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It is amazing to me how many of us aspire to write and publish a book. If you don’t believe me, try this experiment. Mention to five people “I’m thinking of writing a book…” and then wait for the response. Among the (hopefully) positive comments you get back, I bet that three or four people will say “I’ve always wanted to write a book myself.” Even in today’s age of digital distribution it seems like writing a book – a real, in-the-hands book, is a dream of many.
I know for myself I’ve had that dream, too. I am quite sure I can trace it back to several years ago when I actually did author a book. It’s around 30 pages long, and I bound it with denim fabric wrapped around cardboard. It has illustrations and is written in a “choose your own adventure” style with choices that present themselves at the bottom of each page. It was typed with an old manual typewriter and the copyright page clearly indicates that copying or electronic transmission, of any form, is prohibited without the express written consent of the author. I think I was 10 years old at the time.
In my twenties I dreamed about writing a book on the history of the Amiga computer. I contacted several involved individuals for interviews, some of which I actually conducted and others which I just got a general “yeah, sure I’ll do that” response. The project sat on the back burner, only to be moved around to the side when my next project – a book about the history of two of my family members – reared its head. Research started, more family got involved. Yet, it has sat there. I’m still convinced I’m going to write that project (heck, it could even become a movie) but it sits there on the back burner with the other book. I envision the scenario is similar with all of those other people who say “yep, I’m going to write a book too”. Back burners around the world must be filled with these book projects. It’s a good thing that we are moving more towards a digital age because if all of these books actually got written it would likely overflow our libraries.
In my thirties I was approached by someone who had already written a successful book and had been interviewed by some very major radio and television stations. His previous publisher had ripped him off, illegal translations of the book were out there with no profits coming to him, and now that publisher was in the throes of bankruptcy. He had made some improvements, gotten new illustrations and was ready to release the latest version of the book. He just needed a new publisher. He was even going to provide camera-ready files, a term that doesn’t even apply anymore in the industry. He just needed someone to produce a cover and bankroll the whole operation. It wasn’t my own book, but it was a step into the world of publishing that I had dreamed of being a part of since I hammered out the keys on that old Underwood.
To say it didn’t work out as planned would be an understatement. The book did make it into Chapters, but the monies that were paid to the distributor seemed to evaporate as they also filed for bankruptcy. I did manage to get some of the books back. They currently serve as great insulation in my garage, and I’ve considered burning them for heat this winter. The problem lies with how the old model works. The publisher orders and pays for a large number of books, and then hopes the distributor gets them placed at retailers. The retailers may or may not sell them, and to pay for the ones they have sold, they actually return unsold ones – delaying paying anything until the interest in the book has passed. It’s a nasty, dirty business and one that I have no interest in dealing in again.
Yet the call of writing a book – of crafting something from scratch that comes from deep inside the brain – will not go away. It’s no surprise that many of us would love to take a manuscript and submit it to one of the big publishing houses and have them send us a big advance cheque, but if J. K. Rowling can write a hit like Harry Potter and still get rejection letters, what hope does the average citizen have?
When I discovered the self-publishing site www.lulu.com, I thought it was definitely a dream come true. This site allows you to submit press-ready files and have a book produced for a very reasonable cost. In the past, the only way to get a reasonable unit cost (if at all) on a book was to order a minimum of 1,000 units. Now, the average size book can be purchased for 10 to 20 dollars, and it will be professionally produced and bound. How is this possible? Advanced technology has created what the industry calls print-on-demand and it has changed the game on how all of this works.
I wrote about lulu.com and the process itself several years ago and had a reader write back to me and asked about helping her get the files of her book ready. She had a very unique personal story and had, over the years, written the guts of a book about her experiences. She just had a Word file, however, and had no idea on how to produce the final layout document with a table of contents and so on. I told her I could help her out and provided a cost for her to do so and we took it from there.
The experience was a positive one overall. In the end, we had a few kinks to work out (and she always seemed to find something to change) but we produced a companion website and she ordered several copies of the book for her friends and family. It was a positive experience in the end because she now has her book in a real book format, and although she really didn’t sell that many copies, she did it because she always wanted to record her story on paper. She accomplished that.
It fired me up for working on my own projects. I couldn’t decide which one I wanted to tackle first, and then a more brilliant idea hit me out of nowhere. I started working on it. I didn’t have a gameplan other than knowing I was going to work on it until it was done. I was shocked to realize I had spent almost two years doing research alone, but I wanted to produce a quality product. Along my journey I talked to other friends who had also gone the self-publishing route, but had opted for a service called www.CreateSpace.com rather than LuLu. When I looked into the costs of manufacturing, I could see why. CreateSpace.com was much more affordable and for me this was especially important as I was doing a project that was full colour and has a limited audience.
So I switched, mid-book, to a new provider. I noted that CreateSpace.com is actually owned by Amazon, the world’s largest online book retailer. This has to be a good thing, but I’m glad I dug a little deeper into what challenges I might face as a Canadian. It turns out that you are going to need an IRS tax number in order to receive your royalties. That’s understandable. What is not, is the process. I tried calling and was on hold for what seemed like a lifetime, and I finally gave up. I tried faxing. The thing about faxing is you never really know what happens on the other end or where the piece of paper ends up. It’s also so 1999. I waited a few weeks and heard nothing. I tried calling back again and finally got through to someone who told me I actually had the wrong department and would be transferred. After a total of three hours on hold, I finally spoke to another person who asked me a couple of questions and I was a bit confused at the them (since they were not questions on the form). When I showed some hesitation, she went for the kill and referred me to faxing in the application to a different fax number than I had ever heard of. Eventually I just sent the fax to every IRS number I could find. Four weeks later, my number arrived.
I share my pain with you because I am glad that I started the process early on. I would have been devastated to have my project complete only to have it held up from selling due to a paperwork problem. If you are thinking about selling through a major channel like Amazon.com, you are wise to take care of this detail early on.
During the development of my book I took breaks. It can be difficult focusing so much on a single topic and it’s easy to lose your concentration and end up with a scattered project. A colleague approached me about putting together some simple-to-follow steps for a social media presentation I was working on, and I took the opportunity to turn that into a book. It is a small book, called “Mastering Social Media” but it was enough to get my feet wet about working with CreateSpace.com and the process. It turned out to be invaluable experience before my main book was ready.
This past July it finally happened. My book, “Collecting for Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace” was finally released and has been given all five-star ratings on Amazon. I am very proud of the book and all that it took to put together, but I know that the road to get there was not easy. It might seem like it, looking at the final product, but it took all of my experience with the previous books to get there. There are still hurdles… promotion is always a tough thing and reaching everyone you can with such a niche book will be a long slow road.
The best advice I have for those wanting to publish their own book is to just get out there and do it. There are so many options that exist now that the excuses for putting your work out there are now gone. It’s a different world out there – go live in it. For the Silo, Syd Bolton.
This article originally published in the print edn. of the Silo, Summer 2013.
Supplemental- 100 million images available for self-publishers.