Business Plan for New Publishers

I started my publishing company without writing out a business plan, but I'd been involved in publishing for years as a trade author and had failed in a previous attempt at publishing in the old offset press model, so I had a pretty good idea what I was about. Every once and a while I hear from somebody at government agency (on the local level) or from a volunteer in a business incubator asking me to help out with a business plan for a client they are advising. I try to be helpful, and have had a few interesting phone conversations as a result, but I don't think they buy into my basic message about the need for a marketing platform. Finding customers for books is just a very different business than opening a storefront or bidding on contracts, and competition is on a global rather on a local level.

But I can give new publishers a good starting point for a business plan: Make a profit on every book that you sell. That may sound like a no brainer, but I've had experiences in publishing where I lost several hundred dollars apiece selling $20 books. It's called wasted advertising. If you lump your marketing expenses into on bundle for the lifetime of your business and amortize them against all of your book sales, it might look cheap enough, but I believe in linking a marketing campaign directly to the results. Another way to lose hundreds of dollars per book sold is to print a lot of books and only sell of few of them. I know some people would argue that printing the book only cost a couple dollars and they sold it direct to a customer for over $20 (or into distribution for less than $10), but if you had to order thousands of books to get that printing price and you never sold a hundred, it was a bad piece of business. Been there, done that.

But in talking with these business advisors to aspiring publishers, I find they want to focus the business plan on exactly the wrong points. I think it has to do with wanting to define the things that can be "easily" defined, such as design costs, printing, computer equipment and software, and advertising campaigns, not to mention professional services for accounting and legal issues. I've seen such business plans, and I'm sure they're a lot of fun to write. After all, anytime somebody can open up their old college textbook and see a black and white plan for success, it's comforting. Too comforting I believe, and I hate hearing failed businessmen complain that they failed, despite "doing everything right." I do understand the problem new publishers and their advisors are faced with in drawing up a plan for the business. It's tough get it all down on paper when you don't really know what you're doing:-)

Instead of giving a framework for new publishers to fill in the blanks and go broke, I'm going to give a brief list of things you really need to start, and things that are easy enough to find, and things you can add or change as the business progresses. The primary thing you need to start is a marketing platform. It could be your public speaking, a byline in you journalism, a website, a media presence, or any number of other existing platforms that will guarantee your titles eyeballs or ears. The key here is that the marketing platform should be in place before you start publishing. Another thing you need to start is a manuscript or manuscripts that fit your marketing platform. If you're a TV personality, you can probably push whatever book you want, but if you make your living teaching people job hunting skills at seminars, I'd recommend that your first title has something to do with career planning. The same goes for the owners of a chain of garden shops - stick with gardening books at the start.

Another thing you absolutely need is a market. I don't care if you have the best book ever written about roof thatching in sixth century Italy, the market is way too limited to build a business plan around it. You learn about your market by doing market research, looking at competing titles and title sales within the genre. If you can't find any competition, it's more likely fool's gold than the motherload. The last thing you really need to get started is a modest amount of time and money, a few months and a few thousand dollars can do it. You can substitute a few hundred hours for a few months if you're going to go at it part-time, but you need time to do your homework and market research at the start and to make changes in accordance. You can't do market research and work on your platform or write a book at the same time, the market research has to come first. Unfortunately for most self publishers, the manuscript usually comes first and everything else ends up depending on luck.

The things that I call easy enough to find are services like editing, proofreading, cover and interior design. Again, you can have a great deal of fun studying up on postal rates for books, visiting UPS and FedEx, signing up to have an infrastructure in place for all eventualities, but it's a big waste of time for a publisher who has yet to sell their first book. When you start out, it doesn't matter if you get the best bulk price on your first dozen padded envelopes, what matters is that people are actually ordering your books. Don't rush out and buy fancy accounting software when all you have is expenses, the IRS has its own notions as to what does and doesn't constitute a legitimate business expenses, especially for a business that hasn't made any money yet. Nobody needs filing cabinets when they start, nor postage machines, nor office furniture. Publishing is an ideal laptop business. What you need is regular back-ups!

Things you can add or change as the business progresses include printing, warehousing and business banking services. We used to have merchant credit card processing when we were printing on offset, I suppose we still have the swiper, but it never paid for itself. My personal feeling is that the majority of new publishers who don't need offset printing quality are best of starting out with Lightning Source to do print-on-demand printing and order fulfillment into distribution, all hands-off for the publisher. If you need a ton of low cost books for a flood of bookstore orders, you can always get them printed in a week or two. As a new publisher, don't get caught up thinking in terms of building business relationships, it will be strictly a one sided process. The companies you deal with when you are starting out are going to treat you as a cash-and-carry customer. Your plans for the future don't carry any currency in an industry where success is rare.

Translations and International Relations

I just sold the Chinese (Simplified) rights to my publishing book to an academic press in China for $1000. I've written in the past that selling foreign rights is a risky proposition for self publishers, but my main motivation for agreeing was to have a Chinese copy of the book to send to my friend from graduate school, who loaded me down with gifts brought from China some 15 years ago. I ate the chocolate, I don't think I ever worked my way through the green tea, and I learned quite a bit about how Americans relate to Chinese waiters through him. He is a brilliant man who maintained a 4.0 in Physics with a limited command of English (though he had read "The Godfather") and who now runs a hedge fund.

