Distilling the Essence

You may call this a "how to go about distilling the juicy essence of a book". This is a how-to on dissecting the essence of someone’s book, their soul, the product of hundreds of hours of time and capturing it in an image or in a video to market the book and effectively sell it. It’s no easy feat. 

You are about to gain insight into a meeting that gathered this Monday whereby an ingenious entourage met in a small room with a whiteboard and a computer monitor to discuss the beginning process of a new book by Gordon Harris that Catch The Fire Books is going to publish this year.

The question was thrown out:  ‘What does this book mean to you?’ Gordon began to put into words what he’d created, what he'd birthed; meanwhile those words were scribbled onto the whiteboard in order to make some sense of what the underpinning focus was. Our goal was to map out keywords for all the possible themes, and then to condense those down into a 10 word sentence in order to explain to anyone (especially publicity people) in 20 seconds why they should care about this book.  We care about this book; the 8 people in that meeting were enthused with anticipation of what this book could be, how it would look and feel, and who was most likely to read it, but we still didn't know quite how to describe it.

As I said, a list of 7 to 8 words were written on the whiteboard.  Key words that conveyed the body of the text, key words that would communicate the thousands of words within the book in a single image. Some words were re-evaluated for their various nuances and finally we had a rough list that would give us an inkling as to what should grace the front cover. Themes. Motifs.

The front cover of a book is absolutely crucial; it turns out we do all judge a book by its cover. The front cover needs to speak to the reader; it needs to fascinate and compel someone to pick it up among shelves of other books. Make the cover too simple and it can be boring and un-descriptive, however if the cover is too busy it can just look bad; there’s a happy medium we need to arrive at. A cover needs to draw people in, and to visually communicate some aspect of the literary content contained within. We discussed what kind of imagery we want on the front cover; something that is indicative of what the book is about, but at the same time the cover needs to hold enough mystery for a shopper to turn the book over and read the blurb.  There is an entanglement of juxtapositions that need to be satisfied. 

What about the audience? Who is going to want to read this book? Now whilst we may want the answer to be ‘everybody’ we are required to narrow it down significantly in order to come to some conclusions of how to market this book. The middle aged female is renowned as the biggest reader of Christian books, although we wanted to look beyond that.  This is the kind of book where we could expand our audience horizons and look to agnostics, Christian prodigals, those faintly aware of their mother’s faith but have not yet experienced it for themselves.  We glowed at the potential.  But how do we entice them to read a book with a thick undertone of God’s goodness?  We decided that whilst prophetic symbolism can be effective for some books, for this work we have to stay clear of the christianese, should we want to entice different people groups.  Would this book appeal to all races and ethnicities? 

We continued to look at some other front covers that had already been published; covers that were despised, covers that were approved but weren't quite right. We discussed typefaces, colours and trim sizes, the table was piled high with frames of reference.  We used the wide-screen monitor to search up on Google images front covers that Gordon and the rest of the team felt were marked to the same audience, and we discussed what lessons could be learned. We came to some conclusions, however by no means were any ideas set in stone, we had a framework and a rough outline, and we remained flexible in our thinking. 

When it came to discussing the title, there was the consensus that the current working title was a good one, however it didn't perhaps draw readers into what the book was about. We crafted 3 subtitles, and after conducting a quick vote there was surprising accord on which one was the better one.  Subtitles are great, but if you’re going for the clean, simple look on the front cover it can make it look a little crowded, so sometimes it’s better for the subtitle to go on the back, which in fact leaves greater emphasis on the front cover to intrigue the shopper to look at the book and turn it over.  

Overall, as you may have gathered, undertaking this process involves a great deal of discussion; points of reference are required, like other publications and other works and also a great deal of flexibility from both the author and the team. We entered into that meeting with no cohesive idea as to what we were going for and we left the meeting with a greater clue of what Gordon wanted, but it will take a good few drafts from the creative team to come to something that might elegantly represent this book.  The process might be a lengthy one, but definitely one worth paying attention to the details.  

- Jess Watson, publishing intern


Obtaining Distribution

One of the early challenges you'll face with your fledgling publishing company, is how to get your books out to customers. It's one thing to make customers aware (and desirous) of your products, it's another thing entirely for those customers to be able to get their hands on them.

