A few friends have recently asked me about self-publishing, and it’s clear there are still several misconceptions out there. Most people think about self-publishing or print on demand (POD) services, and they think of high prices, large minimum order sizes, and the term “vanity publishing.” True, numerous companies still exist that are looking to make a buck by preying on the aspirations of new authors. It is important to do your research to avoid paying for overpriced services and “self-publishing packages.” But, the good news is that there now are ways to get your new novel, your family’s history, or your local cookbook into print for very low cost. In fact, you can print up a single copy of your book (and even make it available online and at Amazon so others can order additional copies if they wish) for literally ZERO in set-up fees — you just pay the cost of a single print copy plus shipping, which is under $10 for most books.

The service I most highly recommend is called CreateSpace. CS is a subsidiary of Amazon, and they offer a very low cost print on demand service that is suitable for printing small runs of trade paperback books (even just a single copy). While CS does offer optional, expensive author services packages (which I do not recommend), there is no charge to upload your work and make it available. You simply pay for a single proof copy and a reasonable rate per additional copy that you want to order. The price is based on the number of pages in the book, and includes a full-color glossy cover, perfect binding, high-quality white paper, and unlimited black-and-white interior photos.

Does it sound too good to be true? There is one “catch.” Since you’re not paying them anything (except the cost to print however many copies you order), you have to do all the formatting yourself. That means you have to create a PDF that is the right size with proper margins for the interior of your book (they offer numerous print sizes; my novels are 6×9 inches). Doing this is relatively easy, and you can use Word or pretty much any word processing or page layout program and save it as a PDF (even easier if you have a Mac). The more difficult part is designing a cover file. The cover will be a “full wrap” cover, which is the back cover, spine, and front cover all saved as a single PDF:

The full-wrap Right Ascension cover

Making a cover like this isn’t the easiest thing in the world. I did mine with Photoshop, and it took a LONG time to figure out and get it just right. CS does provide some templates to help you out, which are based on the page size of your book and the spine width is calculated based on the number of pages. Even still, I had to find a high-resolution cover image (you want 300dpi or more for it to look its best), fiddle with the text and all the effects, mess with the color, etc., etc. There are easier ways to do it, and you can find simpler cover templates where you pretty much just add a photo and some text, if that’s enough for your needs. There are artists who will offer cover design services for a fee, but that only becomes worthwhile for commercial books where you think you can sell several hundred copies or more to justify that up-front cost.

Assuming you can come up with your cover and interior PDF files, you simply upload them to CS. So far, you haven’t spent a cent. Now, CS will ask you to order a proof copy of your book to make sure it looks good. If you only want a single copy, the “proof” copy can be it. Your book is priced based on the page count, and a 200-page novel (70,000 words or so) costs $5.50, with another $3 or so for shipping.

Once the proof arrives, you check it out, and if it looks good, you log into CS and “approve” the proof. Then you can order additional copies (as many or few as you want). If you’re buying more than 17 or so, it becomes worthwhile to pay $39 for the “Pro Plan,” which reduces the per-book printing cost: our same 200-page book would drop to $3.25. (Do this before ordering the proof to save a couple bucks on the proof copy as well.) Shipping is more economical on larger purchases, as a single book may cost about $3 to ship while a 20-book shipment may cost around $10. Obviously, if you order more, your total per-book cost will decrease. For example, 50 books ($162.50) with the Pro Plan ($39) and shipping ($15) should cost about $4.33 per book.

Once you’ve approved the proof, you can decide if you’d like to make the book available for purchase through CreateSpace, Amazon, or Expanded Distribution. If you’re just ordering a few copies of something for yourself and your immediate family, there’s no reason to select these options. However, you may want to offer a family history book, but don’t want to order 50 copies and possibly be stuck with them, or deal with shipping them or collecting money. In that case, you can enable CS distribution (which is free), and just email people the link where they can purchase however many copies they want, CS will print them up and ship them directly when ordered. CS takes 20% of the purchase price for CS sales, and you can set the “list price” so you make zero royalty (at 20% more than the per-book printing cost), or price it higher and even make a buck or two for your trouble.

