Guest post: ‘Writers Are the Market for the Publish on Demand Industry’ by John J Hohn

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of self-publishing is brought to you by multi-genre author, guest blogger (twice)interviewee and poet John J Hohn.

Writers Are the Market for the Publish on Demand Industry

163, 036 self-published titles were launched onto the market in the United States in 2010, an increase of almost 260% from 2006, according to Browker who track trends in publishing. Nearly the same number was published in Great Britain. Amazon lists 3,000,000 plus titles available for sale. 288,355 new titles and editions were published in the United States in 2009.

Self-publishing makes it possible for anyone to break into print. Agents and editors at one time controlled who was admitted into the ranks of the published and only writers who brought either great talent or great ideas (if not both) were considered. Once a writer’s work was accepted, rounds of rewrites followed before the final draft was approved. Agents and editors are still their desks, but writers by the thousands stride right past them into an arena where they are fair game for printers, publishers, publicists, reviewers, web site designers, seminar moderators, consultants, how-to gurus software merchants, graphic artists, layout specialists and who knows what else. Writers, not the reading public, have become the market for the publish-on-demand industry. There is blood in the water and the sharks are circling.

The first thing the unpublished writer must do is back out of the word-processing program and slow down. Finishing a book is exciting but the eagerness fanned into impatience is dangerous. The minute writers finish a manuscript, like it or not, they become business owners. They need to get quickly up to speed on running a small business. Bad decisions waste precious time and capital, and can be a drag on the creative spirit.

Bringing a product to market involves several critical steps, not the least of which is quality control. Publishers who print on demand do not proof read manuscripts. They don’t even read them. Any errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage will pass directly into the finished product only be cited by reviewers to the author’s embarrassment. Catching copy edit errors is the job of a good proofreader, a professional, and yes, they charge for their services, sometimes as much as $.02 a word or more. A 90,000-word novel can cost $1,800—more than the cost to print the book.

There is little point in subjecting a manuscript to a proofreader if a story editor has not read the manuscript. Story editing is a specialty. A good editor will look for the chronology of events in a story, the credibility behind what occurs, the thoroughness of character development, and may extend a critique to include writing style, dialogue, and descriptions. Story editors are expensive. Good editors charge more and have plenty of work on their desks to complete.

Publishers may provide both proofreading and story editing service for an additional charge. The fees, however, may not be the most competitive. It pays to shop around. Publishers also often offer layout and cover design services. Again, it may pay to shop to at least substantiate that a competitive price is being offered.

Once a book is produced, the hard work of promoting it begins. Many publishers, often for an additional fee, will send copies out to reviewers with established internet sites—like Norm Golden’s BookPleasurese. Reviews do not necessarily sell books, but it is far better to have them published, especially on Amazon, than not. Some reviewers, including venerable Kirkus, now charge for reviews. Writers need to decide whether the expense is worth it.

As for distributors, John Kremer writes, “Most distributors… aren’t likely to take on distribution of a single POD (printed-on-demand) book. POD does not lend itself to distribution via distributors, except in the case of backlist books that are being kept in print only via POD.”  POD publishers may list several well-known names in the distribution field such as Ingram and Baker and Taylor, but it is window dressing. Distributors of good standing offer larger retailers the privilege of returning volumes that do not sell. POD books are not returnable under most of the programs of this type. One publisher, Outskirts Press, charges writers $499 per year so that retailers can return books. The writer who pays the fee can kiss the money good-bye because retailers will not carry POD books as a matter of policy. Placing a call to a retailer in search of a POD book meets with the reply that it is not in stock but can be ordered. The records that the retailer has available on computer designate the book as POD which automatically means that no return privilege is extended—even though the author has paid the publisher a fee to make it available.

It is the author’s job to get books on bookstore shelves, either on consignment or the rare storeowner will buy volumes at a wholesale price. Consignment agreements, the most popular format, usually split sale proceeds on 60/40—60% to the author and 40% to the storeowner. Most bookstores are eager to help a local author on consignment. They typically will have a consignment agreement under the counter ready for signature and willing take on four to six volumes, often with the suggestion that the author schedule book-signing in the store.

The economics of self-publishing are daunting. In shopping for a publisher, authors need to keep any eye out for profitability. Several cost factors need to be considered. The most critical is the price the publisher charges the author, especially if the author wants to sell most of the books online. The second important consideration is the price at which the book will be offered to the buying public. Writers should work with a worst-case scenario. Only a handful of POD books each year will sell more than a few hundred copies. The majority will sell less than 200, which means that most writers will fall far short of recovering expenses. However tempting it may be, it is a mistake to think in the thousands because it will lead to overspending on expenses.

