Independent Book Publishing Today

By Lee Foster

There are so many revolutions swirling around us. The pace of change is truly dizzying.

One substantial aspect of that change is occurring in the publishing of travel books.

Today’s authors frequently ask the obvious question: Should I publish my books independently or should I go with a traditional publisher?

Fifteen years ago there would not have been an option. It would have been very difficult to get distribution if you tried to self publish. Now, however, anyone can sell a book on Amazon. With some effort, it is also possible to set up a bookstore distribution channel through Baker & Taylor, for example, that would allow every Barnes & Noble store to buy the book. So distribution is possible, even if difficult. Creating demand is another issue. If you can’t create demand, there is no point in publishing a book either independently or with a traditional publisher.

I have published 10 books. The first seven were with traditional publishers. The eighth was independent. The last two were traditional. I have two independent books coming up.

For the eighth book I went independent. That book was Travels in an American Imagination: The Spiritual Geography of Our Time ($14.95). The independent route proved fairly satisfactory. I have sold about 2,000 of the 3,000 books printed. However, this was a difficult book to sell, a travel literary book extolling a vision that we live in both the most wondrous and the most horrific time ever to be alive. Selling the book was like selling a book of poetry, something far more difficult to sell than a travel guidebook.

Books 9 and 10 came to me quickly and easily. A publisher, Countryman Press, asked me to do two books in one of their series. The books are The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco and The Photographer’s Guide to Washington, D.C. (I co-authored the latter book with Ann Purcell). Both books went fairly well. Both are priced at $14.95. They are royalty books, 15% of net. My favored path is royalty books. I like being part of the ongoing prosperity or failure of the project. The illusion of possible prosperity is a tremendous energy source. That my identity moves forward with the book project is also a plus.

Work-for-hire books is another model. Some publishers, such as Lonely Planet, do only work-for-hire. The writer is commissioned to write the book, receives a certain fee, and the project is done. The publisher takes full responsibility to market and sell the book. I have a new contract with the English publisher Dorling Kindersley to write portions of a major book, Back Roads California, using this model. That book will be out in 2013.

However, simultaneously, I am working on two other books, my own ideas, concerning nature and culture travel in Northern California. How will I do those books? Probably independently.

So, as you think of doing books with traditional publishers vs independently, keep in mind:

-If you want to get in and out of a book fast, with or without your name on it, and with a few dollars in the bank, go with a traditional publisher, and probably ask for a work-for-hire contract. This is exactly the opposite of my approach, but it may be best for you. I like to be involved in the book process forever. I want to be part of the risk and reward. Increasingly, I now want to manage the printing (probably print-on-demand), the ebook versions, and the distribution.

-There may be conflict with a traditional publisher regarding the content, design, production, and marketing of your book. If you want to totally avoid conflict, do the book yourself, independently. Even in the best of all possible worlds, every major publishing project has its homicidal moments. The author, editor, and publisher are all under some strain. My relationship with Countryman was fairly smooth, but there were differences, as is to be expected. It helps to understand where a publisher is coming from. Countryman had books in this series on the Maine Coast and Yosemite, for example. My books were about urban areas, such as San Francisco. So I naturally wanted to put in cuisine as a subject. How can I do San Francisco without food? “People will not want to photograph their food,” said Countryman. I wanted to put in urban design photos, but Countryman admonished, “Avoid commercial places.” That was tough in the bright urban world of San Francisco. I could understand where they were coming from, however. With a book on the Maine Coast, was there anything of culinary interest (how many ways can you boil a lobster?). For commercial places, there was probably just an L.L. Bean Outlet, not much to feature. There were no conflicts in the content for my Travels in an American Imagination book. I controlled everything myself.

-If you are worried about design and production of your book, do the book independently. You need to have a good designer. I hired Pete Masterson, a designer in the San Francisco area. We watched over all aspects of my Travels on an American Imagination book as it was printed in China, including getting back proofs to do color correction for the photos. Countryman did a respectable commercial job on my two books with them. The cover of the San Francisco book came out a little muddy and dull, due to a printer operator error. I doubt that anyone looked at proofs. Don’t expect miracles from a commercial operation.

