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.

Amazon Shorts Sales and Yesterday's Sales Rank for E-books

As I continue with Amazon homecoming week, I've found I already have to revisit a post about

As I continue with Amazon homecoming week, I've found I already have to revisit a post about Amazon Shorts that I wrote 48 hours ago. I said then that nobody outside of Amazon had any idea how well or how poorly Amazon Shorts were selling because Amazon had given them their own sales ranks, ranging from 1 to 65. Today, I took a look at the Top 100 E-Books and E-Docs on Amazon and saw for the first time that the Amazon Shorts were listed right in with all the others, even though the ranking systems don't align! Ten of the top 100 E-Books and E-Docs were Amazon shorts when I just checked, including the number one seller, "Bubble after Bubble in the ongoing Bubble Boom" by Harry S. Dent. To reach #1, it passed the long-time leader in E-Books, "eBay Secrets" by Stephen Ellis White and Bryon Krug.

The "eBay Secrets" E-book has a sales rank in the low thousands, the lowest consistent rank I've ever seen for an E-book on Amazon. That means it's selling on the order of 10 copies per day. It also implies that the 64 Amazon Shorts ranked behind it are selling less than 10 copies a day. My rough estimate is it takes around two sales a day to maintain a position in the Top 100 E-books and E-Docs list, which means there's a lot of turn-over in the list, particularly outside the Top 10, since it only takes a sales burst of three or four copies to get a high rank for a couple of hours. So, if I had to take an off the top of my head guess based on these assumptions, I'd say that Amazon Shorts sales for all 65 titles combined is running at two or three hundred copies a day. Call it a total revenue stream to Amazon of about $150/day, from which they have to pay author royalties. Not a huge win for anybody.

In the meantime, Amazon has continued the Also Bought linking to E-books that I discussed on Tuesday, and introduced a new twist in the sales ranking of E-books and E-Docs. Amazon now shows a sales rank for Yesterday right below the sales rank for Today. The funny thing is that the rank for Today continues to be updated every hour, while the rank for Yesterday remains constant. I haven't figure out yet whether the rank for Yesterday is an average or just the last rank before midnight, but the important idea here is that Amazon has been working actively on their E-Books presentation, trying to make it more exciting in some way.

The truth is, I find my conclusion about Amazon Shorts sales being so low, somewhat depressing. Selling E-Books through Amazon adds around $500 a month to the bottom line of my publishing house, and I'd hate to have them give up on the concept, like Barnes& did a couple years back. Hopefully, these changes represent an ongoing investment and not a last gasp before they decide it's not worth the bother.

Make Your Own Movie DVD with Amazon CustomFlix Video on Demand

The on-demand aspect of CustomFlix attracts me since it comes so close to the print on demand book publishing model I normally write about. Once you make your own movie and sign up with CustomFlix, you can send them a master DVD of your movie along with any cover or disc art, and the production and sales of the DVD's becomes entirely hands-off. When an order is generated, CustomFlix will print a DVD on demand, reproduce the artwork, and get it to the customer. You just sit back and collect the checks.

The current charge to make your own movie available through the CustomFlix collection is $49.95. They charge a flat fee for production of each DVD plus packaging, according to your sales volume for the month. If you sell less than 19 movie DVD's, the production charge per unit is $9.95. If you sell between 20 and 50 DVD's, the charge is $7.95 and if you sell over 50 DVD's, the charge is $6.95. There's also a 5% charge per sale for credit card processing, but the volume is totaled over all the movie DVD's you publish through CustomFlix, so if you have more than one title, you'll make the volume targets quicker.

Here's the good news - you get to make up the price your DVD movie sells for. If you can attract customers at a $19.95 sale price, you'll be making almost $10 each at low quantities and $13 each at higher quantities. If you can get customers at a $29.95 price, you'll make almost $20 per sale, and so on. Fortunately, pricing for DVD movies follows book pricing to the extent that the blockbuster bestsellers are cheaper than the how-to and educational books. You can buy a paperback novel for less than $10, but try buying a college textbook for that. If you can create and market DVD movies for niche markets and educational buyers, you can earn a high profit per DVD without having to invest in any stock or shipping and handling infrastructure.