Writers may choose to sell books personally to family and friends because the margin is higher when they do. Other costs are involved, however. The author pays to have books shipped from the publisher, perhaps as much as $.90 per volume. If the author is mailing books out to buyers, those shipping costs also become part of the overhead.  In the United States, the lowest rate for media mail at the time of this writing was $2.78 and the cost of a padded shipping envelope somewhere in the neighborhood of $.70. If a writer is traveling to place books on consignment with dealers or appear at signings, the going rate is $.40 per mile according to the IRS. In short, unless a writer hits the jackpot, he or she is working for less than minimum wage.

This posting, because of space considerations, touches lightly on the issues for the writer in self-publishing. More information is available online and writers, especially those who are just entering into the field, are urged to research the topics introduced here more thoroughly on line. LinkedIn is home to several groups for writers that routinely address issues for the beginner. John Kremer has a free web site that is a wonderful forum for writers to share experiences. Prededitors is a web site that provides background on publishers and editors. It is a critical site to visit before hiring anyone for any task in the publishing process. There are no easy paths. Shortcuts lead to disappointment and heartache. Good luck.

Thank you again, John, this is brilliant! I’d always welcome a part two (and three… and four… :))

John

John J. Hohn is the author of two five-star literary mysteries, Deadly Portfolio: A Killing in Hedge Funds, 2011 and a sequel, Breached, 2014. As I Was Passing By, a collection of poems, was published in 2000. His prize-winning poetry appears frequently on his web site along with articles on a variety of subjects. He plans to publish a book of selected works later in 2017.

BreachedHe contributes to various web sites dedicated to writing and publishing. His own website, www.jjhohn.com, features articles on a wide range of topics including book and drama reviews, autobiographical sketches, financial planning, and civil rights.

Born and raised in Yankton, South Dakota, USA, John graduated from St. John’s University in 1961 with a degree in English.

He is the father of four sons and a daughter, a stepfather to a son, and has resided in North Carolina since 1978.

He and his wife Melinda divide their time each year between their home in Winston-Salem, NC and a cabin near West Jefferson, NC.

You can also read John’s guest blog 1, guest blog 2interview and poem.

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with prolific thriller (and vampire!) novelist Stephen Leather – the two hundred and fiftieth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at Smashwords.

11 thoughts on “Guest post: ‘Writers Are the Market for the Publish on Demand Industry’ by John J Hohn

  1. morgenbailey says:

    Comment from Patricia Comroe Frank via Facebook: “Mr. Hohn’s post is on the money..he’s summed it up perfectly:. self-publishing success is indeed “daunting.” The writing portion is the tip of the ice-berg…nine-tenths of the hard work remains hidden below the surface. Now the creative person must turn into a wily marketer–often with a tiny marketing budget. ‘Tis a challenge for sure. –Patricia Comroe Frank, author of Falling Through Time, a woman’s journey to the future.”

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  2. williamdoonan says:

    Daunting is right. Marketing is without question the weakest link in the self-publishing chain. Sure, you need to have a platform and blog relentlessly, but I can’t help thinking we need a new paradigm. I don’t know what that would be, but it’s time to start talking about it. Getting someone to pay even 99 cents for a book is ridiculously hard. If the book was free (and of course good) vastly more people would take a chance. So how to make money on it, even a little??? I don’t know – product placement, ad space, sponsorship, partnering with service providers. I can’t put my finger on it, but I think it’s around the corner.

    William Doonan
    http://www.themummiesofblogspace9.com.

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    • morgenbailey says:

      Absolutely, William. Interesting times. I hardly tout my books at all (something I need to work on – a single line at the end of each post… does that count as hardly?) and the proportion between my free downloads and sales is 50:1 (almost exactly) and at $1.49 (for a 31-story collection or writers’ block workbook) it’s not an ‘ouch’ figure. I am conscious that I don’t have enough ‘meaty’ (more than a short story) or varied to offer so that’s the next step – to get my novels re-edited (it’s been a while), to my editor (and back) and out.

      The real trick is to advertise without spending any money. There are authors who say nothing on Twitter and Facebook but “buy my book” (often using those exact words) and wonder why they get de-followed / friended.

      So, John, I feel a ‘part 2’ in the making. 🙂

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  3. williamdoonan says:

    How about it, John, part 2????

