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Bootstrapped Publishing – DIY FTW

Monday, March 21st, 2011 | Posted by Jon Kolko

I’ve had a few different publishing experiences. I’ve published a book entirely by myself, I’ve worked with a large-scale publisher (owned by one of the Big Houses – Elsevier), and I’ve worked with a traditional and respected academic press (Oxford University Press). Here’s what you can expect from a DIY approach.

I. The problems with giant publishers

In the glory days, big publishers theoretically played a critical role; they were internally and externally respected, could claim a talented staff, and were companies where young journalists, designers, and novelists could make a living and absorb technique and method from the pros. Unfortunately, if that pictureesque view of the past was ever true, it’s laughable now. My experiences with publishers indicate that the art and science – and craft – of making a book has all but disappeared.

One of my publishers didn’t know what a gutter was, or how to spread content across it.

One of my publishers didn’t know how to calibrate spine depth, and calibrated it incorrectly.

One of my publishers outsourced typesetting to a foreign firm, who neither understood nor cared to learn about the subject matter of the text.

One of my publishers “reorged” their Executive Editor out of the company in the midst of printing my publication.

Death by a thousand paper cuts, all indicating a much larger and institutional problem: publishing as big business has become so reliant on low-cost offshore development that individuals engaged in the process literally don’t know how their business works. They don’t know the end-to-end process; they have no visibility into the larger context of the book, the market, the process, or the literary goal; and they’ve become dependent on the rote execution of a series of activities that have to happen in the same commoditized series in order to achieve some financial success within the confines of razor thin margins.

The lack of a refined process is just one of the few things you can look forward to when working with a major publisher. You’ll also experience:

  • An absurdly slow pace. I signed my contract with Oxford in July of 2009. My book was released in February of 2011. Each step crawls forward. No one can explain the rhyme or reason behind the various process dates assigned; they seem arbitrary, likely picked for convenience of the production machine, not timed with any relationship to the book or content itself.
  • An absurdly small piece of the pie. With Oxford, I receive 15% of Net Receipts, stepped to 17% on sales over 2,000 copies, stepped further to 19% on sales over 4,000 copies. Net Receipts means end profit from the book, not including returns or credits or reprint funds. As a point of reference, my book retails for $49.95 on Amazon. That means Oxford likely sells to Amazon for $25.00/copy. A generous assumption would indicate Oxford making $10 per copy sold – I get 15% of that, or $1.50 per copy sold. The per copy profit with Elsevier is even worse. As a point of reference, I made about $16, profit, per copy, of my first book when I self published it; see below for a more thorough breakdown of the DIY process and financials.
  • Little support on marketing and self promotion – and little visibility into any activities that may be planned on my behalf by the publisher. I do a fair amount of public speaking, and it makes a great deal of sense to offer my books at each event. But the publisher has no time or interest in proactively tracking these events, and so it’s my responsibility to coordinate book sales for my speaking engagements. It’s as if I had published the thing myself – I’m in charge of all of the marketing activities. I asked one of my publishers for a marketing plan; he sent me a one page, 230 word document. Ouch.
  • The ambiguity of dealing with a giant company. I had sixteen different contacts at Oxford during my time working with the company; my editor went through at least four different assistants, we had three different typesetters, and I’m still not entirely sure what a few of the people involved in emails actually do at the company. A cup-half-full perspective would say “so many people, dedicated to making your book a success!” – the reality is cup-half-empty, as with any project with that many people, no one person knows enough to make a decision, and no one person is actually _empowered_ to make that decision.
  • Lack of understanding about new digital formats and platforms. The people I interacted with were all, generally, unaware of the use and potential of the internet as a mechanism for marketing and promoting a book, and unaware of the fundamental necessity for digital delivery of books. I still have no idea if Oxford plans to release a digital version of Exposing the Magic of Design, and Elsevier hasn’t made any traction on the promise of a digital copy of Thoughts. Arguably, the digital copy should be released before the print copy, not after. Or never.

That’s a lot of downside on traditional publishing. What’s the upside of going DIY? It’s summarized in a word – control. By pushing forward with a DIY model, you control the cost of the book (believe me, I’m not thrilled that my book retails for $45), the aesthetics of the book, the timeline of the book, the presence of the book in various markets, the availability of the book – you control everything. And through that control comes reach, financial reward, and perhaps the most important part of a book – the structured context in which your message is presented.

II. How to self-publish: the mechanics

While it’s pretty intimidating to go it alone, it’s really not that hard. I’ll try to describe the various parts of the process that confounded me along the way.

As a bit of background, I wrote a book called Thoughts On Interaction Design in 2007. I wrote the majority of it myself, solicited some related essays from friends, and then shopped it around to a few publishers. I received a few leads, and went through the peer review process with a few selected companies. And after I received pretty negative reviews back, the message from the publishers was clear: you’ll need to change a great deal of this if you want to work with us.

I felt the book was pretty strong, so I decided to publish it myself.

I recruited my friends at Thinktiv to do the design work, and we agreed to split any profit that came from the work, 50/50. We did a photoshoot, went through editing and revisions, came up with a visual and semantic approach for design, and published 1000 copies. My wife and I played shipping and receiving – we set up a company in Georgia to manage the financial aspects of the book, and started filling orders placed on our site via paypal and through Amazon’s affiliate program. Ultimately, we sold all 1000 copies, making on average $16/copy, profit.

(As a footnote to this story – Elsevier then signed a reprint contract for this book, and subsequently sold another 4000 copies. We made about $16,000 profit on the first 1000 that we did ourselves; we made about $6000 on the next 4000 with Elsevier. Go, team.)

I’ve considered all the parts of the process where I nearly gave up, and I’ve listed them here.

Writing. Clearly the most mentally challenging part of the process was the writing. You’ll need something to write about, a context of authority that makes it worth reading, and enough content to fill a book. I wrote Thoughts on Interaction Design because I was trying to synthesize other readings, conference discussions, and a changing culture of design into a cohesive whole. My goal was to externalize my thoughts (get out of my head!), not to publish a book. It was only after 2/3 of the thoughts were externalized did I realize I had enough content to fit a book, and maybe someone else would want to read it. As a point of reference, the self-published version of Thoughts on Interaction Design is 60,000 words, and the book runs 162 pages. Call that a short-to-midsize book. The bottom-line advice on writing is to write for yourself, and write about something you know a thing or two about. It has to come from the heart, and it has to come from the head.

Editing. After I wrote the book, I rewrote the book. And then I did it two more times. And then I had an editor look at it, who had me re-write it again. And we still missed a few typos and some grammatical issues, not to mention some pretty awful language usage. The only real highlight of my publishing experience with Oxford was the copy-editor they assigned, who was absolutely amazing; she found ways to cut, and cut, and cut. And that’s the primary thing you’ll find when you work with an editor – they don’t so much edit, as they do censor. We cut over 50% of the book out, and I rewrote that content from scratch. It’s hard to kill your baby, and it’s time consuming, and it’s personal. But it’s worth it. The bottom line on editing is to find an editor, pay them well, and listen to them.

Sources. Since I was as young a writing student as I can remember, I have been taught to cite my sources; I was instructed that you could use any material you wanted to strengthen your argument – in fact, the more material you had to substantiate whatever you were saying, the better – but citations were critical to staying legitimate, and that without citations, you were breaking the rules. The rules eventually became the law, and I was always under the impression that one could face penalties if they didn’t cite their sources in professional work.

Citing your sources is nice. But you can’t use other work in your text – cited or otherwise – without explicit permission from the author or copyright holder. Fair use doesn’t extend to commercial work, and while it is vague enough to seem like it would cover academic-style writing that is written for profit, I’m certainly not going to put my bank account on the line and get sued over a few quotes. So I spent a few days identifying the source of over a hundred quotes in my small book, finding the publisher and respective address for the permissions department, and writing letters to each one asking for permission to use their words. And then I waited, and then I received approval to utilize the quotes I needed. Most of them. And then I changed the rest. It’s tedious.

