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"So What Do You Think of Self-Publishing?"

Sunday, December 18, 2005
desk This is another question that I'm going to respond to with more than one answer because there are so many different dimensions to this question. Just as there's no one-size-fits-all parenting solution, there's no one-size-fits-all publishing solution. You have to consider the type of book you're proposing to write, the size of the market and the geographical spread of that market (e.g., is everyone located in one town or across the entire planet?), what skills you bring to the table as an author, and how much time and energy you have to invest in the project. So here are my thoughts on self-publishing.

ANSWER NUMBER ONE: I think self-publishing can be an incredibly exciting and empowering publishing option. It allows an author to conceive and give birth to her book -- to see the entire process through from start to finish. And some folks who have done it swear it's the only way to go. I'm thinking of people like cookbook self-publishing legends Janet and Greta Podleski and many of the folks in the Self-Publishing Hall of Fame directory that John Kremer maintains. And, as MJ Rose has noted repeatedly, the stigma that once left self-published authors feeling like second-class authors is no long there. (Not unless you want to argue that Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers, and Steven King are all second-rate authors: they've all self-published at least one book.)

On and off over the years, I've flirted with the idea of self-publishing something, more as a creative exercise than for any other reason. I may do it at some point yet. I've just never found a project of mine that seemed better suited to self-publishing that to trade publishing. However, I'm always reading up on self-publishing because a lot of information that applies to self-publishing helps me in my life as a trade-published author. Besides, it's fascinating and inspiring stuff.

So why do some authors decide to go the self-publishing route with books that, some might argue, could just as easily find a home in any a trade publisher's publishing list?

That was one of the first questions I had for Marilyn Ross, co-author of such bestselling books as The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing and Jump Start Your Book Sales, when I interviewed her two years ago. She highlighted the following factors as being key to many authors making the decision to self-publish. (I'm excerpting from my interview, which was published in the members area of the ASJA website and in the PWAC newsletter.) Here's what Marilyn had to say:
Marilyn Ross: Self-publishing, once a case of last resort, is becoming the choice of more and more authors today. Writers are realizing that if they are expected to do the majority of publicity and promotion, why should they settle for a paltry ten percent? Done properly, this can be a lucrative business approach. A prominent publishing exec admitted that only one out of 10 books even earns out its advance. That's a ninety percent failure ratio! No savvy author would settle for such unreasonable terms. The main reasons people self-publish are as follows:

  • Control. We want to be in control of our writing/publishing destiny. It's terrible to have a publisher change your title, put on a cover that embarrasses you, slash your content unmercifully, and let your finished book languish in a warehouse somewhere.

  • Timing. After a book has been sold to a trade publisher, it typically takes 18 months to reach the marketplace. That's unreasonable. If your subject is timely or hot, you've completely missed your window of opportunity.

  • Availability of affordable review copies. When we publish a book I typically budget 400 to 500 free review copies. This is your very best advertising. With most trade deals, [getting this many review copies in circulation] would cost [the author] a small fortune.

  • Profit. You and I are serious professionals; we are in the business of writing. We can't afford to waste our time and skills on something that doesn't give us a decent return on investment. As a self-published author, you will start making the good money when you go back to press after the first print run. At this point, your editing, cover design, and typesetting costs are behind you. All you're paying for is the printing and whatever discounts you must give to middlemen. Some self-publishers make eighty percent of the retail price of the book at this point.

ANSWER NUMBER TWO: Self-publishing is the perfect publishing option for certain types of books. If you are considering a book that has a strong regional market and you feel confident that you can handle all the distribution yourself, then self-publishing suddenly becomes a very appealing option. It's also a terrific option for a book that is likely to have a very small initial print run. (Trade publishers need much more sizeable print runs in order to make a book work from an dollars-and-cents perspective.) Friesens (a printer which specializes in working with self-publishers) has compiled a list of books that explains the business factors that you'll want to consider as you decide whether self-publishing makes sense from an economic perspective.

ANSWER NUMBER THREE: Authors can be left feeling overworked and disillusioned if their dreams of big sales aren't realized. Of course, the same thing can apply to authors who have been published by trade book publishers as well. If the road to trade publishing nirvana is littered with unread manuscripts and remaindered books, the road to self-publishing nirvana is blocked with boxes of unsold books. Selling books is hard work. That's why publishers employ entire teams of people devoted to sales, marketing, and publicity -- and, if you're one of the authors at the top of a publisher's list, you will benefit hugely from the efforts of these people. If you fall a little further down the list, you should plan to BYOP (be your own publicist).

If you published your book yourself because you weren't able to find a publisher for your project, you may have learned the hard way why you ended up with so many up-front rejections: there simply wasn't a market for your book. And now you've got printer's bills and a basement full of books on top of a wounded ego to deal with.

That's why it's extremely important to research your market at least as thoroughly as you would if you were trying to sell your book concept to a trade book publsher. "Go to Amazon.com, enter your subject area, and spend a couple of days reviewing what's available," says Ross. "Go to a good independent bookstore where they know and love books. Talk to the owner or buyer and ask in their opinion what are the three best books in your topic area. Buy them. Read them. Study them. Now think about how to position your book to be better. What is your USP (Unique Selling Proposition)? Make your book longer, shorter, funnier, more reader-friendly, organized differently, or more complete. You could add stories to illustrate the points, sidebars of useful references, Internet links, a glossary, an appendix; your only limitation is your creativity. Think about your end user and develop the manuscript to aid that one person."

While you're in reality check mode, realize that you're going to need a serious amount of cash to produce a self-published book of the same quality as a decent trade-published book. "While Print on Demand (POD) now allows writers to print a few copies at a hefty price, I don't feel it is practical for the author who intends to make his or her book a commercial success," says Ross. "You need to get a low unit cost to be able to give those review copies away. So you're probably looking at somewhere between $6,000 and $20,000 US dollars to produce 3,000 copies. Be aware you're not just 'printing' the book; there are fees for editing, cover design, interior design/typesetting, printing, freight, etc. The variables are enormous -- length, hardcover versus soft cover, number of colors on the cover, interior photos, whether you do a lot of the work yourself, how shrewd you are in finding the appropriate book manufacturer -- all of these factors come into play. Just remember, this is a business. There is risk; for many there are huge rewards."

And remember that your job as an author/publisher is only beginning when the books arrive on your doorstep. "While the writing may have been fun, for many authors the sales and PR aspects feel about as comfortable as going bear hunting with a switch," says Ross. "There are ways around this where you can still promote and be comfortable. You can hook up with distributors that will place your books in the chains and independent bookstores. It's also interesting to note that fifty-two percent of all books are not sold in bookstores. They are merchandised via other venues such as the Internet, direct mail, in catalogs, through bulk premium sales to companies, via speaking engagements, to specialty retail outlets, etc. These ways of selling books can be very lucrative."

It's important to note that trade-published authors who are marketing and publicity savvy can also play an active role in helping to solicit spinoff sales for their books. The key is to work cooperatively with your book's marketing department so that you aren't accidentally working at cross-purposes or bumping into one another in the marketplace. Publishers love authors who have ideas and energy, so don't think it's an either/or proposition: you can either self-publish and be entrepreneurial when it comes to sales and marketing opportunities OR work with a traditional publisher. Sometimes you can have your sales and marketing cake and eat it too.

This is one in an ongoing series of Author University posts designed to encourage frank an honest discussion about the book publishing business life as an author.

| posted by Ann D @ 1:17 PM