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Independent Book Publishing: Is it the Viable Future for Books?

By Lee Foster

The steady advance in the practice of “independent book publishing,” also called self-publishing in some circles, has been a remarkable and innovative phenomenon to watch in the last decade.

Those of us who knew the viability of “traditional book publishing” have also observed that decline with some sadness. In my own case, I published a dozen books with traditional publishers and found the experience generally satisfactory in the earlier, golden years.

Traditional vs independent publishing is a challenging dilemma with which many modern authors now wrestle. (I talked recently on this subject before the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association, and videographer Joel Blackwell captured a video record. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30EI8nUM3QY. I also talked on this before the Bay Area Travel Writers and at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference.)

In 2013, I published one book independently and one book traditionally. Probably all my future books will be independent. What has changed?

Understanding Traditional Book Publishing 

Before traditional book publishing is dismissed as an option, it is important to understand what it was, how it functioned, and why it once worked well.

Traditional book publishers, especially in my travel book field, have followed two paths. One path is a “work for hire” pattern, in which the author is paid up front totally for all the content. The other is the “percentage of royalty” pattern in which the author continues to be a part of the action, typically for 15% of the net sale. I generally favored the royalty path, as is documented on my Amazon Author Page (http://www.amazon.com/Lee-Foster/e/B001HNI5S8/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0).

The success of either traditional paths depended on the publisher’s ability to sell books, and the publishing practitioners of both strategies gradually lost their ability to sell a sufficient volume of books to support the investment. The dominant travel book publishers were work-for-hire, with Lonely Planet at the top of the heap. I had a major relationship with Lonely Planet, placing photos in more than 300 of their books, earning about $150k over a decade from my participation in their Lonely Planet Images Agency. However, the Big Five travel publishers (Lonely Planet, Frommers, Dorling Kindersley, Rough Guides, Moon Avalon) gradually saw their market diminished. They sold about $125 million in books in 2007, but that figure dropped to about $78 million in 2012. These figures were first reported by Skift.

The so-called “boutique travel book publishers” generally followed the royalty model. I worked with Hunter, Globe Pequot, and Countryman Press, using this strategy for various books. I found the people behind these companies to be enlightened and engaging souls. It’s just that they were caught up in a mechanism that was doomed, and neither they nor I understood how difficult the future of selling books would become.

Possibly the biggest change in the market was that bookstores, where traditional publishers once had a lock on the market, continued to decline as the place where people bought books. When bookstores actually sold a book, they tended to buy a book through the great distribution system, Ingram.

Ingram eventually opened itself to people like me, the independent publisher, so my recent book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (http://www.amazon.com/Northern-California-Travel-Best-Options/dp/0976084392/ref=la_B001HNI5S8_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1395778539&sr=1-3) is available to bookstores and libraries through Ingram. I can bypass the traditional publishers and still have equal access to their declining bookstore market as an independent author/publisher.

Lee's new "independent" book

Lee’s new “independent” book

Many book sales have moved from the known book stores to the more diverse “gift store” micro market, where actual customers interested in books tended to lurk. Every author I know can tell stories about how they identified gift store market targets for their traditional publishers, but rarely does the publisher have the intimacy or subtlety to pursue these opportunities. Gift stores involve staff time, shipping costs, and the dreaded reality of the traditional publishing model, which is the return of unsold books. For example, I identified for Countryman Press that one of my books, The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco (http://www.amazon.com/Photographers-Guide-San-Francisco-Perfect/dp/0881508144/ref=la_B001HNI5S8_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1395778891&sr=1-4), should be sold at the Crissy Field Warming Hut store near the Golden Gate Bridge. I even primed the pump by placing a few books there, which sold out quickly. Did Countryman pursue this? No. They wanted to, they said, but just couldn’t quite make it happen.

The rise of Amazon had a profound effect on all aspects of modern publishing, including this contemporary shift towards independent publishing. Amazon is a big subject, with a thousand facets. Amazon offered me, as an independent publisher, the same deal it offered my traditional publishers, which was a return of 45% on the declared retail price. Working directly with Amazon’s print-on-demand entity, CreateSpace, I could earn $4.25 when my latest book, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, sold. Working with Countryman Press on my book, The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco, I could earn $1 per book sold on Amazon, and that would be paid to me about six months after the fact. Given these economics, more authors are becoming interested in the independent trajectory.

Each author should operate in the traditional vs independent scene based on his or her best interests and actual opportunities. This may at time lead to contrarian behavior. For example, although I am a general advocate for the independent approach, I did participate in one of the main traditional travel publisher books for 2013, which was publisher Dorling Kindersley’s big book Back Roads California (http://www.amazon.com/Roads-California-EYEWITNESS-TRAVEL-ROADS/dp/0756674948/ref=la_B001HNI5S8_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1395779943&sr=1-1). I was one of the three author/photographers. My reasons for participating were simple: the DK folks were nice people, this is a prestigious publisher, this subject was right in my territory, my respected friends were the co-authors, and DK offered me cash money $15,000 to do a third of the book, easy in and easy out. So DK invested $45,000 for the total book content, and it is a beautiful book. I hope this book will not be seen as the last iteration of a publishing species going extinct. I will be watching to see how many big books like this the publisher DK will develop in the future.

