Self-Publishing Your Automotive Book

By Louis F. Fourie


When I joined SAH one of the benefits I hoped to derive was guidance getting my book published.  In the distant past SAH was involved in publishing but that program did not last long.  There have been articles in the SAH Journal that focus on aspects of publishing and the SAHJ Index has grouped such articles together.

The publishing and book distribution landscape has evolved rapidly in the recent past and what may have worked before is likely totally outdated today.  Fortunately there are a few publishing houses that focus on automotive subjects but they are vastly reduced from the numbers in the past.  What has filled the gap is self-publishing and that is the subject of this article.

If you expect to get rich as an author from publishing an automotive book, stop right now.  That is not to say that some SAH authors have been most successful, but I can assure you these few legends will not be using this article to guide their future endeavours. If your book project is a labor of love, something that you are passionate about and you are fortified by determination, hopefully this article will be of some value.

Remember as well that this “Members Only Library” welcomes unpublished material from those of you who chose not to pursue the self-publishing route.

Many researchers, historians and enthusiasts need to be cautious and recognize that gathering all the information does not always mean that there is a demand for your research.  We may enjoy the hunt but are people interested in what we have captured?  Know your audience or at least attempt to cater to their needs.

Publishing Houses

Before venturing into self-publishing, the following are publishing houses that specialize in automotive books:

  • Coterie Press
  • Dalton Watson Fine Books
  • McFarland and Company
  • Motorbooks
  • Racemaker Press
  • Veloce Publishing

The advantages of using a publisher are that your role is to furnish a draft and likely permissions to use any quotes and images.  The publisher handles the editing, cover design, printing, promoting, distribution and most of the business risks.  In most cases the author gives up their copyright to their writing but receive royalties for all sales.

Publishers usually have a pretty good idea what material or topic captures the interest of the book buying public.  Much as some historians wish to document the history of some obscure make for posterity purposes, there may not be a demand other than a few libraries.  Books that do sell cover prestigious brands, motor sport and cars that have a strong collector following.

Many universities have contacts to help the publishing of academic books.  This article will not venture into this area because anyone contemplating such a route would likely be in academia and should be guided by the appropriate faculty.

Some Background on My Attempts

In anticipation of General Motors celebrating their centenary in 2008, I took on the task of researching GM Overseas Operations on the assumption that nobody else would be willing to undertake such a task.  It was my expectation that a well-established author would handle the GM North American history.  In the end GM was facing its own end and had limited resources to spend on such a celebration.

Early attempts to find a North American publisher were rebuffed because of the lack of American content.  So I decided to incorporate US specification tables.  Unfortunately these and other specification tables intimidated McFarland Publishing who otherwise seriously considered my project.

Ultimately I signed a publishing agreement with SAE International (Society of Automotive Engineers) for an eBook.  Unfortunately it took a lengthy time to gain permission from GM to use its media images and during this period SAE International discovered that car buffs do not read eBooks, so the contract evaporated.  In spite of the disappointment the preparation for publishing was a worthwhile experience, particularly the challenges of gaining appropriate permissions.  It became obvious to me the self-publishing was my only alternative.

Being a three-volume, 1570 page book of which over 300 pages were complex tables as well as over 1300 images, this was a challenging project that most publishers would avoid or heavily modify.  Self-publishing gave me an element of control that I otherwise would not have had.

The Pitfalls of Self-publishing

The characteristic of self-publishing houses is that you pay a fixed non-refundable fee upfront which then subjects you to being tied to whatever editing, layout, cover design, printing and any other incidental fees that may be imposed.  Even if some of these services are included in the upfront fee, there may be hidden costs for anything other than the first review or the most basic services.  There are frequent attempts to upsell additional services.  This is a scenario where the self-publisher is in the driver’s seat, not you.

Can You Bypass the Self-publisher and Go Straight To the Printer?

It was my intention to go straight to the printers without the services of a self-publisher.  To be able to do this I would need to complete the manuscript, do the layouts, have it all edited and finally be able to determine a page count.  The final task would be to create a PDF file to hand to the printer. 

