Adventures/Misadventures in the Book Trade (and a price promotion)

Adventures/Misadventures in the Book Trade (and a price promotion)

Thanks to your recent survey responses, I’m starting to work on an expanded piece on Balance and will be rolling it out, post by post, soon. I would be happy to include stories from you on how you maintain balance. Email me, or post your story as a comment to the blog version of this and subsequent posts, here:

Meanwhile, I’d like to convey some of what I’ve learned so far in my decades-long adventures and misadventures in publishing and self-publishing. This post is an overview. From time to time, I’ll go into more detail on the various stages of this process, and also of my experiences in traditional publishing.

But before I get to that, I’d like to announce a price promotion. The Kindle version of my book Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas is now on sale for the next week at the rock-bottom price of $2.99. Get ’em while they’re hot! Tell your friends and family! Here’s the link:

Traditional Publishing

My history in traditional publishing has been a rocky one. Although the focus of this post is self-publishing, here’s a bit of background on my experiences in that realm.

I started writing seriously in 1974, shortly after I moved to Manhattan with a B.A. in English and no clear ideas what to do next.

I worked as a freelance reporter and photographer for several small newspapers and then, at 26, came heartbreakingly close to a major break: publishing a book of photographs and stories about people who lived, worked, and performed on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The editorial board at Scribners approved the book and wanted to give me a $10,000 advance – huge at that time. But the company head, Charles Scribner IV, read it when he returned from a London business trip and killed it. “Into every life a little rain must fall,” my agent told me. “Such a book should never be published,” Scribner had told my editor.

A few years later, a Paris publisher wanted to translate the Street People book into French and include it in a series of “outsider” books named after the Périphérique, the highway that divides Paris from its suburbs. My motto until then had always been, “Don’t count on it until the check clears,” but the contract was signed and the advance check cleared. Then the editor, who suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, sunk first into a deep depression and, a few months later, disappeared. My book sat in limbo for two years, partly translated, until the new editor trashed the series and started one of his own.

I’ve had better luck with books I cared far less about – in 1979, a book about American folk music published by a division of Simon & Schuster, and in 1989-91, three books about computer software published by Addison-Wesley. But the books that have had meaning to me have languished in anonymity, while the ones I was less attached to have made it to the light of day.


Self-publishing seems, on the surface, to solve a major problem for authors by doing away with the “gatekeepers” and providing a direct link from author to retailer. Like most things in life, however, self-publishing is a good news / bad news proposition.

The good news

The good news is that self-publishing has come a long way from the vanity presses of yore.

Thanks to the innovations of Print on Demand (POD), you no longer have to go to a vanity publisher, buy 1000 books, and try to sell them to bookstores, often ending up with hundreds of unsold copies moldering in your garage. POD means the book doesn’t get printed until someone orders it, so there’s no need to stock inventory. And because it’s a largely automated process, printing a book doesn’t have to cost you anything but time! If you can handle the cover creation, editing, and preproduction stages yourself, the production cost is $0.00.

If you are publishing a book with a black-and-white interior and are willing to focus mainly on Amazon, the process is pretty easy even if your computer skills are limited mainly to using Microsoft Word.

Amazon’s CreateSpace division provides templates, relatively simple tutorials, a helpful user forum, and an extremely helpful staff that will walk you through any of the issues you encounter in the process of turning a file into a book. Within a few days, you can take your masterpiece from a file on your computer to seeing it listed on Amazon’s website. You get started here:

Ebooks, too, can be easily produced for $0.00. For eBooks, the process of using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing interface is also relatively simple and even faster than CreateSpace. In less than a day, you can go from a properly formatted file created in Microsoft Word to published Kindle book. You get started here:

The not as good news

For print books, things get more complicated if you introduce any of the following variables: color printing, nonstandard sizes, distribution to non-Amazon outlets.

Color printing greatly increases the cost. You can sell a 200-page 6″x9″ paperback with a color cover and black-and-white text on Amazon for $5.99 and still make a small profit. The same book with a color interior – whether there’s just one color photograph or color on every page – has to list for at least $24.99 to make a profit. If you are printing mainly for yourself and friends and family, the cost to you is much less, but if your aims for distribution are wider, it’s hard to be competitively priced compared to offerings by traditional publishers.