Many more factors could be cited as forces in this traditional-to-independent direction. Let’s plunge in and discuss more of them on the independent publishing side of the chasm.

The Emergence of Independent Book Publishing 

The rise of the ebook option has been a factor in the push towards independent publishing. One aspect is the “capital” required for the publishing operation. In the olden days, the traditional publishing era, the publisher alone had the capital to print thousands of books, warehouse them, and ship them. This was the only option. However, now, with an ebook, there is no replication and shipping cost.

Traditional publishers have been reluctant acceptors of the ebook phenomenon. I have one book with Globe Pequot that has now been in print for 15 years. Still, they are reluctant to bring it out as an ebook. That volume is Northern California History Weekends (http://www.amazon.com/Northern-California-History-Weekends-Foster/dp/0762710764/ref=la_B001HNI5S8_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1395780223&sr=1-7). Their argument in the early years was that they didn’t want to cannibalize their print book sales. Their argument in the recent years is inertia.

Another striking current observation has to do with the market for English language books and ebooks. Where is the English-speaking world of today and tomorrow? The surprise is that China could be so important. It is estimated that in China there are a billion mobile phone users, 500 million mobile Internet users, and a $20 billion book industry. It is said that there are now more English speakers in China than in the U.S. If Globe Pequot doesn’t have an ebook out, how will they sell my content to Chinese who want to travel to California?

An e-product opens up the possibility of viral sales. Your product can go viral and you can earn significant income. For example, I have three travel apps out, on San Francisco, Washington DC, and Berkeley. On a certain day someone at Apple declared my app San Francisco Travel and Photo Guide to be a “staff favorite.” The app, at that point, was for sale at $2.99 and I earned $1 per sale. We sold a thousand units, and I earned a thousand dollars, in the next thirty days.

Dismissing the ebook opportunity puts a publisher in conflict with some of the main book distribution factors of our time. For example, all children in the Los Angeles school system, it is reported, have been issued iPads. The goal is to make all their textbooks and learning materials ebooks. Imagine what the kids are doing in their free time. They will be looking at e-products. It is relatively certain that they will not be buying printed books.

I distribute my two ebooks through BookBaby, but I could also market them through Smashwords. Both are credible and reliable ebook distributors.

Another technology advancing independent publishing is the print-on-demand option for printed books. It is not necessary today to print thousands of copies and invest heavy capital in a book. Modern print-on-demand with text and black-and-white images is quite good. Color images are not there yet in an economical package. When I published my first independent book, Travel in an American Imagination (http://www.amazon.com/Travels-American-Imagination-Spiritual-Geography/dp/0976084309/ref=la_B001HNI5S8_1_18?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1395780603&sr=1-18), in 2005, print-on-demand was not so good. So I printed the book in China and put in color. Today I would print-on-demand the book with black-and-white and save the color for the ebook version.

It is important to print-on-demand your book with two vendors, Amazon CreateSpace and Ingram Lightning Source. Amazon will be certain to advertise your book as immediately available if you print it through them. Bookstores and libraries will only order your book from Ingram, their preferred supplier, which allows them to return books that do not sell.

A critical aspect of the rise of independent publishing is each author’s answer to the question, “Who actually sells my book today?” In the past, the publisher was a major seller. A bookstore would stock every book in a given publisher’s lineup. Now the author himself or herself is the main seller, aided by Social Media reach. If an author needs to create the market, why not take 100% of the profit? That’s what I get from BookBaby for my ebooks, 100% of the net ebook sales, vs a “generous” 25% from Countryman Press. I use the word “generous” because Countryman upped the payment to me from 15% of net for printed books to 25% of net for ebooks. As mentioned, for my print-on-demand books, I earn about $4.25 per sale of a book through Amazon or Ingram, vs about $1 some six months later for a sale of a printed book from a traditional publisher, such as Countryman Press. Given these dollar disparities, it may be increasingly difficult for traditional publishers to attract authors.

A further consideration in any discussion of traditional vs independent publishing should be the author’s flexibility regarding use of similar content in other potentially profitable contexts. For “work for hire” projects, the standard is understood. The content must be reworked sufficiently to avoid any litigious similarly when repurposed. In this Internet era, when a “string” of words can be searched, the possibility of disputes grows larger. The “royalty” publishers have generally viewed with displeasure the author’s use of similar material on author websites, perhaps fearing that it competes with the book. However, the issues are larger than this, and involve “licensing” of content and new assignments from the robust presentation of book content on the author’s website.

