Self-publishing for profit
There are big bucks to be made in book writing, but marketing is key
NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Meet Joe Black -- the non-fiction version that is.
The 52-year old resident of Buena Vista, Colo., is a retired management consultant, recovering workaholic and well-regarded author who's managed to tap the nation's demand for professional expertise with relative ease.
"In the late 1980s, I had several clients who would say, 'Joe, you should put all those vignettes and stories you tell about your work experiences into a book,'" Black said. "So I did."
Today, he's written three books; each includes a collection of short stories gathered during the twenty-some-odd years he spent coaching executive teams at Fortune 500 firms across the country.
Black turned down several offers from New York publishing firms who wanted dibs on his first book "Attitude Connection" -- but were only willing to pay him 40 cents on the dollar. Instead, he decided to publish the book himself -- keeping control over the creative process and 100 percent of whatever profits he made.
It was a good move.
So far, the books have sold over 70,000 copies, enough to afford Black and his wife a comfortable retirement and pay for their dream house in the rural Rocky Mountains.
"This path is paved with proceeds from my books," Black said, noting he's profited more than $200,000 from the books. "It's like something just fell in my lap. I didn't think it would be so successful."
The printed word
Black, whose name coincidentally showed up in lights last year with the release of the Hollywood hit movie "Meet Joe Black," is among a growing number of self-published professionals who have been forced to fend for themselves as the rapid consolidation of deep pocket publishers and retail booksellers continues.
Most are speakers and consultants who either can't get the attention of the big-name publishing houses or don't want to surrender any potential profits.
In the last few weeks alone, German media giant Bertelsmann AG, owner of U.S.-based Random House, said it would acquire a stake in Japanese publisher Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co. as it looks to enter the Asian market. And book retailing behemoth Barnes & Noble Inc. (BKS) said it acquired a 49 percent stake in online publishing portal iUniverse.com.
"Professional self-publishers are a hugely growing aspect of the publishing market," said Rita Mills, publisher and managing director of Mills & Morris Publishing in Houston, Texas and long-time industry veteran.
"There are more and more public speakers out there these days who realize the circuit doesn't always pay a lot if you're not a big name," she added. "By publishing a book they become an instant authority on that subject, they get more speaking engagements, and they get a product to sell and make money."
It's that combination of earnings potential that makes authoring a book so unique, said Marilyn Ross, executive director of the Small Publishers Association of North America and co-founder of About Books Inc., a self-publishing consultant.
"There are a lot of professionals these days who are putting their specialized knowledge into print and using it as a marketing tool," she said. "It's a shrewd tactic."
Ross noted the vast majority of clients she has coached have more than met their expenses -- either through direct sales of the book or by drumming up new speaking gigs through increased publicity.
"It's usually a very good payoff for professionals," she said. "Once you've written a book you are seen as an expert. It positions you apart from the herd. And you can use it to get on news programs and on the radio."
The U.S. publishing industry is big business. The Association of American Publishers reports that book sales last year totaled $23 billion -- a 6.4 percent increase over 1997.
It's unclear what percentage of those sales was claimed by self-published professionals, but those plugged into the industry say the field remains hot.
If you are considering authoring a book yourself, you've got two options: You can either put your own money on the line and publish the product yourself, or track down an agent and get them to sell your idea to a large-house publisher -- the holy grail for upstart authors.
Companies such as McGraw-Hill, Simon & Schuster and Random House generally pay an advance fee for the authors they sign on, and they cover the costs of editing, publishing and marketing. That's a big plus for inexperienced authors who can't afford the printing costs -- let alone a marketing campaign.
The drawbacks, however, are that your chances of landing a contract with one of these firms are slim if you're not well-known to begin with. Plus, you're giving up some of your profit potential, losing the final say with editorial decisions -- and it can take a year or longer to get your book on the shelves.
That won't help much if you'd like to distribute your book along with a speech or seminar you'll be giving three months from now.
"It's very difficult to get picked up by trade publishers these days," Ross said. "They all want the sure thing -- the Stephen King or Danielle Steel novel."
For undiscovered authors, your best bet is to publish your book alone.
Experts estimate self-publishing will cost you anywhere from $12,000 to $30,000 -- depending on the length and complexity of your book. It's also more expensive if your copy requires extensive editing, and you select a hard cover rather than soft.
