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Independent Publishing – The 30,000 Foot Overview

I've been an independent author/publisher for several years. There are many things to be considered to successfully publish books. Here are some observations from my own personal experiences

You need to write a good book that people will want to read. Then you need to go through a process of several rewrites where you actually craft the book into a marketable form. It is highly advisable to hire a third party, professional editor. A friend or relative will not tell you what needs to be fixed to make the book better because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. A professional editor can work with you to help make the book sellable in a way that retains what you want to say. Over a million titles are published every year and a poor book has little chance of selling well or even at all.

Printed books should to be designed and typeset in a way that is pleasing to the eye and easy to read. A cover, whether for a printed book or an eBook, must be created that will entice people to click on it when they’re browsing through an online site or pick it up and examine it in a physical store. This is extremely important because people do judge books by their covers.

Creating a winning cover requires graphic design skills as well as an understanding of the book business and marketing, along with a little psychology. If you possess the tools and background, you can do this yourself. Otherwise, it pays to hire professionals. Like the established publishing houses, independent publishers must know what they can do themselves and when to work with partners.

You must choose a printer and a distributor. There are two choices for printing your book.

The traditional printing option is the offset press. Digital files containing text and images are etched onto aluminum plates as an image. The etched areas receive oil based ink while the non-etched areas are coated in water. The plates are placed on metal rollers that spin and transfer, or offset, the ink to rubber rollers that then contains just the ink in the form of the image. There is a set of metal and rubber rollers on top to print one side of the page and a second set on the bottom to print the other side. Paper from large rolls pass between the two rubber rollers as a web to transfer the ink to the top and bottom of the pages that is later trimmed into sheets and bound into books. Printing this way is very fast and cost effective per page, however, there is a startup cost to make plates for each page. Because of this, offset printing is generally used for print runs of 500 books or more at a time. These are stored in a warehouse and shipped when orders are placed. The cost of subsequent runs will be lower because the plates can be reused many times.

A new technology called print-on-demand (POD) has arisen in the past few decades. This uses the same technology as laser printers to place ink on paper. The startup cost is low because the printed image comes directly from a digital format, usually an Adobe PDF file, without the need to create metal plates. However, the cost of each page printed is higher and the printing process is slower. Print-on-demand can produce many books at a time or just a single book. This gives independent publishers great flexibility. As the number of books can vary, books that are created with POD are often produced after orders are placed and the run is just for the number of copies in the order, reducing upfront costs for publishers and eliminating the need to store books in a warehouse. However, because the process costs more per page than offset printing the price per copy will need to be set higher or publishers will need to reduce their profits below that of books printed in offset presses in order to compete in the market.

The question of which to use depends on how much money a publisher can invest at the start. One advantage of POD is that changes to the text or images of a book are done electronically, can be made quickly and will appear in the next run. If changes are made to books using offset presses, new plates will need to be made and paid for.

Both color and black and white books can be printed with either process by running the paper through four printing stations. Each station prints one ink color; cyan, magenta yellow or black. This is referred to as CMYK with the K representing black. These four colors are overprinted on the paper and blend together to render full color images.

You can sell books directly to stores yourself on consignment where you order and pay for the printing and shipping and then hand deliver or ship copies to stores who have agreed to carry them. This makes you the distributor. Accepting books on consignment means that stores only pay you if books are sold, thus eliminating their risk and offering an enticement to carry them. For each copy sold, stores will give you the cover price less a wholesale discount. The discount rate is usually 40% of the cover price.

Stores will generally not keep your book on their shelves indefinitely. A book that does not sell takes up space that more popular books can use, so stores may want you to take back unsold copies after a period of time, depending on the policy of the store. This is usually six to twelve months. You will need to pick up these unsold copies or ask the stores to ship them back to you. Stores will usually require that you pay for shipping. You can also ask them to destroy unsold books, a process called pulping. If you do this, it is best to require the stores to tear off the cover of the unsold books and mail them to you for verification. You won’t get paid for unsold copies but if the books are destroyed you won’t incur shipping charges that might be greater than the price of the book.

