PENNING: Self-publishing a book more grit than glory

“You should write a book!” they say. They are people who have never written a book, thus the speed and casual way with which they encourage someone else to do so. They think of seeing the finished product, not the work that goes into it.
Jan 9, 2014

But I listened to them. Last year I realized I had been writing this column for 10 years. Friends encouraged me to publish a collection of them in a book. And of course I listened to them.

Writing a book is hard work. I should know this. I have done a lot of writing since I graduated from journalism school decades ago. I’ve written reams of newspaper and magazine articles. After I transitioned into public relations, I wrote annual reports, newsletters, web site copy, and all manner of organizational media. As a professor, I have written lengthy research articles.

But I had not written a book. So it was a combination of vanity and stupidity that led me to produce a book of my Grand Haven Tribune columns. Vanity and stupidity eventually gave way to hard work and humility.

Of course, much of this particular book was already written since the book is a collection of past columns. But I still had to curate, select, and edit them so they would make sense in this new collection at a later date than when they were written. That process took a long time.

But having completed the “writing,” I had another consideration: how to go about actually publishing it? That took some doing also. I didn’t think a major publisher would be interested in what is called a book of “hyper-local” interest. So I looked into self-publishing. This is also called the “vanity” press, because you have to be somewhat arrogant to attempt it, and you may find out your efforts have been in vain.

But I approached it as an experiment. I found a local designer who specializes in book covers. I gave her a photo I had taken as well as cover copy and she delivered a professionally designed cover. People do judge a book by its cover after all. Paying for the design would cut into my profits, but I wanted it to look good.

Then I worked with Schuler Books of Grand Rapids to do the actual printing. I used their online instructions to format my book and get them an electronic file. They printed a quantity for me. I sold some in person at events, but also have some at Schuler stores, as well as at the Bookman locally and several other vendors in town. I also created an electronic version for Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook devices.

So, I wrote a book! But what those friends who encouraged me failed to mention and couldn’t foresee is that I have to actually promote the book, too. When you have a publisher, they do this. Even though they take most of the profits, it’s worth having them handle the marketing of the book. When you self publish, you also must self promote. So, I have business cards with info about the book, a Facebook page for the book, conducted some media relations, and engaged in other shameless self promotion. I even keep a box of them in the trunk of my car, because you never know when someone might want to buy one.

So, with all of that done, I awaited the sales figures to soar. That hasn’t exactly happened. While people were eager to say “Write a book!” they seem less eager to actually buy a copy now that it’s done. I’ve had lots of people tell me they saw the book with great excitement. But when I ask them if they bought one, they change the subject.

I have had some success. My father-in-law early on went to the bookstore every other day to buy a copy for a friend, hoping the store would think the sales spread across several days indicated consumer interest. A friend of my wife bought eight copies to give to her kids and other family members for Christmas. We need more friends like that! And there are others out there, people I don’t know, who have actually purchased copies. I get these royalty checks that are small but enough to know there are actual sales happening. That’s the best part—knowing there are people out there who I don’t even know who wanted to read my book, to share in my thoughts. I wish I knew who they are.

I hope to meet some readers next week. On Friday, Jan. 17, as part of the annual Wine about Winter event from 5-9 p.m. downtown, I will be among several local authors at The Bookman. Stop by, say hello, ask me about self-publishing. You can “see” my book.

You will also be able to actually buy it. No pressure there, though.

A collection of Tim Penning’s columns is available in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman in Grand Haven.

— By Tim Penning, Tribune community columnist



Just out of curiosity, did you ever consider or investigate self-publishing on Amazon? Obviously, your approach included local business, but was there another reason to avoid what seems to be a reasonable way to publish your own work?

Thanks for your reply if you looked into it.


Thanks for your question. As I noted briefly in the column, I did make the book available on Amazon in two ways. One, Schuler books works with them on a print-on-demand system. If someone orders a hard copy from Amazon, Schuler prints and ships a copy. This is how Amazon often works with authors and local publishers. You have to pay someone for the printing, and I preferred to patronize locally for that. E-books on Amazon and BN I did myself and those royalties are less but there are no print costs obviously.

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