I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m guessing the answer to my question may be very simple: we don’t approach publishing as a business.
We typically see our book as inspired art, a handcrafted masterpiece made from parts of our soul, or perhaps our best chance to minister to others. And we become focused on getting this marvelous creation into print so that as many other people as possible can enjoy it with us and benefit from what it says.
What we don’t do, either because we just don’t see it or because we don’t even want to go there, is see our book as a product, and publishing as a business. But alas, it is a business. In fact, it’s big business. And if you decide to self-publish your book while focusing on it only as art, or craft, or ministry, you may well get shafted by one of the many self-publishing companies out there who are well aware of the profits to be made, and more than ready to take advantage of naïve writers who are focused on the intangibles.
What you need to remember is that companies whose product is self-published books are primarily in business to make money. That’s not abnormal. And it’s not wrong. Very few businesses don’t hope to make money. They don’t tend to last long otherwise. And the fact that they need to make money to stay in business doesn’t mean that they don’t have a vision or morals or integrity, or that they aren’t essentially nice people. But it does mean that you need to go into any discussion with them with both eyes open, filtering everything that’s said through your business plan and not through your ego.
Now, before you think I have something against businesses, let me explain that my father owned a clothing store in a small town, and his days were spent selling shoes and dresses and shirts and pants and towels. I worked part time in that store from about the age of 11 until I went to university. I also worked one summer in a drug store and I ran an ice cream shop another summer (during which it made the most money the shop ever made.) And for a while after I was married, I worked in a hardware store. So I know first-hand that businesses need to make money to survive. And I also know that businesses need people who can sell their products.
In other words, when you go to a self-publishing house, the person you talk to is usually a salesperson. A large part of that person’s salary comes from the money people pay to have their books published. Some salespeople are even on commission, so the more services they sell, the more money they make. And that’s okay. It’s their job. What’s not okay is for you to be unaware of this.
So, for a few minutes, put aside the fact that you think of your book as your baby, a sparkling gem, or much-needed help for a clamoring public, and focus on it as simply a product. Something you want to sell. Maybe even something you want to make a little money from.
What should you do before you knock on the door of a self-publishing company?
1. Make sure your book is actually ready to be published. Family and friends usually aren’t good judges of that. Friends and family normally like you. They love your talent. They should be encouraging you. But even if they read a lot – even if they work in a bookstore – they still aren’t experts in publishing. Oh, and in case you’re still wondering, salespeople from self-publishing companies aren’t necessarily good judges of your book’s quality or market potential either. 🙂
2. Connect with published authors and editors who can mentor you and help you make good decisions. Maybe you can have someone critique your book, or hire a professional editor.
3. Talk to authors who have self-published. Don’t get starry-eyed by the fact they have books; ask for numbers and prices and things to avoid and what they would do another time. Ask to see their business plans.
4. Talk to agents and editors and royalty published authors. Ask what they think your book’s potential is. Try to identify your target audience. Learn how to create a one-sheet. Begin to create a platform.
5. Talk to several booksellers. Learn all you can about how books get sold. Find out what kind of books are selling right now, what covers are working, what a distributor is.
6. Buy books on self-publishing and look for websites that will give you good information on the process.
7. Buy books published by respected publishers that are similar to yours in content or audience. Read the books. Mark them up. Study them from cover to cover. Look at the covers, the title pages, the layout, the fonts, the amount of white space…. Then buy some self-published books or books from small independent publishers and compare them to the books from major publishing houses. Look for differences and similarities. Look to see where the books were published, who the printer was…
8. When you approach a publishing house, realize that the job of the salesperson from the publishing house is to sell the company’s services. That doesn’t mean salespeople have no integrity – selling is their job! But it does mean that if they tell you they love your book, you need to take it with a grain of salt. And you also need to realize that salespeople are typically friendly and personable people – that’s why they’re in sales!
9. Get quotations from at least three possible publishing houses. Then get quotations from several editors who could help you walk through the publishing process on your own. Investigate working directly with a printer and hiring a layout person so you can publish your own books. Consider all the options.
10. Put together a budget and a marketing plan.
11. Then and only then, decide what you’re going to do.
Of course, you need to pray through this whole process that God will lead you to the right people and the right plan for you. And it you end up blowing it the first time round, assume that God will use it in some way for good, and learn from your experiences.
Ultimately, you are the only person who can determine what’s best for your book. Only you can decide whether to hold out for a royalty publisher, self-publish a small number of books for friends and family, or try to publish for a wider audience. Just recognize that publishing anything beyond a few copies for family or friends is not a hobby but a business, and you need to treat it as such. Please, no more naïve writers! 🙂