Saturday, July 05, 2008

2006 – My Great Publishing Adventure – Part 1 of 3

Let's get right down to the cold hard truth about book publishing: someone has to buy the books.

I know. It seems awfully small-minded of those publishers to be concerned with actual sales when it comes to your book, your creation, the product of your genius and your countless hours of effort.

Now, suppose you create a niche literary masterpiece that is highly prized by, say, seventy-three people in the world, not counting your Mom and your college roommate. You still need those people to buy the book if you want to make any sales. If you don't care about sales, just give the book away. Make it into a holiday gift for everyone you know. But if you want to cover your expenses (what a radical concept!) or you want a real publisher to take an interest in your book and have them try to cover their expenses (even more radical!) then there must be not just seventy-three people, but tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people wanting to buy your book.

In 2006 I decided I was going to beat the system. I thought, why wait for some publisher to give a thumbs up or down on my book? I knew it was good. I even did some demographic research on my target audience and I was sure they were clamoring for a book just like the one I had written. I was going to make their day.

I really, really wish someone had written an article like the one I am writing now and pinned me to the ground and said "You can't get up until you read this." I spent a lot of money and a lot of time learning some hard lessons about book publishing. If you don't believe me, just ask my wife. I even quit my day job in order to become a world famous author and publisher. Rule #1 -- Don't Quit Your Day Job.

For the remainder of this essay I will describe my experiences in publishing in the form of questions and answers. These questions are typical of those that I frequently get from people who want to understand more about publishing.

Would you recommend self-publishing? The answer: it depends. It depends on the kind of book you are writing and who you are writing it for and how you plan to reach those people. In my research I found an article about a minister of a church who wrote an inspirational book that he wanted to make available to his congregation. He self-published it through a Print On Demand (POD) publisher, which means that books don't get printed until they are ordered by a customer. The minister made the book available on a website and then invited his church members to visit the website and order the book.

Sounds like POD is the perfect self-publishing solution, right? A POD solution was the right choice in the minister example above for a couple of reasons. One, he wasn't trying to make a ton of money on the book, he was only covering his expenses. Two, he figured the total number of books involved would be a couple of thousand or less. It would cost quite a bit of money up front to print that many books and sell them directly to church members at the back of the church. By using POD, he only had to put up a small amount and then, as I already pointed out, the books would be printed as they are ordered. Third, since the minister was not aiming for a nationwide audience, he wasn't worried about getting book reviews, shipping to bookstores, or any of the numerous details that are involved in selling books to the whole country. A fourth consideration, which was not in the article about the minister, but which I'm guessing is true, is that the minister was comfortable enough with computers to be able to successfully use a POD publishing solution. Either that or he got a church member to volunteer some time. My point here is that POD is, for the most part, a do-it-yourself approach and you need to be handy with computers and have access to a very good Internet connection.

Did I use POD for my book? No. After researching several POD solutions, such as iUniverse, BookSurge, AuthorHouse, LightningSource and Lulu, I decided it wasn't for me. In the next few sections I will share some general publishing issues that I considered when trying to decide what kind of self-publishing solution was right for my book.

- Large target audience. My book is a novel (a work of fiction) with a target audience in the 55 and up age range. The main character is a 58-year-old widow, and the secondary character, her romantic interest, is a widower in his early 60s. I wanted to reach my target readers everywhere in the country. How many people are we talking about? According to data from the U.S. Census, as of March 2002 we had 59 million residents in that age range, 33 million women and 26 million men. Even selling to 1 percent of that population would be 59,000 book sales. At that number, it is not economical for POD because the cost per book is relatively high compared to offset printing, which is the traditional way of printing books. Each POD publisher offers a slightly different deal, so it's important to read the fine print at the POD websites if you are researching this.

- The physical product. I wanted the book to look and feel just right. I initially had to decide whether to go hardcover or not. Most publishers will issue a new work of fiction in hardcover. However, if you browse bookstores you will see that many small presses issue new works in a softcover format known as "trade paperback." The difference between trade paperback and mass market paperback is mainly in size, paper weight, font and price. Trade paperbacks are larger, usually 8 or more inches high by 5 or more inches wide, printed on thicker paper, priced higher, have nicer covers, and are printed with more pleasing fonts. I decided I could live with trade paperback instead of hardcover.

