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So You Want to Write a Book? Self-Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing

Posted by on Feb 12, 2011 | 5 Comments

Okay, this post is not at all related to running, barefoot or otherwise. Based on the popularity of my “How to be a Blogger” post, I decided to share some more information from my experiences. In this case, my experiences with writing my book.

Specifically, I am going to explore the publishing issue.  If you are an aspiring writer, should you seek out a traditional publisher?  Or should you publish the book yourself?  Both decisions have pros and cons.  Before I discuss them, I’ll give a brief history of my experiences with writing my book.

History of The Barefoot Running Book

The book started as a three-ring binder given to the people that attended my first clinics.  When other people started requesting the binder, I researched other formats.  The binder was large and cumbersome; it was difficult to mail.  I settled on a paperback format.  At this point, I had no intention on selling the book.  I had some books printed at a cost of approximately $10.00 each.

After a few people saw the book, they recommended I start selling it.  That was the first point where I considered contacting publishers.  I did some research, decided it would be too much work, then went about preparing my book for retail sale.

The first version was incredibly expensive to produce.  For each book I sold via Amazon, I lost about two dollars.  I was able to offset that loss by making about five dollars for every book I sold directly.  The financial situation has helped by the sale of the ebook version, which had much less overhead.

Once the book started to become relatively popular, I considered rewriting it.  The first version was never intended to be sold to the public.  Since it was designed to be a supplement to my clinics, a lot of information was omitted.  The rewrite is what eventually became the second edition.

For the second edition, I hired a team of professional editors, typesetters, and cover designers.  The team was a major expense, but proved to be well worth the investment.

The second edition was finished in August.  To date, sales have been much stronger than expected.  As of today, the book is doing well.  The book has sold approximately 15,000 copies in both print and ebook format.  Considering the average book sells around 500 copies and the book industry considers a nonfiction book that sells 7,500 copies to be “successful” (http://bookstatistics.com), I’ll chalk this up to a moderate success.  :-)

So… About This Publishing Question…

When researching methods to get my book in the hands of the people that could use the information, I found some interesting information.  Keep in mind, these statements are debatable… it’s simply my opinion.

  • The publishing industry, as it once existed, is dead. The decline of reading in general and book stores in particular, the rise of the internet, and the ease of self-publishing has radically changed the industry.
  • Traditional publishing is very slow. It may take up to a year to publish a book.
  • Getting books in bookstores is exceptionally competitive. If a book is placed on the shelves of book stores, it must sell within four to six weeks or it will be replaced.
  • Publishers don’t give a damn about authors… unless that author is a superstar.
  • Royalties and advances suck. I was offered two publishing deals at different points of production.  Both deals had very different terms, but would have produced similar results.  The amount of money I would have made since the book went to the market would be about 10% of what I have made overall.
  • The publishing process consists of a series of hoops from supposed “experts” that determine what books will be successful.
  • Publishers do little to promote books, instead relying on authors to do most of their own promotion.

My perception is obviously negative.  I’ve talked with “published” authors that range from pretty successful to not-at-all successful.  Generally speaking, the better your book sales, the better treatment you receive from publishers.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of books have no hope of being a success without superstar treatment from publishers.  See the dilemma?

Publishers are Good for Some Things…

Publishers do have two distinct advantages self-publishers do not.  One can be overcome, the other cannot.  Being published creates instant credibility.  It’s like being a popular kid in school… you enjoy a higher social standing.  Self-publishers are viewed as second-rate.

There is no real easy way to overcome this stigma… unless the self-published author sells a lot of books.  Early on, my book suffered the self-published stigma.  Sales helped drop that stigma, but my publishing tea was also critical.  My team consists of former book industry experts which were able to produce a book that is on-par with traditionally-published books.

The second advantage of traditional publishers is public relations.  All publishing houses will have at least one PR expert.  The larger publishers will have entire PR departments.  These PR people can be a great asset when promoting your book, especially if the book is targeted at the general public.  They will have connections to people that can set up interviews and reviews.  Under normal circumstances, this is difficult for the self-publisher.

Like the credibility issue, there are ways around this, too.  The self-publisher can learn the art of marketing, can hire a PR person or firm, or attach themselves to some other PR vehicle.

I chose the first and last.  The second option proved to be far too expensive.  The first and last cost nothing.  I will discuss how to do both of these later in the article.

Positives and Negatives of Self-Publishing

Self-publishing is not necessarily utopia.  There are some drawbacks.

