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Director’s Desk:
Publishing Lessons Learned the Hard Way

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Have you ever thought, “If I could do it all over again, I’d…”? I know I have. We asked our members this question recently, since we recognize that lessons learned the hard way seem never to be forgotten, and we got the following replies.

From Carol Friedman at Dominick Media in New York:

As a first-time publisher, be aware that you are pretty much like a high-school kid without a date for the prom, vulnerable–dress or tux in hand–and wanting to attend the prom by any means necessary. The prom pitfall caused me to choose the wrong distributor and the wrong printer. These misguided decisions, due solely to my inexperience, caused me to miss my planned release date–after I had paid fees to an expensive PR firm–and cost me many thousands of dollars in disputed printer costs. Be sure to take your time when making the decisions that are crucial to the success of your book.

Do not sign with the first distributor that says “Yes.” Their acceptance may be flattering, but just because a company is interested in your title does not mean that your title will be well served by them. See prom pitfall above.

Ask to see the distributor’s catalog and then consider the following:

    • Would you be proud to have your title among this distributor’s other books?
    • Does the distributor carry a reasonable number of books in your book’s field?
    • Within your field, are the other distributed publishers’ titles produced, written, and printed to meet a professional standard?
    • Is your contact person accessible? Is the staff informed and responsive?
    • Who are the distributor’s sales reps? Are they respected in the industry? Do their recommendations carry weight with book buyers?
    • Have you received positive recommendations from publishers currently working with this distributor? Ask about what their experience has been, and what strengths and weaknesses they’ve observed.

Be clear on the date and selling season that your book will appear in the distributor’s catalog. Get this commitment in writing.

You will not find perfection anywhere. If you have a prospective distributor that the client publishers you speak with have found trustworthy, and you have done your homework (above), then go for it. It’s only a prom date, not a marriage. Jump in. You’ve got to start somewhere.

Despite having many years of experience with printers in a related field, I still made an uninformed decision that cost me heartache and many thousands of dollars more than I should have paid. Since I had a complicated (7-color) and costly printing job, most everyone advised me to print in Asia. I decided to go with a broker that had an excellent reputation (and a most impressive printing booth at BEA). I was aware I was paying extra for a broker; I believed this to be a sound decision, as I was ill equipped to deal with all the complexities of printing in China. Unfortunately, I went with a dishonest brokerage firm. I took its excellent reputation at face value and never bothered to speak directly with publishers the company had worked with recently.

Try not to have the pressure and excitement of your looming pub date affect your decision-making process with regard to choosing a printer. It is essential that you get a few decisions right, and choosing who does your printing and binding is one of them.

Many printers offer a list of four-star clients that they may have done business with–a dozen years ago. Ask for a list of recent clients and talk to the production managers or managing editors at these companies. Find out whether the printer delivered on time and whether finished books met their expectations and standards. Ask for samples of books that are similar to yours. If you are doing a book that has special needs of any kind, including specific varnishes or laminations, unusual binding or paper stock, custom colors, or the like, ask to see books that the printer has manufactured with similar custom work.

From the very beginning, be careful about the contract. As contract savvy as I believed I was, I fell victim to a bait-and-switch scheme in which I signed a contract by fax and then–just days before my job was to go on press–was told that I had to sign a separate hard copy, which reversed the previously offered terms of payment and had terms that indemnified the printer if any printing, binding, or shipping problems should arise.

Do not, under any circumstances, do business with a printer that asks for all its money up front. This virtually ensures that you will end up with substandard books and absolutely no recourse. Be aware that as a one-time independent publisher, you have no leverage if problems arise.

Be sure to get quotations from several companies. Never go with the lowest estimate. If the price is too good to be true, it is. This is a sure sign that “added costs” will find their way onto your bill.

If a printer or broker is unscrupulous, it will exploit your need to make your publication deadline. Watch out for switches in standards, fees, terms of credit, or method of shipping at the last minute

Ensure that the printer is bound contractually to the delivery date and that there are specific provisions should the printer fail to meet it.

Do not work with a company that has no provisions to protect you if you receive books that are substandard.

Be sure that you are 100 percent happy with your separations and proofs before printing proceeds, and don’t believe “We’ll fix it on press.” What you see is what you get.

If you have experience in the printing industry, then by all means ask to be at the printing plant during the press run. If not, be sure that your prepress proofs meet your expectations and that the printer is legally bound to match them.

Ask to see printed sheets and bound samples before your books are shipped.

