Traditional vs Independent Book Publishing: What’s Best for Your Book?

SF Travel & Photo Guide a book by Lee Foster

By Lee Foster

Should your book/ebook publishing trajectory be with traditional publishers, or should you go “independent,” meaning a venture into self-publishing? Or should you consider both for different books? Lee Foster does both and knows the pros and cons of each approach. In his travel book field, Lee has a major new book in 2013 with one of the top traditional travel book publishers, Dorling Kindersley, titled Back Roads California. But Lee has also published a new “independent” book, Northern California Travel: The Best Options. Why would he pursue these seemingly divergent visions?

Lee’s new “work for hire” book

Here are some Questions and Answers to discuss the possibilities:

-Q1. Lee, you’ve published in your travel book field both traditionally and independently. Tell us what you’ve done.

-A1. There are three travel book publishing options, and here are some examples of my books in all three.

First Path: The dominant and worldwide traditional travel book publishers do mainly work-for-hire books, such as Dorling Kindersley and Lonely Planet. Examples are my new book Back Roads California for DK and my cover on a Stockholm book for Lonely Planet. I have had photos in more than 300 LP books. The biggest players tend to be work-for-hire, primarily so they can pay once and continue to slice and dice the content forever without the accounting headache of paying contributors. To be commercially successful, they need to sell a lot of books to recoup their investment.

Second Path: Boutique traditional publishers offer advance-against-royalties books, usually 15% of net. My main current books in this category are two with Countryman Press, titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco and The Photographer’s Guide to Washington DC, and one with Glove Pequot, titled Northern California History Weekends. Most of my emphasis, including earlier books, has been on this approach, with medium-size “boutique” publishers.

Third Path: Independent or self-published books is the future, in my opinion. I have two independent books out. They are Travels in an American Imagination: The Spiritual Geography of Our Time, done in 2005, and Northern California Travel: The Best Options, done in 2013.

My three options mentioned might be considered: Difficult, More Difficult, and Most Difficult. But perhaps only the Most Difficult has a future.

-Q2. What are some of the pros and cons of working with the big players, such as Lonely Planet or Dorling Kindersley, who do work-for-hire travel books?


-Work for hire means cash in the bank, $15,000 to me from DK for writing/photography of 1/3 of their book.
-There is the prestige of working with a big brand, including the acknowledgement of discipline that you can work with the big players. The books are a good credit.
-Work-for-hire is clean in and out, with no follow-up work or promo. When it’s done, it’s done.
-The work-for-hire project increases my knowledge base, but I can’t re-use that knowledge exactly in the same form that I turned in.
-These big companies have the capital to make the enterprise successful. The assured success of the book doesn’t cost me a dollar.

-Work-for-hire is a serial financial life, not building anything, as with royalty books or independent books. The work-for-hire writer needs to sock away a portion for retirement, if he or she can.
-There are not that many good deals now available in this work-for-hire genre. The big five travel publishers (Frommer’s, DK, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, and Avalon) do mostly work-for-hire and are experiencing declining sales. The big five sold $125 million in books in the U.S. in 2007, but only $78 million in 2012.
-Big brands advance their identity, not my identity.
-The book is not mine; it is theirs. I must proceed with their requested formula for content.
-Conflicts arise with the future use of my content on my website, in apps, in other books, in articles, and in other licensing opportunities etc. Am I creating precious sonnets that I treasure or phone books that are deadly data about which I do not care? Sonnets are so much harder to disguise and re-use.
-A big work-for-hire brand can also be purchased and then buried by a competitor, with disastrous results for the travel writers involved. One recent celebrated example is Google buying Frommer’s in order to chunkette its content onto Google’s system. Google subsequently eliminated the Frommer’s online effort and suspended publishing printed books by Frommer’s. All those writers waiting for lucrative work-for-hire contracts to update their Frommer’s guides are now out of work.

-Q3. You indicate your main emphasis has been in royalty books, when speaking of traditional publishers. Why did you focus on royalty books? What are the pros and cons today?

