Niche Market Self Publishing

This article was originally published as part of a series entitled Self Publishing: By Authors who have tried it, on Tall Tales and Short Stories, May 2009.

Reasons why you chose to self-publish?

I went through the usual round of submissions to both agents and publishers – the problem I had was that my book falls into a number of different categories (mind, body and spirit/religion/alternative history), so it was very difficult to pigeon hole, which the industry loves to do. After receiving 20 or so rejections, I began to investigate self publishing and the various options available to me. Print on demand was for me, the easiest and most logical choice, as it was relatively inexpensive. It also meant that the book could be in print much quicker – within three months.

Type of self-publishing deal you went for and why?

There are two different types of self publishing – short print run and print on demand (POD). With short print run, you are responsible for everything from choosing the printer, to the internal layout, to registering the ISBN. More crucially, you are also responsible for distribution – setting up wholesaler accounts (assuming you wish to supply the retail trade), posting copies out, and dealing with all the invoicing. This can be extremely labour intensive, and while it is initially more expensive, the more books you have printed, the cheaper it becomes. It is not for everyone, since you have to have the space in which to store books, and also the time to take care of the business side, which is a full time job. This is not the case with POD, which is where it really comes into its own.

POD is, as the name suggests, when the books are stored as a digital file for printing in small batches (or single copies) as and when the orders come in. The books are then sent back to the publisher for distribution. Most POD companies offer a variety of different packages to suit the author’s needs. These vary considerably in price, but usually include such things as ISBN registration, legal library deposits, and distribution. Proof reading and bespoke cover design are usually available as optional extras.

A good POD company will manage the whole distribution process for you, taking care of the sales inventory and all invoicing in return for a percentage of your royalties. The percentage varies from company to company. Some consider that POD is not true self publishing, in the sense that the ISBN is more often than not, registered to the publisher rather than you as the author, but this is a matter for debate.

The term vanity press is in my opinion highly misleading. Many consider that print on demand is vanity for the simple reason that the author pays the publisher for their services. They are though perfectly entitled to do this, as no one should be expected to work for free. I believe that the term vanity press is more to do with intention than the act of charging for services rendered. If a publisher misleads their authors with regard to any aspect of their publishing service, or gives a false impression as to what level of success may be achieved, this to me is true vanity.

It is vitally important that anyone considering this route educates themselves as to how the industry works, so that they understand the jargon and the pointers and pitfalls. From my experience, the majority of disgruntled authors who had bad experiences with print on demand companies are only in this position because they failed to understand how the business works and what is involved. The companies themselves certainly play a role, but it is ultimately the author’s responsibility to understand exactly what they are getting into. The most important thing for any self published author is to understand the supply chain and how it works, especially if they wish to sell through shops.

I knew that I did not have the space in which to store books, so for me, print on demand was the easiest and most logical choice. It was also a means of controlling costs, since you pay for the books as and when they are ordered rather than all in one go. It has worked well for me, since the publisher I chose has many useful contacts within the industry. They have had several major successes in recent years, so are becoming a well known and highly respected name. They are one of just three companies to be listed in the Artists and Writers Yearbook as print on demand companies of good repute, which to me speaks volumes.

I chose to publish with a company called Authors OnLine Ltd. They were the first POD company in the UK, so have been in business for just over 12 years. I was lucky in that I found them quite quickly after I began my search. Although I looked at others, most notably Authorhouse, there was something about the AOL website that felt right – it was refreshingly free of jargon, with no pretensions.

With some companies I looked at, their websites were impossible to navigate, making it very difficult to find the information you needed. The information that was on there was very glossy and full of sales talk. Fortunately I had worked in sales, and had also taken the time to thoroughly research the publishing industry, so was able to see through a lot of this, and understand it for what it was – little more a sales tactic designed to get you through the door.

When I found Richard’s site, who owns Authors OnLine, it was a breath of fresh air. The site was easy to navigate and well laid out, with all the information freely available, and more to the point, in plain English, without the sales patter, you therefore knew exactly where you were and what you would be getting. When I rang and spoke to Richard in person, I found that he was very much like this himself – I realised straight away that this was the company for me and have not regretted my choice.

I cannot fault any aspect of their service. Richard explained the process thoroughly and simply from my first phone call and was there to guide me through every step of the way. Most of the business is conducted by email, so I rarely have to telephone, but if I do, there is a freephone number for authors. There is also an author’s area on the website where you can check your sales and see how much you are owed.

They even have their own amateur publicist, in the form of one of the more successful authors, who has managed to accrue some useful contacts. He can offer all kinds of help, by arranging reviews, book signings, and television and radio appearances, among others. In some ways, they act as both agent and publisher, the difference being that they do not take an extra 15 percent of my hard earned income for their trouble.

Did you employ any kind of editor / editing service before going to print?

If you wish to be taken seriously and avoid the vanity stigma, it is essential to employ a properly qualified editor and proof reader. I read my book aloud several times with my partner and edited as I went along (which you can do with non -fiction) but I had the book proof read as well. This was arranged by Authors OnLine as part of the publishing package which I chose.

Finished book quality – pleased or not?

Initially there were a few problems with missing page numbers and one or two errors (it is inevitable that some of these will always slip through the net), but these were easily rectified (another advantage of POD, as with short print run once the books are printed, the errors cannot be corrected) for a small fee.

Initially I chose a plain white cover with pictures of the main themes from the book, with a font size of 10 pitch. Feedback from readers and those within the industry persuaded me that the cover needed to be changed, as it was not having the desired impact, and so 11 months after the first edition, I issued a second updated edition with new cover, a larger font size and 12 pages of added text. It gave the book a much more scholarly feel which definitely led to more sales.

