One Author’s Printing Journey
I created an award-winning book by myself with no formal training. Such a project is not for the faint of heart.
NOTE: My book is a non-fiction work about herpetology and conservation (a niche market, to be sure). This article is not intended to promote my book.
This story is meant to clarify some of the processes that went into this project for the benefit of other aspiring self-published authors. I use my book as an illustration simply because it is the real-life basis of my own experience.
In order to keep this story from turning into a book by itself, after a brief overview, we are going to focus on three aspects that I get the most questions about.
- Selecting a printer,
- Fulfilling orders (the shipping process), and
- A few words about where to focus sales efforts.
Every time I mention printing and fulfilling my own books, other authors tend to pepper me with questions, so I thought I would post a run-down of my experiences.
Let me admit right off the bat that I have no formal training in writing, biology, graphic design, formatting, editing, printing, marketing, or pretty much any field related to my book.
Nevertheless, the contribution I made to environmental education has garnered attention and accolades from prestigious scientists, professional organizations, and a multitude of readers from around the world. Every review on every platform is nothing but five stars. Posting a selfie with my book was even a brief trend on social media.
As impressive as that may sound, bear in mind that I am referring to a niche market of people who are interested in herpetology and environmental conservation, so you could liken my prestige to being a rock star for an audience that could fit in a thimble.
My point here is that I am nobody special. What one person can do, another can do. Maybe that person is you!
Did I really do it all without help?
The way I went about creating my book was 99% hands-on, do-it-yourself, and unsupervised. In other words, I tackled it in the absolute hardest way possible. I do not suggest such an all-inclusive approach to most people. It takes a special kind of masochist to subject themselves to that level of tedium.
Bear in mind that my finished product is essentially a high-end textbook with lots of photos, sidebars, insets, and such. If your book is virtually all text with minimal formatting (e.g., a fiction novel), then the DIY process is much easier, as some of this won’t apply. Either way, I hope you can take away parts of my journey to help you along.
When I say I did it 99% by myself, that other 1% of the work was:
- hiring a respected scientist with writing and editing experience to comb through my text and ensure scientific accuracy,
- hiring an expert to format the library catalog-in-publication block on the copyright page,
- Inviting a handful of expert guest contributors to author or co-author a few specific topics, and
- Paying a print house do the actual printing to my exact specifications.
I don’t care who you are, you need an editor. If you think you don’t, more power to you, but accounts from others who thought as you do and lived to regret it are all over the internet if you take a moment to search for them.
The CIP data block on the copyright page is the little coded section that tells librarians where to put your book in their catalog and on their shelves. The nominal fee it takes to get your CIP block formatted by a professional is dwarfed by the effort it would take to learn all the ins and outs of that little section. Hire someone.
Admittedly, many self-published authors skip that last step unless they intend to market to libraries. I wanted my book to look and be professional, even down to the finest points, so I included it (and librarians certainly notice and appreciate that extra effort!).
What kind of person might be suited for such an undertaking?
The following bullet points describe me. If they do not describe you, then I don’t recommend a 100% DIY project like mine.
- I am fairly bright (well, sometimes, at least),
- I’m good at tracking down what I need to know when I set my mind to something,
- I’m something of a perfectionist, and
- I’m not afraid of putting in the hours to make a project the best it can be.
A traditionally-published book can have dozens of people involved in the process. To produce a book that holds up to professional standards, you really need to learn at least the basics of all those jobs (or, at least, as many as apply to your project).
These can include:
- author (kinda important)
- literary agent
- acquisitions editor
- contract department
- substantive editor
- copy editor
- managing editor
- production manager
- ISBN agency
- cover designer
- art director
- interior layout designer
- copywriter (back cover and catalog)
- warehouse team
- copyright office
- chief financial officer
- marketing director
- publicity personnel
- sales manager
- special markets salesperson
- foreign rights manager
- subsidiary rights manager
- SEO manage
- metadata data entry
- online store coordinator
- shipping manager
- order packagers
- brick & mortar store buyers
- online or in-store merchandising manager
- ad designer
As you can see, all of these tasks together can seem overwhelming. What I did was break each one up and learn everything I could about that particular aspect of the process. Even so, I spent far more time on all of these other aspects than I did the actual writing process. If I decide to produce more books, it will be great to already have this knowledge at my fingertips, but the learning curve on the first one can be a doozy.
Why did I do it this way?
I set out to make something unique and special. Many people call it a passion project. I just call it seeing a need and filling that need. Regardless, I am not the type to use cookie cutters. If I pour my heart into something, I want it to outlast me.
When I looked into the various Print on Demand (POD) services, the books I sampled did not seem like anything I would be proud to display on my coffee table. That may not matter to you. Many people earn a decent living cranking out trade paperbacks and other respectable, if often plain, books. That’s totally okay, but I wanted something striking.