One of Lee’s “royalty” books


-I have always wanted to be part of the action, part of the profit future, always hoped-for financial success with a royalty. Hope and identity are powerful incentives.
-The royalty system worked well in the past, from 1980-2000, but works less well now.
-The royalty companies have usually been smaller companies, more intimate, easier to work with.
-The royalty companies had the capital to make the enterprise successful.
-Usually, royalty books could be more personal, individual, less cookie cutter.
-The royalty company had access to bookstore distribution in the past, and bookstores were the main distribution channel. That has changed, with Amazon now the main distribution point, and traditional publishers having no special advantage on Amazon.

-Royalty book sales have dropped in recent years. Royalty books have become less and less successful.
-Royalty publishers no longer have better access to distribution than an individual, especially with Amazon. Amazon offers the same distribution deal to individuals and to major publishers. Lightning Source-Ingram offers the same deal to individuals (who act like publishers).
-Royalty publishers today have little or no budget to advertise and promote, so they add little to the venture in this important aspect.
-Where books are sold has changed. Bookstores are now less important, and royalty publishers can’t seem to get into specialty and gift stores, which are now major sellers of books.
-Postage increases threaten all book sales, making ebooks more attractive than print books. Individuals can manage their ebooks more effectively than any traditional publisher.
-Print-on-demand advances have made doing the independent book easier and less capital intensive. You can do now do the book yourself.
-Ebooks have changed things, so you now might as well take charge and earn all (or at least more) of the net income from your ebook intellectual property.
-Royalty publishers may not offer a sufficient discount to bookstores to order their books. On Ingram, a publisher must list a book as Returnable and the “industry standard” Regular Discount (meaning Ingram pays the publisher at 55% off). If the publisher requires a lesser discount, bookstores will tend not to order the book. My royalty publishers don’t always allow the “industry standard” discount, so commerce does not occur. The decision is beyond my control.
-Conflicts with all traditional publishers arise over use of “similar” content on author websites. These conflicts have been substantial and have inhibited authors. Authors want to be able to re-use and re-sell and license their content in other forms to further markets.
-The author of royalty books has to promote the book to get sales, so the author might as well own it.

Q4. So that brings us up to the present: Why are you now engaged in independent or self-publishing, such as for this new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options?

Lee’s new “independent” book

A4. I have decided to publish independently for many reasons.

The main pro and con arguments for my decision are as follows:

-I earn more money in independent publishing. I now earn $4.72 per Amazon sale of my new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options at retail $14.95 vs $1 from Countryman Press or Globe Pequot for my traditional royalty books from them at $14.95 retail. Today, Amazon is said to sell perhaps 50% of all books. I can actually earn $7.71 per book when the Amazon print-on-demand company, CreateSpace, sells my book directly from their E-Store (which sells physical books, not ebooks, so the name is confusing).
-I have complete control over design and distribution of my book, including the discount for the distribution of my book. I can set the bookstore discount so that carrying my book from Lightning Source-Ingram will be appealing to a bookstore.
-I have complete control over the existence of my book in ebook form. Globe Pequot, for example, has not issued my book Northern California History Weekends as an ebook. Please ask them why.
-I can use my content, without any questions, on my website. In fact, my new book is a “book” on my website. See www.fostertravel.com/category/norcal for a presentation of my book Northern California Travel: The Best Options as a website. Could the future of travel books (and all books) possibly be presentation of the book on a website rather than in a printed or ebook or app form?
-I can license my content to others easily, and can choose to do an app of the book. See my three apps on the right side of www.fostertravel.com. See more than 100 of my worldwide articles licensed beneficially (cash payment to me per month) on a consumer travel website set up by one of the world’s great travel agency systems, Uniglobe.

-For my “independently” published ebooks (Northern California Travel: The Best Options and my travel literary book Travels in an American Imagination: The Spiritual Geography of Our Time), I earn 100% of the net ebook sale through BookBaby. By contrast, I get a “generous” 25% of the net sale when Countryman sells their ebook version of my royalty books. Ebooks are now reported to account for more sales than print books on Amazon, though not in all categories of books, such as travel books.
-Capital costs in modern Print-On-Demand POD publishing have been greatly reduced. The author may want to invest $1,500 for design and layout, plus $249 for ebook distribution through BookBaby, plus $105 to get the book into Lightning Source/Ingram. In the past, publishers had the Capital (perhaps $20,000 to print 3,000 books and add editorial services) and the exclusive Access to Distribution (mainly through bookstores.) Offset printing of thousands of books (for economies of scale) and distribution required many thousands of $ per title. Times have changed.