Now the bad news. Amazon only acquired CustomFlix two months ago, and they haven't fully integrated the CustomFlix DVD catalog into the Amazon catalog yet. At the moment, CustomFlix movie DVD's are sold direct from CustomFlix, and even though they give you an internet storefront, it's not the same for customers as buying direct from Amazon. CustomFlix will get your DVD movie listed in the Amazon catalog so it can be sold through Marketplace as well, but it's not an ideal solution. It's likely that they'll get the problem fixed in the near future, and your movies will be available direct from Amazon with 24 hour shipping.

The other bad news is two-fold. First you have to make your own movie, and from what I've seen, this isn't a minor investment of time or money even for a relatively straightforward how-to DVD. You can't expect to set up a camera on a tripod and count on the auto-focus to keep you framed and sharp as you do whatever it is you're trying to teach. You need a camera man, quality sound and some decent editing software if you're hoping for a result that won't leave customers screaming for their money back.

Second, you have to market your own movie. How-to and educational subjects are ideal for Internet marketing because so many people use the web to search for information on how to do things. You can provide example movie clippings in compressed format for free download to close the sale, but you'll need a text based website to attract traffic. Of course, you can experiment with Internet advertising programs like Google Adwords or Yahoo Overture as well, but it's not free, so you'll have to take it into account in your business model. Still, the acquisition of CustomFlix by Amazon is an indication that making money with DVD on-demand movies has arrived, at least for the former owners of CustomFlix

Amazon Shorts the Also Bought Book Shopping Links with E-Books

This is turning into another one of those Amazon weeks on my blog. The fist thing I noticed at the launch of Amazon Shorts a few weeks ago is that they replaced the E-books tab on their page-top navigation with the Amazon Shorts tab. That didn't strike me as a big deal. Amazon has often dumped out the E-books navigation tab in favor of some seasonal feature, such as textbooks. For anybody who hasn't checked out Amazon Shorts, I should mention that these are original 49 cent E-books by "well known" authors, ranging from fiction thrillers to nonfiction essays. There are currently 65 short works for sale, but their ranking scheme is unique to the Amazon Shorts category so it's impossible to say how they are selling.

This past weekend, Amazon began an experiment with their Also Bought links, which have been one of the most useful book shopping features on their site. In the past, the Also Bought links provided a ranking of which other titles were purchased by shoppers who bought the book featured on the page. If the wisdom of crowds has any currency, this offered shoppers a quick way to choose complimentary books and perhaps reach the minimum dollar amount for free shipping. The top title from the Also Bought list is the default Better Together placement, which features the cover image of the paired title and often includes a discount. However, the Better Together placement can also be purchased as a promotion by co-op advertisers, so the Also Bought list was the only true record of book shoppers’ purchases.

The change Amazon made last weekend is that the Also Bought link now connects to the E-book edition of any title in the list for which an E-book version exists! When Amazon undertakes major experiments like this, they usually revert in less than 24 hours if the results are unsatisfactory, so either nobody is paying attention or Amazon genuinely want to promote the sales of E-books and is sticking with it for a set time regardless of the results. I suppose a third possibility is that the change is a freak software accident that they haven't noticed yet or are working feverishly to reverse, but I have my doubts. Since all of my titles appear on Also Bought lists and most of them exist in E-book editions as well, I have a vested interest in how the experiment affects Amazon shoppers’ habits.

Is it possible that Amazon views their Shorts program as a vital project and they are doing everything they can think of to increase the general acceptance of E-books? It makes sense that Amazon should prefer to sell E-books over paper books; no inventory, shipping or handling to deal with, free or otherwise. The immediate issue for small publishers is that the Also Bought links were automatically generated by the book shopping patterns of the general public, which gave them an even playing field in the increasingly competitive sport of book promotion. Now those publishers with E-book versions of their works may see a sudden drop in paper book sales that robs their titles of the force multiplication effect that high Amazon sales creates through better placement in search results on related phrases. My guess is that the Also Bought lists will revert to the norm at some point as most Amazon changes do. If they don't, it will surely generate some increase in E-Book sales on Amazon, though at the expense of their paper editions.