Here is an example from my recent work, illustrating the unfettered website presentation of an independently-published book, Northern California Travel:The Best Options. The book exists, of course, as a print-on-demand book and as an ebook. However, the “book” also exists as a website, with the 30 chapters appearing as 30 articles. See this at http://www.fostertravel.com/category/norcal/. Each day consumers look at those individual articles, and I earn money from the Google Adsence Ads surrounding the articles. In the Adsense world, for every 100 visitors looking at my articles, it is likely that one will click on an ad and I will earn 25 cents. If the worldwide consumer wants to look at little “chunks” of my “book” as articles, why should I deprive them of the opportunity? Consumers can even print out the articles for free, and beat their printers to death, and put their discretionary money into buying printer cartridges, but sooner or later the notion may emerge, “Perhaps I should just buy this book.”

“Licensing” of book content is the final concept to consider. Some chapters/articles from Northern California Travel: The Best Options are among the more than 100 articles from my website for Foster Travel Publishing (http://www.fostertravel.com) that I have licensed to GreatWorldGetaways (http://www.greatworldgetaways.com. This is a consumer-travel website owned by a web entrepreneur in England. I am guaranteed a four-figure income for my license to them for 2014 for the use of my articles.

If an author can also present books “robustly” on a website, new assignments may result. In 2013 I received a major assignment from Answers.com, the #23 most trafficked website on the Internet, to serve as their San Francisco Travel Expert. I now have 80 new San Francisco/Bay Area articles in their system. See a part of this at http://ustravel.answers.com/san-francisco. When I asked the editor why she chose me over other candidates, she said, “We really liked that presentation of your new book on your website. With all your California material visible, we knew you could develop parallel content for us.”

Many other aspects of this drama between traditional vs independent publishing could be discussed. With so many auspicious elements of modern publishing favoring the independent path, it is likely that the trend in that bold direction will continue.

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Copyright © 2014 Lee Foster, Foster Travel Publishing. All rights reserved.

This article was written by Lee Foster of Foster Travel Publishing. Contact Lee at .

Lee has 250 worldwide travel writing/photography coverages for consumers to enjoy and for content buyers to license at www.fostertravel.com.

Lee's new travel books in 2013 are Northern California Travel: The Best Options and from Dorling Kindersley (DK) the Eyewitness Guide Back Roads California. For information on Lee's 12 books, look at www.fostertravel.com/book.html or his Amazon Author Page.

Lee has three travel apps in the Apple iTunes App Store. They are San Francisco Travel Photo Guide, Washington DC Travel Photo Guide, and Berkeley Essential Guide.

Lee's photo selling website on PhotoShelter has 5,000 digital images for photo buyers to license and for consumers to order as prints, products, cards, and for personal use. See http://stockphotos.fostertravel.com.
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Comments

6 Responses to “Independent Book Publishing: Is it the Viable Future for Books?”
  1. TravelAnn says:

    You have a great teaching style, as shown by this video. Swollen with invaluable information, it is delivered in an organized and easy-to-understand fashion. Thank you for sharing your vast experience in this field with us!

  2. steven threndyle says:

    You raise many relevant points, here, but the one aspect that caught my eye was the fact that you said ‘yes’ to DK. Like, any writer would be crazy not to – it is one of those cases where the packaging and art direction presents the actual content in such a compelling manner that you can’t not want to be a part of it (I just used a six year old copy of our Hawaii book for our third trip there in six years). I think we also need to look at where ‘the market’ for travel guides exists. What works in SF or HNL might not work in, say, Denver or Phoenix (though… the Compass International imprint was absolutely awesome, and they did an excellent guide to Arizona that I still have here, somewhere). Needless to say, information is extremely diffuse, a high Yelp score trumps damn nearly everything, or so it seems, and at the end of the day it’s an enormous amount of work for next to nothing and has little currency other than to say ‘oh, I’m a travel writer’ when a stranger sitting next to you on a plane asks what your job is.

  3. Lee Foster says:

    Steven,

    You make two particularly lucid comments in your observations.

    One is that the travel guide book world for each destination will be quite different. SF vs Vancouver vs Denver vs HNL vs Phoenix etc. When we commit to these guides, we need to try to understand how large is the audience, where the traveler is coming from (regional vs international), and where that traveler will look for insight and information. This is an ongoing and lifelong study for each of us as authors. We need to be where that traveler will look.

    Your second insight has to do with the prominence of Yelp, and perhaps we could add TripAdvisor. When I recently did the new DK book on N CA and traveled around, I was struck by the sea change in the way these two structures are affecting travel. I would ask restaurants and hotels: how are your customers finding you? Where are they coming from? For most establishments, Yelp and TripAdvisor were the most important components. Not magazines, not newspaper, not advertising, and (sobering) not travel guidebooks. Our relationships on all these matters, between authors, consumers, Yelp/TripAdvisor reviewers, and vendors of travel services, are complex. For example, I get viewers coming into my website from recommendations on TripAdvisor, where something recommends my articles and books. I see the links in Google Analytics. So TripAdvisor both destroys and creates my market.

    Lee Foster

  4. Tiffanie says:

    Thank you for your review and such an open minded presentation of the pros and cons of both systems.

  5. Lee Foster says:

    Thanks, Tiffanie. Glad you enjoyed the discussion. The subject is evolving quickly. I’ll try to tweak the pros and cons as the future proceeds.

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