So You Want to Publish a Book
How I published a set of seven books - from crowdfunding to completion.
Over a couple of years, I published (but didn’t write!) a series of seven books, and I did the whole thing independently.
From crowdfunding the cash, to designing the books, to printing, to doing online and retail sales. I had to figure most of this stuff out all along the way, so here’s how I did it.
I’m writing this all down primarily as a record to myself. The next time I’m tempted to take on a new book project, I can review all the steps here. And maybe I’ll be able to talk myself out of it.
Table of Contents
- Wait, Why Would You Do this?
- Seed Funding
- Find a Printer
- Design the Book
- Edit the Book
- More Book Infrastructure
- Start the Presses
- The Next Books
Wait, why publish an old book?
Why publish a book? Let’s be clear, I’m not a writer and didn’t have my own stories to tell here. I published new editions of existing books that weren’t getting the attention they deserve. So why do it?
First of all, for the love of them. I published high-quality hardback editions of the novels of Charles Williams, a fascinating 20th century British writer. He was friends with CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, and worked in their circle of writers called The Inklings. His novels are great, and weird, and I think their unique view is fascinating and under-appreciated. There are interesting, serious ideas baked into his books, and they seem relevant today. TS Eliot loved his work and called his novels ‘metaphysical thrillers.’ I think more people should be reading these!
But furthermore, the other printings of his work were just… embarrassing. Cheap print-on-demand paperbacks. Half-assed kindle editions. I wanted the world to have quality editions of his work, something that was suitable for collecting and sharing, and something you could give to a friend without apologizing for its weird cover illustrations.
So: this was a passion project. It was never intended to make money, but to get nice, collectible, respectable editions of this author out into the world. The project has broken even, but I spent money to make nice versions and I priced these pretty low.
Of course, if I’d started with an author with more of a bigger built-in audience (instead of an overlooked and under-appreciated dead guy), I think this could be a real business, or at least a side hustle. But then again, the more popular the author or title, the more likely you’d be competing against other publishers.
Fund the Project.
Turns out it costs money to make books! I started off with about $4,000, and used all of that and then some to print the first novel.
I started with a small grant from the Charles Williams Society, which partially funded first print run. I’ve been involved with the Society for a few years, and so I had a solid connection there to start with. The Society generously gave us a one-time grant that kicked off the process.
Our goal was to use all the proceeds of the sale of Book 1 to fund development and printing of Books 2, and daisy-chain those sales into Book 3, and so on. This was a ‘ramen-profitable’ approach to publishing, and it more or less worked! I also leaned on the existing network of Charles Williams fans to preorder the books when possible.
We put most all of that funding into printing costs, royalties for the author’s estate, and a copyeditor. Almost everything else was handled on a volunteer basis - mostly by me doing nights-and-weekends work.
About author’s rights: I cut a deal with the literary agent for the author’s estate. (You wouldn’t need this if you were working with something out of copyright!) They knew that this was a passion project supported by the Society, so they gave us a pretty nominal rate. Also, the author’s work is out of copyright in many countries - just not the US, where I’m based.
Find a Printer.
The first step was to find a printer and figure out if I could really manufacture the quality of book I really wanted to! This was mostly googling: I reached out to dozens of printers in the US, Canada, and China. I sent out rough specs of what I was looking to accomplish, and they sent boxes of sample books they’d previously printed. These were fun to review, and by the end of that process I had a shelf-full of example books with post-it marks about specific printing and binding techniques.
I eventually settled on McNaughton & Gunn, a helpful printer in Michigan who has a solid track record and reputation in the printing world. They do a lot of discount and digital printing, but also do high-quality offset work. Even better, they had experience in the sort of hand-holding I needed. Because they were in the US, I got to go visit the printer directly and get a very detailed overview of their processes.
They’re not a small artisan shop, and we had some struggles, but I was pretty happy with them.
Once we had estimates and specs for the book, then we knew we could move forward. It was time to design a book.
Design the book as an object
This is what I was really interested in! My goal was always to make nice copies of Williams’ work. I wanted to create editions that I was proud of, that fit my idea of ‘this is what a serious book feels like.’ They should be first and foremost nice objects.
Sizing. I wanted the books to be about as tall as my hand; something that didn’t have the large heft of a new non-fiction but still had some presence. I did a bunch of research into book sizing, and my favorite turned out to be a ‘Crown Octavo’, technically, although our printers were happy to work with any final dimensions.
Color. The books should feel like they were made with care, so we sprung for a pure black body text with a single color accent that was used throughout each, for page numbers, chapter titles, and running heads. This really adds some punch; the difference between an all-black vs black-plus-color felt sharp.
Each novel had its own single key color, and we used that on the outside, for all the special elements in the text, and also with full-bleed single-color endpapers. There’s a really strong color story through each one, and I grew to think of them as ‘the blue novel’ or ‘the green one’.
Paper selection. I wanted this to look crisp and modern. After looking lots of samples, I found a good bright white paper selection and paired it with a paper weight that didn’t break the budget. This is a weird balance, as there are just infinite varieties of paper to choose from and they definitely create different feeling books.
