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Notes on publishing your own book

Authors often ask me if I will stock their self-published book. Regrettably, this is often not possible, and these books, regardless of their merit, are simply lost. Recently I had an exchange with Amazon's BookSurge (their self-publishing, print-on-demand subsidiary) that might be of interest.

In February 2007, it was time again to print more copies of Cornell's Encyclopaedia of Medical Astrology. It's 978 pages & most printers, including Lighting Source (my usual printer) can't touch it. It's too big.

So I heard about BookSurge. BookSurge is Amazon's in-house print-on-demand printer & as Amazon is big & as Amazon knows the book biz & as Amazon deals in millions of books, I thought I'd give them a try. Since it's an Amazon company, they don't give out their phone number, so I emailed. I expected one of their grotesque emails in reply, but days went by with no notice & I forgot about it.

(If you're curious, or in need, Amazon's phone number is 800-201-7575. Despite what you may think, they have trained operators eager to take your call.)

And then Friday afternoon, I had a phone call. Was this David Roell?, the bright, chirply woman asked. It was BookSurge at last.

Could they print 978 pages, I asked? No, was the reply. They could go as far as 740. Which was the same as Lightning Source & most everyone else. This means they all use the same machinery.

But as long as I had the woman on the phone, I asked her about printing in general. Yes, I've got my books nicely done elsewhere (Lightning Source), but a direct window into Amazon might get me better sales there. Or - who knows - Lightning Source may get hit by a Giant Meteor From Outer Space & not be there when I need them.

So I said, what about a 200 page book, 5.5 x 8.5 inches (standard trade paperback size). How much? Well, she said, if you've got your book in finished pdf files that meet our standards (which I do), it's $90 for setup & proof. What if I need another proof, I asked? That's another $50, was the answer. This is slightly higher than Lighting Source, but setup is a one-time charge & this is not serious.

So my retail price is $19.95, how much do you charge me per book?

For 200 pages your retail price is $13.95 & your royalty is 10%.

No, I insisted. The retail price is $19.95, what do you charge per copy?

We don't do business that way, she replied. Which ended the phone call.

What she meant is that BookSurge plays the same games as many other vanity print-on-demand (POD) houses. You pay them to set up your book (which, for more money can include formatting your Word files, designing your cover & supplying a unique ISBN), but after that, BookSurge owns your book, not you. Despite anything they may say about your "ownership". Instead of buying copies of your book outright & doing with it as you wish, you can only buy them at an "author's discount".

Let's pull apart BookSurge's $13.95 price for a 200 page book. First, what is their cost?

Let's compare to Lightning Source. LS will print copies of your book for 1.5 cents a page, plus 90 cents for binding, plus shipping. For a 200 page book, that's $3.90, plus shipping.

Wholesalers, for their part, want 55% off the retail price. Which means they will buy your $10.00 book for a mere $4.50. They then sell it to a retail store (like mine) for $6.00, and I sell it to you at $10.00. This is the standard 40% mark-up typical of the book trade (from wholesaler to retailer), and, if you're curious, it's not a very big one. Most everything else you buy has a 50% markup (the $10.00 toy cost the store $5.00), and new clothes have a 300% mark-up (the $10.00 dress cost the store $3.33). (Now you might understand how clothing stores can run half-off sales to get rid of last season's merchandise.)

If we deduct 55% from BookSurge's $13.95 price, we get $6.28. Subtract that from their presumed cost of $3.90 & we get $2.38. From $2.38 we deduct the 10% royalty (based on the retail price) to get a mere 98 cents as their profit on one copy of your book. No business can survive on such a thin margin, and, in fact, none does.

This is why BookSurge, like many other vanity POD outfits, does not offer a 55% discount. They offer 40%, and then get their authors excited about the fabulous direct-to-bookstore sales they will soon get.

But they won't. Bookstores rely upon wholesalers. It's the only way we can afford to keep our doors open. Wholesalers can supply us with the limited quantities of the specific titles that we need, and all in one single phone call or internet transaction. I sell several hundred books a week. I don't have the time to source each & every one of them directly from their publishers.

Wholesalers are an essential part of the book distribution system.