If you enter into an agreement with a book distributor, stores can order from them. For POD books, a distributor will pay you for copies sold less printing costs, the wholesale discount to stores and a distribution fee. The printing cost of books produced on offset presses are paid for in advance so the compensation is only reduced by the wholesale discount and distribution fee.

Having a distributor greatly expands the range of where your books are sold; across town, across a country or around the world. Contracting with a distributor relieves you of the effort to ship and track book sales, however most distributors offer few marketing services beyond listing books in a catalogue. It is a good idea to contact booksellers directly and ask them to stock your titles. This can be done by sending emails, making phone calls and mailing paper tip sheets that announce the book, its description, an image of the cover, price and ordering information. People are often inundated with emails and a piece of paper arriving in the post sometimes gets their attention better.

Most retailers will not stock a title, whether on consignment or through a distributor, unless unsold copies can be returned after a certain period of time. As with consigned books, the period a store keeps your book on the shelf will vary depending on their policies. When POD books handled through a distributor are pulped, authors will be charged the cost of printing the book. When books are physically returned, whether they are produced using POD or on an offset press, authors will be charged for shipping.

Offering returns worries some authors who fear they will need to pay large printing and shipping fees. Since the time I began publishing, only a single copy has been returned.

Some companies both print and distribute books. These include Ingram, Lulu, Draft2Digital and Amazon through its Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) service. There are others that can be found with an Internet search.

For some of these, such as Lulu, Draft2Digital and Amazon, you can just upload a Microsoft Word file and they will handle layout and design for a printed book or eBook. You can also use free tools provided by these companies to format books. For paper books, a Word file can deliver unsatisfactory quality. You will get a better result if you use the formatting tools provided by the printer or third party programs like Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress to create PDF files that are uploaded. I do not recommend Microsoft Publisher as it was designed for things like flyers and not books. Another alternative is to hire a professional book designer to layout and typeset the book.

These companies often offer cover creation tools, but it is a good idea to ask someone experienced in creating book covers to either design one for you or be available to consult with you when using one with these services.

Whether you consign books yourself or use the services of a distributor, you should still send your books to a professional editor if you want people to buy them and encourage their friends and acquaintances to buy them as well.

Companies like Lulu, Digital2Draft and Amazon don’t charge upfront fees. For eBooks they, they keep a master file and send digital copies to consumers when they buy one, then pay you a percentage of the price.

Some online retailers now offer subscription models where consumers pay a monthly or yearly fee and can download a set number of books during that period. Authors are paid according to the number of pages consumers read or the amount of time spent reading. In a subscription model, up to ten copies of a title must be read to the end before the author earns the same amount of money that would come from the sale of a single eBook, making subscription services adventitious for retailers while greatly reducing the compensation for authors.

For paper books, companies like Lulu, Digital2Draft and Amazon only print copies when orders are placed using POD. As with eBooks, you receive a percentage of the sales. These percentages differ from company to company.

All distributors will usually pay 60 to 90 days after sales are made no matter what their business model is, so you should budget for this.

I use KDP for Kindle editions of my books where I get 70% of the cover price but I chose a different POD company called Ingram-Spark to print and distribute my paperback and hard cover books (Even though KDP and Draft2Digital produce paper books, they only print paperbacks and not hard covers which are preferred by libraries because they are more durable. Lulu does print both paperback and hard cover books). Ingram-Spark is a division of the Ingram Group that is the largest book distributor in the western world with tens of thousands of bookstores and libraries as clients in multiple countries.

Like Lulu, Draft2Digital and KDP, Ingram-Spark offers print-on-demand. There is a setup fee per title with Ingram-Spark but I belong to an organization called the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA). Through them I am able to both setup and revise titles with Ingram-Spark for free. This alone is worth the modest yearly IBPA membership fee that includes excellent webinars on publishing and co-marketing opportunities.