All of this came to mind tonight as I sat in my favorite Jazz Bar in Jerusalem, the only full schedule Jazz club in Israel that I know of, where I wrote the creative bits of the last two books I published. On some nights, I sit at the bar writing on scrap paper, in other instances, it's more a question of carrot and stick. In any case, tonight the band is playing Oriental influenced Jazz, the sax reminiscent of a snake charmer is backed by the piano and the drummer plays something that looks like a 20 gallon gourd, backed by the bass. It could be a studio recording, these guys are so good.

The cook, who studies biology in university and translates films to Hebrew in his spare time, brings me a bowl of soup to try on the cuff. After I eat two spoons, the barman says, "Morris, what's this" and takes two spoons for himself. The barman is part of the Russian/Israeli culture. Although he was born in Israel, his cultural norms are Russian, and Russians are constantly sharing food and eating utensils. For me, it was the first time in my life I can remember that I ended up using a spoon another man had eaten from, but I'm trying to learn some Russian, so it's par for the course.

The waitress is a beautiful Czech girl who is studying art restoration in Czechoslovakian graduate school, but taking some time off to learn Hebrew in Israeli Ulpan. She may be the only person in the place who couldn't order a beer in Russian because she's young enough to have opted to learn Slovak in public school. We're in a conversation about how you say "Check" in various languages, and ignoring the irony, I throw a monkey wrench in the works by pointing out in America we run a bar tab. This reminds me of an oddity I noticed in reading an Anthony Trollope novel (mid 1850's) this week, in which the game Tic-Tac-Toe was referred to as Tit-Tat-Toe. The cook suggests that this may be where the expression "Tit for Tat" comes from, which suggests he's worth more than the $50 for the first one and a half hours plus $10 for each additional ten minutes he gets for the films he translates to Hebrew. Of course, he gets another $30 for synchronizing the subtitles with the speech.

There's something Celtic about the music, and an American sits next to me and strikes up a conversation because I'm speaking English with the Czech waitress and the Israeli cook, as it's the best language we have in common. He's studying religion at a quasi Orthodox institute that tries to reconcile science with God. I wish him luck. When he calls the barman to pay his tab, it turns out that he didn't understand that there was a 20 shekel cover charge (about $5) for the band who would have commanded $40 or $50 a head in a quarter-decent NY club. "I asked you what language you wanted to speak" the exasperated barman says to him in Hebrew. "I understood" my American neighbor replies in Hebrew, "But I thought it was buy a beer OR pay the cover charge." In other words, he didn't understand.

Music may be the international language, but it doesn't always fare well in translation. Last year I saw a Chinese film about a musician who believed he was John Lennon's son, though I missed the beginning and was a little lost throughout. The translation of the lyrics that preoccupied the protagonist showed up in the subtitles as "It's only natural, it's only natural." It wasn't until the end of the film when they brought up the music that I realized it was the chorus to "Let it be, let it be." My book is full of American references that won't translate into Chinese even if the translator is an expert. What could they make of my salad inspired joke, "I wouldn't bet the ranch dressing"?

I don't view translation or international relations as part of my business model, but I try to hold up the side. When I cashed out my tab, I told the barman to add the cover charge for the American who had sat next to me. He asked why, and I told him I wanted to write it up when I got home. "But Morris," he told me, "You don't actually have to pay for him in order to write it up." True, but it wouldn't have been the same. The barman is in his last year of the five year Bezalel art school program, and next year, will start studying to be a film director.

The Bottom Line On Publisher Discounts off the Cover Price

Authors without any trade experience who decide to try their luck at self publishing are often shocked to learn that the standard discount at which books are sold by publishers into distribution is over 50%. Trade authors learn about discounts the hard way when they read the first royalty statement from their publisher and find that their percentage of net is a percentage of something less than half of the cover price of the book. Unfortunately, I've heard from a few self publishers over the years who have gone as far as getting books printed, with the retail price embedded in the cover design and barcode, only to find that they'd be losing money on every sale through distribution. Self publishers and small presses who work with exclusive distributors (ie, distributors who insist on becoming the sole source for distribution sales) can find themselves selling returnable books to that distributor at 65% to 70% off the cover price.

Lets look at a 200 page trade paperback, the standard 6x9 size, with a cover price of $20. The net to the publisher at a 70% discount is (20x0.3) = $6.00. The net to the publisher at the standard (trade) discount of 55% is (20x0.45) = $9.00. On the short discount POD model, using the lowest discount of 25%, the net is (20x0.75) = $15.00. Now lets take the printing cost into account. A 200 page trade paperback on offset can get down to about $1.00 for around 5,000 copies. That doesn't count shipping or the cost of money (you have to come up with the $5,000) but it's a decent ballpark figure. The same title printed by Lightning Source and supplied by them into distribution would cost ((200x0.013)+0.90) = $3.50

The publisher using the exclusive distributor and offset printing could net $6.00 - $1.00 = $5.00 on distribution sales. The publisher using standard distribution would net $9.00 - $1.00 = $8.00 with offset or $9.00 - $3.40 = $5.60 with on demand printing. The short discount publisher (me) would earn $15.00 - $3.50 = $11.50 on distribution sales. So, the publisher taking the biggest gamble, laying out $5,000 for printing before selling a single book, nets $5.00 per book, and the publisher using short discount POD nets $11.60 a book, more than twice as much. The publisher using the exclusive distributor will have to sell more than twice as many books to make the same bottom line. Why does that sound unfair?

