Friday, February 5, 2010

Publishing Pt. 1 - Print on Demand? Really?! Well, sort of...

I tried something different when printing and publishing Nothing Better Vol 2 and it got me thinking about the other things I've experienced as a self-publisher. It got me thinking about the things I didn't know in the beginning and the sort of information I continue to wish I had access to. So I thought I would start sharing.

I'm going to start by talking about what I did differently in publishing Nothing Better Vol 2 and why I did what I did.

My goals when I started to think about putting out Vol 2 were heavily influenced by the fact that I now have a family. My concerns were mainly financial. With the books I'd previously published it was really only myself I was putting at risk. But due to those efforts and my student loans I'm sitting under a sizeable, but manageable, mountain of debt.

I continue to produce Nothing Better because I enjoy doing so and there are people out there who enjoy it as well. I wanted to be able to offer readers Vol 2, but I also didn't want to take on any more debt while doing so. That was my goal.

Goal: Publish Nothing Better Vol 2 while limiting or eliminating my financial risk.

Printing books is expensive. The previous books I've published, in quantities of either 1000 or 2000, cost anywhere from $3000 to $6000. There are a lot of other costs involved too but I'm going to save the numbers and money stuff for later. For right now lets focus on the fact that I didn't want to saddle myself with another few thousand dollars of debt - I couldn't really.

So I realistically began thinking about print-on-demand (POD). In doing so, cost was only one of two major factors. The other factor aside from money has to do with the publishing and distribution side of things. Diamond Comics Distributors (the main distributor to comics shops) had recently changed their policy on order minimums. Meaning that orders on any listed title had to clear a certain dollar amount for them to cut a purchase order. I was right on the border of that limit with NB Vol 1 and as anyone will tell you, a second book will always see fewer orders. I knew I wouldn't make the cut for Diamond, but I knew there were people out there who wanted Vol 2. Yes, there are other smaller distributors, like Haven, for comics shops, and I get listed to bookstores and libraries through Baker and Taylor, but without that hefty initial order from Diamond to help pay for a printing bill, it just wasn't worth it. This also meant I was planning on selling the majority of books direct through my website so my profit margin had a little more room as all the money from those sales goes right to me - there's no middle man. So I was also considering doing a smaller, more manageable print run.

The most books I've sold in a given year were around 800 (and again, I'll get to numbers later) but I knew that wouldn't be the case here. Yes, over the course of several years I could move 1000 copies of Vol 2, but I didn't want to have to sit on that cost or store more books in my house. Was POD really an option?

The problem isn't the quality as much as the cost - POD is more expensive per book than traditional offset printing. The reason this matters is because as a publisher, you sell your books to a distributor or store at a discount - up to %60 off the cover price. And if your book has a cover price of $15 and it cost you $5 to print, you're not really making any money once you factor in shipping and such. Could I find a quality, "cheap" POD option? is kind of the big player in the POD market. Back when I published Stylish Vittles Vol 3 I had a test book made at Lulu just out of curiosity. It wasn't awful, but it wasn't awesome either. I think POD is better suited to prose publishing than something that is graphic-heavy. On the sample I had made the toner in all black areas would rub off and in general, because it was run on a laser printer, the toner had a shiny, hard look to it. Outside of that concern the print quality was good. Laser printers delivery sharp, crisp images. But it wasn't for me. It felt too much like I'd just printed off my book on one of the printers at work and bound it.

But that was a few years ago. Lulu has grown more dominant and now offers discounts for printing large quantities. So I thought I would at least look into the option. Had things changed? Vol 2 was completely laid out, just waiting for me to finish the cover. So I mocked up something quick and upload a file to to get a test book made.

The test I got back was actually pretty nice. The halftones were nice and crisp and the toner didn't feel like toner on the page. I suspect they were using a higher quality digital press than they had in the past. The only thing I wasn't thrilled about was the glossy cover being the only cover option. But if going through Lulu meant getting the book out to readers I could live with it. Lulu seemed like a real option. I put in a quote for bulk pricing. They offered me $4.48 per book for a quantity of 300. Hmm. Not great, but better than their per-book price which was somewhere north of $7. Which, in and of itself, still wasn't awful if those were direct sales - I'd still be getting somewhere around $7 in profit per book, and Lulu would handle all of the fulfillment.

(Fulfillment means that when you order a book through's website, they print it, ship it, and collect the payment for you. Then they pay out on a quarterly basis. That was also attractive, to a degree, as it would relieve me of having to pack and ship off books.)

I finished designing the cover and the few remaining touches on the book and ordered another test copy. This second test was disappointing. The backside of each page was 'smudged.' There had obviously been an issue with the imaging drum on the printer this book was run on. Without getting technical about the problem, it pointed out a huge potential problem: if I was having someone else print and ship books without me ever having seen them, how was I to know that customers wouldn't be getting messed up books like this? It was the issue of quality control that knocked Lulu out of contention (which isn't to say that they're not the right choice for someone else's project - as I said before I think POD favors the prose work as text means much less coverage on the page).

Oddly enough, this entire time I had another option staring me right in the face that was practically in my backyard. But I didn't think of it until after I decided I couldn't go with Lulu. I had started thinking I was going to have to postpone publishing Vol 2 until I could raise money for offset printing. And then I remembered a company here in Minneapolis called Bookmobile, who specialized in digital printing, POD and book galleys. I had known an MCAD alum who had worked there, and a few MCAD students who had had short runs of books printed with them. And I'd even gotten a quote from them years ago for an SV book to see what their prices were like.

Working with Bookmobile was a lot like working with a regular printer - especially when compared to Lulu. I ran into a couple issues (that I'll go over in a separate post) but they were handled professionally and quickly and it made all the difference in the world working with a local company and being able to speak with a person.

The cost still wasn't as good as offset printing, but it was definitely better @ $3.60/copy and honestly, dealing with a professional printing company in my back yard really appealed to me. The per copy cost is low enough to make a tiny profit from each copy when sold at a discount to distributors, but remember, the goal at this point is to simply not lose money.

The customer service at Bookmobile was great and my books were printed within a week. I picked them up, they looked good, and I have enough to sell on my website, at conventions and a few through distributors all without spending a huge chunk of money. Goal achieved.

I know there are people who will point out that I could have saved money in the long run by paying more upfront to do a larger initial run on offset, but in addition to not spending a lot of money I also wanted to minimize the already large stacks of books in my basement. Printing through Bookmobile was a solution that seemed to satisfy all of my needs for right now.

Up next: numbers!

(PS - It's worth noting that Diamond just announced a modification to their policy stating that as long as an item was listed in their Previews catalog, even if the initial order was under their new minimum amount, they would still ship product on that initial order. If that had been in place when I published Vol. 2 I might have given more thought to doing offset printing.  But honestly I'm happy with how things worked out - I was able to keep things affordable and also not have a ton of boxes sitting around.)