There are a very few POD services that will make hardcover books with full-color pages. One big obstacle to those was that they were very expensive. My 176-page text would have started around $44.00 (USD) my cost, not including shipping. I did not want my customer to have to pay over $50 for my book, and did not want to scale back the number or quality of illustrations. Not to mention, I really didn’t want to do all this work for 10% margins.
All of that is what led me to the decision that an offset print run was the only way to go for my needs.
How did I actually find the right printer for me?
This one was tough. I studied it from several angles. I found books with similarities to my own, looked up the publisher, and asked who they used. I scoured author blogs to make sure I was asking the right questions and considering everything I needed.
I spoke with several people in the business. Some had a domestic office to manage orders produced overseas. I also reached out to some overseas printers (there are lots of them in SE Asia) to see how their pricing compared to using a middle man. I spoke to local printers. I looked into large national print houses. And more.
At the end of the day, I realized I needed a printer that was big enough to trust with an order my size (2200 books), but small enough to be interested in that same size. That cut out many big and small companies.
I identified my sweet spot and then scoured the internet for lists of publishers coupled with estimates of their annual revenue and customer base. What I found was actually a domestic print house whose bread and butter was yearbooks.
This turned out to be a great fit, as they were already geared for orders right around my size range, as well as dealing with people whose primary job was not publishing. As a bonus, they routinely print hardcovers and even offered Smyth sewn bindings (something I insisted on, which is another reason POD services were a bad fit).
They were only three hours away, so I took a homemade finished manuscript with me to an in-person appointment and looked over their options for paper, cover types, finishes, etc. I must have chosen well, because my book is very photogenic and its attractiveness is everyone’s first comment.
Superior quality and a fraction of the price.
What you get with an offset printer are books that can be totally customized (depending on your vendor’s offerings) at bulk prices. Remember how those POD services wanted $43 and up? I was able to produce library-quality books (that lay flat when you open them), for around $6 each. Now, instead of a $7 margin on a $50 book, we have a $24 margin on a $30 book. Future runs should be even cheaper, now that the groundwork is laid.
An easy choice- IF you have the faith in yourself and your project. You have to believe that they will sell for this to be worth it.
If you upload your book to Amazon and let them take care of everything, you won’t be out anything but your time if no one ever buys it. On the other hand, if you have to raise $12,000 for a bulk buy and your book flops, that is going to HURT. So you’re going to have to do some soul searching and market research before taking that plunge.
In my case, I decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign and let the public decide if my book was worth the investment. I recommend this option for anyone in that position, but only if you have the time and skills to run such a campaign.
Crowdfunding takes much more than making a pretty sales pitch and letting fate take its course. You have to work it from start to finish. I managed to raise $10,000 in a month with my campaign, so I considered that ample proof of market viability.
Also, realize that your printer needs more than just a word document with your name on it. An offset run needs everything formatted very specifically (cover and interior separately). You printer can give you these specs, but you will either need the skill to create a PDF (typically) that meets these requirements or pay someone else to do so for you (which can be expensive, especially for a project like mine).
Once you sign a contract and provide the down payment (half of the job cost is typical), you will probably receive two proofs (if your book has color illustrations). Both will be unbound and may contain multiple pages per sheet.
One will be your book with a focus on sizing and spacing. The colors may be off, but this one ensures that everything will appear where you want it. The other will be focused on color. The margins and such may be off, but this one is your chance to ensure that everything looks the way you want. These proofs may or may not be on the actual paper type you selected.
IMPORTANT ADVICE: Getting your finished PDF right before approaching the printer will save you money. Every time you make a change, the typesetter has to make those changes on their end, and a poorly-planned manuscript can turn into a real financial drain (and headache for everyone involved!) at this stage.
Once your final proof is approved, you assume your place in line. Lead times will vary between printers, as well as what time of year you buy. For example, if you’re dealing with a yearbook printer, you don’t want to put your order in at the same time as all their other yearly customers. In my case, the wait was 4–6 weeks.
Unless you are picking them up yourself, you will also have shipping times to take into account. Shipping times were one of the reasons I chose a domestic printer. Waiting for an overseas order by cargo ship can take months. A domestic order can usually be delivered in 5–10 days once the books are complete.
Since my printer was only three hours away and I had a truck that could haul the weight, I elected to pick mine up in person. Okay, full disclosure, the fact that I was as excited as a kid in a candy store to see and hold these books with my very own name on the cover played into my decision not to wait the extra week, lol. But it did save me some money.
Once your books are printed, you have to decide what to do with them.
In my case, 2200 hardcover books weighing 2.7 lbs each is not a load many people would want to tackle alone. We’re talking multiple pallets that took up a 16 ft. trailer and weighed over three tons with packaging.
Do you have the room for that many books? Can you afford to pay for storage for the number of books you want? Are you wanting to ship your books yourself or have a fulfillment service do that for you? Can your home’s foundation even accomodate a stack of boxes that heavy?
