something good happens -- I get a dazzling review on the Huffington Post. ("Screamingly funny!") or am interviewed on local cable TV -- I sell two more books.

Except for when I was named the Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop Humor Writer of the Month. The day that happened, I'd sold a total of 169 copies.

Afterwards?

167.

Somehow, receiving that prestigious honor made book sales go backwards.
(That's okay. I'm still thrilled to get "Erma's" blessing.)

Here's what I now know about subsidy publishing. Sales of a print-on- demand book are ALL word of mouth.

It's unlikely that you'll ever stroll into your local bookstore and see OUR BODIES, OUR SHELVES on display. And this isn't just because Amazon.com has driven them all out of business. Bookstores rarely stock print-on-demand books because, unlike a title published by a conventional press, they can't return the copies that don't sell. (Although they'll special order my book if a customer asks them to.)

Had I realized this going in, it might have given me pause. And yet? A conventional press, even a small one, would never have published this book. And, because I went with Donna, I didn't just end up with a book -- I ended up with exactly the book I wanted!

But because I went with Donna, despite our best efforts, so far almost nobody knows about it.

Is it a Catch-22 situation? You bet it is! And the humorist in me appreciates the paradox of it. But I'm not just a humorist. I'm an optimist. And so is Donna. The way she looks at it, 400 books isn't a disaster -- it's a beginning.

"We'll reach 6,000 yet!" she assures me. "You have to be patient."

With her help, I continue to get the word out. By speaking at libraries and retirement communities. By appearing at book clubs. By writing essays like this one. (And if you're one of the two people who will buy my book as a result of reading this essay -- THANKS!)

Something splendid could still happen to cause sales to skyrocket. The New York Times could decide to cover my book. Benedict Cumberbatch could Tweet about it. Maybe Savannah Guthrie has been wondering what I've been up to since we last spoke, and the Today Show will invite me onto the show again.

Bringing this book out has been a blast. I'm looking forward to publishing more books with Donna. But the one thing I know for sure, as an unknown author with a dazzling new book just published by a tiny (but plucky) local humor press?

I'd better not quit my day job.

(Roz Warren is the author of OUR BODIES, OUR SHELVES: A COLLECTION OF LIBRARY HUMOR. This essay first appeared on Zestnow.)