Sale of Remainders, Review Copies and Deep Discount Books on Amazon

A couple years back there was a big stink made by various authors’ organizations about Amazon selling used books through Marketplace. In the end, it's the marketplace (small "M") that's spoken, the number of items sold by third party sellers has soared to over 25% of total item sales, and my guess would be that the majority of those item sales are concentrated in books. I hope to run some math later to come up with a Marketplace contribution estimate for the Long Tail analysis, but I wouldn't be surprised if the number of books sold by third parties on Amazon has passed one in three.

Many of the books sold through Amazon Marketplace or Z-shops are not available as new books on Amazon, or through any other new book retailer for that matter. These books may be out of stock, out of print, or suffer from poor distribution. I don't have any way of quantifying how much activity the otherwise unavailable titles generate, but there are more than ten million of them listed, approximately three million of which have actually sold at least one copy. One especially popular type of out-of-print books are previous editions of new titles that are available at a deep discount. These days authors have pretty much given up complaining about used books on Amazon, but the sale of new books on which the author earns little or no money is still a serious irritant. This includes remainders that used to be sold only in second hand or specialty stores, review copies sent out free by the publisher, and in some cases, books sold in quantity at a deep discount by the publisher.

Ignoring third party item sales that are taking place because no new books are available, the factor that drives Marketplace book sales on Amazon is price. I never paid much attention to sales of my titles by third party sellers because I use short discount distribution, and the new copies of my titles offered on Amazon sell for more than the cover price. However, I also author a title for McGraw-Hill, for which a large quantity of remainders flooded the market, despite the fact that the book is still stocked new at Borders, Barnes & Noble and the online retailers. I suspect the remainders either came from a specialty retailer unwinding a deep discount position or raft of poorly managed publisher remainders. I checked enough other titles of the McGraw-Hill / Osborne imprint to determine that it's not a normal situation.

I promote the title aggressively through my website, and over the past two month, 60% of the customers I've sent Amazon have purchased the book from third party sellers. That's 3 out of 5! The number of sales was in the mid double digits, which I believe is high enough to offer a little statistical significance. The bulk of these sales occurred at a price point a little under 50% of the price for a new copy direct from Amazon. People love a bargain. If history is any guide, at some point the third party sellers will run through their stock of remainders and the Marketplace price of the book will actually rise, pushing more sales back into new sales. In the meantime, I'm not changing anything about the way I promote the book so I can compare the third party vs Amazon item sales relation when it happens.

As an author, I earn a fraction of my regular royalty on deep discount sales from the publisher, nothing on review copies (though Osborne isn't known as a big distributor of these), and an indeterminate amount on remainders, depending on where they come from. Remainders can be publisher overstock books that are sold directly to liquidators, but often they are books that were purchased on a nonreturnable basis by a retailer who decides to dump them. The worst case is when they are really being credited as returns by a publisher who doesn't actually process returns, counting on the distributor or retailer to put on a remainder mark and dispose of them. If such a book is counted as a return, the author gets no royalty, and the book goes on to cannibalize a new sale.

Competing Titles in Nonfiction and Market Saturation

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and as usual, they are half right. It's not really flattering, and it's costly, but it is sincere. It's sincere in the sense that another publisher is willing to gamble money that the success of your nonfiction title is based on your acumen in identifying and serving a new market. If they do a better job serving that market or promoting their knock-off, they'll eat your lunch. As long as no plagiarism is involved, it's both legal and ethical by business standards.

It's a two way street, and there's no point in getting self righteous about competing titles that are derivative of your work, especially since your original title was probably derivative of some other book. Unfortunately, competition in the book industry expands shelf space faster than total sales, so you get more titles selling fewer copies. Eventually, the market reaches saturation, and publishers begin to give up on new editions on declare their versions out-of-print. Ironically, the last title standing may actually end up earning more money in this "failed" market than the pioneering book ever earned in its "boom years."

