A few weeks ago I was looking over the eBook of The Liar’s Bible. I came across a piece I wrote in the early 1980s, “Getting By on a Writer’s Income.” When I posted it on my blog, it got touted and tweeted and reposted to a fare-thee-well. If my site had sustained any more hits it would have wound up punch-drunk.
Then a week or two later I wrote a new blog post and called it “All Changed, Changed Utterly,” about the revolution in self-publishing. It drew an even stronger reception than “Getting By”, careening around the blogosphere, gladhanding its way through the social media, and going—well, if not viral, then at the very least bacterial.
So I had another look at The Liar’s Bible, and found a piece I hadn’t even glanced at since I wrote it in 1986. It appeared the following year in the 1987 Writers Yearbook, and should give you an idea of the very different process that self-publishing was a quarter of a century ago:
ARE YOU SURE ALFRED KNOPF STARTED THIS WAY?
It was a Monday, the 20th of January, 1986, and the country was celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday, but on Estero Boulevard ij Fort Myers Beach, Florida, it was just another day on which my books were not arriving from the manufacturer. When the Ryder van began backing into our driveway, a little after noon, though, I decided it was altogether fitting and proper that the day be observed as a national holiday.
“The books are here!” I cried. And rushed out to greet the driver.
There were 107 cartons of the little darlings. My daughter Jill was visiting, and she joined me and Lynne to form a sort of box brigade, shuttling the cartons from the back of the truck up a flight of stairs and into what a previous owner had thought was the house’s fourth bedroom, but which was clearly intended to be a stockroom and shipping room.
Twenty-five years earlier I’d been writing soft-core sex novels under a pen name. I had a publisher who wanted to give me more work than I could handle, and a friend introduced me to a fellow he thought might be able to subcontract some of the books from me. The friend’s friend was delighted with the opportunity. He had a wife and infant daughter, and had been forced to shelve his dream of writing; he was then making ends meet by unloading trucks in a warehouse.
Now, a quarter of a century later, I was unloading trucks in a driveway.
“I dunno,” I said to Lynne. “Are you sure Alfred Knopf started this way?”
For many self-publishers, the alternative is no publication at all. Writers turn to self-publishing when they’ve been unable to interest commercial publishers in their work.
My own circumstances were somewhat different. By the time I was thinking of writing Write for Your Life, I had published more than 30 books with commercial firms. Two were instructional books for writers, Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print (Writer’s Digest Books) and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit (Arbor House). Both books had sold well and remained in print, and with both publishers I enjoyed an excellent personal and professional relationship. I had every reason to anticipate that a book version of my seminar for writers would be welcomed by either of the two.
It seemed to me, though, that self-publishing would serve me better. I had several reasons to think this.
First of all, I had cause to believe that I could merchandise the book very effectively myself. The book struck me as an ideal mail-order item. Whether or not I published it myself, I would want to sell it at my seminars and through the mails.
I knew how to do this, and I knew that I enjoyed this sort of thing, because I was already in the mail-order business, having already sold more than 2,000 copies of my cassette Affirmations for Writers. Even before that, I’d bought up remainder stocks of a couple of my out-of-print novels and peddled them through the mails. The mail-order business is more efficient when you can offer more items to your customer, and the book I wanted to write was wholly compatible with the products I was already selling.
If I let someone else publish Write for Your Life, I couldn’t sell it effectively by mail. I could at best buy copies from my publisher at a 50% discount, and you need a larger margin than that to come out ahead in mail order. (Ideally, your total cost on your product, including your mailing expenses, should be no more than a third of your price, and it’s best if you can keep it down to a fourth. Otherwise you don’t have a sufficient cushion to promote your product effectively.)
I would probably lose store sales by self-publishing my book, but I decided store sales were secondary. Besides, if the book did well, I figured it would be easy enough somewhere down the line to get a commercial book distributor to take it on. First things first; my primary market was reachable through mail order, and self-publishing looked to be the best way to go after that market.
