Publishing a book for dummies

By Maija "DiamonDie" Haavisto

Have you noticed that every single popular blog and website seems to have a book these days? Food blogs, nerd blogs, science blogs, they all have been put to print. Those books have to sell well, or otherwise they wouldn't be such a fad. It is hardly a surprise that you can generate great sales by pitching a product that people already know. Yes, I am a bit envious. I have actually done the same myself, but since the website of mine was never that big (and is in Finnish), the book is not likely to end up on bestseller lists.

I recently read a book about publishing books (ooh, meta-knowledge!) and one thing that really struck me was that the sales of books have gone up quite a bit, both recently and as a general trend in the late 90s and after the turn of the century. I was a bit surprised of course, as we've been told that TV makes people uninterested in books. And of course the Internet is supposed to do that too, but apparently it doesn't work that way. So we've been cheated on. Books have sneakily got more popular than ever.

Many people want to write books. Some of us even do. Unfortunately it is very difficult to have one published, more difficult than people even realize. Sure, thousands of bad books are published every year. Many of us have found ourselves thinking "This book sucks! Even I could do better". It's well possible that you could. Most likely you won't bother. And even if you do, you may face the problem that just because something is good, doesn't mean it will sell - and it's your job to convince the publisher that it will. That's capitalism for you.

Getting a novel published is tough. Short stories, novellas and poetry are even more difficult. Getting a non-fiction book published may be somewhat easier, though still difficult. It is much easier if you are a celebrity or if your subject is very populistic, like "How to fool your kids into doing household chores" or "How to get laid on the Internet", but not all of us want to write that kind of stuff. If you want to publish a non-fiction book, you need to write a book proposal, which usually means 20-50 pages of boring stuff, essentially a market report. You have to describe your market, your competitors and even how you would market your book.

Even if you have a brilliant concept for a bestseller in your hands, you may still be rejected. According to the book I mentioned earlier, Chicken Soup For the Soul got over 100 rejections from publishers. If you don't know this series, look it up on Wikipedia. It is a series of cheesy "motivational books" and has sold some 100 million copies! The original Harry Potter novel was also rejected by several publishers, who are surely less than happy about it now.


If you can't get a publisher, you can self-publish the book. Many people go this route, but it has traditionally been a very icky path to take. In the past you usually had to shell out thousands of bucks, because printing houses would not take small orders. This is sometimes called "vanity publishing" in the States, as the companies let you believe you're "being published" while in reality you're paying a lot of money just to see your name in print. You never have to pay real publishers, they always pay you. If they don't, you're dealing with a scam. Some of these are masqueraded as "contents", such as the infamous

Sadly, you would be very lucky to even get back the money you invested. Self-published books sell notoriously badly. Just how many such books you have in your bookself? Probably none. The book industry is not like record business where being "indie" is cool and may even get people interested in your product. People assume that self-published books are crap, as no publisher would take them. In many cases this is even true. Some people just don't realize they can't write, just like others have no idea they can't sing, which you're aware of if you have ever watched a single preliminary round of Idols.

An even bigger problem is that bookstores aren't interested in your book. They cannot get it through their official distribution channels (and they are also prone to thinking that if it's that way, it's for a reason). And it is a bit difficult to sell books if they aren't available in bookstores. You may be able to sell a bunch directly to the store, especially smaller ones, but that usually means visiting every single outlet personally. Most self-published books used to sell something like 20 copies, if you were lucky enough to have that many relatives.

Luckily, just like Internet has revolutionized most industries, it has done the same for book publishing. All kinds of niches thrive on the Internet. Novels and such are still difficult to sell, but if you self-publish a non-fiction book about a very specific subject, such as many of the areas in coding or a cookbook for vegans allergic to soy, with some marketing you can probably rank decent sales. Not millions, but perhaps hundreds or even thousands. If the book sells well, a publisher might get interested and offer a real publication deal. This happens sometimes.

Even better, you can now self-publish books without investing a penny. It's called Print on Demand (think Cafepress for books). POD did exist before the Internet - we have some "book booths" here in Finland where you can buy a book and the machine prints it out for you while you wait - but it was not very popular. POD technology is great, because you take no financial risk at all. If you sell no books, no money is lost.

