Manipulating Amazon Bestsellers For Fun or Profit?

A new round of debate has sparked up in publishing circles over an article written by John Kremer, a respected expert on book marketing and author of the popular "1001 Ways to Market Your Book." It started with a post John made to his blog about campaigns to push a book to the top of the Amazon bestseller list. This was followed by a response from Richard and Angela Hoy of, who also run Booklocker, questioning the ethics of Kremer's approach. John responded with a 25 point defense of his position.

My own take on creating temporary Amazon Bestsellers, called "Amazon Bombing" by some, is that there's little point in doing so. While I accept Kremer's examples of the technique helping this or that title on Amazon or in the past, my gut feeling is that this promotion style falls into category of "funny once." The first couple publishers or authors who went to the trouble may have seen some benefit due to gullible buyers being impressed by the sales spike, but now that the news has been out for some time, it's hard to believe anybody puts credence in a transient high ranking.

If my memory serves me right, a similar debate over the ethics of manipulating Amazon ranks led to a schism of the Pub-Forum list, when Shel Horowitz, another respected marketing Guru, used a mass-emailing technique to temporarily propel his "Principled Profit" up the rankings. I remember keeping an eye on the book's ranking after the campaign, and it fell right back down the charts after the effects of campaign ran out of steam. I don't know if it helped Shel's sales through other channels, but I suspect it would be hard to separate the publicity generated by the debate over the technique from the effects of the momentary bestseller status.

I'll leave the debate over the ethics of temporarily manipulating the online sales ranking of a book to others, but my own suspicion is that whatever value there may once have been doing so is rapidly losing currency.

Selling Books Online by Mail Order

Direct sales are often the plum of the self publishing business. I've been selling books online since 1995, my first book didn't even have an ISBN number. If you can get serious visitors to your website, you can sell books. You don't need a super sophisticated website to sell online, my first order form wasn't even a form - just a page with the price and my mailing address for checks or money orders. While it turned out to be a little too crude (I got some overseas checks I never cashed because of the bank fees and took a beating on shipping and handling), the lesson I took away was that selling books online was possible, even in the early days of the commercial Internet.

During our offset press days, we shipped thousands of books to U.S. and Canadian customers, using Media Mail in the U.S. and airmail for Canada. At first we only took checks (though some people ignored us and sent cash), later we added credit card processing, but it didn't really have much impact on sales for those titles. The customers who found our books online tended to be pretty sold on them by the time they ordered, and were willing to jump through (minor) hoops to get them.

When I started selling self published books online through this site, I gave a 20% discount and charged $2.25 for Media Mail shipping and handling. The $2.25 covered the postage ($1.42 at our weight) a padded mailer (around $0.20 each when bought by the 100 count), with a few cents left over for the "handling" portion. Mail order sales accounted for approximately 20% of our gross the first year, with the other 80% going through Amazon or special order through bookstores fulfilled by Ingram distribution.

It that rapidly became apparent that many mail order customers were spoiled by relatively fast delivery times from online retailers, and shipping books from Massachusetts to the West Coast or the South West by Media Mail brought regular complaints. Some customers started complaining if the book didn't show up within a week, others waited two weeks, and by three weeks most got a little worried. We always stated "usually 4 to 14 business days for delivery" which is basically 1 to 3 weeks, but people just expect better and you get tired of e-mails accusing you of being a crook. In the end, I think I issued two refunds that year (our policy is never to reship to the same address), which was much cheaper than paying for delivery confirmation for all books, but the overhead of dealing with the angry e-mails got to me.

When we shifted to using PayPal to print all of our labels, I started putting delivery confirmation on all of the books be sold online, which brought the total shipping cost right up to the amount we charged for S&H. The problem was that most customers thought that the delivery confirmation number was the same as a tracking number, and expected to be able to track their book in transit. Since the post office frequently doesn't bother scanning the labels until the package is delivered (thus, "delivery confirmation") this led to even more correspondence. I was actually tempted to stop selling books online and channel all of our orders through Amazon and Ingram, which has the built in advantage of improving stocking at those warehouses, and raising the profile of the books on Amazon as they sell more, but I went for the intermediate route.

Last year, I released all of our titles as e-books, which is a natural fit for online selling, and some percentage of customers who would have bought through mail order now buy e-books, especially those outside the U.S. who face longer shipping times and higher postal costs. At the same time, I did away with the 20% discount for mail order sales, which means customers can actually buy our books cheaper by ordering them through the local store (and not paying for shipping and handling) or by ordering enough books from Amazon to get free shipping. At the same time, I started shipping all of our books by first class mail with delivery confirmation, which means the $2.25 we charge for shipping and handling doesn't actually cover our cost, but with no discount on the books, we can afford it. The result is we are selling far fewer books online this year, mail order revenue is down around 80%, but we are selling more books overall, as customers click through to Amazon or order through their local bookstore. More importantly, I haven't had a single complaint about shipping time this year, as opposed to last year when sometimes I was in multiple correspondences about mail order delivery time at the same time!

Amazon IS the world's biggest bookstore

Amazon reported their earnings for the second quarter of calendar 2005 yesterday, beating expectations and bringing about a 10% jump in their stock price. Their North American media sales (they don't break out books from music and video) were up 14% for the first six months of the year, making the fourth straight year with double digit growth. This means that Amazon is growing their media sales at twice the rate of Barnes&Noble, which in turn, has been growing at twice the rate of Borders. Amazon will nearly catch Borders for North American sales this year, and will be at approximately 75% of Barnes&Noble sales.

Amazon's overseas growth is even more startling, and stands out in contrast to the torpid growth of the two other American retailers overseas. Amazon's international media sales, primarily in the UK, Germany, France and Japan, reached 97% of Amazon North American sales in the first half of the year. At their current growth rate, Amazon will sell more books overseas than in North America next year. While none of the big three retailers break out their book sales vs other media, such as music, movies, and audio books, it's probable that the Amazon mix contains more of these non-book products.

