Book production has long been considered the work of publishing houses operating for profit. If they can sell it, they will publish. If it won’t sell enough copies, in a short enough time, then it’s likely to be rejected. This project investigates alternatives to the traditional publishing house for authors who take it upon themselves to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’. The paper also explores publishing options for groups and organisations who commission writers for a specific theme or event, one usually not coveted by mainstream publishing houses. Such groups or organisations often have access to a ready made audience, which is not the same as a commercial publisher targeting potential buyers who want to buy and maybe read ‘prestigious’ books by ‘famous’ prize winning authors. While authors who self-publish may risk a significant amount of their own time and capital, the payoff is a much larger percentage of the sale price being returned as profit. New media, in particular the Internet and digital printing, have opened up a wealth of opportunities. This paper aims to help writers avoid the known pitfalls and offers viable solutions for getting books published, promoted, and most importantly, sold.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century it was common for legitimate authors to pay the costs of publishing their books. Such writers could expect more control of their work, greater profits, or both. Self-publishing was not judged negatively as it has been more recently. Among the authors taking this route to publication was Lewis Carroll, who paid the expenses of publishing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and most of his subsequent work. Such authors as Mark Twain, Zane Grey, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Bernard Shaw, Edgar Allen Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Anais Nin also resorted to self-publication for some or all of their works.
Before I look at the process of self-publishing, together with publicity, promotion and distribution, I want to bring in a success story! In 2007 two Queensland housewives, Kim McCosker and Rachael Bermingham, produced a self-published, low-priced book with super-simple recipes and no photos. Their book 4 Ingredients outsold every celebrity chef on the shelves, selling more than 420,000 copies in less than a year, making it the top-selling Australian book. The book has sat on the Nielsen BookScan national bestseller list since June 2007 while also featuring in New Zealand’s top five bestsellers (with British publication and a television show under discussion). However, BookScan’s Australian sales figure of 131,400 copies for the year, which placed 4 Ingredients at No.7, does not tell the whole story. New Zealand, plus internet and other direct sales, took the total to 565,000 sales and by the end of 2008 it had sold over 950,000 copies. These two authors found quite a large hole in the market and promptly filled it. McCosker re-mortgaged the family home to back the project. ‘Major publishers told us the book wouldn’t sell,’ McCosker says. ‘They said the concept was all wrong, the lack of photos was all wrong, that the market was heavily saturated with cookbooks. There was so much negativity but when you pull $72,000 out of your mortgage you become exceptionally motivated.’ Publishers who spurned the Sunshine Coast cooks are now clambering all over the pair, plying them with champagne and expenses-paid trips to Sydney, however, McCosker and Bermingham still continue to self-publish.
The first step to a successful self-publishing venture is to set out a schedule that is both realistic and allows a margin for unforeseen circumstances. Planning is the key to making the publication an enjoyable process, for it is better to take a little longer to produce a good-quality product than make costly mistakes as a result of rushing. Generally, the main stages in the production process are writing, editing, design and printing. However, there are various steps within each of these stages.
To make the manuscript easier to edit and typeset it should be presented using a program such as Microsoft Word (.doc). The writer should also supply the document as an A4 size hard copy printed one side, with double line spacing and a 3cm margin (important if they require an editing service), and numbered every page. Providing hard copy without a digital file will incur additional expense, as retyping a manuscript or scanning each page using OCR software is time consuming.
It is recommended that writers source a reliable editor to review their manuscript because it is too easy not to notice those little, and not so little, mistakes. The extent of an edit depends on budget. Costs will vary depending on the size of the manuscript and the level of editing required. Companies like Editonline offer a range of services including checking basic copyediting (grammar, spelling, typographical errors) and inconsistencies in style. At the other end of the scale, structural editing allows editors to make more detailed suggestions on how a writer can improve their text. Associations such as the Australian Society of Authors can point authors in the right direction in sourcing a reliable editor.
For those writers working on a non-existent budget there are still avenues open to publish. Businesses such as Worthy Of Publishing offer free resources for writers wishing to gain feedback from the market on their work. Online companies such as Lulu, CafePress and CreateSpace (part of the Amazon group of companies) offer free self-publishing and distribution facilities designed for authors to get published and reach readers. While the returns are minimal, a writer can access a number of books for a fraction of the price of traditional methods. If an author regards 100 book sales as a best seller then this is the option for them.
