I self-published my book. Here’s how I did it.
Updated: Oct 23, 2019
This morning I’m waiting for the call to tell me my book is 30 minutes out. Books, I should say. Four thousand of them, packed into 160 boxes of 25 each, about 2700 pounds total.
The poundage is significant because I’ll meet the truck driver at my storage facility...
...and then he’ll use a manual forklift thingie to transfer the four pallets of shrink-wrapped books to the load-in area...
...at which point I will offer him a big tip to cart the pallets into the freight elevator, then downstairs, and finally to the hallway outside my storage space, where he’ll drop them.
He agrees and holy hell am I happy about that, because I’ve ordered twice the number of books as last year when I didn’t think to offer the tip, so there I was for hours, breaking down the pallets, loading the boxes onto a cart, and then carting the books down to my storage unit, where I stacked them between the Christmas decorations and Mister’s gadgets.
Even with all that quick thinking today, I’ll still be left with breaking down four pallets and then shifting 160 boxes into way-too-tall piles in our unit.
Still with me? Okay, you must really want to know about self-publishing. Good for you. Let’s do this.
So, why did I self-publish instead of going with a publisher?
In a nutshell, control. Though the publishing world has been turned on its head since Amazon added their chapter, if you’re looking to publish a novel or a popular interest non-fiction book, not a whole lot has changed. But if, like me, you have a niche idea, no track record as a book author, but deep expertise in your area, self-publishing is the way to go.
I had very clear ideas about what I wanted and it wasn’t at all typical: a small-format book with spiral binding that would lay flat on a winery’s tasting room bar. Matte paper stock that would allow for note taking. Lots and lots and lots of photos.
I wanted to control the copy, the layout, the cover, the title. I also knew that a traditional publisher’s sales channels through book stores wouldn’t be of much help; without a normal, printable spine, even if my book did manage to land in the Local Interest or Travel section, customers would skim right over my wire-bound Journal. I wanted to control the marketing, and be rewarded for my efforts, or not.
Also, I wanted as many sample copies as I wanted. The idea that I would have to pay for/beg for copies of my own book to use in marketing was anathema.
My book, Virginia Wine Travel Journal, is a weird hybrid sort of journal/guide to the country’s sixth largest wine state. I can hear the book agents fleeing the building as I type this. And yet, I knew there was at least a tiny market. A tiny, very passionate market. As the founder of the first travel app for Virginia Wine Country, I’d known this for a decade. I had a dream.
How did I know I would make money?
I didn’t. You just don’t. Most books sell just 250 to 3,000 copies, so you’re taking a risk. And, unlike with traditional publishing where they pay you a (usually very small) upfront fee and then assume the financial risks going forward, if you go the indie route, you’re on your own.
But I felt pretty confident because, first, I had a platform; I’ve been writing about Virginia wine travel for a decade on my app and website and have more than 25,000 users, I have nearly 10,000 email subscribers, I write about Virginia wine travel regularly for Washingtonian Magazine and other regional publications, and I have thousands of followers on my Facebook author page and other social media accounts.
And, second, I secured sponsorships. Actually, I should have listed this first, because it was the only thing that made self-publishing possible.
What do I mean, sponsorships?
I appealed to wineries, inns, and tourism offices across Virginia to support what I believed would be a very well-received, long-lasting tool for travelers. It’s funny what happens when you put something like this out there: the universe provides. Right? I could have heard back from one or two, or five, who were willing to support this endeavor. But instead I heard from exactly the number I needed to pay for the print costs. And in appreciation, each received a half- to full-page photo in the book, with a line of text -written by me, no logos, no hyperbolic marketing messages, just an organic part of the book’s content. (For some reason, the universe never provides enough to also pay the graphic designer costs; maybe that’s to keep me humble and hungry?)
How did I find a printer?
Again, crazy lucky. That’s what happens when I get off the couch.
First, I emailed printers across the country. Let me tell you, it’s not easy finding a printer for a 5x8”, full color, spiral bound, 176-page book. You can go with outfits like Blurb.com, which I love, but at $15/book, only for very small runs, like gift books for friends who came with us to Egypt for Mister’s 50th.
You can always use something like Amazon’s CreateSpace, but they didn’t offer the strange mix of requirements I needed. I was leaning heavily towards PrintNinja, a very slick company that was based in China and had the best price, but that presented a real moral conundrum: for someone who's so pro “local”; could I really use a Chinese firm to print Virginia wine travel books?
Fortunately, at a Virginia tourism conference lunch, I turned to the man next to me and lo and behold, he was a printer rep for a Virginia-based book printer. He cut a big chunk off the price of the Chinese company. Unfortunately, before I signed the contract, his company went belly up. Fortunately, he landed with an even better company, Professional Printers in South Carolina (close enough, geographically speaking). Thank you, Bob Chase.
How much did it cost me?
First year, I went with a cautious 2,000 copies. Cost: right around $17,000 for the design and production. The second year, when I doubled the print run to 4,000 copies, the upfront cost was around $25,000 including design fees. (Did I mention the wonderfulness that is Mister? He doesn’t bat an eye at this; he may not understand me, but he trusts me.)
These are the boxes I’ve been hoarding since Christmas so I wouldn’t have to buy shipping boxes when someone places a bulk order. This is in my bedroom. This is the glamorous life of a book author.
This is Joyce, my friend and book designer in Seattle. (Her business is Jolt Graphics.) Now that we’re in our second year on this book, we are old pros at this cross-country collaboration. We had a kick-off phone conversation in December, then it was email all the way for months. Once she sent the book files to the printer, we had a celebratory wrap-up call. Like buttah.
