Becoming an RP author
If you’re reading this because you have a book manuscript, or intend to produce one, and would like to see it published:
Good. We publish books.
As you may have noticed, this discussion about your book and its possible publication by us will go on at some length. No apologies: We are after all talking about the publishing of books, not pamphlets. And there’s a good deal worth saying to put the picture into context.
So sit back, relax, and let’s talk books.
First, if you’re looking for help with getting your manuscript developed, edited or ready for publication, you should go here.
Second, if you think you’re ready to publish but need some help with getting that done – other than by Ridenbaugh Press – click right here.
If you’re still here, you’re presumably interested in having Ridenbaugh Press publish your book. As noted, we do that sort of thing.
What do we publish? In our earlier years, mainly reference books on regional politics, and we haven’t abandoned that. But Ridenbaugh has expanded its scope, especially in recent years, and we anticipate continuing to broaden. We’ve published memoirs, reviews of water law, old West history, discussions of the newspaper industry, essays on current affairs including politics and a good deal else. Our main focus has been the Pacific Northwest, but we don’t limit ourselves geographically.
We are interested in a range of non-fiction – we haven’t published fiction, at least not yet – across a wide range of subjects. Some subject areas, naturally, just won’t be of interest at all: Rather than try to enumerate them here, we’ll let you know if your subject is one we’d be interested in working with. But don’t presume we wouldn’t be interested because it does mesh with something on our existing list; it be a good if unexpected fit. There’s no harm in pitching the idea.
To get one other point out of the way up front: We do not require any payment from the author. We’re structured like a “traditional” publisher, not a “vanity” press.
Before we get into the bigger (industry) picture, or the more specific one (your book), a few words about us.
I am Randy Stapilus, and I started Ridenbaugh Press in 1988 to publish a regional history/current events book called Paradox Politics, about politics in Idaho. I looked into self-publishing and got some good advice from people who knew about books, book publishing and book selling, including other self-publishers, one of them a colleague at the newspaper, and book sellers and librarians.
I’ve been publishing books since.
After quite a few years in Boise, we’ve been for about a decade based in the small town of Carlton, Oregon. The main personnel have been myself and my wife, Linda Watkins: We are a small publishing company.
Beyond that, the most immediate question of whether we’d be the right publisher for your book may relate to the business realities of publishing. Give some thought to this, for example (among others): How sure are you that you could sell 250 copies of your book?
To set the scene for that, let’s pull back, broaden our view a bit and consider the changing nature of the book industry.
The industry, and our role in it
I’ve been publishing books long enough to observe a remarkable change in the way things work.
Let’s start with a look at part of how the business worked when I published Paradox Politics, in 1988.
Once I had written the book manuscript and had artwork (pictures and maps) in hand, I took a batch of floppy disks (remember those?) and drove across a couple of states to a company that printed typeset pages. Then I went to another company which helped with design, and worked with them to develop a cover design for the book.
Once my book had been designed and typeset, I sought out printing companies that specialize in book printing; for some reason a lot of them were (and many still are) based in southern Michigan. Big national publishers as well as small operators like me work with these printers, who are capable of printing a wide range of books and of almost any quantity, from one into the millions. But there was and is a catch: Because the cost of setting up a print run on these presses is substantial, the printing cost per book was extremely high for very small runs, dropping drastically as book quantity increased. As a matter of economics, printing fewer than 1,000 books (at least) was not practical, and the economics argued for numbers double or triple that. I ordered several thousand copies of Paradox Politics, and was lucky: Sales and print run were a close match.
There’s an aspect to the economics of book printing that may have caught your attention here. If you had a book that would – would – sell into four figures or more, and you knew about what that number would be, then large-run conventional printing was and is a good and useful option. But if you print 2,000 or 3,000 books, or many more, and then sell only a tenth of those – and that sort of thing happens a lot – you’re stuck with piles of boxes of books in your garage or storage bin, and a river of red ink for your (commercial?) project.