In the self-publishing world there are too many books which are let down by poorly conceived design and typesetting. What your book looks like is very important. While some authors are keen to design their cover and text themselves a professionally designed book is more likely to appeal to readers. A well designed book also stands a better chance of being supported by retailers – the easier your book is for booksellers to order and sell, the better. Paying a professional to manage the production of your book might sound expensive but a great cover, including the spine, can sell a book. In the few seconds it takes a potential customer to glance at the cover and read the blurb they have made up their mind to buy your book, or move on. To create an effective design an artist will need to know the number of colours the cover will be printed in (i.e. CMYK); the book’s finished size; its extent (to determine spine width); what the book is about; the wording and other elements; and what sort of look the writer wants. The author is welcome to show examples of what they like and don’t like about other books, but should try to allow the designers some creative freedom.
Generally, a book contains the following elements, although not always all of them, and usually in this standard order: half-title page; title page; imprint page; dedication; acknowledgments; foreword; contents; list of illustrations; preface; introduction; chapters (body text); epilogue; glossary; appendixes; list of abbreviations; notes; bibliography; index.
To ensure the book is presented as a professional package the author should ensure the information contained on the imprint page includes the publisher’s contact details, the author’s contact details, a copyright notice (including educational clause), a National Library of Australia CiP entry (containing your book’s ISBN), and details of the editor (if any), designer (including type style) and printer (including stock type).
There is no procedure necessary to protect copyright in a book – it is an automatic right. Generally, when an original work is written down, saved to disk, or recorded in some way, it is protected. There are a number of aspects of copyright that a self-publisher should be aware of. Copyright does not protect ideas or titles (although a title may be registered as a trademark), but it does protect the written or published form of their book. Although the duration of copyright protection can vary, in the case of books it generally lasts for the lifetime of the author of the book, plus 50 years.
Under international convention, Australian copyright works are protected in most other countries, and copyright works from most other countries are protected in Australia. Copyright is indicated by a copyright notice which consists of the symbol © (or the word ‘copyright’), the name of the copyright owner, and the year of first publication. The author, as publisher, is legally obliged to obtain permission to use others’ copyright protected material in their book. Copyright protection is a complex area and authors should seek advice on any areas they are unsure of. The Copyright Council of Australia is an independent non-profit organisation that freely provides a large number of information sheets on this topic.
One of the most important decisions a self-publisher must make concerning printing is what sort of paper and binding to use for the book, and how many copies will be printed. The quality of the paper will depend on what sort of book it is – possibly a coated stock for a photographic book, but inexpensive quality uncoated stock for a novel. A quality book printer will make suggestions as to the most suitable paper and binding. They will be able to provide the client with both printed book samples and paper swatches to allow the best choice within budget. The author should be we aware that to provide a full print quote the book printer will need to know the size of the work; the number of copies (quantity); the preferred stock (paper); the use of colour (i.e. mono, two, CMYK); the finishing (i.e. lamination); the binding (i.e. perfect bound); and delivery point.
The decision to print either digitally (toner) or offset (ink) comes down to quantity. While the more copies you print, the cheaper per unit it will be, it is not economical or efficient to print more copies of your book than you will be able to distribute. For cost effectiveness, if you were seeking a print run of under 750 copies you would be wise to look at a digital solution. Look for old-line book printers who have made the move into digital printing like Ligare, Griffin Press, or Macpherson’s. They are used to running books with correct grain paper and binding books that don’t fall apart as they tend to use real perfect binders, not the bargain basement versions run by most digital shops.
Popular with many self-publishers are the professional ‘fee-for-service’ publishing ventures. One of these newer enterprises is Red Hill Publishing owned by author and former HarperCollins associate nonfiction publisher Sally Collings and her husband Robert Collings. Red Hill Publishing specialise in nonfiction titles by authors it deems have a ‘commercially viable publishing proposal’ and a ‘clearly defined brand within their niche.’
Red Hill’s business model allows authors to retain their rights in a work, as well as profits after ‘an initial investment.’ ‘We believe that it’s timely to shift away from the “author as supplicant, publisher as gatekeeper” model that has prevailed in book publishing,’ said Collings of the business model. ‘Our authors know their business and their market, and we know books: we view that as a powerful collaboration. And yes, we do think there are some high-quality books that fall through the cracks because they will not generate the level of sales on first release that the major publishers require in order to make their sums work.’
