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Through self-publishing, local authors take control of their literary fate

Elodie Nowodazkij, of Glen Burnie, has self-published five books in two years. She is on a sofa in her family room where she does most of her writing. Peter, her cat, is in the background.
Elodie Nowodazkij, of Glen Burnie, has self-published five books in two years. She is on a sofa in her family room where she does most of her writing. Peter, her cat, is in the background. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Traveling from her home in Mainz, Germany, to work in Frankfurt meant a two-hour train commute for multilingual writer Elodie Nowodazkij. But the 34-year-old used her time wisely, typing page upon page about young adults falling in and out of love and finding themselves in the process.

Her work resulted in more than 200 pages that she'd later try to publish, submitting the work to more than 30 agents in 2013, only to wait months before receiving stacks of "kind" rejection letters. That's when Nowodazkij decided to take matters into her own hands.

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"I decided to choose my own magic and publish my book," said Nowodazkij, who self-published her first romance novel "One, Two, Three" in 2014. Since then, Nowodazkij, now a Glen Burnie resident, has published four more romance novels using Amazon's CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing, which produce both e-books and physical copies, nearly all of them translated into at least two languages.

Elodie Nowodazkij, 34, of Glen Burnie, has self-published five books in two years.
Elodie Nowodazkij, 34, of Glen Burnie, has self-published five books in two years. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Her latest, "Love in B Minor," was released March 15 and sold 220 copies in the first month. The French translation has sold more than 750 copies — the most she has ever sold in a month.

More writers are ditching the idea of working with big publishing houses and opting for the self-publishing route in a bid for more creative control and flexibility when it comes to the publishing process and their book's fate and design.

But despite being able to create their own schedules, where and how a book will be published, and deciding on a book cover look, self-publishing isn't easy. Editors, copy editors and, in most cases, graphic designers must be hired to make sure the book is publication-ready. Marketing begins before the book is released, and the books don't always, or in some cases ever, make a profit.

Still, according to the most recent figures — a 2014 report from Bowker, the official International Standard Book Number agency for the United States — more than 480,000 books were self-published in 2013, a 17 percent increase over the previous year. And Penny C. Sansevieri, the CEO of book promotion company Author Marketing Experts Inc., said the trend is only growing.

"There's a lot more opportunity in independent publishing," said Sansevieri, also a 16-time self-published author. "That's why you're seeing these numbers rising so much."

With publications services like CreateSpace, Lulu Enterprises Inc. and Smashwords — the top three producers of self-published books and e-books, according to Bowker — self-publishing is getting easier.

"It's a growing phenomenon, and it's a maturing phenomenon," said Beat Barblan of Bowker. "There's a better understanding on the part of authors that just because you decide to self-publish, it doesn't mean all of those things that publishers do go away. It's not just a matter of writing and shipping it out."

Authors looking to publish their own book must hire their own editors and copy editors to revise and refine their work, a graphic designer to create the book's cover and a person to format the book for its print and digital forms, Nowodazkij said. Lastly, they must find a place to print or publish their book.

"For people, and those folks who sort of consider themselves savvy self-publishers, you can also create relationships with bookstores, distributors and airport stores, but it's all about: 'Do you want to and do you have time, or do you want to hire someone to do it for you?'" Sansevieri said.

For independent urban fiction author Vince Smith, 41, of Gwynn Oak, who goes by the pen name Vince D'Writer, it was one bad experience with a publishing company that led him to self-publish.

"They told me lies in reference to the support that they would give … and giving me the necessities I needed to make the project a success," Smith said.

He began to publish his own books soon after, hiring editors and a graphic designer to design his book covers. He printed his books through 48 Hour Press and used Kindle Direct Publishing to sell e-book version and the CreateSpace platform for people interested in ordering paperback versions of his book.

"The process can be stretched out by months if you attempt to go through a publishing company," Smith said.

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Eighteen months is the typical amount of time a publisher takes to release a book after receiving the final manuscript, Sansevieri said, which can be inconvenient for people publishing time-sensitive information. But now, Smith sets his own timetable.

Vince Smith, who writes under the pen name, Vince D'Writer, is a self-published author. He has published 6 books, one of which was published by a traditional publication.
Vince Smith, who writes under the pen name, Vince D'Writer, is a self-published author. He has published 6 books, one of which was published by a traditional publication. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

He wrote his three-part e-book series "Do As I Say," about a man who falls victim to domestic abuse, in a year and released the series over an 18-month span, selling around 15,000 copies via Kindle. His latest book, "The Cheating Games," a story about three characters who have bouts of infidelity, sold 1,000 copies in its first week after being published online April 8, he said. The print version will be available June 3.

