How To Write, Copyright, And Publish Your Own Book

Self-publishing books is much easier than it used to be. It can also be fun and, if you do it well, profitable.

I have written several books. In some cases, I published the books myself. In other cases, I sold the rights to publishers. If you have a great idea for a book or for a business, self-publishing may be for you.

Why self-publish?

Self-publishing makes sense not only for traditional authors but also for entrepreneurs.

  • For authors, self-publishing can provide total control over the creative process. Some authors may want to start and run their own publishing businesses. Others may want to sell the publishing rights to a larger publisher.
  • For entrepreneurs, self-publishing can provide an additional channel for getting their message out. Writing and publishing a book can also make the entrepreneur’s message more compelling to investors. And if your publication is successful in the marketplace, it can provide an ongoing source of revenue that you might not have contemplated in your business plan.

Step 1 – Decide what to write.

If you have already written a book, and if you have been trying to sell the publishing rights, consider self-publishing the book.

If you have written a business plan, a marketing plan, a web site, product documentation, or a white paper, then you already have the material you need to write a book. Entrepreneurs starting new businesses frequently struggle to get their message out. You could write a business plan, print a few dozen copies, and mail them to local venture capitalists and angels. Or you could write a book, publish it, and send your book to the same investors. Which do you think would be more effective? I’m not suggesting that you give away all of your best ideas in a book, but chances are you can separate the book fodder from your trade secrets.

Step 2 – Write and edit your book.

Once you have gathered all of your materials, start writing! If you are writing about something that you know and love, you should have no trouble writing your book. Write in a conversational style. Keep sentences short. If you don’t already have a copy, buy Strunk & White’s book “The Elements of Style” (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/020530902X/) and read it cover to cover. The original 1918 text by William J. Strunk, Jr., is available for free online (http://www.bartleby.com/141/), but I recommend getting the print version so that you can mark it up and make it your own. For information on why it is important to write in your own books, buy Mortimer J. Adler’s book “How to Read a Book” (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0671212095/).

Your book doesn’t have to be long to be effective. A 5″x7″ book has about 150 words per page, which is roughly half of the number of words that fit on an 8.5″x11″ sheet of paper. So if you have a 50-page white paper, you can have a 100-page 5″x7″ book.

Editors are worth their weight in gold. Once your text is complete, have a friend, colleague, or family member read and critique it. There is no substitute for good copyediting. You may even want to consider hiring a freelance editor. If you have worked with a marketing or a PR firm, contact them and ask for a recommendation for a copyeditor. Chances are they will know someone. You could also post a help-wanted advertisement on the web site of the Editorial Freelancers Association (http://www.the-efa.org/). The Editorial Freelancers Association is a national, nonprofit, professional organization of self-employed workers in the publishing and communications industries. Its members are editors, writers, indexers, proofreaders, researchers, desktop publishers, translators, and others who offer a broad range of skills and specialties.

Step 3 – Get an ISBN.

International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) uniquely identify books and their publishers. In the United States, ISBNs are assigned and administered by R.R. Bower (http://www.bowker.com/). You can purchase a set of 10 ISBNs (which means that you could publish up to 10 books) online (http://www.isbn.org/) for $225 (more if you need them in a hurry). Once you have your ISBNs, you will be able to manage them online via BowkerLink (http://www.bowkerlink.com/). Each new edition of a book requires a new ISBN, so plan carefully how many you’ll need.

Step 4 – Price Your Book High Enough.

The market will determine what it is willing to pay for your book. If you are writing a new book for an established book category, then the price of the books in the category will largely determine what price you’ll be able to charge for your book. For example, if you’ve written a how-to book about organic gardening, and all of the how-to organic gardening books cost $29.95, then you’ll have a hard time selling your book for more than $29.95 unless you can demonstrate that your book provides more value. Don’t fall into the trap of pricing your book too low. If you price your book too low, you may not be able to make money from the book. Editing, printing, shipping, and marketing costs add up quickly.

