Corinne McKay is something of a miser, so when she decided to write a book, she studied all the options before picking the one she thought would make the most money.
McKay, a freelance translator who lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her husband and 6-year-old daughter, ultimately opted to self publish. Not only that, she picked a print-on-demand publisher to minimize the upfront costs of getting a book into circulation.
It worked. Since McKay’s book, How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator, appeared in May 2006, she’s sold 2,500 copies and netted $12,000. Although modest by bestseller standards, McKay reckons it’s more than she would have made in royalties from a traditional publishing house. She also estimates that based on what she’s earned to date and how many hours she spent on the book, she doubled what she would have made using the same time to do her regular French-to-English translation work.
I asked McKay to share her self-publishing experiences with WordCount readers to shed light on the process for other freelancers who might be considering it as a new income stream to make up for newspaper and magazine work lost to the recession.
According to McKay, getting a book started was easy. The one-time high school French teacher was already teaching an online course on the subject, so course materials made up the first half of the 141-page book. To finish the rest, McKay set a goal to write something every day, even if it was just a sentence.
Picking an on-demand publisher was easy too. Once McKay crunched the numbers and decided to self publish with an on-demand service, she turned to her software-savvy husband for input. He steered her to Lulu.com, an on-demand publisher based in Morrisville, North Carolina, that handles printing and fulfillment for about 98,000 new titles a year.
Here’s how she made it happen:
How did you pick a topic?
When I looked at what I struggled with, it was running the business: how to find clients, how to write a resume when you have minimum experience but strong language skills, if you should work through an agency. There was a huge lack of info, even if you were willing to pay for it. The class had been really successful. I’ve now done 12 to 15 sessions. The capitalist in me thought, if people who don’t know me will spend $350 for an online course they’d spend $20 on a book.
How long did it take?
About 6 months. Once I decided to do it, I resolved to work on it every day. Some days when I was really busy, I did write just one sentence. Other times I’d write 10 pages in one day. You have to accept that unless you’re independently wealthy, that big block of time to write your book is never going to come. You have to set a schedule that works into what you’re already doing, whether it’s saying every Wednesday will be book day or every day from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. is book time.
How did you decide to self publish?
I’m in a freelance group called Boulder Media Women that was a great resource. I talked to people who’d been published the traditional route, done regular self publishing and print-on-demand publishing. Talking to them I realized if your book has a really targeted market you would do as well or better publishing it yourself.
Small publishers working with first-time authors expect the author to do most of the marketing. So if I’m going to be promoting this book myself would I rather get 5 or 10 percent royalties or 50 percent royalties by self publishing? Also, part of reason I’m successful is I’m a maniacal perfectionist about my work. It was hard to think about giving that up. I know people who’ve had terrible experiences with traditional publishers where they felt the manuscript they’d poured themselves into was unrecognizable. The combination of those two was a gamble I was comfortable accepting.
How did you decide on an on-demand publisher?
My husband had seen in the geek news that Bob Young, the founder of Red Hat (the open source software company), had started a print-on-demand company and he thought on-demand was the future of publishing, with zero waste, no inventory sitting around and meeting demand for books that are purchased so information doesn’t go out of date as quickly.
How did it work?
I wrote the book in OpenOffice and used a program called Lyx to create a .pdf of the book. Lyx is a free book layout program. If you use Lyx, it helps you create a copyright page, table of contents, index and chapter headings, everything that make it look like a standard book. That’s important because you have to have a standard book if you want to sell it to Amazon or Barnes and Noble or special order through bookstores. If you don’t want something that looks like a professional book, Lulu will publish that too. Anything you can upload as a .pdf they’ll publish.
What did you do for a cover?
I considered using a cover designer from Lulu but in the end my husband designed the cover. We found an illuminated manuscript that featured a story about a translator at the Yale University library that was in the public domain and got permission and used it for free.
When did you see the first copy?
If you use Lulu’s global distribution network you first order a proof copy. It’s like the best Christmas ever seeing the proof copy of your book. Once we saw it we corrected some errors, made a new .pdf file, uploaded it to Lulu and that was it.
Who determines the cover price?
With Lulu, you set pricing yourself. My book is $19.99 and if someone buys a copy from Lulu I make $10. If they buy a copy through a retail channel like Amazon, I make $4.50. Lulu handles order fulfillment. With traditional self publishing, unless you outsource order fulfillment, you’re taking books to the post office and paying for shipping. When someone buys my book from Lulu I don’t see anything but the profit. If I want to buy copies of the book to sell myself, which I do a lot, Lulu has a creator price of $5 to $7 per copy depending on what sale they have at the time. They just had a sale and I bought 100 books for $4.90 each. With a traditional self publisher you could get them cheaper but that wouldn’t cover fulfillment.
How does Lulu pay you?
I have a Lulu account that’s linked to my PayPal account. Book sales show up on my monthly Lulu account statement. Amazon sales show up in my Lulu account as a lump sum every month. Lulu has a deal with PayPal so I don’t pay commissions to PayPal on Lulu royalties. Any royalties I transfer into my business checking account or keep them on PayPal to buy stuff online.
How did you market the book?
I have not marketed the book as aggressively as I could have. I sent out press releases and review copies for the first 3 months. I do some passive marketing, my blog, Thoughts on Translation, is a soft marketing tool. I also have some affiliate deals. The American Translators Association sells it from their Website, and they sell a lot of books.
How has publishing a book helped your business?
You can’t underestimate how much having a book adds to your credibility. It’s been a great promotion for the course I teach and I’ve gotten a lot more requests for speaking engagements and interviews as an expert on business practices for freelance translators.
Any plans for second book?
I’m working on the second edition that I hope to have out in 2009. It will have a bigger focus on using Web 2.0 tools like Facebook and Twitter both as resources and for marketing. So far, the translation industry in my specialties seems unaffected by the economic downturn, Q4 was my most profitable. I’d like a forced work slowdown so I could work on the second edition without feeling guilty. I’m not going to complain, but it is hard to have my translation work volume to be high and work on the book.