As a publisher, you generally can't be aware of all of the thousands of retail outlets around the nation/world. Distributors have these relationships, and you can benefit by gaining access to them. Distributors and wholesalers will typically buy products in bulk from publishers, and then sell them on to retailers directly. This results in a smaller cut for you as the publisher, but it also results in sales you wouldn't otherwise have at all. 

Obtaining distribution for your products is not always guaranteed. Once you've found a distributor (see below) who could handle your products, you've got to convince them it's worth their while. Each distributor will have slightly different criteria for that of course, but much of it boils down to two questions:

  1. How many titles do you have?
  2. How much product do you expect to move?

With every part of the publishing/retail business having fairly thin margins, distributors have to be fairly judicious about which publishers they handle product for. It's an important part of the puzzle though, because many retailers will only deal with a small handful of distributors (or just one!), and in general, retailers will not want to deal directly with you as publisher. For the same reasons of profit margin, they want to order as much as possible from a single vendor to save on shipping and hopefully gain access to preferential pricing.

So, where to start? The Christian distribution business is fairly small. Your major players are as follows:

David C. Cook is also a publisher of books, but distribution is a big part of their business. Spring Arbor / Ingram also receive product from most of the other distributors, so getting your product into Anchor or Send The Light can make it available to Ingram as well, which is great, because Ingram is the 400lb gorilla in the distribution world.

There are two other gorillas: Amazon, and ChristianBook.com. Both of these are huge, and both of them are composite distributor/retailers. Because of their huge direct-to-customer businesses, they drive the hardest pricing and can be a pain to deal with. But if your books aren't available there (especially on Amazon), your books don't exist.

With most of the distributors listed above, each of them can be contacted and will offer you various options for distribution, assuming you meet their basic criteria. You can negotiate on all the terms they offer (like Amazon sub-distribution, etc.), and work out a deal that fits your needs and your finances.  Distributors will usually attempt to lock in exclusive rights, and this may be OK with you. Just read the contracts carefully.

Obtaining distribution through Ingram is usually not an option for people directly, unless your volumes are enormous (regularly moving 10,000+ units). The way in to Ingram is usually through another distributor, as I mentioned, like Anchor or Send The Light. You will see this option on your contracts with those distributors. 

Amazon have a number of different programs that you can participate in, depending on the experience you want shoppers on Amazon to have. You can set up an Amazon Marketplace account (Seller Central) to sell your products much like an eBay store, and the customer pays a basic shipping rate to Amazon who pass this on to you along with a percentage of the sale price. This is the simplest option, but is a less positive experience for Amazon shoppers (they lose access to free shipping deals, combined orders, etc.) and it can make your operation look small. Amazon Advantage is another option, it works as a consignment program where Amazon lists your products within it's normal inventory (allowing all Amazon sales incentives), but you retain the product at your facility until orders arrive. Amazon aggregates the orders to some degree, and you ship the product to Amazon when orders come in. Amazon handles the shipping back out to customers. This provides the nicest experience to customers at Amazon, and makes you look like a legit operation, but you're stuck handling the cost of shipping product to Amazon's fulfillment centres. Amazon pays out 45% of the retail price, unless you're a non-profit/educational publisher, in which case you can negotiate to 55%.

Yet another option offered by Amazon is Vendor Central, whereby you are a pure-play distributor/vendor to Amazon. This program is by invitation only, and Amazon will only care to do this when they've decided your product is one worthwhile for them to carry. You'll be assigned a buyer, and will negotiate with them directly. More on that program here

As for ChristianBook.com, it is my understanding that they are extremely judicial about the products they carry, and they will not respond to your requests to supply them. Once you've reached a certain level of recognition (sales volume for your titles across the industry) then they'll contact you and be looking to buy direct. Some distributors (like Send The Light) can also distribute to ChristianBook.com, but I'm not familar with how this works or how decent the margins are. Based on the deep discounts they usually offer customers, it's my guess that ChristianBook is working with a handful of publishers directly and pushing aggressive pricing.

Another option to consider is how you implement Print on Demand. The two major POD vendors are part of the distribution chain: LightningSource is owned by Ingram, and CreateSpace is owned by Amazon. Setting up your titles for Print on Demand, whether or not you plan to actually produce the bulk of your materials that way, lists the titles automatically with Ingram and Amazon, and saves you the hassle of having to ship product. As with everything POD, the margins are less, but so are the risks. 