Similarly, you can make your book available on Amazon or through Expanded Distribution, although Amazon takes 40% and ED sales take 60% of the list price. The ins and outs of selling on Amazon and ED (which makes it available for order in bookstores and libraries) are beyond the scope of this post, but leave a comment if you’re interested in more info and I may devote a later post to it.

Anyway, there are low-cost options to create your own printed books for family reunions, your short story collection, or anything else you’d like to see in print. You do have to put in some effort, but the cost is very low, and there are no set-up or other up-front fees (you just pay for the books you have printed). I recommend CreateSpace for their low prices and high quality, but some other solid possibilities include Lightning Source and possibly Lulu. I would avoid Author House, iUniverse, and xLibris, as each charges several hundred dollars or more for what you can get through CS for free.

UPDATE: For info on self-publishing for e-books, check this post.

Apr 022010

So, we’ve already established that e-books are taking over the world (yes, I use the term “established” somewhat loosely). What does this mean for bookstores?

Well, first of all, the smart bookstores are hedging their bets. Barnes & Noble (the largest physical bookstore chain) produces the Nook e-book reader, and Borders (the #2 chain) partners with Sony and the Sony e-book reader. Barnes & Noble already sells books and e-books on their website. So, these companies are at least attempting to embrace the digital future and sell electronic content.

But e-books are still a relatively small percentage of print book sales, and bookstores are in dire financial straits as it is. People are reading less in general (with the notable exception of e-book readers, who are voraciously purchasing and devouring more content faster than ever) with the distractions of TV and iPhones and Twitter. What will happen to them?

While I have fully embraced the e-book revolution, I do enjoy visiting bookstores (and libraries) and browsing the stacks of books, checking out magazines, and generally spending some time there. (I much prefer spending time in a bookstore to a mall, for example.) It would be a shame to see them disappear.

I don’t think bookstores will go away, but I do think they will adapt — for the better. Gone will be huge shops with three floors full of shelves carrying thousands of titles, one or two copies of each, spine-out on the shelves. Instead, what I think we’ll find in your typical bookstore in 5 or 10 years is:

  • A display table with stacks of the latest big blockbuster release (hopefully not Harry Potter and the Enlarged Prostate).
  • More and more book-related accessories: mugs, notepads, gifts, journals, calendars, greeting cards, bookmarks, e-book cases, etc. (these constitute more and more of bookstores’ current profits).
  • Coffee shops and cafes will continue to expand; perhaps we’ll see wine bars and such as well.
  • The bookstore will be smaller, and will lack the upper floors of lesser-selling titles. Instead, there will be kiosks where shoppers can browse a virtually unlimited catalogue of books, order one, sit and sip a cappuccino, and their newly-printed book will be delivered to them in 15 minutes.

This last part is the real quantum shift (the other parts are just accelerations of current trends). Instead of devoting lots of space (which is expensive) to slow-selling titles, the bookstore will have a print-on-demand (POD) machine or two in back. Not only will it save space and help with inventory, shipping, and returns issues, but it will expand the bookstore’s available stock exponentially. No more worrying if a store carries a particular title or if it’s in stock. Just about any book ever written — from the latest release to Shakespeare — will be available.

(Note that, while I think e-books will become more and more popular, I don’t think physical books will ever completely disappear — some small percentage will still be useful as collector’s editions, children’s books, gifts, home decorations, etc.)

The bookstore will become more about browsing and hanging out and chatting and sipping coffee — a place where book lovers can still go and shop and mingle and sample books (and grab that special edition hardcover they want for their shelf). They’ll probably even browse the store catalogue and submit POD orders from their Nook 3 or Kindle 5 in addition to the kiosks. And the bookstore will save money with smaller stores, a wider selection of titles, and more focus on high-profit hardcovers, gifts, and food sales.

It’s a win-win, and it’s coming soon to a bookstore near you.

© 2010 David Derrico