Guest interview: Sandra Tayler on self-publishing

From time to time on this blog, we’ve discussed self-publishing, and from those posts you would probably know that in general I’m against it, if you’re looking to make a living as a writer. The Eragons are far outweighed by the thousands of books every year that don’t break even, I’ve argued. But I also pointed out that there are the exceptions, especially when it comes to family histories and books that already have a built-in audience. Books with local appeal also tend to fall into this category (local histories, etc.).

One of my friends, , is one of those exceptions. She knows publishing and knew that in general it’s better to go with a traditional publisher, but she wrote Hold on to Your Horses for her daughter and wanted it to be published before that daughter grew older than the picture book audience. Other factors influenced her decision, too, such as the successful family business surrounding her husband’s webcomic, Schlock Mercenary. I asked Sandra to give us her perspective on self-publishing, and here we have her answer. Notice that her answers are both personal and very business-oriented—she’s running a small publishing company, after all!—so there’s a lot to consider:

Why did you decide to self publish? What factors did you consider before going the self-publishing route?

My husband and I decided to self publish the Schlock Mercenary books because he already had a large audience. He was regularly getting emails asking for books, but we could not find a publisher to touch the project because printed collections of comic strips, available for free on the web, were too far outside their experience. We did the math on producing the books ourselves and realized that if it worked, we could keep paying our bills. If it didn’t, Howard would have to give up cartooning for another day job. We were very fortunate because there were enough people waiting to buy the books.

My book, Hold on to Your Horses, was made possible by that earlier decision to self publish the Schlock Mercenary books. It was a story that I knew my child needed and I realized that I had the means to bring it into existence. After seeing Angela Call’s amazing pictures, I did make a couple of attempts to interest publishing houses and agents. After a couple of rejections, Angela and I agreed that it was more important that the book exist as soon as possible than that it find a home with a national publisher. We knew that making that decision might mean that the book would never have wide distribution or availability. We decided to accept that risk.

What roles did you take on besides writer in the self-publishing process?

For Hold onto your Horses I did just about everything except "Artist." I functioned as an art director when I auditioned artists to take on the project. I did all the layout and page design, which caused me many tears and grief because I was trying to learn it all as I went. I can’t count the number of times it felt like I’d ruined everything. Fortunately I have a fantastic support team to rescue me. Howard was immensely helpful with image editing, as was Angela’s husband, Bill. Our printer identified some file errors to be corrected. I had to depend up on friends and associ
ates for the copy editing on the book, because I’d stared at it too much to see mistakes anymore. Once the books arrived, I had to act as warehouse manager and distributor. All the books are stored and shipped by us. I’m also the marketing director. I have to research ways to get the word out about this book because people can not just find it in bookstores. This means that I have to reach out and contact strangers over and over again. It always feels a little like begging "Please look at my book. Isn’t it pretty? Don’t you want to tell everyone about it?" The marketing feels never ending, but if I stop doing it, the book will stop selling.

I fill many of the same roles for the Schlock books, but Howard does all the writing and drawing and most of the marketing.

You had to find your own illustrator. How did you do that?

This was the part of the project where having a husband with a large daily readership was very handy. I’d posted on my blog about needing an artist and got no response. This was disappointing, but not surprising since I’d been very clear that the project might never make a profit. Howard posted it on his blog and 30 people emailed me. Only 13 actually followed through to submit an audition. That was actually the first part of the test, I needed to know if the artist could produce on a deadline. I then had to choose from the submissions. It was very hard because I really enjoyed many of the interactions I had with the various artists. I kept finding myself thinking "I hope I get to work with this one." There were many talented artists who offered their work for the project. It was hard to have to tell them no. In the end Angela’s work was stylistically best suited to the project and I’m thrilled with the pictures she produced.

How did you decide on a printer?

We’ve used two different printers for the Schlock books, both in China. The first printer was recommended to us by a friend. Their work was good, but there were a couple of small quality control issues. The printer we currently use approached Howard at a convention. We were impressed by the professionalism and quality of the work he showed to us. We’ve never regretted switching.

The original plan for Hold on to Your Horses was to use a Print on Demand publisher. Primarily I wanted the book to exist for my child. But when I saw the beautiful art that Angela created
, I knew two things; I had something really salable and that Angela deserved to get paid more money than a small POD project would provide. The advantage to POD is the small out of pocket expense. The disadvantage is lower profit per book sold. Howard and decided to take the financial risk of paying for a printing to increase the profit per book sold. This allows us to pay Angela for every book that sells whether or not the project as a whole breaks even. Hold on to Your Horses has been available for 4 months now and we’re about halfway to the break-even point.

