The Wrong Way To Successful Book Publishing

Tomorrow morning, at some time I can predict with as much accuracy as I can when the cable guy will show up, a trucker with “2 pallets, 68 boxes and 1 ton” of books will call me and say “I’m here. Where are you guys?” I will explain to him, as I always do, that our publishing “office” is not manned 9–5 (it’s not manned at all, in fact), and that I will meet him in the gravel lot by the former Old Country Smokehouse in 20 minutes. Then I’ll hang up, text the two incredibly generous people who work with me and and say “books are here!” The three of us will get in our cars, meet in that gravel lot, and carry a ton of books from the back of the truck into our small office space.

It is quite the unconventional way to publish. But it works: as soon as the boxes are lined up against the office wall, we will start shipping pre-orders and sending boxes to Amazon. For “How To Live in Detroit Without Being A Jackass,” the title coming in tomorrow, we have already sold enough copies to pay for the printing costs, with still a month until publication date.

Three years ago I choose to publish a book on my own (not so much self-publishing as creating a small press in order to publish one title), primarily because I have always been fascinated by the material aspects of writing (the houses writers live in, the instruments they use to write, the printing of copies). When it became possible for individuals to become publishers, I wanted to learn from the inside out. Then, once I figured out you could make actual cash money doing it, I kept on publishing more books.

Since then, I have had ten truck deliveries for seven different titles now that I am the publisher of both the magazine and publishing arms of Belt. To be honest, things have moved so fast I haven’t taken much of a break to learn about and better understand how other presses operate. My methods are markedly idiosyncratic. But they have worked. Before I teach myself the ‘right’ way and start doing things more conventionally — which I expect to do shortly, as the press continues to expand — I want to chronicle how this quirky small press has made a go of it, to draw back the curtain on what I have learned.

We sell a lot of books direct to customers. A large percentage of our books are sold directly to readers. For our book that came out in May, 2015, 30% were sold directly to readers through our online store, at the launch party and other events, including upscale hipster flea markets and other places where we are most definitely the only publisher in attendance. This is absolutely central to our bottom line: we receive $20 for each $20 book we sell this way. When we sell to Amazon, we receive $9 minus shipping. That’s a huge difference.

We sell a lot of books to people who are not readers per se. Our books are mostly city-based anthologies. Many people who buy them likely do not buy many other books, but they are interested in their city, and there are not many books being published about the cities we write about (except, of course, that poster boy for books about cities, Detroit). So we’re unique. Plus, as I explain above, people find our books at places where books are not often sold — in addition to fairs, we consign with vendors who specialize in city-based retail (Cleveland Clothing, Pure Detroit, a nature center in Youngstown), so those who may not browse local bookstores find us. It took me awhile to catch on to this market detail: at fairs hawking my first book, I noticed many people would pick up the book and immediately open to the middle, flipping the pages. They did not turn the book over to look at the back cover, or open to the table of contents.

We sell a lot of books, period. For a small press, that is. We have sold over 6,000 of our first title, and no title has sold fewer than 700 copies.

Amazon is a problem. At the beginning, I refused to list a book on Amazon until after it had been out for about a month. Why? Not for all the crucial ethical and political reasons, to be brutally honest, although I believe and subscribe in them. I did it for base financial reasons: remember, we get $20 per copy, immediately, for copies sold through our online store versus $9 copy (minus shipping, and payment arriving up to 60 days later) sold through theirs. As we became established, though, and began doing more advanced marketing and publicity, it was too hard to hold off — Amazon is a reference site for reviewers, booksellers and the like: if your book doesn’t show up there, it’s hard to be taken seriously by those in the book business. So I now list our books on Amazon well in advance of publication. I hate doing so. For that title showing up tomorrow, we have sold about 60 pre-orders on Amazon, and about the same number through our store, for a loss thus far, one month before publication — and while I still have to pay all the bills for this title — of over $1200 in potential revenue.

What are those bills anyway? About 1/3 of total expenses goes to the printers. About 1/6th goes to the book designer, 1/6th to proofreading, 1/4 to the editor or author in an advance, and, sometimes, another 1/4th or so to publicity and marketing (I have chosen different methods for marketing each title, and am still not convinced of any one that should become our standard). Does that up to a whole? I’m not sure, but you get the drift.

How do you make a profit? For a book that retails for $20, which all of ours have thus far, we need to sell, depending on the title, from 600–1300 books to break even. After that our only remaining expenses on titles are author royalties.

What do your authors receive? An advance of about ¼ of our total initial expenses, and then royalties on copies sold. We do a flat rate royalty — the same amount for each copy sold, no matter how much we receive for that copy — rather than those incredibly confusing schemes other publishers do. I receive two royalty statements a year myself, as an author, and I’ve never been able to make head nor tails of them. Belt authors get paid twice a year, and the amount is simple to decode. However, now that we sell so many books through Amazon and other distributors, I better understand why publishers pay a lower royalty rate to copies sold through discounters.

What are distributors? I don’t really know! It’s very confusing and vague and weird. But basically, we send boxes of books to people who then send them to other people who sell our books, like bookstores. Like Amazon, they take a 55%-60% cut. Right now our distributor is a small, Midwestern company, which is awesome, but booksellers and librarians often have trouble finding our titles, and it is probably time for us to work with a larger distributor as well. Distributors often pay you for those books on a more attenuated schedule than those awesome people who give you a twenty dollar bill at a book party or That Evil Brazilian River. Our current contract has us being paid as long as six months after a book is sold.

Can you avoid distributors? Sure. You can work directly with independent bookstores (it will be harder, but not impossible, to crack Barnes & Noble), if they are wiling to place orders directly with you. Institutions — libraries, universities and the like — are more hesitant, but we work directly with some of those as well. It’s lovely to work directly with booksellers, and more profitable: we wholesale our books for 60% of the retail price, a better margin than we get with distributors. However, it does make for a lot more administrative work in invoicing, shipping and the like.

There are dozens more ad hoc methods we have developed in the past three years, involving the production process, working with printers, marketing and the dreaded, utterly archaic returns system. I do not know how many will survive once we start converting our systems to more efficient methods as we manage a larger backlist and growing catalog. But I hope to remember which lead to our success and retain those, quirky or not.

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