Back in the mid-20th century A.J. Liebling, the celebrated journalist and shrewd social observer, commented that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
Things are different in 2010. Thanks to print-on-demand technology, you can now “own” a press, or at least the use of one, to self-publish your own books. All you need to preserve your thoughts for posterity is a finished typescript and a few hundred dollars. You’ll wind up with a high-quality printed book, and you won’t have to order more than one at a time.
In this brave new world you don’t have to engage an agent to shop your creation around to commercial publishers. You decide whether your book is print-worthy. And while books from vanity presses appear only in their own catalogs, your self-published opus can be listed for sale on Amazon, right up there with John Grisham’s latest thriller.
For these and many other reasons self-publishing has rapidly become very big business, out-producing the established commercial publishing industry. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine notes that in 2009 self-published books accounted for 764,448 new titles (a 181 percent increase over 2008), compared to 289,729 for traditional publishers, representing a slight decline.
Does this sound like a path to publication you want to explore? Before you decide, you should be aware that its advantages are balanced by significant downsides. I experienced both late last year when a book on which I collaborated — a memoir by Princeton entrepreneur and citizen astronaut Greg Olsen — was ready for print, but no literary agent would look at it.
I had met Greg Olsen during my tenure as director of corporate communications at Sarnoff Corporation. When we connected again two and a half years ago I had just finished two books: “Inventing the Future: 60 Years of Innovation at Sarnoff Corporation;” and “Competing for the Future: How Digital Innovations are Changing the World,” with Henry Kressel, published by Cambridge University Press in 2007. Another book with Kressel, this one on venture capital, was already in the works for Cambridge.
Olsen asked if I would be interested in working on a book about his career. Of course I would. He is a Princeton entrepreneur who rose above an unpromising youth to become a Ph.D. research scientist at Sarnoff Corporation. He later founded and ran two highly successful optoelectronics companies, both of which he eventually sold — one of them twice.
Greg gained a measure of fame by becoming the third civilian to book a seat on a Russian Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station. This was the culmination of his lifelong interest in space. Today he operates a venture fund, promotes science education, and owns a South African winery.
It’s a fascinating story, and it’s all in the book we began two years ago titled “By Any Means Necessary: An Entrepreneur’s Journey into Space.” We self-published earlier this year.
What moved a busy man like Greg Olsen to write his memoirs? And why did we decide to self-publish?
Needless to say, his eventful life has given him lots of interesting stories to tell. But for Greg the stories were secondary. He thought what he had to say about his experiences might do some good in the world.
Committed to encouraging more students to become scientists and engineers, Greg felt his story might motivate young people by showing how rewarding such a career can be. Beyond that, his example would dispel the myth that you had to be a genius to be a successful scientist. He flunked high-school trigonometry and almost didn’t get into college. His achievements were largely the product of hard work, perseverance, and tenacity.
We worked to make sure his memoir didn’t come off as preachy. The motivational messages are embodied in stories funny and serious, about growing up poor and rebellious, turning your life around, building successful companies, and struggling to qualify for a space trip when you’re 30 years older than the typical astronaut.
Early response was encouraging. We sent drafts of the book to knowledgeable friends and colleagues, including a Pulitzer Prize-nominated novelist and poet. Several said they read the book cover to cover in one sitting. Everyone was positive, even enthusiastic.
Everyone, that is, but people in the commercial publishing industry.
When it came time to find a publisher we approached several prominent literary agents and book promoters, all of whom (even the ones who obviously didn’t bother to read the book) said exactly the same things: The industry was in trouble. Publishers would only look at sure-fire best sellers by established authors. Memoirs are dead, except those about movie stars or other celebrities.
Besides, “By Any Means Necessary” didn’t fit any pre-determined genre. Was it a business book? A motivational book? Career advice?
Actually, it was all of these, and that was the problem. Books have to be narrow in focus so bookstores know where to shelve them. Marketing a multi-faceted book is too hard, and it’s all about marketing, isn’t it?
