This was a quickly penned response to an aspiring author who asked for basic information about book publishing. I thought I'd share it here for anyone else with similar questions. Maybe it will help you, inspire you, depress you, or convince you that writing may not be the career for you after all.
I suspect Suzy sent you my way because in 2006 I published my first book, Best Family Adventures: San Luis Obispo County. (The web site's also my creation, so very sophomoric and currently out of date with its holiday decorations...hmmm...maybe I should get on that. But I digress.) You're right, there's a VERY steep learning curve that goes far beyond the actual writing of our stories! I just wanted to write, but then I did probably the same research you're doing now, discovered that this guide to a single county served a market MUCH to small for many publishers to consider, and learned that the publishers that DO serve markets that small would likely pay me no more than $1 per copy. I thought, sheesh, I'd put WAY too much work into it for that kind of money. I make more than that writing for newspapers, and they pay appallingly dismal salaries (and freelance wages). So, I decided to publish it myself, and continued my research and learned about:
- ISBN numbers - those magical bar codes and numbers on the back of the books. You'll HAVE to have one if you're going to sell it through ANY bookstores and many other retailers. (Your local mom n' pop shop MAY take it without, but not likely). ISBN numbers are sold in lots of 10 for something like $250. (Can't rightly recall, and it's probably changed since I picked up my set.) So, if you write one book, you might as well write 10!
- Library of Congress - for some purposes, my book needed to be filed with the Library of Congress. Free. Simple paperwork, and you send them two copies.
- Design software - I use a PC, so Mac users' info will vary here. I have a PC, and already had the software - Adobe Pagemaker (if you're thinking about going for it, I'm told InDesign
is a better value; they're both incredibly pricey) - but I had to figure out details I'd never used before, and make the software work with the printers' mega machines. Interesting challenge, but it worked out.
- Printing - I sought out bids from various printers in the U.S. I didn't want it printed out of the U.S. because I think it's RIDICULOUS to ship something from halfway around the world and still pay lower prices. There's just something patently wrong with that whole scenario. Canada is also an option, but there are border issues there as well. When I went out for bids, I had to figure out all the details: paper weight, color, size, cover paper, coated or not coated, how many images, color or no color, etc. But the good thing about going out for bid was that the serious printers sent back samples of their work that demonstrated binding (a big deal to me...I didn't want the book to fall apart in readers' hands) and finish. I paid for the printing with my savings and a small loan.
And finally, once published, there was distribution. There's a local distributor here that was interested in my book because one of their main bookstore clients was keen on the title. (I'd been talking to the store owner prior to the book's actual publication...he REALLY wanted it...and NOW!) The distributor, however, merely distributes, and only to CERTAIN stores. I cover any other stores in which the book fits - ice cream shops, bike shops, educational supply stores, etc. If the distributor carries your book, it SHOULD include your book in its catalog. But the catalog is hardly a great sales engine for the books, and that brings us to the BIG TIME CONSUMING thing about writing a book:
- Marketing. I've spent a LOT of time marketing the book. Book signings, speaking engagements, handing out fliers at festivals, showing books at festivals, basically prostituting my books.
But it's all panned out pretty well. I figured I would sell 1,500 copies, but I did some math prior to printing and figured it more wise to go with the next price break at 3,000 copies. Good thing! When you have books printed, they require that you accept (and pay for) up to 10 % overage, and that there may also be a 10% shortfall (for which you don't pay). That gives them room for some problems with printing. They didn't have any problems with printing, so I was more at the 10% overage end. SO....that gave me more than 3,300 copies to sell. We've sold 3,000 copies.
For a children's book, or any work of fiction, I think it would be better from the distribution standpoint to have a publishing company represent us. They can deal with this on a much larger scale (particularly the printing and distribution end), but I understand that they often really don't provide the publicity authors need to SELL the books. That's a publicist's job, and unless you're Janet Evanovich or Stephen King or some other author who's scratched their way to the top already, the publisher isn't going to provide that resource. You can do your own publicity or hire someone to help you with it.
Here's the depressing part: I, too, have written some children's stories, and have pitched them to publishers. It's a REAL challenge. Do you know how many stories they receive EVERY DAY!? It's appalling. And they only print a TINY fraction of them. So, we're in there with all the stars (and their ghost writers) who already have the name recognition that gives them the automatic in, and other lesser-known talented folk just like us. A great resource for finding publishers is "Writer's Market," which is updated regularly at its online version and also available in print form. The Market includes publishers for magazines, newspapers, greeting cards as well as books. The Market also includes author's agencies.
I've heard a lot lately about how it's best to have an agent. Some of the largest publishers use agencies to vet the authors. If it doesn't make it through an agency, it's not good enough for publication, so their thinking allegedly goes.
Still, I send in my stories, and someday an editor's sidekick who's stuck reading all of our submissions will be in the right mood on the right day when my story arrives in her office. She'll laugh. She'll cry. She'll tell the editor that they NEED to publish my book.
Then I'll hire a publicist.