The answer to where I've been is: in bed. Apparently starting your own publishing company while being a full time student and having two other jobs can cause your body to like, collapse for a week. Or two.
Which brings us to our topic, which is self-publishing. Yes, the much-maligned business of publishing your own books using either a digital printer or a POD service. There are three reasons to self-publish:
(1) You have written a body of work intended for a small audience (under 100 people) and just want it bound so that it's easier to read and this audience is willing to spend a lot of money to get it.
(2) You want to reprint a public domain book that has not been printed in a very long time and is very hard to get for a niche audience that you know will buy it like mad, but generally have no plans for mass market.
(3) You are an idiot or a terrible writer with lots of money to blow.
I fell into category number two. I discovered that this book that a group of people (a few hundred) wanted had gone horribly out of print to the point that the New York Public Library only had one copy in the reading room and they wouldn't let me take it out. After some investigation I also discovered that the book had fallen into public domain in the 70's with a lot of other books published between 1932 and 1950 because the original publishers had never renewed the copyright. I decided to reprint it by scanning it in to my computer after photocopying it at the reading room, writing an introduction, and start collecting quotes from digital printers. I would (or will) probably make back the money I invested in the project (roughly $500) and then maybe a few thousand on top of that, much of which would go to charity. The real intent was to get the book back in print. As someone who loves books and collects them, I feel it's sort of a public responsibility to make sure literature doesn't disappear because of circumstance and time.
I decided not to go with a POD press, which would have been really easy in that they would have done stuff like layout and promotion and generally managing the project. They also would have taken most of the profits, and I decided I didn't want that,. Since I work in publishing, I should probably have some idea how to do layout myself anyway, so instead I looked into digital printers, who are willing to do print runs in the 100-300 range for about $5 a book. I charge for shipping and handling, and the everything in between on the cover price (in the $15 range) is profit.
Other than causing a physical collapse from exhaustion, this little (and still ongoing) exercise taught me a thing or two about how much it takes to actually create a book. It's true that the amount an author makes on a book is low. Most of it goes to the publishing company, because no matter how altruistic they are, they still have to pay their employees and they still have to make a profit. And boy, are there a lot of little jobs to pay people for. There's layout, copy-editing, proof reading, buying the ISBN, cover art, deciding on various types of binding, and last but not least, making sure the book does not look like crap or fall apart in anybody's hands. Companies have choices beyond hardcover and softcover. There's paper weight, thickness, and quality. There's the size of the book, which lowers page count but increases the price of binding. There's things like what font to use and how much of the page to leave blank (more white space makes the book look more professional, but raises page count). And then, at the very end, there's me, trying to make sense of all of the options the digital printer's website is giving me. (matte instead of gloss costs more but looks better. How much more? Can I get a new quote for 300 versus 200 copies?)
Oh, and publicity. The biggest job and the one I'm totally unequipped to do, being one person. Thank G-d I'm only doing this for a niche market that I already am in contact with. There's more to it than posting your book on Amazon. In fact, you don't really want to post your book on Amazon. Amazon takes a high commission - higher than bookstores, in fact, which is how it can afford to offer you, the buyer, all of those discounts. Bookstores generally take 50% off the cover price for themselves, while Amazon.com and other websites will take 55%, a very significant difference. It's quite brilliant, actually. They offer discounts and then offer super shipper savings so that you'll buy more books than you originally planned to do, knowing that they'll make it up in bulk shipping as opposed to individual purchases. Also, they take most of the money from the used market. There's a flat rate of $3.49 for shipping on a used book sold through Amazon - Amazon will take half of that, and then a percentage from the price the book is actually being sold for, to the point where the sellers might actually be losing money if the book is very heavy and media mail goes over $2.00.
So, it has all been kind of insane, and will continue to be until I get over the initial hump of selling off my first run (if there even is a second run; I could care less), but now at least I'm back on my feet. Today was a much easier day for me in terms of working at the office because I felt better. It didn't result in more maybes - lots of auto-rejects instead. We're in the middle of an inspirational self-help craze the way we were in a Da Vinci Code-type thriller phase about a year ago, and it's just as annoying, but in a different way.