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Literature

'Professional self-publishing' no longer oxymoron

Self-publishing is becoming much more than a way to see your name in print. Some German authors are selling so many books themselves that publishing houses are taking the DIY method seriously.

Authors who don't wait to be discovered but opt for the self-publishing route have been around since the invention of the book. But it's only been more recently that self-publishing has become dirt cheap. It just takes a few mouse clicks to create an e-book. And a few more clicks for an on-demand print version.

With sundry wanna-be writers churning out their metaphors for the general public, it certainly doesn't mean that the world is graced with a growing wealth of high-class literature. Nevertheless, the quality of self-published books in German is improving - along with the sales figures.

"There are more and more authors who know exactly how to write and for whom, and how to network themselves," commented Wolfgang Tischer from the literary forum literaturecafe.de. 

Thanks to the e-book

One of these authors is Ina Körner, who started off wanting to take a more traditional route. In early 2009, she had an idea for a story, wrote it, and sent the manuscript to a number of different publishing houses. The result was sobering: For a long time, she didn't receive any response at all. Then the rejections started coming in.

Ina Körner receiving the autoren@leipzig Award 2013 at the Leipzig Book Fair

Ina Körner won a self-publishing award at the Leipzig Book Fair

Her book, titled "MondLichtSaga" (MoonLightSaga), was intended to be part one of a fantasy-romance trilogy. When it didn't work out, Körner put the project on the back burner and went back to everyday life: her family and her own recording studio.

Then in mid-2011, Körner learned about the possibility of self-publishing books on Amazon. She designed a book cover together with her brother-in-law and uploaded her manuscript.

"After 14 days, I'd sold 45 books, and I was really proud of that," Körner told DW. The real boost came ahead of Christmas 2011, when she sold 1,500 copies.

"That was quite a lot for that time. Then I started appearing in the important book listings, which made it easier to be found," remembered the author.

Motivated by her unexpected success, Körner - using the pseudonym Mara Woolf - wrote the second and third parts of the trilogy. They went over so well that she ultimately decided to give up her recording studio and write full time.

Retaining freedom

Ina Körner's story is one with a happy end. And it's proof that success for self-publishers is possible. And more and more publishing houses have approached her since her self-publishing success. "First, the foreign publishers came, asking for the French, English or Korean rights to the books," she said.

Then she received the autoren@leipzig award for self-publishers at this year's Leipzig Book Fair. And now she is also getting called by German publishing houses that are interested in her upcoming projects.

But Körner is cautious about getting involved with a publishing house. "The conditions have to be right," she said. "I don't really want to give up my self-publishing status, but it allows me to decide everything myself. On the other hand, it doesn't get my books into the bookstores."

Seeing her works, printed on real paper, on bookstore shelves would be rewarding, but not a must. Right now she prefers to retain the rights to the e-book herself - for future projects as well.

"The authors' expectations of the publishing house are higher," commented Ina Fuchshuber from the publishing group Droemer und Knaur. She heads neobooks, a self-publishing platform that the company founded three years ago. As with other self-publishing portals, anyone can upload their text on neobooks, and the publishing house takes a cut of the sales.

Screenshot of neobooks

Publishing houses are taking advantage of self-publishing with initiatives like neobooks

More important, however, is that Droemer und Knaur uses the platform as a kind of talent filter. "We now have more than 50 authors that we've gotten on board via neobooks," said Fuchshuber.

Here, too, the readers have their say. With some 17,000 texts on the site, the editors only bother taking a closer look at those that have gotten positive ratings from the readers. 

Dream of discovery

Despite the possibilities that self-publishing presents, many authors still prefer traditional publishing houses. It often depends on the genre of the work. Self-publishing is particularly effective for fantasy, mystery and light fiction.

For the students at the German Creative Writing Program Leipzig (Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig), getting signed by a prominent publishing house is still a life dream, said director Claudius Niessen. "Those are the classic young fiction authors who obviously all want a publisher."

In addition to services like editing and marketing, many publishing houses also offer a certain degree of credibility - which can't necessarily be measured in sales figures.

"If you look in the big book stores, how many kilometers of shelf space are dedicated to fiction, to good literature? It's a very small section - financially, as well. And it's always been like that," said Niessen.

The Leipzig writing program makes it clear to the students from the very beginning that they can't necessarily expect to be able to make a living from their writing. There are always a few who manage that, but most have to look for alternatives to stay afloat.

"It's always a question of how much you earn," added Niessen. "It's clear that nobody gets rich. Or at least very few."

Showing presence

With or without a traditional publisher, authors these days have to play a big role in marketing their works via Facebook and Twitter or on their blogs or homepages.

"Most publishing houses don't have the capacity to invest equally in all of their authors," said Bruno Back from the Academy for Authors in Berlin. For that reason, the authors have to boost their own presence - less in the form of advertising, says Back, and more in the form of exchange with readers.

Ina Körner has had a positive experience with that approach. She regularly communicates with her readers on her blog and shows an interest in their comments. She solicited their help, for example, in finding names for her protagonists. She's even had particularly faithful readers review unfinished test copies.

Körner doesn't want to give up this kind of reader contact - even if she does decide to sign on with a publishing house one day.

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