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How to Self-Publish and Market Your Book

How to Self-Publish and Market Your Book

Selling a book requires good content, perseverance, and lots of speaking gigs.

Holocaust survivor Ruth Arndt Gumpel (center) with her grandson Alex and author Barbara Lovenheim (right) signing books after a program at the 92nd Street Y. Photo by Ruth's son Larry Gumpel

In the late 1990s I met three Holocaust survivors in my hometown, Rochester, New York—Ellen and Erich Arndt and Erich’s sister, Ruth Gumpel. All three had amazingly survived, “hiding in plain sight,” in the middle of Berlin during World War II, along with four other family members. Fascinated by their incredible tale, I volunteered to work with them as a writer so we could preserve their story for posterity. In 1982 we published Survival in the Shadows: Seven Jews Hidden in Berlin with Peter Owen, a small publisher in London, and Siedler Verlag, a top Random House publisher in Berlin. Peter had rights to distribute the book in the U.S., but when I learned that he planned to sell the book for a cover price of $45—and refused to change his plan—I was furious, bought the U.S. rights, and decided to reissue a paperback book here, working with the Rochester Holocaust Center as a publisher. In the process I learned, from the ground up, how to produce, market, and sell a book. 

We have now sold 2,500 copies of the book, primarily due to the hard work of the three Arndts, who inexhaustibly promoted the book by talking to school groups and at temple gatherings. Erich carried a box of books in his car, so that every time he went to a store or restaurant, he could sell a book to people he met. Ruth gave many talks in Petaluma, California, where she lived, and she went to Berlin yearly, invited by the Jewish Museum, to speak with German students. I made presentations in New York City and, with a publicist, set up a panel presentation at the 92nd Street Y. 

After this book was published, I decided to leverage the knowledge I had attained and began editing and producing books with my design partner, Susan Huyser, for clients ranging from the American Folk Art Museum to friends publishing memoirs. Since I am so often asked for advice about this process, I’ve decided to share what I have learned. 

Producing A Book: This is the easy part. Due primarily to digital printing and the advent of e-books, there are now many inexpensive ways to produce books. Amazon’s Create Space, Barnes & Noble’s iUniverse, Bookmasters, and many small publishers have publish-on-demand (POD) programs. They offer basic packages that typically include an ISBN number (needed to sell a book in stores), a graphic artist who designs the cover and interior, a copy editor, the insertion of from 10 to 25 black and white photos, and an electronic file for a Kindle or a Nook. Prices range from $700 to $1,000, depending upon the services you want. If you know a good designer and/or editor, it may be preferable to work directly with a person you trust. It's difficult for a novice to design a cover, but if you are computer savvy, you can lay out the interior with online templates provided by the publisher. You will still need to pay for an ISBN. Writers typically order a number of books to distribute to family and friends and sell at lectures; they sell the others online on a POD basis. 

Royalties: Publishing is not a high-paying field and POD is no exception to this rule. When you sell a book to a trade publisher, you typically get an advance based on projected sales. This can range from $10,000 to $1 million if you are a best-selling author. Authors also earn money from derivative sales for magazine excerpts, paperback contracts, and film options.

With POD, you pay a company to print your book or produce an e-file.  When the book is sold on its website, you receive a percentage of the cover price that is calculated based on what you paid the company to print your book. At Create Space, if you publish a 150 page book with a black and white interior, a color cover, and a cover price of $15.95, you will receive $6.92 per print book and $10.11 per e-book. If the book is 200 pages, you will receive slightly less—$6.32 per book—because there are more pages to print. If you order books for personal use, you will pay for printing plus shipping and you can either give the books away or sell them and keep the proceeds. In this case the company receives only what it charged for printing. 

Do I Need A Distributor? Ask your POD publisher if it will get your book into Ingram or Baker & Taylor, since most  bookstores will only order from these warehouses. If you are writing a nonfiction book, consider looking for a university press that specializes in your topic; if it accepts your book, the press will distribute your book to libraries and special interest organizations—these are important sources for sales. Wayne State has now sold 800 copies of Survival in the Shadows and we receive 30 or 40 percent of the cover price, depending upon whether the sale is to a bookstore or a library. (Libraries keep a lower percentage of the cover price than bookstores.) If your POD publisher does not distribute books to bookstores or libraries, contact Quality Books or the Independent Book Publishers Association. They work with small publishers and can sell your book to libraries and/or bookstores. 

Signing Up With A POD Publisher: Speak with a representative. Ask to see sample books. Ask about ‘hidden’ charges. If you want to insert black and white photos in the book, find out how many they will print gratis and what they will charge for more. Make sure that you can review the cover and the interior before the book goes to press. Find out if Create Space will list your book on Barnes & Noble and if iUniverse lists your book on Amazon. Bookmasters lists books on a wide variety of websites, but charges more to do so.