Buying Just One ISBN Number or Publishing Too Many Books

I originally posted how to obtain ISBN numbers back in July. It was one of the first subjects I addressed on this self publishing blog and in my book, because as far as the world is concerned, the difference between a publisher and an author is ownership of an ISBN number. During the three month break I took from posting, I got a number of requests from authors asking how they could buy one ISBN number. My stock reply has always been that an ISBN block of 10 numbers only costs around $250, and if you aren’t willing to invest that much in your publishing business, you’re starting out on the wrong foot.

I’m not one of the "publishing experts" who is going to tell you that reviewers study your ISBN number to see what size block you’ve been issued and use that to determine if your book is worthy of reviewing. The reason I’m not going to tell you that is because it’s baloney, nobody examines the hyphen position on ISBN blocks to determine the publisher size. Reviewers have either heard of your publishing company before or they haven’t. My reason for discouraging the purchase of a single ISBN number is that it greatly increases the chance that you’ll be adding profits to Bowker’s bottom line in the future, and I really hate a monopoly.

Bowker doesn’t offer the option to purchase a single ISBN on their website, but some self-publishers have reported that if you write to them or talk to a rep on the phone, they will sell you a single number. The prices I’ve heard vary with rounding, but the last figure I heard was over half the cost of a block of ten numbers. In other words, if you decide to release a hardcover, an easy reading large type edition, a second edition, or another title, you’ve got to go back to the well and buy again. With that very next purchase, even if you only buy one ISBN number, you’re already over the cost of a block of ten. It just strikes me as penny wise and pound foolish.

On the other hand, I have seen a growing phenomena with small publishers who use print-on-demand but who purchased large ISBN blocks and get a little too careless with publishing new books. This can mean publishing books that they don’t really want to invest too much time into, or churning out public domain and out-of-copyright classics on the theory, "What can it hurt?" It can hurt the bottom line of a publishing business to publish too many titles just because it’s not that expensive. I’m not talking about damage to a publisher’s reputation, there aren’t any blacklists for sloppy publishers and it’s a rare customer who checks all the backlist reviews on Amazon before buying a new title.

It hurts the publisher’s bottom line to publish too many books because those inexpensive setup fees add up to something, in the thousands of dollars if you’re talking about dozens of titles. Even more importantly, packaging those titles still takes time, which is time stolen from researching the market for titles with a better chance of success, and marketing those titles already in print. Sometimes I suspect some publishers keep publishing new titles just because they want an excuse not to work at marketing their existing line-up. It’s just easier to keep throwing new ideas at the wall and waiting to see if one sticks – you know – the big trade approach:-)

New York Publishers and Doing Lunch

I received a number of invitations this year to do exactly the sorts of things I don’t like doing, public speaking, traveling, eating with strangers, the very things I feel an author shouldn’t have to do to get by. Fortunately, I’m earning a decent living self-publishing, so I was able to turn them all down. Thinking back on the year, I got some unexpected publicity through a brief collaboration on Amazon Longtail Analysis, through a DRM problem on one of my e-books, and through this blog. However, the most interesting proposal I got this year was to have dinner in New York with the Vice President of Sales for one of the top five trade publishers in the world.

I turned the proposal down without even thinking about it thanks to two of reasons I listed above: travel and eating. The funny thing that occurred to me this morning as I was thinking about restarting the blog is that I’d made the right decision for the wrong reasons. I came to this conclusion when I started trying to think of how the meeting could have benefited my publishing business and kept on drawing blanks. I suppose "doing lunch" (even when it’s dinner) in NYC with a publisher might have made a nice anecdote if I ever write another book about publishing. But, having already been published as an author by a top trade, I can truthfully say that there’s nothing I want from them at the moment.

Then the flash bulb went off! Is it possible that they wanted something from me? A big New York publisher with over a billion dollars in sales wanting to chat with a self-publisher who has yet to break $100K? Since I’m single and the VP in question is a woman, I suppose it might have been some elaborate setup for a blind date by friends or family with my best interests at heart, but I kind of doubt it. I think she was interested in picking my brain a little about Internet book marketing, which has become a sort of a public crusade with me. Having spoken to several editors at this publisher’s over the years, it was clear that they took the institutional view that Internet book marketing doesn’t work. A paraphrase from an acquisitions editor I spoke to back in the mid 90’s was "We tried that and it didn’t work."

I finally got to wondering what exactly they tried. Did they pick some title they’d been unable to give away on paper, much less sell, put the whole thing online, and then nod their heads sagely when nobody bought it? Did they take press-ready PDF’s (complete with crop marks) and bury them in some hidden corner of their website, accessed only by a small text link from a "New technology" page? Did they spend a lot of money and time setting up a whole website with access by registration only, and no way of knowing what the site contained until you signed up? I’m willing to bet that whatever traffic they got they tried to sell the book(s) at full retail plus shipping and handling, with some clunky form-driven process required to process the order that frequently made the browser lock-up.

Maybe it was some combination of all of the above, but the one thing that’s become clear to me, listening to big New York publishers talk about Internet marketing, is that they are all convinced that it’s some complicated new game. They’re all wrong. There’s nothing simpler than marketing non-fiction books on the web. All it requires is patience, large excerpts and a quality book. Patience is required because it takes time for web pages to earn traffic from the search engines based on how they are linked by other sites. Large excerpts are required, in standard HTML (i.e., web page format) because nobody is going to link to an advertisement. Finally, a quality book is required because the people who read the large excerpts aren’t going to be motivated to tell other people about it through linking if they don’t think that it’s good.

That may sound like a tall order to a NYC publisher, but it’s as close to child’s play as it gets for a self publisher. You don’t even need to master a basic HTML editor to post the excerpts, you can do it with a free blogging tool, like the one I used from to publish this. The one thing I left out above because it doesn’t apply to large publishers who already have established websites is that you need to get a couple initial links so that search engines can start finding your site. You can get them by posting informative comments to the types of discussion groups or blogs that welcome the practice, you can spend a few dollars on a PRweb or a similar service, you can submit to directories (though I wouldn’t waste too much time), or you can beg friends and co-workers. The most important thing you can do, and the advantage you have over the large publishers, is to start the web marketing process before you finish writing the book.

Cook Books and Nutrition for the Bachelor’s Diet

Fifteen or so years ago when I was unhappy about everything from the way the world worked to the way my stomach didn’t, I went on a vegetarian kick. I kept it up for a year or more, and while I didn’t go so far as eliminating tuna fish (one of my five basic food groups), I stayed away from meat and prepared foods. It’s the only period in my life that I bought any nutrition or cook books. I was actually forced to cook some when I was a vegetarian, and I worked as a cook a few places in my college days, but I do very little of it now. In fact, I haven’t had a stove for around ten years, and I’m currently staying in a temporary apartment in Jerusalem without a refrigerator for three months, but that’s another story.

Back in those aforementioned college days, my basic bachelor’s diet was dark tuna fish every other day (88 cents for two cans at Star on sale) and macaroni on the days that fell in between for dinner. I used to melt American cheese on the macaroni, not realizing at the time that it wasn’t so much cheese as solidified vegetable oil with cheese flavor. Sometimes I’d get creative and boil some rice and fry an onion instead. My roommate used to accuse me of being ascetic, but I saved my pennies for lunch, which was either a meatball sub from the roach coach on the quad or a slice of Sicilian pizza from the Greek place on Huntington Ave. Breakfast was coffee and a cigarette.

Twenty years later, I’m not really in a good position to write and publish a cook book, but I’d love to find one that met my needs. As a bachelor who really can’t be bothered to do much more than boil water on a hot plate, it would have to show some real imagination. Unlike the me of twenty years ago, I actually care about things like nutrition and dietary fiber these days. For example, I quit smoking cigarettes and started eating a little breakfast some years back, which eventually standardized on oatmeal. Then I got bored with plain oatmeal and wanted more fiber, so I ventured into bran cereal with yogurt, but the stuff requires refrigeration. About two years ago, I finally figured out how to combine the best feature of bran cereal (dietary fiber) with the best features of oatmeal (texture and hot) as follows:

Put one teaspoon of Taster’s Choice instant coffee in a ceramic mug. Fill to within a half-inch of the brim with bran cereal. Next add boiling water, noting that the level of the cereal will drop as the flakes become water logged, and stop adding water when the top flakes are just above the surface. Next, stir the mixture with a tablespoon, making sure to dissolve the instant coffee throughout the mixture, and let stand for 3 to 5 minutes to solidify. Eat bran-coffee cereal with a tablespoon and try not to get it on the laptop keyboard, because it hardens like cement.