What this means to the self publisher is that putting all of your eggs in Amazon's basket isn't necessarily the worst thing to do. If you have the option to get your books into Barnes&Noble, Borders and the independents, by all means do so, but weigh the costs and risks. Getting books stocked on shelves doesn't mean they'll sell, and it’s quite an upfront investment to meet their stocking requirements. With Amazon, a single copy on their shelf means it's "in stock" and they'll ramp up their ordering to meet actual demand, rather than insisting on a huge print run for initial stocking. Sure, sales will be slower when the book is on "2 - 3 weeks shipping", but as it builds momentum, stocking will catch up. All of this goes against the traditional "push" model of publishing, where the economics dictate printing the greatest possible number of books to lower the unit cost and increase the shelf impact, but it's ideal for print on demand.

I've seen increasing sales through Amazon.UK thanks to my books there being printed by Lightning Source U.K., the overseas branch the primary print on demand provider for all U.S. publishers. Amazon recently acquired their own print on demand operation, Booksurge, but it's unclear as yet how they will integrate Booksurge printed titles into their international operations. Replica also maintains a direct relationship with Amazon via Baker&Taylor, but I don't know if they have any international connections, and the stocking mechanism is a little clunky.

Career as a Technical Writer or Travel Writer

Even experienced writers often get mixed up about the difference between a professional relationship and a career. Getting a job as a writer for a magazine, website or a Fortune 500 company is no different (in the career sense) than getting a job as a photographer, engineer or janitor for the same employer. Although you lengthen your resume, you don't build your own platform - that belongs to the entity you are writing for. Even if you get some name recognition, which is rarely the case if you work as a technical writer, it doesn't mean much unless you are one of the top dogs at a major publication. Being "John Doe" who writes for the New York Times or "Jane Doe" of Newsweek might help a little with a book proposal to a trade, but if the average person who reads those publications can't instantly place who you are, it's not career building material. If you leave that job for any reason, you're just another experienced writer with a resume standing in an unemployment line.

The career spectrum for writers extends from technical writing to travel writing. There are technical writers who author books (and not just on technical subjects) and there are technical writers who spend their careers essentially translating bad engineering English into bad technical English. It's not a glamorous career, but many writers have found they can earn a comfortable living at it and pursue other types of writing in their spare time. I can't say I've ever met anybody whose goal in life was to become a technical writer, it's a career people often find themselves in when they grow up. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the travel writer. Travel writing is about as glamorous as writing gets, and one imagines the travel writer on an endless tour of exotic locations, 5 star restaurants and nightclubs. My own mental image of the travel writer is somebody who faces an IRS audit every year to justify all the write-offs for being permanently on vacation:-)

The common threads in technical and travel writing are that both work very well on the Internet and for self publishing. A few pages about being a tourist in Jerusalem on this site draw well enough to justify my self publishing a book on the subject, if I ever get motivated. The problem is, while I travel to Jerusalem every year for a few months, I don't particularly enjoy being a tourist, and the handful of restaurants and cafes I do go to wouldn't make for a very meaty guide. Travel pages are one of the best matches for photo content, and if you're going to be a travel writer, you better learn how to take your own photographs.

From the self publisher's point of view, the wonderful thing travel books and technical books have in common is a tight focus. It may be hard to get to the top of a database search for "Travel to Europe" but even with 1852 titles in print, Lonely Planet doesn't have a monopoly on all the possible travel destinations and themes. How-to books can likewise be focused down to the point where there's no direct competition, it's just a question of your doing the market research to make sure you haven't narrowed the audience down to the point where you'd be lucky to sell a hundred books a year.

Building a career as a writer that isn't dependent on the whims of a single employer requires diversification, just like a stock portfolio. Whether you work as a freelance writer for multiple employers, become a self publisher, or choose some combination of the two, the goal should always be building your own platform and name recognition. If you mix in authoring books for trade publishers, you may be able to establish a baseline of income that will cover the bills while you pursue the work that really interests you.

Sterling Publishing and Barnes & Noble Books

Barnes & Noble bought Sterling Publishing a little over 3 years ago, and publishing has been a rapidly growing segment of Barnes & Noble's strategy ever since. Sterling has over 5,000 titles in print and is adding about 1100 annually, primarily in the How-To area. Barnes & Noble also acquires books from other publishers, such as the "in easy steps" computer series from U.K's Computer Step publishers, and Barnes & Noble also publishes an extensive backlist of out-of-print and out-of-copyright classics. According to their annual 10K filing, Barnes & Noble also "commissions books directly from authors" and "creates collections of fiction and non-fiction using in-house editors." All of this shapes up as good business for Barnes & Noble, but doesn't cheer most self publishers.

The reason has to do with shelf spaces and market saturation. Barnes & Noble is the dominant bookstore chain in the country, and they have a good record of working with small publishers when it comes to in-store events and stocking titles. However, as their annual report points out - "Each Barnes & Noble store stocks from 60,000 to 200,000 titles, of which approximately 50,000 titles are common to all stores." For the true super stores which stock 200,000 titles (though I suspect they may have meant "books" rather than "titles") that leaves a lot of room for regional or independent books, but the smaller stores seem to do an excellent job stocking the Barnes & Noble published books (and they'd be nuts not to), so it's a scary thing for a small nonfiction publisher to find that a Barnes & Noble imprint is publishing a competing title.

Barnes & Noble now has some 10,000 books in print, and they tend to be lower priced than the competing titles, which while great for customers (vertical supply chain) doesn't make publishers very enthusiastic. I seem to recall Steve Riggio saying last year that they were targeting 10% of book sales as self-published by Barnes & Noble. I also seem to remember him saying three or four years ago that they were targeting 5%, so it stands to reason if they reach 10%, they'll up the ante again.

With half their books coming from their Sterling subsidiary which specializes in how-to, and a good chunk of the remaining half also in the how-to segment, it's safe to assume that how-to publishers are at the greatest risk for the time being. The how-to emphasis makes sense, since Barnes & Noble can easily track which titles are doing well throughout their chain, than commission or acquire similar titles. They don't need to be huge sellers, the acquisition cost for a commissioned book is pretty low (lots of hungry writers out there) and the guaranteed shelf space makes a large first print run, which combined with the lack of middlemen, makes the low pricing possible. If I was in the process of setting up a new imprint to publish nonfiction, I would look long and hard at my business model and focus on titles I felt would do especially well on Amazon or independent stores, as opposed to making plans based on the whole market.

