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Dan Poynter’s self-publishing manual: how to write, print and sell your own book

by Geoff Hart

Poynter, D. 2006. 15th ed. Para Publishing, Santa Barbara, Calif. [ISBN 978-1-56860-134-2. 463 pages, including index. $19.95 USD (softcover).]

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2007. Book review: Dan Poynter's self-publishing manual: how to write, print and sell your own book. Technical Communication 54(3):378ñ379.

Serendipity is reviewing Dan Poynter's self-publishing manual while finalizing my own book on onscreen editing! I’ve worked in publishing for 20 years, but following established procedures with someone else paying the costs differs dramatically from flying solo. It’s reassuring to follow the lead of an expert who’s been successfully teaching authors to self-publish since 1979. Poynter reassured me that I still know what I’m doing, and taught me many things I’d forgotten or never learned.

The Manual begins with a pep talk and explains why to avoid commercial publishers, vanity publishers, and print-on-demand (POD) publishers, yet offers good advice on dealing with them when we must. Many publishers delegate too much of the work to authors, including editing, indexing, and promotion, and then strip us of control over the book and of our copyright. STC members can probably do the job as well as most publishers—possibly better—so why not work for ourselves? Chapter 3 provides sound advice on becoming a publisher, whether you’ll publish only one book or reinvent yourself as a publishing company. It includes detailed discussions of record-keeping, accounting, obtaining funding, and getting paid, plus a disheartening discussion of the supply chain and the hassles involved in working with distributors and bookstores.

Chapter 4 provides an updated discussion of printing, from designing your book through estimating print runs and printing costs. There’s good advice on paper and cover selection, binding, and book production, plus a clear distinction between POD and vanity publishers (who offer minor promotion and distribution services) and POD or “print quantity needed” printers (who only manufacture books). Poynter provides excellent request for quotation (RFQ) samples you can use to obtain quotes from printers, but provides insufficient details on “proofs”: laser-printed proofs are common, particularly in digital printing, but for books printed using signatures (multiple pages per sheet of paper), blueline proofs or press proofs are essential to ensure proper assembly of the book, and color-keys or chromalins are essential for ensuring correct color.

Chapter 5 provides complete details on getting the word out, including which catalogues and listing services should list your book to bring it to the attention of large buyers. Unfortunately, this section reveals the book’s primarily American focus, with only occasional nods to Canadian and overseas authors (possibly because Poynter sells separate books for authors in both markets—a good example of cross-selling). Chapter 7 provides superb advice on promotion. It’s also an excellent example of audience analysis: who are you trying to reach, where can you reach them, and how can you persuade them? We should all do this kind of analysis of readers, buyers, distributors, and niches (for example, specialty stores) in our day jobs as technical communicators. Even if you aren’t self-publishing, most publishers can’t or won’t do this work for you—this chapter demonstrates why—so you’ll benefit from doing it yourself. Chapter 10 provides clear, thorough, well-justified details on every possible aspect of getting books into the reader’s hands—plus alternatives such as fulfillment services if you can’t do the work yourself.

The book provides thorough advice on where to find information to supplement the sometimes overly basic material: copious Web site and other references, including a 23-page appendix listing both free and paid resources, including the author’s other books. The details involved in publishing can seem overwhelming, but Poynter guides us through the details with templates, checklists, an excellent summary chart, and a full timeline plus checklist (Appendix 1). Nowadays, no list of resources is ever fully up to date, but Poynter’s information is current enough to explain even the recent change in ISBN numbers.

Omissions? There’s little discussion of software—something that would, admittedly, require a separate book. Chapter 2’s writing and typographic advice is possibly unnecessary and too superficial for STC members, but a good refresher for others. Similarly, some advice on production costs will be superfluous to STC members who know desktop publishing and pre-press, and can handle these aspects of production without the help of a contractor. The discussion of online publishing is inadequate, containing only a brief mention of the main e-book formats. Poynter has written another book on e-books, but more detail would have been welcome here.

A bigger problem lies in advice that covers the basics but misses key details. For example, the advice on halftones and color printing makes working with both seem easier than it really is. These aspects of publishing require more expertise than this book can provide. The discussion of copyright is similarly superficial, with no clear explanation of why to register and not enough detail on photograph and illustration copyrights; such omissions might lead authors down risky paths. Similarly, Poynter’s sample contracts cover the essentials, but he doesn’t warn that contracts are legal documents, that modifying them may invalidate some clauses, or that some clauses must be rewritten to account for jurisdictional differences. He advises consulting an expert when choosing a business structure; the same advice would be appropriate for contracts. Lastly, I found main topics easily enough, but the index provides no subheads and too few synonyms.

Despite these nits, Poynter’s book is an excellent resource—a “quick read, long think” book. You'll need to supplement some information with research and ponder how to implement his advice, but at least you'll be starting from a sound starting point. Book publishing is a bewildering and intimidating business, but once you get past the intimidation factor, you’ll find this book a reliable guide through the process.

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