Now why can’t somebody publish a cook book like that for me? Save me from the dinner I just had:

Open one can of tuna fish and drain oil. Use a fork to extract the tuna from the can onto a plate. Rinse one tomato and one small cucumber (pickling size). Dice the tomato and the cucumber onto the plate. Take an unsliced loaf of bread, slice off bread to taste, plate with the tuna, tomatoes and cucumber. Add salt. Sit in front of the TV, use the fork to get some of the tuna fish and vegetables onto a piece of bread, eat like a starving man.

A niche cook book for non-cooking bachelors might be a hit with a self publisher. I suppose it might even work for a trade publisher if it were humorous enough. The ideal for me would be a cookbook that features meals that can be prepared in seconds from ingredients that keep for years, and nutritional information. Focus on the fiber and the protein, please.

Print on Demand Self Publishing

This self publishing blog was inspired by all of the e-mail questions I've received about the print on demand publishing model I advocate in my book. While I learn a great deal from reader feedback, some of the questions just repeat themselves over and over again, just like bloggers. I've covered most of the common questions over the past three months with individual posts, but I thought I'd rank them here with a couple of links for each. Without further ado, the top five questions are:

1) How can I sell more books?

My favorite answer is online book marketing but the caveat is it may already be too late in the self publishing process if you've published a book for which there's no market. As a self publisher, you are the acquisitions editor, and you can't pretend you're running a publishing business if you're willing to publish anything you write. Print on demand makes it extremely inexpensive to publish books, but selling books is another matter.

2) How do I start a self publishing company?

The first step is obtaining ISBN numbers without which you are an author, rather than a publishing company. Next comes sitting down and deciding what you are hoping to accomplish by starting your own publishing house. Take a lesson from publishing industry numbers and then, before you give up all hope, contrast the results with working as a trade author.

3) Should I use a subsidy publisher?

There's no shame in signing up with a subsidy publisher, but it's important to realize you are being published by them as opposed to self publishing. Subsidy presses will publish anything, from fiction and how-to books to poetry and memoir. There are subsidy presses that specialize in Christian books and some that only publish cookbooks. What they all share in common, whatever their fees and contracts, is that none of them provide any effective book marketing, and in the aggregate, they sell very few books.

4) Should I use print on demand?

Print on demand gives publishers the ability to cost effectively print one book at a time, but it's the vertical integration of printing and distribution that makes it a viable model. Currently, the best option for self publishers working with print on demand is Lightning Source, but they currently have limitations with illustrations and greyscale graphics, which I try to avoid entirely.

5) Should I publish e-books?

Once you are set up as a self publisher using print on demand, publishing e-books is easy, and there's little reason to set up your own e-book server and software. There are different design considerations to look at, especially with e-book covers. The problem with e-books is that they are not huge sellers, though Amazon is striving to change that with their new Amazon Shorts e-books and by concentrating e-book sales in the U.S. store.

Book Publisher vs Book Printer

Authors new to self publishing often confuse the role of a book publisher with that of a printer. In fact, these two businesses have about as much in common as farming and running a restaurant. Yes, both publishers and printers deal in books, but publishers don't own printing presses and printers don't file for copyrights. To put it as crudely as possible, printing books is essentially a value-added paper business. Printers take two commodities, paper and ink, and add value by putting the two together. The more books you buy from an offset printer, the cheaper they get, until the price starts to approach the value of the paper, ink, amortization of the press and labor. Below that they'd be selling at a loss. Publishers, at the lowest common denominator, are intellectual property holding companies. If you want an unflattering characterization of a big trade publisher, think of an opportunistic law firm with a large marketing department attached.

The main reason it's now easier than ever to confuse a book publisher with a book printer is that a huge market has crept up for middlemen who in truth are neither one nor the other. In the old publishing world of offset printing, packaged subsidy publishing deals for authors and so-called "self publishing companies" existed, but their prices started in the thousands of dollars due to the high printing costs involved. Equally important, those traditional subsidy publishers (also called vanity presses though I don't think it's a good description) couldn't do much to make their authors’ books available through distribution. Thus, authors who did their homework could quickly figure out that they were throwing their money away on a dream, with practically zero chance of selling books.

In the past decade, print on demand and internet bookselling have changed the game for authors, whether they set out to make a living through self publishing or they just want to see their book in print. By allowing the books to be printed one at a time, print on demand changed the minimum cost to get a book "into print" from over a thousand dollars to less than a hundred. At the very same time print on demand technology was becoming a reality, the internet opened up a whole new way to market and sell books that could completely bypass traditional book distribution and retail outlets. Like them or hate them, Amazon is now the worlds largest bookstore, and every book publisher can get their books listed by Amazon.

The 800 lb gorilla of the print on demand industry is Lightning Source, a sister company of Ingram Books, the largest book distributor in the America. Lightning Source is a book printer, not a book publisher. Lightning Source prints books for publishers, both large and small, but unlike traditional offset printers, Lightning Source also handles order fulfillment into distribution for their publisher customers. Any publisher using this service, which is free with the cost printing the books, will see their titles available through Amazon and Ingram Books, which makes them available to over 90% of bookshops in the country. If the publisher is successful at marketing the titles and creating orders, both Amazon and Ingram will end up ordering reasonable quantities for stock, so the books will be available for 24 hour shipping.

A whole new crop of subsidy publishers, companies which charge an author a fee to get their book in print, have sprung up to take advantage of the Lightning Source business model. These companies are all middlemen, and for the authors who merely want to see their books in print and available through Amazon and distribution, the better ones offer a low cost way of doing this. However, it's important to understand that apart from charging authors a fee rather than paying an advance, subsidy publishers differ from traditional book publishers in one critical way. They lack a marketing department, which means, unless the author does all of the marketing, there won't be any sales to speak of. Some subsidy publishers offer marketing services, for which they charge, but I've never seen any evidence that those marketing services can generate enough sales to pay back a significant fraction of their costs. It's money thrown away. Even worse, some subsidy publishers emulate traditional book publishers and they take the intellectual rights to the book by contract. Whatever you do, never sign a contract with a subsidy publisher who claims any rights at all to your book. Charging you to take ownership of your intellectual property is just adding insult to injury.

Print on demand has been a tremendous boon to both subsidy published authors, who can now get their books in print for hundreds rather than thousands of dollars, and for self publishers. True self publishers can now cut out the middleman and start earning significant money on every book they sell without having to invest in a garage full of books and a shipping and handling operation. All that's required to become a book publisher today is a typeset manuscript and cover in PDF format, an on demand book printer with distribution, and an ISBN block. Of course, if you want to make a living publishing books, you need to market them, because nobody is going to beat a path to your door. I'm a huge advocate of Internet marketing for self publishers, because with a little web savvy, many non-fiction titles make terrific web content that will draw visitors and buyers to a website. I was so taken by the new model that I stopped selling my manuscripts to trade publishers and started publishing them myself, including my latest title, "Print on Demand Book Publishing - a New Approach to Printing and Marketing Books for Publishers and Authors."

Services Self Publishers Can Afford to Outsource

Relatively few self publishers can produce a book entirely by themselves. I've gotten to the point where I'll do the entire layout and cover design, but I always hire an editor and a number of proofreaders. There are some excellent writers who may be comfortable editing themselves, but most writers can't even proofread an e-mail, so proofreading your own book is just nuts. You can outsource a certain amount of market research, though I don't really recommend it, and hiring illustrators or a photographer is also common. Of all the self publishing services I've seen offered, marketing is the one I'm most skeptical of. Promoting your books is the main job of the self publisher. If you have to outsource that, you probably aren't going to make it.

How much a self publisher can afford to spend on outsourced publishing services depends entirely on the future sales of the book. The problem with this if you are a first time publisher is you can't possibly estimate how many copies you are going to sell. My rule of thumb for self publishing is that any book that sells over 2,500 copies a year is doing terrific. Titles selling between 1,000 copies and 2,500 copies are doing good, and those selling between 500 copies and 1000 copies aren't too shabby. The average self published book probably sells much less than 500 copies a year, which means it would be hard to justify a lot of outsourced expenses to get it into print. I'm sure everybody reading this assumes that their first book will be one of the ones to sell over 2,500 copies a year, even 25,000 copies a year, and while that may happen, it's like counting on winning a lottery ticket. The number of books any given title sells is simply much lower than most authors think.

