Sunday, March 04, 2012

Writing & Publishing Books - Part 3

Return to Self-Publishing

Five more self-published books followed my experience with Interweave Press (Beaded Embellishment, see Part 2, here), with varying degrees of success.

The first of these, the only non-beading book of the 8 books I’ve written so far, was a lesson learned the hard way. Feeling cocky with the continuing success of One Bead at a Time, now in its third professional printing, and sure that traditional publishing was not for me, I collaborated with my husband on a picture book about the Washington State Ferries in the San Juan Islands. I wrote and designed the text; he took the pictures. We were certain every resident of the islands would buy several copies, one for themselves and (we hoped) some for gifts. So we scraped together all the cash we could and went big, ordering 3,000 copies.

Immediately on receipt of our payload, we noticed an alarming problem. The covers of the books, mostly black ink, as you can see, grabbed fingerprints in a way that would make a forensic scientist ecstatic. Grim!

That, right there, is one big problem of self-publishing. The printer you hire does exactly what you tell them to do. If you don’t tell them to print a coat of varnish on the covers before assembling and binding the books, they won’t. And if you don’t KNOW to tell them to varnish the covers? Well, then you get ugly fingerprints. Imagine the book on the shelf in a book store. Two customers pick it up to take a look. If neither of them buys it, the thing looks shop-worn, totally unattractive already.

Not knowing what else to do about it, we bought cans of Krylon matte spray fixative (used, for example on pastels and pencil drawings), and painstakingly sprayed each cover. Although it looks better than fingerprints, it made the covers a bit dull and some got tiny bubbles, pock marks. Some were ruined because we touched them too soon.  I guess the alternative would have been to get the covers reprinted and the book re-bound, but we’d already spent all our available cash getting the books printed.

That wasn’t the only card stacked against us with this book. The ferries had just undergone a big change, increasing their fares dramatically and cutting back the service and number of runs. Maintenance budgets were also cut, resulting in rust and dirt accumulation. Our lovely ferry service was a thing of the past, and people were grumpy about it. We had counted on a favorable attitude, reverence and nostalgia, to sell our book. Instead, we found that grumpy people weren’t very interested. We have yet to sell enough copies of the book to pay ourselves back for even half our printing expenses, and of course have earned nothing for our time.

What did we learn?
1. Print a test run; or at least keep the first printing to a minimum.
2. Hire a printing consultant to advise on things like the need for varnish on the covers.
3. Maybe for such a book, in this day and age, print on demand would be the way to go.
Our experience with Nautical Highways certainly made me more cautious. For the next three books, Rosie, Finishing Techniques, and Spirit Dolls, I went back to self-printing and smaller quantities. These are really booklets, having 12 to 20 pages each. As needed, I get 100 or 200 copies of each printed at Kinko’s, collating and stapling them myself. The cost per book is a little higher that professional printers would charge for quantities of 2,000 or more, but start up expense is much more manageable, and so is storage. I sell these books through my website and in my classroom when I teach. Although the total quantity sold is nothing to brag about, I’m satisfied to have made this information available. Later I’ll write a little about selling them on Amazon, something I have chosen not to do.

A word here about the process of writing books. There are many possibilities. One could write the text, but hire a book designer to do the layout and design of the book. One could take their own photographs, adjusting them in a program such as Photoshop, or hire a professional photographer. One could find a source for the ISBN book number and bar code (needed if the book is sold in stores or on Amazon), or hire a book consultant to take care of that detail. One could design their own cover, lay it out, do any needed drawings or photographs for it, or hire it out. Me? Well, I didn’t have the budget to hire anybody, so of necessity, I did it all myself. There are both pros and cons to this. For me, it was challenging and fun. I learned so much more with each book. Even now, I look back at my prototypes, printed on my trusty ink-jet printer, with great fondness because of the lessons they represent.

Beaded Treasures was my next book, released in 2006, and printed professionally. Again it was a completely do-it-yourself deal. This time, I leaned Quark, the publishing software used by most printers, which allowed me to prepare print-ready pages saved as PDF files. I printed 2,750 for the first run, because the savings per book was ridiculous going from 2,000 to 2,750. That was a good decision because I sold out in just over a year and did a second printing of 2,500. Wouldn’t it be great if one could accurately predict sales? The cost per book for 5,000 would have been much lower than I paid each time. However, I would have had to store 625 large cartons of books. I’m satisfied with this book and with the sales from it. My only minor dissatisfaction is with the color in the photographs. To get color matching services from a printer is quite expensive, so I chose not to do it.

Always, after writing One Bead at a Time, I wanted to do a sequel, a book that would present both advanced bead embroidery techniques and give inspiration for developing design skills and artistic confidence. So, in 2008, I wrote, designed and self-published an 80-page book, Heart to Hands Bead Embroidery. It’s my favorite book! I loved writing it and love sharing the techniques and process in this way.

However, I may have made a telling mistake with it, one that a traditional publisher might have avoided. I designed the cover myself; it features six beaded “paper dolls” strung across the front, back and flaps of the cover. I love how it looks! But, I think it gives a wrong impression about the book. The immediate suggestion is that the book is about making dolls. It is not. So if a customer in a bead shop sees the book on the shelf, but isn’t interested in making dolls, it’s not likely they will even consider opening the book to take a look. I think it may hurt sales. Confident that it would sell, I again scraped together all my available funds, and went for a 3,500 print run. Time will tell if that was a mistake.

OK, we’re up to date now. In Part 4 of this series, I’ll tell you about the experience of preparing my latest book, which will be released late fall or early winter, 2012, and is being published by an international publisher. How did it happen that I returned to traditional publishing? You’ll see!


  1. Interesting reading.
    I own all of your beading books. I consider them to be the best reference books. Beaded Embellishments was the first bead embroidery book I bought and poured over several times before I ever bought a seed bead. I used to be a bead snob ~lol~

    I look forward to your next book and reading about how it was conceived.
    xx, Carol

  2. Robin, once again, thank you for sharing your experience!

    I'm looking forward to reading the next installments, especially the book writing tips. And I can't wait to read more of your books!

    -- Sarah

  3. I'm finding this series about your book writing experiences totally fascinating!
    I'm looking forward to the next one, also.

    I'm so glad you finally are done with your latest book project. Can't wait to hear all about that one.

  4. Anonymous5:04 AM

    I'm so glad to be finding new entries in your blog! I've missed you very much. It's interesting to hear the back story on your books, (all of which I own and enjoy and use.) I'm looking forward to the next installments, and can hardly wait for The Book to come out. Does it have a title yet?

    Terri B-N

  5. Robin - I find this series of posts extremely interesting as I'm also a self publisher in the quilting world. I've just recently started using Amazon's Create Space program to transfer my books to a print on demand program. Is there a specific reason why you haven't done this with your smaller books? I'd love more details!


    Leah Day

  6. Robin,

    It's me again! I was thinking about how you mentioned all the options self-published authors have in terms of how much of the book work they want to contract out, and for someone with a lot of contacts in the art world, bartering for photos, editing, etc., might be possible.

    If I ever need professional photos done, I might just try trading homecooked meals, jewelry, or hula hooping lessons for photos. :)


Thanks you for joining the discussion on this post today!