I don’t know much

Yours Truly has, in the last few weeks/months, encountered several folks who have either taken advantage of established and emerging technology to produce their own books. I think this is a grand venture! As you know, Yours Truly works for a publishing organisation. We don’t publish books, but rather are an industry organisation that supports book publishers.

I don’t write very much here about my work. Something about my professional life and my personal life, and how I don’t really want to mix them up. But I’d like to talk a bit about publishing, particularly since Print on Demand (PoD) is becoming so much more easily accessible. The challenge will be for Yours Truly to keep it manageable. Also, I just want you to know that I am not a publisher, nor am I an expert on publishing. This is just a bit of information. If you want more information, you can always contact Yours Truly at work.

You have a manuscript. You’ve written something and you’ve decided you don’t want to submit it for ‘traditional publishing’ (meaning sending out the manuscript to established publishing houses for consideration for their publishing program). You’ve decided you’d like to publish it yourself, for whatever reason (and there are many).

1. Find a professional editor.
I don’t mean your friend from University who took English. I mean someone who specialises in editing. Someone who does it for money. Editing, I mean. Not the hootchie-coo. You could check with the Editor’s Association of Canada (EAC) to find an editor, or you could put an advert in your local writers’ guild newsletter, or you could find your local publishing group, or you could go to the library and find a book called The Book Trade in Canada, and use it as a resource to find an editor. Or you could just ask Mmmmmmmrilla, or even Yours Truly. You’ll need an editor for at least two things, and these are things you really shouldn’t skimp on.

You’ll need a manuscript editor; someone who will be able to tell you if you’ve put together your book well. In a pacing sense. Someone who can tell you whether the timeline makes sense, whether your story has internal consistency…those sorts of things.

That being said, my personal opinion is that a proofreader/copy editor is more important than a manuscript editor. These are the brilliant and devilishly sexy people who make sure that your *sentences* make sense. They dot your Ts and cross your eyes. No, wait. They check your book for spelling errors, for grammatical mistakes, for typos, for wrong words (incidentally, we don’t ‘pour’ over books; we ‘pore’ over books), comma splices, dangling participles, and all the truly, truly nerdy stuff. Books that have internal inconsistencies are frustrating, but books that you can’t read because it appears to have been written by a brain damaged monkey are MADDENING. Even to people who don’t repair split infinitives for a living. And they are, again, in my opinion, fixable. So. Find an editor. Someone who knows what they’re doing.

More to the point, *PAY* for an editor. Most of your family, friends, and neighbours will read your book and tell you it’s great, or they’ll offer you a couple of suggestions, but unless you’re related to a professional editor, you will get exactly your money’s worth if you solicit free advice.

2. Hire a designer.

You might think you have the BEST IDEA EVAR for your cover, and by God, you might be right. But book design goes much, much further than the cover. Find someone who has designed books before; someone who’s worked with InDesign or Quark (industry standard for book design). There is *so much* to think about when it comes to design. In fact, I think I’ll devote another entire post to the issue of book design.

3. Printing.

One of the most expensive parts of getting your book published. Or rather, it can be. Friesens Printers in Manitoba has a fabulous short-run printing press that will do standard books with covers, perfect bound (that means the pages are glued into the spine; as opposed to books whose pages are stitched together, or spiral bound or stapled up the centre); a minimum print run of a couple of hundred, to a maximum print run of a couple of thousand. Without going into too much detail, the print run (the number of books you print) is important because it will help you decide how much to charge for your book.

Print on Demand is also an option, or you could go to any number of local print shops who may or may not have the expertise to print books. I recommend Friesens or a place specialising in PoD, because they will most likely be priced most reasonably, and will have the know-how and the savvy to help you out if you need it.  You may also need to know a bunch of jargon, which printers will help you out with if they’re worth your money. **

4. Pricing

“I think most books like this are about ten bucks, so I’ll charge about ten bucks” is NOT the way to price your book. This is what you do (assuming you’re not going to pay your own wages): Take the price that is quoted you for the printing of your book, per unit. Add to that number at least 40% (bookstores take a 40%-off-retail-price commission. This will give you a break-even price, so you’ll probably want to add more than 40% to the price-per-printed-unit. Some bookstores demand more. More on that below). If you’d like to recoup your costs for an editor and a designer, figure out what the amount you paid them would be, per book and add that. If you’re feeling EXCEPTIONALLY brave, figure out what you’d like to pay yourself and add that to the price as well.

5. Distribution.

Aye, that’s the ticket, isn’t it? After you’ve done all this other stuff, you end up with a garage full of boxes of books. *Now what*? Well, unfortunately, this is the big question in the entire book industry. Particularly in Canada. There is one non-special-focus/interest independent bookstore left in the entire province, and even that one is a big-box format. But they’re pretty good at supporting local writers and publishers, so if you do publish, go and see the good folks at McNally Robinson. If you’re from outside of Saskatchewan, you may have as many as ten independent bookstores in your province! Start there.

Getting in to Chapters and Costco and Walmart and Safeway is tough. Particularly since those big-box outlets tend to want a 50% – 60% discount to sell your book. See ya, profit. It *can* be done, but it’s not easy.