Non-standard sizes usually cost more, and although they won’t affect Amazon distribution, distributing a non-standard-sized book (like, for instance, the 8.5″ x 8.5″ coloring book Mary O’Malley and I did, 52 (more) Flower Mandalas) dumps you out of Amazon’s expanded distribution to other online resellers and (potentially) to bookstores and libraries. There is a workaround – you can create a duplicate version of the book through the IngramSpark program – but the process of getting from manuscript to finished book is considerably more complicated and there’s far less handholding.

The worse news

Once you move into higher-quality books that contain illustrations, things get dicier as a self-publisher.

Stepping up in paper quality from a standard 50lb matte paper like that found in most trade paperbacks to a thicker and/or glossy paper stock like that found in coffee-table books changes the game dramatically. Amazon and IngramSpark are no longer options. You have to go to the few printers out there who can handle better paper, and you have to figure out a way to get those books to market.

Offset printing. You can get excellent printing in China or Iceland, and the cost per book is reasonable, but you need to buy 1000 at a time, which can leave you with the “hundreds-of-books-moldering-in-the-garage” problem unless you are very good at marketing and promotion and have a book in one of the genres that do well in self-publishing. (More on that in another post.)

Print on Demand. If you stick to POD, many of the options are very expensive per copy. When I did the Kickstarter version of Paths to Wholeness, the hardcover 12″x 12″ edition of the book cost me about $200 per book on, and the smaller paperback would have cost about $65 had I gone with Blurb or most of the other POD printers of photography books.

Instead I went with newcomer BookBaby, one of the few POD outfits that not only prints color books at a more reasonable (but still high compared to offset) cost, but also provides a distribution package to get the printed book onto online retailers and, at least in theory, into bookstores. The catch is that the retailers take a large chunk of the profit. Between BookBaby’s fees for printing and distributing, and Amazon’s fees for letting me sell the book there, my $40 Paths to Wholeness book earns me $1.32/book. And a $40 book is not an easy sell.

The bad news (unless you have a knack for it)

Which brings me to the bad news, unless you have a gift for it: marketing and promotion.

Sometimes self-publishing works out amazingly well for authors. The Martian, for instance, began as a blog, then a self-published book, and eventually rose to become a major motion picture starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott, my all-time favorite science fiction director! Authors writing mainly in the romance, science fiction, thriller, and to a lesser extent the new “get-rich-quick-on-the-Internet” genres sometimes also do remarkably well as self-publishers, especially if they turn out multiple books in quick succession.

For many, however, it’s an uphill struggle. The average lifetime sales of self-published books is estimated at about 250 copies.

Why? Because it’s so easy to publish a book now, it’s very hard to distinguish your book from the literally millions of other books out there. The most successful authors not only have a string of books, they have a well-defined market that they know how to reach.

But this is getting long. So, more on the ins and outs of genre, distribution, marketing, and promotion (as I’ve experienced them so far) another time.

Meanwhile, please check out the eBook version of Paths to Wholeness, now on sale for one week at the discounted price of $2.99 on Amazon.

Pass the word around and help me get the word out to more than that estimated 250 people!

More anon,
– David
David J. Bookbinder

Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas
PrintAmazon  –  BookBaby  –  B&N  – Books-a-Million
eBook: Kindle  – Nook  – iTunes  – Kobo

Also available:
52 (more) Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
52 Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
Paths to Wholeness: Selections (free eBook)

Images and text Copyright 2017, David J. Bookbinder

3 thoughts on “Adventures/Misadventures in the Book Trade (and a price promotion)

  1. David,
    This is very good copy and should get you an increasing number of readers for your terrific book. The numbers you quote as to sales and profits, and the need to market, which I hope to read more about in future postings, seems something the average person might find daunting. But then the average person doesn’t write brilliant books like yours, so I hope a few extraordinary writers will take the challenge. Not I anymore; I have run out of motivation after having self-published three books with very little return. I have just entered my nineties and have a new book of fiction that I may self-publish just to have the personal satisfaction of seeing it in print. I hope Paths to Wholeness makes it in a big way, as it deserves to.

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