Self-Publishing Advice


Mike Buchanan Self-publishing Guru - Top Tips


Mike Buchanan is a self-publisher selling books through his imprint LPS publishing. He’s been published and he’s self-published, and much prefers the latter. In 2010, at the age of 52, he took early retirement to focus full-time on writing and self-publishing. He’s self-published six non-fiction titles since 2008 including The Joy of Self-Publishing.

‘You want to be a writer?’ my father said. ‘My dear boy, have some consideration for your poor wife. You’ll be sitting around the house all day, wearing a dressing-gown, brewing tea, and stumped for words.’
John Mortimer 1923-2009 English novelist, barrister and dramatist: Clinging to the Wreckage (1982)

If you’re interested in having your books published but you’ve been unable to interest a literary agent or publisher in your work, you’re in good company. The overwhelming majority of previously unpublished writers struggle to interest literary agents or commercial publishers in their work, and the challenge is becoming more difficult with each passing year.

The tried and tested solution to this problem? Embrace self-publishing until such time as the literary world recognises your genius. The list of writers who launched their careers by self-publishing is a long one: it includes Percy Bysshe Shelley, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, John Galsworthy, Rudyard Kipling, Beatrix Potter, Lord Byron, Mark Twain, DH Lawrence, James Joyce, Robbie Burns… and many bestselling writers in the modern era including Stephen King and Bill Bryson. By self-publishing you’ll be following a noble tradition; and the good news it that it’s never been more feasible to self-publish and distribute your books to buyers worldwide at minimal cost.

As you’re a visitor to The Writers’ Workshop website I can assume you’re serious about your writing; as a reader of this article I assume you have a potential interest in having your books self-published with high production standards, comparable with books published by leading commercial publishers. There is no need, in 2011, for a self-published book to appear self-published.  

In this article I pass on my top ten tips for self-publishing. If you follow them you’ll be well on your way to producing a book of which you can be proud on all counts: one that makes a profit if sales are reasonable, or only a minimal loss if sales are below expectations.   


Jane Austen

1. Consider your options seriously: DIY self-publishing or a vanity publisher?

It’s perfectly feasible to self-publish without using a vanity publisher – ‘DIY self-publishing’ – and my own self-published books have been produced this way. It’s harder work and more time-consuming than using a vanity publisher, but by way of compensation you might find you enjoy the freedom and creative control the approach gives you, as well as the lower costs. And the lower your costs, the sooner you’ll make a profit on your books.

For some years commercial publishers have been using freelance service providers for copy-editing, proofreading, cover design etc. and with good reason. The competitive markets for these services have delivered high quality and innovation at competitive prices, as we would expect. So why not adopt this approach yourself? The biggest single investment you can make in your book may be to have it professionally copy-edited and proofread: expect to pay in the range of £10.00 - £15.00 per 1,000 words. Not cheap, but it could give a real ‘polish’ to your work. 


WH Auden

2. Explore a range of book format and specification options

It’s worth researching the cost implications of different book format and specification options. For example, the cost premium for a hardback rather than a paperback edition will probably be less than you would expect, and the premium may well be recoverable in a higher selling price.

Some books would benefit from a plate section. This should cost around 7p per plate (usually a colour photograph) and you may need to have a specified number of plate pages. They’re printed on a ‘coated’ paper of a different specification to the text portion of the book. A number of highly reputable printers including MPG Biddles (mpgbiddles.co.uk) and CPI Antony Rowe (uk.cpibooks.com/selfpublishing) produce short runs of books with colour plate sections, printed digitally. Ensure you’re happy with the plate print quality by ordering a proof copy before production.

A review of recent books from leading publishers should give you tips on layout, ordering of sections etc. Why not develop your word processing skills to the level of achieving a similar result? The time spent could be well invested. Most books on self-publishing will tell you that your books will have to be professionally typeset, which can be expensive; but the truth is that with care you can do it yourself in Microsoft Word.    


toni Morrison

3. Invest time and money in a cover design with impact

It may be a cliché but books are judged by their covers – at least partly, and by important people: the potential buyers who decide to buy (or not buy) your books. I can identify most self-published books from the other side of a room by their dull covers alone, and you probably could too. The judicious use of a professional book cover designer and an image – maybe a photograph – from a company such as Bigstock (bigstockphoto.com) will cost you less than you’d expect. I’ve seldom paid more than £100.00 for my book cover designs.


pride and prejudice

4. Make proficient use of the services of Nielsen Book

Self-publishers in the UK and Ireland will use the services of Nielsen Book (nielsenbook.co.uk) to have details of their books distributed electronically to online and ‘bricks and mortar’ booksellers worldwide. The best way to understand the many different services of the company – some of which are supplied free of charge, some charged for – is through attending one of their free publisher seminars, usually held in June at their head office in Woking, Surrey. They’re a very friendly crowd, and they even throw in a nice buffet lunch. What more could you ask for?   

If you subscribe to Nielsen’s Publisher Enhanced Service (about £14.00 p.a. per title) you’ll be able to have a lot of information (e.g. a long description of the book’s contents, the Table of Contents, your recent nomination for the Man Booker prize) supplied direct to Amazon and other retailers, which saves time and should enhance sales.
  
The ISBN Agency – part of Nielsen Book – will sell you the ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) your books require, and they’re provided in sets of ten numbers. Each title and each edition (e.g. hardback, paperback, ebook) will require a different ISBN.


typewriter

5. Launch in a small way, upscale only if and when sales justify it: print-on-demand, offset litho…

We’re halfway through the ten tips, so it’s time for a reality check. It’s almost unknown for self-publishers to sell their titles – and especially their initial titles – in the quantities they’re hoping for. All too often self-publishers order a substantial stock of books so as to achieve a low unit price which will give them a reasonable margin in bookstores. But what if the books don’t sell well? By all means, as an author, be an optimist. But I implore you, as a publisher, be a pessimist. 