Amazon Press and Out of Copyright Classics

I've been a self-styled Amazon expert since the late 1990's, but somehow, I never got around to talking about the Amazon Press. I saw it on the radar for the first time today when browsing the top 100 e-books, noting that H.G. Wells "The Time Machine" was among them ($2.99), and was curious to see who had taken this out of copyright classic the e-book route. To my surprise, it was the Amazon Press, right down to the Amazon graphic on the standard cover template. Using the Amazon search page to search for books by the publisher "Amazon Press" brings up 3205 titles, some of which offer "Look Inside" or "Search Inside" another edition - meaning an edition by another publisher.

The newest publication date they show is November, 2001. Almost all of the titles were digitized in 2000 or 2001, 3009 of the 3205 that show up in the Amazon Press search. It makes me suspect that the other dates shown are just typos. I'm not sure if this means that Amazon is sure they've already digitized all of the classics with expired copyrights that have commercial value, or if it was a random process that they spent a year on and abandoned. My memory on this point isn't perfect, but it does seem to me I was aware of the new titles being added at the time, since it corresponds with when my interest in e-books was peaking. However, I couldn't find any stories on the web about the Amazon Press, so maybe it's been under the radar for five years.

Pretty much everybody who hears about e-books or print on demand for the first times immediately thinks, "I can publish out of copyright material and get rich!" Of course, you'd have to find a way to do it cheaper than Amazon, not to mention the freely available copies of many of these works at project Gutenberg. The real question is whether Amazon will leverage its recent acquisition of Booksurge to put the classic backlist digitized by the Amazon Press back into print. Now that they own the cow, the milking machine and the distribution, the economics would be interesting.

Small Publisher Economics Beyond the Manuscript

Whether you are self publishing or publishing manuscripts you've acquired from other authors, the economics of being a small publisher are essentially the same. The main investment for the small publisher is not the time or money involved in writing or acquiring manuscripts for publication, it's the time or money invested in production, marketing and overhead, with book marketing taking the lion's share. As a small publisher, you can't compete with the major trades in attracting name authors, even if you have deep pockets, because name authors have no reason to gamble on having a book published by an unknown.

On the bright side, unknown authors will accept low advances, and you'll get plenty of solicitations to publish a manuscript for no advance, though it probably makes more sense from a legal and ethical standpoint to pay a thousand or two thousand dollars. I recently wrote a post about how self publishers have to function as their own acquisitions editor, and the same logic applies to acquiring manuscripts for any small publisher. If investing a couple thousand dollars in a manuscript sounds like a lot to you, think about the hundreds of hours you'd spend writing a manuscript if you were self publishing, and the value of your own time.

Starting with a marketable manuscript, there are manuscript editing, proofreading, and illustrating costs. I use a freelance editor for my self published books, pay $25 an hour, and end up with an editing cost between $600 and $1200 on fairly short books. For proofreading, I hire college students for $10 an hour, and encourage them to read as slowly as possible. Professional line drawn illustrations go for anywhere from $25 to $100 each, depending on the complexity, quantity, and whether they are entirely original or renderings of your own ideas or sketches. If the book is photo illustrated, forget POD and get the photos from the author. What this adds up to is that you'll spend at least as much enhancing the manuscript as acquiring it. Even if you do all of the above by yourself (except for the proofreading, which would be silly), you have to figure on the value of your time.

Next, you have to turn the manuscript into a book, which these days, means an electronic file from which a book can be printed. Professional book designers tend to be pretty expensive, in part because they won't do a hack job to meet your budget. A cheap layout job might go for $500; it's not unusual to pay as much as $2,000 for a decent size book. You can find all the software you need as freeware or shareware on the web, or you can spend around $1,000 for a publishing suite from Adobe. The amount a small publisher invests in book design is usually proportional to the amount that will be spent on printing. In other words, a print on demand book with inherent quality limitations and no inventory demands a small investment, while an offset run of a few thousand hardcovers for the low five figures requires you get the electronic file perfect before you print.

The same logic applies to cover design. The quality of print on demand covers is not up to the quality of offset printed covers, so it doesn't make sense to go overboard on the fine elements of color matching and high resolution designs. You can get "original" POD cover designs (i.e., template based) for as little as $99, or you can pay double or quadruple that for a designer with a little more originality and professional experience. If you're doing an offset book, paperback designs start in the same range as POD books but run up to $1,000, and dust jack designs for hardcovers can cost appreciably more. Of course, you can design your own book covers, which I do for my POD nonfiction, but even my crudest efforts end up taking appreciable time to design, and that's time that comes out of the main job of being a small publisher - marketing.

Whether you use Lightning Source for print on demand as I do, or whether you take delivery of books and do a combine direct fulfillment with a distributor, actually filling orders isn't a major job for the small publisher, though you may wish it was. The economics of book printing and distribution by either POD or offset are addressed in my Lightning Source case study. If you use POD, the upfront investment is usually between $100 and $200 for setup. If you do an offset run, you can spend anywhere from $500 for a short run of 100 books to $50,000 for a garage full. In either case, you better be prepared to invest at least as much in marketing as in all of the expenses listed above.

Finally we get to the real job of a small publisher, marketing the books you publish. I don't have a hard and fast rule for nonfiction titles, but I'd estimate I invest around 1,000 hours per title in marketing. In my case, that time is nearly all spent on Internet marketing, in developing content for my website that draws links, optimizing the content for search engines and answering reader questions. At any reasonable valuation for my time, that investment swamps everything else, including the time I spent writing the books. If you aren't willing to spend that kind of time, you'll have to spend money on somebody else to do it, or rely on book advertising, which is both expensive and risky for small publisher titles.

Funny Book Title Grammar Sells Books!

Authors and publishers alike frequently mistake book titling as the ultimate challenge for expressing a theme through allegory. That works fine for fiction titles that are backed by a big promotion budget or famous author, but for the rest of us, the title had better express what the book is about in the clearest possible terms. "To Have and Have Not" was a great title for a Hemingway novel (not to mention the Bogart and Bacall movie) but I wouldn't suggest using it as a title for a book about stock market speculation, no matter how clever it seems at first blush.

