The Publishing Industry Freefall
In the old days, it was simple. You wrote a book, you sent if off to a publisher and the publisher either accepted it or rejected it. If you got lucky and the publisher accepted your work, the publisher would do two things for you: they’d assign an editor to work with you to polish the book and make sure it was the best that it could be, and then, certain that it was in its finest form, they’d market your book, getting it into bookstores everywhere. For each book they sold, they’d pay you royalties of maybe 8-10% of the net profit of the book. If they really liked the idea of the book, they’d pay you an advance even before the book was finished.
Alas, those simple days are gone. Publishers rarely deal directly with authors today, accepting work only through literary agents (who act as gatekeepers to the publishers); they’ve cut back on their editing staffs, expecting the books sent to them to already be in polished form; they actively market only the books they really believe will sell, expecting their authors to do most of the marketing for the book; and they rarely pay advances unless the book is written by someone either famous or someone who already has made his or her mark with a previous bestseller. And on top of all that, they’ve become extremely selective about what they’ll publish. About 99 percent of submitted manuscripts get rejected (typically by the literary agents before the manuscripts even have a chance to be sent to the publishers).
What happened? Simply this: most of the profit has gone out of the publishing business. It started when the so-called big-box bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders and Books-a-Million came along. With tremendous buying power, these huge chains were able to dictate to the publishers the wholesale pricing terms that they’d accept in order to carry the publishers’ books in their stores, typically much lower than in the old days. But if you were a publisher and you wanted to sell your book through, say, Barnes & Noble, you had to take what they’d give you. In turn, Barnes & Noble would pass along their savings to their customers. The price of books came down. This was great news for the consumer, but bad news for publishers and authors (not to mention the small mom-and-pop bookstores that could no longer compete and were forced out of business).
Then things became even worse for the profitability of the publishers. A little phenomenon called the Internet came along and with it, a little company called Amazon. They could sell the books even cheaper than the big-box stores because they didn’t have the overhead of actual “stores.” And when eBooks came along, even more profit got sucked out of the industry. Borders went under. Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million are hanging on by their respective fingernails, trying desperately to diversify.
In short, the publishing world went into a freefall. Many publishers went out of business, several merged, everyone downsized or streamlined, and nobody left will touch a book unless there’s a guaranteed market for it. How does a publisher know in advance that there will be a sure market for a book? They work only with authors who have already built large audiences for their books even before their books are finished. In the trade, this is called having a “platform.” It’s an industry buzzword that essentially means the author has a following. If an author has a big enough platform, the publisher knows that if the book hits the shelves this morning, tons of people will buy it by this afternoon. Authors build their platforms through social media, by writing articles, driving people to their websites, blogging, making public speaking appearances, being interviewed for newspapers or magazines about their particular area of expertise, and other marketing efforts that work to make an author’s name known before his or her book is even in print (or has even been submitted to a literary agent). It can be expensive and time-consuming as you might imagine. And it used to be the kind of thing a publisher would do for you.
The New Alternative
Given all of this, why should an author even bother? Great question. Here’s the answer: because as the Internet taketh, the Internet giveth. A new phenomenon has taken root in the book industry: self-publishing. Smart authors are bypassing the literary agent/publisher middlemen, and, via the Web, going directly to the consumer. They’re doing it with print books and they’re doing it more and more with eBooks. And they’re keeping the profits for themselves. Make no mistake – if you can sell your book to a mainstream publisher, you should. If Random House is interested in your book, and they’re willing to advertise it and make sure it gets shelf space in bookstores all over the world, you’re going to sell a lot more copies than if you self-publish. But if your book doesn’t end up in that special 1% that mainstream publishers accept, self-publishing is a terrific, potentially profitable, alternative. Besides, even if you make it into that 1%, there’s no guarantee that the publisher will be willing to make a huge financial commitment to advertise your book. And even if they do, you’re going to need a lot of sales to make any real money at the royalty rate of 8%, or even less these days, that publishers are paying.
So how do you self-publish a book? For print, you need a book manufacturer – a printing company that specializes in books. In addition to printing your book, some book manufacturing companies also offer warehousing, distribution, and fulfillment services.
Before your manuscript is printed, however, it needs to be properly formatted. It needs to look like a book, in other words. It needs a good cover design, the correct placement of the barcode (more on that in a bit), the proper use of font and spacing, page numbering, proper insertion of illustrations, etc. (I’m assuming you’ve already had the manuscript professionally proofread.) Don’t skimp on any of this. Hire a professional graphic designer and do it right.
And don’t forget to include all the appropriate “front” and “back matter” for the book. The copyright page, a title page, “acknowledgements” and/or “dedication” pages if you desire them, a table of contents, an index, a page “About the Author” (you!), etc. Don’t reinvent the wheel – find a book that’s similar to the one you’ve written and use it as a guide.
