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Controlling the Costs of Self-Publishing

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My adventure into the field of literature (and it truly has been an adventure) began a little more than 10 years ago. I did not start out to write a book. This tale begins when I went to a flea market in Southern California and found some excellent books for only 10-25 cents apiece. Being a scientist of sorts, the texts on physics and chemistry were highly prized, since I have never ceased trying to learn more about our universe.
What I found amazed me. The current body of physics is laced with inconsistencies and totally unrealistic theories. Most intriguing to me was the fact that no one had yet been able to determine the exact mechanism that produces gravity. Employing my engineering experience and looking for something that everyone else had overlooked, I eventually discovered how the tiny force of gravity could be produced by the stronger forces of matter. This result impelled me into the whirlwind of literary endeavor.
But I had much to learn about writing. Although I had written numerous technical articles, writing a book is a much more difficult undertaking. First there was writer’s block (it took over a month just to write the Introduction), and then there was the editing thing (not good for one’s ego). At times, the stress was intense and it affected my family life to some extent. After subscribing to Writer’s Digest, I learned that these experiences are all fairly common to writers.
While writing a book is difficult (but rewarding), getting it published is a much more challenging task. As the manuscript began to evolve, the next step was to investigate means of getting it published. Various publishing services were considered, including a vanity publisher. Being semi-retired, cost is a main consideration, and after obtaining a copy of Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual (a most excellent and useful book), I concluded that self-publishing would be the best and least expensive way to proceed. Inspite of the excellent “Poynters” in the book (that’s a pun and the last one), not all of my decisions were the best, and much of what I learned went beyond the content of the book. Some of the information presented here is more recent and is more specifically related to science. It may be helpful to some of you to learn of these experiences.

Learning the Ropes

In spite of Dan’s recommendation to buy a copy of Literary Market Place early in the schedule, I put this off until later due to its high price. Similarly, I did not join PMA until later yet. These were mistakes that actually cost me money and time. The advice available from members of PMA that are detailed in its periodicals is quite valuable, as is the wealth of information in LMP.
In order to save money, I decided to do as much as I could on my own. An editor is absolutely necessary, and I was lucky to find a good one at a very reasonable cost after choosing an individual rather than an organization. The LMP, Writer’s Digest, and the PMA Newsletter list various editing sources, which is where I looked and found my editor. The book would assuredly have turned out better if the material had not been sent to the editor in small portions, and if much more re-editing had taken place. Edit, edit, edit, they say, and it is true.
Whether you are a writer or a publisher, a good computer is essential. If you decide to do your own graphics, as I did, the computer must have greater memory, a fast CPU, and a large hard disk. My computer quickly became overloaded and I had to upgrade to a more expensive one. It would have been cheaper to buy the better computer in the beginning. Should one buy a Macintosh or an IBM-compatible? The answer to this question is not straightforward. For graphics, Macintosh has heretofore been the clear choice. However, much more software has been become available for IBM-type computers which has made it less expensive. Also, there is software that can convert some of the programs so that they will run on one or the other platform. My computer is an IBM-compatible, and I have had problems with graphics compatibility with that of printing and lithographic companies. Before purchasing a computer, subscribing to a leading computer magazine, such as PC Magazine or PC World, can provide a source of valuable information. The Internet offers a highly competitive market for buying these items at quite reasonable costs.
The next step is to obtain a good word-processing program. After working with one of Microsoft’s early versions, which was simple and easy to use, I had the opportunity to try WordPerfect. Now I am in my third upgrade, WordPerfect8 Professional, and it is quite excellent. In my case, I needed a good equation editor, but this version can do almost anything you want, and includes the basic tools to run a business using Corel Central. It provides a spell checker, Thesaurus, grammar checker, graphics generation, an elementary (but good) drawing capability, pagination, indexing, etc., so that you can completely generate a book in its final form. In addition, it has many business features, such as generating labels, creating packing lists and invoices, and Paradox for storing names and addresses and automatically inserting them in documents and labels. My first book was completed using Word Perfect as my main compiler.
Graphics were more of a challenge. Graphics processors differ greatly as do the file formats. The graphics processing industry is pretty well locked into Macintosh computers, and just a few expensive software programs such as QuarkXpress and Adobe Pagemaker (which range in cost from $550 to $750) are standards of the industry. These programs are beyond my cost range, and other ways to create the necessary graphics were found. In the body of my book, I used mostly WordPerfect7 and Serf DrawPlus to create graphics drawings, and Mathcad and MATLAB mathematical software to create graphs drawn from equations. By converting the graphics to a .bmp format, I could transport the files across platforms with minimal difficulties.
This graphics method did not, however, work for the book cover layout. The first step was to determine the various dimensions for the layout from the printer. Even with the same software programs, the layouts got messed up when transferring the files to a different computer. So I went to Kinkos and edited the layouts on one of their computer stations and printed out the cover on a 1:1 scale. This color copy was then taken to a local lithographer who set it up on their expensive color camera computer and added the bar codes. Even with all of the capabilities of the color processing software, the colors were not quite the same as my original due to the difference between RGB (red-green-blue) and CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black) color formats. Even having both of these formats does not fully guarantee compatibility since there are millions of colors, and the lithographer’s machine may not have all of the colors available (apparently they buy them in packages).
Printing costs can be quite significant, and just a few mistakes can produce excessive expenses. You would do well to consider opting for a soft cover and printing a minimal number of copies on the first run. Hard covers can be quite costly, and pricing the book too high and getting stuck with a large number of unsold copies increases costs even further. The time limit for the printer’s estimate was also exceeded, and they upped the price from the original estimate.