For myself, I decided that I wanted to keep an eye on them from start to finish, rather than dropping them off at a local storage facility. The thought of some warehouse roof leaking on my boxes containing books with a market value of $66,000 was too nerve-wracking.
So I carried each of those boxes into the house myself. Let me tell you, that was the least fun part of this whole project! I stored them in a partially spare room and set up a shipping station right next to them.
To ship or not ship?
I elected to ship my books directly to my readers. The main reason for this is that I wanted to be able to add a personal inscription to each one. I have come to discover that means a lot to many readers. Sure, I could have added a generic inscription to them and then sent them to Amazon to do the rest, but besides being less personal, the thought of inscribing thousands of books en masse was not appealing to me, even if I had been willing to settle for a generic signature. Your methods may certainly vary.
Another reason is, again, margins. Every dollar I would have paid to have my books warehoused and shipped for me is a dollar that I wanted. Make no mistake, though- this means I had to basically accept a part-time job in shipping.
Shipping anything properly and efficiently has its own learning curve. What software do you use? In my case, I print labels directly from my sales platforms’ interface (with some exceptions). This usually gets you a discount off of shipping costs, and as long as you have entered the correct weights of your book and packaging, the process is as simple as clicking ‘Buy Shipping.”
I print my label on regular printer paper, cut them out by hand, and tape them to my packages, but you can also buy a label printer if you’d like. I chose my way because it works for me (and I have had bad experiences with some of those printers), but any way you want to do it is fine. Incidentally, I would recommend a laser or ink printer over thermal, but that’s just me.
For postage on books, so long as the package does not contain other items, you can ship at a drastically cheaper rate by using either the“Media Mail” or “Bound Printed Matter” options from USPS. I have not found another method or carrier that can even come close to those prices. Regular mail or commerical carriers will likely ask for twice as much.
Alterately, if you have impatient customers willing to pay for expedited shipping, you have several options. USPS, UPS, FedEx, etc. I found that flat-rate mailers with USPS are not only the most affordable for my needs, but they will ship you the mailers for free, saving you about a dollar an order on packaging. (BTW, if you do order mailers, look into Uline. They are a huge supplier of shipping materials.)
You can also have Amazon fulfill your orders, but beware. They take a cut for storage, handling, and anything else they can. That may be worth it for you, but look into those costs closely before making a decision. You will have similar considerations for other third-party fulfillment services. If you don’t want the chore of dealing with the shipping process, just make sure you shop around and pay close attention to the details before shipping your books off somewhere.
One more little tidbit to consider- Amazon does not allow authors who fulfill their own orders to advertise hard copies on their platform. My suspicion is that they are not stupid and they know you are keeping all those margins I keep mentioning. Consequently, they prefer to reserve their advertising space for POD publishers, since most of the money from those sales stays in their pocket. However, Amazon advertising is not a particularly lucrative choice for most authors anyway.
If you are interested in selling on Amazon, the program you’re looking for is Amazon Seller Central. There are a few ways to do it, but I pay $39.99 just to be able to sell on the platform, plus their cut of each sale (about 20%).
How do you find readers (customers)?
I don’t want to delve too deply into this topic after such a long article, but I will touch on a few points for the DIY crowd like myself.
First off, remember that, even if you elect to go with a traditional publisher, you will still be expected to take an active role in the marketing process. There is no getting around it. People have to know a product exists before they can buy it. You might as well accept that from the get go.
Personally, I chose to list my book anywhere I could (Amazon, Etsy, Alibris, eBay, Facebook, etc.) in addition to my own website. So long as the sales from those platforms covers the cost of using each one, there’s no good reason not to. No need to leave money on the table.
However, I do not direct traffic to those outlets. The effort you put into marketing your book is essentially training your customers where to buy. If you keep sending them to those big platforms, you are training them to look for your products there. This means you will keep losing those margins we keep talking about.
For me, the obvious choice was to set up my own web store and sell from there. Not only does that give me complete control, the costs are miniscule. Of course, if you don’t have a head for web design, this is an area you may need help with. (FYI, I use WooCommerce on a Wordpress website, if you want a place to start your research.)
And, again, this all comes down to whether people want to read your book. It doesn’t matter how or where you market if your book sucks. I’m just being real here. Your reviews will speak for themselves quickly enough.
But, if you have a good product, taking the time to learn how to manage your own store is worth it, in my opinion. Or, if your time is scarce, try to select a service that takes less of a cut while still providing you with options to suit your needs. Etsy is a reasonable example in this regard.
Believe in yourself and don’t shy away from the work.
Sure, it’s easy to take a manuscript and upload it to a service and let them take it from there. And there is nothing wrong with that. Many folks would rather spend their time doing other things.
However, if you are the type that can handle learning new things and putting in some extra time, you may find that the huge difference in margins between POD models and the DIY process is well worth the effort- IF you have the aptitude for it.
P.S. There are layers and layers of details that I didn’t have room to include in this story- ask any questions you may have in the comment section!