From Journalism to Self-Publishing Books

By Tuinstra, Fons | Nieman Reports, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

From Journalism to Self-Publishing Books


Tuinstra, Fons, Nieman Reports


Digital technology is lowering the threshold for book publishing, and it couldn't arrive at a better time given the difficulties aspiring and established authors face in getting their books into the marketplace.

So earlier this year we at the China Speakers Bureau decided to help potential authors get their words published as books. The bureau is a venture I started a few years ago with fellow Shanghai correspondent Maria Korolov Trombly. Now in addition to arranging for speakers in China we are guiding authors through the process of publishing books on demand. Earlier this year we published our first book, "A Changing China," a collection of essays by 17 of our speakers about how they have seen China change.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

When we decided to produce "A Changing China," we discussed briefly whether we should try to find a traditional publishing house for it. But authors who were part of our speakers bureau were telling us how much harder it was getting to find a publisher for what they had written--or wanted to write. Some turned to us for help in gaining access to a publisher, but by then we had decided not to head in that direction. For this collection of essays, we knew it would be hard to find the right publisher, and we also thought that doing so could add to our costs and not necessarily give us any benefit. In addition, if we went with a traditional publisher, it would mean that our book would not be available for sale for a year or more.

Around this time I read what Claudia Gere, a longtime author's coach, wrote after attending a book expo in New York. Her words confirmed what I was hearing from these authors. Here's an excerpt:

   Book publishing has
   become a cutthroat business,
   even more so than
   it has been in the past. To
   sell a book to a publisher, a
   nicely written first chapter
   and an outline of the rest
   isn't enough. Even a completed
   book isn't enough,
   no matter how readable
   or interesting. What the
   publisher needs is the book's
   business plan. A competitive
   analysis, market demographics,
   new sales and
   marketing channels--and
   a solid platform for the
   author. That platform could
   be a television program,
   a radio show, a speaking
   circuit, or a popular blog
   through which the author
   can promote and distribute
   his or her own books.

It was true that in exchange for handing over a large percentage of a book's sale price, authors usually end up earning very little. Of course, we did not expect to produce a bestseller. Even so, we thought that by using digital media on both ends--producing the book and promoting it ourselves--we could do a better job than local bookstores could for this book. So we published it ourselves.

Now, if someone wants to buy our book, it's available in paperback at Amazon.com and on other sites. To the book's purchaser, things appear pretty much the same. What's different happens after the sale is made; the book is printed and mailed. The cost to us for the printing of each book is $7, in our print on demand (POD) arrangement; the cost to the customer on Amazon.com is $24.99 plus shipping. In the book's first 10 months, 800 copies were sold.

What We Learned

Our experience with print-on-demand books offers promising and challenging news. The good news is that anyone can get an ISBN number, publish a book, and distribute it through Amazon and other online stores. Self-publishing is now a huge industry. But to succeed requires a stiff learning curve--and time to devote to details.

We began by organizing the authors in China, and then we found editors who know how to edit books in the business style of U.

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