Offset vs Digital. People have a lot of opinions about offset printing vs digital. They’re both great, but I wanted to make an edition where we knew real metal got pressed into paper. Offset it is! The offset process is really amazing - even for a small run of books like mine, they create big sheets of engraved aluminum that transfer the ink to paper. There’s a subtle tactile feeling about the end product that I love. It feels like a missed opportunity that I didn’t get the printer to save me a souvenir aluminum plate.
Bookcloth. I had a very specific vision for the way I wanted these books to feel in the hand. I spent a ton of time researching bookcloth manufacturers, who will send you sample swatchbooks of their stuff for asking. I love the feeling of an older clothbound book where the linen texture is smoothed out over time by use.
Foil Stamping. The books have embossing and foil stamping on the hardback covers; this was a finicky process that took a lot of back and forth with the printers. I think the main issue here is that McNaughton actually outsourced the book boards to a third party, so while they never admitted it I think there was some game-of-telephone happening that slowed things down. I had to make two separate illustrator files for the die stamping: one for the blind embossing (that’s where the die just makes an intentional decorative dent in the bookcloth) and the color foil stamp (the same, but laying in a foil material inside the dent).
This had to be designed and sent, and went several rounds of revisions with the printers. Most often the revisions were my fault; it turns out that the longer your book is, the wider your spine, and you’ve got to account for that in your die files.
We also had some issues with the differences between color foils - even though we selected the same type of foil in different colors for each book, some would bleed a bit more than others, and the designs needed to be adjusted slightly to accommodate this.
End papers. I designed custom endpapers for each book - those are the full-bleed designs that are inside the front and back cover. These were super fun, and I created an icon for each book in the series, and then built a tiling pattern of those icons for the series. Each one was a flood of the book’s key color, with the endpaper pattern reversed in white.
Page Layout. This is the real core of the design project: what does a page spread look like? What does it feel like to hold this in your hand? I did a lot of initial test layouts in Illustrator, with lots of printing things out and holding them to see what it felt like to read.
I have very strong opinions about the right size of text on a page, and the appropriate width of margins. In short, margins should be generous: they should give text room to breathe, to stretch out, and most importantly they should give you room to write back! (See Billy Collins’ classic poem on this idea, ‘Marginalia’)
But margins should ultimately communicate that attention to detail was paid here. Someone loved this thing they were working on. If this rings a bell, you should pause here and read Craig Mod’s essay On Margins.
The type design and selections here was also something I sweated a lot, but ultimate came down to: what do I think looks great? I did a lot of comparing with my favorite books, and tried to mimic other great reading experiences.
Other layout questions
Designing a book has a surprising amount of surface area for design work. I really enjoyed sweating these.
- What does a Table of Contents look like?
- What about the front matter? How similar should it be to the main text blocks??
- What about new Chapter pages?
- Don’t you just hate it when new chapters start on the left page? You know I do.
- How to fit into reasonable signature blocks? Book pages are bound into signatures. Signatures come in 16 pages at this book scale; because they have to be printed, folded, stitched and trimmed, you’re working with multiples of 16. A 224-page book (made of 14 signatures) is actually cheaper to print than a 209 page book (13 signatures plus 1 page), despite it having less paper, ink, and other raw materials. There was a lot of nitpicking and tweaking to get to the right final page counts.
Setting the Text
OK, so you’ve designed the outside of a book and you’ve mocked up some same pages. Now it’s time to ACTUALLY lay out the text. I learned how to do this in Adobe InDesign. I use PSD and AI all day at work, so I have a lot of muscle memory about how Adobe products work. But man, InDesign is something else. Many thanks to Youtube for tutorials here.
But wait, where was I going to actually get the text for this? I couldn’t just type out every book. Luckily, the author’s work was out of copyright in other countries, and Project Gutenberg had OCR’d some of the older editions. OCR is NOT great–there are thousands of typos and formatting problems–but it was better than retyping seven novels myself. It took a lot of editing.
I am not an editor and do not know what professional editors do. But in this case, we’re not editing a new book - we just need to make sure we haven’t introduced any new typos into an existing book.
- My first pass in editing was just going through the text very carefully in a .txt file. I learned some regex to replace common OCR errors, which was super helpful.
- Then I printed out the whole novel in its rough layouts, and combed through it again and again with a red pen.
- Then I asked a couple people to read through for typos. These were nonprofessionals and I don’t really think this helped much.
- A typo slipped through the first title, and so after that I got outside help! I first hired an editor from an online freelance site, but really wasn’t happy with the work - they flagged every instance of common British spellings (colour!) and missed some egregious OCR errors that a close reader would have found. I think this remote editor just ran it through a spellcheck tool (which, come ON), and called it a day. I ended up re-proofing that one several times over before we went to press!
- Then I found a local proofreader, someone recommended to me by a literature professor friend of mine. She went through physical printouts with a literal red pen, and was amazing.
