A Tale of Self-Publishing
From an article written for the Writers’ Union of Canada
By Paul Lima
In 2009, 76% of all books released were self-published, according to Publishers Weekly. Since then, the industry has all but stopped keeping stats. The number of self-published print and e-books continue to grow exponentially while the number of books issued by traditional publishers declines.
This trend is being fostered by both independent authors and the new wave of print on demand (POD) publishers who publish books for would-be authors lacking the technical skills to otherwise self-publish. POD publishers charge aspiring authors modest fees and pay no advances. They print books one at a time, when they are ordered by consumers or authors, and ship e-books as they are ordered. They only pay royalties when books sell and leave almost all of the marketing up to the authors.
I’ve been self-publishing since 2006 and have self-published 10 books on business writing, copywriting, how to write a non-fiction book, the business of freelance writing and several other topics through Lulu.com, a POD company. On March 1, I used Lulu to release my first collection of short stories.
I had first heard about self-publishing on several writers lists I belonged to. When I couldn’t find decent, affordable textbooks for a couple of university courses that I teach, I decided to take the POD plunge. Now four universities and colleges, including the University of Toronto, are using three of my self-published books as part of continuing education courses.
Lulu allows authors to upload books to its website, gives them an online storefront address (such as www.lulu.com/paullima) and processes credit card orders. Lulu ships books or makes ePub and/or PDF files available for downloading—depending on what the author has uploaded and what the buyer wants. The e-books arrive instantly, without shipping charges. Print books are printed-on-demand and shipped to the buyer.
Lulu sets its printing fee based on the number of pages in the book. The author sets the retail price. The author keeps the difference, which tends to be more per book than publishers pay out on a standard royalty agreement. Of course, if I sell no books, I earn no revenue, nor does Lulu. But I don’t pay Lulu a cent unless a reader buys one of my books. Even then, I don’t actually send Lulu money; Lulu deducts its cut off the retail price.
Lulu fulfils book orders which means I don’t have to carry any stock or ship books. In addition, each book has a unique website address that I can link to from my book promotion website (www.paullima.com/books), so I can drive traffic from my website to Lulu’s book fulfillment site.
When I got my books and reports set up on Lulu, I thought my self-publishing work was done.
Then I discovered Lightning Source Inc. (LSI), a division of the book distributor Ingram. Unlike Lulu, LSI does not sell directly to consumers. Through Ingram it does, however, make books available in Amazon and a number of other online book retailers. When someone buys your book through Amazon, the order is placed with LSI and the book is printed and shipped – on demand.
At first, I did not think I needed my books in Amazon. Who would look for a book by the obscure author, Paul Lima? But I thought I’d try one book through LSI. I chose my best selling book, How To Write A Non-fiction Book In 60 Days. To my amazement, sales skyrocketed. I went from selling about 50 copies a year of the book to selling 50 or more copies a month. The secret? People don’t search Amazon for a book by the obscure author, Paul Lima. They search for “writing non-fiction” or “writing a book”. My book comes up in the search results and, evidently, people buy it.
I now sell seven of my books through LSI. They are still available through Lulu, because there are people who shop there, but they are also available through major online retailers. By way of aside, you can now get books into Amazon through Lulu (and several other POD publishers, including CreateSpace, which is owned by Amazon), but LSI gives you broader overall distribution. In addition, I earn more per book sold through LSI and LSI charges me less per books when I order short runs to sell at the occasional writing workshop I conduct.
When my books were set up in LSI, I thought my self-publishing work was done. Then I discovered Amazon Kindle.
Amazon has sold millions of Kindles. Kindle users don’t want to buy paper copies of books. So if I want to sell to Kindle users, I have to make my books available as Kindle books. The good news? Amazon makes it easy for any author to sell Kindle books. If you can covert you book into a Kindle, which takes a bit of doing (or you can hire someone), you can sign up for a Kindle account and make your book available.
I have eight books and one report available as Kindles. Each month, my Kindle book sales exceed my print sales. I am not cannibalizing my print sales by selling Kindle books. Kindle owners don’t want to buy print copies of books. I do no real Kindle promotion; people simply find my books on Amazon. (See Make sure your book title is Amazon “SEO” friendly.)
When I got my Kindle books set up, I thought my self-publishing work was done. But there is this format called ePub that is used by Sony Reader, Kobo, iPad and e-readers other than Kindle. I am now making my books available as ePubs. But even when my books are available as ePubs, my self-publishing work will not be done.
As mentioned, I’ve just published my first collection of short stories, Rebel in the Back Seat. I’ve made it available in print and as a Kindle, ePub and PDF. While self-published non-fiction books with specific target markets tend to be more successful than fiction or poetry, there is no reason why self-publishing cannot be used for fiction or poetry, and there are some amazing success stories out there.
The Best Laid Plans, a satirical political romp by Canadian author Terry Fallis, was self-published and went on to win the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. And Amanda Hocking, a writer of paranormal fiction, has earned over two million dollars (yes, you’ve read that right!) self-publishing her books. At the same time, I know that for a work of fiction to be successful, it needs to be promoted – it’s not just going to pop up after a generic search the way a book about how to write non-fiction does. So now I’ve got a new challenge: How to get people to seek out and order a book of short stories by obscure author Paul Lima.
In the meantime, I have sold over 5,000 nonfiction books earning anywhere from $3 to $15 per book. Could I have earned more money focusing exclusively on marketing my corporate writing and training services? Of course I could. But would I be having as much fun as I am having? Definitely not.
As an author, I feel empowered. I’m publishing my books on my terms and my schedule, and at my prices. I am not pleading to publishers to find my work worthy. I am taking my work directly to readers, and I find it rewarding that many people are buying my books and giving me solid feedback. And I’m making some money too.
I must confess, I like the feeling.
Paul Lima is a freelance writer, business-writing trainer and the author of several books on business writing and the business of freelance writing. You can read more about him online at www.paullima.com, including his blog posts about his experiences.
This article first ran in Write, The Writer’s Union of Canada magazine — one of the many benefits authors get when they join the WUC.