How to Self-Publish a Business Bestseller*
Thinking about self-publishing a business book? You’re not alone, especially if you’re a skilled marketer.
But you probably don’t understand the process—or the costs.
At least not yet.
I worked in book manufacturing for almost 20 years—for R.R. Donnelley, the biggest book printer in the world, and then for Von Hoffmann Graphics, which was later bought by Vertis, and then by R.R. Donnelley, and yes, it really is a small world.
The following assumes you’ll serve as your own “book publishing general contractor” as opposed to using a service like Lulu that provides those services. (I have nothing against Lulu; they just showed up first when I searched “self publishing.”) You can evaluate the economics of using a self-publishing provider on your own.
Just keep in mind it’s not hard to manage the process of having books designed and printed on your own. You can do anything a “personal publishing consultant” can do for you. And while some of the details below might seem too granular, in my experience being conversant in the language is the only way to make sure things don't go awry.
A few notes before we get started: I use the term “traditional publishers” to refer to major publishers and not vanity presses, subsidized presses, self-publishing service providers, etc. When you see “traditional publisher,” think Random House, HarperCollins, etc.
Also keep in mind that if you’ve penned your memoirs, the following probably doesn’t apply since your potential sales are limited. (Don't feel bad; no one wants to read my life story either.)
The design process includes text design and jacket/cover design. The end results are print-ready files.
Text design: Generally speaking, the only substantial design elements in the average book are on title page, chapter openers, headers and footers, and sometimes section breaks. Not to make it too simple, but after that the main choices are font, font size, and margins.
Pick up five or 10 books. Focus just on text design. You’ll notice they all look fairly similar.
That’s because the content of the average book is the star, not the design. Unless photos or graphics drive your book, your text design should complement your words and not overwhelm them.
Sounds obvious, easy to forget. No one will buy your book because the text design is incredible—but they may not buy it if the design is poor.
With that in mind, let’s look briefly at fonts, font sizes, margins, line spacing, etc.
Paper is one of the main drivers of book cost: More paper equals more cost. As a result you might be tempted to squeeze more words onto a page.
Don’t. Think of your reaction when you pick up certain books. The average scholarly history book tends to use smaller fonts, smaller line spacing… and can seem off-putting to the average reader. I love Ron Chernow, but if you’re not into history, a glance inside Alexander Hamilton will quickly scare you away.
On the other hand, using too much white space seems like the book was padded to make it appear longer than it really is. (See another author I love, the late Parker, Robert B.)
Think about what best serves your material and then focus on creating a professional design. Then worry about whether you should modify your design slightly to result in a few less or a few more pages. Keeping costs down is certainly important, but never make a decision that limits your ability to sell books.
Again, choose a few bestsellers and model your book after them. There’s no reason to reinvent the book design wheel. Think “professional” and you’ll be fine—and spend less on design.
Why spend money where it won’t generate a return?
Jacket or cover design: From a marketing point of view, jacket or cover design is more critical than book design: Whether on a shelf or a website, your book has to stand out. You can’t make a sale if you don't first attract attention.
Traditional publishers handle book design for their authors, either using in-house designers or, increasingly, through outsourcing. If you decide to self-publish you’ll need a designer unless you buy a package from a self-publishing provider, many of them require you to choose your design from a selection of templates.
Since the end results of book design are print-ready files, designers use desktop publishing software. In book printing terms a Word doc, a PDF from a Word doc, or a file created by Microsoft Publisher is not a print-ready file. Common DP applications include InDesign, PageMaker, and Quark Xpress.
But you don’t really care which application your designer uses; you do care whether the output meets your book printer’s file specifications.
A good book designer provides a clean, professional, complementary text design, an eye-catching jacket or cover design—and print-ready files. The art of book design is important, but so is the science.
While different printers have different guidelines, in general terms you’ll need PDF files with fonts embedded, Type 1 or TrueType fonts (but sometimes not both), high-res images in specific formats, graphics as vector art, margins that meet standards… yes, it can get complicated. (Here’s an example of file spec guidelines.)