Fortunately I had already found an editor.  There was no point in inserting any images or tables until the editing was complete.  I bought software to do the layout and insertion of numerous images and tables.  Finally I had a page count and was ready to furnish a PDF file to a printer.  Unfortunately printing cost estimates were far higher than I had anticipated even when using a printing broker. 


When exploring and evaluating printing alternatives I discovered FriesenPress who offered printing on a print-on-a-demand basis with costs far less than a bulk printing order from other sources.  The problem was that they also operated as a self-publisher and required an up-front cost of $1,599 per volume for their most basic package.  However, if I amortized this cost over 100 books and added it to the actual printing costs per book, the combined cost was just under the best quote I had found for bulk printing.

The big advantage was that there was no need to face the risks of a bulk printing and distributing the books yourself.  The self-publishing services offered in the basic package were as follows:

  • Preliminary edit, which was mainly undertaken to determine the quality of the manuscript and ensure that there was no controversial subject matter.  There was also the hidden motive of requiring further editing at additional charge.  Fortunately I passed with flying colors thanks to my editor.
  • The cover design was part of the package and no doubt was of value but any form of quality control was nonexistent.
  • The registration with the Library of Congress and securing the ISBN numbers was included, both in printed form and as an e-book.
  • Part of the service included access to established distribution channels around the world, free for the first two years but with an annual fee thereafter.

In the end I discovered the printing and distribution was subcontracted to IngramSpark who have presses in the US, UK and Australia but for some reason my book could not be printed in Australia.  It soon became apparent that I could have used IngramSpark for both the print-on-demand and distribution at a fraction of the cost incurred with FriesenPress.

Factors to Consider

  • Do not underestimate the time and complexity of securing permission to use quotes and images.  Begin this task as early as possible.  This consumed an excruciatingly frustrating intense eight months.
  • Remember the “members only” section of the SAH website offers over 6,000 images available for members to use in their publications with simple permission requirements.
  • While Adobe InDesign might be the gold standard, it is complex, involving a steep learning curve and can only be used via a subscription service.  I used Serif Page Plus which anyone able to use Word should be able to figure out.  Pay attention to establishing your page layout templates as this determines many factors such as page numbering, border sizing, chapter headings, positioning of headers and suchlike.  The only downfall is that the indexing is frustrating and less than robust.
  • Ensure all your images have a 300DPI quality.  Many high resolution cameras use 72DPI but Photoshop Elements allows you to enhance this value to 300DPI.  (Image/Resize/Image Size – Resolution box)
  • Recognize that some layout software may show images in a low definition to save storage.  Do not attempt to perfect the images.  Once setting the high definition for the final PDF, the quality will be restored.
  • Not many printers offer landscape format books, which is ideal format for automobile photographs.
  • Gloss finish is ideal for best photography, but is more expensive and usually involves thicker paper.  Consider a matt finish if there is plenty of text.  Some printers may offer grouping high gloss photos in a concentrated section of the book leaving the remainder for cheaper matt finish.
  • Carefully evaluate the various ways to bind a book and spine construction, along with hard or soft cover.
  • Recognize that the ultimate quality control rests with you.  It will keep you busy.
  • An unexpected form of advertising came from an e-book offering for one of my volumes.  Through Google Review visitors were able to read sections of the material and get a first-hand idea of the subject matter.  Even search engines would draw researchers to this volume.  It was a great form of exposure.  E-book sales have been a minute percentage of the printed sales.
  • Establish strategic deadlines with your publisher and make sure you and they meet them.

Some Self-Publishing Organizations

  • Create Space     – Amazon owned, offering only soft cover books but has a number of free services such as uploads.
  • Lulu                        – Fairly expensive
  • Ingram Spark     – Partners with Lightning Source.  Uploading fee of $100 includes bar codes.  More expensive than Create Space, in such areas as shipping.

 Here is a link offering comparative discussions about self-publishers:


It is wise to heed the advice of an external publisher, proof reader and particularly a good editor.  But self-publishing also enables you to control what you want your book to represent.  If you are willing to roll up your sleeves and do most of the work yourself in areas such as layout and marketing, this can be a comparatively inexpensive way with the low risk of print-on-demand to see your writings in print.  Good luck and persevere.