If you think this view of the nonfiction publishing industry is cynical, just ask a trade publisher if you can leave the competing titles section out of your book proposal. The sales of competing titles as reported by BookScan is probably the main input for most editorial boards in their decision whether or not to publish a book. The whole process works like a bunch of kids trying to decide whether or not to cross a frozen pond. The bravest (or dumbest) kid inches out on the ice, and if it holds, the next bravest kid follows, until the whole gang is out there marveling at the beauty of the hairline cracks. Then the whole surface of the pond caves in and they all drown, proving that Darwin was no fool.

About the only thing you can do if your market segment starts to saturate is to settle in for the long run. Don't get carried away spending money on marketing to try to rebuild your market share, just start wearing a wetsuit under your clothes and prepare to outlast the other kids in the freezing water. One technique used by the bravest (or dumbest) publishers is to gamble on a substantial investment in titles to saturate their own market. It's risky, because as the publisher's titles compete with each other, the lead title may lose the critical mass (sales) required for preferred stocking in the stores, and the relative weakness makes it easier for a new competing title from another publisher to hog in. The same thing can happen on Amazon where the titles compete with each other for prominence in keyword searches, and as absolute sales fall, so does the prominence of the title in search results. However, if this self-saturation is successful, it may discourage other publishers from even competing to be another small fish in a small pond.

Market saturation is less of a danger for print on demand publishers who haven't made any investment in a big print run, so potential losses are limited to the editorial costs. The title can remain in print indefinitely with minimal carrying costs, waiting for the market shake out. Again, it's a two way street and an accepted one, so before publishing a book of your own, it makes sense to study the competing titles and their sales. For my money, if you're writing a book for a nonfiction market where there's already a dominant title, you're better off coming at the subject from a different angle and taking as unique an approach as you can to make the titles complimentary, rather than competing. With any luck customers will buy both books, and you won't get death threats in your e-mail from somebody whose initials bare a suspicious resemblance to the author of the book you've chosen to compliment.

Writing a Book vs Writing Nonfiction for Journals

A quick Amazon search on the phrase "writing nonfiction" turned up no less than 1500 titles. The shocking top seller is the 5th edition of the "Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association" which I assume must be a common textbook to be ranked 13th at Amazon in early September. A better known title is the 25th anniversary edition of "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser. Dan Poynter has written a number of books about writing, including, " Writing Nonfiction: Turning Thoughts into Books." I must confess I've never read any books about writing (can you tell?) and I listed the title count above just to make a point. Out in the "real world" professionals have rediscovered that writing is the most effective way to transmit ideas longer than a sound bite, and writing nonfiction is a critical skill for career advancement in many professions.

The difference between writing nonfiction articles for academic or professional publications and writing a book for a general audience is profound. It's not, like some academics think, simply a matter of eliminating footnotes, or even worse, moving them from the bottom of the page to an appendix. Nor is it about "making page count" by gathering together a dozen or two previously published articles and giving the collection a sexy title. So much nonfiction written for academic or professional journals is essentially a 5,000 word, five point defense of a single derivative idea. "Here's what other people have said, here's what I said in the past, here's what I'm saying now, here's what you're probably going to say about what I said, and here's what I'm going to say in response." It's not good writing, it's not interesting writing, and nobody would read it at all if they weren't getting paid to do so.

To start with, writing a book requires an idea beyond a criticism of what somebody else has said. Not to pick on academics, but it's not a question of simply expanding a 5,000 word critique into a 50,000 word critique. It doesn't need to be a BIG idea, some of the bestselling small press nonfiction is about very small ideas, niches, for which there is limited competition. Almost any nonfiction subject you can write about can be narrowed to a small enough niche where you won't have any competition when you publish, it just a question of whether or not you'll be left with a large enough audience to make a living.