You can save a few thousand dollars by doing it all yourself. That means hiring a freelance editor to clean up your copy, finding a printer and graphics expert and spending countless hours developing and implementing a marketing plan.
"It's done all the time and with a good deal of success," said Kimberly Morris, the publisher and editorial director of Mills & Morris Publishing . "You can do it all piecemeal, but it's an enormous amount of legwork and not everyone has the time to do the research required."
If you fall into that category, you can always hire a company such as About Books Inc. -- which Black used -- or Mills & Morris Publishing that will help you every step of the way.
If you request it, these kinds of consultants will review your initial proposal, help guide your project for readership appeal, edit your work, publish it and implement your initial marketing plan for you.
They'll also tell you if you're barking up the wrong tree.
"We try to counsel our clients so they have a viable product when they're done, but, frankly, there are some things that just should not be done," said Ross, of About Books, Inc. "Sometimes folks want to do autobiographies and the hardest thing we have to do is tell them that their mom cares, and maybe their friends, but the rest of the world doesn't."
Five or ten years ago, consulting firms that helped self-publishers put their thoughts into print got a bad reputation. They were criticized for encouraging individuals to spend tens of thousands of dollars publishing material that had little or no chance of finding a market.
"Self-publishing got a bad rap because there were too many people publishing things that weren't fit to be published, but in the last few years self publishers are producing more daring and more cutting edge work the big houses don't want to mess with," said Cathy Stucker, of Special Interests Publishing in Sugar Land, Texas and head of The Idea Lady consulting firm.
The best way to test a self-publishing firm is to find out first what kind of marketing efforts they have in place.
"If they don't seem to have real strong ideas or realistic ideas about your marketing strategy you should probably avoid them," Morris said.
If you do decide to self-publish without the help of a consultant, be aware that you'll need to publish at least 3,000 copies to make it pay -- that's where the cost per unit starts to drop, Mills said.
Expect to pay about $35 per hour for freelance editors (or more if your book requires indexing and footnotes), $10 to $25 per page for layout fees plus $500 to $1,500 for the cover design.
That's one area where you don't want to skimp.
"If you are going to self-publish you have to make sure that your product is at least as good as the one next to it on the bookshelf," Mills said.
If you achieve any degree of success as a self-publisher, keep in mind that you'll also improve your chances of getting picked up by a traditional publisher down the road.
"Selling 3,000 to 5,000 books on your own really makes the big publishers stand up and take notice," Mills said. "A lot of small self-publishers get picked up that way."
If you're still reluctant to spend the money as a self-publisher, there are several other great ways to do the deed.
For one, Stucker said, professionals who write manuals don't need a fancy layout or cover -- since most businesses who would buy it are simply after the information.
"You can publish it in a three-ring binder and that can be more profitable," Stucker said. "Start-up costs are much lower and can be just $20 to $100."
That also enables you to print 5 or 10 copies at a time to test the market
Stucker published and bound her own continuing education manual five years ago to sell during her seminars.
"I started publishing with $200 and made a profit my first day of sales," she said. "I'm still selling it five years later and it's the same book. Plus, I get paid to teach the class."
Storytellers and professional speakers also sell audio tapes with a good deal of success, Stucker said.
"You can do this on a shoestring budget," she said.
"If you have a very small niche market you can just sit down and record your story or seminar in your bedroom, package it professionally and begin selling it the next day."
Lastly, of course, there's online publishing.
Companies like Fatbrain.com and Booklocker.com have been gaining momentum as electronic publishers of short stories, research reports and speeches.
Authors simply log on to Fatbrain and proceed to the e-Matter portion of the site, where they register and title their work. There's a $1 per month listing fee and authors set their own royalties, of which they receive 50 percent.
Basically, you would set your own price for your work and therefore determine your own profits.
"eMatter opens up an entirely new publishing venue, for works that are longer than a magazine article and shorter than a book," said Fatbrain Chief Executive Chris MacAskill. "Authors can reach a worldwide audience instantly and keep half the revenues."
"If you do decide to self-publish you should understand that it's a business and be prepared to market aggressively," Morris said. "If you are approaching it from the standpoint of 'if you publish, they will read' you are wasting your money. No one is going to buy your book if they don't know it exists."
As for Black, he says he "loves his life" these days but has no plans to write any additional books. When the inventory of his current three books runs dry, he's getting out.
"I'm done," he said. "I'm not consulting anymore and I'm not going to print anymore books. I never really needed the money -- it just sounded like fun."