Thursday, March 15, 2012

Books - Write! Publish? Self-Publish? Rewards! - Part 5

Let’s talk about tips for writing beading (or other craft/art) books or magazine articles. Yes, I imagine there are some similarities to writing fiction or history or personal memoirs, enough so that those giving thought to writing any type of book may find useful points in this post. However, most of my experience is writing how-to books about beading, books giving instructions and inspiration to readers who want to do some type of beading themselves.
Finished manuscript! Ready to ship to publisher!

Writing is Teaching

I think there’s quite a difference between books designed to instruct and those designed to entertain. To write an instructional book, one must be a teacher. The very most important key to the success of my books is my teaching experience. Remember, I’d been teaching the methods and process of improvisational bead embroidery for 10 years before writing One Bead at a Time.

During those 10 years, I learned how to convey the techniques to students in ways they could grasp easily. I learned, by trial and error, how to draw the steps on a white board, and the exact words that work best to enable my students to learn the stitches easily. It didn’t come all at once. When students were confused or stuck, I’d try different words, different drawings, until finally something clicked.

By the time I wrote One Bead at a Time, most of my students “got it” pretty easily. I learned how to inspire them as well, how to enable them to delve into their inner creativity and let it come out, again learned by trial and error through working with hundreds of students. Ten years later, the book almost “wrote itself,” as I tapped into the drawings and words I used when teaching.

Photography Required

This is my lighting system, although I still like overcast, natural light best.
For this type of book, good photographs are necessary. As many of you know, photographing beadwork is NOT easy. Shiny, little beads, reflecting light! Depth of field issues, especially with textural and sculptural work! Here's a post I wrote previously on photographing beadwork. Even professionals are challenged by beadwork. A prospective author must decide whether they have the motivation to learn how to photograph their work. If not, they must either find a publisher with a photography department and budget, or they must have the means to hire it done.

Design Skills Helpful

A book must be “designed.” Everything about the first impression a book gives to a potential buyer is important - from the title, to the cover design, to the size of the book and type of binding, to the layout of the pages, even to the details like the fonts and paper quality. To design a book requires both technical skills and artistic sensibilities.

Prototypes (or mockups) of my books, ink-jet printer, for final proofing.
When self-publishing a book, taking on its design is quite a challenge. For me, it was exciting and fun! When working with a publisher, which employs professional designers, I miss being involved in the design process. However, I’ve also learned the hard way that it’s easy to make mistakes when doing it myself. Both of my major mistakes (not coating the cover of Nautical Highways and using dolls on the cover of Heart to Hands Bead Embroidery) have cost me many readers/buyers.

Market research, in a limited way, might be helpful. For example, I might have put several cover images on my blog and taken a popularity poll, or put the doll image up and asked what is this book about? If 7 out of 10 people had responded, “How to make a beaded doll,” I might not have used it on the cover, because doll-making is not the subject of the book.

Printing Your Book

There are numerous printers around the country that operate presses capable of printing books, fewer with the capability of printing in full color (CMYK on a four-color press). Some have in-house binding; some send the printed parts to a bindery. Publishers nowadays tend to contract with mega-printers located overseas to print their books. These are not available to or interested in the relatively small print runs of the self-publishing author.

To get my books printed, I researched printers on the internet. After talking with their sales reps, getting an idea of costs and determining my approximate budget, I asked several printers to give me a bid. Generally I asked for a bid on each of three different quantities. On thing I did not do (but should have) was to ask to talk with a professional on their staff who would coach me through the process, helping me to save money while still producing a high-quality book.

One of the sweetest things about working with a professional publisher is not having to deal with printing and binding your book.

Several fiction writers I know have turned to POD, print on demand, paying for their books only as needed. The cost per book is higher, but there’s no huge front-end payment required and no need to correctly estimate sales. However, most of PODs print electronically rather than with a press. And most of them do not deal with color, or if they do it’s very expensive. If I were to decide to self-publish another book, I would research PODs. However, I’m guessing I’d stick with an old-fashioned, 4-color press.

And don’t forget printers like Kinko’s. They’ve been a great solution for printing small runs of small, pamphlet-type books, such as Rosie, the Uncaged Hen. I can print 100 or more copies at a fairly reasonable cost per book.  This solution works well for books that have less than 20 pages. The quality? It’s not as high as books printed on a 4-color press, but not bad either.