Getting back to self publishing services, the most indispensable one is proofreading. Nobody publishes perfect books, many non-fiction trade books I've read average an error every ten pages or so, but that's hardly an ideal yardstick to measure yourself against. If you have friends and family willing to read your manuscript for free, take advantage, but it's critical to give them the book in its final typeset form. Last minute changes and edits are probably the main source of errors in professionally produced books, and the way to avoid this is not to rush to the proofreading phase until the book is truly finished. In addition to free proofreaders, I always hire local college students and pay $10 or $15 an hour to get some extra eyes on the job.

Competing for second in importance of the self publishing services you can outsource are editing and cover design. It's not that I believe cover design is more important than interior layout, to the contrary, but it's easier for most self publishers to learn how to do a passable job on layout than on cover design, and cover design is also cheaper. Cover designers who do a reasonable job abound on the Internet, prices range from around $99 to around $299, for which you may even be able to get your feedback incorporated into the design. Local designers are more likely to charge by the hour, and however low their basic rate, it will quickly add up to $500 or more if you start making changes. Editing, on the other hand, is always charged by the hour or based on the count of pages or words. I've paid anywhere from $15 to $25 an hour for editing, based on the editor's experience, which means anywhere from $500 to $1500 for paperbacks in the 40,000 to 80,000 word range.

Hiring an interior designer can be highly problematic, and I'd only recommend paying by the hour with tight limits or a low page rate, not much over a dollar a page a book consisting of text. Graphic artists who do book design as a sideline are happy to charge from $5 to $10 a page, which quickly gets you into the $1,000 range for something most readers will never notice as long as the job is moderately competent. It's also relatively easy to learn how to produce a book block directly out of your word processor, but it's definitely worth reading a book or two on the subject first to aid you with font selection and basic layout decisions.

Unfortunately, authors who rush into self publishing when they can't find a trade publisher for their first book typically pay for all of the publishing services above, and pay top dollar at that. Add the cost of an ISBN block and setting up the book with a print on demand printer like Lightning Source or Booksurge and you've invested around $5000 without selling your first book. That's cheap by trade publishing standards, but the average self published book will never earn that back. Self publishers whose books fail to sell often blame the cover designer, the book chains, lack of access to distribution, but there's only one reason for a well written book to fail in the marketplace and that's lack of marketing. Nobody knows your subject or your book as well as you do, and nobody can do a more effective job marketing it than you can, so if you want to succeed at self publishing, you have to commit yourself to becoming at least as good at promoting books as writing them. If you don't have it in you, save yourself a few thousand dollars and a lot of sleepless nights, sign up with a reasonable subsidy press like Booklocker, and be satisfied with seeing your book in print.

Diet Books and Fitness Guides for Healthy Profits?

Even the most casual observer of nonfiction bestseller lists can't help but notice that diet books often dominate the list and remain there for years at a time. I believe this has been going on at least since the 1960's, may have something to do with the widespread acquisition of color televisions, but that's another story. Diet books are often branded with the name of a celebrity doctor or the latest health fad resulting from some governmental pronouncement, and are pushed strongly by their trade publishers with big budget campaigns. Fitness guides are more likely to be written by celebrity trainers, who get into the public eye by talking about the foibles of the Hollywood stars they've trained. Anybody with the ability to market a book on TV by gossiping about famous people is probably better off with a big trade publisher than self publishing, which is the subject of this blog.

As usual, I turned to Amazon for a quick look at how health oriented titles by unknown authors are selling, and I used the subsidy presses as a proxy. The reason is that none of the subsidy presses do any meaningful marketing for titles, even if they are paid to, so an Amazon Power Search turns up titles that are doing well due to the efforts of the author. The string I used was:

subject: diet or health and publisher: authorhouse or iuniverse or xlibris or booklocker or lulu

This turned up 1214 subsidy published titles in the diet, health and fitness area, of which the top 10 had sales ranks under 100,000. None of the books were in the top 10,000 during this particular check, which should set off a warning bell for the aspiring self publisher. If you were self publishing your book with print on demand and getting the majority of your non-direct sales through Amazon, which is probably true for all the titles in the list generated, you'd estimate that the current top dog is selling less than 1,000 copies a year. Even if you earned a very healthy profit margin by going through Lightning Source, Replica or Booksurge, that's hardly a living.

So, should the aspiring fitness guide self publisher give up and look into writing adult titles instead? Not at all, because the method I used above for generating the bestseller list has a serious flaw. It only includes books from authors who used a subsidy publisher, and even though some of them may be fairly savvy marketers, none of them are doing it for a living because there's no living to be had! If I was interested in self publishing diet books and health related titles myself, I would have gone through a very different exercise on Amazon, a time consuming process of elimination to search out true self publishers of related titles and look at the reasons for their success. Without doing the many hours of work, the process goes like this. Search for:

subject: diet or health

which yields 283,637 titles, a few too many for me to start looking at. Even more impressive, the first 700 or so titles on a bestseller sort were in the top 10,000, the range where a self publisher can start thinking about making a living. In fact, it's one of the most dominant categories of books I've ever seen on Amazon. On the other hand, don't forget that for the 700 or so titles in the top 10,000 there are almost 283,000 also rans.

The bottom line is that if there's a market with a seemingly infinite ability to absorb new titles, it's diet and health books. The trick, of course, is marketing. Since almost all of these titles are sold as nonfiction, whatever the truth of the matter, they make ideal candidates for Internet marketing. As our check of subsidy publishers showed us, this isn't a niche category where a book is likely to get sales just based on the title, there's just too much competition. But if you start with the website, put the draft of your book online and work to build the traffic, you'll soon get an indication of whether it's going to work for you. If you start getting regular e-mails asking when you're going to publish the book, it's time to hire an editor, some proofreaders, pick a print on demand printer and publish.

A Story of Alternate Publishing Universes

Once upon a time there was a college student named Joe Newbie who blogged every day about the college life. He wrote about the food in the cafeteria, the parties he went to, what he paid for textbooks and life in the dormitory. Several times a day Joe posted updates to Blogger, and by the time he declared as a business major, thousands of people were reading Joe’s blog every day. Joe’s friends and readers kept asking him, "When are you going to publish a book?" but Joe laughed it off until he needed a project for Entrepreneurial Thinking 312, a senior honors class. Joe found an article on the web about how to write a query letter and sent it off to all the major trade publishers. To his surprise, Big Trade Publishers responded within the week, and after a brief phone call, sent him a contract by Federal Express. Joe gave a presentation in Entrepreneurial Thinking class that very day, making an overhead slide show of the contract terms, and in a show of bravado, concluded by saying he would sleep on it before signing. That afternoon, Joe returned to his dorm room, put the contract under his pillow, and lay down to fulfill his word. As he began to drift off into happy dreams of royalties and cashing the $3,000 advance check, there was a knock on the door:

Alternate Publishing Universe #1

The knocking continued, but Joe had already drifted off, and as he had written in his blog that very week, "sleeping through noisy interruption in the afternoon is a vital skill for college students." When he finally woke up just before dinner, the first thing he did was sign the contract and stuff it in the return package thoughtfully provided by the acquisitions editor, Peter Heartless, and dropped it off at the campus center to be returned to Big Trade Publishers. Over the next two months, Joe edited his last couple years of blog postings into a book titled "How to Live a Happy Life at College" and sent it off to the publisher. He didn’t hear a word for a couple months after that, then a package showed up labeled "Final Proof" with a note from Peter Heartless that they were in a real rush, so could he please identify any errors by the end of the week.

Joe looked at the contents and was stunned. A mock-up of the cover showed that the title had been changed to "Party Animal and Scholar" and there was a stock photograph that made him blush. As he scanned the pages, his fists clenched as tightly as his teeth at every stupid sidebar graphic with helpful hints that weren’t his and often directly contradicted what he’d written. When he examined the text more closely, he saw that it had been radically changed to match the hints and tips, and that his style had been completely obliterated in accordance with some politically correct guidelines. One of the reasons Joe’s blog had been such a hit was his colorful language and honest emotions. His fingers shaking, he dialed-up Peter Heartless, who didn’t even make a show of sympathy. "Read your contract," Heartless told him, "The only reason we’re showing it to you at all is because we couldn’t hold you liable for any slander otherwise. We all worked very hard on this and it’s going to press next week. We spent thousands on that cover art, you should be grateful."

