The new Cool Tools book is self-published. (As a reminder, this “Catalog of Possibilities” contains the very best of this blog over the past 10 years, distilled into a fun-to-read, oversized paper book — perfect for the young at heart.) I like to say it is self-published for all the right reasons — not because I could not find a real publisher to back it, but for three other important benefits. I’ll describe those below and I’ll also tell you how the economics of self-publishing work for this book. Finally, I’ll include a few of the cool tools used to create this huge book with only two of us on staff.
The first benefit of self-publishing was speed. I finished writing and assembling the book in September and by October I had the book listed on Pre-Order status on Amazon. It will be available to customers (in bookstores, too!) the first week of December. If this book was being published by a New York publisher I’d still be in negotiations to maybe have it available next summer.
Second, control. The book is unorthodox. It doesn’t fit the mold for a serious book. It’s kind of a catalog. Even the size was off-putting for pros. A big floppy book doesn’t travel well, doesn’t fit well into bookstore shelves. The publishers want to know can I perhaps change that? Then there’s the commercial aspect. The book is a shopping guide that tells you where to buy things. It points readers to Amazon, a lot. Publishers and bookstores hate that. They perceive Amazon as the enemy and one chain even refused to carry it because of this. My solution was to bypass them.
Thirdly, in my recent experience with established publishers I wound up doing most of the work myself anyway. For my last book with Viking/Penguin, I hired the editor to edit my book; I hired the illustrator to make the illustrations; I turned in cover design concepts, some of which they used; I did the most effective marketing and publicity (via social media). The only things I did not do — which were significant! — was the financing and distribution. On this book, I decided to tackle these as well, since I would still be doing all the rest.
Self-publishing means I have full control, but also full responsibility. Since I was paying for the paper and ink myself, I didn’t waste any pages. There are no blank pages or white spaces in this book. Even the inside covers are printed –with the table of contents! Every inch is doing some work. The book is incredibly dense.
Self-publishing an ebook is one thing. Self-publishing a gigantic book that weighs 4.5 pounds is another. I knew I was in trouble when the overseas printer called to ask me if I had a loading dock at my warehouse. Warehouse? I hardly have a garage. “Ummm, how much room do I need?” I asked. She said, “Well, you should expect a shipping container and a half.” That’s a big pile. So I signed up with a book distributor, Publishers Group West, that caters to small publishers and most of the books will be shipped to their warehouse in Tennessee.
The books were printed in Hong Kong. I tried to get bids in the US, but because of the oversize of the book, no US printer would even bid on it. One large printer recommended by the distributor told me, “I hate to say this but you need to go to China to get this printed.” So I did. They did a fantastic job, quickly and at a good price. The Hong Kong printing plant is high automation. Think robots not coolie labor. The books are now on a container ship going across the Panama Canal and up the Mississippi River to Tennessee. I am awaiting three pallets of books that were diverted to the West Coast, and that will arrive at my home. I am praying they will fit into my garage.
The economics of self-publishing will decide this book’s long-term fate. I can outline the rough costs of the book, but in fact I haven’t even got the final bills so a more accurate accounting will have to wait till later. Here’s what I know so far:
There will be about a total of 8,500 copies for sale on Amazon and in bookstores. The unit cost to print the book is $6. Shipping is about $1 per book. The cover price is $39.99. Amazon immediately discounts it to $25-27 (I set the book price anticipating Amazon’s discount, which seems to vary by the day). Amazon takes something like 40%. The book distributor takes their cut. In the end I’ll take in about $10 per book, before expenses. To figure my net gain I have to deduct the cost I incurred in creating the book — the editors, designers and proofers I hired to create the 472 pages. (I am not counting the years I’ve put into it). I am still making the tally of those costs. My grand goal is to break even.
But I used some cool tools to keep the costs low. Much of the work was outsourced to the freelancers of the world on Elance. About a million freelancers enrolled in Elance around the world will bid on a job. I had several jobs I outsourced to Elance (although many, if not most, of the freelancers work in the US). The layout design of the 472 pages was specified with the request to bid the job on a per-page cost. Out of the 30 or so Elance designers who bid, we picked 8 to do test pages, and then selected 6 to get the work. Their bids were not the lowest. They were in the middle range, but had good ratings from previous work. The 6 designers worked in parallel. The ones whose work we liked best we gave more pages to. The amount we paid was low for San Francisco area, but most important was the speed. We could design the entire mammoth book in only 4 weeks. We hired proofers on Elance as well, and again we hired them in parallel. We took bids on a per-page basis, winnowed the best candidates down with a few test pages, and then got them going all at once, giving more pages to those who did the best work. We proofread the entire book in several days. We also used Elance to find graphic artists who could remove the backgrounds from product shots; one worker hailed from Turkey. Elance has a very intelligent and easy-to-use interface, which aids in protecting buyer and seller, managing bids, and keeping track of work submitted. I consider it one of the chief tools in self-publishing.
The other indispensable tool we used was Dropbox. This allows folks to work remotely on files anywhere in the world, while also backing them up to the cloud. The book was prepared in InDesign, the layout program from Adobe. It’s been around for more than a decade, and it keeps getting better, integrating nicely with Dropbox. We kept our InDesign files, plus thousands of pictures, and other large files in our respective Dropboxes, and never needed to move them the whole time. (We upgraded everyone’s account to the pro unlimited storage version.) This made working remotely and collaboratively and rapidly easy and smooth. I don’t believe we could have done a book this large and complex over the net without something like Dropbox.
We had to go to China to print this large and colorful book. We tendered bids from several Shenzhen-based printers but went with Paramount, based in Hong Kong. They were about $0.30 per book more expensive, but communication was greatly improved by their office in Canada. The standard way to send final “art work” to a printer these days is to send a PDF. Our PDF was so large, it could not be compiled into one file; we had to send three. The printers in China send back a “soft-proof” which is merely another PDF that has gone through their pagination, profiles, and printing check software. We did not get a “hard proof” — or paper print — of each page. This is a photographic print that mimics the effect of the printing press that will be used. To save money we opted to only get overnighted a hard proof of the cover and a couple of sample pages. They were just about right on, so we clicked the “Okay print this book” button.
In assembling this large and heavy paper book, I have much more respect for commercial publishers. It is tough to make this precarious publishing machine work. It is not easy to make money publishing paper books. It is very much like making art. In fact I think of this large beautiful book as a work of art — practical art. Ten years in the making.
If you want your own piece of practical art, pre-order here:
Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities