My parents were prolific writers, published numerous books and articles, and were leaders in the science fiction community of the 1970s and ’80s. I’m sure they would have gone the self publishing route if it had been an option.
It’s a typical morning, about 5:00 AM, in Howell, NJ, circa 1971. I’m five years old and waking up to the sound of an IBM electric typewriter humming along at 70 words per minute. I grab my pillow, head out of my room, walk down the hall to my father’s office, and lie down on the black couch. My dad stops typing to give me a good morning kiss, then goes right back to his latest project. He’s been up most of the night working, but not alone. My mother is by his side much of the time, all hours of the day and night, collaborating with him on their latest short stories, books, and material for the Science Fiction Writers Speakers Bureau.
As I recall, our house was full of books. I mean thousands of them! Wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves in every room, and they were packed. My parents, Harvey L. Bilker and Audrey L. Bilker, were not simply voracious readers, but were prolific writers and editors. My father had been published since his teenage years in The Philadelphia Inquirer. In the ’60s, my parents worked on the Random House Dictionary of the English Language as editors, and were the first to define many words: my father mentioned defining the word “psychedelic,” and my mother worked on words about the moon.
That’s just the opener for their backgrounds in writing. As a member of Actors’ Equity Association, my father worked as a script reader, and he wrote three books and had over 200 short stories and articles published in magazines and anthologies, many in collaboration with my mother and other writers. As a freelance reporter/photojournalist, my father was a contributor to The Times’ “Camera Column,” and many front page photographs were published by The New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Star Ledger, Asbury Park Press, and Tri-Town News.
And I’m still just scratching the surface of all my parents’ accomplishments in writing. They were friends with a wide circle in the science fiction community in the 70’s, including Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, and Arthur C. Clarke. Scores of well-known science fiction authors would spend days in our backyard planning events with my parents. My mother used to tell me that when I was a kid, I would wrap myself around Asimov’s leg until he would eventually shake me off.
Through my parents, I got a first-hand look into the world of traditional publishing. They loved it, though it was a lot of hard work and not as good financially as it could have been. I started to pay attention to their business a little more by the time I reached high school in 1980. They were working like crazy on books for Contemporary Books: Photojournalism: A Freelancer’s Guide, Writing Mysteries That Sell and Writing Science Fiction That Sells. They spent long days going back and forth with their editors and long nights working tirelessly on every book.
At that time, I thought we would be set financially. Three books! That’s got to make a fortune, right? That was the perspective of a 14-year-old at the time. I believe the numbers were something like an advance of $10,000 for all the books combined, which is pretty good for 1980, but I don’t believe any of those books sold through that advance. That’s what I think my parents were told. Personally, I have a feeling there were many more copies sold, I mean, these books were in every bookstore at the time. And the worst part, looking back, is that my parents didn’t even own the rights to do anything with those books after they were out of print.
Over the next 10 years, they worked on more stories and books. My father wrote quite a few fiction novels, but mostly focused on his photography. Then in the mid ‘90s he asked me to help sell his newest novels. At the time, I was an electrical engineer working at the Lakehurst Naval Base, but I acted as his contact to help get him an agent or get his work to a publisher.
Publishing had changed by this time, and it was nearly impossible to get works to major publishers. All manuscripts were returned with a legal notice that read something like, “Returned unopened” because publishers didn’t want to get sued if they happened to publish a similar book. So the only way to get through to the big houses was to get an agent, and that was equally difficult. Even with my father’s incredible background in writing, getting above the noise and slush piles of other writers was impossible.
The dawn of self publishing
While browsing the bookstore looking for information about publishing, I ran across The Self-Publishing Manual, by Dan Poynter. “Self-publishing,” I thought, “now what is this about?” My parents told me about vanity presses that took advantage of desperate writers, charging them thousands to print books that never sold and would never be reviewed or accepted by the mainstream. But after reading Poynter’s book, I knew it was the definitive DIY guide to getting your book into the hands of readers. My new plan with my father’s work was to create a publishing company and sell his books myself.
In 1995 I started Press One Publishing and decided to experiment with a simple, nonfiction work of my own about credit card debt to get started, because Poynter advised that nonfiction sells better and is a safer bet. Back then, it was very expensive to enter the self-publishing game because you had to go to press with at least 1,000 copies to make it work, and that’s a big gamble. I wish BookBaby were around in the mid-90’s, because it cost me $3,000 to go to press with my first title, Credit Card and Debt Management! Luckily for me, I followed Poynter’s advice and my book was reviewed in Booklist, and the first printing of 1,000 copies sold out to libraries quickly. To date, that book has been to press 62 times with more than 200,000 books in print today!
I ended up resigning my job as an engineer and working on writing and publishing full time. I wrote a couple more books, which also sold well, but I never got back to publishing my father’s books because he was busy helping me with mine. In fact, after about 100,000 books sold, I was contacted by The Doubleday/Broadway Publishing Group (A division of Random House). They wanted to make a deal, but we never got to a final agreement because I refused to put my earlier books out of print.
Both my parents are gone now, but their work lives on, and in late 2014, I finally got back to my father’s work and published his book, The Bitch of Broadway, which was easy to release as a Kindle book with zero risk. How I wish I could have done that back in the mid-90’s! But now I faced a new problem: getting his book promoted on book promotion sites. They rejected it because my father didn’t have other Kindle books, or any books at Amazon.com. Well, that’s because his books came out in the ‘80s and were out of print! After I explained this to one of these sites, they did allow it to run.
I did get results and reviews for The Bitch of Broadway, but fiction is a tough game, especially without a follow-up book. I still have a few more of my father’s unpublished novels, and I will get them out at some point. It’s a lot of work to go from a finished manuscript to a published book, and much harder to sell a book.
That got me thinking, “I wish I had my own book promotion site to release my future books.” And from that thought, BookLemur.com was born. It’s free to join, and boy are people joining. It’s only been one year and we already have 4,200+ Facebook followers and 10,400+ subscribers who receive our email book suggestions each day, plus almost 100 authors in our Author Spotlight Program.
I love discovering new authors and helping them promote their work. If my parents were around today, I’m sure they’d enjoy reading all the new material written by authors like you, as well as writing new stories that would sell.
- Self-publishing is not vanity publishing.
- Getting published with a major publisher is extraordinarily difficult for the first-time writer, and even if you are published by them, you will be left holding the marketing bag in the end.
- Self-publishing means you keep more money, and that means you can finance your life as a writer.
- If self-publishing were an option back in the ’70s and ’80s, my parents would have done extremely well financially. They have a catalog of books and stories and an endless stream of ideas that would have kept them writing and profiting over the years. And with the ease of getting all the publishing work done through BookBaby, and promoting each new book with a service like BookLemur, they would have been able to focus on their writing, which is all they ever really wanted to do.
Why Seth Godin Self Published
Before It Was Vanity, There Was Self Publishing
Making The Most Of Print On Demand, Part 1: Your Timeline To Maximize Book Sales
Should You Follow The Traditional Or Self Publishing Path? Numbers Point The Way
Budget Enough Time (And Patience) For Your Book Promotion