Joe sunk into depression and began to lose weight. His grades at school suffered, he lost interest in posting to his blog, and the same students who came to his advance check party now bought the book just to laugh at him. Nine months later when the first royalty statement came, it showed a negative balance of $357.86. As Joe frantically read the statement, he realized that the 10% of net rate on the first 10,000 books was earning him less than $1.00 each, and they weren’t selling that well. Six months later, the next royalty statement included a check for $1854.21, and there were quite a few returns. If Joe had been around to see the following semi-annual statements, he would have seen that total royalties for the book came to less than $7000, but by that time, Joe had graduated (by the skin of his teeth) and gone to Alaska to find himself. Unfortunately, before Joe could find himself, a bear found him, and the bear lived happily ever after.

Alternate Publishing Universe #2

Joe got up and answered the door and was greeted by Lin Smart, a shy girl from his Entrepreneurial Thinking class. Lin had a whole handful of papers which she proffered to Joe, explaining that she’d done an analysis of his contract and compared it to self publishing with print on demand, which happened to be what Lin’s mother did for a living. Lin showed Joe that she had researched Big Trade Publishers titles, and based on the expected word count, that they would publish his book in a 6x9 format at 192 pages and price it at $14.95. With royalties starting at 10% of net, and net selling price averaging about half of list, Joe would be earning a little less than 75 cents per book. If the book sold more than that, his royalties could eventually climb to just over a dollar a book, but she pointed out that only two percent of books in print sell over 5,000 copies a year. She had also read the fine print in the contract and pointed out that Joe was giving up the right to make future blog posts without getting them approved first, something that hardly fit his free wheeling style, that he had no control over the editing of the book, and that he was giving up the right to write any other books, blogs or anything that could be construed to compete with the Big Trade Publishers version. Lin explained to him that Big Trade Publishers wouldn’t actually market his book, that they were just hoping to get sales from his blog readers and that they would try putting an outrageous or lurid cover on the book to attract bookstore customers. It all sounded pretty bleak.

Then Lin showed him a Lightning Source case study she’d printed off the web. She explained that Joe could get a 192 page 6x9 book printed and shipped to Amazon and Ingram, the largest book distributor in the US, for less that $3.50 each, without having to fill his dorm room with books or paying for shipping and handling. Joe could give the book a $14.95 cover price, assign a short discount of 25%, and Amazon and Ingram would pay (14.95 x 0.75) $11.21 per book, leaving Joe with a net profit per sale of over $7.50. In other words, Joe would earn ten times as much on every sale as he would with Big Trade Publishers, and not sign away any rights to his future! Since Joe’s blog was going to do all of the marketing for the book in any case, Lin estimated that Joe could still sell about 50% as many books as he would have with Big Trade Publishers without getting his book in the chain stores. So if he was willing to gamble on her judgement, he could come out five times ahead.

Joe was floored. All this time he’d thought that the pinnacle of publishing was getting published by a reputable trade, and now this wonderful young woman was telling him that her mother had quit writing for the trades in order to become a self publisher. He asked Lin how much it would cost him to become a publisher and she answered quickly, "About $250 to buy a block of ISBN numbers from Bowker, set-up costs of about $100 at Lightning Source, and the work to prepare the book and design a cover, which I’ll bet my mother will help us with." Joe enthusiastically agreed, and the two of them were inseparable over the next few months, laughing at private jokes as they edited the blog entries into a book and got their friends (and one professor) to act as proofreaders. They published the book that summer, advertised it on the blog which was now getting over 5,000 visitors a day, and by Christmas they had sold 1,500 copies, netting them over $10,000 before taxes. The next year, sales continued to grow, Joe acknowledged that Lin was the best thing that ever happened to him, and they got married. Joe wrote another book about how to be happy which became a bestseller titled "Open the Door to Lin" and they lived happily ever after.

Poetry and Memoir or Getting Published

I've never seen statistics on the proportion of poetry that's subsidy published or printed and handed out by the poet, but my guess would be somewhere north of 99%. I don't mean that just for this year or since print on demand lowered costs, I mean since the invention of writing. If cavemen had known how to write, we would have been treated to a lot of poetry about mammoths and horses rather than drawings. When the great library at Alexandria burned in ancient times, I'm sure the flames were that much hotter for all of the self published poetry scrolls. A few years ago, when my local library decided to cull their collection to make room for more movies (I don't go there anymore), they pretty much tossed the whole collection of unknown poets and unread memoir. Needless to say, if you're writing with the goal of getting published, I'd avoid poetry and memoir. However, if you're writing poetry because you have something to say, self publishing or subsidy publishing is the only realistic goal for 99.98% of us.

Because the vast majority of poetry books throughout time have been self published or subsidized, only an ignoramus would think there's any shame involved. There's a reason that self publishing poetry has been so popular over the centuries - nobody was willing to pay for it. The "real" money in publishing poetry has always been in publishing dead poets Even those who had success in their lives probably earned more for their heirs after they went on to explore the great mystery. These days I'm suspicious that more money is made selling dreams of public recognition to poets than selling books of poetry. The rip-offs range from sham competitions with dubious honors as the prize to overpriced subsidy publishing deals with even more overpriced marketing that doesn't stand a poet's chance in hell of selling any books. Much of the same is true for memoir, though if you're infamous, getting published is a real possibility.

All this negativity is just the setup for my business take on self publishing poetry or memoir. It's not a business, it's not even a lottery ticket, so don't think of it that way. If you want a beautiful book you can proudly give to your family and friends, on fine paper with an embossed cover, work with your local printer and under no circumstance plan on buying more than 100 copies. You'd be surprised how hard it is to give away a hundred books, I'm speaking from experience here. If you really just want to see your poetry or memoir in print and be able to tell your ex-friends and disgusted family to buy it through Amazon or order it through their local bookstore, shop for an inexpensive subsidy press. My only warning is not to give away any rights because you never know. Prices range from free (be careful) to a few hundred dollars to get a book in print and available through distribution, I couldn't justify paying more than $500 to a subsidy publisher under any circumstance. Just comparison shop until you drop and don't get caught up in worrying about royalties because it's not a business.

The other way of getting a poem published is to sneak it into another book. The first computer book I wrote for McGraw-Hill had a poem tucked away in one of the later chapters, though I'm sure critics would have called it a limerick or a ditty. Give me a break, it's not easy to write a poem about computer hardware. The high point of my career as a poet was receiving a letter from the project editor at McGraw-Hill telling me I had to credit the poet and get a signed permission. I don't think it would be possible to hide a memoir in another book without using invisible ink, but if I do think of a way, I'll get rich selling the idea

Acquisitions Editor and Publisher

Self publishing as a business requires you to fill several job functions, some of which conflict with each other. The conflict that causes some self publishers to talk to themselves out loud is the one between the author and the acquisitions editor. The publisher job function can be thought of as the executive management position. It's the publisher who hires and fires acquisitions editors based on whether or not the manuscripts they acquire end up making money for the publishing company. Being the publisher can be fun and being the author can be fun but being the acquisitions editor is essentially a bean counting job. It's not about whether you like a given book (you better like it if you wrote it) or whether or not you judge the manuscript as being well written, it's strictly a judgment call about whether the title will earn the publisher money.

In the self publishing business, you are the acquisitions editor. I usually talk about marketing as being the primary job, but unless you are one of those evil geniuses who can sell salt to salt miners, you need to start with a title that is marketable. That might sound like the author's job, but the author's job is writing a good book. It's the acquisitions editor's job to tell the author not to bother if the book doesn't have a market. As a self publisher, you are in an excellent position with your multiple personalities to save the author some heartbreak by not letting the author spend months or years writing a book that you aren't willing to acquire. Unfortunately, most new authors start on the path to self publication by writing a complete book and only look into self publishing when they can't find a trade publisher. At that stage, there's just no chance that they are going to fill the acquisitions editor job function properly and turn themselves down if there's no market.