The reason I use Ingram-Spark instead of KDP for my printed books because I want my books to be more widely distributed than on just Amazon in order to sell them to other retailers like Barnes & Noble and Walmart, libraries and independent bookstores where I am able to hold events such as book signings and readings. None of these will purchase books from Amazon, even if you select world-wide distribution in KDP. The reasons for this are that Amazon does not offer a large enough wholesale discount to other stores or libraries and, for booksellers, Amazon is a direct competitor.

Set the price of each book so that it makes enough return on your investment in terms of money and time but doesn’t discourage readers from buying it. I compare prices of books in similar genres and sizes to mine and price within that range.

For international markets where there is a choice for specifying prices in different currencies, I base the price on U.S. dollars and look up the average exchange rate for each jurisdiction over the last three months, then round the resultant price up so that the last two digits are 99 cents.

Exchange rates vary hourly and by using an average I account for fluctuations over time. In pricing for currencies other than the Unite States it is best to round up because you will never receive the full exchange rate due to fees charged by banks and other financial institutions.

There is a strange psychological aspect of humans such that when we see something priced at $9.99 and the same product priced at $10.00, we buy the $9.99 item thinking that we are saving a whole dollar and ignoring the fact that we are actually only saving one cent. This has been shown in multiple experiments. You will always look like you are offering a bargain when the price ends in 99 cents.

You may want to adjust your price periodically as printing costs and exchange rates can change.

If you are distributing through anyone other than Amazon, you need to set a wholesale discount. This will include the distribution fee, shipping costs and a margin of profit for the booksellers. A discount of 40% will get your books listed in most online stores. To get them into libraries and physical stores you should set the discount to 50% or 55%. If you do not, the book may not be carried. A 55% wholesale discount is divided between the distributor (15% which includes the cost of shipping) and the stores (40%). If you offer a 45% wholesale discount, stores are left with just 30% of the retail price which may be enough for an online operation but will not support a bookstore with costs like rent, utilities and staff salaries.

A book on an online website or a shelf in a store can be easily overlooked amidst the mass number of books available. To get your book noticed, you need to market it. Marketing involves advertising, interaction on social media, personal appearances, getting reviews, sending press releases, appearing on podcasts, contacting bloggers to write about you and your books, establishing you as a brand and other activities.

You can hire marketing firms and publicists to do this but they can get very expensive. Doing this yourself can take a substantial commitment of time. Marketing can consume up to a quarter of your time each week. Some marketing is free and some costs.

Book reviews are important and you should contact reviewers four to six months before a book is released as reviewers often already have a backlog of books and will rarely be able to get to yours right away. A book goes from new release to backlist status after six to nine months. Many reviewers will not accept backlist books.

Be very careful of paid reviews or arrangements with other authors to review your book if you review theirs. This violates Amazon’s policies and can result in every review of your book being taken down from Amazon and Goodreads, which is owned by Amazon. It can also get very expensive very quickly and you can’t always predict what kind of review you will get or how wide the distribution of the review will be. What a reviewer says and how much influence they have applies to free reviews as well but you aren’t out any cash. Those who offer to always give a good review can raise red flags with Amazon who want reviews to be honest and organic and come from people who bought and read your book. I always purchase a Kindle edition of any book I review, even if one has been provided (I don’t review every book I’m sent). In regards to eBooks; Amazon, Kobo, Nook and Apple know how many pages a consumer reads and whether or not they finish the book.

You can create an online presence on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. You can buy advertising in general media and on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Amazon. Press releases to media such as bloggers, newspapers, magazines, radio and television, can get you noticed as these outlets are always looking for items to place between other news. Public appearances in person or online help you build your brand and sell books. You can contact book bloggers to arrange for reviews and interviews to get you and you book known.

I realize this is a long explanation but it is important to know what you are getting into or you could spend a lot of time and money and get poor results. It may not seem like it but this is the 30,000 foot overview. There are many more details to learn.

