NZ Herald’s Michael Donaldson on self-publishing, talking to, amongst others, PressGang’s Rénee Lang


It has never been easier to get your own story into print. Michael Donaldson looks at the rise – and some of the pitfalls – of self-publishing.

The family story you’ve always meant to write, that set of poems you penned as an angst-­ridden teenager and the history of your local sports club – if you think there’s an audience waiting on your words now is the time.

Self-publishing has never been easier – or cheaper – and hundreds of us are taking the opportunity to tell stories that in the past would not have made it past a publisher’s rejection tray. Modern self-publishing – a far cry from vanity publishing – is usually about pursuing a passion a major publishing com­pany wouldn’t dare take a risk on.

For years, David Appleby ­believed there was an untold story about the New Zealand ­hockey team that won gold at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Appleby could have been in that team but pursued his accounting career rather than risk his job for what was then an amateur pursuit.

Four decades on he was able to indulge his passion, self-publishing the hugely successful Striking Gold.

“I was totally foreign to publishing but I thought there was an ­untold story about the guys and their achievement – and there was a need for a legacy document to be put in place while they were all still alive,” Appleby says.

Three years ago Appleby hired Auckland journalist Suzanne ­McFadden to write the story. The rest of the journey unfolded by chance. He bumped into Geoff Walker – former publishing ­director at Penguin – and over a coffee gleaned as much information as he could.

Walker acted as a consultant and introduced Appleby to independent publisher Mary Egan, who ­became the project director – organising the proof reading, design and the printing of the book in ­China. Peter Greenberg was hired as a distributor and Appleby picked up an independent marketing ­person to help generate publicity.

That added to the cost and even though the bulk of the 3000 print run was sold, Appleby didn’t make any money.

“I never intended it to be a ­profit-making exercise. We got good sales to a small target market – but you wouldn’t want to do it for a living. The numbers don’t stack up – but I’m really happy we’ve ­created a legacy document.

“And as [team member] Ramesh Patel said to me – if you don’t sell any books at least you’ve made 16 people happy.”

Appleby realises how lucky he is to have met ­Walker, saying if he’d known what was involved before he started he may have been put off.

That’s something Professor Grant Schofield can relate to.

Schofield, with co-authors, dietician Caryn Zinn and chef Craig Rodger, self-published his ­runaway success cookbook What the Fat?

Schofield was determined to self-publish the book – which ­espouses a high-fat, low-carbo­hydrate diet – after a negative experience with a publishing company. He and former All Blacks skipper Buck Shelford co-authored a men’s health book, Buck Up, for Penguin.

“First of all you give away all your intellectual property to the ­publisher, which seems wrong at every level, then they rely on you to promote it. And I wanted an ebook but they were against it,” Schofield lamented.

“I kept thinking, ‘I know better than this’ and then I was like, ‘Oh, get serious, these guys have been in it for years and they know best.’ But sometimes being in something for years when things change rapidly puts you in the worst possible position.”

I was totally foreign to publishing but I thought there was an ­untold story.

Schofield was spurred to do his book to sell the controversial ­science he believes in passionately.

“I’d been working in this high-fat, low-carb nutrition space and everyone was just smashing it to bits, saying, ‘It’s not right, it’s not right’ – or saying, ‘People will just eat KFC or fish’n’chips’. So I wanted to put it out there properly and I thought: ‘Why don’t we just do it ourselves?’

“People say you should plan and know all this stuff but, frankly, not knowing what you don’t know is sometimes a good thing, otherwise you wouldn’t even start. Should I have found out more before I ­started? Probably – but it might have been too scary.”

Schofield admits he and his team made errors – the ­design and ­photography could be better – and he wishes they’d taken a leaf out of ­Annabel Langbein’s recipe books.

“In terms of writing recipes ­Annabel Langbein does it ­superbly. We should have just gone to her book, looked at her templates and copied it. In hindsight not doing that is so dumb it’s unbelievable.”

They were smart enough to look on the inside cover of a Langbein book for the name of her publisher – Asia Pacific Publishing.

Despite the mistakes, the book has been a smash, selling 20,000 copies and spawning a spin-off ­ebook dedicated to a high-fat, low-carb diet for athletes.

Schofield said the main lessons he has learned are to trust your own ideas and follow what you believe.

“Regardless of any success, ­initially we wanted something we could be proud of, which drove the passion for it, thank goodness, because I think if you sat down and did a business plan you probably wouldn’t do it.”

Schofield hadn’t intended to try to sell What The Fat? in book shops but once word got around he was soon ­getting calls from Whitcoulls and Paper Plus asking to stock the book because so many people had been asking about it.