Between Printing and the Customer

In addition to marketing, which I’ll discuss next, there’s binding, shipping and storage. The pages are printed on large sheets, 8-up, 16-up, or some other quantity of pages per sheet. These sheets are cut apart and collated by the printer or bindery. The pages and cover are then bound together. There are many binding options, the most common of which are: perfect, case and spiral. The number of pages in the book, your budget, the desired longevity of the book, and the reader’s preference should be taken into account when making a decision about the type of binding.

Once the books are bound, they are boxed and sent to your desired location. For me, it was our house. When the first printing of my first book arrived, I was shocked! So many boxes! Where to put them? Ah yes, storage. I thought about renting a climate-controlled storage unit, but didn’t want to have to go there every time I needed to ship books to customers.

At first I stored them in my studio. Every nook, every closet, under every table… boxes of books everywhere. Finally, by the time I had six of my self-published books in active distribution and the 7th on its way, I knew we couldn’t live among the boxes any more. So we built a climate-controlled book shed, a small storage unit attached to our studio building, where the boxes are now out of our way, yet still accessible.

Marketing, Everybody’s Bugaboo

With self-publishing, much more than as an author on contract with a professional publisher, marketing is a challenge that’s easy to overlook in the excitement of writing, photographing, designing and printing a book. There’s nothing satisfying about storing hundreds of boxes of books for years and years; nothing at all satisfying about not selling enough books to pay even the expenses of printing and binding them, let alone your other expenses or earning a little profit from your labors.

For me, marketing is always the most difficult and least fun part of being an author. I’ve never enjoyed selling, which is why I never really wanted to sell my beadwork, even to become a gallery artist. Selling my books is no different. I do what I can: take them with me when I teach, make them available through my website, and offer them at a ridiculously low price to the nation-wide wholesale distributor for bead shops.

Some authors, such as Margie Deeb, are lots more active in the sales process. One of the best is Cat Bordi, who writes knitting books. It’s just not me. Therefore, I sell less books than would probably be possible if I were more pro-active.

Selling on

Selling self-published books on Amazon is not as easy as you might think. I’ve not tried it with my beading books. I probably should, because it’s so convenient and such a common way for people all over the world to buy books. We did try it with Nautical Highways, the book my husband and I produced.

There are several ways to sell books through Amazon. One is to list books, pay a commission and take care of the fulfillment, shipping the books yourself. We wanted to set it up so the books appeared like any other new book on Amazon and the orders would be shipped from and by Amazon. This requires joining Amazon’s “Advantage Program.”  Our experience with it wasn't very good; in fact, it cost us more to make the book available through Amazon than we earned in book sales. Not a good bottom line; so we quit. Maybe I’d do better with my beading books; maybe I should try.

Passion, passion, passion!

Who should write a book?  Well, if you’re passionate about something and want to share your passion, it’s very satisfying to put it into book form. It feels good doing it whether you’re self-publishing or not. To see and hold your passion in your hands, in the form of a freshly printed book, is like giving birth to a beautiful baby!

Can you do it on passion alone? That would be rare. If you don’t have sub-passions for teaching, photography, book design, learning about printing and/or marketing, it’s probably wise to find a traditional publisher with interest in your ideas. Perhaps begin by writing magazine articles. Practice by writing tutorials on a blog. A publisher will be far more interested in you and your book idea if you can demonstrate that you have experience writing this type of material. Contact authors in your field and ask them for assistance, perhaps for a referral to their editor/publisher.

The Money Part – Costs

When an author works with a traditional publisher, there are only minor out-of-pocket expenses. Self-publishing is a different story. Depending on how much of the work is hired out, it could cost many thousands of dollars.

Printing will be the biggest expense. Color printing a book such as Beaded Treasures will cost $5-7 per book, depending on the quantity, size and number of pages. Thus, printing 2,000 copies will cost you upwards of $12,000. If you also hire a designer, consultant, photographer, and/or editor, their services might add another $500- $5,000 to your budget. Each of the printings for my books used up all my available savings. It took a year or more of sales to build my savings back up again.