Other Book Infrastructure Stuff
Books need a publisher! I thought this was going to be a mysterious process, but it turns out a publisher is just anybody that you know, makes books. My family has a ‘house brand’ that we do our various projects under, Studio Kirkland. So Studio Kirkland is now officially a publisher… because I published a book.
Books need ISBNs! An ISBN is the International Standard Book Number, and your book needs one if it’s going to work within all the existing infrastructure of the book world. Turns out you can buy these. I bought mine from Bowker, which will sell you the ISBN (and barcodes also if you can’t generate those yourself), and also provides a database where your book’s details can be listed. I actually bought a pack of 10 ISBNs as that was cheaper than buying seven individually. Economies of scale, baby.
Did I need to go through a service like this? Honestly I’m not sure, it does seem like the kind of international standard that one should be able to just… conform to. But who knows? Bowker also will propagate the details of your book to more ISBN systems. Is this like the internet’s DNS system? I honestly do not know.
Start the Presses!
OK! You’ve priced out and designed your book. Now it’s time to send it to the actual printer! This is scary. What if you screwed it up?
Text block proof from printer
Well, you’ve got a few more chances to catch your errors. McNaughton sent me a ‘text block proof’ - this is all the actual printed matter printed out as a test run, with a slim cardstock binding. This gave me a last chance to approve all my designs, and it was important! In most cases there was something wrong, either a layout mistake I hadn’t noticed, or actual printing problems where the printer hadn’t set up their print files correctly.
They also sent test prints of the custom end papers I designed.
When I was happy with those, I approved it for final printing.
The case proof is a test printing-and-binding of the actual book case, which means the bookcloth, stamped and foiled, wrapped and glued around your actual cardboard I selected. These also took a few rounds of review, mostly due to the foil problems I worked through.
When I was happy with that, I approved it for production!
Now it’s time to wait. This was nerve-wracking to be sure.
After several weeks, I go an approval copy via fedex to review. If I hadn’t caught any problems in my text or designs yet, this is basically too late - this ‘approval copy’ isn’t a test run, but rather it’s the first copy off the palette of books that are already completed. You’re doing QA on the printers themselves now, making sure that they followed through with the plan as you approved it. In my case these were always fine.
Oh no. There’s an 18-wheeler truck with a palette of books showing up at my driveway. What am I going to DO with this?
This wasn’t actually a problem. I had the driver drop off the palette on my driveway, and I just hauled the heavy cases of books one by one into a guest room. I did lose a little bit of sleep wondering how much weight I’d added to that side of the house, and if it was going to, you know, tilt over and crush my family.
People can tell you all kinds of things about marketing your book, and I don’t much here. I started this project with a built-in audience of Charles Williams fans and supporters, and so when I was ready I mostly just emailed people!
I set up a hand-built single-page website with a big shiny Gumroad ‘buy now’ button. I love Gumroad, by the way - it’s built for creators to sell their digital products, but it works just as well for physical inventory. It gives you a simple way to sell a single product, without managing a whole ecommerce installation somewhere. I love the ethos of this company, and I’ve used it for this Charles Williams project, as well other side projects like Dumb Cuneiform, my Cuneiform-Tablet-as-a-Service where I take your dumb tweets and send you a real cuneiform tablet in the mail.
What about Amazon? Obviously if you want to sell books, you want to go where the people are, and that’s Amazon. However, for these books I knew I had a built-in audience that I could sell directly to. I did end up listing them on Amazong, but with some very minimal effort. I haven’t delved into how to make a good listing or even how to get my editions to rank alongside the shitty print-on-demand paperbacks or low-effort kindle conversions. But I knew I could reach out to our email list and groups to spread the initial word. This is not a great strategy if you want to sell a lot of books! It worked in my case, however. We sold enough to recoup the cost of printing for the first novel, pretty much by tapping our existing network of Charles Williams fans.
Shipping books is easy! You just buy the right size bubble mailers, and prepare yourself to get a billion giant ULINE catalogs in the mail. Also get ready to go to the post office a lot.
I super-recommend Pirate Ship, a postage service that is incredibly easy to use and affordable too. It’s a rare case of online software that feels made with care.
Book Two. And Three. And Seven.
My plan to have each book fund the printing cost of the next one… more or less worked! It took a while, but that was fine with me, because the actual book layout process took much more time than I expected.
But, with sales funneling into a bank account set up for this project, I started the second one. Sales from that one funded the third, and so on. Along the way, I realized that while we sold the books, I still was going to need a lot of space in my house for all seven of these.
Luckily, I have an in with an ecommerce and fulfillment company, MerchTable. They are amazing, and I really like using their platform (which we built at <a href=”https://brandnewbox.com”!) I converted my one-page store to a Merchtable store, and now they handle all the shipping and fulfillment. This is a dream - I just get an email now when someone buys the books, and Merchtable does all the fulfillment and shipping work.
This was such a really time-consuming but rewarding project, and one that still pays dividends today. Not financial dividends, of course - I priced this out just low enough to cover its costs, more or less. But I met neat people, I learned a ton, I enjoyed the process, and I love seeing the books we made in the hands of readers.