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


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.