  • It is expensive. Traditional publishers take care of everything after you submit the manuscript.  With self publishing, you have to either learn to do everything yourself or hire someone to do it.  You need at least one editor, a typesetter, and a cover designer.  You have to purchase the ISBN number.  You have pay the printer.  You are responsible for marketing.  All of these things add up.  I have spent approximately $16,000 on my book thus far.
  • It can be risky. If your book tanks, you may lose money.  However, it if it successful, you will reap all the benefits.  Publishers remove almost all risk, but they also reap almost all the reward.  Think McDougall is rolling in cash because of Born to Run?  While the book probably provides a decent income, Knopf (the publisher) is reaping the majority of the financial rewards.  I will give you some tips to greatly limit the risk later in this article.
  • It is a lot of work. In the early stages of writing and publishing the book, I would wake up at 3:00am, work for two hours, then get ready for my day job.  I did that for about six months.  I enjoyed the work, but it was brutal.

Of course, there are many rewards… some obvious, some not so obvious.

  • You get to keep the profit. The sales of the book have provided a decent income supplement.  It has payed for the trips to various races, paid for running gear, allowed me to help out other runners that would have difficulty paying entry fees, and recently allowed Shelly and I to pay off our debt.
  • You learn a lot. I learned about writing, editing, printing, typesetting, book marketing, and a myriad of other fields.  I love learning new skills and information, and this book has been a panacea of learning experiences.  I suspect one would have to work years in the publishing industry to learn what I was able to learn in a six month crash course.
  • You network. I have met a ton of interesting people, many of which have been very helpful in various capacities.  If I would have published via a traditional publisher, I would not have met these people.
  • You call the shots. For a laid-back dude, I’m a bit of a lone wolf.  I don’t like working for others, nor do I like team-based decision-making.  I prefer to chart my own path.  If I need input, I seek the advice of experts.  Ultimately, I want to be in the driver’s seat.  Self-publishing allows this.  If I want to leave a particular line in my book, I can do it.  There is no pressure from publishers.  There is no need to water down my product to satisfy someone that doesn’t understand me or my audience.
  • You own all rights to the book. This is related to the above.  If I want to sell the movie rights to my book, I get to keep the profit.  If I want to release to book in Japan, I keep the profit.  I can even wager the rights in an underground poker game because I am sitting on a full house.
  • You can change quickly. I published my first edition in March of 2010.  By August of 2010 I was able to publish the second edition.  Had I signed a publishing deal the book would hit the market in about one month from now (March 2011).   Working as my own publisher allows me to make wholesale changes and have new versions printed in three weeks.

As you can see, there are pros and cons to taking the self-publishing route.

How-To Self-Publish with Minimal Risk

So you decided to take the self-publishing route.  How do you go about doing it?  First, I would recommend avoiding the “print-on-demand” businesses.  While they may be convenient and make many promises, they eliminate many of the advantages of doing it yourself.  Second, I would recommend taking a conservative route.  Don’t take out a loan to make the book and print 5,000 copies.  No matter how great you think your book will be, it’s an unnecessary risk.  Instead, follow this process:

1.Assess your knowledge. Write about something you know.  For me it was a no-brainer.  I had been running barefoot for years and had recently began teaching.  I was qualified to write a how-to guide.

2. Find a niche within your knowledge base. If you write a book for everyone, you will most likely fail.  Marketing to the entire population is not possible when self-publishing.  The smaller the niche, the easier the process.  Also, avoid saturated niches.  if there are already two or more books in the niche, either find another niche or find a more specific niche.  Barefoot running is saturated; avoid it.  If you insist, write about something nobody else has like running barefoot in snow.  ;-)

3. Write the book. No explanation needed here.  Also design a cover.  I used the free program paint.net for my original cover.

4. Find an editor. At this point, the less money you spend, the better.  I recruited friends.  Finding English majors at local colleges could also work.  Find someone that will do a decent job for little or no money.

5. Convert the manuscript to a pdf file. There are tons of free online converters.  Do a Goggle search.

6. Create an account at e-junkie.com.  It costs $5 per month and allows you to sell ebooks via your website or blog.  I charged $10 for my first version.  I covered my overhead ($9.95 for e-junkie and web hosting) by selling one per month.  Click on the link below:

E-junkie Shopping Cart and Digital Delivery

7. Spread the word via forums, email, your blog or website… pretty much any way you can reach your niche for no cost. Some people will buy the ebook.  Encourage them to spread the word and ask for reviews/feedback.  Avoid spamming, though (see below).

