Advice For Authors

Change the Game, Change the Name: Some Thoughts on Independent Publishing

by James Wade

I knew things had really, really changed when I saw a small ad in the New York Times Book Review saying, BIG TIME OPPORTUNITIES FOR SMALL PRESS PUBLISHERS: INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS AND AUTHORS OF NOT-SO-SUFFICIENT MEANS RECEIVE SPECIAL DISCOUNTED ADVERTISING RATES EVERY SUNDAY IN THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW.

I saw another clear indicator of where things were going when I went to a mystery writers’ conference about a year ago. I met two authors who had been successfully published by New York publishing houses. Both had elected to publish on their own.

I asked one of them (who did everything from storing inventory in his basement to toting packages down to the post office to shipping books to retailers—invoice enclosed) why he had taken on the sheer labor to do this. His answer: “Because I get to keep all the money.”

Both authors found that their net income from the number of copies they sold (in one case more copies than their publisher sold) exceeded their income from their publisher’s royalties.

But.

They had a track record.

Not only with the chains, but also with independent booksellers—with whom they could do business because the paperwork was not impossible to handle—and the independent bookstore owners and buyers are hospitable to authors they knew.

It may not necessarily be a relationship with a bookstore, which is one way of reaching your potential readership, but you have to connect with your potential readers. So how do you get the book or e-Book to them (and get paid!) when you ship or download it?

Getting the book into print—either in hardcover or paperback format is really the easier part of the process.

My colleague Paul De Angelis has posted (see our blog) a concise overview of the two routes to independent publishing.

In order to publish a printed book independently, on your own, maybe with some help, you MUST be capable of working with the Internet. Without this knowledge and skill-set, you face insurmountable obstacles.

Independent publishing has become an economically feasible alternative to getting a book published (in printed and e-book form) by a conventional “trade” publisher. General or “conventional” trade publishing focuses on the full range of fiction and non-fiction published for sale through the “trade”—bookstores, wholesalers (jobbers) and channels like mail order. And not just through bookstores—books (in a limited selection) are heaped on tables in BJ’s and Costco. As an independent publisher, you will find it challenging to get into even part of this system of book marketing, sales, and distribution. That’s why we have to examine what manageable options are available to you—and the first step is finding out how to let potential readers know your book is available. Then you have to find a way to print and ship the books that readers (or booksellers) order.

If you are doing it ALL by yourself, you have to do much or most of what a conventional publisher does—if you aspire to get your printed book into bookstores. Selling your book (or e-Book) directly to a reader is another matter.

I am not going to recommend any professionals offering services that will help you handle some of the preparatory work required to make your book ready for printing and binding, but I will specify some of the support services you need to function as an independent publisher.

Members of the Independent Editors Group have collectively steered many authors through the reefs and shoals of independent publishing but we are well aware that we don’t begin to have a handle on the vast and wildly proliferating choices of services, from editing and printing to distribution (or, in the case of e-Books, formatting and distributing.)

As will soon become obvious, printed books are in my comfort zone. But print is now inseparable from electronic; there is a synergy between the two. In either format, unless you are a seasoned expert you are going to need experts to help you cope in some of the areas described below. When we work with authors, helping them independently publish their books in both print and e-Book format, we recommend such experts, professionals we know and have worked with.

The two most important considerations about independent publishing, whether you are publishing just one book or several, are, first, deciding whether, since you are in business, you’re able to think and act accordingly. Second, you must decide how many of the functions involved in publishing a book can you afford (in time and money) to take on. Do you want to do it all on your own—every step of the way? Or do you want to hand over all or some or many, of those functions to vendors providing services for a fee?

Independent publishing is NOT the same as vanity publishing in days of yore, when an unknown writer was willing to pay (a lot) to have a book printed (and little more) in order to give copies to friends, family, business associates, or you name it. It was expensive—and it had nothing to do with real publishing and distribution.

The tectonic shifts that are shaking up publishing came about thanks to technology—the ability to print a book—just one copy of a book or many—on demand, and the exponentially growing reach of the Internet, as well as economics—publishers’ overheads are increasingly difficult to sustain, particularly because the income stream from sales of e-Books (per copy sold) is a lot thinner than that derived from sales of a printed book (or “wood” book as the current jargon has it.) E-Books account for 20% of general publishing sales today.

Conventional book publishing’s problems aren’t your real concern. What you ought to be looking at is what “value-added” services conventional publishing offers. How can you work out your version of what a trade publisher does?

