Hot Off The Press

Self-publishers with the write stuff grab a piece of an $18.5 billion industry.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the March 1997 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Barbara Saltzman had a book. Not just any book, but one penned and illustrated by the 22-year-old son she lost to Hodgkin's disease. The book is alive with engaging characters, lively rhymes, sweet illustrations and hope for the children who read it. Before her son David's death in 1990, Saltzman vowed she'd get his book published, whatever it took.

But that was before she ran up against the New York establishment. They recommended shortening the book, out the rhymes, and printing it on flimsy paper. Even for Saltzman, a newspaper editor by trade, the "business end" of getting published was a cold shock.

So, like a growing number of authors worldwide, Saltzman published the book herself. With the help of her husband, Joe, her older son, Michael, a $250,000 home equity loan and a loan from friends, Saltzman printed 30,000 copies of The Jester Has Lost His Jingle (The Jester Company Inc.). Since its October 1995 release, about 165,000 copies of the book have been printed.

When she isn't traveling the country on promotional junkets, Saltzman works tirelessly out of her home in Palos Verdes Estates, California. Becoming a publisher has been hard but gratifying work. "I work on this constantly," says Saltzman. "But when I see the impact the book has on kids, it's really quite tremendous."

According to Dan Poynter, founder of Santa Barbara, California-based Para Publishing and author of The Manual (Para Publishing), Saltzman is in good company. Poynter estimates there are at least 53,000 publishers in the United States today. "Of those," he says, "maybe 23 are ; another 300 are medium-sized presses. That leaves more than 52,000 smaller publishers."

And why not? Book sales have been on the rise throughout the '90s, with estimated publishers' sales in 1996 of $18.5 billion, a 35 percent increase over 1990 sales of $13.7 billion.

More important, it's never been more feasible--or attractive--to self-publish. What began as a do-it-yourself movement in the 1980s is now a thriving, professional industry. "Ten years ago, self-publishing was not the thing for an established writer to do," says Mark Dressler, associate publisher of Small Press and Publishing Entrepreneur magazines and vice president of The Jenkins Group Inc., a Traverse City, Michigan, firm that helps small presses produce professional results. "Today, I'm working with people who were previously published by the [major houses] and didn't like it."

Title Bouts

If large press publishers were the only source of new books, consumers might face a far different selection of titles. Why? "New York publishers have begun looking at margins very differently than they have traditionally," explains Dominique Raccah, founder of Sourcebooks Inc. in Naperville, Illinois, an independent press she started as a self-publisher in 1987, and which now boasts nearly 220 titles. There's been a tremendous upheaval in the industry and an increasing emphasis on blockbuster hits, she says. "That's left a number of midlist authors without a home, which presents an exciting opportunity for [small publishers]."

The same trend spells opportunity for self-published authors. Slots in the marketplace neglected by the major publishers mean plenty of open niches for independent and self-publishers.

Self- holds two additional advantages. One is control. "The big difference between major publishing houses and independents is that we keep our books in print," says Jan Nathan, executive director of the Publishers Marketing Association. "As long as a title continues to sell, we can print 2,000 copies again and again. Major houses can't afford to do this."

This leads to the second advantage of : profitability. According to Dressler, authors can expect royalties from major publishers of 8 percent to 10 percent of sales. By contrast, it's not uncommon for marketing-savvy self-publishers to see a 50 percent return on investment.

Marketplace Of Ideas

Given the harmonic convergence of opportunity and profit potential--as well as the help of a burgeoning industry of freelance writers, editors, graphic artists, printers, publicists, distributors and packagers--it's never been easier to publish your own book.

But that doesn't mean a successful book is easy. Like any business venture, launching a book involves investigating your market, creating a knockout product, and promoting the heck out of it. If you have sufficient resources, you can get help with virtually any part of the process.

But you must begin with a viable concept. Nathan urges would-be publishers to visit their local bookstores. "See what's on the shelves, and ask yourself what makes your book different," she suggests. Talking to bookstore managers, book distributors and fellow publishers will also help.