    I know what you’re saying, Morgen. You’re right – the real trick is to advertise without spending money, to meaningfully contribute on blogs and posts, but getting people to plunk down money seems like a huge hurdle. When I started using the internet, you had to pay like $20 a month to use AOL. Now AOL is free, as is a whole ton of other stuff. They’re just making money in different ways, and I think that is the new challenge for writers, for indie publishing, to figure out how to make money, while giving the books away.

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  4. morgenbailey says:

    Tours are said to be where musicians make their money (Madonna apparently spent $20M on her new film so says she “has to go touring again” – also apparently the film is great so she may not have to). A few of the guests I’ve had have been as part of their blog tours – arranged by tour companies. I’m not sure how much they charge but I guess finding blogs like mine wouldn’t be that hard to do yourself.

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  5. Helen Hollick says:

    Very interesting article – thank you. I am Helen Hollick from the UK. I was published by Random House UK but my back list was dropped – because of lack of sales – because of lack of marketing (even mainstream published authors can have a hard time getting their books in stores & reasonable sales)
    To cut a long story short I took my books to a small UK indie company which had an even smaller mainstream imprint. The books were OK (ish), the staff were lovely, but the MD went bankrupt in February 2011 owing money left right & centre. Meanwhile I had been signed up by mainstream Sourcebooks Inc in the US for my historical fiction, so had no qualms about deciding to publish independently here in the UK rather than fall out of print a second time.
    Full self publish was beyond my capabilities though – I have no business or technical sense, so I went to an assisted publishing company – http://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk: This cost money, they don’t publish books for free! Typesetting, isbn registration, actual publication, submission of copies to the British Library, registration with distributors, Amazon, Kindle editions etc take time and money. Very well worth it as long as I have ended up with professionally produced editions.

    The reason why Indie published books (in whatever variety – self, POD, e-book etc) are more often than not dismissed by reviewers, book sellers, various genre associations – and writers and readers – is because too many SP authors do not take on board the _essentials_ of using a professional editor and copy editor, and all too often are not even aware that a book has to be typeset correctly. You do not see mainstream published books with the text double spaced or set as left justified (straight edge on the left, jagged edge on the right)
    If Indie authors want to be taken seriously as writers, if they want their books respected as good, quality, books – then they must produce them properly. Yes it costs money, but quality has a price.
    Serious indie authors must do their work properly – from start to finish.

    In addition to being an author I am also the Historical Novel Society’s UK editor for reviewing UK self published historical fiction (the US has had the monopoly until recently – but I felt it time the UK had our own review “department”) One of the things the HNS now insist upon is that only well produced books will be reviewed – well written _and_ well presented. We are a review service, recommending books worth reading – would you want to pay $/£14 for a book that was badly printed, did not look professionally produced – not to mention poorly edited? (Although I have read many a mainstream novel that was full of typo errors – I include my own here! Publishers can also be a bit lax with copy editing. Spell checkers do not pick up typo mistakes.)

    Marketing Indie books is not easy – as this article confirms, but it could become a lot easier for all of us if Indie published books started to become respected as well produced, well written, every bit as good as mainstream books.

    And it is up to us as Indie writers to prove our worth and ensure this happens.

    http://www.helenhollick.net
    Historical Novel Society Online Review for Indie historical fiction :http://www.historicalnovelsociety.org/hnr-online.htm

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  6. Helen Hollick says:

    p.s. Blog Tours are very worth while – but they take time and money to arrange. The author is responsible for organising it – and paying all costs (although many reviewers do now accept e-book versions) However – as stated above, there is no point in going to all the effort of doing a blog tour if the books are not of a good quality. If you want a good review, produce a better than good book.

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  7. Jean G Goodhind (aka Jeannie Johnson) says:

    Helen, I had to ask, do you have an agent? It seems to me you’ve been successful enough to acquire one, or did he/she/they drop you when RH did? I was wondering if you’d been sold into foreign translation which can certainly bring in the rewards.
    I recall Michael Leggett who used to be an editor at Corgi many years ago, that an agent was imperative if you were eyeing the foreign markets.
    John, great article.
    Morgen, great site.

    Like

  8. Patricia Frank says:

    One wonders when reading about the few, the brave, the very fortunate writers who have somehow, some way, broken through the e-slush pile to sell thousands, millions even, of their books. How the heck did they do it? Finally, I realized that those very few success stories are so unusual, so rare, so out of the norm, that they score feature articles in the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal. The rest of us, the many hard-working and anonymous schmucks, labor on, still trying to win the hearts and minds of our would-be readers. I guess we’re hoping to win the writing lottery, too. And talent has little to do with it, I fear.

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