How to Publish a Book

My application of Occam’s Razor to the question of how to publish a book is, all things being equal, the simpler of two approaches is the best. I maintain a pretty voluminous correspondence with other self publishers, and I’ve slowly learned that Occam’s philosophy is not in vogue in our community. Self publishers tend to prefer the rule of William of First, i.e., "Whatever I think of first, that’s what I’m going with." While I suffer from this condition myself, I have an even greater addiction to gathering and interpreting data, which means some of my poorer ideas eventually get so overwhelmed by negative feedback that I’m forced to give them up. Unfortunately, I’ve also found that I can avoid gathering the data that would prove or disprove some of my pet notions, like having an image of a book cover on a web page when I’m trying to sell the book. Anecdotally, I think that a text link in the middle of a sentence does a better job selling a book, but I haven’t had the heart to make a real experiment of it.

So, I’m comfortable with my own failings, but I get pretty frustrated when other self publishers ask me for advice on how to publish a book and then ignore it. Let’s take a hypothetical situation where you’ve written a book about identifying the trees of New England and you send me an e-mail asking what I think of the title "Dancing in Moonlight: Where Elves and Spirits Meet." My typical response would be, "Gee, I’d suggest working "Identifying the Trees of New England" into the title somewhere, maybe with "A Guide to" or the such, you know, so people would know what the book is about and find it with an Amazon or bookstore catalog search." In response, I’ll get some huffy e-mail saying I have the soul of an accountant and that everybody else liked the title. My suggestion for titling nonfiction book is not to stay up all night thinking about it. Describe the book as concisely as possible, and if it’s not too long, expand on it in the subtitle.

Another point of frustration for me is when publishers ask me to give them feedback on their website, usually because they aren’t selling any books. I’ll go look at the site, notice that all the page titles are the same, like "Moe’s Book Publishing Company" or even worse, "Dancing in Moonlight" and I’ll point out that unique, descriptive titles for every page on the site are an absolute necessity. "But what about branding," is the response. Branding is a complicated, long term process that usually has very little to do with self published book sales and can be accomplished through much better means than making your site nearly invisible on the web. My suggestion for titling web pages is to describe the page as concisely as possible while paying attention to natural syntax and the way potential visitors think. My suggestion for content is to put half or more of your book online, in chapters or shorter sections as titling allows.

Many self publishers get caught up with trying to conquer the world without knowing a thing about how to publish a book. If I suggest they should start off with modest expectations they agree, then proceed with some twisted logic, like, "If a thousand sales are good and ten thousand are great, than hundred thousand are in reach and a million are practically a certainty." I’d suggest they build a sandcastle instead, but there probably isn’t enough sand. Publishers of this flavor often chase the bestseller lists, thinking if there are already X titles selling like hotcakes, why shouldn’t they knock one out as well. I think of chasing bestseller lists like trying to achieve fame in particle physics. The reason scientists propose projects costing billions of dollars to research tiny and transient particles isn’t because they like blowing money to feel important. It’s because all of the low hanging fruit in their field seems to have been plucked, and if they want to become famous, they don’t have any choice but to spend big money (or slave away at theoretical physics). All of the low hanging fruit in self publishing hasn’t been plucked yet, there are perhaps infinite niches waiting to be discovered. My suggestion for planning a new title is to publish a title you believe will sell a couple thousand copies a year. If you believe you know how to sell tens of thousands of copies a year, look long and hard at your business plan because it’s probably overly optimistic.

Finally, self publishers are in love with marketing techniques that cost more money than time. This one is the most puzzling to me, since self publishers also tend to be chronically short on funds when they start out, and are often publishing a first book in a desperate bid to make some money. I’ll get a request to talk to somebody about their marketing plan, and if they don’t sound too crazy in their e-mail (I’ve misjudged some e-mails, I can tell you), I’ll give them a call. They’ll start by saying how much they admire my disciplined web based research and marketing approach and how they “want to follow it IN THE FUTURE but this idea is too perfect to wait." Uh Oh. They want to know how to publish a book that will make them rich in a hurry, preferably overnight. The proposed marketing idea is so complicated that they can’t even explain it, you just HAVE to understand. Spare me the enthusiasm and forgive me for only understanding what I understand, but don’t ask me to lend moral support to an idea I don’t agree with. My suggestion for book marketing is, if you can’t explain it, don’t do it.

Starting A Publishing Company (Not Imprint)

Sometimes I see authors on lists talking about starting their own publishing imprint when they really mean publishing company. In some rare cases, authors do get the opportunity to start an imprint, meaning that an existing publisher finds their name or ideas so valuable they feel it deserves an independent list of its own. Those books will still be published by the parent company, but they’ll carry the name of the imprint on the binding and title page. It’s part branding strategy (for customers) and part selling strategy (to bookstores) because it gives the publisher the opportunity to list a promising book in the #1 slot of the new imprint. In that way, a large publishing company with a dozen imprints can have a dozen premier titles, while another large publishing company with only one imprint who publishes exactly the same number of books that year only has one premier title. Tricky, eh?

I usually don’t care about such technical details as the difference between an imprint and a company, and I can rarely keep such things straight, but I wanted to point out the vast difference in scale between the big, established trades and a new publishing company. The big trade publishers are so big that they can break their companies into divisions (which generally have their own company name and are often acquisitions) and these divisions can be broken into imprints and the imprints will still publish fifty times as many books as a small publisher. That was a very long-winded way of saying, when you’re starting a publishing company, don’t try taking the big trade publishers as your example. Their business model doesn’t scale down to a one person business, much less a capitalization less than $100 million. They have departments to do things that you’ll be doing in your spare time, and workgroups to do things that you won’t be doing at all.

There must be a half-dozen posts about starting your own publishing company in the archives by now, so I want to write about something I generally skip over, being strictly a self publisher. If you go looking for authors to publish, you’ll have no trouble finding them. I make it clear in a variety of places that I don’t publish other authors’ books, but I get a regular stream of requests from writers who are hoping I might make an exception. These authors think of being published as an end unto itself, and perhaps it is if all they care about is having a copy on the shelf to look at when they’re feeling down. For those of us in the publishing business, selling a sufficient number of books to cover the risks and costs, not to mention generating a sufficient profit for living expenses and retirement, isn't a peripheral issue. I write books for a variety of reasons, some I give away for free online in their entirety, but I publish books for one reason, to make a living.

Starting a self publishing company is much less risky and stressful than publishing books for other authors. Strangely enough, I hear from authors who want to publish their own books but believe they have to start by first publishing other authors’ books or nobody will take them seriously. I’m not sure whose opinion they are worried about, but I can state for a fact that the way you get people to take you seriously in the business world is by making money. If you want to get a round of applause at the local poetry slam, then mortgage your house, pick out the least commercial poets you can find and publish their works in beautiful hard cover versions. Have a fun year or so being a patron of the arts before drowning in red ink. If you want to be a book publisher who one day, in the distant future, might have offices in NY, London and Zurich, publish books you can make a profit on.