Notes on Self-Publishing

Originally posted in December 2003; updated December 2009. On all legal matters such as permissions and copyright, have the sense to check with someone who’s got the creds to know current law.

See also: Step-by-Step Kindle Publishing; Comparison of traditional, print-on-demand, and Kindle publishing; and Self-publishing checklist. If you’re interested in self-publishing but want some help, email me me for rates.

In this article

  • Pre-Production
  • Writing
  • Illustrations
  • Layout & Design
  • Types of Printing
  • Sending Files to the Printer
  • Sales & Distribution
  • Amazon
  • Other expenses
  • Ebooks
  • Recommended Readings (Once all these bulleted items were tidily linked to the sections below; WordPress makes that difficult, so right now they’re not.)
Forgotten Delights: The Producers

Forgotten Delights: The Producers

The details of self-publishing vary widely depending on the type of book you’re producing, the market you’re aiming at, whether the book is illustrated, and how zealously perfectionistic you are about appearance and content. Rather than making this a one-size-fits-all description, I offer below my experiences with the benefits, hurdles, and expenses of self publishing. This essay was composed after I wrote and published Forgotten Delights: The Producers (henceforth referred to as FDP) in 2003. Since then I’ve produced two more books as work for hire, and have added a few comments based on that.

If after reading this you want to hire help for editing, proofing, production design and management, or marketing, email DuranteDianne@gmail.com.

Pre-Production

The first thing to remember about self-publishing is that nothing ever takes the amount of time you expect it to—sometimes much less time, but usually much more. If you intend to produce a book for a deadline such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or an anniversary, allow yourself about double the time you expect to need, especially for your first self-published effort.

You should realize when you begin any self-publishing project that it’s difficult to make money with a self-published book. You may be able to make a profit if you have a platform (a website, blog, column, etc.) that makes your name familiar to a lot of people, and that allows you to reach them to market the book.

If you’re dreaming that a mass-market publisher will approach you with a six-figure offer for this or another book, having your own platform is also the most likely way to have them notice you. Think about getting this sort of platform going even as you write the book, because it takes a long time to develop a devoted following.

If you do hope to turn a profit on the book, make sure you do your market research: it’s easy with Amazon, the Net, and the availability of library catalogues online. Are there other books in print or widely available that cover your topic in much the same way you plan to? If so, the market may already be saturated. Are there absolutely no books on your topic? If not, where is your audience going to come from?

The accepted wisdom among copywriters is to preach to a “starving crowd”—to people who desperately want what you’re offering. Trying to persuade people that they need something AND that they should buy it immediately from you is a difficult task for even the most experienced advertising mavens.

Writing

Write the text, then edit and proof again and again. Have an outsider or two read and comment. Get this done before you start laying out the book. It is extremely frustrating to do editing and page layout at the same time: just when you decide a page is laid out in a satisfying way, you realize you need to add a paragraph, and then you have to spend more time adjusting the layout.

If you plan to lay the book out in a dedicated page-layout program such as InDesign or Quark, keep the formatting in your word-processing program to a minimum. It will either be lost in the transfer to the page-layout program or linger and screw up the formatting there.

I find it helps to keep a style sheet, for the sake of consistency. It can include names (John Smith or John C. Smith), use of the serial comma, capitalization of headings, standard abbreviations, etc. When you ask someone else to edit or proof, a style sheet will be very helpful to them, too.

Illustrations

If you’re using any image you suspect may be under copyright (especially if it was created or photographed after 1923), look up “public domain” and “fair use” on Google and try to get a basic understanding of the rules as they apply to your project.

A few comments:

The fact that an image appears on the web does not mean that it is copyright free. If it is a work of art created on January 1, 1923, or later, it may be under copyright, and legally you may be in trouble if you print it without being able to show that you made good-faith efforts to reach the artist and get his permission. If the image is a photograph (including a photograph of an artwork), you may need the permission of the photographer as well as the artist.

For one sculpture in FDP, the permission cost was so high ($800 for the right to print a photo that I had taken myself) that I deleted the FDP chapter on that sculpture. Fortunately most of the artists I’ve dealt with have just asked for complimentary copies of the finished book.

If you don’t see why you should bother with getting legal permissions, ask yourself (as a soon-to-be author) how you would feel if someone reprinted your work without acknowledging your authorship, asking your permission, and/or paying a fee. Property is no less property if it’s an image rather than a piece of New York real estate.

