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.

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 With the e-book marketplace showing explosive growth—spurred by the release of the iPad—the urgency to find a less expensive way to publish books is even greater. … By self-publishing, authors lower the price even more. 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.S. publications. We brought in cover designers who know how to calculate the width of the spine, how to embed a bar code, and how to account for the fact that POD publishing requires an extra margin for the cover art and text. We hired layout designers and had the text formatted.

We steered this process through an ever-changing field of emerging, merging and disappearing POD firms. (For our next project, we have switched from BookSurge, now called CreateSpace, to Lightning Source, but who knows how long our new arrangement will last.) To manage all of this, to meet deadlines, and to help the authors with marketing, our backgrounds as journalists came in very handy simply because we’d done some of these things before.

So, yes, everybody can publish their own books, but there are a lot of details to which attention much be paid so it’s best not to have other distractions, which can be hard if you are a journalist these days. Most of the authors we work with do not want to fiddle with software systems, editorial processes, or even figuring out how to sell their book. What they want to do is to write books.

Putting together our business plan and launching it took us less than six months. Then we signed our first contract within a week and published a book within nine weeks. This timetable never would have happened if we’d taken the traditional publishing route. Apart from money and convenience, journalists like speed so self-publishing worked well to satisfy that desire.

We are now preparing a set of books in five languages on China’s international position. “When I do this in the traditional way my book is outdated before it is on the market,” says Juan Pablo Cardenal, a Beijing-based foreign correspondent who is taking a year off to work on this project in the hope of having the book published by the end of 2010.

With the e-book marketplace showing explosive growth—spurred by the release of the iPad—the urgency to find a less expensive way to publish books is even greater. In the increasingly competitive market, the price of e-books is certain to drop; already they frequently cost less than half what a hardcover does. By self-publishing, authors lower the price even more.

Even now, we realize that our model has to grow and change. With hardcover books likely to remain on the market, we’re watching closely the developments with the iPad and Kindle as we think more about producing e-books. And we keep looking for ways to connect what we see as missing links in these emerging markets. For example, POD firms focus more on the needs of engineers than on those of authors or even readers. Certainly, this imbalance will be remedied in the next few years, and when it is many more authors—some of whom do not want to go through the process that we’ve gone through—will turn to on-demand publishing.

Earlier this year Amazon increased the amount it pays authors for e-books—with conditions—to 70 percent of revenue. An article in The Wall Street Journal quoted Richard Nash, a veteran of book publishing who has moved from a traditional publishing house into digital publishing, with the following observation about digital self-publishing:

It shows best-selling authors that there are alternatives—they can hire their own publicists, their own online marketing specialist, a freelance editor, and a distribution service … If they already have a loyal fan base, will they want 70 percent of $100,000 or 15 percent of $200,000 for a hardcover?

We think we know the answer.

Fons Tuinstra is a cofounder of the China Speakers Bureau, new media consultant, and a former foreign correspondent based in Shanghai.

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