London Show Daily feature: Net gain - lessons from self-publishing

Cory Doctorow • 27 April 2012

Cory Doctorow worked his butt off, made some mistakes, but earned a little money and enjoyed himself too.
Some 17 months ago, I launched my DIY, multi-format short-story collection, WITH A LITTLE HELP, and I can report that as of the end of March, I've taken in $45,182.64, spent $26,882.02 and netted $18,300.62. The book continues to sell in ebook form; as mail-order PoD paperbacks; as on-demand, in-store printed paperbacks; as Ingram-distributed on-demand paperbacks; as ebooks across all non-DRM platforms supported by BookBaby, and as special, bespoke hardcover limited editions at $275.00. You can also get the ebook or audiobook from me, for free, and offer a "name-your-own-price" donation.

The point of my DIY experiment was simple: after listening to everyone's intuition on the subject, I wanted to gather some evidence about the DIY publishing route enabled by technology today vs. using a traditional publisher. So, I designed this collection to be like a collection I did with a publisher in 2008 - Overclocked. The circumstances of each book's publication aren't identical, but they are as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as I think you are likely to get. Like Overclocked, all the stories in With a Little Help were reprints, except for one, which I commissioned for $10,000. Overclocked, meanwhile, fetched an advance of $10,000 (less my agent's 15%) and was similarly made up of reprints I'd already been paid to write.

So, what have I learned?

It worked
It was a lot of effort, but the DIY route had some awfully fun moments. The production of the craft-object, limited edition unique hardcovers reacquainted me with my past experiences in prepress and publishing, and gave me an opportunity to interact with some of my greatest fans. And the money was substantial, if not life-changing. The "donation" button on my site worked a treat, especially after I stopped calling it a “donation” and started calling it a “name-your-price”.
I also had the chance to work at length with Lulu, an outfit I found to be responsive, technology-driven and innovative. They are presently the only PoD service I know of that accepts changes to the book's interior between each printing, which is a primary advantage of PoD, surely. My Lulu editions are expunged of typos as soon as they are pointed out, with footnotes crediting each typo's discoverer on the affected page. Other PoD publishers, like Ingram's Lightning Source and Amazon's CreateSpace, use a cumbersome process to replace book interiors that is too unwieldy.

I made some expensive mistakes. One was my decision to mail review copies ($13 per copy) from my office in the UK, instead of contracting with someone in the USA to receive the books from Lulu and send them from there.

Another expensive mistake was my assumption that Boing Boing, the very popular blog I co-edit, would raise sufficient publicity for the book. I promoted the book several times through Boing Boing, but there were very few sales directly attributable to those posts. On the other hand, favourable reviews on other sites, from the Wall Street Journal to small blogs, generated lots of sales and donations. My takeaway - even my fans like to have external validation from a third-party reviewer before ordering a book.

A related mistake was underestimating the friction associated with setting up accounts with new retailers. Far more readers have bought books on Amazon than on Lulu, for example, and the feedback I received from many readers was that the hassle of setting up a new account with Lulu was enough to cause them to abandon the transaction partway through.

This problem was even worse for libraries, a traditional source of income for me, because it's transcendentally hard for public institutions to establish new retailer accounts. Thus I found myself also signed up with Ingram's Lightning Source programme, even though it charges fairly high fees, because practically every library has an Ingram account already.

Price matters
PoD printing turns out to be expensive. I know that everyone says that paper and shipping are not a major part of the clearing price of published books, but I suspect that is only true if you buy paper by the forest, ink by the barrel and already have a titanic network of warehouses. For all the PoD options, it is nearly impossible to print a 360-page book at a price that is competitive with a comparable, traditionally published one.

Price really matters with DIY books, because they are a gamble for price-conscious readers. They represent an unknown, lacking the imprimatur of a major publisher. In my ideal world, I'd put these books on the shelf at $8 each, while maintaining a $2 per copy royalty. If a 25% royalty seems steep, consider that I am both the publisher and the author of this book. With regular books, the publisher and author collectively keep about 50% of the book price, leaving the wholesaler and retailer with the other half.

In hindsight, one way to increase my profit and lower the price would have been to reduce the word-count of the book. There are 12 stories in the book, plus an intro and an afterword, totalling some 120,000 words. Omitting two to three stories would not have turned off my customers, and would have allowed me to drop the price by a third while still maintaining a roughly $2 per copy royalty. It may be that, for now, the only way to get a DIY book down enough in price to spur sales is to shave the page-count.

The remaining major challenge for DIY writers is the administrative overhead. I presently retail With a Little Help through six bookstores; three PoD wholesaler/retailers; an ebook wholesaler (BookBaby); on my own site; and my own limited-edition, personal fulfilment business. While no one of these presents a major difficulty, collectively they take up a fair whack of time.

Even with just one book in circulation, my imprint generates about as much correspondence, filing and time-sucking as it would with 20 or 30 titles. The economy of scale would work in my favour if I wanted to do this for a living, but it works against me as a one-off experimenter. On the other hand, all that administration gets easier with time. With practice, I have whittled the administration down to a few hours a month.

Can you do this?
A frequent quibble is that the sort of opportunity I had with With a Little Help is available only to writers with an appreciable following, and one shouldn't generalise from it. Well, yes, every writer is unique.

But considering the financial opportunities available to a beginning writer who wishes to put out a short story collection, I think we can safely say it is negligible whether the writer goes DIY, or with a mainstream publisher. The fact is, you need a plan B either way. A writer can make more money from a DIY collection than through a publisher - provided you work your butt off (valuing your time at zero), avoid costly mistakes and enlist help from friends.