The book manufacturer will preflight (evaluate) your files to ensure they meet requirements. Fail to meet printer specs and you end up with delays and/or additional charges for fixing your files. (Some book manufacturers use file rework charges as a profit center.)
Once your files are ready, it’s time to find a good book printer.
Lots of commercial printers can create softcover books. Give them a Word file and a Photoshop or Illustrator cover design and off they go. Paper choices are limited and print quality won’t match that produced by large offset and sheetfed presses, but small print shops do fill a niche.
In fact, if you only need a couple hundred softcover books, that’s probably the way to go. While books may cost $8 to $12 per unit depending on specs, larger printers won’t accept quantities that low (and if they do they will hammer you on price.)
But let’s assume you want at least 1,000 books. And say you want hardcover instead of softcover books. In that case a larger book manufacturer is the way to go.
Book manufacturers fall into tiers based on size and capability. At the top end are companies like R.R. Donnelley and QuadGraphics. Regional printers include companies like Worzalla. (Mid-size manufacturers may have national accounts but typically service regional clients, if for no other reason than shipping costs.)
In either case the overwhelming majority of clients are traditional publishers—but any of these manufacturers will run your books, too. Customers are customers.
So let’s look at components: We’ll use a “typical” book: 6 x 9, hardcover, 256 pages; 50-pound, 400 ppi cream-white text stock, black-only text; one-piece case with foil spine stamping; 4-color gloss laminated jacket. Shipping costs are not included since costs vary.
The component specs I just described are vanilla and are used in the majority of books produced. Nothing fancy: Good quality, good price.
Yet the above also might sound confusing. That's okay; sales reps will make it easy for you.
Think of it this way: If you go to a restaurant and aren’t sure which wine to choose, you probably default to the house red or house white. Book manufacturing works the same way. Tell the sales rep you want to use stock paper, stock case materials, stock jacket and/or cover materials, etc. That will narrow down your choices to things like color and significantly reduce your costs.
Why? Book manufacturers stock a range of commonly used component materials. To keep costs down, stick with “house” materials and you’ll be fine.
Quick note: Don’t assume—or believe—one of the self-publishing providers will use better materials. Their quality is typically lower, not higher. Major manufacturers order huge quantities of paper, case material, etc.—they get the best prices and tend to apply less markup.
If you’re in doubt, ask the self-publishing company to send you a few sample books. Take into account they'll send their best quality. Compare what you receive to what you can buy in a bookstore from a traditional publisher. You’ll notice a big difference.
Now let’s look at costs: Here are prices from a recent actual quote for hardcover books using the specs above from one of the larger book manufacturers:
Quantity Cost Cost/Unit
5,000 $10,689 2.17
7,500 $14,255 1.90
10,000 $17,817 1.78
Additional 1000s $1,426 1.43
Not familiar with the concept of additional 1000s? Say you order 5,000 books. Book manufacturers allow for production waste. If they only produce 5,000 jackets and one is torn during the process… the order is short and they have to go back to press, a manufacturing fate worse than death.
To allow for normal waste and also for variation in the manufacturing process, most quote jobs on a percentage over/under basis. For example, if you want 5,000 books your contract may be for 5,000 +/- 10%. Delivery of any quantity between 4,500 and 5,500 is considered acceptable.
If the manufacturer keeps waste down and delivers 5,400 books, great—you’ll be charged for all of them. If they experience excessive run waste and only deliver 4,700, they don’t have to go back to press but also can only charge for 4,700 units. (For the manufacturer, not so great)
You can tighten the over/under spread if you like. For example, you could contract for 5,000 + 5% over and no unders. That means you won’t accept anything less than 5,000. Just know your price per unit may go up slightly since the manufacturer will probably increase waste allowances to compensate for the risk of missing the mark.
So with all that said, additional 1000s is the price you pay for overs. If you order 5,000 books you’ll be charged $2.17 for the first 5,000 and $1.43 for any books over that amount (up to the maximum quantity allowed.)