All Catch The Fire Books product is available through Ingram / Spring Arbor, Anchor, and Joining The Dots. Our products are also available from our own distribution business, Catch The Fire Distribution.

Jumping in with both feet

We've just taken on our first publishing intern. A lovely sweet girl thing from Cardiff that we call Jess. Because that's her name. She'll be blogging here regularly, and following is her first post. Welcome Jess!

What does jumping in with both feet look like? I have been encouraged with this cliché a few times upon arriving to an internship in the publishing department of Catch the Fire books and after a week of interning I am still uncertain of what it looks like but I’m starting to think it’s necessary.

I was aware that embarking on this internship would be an adventure but wasn’t quite sure what God had in mind or even what Jonathan Puddle (boss man) had in mind but I am aware that there is still a lot to learn, rendering me not yet fully qualified. There’s new software to navigate my way around, there are piles of books to get my head stuck in so that I might recommend them and there’s an industry in which I have had no experience that I need to understand and function in aptly.

I think one of the hardest things about new challenges whether it be a new job, a new relationship or any new responsibility is not allowing yourself to get overwhelmed or bogged down with the amount of things you don’t yet know. When being bombarded with new information every day there is possibility for insecurity and self-doubt to sneak up on you as you can’t help feel helpless and naïve; I have honestly found myself asking the question ‘Why am I here?’ a few times this week already.

 But that’s what makes this whole experience so exciting and I think perhaps that’s what jumping in with both feet looks like, understanding that you don’t know everything (and maybe never will) but embracing the unfolding unknown, remaining positive and keeping a sponge-like mentality, ready to soak up all the things you will inevitably learn and flourish in.

I was reminded of what the internship might look like on the first day and it was sold to me with the words ‘you will basically see the life of a book.’  I’m involved in the beginnings of a book, the rough and raw manuscript filled with spelling mistakes and nervous hope and yet I am also involved in the selling of books.  I’m the smile behind the counter that says ‘that’s $10 please’ once the gruelling process of re-writing, re-fining and re-working has been complete and the shiny book is bought by an unsuspecting customer who’s been enticed by the pretty colours on the cover or the glowing endorsements from the affluent personality.

Onto the horrifying trade secret I have learnt this week about endorsements, they’re not always written by the person who's name is attached. It’s like when you’ve suddenly become aware of all the junk in the food you eat every day and you become awfully stringent in checking the label for the bad stuff; in the same way I have become sceptical of every endorsement on my favourite books and have taken it upon myself to read them all and make assumptions as to whether they're ghostwritten or not. However, after the initial shock of my endorsement enigma I feel privileged to be let in on the secret and hopefully will become trusted enough to learn the rest of them in due time, although having shared it with you maybe not.

The process of a book being published is incredibly interesting and to work in an environment where this isn’t sniggered at but ostensibly relished is an exciting prospect for an avid reader. Every element of a book is thought of, from the design on the front cover, to the editor employed; every decision has been mindfully considered by the publisher and creative team of a book, albeit subconsciously appreciated by the reader. For example the font of the title for both of Steve Long’s books ‘My Healing Belongs to me’ and On the Run’ looks almost handwritten which alludes to the personal character of Steve Long and this was an element which I had never acknowledged before joining the team in the publishing department of Catch the Fire books.

The beginnings of an idea that is God given whether that be in the form of a vision or dream and seeing it evolve into a tangible book that can be borrowed and shared, re-read and re-discovered is, in the words of Jonathan Puddle, indeed ‘rather profound’ and to be involved in this growing and ever-changing industry is daunting and yet overwhelmingly exciting, and so I do not hesitate to make a splash and ‘jump in with both feet.’  

Print Production

When running a publishing project, one of the important questions you have to answer is what quantity of books you're going to print.

You need to produce enough books to meet demand, so knowing what kind of demand there is for the title is an important starting point. For established voices (whether an author or not) with an existing platform this is generally easier, as you can predict that perhaps 10% of their engaged followers will pick up a copy of the book, and you can plan from there. For an unknown author it's a little harder, as you possess no basis for sales projections.

If you're putting effort into promotion, then this is a good second measurement. While your author may not yet be well known, if you know you're putting advertising in front of 5,000 people or 50,000 people, and if you know something of their engagement patterns, then you can again predict a rough quantity to begin with.

