Self-publishing to many conjures up thoughts of the would-be author working feverishly over an old printing press or mimeograph in his garage or basement. He has spent years writing the great American novel and now he's going to publish it himself.
Nothing could be further removed from what self-publishing actually involves.
Publishing itself is a mysterious institution to many authors—and self-publishing even more of a mystery. Although fewer than one-tenth of one percent of authors self-publish their work, I raised the percentage somewhat in 1973 when I published my first book. To date over 100,000 copies of that first book, and 15,000 copies of my second self-published work, have been sold. That's over $1 million in sales.
Most writers, beginners as well as known and experienced ones, believe that writing a book is 90 percent of the task of selling it. I submit that the writing of any book is, at most 10 percent of the task. Selling it to the book buyers of the world is the 90 percent.
Prior to its printing, your manuscript is a creative, artistic embryo, but once off the printing press it becomes a product. And unless you want copies for nothing else than to stack in your basement, your book must be treated as a product. Thousands of well-written books on a variety of valuable subjects are gathering dust in warehouses because the product sales effort is inadequate or nonexistent.
There is a need to dispel several myths about the publishing industry that have tended to cause authors to shy away from self-publishing. The first involves cost. Most people think it costs many thousands of dollars to publish a book. That's simply not so. You can publish your book in small quantities for less than $1,000. The second myth is that a book doesn't have a chance to succeed without many thousands spent on advertising. Wrong again! The secret lies in placing low-cost classified ads in carefully selected publications and placing your book in the hands of reviewers around the country. When a reviewer says something positive, when the Atlanta Constitution Journal says " . . . . . . . .," you can use this to further promote your book.
In fact, if you approach the matter of publishing your book as a series of tasks to be done, the reward could be that, after printing a few hundred copies and promoting sales, a conventional publisher approaches you with an attractive offer.
With 350,000 books written each year and only 40,000 printed, the odds of an unknown author's first seeing print with a "conventional" publisher are stacked against him. And of those published, over 90 percent do not sell out their first printing, although the average number of books in an initial printing is only 5,000 copies.
Conventional publishers are taking a risk with each title they bring out. They are in business to make money, and in order to break even on a book it must sell a minimum of 5,000-10,000 copies. In order to reduce their risks these publishers tend to seek out known authors. Then they invest in advertising and promotion to generate profitable sales. These publishers hope to make the largest profits in later pickup by book clubs and finally in transition to a low-cost paperback.
Authors discouraged by the high odds against publication of their work by conventional publishers are frequently seduced by advertisements that appear in many literary and consumer magazines. They read "Manuscripts Wanted…" When investigating such "vanity publishers" the writer finds that a few days after sending his manuscript off to the address listed in the ad he receives a glowing "review" indicating his book has great potential for success.
With the author's ego sufficiently massaged, the publisher follows up with a contract that promises royalty payments to the author of 40 percent of sales so long as he (the author) is willing to pay the cost of the first printing of the book. There is no guarantee of sales. And in fact the vanity publisher usually does not expect any appreciable sale. He makes his money in printing alone, which the author pays for. The tipoff is that no conventional publisher could or would promise 40-percent royalty payments on a book that was to be adequately promoted. Royalties on the latter typically amount to 5-15 percent.
Vanity publishers do serve to get a book into print. Depending upon your desires, this may or not be the best way. If you just want to see your book in print and are not particularly concerned about price or promotion or how many others see it in print, then a vanity publisher could be for you. The prime caveat is, read the contract and understand the terms.
An alternative to conventional publishers and vanity presses is to publish your own book. Self-publishing is not new. Writers of the past who have published their own work include Shelley, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, James Joyce, Zane Gray, D.H. Lawrence, and William Blake. Nor is it unique. There are an estimated 500 authors today who have self-published. Nor is it unsuccessful. As previously mentioned, I have sold over 100,000 books this way, at prices of $7.95 to $14.95.
But how to go about it? If you are on a tight or nonexistent budget, find a small local printing firm willing to print the book in exchange for royalties to come. Such businesses absorb the printing costs and receive 5-15 percent royalties on your sale.
Another no-cost arrangement is to find someone to print the book and sell it. You, the author, receive payment based on actual copies of the printed book itself. For example, 10 percent of a press run of 500 books would net you 50 books. Thus, as the author you have your work in print and have sufficient copies to send to reviewers and select promotional media members.
