Thought Leadership Resources

#63 How to choose the best way to publish your book

Publishing a book is an amazing way to show that “you’ve arrived” as a business professional.

But you may have found that making your book happen is like running a marathon – a long grind. And for many would-be authors, what holds them back is, a major barrier looming at the end of the process. It’s like the challenge that stands near the finish line on the Boston Marathon, “Heartbreak Hill,” described by the Boston Globe as:

The final hill, the legendary Heartbreak, begins after the shops at Center Street and rises a half-mile to Hammond Street. In itself, the incline is merely challenging; but after 20 1/2 miles, the effort becomes the toughest stretch on the course.”

For would-be authors, that “Heartbreak Hill” is getting their book published. They just don’t know if they can make it happen, and maybe like many marathon runners, it makes them avoid the challenge, or give up too early.

And it doesn’t have to be this way! There are four main options for getting your book published, and the process can actually be more like running downhill with the wind at your back than climbing Heartbreak Hill.

Which way of getting published is best? That depends on your circumstance; each has its strengths, limitations, and best applications.

So, based on publishing five of my own books and helping several clients publish theirs, here are my thoughts on how you can get your book into print.

Commercial book publishing

This is the option that most people think of when they think of a publisher. It could be a leading New York publisher, the kind that every author wants. Or, a smaller niche publisher that focuses on fields such as books for engineers, books on extreme sports, or religious publishers.

The upside of commercial publishers can be great – lunch with your publisher at a table in a restaurant in midtown Manhattan you normally can’t get into, a book tour, advance payments, royalties. Your mother will be proud of you.

But they can also be a whole lot of work, and a whole lot of rejection. These companies need to be very, very picky about who they invest in publishing. They’re well aware that most books lose money, and only a few make enough to keep the company in business. They’re kind of like the movie business that way. So they need to cover their risks.

Having said that, would I go to a commercial publisher for my next book? I think that maybe by then, I’ll have built up enough of a platform (more on that below) to interest a publisher. I just don’t know if they’ll be willing to offer me what I can’t do for myself. Hmmm….

What’s their purpose?

Money. They are filled with people who love books, but also filled with people for whom “books” means the accounting kind of books – with profit and loss statements. They prefer to deal in “sure things,” because they know that the odds of finding the next “Tipping Point” are low; they need some big titles to balance the probable losses.

What do they publish?

Books that are likely to sell well. For them, a “sure thing” is:

• An established author who has demonstrated the ability to produce high-volume books.
• An author who has achieved fame, greatness or notoriety in another area of life and people can be expected to buy the book on that basis. It’s called a “platform” and it refers to an established audience for your ideas, and a way for you to help sell the books. That includes frequent speaking engagements (see post #30 for more on that), a strong social media following, or a widely-followed blog, YouTube channel or podcast.
A book on a particularly hot topic (publishers don’t like to rely on this, because a topic that is hot now may have cooled significantly by the time the book is written and published).

What kinds of authors do they like?

They like sure things, based on the three criteria above. They don’t like to take risks, because risks will put a hole in their financials if they go wrong. Look at it from their point of view – it’s a business; wouldn’t you want to manage your downside? Would you rather take a chance on an unproven author, or invest more in promoting an author who’s already shown the ability to bring in the money?

One variant on the commercial publisher are those that produces textbooks for schools, colleges, universities and professional associations. Here, there is a built-in market. The publisher is going to determine, “We need to update our text on environmental monitoring. Who can we get to write it?” They’ll then look around for an author with credibility – and it helps if the author has demonstrated the ability to take a complex topic and make it understandable to 18-year-olds.

How do you work with them?

Likely, through a literary agent. The agent will help you massage your book proposal, pick a publisher to shop it to, and work with you on negotiations. Of course, the agent is in business too – and like the publishing house, likes sure things rather than wild cards. So if you’re not one of the three criteria above, you may have trouble getting the attention of an established agent.