Next, writing a nonfiction book requires the ability to write nonfiction. This means you either have to know enough about a subject to write a book, or you have to know how to research a subject sufficiently to write a journalistic style book. I'm not talking about writing skill here, I'm talking about knowledge of and experience in the subject. Otherwise, you might believe you're writing a nonfiction book, but a knowledgeable person reading it would recognize it as bad fiction. There's a lot of really bad fiction written under the guise of nonfiction, generally for a profit motive. Do everybody a favor and write what you know. You'll come out better in the end than if you just pick a hot topic to write about.

Most importantly, writing a nonfiction book for profit requires an audience. Some authors figure the only way to determine if there's an audience is to write the book and find out, but that's just silly for two reasons. First, it's extremely easy these days to do market research on comparable titles, and there are always comparable titles, even if the exact subject is unique. Secondly, the proof is not in the pudding. You might write a book that actually has an audience and fail miserably because you don't do a good job marketing the book or getting it into distribution. So, if your career is going along fine and your mother never quite gets around to reading that annual journal article you send her, don't quit your day job.

Book Illustration and Print-on-Demand Grayscale Photos

One of the biggest sticking points for small publishing companies and self publishers moving to print-on-demand is the quality of the grayscale photos. Reproducing color photos and illustrations is less of an issue because it's rarely cost effective with print on demand, regardless of the quality. It's also important to point out that book illustration doesn't require grey scales if you're clever about it, but photo reproduction does, which complicates reissuing backlist books with POD. In fact, the very worst grayscale reproduction you'll see in print on demand books comes about when the original offset printed book is scanned to create a digital file. Since the original offset printed photos were screened, scanning and reprinting produces interference patterns and horrible resolution.

I'm not going to go into the mechanics of printing grayscales photos in detail, but you should understand that it makes it possible to illustrate books with images that appear to contain a spectrum of tones, despite using only one color of ink or toner, black. The trick is to screen an image, using a physical screen or a computer generated matrix, measured in lines per inch. The more lines per inch, the finer the screen. The relative darkness of the little unit, sometimes called a pixel, is approximated for the human eye by varying the size of the black dot printed in that unit. Only the size of the dot changes, the blackness, whether ink or toner, remains the same. The grayscale image appears to the human eye to contain various shades of grey, but if you look at it through a magnifying glass, you'll find it's just different size black dots. A professional would call the resulting image a bitmap, since it contains only 1/0 data, black or white, and the conversion process is known as halftoning.

When book designers produce books for offset printers, they can optimize the screening of images for the process. It doesn't guarantee great results, the quality of the press operator has something to do with it, but offset printers have plenty of latitude to tweak the printing process for different densities of grayscales, and they are normally printing enough books to make the fine tuning practical. A fine screen doesn't mean the illustration will print better because the screen has to match the process. If the screen is too fine for the process, the ink dots may just spread into each other and make a mess. Print on demand printers don't have that latitude, especially if they are printing one book at a time. The best way to prepare grayscale illustrations for POD printers like Lightning Source is to send them uncompressed TIFF images (keep an eye on the file size, but don't apply a screen) and wait to see the results before you commit to distribution. It may just not be good enough for your needs. Other print on demand printers may have better results, though I'm not sure how constantly, but I wouldn't expect any of them to do as good a job as the 1200 dpi laser printer on your desktop you paid $300 for, especially on a high quality setting. The grayscale photos in many offset printed books don't approach the quality of a good desktop laser either.

The main trick for print on demand book illustration is to avoid grayscale photos and illustrations if at all possible. Never use solid fills (grayscales) for highlighting tables or creating contrast for headers or sidebars. Don't use photographs unless you absolutely have to. Many authors and book designers use photographs out of laziness, they build page count and enhance the aesthetic appeal of the book for browsers, but your print on demand books aren't likely to be stocked on shelves in any case. If you feel that your book requires some illustration, use black and white line drawings. Whether you use vector drawings created by software or just scan hand drawn images and convert them to black and white bitmaps, the result will be fine. I would avoid high densities of black, no solid fill or shadowing, because a toner based process is unlikely to print dark areas evenly. In addition, too many illustrations or too many dark illustrations may cause the laser printer to over-compensate and print the text on the next page too lightly, or blotchy.