Specification permitting – for example, there’s no plate section in your book – you should launch titles through print-on-demand (‘POD’). Books are printed (as few as a single copy at a time) as and when ordered, so no money (or space) need be taken up by books awaiting sale. They’re despatched direct to the buyer so you’re not even bothered with order fulfilment. POD is available from Lightning Source Inc in paperback, hardback, and other formats. The cost of processing the cover and content files for POD will be in the order of £50.00 - £60.00.    

Beyond minimising risk, the POD model has two further major advantages for the self-publisher. It makes titles available to buyers in all major markets (including the US & Canada, UK & Ireland, continental Europe), so your £50.00 - £60.00 investment is buying worldwide distribution. Value for money, or what? And the self-publisher can at low cost supply new pdf files to amend the cover or content as required.

For me, POD has only two downsides. It’s not viable for books with plate sections, and the paper used (at least that used by Lightning Source) is a little thinner than that used by major British book printers, so the resulting books are a little thinner too. On the other hand the paper stock is smoother, and some readers prefer the ‘feel’ of this paper.

A final point on POD. Some people will tell you that POD books are shown as being as being ‘not in stock’ on Amazon and elsewhere, the inference being that your sales will suffer as a result. Vanity publishers have been known to make this claim. But it’s simply untrue. My last two books The Joy of Self-Publishing and David and Goliatha: David Cameron – heir to Harman? have only been made available through POD. They are invariably shown on Amazon websites (most notably their British and American websites) as being in stock.

If and when orders become sufficiently high to merit a production run of 300+ copies, you can start to have your book produced by offset lithography (‘offset litho’) rather than the digital process used for POD. Offset litho reduces copy costs to a level where you can start to sell your books through ‘bricks and mortar’ bookstores such as Waterstone’s and make some profit by doing so.   


philippa gregory

6. Embrace the future: sell your book in an ebook format too

Ebooks deliver appealing margins because there is no cost to self-publishers for manufacturing or delivering content to the buyer. At the time of writing Lightning Source are processing files at no cost to the self-publisher files and making ebooks – in an Adobe readable format – available through ebook sellers. The self-publisher wishing to also make a title available on Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad etc. will need to spend money to have the book’s files formatted for such devices.


girl with a pearl earring

7. Price your books so as to make a reasonable margin

This might seem hard to believe, but it’s not uncommon for self-publishers to set selling prices so low as to deliver little if any margin for all their hard work. Especially with non-fiction, make your book distinctive, and ensure it delivers a lot of value to the buyer: that way, it won’t need to compete so hard price-wise against other titles on the subject in question.

Be careful not to throw margin away needlessly. Unless your books are produced by POD, orders placed through online retailers (e.g. Amazon) and ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers (e.g. Waterstone’s) will almost always be processed by one of two wholesaler/distributors in the UK: Gardner’s or Bertram’s. These companies are accustomed to demanding discounts of up to 60% from retail price from publishers, but this is for copies stored by, and sold by, bookstores. If you’re a self-publisher and supply books directly to these companies in response to customer orders, allow them a discount of 20%.

 

8. Use a number of Amazon selling schemes

It’s worth taking time to understand the various Amazon selling schemes, and see which might suit you. I currently use a number including the ‘Fulfilment by Amazon’ scheme, and I also sell my books as an Amazon reseller (‘lpsbooks2’). I advertise a number of my titles as ‘Collectible’ at the regular price, and make it clear the copies are both new and signed.

 

9. Reflections on marketing

If you expect to be self-publishing over an extended period it might be worthwhile establishing a website to promote your work and process orders. Some writers simply use their names in their website URLs: so John Spencer will use johnspencer.co.uk. A website presence can offer benefits which buyers might appreciate, such as the facility to request a written dedication in their book. PayPal include this facility in their ‘order processing options’, and their commissions are modest. They also allow for differential pricing to allow for different postage costs to different markets.   

Settle on a book title that will show up when online buyers use a ‘keyword search’. This is particularly relevant for non-fiction titles. Potential buyers will often use keywords when seeking books on a particular subject. Consider what the most obvious keyword(s) might be in the case of people searching for books like yours, and include the keyword(s) in the main title. Have related subjects in a subtitle, maybe a lengthy one. The subtitle need not appear on the book itself.

Make an effort to stimulate ‘word of mouth’. I’ve found the best way to do this is through favourable reviews on Amazon. Ask buyers to post a review if they like the book – and, tongue-in-cheek, not to post a review if they don’t like it. You might give copies of your book away to family, friends and acquaintances in the hope of reviews. But be careful. I once saw a five-star review on Amazon which started with the immortal line, ‘Mummy’s latest book is her best yet – and Daddy thinks so too!!!’

If you write non-fiction, consider sending complimentary copies of your book to recognised authorities on the book’s subject matter. You may be pleasantly surprised by their willingness to offer a testimonial if they like the book. Exploit these testimonials as much as you can – maybe put them on the book’s cover, in the book description shown on Amazon, and use them in promotional materials.

I confess to not being keen to spend time and energy promoting my books, other than through the medium of writing, and I’ve come across other self-publishers who feel the same way. Put simply, I much prefer spending my time writing than marketing. But if you’re one of those souls who is prepared to spend time on this activity – and your book sales will almost certainly benefit if you do – then I strongly recommend Alison Baverstock’s books on the subject.