Design. My book is a design book – it’s about design – and the aesthetic and temporal qualities of the thing should match the message, lest Malcolm McLuhan roll over in his grave. My friend Paul Burke is one of the best print designers I’ve ever met, and so I asked him to do the layout for me. He agreed – and we agreed on a 50/50 split of printing costs as well as profit. That is, he paid half of the printing costs, and got half the profit. We worked on a theme through email, outlined a list of photographs that would support the theme, and held a photoshoot (it took about a day). I recently asked Paul what he would have charged for a similar project if it was cash only; he said to expect to pay $15,000 for the cover to cover layout and about $5000/day for a photoshoot. The bottom line is that you get what you pay for; if you want a stunning book, hire a designer and pay them their asking price.

Printing. As a general rule, a black and white offset print run will be affordable and elegant. A one-color-plus-black offset print run will be affordable and elegant. A full color offset print run will be obtusely expensive – and elegant. Thoughts on Interaction Design was one color and black; we contracted through Horizon Printing in Austin, Texas, and the total printing cost was $6754.24. Shipping from Austin to Savannah was $156.50, which yields a total of $6.90/book. Considering we retailed at $30, that’s a great profit margin, an affordable up-front cost, and a pretty inexpensive end product. The bottom line is that offset printing with two colors (a single color and black) is affordable and can produce beautiful results.

ISBN & Bowker. You’ll need an ISBN number for your book. When I printed my first book, I bought a pack of 10 ISBN numbers from Bowker for $269.95. Bowker is basically a monopoly – while they claim to be “the world’s leading provider of bibliographic information management solutions designed to help publishers, booksellers, and libraries”, they are essentially the only place authorized by the government to distribute ISBN numbers. You can buy a single ISBN for $125, what a steal! You’ll need a company to buy your ISBN through, so I recommend setting up a LLC. Our LLC cost $25 for the name reservation and $100 for the registration. The bottom line is that you need an ISBN number and Bowker is the most immediate way to get one.

Amazon. We made approximately $23 per book for every book we sold through out site, powered by paypal, and approximately $8 per book for every book that we sold through Amazon. The reason is simple – Amazon takes 50% or more of your profit off the top, so we would sell our $30 book to Amazon for $15. Subtract the $7 it costs to print, and you’re down to $8. But what you lose in profit, you gain in time and confidence. Once we joined Amazon’s Advantage program, they ordered two books. And then three. And then eight. And then 50. And while we made about 1/3 off those 50 books as we could have, it feels damn nice to ship 50 books at a time. It’s less trips to the post office, less packing and shipping hassle, and once they buy the books, they own ‘em. The bottom line is that Amazon is a convenience/profit tradeoff; for us, it was a no-brainer. And the first time they order in quantity, it sends chills down your spine.

Shipping & Receiving. When you buy 1000 books, you get… 1000 books. They show up all at once, on a palette, and are loaded into your driveway via forklift. And then you carry boxes of 44 books into your living room, until you have.. 1000 books in your living room. It’s a sight to behold, and it’s not something we were really prepared for. Of course, the fact that your living room is full of boxes is a pretty strong incentive to market all hell out of your work of art. (Our cat loved it.) We purchased boxes from, and ordered a stack of newsprint; we wrapped each book in newsprint, stuck it in a box, and printed mailing labels on the computer, using Word/Excel mail merge. It became fairly automated, and the guy at the post-office soon started remarking on volume (“Things going a little slow at the publisher? Maybe you could do some more advertising?”)

After experiencing different publishing models, including self-publishing, a big academic press, and a big fat company, I’m happy with my decision to go DIY with my last title. I hope this helps you if you plan to go the same route.

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