January 26. 2018 5:48PM

Self-published: Stigma gives way to success in ebook era

Special to the Union Leader

Deidre Randall, right, of Peter E. Randall Publishers of Portsmouth, talks with with Melody Russell and her daughter, Michelle, about self-publishing options. (MELANIE PLENDA)

Ty Gagne is a risk management guy. His work hours are spent assessing the risk and insurance needs of schools, municipalities and the like.

On the side, he finds enchantment in mountaineering. Reading about it, learning about it, doing it.

In May of 2015, Gagne of Concord was preparing a presentation to a conference in the White Mountains, when he learned of Kate Matrosova. The 32-year-old mountain climber from New York froze to death during a blizzard in the White Mountains in February of 2015.

Moved by news accounts of the young woman and the extraordinary efforts that went into trying to save her over the course of two days, Gagne added Matrosova's story to his presentation.

"I thought I was only doing this once," Gagne recalled of telling Matrosova's story. "But then people were really moved and compelled with Kate's story and that of the rescuers, so I was asked to do the presentation again and again. I've been doing it since May of 2015. It hasn't really stopped."

Inevitably, he discovered, no sooner would he finish a presentation than audience members would come up and ask him the same questions.

"Is there a book about this? Is somebody writing one? And, are you writing one? And the answer was no, no and no."

Gagne had wanted to write a book since his early 20s. But a story never really came to him, so he just sort of packed that idea away. 

"That passion for writing has never left me," he said. "What I decided was that I wanted to share the story of Kate Matrosova, and what was really a story of a remarkable life cut short and the story of the men and women that tried desperately to save her over the course of two days."

Now, Gagne could have gone the route of many writers: draw up a proposal or a manuscript, search for an agent or publishing house, and wait weeks and months to learn whether the work has been accepted or rejected. But he made a conscious effort to go a different way. 

"I decided to self-publish because I was never motivated by wanting this book to be global or national or to pursue lists or to sell as many books as I possibly could,"Gagne said. "I was more focused on sharing the story and seeing where that would go."

His book, "Where You'll Find Me: Risk, Decisions and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova," was released in August. Since then, Gagne has sold 3,000 copies through more than half a dozen bookstores around the state, including Barnes and Noble in Manchester, and on Amazon.com

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Gagne is far from the only writer opting to go the self-publishing route. Where once there may have been a stigma surrounding a book that wasn't produced and polished by one of the "Big Five" publishing houses, writers today are more willing to give self-publishing a chance, and readers are as well - especially in the age of ebooks.

According to a massive 2017 study by AuthorEarnings.com that looked at 750,000 top-selling ebook titles, self-published authors are capturing between 24 and 34 percent of all ebook sales in each of the five English-language markets the study isolated.

By comparison, the study showed, the "Big Five" - Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster - now account for just shy of 26 percent of all ebook sales in the U.S.

But it wasn't always this way, said Deidre Randall, owner and CEO of Peter E. Randall Publisher, a small, independent firm in Portsmouth that works with self-published authors. 

Many years back, she said, there was an explosion of self-publishing, she says. Many of those projects - as many as 200,000 new titles per year - wound up online or in print without any sort of proofreading, editing or general guidance, leading to some pretty crummy books.

Some of that reputation, however, derived from the misconception that, "if your book is so wonderful, shouldn't someone else be paying for it?"

Locally, Randall said, she's seen established writers - those who have already had success in the field or ones who have worked in the past with trade publishers - coming into her office looking to self-publish.

In some ways this is possible because self-published authors are getting savvy to the idea of doing things such as getting endorsements, independent reviews and back-cover blurbs to help bolster the credibility of their work. 

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There are myriad reasons why people self-publish, Randall said.

"Sometimes they have a book that they just know is not going to be something that a publisher will take because it's just too narrow of a topic. Trade publishers want to sell large quantities of books. They want to sell, 10, 15, 20 thousand copies. Even a small publisher," Randall said. "... You're not always going to have a topic that's meant for that audience."

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And sometimes, the reason is because the book is just a personal project or challenge, she said. 

For example, Marjorie Burke of Weare made her decision to self- publish "Melting Ice-Shifting Sands," a memoir about her husband's battle with Alzheimer's disease, because she wanted to capture for posterity his experiences while he was able to share them, and offer them as a resource for other caregivers and families living through Alzheimer's.

In Burke's case, nursing organizations heard about her book, and have helped to promote it, resulting in a grassroots following in the Alzheimer's community. Burke reports she's already sold 500 copies of her memoir and is busy penning a sequel, due out this summer. 

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And for some authors, they simply want to be a part of each and every stage of the book.

"It was never part of my thought process to pursue and agent or publishing houses," Gagne said. "And I think part of it is because this story is really important to me. ... I didn't want to be distant from the process. And I think that the thing that was really meaningful for me from this is that I was really close to the process and ultimately closer to the book because I was working directly with the editor, the proofreader. ... I just have a real appreciation for the process and I'm really glad I went that route."

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Whatever the reason, self-publishing is not easy nor is it a get-rich-quick endeavor. There are primarily three paths writers can take when they decide to self-publish. They can do it completely on their own, using online services such as Create Space, which will allow an author to upload, format and distribute the book to online retail stores. 

An independent writer could also choose to write the book, and then hire a team that includes an editor, a proofreader, a designer (preferably one that knows about both hard copy and digital layouts and formatting), a printer and a distributor, Randall said. 

Gagne said he chose to hire his own team because he wanted to replicate the process a larger publisher would have put his book through. He wanted extra and expert eyes on his book in order to present the best possible product.

The third option available to writers is to find a small, independent press that offers all of those services. The writer basically pays up front to get the book produced using the publishing house's editors, artists, distributors and the like, but once it sells, the author keeps most or all of the proceeds.

Burke says her initial outlay was about $2,200. Gagne declined to say what he spent to get his book produced.

"I will say that when I set out to write the book I knew there were no guarantees I'd recover those costs," said Gagne. "But it was a risk I was willing to take because I felt so strongly that this story needed to be told."

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In so many ways, self-publishing is a much different beast than traditional publishing, and so it stands to reason that the metrics by which one judges the success of a self-published book is different as well. Randall said for some authors, they don't care how many books they sell, as long as they get critical acclaim through book awards and reviews, both of which are available to the self-published.

Two of the three self-published fiction titles her firm worked on in the past five years have gone on to win Best New Author from the National Ben Franklin Awards. 

"That's telling me we're getting some darn good authors in here," Randall said. "They certainly could have been trade published, and in both cases they went a different way."

That said, in order to be a successful - be it in critical acclaim or in number of books sold-self-published author, he or she has to be willing to do a lot of leg work when it comes to marketing. Some small publishers will offer this service, but many don't, meaning the author has to hustle to get the word out.