If you have a specialty product for a small market, price it appropriately high. One of the reasons that college textbooks cost so much is because relatively few of them are published. If you have a small target market for your book, such as the Fortune 1000 companies, consider pricing your book as if it were an analyst report. Reports from analysts and research groups such as Forrester Research (http://www.forrester.com/), Gartner (http://www.gartner.com/), META Group (http://www.metagroup.com/), and The Yankee Group (http://www.yankeegroup.com/) cost hundreds of dollars. If your book is comparable to one of these reports, price it in the hundreds of dollars. One of my earlier books fell into this category, and I priced it at $2,500. Did I sell hundreds of copies? No, but I only had to sell a few for the book to be profitable (which it was).

Step 5 – List Your Book on Amazon.com.

I was going to call this step “figure out how you are going to distribute your book, because fulfillment can be a nightmare.” If you are planning on handling order fulfillment yourself, be prepared to deal with many issues, such as purchase orders, tax-exempt orders, returns, foreign currency, and bounced checks, just to name a few. If you are publishing just a couple of books, it makes sense to sell your books, at least initially, exclusively online. The Amazon.com Advantage program (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/subst/partners/direct/direct-application.html/) makes it easy to list and sell your books online. All the small publisher has to do is send books periodically to Amazon.com’s warehouse. If your book ends up on The New York Times bestseller list, then you may want to consider multiple distribution channels. But for starters, go with Amazon.com.

Many people spend lots of time and money trying to get their web sites listed in the Internet’s major search engines such as Google (http://www.google.com/), Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com/), and AltaVista (http://www.altavista.com/). Getting listed in search engines is great. But Amazon.com is a search engine too. A search engine for people who are shopping for information, possibly information that you can provide.

If you distribute your book yourself, you will receive 100% of the sale of each book (assuming no collection issues), but you will have all of the headaches of fulfillment. If you list your book under the Amazon.com Advantage program, you will receive about 50% of the sale price of each book. And if you sell the rights to your book, you will typically receive 5-10% of the net sales.

Step 6 – Copyright Your Book.

There are two aspects to copyright law for book publishers to consider: registering and marketing. You don’t have to register works in order to get a copyright. Copyright rights exist as soon as works are in a fixed form. However, registering copyrighted works with the Copyright Office does provide additional remedies if a dispute with a copier arises at a later date. Similarly, you don’t have to mark your copyrighted works, but you should. In 1989, U.S. copyright law was changed so that it is no longer necessary to mark works with a copyright notice (17. U.S.C. Sec. 401). Nevertheless, if you are creating copyrightable works, you should mark them with a copyright notice as soon as they are in a fixed form to put others on notice. For example, the copyright notice for this article is “Copyright 2002 Clock Tower Law Group. All rights reserved.”

Since marking doesn’t cost anything, you should at least mark your book with the proper copyright notice. Instructions for how to register your copyright are available on the U.S. Copyright Office web site (http://www.copyright.gov/).

Step 7 – Create a Bar Code and Print Your Book.

A bar code is not strictly necessary, but it is helpful, especially if you are selling your book through brick-and-morter retail channels or via Amazon.com. The bar code contains information about your book, including its ISBN and price. Like everything in the book industry, there are detailed specifications for bar codes. You can purchase a bar code for your book from vendors such as Bar Code Graphics, Inc. (http://www.barcode-us.com/). Or you can try bookland.py a free program (written in Python) for creating bar codes (http://www.cgpp.com/bookland/isbn.html). The bookland.py program is listed in the GNU Free Software Directory, which is a project of the Free Software Foundation (http://www.fsf.org/). I have used bookland.py with success and currently use other GNU software, such as Mailman (http://www.list.org/), which powers my LawLawLaw newsletter (http://www.erikjheels.com/).

Printing technologies, such as the Xerox Docutech systems, make it affordable for small publishers to publish small volumes of books. Find a local printer who is familiar with the latest book printing technologies. If you work with a local printer, then you can pick up the completed books yourself, thereby saving the cost of shipping the books from the printer to you. I have been working with The Yankee Printer (http://www.yankeeprinter.com/) in Hampton Falls, NH, since 1992.

Step 8 – Market Your Book.

Once you have completed your book, you can write about it in your other marketing materials. Give away copies to your clients, investors, and business partners. Add links to your listing on Amazon.com from your own web site. Then start working on your next book!

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