Realising Your Goals
The goal of all authors is to ensure that their book reaches as many people as possible. There are a number of standard procedures and systems that guarantee that all publications can be located and used by a wide audience, and which protect your rights as a self-publisher. There are also certain legal requirements that you must meet as an author. Legal deposit is a mandatory requirement to ensure that copies of publications are deposited in libraries in the country in which they are published. In Australia, the Copyright Act 1968 and a number of State Acts require publishers to provide one copy of any work they publish to the National Library of Australia and to the relevant libraries in the state in which it is published. Legal deposit ensures that your book can be identified and used by as many people as possible, now and in the future.
All books published in Australia are eligible for free inclusion in Thorpe-Bowker’s Australian Books in Print, which is used by libraries and bookshops to identify and order titles for their customers. Produced in an online format, Australian Books in Print includes lists of Australian titles and authors, as well as contact details for Australian distributors. As Australian Books in Print is an excellent form of free advertising, it is important that the publisher provides up-to-date details for inclusion in each update. To ensure that libraries and bookshops are able to locate and order the books easily, it is essential that the writer provides as much information as possible, and as early as possible before the publication of their book.
When promoting their publication, authors should keep in mind that it needs to stand out from the thousands of other books that are published each year. Every week booksellers and book reviewers receive a multitude of catalogues, information sheets and review copies of masterpieces, and all will need more than a writer’s personal guarantee to be convinced that their book has something to offer the public.
If an author believes that their book is unique in its subject matter or takes a new approach to a subject, or if there is an interesting story behind their decision to self-publish the book, then newspapers, magazines, web sites, radio and television programs may wish to interview them about it. Authors should send a press release about their book to a range of publications and programs, and be sure to address them to the appropriate person. They should also pay as much attention to writing their press release as they did to writing their book, remembering that they need to grab the attention of the editor or producer who makes the decisions. The author should offer something timely, new or quirky, but make sure they approach the relevant contacts for the type of book they are publishing: if their book is light-hearted, don’t approach a serious, current affairs magazine or program. One of the best resources for deciding where to promote your book is Margaret Gee’s Media Guide, available in printed or online format, which lists contact details for media outlets all over Australia. Another option is to sign up for AAP MediaNet.
The author will need to set aside a number of copies of their book for promotional purposes. Sending out review copies can prove to be expensive if they don’t achieve their aim, so before authors send out finished copies, they need to plan their strategy. They may decide to send written material only, stating that a review copy is available on request, however, they should be sure to establish the reviewing policy of the publication in question. There may be particular guidelines that an author should follow to increase the chances of their book being reviewed; a magazine may commission books for review, rather than accept unsolicited material.
As well as general publications, authors should also target any specialist publications (both print and web based) that might be interested in their book. Many clubs and associations have their own member newsletters and are always keen to review a new product that relates to their special interest. Authors might also choose to send a reading copy to any bookshops they think might be interested.
Many bookshops like to support self-publishers, particularly local authors. Those who have a good relationship with their local bookseller should talk to them about the possibility of promoting their book. The owner may even support a reading and signing session if the book will be of interest to their local market. When sending review copies, authors should include an information sheet providing details about the book’s subject, some information about themselves, the price and format (hardback or paperback), the book’s ISBN and their contact details.
Most marketing efforts rely on understanding the target market. Authors should take some time to work out the type of person likely to buy their book. This involves considering the demographic characteristics (i.e. age, income, gender, occupation) and psychographics (i.e. lifestyle characteristics such as preferred television and radio stations, newspapers and magazines and peer group interaction).
Whether an author is creating a traditional print book or an e-book, creating a web site to promote themselves and their material is a fabulous marketing tool. Publishers of all sizes need a presence on the web. They should aim to sell books directly without retailer discounts; have access to their site content 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; be able to add pages to their web site; have their own web site address (URL); and provide a source of information for the media.
However, there’s no use spending valuable time and money in a web site no one will visit! The domain name should be prominent on all media produced on behalf of the book, including the book itself! Authors should investigate the best ways of getting their web site noticed online by visiting sites like Google who will offer valuable free advice on SEO, page rankings, and developing shared links. Authors should also consider ‘click per view’ advertising for their book by way of search engine result pages as this is both a clever and inexpensive way to reach the marketplace.
