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My Adventure in Self-Publishing: How You Can Take Advantage of Today’s On-Demand Publishing Tools, Too

by John J. Miller
December 01, 2009

The original plan for my novel The First Assassin involved a high-stakes bidding war among major publishers, a million-copy laydown during the autumn book-buying season, a lavish promotional tour, a record-breaking movie rights deal, and a theme park ride in Florida.

It didn’t work out that way.

For a while, in fact, it looked like The First Assassin would languish in the dark recesses of my filing cabinet. Although I’ve sold non-fiction books to the likes of Doubleday and HarperCollins, my historical thriller found no takers. First-time novelists always run into a towering wall of skepticism, my agent told me. What’s more, the book industry’s sales were sluggish well before the economy tanked. Nobody was in the mood to take risks. So I was out of luck.

Except that I wasn’t—and my experience may hold lessons for think tanks and other organizations that release books and monographs from time to time.

As national correspondent for National Review, plus a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and other publications, I’ve spent my career writing for wide audiences. The First Assassin is intended for my widest audience yet. Set in 1861, it tells the story of a mysterious hitman who has been hired to murder Abraham Lincoln at the start of the Civil War. Most of the action takes place in Washington, D.C., though other locations figure in as well. The hero is an Army colonel who is in charge of presidential security. He is a Union man but not a Lincoln man—he didn’t vote for the guy whose life he must protect. The action unfolds as Lincoln takes the oath of office and Fort Sumter falls.

Bestselling novelist Vince Flynn praises The First Assassin in a cover blurb: “An excellent book—it’s like The Day of the Jackal set in 1861 Washington.”

Does this sound like a book that should succeed commercially? That’s what I thought, too, which is why I spent years researching and writing The First Assassin. I’ve never written anything that a good editor couldn’t help improve, but I was confident in my manuscript and disappointed in my failure to find a publisher.

So I decided to self-publish. It wasn’t an easy decision. Until recently, my mental image of self-publishing was of a market that depended on little old ladies who write bad poetry that nobody wants to read. This probably isn’t fair to many of the people who actually have self-published over the years, but that was how I viewed it.

Whatever the reality in the past, the reality today is far different. A number of companies and online tools make it possible for anyone to become a publisher—and to produce a high-quality product at an affordable rate and with a good chance for profits. I partnered with CreateSpace.com, a subsidiary of Amazon.com. It offers a print-on-demand service. Clients upload their files, make a few choices about appearance and price, and put their work on sale. When customers buy copies, on Amazon.com or elsewhere, CreateSpace.com prints and mails them.

This was the other image I had of self-publishing: boxes of unwanted books sitting in garages because their authors had failed to sell them. I’ve experienced something like this in the past. When I worked at a couple of think tanks in the 1990s, we occasionally issued monographs. It was always a challenge to anticipate demand and figure out how many to produce. Sometimes we printed more than was necessary and our office closets became miniature book warehouses. Other times, we didn’t print enough, but the cost of a second printing was prohibitive.

Self-publishing through CreateSpace.com or one of its print-on-demand competitors offers an excellent solution. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned:

The cost is inexpensive. After a few small start-up costs—for The First Assassin, it was less than $100—you can be ready to roll the presses. There are, of course, other investments. It takes time to write a book or a monograph. You may want to hire a professional (as I did) to design the cover and the interior. Once the product is finished and all that’s left is to reproduce it, however, print-on-demand publishing is surprisingly affordable.

The product is high quality. For The First Assassin, I was determined not to have a book that appeared homemade. I wanted it to look like a book that belongs on the front table at Barnes & Noble or Borders. In self-publishing, this is entirely possible. If you do the right kind of work on your end, a print-on-demand publisher can deliver a handsome volume.

The distribution is easy. I hoped to make it possible for anybody who wants a copy of The First Assassin to obtain one online. With CreateSpace.com, I was able to have my book on sale quickly. It’s available on Amazon.com plus a special CreateSpace.com e-store. When customers buy through the e-store, I make a higher royalty, but most prefer the familiarity and convenience of Amazon.com. I make a royalty there as well, just not as much. The loss of revenue is worth it because Amazon.com’s popularity and reach is unparalleled. Finally, print-on-demand does not involve unbearably long delivery times. Buyers of The First Assassin have told me that their copies arrive just a few days after purchase.

The publicity is up to you. As any serious public policy organization knows, the production of a great idea is only half the battle. There’s also the marketing. A self-published book is also a self-marketed book. For an individual author, this can present daunting challenges. With The First Assassin, I’ve had the benefit of National Review Online and its built-in readership, plus several other venues. For a group with a communications staff, the test is fundamentally the same, but at least there are people whose very job calls for them to get your product mentioned in newspapers and on blogs.

Is self-publishing the best choice for a think tank? That’s a decision organizations will have to make on their own. But it’s definitely more of a choice than it used to be—and one that organizations should consider when they debate the best ways to put their ideas in front of readers.


Mr. Miller is national correspondent for National Review and the author of The First Assassin.
His personal Web site is www.HeyMiller.com.

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