I love poking around in “antique” stores. I was doing just that in a giant, barnlike structure in Southern Virginia. I asked the proprietor if he had any books. “We’ve got lots of books upstairs,” he told me.
I thought he meant “lots of different books,” but I was wrong. Upstairs in that giant antique barn there were thousands of books, but they were all the same. Shrink-wrapped books on shrink-wrapped pallets covered the floor from wall to wall.
I pried a book off one of the pallets. The copyright date was in the 1980s. The book was an unremarkable story about how to be successful in life. I figured that I knew the story of the pallets at a glance.
The author decided either that he had a wonderful and unique story to tell or that he could make a lot of money by writing a book about how to be successful. He may have tried to sell his manuscript to a traditional publisher. In the end, he decided to publish the book himself.
That took a lot of money in the 1980s, surely five figures worth. So our hero plunked down the money and soon enough a truck showed up at his door, filled with shrink-wrapped pallets of shrink-wrapped books. There were too many for the garage.
He had to arrange for storage. I found out later that was how the books wound up on the second floor of the antiques barn. The proprietor had been charging the author storage fees for more than twenty years.
The author also had to arrange for distribution. It wasn’t easy then, especially if you weren’t a “real publisher.” So, probably, he sold some books to his family and friends, gave some away as Christmas presents, and wound up writing everything off.
The fellow at the antique barn gave the author credit against storage fees for every book sold through his shop. I asked how many the store had sold. The owner nodded at the book in my hand.
“You going to buy that one?” he asked. I said “no.”
“That would have made five, I think.”
It’s easier and less expensive today than it was thirty years ago. But the basics haven’t changed.
You still have to write a good book, one that people will want to buy and read. And, you have to sell it. Books don’t sell themselves.
The basics of what it takes to make a book project succeed haven’t changed. The barriers to entry are lower than they were and so are the costs, but you still have to write a good book and figure out how to make money from it.