Publishers, even the biggest and best, have no easy way of guessing in advance how many books will be needed. One reason big publishers like best-selling “name” authors is not simply that they sell lots of books, but that they sell them reliably. But big publishers as well as small often guess wrong about how large their print runs should be. Visit a store that sells books and pause at the table stacked with volumes selling for a dollar or two, or less. These are called “remainders,” the books publishers were unable, after a period of time, to sell. Remainders are a well-known bane of the industry: They account for massive losses for book publishers, losses the big-run printing model makes all but unavoidable. When a group of best-selling authors including Steven King, Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson and others decided some years back to form an ad hoc rock music group, they dubbed it the Rock Bottom Remainders. People in the industry got the reference.
Ridenbaugh Press is open to commissioning large print runs if we know they’ll sell, but the money almost has to be in the bank before that happens. Ordinarily, there’s no way we can know that.
And we’re interested in a good many books, as you’ll see, that would be economically problematic in big runs.
Even ten years ago, that would have amounted to a brick wall against publication. But: In the last decade, technology has made the impractical, practical.
Most of the books Ridenbaugh Press produces these days are done by “print on demand,” or POD. This is digital printing, and the cost of printing one book in this way is the same per copy as printing 100, or 1,000, or 10,000. It can be done quickly, too: A book ordered on Monday morning may be in hand as early as the end of the week. (Orders of more copies can take a little longer.) The cost per book is higher than that of a copy printed in a traditional large run, but not so much higher that it cannot be sold, at a profit, at normal commercial book prices. Not to mention that you won’t have a garage full of books already paid for out of your pocket, but with little hope of redeeming those costs.
POD print quality is good, comparable to conventional book printing. Softcover covers are in four color (full color). Interiors are black and white, with grayscale artwork. And there is an option of hard cover or soft cover, though hard covers are substantially more expensive and take longer to produce.
Put those pieces together, and books produced in smaller volume can begin to make economic sense.
A growing number of companies produce books using this digital technology, and customers report good experiences with many of them. We’ve worked successfully with a small-town company that uses its digital equipment to produce mainly pamphlets and brochures, but also creating for us a run of several hundred copies of a several-hundred-page book. Most often, however, we have worked with a company called CreateSpace, associated with amazon.com. Its approach, operations and services often mesh neatly with the way we like to do things. If you have a guaranteed set of buyers for your book that numbers in the four figures, we may order a single large print run. Otherwise, if we work together on a book, the odds are it will be produced via CreateSpace.
Printing and publishing
People not in the business often confuse printing and publishing. These are not the same thing.
Printing is the actual, physical manufacture of documents (books, newspapers, magazine or whatever).
Publishing is the larger field of taking the raw material of a book concept, or maybe a finished manuscript and artwork and, at the end of the process (which includes preparing the book to be printed), making it available to the world at large.
Printing as such is a relatively brief operation. Digital printing of a book may take minutes for some operators, and shipping not much more. A large traditional print run may take hours, with prep time lasting a few weeks.
Publishing can take much longer. The time frame is elastic. Traditional publishers I’ve worked with often spend a year or two, or more, from the beginning to end of a book project (not counting the author’s time writing).
But the process can move faster. As an experiment, early in working with digital printing, I decided to see how fast I could write a book, edit and format it, get it printed digitally, and get a copy in hand. The answer was 10 days. In hindsight, with experience accumulated since, I probably could have cut even that time a bit. Mostly, it does take more time than that, simply because books shouldn’t be so rushed that they become heavily error-ridden.
Publishers review books to see whether the material is appropriate and whether there might be legal issues. They edit for content, grammar and errors of any sort, design the book, register it with national and international organizations, work with the author in making changes, provide technical formatting, work with the printer (few of even the largest book publishers actually own their own press), work with shipping, wholesalers and retailers and direct sales, and promote and market the book. It’s a broad range of work, and a good deal of it is technical.
None of it is absolutely beyond the capability of an individual author. I learned to do it from scratch, and so could you. Many people have. The advantage is total control over the book and over the process. And whatever income your book may make, minus your expenses, is entirely yours.
