Thinking About Self Publishing?
by Mark Wessels
I guess that most of you know that in addition to the work I do as the “Director of Internet Activities” (aka “web / social media / video / marketing guy”) for Vic, I also own a publishing company. Actually, that’s a high minded way of saying that I sell my own books.
I’ll have to say that it’s been pretty successful. ”Mark Wessels Publications” currently has 4 titles (my 3 Fresh Approach books, plus the 5 Minute Theory books for band). Not much in the way of a catalog, but I sell over 50,000 books a year – and it’s a major part of my life.
Because of it’s relative success, I get asked often for pointers and recommendations for how to get started so I thought I’d write it down. I’m going to focus on print – but most of the same info can be applied to a online publications. This is by no means the most exhaustive treatise on the subject, but if you’re interested in some of what I’ve learned over the past 30+ years, it’s a good place to start!
HOW DO YOU GET STARTED?
First the bad news. An idea for a book is NOT a book.
Long story short, if you haven’t written the book yet – don’t worry about all the rest of this stuff. Finish the book first!
After you’ve written the book, make a few copies and show it to some trusted friends. Not the friends who will tell you how nice it is – but the kind that’ll tear you apart. You may have to really beg them to be honest. Nobody wants to tell a friend how all of the effort that they poured into something is terrible.
Then… take the criticism, step outside your own ego and decide what is valid and what isn’t – and rewrite your book. Rinse, repeat (rinse, repeat).
I could go on and on about how many versions of my books I went through before they actually started looking good and made sense, but I won’t. Maybe your’s will be completely perfect the first time! Hat’s off to you!
If you want a quick laugh, check out this cover and lesson from an early version of my book (around 1985). Before I could afford a computer and software, I had to use stick-on letters for the titles, type the text and hand write the music!
TO SELF PUBLISH, OR GET PUBLISHED THROUGH AN ESTABLISHED PUBLISHING COMPANY?
Certainly a viable question – and I’m not going to start off my article by ticking off all of my friends in the publishing world by saying don’t go through an established company. Mostly when people have asked me this question, they are really just thinking that they can avoid a lot of hard work by going through a publication company. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know this is NOT the case!
For starters, most publishing companies would want you to do the layout and design – at least most of it. If you send them a stack of notebook paper with scribbles and Post-It notes, they are going to think long and hard about whether it will be worth the time & expense of turning it into a product the meets their standards.
Second, if you think a company is going to do all the marketing for you, think again. While most companies have websites, newsletters, display at music conventions and may take out a print ad or two, unless your book is a blockbuster that is going to hit a huge market, my bet is that it’ll share space with tons of other new releases. If you don’t sell over 500+ copies in the first year, it’s probably going to collect dust in the library with the rest of the books. And, if you don’t get something in the contract that states otherwise, they will own the title forever – so there’s nothing you can do if you don’t feel that they are marketing it to your expectations.
If you want it to sell, you’ll have to put some serious effort into getting it out there and getting people to want to purchase it.
Don’t get me wrong. A publishing company is ALWAYS going to give you more immediate visibility than you’re likely to get on your own. They likely have a built in audience of customers, newsletter subscribers, etc. who keep abreast of their newly released titles. And you’ll have a more likely chance to get your book into a few music stores.
The real trade off is that you’ll make much less money if you go through a publishing company – in the ballpark of 85-90% less money (the general royalty is around 10-15% of marked retail price). In my case, very early in my career, I was approached by several companies who wanted to publish my books. At the time, I was selling 500 or so Fresh Approach to the Snare Drum books a year – and the publisher said, “We think we could sell 10,000 a year!” Pretty enticing. But, I knew my book wasn’t perfect and I wanted to have the ability to change it every couple of years to make it better (good luck getting a company to agree to that). AND, I was cocky enough to ask myself “How much money could I make if I were able to sell 10,000 copies a year?” For me, it worked out.
So, the short answer to this difficult question is that you need to look at all sides of the equation. Is making less per book, but selling potentially a larger number of books worth the trade off? Do you not want the hassle of paying for printing, stocking the books in your garage and making (hopefully) daily trips to the post office?
The suggestion I usually make is to try self-publishing for a while. If it’s more work than you’re willing to do, then you can always show it to some publishing companies later.
I’VE GOT MY BOOK WRITTEN. NOW HOW DO I GET IT TO LOOK GOOD?
Again, there’s no short cuts. Either you…
A) have a knack for design and know how to use all the appropriate programs to produce a great looking product.
B) have little ability, but strong desire to figure it out (this is where I fit in).
C) have a friend who can do it, who will do it (I should say “soon-to-be-former-friend”).
D) have deep pockets to pay someone to do it.
I fell into the B category because I’m incredibly cheap and had (before kids anyway) enough free time to learn. I would say that its MUCH easier now than when I finally got my first computer in 1990 (a Mac IIsi with Finale 1.0, Pagemaker with a huuuge 13″ monitor), so I’m not going to listen to you whine about how hard it is!
NOW WHERE DO YOU GO TO GET IT PRINTED?
I guess this one depends on your pockets and your confidence. For me, it was a long process – from paying $6-8 bucks a book for 20 copies at the local copy shop to 15,000 a year at my current printer in upstate NY. For me personally, my business and book success grew with each print run.
BTW: Take it from me: you will never, NEVER find all the mistakes in your book until you’ve spent money and the book comes back from the printer. Only then will you see them or have your customers point them out for you.
Maybe you can spot the mistake in this cover?
I didn’t. Until I had 500 copies delivered fresh off the printing press. Of course, I was way to cheap to have them reprinted, so somewhere in the universe are “collectable” versions of my first computer-generated snare book!