I've already written quite a bit about doing research to establish whether or not a market exists for a given title, which is initially the job of the author and ultimately the job of the acquisitions editor. You may have done a great job focusing your knowledge and skill into writing a book specifically for a proven market only to find that you don't have any marketing talent at all. That's not a minor stumbling block, it's the whole shooting match. It's the great tragedy of self publishing that you can do everything right and still fail when it comes to selling books, and not just because it's the hardest part. The problem is that selling books is the first point in the self publishing process that actually brings you into legitimate contact with the publishing world. It doesn't matter if you hired an editor and some proofreaders who all told you the book was great, that's not real contact. So, unless you've been successful with an Internet site or some other form of publishing before getting into the book game, you just don't know if the pieces are all going to add up. And that's what the job description of "publisher" is, determining whether all the pieces will add up.

I know some self publishers who really have done everything right, who are selling some books, and who have accumulated the experience see where things are heading. They often find that they can sell books through traditional promotional methods, like book readings and radio interviews, but the number of books sold per appearance just doesn't justify the ongoing effort for them. There are books that really require broad stocking in stores to gain traction, and books that benefit from having a trade publisher. I'm not shy about saying to these self publishers, "Look, the reason you didn't break into the trades earlier was that you didn't have the understanding of the publishing business you've acquired going through the self publishing process. Self publishing hasn't worked out the way you hoped and you say can't afford to put more time into it, so give being a trade author another shot." There's one way to impress an acquisitions editor at a big publisher, that's to follow their guidelines for submissions, write a great query letter, and keep trying.

Numbers for Book Sales and Nielsen Bookscan

I've written a lot about publishing industry numbers and how to estimate title sales using Amazon sales ranks. The one program I've never had direct access to is Nielsen Bookscan, due to the price. I have seen Nielsen reports thanks to low friends in high places, but I've never systematically used Nielsen Bookscan for research as practically everybody else with an interest in publishing numbers does. Nielsen aggregates results from the biggest North American book retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders, but they lack data from the mass merchandisers like Walmart and supermarkets. Bookscan results are usually given as representing about two thirds of the industry (65% to 70%), but this obviously varies by title. For bestsellers that are widely stocked in mass merchandisers, you'd expect them to be way off, but for books that are sold almost exclusively through Amazon and the chains, which represent a huge part of the trade, they should be pretty spot on.

In an Op-Ed published in the New York Times last week, Tim O'Reilly pointed out that according to Nielsen Bookscan "only 2 percent of the 1.2 million unique titles sold in 2004 had sales of more than 5,000 copies." That amounts to 24,000 titles selling more than 5,000 copies a year. To put that into context, Amazon lists over 24,000 titles published by just one giant trade, McGraw-Hill, in the last five years. Obviously, some of those books are out of print and most of the rest aren't selling over 5,000 copies a year, but it should give you an idea about the relative smallness of the pie. According to Nielsen, they log sales of over 300,000 individual titles in a typical week, but by the time you get to the end of the year, only 1,200,000 unique titles have been sold. Those 900,000 additional titles that have to get smeared out over 52 weeks can't be averaging more than a few sales a year.

If you make a dollar or two a book as the author of a moderately successful title, selling a few thousand books isn't going to change your financial life. If you make five or ten dollars a book as a publisher, you might earn a living with a few average books, or get rich with a few hundred. Years ago, before print on demand publishing added its contribution to the explosion of new titles, I worked out from various sources that the average trade published book sold 2,000 copies. If anything, I suspect that number may have gone down. Bookscan data gives acquisitions editors a quick and painless (or brainless) way to estimate the market size for a particular title. As a self publisher, if you don't go through a similar exercise using whatever data you can, you're just kidding yourself about being in the publishing business.

Another fun number that I can't credit because I haven't a clue where I first saw it, is that Barnes & Noble and Borders turn over their inventory around twice a year. Just imagine, of the 100,000 plus titles in your local superstore, a large proportion won't even sell one copy before getting returned to the publisher, another big chunk will sell at such a slow rate across the chain that they get dropped within a few months, and of the remaining books, the average title will sit on the shelf for six months. Barnes & Noble and Borders have around 1300 superstores between them that represent the majority of the retail bookstore trade, so two copies per store a year only gets you to 2,600 books for a success! If we intentionally overestimate and say that the two chains only represent half of the bookstore market and that a given book is actually stocked everywhere else (which isn't possible due to bookstore size limitations), it would give us just over the magic 5,000 number.

Book Piracy, Translations and International Rights

I've always thought book piracy was a rather romantic description of a very mundane activity. A secretary standing at a copying machine all afternoon or a kid spending a late light with a flat bed scanner, those are pretty unromantic pictures. I'd rather imagine sea battles fought over my books on the Spanish Main. Oddly enough, courtroom battles over copyright infringement aren't as common as you might think, for the very reasons listed above. If some individuals want to violate copyrights, whether it involves books, music or DVD's, there's not much publishers can do about it. For the main part, publishers see casual piracy as a non-issue, and don't get excited unless the pirate becomes a distributor.

But what about wholesale piracy, when an actual publisher somewhere reproduces a book, even a translation, without permission? I recently found out the answer to that one when a publisher in Iran produced a Farsi version of a book I authored for McGraw-Hill without permission. I actually took it as a compliment when I stumbled across the book being offered for sale on the Internet, and I contacted McGraw-Hill because I wanted to see if they would get me a copy, which they sometimes do with legal translations. After a few months, I finally got the following response (excerpt) from their International Rights people:

"We tried to contact the publisher XXXXX with no success, unfortunately. In a case like this, there is not much we can do to control the sale of a pirated edition. Had there been another Farsi translation on the market for this title (by another publisher), we could have asked the other publisher to look into it and contact XXXXX. Unfortunately, without a local presence to intervene, we don't have that leverage in this case. "

The interesting point in here is that there's no financial incentive for anybody to pursue the publisher of the pirated edition because there's no competing version available. If a local publisher in Iran had purchased the rights, it would have been in their interest to pursue the issue to protect their investment. From my perspective, I wish that the publisher had contacted McGraw-Hill and purchased the legal rights for two reasons. First, I might have gotten a copy of the finished book for my shelf. That's worth more to me than the $100 or $200 I might have gotten for my 50% of an international rights sale. Second, the book in question contained some 250 black and white photographs. Scanning the photos from a printed book will produce pretty miserable results unless they have a tremendous Photoshop operator.

I can't get too excited about this type of book piracy for translations, especially since they left my name on the cover. That's the odd thing about the whole affair to me, that they didn't simply plagiarize the work and publish it under somebody else's name. Wholesale book plagiarism in translation has been going on for hundreds, if not thousands of years (think scrolls), and will usually go undetected. Owning the international rights to a work is one thing, being able to enforce those rights is another. I even suspect that selling the foreign rights to a book might actually create more risk in the long run than turning a blind eye, especially for small publishers.

UK Amazon E-books On Vacation

On Tuesday of this week, I noticed that all of my e-books had vanished from Amazon UK. Since I have a UK Associates account through which I sell e-books, I e-mailed them to ask if it was a glitch. The following is heart from their answer:

"For a period of time, e-Books will not be available on We are sorry for an(y) inconvenience this may cause. We encourage customers looking for e-Books to visit (, an company, offering tens of thousands of titles for immediate purchase."

I never sold a lot of e-books on Amazon UK, in fact, it seemed that one sale a week was enough to keep a title hanging around the top 100 there. I can understand that with such a low volume, it just didn't justify a tab in their site navigation (the tab is gone), much less customer support for problems with downloads, DRM, etc. However, their answer seems to be saying that they haven't abandoned e-books permanently, more like a vacation. E-books are gone from the other international Amazon's that carried them as well.

The funny thing is that my e-books aren't available through mobipocket, which was purchased by Amazon a few months ago. Neither were any of the other e-books I checked, whether they were distributed by Lightning Source or not. Since it was a vanishingly small part of my business I'm not worried, I just hope it's not catching on this side of the pond

Free Online Book Publishing and Google Print

My publishing business is based on giving books away for free online. Book publishing is an easy business to get into if you’re an author, but it’s a tough way to make a living. The really tough part is marketing, which traditionally required a serious budget, a lot of insider knowledge and the ability and willingness to “do lunch.” I didn’t have any of these things when I started out back in 1995, but I did have a website, so I started giving books away online, with the note that visitors could buy paper copies direct from me for less than the cost of an inkjet cartridge. It worked, sort-of. I didn’t have the ability to easily process payments back then, Amazon wasn’t on the radar yet, and I was stuck making the books at a copy shop because print on demand didn’t exist. The overhead was more than I could take and after a year of fooling around, I sold the book to McGraw-Hill. The whole experience inspired me to write my first article about publishing, namely, how to find a publisher in the new millennium.