The printing process is never a smooth or easy one, even for those who do it every day. If you have no experience in the printing industry, get advice from an experienced friend or professional, especially when judging your prepress materials. Then do your best to ensure that a rep from your printing company–whom you trust–is on press with your job.

And then pray to the printing gods.

From Barbara DesChamps, Chateau Publishing, Nevada City, CA:

We printed 5,000 copies of a book flyer to get a lower cost per copy and because Dan Poynter recommended printing a lot. The next time I would print fewer up front, perhaps 500 to 1,000. As more reviews come in, I can update and improve the flyer.

From Dianna Barra , Idea Designs, Dewey, AZ:

If I could do it all over again I would…

…have read How to Bring Your Product to Market by Don Debelak, in addition to Dan Poynter’s book. It tells how to do a market analysis and run tests, and if you mentally substitute “book” for Debelak’s “product,” 90 percent of it is applicable to the book trade. It would have saved me a lot of time and $$$.

…not have accepted a neighbor’s offer to save me money by letting him design my Web site. Three years later, I changed to a full-time professional design company and finally got the site up and running.

…not have purchased $20,000 worth of computer hardware and software over a five-year period because I thought doing it myself would save money.

…have chosen a designer for the books who was not a neighbor, who was more sensitive to my deadlines (BEA, for example), and who had learned to back up files. Lost two books, one just five minutes from completion (no backup copy whatsoever), making me miss the BEA deadline and putting me more than two months past pub date for a current events book.

…not have hired friends who said they could type really well. They couldn’t. We aren’t friends any more either. Hire a professional to start with.

…have used Amazon and Amazon Marketplace to test price points for my books and projected sales. Would have saved a lot of time and thousands of wasted marketing dollars.

…not have signed on with the distributor that I did sign with to get an Ingram account. My costs were more than $15 to sell a book for which I got about $4. The monthly printouts were so badly designed I couldn’t read them; fees of $15 to $25 kept being added; no 1-800 number for customer service. After the one-year commitment period, I asked to cancel the account. The distributor charged almost $300 to ship three small cases of 80 books (25 pounds each) back to me by UPS Ground, and I was told that I had to leave the account open in case of returns for at least 10 months at a cost of $50 a month. When I asked about my deposit, they said it would be returned in 16 months, less whatever had been applied to my account.

…have used Amazon links to sell from my site instead of my own shopping cart. Most people seem to be just more comfortable buying from a vendor they trust, even though I have VeriSign and Secure Payments and Privacy Notices on my site.

…have done more nontraditional marketing and market research.

…have taken classes in marketing and copy writing in addition to all the writing and designing classes I took for my instructional design master’s degree. The university seems to assume you will be working for someone else, not yourself.

From Elreta Dodds, Press Toward the Mark Publications, Detroit, MI:

One mistake I made while I’ve been self-publishing (since May of 1997) was sending out mailings myself. I can’t remember where I got the names and addresses. All I remember is that only 1 percent of the recipients are likely to respond to direct mail. I spent a lot of money on stamps and envelopes for a very small return.

I’ve also noticed that if self-publishers are going to be featured in a distributor brochure, they should pay the money to be somewhere in the front. The best place to be in a brochure is on the front inside cover or first inside page.

When I began, I had no idea how important the look of the book cover is. I also had no idea how important the title is. I had written a book that was published by a midsized publisher in Tennessee. My message in the book was that Christianity is for everyone (many black Americans feel that Christianity is for white people only and that Christianity endorsed the horrors of slavery). To convince my reading audience that Christianity is for blacks too required explaining the Scripture reference that says, “Slaves, obey your masters.” I decided to name the book that very thing, thinking black people would be sure to pick up the book to see what this was all about. Instead, the title turned off much of my target audience.

I ended up getting back the rights to the book, publishing a revised edition myself, and making the subtitle into the main title. The book sold better as What the Bible Really Says About Slavery. But I still hurt sales by giving the revised version a cover that looked like a textbook. I thought it would sell better that way. Wrong! I hadn’t done my homework and just went on an assumption. The cover is not eye-catching at all, and some booksellers have said it needs improvement.

To be quite honest, one of the biggest mistakes I made was not joining PMA immediately. I didn’t join until I was already three or four years into the self-publishing business. At first I really didn’t want to pay for help in marketing (I actually had the audacity to feel that I didn’t need to), but PMA has been essential in helping me market my books, especially when it comes to the foreign market. Since signing up with PMA I’ve had publishers and agencies from Korea, Brazil, Greece, and London express interest. And the interest from London looks hopeful.