But that was just one reason. Time was a strong second reason. I hadn’t written the book yet, but I already knew one thing. I wanted copies in a hurry.
The sooner I had books, the sooner I could start selling them. More to the point, the sooner I sold them, the sooner they could start selling the seminar. One of my chief motives in writing the book lay in the fact that I had trouble explaining to people what the seminar was and wasn’t. I wanted to write the book so that it would put people in a position to decide whether or not the seminar was something they could use.
I also wanted to make the book available to graduates, so that they could take the seminar home with them. And I wanted to make the material accessible to the overwhelming majority of writers who would never have the chance to take the seminar. All of these factors made me want books as soon as possible. I certainly didn’t want to wait a year or more, and I had to expect at least that much waiting time with a commercial publisher.
I wanted books in time for the seminar season in the spring of ’86. I wasn’t going to be able to start writing the book until August of ’85. A glance at the calendar provided a powerful argument indeed for self-publishing.
Finally, and perhaps most important, I wanted to do it because I wanted to do it.
Most of the writers I’ve known have had fantasies of self-publishing. Here was a chance to fulfill that fantasy, and with a book that seemed to lend itself to that treatment. I had learned a lot and had a lot of fun making my affirmations tape.
And I’d enjoyed selling it, too.
One of the processes in the seminar consists of coming up with actions one can take to add to one’s bank of experiences. A way I could add to my own bank of experiences was by publishing my own book, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
As a first step, I read The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, by Tom and Marilyn Ross. Then I very nearly decided to say to hell with the whole thing.
The book is excellent, let me say, and I recommend it wholeheartedly, and without reservation. It tells you exactly how to contend with the entire business of publishing your own work, from writing and product development through the whole process of book production, and on to advertising and promotion and distribution. It’s all there, and it’s presented clearly and concisely.
And it almost scared me off.
It was the material on getting the book produced that intimidated me. The authors explained just how to deal with typesetters and printers, how to get bids from various firms, how to make decisions about paper and page size and type. The more I read, the more I felt incapable of handling all of that. It sounded impossibly complex.
A week or so after I read the book, I was having lunch with a friend named Richard, a sales rep for a major trade publisher. I talked about my desire to publish Write for Your Life myself and my concern about my ability to handle the production adequately.
“It seems to me,” I said, “that there ought to be people who handle that whole process for you.”
“There are,” he said. “I know a lot of guys who work in the production departments of publishing houses. They do all of this every day for their employers, and they handle book production for self-publishers on a freelance spare-time basis.”
“Could you recommend one?”
“I could recommend several,” he said, and did.
I called only one of them. It was, after all, the third week in July already, and we were moving from New York to Florida on the 25th of the month. So a couple of days after my lunch with Richard, I sat down to lunch with a fellow I’ll call Lou. I told him what I wanted to do, and he said he’d be delighted to help me do it.
“The book’s not written yet,” I said. “I’ll be able to start work on it around the first of the month, as soon as we’re settled in our new home. I know what I want to say in it and I don’t think it should take more than a month, two months at the outside, so I can have the manuscript to you by the end of September.”
In that case, he said, I could probably have books in February. I allowed as to how it would be nice to have them earlier than that.
“You could,” he said, “but you’d pay a price for it. Publishers have gotten books out in three days, but the costs escalate when you rush things.”
I decided I could live with a February delivery, although January would be better and December better still. I asked what role I would have to play in the production process.
“You give me the manuscript,” Lou said, “and I’ll give you the finished books. Along the way, you can participate to whatever extent you want. Some clients don’t want to hear from me until the books are ready to ship. Others want to consult about typefaces and paper and everything else.”
I said I would like to be kept in the picture. Then we talked about Lou’s compensation. There were, he said, two ways freelance book production people worked. Some of them billed the client for a straight 10% of total production expenses. Others quoted a figure to the client, paid the printing and typesetting and binding costs themselves, and pocketed the difference.
“I prefer to work the first way,” he said. “Otherwise I’d have an incentive to get the book produced as cheaply as possible.”
That made sense to me.