My third book, “The Fame Game 2.0” was published by a commercial publishing house, BNi Building News. This was an update of an earlier book, “The Fame Game.” I had no problem with the “2.0” part, which was quite cool at the time (2012).

I was less enamored with the sub-head – “Digital marketing innovations for the construction industry.” The publisher wanted the word “Construction” in there to appeal to their market; from my viewpoint, this limited the book’s appeal. But since the publisher is in the driver’s seat regarding the book’s title, cover, interior design and marketing, I had to take what they offered.

This is one aspect of working with a commercial publisher you need to know about – they have firm ideas on what will work and what won’t. Often, because of their experience, they have better ideas than you do. So just remember that they’re in charge!

What support can you expect from them?

They’ll take care of you, although for a first-time or un-recognized author that may involve a level of service that is more like what you’d expect from Wal-Mart rather than Nordstrom.

You can count on your publisher to provide proof-reading, copy-editing, interior design, cover design, and handling matters such as copyright and the ISBN (International Standard Book Number, which is a unique ten-digit number assigned to every book). They will offer some basic marketing support, like preparing a news release and sending out some copies to book reviewers.

Just so you know, many big-name reviewers won’t review self-published books (see options three and four below), preferring the credentials that come with having a “real” publisher’s name on the cover.

Also remember that in return for the services they offer, as far as the publisher is concerned, your book becomes more “theirs” than it is “yours.” And they’ll keep most of the proceeds from the sale of your book, paying you royalties in the range of 15 to 20 percent of sales.

If you ask about how they’ll promote your book, if you’re a new author they will likely lob that question right back to you – what are you prepared to do to get the book into buyers’ hands? They will want you to promote the book during your speaking engagements, drop mentions into your blog, arrange for reviews by influential bloggers, get onto podcasts in which you can gently plug your book, and in other ways, use your platform to boost their sales revenue.

Whenever a rock star like Malcolm Gladwell comes out with a new book, he gets “Nordstrom” treatment -- book tours, signings and readings set up for him, and really good hotels. You probably won’t get that. You probably won’t get much support at all, because commercial publishers have embraced enthusiastically the message that “average is over.” They lavish attention on their sure-fire money makers (like Malcolm) and understandably are less willing to spend on authors who have yet to prove themselves.

It helps if you have a track record of success in producing books that will sell. One way to get that record is through using the other publishing methods below to earn your stripes, and earn your right to sit in a chair across from a book editor for a major publishing house. The job-finding book, “What Color is Your Parachute?” legendarily started with a church pastor who self-published his ideas on a photocopier, before he got his book picked up by a commercial publisher.

The publisher will want you to use your platform to sell books, to the extent that the decision to publish you or not depends less on your idea or writing ability, and more on the number of followers on your Twitter and LinkedIn. Speeches help too (see Post #60 for ideas on how to make that happen).

As you can tell, I’m not so enthusiastic on commercial publishers as an option for business professionals who want to get known for their expertise. You may bang on a lot of doors and never get one to open. But they do offer some prestige, so be sure to send your mother lots of copies.

Many would-be authors expect that their commercial publisher will help them get onto the shelves of bookstores. So, just a quick word on that. It comes from the mistaken idea that bookstores are still a thing. They aren’t. Bookstores have been losing share to online places like Amazon for decades. The floor space in stores devoted to books is shrinking in favor of leather-bound journals, calendars, and scented candles.

So don’t expect a book publisher’s salesperson to fight very hard for your book (by an un-recognized author) to get much space on the remaining shelves. They’ll push titles by blockbuster authors. You’ll need to build your capacity to boost online sales.

Academic and association publishing

Academic publishing has played a long role in publishing, going back to Gutenberg days (think Oxford University Press), and have been a big help in making and keeping Western civilization civilized. Many universities operate a publishing wing that offers options to authors whose ideas wouldn’t be considered by a commercial house.

Likewise, professional associations want to publish information that is relevant to their members, and so have established their own publishing abilities. Many of their offerings will be specific to their members, such as how-to manuals, and standards of operation.

