Picking a Path: The Traditional vs. Indie Book Publishing Route


(Moderator) Dianne Jacob
Will Write for Food

(MJ) Melissa Joulwan
blog: The Clothes Make the Girl
book: Well Fed and Well Fed 2

(ML) Matt Lee
Cookbook Bootcamp

(S) Sally Ekus
The Lisa Ekus Group

Dianne: The best reason to be published is that you have a waiting audience for your book. If your blog numbers are high enough that you can sell directly to people, then you don't need a middle man.

Matt: Imagine if there was a network of people willing to sell your book for you while you slept.

Melissa: You can have both sides, but we will talk about how much work is involved in doing it yourself.

Audience Member: If you are a book publisher yourself, do you ever consider taking on other authors?

Melissa: Only if it was a book we loved to distraction, because it is a lot of work. The practical side is not the part that I love but it is what I have to do. So we do not have a goal of becoming a publisher.

Audience: I wonder if that 90% take home figure is realistic, it takes a lot of money to ship someone across the world. I wonder when all that is taken into the equation, how much is the take home figure.

Melissa: We have 2 books: Well Fed (Retail for $24.95) and Well Fed 2. It costs between $2-3 to have printed. We pay 10% to our distributor.

Dave, the business manager for Melissa: Retailer takes 55%. Distributor takes 10% of the 45%. We are making 75% the amount we would if we went with a standard publisher. You also have to pay for the production of the book, but $8 per book is net, but does not consider development cost.

Audience Question: You were able to print around $2-3 per book, in color? Is that at a high volume?

Melissa: The first book we printed, we went with a print on demand publisher. We used Create Space, a service with Amazon. You create a PDF and send it to Create Space and they print it. If you do all the work yourself, you can have a book printed at essentially no cost. Our first book, we paid a designer $4K, and she seriously underbid that project, because she was new.

I was terrified we would never recoup the money. Dave bought a new camera that was $400. Amazon pays your royalty. The book sells for X and Amazon pays your Y per book. Our book sold well, we moved to a book printer (BANG Printing based outside of Minneapolis). They are a good midsized printer but they also can do volume. With Amazon, only Amazon sells and you sell on your site. With a book printer, you can distribute elsewhere.

Audience Question: With the rise of ebooks, the industry has become more risk averse. What kind of platform do you need to have for traditional printers?

Sally: If you have a blog and you're looking to put together a proposal, the bigger and more engaged your platform, the better. However, if you get high hits and no one is commenting or engaging, publishers are not buying anymore. Now, publishers will look at slightly smaller platforms if they are more engaged. Show your social media and traffic numbers, and how your viewers are engaged.
Have you done guest posts, people commented, or send in frequent questions.

Matt: You need to convey the sense of urgency and that this is THE idea. It's more about a holistic idea of generating excitement, engaging your agent, and getting together and decide why this is the project for now. Convince jaded editors who have seen all projects about why yours is the big one. Try to tap into the indicators of excitement with the more traditional publishers.

Sally: If you are a blogger and you're pitching an idea that's not relevant to your blog or in the industry for the next few years, don't pitch it. It may take years to publish. Although there are tons of trend based books that do sell well too.

Dianne: Do not pitch an idea that has nothing to do with your blog. Your plan is to springboard from your blog to a book that makes you an expert in some way. If you are going in a whole other direction, it would be hard for people to understand. You cannot always predict why publishers say no to you. I just found out recently that a publisher rejected my pitch because they had a competing book that comes out a year before ours. They never have to say why they aren't choosing your idea.

Dally: Sometimes you commit contractually to buy X copies up front so publishers don't have to bear the risk. 5000 copies is very attractive, 2000 copies, they start to consider it, but anything lower, it is not attractive.

Audience Question: How many copies did you have to purchase for your first book to convince a publisher?

Dave: We initially bought about 10K copies.

Dianne: It is tempting to order more copies because the price is lower per book but you cannot get carried away.

Melissa: Look into a fulfillment service. Do not try to send them all yourself. Plan to be successful, I named by blog intending it to be a fashion blog but then paleo diet and crossfit got more popular. Now it's too late to change the name, but yes do plan for success.

Audience Question: How do you deal with competing against free content?

Sally: As you put together your concept, the proposal will help you put together your idea. No one is going to do that idea exactly the way you're going to do it. The proposal from each author will be different. That will help convince each author why they should publish that book. You have to have a solid idea about how your concept is going to be different than any other content out there, free or not.

Dianne: You can have a great idea but you cannot control whether someone else doesn't also have that idea. Our first book, we had an idea on grilled pizza. One month after our book came out, another book on grilled pizza came out. Our book still did well, and it turns out there was room for more than one grilled pizza out there.

Sally: They will also support each other too. I call it cross promogenate because there is room for more than one book if they have differentiation.

Melissa: Sometimes people who buy one paleo cookbook will want to buy them all. The Rising Tide lifts all boats. Friendly competition and collaboration will lift you both.

Matt: There's the concept and then there's the way it's rendered and that's what makes it different. There are so many different ways to style a cookbook. The recipes and concepts are one thing but
the story is another. Whatever your story is, put it into the book because that makes it exclusively yours.

Audience Question: I have this notion in my head that somehow the traditional route is more credible and why?

Dianne: I think it is more credible because look, someone like Melissa is laughing all the way to the bank.

Audience Question: If I'm making money with other channels, and I don't care if my book will be my money maker, should I care about using the more credible way?

