The Technium

The Self-Publishing Route

[Translations: ItalianJapanese]

Like the Whole Earth Catalogs of yore, my new Cool Tools book is self-published. I’ll tell you how the economics of my book work and the 3 reasons why I went the route of avoiding a mainline publisher.

First benefit was speed. I finished writing and assembling the book in September and in 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 is kinda 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.

[Me working on the Cool Tools book at my stand/sit station; outside the chicken coop.]

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.

Economics of self-publishing will decide this book’s fate. 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 (I set the book price anticipating Amazon’s discount) and Amazon take something like 40%. The book distributor takes their cut. I’ll take about $10 per book, and then of course, I have to deduct the cost I incurred in creating the book — the editors, designers and proofers I hired to create those 472 pages. (I am not counting the years I’ve put into it). Plus I am mailing a lot of copies out to reviewers and contributors. I was stunned to learn that the absolute cheapest way to ship this book to England or Canada (no matter how slow) was $60 and $38 respectively! No other choice!

I have much more respect for commercial publishers in making 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 an art work. Cool Tools really is remarkable art.

If you want your own piece of art, pre order here.


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