The answer depends on how much that exclusive distributor does to get your books onto brick-and-mortar store shelves. Because selling books is hard and because some self publishers have built a business around an exclusive distributor and live to tell about it, many new publishers think it's the only way to go. Ten years ago that may have been true, but today the world's biggest bookstore is Amazon. I know some self publishers who have gone the exclusive distributor route and who are very happy with the results. However, when I've poked and prodded for information, I'll be darned (like a sock) if I can figure out just what they think the exclusive distributor is accomplishiing for them, other than acting as a very expensive middleman. I suppose I'm also biased because two of the exclusive distributors who have approached me over the years about distributing my self published titles have gone bust. I'm not saying the exclusive distributors don't work for their money, I'm suggesting the model they represent is obsolete and expensive for today's web savvy self publisher.

Author and Publisher Websites

The Publishers Weekly newsletter on Monday quoted some study findings with the headline "One Fifth of Readers Visit Publisher or Author Websites." The small print showed that this was reader-side survey, and didn't associate the visits with buying behavior. The Spier advertising agency survey found "18% of readers have been to a publisher's Web site, while 23% of readers polled have visited an author's site." Hooray for authors, though I suspect the results are skewed by reader perceptions and memories. Many may believe they've visited an author website just because they are always looking things up on the web and seem to recall looking for their favorite author at one time, but it doesn't mean they actually got to the author's website, or would know if they ended up at a tribute site rather than one owned by the author.

The story motivated me to look at my year-to-date Amazon Associate stats, which showed that this website has generated a little under 1900 sales so far in 2006, of which about two thirds are books I've written or published. The highest sell-through efficiency varies between about 5% and 15%, depending on the title and the type of linking used, but buyer behavior studies suggest that the final sales attributable to the site would be appreciably higher. Most buyers, even on the Internet, tend to like shopping around, maybe check their local store pricing, sleep on it, so by the time they buy the books somewhere, the tracking is lost. My unsupported rule of thumb based on the sales trajectories of my books in their early days when they had no benefits from Amazon placements was that for every Associates sale my site records, it creates another sale through another Amazon session or a different retail source. In addition, the site generates direct sales, though I've intentionally structured pricing to encourage customers to buy through Amazon or retailers instead.

Since I don't advertise my website anywhere, the out-of-pocket expense for maintaining it is the $10/month hosting fee. The time expense of maintaining the site is what I'm doing now, writing. Websites are very much like real estate in that they can go to ruin over time if you don't keep up with repairs and improvements. I'd rather invest my time and effort into my own website then spend it competing for attention elsewhere on the web, but it's not necessarily the most efficient approach to selling the maximum number of books. If your main focus is selling books today, you're best bet is to take advantage of the publicity tools Amazon allows authors to use, everything from Listmania and Wikis to AmazonConnect. Aside from two Listmania lists I did year ago out of curiosity to see how they work, I've stayed away from these Amazon promotion vehicles, so at least I can provide some friends with a baseline for comparing approaches:-)

There are other benefits to concentrating on your own website rather than looking for publicity elsewhere. One mixed blessing is that a website gives you a higher profile outside of the bookstores, proving people find your site authoritative enough to link to you. Every couple months I'll hear from mainstream media looking for answers about the publishing industry, which is both fun and frustrating. It's fun to be consulted as an expert by somebody from the Wall Street Journal or the Associated Press, but some of the journalists who contact me are literally so in the dark about the stories they are trying to write that they don't know what questions to ask. It's a funny thing about publishing journalism, it's just not an active enough beat to have provided a living for any full time columnists, so the journalists who contact me about self publishing, industry book sales, POD or e-books, have usually been assigned by a desk editor to "get the story" when none of them even know what the story is.

I used to perk up and do a lot of extra leg work for journalists who contacted me, now I measure my response by how much homework they've done. And, while I certainly advocate getting kids experience in the workforce as interns, I find that being interviewed by an intern brings with it a high likelihood of being misquoted. Finally, journalists often bring agendas or preconceptions to the table, meaning they may only be looking for a supporting quote or agreement on background. As I mentioned in a correspondence with a writer last night, I'm just not interested in being "The POD Guru" for the next X years. I put it in quotes because the main turn-off for me is correspondence with people who haven't done their homework, and want me to walk them through a process that I've written over 100,000 words about in this blog alone. I'm always happy to offer constructive help where I can, and I learn tremendously from some of the questions and reports of different experiences that writers and publishers send me.

The bottom line is that my website is working even better than I'd hoped when I first started writing about websites for authors back in the mid-1990's, and it's also become a valuable asset in my business, probably worth more at auction than my titles themselves. But as magnet for drawing interesting correspondence about publishing, it casts the net a little too wide. When I get an e-mail these days loaded with Publishing 101 questions, I tend to give pretty short answers and recommend they read Dan Poynter's book, Self Publishing, in it's 15th edition. While I've never read the book myself, I'm told it offers a nice counterweight to the approach I advocate on my website, and it should scare off the authors who want to start a publishing company without spending any money.

The Stupid Publisher Cancelled My Book!

Over a year and a half to write, over 100,000 words of wisdom. Sure, I came in a little high on the word count, we'd sort of envisioned something around 50,000 words, but the editor loved it! In fact, we went through the whole process without any indication the book was in trouble. Editing, proofreading, even got a special cover design. Then, while I was reviewing the final proof, the axe fell:

"Dear Morris,

We're sorry, but we've decided that your title "The Publishing Blog" isn't a good match for our list at this time. We apologize for any inconvenience this causes, and wish you luck placing the title with another publisher should you decide to pursue that course."

