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 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.

Other layout questions

Designing a book has a surprising amount of surface area for design work. I really enjoyed sweating these.

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.

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.

Other Book Infrastructure Stuff

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.

Case Proof

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!

Waiting Game

Now it’s time to wait. This was nerve-wracking to be sure.

Approval Copy

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.

Delivery

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.

Marketing

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.

Fulfillment

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.

Summary

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.