As you produce higher quantities, the cost per-piece naturally goes down. The lower the print cost, the higher the margin left over for profits, so taking on a measure of risk and printing more books is often a very enticing proposition. Built into this factoring of costs and profit margin is the sale price of the book (and subsequently the wholesale price of the book), and any other extraneous costs you have to recoup as the publisher (or self-publisher). Here's how the project calculations worked for us when we printed The Invitation:

Admin, ghostwriting, editing, cover design, interior layout, ebook layout = $4540
Print production (2000 copies, 72 pages) = $2408

That means we as the publisher need to recoup $6948 in real costs on this book, before we've even spent anything on marketing or publicity. A small book like The Invitation sells for $7, which means retail stores will expect to buy it for $4.20 and distributors (who supply the stores) will expect it for perhaps $2.50.

Based on the author's existing platform, we can expect to sell 5000 copies within a couple of years. 5000 copies * $2.50 (income from sales to distributors) equals $12,500 gross income. We'll subtract from that income the $6948 in costs we incurred, leaving us with $5552. We've only actually paid for the printing of 2000 books so far though, so we need to remove another $2900 or so for another 3000 books, and we're left with $1940 NET profit. That amount will then be split between the publisher and the author according to their royalty agreement. All our authors earn at least 50% royalties. As you can see, there's actually not a lot of money on offer here, not while the retail price is so low ($7) and such a high cost was incurred in the writing of the book.

In the above, we projected to print 5000 copies, but we only actually printed 2000 to begin with since it was our first book project. If we had printed the entire run of 5000 copies in one shot, then the total print production cost would have been around $3600. Notice that this is only incrementally more than the $2400 paid for 2000 copies, or the $2900 we could pay for 3000 copies. If we had gone with 5000 initially, the NET profit would be closer to $4360, a significantly better take.

But... sometimes books don't sell and you're left with a huge pile of pulp. And sometimes you miss an embarrassing typo, meaning... you are left with a huge pile of pulp. Sometimes you don't have enough capital to outlay for the larger quantity, even though it would mean higher profits. All of these considerations have to go into your decision on how many books you're going to print. All our Catch The Fire Books inventory is stored in a warehouse full of countless boxes of mostly useless, unsalable PAL DVDs (manufactured by a former administration) that serve as a constant reminder to us: only print what you will certainly sell. In fact, print less than that. Better to have smaller profits that are all but certain, than to have a room full of pulp.

The digital printing revolution has given publishers and authors another powerful option in this discussion, which is print-on-demand. Instead of relying on a large offset press to print books in large quantities, modern digital presses can spit fully bound books out of the end of what looks like a large office copier. And you can print as few as 1 copy if you like. The trade-off is in cost per piece. A single unit of The Invitation (when offset printed in quantities of 2000) costs us $1.14. A single unit of the same book when done print-on-demand costs $2.80, so your margin for recovering your costs and making profit is much less. Still, this can be very useful to have as an added option, especially since you can often find POD printers overseas, allowing you to print locally rather than ship vast quantities around the world. (Believe it or not though, sometimes it is actually cheaper to print larger quantities and ship, instead of print locally.) 

We are almost at the stage where all of our titles are available print-on-demand as well as in traditional offset print format, so we can leverage the flexibility of one with the price competitiveness of the other, whenever we need to. There's no reason really why not, when POD printers like Lightning Source or Create Space are so easy to use.

'On The Run' sent to the press

We sent our latest book to press 2 days ago. It is titled On The Run: Become the Leader You Are Destined to Be, by Steve & Sandra Long. This marks our 7th book in a little over a year, our 8th if your count the Spanish version of Designed For Inheritance.

I'm still kind of shocked, to be honest. I've dreamed many things for my career, including writing books myself (which will come in time), but never did I ever think I might be running a publishing business. So I'm praising God for that, and trying to take stock a little bit. Speaking of stock, we've sold close to 10,000 physical books in the last year (spread across those 8 titles).

Over the next few months, I'm going to try and explain this process to you. We started a publishing company from nothing, with no prior experience whatsoever, just because the opportunity was right and God seemed to be involved. Thankfully God is more involved than ever, and we're having to turn down manuscripts because we can't keep up with the pace. Amazing. I want to share with you what we've learned. The game has changed. Publishing is easy. You can do it too.

Stay tuned while I come down from this high euphoric mountain and collect my thoughts into something cohesive. Useful blog posts coming soon.