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David A. Wimsett has released four books through his independent publishing company, Cape Split Press. His fifth book, an illustrated edition of his women's historical fiction novel, will be released in June of 2021 and the sixth will be the final instalment of his epic fantasy series for Christmas of 2021,


If something stands out in your writing, remove it

Crafting a novel takes place through the process of rewriting the book. The first draft is only a framework of the story you want to tell. Some beginning writers run their first draft through spell check and send out the manuscript, thinking they are finished. This is a mistake.

Even this article has gone through eight rewrites. After putting down ideas I wanted to discuss, I reread and edited the first draft, changing words here, taking some things out there and adding new material where it was needed. This was followed by a second edited draft with more changes as I looked for the exact words to use while making certain that the points I wanted to express were clear. After the eighth draft, I posted the article.

Of course, you also need to check for misspellings, typographical errors, missing words and other grammatical problems. I’m always shocked by how many times I can reread a manuscript I’ve written and come across a sentence such as, “They walked into building” when I intended to write “They walked into the building.” My mind subconsciously added the word the each time I read the piece. Sometimes these things go undetected until after the manuscript goes to my editor.

This is one of the reasons why anyone who intends to write professionally must hire a professional editor and not just have a friend or relative look over the work. Your friends and relatives may not be trained and experienced in editing manuscripts and they will usually tell you that the writing is wonderful because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Worse yet, some writers send out manuscripts without having anyone else look at them.

Those who want to write on a professional level must invest time in rewriting. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

There are many things to consider when rewriting. In the end, the writing itself must disappear to reveal only the story and the characters. A book can present themes and ideas, but without a story that involves readers in the characters, the book becomes a lecture and not a novel.

When readers pause to say, “Wasn’t that a clever turn of phrase”, they are taken out of the story and slammed back into their ordinary lives, dispelling the suspension of disbelief that is essential in storytelling, which must immerse readers beyond distraction.

Here is a good rule of thumb. If, in rereading your work, you come across something that stands out and causes you to become conscious of the writing itself, remove that word, phrase, description, piece of dialogue or characterization. If you noticed it, so will your readers. The story will stumble and any points you wanted to make will be interrupted.

Professional writing is not an academic excursive in showing off how much you know about writing craft, it is using the craft of writing to reveal the material with such impact that the physical presentation becomes invisible. Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama, says to “Kill your darlings.”

Writers may believe that they can’t remove material because they might not be able to think of something else. In truth, writers have an inexhaustible source of material within themselves and their imaginations to create new prose that describes characters and situations. Others hope to impress readers by demonstrating a command of language. This is like drawing a set of gorgeous drapes across a picture window and blocking the view from outside.

You are the first editor in a rewrite, and you must be ruthless with yourself. Fight your ego if it tells you to keep material that does not serve the telling the story or the revelation of the characters.

David A. Wimsett is the author of Beyond the Shallow, a novel of a woman overcoming prejudice and searching for herself amidst rumors of the selkies from Celtic mythology, and Dragons Unremembered: Volume I of the Carandir Saga, a fantasy epic set in a world of gender equality where women and men have the same rights, opportunities and authority. The second volume of the saga, Half Awakened Dreams, will be released on September 21, 2020. He is a member of the Writers' Union of Canada and the Canadian Freelance Guild.

Is independant publishing for you?

At one time, there were only two ways for an author to get a book in print; through a traditional publishing house that covered all the costs and paid writers royalties or by paying a company to print copies for a fee.

Traditional publishers offer important services such as editing, cover design, marketing and distribution to book outlets. Authors are paid up front with an advance on royalties, which is important cash for writers. Large publishers also have resources to broker movie deals. But, it is difficult for a writer to get a publisher to accept a books or to convince a literary agent to represent it. New books must be written to the highest level of quality. That has always been true. There is now a new consideration, return on investment. It takes the same effort to publish a book that will generate $50,000 in profit as it does to publish one that will bring in $1,000,000. People working in the publishing industry have a deep love of books and delight in discovering new authors, but it is a marginal business and economic factors influence the decisions of publishers.

Before her death, literary giant Ursula K. Le Guin was honored at the National Book Awards. In her acceptance speech she said, "Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship."

