Book (of) Business

Let’s be clear up front, digital short-run, on demand book publishing is the epitome of a niche application. Your company may do very well printing manuals and brochures, but honest to goodness books are a completely different discipline. Printers wanting to tap this potentially lucrative market must be willing to dedicate time, resources, and long hours to developing it.

Just ask Mike Bercaw, vice president operations and co-owner (with his wife Sheri) of Sir Speedy Printing Scottsdale (AZ). The Bercaws got involved in printing books five years ago after attending a presentation by Dan Poynter, author of “Self Publishing Manual.” After listening to Poynter, the couple turned to each other and said, “We already do all this. We just don’t call it book manufacturing...we call it a copy job.”

A simplified approach can work quite well for short-run digital book printing on a small scale. Bercaw lines out minimum equipment requirements as a strong color engine and black-and-white engine, that will produce a sheet size of no less than 12x18". For bindery, almost anything that you don’t have in-house can be outsourced. The tricky part, he says, is the perfect binding.

Sir Speedy Scottsdale runs a pair of Canon imageRUNNER 110s, a Kodak NexPress 2100 with a glosser unit, two Canon C7000s, a Ryobi 3304 press (for book covers), and a UV coater. The shop also has a full array of bindery equipment, including a perfect binder.

Bercaw says that, without reservation, printing the books is the easiest part of the equation. Finding, pursuing, training, and maintaining the customers—that’s the real challenge printers face.

What Self-Publishers Need

Cultivating self-publishers as a niche market requires a business model that understands and can fulfill the unique needs of book authors. “We took what self-publishers are looking for—in effect, more of an information gathering, coaching kind of environment,” Bercaw relates. “We put together an entire series of classes. For two years, what we did was build a book of business with folks that were looking for this kind of thing.”

Eventually, he says, they split the market even further, according to whether the client viewed self-publishing as a hobby or a business. “Folks who really wanted to make a mark and have this as a career, we helped them set up business plans, marketing plans, budgets, and all of that.

“The first question is typically, ‘Is this hobby or a business? There is no right or wrong answer, but let’s figure out what you are trying to do and then we can model to you, specifically, how this can work.’ The business guys, are going to need some marketing aspects. They’re going to need some help in distribution and fulfillment. For the hobbists? Let’s do 100 and see what happens and then go from there.”

“For the business guys, the genre that is most prevalent right now is self-help and spiritual, that kind of stuff. There is a whole different kind of a mindset with those guys. In the beginning, with the business guys it’s usually, ‘What are we going to do with this? Who is your target?’ We’re going to ask the whole host of what would be considered marketing questions.”

According to Bercaw, there is rarely a crossover once a customer decides which way they want to handle their books. However, he points out that it is far more common for a hobbyist to turn publishing into a business than the other way around. If they see that their work is gaining some traction and popularity, they may decide to take it to the next level. On the other hand, those who decide from the beginning to tackle publishing as a business are not likely to step down and turn a profession into a hobby. “It’s a business decision,” he observes. “Is there profitability? Is it still loss leadering for something else? A few guys have used their manuscripts for launching in to public speaking and such. But for the most part, it is usually a single direction from hobbyist to business instead of the other way around.”

Marketing Matters

One of the main services printers need to offer to their short-run digital book customers is help with marketing. To that end, Bercaw advises his customers to look for associations within their profession which they can readily join.

“For example, a guy wrote a book on a completely vegan diet. He’s a DO, a doctor of osteopathy, and also a doctor of chiropractics, so he’s a part of these different associations. Secondarily, who’s your target market? Who are the ones who are going to benefit from this manuscript? Then marry the two of those together.

“If you aren’t a part of any professional associations, look for them. They’re out there. From there, you can glean, just like you would from a Chamber of Commerce, a whole mailing list,” he states. “You look for bookstores—independents, in particular, that specialize or have a leaning towards this kind of material. Hey, these days, Google it!”

He concludes, “The critical question for these guys is, ‘Who is the one that will pick this up and buy it?’ Then work it from there.”

Where’s Waldo?

Of course, before you can begin providing all these services and marketing answers to self-publishing authors, you have to find them.