The success of a self-published book, as with any book, can vary depending on any number of factors, including timing, topic and genre, Sansevieri said.

"Fiction is still king of [digital and self-] publishing ... Romance is still one of the big ones. It probably accounts for close to half," Barblan said.

Self-published romance novelist Patty Sroka, 52, of Woodbine, who goes by the pen name P.J. O'Dwyer, said she had always wanted to be an author but wasn't sure how to pursue it, and she found the search for a publisher frustrating.

"You're kind of left out there thinking, 'Are they interested or are they not?' It was the not knowing that was driving me crazy," said Sroka. "I knew that if I want to control my own destiny, then it's going to be up to me."

She decided to use CreateSpace, which enables authors to sell their books in e-book form and to order physical copies of their books to sell on their own. Sroka, who has been writing for eight years, published her first book in 2012, releasing her romance-suspense series "The Fallon Sisters Trilogy." Her fifth book, "Linger" is set for a May 15 release.

Sroka has gone on to use her experiences in self-publishing to teach courses at Howard Community College. At the University of Baltimore's creative writing and publishing master's program, learning the ins and outs of self-publishing is a crucial tool for writers, said Kendra Kopelke, associate professor at the university's Klein Family School of Communications Design.

"The whole process, from the first word you put on the page … it's all creative. Every moment of it requires something of your imagination. None of it is prescribed," said Kopelke, who is also a publisher of Passager Books, a small press for writers over 50. "We believe that by making the book yourself, you learn a lot about who you are as a writer. It sharpens you. It teaches you a lot."

Most writers are shocked to learn that marketing and public relations are essential parts of self-publishing, according to public relations consultant Cherrie Woods.

Woods, a self-published poet and author of "Where Do I Start? 10 PR Questions and Answers to Guide Self-Published Authors," represents self-published authors and hosts workshops (some free, some at a cost) in the Baltimore and Washington areas on public relations for independent authors. She advises them on how to increase sales, suggesting social media tactics, like using social networks that are popular with the book's readership, and acquiring testimonials and reviews from noteworthy people before a book's release to build credibility.

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"With a lot of self-published authors … there is an 'American Idol' expectation across the board. There's this idea of instant gratification," Woods said, noting that only a small percentage of independently published books become best-sellers.

"I say to clients, 'Think of the self-published book as a business. Give it three to five years,'" she said. "Successful authors, they've been doing this a really long time."

With plans to publish at least three books over the course of the next two years, Nowodazkij wants to build her book sales by releasing more books in a shorter time frame, a tactic that Woods and Sansevieri say can help.

"These readers like consistency. ... It's fine to have one book, but unless you really want to write one book, like a memoir, you need to start thinking about multiple book titles," Sansevieri said.

Aside from the amount of time that goes into writing and marketing the book, the cost — which is normally covered in full by a publishing house — can be daunting.

Self-publishing a book can cost upward of $2,000 without printing costs, Woods said. Prices vary, but the editor alone can cost anywhere from $300 to $350, depending on the number of pages. (Sroka said she pays $1,000 for hers.) Graphic designers can cost between $350 to $450, and then there's the formatting of the book's text, headers and titles to fit both print and e-book editions, which can cost around $250. There's also $120 for the International Standard Book Number and $40 for the copyright, according to Woods.

Nowodazkij, who typically spends around $3,000 to self-publish each book (she spends $550 for a translator alone), has learned how to cut costs by learning to format her book and design the covers using Adobe Photoshop.

"I save a lot of money, and I also enjoy the process of creating my own covers. It's a win-win for me," she said.

Woods said there are other options. Vanity presses, which work much like publishing houses but without a stringent vetting process, will publish books for anyone, typically costing $2,000 or more, but many people complain that royalties for authors are usually low and there is minimal promotion, Woods said.

The profit on self-published books is also not likely enough to immediately make a living, Nowodazkij said.

On Amazon, authors who list their book's price for under $2.99 or greater than $9.99 get 35 percent of the royalties, while authors who price their books between $2.99 and $9.99 get 70 percent of the royalties. Other conditions, such as the number of megabytes for a digital book, can factor into pricing. For CreateSpace, the royalties vary depending on list price and the number of chosen distributors.

"It's tough. Don't expect to get rich. Expect to work really hard. If you love writing, and it's your passion, you're going to do it, no matter what," Sroka said.

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