A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The story of self-publishing at Florence Arts Centre, Egremont, Cumbria.
by Alan Cleaver.
For good or for bad, there’s a publishing revolution going on at the moment – and self-publishing has become the hobby of choice for many. Some see it as a way of by-passing the tortuous traditional route of agents, editors and publishers (a path that can also conveniently by-pass any criticism, re-writing or quality control), others see it merely as a way of publishing their life-story, their poems or flash fiction which they are quite happy to simply share with a few family and friends – spelling mistakes and all.
Self-publishing is something I have been involved with for 30 years. My first booklet on legends of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire was typed on A4 paper, reduced on a photocopier to A5, headlines put on with Letraset and photos sneaked through my office’s processing department and stuck on with Pritt. Buoyed by a quick sell-out of 500 copies, I ordered a reprint of 2,000 copies. Thirty years on, I’ve still got two boxes left in the attic. Today, digital publishing and ebooks offered a simpler method – and printing on demand means no more cardboard boxes full of unsold books.
An informal group of self-publishing authors has congregated around the newly-formed Florence Arts Centre, near Egremont. At first, it was a way for me to share what little knowledge I had with others who wanted to follow a similar publishing route. But latterly it has become a way for people to share their own experiences, their successes, their mistakes – and stay motivated.
The range of publishing methods is as great as the range of the content inside the books. One lady had written a children’s story but only wanted to publish two copies: one for each grandchild. It was a labour of love and she had no pretentions of becoming the next JK Rowling. Meeting her for the first time followed an already-familiar theme: She had progressed a fair way down the publishing route but ended in a dead end. I told her – as the old joke goes about the policeman being asked for the directions to the rail station – “I wouldn’t start from here”. She had printed pages on paper larger than A4 so binding them into a book would prove a challenge (one eventually answered by using Japanese stab binding).
My own self-publishing route relies heavily on hand-stitching; not a route you want to go down unless you have plenty of spare time on your hands. I print on A4 paper, cut in half, then fold in half and the resulting A6 book is hand-stitched and glued into hardback covers. For a control freak like me it means I have complete control from writing the first word, to putting on the dust-jacket. It is time consuming but has high profit margins. The cost of each book is barely 30p and is sold at £4.99. Even with the shop’s 30-40% take, that means I clear £100 profit each month – over £1,000 a year. But my time is not costed in.
Others want to print hundreds of copies, relying on good sales to bring in a small profit. I warn them bookshops will be sympathetic when you tell them of your “dead-cert” best-seller but they will then order just two copies from you (sale or return). Even using a distributor means small and slow profits. And few have even thought about budgeting for marketing. But if they’re determined to go ahead, then online publishers like Blurb or Lulu at least offer an opportunity of small print runs at first. They also build in an ebook option.
One gentleman is going down the more traditional self-publishing route by going to a book printer and getting a thousand copies printed in one go. The challenge with this option is dealing with the ‘pre-press’ side of things. Printers want books ‘camera-ready’ – or you are likely to pay through the nose for an art studio to lay-out the book for you. Pre-press work involves embedding fonts, high-resolution pictures saved in the right format, the know-how for creating pdfs and many other technical hoops. Whoever said self-publishing was the ‘easy’ option has never tried to use page-layout software.
One of the most rewarding projects has been helping Cleator Moor Writers Guild publish their book, 100 of 100. The concept was 100 short stories, each no more than 100 words. They had spoken to book printers but were deterred by the seeming need to spend a lot of money printing hundreds of copies in one go. I suggested hand-stitching and casing the book in a thin card cover. They had already prepared the book on computer but were unaware that when printing for a book page 99 is next to page 2, not page 3! Again I found myself saying, “I wouldn’t start from here.” Fortunately since each story filled a page we simply did away with page numbers (phew!). Having demonstrated how to hand-bind a book and put covers on it, I left them to it. To be honest, I was expecting panic phonecalls or hearing that they had given up after doing just a few copies. But amazingly they produced (and sold) more than 250 copies – with profits going to local charities. We all gathered for one final day at Florence so they could be shown how to produce a hard-back book; they only wanted two copies for themselves which enabled them to take time over binding a real quality product.
The reward for anyone struggling through the tortuous route of self-publishing is the finished product arriving on the door-mat and the huge smile of the author. The shine may be taken off by the occasional errant apostrophe missed by “Fred and Ethel who helped me proof-read” but it’s still very pleasing to see the finished book. Then the author begins to realise the truth behind the maxim: “Self-publishing is easy, it’s marketing that’s the killer”. How do you convince the rest of the world your book is worth spending money and time on? One article in the local paper is not going to sustain more than a few sales in the first week. The winners are probably those who have built up a following of fans either on social media or in the real world, or they are prepared to work tirelessly at self-promotion through talks to local clubs, stands at fairs and continual pressing of the ever-patient bookshop owners.
It’s easy to see that this loose affiliation of new age authors and publishers could grow into a small company or social enterprise which also handles distribution and marketing – the final piece of the jigsaw. And some of us are already talking about a Self-publishing Festival to widen our net and promote our wares. Watch this space.
To be kept informed about any future self-publishing workshops at Florence join the mailing list by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or keep an eye on www.florencemine.com