Depending on your topic, you may be able to find copyright-free images on Wikipedia or Wikimedia Commons. Even there, be cautious if the artist is recent and the Wikipedia page about the image does not list the artist as the one releasing the image. You—not Wikipedia—are legally liable for what you print in your book.

Keep a folder of image permission letters and a record of your attempts to reach people to request permission. For Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan I was unable to contact the creators of several sculptures, but New York University Press’s legal staff approved printing photos of the sculptures because I could document that I had made repeated efforts to locate the artists.

Printed books require photographs of much higher resolution than those used on the Net. Ask the printer who will be producing your book what resolution the images should be, and what format he will accept. If you’re requesting images from someone, make sure you ask for the right quality.

Layout & Design

FDP was laid out in MSWord 2000, which is not designed to do sophisticated page-layouts. My days were not merry and bright when I had to shift tinted boxes and photographs. That line above about not editing while you do page layout came from bitter experience.

On the other hand, InDesign and Quark, which are made for precisely this kind of project, have a steep learning curve and are very expensive ($650 or more for new users). Think of how many copies of the book you’d have to sell to recoup the cost.

The more important consideration in deciding what program to use for layout is the printer: not your desktop printer, but the professional printer who’ll produce the finished copies of your book. Some printers will only accept files in InDesign or Quark.

Many printers will now (2009) accept a PDF file. Although a lot of programs are available that allow you to create PDFs, some professional printers require tweaks to the PDFs that can only be done in the full-strength Adobe Acrobat software, which lists at $300 for new users. I solved this issue by delivering my Word document on disk to a graphic design bureau and handing them the professional printer’s list of specifications. The graphic design bureau converted the text and cover to a properly formatted PDF for under $20.

Despite the hassles of breaking tables across pages, checking for widows and orphans, and proofreading again and again and again, I usually enjoy doing page layout. Having complete control over the appearance of the book is satisfying. But I should mention that I had laid out a couple dozen catalogues for a rare book dealer by the time I started work on FDP, so things like widows, orphans, gutter margins, and character spacing were already familiar to me.

Printing

The original hundred copies of FDP were printed at Kinko’s. Back in 2003, each copy cost about $9, which I soon found out is very, very expensive for a 168-page, 8.5 x 5.5 inch book. On the other hand, if you’re doing a handful of copies for friends, the money you save per copy by using someone other than Kinko’s may not be worth the time it takes to find that less expensive option. I produced a dozen copies of a 20-page book of family recipes to give as Christmas gifts last year, and Kinko’s was the obvious choice.

If you decide not to use Kinko’s, there are two distinct options for self-publishers. Whichever printing option you choose, make sure you see a sample of the books before you commit to using a particular professional printer. Check the quality of printing (cover, text, and illustrations), whether the pages are aligned and trimmed precisely, and the quality of the glue on the spine. Abuse your sample copy to see if the pages fall out.

OPTION 1: OFFSET. An offset printing press is a huge machine that runs enormous rolls of paper through a series of drums, one for each color being printed. I didn’t find any company interested in setting up their offset presses to produce 100 copies, or even 500. To get their attention, I had to talk about a run of 1,000 copies.

Back in 2003, when I asked on the web for quotes for 1,000 copies, I got prices as low as $2 per copy for 168 pages, plus shipping. This was much better than $9 at Kinko’s, but it would have required an up-front expense of over $2,000, and storing a LOT of books in my house.

Offset printing may be the only way to go if you must have high-quality color reproductions in your book. Color photos of poor quality aren’t worth printing, and an offset printing machine allows much better quality control.

OPTION 2: PRINT ON DEMAND (POD). FDP is produced as a print-on-demand title by Lightning Source Inc.

“Print-on-demand” means literally that: LSI doesn’t print copies until ordered to do so, hence I don’t have to pay an up-front fee for hundreds or thousands of copies, and I don’t have to worry about storing them.

LSI offers a limited range of sizes and bindings. Back in 2003, they printed color covers, but the inside text was strictly black-and-white. Today (2009) they offer color in the text as well. I have not seen a sample of their color production. If your book includes color photos, ask for samples and check them carefully. The quality of the photos in the sample LSI sent me back in 2003 wasn’t terrific, and neither were the photos in FDP. On the other hand, I’ve gotten almost as many complaints about the muddy illustrations in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan as I have about those in FDP. I presume that New York University Press used an offset printing press, so the offset press itself doesn’t guarantee good quality.