The hardest part, as usual, was the maps, for reasons not completely understood by me. But when Joyce – who is without a doubt the sweetest person you’ve ever met – begins sending somewhat desperate emails asking me to please please stop adding new wineries - I know it must be difficult, because Joyce never ever complains.
In early March, we made the last edits (except one I missed which will haunt me forever, and I’m not telling what that is.) Joyce sent the files to ProPrinters. Next step – I receive the hard copy proofs in the mail.
I had proofed this book so many times and Joyce had become such a pro that I whipped through the final proofing in about 90 minutes, no changes. (Last year the corrections cost me over $300, so I was pretty pleased with us this go ‘round. Though of course I missed that one mistake, which, as I said, will haunt me forever. Argh.)
Three weeks later, the books show up at my storage facility. Surprisingly, Kelvin from Old Dominion Freight delivers them for the second year in a row; good to know some things don’t change.
I have advance orders for more than 600 books, and I am prepared. These puppies are getting to the post office today!
Still following? Welcome to the weeds 😉
Who sells the books and ships them out?
That would be me. I use Shopify and Amazon Seller Central as my sales portals, and point all my social media, blog and website posts there for purchases. Shopify is a really flexible portal that lets me set up my own storefront and do things like short-term free shipping promotions and discount codes, and they don’t require that you have an ISBN number like Amazon does (and which costs extra). On the other hand, Shopify doesn’t have the “Oh, wow, you’re on Amazon” coolness factor. That’s why I have both; most of my sales are through Shopify, but if someone decides to just search for my book online, Amazon is where they find it – thank you, awesome search engines.
As a merchant on Amazon, you can choose to have them fulfill your book, or not. Unless you write for fun and don’t actually need any money, you’ll probably choose to fulfill your book yourself. Find out more about that here.
As for the shipping, I’m pretty streamlined at this point. I use bubble-lined mailers from Uline at $32 per case of 100 (best price I’ve found, and good quality), half-sheet Avery self-adhesive shipping labels, and I ship using Media Mail rates, since I’m only shipping books. (It’s a wonderfully archaic thing the USPS hasn’t done away with yet, which saves me around $1.50 per package over first class, depending on weight.)
Everywhere I go I bring some books and envelopes, just in case I get an order on the road.
What other costs are involved in self-publishing?
Like rats nibbling at your ankles, so many…Uline bubble shipping envelopes $.32 each; Avery shipping labels $.13 each; packing tape; storage unit $60/month (that’s the business’s share – the whole unit is $180/month); Shopify store $29/month; ISBN and Barcode purchase/registration (for Amazon) $175/year; Canva.com to create graphics to make flyers and things – FREE! (Did I mention I looooove Canva?)
How many books do I sell at retail vs. wholesale?
My first year, I sold about 40% through Shopify or Amazon or doing a couple of wine festivals and book signings. The rest were sold through winery tasting rooms, local inns, a couple of book stores, and local attractions (museums, Visitor Centers). My wholesale price was 35% to 63% of the retail price, depending on quantity ordered. (Last year my retail price was $16; this year I was able to bring it down to $15 because I printed more.)
Your own wholesale opportunities will of course depend on your subject content; mine just happens to be about wine and travel. Another interesting note: many independent bookstores may not want anything to do with your book if you’re selling to their competitor: Amazon. So think broadly when concocting your wholesale marketing scheme.
Do I enjoy it?
Immensely. It’s easily the most immersive project I’ve ever taken on, and it’s all mine, mine, mine. No boss suggesting I just add this one more little thing, no committee of a thousand weighing in on the graphics. Just me and my designer, Joyce. Have you ever seen an anhinga drying its wings? It feels kinda like that.
Does anyone ever ask me to sign their copy?
Yes, and it’s awful. The first time someone asked my pen ran out of ink halfway through so there’s a big scratch out and then a different color pen for the second half, and my handwriting is just awful. I should have just given her a fresh book and started over but I was terribly rattled.
Now I know to bring a particular black ink pen that I’ve pre-tested, and I’ve settled on a very ingenious signature phrase (Enjoy Wine Country! Cheers! Nancy!). But there’s no helping my hand writing.
What advice do I have for anyone else who’s thinking about self-publishing?
Apart from the writing and the design, the printer is the most important element, of course. Do your due diligence; there are new processes and printers coming online all the time that may save you money. But be certain – as certain as you possibly can – that whoever you choose is solid. Ask for samples, Google them, look for reviews, ask for references, and of course compare prices and capabilities.
Have a (dry, cool) place to store your books, and understand that shippers may not be able to deliver to the third floor of your condo building. Ask if they require a loading dock. What sort of shipper do they use? How does it work? I ended up having to pay several hundred additional dollars the first year because they were assuming they were delivering to a loading dock (easy on/off) and I was assuming they’d just … I don’t know…wheelie the books in the door? Honestly, I didn’t think it through.
Watch the bottom line. I don’t do out-of-town book signings, unless I’m in town for another reason. It’s just too expensive – gas, hotel, food. At $15 a book before printing costs, I’d need to sell way too many books to make that back. Instead, I make the best book I possibly can so I get the word-of-mouth referrals, I ask for help from wineries I’ve known for years, and I promote through social media and my email subscribers.
And finally, make it yours. Self-publishing lets you color outside the lines. Use all the colors in your box.
Have you had a book published? How did it go for you? Let us know in the comments!