Major publishing houses rely on traditional outlets--bookstores--to sell their goods. Independent publishers, on the other hand, often use alternative marketing to boost sales and profits. Poynter, for instance, made his first book (a technical volume on parachutes) a hit by selling it to parachute stores. "It just made sense," Poynter says. "The percentage of people going into a bookstore who have an interest in parachuting is small, but 100 percent of people going into a parachuting store want to know about parachutes." Figuring out how to maximize nontraditional and direct sales--as well as the traditional bookstore and library markets--is a crucial step in any book venture.

Once you know the market exists, make sure your resources are adequate. Publishing costs vary widely depending on the nature and scope of the project. The Jester Has Lost His Jingle required massive capital to produce because of its full-color illustrations, length and large initial print run. On a more modest scale, Poynter estimates minimum printing costs on a 3,000-copy print run for a small book with no color at $5,000; figure an additional $1,700 or more for cover design.

Printing costs are only one of many expenses. At the very least, plan on hiring an editor, a cover designer and a graphic artist. You should also anticipate ample promotional costs. Psychologist David Grudermeyer, who is a year into the publication of the book he co-wrote with his psychologist wife, Rebecca, Sensible Self-Help (Willingness Works Press), suggests budgeting $50,000 to $100,000 for production and promotion.

Saltzman stresses the importance of a quality product. "This business doesn't run on sentimentality," she says. "Bookstores aren't buying this book because they sympathize with David's [personal] story. They're buying the book because they think it will sell." Nothing short of a great book can accomplish that.

The Last Word

Several options exist for self-publishers who manage to pull off a successful project. A major house might wish to snap up your publishing rights--at a tidy profit to you.

Some books lend themselves to lines of related products. The Grudermeyers, for example, also publish a line of audiotaped seminars. Saltzman is marketing Jester dolls and is discussing the possibility of producing entertainment tie-ins.

Raccah launched Sourcebooks with a single self-published book. Today, her entire focus is on
publishing the works of other authors--and quite successfully. "We have signed a tremendous number of very strong authors because we're able to give them the attention and service they want," says Raccah, who expects sales at Sourcebooks to double this year.

Raccah warns would-be publishers that this is not a business for the slight of brain. "The knowledge you need is very scattered, and it all calls for a high level of expertise," she says. This is true whether you're talking about intellectual property or distribution rights, foreign rights, movie rights, promotion, editorial, design--the list goes on and on.

Yet the effort can be more than worthwhile, both financially and emotionally. When the right combination of dynamite content, eager market and active promotion really clicks, self-publishers do more than prosper. They get the last word.

Want To Know More?

  • The Publishers Marketing Association provides everything from education to cooperative marketing programs. Call (310) 372-2732, or write to them at 2401 Pacific Coast Hwy., #102, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

  • Small Press magazine ($34 per year) is the Publisher's Weekly of the independent press. Entrepreneur ($28 annually) covers the business side of books. Both bimonthlies are available by calling (800) 706-4636.

  • Dan Poynter's The Manual (Para Publishing, $19.95) should be required reading for all new publishers. Also helpful: Is There a Book Inside You? by Dan Poynter and Mindy Bingham (Para Publishing, $14.95). Both are available in bookstores. Call (805) 968-7277 for information on upcoming seminars, or write to Para Publishing, P.O. Box 8206, Santa Barbara, CA 93118.

Contact Sources

The Jenkins Group, 121 E. Front St., 4th Fl., Traverse City, MI 49684, (616) 933-0445;

The Jester Company Inc., P.O. Box 817, Palos Verdes Estates, CA 90274, (800) 9-JESTER;

Para , P.O. Box 8206, Santa Barbara, CA 93118-8206, (805) 968-7277;

Publishers Marketing Association, 2401 Pacific Coast Hwy., #102, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254, (310) 372-2732;

Sourcebooks Inc., 121 N. Washington, Naperville, IL 60540, (630) 961-3900;

Willingness Works Press, 1155 Camino Del Mar, #516, Del Mar, CA 92014, (800) 915-3606, ext. 21.

Gayle Sato Stodder covers entrepreneurship for various publications. She lives and works in Manhattan Beach, California.


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