So, remember that print on demand is not an exact replacement of offset printing, and try to design your books with an absolute minimum of grayscale photos. Also keep in mind that the level of book illustration today is really overdone, since scanners and digital cameras have made it so easy for authors to send in the kitchen sink, and a straight text book can actually stand out from the crowd. Too many illustrations, especially photos, just come across as filler, as if the author didn't have enough to say but the publisher wanted a fatter book to justify a higher cost.

Yahoo Publishing Discussion Lists

I did some soul searching over the weekend as to whether or not I wanted a public discussion space on this blog, and ended up disabling comments. While I really enjoy feedback, not to mention ideas for new posts, I'm not comfortable with posters arguing with each other on my site. To that end, I'm going to suggest three related Yahoo! publishing discussion groups.

The first is the Self-Publishing list, sponsored by SPAN and Marilyn and Tom Ross. The current moderators are all well known in the publishing community, membership is open, but all posts require approval (full moderation). There are almost 2000 members, including many names you'll recognize as authors of books on the self publishing subject, like Dan Poynter.

Next is the Print-On-Demand group, which is squarely targeted for POD authors. They welcome subsidy press authors published by companies such as iUniverse, AuthorHouse, PublishAmerica and Xlibris, amongst others. Messages do not require approval, but there is a moderator whom I assume will remove spammers and keep the discussion civilized. This group has actually been around a few months longer than the self-publishing group listed above, and has a membership of about 800.

Finally, we have the Print on Demand Publishers group. This group includes both self publishers and small publishers who use print on demand printing technology. I founded and used to co-moderate this group. We also operated on full moderation, all posts must be approved by a moderator. While membership is open, we actively discourage posts by authors that don't contribute to the discussion of publishing as a business, referring them to the POD authors group above. The group is a little over 2 years old and we have 500 odd members.

I hope some of those people who have been reading my blog and want to participate in a public discussion join one of the groups listed above. I don't really see this blog as part of the blogosphere, it's really just a content management system for me, giving me an easy way to write a post a day.

How to Start Your Own Publishing Company Revisited

The first post I ever made to this blog was titled How to Start a Publishing Company with Print on Demand. While I'm a big fan of on demand printing, I'm hearing more and more often from people who are sold on the print on demand model even when it doesn't really fit their needs. For example, you can earn more per book through distribution with short discount POD provided by Lightning Source or Replica than any other way I'm aware of, but bookstores (with the exception of Amazon) will NEVER stock your books at a short discount. On one hand, a guaranteed profit on every book sold, on the other hand, potential stocking in stores. Which way to go depends on your business model.

You might think that you can use Lightning Source or Replica for print on demand and have the same chance at bookstore stocking as if you printed offset by simply assigning the trade discount (55%) and accepting returns. All other things being equal, that would be true, but why would all other things be equal? If you've studied up on how to start your own publishing company, you've learned that the start-up model for an offset driven operation has completely different economics, driven by the logic of the big print run. The most obvious difference is the big, expensive, prepublication push to generate book store orders. If you're successful, you'll want to print thousands of books to meet that sell-in demand, and it makes no sense to use print on demand for that application. If you're not successful generating pre-press orders, you're much better off with print on demand, but you've already blown a lot of money and effort on marketing for the wrong publishing model.

Print on demand creates terrific flexibility for new publishers when it comes to launching new titles, but it's just not suited to traditional bookstore stocking economics. Before you start your own publishing company, you need to get clear in your mind which path you are pursuing, or it's going to cost you a lot of extra money. While this post is coming dangerously close to repeating by missive about starting your own publishing house earlier this week, I think the point about matching the approach to the technology could stand repeating.

While the traditional offset approach is superior in terms of quality, cut size and quantity prices, it demands the big marketing budget to justify the big print run. If you go ahead and print a lot of books on offset without having orders in hand, you'll likely end up owning those books for the rest of your life. Most books are not like wine, and as time goes by, it gets harder and harder to unload them, even as gifts. On the other hand, if you start out with print on demand, giving the trade discount and accepting returns, you may achieve some bookstore stocking if your marketing and sales are warrant it, but you'll be fortunate to earn a profit.