What’s their purpose?

Furthering the cause of human knowledge. And money.

I worked with an association publisher on my first book in 2000. I was a member of the Society for Marketing Professional Services, and they used their magazine to call for authors who had something to say. Specifically, something that would help their members, who market for architecture, engineering, and construction companies, to do their jobs better.

I thought I might have some ideas on how the members could publish articles in trade magazines. So, I went down to Alexandria, VA where SMPS is based and met with their acquisitions editor. She was quite interested in seeing what I came up with. Of course, she wasn’t about to publish just anything I sent her, so there was always a chance that I’d write the manuscript and have it rejected.

But the text worked out okay, they assigned an artist to do a cover, and they picked the title, “The Fame Game.” They didn’t pay anything for the manuscript, and they kept the royalties. But I had my first book published, and it had a wider audience than I could have reached on my own.

What do they publish?

Associations need to live in the real world and be fiscally responsible, but their money comes from members’ dues, and they can often afford to take a chance on a small print run if the information in the book serves their members.

University presses are similarly concerned more with spreading ideas than they are with money. Having said that, they have clear mandates on what they will publish, and would-be authors need to heed their publication requirements closely.

Professional and business associations have a mandate to publish information that is useful to their members, so prefer titles that will sell at least reasonably well. In some cases, the association has prestige and influence to the extent that its books will be bought by people well outside their membership.

What kinds of authors do they like?

Members. Academic publishers give preference to authors who are tenured professors, or at least members of their faculty. They will sometimes publish authors from outside, but it helps if you have some connection to the institution, even as an occasional instructor.

Association publishers like authors who are also members – preferably members with a high enough stature and name recognition that their books will sell.

They like authors with strong academic and professional qualifications, so make sure that you’ve presented those aspects of your background effectively.

How do you work with them?

Join. They naturally have a preference for supporting authors who are part of their circle and are already known to other people involved. If you can, get to know the people in charge – there is likely a committee that gives guidance to the publishing wing. They can tell you what they’re looking for, and may be willing to champion your idea.

Part of your proposal should involve what you’ll do to promote the book – such as lead a webinar for their members, conduct some workshops in regional or local chapters, or publish articles for the association’s magazine or website.

Success lies in the value of your idea for furthering the organization’s cause, not so much in the commercial viability of your personal platform – although it helps.

What support can you expect from them?

They’ll work with you to develop your book – but just as with a commercial publisher, don’t be surprised when their ideas differ from yours, and their ideas matter more. They will handle proofreading, copy-editing, cover and interior design, and will help with promoting your book.

They will also expect you to help sell the book, using your platform, connections, time, and skills.

Interlude: upstairs, downstairs

My father, a classical music buff, taught me that a proper symphony has four movements or sections. There’s generally a break between movements two and three. So, this is the intermission.

The two methods above – commercial and academic/association publishing – involve you handing over much of the work, responsibility (and financial reward) to a publisher. This organization will help you through the process, and it’s a good option if book publishing isn’t core to your business model. Many people still think that having a ‘real’ publisher has more cachet.

Options three and four, below, are probably more for you if the books themselves are to be a revenue source for you. They also work if you want to take more control over your own work.

The two methods above involve less financial outlay for you, but then you get a smaller percentage of the sale. The methods below involve you investing in services like proof-reading, cover design, and layout. They also give more of the sales proceeds. You retain more control over the process, and as we’ll see, that can be a good thing. Or it can be a really, really bad thing, involving tears and screaming.

Vanity, or self-publishing

“Vanity” publishing is a rather sneering term for what used to be the only way to get published for someone who didn’t meet commercial or academic/association publishing requirements. It was called “vanity” publishing because it was assumed that the author was just being “vain” in thinking that their ideas were worth making public, when they couldn’t even convince a publisher to take on the project.

In vanity publishing, you hire a print shop to print and bind your books. You get a stack of boxes full of books to put in your garage, along with an invoice for the printing (if they didn’t ask for the money up front). It’s then up to you to sell them.