I can read between the lines as well as the next guy. The note might as well have read:

"Dear Morris,

We're sorry, but we've decided that your title "The Publishing Blog" isn't any good, you should take a match to it. We apologize for not being taken in, and wish you luck placing the title with another publisher so you shouldn't pursue legal action."

If I wasn't sitting in a cafe in Jerusalem drinking a beer, I'd be on the next flight to NYC to punch that stupid publisher out, but for one thing.

He happens to be me:-)

I wrote over a year ago that one of the most critical jobs for a self publisher is acting as an acquisitions editor. Well, I fell down on the job. I acquired my book for all the wrong reason, i.e., it was already written, it was free, and I wanted to publish something so the year wouldn't look like a complete waste of time. If I followed that course with other authors' books, I'd be publishing thousands of memoirs a month. When I got the final proof and had to sit and read the thing, I was forced to put on my publisher hat and ask whether it was worth publishing.

My answer was -Nyet-, and since I don't want to end up in a mental hospital, I'm not going to argue with myself about it. My main reason is that I'm an old fashioned publisher who likes books that have a beginning, a middle and an end. Books that take the reader through a process or an approach to doing something in a logical and coherent manner. Even after I cut twenty or thirty thousand words out of my blog, there were still a lot of unrelated and sometimes off-the-wall posts that applied only to such specific circumstances that they would have left plenty of readers scratching their heads.

I suspect if I cut the book all the way down to 40,000 or so words, throwing away 65% or so of the original content, I'd have something that, with a lot of work, I could turn into a book worth publishing. But I've already written one publishing book and I'm not in a hurry to do all that work to publish another one that says substantially the same things. The only thing I regret about it was a couple of the posts really made me laugh, and I'm always happy when something I don't even remember writing makes me laugh. It's a good thing I have a bad memory.

My Publishing Model?

I was gratified to get an e-mail this week from an author who's read a good chunk of my website and thought that an "expert" who was pitching him services may have gotten his publishing model out of my book. First, a special disclaimer if this post contains more than my usual half-dozen typos, I'm working by candlelight in a Jerusalem cafe because I don't have Internet access at home yet. Next, a general disclaimer. I didn't invent short discount print-on-demand, I'm not the first trade author to give up the trades for self publishing, and I may be the world's worst cover designer. If I can take credit for being one of the pioneers of the new publishing landscape, it would be for my early adoption of publishing books on the Internet and for figuring out that getting a lot of books printed can be death for an author.

Back in 1996, I turned down a couple trade contracts and put the full draft of my first nonfiction book online. I didn't turn down those contracts because I was confident in what I was doing, I turned them down because they were offering peanuts that wouldn't have made a difference in my financial situation, which was bad. The website traffic took off, I tried another round of trade publishers, and took an offer that was equal to about half my yearly income at the time. As I've written before, it was the worst mistake I've made in publishing, but I had failed in my attempts at self publishing in 1995 because the infrastructure that's in place now for money processing and order generation didn't exist then.

When I finally got on board with Lightning Source in 2002, I was a "successful" trade author, but I was convinced that my technique of posting draft copies of books online was superior to the marketing any trade could do for me, and I wanted to try my publishing wings again. What I found was that with short-discount POD, I could price a book at $14.95 and earn half of the cover price, hands-off. No inventory, no capital investment for a print run, just monthly transfers to my bank account. As a trade author, my 10% to 15% of the net amounted to about 5% to 7.5% of the cover price, and Amazon was the second biggest seller of my books. When I started earning 50% of the cover price as a publisher, I realized that I didn't need to sell a fraction as many books as I did as a trade author to earn the same living. In fact, somewhere between an eight and a tenth as many does the trick.

An added benefit is that I get to manage the lifecycle of my books. No remainders, no mountains of used copies selling cheaply on Amazon with no benefit to the author, this was really a good deal. And what drove it all was simply posting large excerpts or draft copies of my books on my website and letting organic growth bring me new visitors. Sure, there's a learning curve involved in presenting books in an Internet friendly manner, but it has almost nothing to do with artistic ability or programming skills, as you can easily see from my site.

Just like that guy who "bought the company", I was so happy with the publishing model that I published a book about it. I might have been the first publisher to advocate the short discount model in a book, but it's become pretty popular and has been refined by other publishers, as in Aaron Shepard's Aiming at Amazon, to focus on specific strategies. I remain an advocate of my original model, of building a web presence and using it to find those customers who will really benefit from my books, rather than a hard marketing approach where they buy a pig in a poke.
It also gives me more flexibility in terms of my business partnerships, because in the end, as long as I see a day-in, day-out demand for my books, I can always maintain some level of sales through different retail and printing options.

I'd have like to come up with a funny ending for this post, but the battery is running down, so I gotta go:-)

Writing on Demand for POD

I've been in Jerusalem for two weeks now, walking fifteen or twenty miles a day and shooting photographs for my expanded guide like they are going out of style. I'm also writing every day, five hundred words here, a thousand words there, and when the Internet version of the guide is finished, I may start looking for a narrative thread that would allow me to publish it as a POD book. One of the idle thoughts that struck me during all of this wandering about was that over the last five years, I wrote all three of the titles I self published with print-on-demand while in Jerusalem, and maybe half of my better blog posts as well. Considering I'm only here three months a year, it makes me wonder what I'm doing with the other nine months!

