Elton B. Klibanoff graduated from Brown University with distinction in history and earned a J.D. at Harvard Law. Upon leaving full-time legal work, he returned to his passion, history, and wrote the book he had long envisioned—For the Survival of Liberty: Great Presidential Decisions, which Klibanoff self-published through Dog Ear Publishing in November of last year. The book receives a starred review in this edition of PW Select, with our reviewer calling Klibanoff’s history a “richly detailed blueprint for American liberty.” We talked with Klibanoff about his decision to self-publish and the unique challenges facing historians who decide to go the DIY route.
PW Select gets a lot of fiction and memoirs, but fewer historical works. How is self-publishing different for someone writing history?
I assumed that I would be the only source of quality control, so critical to authoritative, well-researched, readable history. My reputation was at stake and I needed to ensure accuracy and thoroughness in the use of primary and secondary sources, in the securing of permissions, and in the preparation of footnotes and indexes. This is a different kind of responsibility than that faced by the writer of a novel or memoir.
Why was self-publishing right for you?
My book was ready for publication at a time when the commercial publishing industry was under competitive stress and economic pressure. Therefore, the market for a book written by a relatively unknown writer was difficult at best.
Prior to self-publication, did you try selling your book to publishing houses? Did you have a literary agent?
The search for an agent and a traditional publishing house was time-consuming and unsatisfying, although the reaction to the quality of the manuscript by those who read it was uniformly positive.
Once you decided to self-publish, what was the process like? What company did you work with?
I did a great deal of research. When I narrowed the search to two companies, I conducted my own “competition,” comparing answers to similar questions, examining samples of their work, and interviewing employees with varying responsibilities in the process. I chose Dog Ear Publishing because of their devotion to an author’s objectives, the intelligence and cooperativeness of their personnel, and the fairness of their policies. My self-publishing process with Dog Ear was very interactive, by e-mail and telephone. The publisher provided design, production, and marketing services of various kinds. I did not choose to take advantage of copyediting; rather, I hired a word-processing expert to put the manuscript file in the shape I wanted it and to assist in final proofreading.
What were the biggest challenges with self-publishing?
Two main challenges required flexibility and creative thinking. My first concern was the appearance of the book—especially font type and size, margins, headings, endnotes, and placement of photographs. Some of these would affect the length of the book and thus the production cost. Dog Ear was able to adjust various elements to reach an optimal arrangement. Second, I wanted a dynamic cover design that was both consistent with the theme of the book and meaningful to me. The publisher went beyond standard formats to develop a cover with the Concord Minuteman statute (from my hometown of 25 years) superimposed on the White House. I thought it looked great and met all my objectives. People viewing it seem to agree.
Looking back on your own experience, what are the pros and cons of self-publishing?
I have some insight here, since I had published a book in 1973 through Little, Brown about the adoption of children. I was surprised at the advantages to self-publishing: an author can take as much control as he or she wants; the time from completion of the manuscript to publication is relatively short; and the process can be rewarding and even fun. The disadvantages depend very much on the personality and goals of the author—who must accept heavy responsibility for the quality of the final product. Some welcome that, others do not. And, of course, there is no financial advance, and the out-of-pocket costs can run into the thousands of dollars.
What are you working on now?
For the Survival of Liberty deals with decisions made by six presidents, from Washington to Franklin Roosevelt. I have now begun working on a book that focuses on equally important decisions made by presidents during my lifetime.