Some vanity publishers use printing presses – ink on paper, involving big machines that make clanking noises. When they put your book on the press, it takes time for them to get the ink balances right, so there will always be some wastage at the start of the print run. That’s why it’s better for you to order a large quantity – that setup time and cost gets spread out over a greater number of copies. That’s why printing 2,000 copies doesn't cost much more than 1,000 copies – at a short print run, you’re paying mostly for the setup.

What’s their purpose?

Money. The printer and bindery are into it for the money. It’s just like you take your car in for servicing, and you pay them money to do stuff to your car. Nothing wrong with that.

They’ll provide service in exchange for your money, and will provide some guidance because they prefer to keep clients happy, but to them it’s just another print run.

What do they publish?

Your book. Pretty much whatever you want to pay for, provided it doesn’t exceed your local laws regarding obscenity, libel, national security, or the printing company’s own standards.

Each printer has its own capabilities and limitations – but even if they don't do their own gold-foil embossing (if that’s what you’ve ordered), they’ll send the work out to another company who can handle that particular special request.

Note that some vanity publishers will use photocopying to reproduce your book, and this means you have access to smaller quantities. The quality of the printing isn’t as good and the cost per copy will likely be higher, but photocopying is a good way to test the market for your book.

What kinds of authors do they like?

Authors with money. They like experienced authors because they can expect that author will know how the process works, but if you have the money, they’ll work with you.

They like long print runs – for the reasons I’ve described above about setup costs.

More to the point, what kind of author would choose vanity publishing, given the advantages of POD as I’ve set out in the next section? Authors who already have a platform that allows you to sell books. It could be that you are someone who:

Leads workshops in which your book becomes a textbook for the program – each student gets a copy, and the printing cost is rolled into the tuition fee

Does a lot of public speaking, so you can sell books at the back of the room

Can sell the book as a profit generator, perhaps supported through a strong blog, Twitter following, YouTube channel, podcast or other platform.

How do you work with them?

Get informed about the publishing process. While the printing company may be willing to work with you to give you what you want, remember that they’re a printing company, not a business coach or therapist.

Show up with content that they can use. Make sure that your text, likely in PDF form, is the right size for the page, and follow their other requirements.

Have reasonable expectations about what you get for your money. If you want hardcover books but are only willing to pay the soft-cover price, you may need to adjust your expectations. Understand which page sizes are best from a production point of view, and make sure your cover, illustrations and page size fit. Don’t expect a delivery schedule that’s too tight – the company needs to keep a backlog of work, and optimize the use of each of its presses, so don’t expect them to deliver like Amazon.

What support can you expect from them?

You can expect high-quality reproduction and professional treatment of you as a customer. All printers have areas of strength and limitation. So if you want a coffee-table book with many lithographed pages of glorious photography, you are limited as to printer choice. On the other hand, you have a plethora of choices if you want something more vanilla, like a standard-sized book in black ink only.

If your printer is using a real printing press (it’s called “offset” printing, for reasons that are too long to go into), the print quality will be higher than in the photocopier-based option I’ll tell you about next. The binding may be better too. In all, it’s a better-quality product, although most prospective buyers won’t notice.

You’ll also find that your cost per copy is lower, particularly if you order in large quantities.

Print on demand

This is an ensemble of technologies involving photocopying, computer-based interfaces, e-commerce, social media, and couriers, grouped under the term “Print on Demand” or POD. It’s the best thing that’s happened to book publishing since the advent of moveable type in the 1400s.

Here’s how it works. You prepare the text of your manuscript and a front-and-back cover, formatted according to the instructions you will find on the publisher’s website. Likely, they’ll want a PDF of the inside of the book, and a .jpg of the front and back of the cover. When that’s ready, you go onto their website and walk through the automated sequence to upload the manuscript and cover.

These files sit on the company’s servers until someone goes online to order a copy, paying by credit card or PayPal. Then, the publisher’s automated technology springs into action to print out a copy of your book, glue on a cover, and ship it to the customer.