A note about copyrighting your book: the law recognizes that a work is automatically copyrighted the moment it is created. If you create something new and put your name on it, it belongs to you. Nobody can legally steal it. No registration is necessary. Just the same, you’ll want to provide notice of your rights in the book by putting: Copyright © by “Your Name”, “Year”, All Rights Reserved. (See the bottom of this page for an example.) If you want more protection, and public notice of your copyright, or if you ever have to file a lawsuit because someone has infringed on your rights by plagiarizing your work, you’ll want to register your copyright, something very easily done by visiting the U.S. Copyright Office online at http://www.copyright.gov/.
To sell your book through retail outlets like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or to have it carried by libraries, you’ll need a few other things as well. First, you’ll need an ISBN, an International Standard Book Number. These ten and 13-digit numbers are part of the universal numbering system that identifies each and every book. You can purchase an ISBN from R.R. Bowker, LLC, the official United States ISBN Agency (go to https://www.myidentifiers.com/). These numbers also come with barcodes. This tells a bookstore how much to sell the book for. You’ll need to decide on the price of your printed book before you buy a barcode for it. Every version of your book – the print version (both the hardcover and soft cover versions if you’re going to have both) and the eBook version, and future editions – need separate ISBNs. And if you decide down the road to change the price, you’ll have to buy a new ISBN and, if it’s a printed book, a new barcode. (For an example of a barcode with an ISBN, just look on the back cover of any book.) If you want to sell your book to libraries, you’ll also need a Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN), which you can acquire for free by going to the Library of Congress website and opening an account for your book (http://www.loc.gov/publish/pcn/).
A point to note: the numbers correspond to the name of the publisher. That means that if someone searches for your book by the ISBN or the LCCN, they’ll come across your name. Unfortunately, that makes it clear that the book is self-published and self-published books often don’t get the same amount of respect as books published by the big publishing houses. So, a little marketing tip: start your own publishing business with its own creative name! A name like “Greatbooks Press” will give your book a little added credibility. How hard is it to set up a publishing company? As hard as filing a fictitious name with your state, something that can typically be done online. Check with your state government to find out the specific requirements and start selling your book through the name of your own bona-fide publishing company.
Some authors prefer to delegate all of the above work and there are companies that exist that will take care of all these details. They’ll design your cover, format your book, produce e-versions, register your copyright, and secure the ISBN, barcodes, and LCCN, as well as print your book, market it, and distribute it. Their name, not yours, will be listed in the book as the publisher.
These so-called vanity presses are often fairly expensive. Frequently, they also pay royalties, as opposed to net profits, and although the royalty percentages are normally higher than what mainstream publishers pay, they may not be higher by much. Some vanity presses even acquire the copyright of the book for themselves, obtaining the full rights from the author as a condition of marketing the book! Needless to say, you should never give your copyright away. Some vanity presses are outright scams, taking a fee upfront to print the book, and then not following through on the promised marketing of the book. Not all are bad, however, but if you’re thinking of using a vanity press, do your homework. Search around the Internet to see what any given vanity press’s customers have to say about them.
What do you do once your book has been successfully self-published? Well, it’s not going to sell itself. Remember that “platform” we talked about? You’ll still need to build one and that’s a job you should start on even before you’re done writing the book. Get yourself a professionally-designed website, do some search engine marketing to make sure your site will be found, start a blog with excerpts of your book as you’re writing it to whet the public’s interest. Do some social media work; get a Facebook page and Twitter account and build yourself a following. Write a press release about the upcoming “release” of your book and send it out to newspapers. Volunteer as a guest speaker at local functions. Once the book is printed, go to local bookstores and arrange for signings. You’re limited only by your imagination. The best advice? If you can afford it, hire a professional P.R. person who’s experienced at getting authors noticed. If you do things right, you’ll get noticed, become known, and sell a lot of books.
As the mainstream publishing industry continues its freefall, producing caution if not downright fear in publishers and literary agents alike, more and more people will take advantage of the new opportunities the Internet has made available to self-publish books and sell them directly to the consumer. Some authors will be more successful than others. With the right planning, the right promotional efforts, and (of course) the right book, you might indeed become a bestselling author. I can’t cover everything in this short paper, but the resources are out there. If you want a more thorough discussion of self-publishing, I recommend Successful Self-Publishing: How to Self-Publish and Market Your Book by Joanna Penn (Joanna Penn, 2015). It’s an easy read and full of great ideas.
Best of luck with your future bestseller!
Copyright © 2016 Jerry Payne, All rights reserved.