Later Phases

It was exciting to receive my shipment of books, and I had a sense of relief that it was all over, or so I thought. However, publicity and marketing a book proved to be one of the most difficult tasks yet encountered. Direct mailers and an ad in Publishers Weekly did not produce useful results. Contacting reviewers turned out to be very disheartening for a number of reasons. To begin with, my approach was terrible, and the conversation, if there even was one, was over quite quickly. A special technique must be developed, and I still have much to learn in this respect. In order to do this properly, the desires of the readers or subscribers of the publication can provide important information. For instance, in my book, a section that provides a special contradiction to Einstein’s theory about the speed of light could have been exploited since it creates controversy, and the existence of a special type of energy, previously unknown, proved to be of interest to metaphysical folks, judging from those who contacted me without solicitation.
Many reviewers are simply not interested in science books at all, so getting their attention can be a problem. If your sole interest is to sell books, then it would pay to check which types of books reviewers solicit. In the area of science, there are not many eager reviewers.
Getting wholesalers and distributors to list or stock the book was no easier. However, through persistence, we are now listed by Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, and the book is available at Amazon.com.
Adding an online home page for the Internet was another new venture. After some unpleasant experiences in setting up an online bookstore (communicating through e-mail can be a slow and frustrating process), a home page was constructed at bcity.com. Getting the proper URL references to work with the numerous search engines is another task that requires a learning effort. There are various sources available to ensure that a home page is easily found through search engines, and there are others that will set up a home page. WordPerfect8 has tools to devise a professional home page, and my next task is to improve Internet marketing methods using these tools.
The next step in promotion is the publishing of a second book that I have written on a similar subject with another new and exciting theory about the universe. The Electric Atom is a book that portrays the entire universe as a vast field of electricity. It was just completed, and will sell for a much lower cost. Since this new book will reference the first book, it is believed that sales of the first book will also be stimulated.

Conclusion

It is obviously necessary for the small self-publisher to be trained in several fields in order to operate on a small budget. In any case, being aware of the various pitfalls and the numerous tools and services available in the literary marketplace can save time and costs and help produce a better product for any publisher. Hopefully, the experiences described in this article will provide clues that will aid in minimizing such problems and perhaps reduce costs.Readers may feel free to contact Dr. Weldon Vlasak via e-mail at AdaptEnt@navix.net regarding this article.
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor March, 1999, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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