I'm going to concentrate entirely on nonfiction books in this post because I have no practical experience titling commercial fiction and because I believe a whimsical title may actually help a novel. Nonfiction, whether literary or crassly practical, is written about something. That something should be encapsulated in the title if at all possible, so people and computers will know what the book is about. Did he say computers? Yes, it's especially critical for books with limited promotion budgets to take advantage of the one truly free promotion available in the industry - the title. When you walk into a bookstore, a library, or surf over to Amazon looking for a book about paying for college, a small collection of related words is what the clerk, librarian or you will be typing into a search box to find possible matches. Depending on who types the query, the phrase might be "paying for college", "how to pay for college", "paying for a university education", "how to afford a college education" or "refinancing my house to pay for my stupid kid who didn't get a scholarship to attend a four year party".

The job of the modern nonfiction book title is to include the key words and phrases that will give the book the best chance to show up in a computer search, while not being a complete turn-off to the potential book buyer. For example, the title "How to Pay for College or University for Four Years and is Paying for College or University Affordable without Refinancing Your Home" may contain most of the key words to do well in a computer search, but it's not funny, and the grammar is questionable at best. A title and subtitle combination could achieve the same search results, such as "How to Pay for a College Education without Refinancing Your Home: Paying Four Years of University Tuition IS Affordable."

Now that we've done a crude title refinement with our impression of what key words are valuable, let’s check the Overture Search Term Suggestion tool for how people actually make these searches on the Internet. It turns out that the keywords "Pay" and "College" were searched on over 1,000 times in May (hardly the high season for worrying about tuition) while "University" basically drew a blank. "Paying" also matched with well "College”, so it's a keeper. "Pay" and "Tuition" did much better than "Paying". "Refinancing" wasn't the hot keyword I would have thought, but it definitely matches with "Home" better than "House." Testing "Refinancing" alone tells me that we'd do much better with "Mortgage" in our title, and "Second Mortgage" is a huge key phrase (over 200,000 searches in May) that will come up in some queries. Looking for a replacement term for "University", I searched on "College Education" and "Cost of College Education" looked strong. "Four Year" was nowheresville. Finally, all this scientific titling made me think of "Student Loans" which are a big hit with the kids. So, with the help of Overture, we rewrote our example title:

"How to Pay for College Tuition without a Second Mortgage: Paying College Education Costs with Federal Grants and Student Loans." If I had written a book to fit inside this title, I'm sure it would do better in those critical database searches than either of the titles I started with, and the grammar is superior as well. So how did this post end up titled "Funny Book Title Grammar Sells Books!"? I've seen a lot of funny (odd) book titles in recent years, and the reason is that they are written for database search algorithms rather than the people making them. Some titles have devolved into a laundry list of key words without even a nod to proper grammar, and it actually works well in online stores, like Amazon.

Sample Query Letter Example for Selling Out

The biggest business mistake I've made in the last ten years was making a hash out of my first self publishing attempt, giving up and selling out. I get so much interest on the topic of finding a publisher that I searched through my old documents and found the original query letter I used to sell out. The actual chain of events was that I sent out eight copies of this query letter, got four responses within a week saying, "send us what you have," and spent the next month finishing the book. I also sent out more copies of the sample query letter below (to the very top publishers this time), and got more interest, but at the end of the day, decided to self publish. About a week after I started selling the book on my website without any way to process credit cards, I gave up and put the whole book online. The traffic kept growing and the next year I sold out to McGraw-Hill. The original query letter that drew a 50% response is shown below:

August 9, 1996
Publisher XXXX
Dear Betsy,

There are over 50 million older model PCs currently in use in the US. As companies and individuals move up to newer Pentium models, these "obsolete" PCs are sold or donated to employees, family members, friends, schools and charities. Many of these hand-me-down PC owners immediately find themselves faced with financial decisions about repairs, hardware upgrades and new software. By the end of their "free ride" into the computer age, some find that they've invested more into their bargain box than the price of a new machine.

Thousands of readers, currently over a hundred a day, download my WWW published "Guide to Troubleshooting and Repairing Clone PCs". The questions I receive daily via e-mail have taught me how many non-technical people are struggling to extend the useful life of their PC, and how little unbiased guidance is currently available to them. My new book, "The Hand-Me-Down PC" is aimed squarely at these people who have, or are thinking about acquiring, a pre-Pentium era PC. The book answers three fundamental questions:

1) What is it worth? (What is the real value, both whole and parted out, of a PC)
2) What can and can't it do? (Games, financial management, desktop publishing, surfing the Web,)
3) How do I fix or upgrade it? (And when it's not worth any more cash)

I have personally built or repaired thousands of PCs, and through answering at least as many questions, I've learned that the key to explaining computers to the non-technical audience is brevity. My intention is to keep "The Hand-Me-Down PC" a very short book, less than of fifth the size of the 1000+ page monsters of techno-babble that currently dominate the market. The first half of the book will consist of plain English explanations of the trade-offs involved in owning an older PC. The second half is my expanded troubleshooting guide, with the addition of illustrations. The focus of the troubleshooting guide is not to educate users about how a "Von Neumann architecture" computer operates, but how to get it running again when it's broke.

My professional qualifications include a BSEE in the computer option from Northeastern University (1986) and a MSEE from the University of Massachusetts (1990). I have twice served as manufacturing and technical support manager in clone PC businesses, and have trained numerous technicians and sales people. I've written and edited (under contract) software manuals, and was published this year as the co-author of "Electronic Imaging - Applications and Markets," for which I wrote the multimedia sections.

"The Hand-Me-Down PC" will be finished by the end of September. There will be last minute additions of time sensitive references such as World Wide Web help resources. My on-line troubleshooting guide, along with links to other published writing can be found at: I would be happy to provide you with a full outline and finished sections of the manuscript on request.

