Saturday, June 12, 2010

Getting the Story Out: Learning from Publishing-On-Demand (POD)

This morning I went to an interesting Writer's workshop on publishing - it ran the gamut from traditional book publication to online self-publishing. It reminded me of some of the things that I had learned doing this myself, which I had never recorded. So before I forget, I thought I would blog this experience for my own future reference, and anyone else interested...

A few years ago I published a book for my father, who had written a novel for a niche market, using one of the better-known self-publishing companies at the time, Xlibris. There are plenty of these online services now, in addition to this one, such as Virtual Bookworm, Lulu, iuniverse and so on. I won't bother to compare them here; if you are interested in an overview of what's on the market check out the Incomplete Guide to Print-on-Demand Publishers which includes up-to-date prices, packages, royalties and services for over 50 self-publishing companies.

Today this is a real option for authors; and an opportunity that can have a steep learning curve along the process from taking a manuscript in Word through to a book that you can hold in your hands.

What I would do the same next time:

Use the editing service: I managed to get a special that included editing in the print package price, and although I had edited it myself thoroughly once, and had another external editor lined up, I decided to try Xlibris's editing service. It was really excellent - I could not believe how many glaring inconsistencies there were in the text, from names to spellings. The editor was first rate, no doubt from sheer volume and experience, and I was delighted to have used their in-house service.

Personalise the cover: For the book cover, I asked a friend Chris Gould who is a professional photographer and photo-montage artist to do the design. Because I knew him well, and he knew my father, the author, it took only a couple of brief conversations for him to come up with a wonderful design, something that would have been hard to convey using a template or to explain to an anonymous designer.

Get the text as complete as possible BEFORE sending it to the company: I spent many hours reading, checking, and editing the document before I sent it into the Xlibris machine for layout and formatting, etc. Because the original document was in Word, I could easily spell and grammar check, print and proof it. As a result, I didn't have to worry about slowing down the process with this once it started with the publishing company, which was full of other unanticipated tasks, such as writing up the dust jacket texts, the online descriptions, author bio, summary (short, medium and long), etc.

What I would do differently next time:

Watch the retail book price: Because there is no stock kept for POD books, and because of the cost of printing small quantities each time, the retail price of these books is high compared to traditional publisher prices. It can be up to double the price, for example, what might cost US$8.99 in paperback in a bookshop, might cost around US$15.99 as a POD book (even when you order it in a bookshop). This is fine for a real niche market, or a textbook/coffee table book, but it is high for a regular fiction paperback that is trying to compete for general readership.

At Xlibris you have a choice to bring down the retail price, and of course it is at the expense of your royalty (e.g. you can take it down to US$1.00, but no less). Depending on your goals for the book - from just getting it out there, to actually making money from it - that can affect your choice of publisher, or your decision to publish at all. The cost to the author of self-publishing is around US$500 - US$1000 (with some less and many more costly). So, if you are even out for cost recovery, at US$1 royalty per book, you still have to sell between 500-1000 books to break even. Note that the average book sales for POD books is under 200 (some information on sales statistics here)!

Layout and page count: I would pay much more attention to the page count, and related to this the font size and margins. There is a cut off point for printing related to pricing and I had not paid enough attention to this. The book ended up with smaller than normal margins, that were obviously designed to get more words on the page, to have less pages, and therefore cost less to produce. This turned a normal size book into something that looked more like a novella, which ultimately makes it even harder to sell at the higher prices.
Plan better marketing in the first year: It is normal to think that in the first year, with a little advertising the book will sell itself (and it does to a certain extent); however, that is just the time to organize the biggest advertising push, including all the social media tie-ins that are available to authors these days. After the first year, some of the shine comes off, and the book becomes one of the Long Tail titles that can still pull in some sales, but less and less as years move on.
All in all, I would still self-publish, the experience was good enough. I would probably shop around for the best deal (e.g. lower basic costs), and take recent recommendations from authors, now that it is quite a common process (at the time I did it, I didn't know anyone else who had self-published). I would make sure the layout was appropriate, not too condensed. And I would not do it for the money, but for the other things that publication can bring - visibility, the exercise of taking a set of ideas to a polished final format, an easier and more user-friendly way to share information.
Next time, however, I might not make a physical book, but an e-book. And that would probably provide a whole new learning opportunity around a publishing process.

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