I do all of my own book design, writing, photography, and layout. When I'm done, I simply give a pdf file to the printer, who produces the book. This was basically not possible for a single person to do until recently. Years ago, with my last McGraw-Hill book, I had to jump through all sorts of hoops to get the pdf just like they wanted it, and it was only a black & white book. Now, I just export a Press Quality pdf from InDesign and do nothing special to it. I don't know if the pdf format has gotten better, or whether my current printer is simply better than the one McGraw-Hill used. But in any case, it's much easier with my current setup.
I write the text of my book in InDesign. The "proper" way is to write in Word or Pages, then flow the text into InDesign, but that assumes that the author is writing the book and someone else is laying it out. If you're doing both, then it's much more efficient to be designing the page layout and writing at the same time because composing the fusion of text and graphics as you write produces a much better result, IMO.
Cover images technically are supposed to be of higher quality, but I do all my images at 600 dpi anyway, so it's all the same to me. Getting a good cover when you're with a major publisher can be a battle. I had to reject the first several cover designs McGraw-Hill did for my early books, finally telling them "I'm going to design it myself." This highlights a point that permeates the conventional publishing system: a publisher typically has a somewhat different vision of the book than the author, and it can end up creating a huge head-butting experience along the way. Part of the problem is the financial pressure the publisher is under, so they're always looking to do things that downgrade the quality of the book, in addition to diluting the author's vision.
Paper & Printing
One place they're notorious for "cheaping out" is on paper and printing quality. My McGraw-Hill books had high-quality paperback covers, but the paper inside wasn't much better than newsprint, and the ink rendered the images muddy at best... I've always been very disappointed with the print quality, and color has always been out of the question. But when I started publishing my own books, I was able to use a much higher quality of paper that feels like silk rather than sandpaper. And every book I've published has been full color. And the quality is excellent, matching the original digital image essentially dead-on.
Getting rights to a single image shot by someone else can be such a headache that I simply shoot everything I'm going to use myself. Not only do you not have to worry about the rights, but you won't waste a lot of time looking for just the right image that someone else has shot. Instead, if you're a good photographer, you can simply go out and shoot precisely what you're looking for.
Amazon is our primary retail storefront. They have a well-respected storefront engine that's very familiar to most people. How many people do you know that have never ordered from Amazon? Trust is a big thing when you're asking someone for their credit card number. And chances are, you've already given your credit card number to Amazon, so that's one threshold your customers don't have to get over. There are a number of ways of dealing with Amazon. For years, we've been been at the lowest level, which is a regular Seller Account. It's relatively inexpensive (they take a much smaller slice than a typical bookstore discount (40%) or wholesaler discount (50-55%.) Amazon has other programs that give you some advantages, but then they want a wholesaler discount in exchange, so we've always stayed at the lowest level. There are issues, of course. As you can see in my recent post on winning the Buy Box, you're definitely a second-class citizen if you're a lowly seller. And they once tried to hijack the Original Green book, but a blogging campaign apparently persuaded them to relent.
Fulfillment by Amazon
We've recently upgraded to Fulfillment by Amazon. Now, instead of us getting a fixed stipend to ship each book, we just ship cases to Amazon and they ship them to the customers. It's a bit of an advantage when a customer sees the Fulfillment by Amazon label, because they have a level of trust for them that they don't for a bookseller they haven't dealt with before. Also, it takes the risk out for us because when we fulfill, our shipping cost is often more than what Amazon allows us, whereas when they ship, we're out of that loop. Also, it dramatically reduces our time because we do big shipments occasionally rather than small shipments every day. One more thing... we spent a fair amount of money on packaging, a cost that is eliminated when we do Fulfillment by Amazon since they provide their own shipping material. So it definitely saves us money, even once you count what they charge to ship, and also to store the books. One more thing... we can leave the office for several days without worrying about getting book orders out since we're not shipping to the customers anymore.
Amazon requires you to have an ISBN number for every publication, but you need one for many other reasons, too. Just do it. Problem is, they can be expensive. There are big discounts for buying in bulk. I spent over two thousand dollars several years ago to buy 100 ISBN numbers because I knew I would be using a lot of them over time. I think mine worked out to about $25 apiece. But if you buy them one at a time, they're closer to $100, if memory serves me correctly. There are third-party ISBN merchants out there, but you're far better off for a number of reasons to go directly to the source: Bowker is the authorized source for ISBNs... here's their FAQ on getting an ISBN. When you get ready to publish a book, you'll need to go to BowkerLINK to set up your publisher account and then register your book.
ISBN numbers get communicated via a bar code located somewhere on your book. I always put it on the back cover at the bottom. You'll need software to create the bar codes. You can pay websites to create each one. That's OK if you're only doing one book, but if you'll eventually do more than one, you're better off getting the software. I use Easy Barcode Creator. It's simple, intuitive, and does everything you need. It outputs the barcode as either EPS, TIFF, Illustrator, or Photoshop. And it's relatively cheap ($128, as I'm writing this.) Mac or Windows.
Amazon Listing Process
Once you've set up your seller account and have your ISBN number, you'll need to list your product. It's not so difficult... go to Seller Central. Under Manage Your Inventory, there's a Create a Product Detail Page button. Once you get there, most of the info is pretty self-explanatory. Make sure you fill out all the BISAC Subject Codes. Here are the major categories of BISAC codes. Click on categories for the actual codes within them. Also, make sure you use all the keywords... it'll make your listing more searchable. Once you've created the Product Detail Page, you're halfway there. Next, go back to Seller Central and click List Single Items. This is where you'll select the Product you've just created and list it for sale in your store. You can set the price at whatever you like.
I've looked into wholesalers in the past, and am about to do it again. The big boys like Ingram don't talk to publishers with fewer than 10 books, but now, if you count the Guild Foundation Press imprint on McGraw-Hill's Traditional Construction Patterns, that makes 10 for me now. They've said to go ahead and submit an application, so I'm about to do that. There are other smaller distributors, however... it's just that most bookstores have connections with the big ones. I'll report back later on what happens with Ingram.
I'm refining our pitch to individual bookstores. We pitched about 30 indies with A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas] and had a few of them pick it up. We've had far more sales with Books & Books, Miami's best indie, than any other store. They took 50 of the Original Green, for example... so definitely talk to your hometown indie bookstores first. If I figure out some silver bullets with bookstores in general, I'll post them as I learn them.
I've done a very strange thing with the images in the Original Green: I've posted every single one of them, in full resolution exactly like they're in the book, on my Zenfolio site. For $0.99 or $3.99, depending on the image, you can download any of them that are useful. Why? I'm trying to make the book part of a network of resources, where each node of the network feeds the others.