How many copies would I want to print? The per-copy cost would be lower the more copies I printed, but the overall cost would rise. I said I was thinking in terms of 5,000 copies, and Lou told me that was a good number. He suggested that his estimate include two sets of figures—for a 5,000-copy first printing, and for a 3,000-copy first run to be followed if necessary by a 2,000-copy reprint.
By the end of the lunch hour, we had agreed that he would get estimates of presswork, binding and printing costs, and send me a letter enumerating the probable schedule of the whole process along with an estimate of the costs. I left the restaurant confident that I had found the right person, and that it would not be necessary to interview anybody else. If I had had more time available, I probably would have met with two or three of the other people Richard had recommended, but I don’t see how I could have made a better choice.
We moved on schedule, and had been in Florida for several days, waiting for our furniture, when Lou’s letter reached me. He had secured several estimates, and had prepared a detailed breakdown of fixed and variable costs. According to his figures, a first printing of 3,000 copies would cost me $2.55 per book. Upping the run to 5,000 copies would bring the per-copy cost down to $1.83.
He also included a rough schedule, which looked something like this:
9/30: Ms to me
10/11: Designer’s text layouts (tissues) in for approval (2 weeks)
10/18: Designer’s text layouts OK’d and ms sent to compositor (1 week); cover concept discussed and assigned to artist for tight comp (3 weeks)
11/1: Sample pages in from compositor for approval (2 weeks)
11/8: Sample pages OK’d and returned to compositor for galleys (1 week); cover comp in for approval (2 weeks)
11/20: Galleys in (1 weeks)
11/22: Final cover copy to me and comp OK’d (2 weeks)
12/4: Author’s and proofreader’s galleys to me (2 weeks)
12/6: Final cover mechanical to printer for 3M (2 weeks)
12/11: Collated master galleys back to compositor for pages (1 week)
12/23: Cover 3M in for final OK
12/30: Pages in (2 weeks)
1/6: Pages back to comp for repro (1 week)
1/10: Cover 3M back to printer for final printing (3 weeks)
1/13: Repro in for checking (1 week)
1/20: Corrected repro on hand/repro to printer (1 week)
1/31: Final covers ship to binder (3 weeks)
2/3: First sig blues in for OK (2 weeks)
2/10: First sig blues back to printer for final printing (1 week)
2/28: Finished books available
(A brief explanation: tissues are designs using tissue overlays; a comp is a composite, a step in the proofing stages; galleys are prepublication proofs of typeset copy; 3M means a color proof; the mechanical contains type and shows how artwork will be printed; repro means galleys that are ready to be sent to the printer for reproduction; a sig is a signature, a section of the book that comes off the press in 8-, 16- or 32-page groupings; blues are blueprint proofs of how the book will look when it comes off the press.)
“This is a conservative schedule,” Lou added, “but I wanted to give you one you could reasonably count on. I wouldn’t advise you to set out to do this much faster or you’ll find yourself under pressure to cut corners.”
That made sense, but I wasn’t nuts about the February 28th delivery date. I could see one trouble-free way to hurry things, however. I could get busy writing the book.
Writing the book was the easy part.
Our furniture arrived July 31st. The following morning I sat down at my desk, plugged in my typewriter, and went to work.
Twelve days later I was done.
I had expected it to go quickly. After all, I could hardly have been more familiar with the material. I had spent the spring months presenting the seminar a dozen times all around the country. While I wasn’t sure I could do it in my sleep, I had on one occasion done it in lieu of sleep—I was up all night before the June seminar in Chicago. I thought it would be eminently possible to bat out ten pages a day, even with the distractions and disturbances that were a part of relocating to Florida.
As it turned out, I had no trouble turning out 20 pages a day. Understand, please, that those were arduous days. The writing was demanding. I had to turn an oral in-person seminar into something that would work on paper. I had to adapt various interactional processes so that they could be performed by an individual alone at home.