There are advantages to working with an established publisher, though.
One is that you don’t have to sweat the large learning curve involved with properly publishing a book – and the learning curve is large. There are a lot of books about self-publishing, and most of them are fat books with several hundred pages of instruction.
An author working with a publisher will have a lot to learn in the process of writing and selling one’s book; add the technical side to the equation, all the work that the publisher does, and the work load is apt to be daunting. Learning to undertake a complex task the first time out almost certainly means trial and error, and that can mean significant financial losses or missed opportunities, and avoidable errors in the publishing of your book. Besides that, additional pairs of eyes on manuscript, design, marketing options and other considerations are more than just useful – they may save your from embarrassment or much worse, a lawsuit.
Back in the day (in 1988), there were three main approaches to publishing, and all three still are around.
One is self-publishing, which I’ve already described.
Another, much the best known by the public at large, is “traditional” larger-house publishing, the kind done by many of the larger publishers. Many people associate this kind of publishing with the glamor side of the industry, big contracts with fat advances of millions of dollars and instant distribution to every book store in the land. Such things do happen, but that kind of money and distribution goes mainly to well-established authors with a strong sales track record, or who are otherwise well-known and have a large audience, and in some cases other books thought likely to be of interest to a large chunk of the public. Large traditional houses also have often developed substantial “mid-list” and “back-list” rosters of books, to fill out their sales and with the idea that some of those writers might break out into larger sales, or simply because the book would reflect well on the publisher. But in more recent years, those mid and back lists have been pared significantly.
A plus for working with a traditional publisher: The author is not obligated to pay anything to the publisher, and any money-flow (which in most cases is small) goes from publisher to author. I should note here: I’ve had several books published through traditional publishers and count them as good experiences. But the majority of traditionally published books get little marketing attention – most of the publicity these books get comes from the author’s efforts, not fat marketing budgets – and often are pulled from distribution after a few months if they don’t sell strongly. (Meet the remainders table.) Authors often lose a great deal of control over what happens to their books, and they may have difficulty getting their books back into print later once a publisher effectively drops them. (This brings up the subject of copyright ownership, which will be discussed later.)
Another option is the much-maligned “vanity” approach; loosely, these are where the author pays the publisher to publish the books. Terms vary from business to business, but they may mean the author underwrites the whole cost of publication (often starting at several thousands of dollars) and maybe then some; the main advantage (again, at least) is that someone with professional expertise is helping out with editing, technical operations, and so forth. In some cases, things can get much worse: Authors can be obligated to buy books, or they may not even exactly own books they buy. Because marketplace risk is eliminated, many vanity presses will take on almost any book project. That lack of selectivity also marks many of their books as titles few book sellers or libraries, or other professionals, will want to touch.
The Ridenbaugh Press approach to publishing is a little different.
While we’d love to have a few massive bestsellers under our belts (every publisher would), we have aimed more at smaller markets.
We’re what you might call a niche publisher that functions mostly as a traditional publisher does, but organized to work for smaller-scale book projects.
Or, a “hybrid” publisher. Or maybe micro-publisher.
What Ridenbaugh Press does
First, evaluation – based on our market experience with more than two dozen titles – of whether your book has commercial prospects, in a marketplace now flooded by self-published titles.
We edit books in two directions: Working with the writer to organize and craft it in a way likely to appeal to readers; and we line-edit, correcting typos and grammar, making it print-ready. When a book is delivered to us in condition approaching ready for publication, we do not charge for editing services; the equivalent services may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars from other providers (or by us to books we do not publish).
We design the book, interior and exterior, to professional standards, so that outlets including book stores will be willing to stock them. We make sure the book meets specifications required by printers, whether print-on-demand or in larger runs. Those requirements are specific and exacting, and a lack of understanding of them can add greatly to time spent and out of pocket costs.
We work with the printer and arrange to have books distributed where they’re ordered. In other words, we manage book fulfillment. We work with book stores and other retailers in distributing books, as well as distribute to individuals and other organizations.
