So You Want to Self-Publish?

By David Staat

One of the highlights of this year’s RMOWP conference was a self-publishing panel discussion. Self-publishing a book is a multifaceted endeavor where success comes in many forms. This subject was explored by a panel of experienced self-publishers. As moderator, I was asked to provide a summary of their discussion. The panelists were Ron Belak, John Hanou, Peter Kummerfeldt, and Virginia Staat.

The panelists considered three questions during the discussion. The questions and answers were as follows:

1.  Why did you choose your publisher? What type of help did they offer? Were there any limitations?

  • Each panelist had a different reason for publishing their work. Although generating revenues was important to cover their costs, the overwhelming reason for self-publishing was to get their work or message out to a broader readership or support their commercial interest. Each panelist chose a different publisher depending on ease of use, customer support, marketing strategy, and the amount of royalties they received. 
  • Some chose their publishers because they provided an easy computer template for the writer to develop their book. Others chose publishers who provided extensive help in formatting, layout, editing, marketing, and distribution. Royalties from their sales ran from 5% to 85% per book sold, depending on printing cost and the amount of marketing and distribution the writer was willing to do on their own. Printing costs were impacted by the number of images or sketches, whether those images were in color or black and white, book size/dimensions, and whether the printed book would be hard or soft cover, or printed on demand.
  • John started publishing his themed photo books in color through a college press before self-publishing. He is still targeting university presses and historical societies as possible publishers. However, as marketing opportunities continue to change, he has also moved to self-publishing. His photo-themed books require excellent photo quality, so his preferred publisher is blurb.com.
  • Ron has published two fly fishing books through bookbaby.com. He chose this publisher because they offered an easy-to-use website, pricing tools to figure book costs, good customer support by phone or email, and a full line of services. BookBaby also prints in the U.S. and offers excellent photo and print quality. 
  • Peter published his book to support his survival workshops and survival supply business. He utilized numerous articles and lectures that he had compiled as chapters in his book and published his images in black and white. He chose McNaughton & Gunn (mcnaughton-gunn.com) because they offered an attractive pricing program. 
  • Virginia published a children’s book about a renegade bear in south Texas. She used drawings rather than photos to illustrate the true story. Virginia chose BookLocker.com because they had a strong marketing reach, their print quality was excellent, they printed in the U.S., and they provided a designer to work with her to make sure the project layout was successful. 

2. How did you market your book? 

Peter’s expertise in wilderness survival led him to lecture around the world, and he sold his book at those lectures, on Amazon, and as part of his on-line survival store. Ron also did substantial promotion while lecturing and attending chapter meetings at Trout Unlimited, fly fishing shops, and trade shows. His book is also available on Amazon and eBay. Virginia and John relied on their publisher’s marketing networks to promote their books online. Both had a presence on Amazon. Virginia’s publisher, BookLocker.com, also uses Ingram, which reaches both national and international libraries and bookstores. Virginia also promoted her book on social media and through book signings. Royalties from these panelists ranged from 5% to 85%, depending on marketing and shipping costs. 

3. Would you do anything differently?

Ron was offered two different publishing contracts for his first book and feels he might have spent more time negotiating with them before self-publishing. His concerns at the time were that the publisher would own photo copyrights and royalties. Peter would have paid for a professional editor. John would look at BookBaby for future publications. Virginia stated that had she known in advance, she wouldn’t publish at the beginning of a pandemic. She lost two high-profile presenter opportunities because of lockdowns. The loss of these opportunities adversely affected her sales. 

In addition to the above questions, the panelists suggested the following tips:

  • Do your due diligence with a variety of publishers to choose the one that best satisfies your publishing needs. 
  • Find a good, professional editor — they are worth the money. 
  • Writing a book is difficult work but very rewarding. Dedicate some time every week or so to the project. The books you write are a legacy that you leave to those that follow.
  • Read the fine print in any self-publishing contract. Pay particular attention to who owns the rights to the book after printing and how many books you need to break even.
  • If you are on the road marketing and selling books, it is helpful if you can take credit cards.
  • Having an initial marketing plan is critical. The first three years of publication are the most profitable. You can expect to sell half as many books the second year as you did the first and half as many books the third year as you did the second.

Since the self-publishing subject is so broad, it is impossible to include everything in this article. Feel free to contact any of the panelists for details. (Their contact information can be found in the membership directory.)