Sincerely Yours
Morris Rosenthal
(413) 585-9671


Several things have changed since the sample query letter I'm presenting here was sent out, including my e-mail, phone number and salemanship ability. It's not the perfect query letter, but it did the job, even if it's appreciably longer than I generally advocate. The first paragraph was a build-up to keep the acquisitions editor from laughing about the idea of a book dedicated to old PCs. The second paragraph defines the market and my ability to reach it - nobody ever believed that every old PC out there represented a potential sale - but I could prove that some people with old PCs were looking for information.

The three questions were put in to demonstrate that the proposed book had a real theme and focus. The next paragraph was a little risky, knocking the current state-of-the art in computer books, which is never a great idea in a query letter, but I really believed I was onto something. I also talked a little about my experience and how close I was to the customer base. Finally, I put in my "professional" qualifications, and a link to my website that had given me the confidence to write the book. Frankly, if an editor was sold on the book by the end of the second paragraph, there would be little reason to finish reading it.

Ebook Cover Design for Business or Erotic Ebooks

Frank Lloyd Wright famously proclaimed that form follows function, and however he meant it, it certainly appears to be true for e-book cover design. We currently publish e-book versions of our paper books and use the same covers, but I've become fascinated with the Top 100 e-book list on Amazon and what it can teach about e-book cover design. I check the Top 100 e-books once a day or more just to watch the trends and hold brief celebrations when one of our titles is up for the day, so I've come to recognize the evergreen e-books, the ones that are actually selling five or ten copies a day. About half the titles in top 100 are business or “adult” e-books, with the proportion varying with the time of day and the day of the week. In fact, there's a real easy Master's thesis for a sociology or psychology student on when people stop thinking about work, though you'd have to make allowances for cross-over titles like "Office Slave."

A bit of a disclaimer before I continue, I've never purchased an erotic e-book and I'm actually something of a Puritan (for those who differentiate between puritans and prudes). However, as a learning exercise, I have clicked on some of the erotic e-books to see the bigger version of the cover, something I'll admit I've never done with a business e-book. The reason is simple. The cover design for business e-books, particularly those which don't exist in paper form, wouldn't catch your eye if it was painted on your glasses. The bestselling series of business e-books from the Harvard Business School Press have nothing but a black graphic and the HBR OnPoint graphic on the cover, not even the title. Other business e-books are usually designed around the title, in a very large font, and if there is a photo or artwork, it usually has no obvious connection with the title.

Erotic e-books are sold by cover art. I'm no expert on art photography or airbrushing, but the covers of most erotic e-books employ a model in some stage of undress, usually in a compromising position. There seems to be an uptick in erotic e-books targeted for a female readership, which, while showing a lot of skin on the cover, pose the models like Greek statues, as you might see on a paperback romance novel. The covers of e-book titles that deal with domination and bondage often include restraints, leather, and other paraphernalia of that world. Never having read one, I sometimes wonder if the cover art has as little to do with the interior as was the case with the science fiction I read as a kid, but the titles seem to match pretty closely.

Actually generating a cover for an e-book is trivial compared with designing a cover for a paper book. There's no bleed requirement, no getting the spine width correct or worrying about straight lines near the edges. It's even easier from the standpoint of color matching - you can generate the e-book cover in any software you want, save it as a TIFF or a JPEG, and you're done. There's nothing to stop you from generating an e-book cover using nothing but a digital camera and Microsoft Paint, found in the Program>Accessories menu of Windows. In the end, it doesn't pay to waste a lot of time trying to tweak the colors or fonts on your e-book covers, because they'll rarely be viewed at a resolution above the thumbnail image displayed on Amazon. Even if you want a full resolution image in the PDF file the customer purchases, it's going to look a little different on every computer display, and there's nothing you can do to prevent it. Just follow the file submission guidelines (submission is another popular cover theme for erotic e-books) and don't be afraid to make a mistake since you aren't going to get stuck with a garage full of books.

Amazon Associates and Amazon Advantage

Amazon today represents a huge proportion of the retail book market accessible to self publishers. Large trade publishers deal directly with Amazon, and smaller trades often let their distributor or wholesaler handle all of the Amazon sales. The print-on-demand portion of our list is printed by Lightning Source, which means those titles are supplied to Amazon both directly and through Ingram Distribution as part of the standard Lightning Source deal. However, we also have a couple offset printed books still in print that lost Ingram stocking years ago due to insufficient sales levels, and for which we never signed on with another wholesaler or distributor. We are still able to sell those books through Amazon two different ways, through Amazon Advantage and Marketplace, and promote them through Amazon Associates.

Amazon Advantage is the "publishers only" program Amazon offers to small and medium size publishers who don't have an exclusive distribution agreement that prevents them for selling any books directly to retailers. It's not a bad deal, as far as the book industry goes. Amazon pays the publisher 45% of the cover price of the book (known as a 55% discount), but the publisher pays for shipping the books. Amazon does their best to keep books in stock, but they order in accordance with the track record of the title. As a new self publisher, their first order from you may be a single copy, and when it sells, the title will show on Amazon as "2 - 3 weeks shipping" or worse. They'll quickly send you a request for a replacement, maybe for two or three if they have an order on hand for another copy, but mail is slow, and their receiving and stocking speed depends on temporal factors, like holidays and selling seasons. It can take many months of steady sales before Amazon Advantage figures out the ideal number of your books to stock and orders in accordance, and even then, any bump in sales will drive your title temporarily out-of-stock again. However, compared to the bad old days when self publishers were mainly relegated to selling books direct or accepting a 70% discount deal from a "Master Distributor," Amazon Advantage is a giant step in the right direction.

Amazon Associates is Amazon's affiliate program that pays you commission for items you promote that are sold on their website. With the notable exception of a friend's e-book, we only use Associates to promote our titles. We've been an Amazon Associate since 1997, the longest running relationship we've had in the publishing business, and although our primary reason for participating is to promote our books on the Amazon website, it also ads more than $100 a month to our bottom line in paid commission. You don't need to participate in Amazon Advantage to join Amazon Associates, you don't even need to be in the publishing business, to become an Associate, but it's one of the best tools on the Internet for increasing the visibility of your titles in the world's biggest bookstore.