After months of frustration I started to look at self-publishing, but I wasn’t optimistic. Just four years before a friend had sent me a self-published paperback. The book was as ugly as a $50 suit: plain type on a tacky, shiny white cover; the text printed on cheap beige paper with an orange tinge; a stiff, thick glue binding that snapped the book closed unless you held it with a death grip; and no graphics or pictures anywhere.
How things have changed. Print-on-demand (POD) technology has advanced to the point that today’s self-published books are indistinguishable from high-quality commercial paperbacks. You get full-color covers, the ability to include photos or graphics, high-quality book paper — the works.
Even more amazing, especially to someone who is used to traditional printing processes, each book is individually printed and bound. Your copy of “By Any Means Necessary” is printed just for you and it arrives within a week. No one, including the author, has to buy a minimum number.
After searching the web for good POD self-publishing companies, we narrowed the list down to Lulu, Xlibris, BookSurge, and CreateSpace. Their basic offerings were pretty similar, but the latter two companies were owned by Amazon, which meant automatic listings on the Amazon.com website.
Eventually BookSurge merged into CreateSpace and we went with them. Here’s what we learned along the way. These remarks are based on our experience with CreateSpace, but should apply in general terms to most self-publishing providers.
Self-publishing companies are not publishers, at least not in the conventional sense. They are printers and distributors. They don’t screen books for marketability and won’t provide editing, proofreading, design, or marketing services unless you’re willing to pay a lot more than their basic package rate.
As printers they’re remarkably inexpensive and efficient. At CreateSpace, once you have the text of your book ready, you can either format it online using their pre-built templates for cover and text (the “Author’s Express service,” which costs $299), or upload a PDF of a your own design (“Self service,” which is free). They will also obtain an ISBN number for you if you don’t already have one.
If you use their templates, CreateSpace will check for formatting errors. With self-service you’re on your own. You get a sample of your finished book as a proof in one to three weeks, depending on which service you use.
One big advantage of self-service, besides maintaining total control over the look of your book, is that there are no limits on the number of photos or graphics you can include, and they can all be in color. You don’t have that freedom with the templates.
We chose to have a designer create the cover and format the text and photos. This let us get past the cookie-cutter look of the templates and use as many photos as we wanted. Our designer has done a number of books, including the Sarnoff history mentioned earlier. He quoted $500 for the cover design and $9 a page for the text.
To make a lot of money you have to sell a lot of books. Once you format your book there’s the matter of fees and royalties. CreateSpace lets you set the price of the book, on condition that it not be less than production costs and their cut of the profits.
For example, suppose you set a price of $19.95 for a book that costs $3.35 to print. If the book is ordered from your sales page on their website, CreateSpace will keep that $3.35 plus 20 percent of the cover price ($3.99), leaving you a net of $12.61 from the sale.
If the book is sold through Amazon.com, the cut of the royalties rises to 40 percent of cover price, or $7.98, leaving you with $8.62.
To make money you have to sell a lot of books, but most self-published authors don’t. The average POD self-published book, according to industry estimates, sells around 200 copies. And if you expect your provider to help you market your masterpiece, you’ll be disappointed. Marketing is an extra-charge, and even then is so bare-bones as to be practically useless.
To be fair, unless you’re already a top-selling author, commercial publishers are only marginally better. One of the agents we consulted said that unless you’re willing to work your butt off arranging your own book signings, readings, and media coverage, you won’t sell much of anything, because your publisher will sit on its hands. Jeffrey Hayzlett, CMO of Eastman Kodak, recently gave a great talk at the New Jersey Business Marketing Association meeting, then hung around to sell and sign 20 copies of his commercially published book “The Mirror Test.”
There’s no denying that marketing a self-published book is even more difficult. As a rule the big national bookstores don’t carry self-published books, and they aren’t very eager to sponsor readings by authors whose books they can’t sell. A persuasive author may be able convince a local branch to stock his or her book, but usually only on consignment, which means the author has to pay for a bunch of books up front.