We work with the author on promotion and distribution. We promote books through press releases (which we send directly where appropriate), online and through other means, and work with authors in helping set up signing and other events and developing lines of local distribution.
By the numbers
So how do we do it?
We hew to the traditional industry model of requiring no payments from authors – we’re not into “vanity’ publishing – and assuming the up-front risk for the cost of publishing.
That wouldn’t be practical but for careful efficiencies and new technology. The single most important element is digital printing, which allows us to print just a few copies of a book, even a single copy, at a time. Beyond that, there are out of pocket expenses, and considerable time spent in editing, formatting, providing technical work and helping with the marketing and distribution of the book. We edit the book for publication, design it, register it so it can be bound by bookstores, libraries and other organizations, and make it available for delivery to the world at large.
For all of that, and including printing costs, we take a portion of the receipts per book – the publisher’s costs – when they are initially ordered directly from Ridenbaugh Press, or from Amazon.com, or someone else.
That publisher’s portion varies from one book to another, most often relating to printing costs, but typically runs about $5.50-7.50 per copy of the book – remember this is an overhead cost that does not vary for that title; it includes cost of printing, PLUS pre-press (editing, proofreading, layout, cover design, registration, etc.).
That amount is what, if you choose to buy copies of your book (and most authors, to one extent or another, see some wisdom in doing that), you pay per copy.
That figure, the cost of the book for the author, is one important number to consider.
What if someone else other than the author wants to buy the book?
First, we will sell to any buyer at the “list price” – the price you’d ordinarily pay in a bookstore or elsewhere. Most of our books carry a “list price” from $14.95 to $16.95, though other figures may be assigned. The list price will tend to be higher when the publisher’s portion (and printing costs, which are part of that) also is higher; the biggest single driver of higher list prices is a larger number of pages in the book.
When a book is sold at list price, your royalty portion is the difference between the list price and the publisher’s cost. For example: If someone buys a copy of your book from our Ridenbaugh Press web site at a list price of $15.95, and the publisher’s portion was $6.50, you would receive $9.45 as royalty for the sale of that book.
You could get that same amount per book book sale in another way: You can buy as many books as you like (at your option) from us at the “publisher’s portion” amount. In the example from the last paragraph, for a book with a list price of $15.95 and a publisher’s cost of $6.50, you could buy your book from us for $6.50 per copy (plus shipping, which we’ll get to in a bit), then sell it for $15.95 – buying low and selling high, as the saying goes. This method is the one most of our authors use – many buy 20 to 50 books at a time (helps cut down on shipping costs per book), sell those, and then restock their supply.
The picture shifts a bit when dealing with retailers. Book retailers (and this includes amazon.com) want a cut of the sales price too, and typically this is 40% of the list price. So, back to our example book from the last two paragraphs: If the book with a list price of $15.95 and a publisher’s cost of $6.50 is sold through Amazon, or for that matter your local book store, they will want 40% off the retail sales price, which amounts to $6.38. After the publisher’s cost and the retailer are paid for, the author would be left with a smaller amount: $3.07. You’re still making money, though less than if the book were sold directly by you or by us.
For example (your specific numbers may vary):
Your Book Retail cost: $15.95
Publishers fee (printing,etc) $-6.50
40% discount $ -6.38
Author’s royalty $3.07
Either way, you’re probably making more money per book than you would through a traditional publisher (where royalty rates often are in the 10% range), and your obligations aren’t much different. And unlike vanity house-type publishers, you’re not having to underwrite the publishing of the book; assuming you don’t order books you don’t need for sale (which you have no need to do), you should start in the black and stay there from beginning to end.
The risk for Ridenbaugh Press is mitigated too by the small out-of-pocket costs that POD and other technologies make possible.
And, like traditional publishers, we do offer a standard “advance” for the author when the book is published: Four copies of the book. It’s a small advance, sure, but it is an advance and not a fee.
Once we both decide we want to proceed, we’ll send you a contract agreement. It’s short, just a couple of pages.
