Self-Publishing by Design: Real-Life Lessons

by Susan Bearman

Two women working on computer

Today’s article is written by regular contributor Susan Bearman

About five years ago, I decided to take control of my writing career. The publishing world was (and still is) changing at breakneck pace, everything was moving online, and I knew I either had to step up my game or be left behind. So, I dived in and have tried to learn something new every day.

Why Self-Publish?

The biggest changes over the last five years have taken place in the realm of self-publishing. Back then, it was barely distinguishable from vanity publishing and now it has moved into the mainstream. Sure, there are holdouts, balkers, traditionalists and snobs, but it’s getting to the point where readers—the people we writers want to reach—don’t know and, more importantly, don’t care how a book they love is published.

For many writers, self-publishing is a fallback position. They try pitching agents, editors, and publishers, and when all else fails, they turn to self-publishing. This isn’t necessarily a bad plan. Many great manuscripts are overlooked for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. If you believe in your project, then go for it.

But I was intrigued by the idea of designing a project specifically to be self-published. After rejecting many ideas, I discovered that my husband’s petstore has at least one animal for every letter of the alphabet. I decided that an ABC book based on his shop would be the perfect self-publishing vehicle because I wanted to:

  • have complete control over which animals would be included
  • use my own illustrator, a privilege not usually granted to unknown authors
  • learn about the entire publishing process, from concept to distribution

I approached my sister-in-law, a gifted artist, with the idea and we noodled around until we came up with the concept for our picture book. Then it was time to get to work. She worked on the paintings; I worked on the text.

Self-Publishing vs. Print-on-Demand

At the same time, I started researching how we would move from idea to actual book. I read Mark Levine’s excellent primer The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, a must-read for anyone even considering self-publishing.

Before I go on, let me define how I’m using the following terms:

  • self-publishing—paying to have a quantity of books printed in advance of sales.
  • print-on-demand (POD)—a subgenre of self-publishing, where you upload a digital file to a fulfillment center (like Amazon’s CreateSpace) and the books are printed one at a time only after they have been purchased.
  • e-book publishing—producing an digital version of a manuscript for purchase and download to e-readers.

No matter which of these options you choose, you are responsible for marketing and distribution of the finished product. Our initial plan was to use POD, which requires very little in terms of upfront costs, so you’re not taking a big economic risk. It takes a little technological savvy, but there’s plenty of on-line help available and it’s eminently doable.

After some research, though, we discovered the paper quality used in affordable POD options, while perfectly fine for novels or text with few illustrations, was not a good choice for picture books. We wanted the beautiful artwork to be showcased on high-quality paper, so POD was out.

Becoming a Publisher

We ultimately decided to buy our own ISBN, become our own publisher, and have 2,000 copies of our book printed in hardcover. I got quotes from at least a dozen printers, and made sure to get samples before making a commitment.

We weren’t in a position to pay for the printing ourselves, so before moving ahead, we needed to figure out a way to fund the project. Though I had negotiated an excellent per unit price, we still had to consider shipping, storage, and distribution costs. That’s when my brother suggested we look into Kickstarter.

Kickstarter

If you haven’t heard of Kickstarter.com yet, it’s a pretty cool site. Designed to help people raise funds for creative projects, the site has hosted more than 70,000 projects and helped raise more than $350M. We researched the process, studied successful and unsuccessful projects, and backed a few ourselves to get a feel of how the process worked.

Once we decided Kickstarter was right for us, it was time to develop a plan. In fact, we developed a full-blown, 21-page business plan, outlining the scope of the project, our budget, expense and income projections, and possible risks. This was a critical step, one I wouldn’t have thought of doing if not prompted by my brother, a marketing expert. One essential part of the business plan was to identify our target audience. It’s not enough to say: “everyone will love my book.” You need to know who your core readership is and who is most likely to buy your book.

