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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,


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Rosemary on :

Very thorough and very useful for aspiring authors.

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