Can I make money writing books? What does it take to publish a book? Is self-publishing better than going through a publisher?
Questions that I used to ask myself many years ago. Questions that many individuals have asked me this past year – as many as a dozen in the past quarter itself.
So let me begin with a definitive piece of data my father provided helpfully – several times – in my initial years as a struggling writer. “Most writers live in poverty. Those who don’t have a job; and many eventually die hungry. If you think you have something to say that others may pay to read, have the courage to back your own book – print it yourself instead of chasing publishers for years and then printing it on your own under their name.”
I thought he was very discouraging but I always respected his advice. So, I got a job. In fact, I got several. But I also ‘felt’ that I was special, born to write. I guess every writer thinks their book is great. I sure did. Secretly, I was waiting to be discovered, to have the appreciation of my friends and family turn into the adulation of millions.
But I am a restless sort of person, blessed with very little (probably no) patience. So, eventually, I stopped waiting to be discovered and sent out manuscripts to different publishers. My decision making was always based on evidence, and 14 rejections were not just a sign but hard evidence, so I learned from the rejections… and decided to publish my own book. By that time (20 years after my first rejection), self-publishing had become easy. really. Easy.
You have several options for self-publishing. There are tons of companies and startups who will ‘self-publish’ you. tons. Well, at least 40 companies last I checked. Here’s my take now: self-publishing means do-it-yourself. So do it yourself. It won’t cost you anything more than time, effort, and printing-related expenses.
There are of course helpful platforms that have been established by very kind people to help you publish stuff yourself very quickly, very easily. You just have to upload your manuscript and click and click, say yes or no to minor details they ask for (fine print may or may not tell you that they will reformat or realign to fit their software) and voila! Your book will be published! You are an author! That’s how I published my first eBook on Apple iBooks and Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). iBooks was the smoother quality experience since it was integrated with word-processing and production software. KDP has a super-secret process with little control to the author over formatting.
Okay so the book did not look or feel as you originally imagined it and if you Google or Bing yourself you may not find yourself and your creation as easily as you thought you would, but that requires some more work. So, I waited and waited and after a few copies were sold, I read the fine print on the various platforms and learned the third big secret about the book business: Writing a Book, Publishing a Book, and Selling a Book are three completely different industries in today’s age. And: most books don’t really sell. Apparently, the average non-fiction book (print) sells 200-300 copies in the first year and maybe around 1,000 copies in its lifetime across years. There are differing numbers for this metric and none reliable for eBook sales since they are not easily tracked or verified. If you think hard about it, a bulk of that first-year sale really comes from an author’s network. So, if you are going to self-publish, do the math first.
For the next book, I hired a designer and then an illustrator and then replaced them and … eventually did everything on my own including the cover design. Lesson: In the book business you don’t need a graphic designer, you need someone who understands print and digital publishing.
By the time of the third book, I had two very fast learning team members who actually had experience with my subject matter and photo-editing and they picked up the software skills quickly and it turned out to be the best book … till it went to the press (since I wanted a hard copy). Long story short, it took four books, considerable effort, time to train and some investment to get the printing and publishing right. Because the second big unwritten secret of publishing books in the digital age is that all the ‘quick and easy and in minutes’ is meant for text-driven books. If you have images or illustrations or even require a set of specific fonts or style of editing, it’s a different timeline and cost. Becoming a publisher is not too difficult if you want it badly enough. You just have to register for ISBN (International Standard Book Number) – that’s where your formal copyright comes from – and it doesn’t take too long: a week or so at most. Printing is on-demand, any small or medium-sized press will print and bind the books for you and it’s best for you to collaborate with them and supervise especially if color is involved. You can print a copy at a time and price your book accordingly or you can print in bulk if you are optimistic about sales (bulk printing reduces your cost per copy, giving you a better margin per copy sold but your house fills up with unsold copies ).
It was on the fifth book that I learned the Number 1, the big, the ultimate secret of publishing: You can write as much as you want – and let’s assume it’s pure gold – it has to sell for you to make money.
According to an industry estimate, there were 1.7 million self-published books in the US alone in 2018. So, add the millions for the global market and yours would be one of the several million (and counting) out there waiting to be noticed by readers.
The biggest benefit of self-publishing is that you can publish on any subject and in any format. The opinion of editors and publishers doesn’t matter since it’s your money that you are spending. Most of the digital publishing companies are mostly tech platforms which means they need you and your network on their platform so that their user numbers (and therefore valuation) increase. They are not magicians, and they are unlikely to guarantee sales. My tip is to get your book on as many platforms as you can because you never know where you could get a sale from. And to invest in promotion and marketing.
To succeed as an author, you’ll have to know the way the market works and make difficult informed choices at every step, because: like all good things in life, self-publishing is a great way to build character.
Sanjay Mukherjee, author, learning-tech designer and management consultant, is founder of Mountain Walker and chief strategy advisor, Peak Pacific. He can be reached @ email@example.com