In the last few days, I’ve had many people ask me about the publishing business – how does one get started, how hard is it, how lucrative is it, etc. This is a short primer on how it works.
Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing
The primary difference between a traditional publisher and a self-publisher is who supplies the money to print and market the books. With a traditional publisher, the author sells them the sole right to reproduce and sell a book in exchange for a royalty (typically 10-12%) from book sales. A well-known author might get an advance, but most first-time authors don’t.
While every publishing house has staff cover design and typeset teams, it is the very rare publishing house that runs its own printing press. Ironically, most of the publishing houses today do only book layout. They don’t consider the actual book production a core part of the business, so they contract that work out to the cheapest printer they can find. Book publishers are, then, essentially glorified distributors, i.e., they are warehouses with good to great marketing departments and good to great layout design teams.
Few authors know or care much about layout design or marketing, so this works well if you happen to be in that group and are happy with 10% of the sale.
But what if you prefer to do it on your own?
As I’ve noted earlier, most people see the self-published author as an egocentric incompetent. After all, if such an author were good, he would have been accepted by someone’s marketing department, that is, he would have a publishing-house patron. Since he doesn’t have a patron, he must be lousy. QED.
I could go through a list of excellent best-selling books that were self-published, or list recent best-selling books that were execrable, but there’s little point. Egocentric incompetence is rife in every industry, whether you are paying for someone else’s version or just doing it yourself, so it hardly matters if the charge is true or not. From the author’s perspective, there is only one question: which will bring more income?
When you sign away your manuscript to a publisher, depending on the contract, you lose most to all control over it for a set period of time. Even assuming they make no serious changes, your book will not see the light of day for at least a year after begin accepted. It takes that long for the marketing department and the layout team to agree on a cover design and a marketing plan.
But, going with a publishing house means you have a lot of marketing muscle behind you.
You see, every publishing house rejects 95% of the manuscripts it gets. Of the five percent it publishes, it doesn’t have the money to market each one equally well. So, it picks whichever one it thinks is most likely to succeed and pushes that one hard. The rest don’t get much attention. If you don’t like the odds, this is how you self-publish.
Business and Book Layout
- Go to your local courthouse and register as a business, either sole proprietor or corporation, as you desire.
- Buy a block of ISBN numbers from Bowker. A book without an ISBN number will not be carried in most bookstores, and bookstore sales will account for roughly 80-95% of total sales for any book. They are sold in blocks of ten for about $300, more for larger blocks. There are no smaller blocks.
- Assign your book an ISBN number off the list you bought and get an EAN bar-code for your book. Don’t buy the barcode from Bowker. They are hideously expensive. Note – don’t use the UPC bar-code. Books have their own bar-code system. The bar codes can be purchased very inexpensively ($10 each) from places like Bar Code Graphics. Make sure your bar code includes the retail price of the book. Many bookstore chains won’t carry a book that doesn’t have the ISBN on the bottom back cover with the price included in the bar code.
- Five years ago, professional book printers would only accept files in Quark or Pagemaker. Things change. Today, Quark and Indesign CS 2 (Pagemaker’s successor) are both still desirable for the cover, but Acrobat PDFs are generally used for text. The files are smaller and cleaner to work with. This means if you have access to a program that generates a PDF from your Microsoft Word document, you don’t have to buy an expensive layout program for your text. Indeed, some printers will even accept PDF files for your cover. Even better, some websites generate free PDF files for you, given a Word document. So, actually formatting the documents for the printer can be quite inexpensive, if you want to cut costs and can find a good, free PDF website.
- If you want to use a desktop publishing program, I strongly recommend InDesign CS 2. It is incredibly powerful and relatively inexpensive, and will run rings around anything you can do in Word. Don’t buy it new. Go to Ebay, buy an old version of Indesign or Pagemaker, then buy the upgrades to get the latest version. Software upgrades are always cheaper than new. That will cut your software cost in half, at least.