For decades, the only alternative to traditional publishing houses was for writers to pay companies a fee ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars to have their book printed. This was not publishing, just printing. Editing, marketing and advice were not included. Writers had to do all this themselves. Many people used this service to print personal memoirs that were given away to friends and family, though there were writers who distributed their own books, sometime door-to-door, because bookstores would not stock them and reviewers ignored them. Such writers may have had 4,999 books in their basement because their mother bought a copy. As a result, these book printing companies came to be referred to as Vanity Presses. Few writers who used these services employed professional editing. As a result, quality suffered.

Two decades ago, a new form of publishing emerged, self-publishing. There have been self-published books before, but they were rare. Self-publishing to the mass market began when Amazon introduced its Kindle eReader device and began accepting manuscripts directly from authors. Amazon does not charge fees to writers. Authors simply uploaded their manuscript and cover art. Amazon takes care of formatting. listing and distributing books. Amazon pays up to 70% of a book's retail price to the author. Self-published authors do not pay fees to literary agents, which can be up to 20% of the author's royalty. Perhaps the most alluring thing is that self-published authors have complete control over their books. Amazon now sells Kindle, paperback and hard cover books from self-publishers. Other bookstores, even chains, have begun to accept self-published books and reviewers are looking at them.

But there is a stigma associated to self-published books. They are not taken seriously by some. Many literary awards will not consider them and grants that are available to authors whose works are represented by traditional houses are not given to self-publishers. There is the impression that writers self-publish their work because they are not good enough to attract a publisher. That perception is not necessarily true. Established authors, such as David Mamet, now self-publish. If readers do not know that a great novel is self-published it would compare favorably with volumes from big name houses.

Still, there is some ground for concern. Far too many self-published books are poorly written. They are not professionally edited and contain typographical and grammatical errors. Plots can be inconsistent and even incomprehensible. Dialogue may be unbelievable or juvenile and characters can be shallow. Such books and authors serve to reinforces the prejudice and stereotypes around self-publishing. Grant providers and contest judges dread the idea of slogging through poorly written material.

Today, a new movement is forming, independent publishing. Sharing many of the aspects of self-publishing, independent publishers take on the same roles practiced by traditional publishers. They assume the risks of hiring professional editors, cover designers, printers and distributors. They market the book or hire people to do so. Like self-publishers, Independents do not pay agent fees. Some independents only publish their own work while others publish the work of many writers as well as their own. The main difference between self-publishers and independent publishers is the degree of commitment and professionalism they exhibit. The books are not released until they pass rigorous quality checks.

Independent publishers heed the advice their editors, cover designers and other professionals they hire. These people know their jobs and bring an objective perspective to the project. My editor doesn’t just check spelling, missing words or wrong words. She performs fact checking and examines the structure and logic. In one scene, a character opened a window. Two paragraphs later the already opened window was opened again. My mind had looked at that scene dozens of times and missed this mistake. My editor caught it and much more. She suggested better ways to say things.

Even though I was the author and the publisher, my editor had the final say as to when the manuscript was complete. That was our agreement, the same as at any traditional press and was absolutely necessary if the book was to meet professional quality standards. This didn’t mean that I automatically accepted every suggestion. We had several discussions where I had to defend a phrase or a scene or a character. An editor's job is not to change the author's themes. Rather, it is to point out how writers can express those themes more effectively.

I also had to contact bookstores (chains, independent and online) and libraries to make the book available. I had to organize book readings and signings and place advertising in newspapers and social media along with blog posts. I was responsible for setting up an author’s page on Amazon and Goods Reads. I established Twitter and Facebook accounts. I put out ads on Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook.

That is what an independent publisher must do in order to produce world class quality. Nothing else will do in the marketplace.

Independent publishing is not for everyone. It is a full time job to get a book in print and requires a willingness to be involved in the business end of publishing. Some authors just want to write and let others handle the details. For them, a traditional press is the best solution. Writers who are willing to get fully involved can find greater monetary rewards and satisfaction in making the decisions.