What Editors Need to Know About Self-Publishing

Pete Masterson: What Editors Need to Know About Self-Publishing

April 22, 2003
Pete Masterson was the speaker;
This forum was arranged by Diana Young;
Dawn Adams wrote the notes.

Working with self-publishing authors gives freelance editors a whole new market to tap beyond working with traditional publishers. Considering that the 2001 statistics available from Books in Print put the number of publishers at some 70,000, with 56,000 publishers putting out less than 10 titles per year, the opportunity is staggering. But, as industry veteran Pete Masterson of Aeonix Publishing Group explained, there are some important differences that editors need to keep in mind when working directly with an author.

"When you're working with a traditional publisher," Masterson said, "you try to keep that publisher happy. When you're working with a self-publishing author, that relationship changes—their ego is very wrapped up in the words they've put down."

There are many reasons that authors go the self-publishing route, and profit is not necessarily the primary motivator. Many times authors will want greater control over the finished book or will have a specific message that they want to communicate in a particular way.

"Authors start with a dream," Masterson said. "I will write a book, sell millions of copies, become rich and famous, and retire to Tahiti." That's a little far-fetched. The reality is a nightmare of having a garage of unsold books that you leave to your kids in your will."

Masterson generally advises authors to get editorial referrals from other small publishers and to initially contact two to three editors. The author's next step is to submit a representative sample of his or her work (10 or so pages) to be edited, which allows the editor to give an estimate of project cost. Editors who are bidding on jobs with self-publishing authors should consider giving a "not to exceed" price to assist authors in setting a budget and determining costs.

"You want to think estimating your work in terms of effort," he said. "You can account for contingencies—for example, you say that you think it will be around $800, but the cost won't be more than $1000."

In addition, editors talking to potential clients can ask some questions about the book. The most important, said Masterson, is "who do you think will be buying your book?" the worst answer is "everyone will want to buy my book."

In that case, the editor can provide a lot of value to the author by helping narrow the focus—who should be reading this book. Masterson gave the example of one publisher who specializes in railroad history books. Because he knows that niche market, he knows every railroad magazine and newsletter to advertise in and how many books to print.

One of Masterson's own clients wrote a family history about his Greek ancestors; besides having a book to pass along to his own children, he also had a book that was potentially of interest to other families of Greek heritage and was able to market his book by sending flyers to Greek restaurants, Greek orthodox churches, and other Greek establishments.

The nuts and bolts of self-publishing

Becoming a publisher is a relatively straightforward process. According to Masterson, there are two basic steps: (1) create a business entity (sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation), and (2) get a block of ISBNs (international standard book numbers) from R.R. Bowker.

For your business, Masterson recommends not using your own name, but coming up with a fictitious business name. He chose Aeonix for his own, since there are advantages to being at the front of the alphabet. In California, you will need to file a fictitious name statement with the county and there may be other steps that you need to take as well.

The minimum number of ISBNs that a publisher can purchase is 10, which costs $225. While 10 may seem like a lot, Bowker requires that the hardcover version of a book have a different ISBN than the softcover, and again that each format of e-book have its own ISBN as well. Bowker registers the ISBNs to a specific publishing entity, so Masterson advises to keep your numbers to yourself and not share them.

The other side of the ISBN coin is getting an EAN Bookland bar code (a bar coding system that predates the UPC). The EAN is essentially 978 + ISBN, and that bar code will need to be on the book, if a publisher wants to sell through bookstores. Bowker provides a list of barcode vendors on its website. If the publisher is planning to sell through gift shops as well, he or she will need to have a UPC for the book as well. UPCs come in blocks of 10,000 and cost $500 per block.

The world of publishing has created an alphabet soup of acronyms, including LCCN, LCIP, PCIP, and BISAC:

  • LCCN (Library of Congress Control Number). Publishers can register for LCCNs on the Library of Congress web site. LCCNs expedite book processing by libraries and book dealers who obtain copies of the book. It takes about three to four days to get a LCCN via e-mail after requesting one.

  • LCIP (Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication). The cataloging in publication information creates catalog information and is generally printed on the verso of the title page. The LOC also distributes LCIP data to libraries, book dealers, and bibliographic networks. Self-publishing authors have to pay a fee for LCIP.

  • PCIP (Publishers Cataloging in Publication). PCIP is basically the same as LCIP, but it¹s done by a private entity, not the LOC. Quality Books (a book distributor) will do PCIP for cost.

  • BISAC subject headings (Book Industry Systems Advisory Committee subject headings). BISAC headings are category codes printed on books that help the bookstores figure out where to put the book (e.g., under Business or Self-Help).

Masterson starts considering how to price a book once it has been categorized. While logic would seem to dictate that book pricing should be cost-based (actual cost plus a little extra), book prices are determined by the market.

"When we've worked out the BISAC, then I go to the bookstore," he said. "I look around in the category and note book length, trim size, and price. Then I know that novels of this length sell for $14.95, business books for $22.95, or computer books $30 and up."

He also advised that prices should always end in .95, because people expect to pay that.

Distribution is the next piece of the puzzle. Books generally reach the market through wholesalers (who make the books available to bookstores without doing any active selling) and distributors (sales people who solicit orders from bookstores). According to Masterson, one-book publishers are rarely well served by distributors.

And both wholesalers and distributors take their cut of the profit. Wholesalers get 55% discount off of list; distributors 65% to 70%. Plus the retailer gets a 40% cut. In the end, for a $20 book, the publisher will only get $6­$9 per book.

There's yet another wrinkle to selling books. All the books in bookstores are owned by publishers. When a bookstore orders copies of a title, they get net-90 payment terms. When the bill comes due, any unsold copies go back to the publisher. Theoretically, the books should be in sellable condition, but that isn't always the case.

Printing on demand (POD) is one option for printing short runs of books. POD can have several different meanings: self-publishing through a POD service such as Xlibris or iUniverse; using a vendor like Lightning Source to print single books as orders come in; and using digital printing technologies rather than traditional offset methods to print a book.

As far as digital printing technologies go, Masterson noted that there is a price break point. The longer the book (somewhere around the 350-page mark), the less feasible it is to print using digital technologies. One of his clients chose to print his book text digitally and have his book covers run on an offset press.



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