When Jill and I first got into self-publishing the book world was a vastly different place than it is today. There was no Google, no Amazon, no print-on-demand, no blogs. There were two giant wholesalers, Baker and Taylor, and Ingram. (Well, not everything has changed.) But Ronald Reagan was president, gas cost about 90 cents a gallon, and Magnum, bluelinelocksmith P.I. was the top show on television. Back then self-publishing was much more involved and expensive. You had to figure out how to publish a book, usually something only big companies did. You had to print at least a couple of thousand copies at a cost of several thousand dollars. These were barriers most people just couldn’t get over. You had to be dedicated, driven, or desperate.
Barriers Have Shrunk
Today there are numerous websites offering “publishing packages” where all the work has been done for you (or so they claim) and by just uploading a file you can instantly become a “published author.” In some cases, you can achieve this distinction without spending a penny, as long as you are willing to buy the books that result from this process. And this system has allowed many people to get into the hobby end of book publishing, which is admirable. But self-publishing for profit, self-publishing as a business decision, or as an extension of a business agenda–like enhancing a consultant’s reputation in her field–still requires a big dose of learning and a lot of persistence.
What Hasn’t Changed
Here are some of the things that haven’t changed a bit from the time of $100 cover proofs, bluelines that smelled like ammonia, and Ronald Reagan, the movie star president:
You need a rationale to publish your book—I followed Dan Poynter’s outline for publishing because it fit my situation pretty well. I had the first book to be published on my subject, and an audience of several thousand people anxious to get the book. This was my rationale. I knew I would be able to pre-sell enough copies to pay the printing bill, so there was no financial risk on my part. In essence, the people who would buy those first copies made it possible to launch the book into the book trade. The fact that print-on-demand has eliminated the need for up-front sales hasn’t at the same time eliminated the need for the book to have a rationale. The self-publisher still has to answer the questions of why the book needs to be published, and who will buy it.
You need to produce a high-quality book to have a chance in the market–Luckily I had worked in the publishing industry and was operating a graphic design business when I became a self-publisher. I knew how to hire an editor, and had the ability to produce a book with the same vendors who were serving the big publishers. I knew my book would be the equal to the books from my “competitors.” Today it’s still incumbent on the self-publisher to hire editors, book designers, indexers, cover designers, and so on to get a book produced at a professional level, or to make use of a book producer who will handle the whole pre-press production of your book for you. Whichever way you go, without a commitment to quality, your book will suffer in comparison to others.
You need to be willing–no, eager–to market your book, your program, or your ideas–We launched Body Types with the full pre-publication review program, news releases, sample reviews, book photos, author bios, mailings with blow-back postcards, bigger publication-date review mailings, interviews and workshops. Let’s face it, it’s a lot of work to take on. It only makes sense if you can define your message, who it will benefit, and locate the people likely to be interested. Today you need to answer all the same questions we had then, but now in the context of the blogosphere, social media, and the revolution that seems to be slowly unfolding in book distribution and the move to both ecommerce and epublication. The challenges of lauching and marketing a book today demand the same kind of focus, attention to the marketplace, and innovative thinking they always have.
The More Things Change…
Self-publishing remains a viable business for people in the right situation and with the right temperament to take it on. And some people are just desperate to communicate their unique vision, expression, or thoughts to the world and want to do so in a way that earns the respect of the marketplace. But almost by definition, a self-publisher is launching a business and will do themselves a favor by approaching it with the seriousness and dedication it deserves.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is how powerful it is to publish a book. After spending the better part of a year writing and revising my book through lonely hours at my desk on weekends and evenings, I was able to hold the book in my hand. Now, 23 years later I’m amazed at how long a book that provides information and usefulness to readers can last. Body Types has a new cover and has gone back to press for its fifth printing.
When you’re ready to publish your book, do it properly because twenty years from now you may be very glad you did.
Joel Friedlander is the proprietor of Marin Bookworks in San Rafael, California. He has run businesses in graphic arts, design and book publishing, and was the Director of Production at Aperture Books. Joel founded Renaissance Books, a fine press printer, published books of memoirs and spirituality as the publisher of Globe Press Books, and now runs Marin Bookworks, a publishing services company where he’s helped launch many self-publishers since 1994. He provides complete pre-press services including editing, interior and cover design, illustration, proofreading, and indexing. Joel is also an award-winning book designer, a self-published author, and blogs about publishing at http://www.theBookDesigner.com. You can find out more by going to his Hire Me! page here: