I have a friend who's had a long and successful career in the craft and design industry. She's hit every marker of success: she has a fabric line, a booth at Quilt Market, teaches nationally and online, and has a huge blog following. Last week she turned in the manuscript for her fourth book. And then she sent me this email:
"I feel like I'll never do another traditionally published book. My experience wasn't bad, it's just the same old frustrating stuff that comes with the territory."
I know she's not alone in this feeling.
Over the last year or so I've heard this same sentiment expressed over and over again. We are at a moment when designers are asking themselves, "Does it make financial sense to write a craft book anymore?"
In the past the way books were made and distributed forced us to be dependent on big publishing houses to get our work out. Regular people didn't have access to the tools needed to design and layout book pages. Printing was costly. Distributing tens of thousands of copies of a book was expensive and difficult. So designers accepted tiny advances and tiny royalty percentages because we were dependent on publishers to facilitate the hard stuff.
We signed over the copyright to our ideas because that was the only way to get them out in to the world.
But now, it's time to reevaluate. Why are we still relying on big publishing houses to publish craft books? Do they still have something we need or are we stuck in the past?
Here's what mainstream publishers provide to authors:
1. Editing, design, photography, and layout.
2. A stamp of approval and a feeling of being chosen.
3. Printing. Most craft books start with an initial print run of 7,000-12,500 copies.
4. Marketing and distribution.
I'd like to argue that the publishers' stronghold on each of these four tenets is rapidly weakening.
I think #1 is out the window. Let's look at Ruby Star Wrapping, a beautiful 2012 book by Melody Miller and Allison Tannery.
Melody talked about the making of the book on her blog:
"While Allison wrote and I designed projects, we had the additional job of planning the photography and design for the book. I'm lucky to be married to an incredible photographer, Greg, who happily volunteered to shoot the book. Allison's ridiculously-talented husband, Blake, took on the art direction."
Here is an author and her colleagues designing, writing, photographing, and art directing a book entirely on their own. A multi-talented team, for sure, and not one everyone could pull together on their own. But do we really need a publishing house to do it for us? Couldn't we hire the best freelancers to help us, even if we weren't married to them?
Guess what? #2 is rapidly eroding, too. As for a stamp of approval, there's a reason Seth Godin's words "pick yourself" ring so true for so many right now. We are firmly in the age of individual entrepreneurship. You can build a fantastically successful design business without anyone giving you permission to do anything.
On the other hand, it's still prestigious to write a book. The approval of a big publisher still means something. If Chronicle Books thinks this idea will sell and is willing to shell out $25,000 to publish it, this author must be worth paying attention to. You know what, though? If you need a stamp of approval, you can get it elsewhere, too. Being a top Etsy seller, or having 17,000 Facebook fans, or teaching on CreativeBug can say nearly the same thing.
But now we get to pesky #3 and #4.
So digital publishing allows us to eliminate the publisher as middleman entirely. You know I'm a fan of ebooks and I'm excited to see the future as developers start to really use the digital format to enhance a book's content. But what if you still love to hold a real book in your hands?
As it stands, most craft book authors earn $1.20 or so each time a copy of their $24.95 book sells retail. When you sign a book deal you hand over your intellectual property. You no longer own the copyright to the patterns you design for that book. Does this deal still make sense?
Are we at a point now where we can create and distribute print books on our own?
It used to be, not all that long ago, when someone told me they'd self-published a book the following vision came into my head:
- This person couldn't find a real publisher. The book must not be very good.
- They've probably got stacks of books in their garage that nobody wants.
- The book probably looks low-quality. It might be stapled together.
Guess what? Today the quality of self-published books books rivals that of books published by mainstream publishers. You can now self-publish a book that has professional-level design, editing, layout, photography, and color and paper quality. And you can get national, even global, distribution for your book at the click of a button with print-on-demand (POD) services without storing a single copy in your garage.
One of the most well-known POD services is CreateSpace, an Amazon-owned company with the motto, "Publish your words, your way." I wanted to talk with someone who had both published with mainstream publishers and self-published using CreateSpace so I get some perspective on this option so I reached out to mixed media artist Lesley Riley.