-As an author, I need to promote my book to get sales, but actually I need to do this anyway for royalty books as well, now that royalty publishers no longer do much promotion.
-As an author, I need to think like a publisher, rather than languish as an author who wants to be published. This is not so true with CreateSpace/Amazon, where the handholding is considerable. But acting like a publisher is essential at Lightning Source/Ingram, where they want to deal with solid and knowledgeable publishers.
-It’s important to get good design and editing to make your book look professional. Those design and editing details were the burdens of the “publisher” in the past. Now I am the publisher.

Note: Publishing technology keeps changing. My 2007 book was offset-printed in China. My 2013 book is print-on-demand (POD). Publishing opportunities have evolved, although POD is not there yet for color photos at economical prices.

-Q5. With whom do you work to manufacture and distribute your independent books and ebooks?

A5. I print-on-demand (POD) with CreateSpace/Amazon for a good reason. CreateSpace is an Amazon company. Books must be printed by CreateSpace to be immediately in stock on Amazon. Books from other POD folks (Lightning Source/Ingram) are listed as available in “two to three weeks,” says Amazon. That delay inhibits commerce.

-I POD with Lightning Source/Ingram for sales to bookstores and libraries. Bookstores may not want to work with the Amazon company, CreateSpace, since Amazon is sometimes described as the “evil empire” in bookstore circles. Bookstores require that the book be “returnable,” and only Lightning Source/Ingram meets this marketing requirement.
-Bookstores also require a 40% or so discount, which is the industry standard “regular discount” at Lightning Source/Ingram. If an author chooses this discount, commerce may occur. Choose a lesser discount and the book will be invisible.

-I publish my ebook with BookBaby, run by Brian Felsen. I pay a $249 up front cost for the “premium” package to see proofs before publishing, rather than do a shot-in-the-dark release of the book without proofs at $99. My experience: Proof changes are needed, including BookBaby errors. Then I get 100% of the sale, and pay them longtail $19/year residual fee starting in year two, three, four etc. BookBaby distributes my ebook to all the viable retail channels, making them one-stop e-distribution. BookBaby must submit the book manually to Amazon because Amazon does not accept automated book delivery. (Smashwords, run by Mark Coker, would be another excellent provider of ebook services.)

-Note: My book is also published as a website. I do this myself, of course. Each chapter is an article at www.fostertravel.com/category/norcal. Could the website presentation of a book be a more viable future than the print book or the ebook? We shall see.

-Q6. Lee, in conclusion, what do you see as your publishing path going forward, and what are you generally recommending to your fellow authors?

A6. Look seriously at independent publishing/self-publishing. To succeed, you must be temperamentally suited to be an author/publisher/promoter. The independent path will not work if you are simply “an author who wants to be published.”

New publishing technology (POD and ebooks) and new distribution options generally favor the independent trend as we look ahead. The old days of traditional publisher advantage (capital and monopoly access to distribution) are now over.

In the future, I will do more independent books and possibly more work-for-hire cash-out books, but probably will not do more royalty books.

-Q7. Lee, give us more details into how things work with your independent publishing vendors, such as CreateSpace, Lighting Source, and BookBaby.

A7. Here are further detailed insights into CS, LS, BookBaby:

-1. CreateSpace (CS) characteristics. They remit to me $4.52 per book sold on Amazon (no return of sold books allowed):

-CS has friendly, good customer service. They are selling books to consumers. They are very supportive of independent authors.
-They have templates for the do-it-yourselfer for interior and cover, though I used a professional designer.
-They do not sell to libraries, such as through Baker & Taylor, without their CS ISBN, and I want to use my own ISBN, so I need to also print-on-demand through Lightning Source to sell to libraries.
-CS does not allow for book returns, so bookstores will not buy from CS. Bookstores also may not like to do anything with Amazon/CS. I need to POD also with LS to sell to bookstores.
-CS pays me $4.52 for books sold on Amazon for my 284 pp book 5.5×8.5 priced at $14.95. The also pay me $7.71 for a book sold directly from CreateSpace, rather than through Amazon.
-CS books manufactured and sold to me cost me $4.25 plus postage. Sales tax is avoided because I filed with them info on my CA Sales Resale Tax #.
-CS prints also in the UK and in Europe, so an order from there can be executed immediately and delivered quickly with minimal postage. They do not print in Australia.
-CS does direct deposit each month to my bank. I can watch daily sales accumulate in my CS account.