What challenges did you run into?

One of the first challenges we faced was the question of where to put all the books. We do the Schlock books in runs of 5000 and we printed 2000 Hold on to Your Horses. We pre-sold about 1000 of each Schlock book, but that still leaves 4000 to store. Multiply that by 4 titles and it takes up a lot of space. We are fortunate that our house has an unfinished basement room that became our warehouse. By the time we printed the third book, we shifted most of the inventory over into a rented storage unit and the basement has become a shipping center. Another basement room has become my office, a third room has become Howard’s office. About a third of our house is dedicated to business tasks.

Shipping was another challenge we had to tackle. We open up pre-orders on books about a month before we expect to receive them. This means that I have to manage, track, then ship over 1000 orders. I write in detail about that starting here.

Trying to get our books available in stores is something that we are still working on. They’re all carried at, but none of the big chains have them. We’ve got consignment deals with some independent stores, but each of those deals has to be worked out individually which takes a lot of time and effort. We’ve submitted to comic distributors and national distributors, but they turned us down because they claim our books won’t sell quickly enough.

In order to make our books available, we had to set up and maintain an online store. Researching and setting it up took significant amounts of effort and time. It is also a continual expense because there are monthly fees associated with the store and with credit card processing. Fortunately we make enough to cover these expenses and the expense
of renting a storage unit.

Now that the book is out, what would you have done differently? What do you feel were your successes?

I wish I could have skipped the times when stress about book production and sales spilled over into all other aspects of my life. But I’m not sure I could have done anything differently. The truth is that I had several learning curves to hike and that process is inherently stressful. The successes are when we get an email or a comment that says, "Thank you for this book, it really helped me." We’ve gotten some of those for both the Schlock books and Hold on to Your Horses. We’re almost to the success point where we can say that we’ve sold 10,000 books. (It exhausts me to realize that I’ve supervised the shipping of that many books.) The biggest success is continuing to be able to pay all the bills. It has been a near thing more than once.

Your husband is a successful webcomic cartoonist who has published several compilation books. How do your audience and his overlap? What kinds of appearances have you both done separately and together?

There is some overlap between Howard’s audience and mine, but not very much. His audience is primarily college-age male, while Hold on to Your Horses appeals primaril
y to parents and young children. This has forced me to strike out in different directions trying to promote my book. It has actually been good because it may open up some promotional opportunities for the Schlock books as well. Howard does much of his promoting at science fiction conventions. He’s often invited as a guest of the convention. I’ve gone with him several times and that is very enjoyable. It is fun to work a table together and meet all the people who come by. It is also fun to be presenters on panels where we talk about the kinds of things that we do. In the future we’ll try to branch out into selling at book fairs and hopefully we’ll be able to arrange bookstore signings as well. But for the next year we’re scaling back on event attendance so that we can concentrate on producing more books. There just aren’t enough hours in each day to get it all done.

What is your writing schedule? How do you balance your writing with your roles as mom of four kids and jane-of-all-trades for your husband’s business?

It is kind of funny that this question comes at the end of the interview because in my life things are the other way around. I do all the mommy and house things first. Then come the business things which help pay our bills. If any time is left, then I work on my writing projects. For the past year there hasn’t been much time left over. I’m willing to let the writing lay idle for awhile because I can see that there will be more space for it in the future, particularly now that Howard has cut back on his convention attendance. The thing I have to remember is that being a writer is not my only dream. All of these things are part of my dreams. For now I do most of my writing on my blog, but occasionally I get the chance to write short fiction and I post some of it on my website.

How do people find your book? Can they read a sample online?

Both Hold on to Your Horses and the Schlock Mercenary books are available through and our online store. A free pdf of Hold on to Your Horses can be found at http://www.holdontoyourhorsescom. Schlock Mercenary can be read at

Would you recommend self-publishing to anyone else?

I think that the publishing path you choose should reflect your long term goals. If you want your books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, reviewed nationally, or to make bestseller lists, then your best option is working with a traditional publishing house. If you already have a large audience, then self-publishing is a very viable option, but choose carefully how to proceed. POD may be a better choice if you don’t want to warehouse and ship books. If you want to build a career as a professional writer, you’re probably better off with a traditional publishing house. If you have a project that you just want to exist, but don’t care if it ever makes a profit, self publishing is a great option. If you want your work read by lots of people, you’re probably better off with a traditional publishing house who will help you promote your work.

There are times I wish we could have a deal with a traditional publishing house. So much of my time is taken up with non-writing tasks. It would be nice to have a team to take care of it rather than carrying the load myself.

you, Sandra! If anyone else has any questions for Sandra, feel free to ask them here or over on her blog, .