8. Once you earn enough, buy an ISBN number. This is the identifier used for all books sold in the US.  Eventually you will need another one for the printed version should you decide to go that route.  They can be purchased here: https://www.myidentifiers.com/

9. You can also join Amazon’s Advantage program once you get the ISBN number (https://advantage.amazon.com).  This will allow your book to show up on Amazon, which will improve sales.

8. Improve your product over time based on the feedback. Send your customers each new version.

9. Bank all profits. This will cover the cost of producing the printed book.  Begin shopping for an editor, typesetter, cover designer, and book printer.

10. Once you earn enough to cover those costs, have the book edited, have a cover designed, have the manuscript typeset, and have copies printed.  The number you print will be determined by the market.  My first run was 15.  My second was 50, then 100.  My last printing run was 11,000.

11. Once you have the printed version, you can add it to e-junkie and Amazon.  You can also begin contacting brick-and-mortar retail sales.  Eventually you can explore book distributors, but they take a really big chunk of the profits.

What about marketing?  I purposely saved that for last because marketing should be done throughout the entire process.  This deserves an entire section.

Marketing

How you market the book will determine how many copies you sell.  Disclaimer- I am not a trained marketer… I just have enough knowledge about human psychology to be fairly effective.  Here are my tips:

  • Always focus on education.  My book is a how-to guide.  As such, it is a supplement to my goal of helping people learn about barefoot and minimalist shoe running.  In all my interactions with my niche market, I give advice.  I never mention that I have a book unless someone specifically asks.  This soft-sell technique allows you to maintain a presence in your niche without being labeled a spammer.  Attention whore maybe, but not a spammer.
  • Don’t pay for advertising. I have tested paid advertising and found the returns to be horrible.  There are better ways to reach your niche.
  • Identify 10 bloggers in your niche. Once you have a solid book, ask them to review your book and link to your sales site.  This is the absolute best way to reach your niche market.
  • Blog yourself. If you already haven’t done this, start immediately.  Blogging will allow you to build an audience, which will be the first group that will buy a book you write about your niche.  Not sure where to start?  Check out this post.

The Best Way to Get Published… Self-Publishing

Okay, but what if you still want to get published by a traditional publishing house?  I would argue self-publishing is the way to go.  Many writers don’t understand that publishers are just middlemen.  Their role is to sell the book for you… nothing more.  They are a business.  Theri decision to publish any book is predicated by their assessment of the book’s potential profitability.

If they think they can make money, they will publish it.  If they don’t think they can make money, they will reject it.  It really is that simple.  They’re not the mystical gatekeepers or the absolute authority on quality writing.  They’re middlemen.

You can spend a tremendous amount of time and energy wooing literary agents and acquisition editors, but there’s a great deal of luck involved in that.  Even the best of the best cannot accurately predict what books will sell and which ones will flop.  Make their job easy.  Give them a can’t miss book.

How is that accomplished?  As Dr. Phil says, the best way to predict future behavior is to look to past behavior.  If you self-published a book and it is selling well, the literary agents and acquisition editors have a MUCH easier decision.  They would be representing or buying a known commodity.  Also, if you can enjoy success using a no-budget guerrilla marketing plan, imagine what they could do with a full-time PR department?

As Hugh McLeod says, “The best way to get a publisher is not to need a publisher.”  That was paraphrased.  Sorry Hugh.  I loaned “Ignore Everybody” to a friend.

Conclusion

This is a far-cry from a comprehensive guide to self-publishing.  It is merely a slice of advice I want to share after my journey; my attempt to help others do something pretty cool.  I hope aspiring non-professional writers find it useful. Professional writers, you may resume critiquing my style, grammar, and comma usage.

Best of luck!  Have fun.

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5 Comments

  1. John DeVries
    February 13, 2011

    Great thoughts Jason. I still have that binder from one of your first seminars!!

    I definitely want to write a book someday. Maybe more than one. So, I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts. :-)

  2. Janice Hill
    February 12, 2011

    Every time I try to buy the Kindle format of your second edition, it directs me to the first edition…is the second not available for the Kindle? I’ve been checking back for a few months and it’s always the same!

  3. Daniel Howell
    February 12, 2011

    Jason is a genuinely good guy with a genuinely good book. Keep selling them, Jason!