Self-Publishing as a Business - You are the Acquisitions Editor

Anybody can write a book and anybody often does. All it takes is the discipline to pile up enough words that the average Joe looking at it in bound form would say, "Yep, that's a book you got there." To succeed in self-publishing, you have to be your own acquisitions editor. If the big trade publishers used bulk as the sole measure to choose the books they published, they'd be putting out millions of new titles a year, instead of tens of thousands, but the publishing business places a number of hurdles before the potential author. While not universally recognized, I'll give the three primary hurdles here in order of importance.

1) Is the author famous?

2) Is there an existing market for the book?

3) Is the book any good?

The first hurdle is simply the acknowledgement by publishers that selling books is hard work, so they'd rather have an author who can do all of the heavy lifting. This is called a "platform" in the industry, and the best platform to have is your own television show - think O'Reilly Factor or Tom Brokaw promoting "The Greatest Generation" every night on the news. You don't have your own TV show. If you do, you're wasting your time reading my advice. So, if you're interested in self-publishing your book as a business, the first question you should ask yourself is "Am I famous?" If you answer "Yes," try to draw up a mental list of who knows who you are. If you are thinking in terms of individuals rather than groups, and if the list starts with "Mom," you aren't famous. That doesn't mean you don't have a platform. It's possible that you have a big website, publish a newsletter or have push cart in front of Penn Station that delivers thousands of eyeballs a day, but try to be realistic.

The second hurdle is whether or not anybody will buy your self-published book if you do a reasonable job letting them know it exists. If your book is a memoir, the answer is almost certainly no. It doesn't mean you shouldn't publish the book or pay a subsidy to get it into print, it just means it's not a promising business model. The classic way of determining whether or not a potential title has a market is to check if and how comparable titles are selling. If there are no comparable titles, it doesn't mean you shouldn't publish, but it does mean you'll be flying blind. The publishing business isn't profitable enough to engage in true market research, unless you're talking about launching a whole new line of branded books, so you have to use practical measures to estimate the demand. If every argument you come up with starts with "I think..." or "It seems to me..." then you're in trouble.

The last hurdle is whether or not the book is any good, and you're just not in a position to be the judge of that. Neither is your mother, your father, your extended family or friends. The only true measure is to get strangers to read the manuscript and give you feedback, ideally strangers you don't deal with on a face-to-face basis. If you can't get strangers to read your manuscript for free, you're going to have a heck of a time convincing them to buy your book. The Internet is ideal for this, and I push every writer I know to have their own website or blog and start posting their writings. It will serve as both a mechanism for current feedback and a platform for future sales.

If you're going to be successful in your self-publishing business, you have to be the gatekeeper who keeps you from publishing unsaleable books. I've authored and published books that sell well, I've published one that bombed, and I've written a book (and large chunks of others) that I'll never publish because I'm conscious of the three hurdles to publication. Keep in mind that having a platform in veterinary medicine won't necessarily help you sell your novel about a certified public accountant who solves murder mysteries in Boston. If you don't want to write non-fiction about veterinary medicine, at least make your amateur sleuth a veterinarian, and maybe you'll build a base with your customers or at those wild conventions you hold in Las Vegas:-)

Foreign Rights Deals - How American Books are Published Internationally

I just got my second question this week from about foreign rights sales. The first was from a U.S. based publisher who'd been approached by a foreign publisher who wanted to license a book, the second was from a foreign publisher interested in acquiring multiple U.S. titles for translation. I'm neither a lawyer nor a particularly good negotiator, but I've heard from publishers and authors from all over the world on this subject, so I'll regurgitate a little here.

There are two basic kinds of foreign rights sales: those where the acquirer will translate the work into another language (or languages) and those where the foreign publisher will provide marketing and distribution for an English title in a country where the original publisher has no facilities to do so. In both cases, the publisher selling the rights must be very specific as to what rights are being sold, ie, what languages, what regions of the world, and whether the rights extend beyond a printed book. U.S. publishers should be especially wary of granting electronic rights to English works for fear they will have legally conceded rights for Internet publication, which of course, knows no borders. Some deals may include time limitations as well.

