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Self-Publishing & Print on Demand, is it for you?

We are asked repeatedly about these publishing options.  Here are our thoughts. Let us start with stating the totally obvious:  We are a commercial publisher and as such we give you this paper from our point of view.  Reading this article is well worth your time, for it will not only help you channel your thoughts, but it will also allow you to make a decision as to whether self-publishing is a viable option for you.  (We have added comments on Print on Demand books in this essay as well since self-publishing and POD often go hand in hand.)


Self-Publishing is the Right Choice for Some Projects.

If you have been on a few elk hunts or safaris and have limited writing and photography experience, you should consider self-publishing.  Likewise, if you prefer your book to be in your own words rather than those from a ghostwriter or an editor, you should consider self-publishing.  If you want to make sure that all your photographs are used in precisely the way you want them to be, again, self-publishing is the right course for you.  If what you envision is a record of your hunts for your friends and family that you can give away, self-publishing is the right option for you.  When you self-publish, you control the layout, cost, and timing of the project, and you will have nice gifts to hand out.  An additional consideration is that you will be in complete control of the editing, which, we have found, is important to some authors. Under this scenario, do not count on earning back a cent of what you spend; in fact, under the conditions stated above, you will sell almost no copies.  You will, however, have great satisfaction and many good gifts for years to come.


Self-Publishing Will Cost Money.

The cost of producing a book will depend on the quality of the product.  If you want to go for the cheapest physical book option, go for Print on Demand, which is essentially a Xerox system married to a binding machine.  If, however, you want an all-color book bound in deluxe Moroccan goat leather and printed via the traditional offset method of printing, be prepared to spend a great deal of money.  Prices range from $3500 to $8500 for a POD book, off-set printed books will run from $20,000.- to well in excess of a 100K.  One project we advised on once ran over 250K, all told.  Whatever option you choose, you will spend money on it, and the adage that you get what you pay for holds true here.  If you want a well-crafted book, you are going to have to spend a sizeable amount of money.


Do You Have the Time?

BEFORE you decide to self-publish, be honest with yourself and determine if you have the time to reach your goals.  Do you have the time to sell, promote, push, and hustle your own books?  Do you understand the basics of marketing?  Do you know how to reach your audience?  If producing a book is difficult, marketing it can be overwhelming to the novice.  Make sure that before you put pen to checkbook, you understand the enormity of the project . . . because once the publisher/printer delivers your book to your doorstep, it is all up to you to find a market for it.


Think about Selling.

There is a serious industry in the United States that promises to help you publish your own book.  This industry ranges from e-books to corporate self-congratulatory tomes to the already mentioned Print on Demand soft or hard covers.  (See below.)  All these methods will, indeed, produce a product, but now comes the one million dollar question:  Do these various parts of the industry have the ability to sell the book?  The self-publishing industry produces books that range from outright atrocious to some darn good ones, but none, and we do mean none, have ever shown that they can sell books in the commercial channels.   Why is that?  Keep reading.


Bookstores do NOT buy books!

Huh?  Surely the people at Safari Press have now gone off the deep end!  Of course, bookstores buy books.  Doesn’t  Sears buy tools?  Doesn’t Wal-Mart buy cornflakes?  How else would a bookstore get products on its shelves?  Well, the truth of the matter is that bookstores do not buy books.  Barnes & Noble orders books from national book distributors and prefer not to take one self-published title.  Amazon will take a self-published book but you are made responsible for all the cost; shipping up and down, returns, credit card charges etc.) Further, if you do somehow manage to get your book in a bookstore, you will find that bookstores tend to pay for books only after many a moon, and that’s IF they do not return the books first for a credit that they offset against your outstanding invoices.  And guess who pays for the freight to and from the stores?  Yes, you do.  Books dinged, damaged, or without their jackets when they come back?  They’re your problem! 

We are unclear as to the exact origins of this, but sometime before WWII a system was put in place that let bookstores return any books they couldn’t sell to the publisher.  The unfortunate result of this is that the bookstores take on way more units and titles than they can sell, since, after all, their cost is minimal and they have nothing to loose.  A Barnes and Nobles bookstore was once described to us as a “fancy warehouse in a high-end part of town where books are stored in a delightful atmosphere with expensive fixtures to be returned to their rightful owners after they have been dusted off by a store clerk.”  This is not far from the truth; in fact; on average from 30 to 40 percent of all books ordered get returned.  When a Harry Potter book comes in, it has a return rate of nearly zero, so, to maintain the average percentage quoted above, guess which books have a return rate of 60-70 percent?

Only those publishers with a long-standing relationship with the bookstore chains and/or distributors manage to sell to the chain stores successfully. These are the publishers who really know the ins and outs of the system and can navigate it somewhat to their advantage.  In addition, some specialty publishers (Safari Press falls in this category) have built up a direct-to-consumer sales channel.  Businesses in this category also establish relationships with specialty retailers outside of the book chains in order to sell their books. 

The self-publishing industry does not claim that they will sell books for you.  They do, however, conveniently sweep under the carpet the largest, most difficult, and single most expensive element in the production of a book:  the marketing and selling of the book to the consumer.


Self-Publish First & Then Re-Sell it to be Re-Published.

