Self-publishing an Instructional Book: Part I (Everything up to Printing)

I just spent a year writing The Packraft Handbook (pre-order it!). I’ve been producing bite-sized outreach content on my website for many years, but decided to quit my job and pour myself into a book. I’ve learned a lot about the self-publishing process and will share my insights here.

Note that my approach might not be relevant to your book. The Packraft Handbook is comprehensive (432 pages) and designed for visual learners (color photographs and 150 illustrations). Because the book is such a personal creation, I chose to sacrifice profit for quality and a lower carbon footprint, consistent with my ideals.

How Much to Do Alone

Many Alaskans have a stubborn “I’ll figure it out myself” mentality. I once “fixed” a free truck by attaching a lawnmower throttle to the carburetor, so you can guess where I fall in the do-it-yourself spectrum. But, my repair jobs don’t look as good or last as long as professionals’ work (the truck died at an off-ramp in Oakland). Self-publishing a book was a constant evaluation of what to do myself and what I was willing to pay professionals for. I paid for help with illustrations, design, copy editing, a marketing plan, and printing. About one-third of my total budget was spent on professional help, and that was at friend rates. Market value would have been at least twice as much.

To Self-publish or Not

What Do Publishers Offer?

Because I didn’t know anything about writing or publishing a book, I wanted to go through a publisher. Having a team of experts to manage editing, layout, promotion, and distribution was very appealing. That said, each of those roles takes a cut of your profit margin. Also, I love to learn, and was excited by the prospect of learning while creating my book. Bottom line: I wanted to work with a publisher but believed in my project and would self publish if I couldn’t get a contract.

This is an important point: publishers are professionals at understanding the market. If they don’t think there is a market, it is worth seriously evaluating your book’s viability.

The Submission Process

The submission process is well documented by various publishers (e.g., Mountaineers BooksFalcon Guides). The parts of the submission packet that require the most effort are:

  • Providing a table of contents
  • Writing sample (chapter)
  • Market analysis

For the market analysis, I reached out to several packraft manufacturers, the American Packraft Association, and Roman Dial, author of the first packrafting book, to collect information on sales and demographics. I was fortunate to have a working relationship with these people, otherwise, the market analysis would have been more difficult.

My top publishing candidates were Mountaineers Books and Falcon Guides. Falcon had published a packrafting book just a few years prior, and I was confident they wouldn’t publish competition to their existing book. I focussed on the Mountaineers.

I had read that authors might not hear back from publishers (ever), so I didn’t hold my breath for a response. I heard back nine months after my submission with a respectful message that they were excited about what I had presented but concluded that there wasn’t an adequate market.

It is disconcerting to hear a market professional tell you that there isn’t a market for your book. I kept moving forward for several reasons:

  • I trusted my analysis and my understanding of the packrafting community. In brief, the packrafting community is desperate for instructional resources, and that demand is not being met with the existing resources.
  • I did the math and am confident that the market is appropriate at the scale that will allow me to be successful. It seems likely that Mountaineers is looking for larger markets.
  • My project is partly an outreach effort that can save lives—profit isn’t the bottom line.

Stay tuned for Part II when I discover what the market is actually like!

In retrospect, I wasn’t aware of how many small publishers are out there. I would approach some of the smaller publishers. I’m so curious about how the finances would work with a publisher. From speaking with friends who have worked with publishers, the model is typically something like a $5000 advance payment (more for established authors). Royalties from book sales (~$2 per book) whittle away at the advance, and once it is met, the author receives payments until the books are all sold. Woo-hoo! If those numbers are representative, I couldn’t have found a contract that would pay for the hours I put into my book.

Why Print at All, Why Not Keep Everything Online?

I’ve been accumulating instructional resources on my website for ten years. Why not just keep doing that? My approach has been to piece together posts in the evenings after work or when I’m stuck home with an injury. The scale of the efforts is entirely different from something like The Packraft Handbook. To justify the time and expense to build this comprehensive resource, I needed a tangible product. To say it another way, blog posts feel like the part of an iceberg exposed above the waterline. Dedicating the time and resources to create a book feels like working with the entire iceberg. For those that don’t know … 90% of an iceberg’s mass is underwater (check out this video to see some ice skating around the exposed 10%!).

Another factor in wanting to create a book is that I think the book is more discoverable for the reader than a series of webpages or even an eBook. You can dog-ear a page and an illustration might catch your eye as you recognize a gap in your knowledge, etc.