In developing our Kickstarter campaign, we decided to add some companion products to the mix, including a coloring book, a poster, canvas prints, and a book bag. This meant more creative work, more research on producing these products, and more choices. The business plan helped define every step of the project through the Kickstarter campaign, initial printing and distribution, and beyond.

We set a $10,000 goal, which would cover all costs involved in:

  • printing 2,000 hardcover copies of the book
  • printing 1,000 copies of the coloring book
  • printing 500 posters
  • producing the number of canvas prints ordered on Kickstarter
  • manufacturing 40 embroidered book bags
  • paying a photographer to take high-quality images for the artwork
  • packaging, shipping, and mailing
  • miscellaneous expenses, such as purchasing a domain name, ISBNs, and supplies

By making our goal, we will have fully funded our entire project and every book we sell beyond the Kickstarter will generate profit. We are essentially providing a platform for our backers to preorder our book.

Developing a Platform

Part of becoming your own publisher means having to understand and embrace marketing. This requires a completely different skill set and point of view than does the creative process. When you become a self-publisher, you must become a business executive and learn to think strategically.

While my partner continued to work on the artwork, I had to don a variety of hats to establish our platform before we launched our Kickstarter campaign. This is a key step to marketing your book, whether you have a contract with a traditional publisher or are self-publishing. Unless you are already a best seller, you will be expected to market yourself and your book. The first question a publisher will ask is, “What’s your platform?”

While I already had a Facebook profile, Twitter account, personal blog and business website, I set about establishing a platform specifically for our book. I created:

  • a multi-page, interactive website that’s still a work-in-progress, but which immediately provided a landing place for potential customers.
  • a blog on the website aimed at our target audience.
  • a Facebook Page, separate from my personal profile, that would allow even strangers to “like” us and follow our progress. I started liking pages and sharing information that I felt our target audience would appreciate.
  • a dedicated Twitter account, again focused on following potential customers and thought leaders in our arena, and retweeting information and links that would be of value to them. On my own Twitter account, I follow writer, editors, publishers, and anything having to do with the business and craft of writing. On our book Twitter account, I follow influential moms, bloggers who write about children’s literature, teachers and librarians, and zoos, aquariums and animal-related Tweeters.

Within each of these forums, I try to think as tactically as possible and to create value for my followers. Social networking is supposed to be social. If all you do is promote your book just before or just after publication, you won’t attract or keep many followers.

So before we even launched our Kickstarter campaign, we:

  • established our platform
  • wrote our business plan
  • researched vendors
  • created product prototypes
  • established Kickstarter goals and rewards
  • created a video (that’s a whole post in itself!)
  • wrote the story of our book and how we intended to publish it
  • created our Kickstarter project page
  • planned the launch

This doesn’t count all the steps involved in actually writing, illustrating and creating the book. We wanted to shoot for delivery in mid-December, so working backward, we decided to launch our Kickstarter campaign on September 5 and end it on October 5. We had 31 days to raise $10,000, because with Kickstarter, if you don’t meet your goal, your backers aren’t charged and you don’t get any of the money.

The Kickstarter Roller Coaster

We’re finishing up the third week of our campaign and are 80% funded. Our launch day was great, and we got a thrilling response. Every day since has been a series of heart-stopping dips and climbs. You have to have a strong stomach to fund your own project. You have to be willing to throw yourself in to shameless self-promotion and to call in all your chits. You have to really believe in your project and know that you have done everything in your power to make it the best it can be.

As we approach the end of the Kickstarter, I am pretty confident we will reach our goal, although I still have my pessimistic moments. Most Kickstarters that reach 30 percent go on to be fully funded. Most. Not all.

And as the end comes into view, I realize that it’s not the end at all—just a curve on the tracks. It’s really just a new beginning. Next comes printing. And the distribution. And then selling more books. This is our baby, and we’re responsible for the rest of its life.

If you’re interested in this process, check out our Kickstarter campaign. A big reason I undertook this project was to help other writers figure things out, so I’m happy to try to answer any questions. Just leave them in a comment. And stay tuned.

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