illustration

Approximately every minute, someone in the world publishes a new book. We are in a golden era of publishing and broadcasting. These days the mechanics of making a book are almost as trivial and as easy as starting a blog.

While mainstream New York mass-market publishers struggle to sustain their traditional system of distribution through bookstores, the choices for self-publishers continue to expand and mature.

You can now create a book in paper, in hardcover, in color or black-and-white, as a downloadable PDF, or as an e-book. Smart self-publishers will try to exploit all these options.

The two basic ways to manufacture a book are to print a bunch, or print them one by one on demand. The advantage of printing on demand is that you print a copy only after you sell it. This eliminates the costs of storage and of unsold books, and also self-finances the printing.

However, while the cost of print on demand has fallen significantly, it’s (and likely always will be) cheaper per unit to print up a bunch of books.

And sometimes, you really do want a bunch of copies — for a conference, a book club, Christmas presents, or for a best seller.

Method 1: Batch Printing

Luckily there’s an accessible technology for this. Xerox’s DocuTech system, leased by many copy centers around the country, is able to print multiple copies of a title fairly quickly and cheaply. When used with auxiliary binding equipment, it can produce short-run books.

This system is really only an option for standard black ink on white paper, in standard trade paperback sizes, and you need to start with a completely designed book, preferably in PDF format.

For a print run of, say, a minimum of 250 copies of a 200-page 6″×9″ book (with color cover), you can probably find someone to print it for around $3.50 per book. The quality will be very close to, if not indistinguishable from, a store-bought softcover book. The disadvantages of this process are that you’ll have to invest the cost of printing all the books upfront (in this case $875), pay the shipping if the printing is not local, and then store boxes of books.

This is a fast-moving field, with new technology all the time, so the best printers for a particular job change very quickly. A few short-run printers that I’ve used with satisfaction in the past are DeHart’s (deharts.com) and Commercial Communications Inc. (comcom.com).

If you print your own book, you’ll want to offer it for sale on Amazon, even if you’ll be selling it directly from your website. You need 2 copies of the book to send to Amazon, and you need to include a barcode on the book’s back cover before you print it. The steps to getting your book listed on Amazon are not obvious, so I’ve written up a separate tutorial at kk.org/cooltools/archives/000668.php.

Having a book listed on Amazon does not preclude any other options you might want to use, but the costs of keeping it there reduce its profitability, so it should not be your only option.

Method 2: Print on Demand

The most exciting frontier of self-publishing books today is print on demand, usually employing toner-based or inkjet-like technology to print single copies. You send a digital file to the printer, who runs off individual copies of the book. You can store a digital file of your book at the printer, and then your customer simply orders the book at a price you set, using a credit card or PayPal. It’s then shipped to them, and you keep whatever profit you have assigned yourself.

Three web-based companies provide comprehensive on-demand services for self-publishers: iUniverse, Virtualbookworm, and WingSpan Press. Each of them offers package deals for $300 to $500. For this you get basic editorial help and get your book designed and proofed, with a nice custom cover, a barcode, a listing on their online store, and a few copies for yourself. Design-clueless authors may find this attractive.

But anyone with even a mild sense of what looks OK can manage a better way. Produce your book using a layout program that can export a PDF file. Proof and then upload the PDF to lulu.com. Lulu will print your standard black-and-white softcover book for about $8 per book. You can ship books to yourself, or set a price above your $8 cost and let readers order the book directly from the Lulu website.

Printing a book in full color is expensive. A regular 6″×9″ softcover book in full color throughout would run about $30 on Lulu. A better deal for color printing, and for photographers and artists in particular, is blurb.com. Blurb uses a format similar to Apple’s iPhoto books to produce exquisite coffee table books, but at about ¹/³ the cost of Apple. A softcover 8″×10″ photo book with 80 color pages runs about $30.

I’ve been most excited about Blurb’s recent option of a huge 11″×13″ portfolio book. I made several 120-page books this size, containing some 500 photographs. They are simply awesome, almost overwhelming, with better quality printing (using HP’s Indigo press) than most art books. In copies of one they cost $70 each. Blurb’s only downside is that you have to use their design templates, unless you want to do some fancy exporting of files. But it sure is easy. I now make a new book per month. They are ideal as gifts recounting a visit or trip, or as mini-portfolios and scrapbooks.

It’s fairly simple to make digital books. The easiest way is to render your file — text or images or both — as a PDF. You’ll want to optimize it so that it’s as compact as possible. Be sure to include the cover. To read it, all anyone needs is Acrobat Reader on a PC. You can also sell the PDF version of the book as an e-book. Lulu and the other self-publishing clearinghouses offer options for selling e-books.

If you want to sell e-books from your own website, you can sign up for an account with payloadz.com, which delivers a digital copy after someone pays for it using PayPal.

I recently experimented with offering my self-published books in every possible format, while setting my prices so that I made exactly the same profit from each channel. I decided I’d be happy to make $1.50 per book, no matter whether I sold a bulk-printed $9 copy via Amazon, or an on-demand color copy for $27 from Lulu, or a $2 PDF version from Payloadz. In each case I made the same $1.50 after I deducted my total costs, so I was totally agnostic toward the format and had no incentive to push one or the other. Let the customer decide! The results? I sold ten times as many digital download PDF versions of the book as printed versions. It’s really the future of publishing.