“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read. —Groucho Marx
It has been said, by whom, I’m not entirely sure, that everyone has a book inside them (insert your own “Marxist” joke here), or at least everyone thinks they do. I am regularly asked by friends and colleagues, both inside and especially outside the printing industry, about how to self-publish a book. Almost universally, the questions are about the physical production and printing process (“how many pages/words do I need I need to write?” “How expensive is it?”, etc.) or how ebooks work. However, from my experience, the questions one asks about self-publishing should focus less on production and more on marketing—and even whether there is an audience at all for the book you want to write.
There are success stories, of course. The 50 Shades of Gray franchise (to my horror, I discovered too late that it had nothing to do with color management) is perhaps the emblematic example of the self-publishing experiment that was enough of a hit to lead to mainstream publishing success. (Imagine, erotica being a saleable commodity. Who’d’a thunk it?)
Regular WhatTheyThink readers may know (or be in denial about the fact that) that Dr. Joe Webb and I have co-written and self-published almost half a dozen books (see in particular here, as well as here, here, here, and here), and the half-dozenth is on the drawing board—and, no, will not be called 128 Levels of Gray and will not chronicle the erotic adventures of a prepress department manager. The one thing that we have learned in our self-publishing adventures is that production, printing, and even writing all comprise the easy part of the self-publishing process. Today’s digital and on-demand printing technologies make it easy and inexpensive to publish your own books, and services like Amazon and Lulu, to name two that we have used, handle both the physical production and offer an online storefront for a book. But that is, again, only the smallest of first steps.
Some serious questions and considerations to ponder before even setting finger to keyboard include:
- What is the real market for the book? Be honest. What is the competition like? Do your due diligence. Search Amazon, Barnes & Noble—even venture to the nearest physical bookstore to see what books may exist on your topic. You may very well be entering a very crowded or even saturated market—even if you have a unique take on a well-trodden topic—and being self-published is one major strike against you if your closest competition is from an established publishing company.
- Is there a lot of free competition? Our recent book is The Home Office That Works!, about setting up a productive home office, and while there are few published titles (that we found) that cover the topic the way we did (most are about launching a specific home business), but we discovered after the fact that there are a lot of blogs and online articles about various aspects of running a home office. It’s strewn piecemeal all over the Internet, but a challenge is getting people to buy something they can probably search out and get for free. If I were to write a book offering tips for prospective self-publishers, I would be in trouble because of blogposts like this one.
- Do you have a promotional/marketing apparatus already in place? That is, are you a fairly well-known speaker in your industry and can use speaking gigs as marketing tools for the book (and/or vice versa)? When we published Disrupting the Future in 2010, it hit enough of a nerve in the industry that it led to Joe and I getting speaking gigs that, in turn, promoted the book. It helped that we were known quantities (for better or worse) in the industry.
- How popular are you on social media? I’ll get in trouble for saying this, but I think social media has become vastly overrated as a marketing and publicity tool, but that’s not to say it is not without value. Are you active enough in these areas or do you—like me, I hasten to add—have to be dragged kicking and screaming into social media? If you are like me (and my thoughts and prayers go out to you), do you know someone who can do your social media stuff for you?
Self-publishing is not as looked down upon as the old vanity publishers of yore, but there is still a stigma attached to it, as in “you couldn’t get a real publisher, could you”—even though all the questions you should ask yourself before self-publishing are the same as you should ask before seeking out any publisher.
Digital printing technology has truly enabled the small, independent, or self-publisher—but that really is only the beginning of the process.