As for readings, some branches occasionally hold self-published author nights. But they’re not heavily promoted, and each one features several writers vying for attention.
It’s worth noting that LuLu has a joint self-publishing venture with Borders, while IUniverse, another POD publisher, is teaming up with Barnes & Noble. Whether this will get books into their stores, or merely have them listed in their catalogs for ordering, is a question.
Hope abounds. If all this talk of sales and marketing sounds daunting, or even depressing, you should know there are some success stories. Xlibris boasts of a computer manual that has sold nearly 16,000 copies. James Redfield self-published the mega-selling Celestine Prophecy before placing it with a commercial house. However, these are the exceptions.
But sales figures are not the only measures of success. If this is a friends-and-family-only publication, maybe you don’t care how few copies you sell.
Or perhaps you have other reasons for doing a book. One executive of a major chemical company doesn’t offer his self-published book for sale at all. He only distributes it to business partners. Other authors use self-publishing as an adjunct to their conference speaking schedules. And for some authors, it’s a way to keep their older books available when they go out of print at a commercial publisher.
We’re certainly seeing the genesis of a brave new world for budding authors. Here are some resources that will help you decide if you want to explore it.
* The Science Fiction Writers Association “Writers Beware” article (http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/pod/) balances the pros and cons of POD self-publishing and lays out situations when it is or is not appropriate.
* David Carnoy’s article, “Self-publishing a book: 25 things you need to know,” (http://reviews.cnet.com/self-publishing/) is extraordinarily practical.
* Providers’ websites allow you to compare their offerings, but talking to their representatives gets you better information.
Finally, a plug. Go to www.ghoventures.com and click on the link for “By Any Means Necessary” to see how Greg Olsen’s book came out. While you’re there, why not buy one? It’s available in a standard edition for $17.95 and a deluxe edition with full color throughout for $29.95.
Yes, you can put out two self-published editions of the same book simultaneously. After all, you’re the publisher.
About Greg Olsen: After an illustrious career as a research scientist and entrepreneur, Olsen is now president of GHO Ventures at 90 Nassau Street, where he manages “angel” investments. Olsen received a BS in physics (1966), a BSEE and MS in physics from Fairleigh Dickinson. He earned a Ph.D. in materials science from the University of Virginia in 1971.
Olsen founded EPITAXX, a fiber-optic detector manufacturer, in 1984 together with Vladimir Ban. It was sold in 1990 for $12 million. He then founded Sensors Unlimited, a near-infrared camera manufacturer, in 1992 with Marshall Cohen. Sensors was sold to Finisar Corp. for $600 million in 2000, repurchased by the management team in 2002 for $6 million, then sold again to Goodrich Corp. in 2005 for $60 million.
Olsen was the third private citizen to orbit the earth on the International Space Station (ISS) in October, 2005. He logged almost 4 million miles of weightless travel during his 10 days in space. Olsen is currently “Entrepreneur in Residence” at Princeton University.
About Tom Lento: The son of a research chemist for American Cyanamid in Stamford, Connecticut, and a registered nurse, Lento had an early interest in English, but scientific and technical matters were never far from his view. He earned an undergraduate degree at Boston College (Class of 1965) and a Ph.D. in English at University of Iowa.
After spending time as a college teacher, Lento moved into technical public relations, ending up at the Sarnoff Research Center in the late 1990s, where he served as director of corporate communications. He has run his own corporate communications company, Intercomm Inc., since 2005.
In addition to the book with Greg Olsen, Lento has co-written two books with Henry Kressel, who began his career in laser and electronics research at RCA Laboratories, the predecessor to Sarnoff. In 1983 he moved from technology into finance, and is now a senior managing director of Warburg Pincus, the venture capital firm. The newest Kressel-Lento book, “Investing in Dynamic Markets: Venture Capital in the Digital Age,” will be published later this month by the Cambridge University Press.