Finally, as a creator, it is much more rewarding to have something concrete in-hand. I created this. This is me. Given where I was in my professional life, I really wanted this tangible reward—to create something that I can call my own (though I had a lot of help).

Project Management

I was fortunate to carry project management experience from my previous job. We used Trello (free) at that job, and I relied heavily on it for this book.

Management became more complicated and required more time as I pulled in team members. Sarah K. Glaser and I chatted back and forth regarding illustration edits while I made lists of writing tasks, requests for reviewers, questions for the copy editor, designer, etc. It felt like some days were spent entirely on management and not at all on writing.

A Trello screenshot

Writing

I did all of my writing in Google Docs (free). I loved the outline structure and ease of collaboration, receiving and exchanging comments on the text with my reviewers and contributors. Google Docs makes it easy to flag chapters and passages for review from specific people. I identified who was available for deep review vs. glances, and targeted my requests accordingly. For reference, I involved approximately 30 reviewers, three of whom dove deep and volunteered a lot of their time. Another ~ten reviewers were crucial for the success of individual sections or chapters, and the remaining reviewers contributed to shorter passages when requested.

I also used the subscription-level Grammarly app, and benefited from it. Unfortunately, it made editing in Google too sluggish, so I had to copy text into Grammarly and then back out. I will want to improve this part of my workflow for my next book.

Editing 

I hired a copy editor to review the entire text, and this was well worth the investment. In addition to catching my mistakes, it was reassuring to know that someone else had taken a close look at what I had created. If my budget had allowed for it, I would have liked to have multiple editors for big-picture flow, grammar, etc.

Layout

The industry standard is Adobe inDesign, which allows you to easily wrap text around figures, stylize headings and captions, etc. Based on my familiarity with other Adobe products, I expected inDesign would be easy to learn. It wasn’t as easy as I thought. I ended up hiring a designer to build a template for the book. We exchanged photos of a dozen or so instructional books, and I identified the features that I liked and didn’t like. Molly provided three mock-ups, and we fine-tuned details until she created what I was looking for. Molly then gave me a two-hour tutorial working with inDesign and was available for help when I got stuck. I did all of the text placement and final layout on my own. This arrangement was perfect for me.

I used a $200 plugin to sync my Google Doc chapters with the book chapters (DocsFlow). This allowed me to make changes in the Google Doc and then update the text in inDesign. I would do this again.

Printing

Color or B&W?

I didn’t expect this, but you should decide whether to print color at the start of your project. Your printing options and profit margin depend on whether you print in color.

Print options include:

  • eBooks (Kindle, Amazon)
  • Print-on-demand
  • Working with a print broker

eBook

If you have a black and white book without a complicated layout, eBooks are a great option. Amazon couldn’t make this process any easier—upload your files, assign a price, etc., and your book can be available for purchase in days. I like the timeline of this option, and the carbon footprint, but I never considered it for The Packraft Handbook. My book is designed for visual learners and features 150 illustrations, many in color. A Kindle wouldn’t do it justice. Also, the Amazon profit model counts on high-volume sales of an low-price product, which isn’t a great fit for my niche market.

Print-on-demand

Print-on-demand refers to the printing and binding of books in small batches or even as they are ordered. This is really impressive technology. Apparently, there is a wide variety in quality ranging from products that feel like xerox copies to books that look and feel like mass-produced books. If going with this option, I would work with one of the bigger PoD companies such as Lulu, Blurb, BookBaby, IngramSpark, or Amazon. These sites offer optional services at all levels of the project, from editing to cover design. Some of these companies provide traditional publication as well as print-on-demand, but the traditional option was not as competitive as working directly with a print broker.

When I did the math, my commitment to color precluded the print-on-demand option. A b&w book that costs $5 to print will likely cost $20 for full-color. I just couldn’t make the math work out to sell a color book at market value.

Working With a Print Broker

Most bulk printers won’t work with some random guy in Alaska that wants to print a packrafting book. To find a printer, you are supposed to go through a print broker. The broker learns what you want, determines the paper weight and other printing specifications (margins, bleed), and then solicits bids from various printers. Bids are (currently) the most competitive in China.

I received quotes from a local broker as well as a random well-reviewed broker outside of Alaska. I tried to find a broker specializing in eco-friendly book production, but this was harder than I expected. I ended up minimizing my carbon footprint by choosing to print in Canada on Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper and vegetable-based inks. All of these decisions cut into my profit margin. This wasn’t a tough call because the packrafting community celebrates clean air and water and will appreciate that I am walking the walk (boating the boat?). But I’d break even sooner if I had cut these corners.