No matter. In less than two weeks I had produced a 250-page manuscript. Since one way I intended to save both time and money was to dispense with the services of a copy editor, I went over the manuscript carefully before sending it off. Lynne gave it a thorough reading and provided me with 11 pages of notes and suggestions. I incorporated some of these and shrugged off the rest with pigheaded abandon, and the manuscript went off to Lou by UPS Next Day Air.
Lou got back to me by Express Mail the first week in September. He enclosed what he informed me was the first of many bills, this for $350 for the book designer. It was accompanied by the original manuscript, which had gone through the designing process, along with tissue layouts and a complete composition order. A page of type set the way my book would be set was included to show me what my book pages would look like.
First problem. I didn’t like the way they looked. The type looked small, was set very tight, and was sans-serif type.
I never did like sans-serif type for text. It’s less readable. Nor did I like the way the pages were going to be so compressed. On the other hand, Lou had anticipated my objections and mentioned in his letter that he had worked with the designer to hold down costs. “The design may look a little tight,” he said, “but it will save you money.”
I thought this over for a couple of hours. That night I called Lou and told him how I felt. No problem, he said, agreeing that the book would look better set looser and in a face like Bodoni or Baskerville. But that would increase the book’s size from 160 to 208 pages, which would boost typesetting costs, paper costs, book production costs, and freight charges as well. The change would probably run me an additional 25¢ a copy, maybe a little more.
Well, I was going to sell the book for ten bucks. What was 25¢ a copy?
A lot, actually. Every penny saved at the cost end makes an enormous difference in the profitability of a venture. And I realized, too, that spending the extra quarter wouldn’t increase my sales at all. I was going to sell the book through the mails, so people would be buying it sight unseen. They wouldn’t return it because the type was set tight, or because they preferred Baskerville to Optima. Books produced for the mail-order market are typically underproduced. The mail-order book buyer who sends off ten dollars to a self-published author generally receives a small, inexpensively made book or pamphlet with an amateur look to it. If the information within is adequate, he generally overlooks the homemade production job.
But I didn’t want this. If I were ever going to get the book into stores, I would have to be able to offer them a professionally produced, attractive book that would look good enough to engender point-of-purchase sales. More important than that, the book was going to have my name on it. I wanted it to look good, and I wanted all my customers to feel they were getting more than their money’s worth.
“The hell with it,” I said. “Let’s do it right.”
I returned the manuscript to Lou, along with a copy of a page that he’d noticed was missing. A day or two later I was able to send him the introduction, and an about-the-author blurb for the back cover. On the 10th of the month he sent me revised text layouts, with the body type changed.
It looked beautiful.
So did the cover design, which Lou sent to me on September 19th. I had suggested that the cover be predominantly yellow, since that color gets identified with Write for Your Life. (The pens we give out are yellow, the floral arrangement at the head table is yellow, and for a while I was compulsive about wearing yellow neckties.) The proposed cover looked like a yellow legal pad, and I thought it was terrific.
“Things are rolling now,” Lou advised. “The manuscript is at the compositor, and the next step will be sample pages set in type. I’ll check them to make sure no problems exist and give the typesetter the go-ahead to proceed to galleys. You should see galleys around mid October.”
The typesetter’s estimate was enclosed, with one half due with the purchase order. I wrote out a check for $900.
The cover layout looked fine, but as I studied it I decided that the title itself was typographically unexciting. Then Lynne or I remembered that we already had an excellent Write for Your Life logo. George Sorenson, our good friend and organizer in Minneapolis, had created a logo for a brochure he put together for the Minneapolis seminar, and was going to use it in the ad he was designing for us. Couldn’t we use that on the book cover?
We could indeed. I got a repro proof off to Lou, and he had the designer incorporate the change.
Galleys arrived early, the first week of October. Lou wanted them back by the week of the 21st; I proofed them in two days and got them back immediately. “We should have no trouble getting books finished in January,” he wrote. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you had them quite a bit earlier. Don’t count on it, but I’ll do all possible to have them before Christmas.”
With the galleys, I sent along a check for $122.33 for the cover type.