Thinking back on it, I wrote my first short story while staying in Jerusalem some fourteen years ago, and I took that trip precisely to help me make the transition from a gainfully employed engineer into a lazy writer. Strangely enough, I'm one of the more productive writers I know in terms of being able to sit down and dash off a couple thousand words of nonfiction, usually in the first person and based on experience, but I'm not somebody who can write on demand to fill pages on an arbitrary topic. Some people in publishing think that the ability to generate content without any real knowledge of what you are writing is what separates the professional authors from the amateurs. Based on some of the interviews I given on background to media folks, I suspect it's journalists who have the franchise for writing about anything on short notice, but it's rarely worth reading.

One of the attractions of on-demand publishing is that books can be produced in a very short time cycle on a very small budget. This leads some authors to try to use POD to catch the latest wave and be first to the punch. It reminds me too much of technical writing. I did a stint as a part-time technical writer back in the 1980's, and I think I had my only anxiety attack in a job interview when I was considering doing it full time. They offered me the job (paid $30/hour then) and I had to chew my paw off to get out of the place without saying "Yes". Thinking about it now, I've been missing that phantom paw for years.

Forcing oneself to write something every day is a great way to learn how to write, but it's not such a bargain for the reader if you publish it all. I'm still fooling around with cutting down the collection of blog posts I turned into a book. It just didn't work for me, as a reader, when I sat down to start proofing. After fifty pages or so, the tone lightened up and I've been enjoying it, so cutting another twenty thousand words might make it worth releasing. Forcing yourself to write is also a great way to build a blog, and when all is said and done, you may find the kernel of a book on the site.

Still, I'm struck by the fact that 100% of the writing I've done as a trade author was done in the U.S., while nearly 100% of the writing I've done on spec was done here. Back home, there's a contract to fulfill and a timetable to meet when I'm writing. Here, I know I'm not going to bother rushing a book through the system, even with POD, so I just focus on writing, and have plenty of time to think things through while wearing out my shoes.

The Self Publishing Therapist

I'm just getting set up in Jerusalem to try writing a neighborhood walking guide, and facing the usual issues of commitment phobia and general indecision. I thought about this yesterday when visiting an old friend (in the octogenarian sense) and helping him out with a publishing question. As a retired psychologist, he assigns a real value to advice and always offers to pay me for my services. This time, I offered to take it out in trade, but I was joking. The truth is, as much as I could use a therapist (and they say the people who refuse help are the ones who benefit the most if they accept it) I think I make a better disher-outer than a taker.

My friend is one of several people who keep encouraging me to sell publishing consulting services. I've never been interested in that game, primarily because people who seek me out waving a blank check always seem to be a little off. Who wants to be beholden to some whacko for a few hundred dollars, who thinks a couple hours of tutoring is all that it will take to turn their memoir into a bestseller? Then it hit me! Maybe I should be billing myself as a self publishing therapist and selling time to authors with problems:-)

The great thing about publishing therapy, at least as I interpret the original Bob Newhart show, is that results aren't guaranteed. I could charge somebody for five or six sessions, and then say, "Congratulations. You've made tremendous progress. I think you're ready to publish your book alone now." Or how about, "I'm sorry, but we've run into a transference issue, so I'm going to have to recommend you seek publishing help from elsewhere." If I could get the family and a judge to go along, a paid vacation in a state institution wouldn't be a bad solution in some cases.

There are lots of unhappy authors out there sending nasty-grams to everybody related to publishing for whom they can find an e-mail address, just to complain they aren't being given a fair break. Trust me on this one. Nobody even remotely connected to publishing wants to get another e-mail starting, "X, Y and Z all said that didn't want my book, but I know it's a conspiracy." It's not a conspiracy unless you have multiple personalities and several of them have gotten together behind the frontal lobes to sabotage your career.

Anyway, I'd like to write more about this idea, but I'm afraid our time is up.

Finding New Authors Publishing Unknowns

My regular readers will have noticed that I'm finding it difficult to write new posts lately. It's less a question of ideas at this point than time. I'm getting ready to move for the first time in eight years, plus I'll be traveling all winter, so my posting frequency is likely to be very limited until spring. My last post about buying a publishing company has brought about a very interesting correspondence with another small publisher who's interested in working with me. I'm not going to rush into anything because my dance card is already full this winter, but that won't stop me from thinking and talking about it.

The main challenge for any publisher is marketing books and selling them at a profit, but that doesn't mean that you can find new authors in the gutter and turn them into gold. Success in publishing starts with the manuscript, and authors who have proven their marketability are usually too expensive for small presses, or unwilling to work with them for fear that the small press won't have the marketing muscle of a large trade. It's a legitimate concern in the sense that a large trade will be able send a book they believe in on a honeymoon on bookstore shelves, even if they have to pay co-op advertising to get it.

The same options are available to small presses publishing unknown authors, but for very plain economic reasons, it rarely makes sense. Keep in mind that large trade presses can play a numbers game. With hundreds, or even thousands of new titles a year, they can be confident that a number will do well enough to offset some bad bets. A small press with limited resources who puts all their eggs in one basket is likely to end up with an omelet.

This makes finding new authors more of a challenge for small presses than for large trades. Don't get me wrong here, all a publisher has to do to get swamped in manuscripts from unknowns is to whisper it into the wind in an empty parking lot, and the next day they'll be deluged in e-mails and fat envelopes. The challenge is that the small press will be the last stop for most undiscovered authors, meaning the manuscripts or queries have already been rejected by every large trade in NYC.