Yes, you can try this, but commercial publishers such as Safari Press take a dim view of this route.  The problem is multifaceted, but comes down to cost and the ability to sell a book already published.  First of all, you will have spent a lot of money to make the manuscript into a book, but your self-published work is not likely to be in the format or editorial shape we would want.  In order for us to conform your book to our in-house standards, we would have to go back to the very first stage in our production process.  Why?  We have based our standards on market conditions and our own twenty-five years of experience in this niche market.  In other words, we know what sells.

Furthermore, once a project has already been self-published, the possibility to make money out of it for a commercial publisher becomes smaller.  Those people who were hot to get the book already have it and are not likely to buy a new edition.  Producing a new edition of a self-published book will cost us as much as a new, fresh MS would.  There’s a major difference between the two projects, however:  The self-published book will have had previous sales siphoned off whereas the fresh MS will not.  We, like any other company, have scarce resources; consequently, we can accept and push through only between fifteen and eighteen projects per year.  We need to maximize the profit potential for each project, which is something that is very hard to do even in the best of times but nearly impossible in a period of slow economic growth.  So, if you think self-publishing is way to convince a commercial publisher to take your book later on, you are probably best advised not to try this with niche-demand books such as big-game hunting and firearms.


What about Print on Demand?

Print on Demand (POD) is a process whereby a for-profit company edits and typesets your book and then converts it to a computer file compatible with print-on-demand machinery.  This file will reside on a computer, and when a customer in Australia orders your book via, say, a laser-printer like device will print out the pages for one copy or a small batch of books.  Then these pages get glued to a cover, which can be a softcover or a self-printed hardcover.  POD printed books can now even be produced with a jacket.

What is a self-printed hardcover?  This is a method whereby the hard covers of a book get an image printed on them that is subsequently coated to give it a gloss.  A traditional hardcover book has a removable dust jacket, and underneath this jacket is a book bound in cloth or high-quality fused paper over strong Davy boards.  (Thus a “hard cover”.) You can think of a self-printed hard cover as a jacket without flaps printed onto a glossy cover.

The POD process does not use the traditional offset printing method.  The paper, ink, glue, binding, and so on used in POD are not long lasting.  Quality offset printers, on the other hand, use materials that are nonacidic and last two hundred years or more, if sheltered from the elements. Look at a few POD books and you will immediately see the difference in the quality of printing for both the text and the photos. At Safari Press we have never printed a book via POD to sell, nor have we carried a book for resale produced by this method.  We stand behind the quality of our products, so this statement should be telling.  The quality of POD books is simply not satisfactory.  While it is wise to never say never we can only foresee POD books as an item to be used that is disposable.  In such cases we view a digital book as the better solution.  For the foreseeable future we do not see that POD will create books equal to the quality of offset printing.  So far, this is not on the horizon.  To give you some idea of how crowded the self-publishing market is, please read our essay on Digital or eBooks.

Another method of POD uses a much higher quality form of reproduction which can create all color books on coated paper via an image setting machine.  It uses the same method as creating the fancy modern photos albums by a web-based companies that you may have seen.  You need to typeset, edit and crop the text/photos and then upload the pages to a site.  They will produce one or more copies and send them back to you.  Such books can come with dust jackets and can be  hard covers.  This type of publishing has a few advantages; it allows for a high quality product and it looks and feels like a printed book, not too many people can see the difference between it and an off-set printed book.  Against this stands that the price per unit is very high (we had a few test copies made this way and they were slightly over $100 each) and the materials and methods used are not long lasting as offset printing.  The printed image quality is very good but not quite as good as offset printing, also the inks used are stable and better than an ink-jet but not near as long lasting as offset printing ink which is stable for 150-200 years. Another negative is that such books are “burst bound” which means the pages are glued into the binding rather than “”Smyth sown” which means the pages are thread sown into the binding.  Ordering a larger quantity hardly brings the unit price down unlike offset printing which shines once large qualities are ordered (500 plus copies).  Altogether this is a good alternative it would want to have 5 to 10 copies of your book in full color to hand out to family and friends.

Here is what the director of the largest American POD company said about its books, and we quote verbatim:  “We really empower authors to promote and market themselves . . . and if you have never published before, most people are surprised at the amount of effort that they have to do to market [their books].”  (American Way, January 2010)  It is not hard to understand what we are being told here:  You pay us to publish your manuscript, but you are on your own when it comes to selling your book.


eBooks for Ipad, Kindle, Nook, Surface, Smart Phones etc.

All of what was said for POD physical books holds true for the eBook as well.  Companies will take your money to edit and typeset your book.  They will make it available digitally and place it with digital booksellers like Amazon for downloads.  Shop around and you will see self-published e-books for as low as 99 cents per download and many for under $4.00.  You will need to sell a lot of books to break even on the typesetting and editing alone, never mind the countless hours you spent writing your tome.  And again you are responsible for all the marketing.  As an aside if you have to have your own book published this is the cheapest way and you can simply tell your friends to get a copy at Amazon which they can down load on their smart phone.  Expect to sell less than a 100 copies and if you hit 400 you have made it “big time”.


The above should give you a good overview if self-publishing for you? The short answer is yes if you are willing to spend a lot time over a period of 3-5 years, provide your own capital, have good connections in the hunting industry and have expertise marketing.  If not better think about it twice.