Amazon Marketplace is accessible to anybody, you don't even have to be in the business, and allows you to sell pretty much any item stocked by Amazon, used or new, in return for paying Amazon a commission or a monthly fee. Amazon also takes a cut of the shipping and handling cost for standard Marketplace books, but leaves you enough to cover Media Mail shipping in most cases. This means, as soon as your book is listed by Amazon, it need never be unavailable, because you can always offer it for sale, direct from the publisher, through Marketplace.

Copyright Abuse and Filing Copyright

I've been posting articles and book excerpts on the Internet since 1995, and I've been ripped-off thousands of times. The medium happens to be ideally suited to copyright infringement. A simple "Save As" or cut-and-paste is all it takes to plagiarize somebody's work. Intellectual property posted on the Internet is subject to the same copyright law protection as work published any other way, but that doesn't stop the rampant abuses from occurring. There are three basic categories of copyright abuse on the Internet:

#1 Casual infringers, primarily discussion list or forum participants, who think nothing of lifting a couple paragraphs or pictures to illustrate a point and using them in a thread without even giving attribution. Sometimes they link back to the source material, which may bring the copyright owner a few extra visitors or visibility in the search engines, so I don't get excited about this form of infringement, though I wish they'd just put in a reference that says, "See this site," with a link.

#2 Automated infringers, scraper sites, faux databases and directories that try to disguise their copyright abuse as "fair use" by stealing a few sentences from a dozen or so sources and presenting them on a page (surrounded by advertisements) as a "resource." I've talked to my lawyer about this, a top intellectual law attorney, and he explained that one of the conditions for "fair use" is adding some value to the original, by means of commentary or the like (my wording), and it was unclear that automated collation would meet that test. The real damage here is to the integrity of search engine results and the possibility that massive linking from scrapers actually hurts the search engine visibility of the original pages.

#3 Individual, wholesale infringers, who plagiarize entire pages, often removing copyright notifications (even those embedded in images) and either present the work as their own or as a find that they are free to exploit for their own purposes. In some rare cases, these people may even repackage and sell material that is being given away for free or that is available for sale from the publisher with protection (Digital Rights Management) which the plagiarist has removed.

Properly displaying copyright notification and even filing a copyright for a website does not prevent copyright abuse. Filing a copyright for your website with the U.S. Copyright Office costs $30, which makes it easier to prove infringement in a court of law, and also allows you to sue for damages. However, if you read Circular 66 - Copyright Registration for Online Works, you'll find that the registered copyright only covers a single fixed form, that version which is registered, and large websites with frequent content updates may file for revised versions every day!

It's quite easy to find cases of copyright abuse for your material on the web. Just pick a random phrase, four or five words long, and search for it in Google, in quotes. For example, I just searched on "find cases of copyright abuse" from the previous sentence, and there's not a single exact match on the Internet. Tomorrow or the next day, this page will show up, and if you're reading this in a couple months, you'll be able to Google the phrase and find all the copies. Some may be legitimate extracts in Blog announcements, but if you find the whole thing in a discussion list or on somebody's personal website, it's a rip-off.

For all the copyright infringement and abuse of intellectual property that takes place on the Internet, it remains the best way for self publishers to promote their works. Face it, if nobody is ripping you off, nobody is interested, and this is that unique situation where it's better to be mugged than ignored. Every month or so I take an afternoon and Google-up a half dozen or so copyright infringers from the third category, individuals who are trying to cash in on my work, and send them an e-mail to cease and desist. If that doesn't work, I e-mail their web host with an invitation to make the acquaintance of my lawyer if they don't remove the offending site. It's worked 100% of the time for countries in the Western World.

Why Print Advertising for Books Doesn't Work

One of the worst things that can happen to a self publisher, or to any small business for that matter, is to have a little too much cash or credit on hand when they start out. That may sound counter-intuitive, but there's a strong tendency for people entering a new business venture to waste valuable resources on advertising that doesn't work. I've done it myself, and so have many of my friends in publishing. It's not because we're stupid, it's because the people who sell book advertising are very good at their job, which is selling book advertising. It's too bad their job isn't selling books, but that's the job of a publisher.

The basic problem isn't that the publisher does a poor job designing or contracting for the advertisement and it's not because the ad isn't run often enough to make an impression. It's that advertising is a poor match for book marketing in most cases, due in part to publishing economics and in part to specific title considerations. Just think for a minute about the last book you purchased as a result of an advertisement.

1) Was it a new title from a fiction author whose books you've read? That's a good example of advertising that works, but it's not that the ad sells you on the book, it just lets you know that a book you're already inclined to buy is now available. This type of advertising doesn't work for self-published books, unless you're pretty famous and have already sold hundreds of thousands of books. Not many self publishers fall into this category.

2) Was it a genre specific book advertised in a genre specific media? It makes perfect sense that veterans of the Martian Wars who subscribe to the Mars Veterans Monthly would be sold by an advertisement for "Inside the Martian High Command," especially if you're the first publisher with a title on the subject, but such matches made in the heavens are few and far between. Keep in mind that advertising is expensive, and if the only relevant publication is the Galactic Veterans Weekly, then you're paying millions of comet dollars to advertise to a billion ex-soldiers who don't know what solar system Mars is in, or care about their strategic blunders.

3) Was it a well timed book about a current event? Everybody would like to be the publisher of "The Day the Dam Burst" in the days and weeks after the dam bursts, though getting the advertising out in that time span is tricky. There is a market for books about events that are scheduled for a future date (think the Y2K bug or the collapse of the housing bubble) but these titles are subject to strong competition and the same issues of genre and fame mentioned above.

Even if your new title falls into one of the categories above (all three of which imply that there are people just waiting to hear about the book so they can buy it) there's an economic problem. The cost of the advertisement(s) has to be justified by the direct profit from sales or increased future profits due to wider audience and word of mouth. No matter how efficient your publishing model is, unless you're talking about a $50 ad in a newsletter, you'll need to sell quite a few books to break even.

And there's the rub. Most new self publishers are hoping to sell tens of thousands of books, and assume that selling tens or hundreds of books is easy. You can spend thousands of dollars on advertising and only sell one book, and like they say in the movies, "That's a true story," although it doesn't happen to be mine. I have wasted hundreds of dollars to sell a handful of books on more than one occasion. Here's another thought experiment. Before you spend some hundreds or thousands of dollars advertising a new title, try finding a dozen genuine potential customers who will accept a free copy. If you can do that, you can start thinking about how you'd reach those people through advertising, but it's not as easy as it sounds.