You don't need printing presses, a staff of editorial pros, proofreaders, or a battery of advertising agencies. Like the person who builds a house, you simply subcontract or barter for the services of outsiders as you need them and only when you need them. And many of the jobs you can do yourself.
The first step in self-publishing your own best-selling book is to choose a subject with high sales potential. It must have a mass market appeal if your goal is to exceed even 10,000 in sales. A recent study by the publisher Doubleday revealed that the subject, not the author's name or reviewers' comments, is the key to a successful book.
The subjects with sales potential in this country are money, health, sex, psychological well-being, hobbies, "how to," and, of course, fiction. Unless you are not interested in large sales, it is best to avoid "protest" subjects or others with built-in audience limitations.
Doctors, lawyers, auto mechanics, housewives, and hundreds of thousands of other people write books each year and have them published. Obviously, all are not professional writers, and they needn't be—nor need you. The buying public is paying for the information in your book. That's what you have to offer.
You may wish to obtain assistance with your writing. The most effective means is to place a classified ad in the local paper for editorial help in preparing a book. Newspapermen, public relations and advertising people, librarians, and a host of others have skills that can be purchased on a part-time basis to help organize your thoughts and materials. Or you can have a "ghost writer" prepare the book, and you can work out a method of payment based on book sales or on a flat rate.
Once the manuscript is out of the draft stage and edited, you can hire a typist to prepare it "camera-ready." If typed without errors and using a carbon ribbon your manuscript can be photocopied by the printer, saving thousands of dollars in typesetting and printing costs.
The next step is to choose the right title. Let's say you have written a book on organic gardening, a subject of widespread interest today. What title will sell more copies? Perhaps the "how to" approach would be best—How to Grow a More Productive Garden. Or perhaps Secrets of Organic Gardening would be better.
To test the pulling power of these titles you need do nothing more than place classified ads in several gardening magazines. What should your ad say? It should read something like this: "New book being completed called How to…", or in another test, "Secrets of…" "For free information write to…"
What's the free information? For about $12 per thousand you can have an 8-1/2" x 11" circular printed to list the pertinent information about your book. It would include all the titles you are testing, so you run the same circular to respond to inquiries from all your title test ads. Vary the titles in your test ads to evaluate the pulling power of each.
You should also list the table of contents for your book. Here you can include a coupon for the person to order easily and offer a financial inducement to purchase a copy of your book when it's hot off the press. You can give him a $2 discount for ordering now and tell him the book will be out in 60 days, etc. Always give a guarantee of prompt money back in the event someone does not like the book.
You'll find checks flowing in even before your book is printed. At this point you can analyze several things: (1) the title that brings in the greatest response (one almost always drastically out-pulls another) and (2) the "conversion ratio"—the number of people who write for information and then purchase your book. It's possible you will receive enough advance orders to pay for printing costs.
This same small classified-ad approach can be used successfully to begin your initial promotion and the sale of your market. I've found that the best method of merchandising a book to bestseller status is by direct-response selling through the mail.
You can pyramid your revenue in book sales through direct-response advertising. For example, if you purchased a classified ad for $20 and from the ad derived $40 in sales, you realize $20. Part of that $20 then goes into more advertising to generate more sales. The secret lies in spending advertising dollars only when they can generate sales.
In that regard there is no such thing as expensive or cheap advertising mediums—they are only expensive or cheap in terms of the sales dollars they pull in for you. If it costs $30,000 to put an ad in Playboy but you receive $60,000 in sales, Playboy was not too expensive for you and you made a shrewd advertising buy. On the other hand, if you spend $20 for a small ad in the Podunk Daily Blatt and get zero sales, you wasted $20.
Space limitations don't permit me to expound on the hundreds of other details involved in self-publishing your own book and turning it into a bestseller. I do want to tell you that self-publishing has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It can be done and done successfully. Why not do that book you have been thinking about? Who knows, in the next special book issue of REASON we could be reading about you and your new book!
Ted Nicholas, a businessman, is the author of How to Form Your Own Corporation without a Lawyer for under $50, Where the Money Is & How to Get It, and How to Self-Publish Your Own Book & Make It a Bestseller.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Self-Publish Your Book".