The Money Part – Earnings

Whoooeee, this is a big topic with many, many variables. To put it in its most simple terms, I’ll just tell you that writing each of my books required a concentrated chunk of time: 1-8 months, working 6-14 hours per day, 7 days a week to produce the book, get it print-ready. After that, there’s additional marketing time, of course.

In direct sales (retail and wholesale) of my self-published books, I’ve probably sold about 10,000 books, making an average profit of $2 per book after all expenses are paid. So, in about 11 years, my profit is roughly $20,000.  I’m estimating an average of 700 hours of work for each of my 7 books, or a total of 4,900 hours, which makes my earnings about $4.00 per hour. Ha! I never worked that out before. Interesting! Not much of a wage, is it? But for a labor of passion, I consider myself relatively well rewarded financially.

In traditional publishing, the author is either paid in royalties (a percentage of each book sold) or by flat fee. I estimate spending 2,000 – 2,200 hours writing, making samples, photographing, photo-editing, and copy-editing my current book, The Complete Photo Guide to Beading. Oddly enough, my “hourly wage” will be the same as for my self-published book, about $4 per hour.

I guess we can safely say that artists who write books about beading won’t be getting rich quick.

Other Rewards

Oh well, money isn’t everything. The greatest, absolutely the best, reward for me is/was the process of doing it. Exciting and fun, it’s a highly creative, stimulating, challenging way to spend my time! I love the whole process, from the conception of the idea to holding the book in my hands. Even the dreaded marketing can sometimes be interesting.

Another reward is knowing that I’ve been able to share my passions with many more people than I possibly could by teaching. Readers often tell me that working with one of my books is like taking a workshop from me, like I’m there in the room with them, helping them. That’s so gratifying to hear… a fabulous reward!

And finally, there’s the notion of legacy, of leaving something of me in the world after I’m gone. I didn’t have that thought in the year 2000, when I self-published my first book, One Bead at a Time. But now that I’m almost 70, the happy thought enters my mind that some of the books I’ve written will survive me to teach and inspire people when I'm not here anymore.


Maybe this series of posts will help you to decide if you want to write a book or not; maybe it will give you a few ideas about how to do it. There are some great how-to books that might help too. One that I used is Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual.

Read, ask other authors, talk it over with important people in your life… for a little while! Then get busy and start writing! All starting points are equally valid. Start with what you know best, no matter where it will eventually be placed in the book. Start with your greatest area of passion. Just do it!

Wishing you a lovely journey….


  1. Dear Robin, these posts about book writing and publishing have been fascinating. One thing I noticed from the very first was how well you write. Your writing is always clear and considered and there is no doubting your love for what you do so brilliantly. It is sad to think that for all the beauty you have brought into the world you have been so poorly remunerated but I guess if you had been in it for the money you would have given up long ago. Thank goodness, we are all able to enjoy your work through your books, blog, BJP etc. Thank you so much for the inspiration.

  2. Robin, I just finished reading all of your posts on writing books. Your shared experiences and the related information you have provided is so thorough and helpful. Thank you for taking the time to do this. Self-publishing always sounded so simple, but there is so much to consider. I am glad you stuck with it and can't wait for the release of your latest book. Congratulations!

  3. Thanks, Robin, for sharing your publishing journey! It's made for some very engrossing reading and a lot of food for thought.

    I understand what you mean about selling work -- selling has never been something that's come naturally to me, as an introvert. I'm more of the writing/teaching/making type, I suspect.

    Thanks again!

    -- Sarah

  4. I, too, have been fascinated by this series on self-publishing a book. So much work goes into it most of us didn't about.

    I understand about not being keen on the selling side of things. Neither my husband, a photographer, nor myself take to it naturally. We'd both rather just do our "artsy" thing. But then is would be just a hobby, yes?

    Thank you for taking all the time to write this series. I bookmarked it for future reference. :-)

  5. As always, this post was insightful and so well presented. You have offered so much of yourself to all of us who wished to learn bead embroidery and I sincerely hope you will reap more benefits from your new publication than you can imagine :).


  6. Thanks Kathy, Robyn, Connie, Sarah and Loretta! Your comments make me happy. As you might guess, writing this series took quite a bit of time. I did it mostly for myself, to have a record of this journey, especially the most recent book (part 4). To know that you've read all these words and gotten something from them is icing on the cake, thrilling actually!!!!

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Thanks you for joining the discussion on this post today!