About Self-Publishing

In June 2006, my husband and I founded Woza Books to publish my children’s and young adult fantasy adventure The Call to Shakabaz. The book was launched on January 15, 2007, and within weeks I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on alternatives in publishing at our local Mendocino LitFest. I thought long and hard about my journey as a self-published author and about what useful, actionable information I could provide to someone just starting out. Here’s what I produced.

With the technology now available to us, anyone can be an author, anyone can be a publisher. Because of the many possibilities provided by the Internet, your first decision about publishing should be based on your goals and your intended audience. Research your options. Do you really need to publish a print book? Can you achieve your goals and reach your audience electronically through a blog, Web site, e-zine, or e-book? People are publishing for the wide world every day on their blogs, and some of these blogs are having a huge impact on events and opinion.

Match your plans to your resources. Do you have time? Do you have money? Do you have both? Neither? What can you realistically do with what you have? For instance, if you have time but not much money, you can publish your book as an e-book or an electronic file and market it on the Internet. Build your own Web site and blog, post to your blog regularly, and post to other blogs while driving traffic back to your site and your blog entries. If you have money but limited time, a good choice might be publishing a print book with help from a consultant (to coordinate activities), a production team, and a marketing team. If you decide to print a book, make informed choices. A good place to start is with Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual.

You will soon discover that you can “publish” rather easily and inexpensively through a number of self-publication services that use print-on-demand (POD) technology, such as Xlibris, Authorhouse, or iUniverse. Their packages may cost as little as $1,000 and run to $6,000 or more. As part of the package, you get guidance through the production and printing process so you can make informed decisions. Some of these publishers will also give you marketing advice and limited marketing assistance (usually in the form of a kit you can buy) but their basic strength is helping you easily produce copies of your book to sell or give away to friends and family and perhaps attendees at workshops, performances, or on your lecture circuit if you have one.

It is important to note that these companies make more money selling to the author than the public, that their imprints may stigmatize a book as a vanity press title, and that it is highly unlikely that you will make a profit with a book published this way because the cost of printing each copy is high. Also, they own your ISBN number, which basically means that you need to buy your books from them, you don’t own the books (but you still own the copyright). On the positive side, you won’t be stuck with thousands of copies you paid to print and can’t sell and you won’t have to worry about warehousing. In recent developments, Amazon has created its own POD service and threatens to refuse to list any books that were printed using any other POD service. If you want to sell your book on Amazon, make sure that it will be possible with whatever service you select.

If a very short run seems right for your book when you’re launching it, or at any later time, you may elect to skip Xlibris or iUniverse or such publisher and go directly to an established company that does digital printing, or both offset and digital printing, and print the book yourself. Lightning Source is one of these companies.

Many doors that would be closed to a book with an Xlibris or iUniverse type of imprint on it may open if you establish your own independent publishing company and imprint. By starting your own indie publishing company, you can have complete control over every aspect of your book’s production and therefore the ability to design and manufacture a marketable product that you will feel great about promoting.

When you are deciding what type of printing process to utilize, remember that web offset printing has an important advantage: if you print enough copies (the tipping point is roughly 3,000) the unit cost of each book will be low enough for you to make some money as well as offer terms that will work for booksellers. Although the unit cost is higher with digital printing technology, it can produce a handsome book and it may be a more economical and practical alternative for small runs.

No matter which printing process you choose, your goal is to produce a book that meets industry standards for quality and industry expectations for pricing so that you will be taken seriously in the business. To meet this goal, you’re going to need help. I advise you to hire a guide, especially if you start an indie publishing company. During the first months after we founded Woza Books, I felt as if the learning curve was taking me straight up a cliff. My guide and guru was Cynthia Frank at Cypress House. There are many such guides throughout the country (Dan Poynter calls them “book shepherds” and he lists some in his book). Find a guide whose style and services suit you and your needs. These consultation services will cost you a bundle so budget for it. I can’t imagine doing what I did on my own. Also, the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) is an invaluable resource.

If you are preparing to publish your first book, then I bet that 90% of your energy and resources is dedicated to creating the physical product. I made this mistake too. Compare publishing your first book to having your first baby. For first-time parents, it’s all about the birth. But after the baby is born, you have a child to raise. Translated to fit books, this means you have to get the word out to people who would enjoy and benefit from reading your work. In other words, you have to dedicate a lot of energy and resources to marketing, including publicity, promotion, and sales.

With some experience behind me, I now visualize the self-publishing process in the shape of a butterfly. One wing is writing the book. The body is producing the book in print. The other wing is marketing the book. If you have a lousy book but you are a marketing whiz you may well make a profit. If you have a terrific book and you are a marketing whiz you must be Jack Canfield. If you have a terrific book and you’re no good at marketing then you can either hire a marketing expert to work with you or you can crawl under a rock.

I was astonished and overwhelmed at how huge a task marketing is and how much creativity it requires. Do remember that even authors of books from big mainstream publishers have to do most of their own marketing. If they are lucky, the publisher gives them a budget (usually meager) and assigns a staff person to help. But this is not always the case. Blockbuster authors regularly “give back” a substantial portion of their royalties to their publishers to contribute to the marketing budget for their books. Some return 50% of royalties or more to the publisher. Getting the word out about a book is extremely expensive, and people will only buy a book if they know about it. Many excellent books can help you learn how to market your book. The one I used is John Kremer’s 1001 Ways to Market Your Books.

There is an old saying in the publishing biz:  “If you want to be a millionaire publisher, start out with $2 million.” It takes approximately two years for a book to come to fruition, and in the meantime you will be paying interest on that line of credit. You will be surprised at how many books you have to sell just to break even.

In other words, I advise going into self-publishing for love, not profit. It is not likely that you will get that call from Oprah, but it is very likely that you will touch the lives of others in rewarding ways you never imagined, and that you will make a special difference for someone you will never meet.