Spreading the Word

People hang on to the junkiest stuff in their garages and basements--old tools, newspapers, broken bicycles. But members of the Colorado Independent Press Association stash a far more precious cargo in the musty depths of their houses: boxes of self-published books, the finished fruits of their many-sided labors.

"I'm out there like I'm giving birth on the street," CIPA president Suzanne D'Avalon says of the day she received her first truckload of books. "Then for one week afterward, I just lay there in my bed thinking, 'Oh, my God, what am I going to do with all these books? Who will buy them?'" But with the right amount of elbow grease and promotional skill, it's not unusual for things to work out fine in the end.

Like D'Avalon, whose initial literary undertaking was a cookbook telling non-vegetarians how to feed their picky vegetarian friends, fellow cookbook author Carol Fenster was overcome with pride when she saw her first book in print. "Once you see your book on the shelves at the Tattered Cover, you've arrived," she says. "I used to go down there and just look at them."

The road to success as a self-publishing author is paved with hard work requiring a hodgepodge of skills, D'Avalon and Fenster agree. But it's worth it, they say. If you ask the right people, they'll tell you that small independent presses, defined as those starting out with a list of ten or fewer books, are the wave of the publishing future. According to the Publishers Marketing Association, a national organization for do-it-yourselfers, the little guys are gaining ground on bookstore shelves at the same time big publishing houses are scaling back their output.

Colorado is riding the crest of that wave. D'Avalon says the state places second in the nation after California in terms of the number of literary entrepreneurs it supports--CIPA claims at least 200 publishers alone among its statewide membership. To celebrate that sweet intimation of growing success, CIPA has joined the PMA in declaring March Small Press Month.

If the benchmark of the small-press industry is variety, Colorado's got it. A sampling of new titles touted by CIPA authors includes books on travel, eating disorders, breast cancer, precious metals, family history, charter schools, coffeehouses, career guidance, scissors and the Civil War. Part of the trick, the authors say, is figuring out whether or not people will buy the book in the first place.

"If they don't want it, they won't buy it. It'll sit on the shelf," Fenster warns. "It's not enough to be a labor of love if it goes nowhere.

"Invest up front in knowledge before you invest in books. If you go into it better prepared, you'll have better success. Dumb luck is great, but we don't always have that on our side."

Veteran Vivian Dubrovin started her company, Storycraft, which publishes books that teach storytelling skills to middle-school students, in 1993; she keeps a kid-oriented Web site based on the books and is also teaching a University of Northern Colorado-sponsored teacher workshop through the Internet. She credits 25 years of experience in writing for kids as the basis for her expertise.

"You wouldn't start a bakery if you'd never baked a loaf of bread," Dubrovin says. "You've got to know your market--what's going on, what the trends are."

Self-publishing authors wear every hat conceivable--from wordsmith to business manager to floor sweeper--as they slog through the complicated processes of conceiving, designing and marketing their books. Many contract out some of the work to copy editors, graphic designers and other specific consultants; most like to hook up with wholesale book distributors who help them keep product stocked on bookstore shelves. But direct marketing is the favorite tool of the savviest authors, who rely on such vehicles as speaking engagements, media appearances, newsletters, Web sites and mail-order forms.

"Bookstores are the worst place to sell books--that's the buzzword of the Nineties," D'Avalon says. "At any of the big chain stores, you go in and look around, sit down and drink coffee, spill coffee on the book, and when you're done, they send it back to the distributor, who sends it back to the publisher. The stores are basically renting the books from distributors."

Not one of the self-publishers interviewed expresses regrets about the route taken. In spite of initial overhead costs, excessive time investments and the butterflies-in-your-stomach uncertainty of sitting on your own output (there's always the chance, Fenster says, that your books will end up mildewing in the garage), a culminating sense of pride and a bigger slice of the profits both eventually come with the territory.

"If you have a dream to do something, check it out," D'Avalon urges. "It's better to say 'I checked it out' than to never know."

--Susan Froyd

Small Press Month Events. March 7: Turn Ideas Into Books: An Overview of Self-Publishing, 1 p.m., and My First Book and Beyond: Voices of Experience in Self-Publishing, 2:30 p.m., Tattered Cover LoDo, 1628 16th St., 436-1070. March 21: CIPA College: Marketing Magic: Your Key to Successful and Profitable Publishing, Radisson Graystone Castle, I-25 and 120th Ave., 1-719-550-0562.


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