For 10 years, Justin Locke of Waltham, a former Boston Pops freelance bassist, played the book-publishing lottery and lost. Hundreds of rejections from literary agents instilled a dread of getting the mail.
Then finally, a few years ago, Locke took control of his lifelong dream to write and forged a path in self-publishing that has helped him sell almost 5,000 copies of his two books - a success by any publishing standard.
“I was really despondent,’’ he said. “I really wanted the recognition and safety and loving arms of an institution.’’
In 2005, when Locke printed the first edition of “Real Men Don’t Rehearse,’’ his comedic memoir of 18 years performing with the Boston Pops, he was at the forefront of the self-publishing phenomenon that has revolutionized the industry over the past few years.
Advances in printing technology and digital distribution - thanks to e-books and reading devices such as the Kindle - have allowed enterprising authors to take control of their careers and bypass the gatekeepers of traditional publishing.
For those like Locke who strike success, the payoff can be much greater than having a major publishing house behind them. Instead of earning only 10 to 15 percent of a book’s list price for each sale - the typical arrangement with publishers - self-published authors can earn up to 70 percent of the sale price. Locke prints his books through Lightning Source in Tennessee for $4 a copy, then sells them for $14.95.
Alan Rinzler, a 46-year veteran of traditional publishing who has edited such luminaries as Toni Morrison, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Robbins, became a believer three years ago, when he started acquiring self-published books for publishing houses.
On his blog, alanrinzler.com, he expounds on the benefits of self-publishing and says that now is the best time to be a writer.
“I believe self-publishing has more potential for success if you’ve written a good book and are willing to do what’s necessary these days for any kind of publishing: to self-market in one form or another,’’ said Rinzler. “But many authors still want the prestige of a major imprint and also don’t understand how much they’d still have to do themselves.’’
With self-publishing, there is no shortcut to success, says Rinzler. A great book that resonates with readers is essential, as is savvy self-marketing, dealing with the editing and design process, and negotiating contracts with vendors - all tasks that come with the a publishing house contract.
And an abundance of charisma, which Locke possesses, doesn’t hurt, either.
Marketing for Locke started off with hauling copies of “Real Men Don’t Rehearse’’ to accompany Rotary Clubs talks.
“I got invited to literally every Rotary Club in Eastern Massachusetts,’’ he said.
He then targeted trade publications geared toward orchestral musicians, such as International Musician, The American Harp Journal, and Strings Magazine.
“I had no idea how to market it but I knew it had legs,’’ said Locke. “Orchestral musicians don’t write a lot of memoirs, much less comedic memoirs.’’
Word of Locke’s insider look at performing under legendary conductor Arthur Fiedler and anecdotes about life on stage (like performing drunk with his peers - the result of mistaking malt liquor for beer) spread, and orders started coming fast.
From his one-bedroom Waltham apartment, Locke packages his books and makes daily treks to the Post Office. Around the corner from there is Back Pages Books, an independent bookstore on Waltham’s Moody Street that Alex Green opened in 2005. For years, Locke and Green have talked shop and shared their varied experiences.
“For many people, the reason for self-publishing isn’t the same as [for] big publishers that sell books. I think Justin has set very similar standards for himself as a traditional publisher and by those standards, has had tremendous success just by loving it,’’ said Green, who credits Locke with being the most successful self-published author he has encountered. “I think that’s what really allows him to succeed.’’
Green said he gets bombarded by e-mails from self-published authors hoping to get on his bookshelves.
“I am not going to impugn their excitement, but many of the e-mails and calls I get show a real unfamiliarity for bookselling,’’ he said.
What makes Locke so successful is he understands that he is writing for an audience, not himself, and is able to couple his writing talents with marketing, said Green.
Since his Rotary Club days, Locke has appeared on WCVB-TV’s “Chronicle,’’ CBS radio, and WGBH-TV’s “Greater Boston,’’ and expanded his pursuits to include a speaking career.
A few weeks ago, he debuted on Authors@Google - sharing online company with President Obama and Salman Rushdie - to give a talk about his latest book, “Principles of Applied Stupidity,’’ which channels many of the hard lessons he has learned through failure and success in publishing.
Locke believes that real success can often be found through unconventional routes.
Rinzler disputes the perception that self-publishing is not as legitimate as the traditional route.
“After dismissing it for several years, the traditional book business has begun to take it seriously and attempt to compete,’’ said Rinzler. “Many traditional houses are also offering major deals to self-published authors with a good track record.’’
The New York Times now combines print and e-book sales on its best-seller lists, and self-published authors have made it onto the lists.
Still, Locke said he plans to go it alone, running his own website and shipping books from his Waltham apartment. He has two more books in the pipeline.
“I had this standard image that’s in all those books on how to be a writer - that you write a manuscript and you send it in to a literary agent. That was the vision . . . so I followed this procedure to the letter,’’ said Locke.
Publishing houses “are not any better than me,’’ he said. “If you see them up close, they’re struggling to sell books just like me.’’