Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Search for the Perfect Book Printer

A surfeit of me
One of the nice things about being published by a mainstream publishing house is that the marketing and publicity department take some of the responsibility for promoting you and your writing. In reality, you still have to do your fair share of self-promotion and you often have to have a crack at your own bio copy, but you don’t have to initiate and write every single thing – making yourself cringe at the brazen, self-serving nature of the task…

…And who are we actually talking about with all this ‘you’ business? Well, me… again.

For god’s sake, let’s change the subject. Please Blog, take me somewhere else!

Design and Typesetting
A couple of weeks ago, Josh Durham finished the design for the interior of my new fantasy novel, The Light Heart of Stone, which then went to Graeme Jones of Kirby Jones for typesetting. Then a few days later, Graeme sent me the galleys.

Seeing the galleys was so exciting. For the first time in this self-publishing process I could see my text looking the way it is going to look when printed. It is an amazing thrill. Josh and Graeme have done a superb job. The quality of their work made me glad I invested in industry professionals. I stood there, looking at the galleys and I realised that I am really enjoying myself – notwithstanding my complaints about having to write my own promotional material.
 
Some slightly fuzzy jpeg conversions of the PDF galleys - but you get the idea


These are some of the things I learned from Josh and Graeme:
1 The book designer designs a template for the text and then the typesetter places the text into that template and manages its flow.
2 A dinkus is the little decorative flourish that divides sections of text.
3 A Microsoft Tag in your book is a barcode that can be scanned by readers’ phones, taking them directly to your online content.
4 The Light Heart of Stone is going to be 640 pages long… well, it is a fantasy novel.

Not long after learning about Microsoft Tags from Graeme Jones, I read an article by Malcolm Knox in Australian Author about people going into bookstores, taking photos of the books they are interested in and then going home and buying them online. It made me realise that if you want to have your book on bookshop shelves and you have something like a Microsoft Tag, then, at the very least, you have to be careful that your website doesn’t undermine those shelves.

Printers
With the galleys in hand and a firm page count, I was able to get some accurate quotes from potential printers.

I have tried to keep an open mind about who should print my book and what is the best printing model on offer. It used to be the case that the printer was the printer and that was that. Now, the printer can be a quasi-publisher who fronts the on demand printing costs, offers you a 10% royalty, and has a deal with a distributer. Then there are printers who offer you some distribution services. Beyond that, there are printers who will fulfil your orders in a way that makes it appear that you have dispatched the book yourself and who only print your book after someone has ordered a copy. And, of course, there are printers who simply print books.

I am extremely wary of the quasi-publisher printer. While a painless deal involving no upfront capital, sounds good it shouldn’t be confused with a real publishing deal. A mainstream publisher brings their brand, a workforce with diverse specialisations, strong business-to-business relationships, as well as capital to their deal with the author. A quasi-publisher printer doesn’t have any brand muscle and is unlikely to have specialised editorial, book design, marketing, and publicity skills. Even so, I had to ask myself whether the model had advantages for me. I decided the answer was no.

When I decided to self-publish, I decided to publish as a commercial, independent publisher who would have to meet industry standards in order to succeed. That meant investing money in editing and book design services, having a marketing plan and making a publicity plan. Having made those investments in time and money, it doesn’t make sense to step into an author-style, royalty deal just because it’s easy. As a commercial, independent publisher who is also the author of the book being published, I not only need to make a return as a writer, I also have to make my return as a publisher.

So that knocks out the printer-as-publisher model. I was left with the task of sorting through the rest.

As the quotes began to arrive I made an appointment to tour Lightning Source’s new print on demand facility in Melbourne. Lightning Source is a major print on demand player and has strong distribution arrangements. Unfortunately for me, a book that is 640 pages long isn’t viable as a print on demand publication, regardless of which POD printer you work with. I got quotes from several and the unit cost was so high that I would be selling at a loss if I sold online at a typical Amazon list price and I’d also sell at a loss if I had a distributor supplying bookstores. I could only make a positive return selling direct to readers, but who wants to rule out online and physical bookstores? Not me. But a plug for Lightning Source for anyone with a slim book. The staff members were really nice and have years of industry experience.

I realised I was going to have to go with a longer print run and an off-set printer. I settled on 1,000 books. I would prefer to print 200, but the numbers only begin to work with 1,000. I had a couple of quotes from off-set printers in Australia. Their prices were significantly lower than the POD prices, but were still too high to be viable (note to self: write shorter books). The result is that I’m going to have the Light Heart of Stone printed overseas after finding a company, Everbest, with a really helpful and patient sales representative based in Sydney.