From Peter Venuto, Life Experiences, Medford, OR:

The biggest mistake I made starting out was not having the proper equipment–in this case, an adequate computer with MS Word. Translating my 300-page book into Word was time consuming, which cost me extra. My drive to get the book done faster overrode what I should have done–get the necessary equipment and programs first.

From Ellen Jean Diederich, Givinity Press, Fargo, ND:

My mistake as a publisher was to send bound books instead of galleys to the major reviewers. We had galleys all clipped together and letters ready to mail out to reviewers who responded positively to an email, but while we were waiting for a go sign from the reviewers, the first shipment of bound books arrived. I thought it might be a step up to send them instead of the galleys.

The result was a lesson any new publisher would want to avoid. We increased shipping costs, wasted the galleys, and received letters from every reviewer saying, “Sorry, we do not write reviews of published books.”

From Robyn Jackson, Timothy Lane Press, Hattiesburg, MS:

If I had it to do over again, I would take more time bringing out my first novel so I could tweak the interior design. Because we were operating in a very tight time frame, I had to let some things go. Also, I would buy a software program and learn to design the pages myself so I would have control over the design, and not hire it out because I had such a short time to get it done.

I would hire a professional designer for the cover. I did commission a custom illustration for the cover, but I should have spent the extra money to hire someone to create a really dynamic cover design. These books will be in print for many years, and they should look just as attractive and professional as possible.

I would have made more of an effort to get the book printed a few months before its official publication date so some of the national publications could have reviewed it. I missed some valuable time because I did not have galleys to send to the publications that want prepublication copies to review.

I would have had a detailed marketing plan drawn up before the book even got to the printer. I would have found a way to get my novel into specialty stores and independent bookstores in the West, where it is set, even if it meant driving out there myself and going door to door. My distributor has not lifted a finger to get my books in bookstores, from what I can tell. I’m glad I have a distributor–it makes it easier for libraries and bookstores to place orders–but I wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking the distributor’s rep was actually going to promote my book and help get it into stores. That’s my job, and I can’t trust it to someone who doesn’t care about my book.

And I would hire a publicist to set up interviews and reviews with the media and book signings when the book first came out. I am a newspaper features editor, so I am capable of writing press releases and putting together my own press kit, but although I have done a number of signings and have more in the works, I find it a bit hard to call and ask someone if I can do a signing in their store. Plus, I think that sometimes bookstores, reviewers, and librarians take you more seriously as an author if you have someone else pitching you.

I have always considered this a learning experience, and my intention when I started Timothy Lane Press was to make my mistakes with my books, so that when I am financially able to publish books by other authors, I’ll know what I’m doing. I have already learned from my mistakes with my first book, Lakota Moon, and I won’t make the same mistakes with the sequel, which I plan to publish next year.

From Stormy Steele, Bronze Press Publishing Company, Marietta, GA:

    • Do more prepublicity
    • Create a larger marketing/advertising budget
    • Avoid unnecessary spending and stick to my budget. I spent $1,000 on services and items I really didn’t need.

One other thing I’d like to add, and this is my biggest mistake!

If I could do it all over again, I would have fewer hardcover copies of my novel printed. I started with 1,100 paperbacks and 1,100 hardcovers. I now have only about 35 paperbacks left, but around 500 hardcovers. The bookstores and customers want the paperbacks more, even though my hardcover is priced under $20, and I have now reduced the price by $4.

Hey, you live and learn!

From Dave Shields, Three Story Press, Salt Lake City, UT:

I made a good move in organizing a book tour to correspond with the Tour de France, but I wish I had simplified the logistics by choosing cities as close together as possible, and done a better job of publicity by hiring a PR professional to get the word out for me well in advance.

I should have hired the best cover designer possible the first time around. The money I spent cutting corners was wasted since eventually I had to hire a pro anyway. Nothing screams “amateur” like a poor cover.

I shouldn’t have put my email address in my book. It’s just a magnet for spam, and I had to turn it into an autoresponder. Fortunately I put a Web address in my book as well, and the contact form works beautifully.

I should figure out a way to make time for my personal life. Is this possible when starting a new business? The tasks of launching my book and publishing company have been all consuming, and the people I love have sometimes been frustrated by my priorities. Daughters don’t usually understand any justification for Dad missing a dance recital, you know. Fortunately, now that my hard work is paying off, my wife and children understand that they were my priority all along. The challenges have made us stronger.

And finally, from Anonymous:

I bought a bunch of bubble-pack mailers before I discovered that both the post office and Federal Express provide free packaging materials.

Lessons that are learned and shared are the most helpful and fit PMA’s mission: “Helping each other achieve and succeed.”

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