Authoring is like any other profession in that few of us burst from college fully developed. Very few authors have bothered doing any market research before writing their first book, much less studying up on the publishing business. They see all of that as the job of the publisher they choose to honor with their genius. However, if you surveyed publishers both great and small and asked them what was the one quality they would most like to see in a new author, it wouldn't be genius, sanity, or even willingness to work for peanuts. Publishers want authors who can promote their own books. Effective book marketing doesn't start with showmanship, it starts with the author writing a book that matches their marketing strengths.

All of this makes the job of publishing unknown authors a leap of faith - faith in your ability not just to identify a winning manuscript but to recognize whether an author with unproven book marketing skills will be an asset or a liability. Until this point, my experience in discovering unknown authors has been limited to putting a few new authors together with acquisitions editors I knew at the large trades. Now that I'm thinking again of doing it myself, with partners, I'm beginning to wonder if I should be developing some checklist that I can use to narrow the field before evaluating authors and manuscripts turns into a full time job.

Buying a Book Publisher

I just spent some time searching the web for a listing of publishing companies for sale. I don't know if I phrasing the search queries wrong or if there's just no good central listing of publishers for sale because all I can come up with is single offers and questionable directories. When the descriptions don't include the date the ad was posted, or even a website to visit, I can't imagine why anybody would invest the time to follow-up. I certainly didn't. If anybody knows of a site or broker dealing with small publishing companies, even self publishers who are giving up the business, please drop me an e-mail.

Growing a business through acquisitions is hardly a new idea, it's probably the easiest way in the world to increase your topline and your industry footprint. It's not something I've been thinking about for a long time, but I'm moving soon, and I'm looking for a house or a mixed zoning building (like a store and an apartment) up in New Hampshire for this winter. Talking to a friend, I mentioned that if I don't buy a house, I might put the money into buying a business instead, though I was thinking of a bookstore when I said it. Looking at the options from the standpoint of a businessman, I could add more value to a publishing business than to a bookstore, which one of the main goals of being an entrepreneur.

There's also the fact that I've moved towards publishing other authors and then backed off several times, even went so far once as advertising for manuscripts and drawing up a contract. The problem, then and now, was I realized that I didn't want to take on the overhead of dealing with new authors, some with unrealistic expectations and all with their share of eccentricities:-) However, I've had pretty good luck over the past few years outsourcing jobs I couldn't or wouldn't do to contractors, and I know a couple of reliable, intelligent candidates who think I could hire as part-time managers to deal with the facets of the publishing business I'm not good at.

Since my main strength is in Internet based book marketing, I'd really like to find a small publishing company with some titles that are good and an existing web site that's really, really bad. It's always easiest to pick the low hanging fruit, and I'm not going out of my way to risk money on something that proves a greater challenge than I can handle. But I'm also a believer in comparison shopping, and it's frustrating not being able to find a list of publishers looking to sell their businesses. You'd think that hundreds of small publishers would come up for sale every year just by way of estate sales, or maybe their families just close the business down and forget about it. That would be a shame.

There may not be any value in a storeroom full of books that never sold, inventory is death, but there's always value in content and intellectual property, now that we live in the age of Google. A publishing business that didn't work ten years ago might very well be made to work today, with print-on-demand, Amazon, and the Internet. I'm going to put some more thought into it and do some more research, maybe I'm missing something obvious. In the meantime, I developed a painful case of heartburn writing this, so maybe my subconscious is trying to tell me something.

Dummy or Complete Idiot?

Self publishing has been around as long as the printing press, and how-to books have always been amongst the most marketable titles. The leading series for how to do just about everything are Dummies (Wiley) and Complete Idiots Guides (Alpha). The acquisitions editors at these two presses are neither dummies nor complete idiots, so it was only a matter of time before they realized there was a real market for books about self publishing. Titling being one of their strongest points, they recently gave us The Compete Idiot's Guide to Self-Publishing by Mark Victor Hansen (October, 2005) and Self-Publishing for Dummies by Jason R. Rich (August, 2006).

Amazon lists the Dummies book as a second edition, but try as I will, I can't find any evidence anywhere that a first edition ever existed. It's either an error or a clever new marketing ploy, though I suppose it's also possible I'm too big a dummy to find it. Neither of the books are challenging the old leaders on Amazon, such as The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter, currently in it's 15th edition (for real:-) or Complete Guide to Self Publishing by Tom and Marilyn Ross.The Idiot's and Dummies books obviously aren't self published, and the Ross book is by Writer's Digest Press. If I were in the market for a book about self publishing, I'd be much more inclined to buy one from a self publisher than from a large trade publisher.

Fortunately, I wrote my own book, Print-on-Demand Book Publishing, so I don't need to buy one, and I know several other successful self publishers who have written publishing books of their own. There's Aiming at Amazon by Aaron Shepard, How to Start and Run a Small Book Publishing Company by Peter Hupalo, and the pending book from Steve Weber that I blogged about a few weeks ago. None of us are getting rich writing about publishing, but we all had publishing experiences we wanted to share, and writing a book on the subject seemed the most logical way to do it. The Dummy and Complete Idiot books probably dominate sales in the bookstores where they have excellent shelving and a trusted brand name, but on Amazon, we all compete heads-up.

Strange to say, I don't remember ever reading a Dummies title, though one of the smartest people I know was a big fan, at least in their early days. It seems to me that my old business partner once gave me an Idiot's book about finding an agent, or getting a trade publisher, something along those lines. My memory is that I couldn't take the formatting, lots of little boxes pointing out what somebody thought was important in the preceding text. I just prefer to make those decisions for myself.