We still didn’t have a photo for the back cover. A session with a local photographer yielded nothing recognizable, let alone usable, and I wound up sending Lou the photo that had run on my short story collection Like a Lamb to Slaughter. It was a good picture, but I’d hoped for something newer and with more definition.
In mid October, Lynne and I flew to France to attend a conference in Reims. In Paris I met with the good people at Gallimard, my French publishers. After lunch, one of their photographers took me down alongside the Seine and snapped away. A few days later in Reims someone from Gallimard handed me an envelope full of glossies. Jacques Sassier, the photographer, had done an astonishing job, considering the material he had to work with. I came back from France with the cover photo in hand.
I came back to some bills, too: $350 for cover design, including sketches, comp, mechanical, stats and miscellaneous type; $250 for proofreading; $500 for one half the estimated cost of cover prep, plates, stock, printing and lamination.
It was time, Lou wrote, to finalize quantity. Did I want to print 5,000 right away, which was cheaper but riskier, or 3,000 now and 2,000 when needed, which was more expensive but safer? I bit the bullet and stayed with the decision to run 5,000.
A copy of the cover mechanical was there for my approval. “I tried and tried to work the photo onto the back and it just didn’t look right,” he wrote. “My suggestion is to drop it. Most paperbacks don’t carry authors’ photos.”
Time, obviously, for another Executive Decision, and this one was easy to make. I have come to believe that all books should carry photographs of their authors, and this looked to be doubly true with Write for Your Life, which was such a thoroughly personal book, with the author talking directly to the reader on every page. Besides, I had this great photo I’d just schlepped back from France.
I called Lou and told him a photo had to run, and that I was sending him a new one. The about-the-author blurb could be cut or set tight—that didn’t matter—but the photo had to run.
About this time, forms arrived from R. R. Bowker. I had to fill them out in order to get an ISBN number assigned. (Lou had tried to handle this for me, but Bowker insists on dealing directly with authors of self-published books.) I filled out the forms and sent them off by return mail.
A couple of weeks later, Lou wrote that he needed the ISBN number. Could I call him as soon as it arrived so that it could be added to the back covers? When the time came to print the covers, I still hadn’t heard from Bowker. It was time to make another decision—did we hold off until we had the number or go ahead and print without it? I didn’t even have to think about it. At this point we had advertising scheduled and would be getting orders in a matter of weeks. I didn’t want to do anything that would delay the books. Every book should have an ISBN—it’s hard for stores to order them without it—but I decided I could always add the number when we went back for a second printing. The first printing probably wasn’t going to have any store sales anyway.
More bills to pay. The final payment for composition, and the first half to the book manufacturer. Manufacturing costs had originally been estimated at $3,860, but that was for a 160-page book. The new estimate was $5,018, and the difference was right around the 25¢ a book Lou had said it would be, since freight costs would also be increased.
Twenty-five cents doesn’t sound like much. $1,250 does.
I sat down and wrote out some checks.
Late in November, a note from Lou advised me that books would be ready December 20th. Then, in mid December, he wrote that the completion date would be a week later than projected. He took some of the sting out of the news by enclosing a copy of the printed cover.
By this time, our first ad for the book had run in Writer’s Digest and orders were coming in every day. I prepared shipping envelopes, and sat tight.
On the last day of the year, six copies of the book arrived by Express Mail. The bulk shipment left Pennsylvania on Friday, Lou wrote, so I could expect arrival around the sixth of January.
The books looked beautiful. I sent a couple out to reviewers and kept the rest around the house to look at. January 6th came and went. The following week I called Lou, and it turned out that the books had not been shipped; the manufacturer was holding them pending payment, and I was holding his check pending their arrival. A couple of phone calls straightened this out, and on January 20th the books came.
We stacked 106 cartons in the spare room, toted the 107th into the dining room, and went to work. The envelopes were already stamped and labeled. We stuffed and stapled, and first thing next morning I drove down to the Post Office. Even with those delays at the end, we were shipping orders less than six full months after my first lunch with Lou.
What did it cost me?