The print broker reviews your inDesign files, catches the mistakes you made (image resolution, etc.), and manages the shipment of the books to you. All for a hefty fee, of course. I’d love to know what percentage of my broker bill is the actual printing. Or maybe I’d prefer not to know.

Selling Books

How you sell your book will largely determine how long it will take to break even. Many self-published books are not intended to be profitable on their own, but rather to drive business to other services (for example, online courses or in-person trainings).

Online

The best profit margin is to sell my books on my own. The downsides are needing to pay for, build, and maintain an online shop and then package and ship the books. The easiest way to make a shop is to add PayPal payment buttons to your website. That’s what my friend Joe Stock did for his book. Clean and easy. I’m exploring more of a shopping cart experience to also sell stickers of Sarah K. Glaser’s artwork from the book.

Retailers

I’m told that there is a fairly standard 40% discount for retailers (off the cover price), and they pay shipping. The packrafting community is small and well-connected, so it has been easy to identify retailers. This would be much harder for a non-niche book.

Amazon

Amazon’s cut depends on whether they store and ship the books or not. Simply selling through Amazon (I do the shipping) would cost me 25% of the book price. Because I am confident about the initial pulse of demand and have many retailers lined up, I will not sell on Amazon. After the book has paid for itself, and if I get tired of shipping, I might pursue selling on Amazon.

Distribution and Fulfillment

This is where I’m at now, and I’ll create Part II when I’ve learned this part of the game. In brief, distribution refers to the service of finding stores to stock your book. I’m fortunate to be able to do this myself, given my niche market. Otherwise, this service takes a significant cut of your profit (55% of the cover price for distribution and fulfillment, I think?). Fulfillment refers to shipping the books to retailers or individuals. My estimate at this point is that fulfillment will cost about 20% of the cover price.

I decided to fulfill individual and small orders myself and have the printer fulfill shipments to retailers. Several pallets of books will be shipped to me in Alaska. I keep joking (?) with Sarah Histand (my wife) about getting rid of our bed frame and putting the mattress on boxes of books. We will know how sales are going as the bed moves closer to the floor.

The printer will store the remaining pallets on-site (for a fee!), and then charges a per-box fee to ship the boxes to retailers. This arrangement is the best I can do in terms of economics and keeping the carbon footprint as small as possible (not shipping boxes to Alaska just to ship them away again).

The Take Home

Identify why you want to publish, and if profit is important, evaluate the entire pipeline before starting. Determine color vs. b&w, what you can do yourself, and where you should hire help.

Everything about this process would have been more intimidating for me if I wasn’t in a position to reach a niche market. I can’t image my investment paying off with a book that targeted a more general audience.

Anticipate the little expenses that add up: software fees, storage fees, customs fees, credit card fees, etc.

Stay tuned for Part II, after I’ve learned about my book’s actual market and whether my marketing, promotion, and fulfillment strategies work!

11 Comments

  1. Wow
    Overwhelming
    Why not do Pre Sales right now?
    Raise some cash and let us support This?!

    Price?

    Etc

  2. Hi!!! I love the idea of ​​this book, I want to read it now.
    I have placed the order already, I think it would be better to do the international shipments by First-Class Package International Service, it is cheaper. I think there would be more international orders.
    Iván

    1. My first order!

      It breaks my heart that shipping costs more than the book itself. But I’ve looked into all the options to make these as affordable as possible. First-Class Package Intl costs 41 USD, the same as the Priority Flat Rate (and much slower). The problem is that the book weighs nearly one kg. If it were under one lb it would be much cheaper to ship.

      The best way to cut shipping costs is to order 5 or 10, because I can fit that many into the medium or large flat rate boxes.

      1. One kilo, wow. Great and huge book.
        It is a good idea to order 5 books, in the Canary Islands orders under € 150 do not pay customs.
        I will write an article in Planeta Packraft about your book to see if Spanish-speaking people are encouraged to buy it.
        Good luck. A big hug .

  3. Thanks for posting. Very informative, and I look forward to part 2. Best wishes for the book.

    1. Hi Ben- I don’t have any plans to create an eBook at this point. I agree that the bikepacking guide is a good model. I’ll keep this option in mind down the road — thanks!

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