New Self Publisher Asks an Honest Question

Yesterday I got a question that really annoyed me when I opened the e-mail, and not just because it falls outside the scope of my guidelines:-) The question was:

Can you really make money in self-publishing or is it all hype?

The reason it annoyed me is because there's an implication in there that I'm hyping self publishing myself. I'm not going to paste in my whole answer, but the gist of it was:

It isn't easy, the main job is marketing. It doesn't matter if you write a great book and have a great cover, if you can't get enough people to buy it, there's no word of mouth, no demand. Just keep in mind I'm talking about self publishing as a business, setting up your own publishing company. Most writers who contact me don't really want to take that chance, so they just sign up with a subsidy publisher, spend a couple hundred dollars to get their book published, and forget about it. I'd estimate that only 1% of subsidy published authors make enough money to be worth mentioning in the "living" context, but in the end, that's not why they're doing it. If you aren't writing commercial books, there's not much point setting up a publishing business, and if you are writing commercial books, you can get a trade deal if you work at it hard enough - self publishing is just an option.

While my blog readers will recognize there's nothing new in my answer, it did get me thinking about how all the websites and blogs about self publishing must look to a new self publisher. I'd be skeptical myself, especially because most of them are hype. But think about it, publishers and authors who want to succeed have to market themselves, and the chasm between information in the form of an encyclopedia entry and information you can actually use is pretty wide. A definition of self publishing may be useful to a kid writing a high school paper, but my approach is to go heavy on my personal experiences in self publishing, and sanitized versions of events I know to be true but where I don't want to stray over legal boundaries.

If you're new to self publishing, or just thinking about it as an option, don't stop with reading the articles on my site. There must be thousands of pages worth of information written by real self publishers kicking around the web, so take the time to track some down and read them. Don't start shooting off questions to the first self publisher with an e-mail address you encounter, keep reading, and recognize that all of us have different backgrounds and experiences.
Anybody who tells you it's "fun and easy" is full of something, it's hard work and nothing is sure. Only a very small percentage of the new self publishers I've corresponded with were essentially instant successes, and I'd attribute a good chunk of their good fortune to luck. So, it was an honest question, but not one I'm particularly thrilled about finding in my in-box:-)

The Book Publishing Industry

Every year I update my industry book sales page that combines the financial statements of the Big Three (Barnes and Noble, Borders and Amazon) with some government and trade statistics to give a thumbnail picture of retail book sales. An interesting facet of the book industry is that the only numbers anybody really trusts are from a third party, Nielson, who simply counts books at the point of sale. None of the industry organizations are sufficiently comprehensive in membership to produce trustworthy numbers through internal surveys, and some may have an ingrained prejudice against bean counting.

There's no particular reason for self publishers to fixate on the size of the book market, which is in the low tens of billions of dollars, because the most successful of us isn't even a blip on the radar in that context. It would be interesting to know if all of us added up together amount to something on the order of a major trade, or if our sum total doesn't come to a hill of beans. Unfortunately, I don't have any ideas for a methodology to determine this, even if I had the resources.

One interesting measure would be to learn how many individuals earn their primary income through self publishing, and then to compare that number to the number of employees at a large trade. I don't think it's possible to extract that information from the IRS statistics (I've tried), and a survey by way of the Internet would be as self selecting as anything attempted by a small publishers organization. It's easy for me to say that I know a dozen or so individuals who earn a living self publishing, but maybe that's everybody!

OK, that would be an exaggeration, but I can't help wondering how many self publishing authors have figured out the industry to the extent that they turn down offers from the big trades on a regular basis. What got me thinking about it was a recent correspondence with an ex-editor of mine from a big trade in which I mentioned that self publishing authors aren't likely to put them out of business any time soon. I'm not really sure why that's the case, except that most authors, even veterans with a firm understanding of the book trade, would rather work for royalties and advances than on spec.

Most work-a-day nonfiction authors could afford to at least experiment with judicious self publishing, but the big trades hold the lure of bestsellers with a largely illusory marketing advantage, and a book contract with an advance is a bird in the hand. It might be an honest recognition on the part of many authors that they just don't want to be in business for themselves with all that entails, including a slow ramp-up time. Still, it seems to me that the best time to launch a new business is when you're already earning a living in a related field, as in working as a trade author. If you wait until you need the money, it's probably going to be too late to figure it out the business in time to pay your bills and remain independent.

A Self Publishing Timetable

Start market research and building a web presence now! It usually takes two e-mails asking essentially the same question to get me thinking the answer is worthy of a post. In the past two days, I heard from a very an aspiring self publisher and a volunteer business consultant trying to advise a new self publisher about a timetable to use for business planning. I can understand the desire to lay out a plan on paper with milestones and a budget. Unfortunately, I can't offer any answers without the caveat "If you're successful."

If you're starting absolutely from scratch, no experience marketing, no platform to market from, no experience in book production, it's not going to be that useful to look at sales from a successful self publisher and assume you can get there your first year or two. I self published my first book in the mid-90's, and it went so badly I sold out to the trades. However, I never stopped working on my old website and started this site around six years ago for another self published book that was also a commercial failure. When I got finally going with the new approach to self publishing in 2002, I had the experience of a couple failures under my belt, plus two healthy websites. Every book I've published started life on the web, and with the last three books, I didn't make the decision to publish until I was literally getting e-mails asking when the book would be available.