If you have ambitions of taking over the publishing world but you don't have deep pockets, my advice on how to start your own publishing company is this: Start with short discount print on demand and find out if you actually have the ability to market books and whether or not a market for your title (or titles) exists. If you want to reinvest all of the profits from your sales into marketing and run a break-even operation, go ahead, and you'll find out quickly if your marketing approach is scalable if your market is deep enough to absorb more than a couple hundred books.

If your increased marketing efforts and word of mouth start build your book sales into the thousands, you're faced with a gamble. I don't have any magic way of determining how many more books you would sell if they were stocked on book store shelves. If you move to an offset run at this point, you'll almost certainly earn more per sale than if you increase your Lightning Source or Replica discount to 55% because of the higher POD printing cost, but you'll also be assuming much more risk. It depends on the cover price, page count, and what discount you end up having your offset printed books distributed for, normally 60% or more. Keep in mind that stores only accept books for stocking on a returnable basis, and industry wide returns in bad years can run over 30%. However, if you follow this gradual approach, you'll have a much better handle on what your sales are likely to be than guessing or canvassing industry "experts" about how many books your title is likely to sell, if you do it "right."

How A Book Publishing Contract Changes Everything

For many self publishers, the ultimate goal is a publishing contract with a New York trade. What many self publishers don't realize is that signing a book contract changes everything for their business - their self publishing business. If a big trade deal meant instant riches, it would be an easy decision for most publishers to sign on. After all, the author in you wants to reach the widest audience possible, and if the dollars are going to skyrocket as well, how can you go wrong?

To answer a question with a question, why shouldn't you love the big trades? Let me count the ways. First and foremost, you will be giving up control. When you run a self publishing business, you run the show. If something goes wrong with a print run (which happens to big trades as well as little publishers), you get to decide whether or not to pull the plug. You decide when it's time for a new edition, a right you'll be signing away with a book publishing contract. You decide if and when to remainder books, to take an edition out of print, to sell foreign rights, electronic rights, translation rights. When you become a trade published author, you are giving up control, and you can forget about their promise to respect your input. You'll be lucky if they even pretend to consider your views before ignoring them.

Next, you'll be giving up marketing flexibility. If you're one of the fortunate few whose book is actually backed with a serious promotional budget, that's not such a big deal, but if you write nonfiction, it's highly unlikely. When you sign away those electronic rights, you sign away the ability to promote your own book through online activities involving excerpts to which you no longer own the rights. Yes, the publisher may give you permission in each instance if you formerly request it and fill out the paperwork, but be prepared to take them into your bed. You may be required to supply passwords to your personal sites and use excerpts in the format the publisher dictates without the right to optimize them for promotional purposes. Ironically, there's every chance that your ability to successfully promote your book will vanish after you sign a publishing contract. Sales will slip, and you'll experience years of frustration watching the competition eat your lunch while the publisher refuses to take the book out of print and return the rights to you.

Finally, if you signed a publishing contract without consulting a lawyer, you may be stuck with a non-compete and/or a clause giving the publisher first right of refusal to future works. In other words, you'll wake up and find that you've gone from being an independent business person to a royalty slave. Even if you're making more money with the trade publisher, this isn't a pleasant awakening, but imagine how it feels when you find out you're making less money, and in addition, lost the equity your were building in your business! The bottom line for most successful self publishers is they can probably earn more money through self publishing than through becoming trade authors, which is why there's such a big flow in the opposite direction.

Yes, I'm a recovering trade author myself. I signed a couple bad contracts back in the 90's that I'm still living with, and by modern standards they're considered good contracts! I earn more self publishing books now than I ever did with an industry bestseller, and I'm building equity in my publishing business as well. I've corresponded with hundreds of trade authors over the years, and there are times I've been tempted to form an Authors Anonymous organization, but I couldn't stand the whining about bad contracts