There are now many companies besides LSI that do printing on demand. Some of them will help you lay out the book and design the covers as well.

Sending the files to the printer

Lightning Source requires files in PDF format. It took me a while to sort out their requirements for submitting files digitally and for laying out a cover. I ended up using a professional graphics bureau to convert my MSWord text and cover files to PDFs.

Once I’d set up an account with LSI, I uploaded the PDF files and LSI set up the book in 2 days, then sent a bound copy for proofing via overnight mail. Set-up and proof ran about $100.

At that point I discovered that the uploaded digital files are turned into a book without human intervention. The file for the spine of my cover was turned the wrong way, and came out upside-down (reading bottom to top) on the proof. Correcting this and adding the price to the bar code was done on an $80/hour basis, with a $40 minimum charge. LSI really doesn’t want to be doing your layout work for you.

LSI’s contract guarantees things like correct page sequence, accurate trim (at least a dozen of my Kinko’s copies had off-kilter covers), and tidy glue on the binding (another flaw in Kinko’s). Their standard cover stock for paperbacks is laminated: shiny and resilient.

Once the book was set up, LSI printed copies as requested by me, on demand. For FDP, the cost is about $3.50 each, and I can order any number I want at a time.

FDP is a book on outdoor sculpture, but I decided early on that because the cost of printing color was prohibitive, I’d print in black and white and offer a CD with color photos. The catch there, as I eventually found out, is that stores such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon won’t sell a CD with a book unless the two are securely shrink-wrapped together. And Lightning Source just does books, not CDs or shrink wrap. So I included a page at the front of the book giving a URL where purchasers could order the photo CD for an additional $2.

Sales and distribution

As a self-publisher I get to set the book’s retail price, but since I wanted to distribute the book through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other bookstores, I had to find out normal expenses and discounts first.

Bad news: you can’t just print a book any-old-where and get it listed on Amazon or sold in Barnes & Noble. Most large bookstores won’t deal directly with a self-publisher. It’s too much hassle to handle paperwork for thousands of one-book publishers. The bookstores deal with Ingram or Baker & Taylor, the two big book distributors in the U.S., and the distributors deal with the publisher (self- or otherwise).

One reason I chose LSI is that they work closely with Ingram. Since LSI was printing my book, it was automatically listed by Ingram, and Ingram sent the listing out to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and everyone else on their list.

Incidentally, having Ingram distribute the book involves signing another agreement with LSI, the “print-on-demand” agreement as opposed to the “short-run” agreement, which tells them to produce books for you and only you.

The standard discount (“wholesale discount”) from me, as author/publisher, to Ingram is 55% off the retail price. From that 55%, Ingram offers bookstores a substantial discount—usually 40% off retail price. That 40% of the retail sales price is the way bookstores make enough money to stay in business. I could tell LSI and Ingram that I’ll only offer a 30% discount, for instance, but there are bookstores whose budgets are so tight that they’ll refuse to carry the book if they can’t make their usual profit on it.

Another issue: LSI asked if I would allow returns from bookstores that ordered my book and found it didn’t sell. Again, I could have refused, but some bookstores would order fewer copies if they knew they couldn’t get their money back upon request. LSI policy is to charge me for returned books, and when the books are returned, they might be too decrepit for resale. I decided to allow returns anyway. In the 6 years since 2003, there haven’t been any.

LSI doesn’t charge me for shipping & freight to bookstores, I assume because of their affiliation with Ingram.

So, to get back to retail pricing. If I price FDP at $20, give Ingram the 55% wholesale discount, and deduct the LSI printing charge (about $3 for copies printed for Ingram), I get about $6 for every copy sold.

Amazon

Amazon’s a slightly different case from brick-and-mortar bookstores. If Amazon carried every self-published book, and purchased them directly from the self-publishers, they’d have to hire the whole population of the state of Washington to track orders and inventory, and they’d never make a profit. (No, wait … Hmm.) To avoid dealing with thousands upon thousands of independent publishers, Amazon requires that a self-publisher either 1) Join Amazon Advantage by paying a yearly fee and a hefty commission ($30 plus 55%), or 2) have the book handled by one of the two major book distributors in the U.S.