I kept up with web publishing for the next few years while making a living as a trade author, but I stuck primarily with non-commercial writing, because I still didn’t have a good way to print and distribute books. Unlike many small publishers, I thought I had the marketing angle beat – give the books away for free online and sell them to website visitors. A few years later, when I discovered the Lightning Source model for printing and distributing books, I put the model to the test with a business book I’d been writing online. Not a week went by without somebody e-mailing me just to ask when the book would be finished so they could buy it, but when I finally published the book, sales were mediocre. So, I experimented with leaving the first few chapters of the book online and taking the rest down, and sales soared. Then I replaced all the chapters I’d removed with excerpts from those chapters and sales improved even more. My conclusion was I could make a living giving free books away online, just not whole books.

In the meantime, I added low key advertisements for my first book to some related material on my website, and sure enough, a percentage of visitors were interested enough to check it out. The obvious conclusion was that any online publishing on reasonably related subjects would help sell books, and it opened up a whole new area for me, namely photo illustrated pages. The print on demand publishing model doesn’t work well with any photography, let alone color, but simple digital camera snapshots are the perfect match for online publishing. I’ve since added many pages to my websites that have drawn wonderful feedback from visitors who wonder how I can do all this work for free, but now you know my secret. My book sales are driven by the free online book publishing I do, and I doubt I could have kept up the effort to write this blog if it didn't contribute to sales of my publishing book.

I’ve written about all of this before, but I wanted to review it to put Google Print into context. There are currently two Google Print programs, the opt-in program that publishers like myself can (and do) participate in, and the opt-out program based on scans from some select libraries that the Authors Guild is currently fighting. Since I’m no longer a member of the Authors Guild, I didn’t bother writing to tell them they are acting like a bunch of armchair intellectuals, as I did when they attacked Amazon for selling second hand books. At the risk of sounding like a big head, I’ve got as much experience publishing online as anybody, and it’s my opinion that Google Print can only help book sales. I’m also happy that a book of translations I spent three years working on is in the collections of the libraries in the Google library program, because it will now be preserved for posterity so everybody can laugh at what a bad translator I am:-)

Vertical Integration vs Printing and Distributing Books

Sometimes we all miss the forest for the trees, and a couple recent correspondences and phone conversations with new publishers brought this point home yet again. I've written extensively about the new print on demand publishing model on this website and in my book, but I've learned the hard way that my readers sometimes try to mix and match components of the model with non-compatible approaches. Specifically, I only advocate using a printer with a vertically integrated business model. In plain English, this means a print on demand printer who can also supply your books into distribution channels and big retailers, like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

There are only two printers in the U.S. who fully meet this requirement, Lightning Source and Replica. Of the two, Lightning Source is easier to work with and has the better distribution tie-in, Ingram, which beats Baker&Taylor hands-down. The only other vertically integrated print on demand vendor I'm aware of is BookSurge, who was recently purchased by Amazon, but they don't yet provide access to regular distribution and their pricing model is less flexible than with Lightning Source or Replica. That's the entire list: Lightning Source, Replica and BookSurge.

Without the vertical integration, print on demand is just an expensive way to print one book at a time. If that's all you want to do, you're probably better off buying your own laser printer and binder, and at least you'll be able to control all of the variables. The publisher who wrote me yesterday had read all about print on demand on my site, but when it came time to print her book, she somehow ended up with one of the larger print on demand printers who do just that - print books. Instead of having hands-off access to Amazon at a short discount which allows the publisher to net 50% of the cover price on every single sale, she found herself stuck with the Advantage program, which pays publisher 45% of the cover price and the publisher still has to pay for shipping. Yes, that's the way many small publishers work with Amazon, and it's a vast improvement over the old book distribution model, but you can earn twice as much money with half as much labor by using a vertically integrated printer.

So, when you read about print on demand publishing model on this site, remember that it's primarily based on using Lightning Source, who provides the same services for most of the industry, over 3,000 publishers at last count. The three vertically integrated printers don't have a monopoly on print on demand printing, but they do have a monopoly on the business model. I know some small publishers who are so offended by the lack of choice that they either stick with short offset runs or use POD printers who lack the distribution tie-in, but that stubbornness comes at a high price. If you want to maximize your profits and your reach as a publisher using print on demand technology, stick with the big three - they have no competition.

Children's Books and Writing for Print on Demand

I have the good fortune to be the only son of a famous children's book author, though she hasn't been discovered yet. The reason I haven't published any of Mom's children's books myself is that they contain color illustrations (she's an artist as well as a writer) and print on demand isn't economically feasible for color printing. I've given Mom three books about publishing over the years, the first was Jeff Herman's guide to which I'd contributed an online marketing article, the next was my own (free proofreading) and the last was Aaron Shepard's book "The Business of Writing for Children." I suspect she actually read Aaron's book.

Self publishing children's books is a really tough match for my print on demand plus Internet marketing model on both fronts. On the print on demand side, it limits the author to text-centric books with a limited number of black and white line drawings for illustrations. On the Internet marketing side, even if you're successful at drawing children to a quality website, they don't have credit cards. Attracting parents to a website with content written for children is pretty unlikely, and if the site features color graphics, they may expect any books you are selling will be in color as well. You can go the traditional route and publish short color books with hard covers on offset, but it's extremely capital intensive, and you'll have all the usual problems gaining access to distribution. I wouldn't recommend self publishing children's books on offset to anybody who didn't have a proven method of selling products direct through public appearances, fairs, etc.

Following my usual M.O., I turned to Amazon Power Search to get a feel for what's going on with print on demand books for children. I used the query:

subject: children and publisher: authorhouse or iuniverse or xlibris or publishamerica or lulu

to generate a list of books that Amazon has categorized in the children's subject, and included five companies that use Lightning Source to produce and distribute print on demand books. Whether these companies are subsidy presses, "self publishing companies" or something altogether new, the services they provide through Lightning Source are also available to any author who becomes a self publisher by purchasing an ISBN block.

Amazon generated a list of 2968 books in response to my query, which I next sorted by bestselling. At the moment, the top book is "A Butterfly in Winter" by by Tara L. Entwistle-Clark, published through Lulu and categorized as "Young Adult." About one out of five books on the list appears to be related to education or child rearing , and maybe one out of ten is miscategorized. The most popular target audience looks to be ages 9 - 12, for whom shorter to medium length paperbacks are common. Prices are uniformly higher than what one would normally expect to pay for books in this genre.

None of the books in current list had an Amazon sales rank in the top 10,000 and the list tailed off into the hundreds of thousands very rapidly. This indicates that none of the authors of these books are seeing a significant income from their sales through Amazon, and since few if any of them are likely to be stocked in stores, it doesn't look very promising as a method for making a living. However, self publishing children's books will certainly teach you about the publishing business and at least you'll have something to say in your next book proposal to your favorite children's book publisher. Just don't get conned into paying more than a few hundred dollars to a subsidy publisher if you don't want to become a publisher yourself, don't sign away any rights, and don't pay any additional fees for book promotion that won't help in any case. Also note that the Amazon list generated above doesn't include books from true self publishers who have their own press name, so there may be a few out there with some winning children's titles.

Christian Book Publishing and Religious Books

A strange thing has been happening in the religious book market. Even as religion is undergoing a renaissance in America, well established Christian book stores have been closing their doors. I've seen this in my own hometown, where a store that had been in the same location for at least 30 years failed, even as the number of Christian day schools in the area grew. The phenomena has been widely written on, and the blame is often placed on church bookstores, but I think that it's also due to an influential Christian publishing company entering the mainstream with cross-over hits, and getting their books stocked in Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. There's also the Internet effect, which allows low overhead operations to stock very selectively and sell direct to customers.