There are also two basic fee models for licensing the rights; a one time payment or a royalty (any royalty deals should include an advance payment against expected sales). In both cases, the U.S. publisher would be wise to get the money before e-mailing the file off into the blue, because it may be the last friendly contact they ever have with the foreign publisher. Since doing this intelligently requires the services of a lawyer or an agent with strong foreign rights experience, it's not generally a good proposition for self-publishers, who will spend more on making the deal than they can hope to earn back on a single title. If you are a self-publisher who feels you have a foreign rights offer you can't turn down, but you refuse to spend money on professional help, at least read up on the subject (Kirsch, Poynter) and consider using a boilerplate contract from their books.

I've received several offers over the years to publish translations of my self-published books, but due to the relatively low potential for profit, I've never had a reason to move forward with it. However, I've authored a few books for trade publishers that have had foreign rights deals, in languages including: Spanish, Chinese, Greek, Arabic, Polish and Russian. The largest of these deals brought the publisher $2000 for an outright sale of print rights, but the average was actually less than $1000. One deal, Spanish, involved a royalty amounting to about $0.50 per copy. A large publisher or a small publisher with an attractive backlist can amortize the legal and accounting costs and headaches for foreign sales over a large number of titles, but it's a dicey business decision for a small publisher to get involved, unless they see foreign sales as strategic part of their future.

It really comes down to a question of your business model, especially your distribution network. I think foreign rights sales for small publishers are probably a better gamble when there's no translation involved, just expansion into another English market that you aren't set up to serve. For one thing, there won't be any questions of the quality of the translation or any additional liability for errors, and in some cases, you may be able to negotiate a deal where the foreign publisher simply resells books you have printed. However, I worry even more about dotting the "i's" and crossing the "t's" in the legal agreement for English rights sales, lest they end up back in a market you sell in (i.e., the U.S.) competing with your books, or even selling a lower quality version of the same title. Keep in mind that legal agreements aren't about the plain meaning of the words, if you aren't trained in the field, you don't know what you're doing. You could sign a perfectly good boilerplate agreement with a publisher in France or Ukraine, only to find that the French agreement gives them the right to sell throughout Europe under E.U. law or the Ukrainian deal gives them access to the whole of the former U.S.S.R under their law. I don't know this to be the case, it's just an example of a potential pitfall.

How to Increase Book Sales with an Author Website

It's been 10 years since I built my first website based around a book, or around a book manuscript, since I hadn't yet been published by a major trade. I designed the site with the free software that came with the Internet service I was signed up with at the time, Global Network Navigator (GNN), later purchased by AOL. That website helped bring four offers to publish the book, and being a hungry idiot, I went for the one with the largest advance. Water under the Damn, Damn, Damn!

For over five years now I've been corresponding with authors and publishers about the book business, with the initial contact usually coming through my analysis of Amazon Sales Ranks. The only reason for authors or publishers to be interested in Amazon Ranks is because they are interested in their sales, and the second e-mail usually includes a request for tips on increasing Amazon sales. If the question is really silly, like, "How can I sell a lot of books and get really famous," I've occasionally been guilty of a goofy response, like "Get really famous first, and then people will buy your books." However, there's a grain of truth in the goofy response, and as somebody who talks regularly with trade publishers and authors, I can tell you that the main thing publishers are looking for these days is an author with a "platform." By a platform, they mean, a proven way to publicize books, and fame isn't a bad start.

You don't need to become famous to increase your Amazon sales, except in the search engines. What you need is a website that people can find and that does a good job of promoting your book. That leads to a new challenge for most authors, learning how to design a website, and in the past, it was a higher hill than most were willing to climb. Authors who recognized the need for a website but lacked the skills to create one often ended up paying big dollars to a professional website designer for a site that was never updated and poorly optimized for the purpose. These websites usually looked like advertisements rather than resources, and who would go out of their way to visit an advertisement? However, I couldn't offer to design a website for every author who contacted me, so the best I could do was offer free critiques of existing websites, and hope the author could make the changes without paying somebody through the nose.

