Printing and Distributing a Hardcover as an Author

Ever since I self-published the first powder mage short story as an ebook, I've had people asking me if there will be print versions of my short fiction for their bookshelves. From the beginning, I kind of waved it off as something I'd like to do eventually but which sounded like a giant pain in the butt. I had novels to write, after all, and I don't like to spend more than 2 weeks worth of work time on any of my short fiction.

I went on writing more, and longer, short fiction, and I'd still get the question about print versions rather frequently. It was pretty easy to brush off over Twitter or Facebook. Then I went to Salt Lake Comic Con, where I sold a lot of books and interacted with a lot of fans and was asked about the short fiction way more than I had ever been online.

I was sharing a booth with Schlock Mercenary and was able to talk with Howard and Sandra Taylor about self-publishing print books. That made the whole idea sound way less intimidating so when I got home, I started to figure out what needed to be done.

My first decision was what, exactly, to publish. At this point I had three short stories and two novellas out. The short stories were too short to print individually. I didn't like the idea of an anthology because I enjoy putting out short fiction set whenever and wherever I feel like in the Powder Mage Universe, and I felt that an anthology should have some sort of theme or set or be providing closure to a particular time period. Basically, I want each story to still be read on it's own (some of you may find this reasoning stupid, but it's how I feel for now). But I realized the two novellas (Forsworn and Servant of the Crown) are each just big enough to make cool little chapbook-type things.

I did a little informal polling on twitter and got some initial cost estimates from online printers and decided to do go with a more expensive, but nicer and more collectible, hardcover.

I met with a locally-headquartered printer that I happened to have a personal connection to (HF Group, who I recommend) and talked through some of my concerns about quality control. Feeling good about the process, I emailed with their production people. I found out what they'd need from me and the printing costs involved.

We had to turn the ebook cover on the left into a print cover on the right.

At this point I had a formatted ebook and an ebook cover. I needed to get both of these turned into print-ready PDFs. Maybe I could have done that on my own, but I don't hate myself so I contracted it out to people who did this kind of thing professionally. That process took a week or two.

The printer took my files and sent me a proof of each book. This showed me what they'd look like, and I was able to see for myself the pros and cons of glossy vinyl versus matte covers (I went with matte). I talked through a couple of changes with them, and the books were sent to final printing.

Once I had proofs (and not before), I felt pretty confident about taking orders on the novellas. I was selling signed, dated, and numbered editions for the first hundred so I sold them in a bundle to make my life easier. Luckily, I already had a store set up to sell print copies of my novels and ebooks of my short fiction.

The ordering was a bit hectic. I ran a small advertising campaign on Facebook and Twitter (nothing paid, just outreach to fans), and sent out a newsletter. The numbered editions sold out in two days, which was a way better response than I'd expected. Fans asked a lot of questions during the process.

Printing had a few kinks, which we managed to work out but that set shipping back by an extra week. That meant answering several emails about when the books would be sent out.

Then came the shipping. Oh, the shipping.

Signing around 250 books and personalizing about fifty of those, and then packaging and addressing them took almost as much of my time as the entire rest of the project together. I'll admit I could streamline the process quite a bit - for instance, I had to hand address every package because Squarespace's system was being a jerk with every label printing software I tried.

Finally, the post office. I had to eat some extra cost on several international shipments because I was an idiot. And I couldn't figure out how to get a ship-from-home option to work for media mail so I wound up spending an hour checking out at the post office.

Some things I discovered:

  1. Everyone I had working on the different aspects of the hardcovers were people I already had personal or profession relationships with. That made the entire thing SO much easier (and cheaper) than it would have been.
  2. Selling via Amazon just wrecks the profit margins on these. I still haven't decided whether to put them up there or not. Increased visibility versus losing the majority of the profit on each book. Also, I'm required to buy an ISBN which I don't need for the ebook. Amazon still hasn't answered several inquiries about getting an exemption.
  3. I should have bit the bullet and paid for a membership to to aid with shipping. I learned this too late for my first shipment, but I'll use it in the future. More intuitive than the USPS option and lets me select media mail.
  4. You have to decide where you draw the line at pleasing fans/providing something cool and unique versus convenience for yourself. The numbered copies were fun and I think people really enjoyed them, but making sure I had them all stacked and organized and paired properly took a ton of time and energy. And people will want their matching numbers for future novellas.

Final thoughts: Stretched over the course of about about two months, the whole project took me the equivalent of around four working days to research and coordinate the printing and then to do all the signing and shipping. That might not sound like much time in total, but It's a lot of logistical stuff to keep track of for one person and many uncounted hours of agonizing over little tiny things. In the end it was worth it. Fans have received their books and seem to really love them.

On a purely mercenary level, I made enough money for me to do it again, and having extra things to sell at conventions will be very nice. I already have the cover and print-ready PDF prepared for the printer for the next Powder Mage novella, Murder at the Kinnen Hotel. Pre-orders for that should be up mid-December.

Proof for the next Powder Mage Novella hardcover, out by the end of the year. In ebook now.