-If you are worried about the marketing of your book, do the book independently and depend on yourself. Deep in the heart of every author, there is a hopeful voice that says: Maybe the publisher will sell this book in all the ways I know it can be sold. There is a tremendous desire in every author for the publisher to make it happen. But mostly there is disappointment with the results. Selling books is not easy. Getting books into bookstores does not mean they will get sold. They may have to be shipped back to the publisher, at the publisher’s expense, if demand can’t be created. Books no longer stay sold. They get recycled on Amazon over and over again. Send out 100 requested review copies and 50 of them will appear for sale on Amazon within a month. Accept that we live in an imperfect world. But take charge if you care. With Countryman, for example, which is owned by W. W. Norton & Co., one good thing occurred. Norton had the clout to get the books into every Barnes & Noble in the region. Countryman sent out review copies. That was about it. Countryman specifically requested that I not contact the Norton sales reps, because they were busy with “active” selling of my book and did not have the time for “re-active” selling. Countryman had no one devoted to selling my books through specialty and gift stores, all those stores beyond regular book stores. The specialty store market can be important for travel books.

-With $10,000 and some energy, you can publish 3,000 copies of your own book as an offset book (print-on-demand is discussed below). These are ballpark figures. The actual book might only cost you $2 per book, but there are startup costs. You’ll spend $1,500 on a designer/layout person and there are other small costs, such as joining the Independent Book Publishers Association, which will give you access to Baker & Taylor, and thus to all bookstores. If you can create demand, you will benefit from the bookstore outlets. A few years ago, if you anticipated only a small volume sale of a book, print-on-demand digital operations would have been recommended. Today print-on-demand is a mainstream option. If you plan to sell more than 2,000 copies quickly, offset printing will probably be more economical.

-If you’re worried about electronic opportunities for your book, consider publishing the book independently. Traditional print-book publishers may be quite hostile to the electronic possibilities, seeing them only as a threat to sales of the printed book. Countryman still has no plan to turn my books into Amazon Kindle or other e-reader formats. They are nervous about me putting my book content on my website. I was able to do apps of my book subjects because an app is considered an entirely different product, not a facsimile ebook.

-Be aware that this entire discussion applies to royalty books, not to work-for-hire books. If you don’t own the book, there is little to discuss. Some of the major travel book companies are entirely work-for-hire, such as the mentioned Lonely Planet or Frommer’s. So there’s nothing to discuss about exploiting the book. It’s their book, not yours. You get paid, once, up front, and then it’s theirs to slice and dice as they wish. This may not be a problem if the format for the book is highly specialized, as is my Dorling Kindersley book on Back Roads California. The writeups for them would not be useful in any other context. However, many of the smaller publishers are royalty publishers, where you get a percentage of the sale. Countryman Press and Globe Pequot are examples.

What’s new on this subject for 2011? There are several developments that affect everything I have discussed. First, ebooks are becoming more and more important, and may at some point eclipse printed books in your plans. And second, print-on-demand has become such high quality and at such a low price that this is now an option to consider, especially if a book does not have color photos (or if you would be happy with color photos just in the ebook version suitable for the iPad and other tablets, not Kindle.) Finally, third, one supplier of print-on-demand services, Lightning Source, can guarantee that your book is listed in the Ingram catalog, making it a book every bookstore could order, if you can create demand. The combination of print-on-demand plublishing, plus my subjects in ebooks and apps, all managed by me, is probably the direction I will go for the two personal travel guide books mentioned.

(Note: Lee Foster presents several instructional articles on his web site. If you find this instruction useful, you are encouraged to make a contribution/donation of $1 or more to Lee Foster’s PayPal account at [email protected] Funds will be used to develop further such instruction.)