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What do you think about self-published books?

by Tim O'Reilly
Apr. 15, 2005

At 37Signals, Jason Fried asks: "What do you think about self-published books?" There's a lot of great reader feedback. I wrote some comments myself, recounting my start as a self-published author to becoming one of the largest computer book publishers in the country. (My first print run was 100 copies. In the twenty years since, I've sold more than 30 million copies of a thousand odd titles.)

Anyway, to make a long story short, several people suggested I repeat my comments here. Here goes:

Well, I like to think of myself as a self publisher who grew up into a real publisher. So I’ve seen the world from both sides. I never thought when I printed my first run of 100 copies of Learning the Unix Operating System in 1985 that it would go on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and start me on the path to being one of the largest computer book publishers in the country. It’s been a long and fruitful ride, which took me in many unexpected directions, and with a huge number of mistakes, some of which turned out to be inspired!

Here are the differences between self publishing and working with an established publisher as I see them:

1) If you’re not an experienced author, having a good editor can help you produce a book you’ll be proud of. You guys have already written a book, so you know what help you got, and whether or not it improved your book. So scratch that issue.

2) If you’re not well known, you may have real trouble getting visibility and distribution for your book. You guys are well known and have a built-in distribution channel and audience. Get your book on Amazon, plus sell it from your own site, and you’ll probably move as many copies as most publishers would move of a comparable book from less well known authors. (Given your current notoriety, you might even be able to sell as many copies as New Riders sold of your Defensive Design book, or more.) My guess is that I could significantly more copies of your book via additional channels than you would sell yourself, but probably not enough to make up the difference in margin that you’d make by printing and selling the book yourselves. So scratch that issue as well.

3) If you sell a lot of books, you’ll find yourself having to build a lot of the apparatus of a publisher. When we were small, we hired a temp to ship out books, and when a shipment arrived from the printer, all our employees would make a bucket brigade to carry the cartons to the basement. But that gets old fast. This is the biggest question for you: what business do you want to be in? A successful publisher (self or otherwise) ends up in the business of book design, copyediting and layout, printing (contracted out, but still a set of relationships and processes you need to manage), warehousing, shipping, order taking (can mostly be done self service), customer service (“where’s my book?”; “my copy was damaged in shipping”, etc.), and many other mundane but necessary tasks.

And of course, once you have more than a couple of books, you really need to start expanding your channels, your retail marketing (very challenging to get a foot in the door in today’s market), and your sales force. So you start up the ramp, as I did, of becoming a full fledged publisher yourself.

Of course, there are alternatives to doing all the work. For example, you could become what’s called a packager, where you establish a series and and brand, and deliver camera ready copy to a publisher, who pays you a higher than normal royalty because they provide no editing or development services, but still takes the inventory risk, and thereafter treats the book as one of their own products. Pogue Press (now wholly owned by O’Reilly) and Deke Press are two O’Reilly imprints that started out as packaging deals. To make something like this work, you need to have a strong brand (you do), a scalable publishing idea (rather than just a single book), and the ability to deliver completed books to the publisher.

The next step up is to publishing itself, which adds the element of inventory risk. That is, it’s easy to say, “Wow, print a book for $2, sell it for $30, pocket $28.” But what happens instead is “print 1000 copies of a book for $5 each, 5000 copies for $3 each, or 10,000 copies for $2 each.” And then if you sell fewer than you expect, you might end up with a very different cost of goods than you expect. Many small publishers make the mistake of printing too many copies, and their cost of goods (and warehousing those goods) becomes much higher than they expect. So you might print 10,000 for $20,000, sell 1000 directly from your website for $30, and another 1000 from Amazon for $14 (which is about what you’ll get after discount), you’re netting $44,000 on a $20,000 investment, not the $300,000 that the naive math of $2 manufacturing vs. $30 list price would suggest. Still, not bad, and a real option — if you want to be in the publishing business for the long haul. Self publishing a single book can be fun. But I’d be that after the second or third, you either decide to be in the publishing business full bore, or look for a partner to take on some of the chores.

FWIW, many small publishers are distributed by larger publishers. When O’Reilly was small, for example, Addison-Wesley and later Thomson did our international distribution before we started our own international companies. And today, O’Reilly distributes smaller presses like the Pragmatic Programmers, No Starch, Paraglyph, Sitepoint, and Syngress. That leverages our sales force, our distribution systems, and our relationships with major retailers.

Note however, that in order to take either the packaging or distribution route, you really need to be thinking about more than a single book.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.

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