In case you're interested in the difference between hardcover and softcover prices, here are the numbers for softcover books using the same basic specs as above:
Quantity Cost Cost/Unit
5,000 $7,372 1.47
7,500 $9,531 1.27
10,000 $11,690 1.17
Additional 1000s $863 .86
Softcover books are obviously cheaper: Less materials, less processes.
How do you decide the right quantity to order? Since you’re not going the print-on-demand route, that’s a key decision.
Like everything, the answer depends. The more books you order the lower your cost per unit since you take advantage of operating efficiencies and the manufacturer spreads makeready (job setup) costs across more units.
Of course you have to be confident you can sell the books you order, since returns are not allowed.
You’ll need to balance your confidence in your marketing abilities against your desire to minimize unit cost.
A quick note on terms. Don’t expect to get terms like net-30 or net-45. It won’t happen. Your local print shop may allow you to pay on or after receipt but larger manufacturers will not. Minimizing accounts receivable is important and as a small customer you have no leverage to dictate generous terms.
At a minimum expect to pay something along the lines of 30% at order, 30% after proofs, and 40% before shipping.
Some printers expect 110% of contract price at time of order with unused money refunded once the exact ship quality is determined.
So if you decide to self-publish and print your own books, you will need to pay up front. Don’t expect to finance the cost of production using revenue from books sold.
If you’re considering self-publishing, deciding whether to handle the process on your own or use a self-publishing firm is strictly cost/benefit driven. Self-publishing firms actually deliver very little in terms of marketing or marketing support: No one will care about your book like you care, and no one will put more effort into marketing your book than you will. (Sadly, a tremendous amount of fluff is built into the typical “marketing services” offered by self-publishing firms.)
But self-publishing firms are convenient and do make the process easier, and for some people are the right way to go.
Here’s an example. Say you spend $1,000 on book design (I picked a round number.) You get an ISBN number for $275. (Actually you get ten for that price, so you can write nine more books without spending more on ISBN numbers.) Then you get 5,000 hardcover books printed and spend a total of $12,000, including overs and shipping costs.
Rounding off we’ll assume your cost per unit is $2.60. Not bad.
Now say you have a cover price of $24.99. Assuming no marketing costs and no loss on shipping costs (just to make the math easy) and you make over $22 in profit per unit sold. Sell 600 books and you break even. The rest is gravy.
Or maybe you want softcover books. The design costs are basically the same, and the ISBN cost is the same. Produce 5,000 books and you'll spend a total of about $9,500 (rounding up) for a unit cost of $1.90.
Assuming a cover price of $16.95 and break-even shipping and you make $15.05 per unit; sell about 640 books and you break even. It takes a few more units to break even compared to producing hardcover books, but at the same time your investment is about 25% lower. (Again, I left marketing costs out.)
So: Compare your costs, potential profit, etc. if you manage the process versus what you get by using a self-publishing provider. While they will make the design and production process easier, you will also give up some control... and they can’t do anything for you that you can’t do for yourself.
Content aside, selling a lot of books is based on effective marketing. Don't assume anyone will work hard to market your book.
And keep in mind self-publishing providers make their money up front; profits on books sold is incremental gain. A self-publishing firm certainly hopes you sell a lot of books since they'll keep a percentage of the revenue, but unlike a traditional publisher they make their money on the front end.
You can’t blame them: If you think about the business model it makes better sense for a self-publishing firm to focus on acquiring more authors than on selling books on behalf of those authors.
That's what I would do if I were in their shoes: I can't predict which books will sell and generate downstream revenue, but if you send me a check to provide self-publishing services, I get paid up front with no risk.
Traditional publishers only make money if books sell. Self-publishing providers make money when authors contract for services; they make money even if no books are sold. Book sales are like the icing on a self-publishing service provider’s cake.
So what should you do? Everyone’s situation is different, so I can’t answer that for you—but now, maybe you can.