Lessons Learned: Self Publishing – Part One

Taking a break from reviewing, I thought maybe I could (or should?) share some information that’s in my head.  It may be of benefit to some.  It may be stone useless.  As always, the reader decides what’s useful.  (I hope eternally, at any rate.  Please don’t let anyone tell you what information is useful to you! If they try to do so, at the very least be skeptical.)

See, I’ve been doing a lot of panels lately, at Farpoint and Mysticon.  Some of them were just entertaining at best, some imparted useful information, and at a few it was clear that the audience came wanting to learn something, came with questions they needed answered.  Since con panels tend to be, more than anything else, a collection of people with very healthy egos, talking about themselves (I am no exception as a panelist), sometimes those questions don’t get answered.  That fact, to paraphrase the great Ricardo Montalban, tasks me.

Information should be free, and information should be shared.  If you possess knowledge, that knowledge is, like your DNA, something that’s only placed in your keeping for a season.  You can do at lot with it, but it’s not, and never can be, yours.  When people tell me I should charge to share what I know, I dismiss them.  I should (and do!) charge to employ what I know.  That’s my contribution: how I use what I know.  Anyone can learn the things that I’ve learned.  Many have.  Some have gotten richer than I by using that knowledge.  More power to them.  Their genius earned them a reward.  Most people, though, don’t use knowledge very well.  I believe anyone who shares what he knows freely and only charges to use his knowledge won’t go hungry.

It therefore occurs to me to start imparting some of the stuff I’ve learned along the way.  The first subject I’d like to tackle is self-publishing.  I’ve participated in two panel discussions on this topic in the last two weeks, and dozens in the past six years.  I’ve walked away from all of them feeling that the audience wanted to know more, and some of them feeling the audience should get their money back, we panelists so ill-served their needs.

So here’s my capsule thoughts on self-publishing.  They’re not the be-all and end-all, by any means. I shan’t call this a “how-to” or a “primer” or any such.  I don’t claim to know enough to write the compleat guide to self-publishing.  What worked for me may not work for you.  Hell, it may not be working for me.  I’m satisfied, but that may just be the mental illness talking.  I hope my thoughts on the subject help you.  I also urge you to seek the thoughts of others.  My friend and fellow author Phil Giunta does a wonderful weekly round-up of blog entries on writing and publishing, and authors like Cory Doctorow, Scott Sigler and J.A. Konrath are veritable founts of knowledge on the subject.

Assumption – You’ve written a book – You probably wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t already have a book you want to publish.  Don’t think about publishing until you’ve finished the book.  It’s pointless.  To do so would be the equivalent of opening a store without having any products on the shelves.  So, if you don’t have a book, close your browser and get writing!

Lesson 0 – Know Your Goal – Aaron Rosenberg stressed this when we tackled self-publishing at Farpoint.  Do you want to get rich by being an author?  (Get help!)  Do you want a comfortable living?  (Switch off your ego!)  Do you want your books in brick-and-mortar stores?  (Hurry! Your next book will still be in print when they’re all gone!)  Do you simply want your story to be heard or read?  We get into the writing and publishing game for a multitude of reasons.  Know yours before you think about publishing.

Lesson 1 – Become a small press

I started Firebringer Press in 2006 in order to publish my first novel, Taken Liberty.  Firebringer is, granted, a small press.  The authors whom it publishes are not self-published.  Since I was its first author, however, and I own Firebringer, I guess I’m a self-publishing small press.  And that’s my first piece of advice about self-publishing.  Don’t be an author seeking publication.  Be a publisher.  That means pick a name, register with R.R. Bowker, the international entity which distributes ISBNs, buy ISBNs, learn what an ISBN is if you don’t know already, set up a website, arrange distribution.

Lesson 1A – Distribution – getting your books created and distributed used to be a daunting proposition.  Starting a small press meant laying out the funds to get (at least) thousands of copies of books printed.  You then had to warehouse them (no car parked in your garage!) and pay to ship them to retail markets.  With the advent of Print on Demand (POD) technology, there’s no need for those thousands of copies to be created in advance.  No physical book need exist until a customer orders the book.  This advance in technology has allowed big distributors like Ingram and Baker & Taylor (the folks who send the books to your library or your bookstore) to take on the distribution of small presses everywhere, allowing access to world-wide distribution to the mom-and-pop publishing house.

Of course, in addition to the traditional distributors, there’s the new kid on the block.  Make that the 800-pound gorilla on the block: Amazon.com.  Amazon is likely now the biggest distributor of books (and a helluva a lot of other things) in the world.  And Amazon is more than willing to distribute your book for you.  Best of all, they’ll handle distribution without you having to ship them any physical books, using that same POD technology.

I started using LightningSource in 2006, introduced to it by my friend, fellow author and fellow small press / self-publisher, Don Sakers.  LightningSource is a book producer and distributor.  They are not a publisher.  They are not an author service company.  They don’t deal with authors.  They deal with publishers.  An author is welcome to act as a publisher, but he must approach LightningSource with a book that’s ready for press, meaning that it already has cover art, has already been laid out in camera ready format (an outdated term, but it means the pages look exactly the way they will when they are printed in a book), has an ISBN registered by the publisher.   He also should (but they don’t care) have a book that’s been professionally proofread and professionally edited.

LightningSource is very helpful and very customer friendly.  The will not design or edit your book for you, but they do offer a lot of helpful guides on getting it ready for them to print and distribute as a POD title.

LightningSource is a subsidiary of Ingram, an international book distribution giant.  So books created using LightningSource can be easily ordered by libraries and bookstores worldwide.  They also automatically appear on websites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart and Target.  Best of all, when a customer orders a book through one of these sites, you don’t have to lift a finger.  LightningSource just pays you your share.   (About 20% of the retail price, if you’re offering the standard 55% discount to retailers, which I recommend.)

