Getting started in self-publishing: a few frequently asked questions

While I’m new to the idea of independent self-publishing in this industry, I’ve done quite a bit of work in the indie roleplaying game industry as an editor and working with folk like the Indie Press Revolution (a bit like for game designers).  The market’s quite a bit smaller, but unlike traditional publishing, ‘indie’ in that context actually carries a more positive cannotation — and they’ve been doing it very successfully for a decade or more.


In poking around and doing my research on this new (to me) industry, I’ve found that a lot of the questions that newcomers to the indie game publishing industry have about publishing and marketing their own work are similar to the sorts of questions that a newcomer to fiction/nonfiction self-publishing might have.


I’ve gone to some work to compile answers to some of the more frequently asked questions that a newcomer might have about how to "do this thing" — the resulting post is pretty long, but hopefully helpful to… well, someone.


Enjoy or ignore at your leisure, and if someone with specific experience in self-publishing as it pertains to fiction/nonfiction finds some of these compiled answers inaccurate, incomplete, or outdated, PLEASE FEEL FREE to add a post with your own expertise and input.


Finally, please don’t take too much offense with me for the opinions expressed in the answers below.  These answers are not ‘mine’ in any sense, other than the fact that I collected them from various people, as they provided answers.  Come to that, the questions aren’t mine, either.   I’m just providing some information that I think is valuable — and maybe starting a conversation or two.


Printing Books with traditional methods


1. I’ve heard there’s certain "price breaks" for printing books. (ie. printing 500 is cheaper, per book, than printing 5) Typically, where are the major price breaks?  When people have a print run done, how many do they normally have printed?

As a rule of thumb there really aren’t actual price breaks in the technology itself. It’s just that setting up the print run costs X dollars, paper costs Y dollars and printing that one page costs Z dollars. In a traditional set-up (off-set or the sort) X is high, Y is the same it is for everybody else and Z is minuscule. In a digital printing set-up X is low, Y is the same and Z is high. This means that if you plot the costs of printing a project into a graph with run length on the x-axis and cost on the y-axis, you’ll find that the traditional method starts higher (that set-up cost X is the same even if you print just one copy) but goes up slower (Z is very low, mostly it’s Y that increases the cost as your paper consumption increases), while the digital printer starts lower (X is smaller, and can be brought down further by smart preparation; some printers go so far as to include the set-up costs in the page costs, such as Lulu, which results in almost no price breaks with longer runs) and goes up faster (because Z is considerable, unlike in the traditional set-up).


"Price breaks" in this technical context are an artificial phenomenon that comes about with individual printers who simplify their costs structure for the customer. Lulu, for example, gives you a very slight discount for printing what, 25 copies of your book? It’s not that 25 is somehow cheaper to make than 24, they just decided to set up their pricing like this. Other printers have different systems, different work flow, different practices, different profit margins, different customers and different pricing.


The natural follow-up question is when a traditional print run should be chosen instead of a digital printer. The answer changes with time as both basic types of printing equipment is developed, and the state of the economy changes to favour different companies. But a very, very rough rule of thumb might be that the break-point between the two technologies might reside somewhere around 500 copies of whatever you’re printing. At those numbers you should definitely start including chosen traditional printers into your quote requests, while considerably under that it’s unlikely that they could match the prices of digital printers.


When putting that to practice the indie designer will find that he will do well to be very critical of the purported advantages of large print runs. The question of how much to print depends on your personal goals so much that we can’t go into it here, though.

2. How much, per book, does it cost?  How much more do color books cost?  How much more do hardcover books cost?


If you’re printing just one copy of your book (POD) and it’s a typical book, expect it to cost something like 5-10 dollars depending on its size. Quadruple or quintuple that for full color, roughly. Add something like 5 dollars for hard covers or otherwise special binding. When printing in quantity, these prices go down considerably. When printing a couple of hundred copies of your book with a digital printer, expect to pay considerably under five dollars per copy if it’s one-color and perfect bound. When printing the same book in the thousands, expect the cost to be even lower.