First of all, you have to go exploring on the Web. Google all the services you will need. And when you find a vendor of a particular service, remember that you are in a business: check them out thoroughly, ask (in the case of individuals like editors or copy editors or publicists) for a “resume” of their qualifications, past performance, publishing companies they have worked with, authors they have edited (generally editors, copyeditors, designers and others can mention only the names of those authors who have acknowledged them in the printed book.) Be demanding; shop thoroughly and spend the time necessary to do so. Also look for any negative comments—via Google—from people who have used those vendors of services and found them less than satisfactory. You’ll find them on the Web if you just go deep enough.

I am not going to get into the process involved in book production here: the creating of any form of book: whether in electronic form only, in a print run of 25 to 25,000, or as a “potential” print-on-demand (P.O.D.) file, this process is straightforward and is covered in every halfway decent book about DIY publishing. Creating the product—whether virtual or physical—is also the one part of book publishing that ANY subsidy-based publisher has to know how to do adequately to have a prayer of staying in business. So I’m not going to ouch on those questions in this essay.

But on thing I will do is put in a plug here for the services of an independent editor—like those who you can become acquainted with on this website. Hiring an editor with concrete experience in the marketplace of publishing to work with you to make your book as good as it can be—if you can afford it—is a highly recommended. The independent editor works with you on the macro or “big picture”—structure of the narrative, characterization, plot, etc. This is not the same function as that of a copyediting or proofreading—other editorial tasks that are also essential to producing a professional quality book. You will review the editor’s changes and suggestions and accept or reject them. Yours, as author, is the last word.

The cost of editing depends on many factors—the length of the manuscript, the amount of work that has to be done. An editor may charge per manuscript page, or the hours spent doing the editing, or agree on a comprehensive fee with the author. A commercial publisher generally pays a fee ranging from $7,500 to $10,000 for freelance editing on a book that will run 288 to 520 printed book pages. Fees for longer books, and ones that require a great deal of work, can go considerably higher. I think you will find that a freelance editor is always willing to work with your cost constraints and budget when negotiating a fee with you. If you see some “one-stop shopping” supplier of services offering “editing” for, say, $2,000 then you might consider the fact that you can buy a “Rolex” from a street hustler for $ 25.00. You mostly get what you pay for.

First-class, experienced copyeditors charge between $28 and $40 per hour, proofreaders somewhat less.


Marketing, Sales and Order Fulfillment

Unless you are going to be handling all your sales personally (at your speaking engagements, our of the trunk of your car, or to your neighbors and friends out of your garage) sales and order fulfillment are going to be essential aspects of your publishing venture. Although the nature of the process involved will vary greatly depending on he nature of the book (again, whether it’s an eBook, a large- or short-run print book, or a print-on-demand item), the basics are as straightforward as book production. The only problem is, the basics won’t get you any distribution worth talking about. But the complications of getting books into physical outlets or mentioned on virtual outlets are worth an entire book and simply beyond the scope of this piece. And none of these efforts at making a book either physically or electronically available will mean a thing if there’s no effective marketing to encourage buyers to buy the thing.


Publicity and Marketing

The hard-working folks in the publicity department of a publishing house are responsible for getting advance (bound paperback, uncorrected proof copies that have a version of the jacket/cover on the front and information about the official publication date, advertising and promotion plans, etc. on the back) to key review media (Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, Library Journal, etc) and actual finished review copies of the book to a long list of potential reviewers in print and electronic media, etc.

Their job is to get “free” exposure (as opposed to advertising) for the book—ideally in national print and electronic media and in targeted local or regional media. They dream of getting an author on Oprah or (more modestly and realistically) NPR or reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. They put together those exhausting promo tours that have the author (only a select number of authors!) going from city to city, doing local TV, radio or print interviews, signing books in bookstores, and anything else they can think of to get exposure for the book. Theirs is demanding and valuable work. You will not be able to do what they do—except in one area. These days every author has (or should have) a website (and a blog, and a Face-Book page, and Twitter, and join LinkedIn and, and, and…

More and more publicity and promotion is being done in a synergistic relationship between the Internet assets of the author and the publisher. As I noted earlier, you MUST create a platform, whether you want your book to be published by a trade publisher or do it yourself. At the minimum, your platform will be a web site.

Publicity for fiction is an uphill battle. Unless you are John Grisham or a stupendous first novelist writing about vampires and aliens in the US Congress, an honest and experienced publicist won’t usually want to take you on. (Beware of one who does make an offer!)

Here is an example of what a really effective free-lance publicist might charge for and include in a campaign for publicity and marketing for a work of non-fiction:


Sample Publicity/Marketing costs and functions:


I. Publicity Campaign:

—Writing the book press release.

—Widespread hard mailing & emailing of press release to:

  • Book review editors at publishing trades (Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly & others)
  • Book review blogs
  • Topic editors and book reviewers at mainstream consumer magazines

—Target NPR (the best book promo available) and Brian Lamb on C-Span.