But you wouldn't know that from what vanity presses tell you. Here is what AuthorHouse wants you to believe about book distribution:

Traditionally, a typical book retail sales channel has involved these basic processes: In the retail book channel, buyers at booksellers determine what books are available for consumers to buy by making decisions as to which books they will stock in their retail locations.
This is a lie. Publishers sell to wholesalers, wholesalers sell to bookstores, bookstores sell to you. Each step is necessary. Take out any one of them & zero sales result.

The book buyer you want to reach is not the one at the bookstore (ie, not me), but the one at the wholesaler.

If you can sell on consignment (the wholesaler pays 90 days after they sell the stuff), then wholesalers are happy to take on almost anything. What terms does AuthorHouse offer?

AuthorHouse standard discount is 40% off the list price....

AuthorHouse requires pre-payment on all orders less than $500. (Found here.)

Now it may be that the retail price that BookSurge or AuthorHouse has set can be simply ignored, replaced by an honest price as the book passes through the wholesale food chain, on its way to happy readers. But wholesalers cannot & will not pay for stock up front. Not from vanity presses, not even from the big New York publishers (you know, Random House, Bantam, DoubleDay, Scribners, etc.) Wholesale terms are either consignment, which can take years, or 90-day payment.

So, given the reluctance of bookstores to buy directly, and the inability of wholesalers to buy at all, who, exactly, is going to buy your book? Anyone?

The Solution:

If you've not already had your book printed: Take your book, manuscript, Word file, PDF or whatever, to a PRINTER, not a vanity publisher. A PRINTER is a jobber who will print X number of copies of your book for Y amount. What you do with those copies is your business. Just like the printer who printed your business cards or resume. You present them with raw materials, they give you a finished product.

Vanity publishers, on the other hand, will only sell you copies "at a discount" (whatever it is), tend to set the retail price for you, offer exorbitantly priced (and completely useless) "promotional packages" & pretend they have distribution to many wonderful stores & on-line merdchants. When in reality, they have next to none, because their pricing structure prohibits wholesale sales.

If your book has already been printed by a vanity outfit: You've got a finished product that you can, and should, take to a genuine printer who can turn it into a saleable product.

But there's a catch. AuthorHouse puts the following in their contracts (from section 1.5):

AuthorHouse will retain final discretion over style and formatting of Work and its cover with Author acknowledging that Author may not utilize the formatted Work and cover with any other publisher, if AuthorHouse ceases publication of Work.
(Emphasis added. Found here
. Click on Author Services Agreement (PDF))
This is flatly contradicted by the US Copyright office, which says:
§ 106. Exclusive rights in copyrighted works

Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following

(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords... (Found here)

If you take the useless vanity press product to a genuine printer, you will have to pay setup fees all over again, but you will get a book that can be sold. Books that can be sold are books that can be read. I've already mentioned the printer that I use. I'd talk more about them, but I'm not being paid to shill.

Note also that the vanity cover is theirs, not yours. You will need a new cover, as well as a new ISBN. As far as the cover is concerned, your 4-year old daughter & a set of pastels can probably produce as fine a cover as any commerical artist.

Next, the printers to avoid. These are the ones who don't know how to print books. Here is how that is determined.

Tell the printer how many pages your book has, and what the format size will be. He will tell you how much it will cost (after you pay for set up charges) to print each copy.

Multiply that amount by FIVE. (Or at least, by four.) That is your retail price. That is the price at which you (as publisher), the wholesaler, and the retailer will make a decent profit on the book and will all be happy.

Now go to your local Barnes & Noble and COMPARE that price to other books of similar size. Specifically, compare your price to books in specialized fields. (DO NOT compare it to the latest Harry Potter. They probably printed a million copies in China & got them cheap.) You might compare your price to some of the more obscure computer manuals (ones without CD-Roms).

Can you find books of similar size to yours, at a similar price to yours? If so, you have the right price. If not,

Is the printer charging you, say, $14.00 a copy? Fourteen times five is a retail price of $70.00. Are there any $70.00 books in the store? Does yours look anything like them?

If your book is, say, 200 pages, you need to find a printer who can produce copies for, say, $5.00 or less. A lot less, if at all possible.

Prices of $2.50 to $5.00 a copy is where printers really get competitive. It's the price range where you can print a book and put it on a store shelf where buyers can find, purchase & read it. And that's the goal.

I may write some more on this topic from time to time, but I hope this is helpful.

David R. Roell

The Astrology Center of America

207 Victory Lane, Bel Air, MD 21014
Tel: 410-638-7761; Toll-free (orders only): 800-475-2272

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