There are other avenues to creating and distributing physical books.  CreateSpace by Amazon is staggeringly popular.  CreateSpace is expanding its menu of services almost daily, but keep in mind that it started, not as a distributor, but as an author service company.  An author service company is a publisher which doesn’t do all the work for you.  It doesn’t critique, edit or proofread.  It doesn’t hire cover artists (though it may offer cover templates and creation software).   It doesn’t market your book.  It prints your book and gets it distributed in exchange for a share of the profits, and usually some nominal upfront fees.  CreateSpace used to only distribute via Amazon, but, for more money, they’ll now distribute to other retailers and to libraries.  They used to sell you an ISBN number, meaning that, to R.R. Bowker, they were your publisher.   I believe they now let you supply your own ISBN, if you choose.  So they’re becoming a viable alternative to Lightning Source, and they offer more up-front services.

Another author service company is Lulu.com.  They actually use LightningSource for fulfillment, but they absorb most of the up-front cost of setting up the title for print (My first book cost me about $500 just to set up.  That included the cost of ten ISBN numbers, so subsequent books are a lot less.)  On the other hand, Lulu.com takes a much larger chunk of the sales of your books.  I once ran the numbers, and I think, once you’ve sold 200 copies, you’re losing money with Lulu.  But a lot of people are happy with their services.  Like CreateSpace, I bet they’re expanding their offerings all the time.

Lesson 1B – Forget Brick & Mortar – I love bookstores.  I visit them everywhere I go.  I spend hours in them weekly.  In today’s publishing environment, however, you’ve got to accept that publishing success has nothing to do with having a pyramid of books in the front of your local bookstore.  That pyramid will probably be demolished next week,  and the books which built it will be shipped back to the publisher.  Pyramids do not represent sales.  They represent wasteful marketing by a dying industry.  Your sales will come from online retailers.  Focus on those.

And that bit of non-traditional thinking leads me to…

Lesson 1C – Don’t judge a book by its (lack of) cover – If you’ve produced a finished, edited, formatted manuscript with nifty, professional artwork on the front, and you get it turned into a lovely trade or mass-market paperback, you’ve done no more than a third of the job of creating a book in the 21st Century.  Customers expect a book to do a lot more than be available on their bedside table.  They want to be able to download it onto a myriad of electronic devices, and they want to be able to listen to it in the car, or while they jog, or as they go to sleep.

Every book needs to be an eBook, and there are easy ways to get your book into that format.  Amazon dove into the eBook pool first, offering authors and small publishers the chance to use their tools to create Kindle books.  My first Kindle book wasn’t formatted as well as it could be, and Amazon’s tools at the time weren’t particularly user friendly or thorough.  But a newer arrival, Smashwords.com, offers distribution of eBooks to Amazon, Sony, and Barnes & Noble, as well as retail sale through their own site.  Smashwords has an extensive library of support information for creating eBooks, and an approval and vetting process that can’t be beat.

I also offer eBooks via OverDrive.com and EBSCO, both of whom supply libraries.  Sadly, most of the traditional publishers are now moving away from offering eBooks to libraries, which I think only shows, again, that they’re running scared.

And how does your reader get to listen to your book in the car or on the treadmill?  Well, most computers can read a document to you now, so… Yeah.  Ugh.  No one wants to hear the prose of Ray Bradbury rendered by Microsoft Sam.  Fortunately, authors who are willing to take the time and trouble to create an audio version of their books have several options for getting them to listeners.   (Creating an audio book  can be as expensive as paying a voice actor and sound engineers to produce a recording, or as simple as learning the basics and recording it yourself.  It’s work.  A lot of work! But it can be done.)

OverDrive and ESBCO both offer my audio books to libraries.  My EBSCO deal is still in the offing, but OverDrive sends a royalty check every quarter.  Audible has started a service called ACX, through which independents can get audio books listed in their catalog.  And, if your goal allows you to give work away free, PodioBooks.com has an amazing site where authors can upload free audio books.  Many of the PodioBooks authors are professionals with contracts from major publishers.   They’re not making a lot of money (thought Podiobooks does an admirable job of taking donations and sharing them with authors), but they’re certainly getting their books heard.  My first novel, Taken Liberty passed ten thousand downloads a couple of years ago.   (Note: If you’re a PodioBooks author, ACX doesn’t want to talk to you.  Them’s the breaks.)

Lesson 1D – I Shall Not Return – Returns.   Dirty little secret of the publishing industry – most books get destroyed unsold.  A book with good reviews is ordered by stores nationwide and shipped in huge quantities.  Most copies sit on the shelf unsold.  Stores can’t give space to books that don’t sell, so they pull them and ship them back for a refund.  Hardbacks get thrown (yes thrown) in boxes and shipped to warehouses in hopes of finding a home in a closeout store.  Paperbacks have their covers ripped off.  The covers are mailed to the publisher as proof that the book was destroyed.  The books are tossed.  The publisher then pays the retailer for the privilege of having his book destroyed.  The good thing about a publisher taking returns is that he sells a lot of books right now, because there’s little risk to the retailer.  The bad thing is that the time will come to pay the piper.  If you don’t sell enough to cover the cost of the returns (very likely) you could be in for a world of hurt.  Does this start to explain why paperbacks now cost nearly ten bucks?

Some small publishers I know are willing to take returns.  I’m not.  I’d be interested in hearing feedback on this.

I realize now that there are many more bullet points in my outline below this line, and I’ve already filled five pages.  I think it’s best to split this column in two.  So, tune in next week.  And please, please, please, if you have advice or feedback, share it.  There’s a wealth of information distributed across many, many brains on this subject.  The more of it hopeful authors and publishers hear, the better.


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