Garth Hagerman Photo/Graphics
Garth Hagerman Photo/Graphics

Three Different Options for Micro-Publishing

The state of the micro-publishing world is very much like one of those good news, bad news jokes that used to be popular.

First, the good news: today is a fabulous time to self-publish. It has never been technically simpler or less expensive to produce a real genuine professional book. With recent advances in computer and printing technology, anyone can self-publish for a modest investment.

But then, there’s the bad news: lots of people are doing this. No matter how good your book is, it is likely to get lost in a vast sea of micro-publishing projects. It’s hard to make sure that your project gets the attention and sales it deserves. You’re going to need a good marketing strategy if you’re going to turn a profit. On the other hand, if you’re doing a book for friends and family, maybe marketing is not a concern. But if profit is a concern, you need to take a long sober look at how you’re going to get your book out there once it’s printed. Your marketing strategy and your publishing method go hand-in-hand.

Three Ways to Micro-Publish

Let’s analyze three different approaches to self publishing, so that you can figure out which one is best suited to your project.

Copy Shop Projects

idasplacerehearsal | Garth Hagerman Photo/Graphics

Perhaps the simplest, most painless method of self-publishing is taking your manuscript down to your neighborhood copy shop and having the friendly folks there put your project together as a wire- or comb-bound book. There are a number of advantages to this. As long as your book is black & white, the cost is low. You’re supporting a local small business instead of feeding the global corporate monoculture… unless you take it to a FedEx/Kinko’s or something. Plus, you get more control of the printing process, since you’re in the shop, talking to the folks that run the machines, looking at the paper stock choices, making sure everything gets done right.

But marketing one of these wire-bound books is… tricky. You probably won’t be able to get it into your local bookshops; books like this aren’t considered “professional”. Forget about Amazon or other big-time online sellers. You’re pretty much on your own marketing these books. If you’ve got your own store, if you have a following already, if you are in a hobby club which creates its own niche market, you might do OK with a copy shop project.

One of my regular clients, Todd Walton, has written several novels, which we’ve had printed at our local copy shop here in Mendocino. He finds that this method frees him from the shackles of the major publishers. Since he’s an established writer with a dedicated following, he sells a reasonable number of these volumes, which are destined to become collector’s items. These books include his Ida’s Place series.


Print On Demand (POD)

Print on demand has become quite fashionable in recent years. Basically, with POD printing, the printer keeps the files which create your book and does the actual printing as the orders come in. Since you’re not creating a big inventory, the up-front costs are minimal. But the downside is that since you’re printing in tiny batches, the printing cost per book is high. Plus, since there’s no inventory, your customers have to wait to receive the books they’ve ordered. There are quite a few companies specializing in POD printing. They have their own websites to help sell the books they print, they can help get your book on Amazon, and they offer other marketing services.

There must be success stories out there for POD printing. Since there are so many companies doing bang-up business in this field, I must be missing something, as I just don’t see how this model is economically sensible for the author/publisher. For starters, the printers’ websites appear to be pretty much worthless. Does anyone go to these sites to browse? I doubt it. As a web designer myself, I don’t see the advantage of having your book lost in a sea of unrelated obscure books, as opposed to building your own site and promoting the book there. And I'm mighty skeptical regarding the value of their other marketing services as well. Fundamentally, though, the cost per book of printing on demand is so high that the potential profit is minimal. Plus, if you want to go out there and sell your book to local bookstores, you still have to buy an inventory, and you have to buy it at POD prices.

I’ve crunched numbers on POD printing for a few projects, and the answer has always been “no, just no”.

Small Press Run Printing

Once upon a time, if you wanted to self-publish a book, you needed to print a large inventory. The bulk of the price was setting up the print run, so 1000 copies cost pretty close to the same as 250. You needed the lower per copy rate of a thousand or more books in order to stand the abstract hypothetical possibility of making a profit. There are a lot of self-published authors out there who still have a closet full of unsold books many years later.

But now, things are different. Book printing has become much more affordable. You can print individual copies or single-digit numbers of copies for about what you’d expect to pay retail for a similar book. If you print 100 copies, the price is low enough that you can sell them at a reasonable price and make a decent profit. With a press run of 250, you can sell them at wholesale and make a decent profit.

There are many small press run printers out there, but I’ve got one specific recommendation: 48 Hour books. As the name suggests, they’re fast. They’re also really good. Their website offers a wide range of options, the interface is easy to use, and their prices are excellent.

So, here’s a general model for printing and marketing a book without a huge investment:
  1. Write, design, and lay out your book.
  2. Order 100 copies from 48 Hour Books; you’ll get 25 free, so the total press run is 125.
  3. Market these 125 copies yourself. Sell them to friends, colleagues, fellow hobbyists, etc. Sell them on your own website. Sell them as a signed, numbered special edition.
  4. Take a few copies to bookstores in your area to get orders for the second printing.
  5. By the time those first 125 copies are gone, you should have orders in hand for the second printing and money to pay for it.
  6. Now, the cartoon snowball has started to roll and grow. Get them on Amazon and other big online retailers. Make sure the stores get more when they run out.

How I can Help

I have various skills which can help you get that cartoon snowball rolling. I can create a typographic design which suits your project. I can do the layout. I can take and/or prepare photos for your book. I can design a cover. I can create other graphics as needed. I can proofread and/or edit your text. I realize that doing as much of the work as possible yourself is a key part of keeping that initial investment down, but, at a minimum, I urge you to do the layout in a grownup page layout program. If you don’t have a page layout program or don’t know how to use it, hire me or another professional. Whatever you do, don’t try to make a book from a Microsoft Word file. Perhaps I’ll write a separate essay on that topic at a later date, but here’s the short version: MS Word is a word processor. It is adequate for typing business documents, term papers, or short essays, but not for laying out a book.