Commissioning a professional web designer should not be expensive. For a work of fiction, the author should provide the first chapter to spark reader interest. If their book falls into the non-fiction category, they can provide their reader with some opening lines in a selection of chapters. The best bet for an author is to check out other web sites for ideas when designing their own. A web site is always a work in progress, which is part of the excitement. Today it is quite easy to sell books worldwide from a web site. An author can set up a free account with a provider like PayPal which will allow them to accept payments in a variety of formats and currencies, provide useful tools when calculating shipping costs, and track their shipping online, all in a secure environment.
Surfing the net will uncover many online bookstores, apart from the more famous ones like Amazon or its Australian independent equivalent The Nile. Try a Google search for a comprehensive list and remember to check their policies regarding self-published and e-book authors. Many prefer to deal with traditional publishers or handle reprints from established authors, Abe Books is a good example of this. You can also sell your product on eBay, the global experience in online shopping.
You can enhance the traffic to your web site by including an RSS feed. This stands for Really Simple Syndication and is a way of sharing news. All you need is an RSS text file that contains information about your site plus your updated news, bookmarked by start and end tags. The tags contain a headline title, URL and description. To maximise the use of RSS, you can create a blog, which is an on-line diary updated perhaps more frequently than the traditional web site. Blogs often contain links, may include input from other people (like an on-line forum) and are a great way to share information about your latest book or product. Check out Blogger for more information on how to create a blog. For the more adventurous, who are keen to add images and video to their blog and link it all to a user friendly shopping cart, then the free service of Squidoo may be right for you.
While an author can’t control word-of-mouth publicity for their book, they can tell as many people as possible about it, and be proud of their achievement. Word-of-mouth publicity can also come about as the result of booksellers recommending it to their customers, or readers recommending it to others. It’s one of the best forms of publicity a publisher can hope to get. The online community is a great place to spread the word with sites like Facebook, Twitter and Myspace attracting millions of viewers each day.
According to the leading online monitoring company Hitwise, Facebook is the third highest ranked Web site on the Internet for web traffic. To put that number in perspective Amazon is ranked #33. So while authors spend countless hours and sometimes thousands of dollars to get a few copies on a shelf, spine out, in a bookstore visited by a few thousand people per month, in hopes of selling books, Facebook has tens of millions of visitors, and it costs nothing but a little bit of their time.
As an extension of the social networking sites, two of the Internet’s biggest book clubs, the Amazon owned Shelfari and the independent Library Thing allow readers to catalogue their books from anywhere online including Amazon and over 690 world libraries. It is easy to set up sub-groups where like minded people discuss new books to read, including early reviewer books from publishers and authors. As an example Library Thing helps the user create a library-quality catalogue of their books. Readers can do all of them or just what they’re reading now. And because each person’s catalogue is online, they also catalogue together. It is an ideal environment for the smart self-publisher to promote their wares.
However, all the promotion in the world will come to naught if the publisher cannot follow through and provide copies of their book quickly and efficiently. Authors can choose to distribute their book themselves, or employ a distributor or agent to supply their book to booksellers. Due to concerns about discounts and returns many large book chains do not deal directly with self-publishers. For a publisher to improve their chances of getting a distributor to handle their work they need to speak to them as early in their project as possible. This will assist distributors in giving feedback on their plans and ensure they are able to maximise a publisher’s sales.
The biggest advantage of using a distributor or commissioned agent to sell your book is that they have the expertise and resources to do the job effectively. The biggest drawback is that you will need to supply your book to a distributor at a heavy discount, as they are bearing the costs of supplying your book to bookshops, including their commission and discounts to booksellers. Also consider that if you are distributing your book yourself, you can focus all of your resources on it, whereas a distributor or agent is handling many titles at once. You need to be confident that a distributor will do justice to your book.
When seeking distribution, it is helpful to know that most retailers are sold into three months in advance, therefore, distributors like The Scribo Group usually prepare sales kits four months in advance. As an example, when submitting work to organisations like Scribo, publishers need to include such information as a sample of the book or, if unavailable, any sample text and/or cover pages; a one-page synopsis and a brief author biography; the book’s recommended retail price (including GST); and a planned publicity schedule.