The costs savings you get for a larger print run have diminishing returns because the "savings" we see in per-copy cost are really that set-up factor X distributed to more copies of the book, and you can’t really spread it out forever – at some point you’re just looking at the real variable costs of producing the book when you’re doing such a large print run that the X factor fades into irrelevancy in the cost structure. If setting up the printer costs $500 and printing one book costs $1, then we’re going to say that printing that one book costs $501 even when in reality you just paid for setting up the printer for the most part. If you printed a hundred copies at once from that printer, you’d get a per-copy cost of $6, out of which $5 is set-up cost. If you printed a thousand copies, your cost per copy would be $1.5, out of which $.5 would be set-up cost and the majority would in fact come as variable costs. This is why the cost of one book goes down when you print larger runs – but you can never get below those variable costs.

3. What’s the process of, finding a printer, negotiating a print run and arranging delivery, like?

The normal method for finding a printer for your work is to go comb the internet for the sort of printer you want – POD, digital, traditional – write down their contact information and then send a bunch of email with the heading "Quote Request" or similar. In this email message you then describe your project in terms of printing practice – ideally you’ll already know what information to give, but presumably the printer will help you by asking clarifying questions if they want your business. You send many of these messages, at least a dozen, and then compare the responses, perhaps by setting up a table out of them. This allows you to cross out the companies that are asking highly inflated prices compared to the competition, as well as those that gave suspiciously low quotes. Out of the rest you then pick the printer that gave a reasonably low quote and seems professional, responsive and trustworthy.


You can make the above process a bit easier by using a printer mailing list to send you quote. The Internet is full of mailing list services where printers list themselves and where you can go and give your project details – they’ll automatically mail the data to hundreds of printers, out of which the ones who think they can service your needs will send you their quotes


Another thing that might help you are the quote request forms many printers have on their web pages. These are useful if you don’t know much about printing and therefore don’t know what your request should include. I don’t use forms myself because they limit the sort of information I can give, and it’s slow to type out the same information in the slightly different forms of many different printers when I could just be mass-sending one email message to many different printers. But if you know that you won’t be asking for quotes from many places, then using the form might be a time-saver.


To do this printer-finding correctly you’ll need to know the sort of printers you’re interested in technology-wise and otherwise as well: you know how many copies of the book you want, so based on that you’ll choose either POD, digital print or traditional printers in your search, or perhaps two of the categories if your project might work with either. (The difference between the first two is that a POD printer is specialized in printing just one copy of the book at a time and also provides a fulfillment service, while a digital printer just does small print runs in the dozens or low hundreds using digital printing equipment – the equipment is often very similar in these companies, their business models just differ.) You might also have recommendations or warnings from other publishers with similar needs, which might help you specifically target some printers with your quote requests. Most of the time the printer websites won’t give you any solid data about whether they can or can’t print or bind the work you want, so in general you’ll have to just send them your quote request (a form letter, essentially – no need to personalize it) and see what they think themselves. The printer is the foremost authority on what they can or can’t do for you.


When you get responses, you’ll get to see why the general opinion of online printers is somewhat low. Many printers won’t answer you at all because they lost your mail or are not interested in the project – those are fine, you won’t be missing them. Some printers will send you quotes that are very high; this might be because their set-up is simply inefficient for the sort of project you’re proposing, or it might be because their "expertise" lies in doing over-priced print jobs for amateurs who don’t realize that they should ask around before committing to a printer.


Some printers will ask you bad questions, some will act like you made a binding contract with them just by asking for their prices, some will contact you a half year after you sent the request, some will be obviously incompetent, and so on – it’s a jungle out there and your job is to find a printer that actually can do the work for you. I recommend that you favour printers with intelligible, prompt customer service highly, even over a slightly cheaper alternative. It’ll be invaluable during the printing process if you have chosen a printer that actually reads emails and answers questions. A traditional warning sign is if you write a message with several questions and they only answer the first one.


Digital printers especially have very widely varying conceptions of quality and professionalism. You might find that after you’ve chosen a printer, you will return to the quotes in a couple of weeks after it’s become obvious that the printer you chose either can’t stick to the schedule they promised or can’t print the quality of work you require. Always demand a proof on paper from a printer you’re working with for the first time! It’s literally possible that a printer can’t print your work because they don’t know how to change the raster setting of their machine to print acceptable greyscale images, for example.


You will find very, very few POD operations still around that will do the work on credit. The ones that did before have all gone out of business.


With a traditional printer, working on a half down, half net 30, the half down largely covers a printers up front investment. If they never saw the other net 30, they would be close to break even on the project, less their profit margin and maybe taking a hit on some of the labor. And if an account goes past due, you are usually talking about an amount large enough to go after, legally, in some fashion.


