We had a publishing company at one time, Draught Horse Press, but there were many aspects of the publishing business that I never made any effort to get good at, primarily marketing. We were able to take a manuscript, typeset it, get it printed, and offer it for direct sale. We did not make much effort to promote books or to sell them through bookstores and other vendors. Our occasional attempts at print advertising were expensive failures, and our third-party sales were through people who first contacted us.
We published two books, and though we did make a small amount of money on both titles it didn’t repay our efforts and did not end up being a foundation for further publishing efforts. Most important, we never figured out a suitable way to find additional books to publish. But we did learn a few things about various ways to get a book into print and into people’s hands; anyone who thinks they have a book they might want to self-publish might find it helpful to know them.
First of all, there is one very good book about self-publishing, Dan Poynter’s The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing. I’ve read a number of other books on the same subject, and none have taught me anything that wasn’t in this book. Poynter is himself a very successful self-publisher (he started by publishing a very expensive, very useful manual for amateur parachutists), and understands very well that it is not only possible but a good thing for a writer to maintain complete personal control over the publishing process, taking all the risks and reaping all the rewards. There is also a healthy amount of reality-checking along the way, helping the prospective self-publisher to decide whether a particular project has a realistic chance of succeeding. If you want to publish your own book at a profit, invest in Poynter’s book and follow his advice as closely as you can.
One caveat: Poynter’s definition of success, not surprisingly, a conventionally modern business definition, i.e. whether or not you make enough money to pay the equivalent of the wages you could have otherwise earned in that time. So, for example, he insists that the retail price of your book be eight times the cost it takes to get it into print. Although this sound high, he is right—if you intend to make your living publishing books, you will lose money unless you do this.
But there are other reasons to publish books, and other ways to reckon success. You may have a small but certain market for the book you want to write, and all you want to do is make sure you can cover the material costs of getting the book into the hands of your customers. Or you may even be willing to produce the book at a loss, in order to get your message out. In such cases the information in Poynter’s book is still very helpful, but it may be sufficient for you simply to know a few things about the current state of publishing.
First, printers increasingly expect copy to be sent to them as a PDF file. This file format, created by Adobe Systems and the native format of Acrobat Reader, can be produced by many document creation programs, including Microsoft Word and Microsoft Publisher. What this means is that if you are able to create a Word or Publisher document that you think would look good enough for your book, you will be able to give it directly to a printer. This is important, because the programs traditionally used to lay out books (mostly Adobe InDesign, Adobe Pagemaker, and Quark Express) are very expensive and very complicated.
Second, to have your book printed traditionally, you need to have at least 2000 copies printed; a printer may offer to print fewer, but it will cost nearly the same as for 2000. Above 2000 the cost for each additional book is fairly low. For example, it might cost $4000 for 2000 copies, $4500 for 3000 copies, $5000 for 4000 copies—in effect, 50 cents for each copy after the first 2000. There is a strong temptation (believe me) to have more copies printed, since the increment is so small and the unit price (average price per copy) continues to go down. But will you ever sell those books? With one of our books we sold about one-fifth of a large print run, making a small profit. With the other book we sold one-half of a much smaller print run, making slightly more. And the books you don’t sell, you have to deal with, either storing them or disposing of them. Five thousand 5×8 paperbacks are surprisingly compact, but not insignificant.
Third, non-traditional printing techniques have improved to the point where it is possible to print small quantities of a book with good quality. I helped Jerome Lange get his book The Seven Keys into print this way, and unless you know what to look for it is difficult to distinguish the books from traditionally printed ones—our printer, Keystone Digital Press, was able to produce the book with clean inside copy and a laminated full-color cover. There is an instant quote calculator on their website that will tell you how much it costs to print a particular book size in a particular quantity; an example would be 200 copies of a 160-page 5×8 book for $500, or $2.50 per book. KDS will print as few as fifty books at a time.
Fourth, it is straightforward to have Amazon sell your book for you, through their Advantage program. This costs $30 per year, and Amazon charges a 55% commision on each sale. They stock a small quantity of your books, and when that begins to run out they will send an email telling you to ship them some more. (To use this program, your book needs to have an ISBN assigned to it and a scannable barcode printed on the back cover; contact me if you need more details about this.)
Fifth, if you want to sell your books through book resellers, you need to have a discount schedule. This is simply the discounted prices you offer for various quantities. For example, a very common schedule would be 20% for one copy, 40% for 2-9 copies, 45% for ten or more copies, and 50% for a case (meaning an unopened box as you received it from the printer, which might contain, say, 44 books). If you offer more than one title, the buyer also needs to know if the discount applies to “mixed titles”, i.e. do I get the ten-copy discount if I order six of one title and four of another.
Sixth, it is straightforward to sell your book directly, using a website, but that is a topic for another post.