What kind of marketing have you done and how much time is spent promoting your book?

Initially most copies were sold to friends via my local non denominational church. I also did a few talks around the local area. I approached a few book shops and managed to get the book into my local Waterstones, but with no publicity, it was difficult to get sales. I sent around 20 review copies out to various newspapers and magazines, but the newspapers did not want to know, and most of the magazines took at least 6 months before they even read it.

The plus side of this was that in the week that I published the second edition, 3 reviews came out. At the same time I began to approach book shops and libraries on a national level. Most of them stated that as the book was non returnable they were unable to take the risk, so I telephoned Richard and asked what he suggested I do. He stated that if I could get orders from dozen or more shops, he would ask the wholesaler, Gardners Books to place the book on sale or return. He stuck to his word, and in August 2006, my book became one of the first print on demand books in the country to become available on such terms.

I spent the next five months telephoning every book store I could find, concentrating primarily on Waterstones. By Christmas 2007 the book was available through almost a third of their stores. Although many have since returned them, almost 2 years on, the book continues to sell in slow but steady numbers and is still stocked in around 70 of their branches.

Costs versus sales revenue.

I covered the cost of publication within the first year, but because of the all expenses associated with running a business, and the different things you can claim for, I am yet to make a profit. The upside of this is that I can offset business losses against my tax liability from paid employment elsewhere, meaning that I can claim all this tax back!

Cover design – did you design yourself or use a professional? Book covers are important – do you think yours is an asset or a burden?

Both covers were designed professionally, which I think is essential if you wish to be taken seriously, as most self publishers, with the best will in the world, do not have the necessary skills. The first cover one on reflection was a burden which probably hampered sales, but the second cover has been a real asset, which instantly grabs the

Bookshops, libraries, Amazon, etc – how open are various companies to promoting self-published work?

I cannot speak for Amazon or online retailers, since I have not had dealings with them, but have a great deal of experience with book shops and libraries. I get the impression from talking to American writing friends, that the UK is a lot more self publisher friendly than the states, where things are really difficult.

I found that Waterstones were by far the most friendly and easy to deal with, since buying decisions are made on a branch by branch basis – every author should be able to get into at least their local branch, but I managed to get into almost a third of them. The other company that I found very helpful were Same Day Books, but they have unfortunately ceased trading. Borders (who have also now ceased trading, in the UK) were the most difficult of all, since all stock is ordered centrally through Head Office, who are impossible to contact, not returning calls. They seem to automatically discount anything that is print on demand as they are unable to get a large enough discount to make it viable, and even though my book is on a much higher discount that is the norm (and returnable), would not talk to me at all. I managed to arrange a talk at my local branch, with some success, but other branches did not seem at all interested.

I also emailed various library authorities across the country, with some success. Most who ordered are around the south-east but there are some further afield. I have no idea how popular the book is and how frequently it is borrowed, since most of these authorities have so far not been on the sample chosen by Public Lending Rights.

Radio is difficult since there are few programmes that specialise in my topics – I was lucky enough to get a slot on Internet Voices Radio, New York and also on City Talk, Liverpool, and received a very good review from Glastonbury Radio which helped, but most stations did not know what to do with my book.

Final book costs – how competitive are they in the real world?

Print costs are higher with POD which can make it difficult to compete. It is easier to price non fiction books higher, but there is still a £10 price barrier. If I was able to lower my cover price to this level (it is currently £14.99) then I would almost certainly have sold a lot more, but with print costs at almost £6 and taking discounts into account, I cannot afford to do this. I do however offer a small discount for books bought via my own website.

Self-publishing forever or still keen on pursuing the traditional route?

I would self publish again, and would almost definitely choose the same company, but only after I had exhausted other possibilities. The stigma is slowly diminishing, but it is always better to have someone pay you to publish your book rather than the other way around. I have not bothered to approach agents and publishers since I self published, and so have no idea as to what their reaction might be, from what I have heard from the various writing websites that I am a member of, rather than turning them on to a book, it may actually put them off, as they are looking for new material that has not been previously published. Unless you have sold at least 3000 copies (I have sold around 500), I suspect that most would not be interested at all.

Pitfalls and perils – what have you learned along the way. What would you do differently?

The most learning for me has come from the challenges I have faced of a more personal nature rather than because of the publishing process itself. One of the most important challenges I had to face was the amount of people who at the beginning said they would purchase books and then failed to do so. To begin with I took this very personally until I realised that this was borne from their reluctance to be honest with me – they had been telling me what they thought I wanted to hear, and did not want to hurt my feelings by saying they did not want a book. This was their stuff and not mine.

The second challenge I had to face was my fear of public speaking. I realised that if I really wanted to give this book a chance, I would have to give talks and presentations, so I enrolled on a public speaking course to help give me more confidence. The course helped enormously, by teaching me breathing techniques and ways in which to control the fear. I still get nervous when doing talks, but the fear is now much more controllable.

Would you recommend following the self-publishing route based on your experiences?

Each book is different and the author has to choose the route that best suits their needs. Print on demand works best for non fiction books where the author knows how to target his or her audience. This is not to say that it cannot work for fiction books, it is just that because the market for non fiction is more targeted and more able to absorb higher prices demanded by print on demand, it makes the books easier to market. I would recommend this route to any author who is prepared to work hard and understands what they are getting into. The most important thing for any author is to understand the supply chain, since that is the key to everything.

To sum up, although the book was not the resounding success I hoped it would be (we all have dreams), it was and continues to be a worthwhile and highly rewarding experience that has taught me a lot about myself and the various subjects that I have written about.