The main point is to outline the financial arrangement, and confirm that Ridenbaugh Press has the right to print the book. We will agree to keep it in print (available for sale) into the foreseeable future, which as a practical matter may mean until technology takes some radically new direction. We don’t ask for an exclusive right; if you want go to a different publisher after we’ve put the book on offer, you can. If that publisher wants to offer the book exclusively (and many would insist in that), we would be open to negotiation on terms. That gives you the opportunity to find a better deal if you can, but protects us from doing much of the heavy lifting and getting no remuneration if the book should start to sell well.
You do have to make some guarantees; the big one is that the book’s content is your property, or at least that you have the legal right to use it and are acknowledging that.
Unlike some traditional publishers, we commit to not sending a book to print until it gets a green light from both the author and the publisher.
The book’s copyright remains with the author; the text and materials in it remain your property. Ridenbaugh Press is simply making use of it, with permission. Large publishers (which may be investing more dollars in the book) usually require more expansive control of the book.
How to make this work
This process can work on a small, micro, scale only if efficiencies are made wherever possible. That begins with the author.
As noted earlier, we’d be delighted with a string of mass market sellers (or even just one). But in our micro-publishing niche, we know that decent sellers can be measured in the hundreds, and really good sellers in the very low thousands.
Do we have a minimum sales goal for each book?
We want to sell at least 250 books of each title. More is better, of course, but 250 is a hard goal for each title we produce.
That doesn’t sound like a lot, but making those sales may be more challenging than you think. Estimates are that on amazon.com, for example, fewer than 1% of print book titles sell that many, and not a whole lot more in e-book format.
Don’t expect to get rich from this book project. We don’t. Selling books is very, very hard. It often is harder than writing books. It was never easy, and it’s harder than it used to be.
It is not impossible, however, to do it well, and if the book is good, and if people want to read it, we can sell it.
Here’s what we need from you to begin.
First, a short description of what you’re writing about, what you have to say about it (the angle from which you’re writing), and what qualifies you to write about it. Your qualification need not be academic or professional, but something resembling substantial research probably will. If the guy on the street picks up your book, he should learn more than he probably already knows. The book should have some value: It should give the reader something he or she doesn’t already have. Two or three paragraphs covering this is enough.
Second, and of comparable length, we’ll need an indication of how large and enthusiastic the audience for your subject will be, and how you propose to get this book in front of them. This is at least as important as the first task.
It’s easy to overestimate the likely buying audience out of enthusiasm for the project, and you may get inflated estimates from other people too. One of our authors (who did well at book marketing selling) said he was told pre-publication that at least three hundred people were sure to buy his book at each of several upcoming events; at those events, he sold about a tenth as many.
We’ll be promoting the book online, through social media (and traditional media where we can), and it’s true that people all over the world do check into web sites like Amazon. Don’t let that fool you. Literally millions of books are available on amazon.com, and it won’t be easy to get your readers pointed specifically to you. We’ll do what we can, but the reality is that most niche books are sold one by one in relatively small quantities. What we need from you is a precise description of what you plan to do, and what you’re able to do, toward marketing and selling the book.
Think about all the connections you can draw upon. Start with family and friends and professional associates. Consider your social media contacts, and any organizations of which you’re a member (especially, any relevant to the subject of the book). Move on to any organizations or collections of people who are interested in the book’s subject. Think about publications, web sites, and any other outlets interested in the subject. Can you be interviewed somewhere? Are there groups you can address? Are you able to make trips to communities and events outside of your home town?
You may be thinking that these add up to thousands of people.
Maybe they do. But here’s a hard truth: Only a fraction of those people are likely to buy your book, and that fraction is likely to make up most of your audience. You may speak to one group after another without selling a single copy. Some of our books have included extended references to people involved in the book’s story, in some cases people who were good friends of the author; most of them didn’t buy.
So keep your expectations modest, and tell us how we get – realistically, bearing the facts of life in mind – to at least 250 sales, and maybe (we hope) beyond.
Send these four or five paragraphs to us. We’ll take a look and get right back to you.
If we’re in business after this point, we’ll have a lot more to discuss.