—Mailings of advance galleys to the “top 25” book reviewers, from Booklist to The New York Times, each preceded by a personal email alerting each reviewer about the book and that a set of galleys are forthcoming.

—Direct contact (mail, email, phone) with reviewers.

—Provide authors with the names of journalists’ and publications being targeted and weekly activity reports.

The fee for this kind of national (not regional) campaign is going to run around $ 7,500 to $10,000 or more for a specified and limited period.

The costs of mailing galleys and releases, as well as any copying of manuscripts, etc., are usually separate costs. An expense estimate for these additional costs should be provided before these expenditures are made.

Many high-end publicists charge $3,000 per month or more for a specified period pre- and post-publication.


II. Marketing:

—Creating a Website (single page) for the book and sending out promotional material (these marketing functions fall outside the range of the narrow definition of “publicity,” being really part of platform-building; however, many publicists can offer these minimal web & mailing services, so I include them here.)

The fee for getting a site up can run $3,750 and up. The costs of preparing and sending out promotional printed items generally runs $300 or more

If you go on Google and search for free-lance publicists, you will find some good multiple listings and individual sites, with ample detail on background, experience, services provided, etc. An effective publicist will a)tell you if he or she can’t really help you get your book out there and b) if they agree to take you on how much it will cost. In detail.


Marketing—The “Platform”

Editors at traditional, conventional publishing houses rely on agents to serve as a kind of filter—they assume that an agent is not going to submit a “hopeless” book. But these days their first question, when submitted a manuscript or a proposal, is “What’s the platform?” Put simply, that means, if one wants to take a cynical point of view, “what can the author do for his or her book that we can’t or won’t do?” The acquisitions editor knows, all too well, that this will be the first question asked by his colleagues in marketing, who, more often than not, have the decisive vote on whether or not an offer to publish the book will be made.

So, as I asked earlier, what’s your platform? The publisher would like to hear things like, “The booker for Charlie Rose (or Jay Leno) has promised to get me on” or “My site has 1,000 hits (unique visits per month) or “I have 70.000 followers on Twitter.” Do you have an impressive record of speeches (past and scheduled forward) to a target audience? What ways (the more the better) do you have to connect with the people who are likely to buy your book?

As an independent publisher, you must work primarily is the electronic and social network media to create your platform. It simply may not be affordable for you to hire a qualified independent publicist.

You may contract out the construction of a Website—but more than a few authors find that pricey web designers charge $20,000 or more. You should be able to get a good site design for much less—$3,000 to $7,000 depending on how many bells and whistles you want.


Author websites

Below, I discuss some author websites I find effective.

  • Joel Kotkin has more hits, so he tells me, than any other site dealing with his focus on urban geography, demographics, and related issues. I think it is a very effective non-fiction site, and on an impressive record of published books.
    www.joelkotkin.com
  • Mary Beard is one of the most prolific authors in the field of ancient Roman and Greek history and literature. Her site is anything but fusty and “ancient” because it serves as a window into her multifaceted interests, activities and personal life—a great motivator for reading some of her many books. Try this one and see what you think.
    http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life

And here are some examples of sites by novelists who publish independently:

  • www.donbrunsbooks.com A really lively, graphic-loaded site put up by a writer who has thrived in the DIY world.
  • www.Lisa-Black.com Lisa’s site is well worth a visit. Again, the design of the site matters a great deal.
  • www.TomCorcoran.net A very nice site, with a balmy Key West atmosphere.

It so happens that all of the three novelists listed above write in a specific category—mystery-thrillers. I selected these sites as examples of ones directed at a very well targeted audience.

Finally, let me suggest that you visit the site of one of the top mystery writers of our time, Lawrence (Larry) Block. In the interest of full disclosure he is a friend of over 40 years. But—and here’s the kicker—you just might find a free e-Book download! www.lawrenceblock.com/index_frameset.htm

  • And another suggestion—another old friend and author, Brian Garfield (also a screenwriter, with more than a few of his books made into motion pictures—mostly not to his satisfaction, as he would tell you. But then, what authors would not have the same complaint?!) Brian has published both fiction and non-fiction. www.briangarfield.net/works.htm

Maximizing your web presence

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is how your website and blog will pop up on a Google search and how you maximize this. Google changes its algorithms continually. Keywords are no longer very important. What is most important is the content and links to other sites. Here are some of the aspects of a web marketing campaign that either you or a web marketing professional may want to undertake:

— creating & executing a strategy for getting good exposure on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Linked In
—contacting bloggers who might have an interest in your book, offering them excerpts, review copies, interviews, etc.
—setting up a blog tour with 12–15 guaranteed sites (you can pay a fee for this)
—setting up an email list and regular newsletter
—setting up an author presence on Amazon, Goodreads, Library Thing, Shelfari, Bookbuzzr, Authors Guild/Filed By)

If you don’t know much about how to do it, there are more and more conventions and conferences directed at authors who want to publish independently (the DIY Publishing Conference organized by Book Expo America, usually at the end of May in NYC; the Self-Publishing Book Expo, usually in October, also in NYC, among others).

