Compiled by Bill Hillman


Writer's Digest - May 1937

Sir; profession does not seem so thrilling as it did eighty or ninety years ago. It is even difficult for me to recreate that moment of cosmic import when I first saw a story of mine in print, for me, put the s in cosmic.

...recently I saw in Durling's column in the Los Angeles Times a statement to the effect that an author could publish his own book for five hundred dollars. He doesn't explain just what sort of book; but it is natural to assume that ordinarily the sort of book an author would care to publish would be one that he could sell for profit, and to me that means a novel length at least.

Let's see how it works out, taking one of my books for example. Before we even start printing a book we have to have the following: Plates for front matter: that is Copyright page, Title page, etc.; plates for text matter; plates for jacket flap ads and blurb; original color plates; electros for color plates; halftone plates for illustrations; stamping dies for the jacket and drawings for the illustrations.

Now remember, we haven't bought any text paper yet; we haven't bought the binding cloth and boards; we haven't bought the stock for the jackets; we haven't printed anything; we haven't inserted the illustrations; we haven't bound the book; we haven't cellotexed or varnished the jackets, whichever we intend doing; we haven't bought plate boxes; we haven't even paid for author's alterations yet. But we have spent $1056.00

My books are printed and bound in one of the largest plants in the country; and I know that their prices are right, because we have had quotations form other large, well-equipped plants which have solicited our business; so if Mr. Durling will publish my books for five hundred dollars, he has a customer.

Of course there are other things beside price which influence our selection of a printer; quality of work and pleasant business relations are of first importance, and the Kingsport Press of Kingsport, Tennessee, affords us both in the highest degree. Of course, I know it would be pleasant to work with Mr. Durling; but could he make side-walk deliveries in New York and Chicago?

The question naturally arises as to why any author, unless he were faced with a problem similar to mine, should wish to publish his own books. It requires an office force, a sales force, and a great deal of time and thought that might better be devoted to writing. The reason usually ascribed is inability to find a publisher willing to take the chance, coupled with a desire to see oneself in print. I know that urge -- we've all had it; but it's a very expensive one to gratify unless you are mighty sure of your market.

It may be of interest to know how we distribute our books. We publish only my own and only two of those a year; so it would not pay us to try to cover the country ourselves. Therefore we have only four salesmen. These hit the high spots, and we depend upon jobbers for general distribution -- American News, Baker & Taylor, A. C. McClurg & Co., Blackwell-Weilandy, J. K. Gill Co. There are, of course, many dealers who mail their orders direct to us at Tarzana and to our New York office.

Our deliveries west of the Rockies are made from Tarzana, and through an arrangement with The American Booksellers' Association we have warehouse and shipping facilities in New York City.

Any writer contemplating publishing his own book may gather from the little I have written that it is, after all, quite a business. Getting the book printed and bound as you wish it is quite a job in itself, but it is nothing compared with selling it. You probably have in your mind the eager public that is impatiently waiting to plunk down anywhere from $2 to $3.50 for a copy of your book that you know is a potential bestseller, but they are not the people you have to sell. No sir! You have to sell a few thousand keen, hardboiled buyers for retail stores who already have some forty thousand books on their shelves that they can't sell.

Advertising a book is simple. We make a definite appropriation for each book, and turn the job over to an advertising agency in New York City that specializes in book advertising. They submit a campaign; and after we approve it, they attend to everything.

Work on the publishing of a book starts many months before publishing date. Because we are in a position to do so, we begin possibly earlier than is absolutely necessary; but we have found that it saves a great many last-minute headaches, ensures more satisfactory results and the prompt meeting of delivery commitments of publication date. Our fall book is always scheduled for September 1st publication; and we have already gotten that underway, in March. The first step is to turn the manuscript over to the artist, and after he has read it we discuss jacket and text illustrations; he then submits rough pencil sketches for approval. The jacket it he first thing we need, as we must have it long before publication date for advertising purposes and as wrappers for dummies used by salesmen.

Similarly, we get the manuscript into the hands of the printers very early, permitting them to run the work in at their convenience. They would rather hold the metal and even the bound books for a while before billing than have a rush job at the last minute; for, as any printer will tell you, most printing jobs are rush jobs.

The selection of an artist has not been a matter of great difficulty in our case. J. Allen St. John has been illustrating my stories for a quarter of a century. I consider him one of the greatest illustrators in the United States, and he is as fine as a man as he is as an artist.

My current book, "The Oakdale Affair" and "The Rider", was illustrated by my son, John. He is a young artist only recently out of college; and because he is just starting his career and, of course, because of the fact that he is my son I gave him the commission; but his work would have been turned down had it not been satisfactory. I will say this for him: I think he did a swell job on a very tough assignment. If you will look at the jacket next time you are in a book store you will see what I mean. There are two novels in one book, and he had to portray both in the same small area for a front cover.

The jacket illustrations for my books give me a highly localized pain, no matter who paints them. I do not like t hem, but as their purpose is to sell books I have had to defer to the judgement of our salesmen and the buyers for jobbers and retailers. J. Allen St. John and I worked out three cover designs that thought dignified and beautiful, and we still think so. But Man Mountain Dean never sat on anyone harder than the salesmen and buyers sat on our lovely jackets for "Pirates of Venus", "Lost on Venus", and "Tarzan and the Lion Man".

Why do I publish my own books? The answer is simple: it is more profitable.

The bulk of my royalties derive from the seventy-five cent so-called popular copyright or reprint editions. A publisher demands 50% of these. By publishing my own books I get all of them. This condition might not obtain with all writers, especially those whose books were concerned with contemporary problems, manners, and affairs. The nature of my stories is such that they all remained in print for twenty years; and as they were ordinarily in the high priced editions for only about a year, I was unnecessarily splitting the bulk of my income with the publisher, who, after the first year, had nothing at all to do with the publishing, exploitation, and sale of the books -- he merely received royalty checks twice a year and sent me this check for half.

Since I have been publishing my own books I have learned several things that I should like to pass on to young writers and to older ones too.

I believe that my greed for higher royalties killed the very large sales of my $2 editions that I formerly had. I realize now the very small margin of profit in book publishing, and I can see that the very large royalty that I was finally getting left practically no margin of profit for the publisher so that he had to depend on the popular copyright sales for his profit. Naturally, he must have lost interest in exploiting the original editions. Had I been satisfied with half the royalty, he would have had plenty of money with which to advertise my books and still had enough for a substantial profit. This would have resulted in a much larger sale of original editions, probably a larger gross royalty to me, and a bigger popular copyright sale; for it is a fact that large sales of the higher-priced editions of books stimulate the sale of reprints.

It would have been better all around; and I wouldn't have had to publish my own books; but after all I don't know that I regret it, for it has been a lot of fun.



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