Hello, I’m Nancy K. Humphreys. I’m a former librarian and back-of-the- book indexer . I hold advanced degrees in English, Economics, and Librarianship. Currently I’m a writer and a blogger for Huffington Post. This is my story about publishing and self-publishing.
As an author, my first book was on the Underground Economy. I sold it to a publisher for $300 in 1985. This book took me about two years to research and write.
Prior to this, I’d published a feature-length article, “Ethiopia: Trapped by Foreign Aid” in The Nation magazine for $50. That article took me about six months to research and write.
Shortly after I wrote that article about Ethiopia, I spent a week at a writers conference up in rustic Rhinelander Wisconsin. There an editor from a magazine like The Nation explained how they set rates for articles. As the editor, a woman about my own age spoke, my stomach began to sink. She concluded with a statement to the effect, “and of course, we always pay a lot more to any well-known person who writes for us.”
I was stunned. I had no idea they paid based on who you were instead of what you wrote. The lead author in the issue of The Nation that my story was published in was Michael Harrington, an exceedingly famous leftist pundit of the times. No wonder I got so little!
I began to understand that hard work pays off, but it may not pay well. I began to suspect that publishing was a bit like gambling. The only ones who always come out ahead are the ones who own the “house”, i.e., the publishing house.
Still, I gave it one more try. I’d promised myself I’d write at least three books, the first two as practice for a third one about Bruce Springsteen.
My second published book was on American Women’s Magazines. Twice as long as my first book, this one took five years. After it was done I stood on a friend’s rooftop at the top of Portrero Hill in San Francisco at night gazing at stars and feeling utterly empty. I wondered, what on earth I was going to do with the rest of my life? That book had been my whole life!
My boss threw me a nice book party at the Oakland Public Library. Eagerly I awaited my first royalty check. It arrived in the mail. I tore it open to find a short letter saying, “Your check for $54.15 is enclosed.” Incredulous, I shook the envelope and looked around on the floor. Had something fallen out? No, it hadn’t. There was only the letter and a check for $54.15
Envelopes from my publisher dribbled in every once in awhile. I never knew when they would arrive. I never found out how much my publisher deducted for expenses for my book either. After a year I’d barely earned more than I made on my first book!
Something was very wrong. When I went to work at my library job, I looked up which libraries were buying my book. I found that only 25 libraries had bought it. I was chagrined.
This was first book EVER on American Women’s Magazines. It was comprehensive, authoritative, well-written, in hardback, and printed on paper guaranteed to last 10 times longer than I would! Unbelievable!
Infuriated, I began my own ad campaign. I used directories in the reference room of a library where I worked to identify libraries, bookstores, womens’ centers and other places that might want a copy of my book. I created a one page flyer and sent it out.
Sure enough. Those envelopes dribbled in a bit faster. Gradually I earned more and more. By the time my book’s run was over, I’d collected around $3,000.
That amount seemed a puny recompense for five years of my life! But it was the average amount that writers of books earned back in the early 1990s. (And believe it or not, that’s still the average amount book authors earn today!)
After awhile I didn’t feel empty or ripped off anymore. I felt happy! Because I knew I was never going to publish a book again unless I published it myself! And that’s just what I did.
My third book(s) were called Brucemaps. They were self-published. They contained made-to-scale maps of Northern New Jersey, New York City and LA created by my partner, Susan Pomeroy, along with my own commentary about places Bruce Springsteen lived, worked, and played. We sold them at concerts, to music stores, and via the Web to people all over the world.
And we got rich? Right? Nope! We barely broke even on expenses for those booklets. But it sure was great fun to travel around, see where Bruce lived, worked, and played, collect the information, put the maps together, and sell copies to other fans! Our maps are still selling over a decade later.
The moral of this story? Writing is something you do while living your life. It’s got its own rewards. But wouldn’t you like to make money too? Here’s what I’ve learned. It doesn’t matter if you have a publisher or you don’t have a publisher. You’ve GOT to start marketing your book BEFORE you begin writing it, WHILE you’re writing it, and LONG AFTER it is published.
And THAT is what is what Authormaps is all about.
Nancy K. Humphreys, author of Marketing Your Book to Libraries: An Insider’s Guide for Authors and the forthcoming book, The I Ching Circles: Turning Adversity into Good Fortune