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Blog > Writing a book, part 4: assisted self-publishing

>> Writing a book, part 4: assisted self-publishing

Tue, Mar 11th 9:28pm 2008: Writing

In early 2007 I got to the point of needing another batch of How To Build A Website And Stay Sane printed: because I'd self-published it, I was doing all the printing myself and getting it bound in batches so I'd have stock to ship off to bookshops and sell directly to retail customers. That meant I had to pay out thousands of dollars personally every time a batch needed printing / binding, which I then slowly made back (with a small margin) as the batch was sold. That sucked financially, and at the time that I needed more copies in early 2007 I simply didn't have thousands of dollars handy to cover the up-front costs of another batch. So I went looking for alternative production methods. What I found were a bunch of "vanity publishers" that will publish your book for a fixed fee, no questions asked. They take care of assigning you an ISBN, designing the cover and internal layout, listing your title with Books In Print, and printing copies as required to supply to retailers. The up-front costs vary dramatically but a typical package might be about $600 for which you also get a few copies of the book yourself, and you can order copies of your own book at a discount. That was closer to what I wanted, but still not quite there. I didn't want to pay a big fee up-front to have them do all the design work etc. I just wanted someone to do print-on-demand (called "POD" in the industry) so I wouldn't have to print copies of the book in batches and be out of pocket. Something else I wanted was someone to act as a US-based distributor. A major issue I overlooked in my post about DIY self-publishing is that places like Amazon.com and B&N simply won't carry books that don't have a US distributor, so if you self-publish in Australia it's pretty much impossible to ever have your book listed on Amazon. As a result the first edition of Stay Sane could only be ordered online directly from me, and that's a problem I also wanted to fix. I don't want to sound like a sales pitch for them, but in the end the best place I found for my particular requirements was a mob called Lulu. They're kinda like a vanity publisher, but with a very smooth and highly automated process that allows them to offer their service with no up-front fee because it pushes responsibility for book design onto the customer. Rather than having a package for say $600 that includes design, layout, an ISBN, distribution, and 10 "free" copies, they instead separate everything out into optional extras. You can sign up for $0, create a "project" (book), upload a PDF of the internal pages (following specific guidelines such as embedded fonts), design the cover using either your own artwork or theirs, set the retail price, and make the book available for order. At that point it's still cost $0. You can then buy copies of your own book at a discounted price direct from the Lulu site and allow members of the public to do the same at retail price, and royalties are periodically credited to you. If you want more features, such as an ISBN so that it can be listed in Books In Print and made available via Amazon, you just pay an extra fee to Lulu and it's all taken care of. The general Lulu approach is to provide a self-service infrastructure that takes care of all the sucky, annoying bits about self-publishing so you don't have to care about them. It's like having a menu of publishing tasks and just picking the ones you want. That was all fine and well, but I couldn't just transfer my existing ISBN to Lulu and go on as before. To have them listed as the publisher / distributor the book had to be re-published with one of their ISBNs, so I took that as an excuse to do a major update and release the Lulu version as the Second Edition. I ticked every option I could find and paid for a distribution package, and after a little while the book appeared on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and all the other usual online retailers. One downside is that the printing options available are fairly limited. Obviously Lulu need their system to work hands-off from their point of view, so it's very much a "select the option and click 'next'" process as you work through the publishing wizard and there's no room for major creativity. In the first edition of Stay Sane I did all the internal printing myself with a colour die-sub printer, so it was full-colour throughout and printed on very smooth heavyweight low-acid satin-finish paper. There was no way I could get the same print quality through Lulu, at least not at a sane price, so the Second Edition looks far more down-market than the First Edition did. Because I didn't have to do everything myself though I could make the retail price lower so it worked out OK in the end. The other downside is that the combination of print-on-demand + international shipping is really slow, and the shipping costs are high. From the time an order is placed in Australia it can be 2 weeks or so before the book arrives if you order it direct from Lulu. Luckily some retailers like Amazon.com pre-order a few copies so although it takes a long time for them to replenish their stock, as long as they have stock on hand they can get your book shipped out within hours instead of weeks. With those little annoyances in mind, overall I'm pretty impressed by the whole Lulu approach. It's meant that I can simply stop caring about a lot of the things that used to be annoying about self-publishing. If you have a book written already and sitting in your computer it's literally only about an hour of work to have your book available online for sale with an ISBN assigned. Knowing personally how much pain it is to achieve that end result manually, I'm very impressed that Lulu have managed to automate the process to such an incredible degree. As you can tell I've turned into quite a fan! A little while ago I started writing a brief AdWords guide for the benefit of some of my clients. It's the sort of thing that's created internally by businesses all the time: it's pretty common for tech businesses to produce white papers, technology briefs, product documentation, etc, etc. Typically they're written by an anonymous staff member and printed up on a laser printer, then comb-bound or wire-bound in batches. In slightly more up-market projects it'll be printed and perfect-bound (butted and glued, like a typical novel) with a glossy cover. But with my previous good experience with Lulu I decided that this time rather than going down the typical DIY path I'd just create a new Lulu project, upload the PDF, and end up with a proper book at the end. In fact it was *less* work to create the guide as a "real" book with an ISBN through Lulu than if I'd had it printed and bound locally! And now rather than being just another piece of corporate writing, I have another book that I can add to the list. Unless I had very specific requirements I certainly wouldn't go the whole-hog DIY self-publishing approach again when there are places like Lulu that can take so much of the pain away. Next installment: writing tools

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