-2. Lightning Source (LS) characteristics. They remit to me $2.14 per book sold (returns allowed from bookstores):

-LS is formal and biz-like, but has South Carolina southern charm on the phone.
-LS requires a professional book file and cover file for submission. There are no “templates” for the amateur.
-LS does not encourage the single-book author, so act like a publisher.
-LS needs a 55% discount (the “standard” discount) and Returnable books to make commerce happen. Smaller discounts are allowed, but commerce will not occur.
-LS requires setup of $75 and $30 proof for a first book, plus $12/year in the future each year for the catalog.
-My author cost to buy a book from LS is higher than CS, so I will buy books for my use from CS. The quality of both is good, though slightly different.

SF Travel & Photo Guide a book by Lee Foster
SF Travel & Photo Guide a book by Lee Foster

Here is more detail about LS, which is so important for the bookstore and library sale of books:

-Set up a book with LS at the industry standard 55% off and Return Destroy for normal business practices. There are no postage fees for me in the returns. Returns are destroyed by Lightning Source. Lower discount rates, such as 20%, can be chosen, but no commerce to bookstores or libraries will occur at those rates.

-My return is $2.14 per book sold by Lightning Source through Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, etc. All this is automatic. I do not choose my distributors.

-My $2.14 is calculated based on my 45% of list (after my 55% off “industry standard” discount choice) or $6.73 on my $14.95 retail price, minus the manufacturing cost for their buyers (.90 plus 284 x .013 or $4.59). $6.73 minus $4.59 is $2.14.

-My author/publisher cost to buy books from LS is .90 cover plus .015 x 284 or $5.16 per book, plus postage. This price for a book is higher to me at LS than from CreateSpace/Amazon. Note: LS does not charge sales tax, but Amazon CreateSpace does charge sales tax, so a publisher with a sales tax # needs to contact CreateSpace/Amazon and file the form to avoid sales tax.

-Direct Deposit to my bank is better with LS than a physical check. Direct Deposit goes each month regardless of sales amount, while checks go out only after $100 has accumulated and are subject to USPS delivery snafus. I use direct deposit to my bank for both CS and LS.

-The Returns policy at LS subjects me to some risk, but encourages commerce to occur. When a book is ordered and I have been paid my $2.14, and it is returned, I am charged back “what the buyer paid.” This will be the manufacturing cost. In this book industry, actual sales, or sell-through, is critical to avoid book churning, where a client of Ingram on day 89 of a 90 day pay cycle will send books back, then reorder the next day. It’s commerce in the book industry, and it can be ugly, and the book industry has its irrational aspects. Either accept this reality or choose some other industry for your endeavors. Cooperate with LS if you want commerce to occur.

-3. Bookbaby characteristics. They remit to me 100% of the net sale, after my up-front fee payment of $249 and a longtail fee of $19 in years 2, 3, 4 etc:

-BookBaby has good phone customer support, but my experience has been that they do not answer emails readily.
-BookBaby operators are not always knowledgeable, and I received conflicting answers to some questions. There were some errors in conversions, such as live links not highlighted.
-Note that http:// links in a manuscript show up as live links in an ebook, unlike a printed book. This is a significant value added in an ebook.
-I hope the BookBaby business model will prove to be sustainable ($249 plus $19/year longtail) for the hand holding that publishers/authors need (as opposed to musicians, in their parent company, CD Baby).
-The BookBaby proof copy is my longterm e-copy, saved on my iPad.
-BookBaby distributes my ebook in all viable retail markets, starting with Amazon Kindle and Apple, but now totaling 11 e-retailers, including library sales through Baker & Taylor. BookBaby continues to watch over the appearance of new viable retailers, and will include my book in the new channels. I was pleased when I learned of their distribution to libraries through Baker & Taylor, where the library is limited to a defined number of check-outs per ebook before the license expires. On 2-26-13 they announced distribution through Scribd. I appreciate that they keep watching over the developing e-retail scene.

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