With print on demand, the amounts we talking about are typically in the hundreds and for many smaller orders, under $100. When an account as such goes unpaid, its such a small amount it doesn’t make any sense to chase after it legally, as the cost to get that recovery outstrips the amount to be recovered. And if the POD took nothing up front, they are out not just the labor, but the cost of the paper, printing and shipping too. This is the quick road to business failure for a POD.


One thing a POD (or any digital printer) should be able to offer is a proof or a small enough order that it can serve as a proof. If you are unsure about the quality of a POD, leave yourself time to do a small test order first, so you can see what you are getting before committing to a somewhat larger order.


As for delivery, the normal procedure is for you to include the rough target area of the delivery in your initial quote request. Then the printers (or at least the marginally competent fraction therein) know to include the costs of their chosen courier into their quote.

How much space does 1,000 books take up?

Space requirements will very much depend on the size of the book. For 2000 copies of a 100 page digest book, the whole print run would come in about 16 boxes, each about the size of a 5,000 sheet case of copy paper. Space wise, that could all be stored packing boxes under and on top of a decent sized office desk, though stacked 3-4 boxes high.


Now, by comparison, a similarl sized "case" of a few of larger hard covers have about 20-25 books in them. These would be 200-300 page 8.5" x 11" soft or hard cover books. So a print run of 1000 of those, at 25 per case, would take up about 40-50 cases. This is still very much able to be fit into 1 stall of a two car garage.


Honestly, if you were to invest in some heavy duty, multi shelf wooden shelving that would let you partition your 1 car stall into multiple storage slots (recommended that the lowest shelf be at least 6" off the cement floor to avoid small floods or even just moisture from the cement transfering to the boxes and books), my bet is that you would have storage room for up to 6 to 8 such print runs, especially assuming a sell down in on hand inventory on the previous ones printed over time.

Now, that said, a 1,000 print run in todays environment is some long, hard work to sell. Doable, but not easy. You might be better served starting a bit smaller. Its always tempting to print larger to get a better per book price, however, an important accounting principle that MANY new indie writer/publishers fail to grasp is that you ony get the write off the cost of a product once it is sold and you only get to write off its "cost of goods sold". The important part there is cost of goods "SOLD". Example.


You print 500 books at $4.00 per book. Cost $2,000 to print. You sell all 500 books, so your cost per book "sold" works out to be the same $4.00 per book you paid to have printed.


Or you print 1,000 books at $3.00 a book. Cost you $3,000 to print. You sell 650 of them. In this case, your cost of goods sold is NOT $3.00, its that $3,000 you spent on printing divided by the 650 units you sold. Basically $4.62 per book sold.


So, printing "more" to chase after the better price per book is not necessarily actually cheaper. Depends on how many you can ultimately sell. The difference between those two scenarios also has tax implications and the second scenario will end up costing you more still.

5. Should you have a distributor handle receiving and storing the books, or self distribute?


A distributor wouldn’t be what you’d want for the purpose of initially storing your books, most likely. Rather, you’d want a storage and fulfillment service.


The reasonable limits of a "garage operation" start to overflow when you’re talking of a thousand-copy print run. A couple hundred copies of a book you’ll still store comfortably at your home, but more than that might require some sort of semi-professional arrangement.

6. Is there a lot of specialized experience I’d need to not be totally in over my head?


The part you’ll need knowledge about is the layout and printing process, because you’ll need to be able to make the correct choices for your project when it comes to printer services. You can get somewhere by getting a responsive printer that cares enough to explain things to you, but probably your best bet is to work closely with somebody who’s done it before and ask them to help you with drafting your quote request and other such technical details.

PDF Distribution


How expensive is it to run a server where people can download and redownload a PDF they’ve purchased, yourself?  How much does a site like SmashWords charge to sell your PDFs?

The cost of having a basic web site is pretty small – tens of dollars annually. Having a specific domain increases the costs somewhat. Setting up PDF delivery is technically intensive, but not expensive. So you could pay somebody to set it up for you, or you could learn the technology yourself, or you could use an existing service to manage your pdf downloads for you – using an external service can be very cheap, a minor expense. So overall I’d say that expense is not something you should worry about when it comes to selling pdf files. Heck, if your sales are low-intensity, you could just email the pdf files yourself to your customers.


I haven’t used any of the sites like SmashWords, so I’ll leave someone with more experience to answer that; I can’t tell you offhand what their cut is.