While this phenomena is having an impact on how a traditional Christian publishing company must operate, it really doesn't effect how you'd go about self publishing a Christian book. The question you should answer for yourself before you even start the journey is "Why?" My first adventure in self publishing was a religious book, not devotional or theological, but a collection of memoir and historical fiction written by my great-grandmother in Biblical Hebrew, which I translated to English. The work took me three years, and I spent around $10,000 publishing the books, and later gave them away when I couldn't sell them. The motivation was never truly commercial, it was something I started on and felt I had to finish, and I'm happy now that her works are available online for anybody with an Internet connection to read.

So why is a Jewish guy writing about Christian self publishing? Because when I write about self publishing in general, I hammer away one principal point, that the whole business is about selling and if you can't make a profit you're just playing at being a publisher. That just doesn't apply to religious books. If you're writing as an expression of your faith, then it's something you might feel compelled to publish, even if you don't know anything about the business and lack the time, resources or desire to learn. Just remember that being part of the flock doesn't mean you have to get sheared, and giving your hard earned money to an outfit that claims to be a Christian publishing company doesn't mean that they adhere to Christian values, even if they talk a good game.

If you believe your calling is to start your own publishing company to spread a message AND earn a living, then read through the 60 plus posts I've already made about self publishing on this blog and most of it will apply to Christian self publishing as well. However, if you just have a book you want to make available to readers on a limited budget, you're better off trying to comparison shop the subsidy presses, and don't be taken in by a company just because it has "Christian" in the name. Prices range from around $199 to $799 for publishing with distribution, with very little real difference in the services rendered. Do not pay extra for marketing services; if you really want to sell books, you'll have to do it yourself. Almost all of the subsidy presses use Lightning Source to print all of their books, and Lightning Source provides access to Ingram distribution and Amazon, so the basic service is the same, whichever one you choose. There are some differences in customer service, cover design, speed, and there's a whole Yahoo! group dedicated to helping print on demand authors.

A Book Publishing Guide for Authors

The main job of any self publisher is book marketing, and the majority of the posts in this blog are probably related to book promotion. However, today I'm going to concentrate on some of the issues related to business structure and decision making because many of the authors I've corresponded with remain convinced that the business side should somehow take care of itself.

Before self publishing a book, the most critical decision you are faced with is what you should be writing about, or, whether you should rewrite a manuscript you've already completed to better match the marketplace. I know that sounds mercenary, but it's a business, and in the self publishing business, you are the acquisitions editor. There is surprisingly little room for egomaniacs in publishing, unless you are already famous. If you write a book for which there is no audience, you won't sell any, even if you are a marketing phenomenon. You also need to match your writing abilities to the printing and distribution technology you can afford. I advocate print on demand for most authors, but it puts severe limitation on book illustrations.

Once you commit to the idea of publishing your own books, the very first step is to purchase an ISBN block. The next step is to write on the blackboard 100 times, "Publishing a book is not a race and printing a book is not the finish line." If you try to hurry the process, you'll just end up paying premiums to get the book in print quickly and have to redo many steps two or three times to get it right. Along the way, you'll encounter plenty of "experts" willing to sell you their help with self publishing. I'm not saying there's no situation where it makes sense to pay for help, but certainly not before you invest serious time to educate yourself about the business.

After self publishing a book, you may find yourself getting offers from major trade publishers who want to republish your book under their imprint. These offers sometimes contain an iron fist in a silk glove, like, "We really like your book and want to give you the opportunity to reach a larger audience, BUT, if you don't sign with us, we'll hire some work-for-hire hack to rip-off your book for us." Before you say yes, just remember that a publishing contract changes everything. Trust me, if being a trade author was so great, I wouldn't know so many trade authors, myself included, who gave it up for self publishing. Another temptation for self publishers is accepting foreign rights deals. I usually get a couple offers a year, but so far it's never made economic sense for me to accept one.

Finally, you may wake up one day and find that you've created meaningful business equity through self publishing books. That's the time to put some serious thought into business valuation and estate planning. The value of the business to your heirs will probably be maximized if they can continue to run it while your books retain currency. There's little chance this will actually happen unless you make the proper arrangements and leave extensive instructions, both for running the business and for selling off the assets if necessary. The instructions will be ignored, of course, but at least you'll rest in peace for having done your part.

The main job in self publishing is book marketing, and I'll probably take a day next week to write a little guide to all the book marketing posts I've made so far. One of the unfortunate truths about book marketing is that a high level of activity doesn't necessarily translate into high level of sales. It's a question of the right promotion for the right book at the right price point. No business exists in a vacuum, so don't overlook the effect of competition on your bottom line.

An E-book Publishing Business Guide

After a couple months of blogging about publishing every day I'm beginning to realize that the archive feature isn't a very useful way to find things. E-book publishing is a topic I've come at from a few different angles, so it's time to collect those posts with a little commentary. E-books are probably the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry, but that's only because they started from such a low level. I like to use Amazon as a proxy for the whole e-book market, and even the best selling e-books on Amazon rarely make it into the top 10,000 titles. Yet, Amazon believes strongly in the future of e-books, has made a serious commitment to publishing original short-form e-books (Amazon Shorts), and even published e-book versions of thousands of classics a couple years ago.

If we fool around with the definition of "profit," than E-book publishing is also the most profitable segment of the publishing industry. The cost for writing and editing e-books is the same as for paper books, but the production cost is essentially zero - you get paid for loaning customers some electrons from the power company. You can produce e-books in any old software, there are multiple free solutions for creating PDF's, but if you're doing it as a business, you want to at least consider Digital Rights Management (DRM). While many mom-n-pop e-book publishers sell directly to their customers, sometimes e-mailing PDF attachments when payment is received, the big boys use e-book server software from Adobe, Microsoft or Mobipocket.

The marketing of e-books online displays some unique features, compared with traditional book marketing. Since customers never hold an e-book in their hands before purchasing it, aesthetic niceties like cover design are sometimes wasted on them. For me, the Yin and Yang of e-book cover design is best expressed by comparing two of the biggest sellers: business texts and erotic titles. Proper titling of non-fiction e-books is the most critical step of the publishing process, since keywords in the title are the main mechanism through which shoppers will first find the book on Amazon or any other online store.

All that said (assuming you read the linked articles), just because the e-book publishing business has a much lower entry barrier than the paper publishing business doesn't mean you should rush into it. For example, Lightning Source has been running a free e-book title setup promotion for the last couple years (for publishers in good standing) yet the only e-books I've published are simply downloadable versions of my paper books. In self publishing, the two primary jobs are writing and marketing, and neither of these are made any less labor intensive by publishing exclusively e-books. Currently, e-books generate around 15% of our net profits, but there is some cannibalization in that figure, i.e., if we didn't offer e-books, we would sell a few more print on demand copies.

With the exception of the production costs and the profit margins which are higher for e-books than even print on demand (you can net 75% of the e-book cover price on Amazon or 100% on direct sales), there's little difference between the e-book publishing business and the paper publishing business. You need to do your market research before you start writing to determine whether potential customers really exist or if it's all in your head. You have to figure out a marketing strategy to reach those customers, because with the exception of online catalog listings, they aren't going to find you on their own. Even with great titling, you won't get any initial attention unless your title doesn't have any competition, and if that's the case, there's a good chance there's no market.

Cookbook Publishing and Writing a Cook Book Online

Cookbooks have a somewhat unique position in the publishing world, thanks to the great variety of types and and publication methods. For starters, a great number of cookbooks are published every year as fundraising endeavors by religious or civic groups and schools. There are several publishing houses whose whole business is printing cookbooks for fundraisers, and in situations where the group lacks publishing expertise, they probably offer the best chance of actually coming out ahead on the project. Traditional publishing houses bring out a tremendous array of cookbooks every year, ranging from reprints of old classics to new coffee table editions published more as food art than sources for recipes.

Self publishing cookbooks (for a profit) presents some special challenges for a new publishing imprint and the number of choices related to printing is enough to make any cook blanch. For starters, recipe oriented cookbooks are often published with comb or spiral bindings so they can be laid flat. Special coated papers may be employed to help the book stand up to broken eggs from the omelet, and font and layout may be designed for reading from twice the normal distance. With the advent of digital photography, aspiring cooking authors are likely to depend over-much on color photography of food preparation, and while this works great when writing a cook book online, it's a costly nightmare for printing.