Melissa: To the outside world, going through a traditional publisher, it can carry more credibility. If you care about that, you should absolutely go for it. If you are making your living in other ways like speaking engagements and working with collaborators, your readers could still care about the credibility of a traditional publisher. It depends on your time and availability too because it is another job, maybe self publishing may not be for you.

Matt: What are your motivations for writing a book? It comes down to immortality, money, and some sort of personal mission. I wanted to do more academic writing type of objective. If it excites you to have your name on a book, in an Alaskan public library, 30 years from now, then you can pursue it. In deciding whether to publish at all, you should group together at least 2 out of those 3 reasons.

Melissa: One of the things that made the difference for our book was that we had distribution. It made the biggest difference vs having the books stored in your garage. Our distributors looked at our book and our track record and if we had not already self published a book, we would have had to submitted a proposal. I worked on my blog for 5 yrs before I wrote my book, I was active int he paleo community,
I built up my reputation and credibility that way without having to go through a traditional publisher.

Dianne: Self-publishing and traditional publishing at going to be a lot of work if you do it right so it doesn't matter in that way. I am still promoting a book that came out in 2005. It doesn't end if you want your book to sell.

Audience Question: How do you navigate through the publishing options?

Sally: That's one of the reasons to look for an agent. I spend my day trying to figure out what these people are trying to say or offer me. Much of my day is spent cataloging what certain food editors and publishers are looking for and making those matches. An agent could help advise you. One of the best places to look is in the acknowledgment section of one of our favorite books to see who they work with and try to approach them. Use Publishersmarketplace.com to search for the latest deals and agents. Start talking to people in your industry and talk to the agent so you can determine if it's a right fit. It's a long working relationship.

Matt: A good agent is going to be your ally and talk you through the full spectrum of options. Almost every part of the book publishing process can be outsourced to an experienced and qualified subcontractor. None of us have time to lunch with every editor out there.

Melissa: If you are going the traditional publishing route, do not do it without an agent. Publishers will try to be sneaky and an agent will help you navigate that world.

Sally: Find an agent who understands you. Not everyone wants to work with an agent, but without one, I guarantee you that the offer on the table for you could be better and is extremely unfair.

Dianne: Sometimes I get dragged into something because I can't resist it and it takes up all my time. It helps to have the plan.

Audience Question: Should you write the book before you go to a publisher?

Dianne: No. Just write a proposal. Fiction writers write the whole book but you just come with a concept. The proposal helps you think through the concept and start describing it. You will need a proposal if you approach an agent anyway.

Sally: There is a proposal guideline in our website.

Matt: Look at other books you admire and read the flap copy. That is what is going through the head of the editors as you are pitching to them. They are wondering how to sell the book and what will be on the flap copy. You will find that the flap copy will haunt you for the rest of your life. Internalize how long it is, how many sentences or paragraphs, how quickly it gets to the point.

Dianne: You don't want to be someone who writes a book on a subject you are not passionate about because you will forever be known for it. It is a big responsibility to pick the subject of your book.

Audience: What about just kindle or just ebooks?

Dianne: Recently there was a study that showed that people don't really want to buy cookbooks as ebooks.

Melissa: Before we published my book, we surveyed our readers and 90% of the people wanted a book and not an ebook, and they wanted a photo with every recipe. Our first book has sold 121K copies and 10K copies of the PDF. There are people interested in the digital versions but print is still far more popular. The Kindle conversion pricing is really reasonable, so you can do a print copy and pay the kindle conversion for not very much and it will appease your kindle readers.

Audience Question: Ddo you have advice for self published authors who wrote a book on one topic and want to write another book on a different topic?

Dianne: Start a different blog on the new topic to find a new audience and what they want.

Melissa: If you start writing on a different topic, you may lose your core audience. or find a way to bring the two topics together in a genuine way.

Matt: You draw a connection between the topics from one book to the next. Or you can be different things to different people because there is freedom in working from home.

Sally: I would encourage you to transition from one to another. It's really difficult to be two different types of people at one time.

Audience Question: What is your opinion on a good advance and royalties for a first time offer?

Sally: Advances truly range from $1500 to $150,000. You have to have your bottom line and hopefully get more than that. Examples of royalty structures from a range of different publishers, this is all on net earnings:
15% net through first 75000 copies. 20% for any copies sold thereafter
12.5% for first 25000 and 15% thereafter
8% for paperback across the board

The royalty structure is usually set for the publisher. If you are well represented you can usually get small improvements but advances really range. Your advance is usually 1/3 of the publisher's investment.

Matt: Remember you are not just getting the advance and royalties, you are also getting the publisher to dedicate resources to your book. If you can get more on the advance, they will be more motivated to protect their investment.

Sally: When you earn back your advance is when you earn your royalties. Questions to ask yourself is can you afford to write the book for less and then earn back on royalties?

Matt: I suggest getting an agent because the agent can get other publishing houses to compete for your project and play the field for you.

Dianne: The conventional wisdom is that you should always take the biggest advance. But not everyone follows that. I know an author take low advances and likes the idea of earning out quickly and then getting a regular check. There are always going to be publishes who aren't going to pay out very much and agents won't want to represent you because they only get 15% of that. It's a big field and you have to decide if the offer makes sense to you at the time and what your priorities are. Do you want money or you just want to get a book out.

Melissa: When you are approached by a publisher, get information on how they will support you after the book comes out. One of the presumed advantages of going to a publisher is that they have reach and influence that you don't have.