Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Publishing 101 - Various Print Options

Do you need an agent? Should you self-publish? Are small presses worth pursuing? There are a ton of options for authors these days and I thought I would outline some various thoughts on the subject in today's post.

This is looked on by most authors as the brass ring they are all reaching for. It is a very difficult achievement to realize. Most large publishers do not accept unsolicited works so it almost always requires obtaining an agent first. It is not uncommon to receive multiple rejections from agents then another pile of rejections as they submit to publishers. The process is extremely long. Probably a minimum of 3 years from book completion to printing and 5 years is not out of the question. The author will have little or no say in issues such as book title, cover design, price, distribution methods, or formats produced. On the positive side it will come with an advance (typically $5,000 - $12,000 for a first time author) and the likelihood of receiving attention by reviewers and bookstore shelf space. The downside is large publishers are driven by numbers and while they can produce “buy-in” (putting books on shelves) if there is not “sell through” these books come back to the publisher. If the author does not “earn out” the advance in what will seem like an extremely short time frame they may be quick to remainder (sell the bulk of books “by the pound”) to discount outlets and drop the author. This can mean a very short lived success. But if the book is good, and catches on, then it will probably produce the largest amounts sold and highest income for the author.

Today there are literally thousands of indies so much in fact that they have their own trade associations, awards, and the like. They are much easier for an author to get their foot in the door and are more willing to take on the risk of a new author. They accept unsolicited works (i.e. you don’t have to have an agent). While they can obtain reviews, it will be harder for them (Reviewers typically only critique 1-2% of the books submitted). They may be more willing to listen to authors in the areas of title and cover design, but still will remain ultimate deciding power over these and all marketing activities. They will generally have a “smaller press run” in the neighborhood of 2,000 to 5,000 books and utilize a wholesale distributor which will catalog and sell their titles along with a number of other independent publishers to bookstores. In most cases books will be “available” for order from any bookstore but only a few will actually carry them on their shelves and will probably only try 1 – 2 books. The good news is they have much longer time lines then large publishers and are willing to stick with an author while he grows a following. Success will be highly dependent on the author promoting his own book through time and energy but the publisher will bear the financial burden or copy edit, cover design, layout, and printing.

Here I am speaking of the typical “self-publishing” mainstays such as iUniverse, LuLu, BookSurge, Xliblis, and OutskirtPress. Because of the negative connotations of the term “vanity press” many market themselves as “subsidized publishers”, “supported self-publishers” etc. Here there is no editorial decision made on the “worth of a book” before producing, the author is paying to have their book produced. In almost all cases these companies utilize POD* (print on demand) technology.

They do offer services that most authors would be hard pressed to do on their own such as cover design and book layout (but at a pretty steep markup). In addition, they offer a wide range of services such as copy editing, and marketing assistance but these are ALWAYS overpriced. I highly recommend an author that uses these organizations look elsewhere for these services. For instance copy editing from iUniverse runs $0.022 per word ($2,200 for a typical sized novel) where a freelance editor would charge $350 - $800 for the same service.

As I mentioned these organizations utilize POD technology and once again your books will be available “for order” from a bookstore or on-line from companies such as Amazon when using them. However you will have virtually no success with reviewers (who generally won’t even look at a book with an ISBN from one of these organizations) and since there is no warehousing, bookstores will not carry them on the shelves since they loose the “return policy” aspect that their business is based on.

Now comes the “worst” part of using these organizations. While the author pays all the fees to produce the book they still receive only a royalty on sales!! This makes no financial sense for the author (although a great model for the publisher). What the author is receiving here is convenience. It is analogous to going to the grocery store and buying a shish-ka-bob in the meet section fully assembled. If you were to buy the meet, skewers, and vegetables separately and make them yourself you would save a bunch of money.

I personally do not recommend this method of publishing to anyone except those who have huge amounts of disposable income. There are so many less expensive ways of going about this that puts a higher percentage of the sale into the author’s pocket.

This is a fairly new business model. Many small independents that are wishing to “hedge their bets” on an author may utilize the same POD technology to reduce their initial investment costs. Once again there is no charge to the author, but there is also not an original press run. The publisher will provide editing, cover design, and layout services. This can result in a higher “per book” cost which may make the publisher price the book “above the market”. As a business person I can see the value in this model to both the publisher and the author. There are some downside in the areas of bookstore stocking – but given that even independents that print books have obstacles in this area I don’t think it is significant enough to make a huge impact on the overall success of the book. The biggest problem I have with this model is the publisher is not really doing much more than the author could do on their own. The only difference is they are “fronting” the money to produce the book in return for a bigger percentage of the profit.