Since my main axe is print on demand publishing, the fancy photography and limitless binding options are out. To use Lightning Source for printing and distribution, the book can't really use photography at all (mediocre reproduction won't hold water with cookbooks) and only perfect binding (glued) is an option. That doesn't mean you can't cook up a terrific self published book, you just have to match the technology to the style before you start. Print on demand is at its best with straight text content, but it works well enough with black and white line drawings as well. If you think about the cook books you actually use, how many of them actually feature color photography? Some of the best books for cooks were designed with low printing cost in mind, and the only illustrations are black and white line drawings of ingredients.

Combining the online promotion with print on demand production for a hybrid cookbook makes a lot of sense for the newcomer. The online aspect lets you go nuts producing content with a digital camera and the will to cook, so you can literally illustrate every single step in the cooking process for each recipe if you want. Imagine a website with thousands of step-by-step cooking photographs, something you could never do in a book at any cost. A paper cookbook with the actual recipes laid out in standard ingredients:instructions format would be sold as the companion book to the site and wouldn't require any illustration at all. You can take your time writing the online cookbook, start with one recipe and see how it goes. As the site grows and the traffic builds, you'll be able to judge your market and determine whether you should stick with print on demand, go offset, or try to sell out to a traditional publisher.

College Textbook Sales and an Internet Textbook Model

According to the NACS 2004 College Store Industry Financial Report, college bookstore sales of new textbooks reached $4.956 billion. Used textbooks added another $1.751 billion. By contrast, the combined North American sales of Amazon, Barnes & Noble (stores and website) and Borders for 2004, including music and DVD sales, were $10.83 billion. Deduct something for those non-book items and allow for the fact that Amazon et al also sell some number of college textbooks, and you see that college bookstores with their captive audiences make up a good third of the U.S. bookstore market. We can arrive at the same estimate by just using the U.S. Census estimates for 2004 bookstore sales of $16.22 billion and backing out the other totals. Any way you look at it, college textbooks are a huge market generating tremendous profits for some publishers and bookstores.

I actually publish one book that's used as a college textbook in some technical colleges, and its cover price is $14.95. I imagine it's a bit of a shock for students after they shell out $150 for a calculus text (all of which are derivative of Newton and Bernoulli) to see my slim volume for a tenth of the price, and I wouldn't be surprised if they actually keep mine longer. I lived in a college town for a decade, and the numerous textbooks available on the curb when school lets out testifies to both the intrinsic value of those books and the success of the textbook industry in persuading professors to change them as frequently as possible.

It's really a bit of a sick joke that textbooks should be growing ever costlier and heavier (weight justifies cost) at a time when the Internet has become omnipresent on and around college campuses, with a wealth of free information on everything under the sun. We live in an age where computer geeks band together to create and distribute cooperative versions of an operating system (Linux) and numerous related add-ons, and when whole communities edit interactive sites like the Wikipedia. So why do college professors remain mute while cash-strapped students lay out over $750 a year for books that will eventually be converted to shelf art or used for leveling wobbly tables?

The textbook situation is one of those problems that could easily be solved by a combination of internet publication and print-on-demand. Just imagine, professors could write their own textbooks without selling their souls to the editors at the NY trades who insist on the inclusion of needless color illustrations and bizarre formatting just to run up the price. The cream would rise to the top. When students wanted (or were required) to purchase the texts, they could be printed on demand, as a whole text or in sections, and students would see their textbook costs drop to under $20 per course. Thanks to the print on demand publishing model, an Internet textbook co-op could pay for its overhead and still pay professors royalties on par with what they would have earned on a $150 paperweight.

I'm long out of college myself, when I studied engineering, we thought $50 was a lot for a textbook. Engineering hasn't changed, but the prices of the textbooks have tripled. I'm not anti-capitalist, I operate my own publishing company for a profit, but I also find I can give away most of my work on the Internet and do quite well on the earnings from readers who choose to purchase the full paper versions, printed on demand with no inventory or overhead costs. Just as anybody who lives near a gas station can tell you there's price gouging, any student in the U.S. can tell you somebody is price gouging in the college textbook market. It couldn't happen without the collusion of the institutions who own the college bookstores and the professors who assign the books. "Whatever the market will bear" and "Greed is good" make a curious first lesson to be teaching the next generation.

Fiction Print-on-Demand Published By Subsidy Presses

I thought I'd wrap up Amazon week with a look at how to use their database to draw conclusions about the book business. One of the more common questions I get about book promotion is how to promote fiction, especially fiction published by the major subsidy presses (iUniverse, AuthorHouse and Xlibris) using print on demand. The reason I'm hitting on the big subsidy presses here, plus the hybrid PublishAmerica, is because they release so many books it makes it easy to look at a large sample size. Since none of these publishers do any meaningful marketing for books, the sales are comparable to what you could expect from self publishing your own fiction and doing your own promotion. While it's true that there's a stigma attached to using the subsidy publishers in the eyes of many professional reviewers, it doesn't seem to prevent the authors who really work at promoting their novels from succeeding. Of course, if you're really willing to work at the publishing business, you're always better off investing the time and money to set up your own imprint than using a subsidy publisher.

My favorite feature on Amazon is the Power Search box available on their regular search page. You have to scroll down past the regular search boxes, which are quite powerful in themselves, but at the bottom of the page is box that supports Amazon's Power Search language for doing fairly complex database searches. For example, I just typed in:

publisher: iuniverse and subject: fiction

and got back a list of 7201 titles. Interesting factoid right there, about half of the books published by iUniverse are fiction. Sorting by Bestseller, the top book is "Waiting for the World to End" by Nicole Hunter. The sales rank indicates that it's currently selling around 2 copies a day on Amazon, and the 110 reviews and 588 Google hits on the exact title with her name suggest that she does a good job promoting the book. The consensus of the reviews is that it's a heck of a good book. Skimming down the list of iUniverse bestsellers, it looks like the top 100 or so are selling a few copies a week. So, I got ambitious and tried the following search:

publisher: iuniverse or xlibris or authorhouse or publishamerica and subject: fiction

which yielded up 38,237 results, of which 6073 were published this year (just add "and pubdate: during 2005" to the query). The top seller now is "Surge" by Rod Tanner, published by AuthorHouse, and from the cover art, it looks like a novel about a storm surge. Timing is everything. The next book, "The Asylum of Howard Hughes" by Jack Real isn't fiction at all, but the Amazon search returned it because it's in the "Fiction and Literature" category for whatever the reason. This brings up an important point about using the Amazon database. You have to filter the results through your knowledge of what's going on. For example, recently published titles should be taken with a grain of salt, since a few dozen copies sold to the author's friends and family can temporarily bump it up to the top of a bestseller sort. The trick is to come back and check in a week, and again in a month, until you get the feel for how the sorts work for whatever genre you are watching.

The first full length book I ever wrote was a fiction novel, Going Green, and I was fortunate enough in my timing to get it included in Yahoo's directory for web published fiction. In fact, its main claim to fame is the Chicago Manual of Style supplement uses is for an example of how to cite Internet published works. About once a year I get an e-mail from somebody saying it's a great novel and that I should really find a publisher for it, but the truth is, while I enjoyed writing it and it launched me on my career as a professional writer, it's just not very well written, so I've never bothered publishing it on paper myself. Since I already have an ISBN block and a relationship with Lightning Source, I could get the book in-print and available through distribution for about $100 and the effort of designing a cover, but I'm waiting for some college girl to rewrite it for me.

But back to the subject of promoting fiction on the Internet. One logical approach is to look at the success stories generated by our Amazon sort above, Google the titles and the author's names, and look at how they promoted their fiction. You'll find them some of them managed to get reviews by "name" reviewers and opinion makers like bloggers. You'll find many references in newspapers and other media outlets where these authors managed to get an interview, and you'll find a few instances of clever usage of the book promotion services available on the Internet. You'll also find some authors who have websites or blogs that deal with wide ranging subjects but still serve to promote their fiction to a segment of their readership. It's a numbers game. If you can get a thousand people a day visiting your website, there's a good chance that at least one of them might be in the mood to buy your novel if you present it to them properly. If you can sell a couple hundred copies of a fiction work in the course of a year, nobody can say that you didn't get your chance to shine. That's enough readers for word-of-mouth to start taking over as the primary promotional method, providing your book is as good as you believe it is. And that's why I haven't published my novel even though I believe I could get that initial couple hundred sales in time.