Lesley's first book, Quilted Memories, was published in 2005 by Sterling.
"My entry into the world of publishing was very serendipitous. A publisher found me through my website and asked if I wanted to write a book. Of course I said, 'Yes!' Amazingly, they gave me free rein on the content and did very little editing. I had some issues with how they photographed the artwork, but otherwise I was just happy to be published and didn't think to ask for control over anything more."
"They did very little to no marketing for me, but the book did well because we were just at the beginning of the art/craft publishing boom and the competition was minimal and the content was pretty darn good too if I do say so myself. Plus, I had already developed quite a following through in person teaching and the book was well reviewed by major quilt magazines."
Her second book, Fabric Memory Books, was published in 2008 after Sterling merged with Lark.
"Book #2 was a bit of a rocky experience because the initial publisher had to turn it over to another publisher. There was a time there when I wasn't even sure it would make it into print. The new publisher was a lot more hands-on with editing and I had to stand firm on some things that they wanted to change. By the end of it all, I was just happy to see it in print."
Her third book, Fabulous Fabric Art with Lutradur, was published by C&T in 2009. (Lutradur is a material that's a cross between paper and fabric.)
"Another publisher came a 'courtin and asked me to write a book on Lutradur after seeing an article I wrote for a magazine. I said yes and again signed the contract and the first right of refusal clause." Then I worte a second book with C&T, Create With Transfer Artist Paper, which was published in 2011."
Lesley had a new idea for a book. It would showcase mixed media art from a variety of makers with a focus on art inspired by words. She pitched the idea to C&T since they had first right of refusal on her future books. But they turned it down.
So Lesley published it herself using CreateSpace. Quotes Illustrated: 100 Works of Art Inspired by Words came out in 2013 and is a print on demand book. Lesley actually has another new book coming out with C&T this summer on a different topic, but with POD she was able to publish a beautiful book she felt passionate about, and get the same kind of distribution she is able to get for her other books, without involving a mainstream publisher.
"I'm a can-do girl and have never shied away from a challenge. I had been interested in self-publishing since the possibility became a reality. While it is now easier than ever, there are still some difficulties and drawbacks. I was up to the challenge in part due to my experience with the technical side of photography, Photoshop, page layout and design. Self-publishing a craft book with lots of photographs is a whole different story than self-publishing a novel."
"The scope and layout of my book was very basic and simple. One image per page with descriptive text. Even with that, I had to somewhat learn the hard way about margins, bleed, layers and primarily the fact that not all PDFs are alike. That said, I loved the process of designing my own book and having control of all the details, even down to the font I used."
I wondered why Lesley chose CreateSpace over other print on demand companies.
"CreateSpace offers a huge advantage when it comes to distribution - their parent company, Amazon. Your book appears on Amazon immediately and all you have to do is check a box.With what CreateSpace terms the 'Expanded Distribution' option your book is available for order to online retailers, bookstores, libraries, academic institutions, and distributors within the United States as well as being on Amazon and Kindle."
Authors pay for wide distribution by accepting a somewhat lower royalty per book sold, but Lesley says it's worth it.
"I look at it as the cost of distribution and marketing. As far as I'm concerned having the book on Amazon is well worth it. The majority of my sales have been through Amazon. Plus, as a self-publisher I still make a higher royalty per book than I do with my traditionally published books."
If, unlike Lesley, you don't already have the technical and design expertise to create your book, or if you'd like to hire a professional editor to help you with your manuscript, CreateSpace offers a whole suite of services that connect authors with designers and editors. These services cost a few hundred dollars, but certainly much less than you give up when you sign a book deal with a big publishing house, and you still retaining complete control over your content.
This year my income from my self-published projects (patterns and ebooks) will far exceed the royalties I earned from my two award-winning mainstream books. Even if we add in the royalties from my Simplicity patterns and all the freelance magazine and book contributions I've done, it'll still be less than half of what I make simply selling my ideas directly to the customer base I've built on my own.
The old way of distributing information is no longer the only way. We live in really exciting times.