The short answer to finding a printer is to search. Luckily there are hundreds that are willing to take your money – and most will be happy to give you a quote (don’t be afraid to ask for quotes!). Depending on where you live, you may save a huge amount of money getting one that’s not local. My printer is Vick’s Lithograph & Printing in case you’re interested.
You need to know a few facts about your product when asking for a quote… like:
How many pages? This is internal page count front/back. It doesn’t really matter until you get into higher volumes, but most printers like multiples of 4 or 8 because they print on very large sheets, fold and cut.
What size? 8.5 x 11 is cheapest – some printers won’t charge you more for 8.75 x 11 – but there is a pretty significant expense for 9 x 12 (and most printers won’t have the equipment to run that size unless they cut down 11 x 17 sheets).
What weight stock are you using? “Stock weight” is the thickness of the paper. Obviously, heavier costs more money. Take a sample book that you like by Kinkos and they’ll be happy to tell you what stock the cover and pages are.
What type of binding? Again, this is a cost decision. “Saddle Stitch” (fancy name for “stapled”) is the cheapest (and only works for books up to around 90 pages), “Lay Flat” (the kind that has sections of sheets glued together and then all the sections glued with a flat edge) – this is probably the most common for larger books, “Comb binding” (like the kind you see from most Kinkos) and “Spiral”. We all love spiral, until you are a publisher who has to pay for it… in the neighborhood of $1.25 per book. Definitely not cheap!
Quantity? Sounds like a no-brainer, but as you order more quantity, the price gets lower. Some printers will print “on demand” – which means that they run the press directly from a PDF on the computer. In this case, you can order any quantity from 1 book to 1,000. Know that most printers have a +/- 10% rule. Meaning that if you order 100, you could get 90 or 110. You pay for what you get based on the quote price.
And they’ll need to know other details like is the cover 4 color (photographs) or are you using “spot color” (one or two colors – each running through the machine separately). Used to be that 4 color covers were incredibly expensive, but it’s much lower costs now.
There’s a million other details about printing that I can answer if you’ll ask – I just can’t think of all of them.
SO YOU’VE GOT THE BOOKS PRINTED AND STORED IN THE ATTIC
– NOW HOW DO I MARKET THEM?
Well, if you’re the Director of Internet Activities for a major percussion manufacturer, then… :0)
Seriously, short of spending thousands of dollars on advertising (which I have yet to do, believe it or not), there are hundreds of ways to get the word out. EVERYTHING REQUIRES EFFORT!
It’s a sad fact that no matter how proud you are of your ground breaking, earth shattering new book, nobody will beat down your door to find you.
First: Have a website.
With good photos, great description and sample lessons (or video). You’ll probably want to sell online as well – and there are hundreds of ways to do this (ebay, amazon, etc) – but I think the PayPal method is the cheapest, most cost-effective and easiest. Check out PayPal for how to get this option on your website.
Obviously YouTube is the 21st century free marketing tool. But plan before you hit the record button. Is what you’re presenting valuable enough to watch? Or are you just doing a “buy my product” commercial? Notice what we do on vf.com – the lessons aren’t straight commercials for a product – they give value to the audience WHILE they market the product. If what you’re giving isn’t valuable or interesting, nobody will buy it. Did you know that Tommy Igoe’s Groove Essentials started out as a vf.com feature BEFORE it was a dvd / book / brand-in-and-of-itself? That’s the power of sharing something that everyone wants. Of course it helps if you play and teach as well as Tommy Igoe. :0)
The point of this is that unless you’re Tommy Igoe – or you have a TON of money for advertising – you’ll need to spend a LOT of free time working to get the word out. Just kidding about Tommy by the way… I know that even AFTER Hudson Music published the book/DVD series, he spent a huge amount of time and effort marketing his product.
Finally: Talk it up and give it away.
I’m an incredibly introverted person (until I get to know you or have a few drinks, of course). The hardest thing for me to do was to always carry a bunch of copies of my books around to hand out. But I did it. In the beginning, I gave away more books than I sold. My wife loved that, believe me. But, if the book is good, then it’ll eventually pay off.
Bottom line: if you’re not willing to spend time and energy into creating your own marketing, or think it’ll come easy, forget having a successful product!
HOW DO YOU GET IT INTO MUSIC STORES?
This one is tough. The short answer is that unless people request it, you’ll probably never get a music store to order it from you. In the store’s defense, they literally have thousands of products competing for space and will only stock what they reasonably know will sell. Even as successful as my books are, I have trouble getting most stores to stock ANY – most just place an order when a customer orders.
Consider visiting stores and offering a free book to place in the bin – or perhaps strike up consignment deal (this is actually how I got my books in Lone Star Percussion and Brook Mays Music in the 1980s). A consignment deal means that you give them 5 copies and they pay you when they are sold. It’s probably the only way you can get shelf space at the beginning.
One of the toughest decisions you’ll make is whether to try to sell direct to the customer or point them to a retailer. If they buy direct from you, you’re going to make more money from it – BUT it’s not sitting on a shelf for others to see (retailers usually ask for a 50% discount – meaning if you’re selling a $10 book, you have to sell it to the retailer for $5, so think carefully about your profit margin after printing costs are factored in). That’s probably worthy of a whole discussion in and of itself.
SO, ARE YOU STILL WITH ME?
I usually can turn off all but the most persistent would-be authors the more that I get into the details. It really is mind numbing enough to make you want to go straight to a publisher with your manuscript and have them do all the work for you (but whether that’s a good decision is again, another article!).
Don’t be put off by the process! If you have a great idea – and lots (and lots and lots) of persistence, you can become a successful self publisher! It’s actually a fantastic experience and through the journey, you’ll meet lots of great people and learn a lot about the music industry.