By Lee Foster
I was asked recently to talk about the revolution in modern publishing at the California Writers Club in Sacramento.
As I looked out at the 40 writers/authors in the audience, I realized with new clarity that the main reality in our rapidly changing publishing world is “the gradual empowerment of writers/authors/photographers,” especially from about 2005 to the present.
With the rise of print-on-demand technology for printed books and with the prominence of inexpensive ebooks, replicated at no manufacturing cost, all the aspiring writers/authors in the audience could publish their own books. I use “books” here to suggest broadly their specialized content, whatever that might be.
Today no traditional print book publisher need be involved, unless that is advantageous, as it might be in some cases.
Moreover, almost all of the writers present were already publishing their “articles,” meaning their shorter pieces, on their own websites. Many were creating their own direct audiences, possibly using Google AdSense Ads and other strategies for revenue. Additionally, with their Social Media expertise, many of them were creating sizable audiences for their work.
They didn’t need to participate in “traditional” article publishing efforts, though they might, when advantageous.
As we conversed for about an hour, with questions asked amidst my PowerPoint comments, I learned from them as much as they learned from me. You can see the PowerPoint of our conversation here.
(Similarly, I have presented this subject at meetings of the Bay Area Travel Writers, www.BATW.org, see summary, and the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association, www.BAIPA.org, see summary. The latter talk is captured in a 45-minute video by Howard Slater, now on YouTube.)
There has been a significant timeline divide in recent publishing. From roughly 2005 to the present, we are in the modern era, with gradually improving independent publishing opportunities for writers/authors. Before that, we were in the olden times, when opportunities to publish were more restricted. I have participated in both periods.
Of course, actual changes are incremental, and I was energetic to seek them out. One early milestone, for example, was when I signed on with CompuServe in 1983 to put all my travel articles in their system in return for a 10% royalty. They collected money per hour for viewing what they called their “premium content,” which included my articles. They sent me a monthly check for the next 17 years, until 2001. However, the opportunities for many other journalists/authors participating in the new electronic and independent structures were relatively restricted until about 2005.
One of the pleasures of growing older is that I can see with more clarity the olden times vs the modern era.
For example, let’s snapshot back to 1970. I was a graduate student in literature at Stanford University. I was headed for my PhD and a college teaching career. I was guided by my faculty mentor, an author named Wallace Stegner.
I had written and photographed a literary memoir defining my experience of growing up in Minnesota, titled Minnesota Boy: Growing up in Mid-America, Mid 20th Century.
I had also written a novel about being a young civilian living in the highly stressful Vietnam protest era. The decade was influenced also by Timothy O’Leary who preached about the insights gained by taking hallucinogenic drugs. This novel was titled The Message of April Fools.
Wallace liked both the books, partly because he liked to write about landscapes and their human culture. He was also politically active, though more on the environmental front than in the anti-war and anti-military-industrial-complex world swirling around Stanford.
Wallace said to me one day, “Lee, these are good books. We’ll get them published. I will introduce you to my agent. He will make the arrangements.”
I drove down to Los Angeles, and met his agent, who arranged for the books to be published by a New York publisher. After these two books were published, I decided that I wanted to be a writer/photographer rather than teach college.
What was operative in that olden days scenario was: I needed an agent and I needed a traditional publisher, both for my books and articles.
From 1970 until about 2005, I wrote many more books, some of which can be seen today on my Amazon Author Page. The agent became less important, however, as publishers became aware of me and made direct deals. Globe Pequot, Hunter Publishing, and Presidio Press published my books on travel. Chronicle Books and Ortho Books handled my gardening books, and Sunset hired me to do books on home repair. I also published articles/photos in almost all the major travel magazines and travel newspaper sections in the US at that time.
Changes continued to occur in publishing opportunities, but few writers responded to them quickly. For example, the Internet was born as a workable reality about 1995 and I had one of the earliest viable travel content websites. It is still flourishing today, at www.fostertravel.com. Many of my colleagues at the time questioned my enthusiasm for this new kind of outlet.
The pace of change picked up, especially for independent book publishing, about 2005.
I was ready then with a new literary travel writing/photography book, which I had been thinking about for some time. The project was Travels in an American Imagination: The Spiritual Geography of Our Time. The book looked at 25 of my 100 or so worldwide destination experiences. For each place I developed an essay and a photo, which seemed to me to point out the dominant reality of our time. My thesis was: This is the most wondrous time and also the most horrific time ever to be alive. Mankind had launched a man to the moon at Canaveral in Florida and had invented the computer and the Internet. On the other hand, in minutes, a nuclear exchange could render all our efforts meaningless. And because of man’s insidious and incremental environmental destruction, such as in the rain forests around Rio in Brazil, many species were being eliminated.
I was planning to get a traditional publisher for the Travels in an American Imagination book. I had a major travel book with Globe Pequot, Northern California History Weekends: 52 Adventures in History. Lonely Planet was using a lot of my photos in their books, eventually in more than 300 titles. Countryman Press was a developing a series of travel/photo books, and eventually would ask me to do The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco and The Photographer’s Guide to Washington, D.C. in that series. So, a traditional publisher would have been possible and likely.