OPTION 1: Amazon Advantage. I didn’t use this program for FDP, but I did use it recently for a book I helped someone else self-publish. It’s not as simple as it sounds. You have to wait for Amazon to process your application and for them to order the number of copies they see fit, which means that your book may be listed as “out of stock” for quite some time, while the paperwork goes through. You cannot send Amazon copies until they issue a formal purchase order. You cannot, EVER, reach Amazon Advantage by phone. They are not accessible. I have this on the authority of several Amazon employees.

OPTION 2: Book distributors. Since I had FDP printed by Lightning Source and distributed by Ingram, the book’s basic facts (author, title, ISBN, number of pages, binding, size) were uploaded to Amazon’s database. LSI warned me that this process could take 4-6 weeks. Once the book appeared on Amazon, I got to tinker with the description to promote sales—adding blurbs, back cover copy, table of contents, etc. Orders go from Amazon to Ingram to LSI, and ship from LSI with the standard 55% wholesale discount and $3 printing fee, as described above, for a profit of about $6 per copy.

Once the book is listed in Amazon’s database, I can also sell copies via Amazon Marketplace. That means I stock the book and I ship it. The catch is: I can’t list the book for more than Amazon’s selling it for, and Amazon is substantially discounting it (30% off the $20 list). So if I sell copies via the Marketplace, I get $14 less $3.50 printing cost to LSI, less Amazon’s commission of $.99 plus $2.10 (15% of $14), for a profit of $7.40. [These numbers are from 2003.] Amazon charges the customer for shipping and passes that fee on to the Marketplace seller, but it’s a minimal fee: enough for postage but not packaging, and certainly not for the time involved in wrapping things properly and hauling them to the Post Office. So I’m planning to let Amazon do the selling and shipping.

For more details on sales through Amazon, go to their home page and scroll down to the “Make Money with Us” section in the footer.

Other expenses involved in self-publishing

Website, to promote the book. If you’ll be including lots of photos, you’ll need 50MB or more of server space. If you plan to take orders on your website, sign up for a PayPal account, so you can accept credit cards. Put a lot of effort into designing a “landing page” that will make visitors eager to buy, and will make it simple for them to do so.

Advertising, online or in print. Costs vary widely and change often. Check them yourself, bearing in mind that it’s generally more productive to have those who are potentially very interested in your book see an ad several times, rather than try to have every person on the planet see the ad once.

ISBN numbers. Very few bookstores will carry a book if it doesn’t have an ISBN and the bar code for price scans (UPC) that’s built around the ISBN. When I last checked, Bowker sold a packet of 10 ISBN numbers (you couldn’t buy just one) for $240. For details, see Bowker’s site.

Bowker provides a list of online sites that will generate a barcode for you if you tell them the book’s ISBN and retail price. The cost for the barcode graphic is $10-$20. LSI generated the barcode for FDP without a separate charge.

Taxes. As a resident of New York City who might be selling books, I was required to apply for a Certificate of Authority to collect taxes. Then I had to collect taxes on any items shipped within New York State, and had to submit a quarterly report to New York State. I was responsible for this even if I didn’t happen to sell any books to New Yorkers during a given quarter.

Ebooks

An ebook is a lot cheaper to produce than a printed one, and the overhead’s a lot lower. See Step-by-Step Kindle Publishing. If you produce both ebook and printed versions, you have the potential to reach a wider market.

Recommended readings

William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Extremely useful ideas for making your writing more attractive to readers: working on the leading paragraphs, pulling the reader from one paragraph to the next, etc.

Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction, A Guide for Writers and Readers.

Leonard Peikoff, “Objective Communication.” Taped lecture course available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore.

Robert McKee, Story. Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. Aimed at fiction writers, but nonfiction writers can learn something about structure and pacing.

For editing and word choice: despite all the thesaurus sites on the web, my fallback is still the Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus, a dictionary combined with a thesaurus, which allows me to check nuances and etymologies. The synonyms are sorted according to the dictionary definitions, not arranged in one long alphabetical list like Roget’s thesaurus.

For writing marketing materials, including the blurbs for the back cover of the book and Amazon: the VersaQuill Copywriting Workbook.

If after reading this you want to hire help for editing, proofing, production design and management, or marketing, email DuranteDianne@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2009 Dianne Durante. All rights reserved.