All of this service comes at a cost, generally based on a percentage of the list price of each title sold. The percentage can be quite high, as much as 70%, and this will cut into an author’s profits in a major way. Of course, self-publishers could distribute the book themselves but they still need to factor in storage costs (free if they keep the titles in their garage), shipping fees, cost of returns, etc. Naturally, they will also have to offer retail discounts to encourage sales. Self managing distribution takes time and is an ongoing job. Authors need to be easily contactable (by phone, fax, mobile, email, and SMS), and able to provide quick turnaround of orders. They will also need to be vigilant in their accounting and offer standard terms of trade to booksellers.
The terms under which publishers supply their book to booksellers are referred to as ‘Terms of Trade’. If they complete their form for free listing of their publisher details in Australian Books in Print, they will be asked for details such as what discount they offer, whether they charge for freight, whether they have a ‘small order surcharge’, and what their ‘returns’ policy is. These terms of trade are very important decisions and should be based on sensible business principles that, while being attractive to booksellers, still allow a margin of profit for themselves. It’s worth reminding that major publishing houses on average pay an author only 10% from the sale of each book (minus any advance they have already received).
A general term of trade accepted by numerous self-publishers is to offer their books ‘on consignment’. This allows the bookseller to take a certain number of copies and pay the publisher as they are sold. The bookseller can also return unsold copies within a certain time. If a publisher chooses to sell their books at ‘firm sale’, booksellers will expect a higher discount for ‘taking the risk’ on your book.
There are numerous book competitions and awards which you may be able to enter. Although very few of them carry the money or prestige of the Man Booker prize, most of them provide an opportunity to receive feedback and possible accolades which can be very valuable for marketing your book. ‘Beware of scam competitions which require you to pay large entry fees – if the competition is being run by an organisation which sounds dubious, check it out with your local writers centre.’ The Australian Society of Authors can provide information about various awards, competitions, fellowships and grants which may be suitable for your book.
There are many ways for self-publishers to market their book on a very small budget. Generally, the less money you spend, the more energy you will need to expend! Many of the suggestions require little or no expenditure but will require time and effort. For example organising local book launches, targeting previous buyers (if applicable), and library talks including meet the author sessions at local libraries and writers groups. However, if a publisher has a bigger vision for their book and has the resources, many other options are available, such as paid advertising in appropriate media, and promotional materials (i.e. posters and fliers). One very simple idea is to produce a colour bookmark which not only features their book but also acts as a business card. The publisher should also include the web site address so people will know where to buy it. Readers are always keen to grab a free bookmark or two.
As with any business project, it is wise to have a business and/or marketing plan, however simple, to help keep the publishing process on track. One of the more helpful guides can be found online at the ANZ Bank web site which has a range of professional tools including business and marketing plan templates that can be downloaded for free.
Today, writing and publishing take place within a very changed social context. Until the availability of the PC, ‘writers’ did indeed write – with their hands. If their scribbling was to be printed, somebody had to ‘set’ the writing on a hot metal machine. Either the printer had the type ‘set’, line by line, in hot metal, or for newspapers or printed advertisements the letters were taken, one by one, from drawers of the appropriate font and type size. Printers or newspaper operators had to make sure that when their page ‘lock-ups’ were ‘unlocked’ that each of the letters, or lines of letters, were put back in the right boxes or drawers. It was all extraordinarily cumbersome, it was inky work, and most people wanted to keep away from it.
Contrast this with today’s situation where we are all in the electronic age and it’s also an information age; people think nothing about creating documents, publications or what you will. It’s within reach of just about everybody’s daily life, whereas it was once rare, arcane knowledge. The rest of the world has got all tangled up with the book world and isn’t put off any more. This, I think, is the social context for publishing, writing and book-making.
So where does that leave the writer, hoping for a chance? Without hope. Unless the writers, or artists, have the skills and confidence to do the job for themselves. Many won’t, quite a few will and this paper offers a way to those who may want to but lack a little confidence. It can be done. Indeed, it should be done, otherwise many fine ideas will never be turned into books, and the life of the mind will become a supermarket shelf, with stocks replaced as soon as they’re cleared. Thought itself can be turned into a profit-making product; there are people working on this all the time.
The alternative is for those who love books and feel a need to produce them to take control of the process. It’s a process as ancient as writing itself, and it’s as new as the electronic revolution. Only a good mind can create a good book, but to take that idea from the mind to the table, the desk, or your favourite chair, is a lot easier than it used to be.
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