The other important aspect of the physical product is the way in which it is printed. With POD, you are getting digital printing on a limited selection of paper stock. On the other hand, offset printing, because it involves real ink on paper instead of toner on paper, results in a more professional-looking product and offers many more options in terms of paper stock and sizes. Also, offset is cheaper in the long run. Remember, I was planning to sell a lot of books. After getting samples from different printers and educating myself on book printing jargon, I settled on the following specification: "5-1/2 x 8-1/2, perfect binding, 60 lb natural offset paper, 500 pages per inch for inside pages, and 12-point C1S (coated one side) cover with matte film lamination, four-color process on front and back, and spot gloss varnish on a portion of the front cover." Whew. That's enough to give anybody a headache. Non-fiction books, especially how-to manuals, can get away with less exacting standards.

- Distribution. My last reason for not choosing POD has to do with how books are distributed. I researched this topic by starting with bookstores. How do bookstores get their books? I learned very quickly one way that they DON'T get them – they don't buy books from authors who walk in the door and say, "Can you stock my book on your shelf?" Now, having said that, you can find small independent bookstores that will stock self-published titles on a consignment basis from local authors. You don't get any money until a sale is made, you will probably get between 40 and 60 percent of the sale price, and if you don't make a sale within a certain amount of time, like a month, the consigned books come back to you. The reality for bookstores is that shelf space is limited (compared to the number of books in print) and overall profit margins for a bookstore are depressingly low. Booksellers try to stay afloat by buying books on a returnable basis from major book wholesalers, of which there are two that sell to almost every bookstore in the country: Ingram Book Group, and Baker & Taylor. Aside from these wholesale relationships you'll find many other arrangements. For example, distribution of books to non-bookstore outlets, such as Wal-Mart and grocery stores, are often handled differently. And large bookstore chains, such as Barnes & Noble, may have special arrangements directly with publishers for some titles, especially big-volume titles. But, generally speaking, if your book is listed with Ingram and Baker & Taylor, then it will at least be available to almost every bookstore and library in the country plus many overseas outlets.

And now back to the POD distribution question. When I was researching POD publishers the only one that I found that offered any access to bookstores was iUniverse, mainly because they are partly owned by Barnes & Noble. I don't know if this means that an actual Barnes & Noble bookstore will place your book on a shelf. It might mean that it's "available" for order through B&N if someone were to request it, either in person or through the website. As far as distribution is concerned, POD publishers primarily rely on websites to help you sell your book. It used to be true that most of them have relationships with However, this is changing right now. Amazon acquired one of the POD publishers, BookSurge, and now appears to be trying to limit access to its sales channels by other POD publishers. This has caused a great flap in the book world and is still unfolding as I write this.

So, in the end, I decided that POD did not have the kind of distribution options I was looking for, and I wasn't happy with the print options and I thought if I hit the kind of numbers I was shooting for that it would be too expensive. Bottom line: I didn't do POD.

If I didn't use POD, then how did I self-publish my book? Answer: I started a publishing company. I settled on this approach after learning how books get distributed and realizing that I wanted my book to be shipped through the big wholesalers for all the reasons described above. I learned that if you are a big publisher, like Random House, then you will most likely ship books directly to the wholesalers. However, if you are a small publisher you can work through a book distributor that specializes in small presses. By combining the output of lots of small companies, these distributors can ship enough volume to make it worthwhile for the wholesalers to represent them. You can become a publisher by forming a small company, like a sole proprietorship, and purchasing an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) from a company called R.R. Bowker. Each book that is published and marketed in the U.S. and many other countries has a unique 13-digit ISBN. I formed One Sock Press and purchased a block of ten ISBNs from Bowker. Then I contracted with a company in Ohio called BookMasters, which represents small presses and has distribution deals with Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Amazon. In addition, BookMasters is an offset book printer. By working through them I was able to get offset printing to my exact specifications followed by distribution to virtually every bookstore and library in the country through the big wholesalers. I contracted with BookMasters to print 5,000 copies of my book for about $10,000, which is $2 per book. In publishing, 5,000 is a typical first run printing. Prior to the print run, I contracted for 250 Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) to send to reviewers and bookstores. Again, this is standard industry practice and I intended for my operation to at least look like a real publishing company. I thought my publishing career was off and running.

Part 2: Editing, layout and design

Part 3: Finding people to buy your book


Bowker ISBN Page

BookMasters, Inc.

Sea Changes, my novel, published by One Sock Press

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At 2:41 PM, Blogger Chip Armstrong said...

Keep writing, Bill! You're a talented story teller.


At 10:38 AM, Blogger islander said...

I guess if I write long enough people will eventually notice.

Thanks for the comment.



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