My total expenditure for the production of 5,000 books came to $8,742.70, exclusive of office overhead. In addition, I paid Lou his fee of 10% of costs, or $874.27, and reimbursed him for $53.75 for five Express Mail shipments to me. Freight added another $440.08, which made the bottom-line figure $10,110.80, or approximately $2.02 per book.
I could not have managed this without Lou’s help. I’m sure his expertise in dealing with printers and typesetters saved me considerably more than his fee in dollars alone, not to mention the savings in time and aggravation. The book he produced for me looks perfectly professional, with nothing of the homemade look about it that marks so many self-published volumes. I don’t think I could have achieved anything like it on my own.
With the books in hand, I started to find out how different things look from a publisher’s standpoint. I’d always been irked when my own publishers failed to send out dozens upon dozens of freebies, thinking it only sound business for them to blanket the globe with review copies.
Why shouldn’t I think so? It didn’t cost me a dime.
But now it cost me three bucks every time I mailed off a copy—$2.02 manufacturing cost and a dollar’s worth of stamps and envelope. I felt myself turning more miserly than any publisher I’d ever been associated with. I managed to realize the folly of being penny wise, but it still stuck in my craw every time I mailed out a comp.
Would I Do It Again?
I suppose that depends on how this venture pays off, and it’s a little too early to tell at this writing. While I have every expectation that I’ll sell every copy and reap a handsome profit, the Literary Digest was every bit as certain that Alf Landon would swamp Roosevelt in ’36. If I wind up using the books to insulate the attic, my enthusiasm for the whole project will very likely wane.
Even if that turns out to be the case, I’ll still be glad I had the experience. As I mentioned, the fantasy of self-publishing is one I entertained for years. Relatively few of my long-standing fantasies can be realized without risking public embarrassment or a jail sentence. When I find one that can, my inclination is to go for it.
The work doesn’t end when the books arrive, incidentally. My job now is to sell them, and it’s at this point that the Rosses’ book becomes especially useful. I keep finding new ways to get these books out of the storeroom and into people’s hands.
Incidentally, my ISBN arrived from R. R. Bowker just a week after we took delivery on the books. I’m glad I didn’t wait, but I’m also glad I’ve got it now.
We can put it on the cover when we go back to press for a second printing.
AND NOW LET’S FAST-FORWARD TWENTY-SIX YEARS…
We never did go back for a second printing. But we sold over 4900 of the 5000 books we printed. So I guess the venture was successful.
Did we make a profit? I don’t honestly know. We priced the book too low; given our costs, it should have retailed for $15, not $10. Aside from the copies we sold face-to-face at seminars, all our orders came through the mail. We weren’t able to take credit cards, so every order had to be accompanied by a check. (Yes, credit cards existed by then, but not for a small mail-order merchant at a new address. We couldn’t get approved.)
We piggybacked our book advertising with the seminar promotion, so it’s hard to calculate costs. If we’d done all this in the era of email and online orders and credit card access, I’m sure we could have moved 15-20,000 books; as far as that goes, we could have sold out the hall every time we held a seminar. The evolution of the way business is conducted is almost as dramatic as the sea-change in self-publishing.
Write For Your Life has been eVailable for several years now, as a HarperCollins eBook. (Like all my HarperCollins titles, it’s been reduced in price for at least the next several weeks to $3.99.)
A couple of observations: (1) The book I mentioned, The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, is still in print. It was a good book then, and I’ve no reason to doubt that it’s a good book now. The current edition was revised in 2010, and if there is an entire sentence in it that appeared in the book I read, I’d be greatly surprised. (2) There are still people who can do for today’s self-publisher what Lou did so capably for me. But there’s less for them to do, and plenty of writers can do it all on their own. (3) Nobody will ever pull up in a truck and drop 5000 eBooks in your driveway. Even if you decide to print physical books, Print-On-Demand technology means never having to print that many books all at once or figure out where to put them. (4) Not everything’s changed. It’s still way faster to publish something yourself than to wait around for a commercial publisher to get it out there.
And (5) it’s still fun.