There’s generally no up-front cost to you (there used to be – I paid a fee of US$1500 to a division of Random House to do the setup for my book “Publishing Magazine Articles” in 2001). You can order author copies at a reduced rate – for example, I pay about US$2.50 per copy for my latest, published through CreateSpace, which is a division of Amazon.

What’s their purpose?

Money. The people in charge may love books too, and see helping you spread your ideas to the world as their calling, but it’s a business. Note that there are a LOT of companies that provide this service. I went with CreateSpace because of their Amazon connection.

What do they publish?

Pretty much anything.

Bear in mind that they have limitations as to the size of the page, number of pages, the fonts that they will accept, and other formatting issues. But you can probably live within their requirements. Since it’s photocopying, they don’t reproduce photographs well, although line drawings are just fine. You can get photographs, generally as an insert in the middle of the book, and that will be an extra cost.

What kinds of authors do they like?

They don’t care. Because “they” are a few lines of code, well, a LOT of lines of code.

How do you work with them?

You’ll need help. Seriously, kids, don’t try this at home. POD systems are computers with photocopiers and a few robots to do the packing. They are complete idiots in that if you feed them the wrong page order, or upload a cover that’s backwards (remember that the back cover goes on the left, the front cover on the right) or put a typo in the title of your book, they will give you exactly what you asked for – something that you can’t use. This can result in the tears and screaming referred to earlier.

So get LOTS of experienced human help to get it right. Such as:

A copy-editor will review your text to make sure it flows well, is organized well, and makes sense to the reader.

A proof-reader will review the text for spelling and grammar. This needs to be a detail-oriented person fluent in the language of your book.

An interior designer: not someone to select wallpaper and drapery, but someone who can format the book right – the headlines and subtitles are consistent, the title page and table of contents are set up correctly, and that the formatting will meet the page size requirements set by the publisher. You should get someone who’s done this before, and make sure that they’re committed to providing you with a document that will upload to the publisher smoothly, no complaints from the online interface.

A cover designer. People do tell a book by its cover. The publisher will likely offer you tools so you can design your own cover. Don’t use them. Get a real graphic designer to design a real cover.

I can’t emphasize this enough – get support from people who are qualified to help. In POD, there’s no helpful book editor holding your hand to make sure that your book will serve you. You’re working with a computer interface that has zero emotional attachment to your success. So work with people who will actually care.

Again for emphasis: make sure that your book manuscript and cover are formatted according to their requirements. My graphic designer took some effort to make sure that the formatting was correct. She noted that a book under a certain page count, as mine was, isn’t able to accommodate a title down the spine. A thicker book would be able to accommodate that.

What support can you expect from them?

The usual “your call is very important to us” kind of service. There’s likely a service center able to take phone calls and chat, but your best road to success is to get it right the first time. That’s why you need the support of a graphic designer and other professionals who know what they’re doing.

The publishing house will likely have connections to proofreaders, interior designers and cover designers, and even companies that promise you all kinds of social media support for your book when it’s published. I recommend you find your own people to do that kind of work or do it yourself. There are lots of articles on the Thought Leadership resources site that can help you build your platform and the book’s profile.

As you can probably tell, I’m a POD fan. I’ve published three of my books that way, and I’ve had good service. So do the people who buy my books. Royalties arrive, although because I’m Canadian and the publishers are in the United States, there are IRS tax withholding issues. Next time, I’ll probably go with a POD company located in my own country.

Which method you choose depends very much on your circumstances, and those circumstances may change over time. You might start with POD, and as your fame spreads, you might find yourself using vanity publishing. Or, you’ll be sitting down in a white-tablecloth restaurant in Midtown for a lunch whose price you don’t care about, because your publisher’s buying.

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Carl Friesen

Carl is the Founder of the Thought Leadership Resources and helps business professionals gain the skills they need to build their profile as subject-matter experts and thought leaders.

You can connect with Carl on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter

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