What is a Self Publishing Company?

Every once in a while I get an e-mail from somebody who has published a book with a subsidy publisher, but insists that they are a self publisher who is using a self publishing company. I don't understand why people get so angry over the distinction, and maybe it's just my definition that a self publishing company is an author-owned publishing house with its own block of ISBN numbers. The basic job description of a self-publisher is somebody who writes a book, arranges for editing and proofreading, either designs the book interior and cover or contracts for a designer to do it, contracts with a printer for printing, contracts with a distributor for distribution, markets the books (you can't really buy marketing, though you can buy help), and optionally handles direct sales to customers.

I think the problem lies with the fact that a negative connotation is attached to subsidy published books that's absent from self-published books, simply because a buyer or a reviewer has no way of distinguishing a self publisher (my definition) from any other small publisher (i.e., any other publisher they've never heard of before). Subsidy publishers tend to get very large very quickly, or not survive, since their business model is based on the fees they charge authors, rather than selling large numbers of book. This means that all of the major subsidy publishers are known to all of the professional reviewers, buyers, magazine editors, etc. There's is another tier of subsidy publishers who try to be selective about the works they publish, insist on editing and a marketing plan, but in the end, they still end up publishing books from authors who just want to get the book published, rather than authors with a genuine drive to set up their own publishing business.

The good news is that there's room for everybody under the umbrella. The very success of the big subsidy presses means that they are making somebody happy, and the quality minded subsidy presses, while not getting rich, are provided a nice intermediate service. However, authors who want to write books for a living really only have two choices: start a genuine self publishing company or work as a trade author. I started out as a trade author and switched to self publishing my own books because it works better for me. That's an individual decision, and depends on your risk tolerance as much as anything else since you can't pay yourself an advance (unless you're incorporated and have a good accountant:-)

Amazon Ebook Sales

I used to be very skeptical about commercial viability e-books, despite the 100% and more sales gains of recent years, mainly because of the e-book 2000 conference I attended in D.C. six years back. The attendees couldn't see the forest for the trees, everybody was obsessing about their hardware reader or their DRM (Digital Rights Management) system, but nobody was talking about the crazy aunt in the attic, namely, how to get people to buy the things. The obvious answer was "online" and the obvious place was online bookstores, yet Barnes& closed down their e-book operation over a year ago, despite having invested heavily in the e-book content side by purchasing MightyWords (with all the money they raised from suckers like me in their IPO).

Publishing discussion lists were full of anecdotal stories of e-book success, but on digging a little deeper, it appeared that low priced erotic e-books were the main winners. There's also been a lot of e-book pontificating by people who did one shot cash-ins, with e-books put together from all the old junk on their hard drives. The secret? If you've been running a e-mail newsletter for years or a large discussion list with many thousands (even tens of thousands) of members, you can get away with blasting them all to buy an e-book, and a good portion will do so out of loyalty. That's not a business model.

However, my opinion began to change last year when I finally told Lightning Source, who prints and distributes my paper books, to go ahead and distribute them as e-books as well. According to Amazon's customer service, Lightning Source actually serves up all of the e-books sold by Amazon (I'm not sure this includes the edocs Amazon sells with no DRM), and Lightning Source has been running free e-book setup promotions for as long as I can remember. The result has been an average of a little over $500/month added to the bottom line of my publishing company.

Just recently, I noticed the proportion of e-book sales rising, with no change in my marketing, and then I finally noticed the new look on Amazon ordering pages for paper books with e-book editions. Under the title information is a nice little blue-bordered box with "Other Editions."

If the paper book has multiple paper editions, they show up, but more importantly for e-book publishers, the e-book version (digital) is now front-and-center, with its price. Most of my e-books are sold for the same as the paper book, but in the case of my Print-on-Demand Book Publishing, I priced the e-book 33% off, since I figured most people getting into print on demand would prefer the paper copy to see the quality.

I've written up some of the reasons people buy e-books, but the thing that pushed me over the edge to try selling e-books on Amazon was customers from overseas writing me and saying they'd rather buy an e-book, get it immediately and print it, than wait for weeks to get an expensive overseas shipment. I know some professionals also buy e-books that they keep on the laptop, just to have them available at all times, but I suspect it comes down to an economic choice for most people - eliminating shipping costs and possibly getting a discount.

How to obtain an ISBN number

The book industry really only uses one metric to distinguish between publishers and non-publishers. If you own an ISBN block, you're a publisher. The ISBN number is the key value that identifies the publisher of a book in all of the online databases and inventory systems used world-wide. I've heard that in some countries you can obtain an ISBN number for free, but in the U.S., you have to deal with the Bowker agency, where "agency" has a special legal meaning, that they've been granted a monopoly franchise by the government. The last ISBN block I purchased consisted of 10 numbers (enough for ten titles) and cost around $250 with the additional publisher registration charge. They call it an "application process," but I've never heard of anybody failing.

All it takes to obtain an ISBN number is a credit card (or a check and a lot of patience), but it's only the first step in the process. Bowker will aggressively market add-on services to you that I've never seen any need for, they really stretch the use of statistics for sales pitches in strange, new ways. You can generate bar codes for your book covers for free with Bookland, and you can convert older 10-digit ISBN's to 13-digit ISBN's for free as well. Don't get panicked into thinking you need to change your existing book covers, the new system grandfathers in books published with the 10 digit ISBN's.  

So, now you know how to obtain an ISBN number, buy it from Bowker, but that's not the end of the story. You'll want to get your ISBN information registered with Books-In-Print, and the only practical way to do that is to sign up for BowkerLink (the only free service they have), the online tool for uploading book information, including price, page count, distribution, etc. It is one of the worst software interfaces I've used in my life, but that's the price of dealing with a monopoly.  

