Notes from Sheila’s self-publishing talk
Writing, I guess. I’d done a lot of that; lots of genres; lots of completed “ideas.” I just hadn’t got anything published.
That’s what was missing from age 7 to… well, never mind.
My one and only Willamette Writers’ Conference motivated me to self-publish, despite the fact that they really didn’t seem to recommend self-publishing. Two issues motivated me:
1) If you want to get an agent or publisher, you really need a platform: i.e. an internet presence.
2) If you want to get published you need to be able to prove you can advertise and sell.
So I decided to self-publish on the internet and buy copies to sell at our local Christmas bazaar.
The next step was to find a publisher, in my case an internet publisher since I wanted to work on the internet. I googled “self-publishing” and found tons of them. I picked Lulu because:
1) No set-up fees: Lots of publishers charge an up-front fee. They’ll help you with editing, formatting etc and probably give you some “free” copies. If you time it right and your requirements are fairly basic you can get a great deal, but I wanted pretty gift books for Christmas so it wouldn’t work for me. Lulu lets you choose what extras, or none, you want to pay for.
2) Lots of options: Some publishers only do black-and-white, or only certain shapes and sizes. Lulu has tons of options—great for self-publishing books of paintings, poetry and photographs too.
3) Free web-site: They give you an internet store-front which became my first ever web-site—you can personalize it, advertise your books, post pictures, write a blog, etc.
4) International sales: That felt important to me since most of my family’s in England, not that I’ve sold any there.
5) Free distribution: I’m not sure if they’re still doing this, but I thought it would be useful. In the end it wasn’t useful to me for reasons I’ll go into under Murphy’s Laws. But getting books on Amazon and into bookstores felt like a good goal.
Okay. Next I had to format my book. These days Lulu and lots of other places let you download Word document templates for all sorts of different sizes, but back then I had to read the fine print and learn what margins and gutters meant and how big they have to be, etc. What I should have looked at more carefully was my choice of fonts and font sizes: it turned out some fonts are only “partially supported” by Lulu’s conversion to pdf process, and changing the spacing between two lines, or adding a contents page, can turn your beautifully formatted book into “conversion error: please try again,” which is slightly disturbing.
With Lulu, and with most self-publishers now, you can upload a text file or word doc and they’ll convert to pdf for you. Then you reach the next step: The cover.
Most self-publishers offer some basic covers. Lulu has some nice ones, though they do tend to change, so keeping the same style over several publications can be a problem. Their old “cover editor” was really painful (couldn’t even center the text) but the new one’s much nicer, better formatting, includes barcodes, and it lets you add pictures much more comfortably. Luckily you can stop at any point without publishing then carry on later, so finding the picture size defined in pixels isn’t a complete disaster, though drawing a picture that size in pixels is interesting, to put it mildly.
Lulu strongly recommends buying proof copies. This was the point where I realized the price of “free” was rather more than I’d planned. Lulu postage and packaging can cost almost as much as the book (or more). And of course, Murphy’s Law applies: When you show your pretty proofs to your friends they’ll point out you mis-spelled man on the fifteenth page and you really should have put numbers in the contents list, etc.
Still, in the end you have something that looks right and you’re ready to release it to the public on your own personal website. Except that now you need to make good on that nice little copyright symbol; the small print mandates sending two copies to the Library of Congress, or to the copyright office if you want a real copyright.
Given how expensive the books were turning out, and the fact that doing copyrights online is cheaper than by mail, I decided buying real copyrights was a good idea. Unfortunately, online copyrighting still required paper copies ‘cause they want the “best” copy, and that means more purchasing, more postage, delivery confirmation (since they won’t confirm anything themselves), and long, long waits.
Meanwhile, I wanted real copies to sell at the bazaar. Lulu says they’ll give you a discount for bulk buys. It even says this “might” apply to ten copies or more. Unfortunately my books were in color and I needed to buy twenty-five to get a dollar off the price. Add postage and packaging and the retail price begins to soar.
Meanwhile, there’s the option of distribution, which gives you a barcode (actually, all new Lulu books get that now) and listings for bookstores and on Amazon. But the small print got me again: Lulu’s wholesale prices are about $3 less than the author price, and if you want distribution they insist the retail price must be at least twice wholesale. With a color book—author price around $12—that means the minimum retail price, with zero profit to the author, is $18. Would you buy a 40 page color-printed paperback for $18?
At this point I had to remind myself of my purpose: to get an internet presence and to prove I could sell books, not to make a profit. If I price the books to make a profit, I’ll price them out of the market. If I put them on Amazon, I’ll price them out of the market. But if I advertise at minimal online profit, and accept a loss off-line, I’ll gain experience and maybe look like a good risk to an editor or agent. (The jury’s still out; no real publishers yet.)
Which just leaves…
Whatever can go wrong probably will, so it’s best to try and second guess your errors before they occur:
1) Just ’cause your book formatted beautifully in Word doesn’t mean it’ll convert to the same format in pdf. You might have to upload and edit several copies to get the pdf pages looking like you want. But it’s easy enough. You can always inspect the pdf file and see the errors.
2) Just ’cause the pdf converter liked your fonts today doesn’t mean it’ll like them tomorrow when you’ve changed a few letters. Best to make sure Lulu lists them as fully supported then you’ll know you’re okay. (But at least they guarantee that if it printed okay today it should print okay tomorrow as long as you don’t make any changes—hence the need to buy proofs.)
3) When you find that perfectly beautiful font for your book cover you should write down its name. When you’re making the matching second book, it’ll take the best part of forever to find the font again. And if you try editing the original to see what it was, they’ll claim you’ve made a new version even when you didn’t change anything.
4) Even if you read the notes that say the copyright symbol belongs on the second page, you still risk not being copyrighted properly. The even smaller print says its “mandatory” to send two copies to the library of congress as well.
5) But you can choose to pay for a real copyright and send them to the copyright office instead. You can even do it online to save money. But you can’t upload the e-book ’cause they insist on having the “best” edition and define that as print.
6) And your print copies will take forever to be registered, so make sure you get delivery confirmation.
7) Plus your print copies might get “destroyed” by radiation in their security system (seriously) so they’ll ask for more.
8) And the six months for copyrighting time is up to fifteen and counting…
9) Meanwhile, yoru online friends probably won’t buy the book, whatever they said before you published.
10) Your real life friends will buy it, but there’s a limit to how many you can sell to them.
11) Craft stores don’t believe writing is a craft and they won’t stock your books.
12) Book stores don’t believe self-published writers can write and for the most part won’t look at your books.
13) Likewise libraries—they wouldn’t even take a free copy to look at!
14) Online sales won’t keep you in coffee. Lulu doesn’t pay till you’ve made $20 and I’ve only made $11 in 15 months.
15) Amazon is a very big haystack, and your book is a very small needle. I’m not sure why, but Lulu actually did put some of my books on Amazon, without distribution. Great rejoicing at the time, but no one’s bought any yet.
I now have one publisher telling me I’m just the author he wants if only I’d write a mystery. Another says he hopes to publish me soon. I’ll believe it when it happens. But the internet presence does feel like it’s worth something, and the experience is fun. Plus I now have a real blog, real website, etc., all linked to my Lulu storefront.
Visit me: http://www.sheiladeeth.com and I might try to sell you a book 🙂