Publishing on Lulu

The most popular of these sites is with a whopping million authors. Granted, not all the products are books. You can also sell e.g. calendars, posters, software, music and videos. The books can also be comic books or photo books. Several indie magazines and journals publish via Lulu, since they can keep the prices low, less than $10 per issue. But most of the content is books. Shopping works very similar to Amazon or any other online store. Selling is not very complicated either. You just sign up, post a PDF of your work (or even a Word document) and optionally another PDF for the cover. No sign-up fees or anything.

That is the simplified version. Lulu offers you three different ways of publishing. The first is the one I already mentioned. You upload content, select the options (softcover, hardcover, binding, size, etc) and set the price. The base price for a B&W book is just over $4.50 which is very little, especially for us Europeans. Pages cost 2 cent each. Hardcovers and color books are quite a bit more expensive, but still not too bad. You get paid for every book you sell, provided that you sell above the base price. If you don't make sales, then your book just collects virtual dust. You can of course purchase your own book at the base price and sell it directly to customers.

For something that you want to rank up more sales, you'd generally want to purchase a distribution service. There are two different kinds of these and they cost $99.95 or $150, still a lot smaller investment than traditional self-publishing would be. Both of these offer you an ISBN number (including a barcode) and Amazon will almost certainly pick up your book, even if it's not in English - this can take up to two months, though. The bibliographic data of the book will also be fed to the most important databases, which means that pretty much any bookstore in the world can decide to carry it.

Lulu is a pretty good site, though some parts of the interface feel confusing, sometimes even irrational - e.g. to make changes on my book before approving it, I had to click Approve, which was far from immediately obvious. Many things on the site are hard to find. Overall, however, it is quite easy to publish a book, especially if you already know how to distill PDFs properly and how to create graphic files for print, or know someone else who does. I once received a book with a misprinted page, but Lulu promptly refunded the order in a matter of a day.

Naturally you can both browse and search for books, rate them and post comments on them. Lulu also offers a whole bunch of services and other gimmicks. There are groups and forums, a place where you can find professionals to e.g. edit, proofread, translate or illustrate your book. For a small fee the site converts your book to a format suitable for mobile readers. Ordinary PDF ebooks are a part of the normal package and you may sell them for any price, or even offer them for free.

Some books offered on sale in Lulu actually do sell well. If you look at the books TOP-100 list (which is surprisingly difficult to find, so here's a direct link, you will notice that almost all are self-help or health-related (when I was writing this the #2 seller was titled "How to Become an Alpha Male") But many are also related to technology, especially programming, the highest candidate being a Visual Studio .NET book at #11. No novels on the list that I can see.

Still, most books don't sell very much on Lulu. Of course, even ten sold copies is better than not selling any at all, which would be the case if you hadn't published the book. But whether it's worth your while to write the book in the first place might just depend on how many friends you have, and how much of time, money and energy you are willing to invest in advertising.

Demoscene and books

Writing is not a very popular function in the demoscene. There are diskmags and party reports, but the spotlight is on coders, graphicians and musicians. In a way that's very understandable, as they create the actual productions. There are no real "scene poets" and "editor" is not always considered a valid "scene position". Books still do gather respect, such as Tomcat's FreaX, which surely deserves all of it. I still haven't read it/them, but I've mostly only heard praise. And the effort alone is worth a big bow.

I don't think FreaX and the few other books have yet exhausted the demand for demoscene related books. Books with a different slant would not have to be redundant. Lulu would even let us have paper copies of Hugi at no cost at all. I think that would be an interesting experiment. There wouldn't be money to lose, but of course we'd need to lay out the whole magazine in a printable format which would take time - and it would make quite a thick magazine, as one issue of Hugi tends to contain enough articles to fill a book or several. Perhaps we could collect the best literature of Hugi and publish it as an anthology.

However, if you aren't writing a book for a very small target group, I would greatly recommend that you at least try to get a proper publisher for it. If you think your book isn't good enough to get published, then why bother at all? It might not work out, but at least have the confidence to try. If you feel like writing a novel, don't just think about it, do it. Write a good manuscript, edit, edit and edit, format it and try your luck. If you want to write a non-fiction book, get some books about writing a book proposal first, write a query and the proposal, and then if you luck out, write the book.

Most likely you can't make your living by writing books. I wouldn't recommend counting on that. But it surely isn't a waste of time. Seeing your work in print is exciting, even if you have to go the self-publishing route. Even that is much further than most wannabe authors will ever get. With luck you might even get rich, but I don't think anyone beats the feeling of hearing from a reader who really enjoyed your book. Creating something just for yourself can be very satisfying, but sharing it with others and hearing they like it too is the icing of the cake.