One that made this niche a natural for Sir Speedy Scottsdale is its location, which puts it squarely in the heart of the self-publishing movement. Arizona has the second largest population of self-publishing authors in the country. Only Florida has a larger pool from which to draw. The reason for these concentrations, of course, is the number of retired people in those two states. “So we have a target-rich environment,” Bercaw observes.

However, even if your company is not situated in one of those ideal states, there are potential clients all over the country. Bercaw recommends locating and getting involved in your local writer and publisher associations. “Contact them. Ask for permission to attend,” he urges. “Sit back, say nothing unless specifically spoken to—from there, it’s just a matter of word of mouth.”

That involvement takes time to cultivate and Bercaw suggests volunteering and truly becoming active in the groups. Over the years, he says, he has sat on the boards of a number of these associations. In the beginning, he personally made the contacts, but now he has reached a point where he has been able to turn the activities over to members of the company’s sales staff.

Working with authors and publishers is different from working with other small business owners or corporate representatives. Their concerns are quite personal and they are extremely serious about what they are doing. “They are a very closed group, a very tight knit group, they are a very loyal group. But once you have gotten into the inner sanctum, there is an immense amount of work to be done.”

Another resource Bercaw recommends to printers in other parts of the country is Dan Poynter, whose website ( is a primary resource for self-publishers. When the Bercaws were first getting started in this niche, Poynter visited their shop to evaluate its equipment and operation. After giving the company his approval, he listed it on his website’s index as a production house.

That listing is an ongoing source of potential clients, Bercaw says, and Poynter’s endorsement can be an invaluable asset to any printer hoping to pursue digital short-run book publishing. “In times like we’re in right now, there are fewer shotgun blasts; fewer RFQs (request for quotes) going out,” he observes.

He makes the point that it is better to fill out the RFQs only for customers who are within a two to three day UPS freight transit time. Beyond that, he cautions, the freight costs become a deal breaker. “There are still local shops around that can do a very good job, even if they have to broker one or two components of it,” he says.

“Typically, what we will do is, those that are within arm’s reach, along with the book price we’ll also quote out some fulfillment for them. So that if you want to manufacture 100 books; not a problem. We’ll pop it on a shelf here. Tell us where you want it to go—you don’t have to worry about licking stamps—and we’ll take care of the shipping for you as well. And that’s worked pretty well.”

The Loyalty Factor

Despite their fealty toward one another, self-publishing authors are no more loyal to their printers than any other customer. “When the times are good, nobody cares,” Bercaw states. “When the times are tough like they are right now, they’re going to shop all over the place.” Price shopping customers, however, should not dictate pricing. Like the original Saturn policy, Bercaws says, “what’s on the sticker, is the price. There’s no haggling. We drive it down as far as we can to save them a nickel and make a nickel.”

He amends that statement by adding that the business types are more price conscious. “The hobbyists want somebody to take care of all the problems. So with the loyalty aspect, there’s still price sensitivity, but they really need somebody to formulate everything. They want the cover designs put together for them. They want the interior stylizing done for them. They want you to do the things they don’t really want to look around and figure out how to do. Now those, for the most part, are relatively smaller dollar amounts than the other guys. They are less likely to shop us than the business guys would be, but the business guys can be very difficult.”

One of the ways to combat the price shoppers is by making them aware of the benefits that only a local printer can offer. Becaw points out that it may take them awhile to “figure out what’s really being done by Lightning Source, or Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.”

A local printer can offer the convenience of delivering books in less than a week. That could be a crucial point if a last minute opportunity arises for a book signing. “If the other houses are not going to fulfill for you, there’s no way you’re going to get the product in less than four to five weeks. It’s impossible,” he points out. Therefore, the advantage of doing business with a local printer who has virtually everything the customer needs in-house becomes a huge selling point.

For those who want to get started in this type of work, Bercaw has some simple advice. “Pick up a book off the shelf and quote it. Find out where the strengths and weaknesses are in the shop. Where you have the weakness, find your partners. Then find out how you can differentiate between the powerhouses and your company.”

“For the guys that have titles, that are looking for something a little more robust, how is the shop set up for fulfillment? You don’t want to take six skids, but you can certainly handle six cartons. From there, just like I tell my authors, what does your business plan look like?”