But in 2005 I began going to monthly meeting of a group called BAIPA (Bay Area Independent Publishers Association, www.BAIPA.org). The meetings were held in Marin County, and the guru behind them was a guy named Pete Masterson. He was a believer in self-publishing, also known as independent publishing. He was also a technical expert, who could offer book layout for offset printing. (All printing was still offset. Print-on-demand had not yet reached a reliable, commercial form.)
Pete was apostolic. He said, “Lee, you could publish this book yourself. You could do better than going with a traditional publisher. You could preserve all your rights and exploit them in the future. Good things will happen.”
Just as I went with Wallace in 1970, I went with Pete in 2005. Both were good decisions and changed my life in positive ways.
Pete designed the Travels in an American Imagination cover and laid out the book in color, and I printed 3,000 copies in China (beautifully done for only $2.31 per book). I floated the books across the ocean (at only 20 cents per book), got a rental truck for a day, and picked up my two pallets of books at the Port of Oakland. I carried them up the stairs to a closet in my condo in Berkeley. (Since then I’ve sold about 2,500 of those books and have about 500 left. I now have the book in print-on-demand in Amazon and Ingram as a black-and-white book.)
For distribution, I was able to get the book into wholesaler Baker & Taylor, which fed through Ingram to bookstores and direct to libraries. I was able to get my book into Amazon Advantage, distributing my printed book. So, I could sell books if I could create demand.
After Pete retired from BAIPA, there were people who stepped forward to lead this pioneering self-publishing group. We were indebted especially to Judy Baker (Book Marketing Mentor) and Joel Friedlander (The Book Designer).
Beyond selling physical books, I wondered if anything further would occur?
Just as Pete said, because I self-published the Travels in an American Imagination book, I retained all the rights and could exploit them or not, depending on the opportunities that arose.
Pete invited a budding entrepreneur named Mark Coker to talk at a BAIPA meeting about the rising possibilities of ebooks, a new concept then. Mark’s ebook publishing company was called Smashwords. From him I got the idea to market my book(s) as ebooks, both on Amazon and to all other outlets, mainly Apple and Barnes & Noble. I distributed my ebooks through Mark’s Smashwords company or through a competitor, BookBaby.
I wanted good things to happen for this book and more of my books coming up.
In BAIPA, I met an audiobook producer, Becky Parker Geist. She developed the Travels in an American Imagination book as an audiobook.
A further good thing happened to this book. A competent 30-year-old Chinese woman named Runa Jiang came to San Francisco to meet me. She had a publishing company in China named Fiberead. The name of her company intrigued me. She explained her progressive vision, a belief that fiber optics would eventually make all knowledge instantly and freely readable around the world.
Runa wanted to license my literary book Travels in an American Imagination: The Spiritual Geography of Our Time and my detailed travel guidebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options to develop them as ebooks in Chinese. She would do all the work, arrange the translator, get the ebook set up, and pay me 30% of her profit. Because I was in total control of these books, I was able to do a deal. She has now had some sales of both ebooks for each month for the past two years.
As a self-publisher I proceeded with Pete Masterson’s original vision and did further books. Today I have five books that are independently published and I am working on the sixth.
The five are:
Travels in an American Imagination: The Spiritual Geography of Our Time
Northern California Travel: The Best Options
Minnesota Boy: Growing Up in Mid-America, Mid 20th Century (I took this over from the original publisher)
An Author’s Perspective on Independent Publishing: Why Self-Publishing May Be Your Best Option (my accumulated guidance for other writers on the entire self-publishing process)
SF Travel & Photo Guide: The Top 100 Travel Experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area (my latest project, an ebook only)
I am now working on my sixth self-published project.
However, this passion for independent publishing didn’t prevent me from participating in traditional publishing of books also. I recently wrote/photographed a portion of a big book for the leading travel book publisher of our time, Dorling Kindersley, for their Eyewitness Guide Series. That title is Back Roads California. They came to me and said, “Lee, we want to do a comprehensive travel guidebook on California, and we want you to write/photograph a third of it, and we’ll pay you $15k with a work-for-hire contract.” So, I did this, and they invested maybe $200k into this beautiful book, for the content, design, printing, and marketing. They declared me an Author of Record, greatly benefitting me long term on Amazon.
Moreover, though I publish one article a week independently on my website blog at www.fostertravel.com, that doesn’t prevent me from also publishing articles traditionally. One of the leading traditional publishers in my travel journalism field is the AAA NorCal publication, Via. They have 6.5 million members of their regional AAA club. On 4-15-18 they published my article/photo project 7 Best Photo Ops in the West in their blog.
“Empowerment” suggests choice, meaning “both” rather than “either/or” in modern publishing. The modern writer/author can consider both self-publishing and traditional publishing, moving between the two, doing whatever is most advantageous.
So, as I looked out at the 40 or so writers/authors at my Sacramento talk, I was thankful that my message could be:
You can publish today, both your books and articles. No one can prevent you from being published, both your books as print books and ebooks and your shorter pieces as articles on your website/blog. You may also cultivate publishing with traditional publishers. Your commercial success is not assured. But your opportunity to create and publish is assured. The gradual empowerment of the modern writer/author has been achieved.