Do It Yourself: Self-Publishing

Is it vanity to self-publish? That’s the premise of one of Simon Crump’s blog posts on the Guardian newspaper’s Books Blog. It got me thinking…what is self-publishing all about?

According to Crump, vanity and self publishing became associated in 1959 when the phrase was first used as “a derogatory term aimed at publishers whose main source of income was derived from the writers whose work they published rather than any projected sales of their books.”

Crump mentions how his friend, Martin Bedford, paid out of pocket to get his niche book published. The book project featured promotional posters for a historic Sheffield UK nightclub. This book had interest from the potential audience, but other publishers hadn’t seen a need in a tight economy to take the project on. So Bedford seized the moment and moved ahead with the project on his own.

Then Bedford experienced something new writers can completely commiserate with, he faced a “horrible moment, a real self-doubting wobble, as he loaded the entire print run of 1,500 copies into the back of a mate’s estate car and wondered how on earth he was going to fit them all into his flat, and more to the point, if anybody would actually want to buy a copy.”
Will the book sell? Did he make a horrible mistake? This self-doubt is no different than when you first put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) for a book or an article.

Seize the Moment

So, before we get back to Martin and his book, let’s take a deeper look into self publishing.  Needless to say, taking on the publication of a book oneself takes a lot of personal effort, financial support, research, business planning, and analysis. And marketing. Lots and lots of marketing.

Self-publishing will help you achieve what you couldn’t otherwise via a traditional publisher. But you need objectivity. Just think of what Martin had to go through before he got his book self-published.

First things first, what do you have exactly that’s worth printing? You would preferably need an independent and experienced someone–with publishing and writing business know-how–to help you determine whether what you have in your hands is worth printing. Whether it really has a market and whether you will be able to sell it for a profit.

If you (and others) feel strongly your concept is valuable and you’ve researched your options, self-publishing can be a perfectly viable way to get to market and to your readers. Martin says that what prompted him to act was receiving “lots of requests from people who wanted to see all those posters collected together and in print. He saw an opportunity and he took it.”

OK now what? You need to tackle the tactical. You need to crunch some numbers. What is your cost outright for the printing? What other services does your printing house offer you? For example, do they provide shipment of the books per print run, or by print on demand? Who will retain the inventory while you sell copies? How many copies can you foresee selling and how often? Some printers can also provide you layout and editing services. Does the printing house you selected offer any of these services…and more importantly, if it doesn’t, are you prepared to take care of (and pay for) these necessities yourself?

Doing the Math

So let’s say you do all your research and number crunching work, and you pick a printing house. Does the printing house lay out and edit or proofread your book, or is that left up to you? Remember, now, there’s nothing quite as amateurish and that turns audiences off as a poorly edited, badly laid out book by a novice writer. These are important aspects of deciding whether to self publish.

Then, you need to figure out the transportation and storage of your first print run, or else, go for print on demand.  Who is going to pitch the books to bookstores and distributors? Do you need an agent or public relations specialist? If these are not in your budget, are you prepared to do the door-to-door calling on your own?

It’s very important to also keep this other bit of advice front and center: find a print house which specializes in your topic area or style of writing. So you better start researching bookstores and distributors who publish similar works to you and are open to new, perhaps unknown, and more than likely unsolicited writers. According to Crump’s blog post, “Self-publishing is also the accepted norm in niche markets.”

So what ended up happening with Martin’s coffee table book? Well, it was actually a smashing success. He sold out of his first print run and is well into his second run which is selling well.

To Print or Not To Print

Self-publishing is such a scary step to take for a new writer. You have plenty of energy, and you have plenty of naivete. You need funds, and you need an understanding of the publishing business. You may need an agent and many publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts.

So here’s a couple of important things to ask yourself when shopping around for a publisher:

  • identify a potential market to buy your book
  • research printing houses that allow unsolicited manuscripts, in categories similar to your topic area or writing style
  • find out what services the printing houses provide besides printing and be prepared to find those services on your own if they’re not offered
  • how does the printing house disburse royalties or payments to the writer—or do you only get paid once your book starts selling
  • figure out whether you want to go for a full print run or a print on demand model
  • calculate how much does the outright printing cost and identify and add any additional costs thereafter (representation and marketing, storage, etc.)
  • develop and implement a plan to pitch and sell your books to bookstores and distributors—or will you have enough budgeted for a public relations agent?

Although self publishing was once a vanity press, things have changed considerably. Your first publication may be as straight forward as a small fiction novel or an expensive coffee table book with photos. Either way, self promotion in America is far from frowned upon these days. Self publishing, although a rough and difficult path, can provide you the chance to finally reach your dreams.

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