Then, last week, it finally occurred to me to try a blog. When I hear the word "blog" I immediately think of some radicals on either end of the political spectrum spinning conspiracy theories, and I ignored the mechanics of the thing. It turns out that blogs are actually a painless way to build and maintain a website; you can even have it hosted for free, though I recommend buying a domain and paying a low monthly fee to host it there. In either case, making posts to a blog is as easy as sending an e-mail. In fact, you can make your posts by e-mail if you want to. Each post is individually saved as a unique page with its own title, which helps a great deal with search engines. The standard options include making your blog entries available to others as RSS feeds, which, if picked up, will contain your custom signature line, raising the profile of your site. If you haven't cottoned to the fact yet, this page is a blog, which I created with Google's free blogging software.

The basic approach for promoting books through a website is twofold. First, publish large excerpts from your books on your websites, I often get up around 50% of the total. Yes, you will get ripped-off, but a copyright is a copyright, and it's easy to find offenders with Google. Second, you can post articles related to your books, be it reader questions (and your answers), expanded material that enhances the book, or just regular musings on a related subject, like this. You can join the Amazon Associates program (free) and directly link to Amazon from every post, or you can send readers through a custom order page, like I do. This way, I can inform readers that the books are also available direct from me or can be ordered through their local bookstore. The bottom line proof is you found this page and were interested enough to read down to this point!

Author Expectations and Subsidy Presses

I get a lot of correspondence from subsidy published authors. If I ask enough questions, it usually turns out that they have no interest in the publishing business and have never given it a thought, except maybe in the lottery sense - What if I win! Most of these authors wrote a book and just wanted to see it in print as soon as possible. While most have gotten some proofreading from friends and some have even paid for a "NYC editor", they aren't interested in doing a major rework to match a market segment. Getting the book "published" is the pay-off for the hard work.

I use the term "subsidy press" rather than the more common "vanity press" because I don't think there's anything vain about an author who's put a tremendous amount of effort into writing a book wanting to see it published even if they have to subsidize the cost. I believe subsidy presses provide a valuable service for these authors, as long as they don't push rip-off promotions for advertising the book. There may be a difference between paying a subsidy publisher to promote a book and flushing the money down a toilet, but I don't know what it is. An author today can get their book into print and available through distribution and Amazon for just a few hundred dollars, but make sure you don't sign away your rights. I usually recommend Booklocker for authors who have the ability to market their own books but just aren't willing to jump into the business with both feet.

One of the biggest subsidy publishers, iUniverse, recently went public with their numbers in a Publisher's Weekly story. Lee Goldberg did a nice write-up on his blog. The bottom line number that potential iUniverse authors should be aware of is that less than one half of one percent of the titles they published in 2004 sold more than 500 copies. That's pretty long odds to contend with. The average title sold less than 50 copies, including those printed for sale to the author.

That's where it ends for most of subsidy published authors, and the ones who were dreaming of a bestseller often come away from the experience blaming the Print-on-Demand (POD) publishing model. A couple years ago, I used to preach the POD publishing model to every writer I met, and I just assumed that they'd be interested in the business aspects. Eventually, I got tired enough of doing a monologue to start listening, and I found out that while most writers harbor secret ambitions of fame and fortune, they really aren't willing to make a business of it. If you don't treat publishing as a business, not only won't you make a living at it, you probably won't even sell 50 books.

It's an unfortunate fact of life that the publishing industry is so competitive that publishers and authors who have a good thing going tend to be reticent about sharing too much about it in public for fear of immediate competition. I watch enough books and genres to know that the fear is well founded, and that small publishers who discover a good niche in terms of titles or marketing strategy have nothing to gain by publicizing it. I've made the transition from earning a decent living as a trade author to earning a decent living publishing print-on-demand books, and I'm much happier now that my successes are mine to enjoy and my failures are mine to learn from.

How to Start a Publishing Company with Print-on-Demand

The Internet has brought writers an indispensable new way to reach vast audiences and promote self-published books. This has much greater impact on the book business than technological advances in publisher workflow, but has been largely ignored by most authors and publishers. The new pre-press software allows a skilled operator working on a home PC to produce the electronic files for printing books that are indistinguishable from the best the trades have to offer. On-demand publishing allows publishers to print commercially competitive books a single copy at a time, a true revolution in the basic publishing model. The very newness of these innovations ensures that no one is currently using them all to the best possible effect. This means there is more opportunity than ever for both new and established authors to start a publishing company.