You might also look at various books, including:

—Sue Collier, THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO SELF PUBLISHING (Writers Digest.) www.SelfPublishingResources.com
—Mark Levine, THE FINE PRINT OF SELF-PUBLISHING by Mark Levine (Bascom Hill)
—Arielle Eckstut & David Henry Sterry, THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED (Workman). thebookdoctors.com (not to be confused with this website, bookdocs.com)

Advertising

Publishers used to do a great deal of print (and, for name brand authors and lead titles, TV and radio) advertising but, if you have watched things like the New York Times Book Review becoming increasingly thin, with less and less advertising, you will see that print is less and less cost-effective. You can’t afford and do not need such advertising—unless you have developed a strong relationship with local retailers and can do very local and targeted ads, possibly with the retailer sharing the cost (co-op) and getting a favorable ad rate. You must concentrate on what you can do on-line. Which is a lot. It would be nice to pay for an advertising spot (sponsored link) on Google or a pop-up on a big click site but you don’t have the money to pay for it unless you are George Soros or Bill Gates.

Some publishing “full service” providers (see below) will advertise your book in print media, mainly in places like The New York Review of Books—a page full of yours and other books—for about $700.00 or more. Is it worth it?


Using the Big Box Guys

So, we have gone through all the things you have to do if you do all of them on your own. Whew! How about one-stop shopping instead? For that, you can always go to a full service subsidy publisher like XLibris, iUniverse—the online version of the big box store. For example, go to Amazon.com’s CreateSpace and see what they have to offer. No need for me to describe their services in both e-Books and “wood” books. Look way, way down on the Amazon home page and look for self-publishing—CreateSpace—and see how it describes itself.

www.createspace.com

Look deeper into the fine print. What they are offering is, first, to produce your book in whatever format you want. Look into their price per copy of a book of X pages and all the costs that go into it. Amazon will bill and ship your work. For a price . . . which is sometimes a little difficult to worm out of them. Some months ago Larry Kirshbaum, a top-level executive in publishing for many years and more recently an agent, left agenting to become VP and publisher for Amazon’s New York office. He is going to head up a general (trade) publishing operation. You might well come on to his radar through an Amazon contact.

There are other “big box” guys besides Amazon, for example, Lulu, which seems to be focusing recently on eBooks:

And, finally, let’s take a final look at another option.


The Old Guard

According to postings on the Internet, ”Author Solutions owns the Author House, iUniverse, Trafford Publishing, Xlibris and Wordclay” imprints. It calls itself “the world leader in indie book publishing” despite the fact there is nothing even vaguely “indie” about the company or the books it produces.

I have assisted authors through the process with both iUniverse and Xlibris. Both are expensive. Here is an actual example of a book produced by one of these firms. The printed book ran 427 pages in 6x9 format.

In one case, the sample page layouts were so banal that I worked up my own version of page layouts. On the other hand, the people at this unspecified company produced a stunning jacket design! (Much better than the one I had suggested.)

All the registration stuff was done competently—copyright notice and LCC info on the verso, ISBN and bar codes on the back jacket and cover. (The author wanted both some hardcover and paperback copies.

It was a good-looking book, even by trade publishing standards. But its base cost was $ 6,000. For that the author got only a very small number of hardcover and paperback copies (all he wanted was 15 hard and 40 paperback initialy, as I recall) included in the base price. (There were add-ons for “expedited service” ($350.00) and others, bringing the total bill to just over $ 7,000.) I don’t have a record of what the charge would have been for additional copies. (These figures were furnished to me by the author, with his consent.)

So you do the math.

If you decide to consider any of these services, ask very detailed questions about costs for prep and production as well as how they handle orders and distribution. In fairness, the authors I worked with on books produced by these and other services like them were satisfied by what they got for what they paid. At least, what they got in the way of a printed book.


Other views

I am attaching some articles that may be of interest. I don’t have any comments to make on their substance and do not endorse the points of view expressed.

More Advice for Authors

ER for Fiction Writers
by Jerry Gross


book Books:

Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 That Sold and Why, 2nd Edition by Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman

Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents 2009: Who They Are! What They Want! How To Win Them Over! 19th Edition by Jeff Herman

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It... Successfully by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry

Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get It Published by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner

The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit by Elizabeth Lyon

Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know about What Editors Do by Gerald C. Gross.


mouse Websites:

Agent Query

mediabistro.com

Writer Beware

Publishers Marketplace

American Society of Indexers