Also-too, you’ll need to decide how you want to handle returns. In the book industry, some retailers still work on a ‘consignment’ basis, which is to say, they order 20 copies of your book, and say they’ll pay you in 90 days for the ones that have sold, and they’ll return the ones that haven’t. This puts you in a precarious position, because you don’t know if you’ll have any income. Many publishers are moving to a ‘no returns’ policy, so that they invoice the bookstore for however many books they’ve ordered, and then simply won’t accept returns. There are horror stories about publishers finding entire palette loads of books returned in unsellable condition, after over a year in the possession of the retail outlets.

Some retailers like this model because if you’ve all your stock on consignment, none of it is actually your property, so you can sometimes get away with lower insurance. And because then they don’t have to pay for any stock that doesn’t move. So. Distribution. Yeah. The personal touch works well.

There *are* distributors out there. You have to pay them, and you have to pay them well. And they often won’t represent independents unless you have quite remarkable sales (ergo, it’s difficult to find a distributor unless you already don’t need a distributor because your sales are so high).

6. Marketing.

How are you actually going to *sell* your book?

Well, folks who like to read, tend to like to read a lot of stuff. Including book reviews. Word of mouth sells books. Radio sells books. See if you can get your book reviewed in the local paper – send a copy with a media sheet (about the author, the book, even the publisher) and make sure you do follow-up calls with the media you’ve sent the book out to. Call your local radio stations and your local television channels; often they’re interested in talking to local authors, but you have to know how to sell yourself. Use your existing social network to generate interest in your book; this is where you’ll make your first sales.

7. Other Stuff

Most retailers (and much of the publishing industry) considers books “backlist” (or “old” or “out of style”…I may be letting my personal bias show here a bit) after six months. After a year, books are often considered ‘unsellable’ if they don’t sell. At least, in the regional markets. A sci-fi/fantasy writer I know wrote  a couple of books, and his publisher had asked for a third, which he’d written. But when the first book didn’t perform as well as expected in the year in which it was published, they decided not to print the third. The odd thing is, the first book is doing quite well now (several years after its publication).

When you’re dealing with retailers with your books, they might want to have a clause in your contract that says books that don’t sell after X amount of time will be returned (see above, returns/consignment).

Libraries generally only want one copy of your book.

It’s tough to break in to the school market – when you have your book published, consider joining a co-operative marketing group like your regional publishers’ association who may help you with that kind of thing.

Book Awards – studies show that regional book awards don’t boost sales. On a national scale, that might be true. But regionally, there is a small blip for books that win regional awards. The important thing about book awards, though, is that it’s recognition; it sets your book apart from the hundreds of other books published in your neck of the woods every year.

So. Crash course in self-publishing. I’ll summarise:

  1. HIRE A PROFESSIONAL EDITOR. If you do NOTHING else for your book, do this.
  2. HIRE A PROFESSIONAL BOOK DESIGNER. If you actually want to sell your book, this will help.
  3. Research existing book distributors in your area in your genre. There aren’t many. The Book Trade in Canada will help you with this.
  4. Consider hiring a publicist to help with marketing.

**Be wary of ‘vanity presses’. These are organisations that are often very pushy; they’re usually different from “pay-to-print” places (more like PoD) where they take your money to print your book. Vanity Presses play, as the name may suggest, on your vanity. They will guarantee you book sales. They will not support you when your book is printed (traditional publishers generally work with you for as long as your book is in print). There are places out there that I’m a little leery of; I’ve looked in to many of them. If you want me to name names, I will. However, “Vanity Presses” are *not* self-publishers. Some people in the book industry use those terms synonymously. They are wrong.

cenobyte
cenobyte is a writer, editor, blogger, and super genius from Saskatchewan, Canada.

7 Comments

  1. Actually, CB, god love ya, your advice on pricing a book is really really wrong. There are a number of formulae suggested for arriving at a price for a book. For people who are running publishing companies, and therefore having to deal with overhead like staff and lightbulbs and finding the next book to publish, a standard formula is that you calculate your cost of production (editorial, design, print) and multiply by six. HOWEVER, after you do that, you still have to ask “how much are books like mine selling for?” And possibly adjust accordingly. Because if you’re five bucks higher than everybody else, you might as well start insulating your garage with the things.

    1. Fair enough, but it’s at least a place to start. I’ve run in to rather a lot of people who price their books at the per-unit print cost. So that they’re losing money on every book. My point to the pricing guide is a starting place.

      Being five bucks higher than everyone else totally works *if you have a product people are willing to pay five bucks more for*, like specialty or niche titles. Another book of fiction, another memoir…those probably won’t move if they’re priced higher. But I can think of five or six books that moved and sold out two print runs in spite of being TWENTY bucks higher than other books in their category.

      But, point taken. I’m not an expert in publishing. I did, though, want to get people to understand that pricing their books will involve more than “per-unit print cost” and “other books like this cost X”, both of which are an *aspect* of the pricing, but ought not determine it, I would think.

  2. I’m an editor who has also been a proofreader for a living. Some of your description of what an editor does is actually what a proofreader does — correcting spelling, grammar, typos, punctuation, etc. Not all editors can proofread, however, and proofreading is a very important part of the process. Do not go into that good night without making sure your manuscript has been proofread by someone who can pick fly shit out of pepper from 50 feet away!

    1. Yes, absolutely.
      I was really trying to simplify things for the people who’ve approached me who don’t know what “have your book edited” means. And very, very good point. Fly shit out of pepper is difficult. I prefer pepper to fly shit.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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