- There are lots of tricks to cover design, and I won’t go into them here, but the cover sells the book. It needs to be loud and splashy, with a LARGE title. Walmart won’t carry a book unless the title can be easily read from at least ten feet away. They probably won’t carry the book in any case, but at least give yourself a fighting chance. Also, don’t use Times as the typeface on your cover – use something at least a little unusual.
- To figure out where to place things, how the title and copyright page should look, etc., just look at the books you already have and copy them. No need to re-invent the wheel.
- Price several printers and make them compete for the price. They will bid against each other. The price of the book depends on many factors; most of it is bound up in page count. Having a full-color cover is not really any more expensive than having a single-color cover – it adds only a few cents to the cost of the book, and repays itself many times over in sales value.
You have two choices: print-on-demand (POD) or traditional printer.
The advantages of POD:
- Relatively inexpensive start-up cost: Setting up a book at Lightning Source costs on the order of $200 to $300. With a traditional print run, you will spend at least two to three thousand on book production.
- No inventory. With POD, you order only as many books as you think you can afford to buy or can sell – a couple dozen is a perfectly reasonable POD run. Thus, with POD, if your book turns out to be a clunker, you don’t have a garage-full of books to get rid of. And I do mean a garage full. Even a short book – 100 pages – in a 5000-book run will use 40 boxes measuring 12x18x8, each weighing 36 pounds. If you print with a traditional printer, you better have somewhere to store the boxes. And your street had better be able to handle a semi-trailer, because that’s how they arrive. Either that, or you meet them in the local Walmart parking lot with a U-Haul…
- Some PODs hook directly into distribution channels. Lightning Source, for instance, is one of the cheapest PODs out there. Since LS is a division of Ingram, every book you publish with them automatically goes into Ingram’s catalog, which is one of the largest book catalogues in America. Having Ingram as a distributor is no small thing, and is tough for a small publisher to do any other way.
- There are a lot of POD printers who offer more services than LS. Authorhouse, Lulu.com, and literally dozens of others will take care of cover design and certain aspects of marketing for you. I've never used these so I've no comment on them. There are a lot of horror stories, so buyer beware.
The advantages of a traditional printer:
- While the setup and up-front cost is high (and no, they won’t give you credit if you are printing with them the first time – it’s half up-front, the rest on the counter in order to release the book for delivery), the per-cost book is quite low. A book that might cost two dollars each to print through a traditional printer will cost well over five dollars per book through Lightning Source, and Lightning Source is pretty inexpensive as POD goes.
- Since a bookstore needs a minimum 40% discount off the retail price, it is nearly impossible to get a book into a bookstore except through a traditional print run or through a POD that hooks into a major distribution channel as part of the contract. Clearly, if you are your own distributor, you maximize up-front profits. However, many bookstores won’t work with you because you aren’t a well-known distributor.
Finally, you need to get your book into bookstores. That means getting a list of every bookstore in your market niche and cold-calling, e-mailing or postcard-mailing them about your work. Call up radio stations and invite yourself on interviews. Write up news releases and send them to magazines and newspapers. Coordinate book signings at your local bookstore. Think of organizations that could use your book and pitch it to them. Give away lots of copies to decision makers.
Being a great writer is not difficult – there are a lot of great writers. There are also a lot of mediocre writers with great marketers behind them. Great marketing sells at least as many books as great writing. After all, when was the last time you bought a really lousy book and actually returned it? Most of us just sell the clunkers at garage sales.
Speaking of garage sales, most bookstores have a return policy of one year. That means they can return any unsold books to you at the end of twelve months, for credit. If you have a high return rate, this is obviously a problem. The biggest book publishers typically have a twenty percent return rate.
I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had a return rate of one-tenth of one percent. But then again, I’m just an amateur, and not really qualified to compete with the professionals. As one friend remarked, my return rate either means I am a phenomenal writer or I am seriously underselling the market. I prefer the former explanation, but, given my marketing skills (or lack therof) am willing to accept the latter.
So, there you go. You can publish a book for well under $700; around $1000 if you want to lay out the money for the publishing software.