Obtaining an ISBN number makes you a publisher in the eyes on the book industry, but it won't sell any books for you, no matter how many add-on services you pay for. The supply exceeds the demand for new titles, most never see the light of a bookstore shelf or sell much beyond the author's family and friends. Using a subsidy press to publish your book doesn't make you a self-publisher unless you own the ISBN number on the cover. One of the common misconceptions about self publishing is that you don't have to obtain your own ISBN number to become a publisher if you pay a subsidy press to publish your book. If it's their ISBN, they are the publisher, not you.  

You can publish books on a shoestring and you can even succeed, but you can't pretend it's a publishing business without first obtaining an ISBN number. Spend the $250 now, even if it means skipping a few meals, or you'll regret it for the rest of your publishing life. Bookselling is all about marketing, and establishing yourself as publisher with an ISBN is the easiest (and cheapest) step in the path.

Book Promotion, Self Promotion and Reputation

I've sat around a table with members of the Authors Guild a couple times to talk about book promotion. Frankly, it's the only thing of value I felt I got out of the Authors Guild, but one event a year seemed to be the max for Massachusetts (lack of authors?!), so I only lasted two years. When you participate in a discussion about book promotion with 20 or 30 trade published authors, what immediately becomes clear is that there's no one size fits all solution, and a hard-driving author is always at the heart of a success. Some authors spend months at a time on the road doing book readings or seminars, others are relentless at marketing themselves as interview candidates for radio stations, print and Internet media, even TV. Successful authors may even maintain databases and mailing lists of fans to announce every new book release or public appearance.

For self-published authors, the challenge is twofold, because you need to promote yourself as an author before you can promote your book. For trade published authors, the fact that a Random House or McGraw-Hill has published their book is in itself a credential that makes them appear worthy candidates for the standard book promotion methods mentioned above. Strangely enough, this is where being truly self-published (ie, having your own imprint as the publishing company) beats being published by one of the huge subsidy presses like iUniverse or AuthorHouse hands-down. To the media contacts you'll be pitching yourself to, a publisher they never heard of is an unknown quantity that makes a neutral impression. After flooding the market with tens of thousands of titles, the major subsidy presses are known all too well, and the impression is usually a negative one.

Whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction, there's really not that much difference between self promotion and book promotion, in the end, it's all about reputation. If you can establish yourself as a trusted source of a good read or a reliable source of information, you're going to have a much easier time promoting your books, even if the subject matter varies widely. I'm a huge advocate of internet book promotion, but the best internet campaigns are content based. Every new book requires an additional investment of time and effort in generating and posting content, acquiring links, and building the equivalent of a search engine reputation in the new area. The amount of work involved leads many authors to button-hole their careers and stick with the low-hanging fruit.

Building a reputation doesn't happen overnight, unless it's a notorious reputation for doing something awful, so it's best to ignore the quick hits and just start laying stone upon stone. Find a group that shares an interest in your area of writing and participate. There are internet discussion groups for everything under the sun, from mystery novel fans to astrophysics, and if you think you're too good to start at the bottom by reading and responding to posts that strike you as childish, you're never going to rise. If you have a website you're trying to promote, make sure it's in your e-mail signature, but in the end, it's your name people will remember. Until you have a reputation, all you have to sell is your actual writing, and that can be really tough if you can't give people a reason they should take a chance on reading it.

From Book Idea to Book Proposal - The Submission Process

There are books that should be self-published, and books that are better served by signing with a trade publisher. I put nearly all fiction in the latter category, simply because most successful fiction authors I know who started by self-publishing signed a large trade contract at the first opportunity. That's not the case with most non-fiction, where self publishing will generally earn more for the author than selling out. In fact, the cases I can think where successful self-publishers sold non-fiction books to a major trade all ended in tears, but that's a post for another day.

A book idea by itself isn't worth anything. It has to be packaged in a book proposal so the value that's obvious to you becomes obvious to anybody in the trade who reads the first paragraph of the proposal. Getting the point across in the first paragraph is critical, and it's not because acquisitions editors (and their assistants) are all suffering from an attention deficit disorder. You're trying to sell the publisher on a written work, and if they're left wondering what you're on about at the end of the first paragraph of a book proposal or a query letter, why would they be interested in a whole book from you?

On of the most frequent questions I get is, "How can I prevent the evil publishing world from stealing my idea?" I'm not a lawyer, but I believe the answer is, "You can't." The expanded answer is, "You don't have to." The publishing industry isn't out there waiting for fresh ideas to steal. When they want to steal an idea, they steal a stale one which has enough of a track record that they know it sells. Ideas are not copywriteable, patentable, or protectable in the sense that many first-time authors believe. The best way I know of to protect a book idea is to actually write the whole book, at which point if a publisher wants to steal some of the ideas they have to hire somebody to reword it in such a way as to protect themselves from plagiarism charges. At that point it would be cheaper for them to just buy your book, and in fact, that happens to be the business most publishers are in.

Seriously, if all you have is an idea for a book, you're probably wasting your time trying to sell it unless you have a famous name that would incline a publisher to gamble on putting out anything with your name on the cover. New fiction authors will be expected to submit a complete manuscript, it's the only way the publisher can assess whether or not the project has a chance, but they'll still want a query letter and book proposal before you send them the whole thing. Nonfiction can be sold by proposal only, though new authors will probably need to include a couple chapters, unless their writing credentials are impeccable.

If you're writing fiction, you'll likely find yourself submitting your book idea to agents rather than publishers. The big trade houses no longer employ readers to go through stacks of manuscripts. That job function has been taken over by agencies and by personal relationships with authors or publisher employees who can bypass the protective mail room. My personal belief is that this became necessary in the early 90's when computers became as common as TV's, making it much easier for any aspiring writer to grind out a book length manuscript. So it all comes back to getting that first paragraph right.

So what do you need to get into that all important first paragraph? Unless it's as obvious as dirt, you have to make some kind of mention of the market for your book. If you're sending a proposal for an occult book to an occult editor, you can probably leave this until the second paragraph (it still has to be there somewhere to show you understand the market), but for any groundbreaking ideas the editor is unlikely to have published before, you better start with the market. Next comes the idea, and I'm a fan of the knockout punch, rather than the build-up. Finally (and we're already up to a five or six sentence paragraph), something about your experience. If you've never written anything before, at least try to show why you have a connection to the title.