At the other end of the ­spectrum, writer Maria de Jong is lucky if her books reach more than 100 readers.

De Jong manages Life ­Stories, which specialises in ­personal ­memoirs. She writes and helps ­produce the kind of books ­publishers don’t touch. A typical book might be driven by people who want to tell their ­parents’ story.

“They think Mum and Dad have had a great life and want that ­documented. People now in their 80s have seen incredible change. I recently did a story with a man from Ellerslie who grew up there and can remember horses and carts on the street.

“I’ve also done stories on farms, which can be in families for ­generations and have all that ­history attached to them.” ­Typically, these stories are 30,000-50,000 words long – a novel might be 80,000-100,000 words – with a print run of 80 to 100. They are ­usually given as gifts or shared among ­extended family.

Occasionally one of de Jong’s stories will get picked up by a ­larger publishing company, such as Fred Graham’s Creator of Forms, Te Tohunga Auaha, which was republished by Huia and won the arts ­category section at the 2014 Maori Book awards.

De Jong does the ­research and interviews, writes the ­story, gets a colleague to design a simple cover, outsources the editing and arranges the printing in Mt Eden.

“I usually get the ­family to do the proof-reading – someone who is good at ­English and can spot ­typos. If they want a real ‘wow’ cover we can outsource it. We don’t send books to China because we’re not doing print runs over 1000.”

I recently did a story with a man from Ellerslie who grew up there and can remember horses and carts on the street.

If you are writing a book but aren’t sure how to get it ­published, there are one-stop shops like Press Gang.

Renee Lang, who is part of the Press Gang collective, is seeing first-hand the rise of self-publishing.

“Just the other day I received three quite random calls from people who had googled ‘self-publishing’ and found Press Gang. I get quite a few emails on a weekly basis but to get three calls in one day is surprising.”

Lang’s outfit offers answers for those aspiring writers “who don’t know what they don’t know. So many of them have dashed out this novel or memoir in a word document and they think it’s a matter of taking it to a printer.

“In some ways that’s fair enough if you’re doing half a dozen ­copies for the family, but there are ­printers out there who call themselves publishers and they’re offering ­so-called design and editorial ­services that I don’t think are up to scratch.

“Many individuals aren’t aware of the need for a professional edit and a proof-read.”

Lang said her business attracts a variety of people “from significant institutions through to grandma who has some money and wants to write a kids’ book”.

Children’s books and family memoirs are a popular genre but Lang warns would-be writers that “if they think they’re going to make money out of it they need to sit down and have a good talk with themselves”.

A great way to ensure you don’t lose money on your self-published work – or perhaps even make a bob – is to crowdfund the project.

By asking people to buy the book before it’s ­written you can get ­money up front and have a ­better idea of demand.

Books make up about five per cent of the projects listed on crowd-funding site PledgeMe, says chief executive Anna Guenther.

Like most projects on PledgeMe there is a roughly 50 per cent ­success rate.

“We’ve loved seeing some really niche book ideas fly, like the Super Power Baby project by Sam and ­Rachel Callander.

“They wanted to make a ­photographic book to change the language around kids with disabilities to kids with super powers. And they had over 880 supporters help them make that a reality.”

The Callanders chased $70,000 in pledges for the book but even­tually raised over $85,000.

At the other end of the scale is Jem Yoshioka, a ­Wellington illustrator who hoped to raise a modest $600 for her comic book Sunshine. She hit that mark and more, bringing in over $1800 from 50 pledgers.

Of course, if you try to crowd­fund that book of teenage poems and there’s no demand, you can ­either put it back in the bottom draw or follow the example of one of New ­Zealand’s original poets, RAK ­Mason, whose first ­publication was a hand-written, hand-bound, limited edition of three “books” ­featuring four poems.

He later self-published the ­collection, The Beggar, which sold so badly he is rumoured to have dumped hundreds of copies into the Waitemata.

Another hand-written enterprise was his Penny Broadsheet, literally a folded broadsheet piece of paper featuring five poems that he posted out to buyers.

These days, Mason would have found life much easier – he could have written his poems in a word document and uploaded it as an ­ebook on Amazon.

How much does it cost?

Small print run – about 100 books

• $1500 If you write your own words and are happy with them and want to print a simple black and white paperback book for family and friends.

• $2000 You can add colour photos in the middle.

• $5000 Write it yourself, get it professionally edited and designed.

• $10,000-$15,000 Hire a professional writer, have it edited, designed and printed.

• $20,000-$30,000 For a large-scale, hardcover, colour book.