This is actually an extremely attractive model for the person who is not afraid of rolling up their sleeves. It benefits from a relatively small “start up cost” and is definitely more financially lucrative than using the subsidized vanity presses. With this model the author has 100% control of everything: cover price, cover design, layout, distribution channels and the like. For exactly the same investment they would use for a POD vanity press they can receive 100% of the profits instead of a small royalty. If you have any graphic design experience you definitely should take this route as you will have virtually no start-up cost. If you don’t have these skills you can hire a free lancer do your design for $500 - $1000. NOTE: Art school students is a great resource to get good quality design at reasonable prices or use Craig’s list. You will want the cover done in something like Photoshop and should be given to you as a CMYK .tiff file at 300 dpi (at full size). The interior should be laid out in either Qurak Xpress or Adobe InDesign programs.

NOTE: Whether you are using the vanity or self-publishing I highly recommend hiring a professional editor to “polish the book”. Put an ad in Craig’s list and send a sample chapter to a number of the people who respond…you can get a good editor to do a novel sized book for between $350 - $1000). If you are extremely good at self-editing you can of course skip this cost.

Once you have a book in “print ready format” all you need is printing and distribution. This is remarkably easy you will receive the same quality as the vanity POD’s (because you will use the same companies). I suggest you setup both a CreateSpace account and a LightningSource account and sent the same print ready files to both of them. I could write a whole post on why you need to use two but to boil it down …. Lightning Source will get you distribution into bookstores (through Ingram typically 55% discount) and CreateSpace will get you distribution into Amazon (typically 40% discount).

Because it is POD you have a very small start-up cost ($75 for LightningSource and $40 for Amazon). The price of your books is directly related to number of pages (.85 + .012(pages)) for create space and .90 + .013(pages) for Lightning Source). As an example let’s assume you have a 300 page book selling for $15.00. The amount you would receive would be:

  • $10.55 for books sold directly by author
  • $4.55 for books sold on Amazon
  • $1.95 for books sold to the bookstore

The last choice which will potentially place the largest amount of money in the pocket of the author is true self publishing. In this option they basically become a small press. Only an author that really feels confident in their books success will want to go this route. But for instance it could be a good choice for an author that has already established a following through previously published works. The advantage of this over the POD route is a lower cost per book rate. But the downside is a higher up-front cost. I would suggest an initial run of 1,500 to 2,000 books and again for a 300 page novel this could result in unit prices of $2.00 to $2.30 a book. So again with a $15.00 list price the money to the author would be:

  • $13.00 for books sold directly by author
  • $4.75 for books sold to Amazon
  • $4.00 for books sold through the bookstores

There are many factors to consider when making your choice such as: patience, tolerance to rejection, need for control, desire for external validation, tolerance for risk, whether you are a self-starter or not and ultimately whether you want to just have a book printed for yourself and family or a widespread distribution plays more into the decision making process.

If an author places a high value on the opinions of others then they should definitely avoid any form of self or subsidized publishing. These books will always be thought of as “not making the grade” by many regardless of the number of units sold. There will always be a stigma that if the book was truly “good” then it would have been produced via a traditional publisher.

If the author values control then self-publishing is definitely the right choice for them. If they were a new author I would suggest self print on demand as the cost of full self-publishing makes it quite a gamble. If they already had a few books published I think going true self publishing is worth it as the higher per book profit is worth the up-front investment.

For myself, I would never use a vanity POD – as I think it is a bad call on straight business decision principals. But they do offer a tremendous convenience factor and many people are willing to pay exorbitant prices to have less that they have to do personally.

I will say for myself (in regards to my husband’s books) we have run the whole gambit. I started off by getting an agent and pursuing the large publisher. When we still were without a contract after 15 months I decided to submit to some smaller presses while I investigated self-publishing. I got to the state of actually printing up 300 “review copy” books when a small press offered a contract and we have now produced his first two books (The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha) through them.

*POD - many confuse this as a publishing format which it is not - it really is just a technology. With POD trade paperbacks are produced literally one at a time. This eliminates large press runs and warehousing of books altogether. When a purchase is made a book is printed and shipped usually within 24 – 48 hours of order. There are many disadvantages with using POD (will cover in more detail in a future post) but paramount is that they are usually not returnable and bookstores won't carry POD titles. Also some reviewers will not consider POD works (or self-published works) as they see these as "inferior products" because they did not have to go through the rigors of a third-party validation.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious as to why you didn't mention ebook publishing at all.

Robin Sullivan said...

I plan on discussing ebook publishing as its own topic - For the record I think "adding" ebook to a printed book is a good idea - I would not recommend "just" ebook.

Janet Muirhead Hill said...

Hi Robin,
I am a small independent publisher who started with true self-publishing. I have conducted workshops on publishing options. Your explanations seem accurate, unbiased, and understandable; a helpful overview for a new author trying to decide how to get their books in print. Thanks for taking the time.

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