Anybody who prints a bunch of pages on their PC printer, punches holes in the margin and arranges them in a three-ring binder is perfectly free to write "A Book - Published by Me" on the cover and call themselves a self-publisher. If they keep track of their expenses, sell these books, and file Federal and State taxes as a publisher, then they really are a publisher. But that's not the definition we're going to use in this book, and it's not the definition book stores, distributors or printers use. As far as the industry is concerned, a publisher is a person or business entity who has purchased at least one ISBN (International Standard Book Number) block.

We'll examine print on demand self publishing in the context of traditional publishing models and as a unique new model which has come into its own with the Internet. While the processes followed in preparing new titles for traditional publication on offset presses can also be applied to POD, it's critical to realize that there are other paths. The traditional publishing process evolved over hundreds of years, dedicated to making the peculiar economics of that industry feasible. POD does not obey the economics of traditional offset publishing, though many publishers have been slow to realize this. If you're thinking about starting a publishing company, know that you can publish books and make them available through 90% of US bookstores and Amazon, etc, for well under $500 in up-front costs. That doesn't include writing, editing, proofreading or marketing, but it does include the cost of an ISBN block and print-on-demand title setup with Lightning Source, in place of the $10,000 or more new publishers often spend on their first run of books. This book is written for both authors and self-publishers who are starting their own publishing company and wish to take advantage of the unique possibilities of POD, as opposed to simply using it to keep old books in print.

Print-On-Demand Myths

Myth #1 - The most prevalent myth about print-on-demand is that books published with on-demand technology are unwelcome in bookstores and libraries. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the world's major academic presses are some of the heaviest users of print-on-demand. The factors that keep any new book from gaining a place on bookstore shelves are: lack of marketing, lack of demand, the publisher's refusal to accept returns, the publisher's refusal to grant the trade discount, or an unprofessional appearance.

Myth #2 - The second widely believed myth about on-demand books is that they are amateur productions put out by subsidy publishers. The technology used to print a book has no bearing on the production values, which result from a combination of writing, editing, proofreading and design. The quality of the paper stock and cover printing for POD books varies with the provider, just as it does with offset printed books.

Myth #3 - The third myth says that a self-publisher would choose print-on-demand book publishing only if they planned to print less than a hundred books a year. As we showed in our case study, on-demand printing can actually be cheaper for publishing books in quantities up to 500 or more copies at a time, and allows an order turn-around time of days rather than weeks. A book that only sells 100 copies a year is not a compelling commercial product for any publishing company, unless the cover price is astronomically high.

Myth #4 - Print-on-demand book publishing equals vanity publishing. The truth is that practically every major publishing company in the country is starting to utilize POD for some portion of their backlist. This myth is probably the most damaging to "On Demand Publishing" as a branding expression, since it has become associated with the vanity press business in the minds of most people working in the book industry. However, there's no reason for a customer to care about the technology used to create a book, unless the publisher wants to make the argument that on-demand book publishing is "tree friendly."

Subsidy publishing, sometimes called vanity publishing since the author pays a fee to get a book published, has always been a profitable business for subsidy publishers. They do fill an important function in the book publishing world, however, and I've often recommended them to authors, depending on the circumstances. If you're an author who wants to start a publishing company just because you can't get a trade publisher to print your book, consider a subsidy press. The adoption of print-on-demand by subsidy presses has allowed them to lower their charges to as little as $200 to have a no-frills book published. Many subsidy publishers use Lighting Source, ensuring that the book will be available through the Ingram distribution network and thus available through over 90% of U.S. bookstores, in addition to online booksellers. Lightning Source also supplies Baker&Taylor, and they appear to be moving in the direction of directly supplying the chains. The best reason for an author to turn to a subsidy publisher is if the author has written a book that isn't commercially viable, and lacks the desire, skills, or financing to take the self-publishing route.

Authors should be careful about the contracts offered by subsidy publishing companies and should retain all rights to their book with the option to end the relationship at any time. Authors shouldn't rely on a subsidy press to edit, proofread or otherwise contribute to the quality of a manuscript, whatever the price charged, and should obtain these services directly from local freelancers. The reason I wrote the book was to explain the economics of publishing and how Print-on-Demand has changed the rules for both publishers and authors. The one thing that remains the same is that you'll never sell books (outside of your family and friends) unless you spend as much effort on marketing your books as on writing and publishing them.