Self-publishing is not new; it’s been around for hundreds of years (William Blake was a prolific self-publisher). So why does it seem like such a new phenomenon?
The truth is that although people have been producing their own work for a very long time, it has only been recently (within the last 15 years) that technological advances have made it much easier for more people to throw their hats in the publishing ring. More books have been self-published in the last five years than were published using a “traditional” publishing model (according to Publishers Weekly). But there are distinctions that need to be made as well: what does “self-publishing” mean? How is it different from submission publishing?
In submission-publishing models, the publisher solicits or accepts manuscripts from writers. Once the author and the publisher have agreed upon terms of their relationship (this is the contract writers sign with the publisher), work may begin on the book. That manuscript then undergoes a series of edits, usually completed by in-house editorial staff or by commissioned/contracted freelance editors. Editors look at the overall manuscript and suggest substantive changes (moving paragraphs or chapters around, suggesting parts be rewritten, etc.), and engage the writer in a kind of dialogue or dance in which they work together to produce the best book they can. From here, the publisher passes the manuscript to one or more proofreaders, and then on to a designer. Designers work on things like typeface, interior design and layout, design elements like drop caps, folio footers and running headers, etc.. Publishers also engage book designers to create the cover art for each book.
The manuscript will undergo further proofreading and copy editing, and then the publisher sends the finished files to a printer and binder. From there, the publisher will distribute the finished, printed book to retail markets. The publisher is also responsible for marketing, promotion, advertising, reviews….anything that will sell the book. Publishers have relationships with distributors, wholesalers, buyers, and regional bookstores and non-traditional markets. They are responsible for everything from obtaining ISBNs* (International Standard Book Numbers) and EAN barcodes** to shipping, receiving, and warehousing the books, to paying author royalties. Self-published authors generally earn roughly 25% – 35% of the book’s retail price as opposed to the 10% of the traditional publishing model. Self-published authors should do a cost breakdown of how many books you have to sell before you will break even on your investment. Most submission-model publishers also do commissioned works, where they receive financial support directly from a client to produce a specific book (an example of this might be when a literary publisher teams with a local art gallery to produce a book about an exhibit or artist, or when a business wishes to produce a book to commemorate a business milestone, and commissions a publisher to produce the book).
On the other hand, a self-publisher chooses to do all, or to manage all, of these things on their own. If you are thinking of self-publishing your book, you have many things to consider…the least of which is the writing of your manuscript! You should hire an editor to work with you (there are only so many times you can read your own words before you just plain miss one instance of “the the”, or, heaven forbid, a missing “l” in “public”). You should consider hiring a professional designer who has worked on book design – it isn’t just an adage that people judge books by their covers; the industry ‘mantra’ is that you have approximately three seconds to sell your book to a consumer. They’ll pick it up if the cover catches their eye, flip it over and skim the back, and then flip through it. If you can get a prospective reader to pick your book up, it’s halfway to the till. So your book needs to do more than sing in those three seconds; it needs to hit all the high notes of an aria.
As a self-publisher, you will be responsible for paying the editors and the designers and you will be responsible for printing and bindery charges. There are print-on-demand options, and short print run services available, and you should consider the overall per-unit cost of your print job *before you set a retail price for your the book*. If it’s going to cost you $5/book to have it edited, designed, and printed, you don’t want to sell it for $4.99. Keep in mind that bookstores and retailers require a 40% (bookstore standard) – 60% (non-traditional markets like big-box retailers) wholesale discount before they will stock your book. Therefore, if you’ve priced your $5/unit book at $10, and the retailer is taking $4-$6 from each sale, you’re probably not going to break even, once you factor in shipping and related marketing costs. Most often, print-on-demand services are fast and accessible, but they tend to produce books at a higher per-unit cost than does a professional printer/bindery.
Once your books are written, edited, designed, and printed, you need to get them out of your garage where the printer has shipped them. 2,000 copies of your book will take up all of the space you’d normally use to park your car in your garage (and trust me, as much as your mother loves you, she doesn’t want her basement full of boxes of books)! As a self-publisher, you will have to establish relationships and connections with local retailers, some of whom don’t want to work directly with publishers, and some of whom *refuse* to work with authors, to stock their shelves with your book. This can be a daunting task, particularly in Saskatchewan, where we have one non-niche independent bookseller left in the province. It will take a lot of legwork and a lot of telephone calls and emails, and when it works, it can work really well. Keep in mind that the average “shelf life” of a book is approximately 2-6 months. After that time, books are considered ‘back list’ and are usually relegated to the stacks.
It all sounds fairly daunting, doesn’t it?
The silver lining in all of this is that some of the most successful publishers in Saskatchewan are – or started out as – self-publishers!
I’m sure they would be the first to agree it has not been easy, but it’s been rewarding. If you are considering hanging out your shingle as a publisher, you may want to consider taking a self-publishing workshop. The Saskatchewan Writers Guild offers these workshops from time to time, and they are worthwhile and engaging educational experiences. If you have *already* published a book, you are eligible for membership in SaskBooks.
If you are thinking of jumping into the deep end of the publishing pool, here are some things to consider:
- Whether to hire a professional editor (highly recommended)
- Whether to hire a professional designer (highly recommended)
- For children’s picture books – will you hire/commission/contract with an artist? (The going rate for a 32-page children’s picture book is $5,000. Professional, commissioned artwork is worth its weight in gold.)
- Whether to register an ISBN/EAN/Barcode and register your book’s information with the National Library of Canada’s Cataloguing in Publication (CIP) data system. (highly recommended if you want your book to be considered by libraries and retail stores)
- What format to publish in (print/electronic/combination)
- What size print run (how many books) you want to produce
- Where is your primary market? (Who is going to buy your book?)
- How will you access that market?
- Is there financial assistance for book production? (SaskBooks administers a Grants to Publishers Program)
- Where will you warehouse/store your books?
- How will you fulfill orders?
- How will your clients and customers get ahold of you? (Are you going to give out your home contact information?)
- How will you market your book?
- What are the promotional avenues you can take to get the word out about your book?
- How should you price your book?
- Are you going to accept returns of unsold books from retailers? If so, what are the terms and conditions? What happens with damaged or shop-worn books?
If you’d like more information on self-publishing, Self Publishing is a presentation by Heather Nickel, who runs things at Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing. Heather is a publishing consultant, and she works with authors who are interested in some level of self-publishing.
*ISBNs are not *required* for books to be published in Canada, but most retailers, and certainly wholesalers (including those who sell to libraries and schools) require ISBNs. Retailers and wholesalers order and track books using the ISBN, and often will simply not stock books that do not have one.
**EAN/UPC codes are also not required for books to be published and sold in Canada, but again, it’s generally a good idea to make things as easy as possible for the people who will be trying to find and/or buy your books.