SmashWords vs. Smashed Publishing Market
August 7, 2011 11:37 PM   Subscribe

I would like to publish a non-fiction book so weird that no agent would possibly take it. Should I self-publish?

I am writing a non-fiction overview of a certain variety of forged documents used in Japanese paranormal research. (My idea, don't steal.)

As a non-fiction cultural analysis it would best belong on a university press, but there are big impediments to this:
- I have no credentials
- I'm not in college
- I don't have the classical Japanese/classical Chinese ability to read the original texts
- I'm basing my overview (which is meant to serve as a guide for future researchers) on low-quality overviews of these documents printed in the Japanese tabloid press and on Japanese Wikipedia, which is not the quality needed for academic citation.
So, this is not an academic work.

I would happily publish this book as New Age/esoterica, but as an entirely new phenomenon to the Western world, I doubt there are many agents willing to take the risk, especially since I am an unpublished writer outside minor academic publications. Also, I live in Japan and I'm a stickler for historical detail, lacking the woo necessary to make these forgeries sound mystical.

Is there a publisher out there who will take really weird non-fiction ideas?

I have noted that most self published books are novels, and the nonfiction that is good enough to purchase has an air of "what a waste it was to self-publish this rather than finding an audience". I also note that AskMe has recommended strongly against the idea in the past. I have a perverse desire to have total control over my work, but I recognize that an editor can save a work from obscurity. Nevertheless, can I find a bigger audience for this through self-publishing?
posted by shii to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
First point: what is self-published? Novels, yes, but also a large amount of non-fiction. I've seen travel, biography, blogs-into-books, etc.

Second point: just because you're self-publishing doesn't mean your standards have to drop:
a) you can still have an editor. I've worked on quite a few self-published works (note: not touting for business; other editors are available!)
b) if you go the print route, choose lighter grade paper (more expensive to print, less expensive to post) and a matt cover (nothing says self-published like a shiny cover)

My own point: Think about self-publishing electronically only. Not so much of a financial risk. Publish to Kindle on Amazon (there are those of us who can help you) and see how it goes, then you have figures to take to a publisher.

If you want to memail me I can answer other questions you might have without looking like I'm touting for business all over the Green ... !
posted by LyzzyBee at 11:58 PM on August 7, 2011

I actually meant that I was going to publish online, directly to Amazon/SmashWords, and I am definitely open to replies like "I know an editor" or "I am an editor who can work with you for an ebook". Sorry for vagueness :)
posted by shii at 12:05 AM on August 8, 2011

You ask very good questions. "Should I self-publish?" is a difficult and complicated one to answer. But "Can I find a bigger audience for this through self-publishing?" is very easy to answer.

The answer is "No."

Why? Well, ask yourself what you'd do to get an audience if you self-published. Presumably, you'd use social networking, you'd speak to local bookstores, you'd try to get interviewed in magazines or on podcasts that would reach your target audience, etc...

If you were published by a traditional publisher, you could still do all of those things. But you'd also have access to the contacts and resources of a traditional publisher -- a sales force that could speak to bookstores far away from your home; designers who could make your book look more attractive; etc, etc.

So why would you want to self-publish? A few reasons.

• You mention you want total control over your work. With a publisher, you won't have total control. Most likely, the publisher will have final say over the cover design, for example, and your editor will probably suggest at least some changes. On the other hand, editors nowadays are usually too busy to do huge amounts of fiddling with the text; if they don't think the manuscript is pretty close to being publishable, they're unlikely to buy it in the first place. Still, the editor, publisher, designers, and sales team will become your business partners, and you will no longer be able to make all decisions by simple fiat.

• Although a traditional publisher will certainly help you sell more copies, they will also take a larger cut of the profit, so you could end up earning more money from self-publishing. In theory. In practice, traditional publishing almost always ends up being more profitable, simply because you get an upfront payment from the publisher, so even if the book tanks completely, you still walk away with something.

• A traditional publisher might not take on your book. I don't know anything about this particular market, but "forged documents in Japanese paranormal research" certainly doesn't sound like a topic of burning popular interest. Additionally, as you note, you don't have the credentials to sell this to the academic market.

All in all, my advice would be this:

1. Finish writing your book. Rewrite it until it is as good as you can possibly make it.

2. Find publishing houses who have published similar works. Query them. If an editor at one of those houses wants to buy it, arrange a phone call to chat about their vision for the work. They might have suggestions that you feel will make it better -- or they might want to take it in a direction you don't like.

3. If the feedback you get makes it clear that a traditional publishing house isn't going to take on your work (or is going to require changes you're not comfortable with)... then you can start thinking about self-publishing. But be aware that it's going to require a lot of work on your part to make a professional-looking product and then bring it to an audience.

DISCLAIMER: I have published three books through a traditional publisher, with a fourth coming out next year, so I may be biased.
posted by yankeefog at 4:05 AM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Coupla things to consider?

- This is a very,very niche audience you are looking at. You might want to start inhabiting some message boards or whatever, to see just how many people are interested in/following this particular topic.

- Frankly, the paranormal stuff doesn’t interest me, but there likely is an audience for what you have to say/add to this particular area, and self-publishing doesn’t make your take any less worthy. In fact, you might be better off self-publishing, so you can market directly to the people who are interested. You can aim your pitch straight to them, rather than it just showing up in a publisher’s catalog with a two sentence description. “Japanese, aliens, ghosts, etc.” That will show up at the bottom of the page next to a full page ad about the book they like and think they can sell shitloads of.

- Regardless of how you do it, I think you are going to need to do a better job of it. Were I an editor, and you came to me and said here’s my 80,000 word take on documents I cant read, so all my research is based on Wikipedia and internet tabloid press reports, I would steel toe you out the door in about half a second, and fire my assistant for even letting you in the building. You need to find a translator, and look into what is actually in these documents, and come up with a new perspective on it. Be prepared to discover that either these papers are just a lot of crap, or that there is a whole “HOLY SHIT” moment in there, that you will never know until you do the legwork.

- Take the basic idea you have, and go back to square one with an interpreter. Find everything else that is out there about the subject, and try to prove it right or wrong, and find the people who believe the same, and differently than you. Your idea, while only having small margins of readers, is not inherently wrong or unpublishable. But if this is something you really care about, you owe it to your potential audience, to do a much better job with it
posted by timsteil at 6:58 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you read John Crowley's Aegypt? In it, the writer of a similar-sounding book faces a similar kind of dilemma.
posted by grobstein at 7:28 AM on August 8, 2011

Fortean listserves might be a link to people interested in this type of thing.
posted by goethean at 7:40 AM on August 8, 2011

Thank you to everyone, this is really helping me shape where I want to go with this book and how I might improve it to publishable quality.
posted by shii at 10:23 PM on August 8, 2011

Hugh Ashton self-publishes on Amazon and does all right - he reaches a wide audience.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:19 PM on August 12, 2011

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