Timetables are problematic for all publishers, but self publishers in particular. If you set goals and you don't achieve them, are you going to walk away? Don't laugh, I know publishers who have done just that, but I also know publishers who didn't see any significant sales for their new title until six months or longer after it was released. If you write a good book that doesn't go out of date overnight, there's plenty of time for word-of-mouth and the wisdom of crowds to begin lifting your sales. The work you have to do at the start to sell one book may translate into ten books sold just a year or two later. And that's why I recommend that you take your time and learn how to market your books.

If you try to take a shortcut, you may end up with expensive and meaningless sales. Aggressive promotion can sell some people anything, but if you're paying a marketing expert to force your book about fine woodwork down the throats of pensioners who can't hold a chisel, how likely do you really think it is they'll be recommending that book to their friends? Sales to people who don't really want your book and won't read and enjoy it can be bought and paid for, but you'd be better off spending the money giving away free copies to people who might really enjoy it.

As to setting a timetable for success, I'm on the record saying that self publishing as an act of financial desperation is a bad idea. It's a tough business, it takes most self publishers years to figure it out, and some never do. The only thing you can count on is that some of your assumptions will be wrong and others will be based on facts that change long before your business timeline runs its course. Planning is important, but preparation is more important, and the best preparation for self publishers is building a platform: a reputation, a recognized expertise that will help you sell books.

Blog Editing and Proofing

Anybody who has been reading this blog over the past year or so knows that I'm a horrible typist, and not a great proofreader. This results in both regular typos that jar your eyes, and link typos, which jar your browser with HTML errors. Since I never wanted to find myself dependent on existence of Blogger, I've always published my blogs on my own site, and downloaded the posts to my hard drive as well. Unfortunately, at some point I got into the habit of fixing errors on the local files on my hard drive and uploading them, rather than going to blogger and fixing them there. The result is that Blogger has a different version of my blog saved than I do.

The main problem with this is that I can't make changes to my template. If I make a change that causes Blogger to reproduce all of the blog posts from it's own image of the universe, all of the old posts will recover all of their old errors. This is particularly irksome if you're publishing a book of blog excerpts and would like to include a mention of it on the blog!

On the bright side, I had my editor and proofreader go through all of the blog before I started cutting the thing down to book size. This means I have a Word file with an even cleaner version of the 170 odd posts. My goal, over the next few weeks, is to start updated all of the archived posts that Blogger has saved with the best versions, check all of the links, and then republish the blog in one fell swoop. My main worry at this point is over file naming conventions, since I messed up early n and originally published posts with ".htm" rather than ".html" extensions.

I figure it's one of those things that are worth doing so I can really experiment with the Blogger template, see if I can get something I like better than the current layout. I've noticed it doesn't adapt that well to screen size differences, and the code Blogger publishes isn't real pretty.

Book Design Is Work

I'm banging my head on the table asking myself why I ever undertook to produce a printed version of this blog. The truth is, I forgot what hard work book design is and how much time it takes. Not something one should undertake just for the sake of an experiment. The reason I forgot is that I haven't designed a book in two years and must have killed all the unhappy brain cells with Scotch in the interim.

For starters, I wanted to get the word count down to a manageable number so that the final book, complete with TOC and Index would come out under 300 pages. To that end, I already cut 26 of 164 blog posts, and I'm still at 94,000 words. I don't want to go to a bigger page size or a smaller font, but I'm not crazy about continuing to cut at random. What I just did was to print a numbered list of all the remaining posts, and I'm going to double check that those with similar titles aren't too repetitive. If that doesn't get the word count down under 80,000, I'll have to consider less reader-friendly design.

While I was fooling around in Word layout just trying to estimate the page count by formatting the standard page with the same margins and fonts I used in my last book, I got that horrible "forgot about that" feeling in my fingers. Just changing from ragged right to full justification forces the book designer to go through every page making sure that bulleted points and lists aren't stretched across the page. Then there's the whole learning curve for Office 2007, which doesn't look a bit like my old favorite, Office 97. After the basic text is wrestled into the final style and format, I'll have to decide whether to put the blog titles in the header. Under the old system, that would require well over 100 section breaks, which I'm not going to do, so maybe I'll go with the "Title - Subtitle" on facing pages.

I can't get over how bad my memory is! For some reason, I was thinking that it might be fun to knock out a book and get it printed for readers who want to save an inkjet cartridge. Now I'm too far into the process to quit, but I'll have to add it to the list of considerations of whether or not to publish a blog as a book. Publishing a blog as a book because the text is already written is about as dumb as going into the publishing business because you've written a book you can't get published. It's just too much work.

POD Distribution vs Full Service Book Distributor

Every once and a while, somebody asks me what I have against full service book distributors. The question could as easily be what favorable things I have to say about them, and I can certainly think of a few things. The context for this post is my preferred publishing method of the last four years, which is using Lightning Source POD to print and distribute my books both directly and through Ingram. Ingram Book Distribution, despite the name, is usually called a wholesaler in the trade.

Whether you call Ingram a book wholesaler or a book distributor often depends on whether you are a publisher or a bookstore, but nobody (that I'm aware of) calls them a full service distributor. Note that Ingram does offer many of the same services as a full service book distributor, but for additional fees. On the other hand, Ingram generally expects a 55% discount from publishers (they pay the publisher 45% of the cover price) while full service book distributors typically expect a discount in the 65% to 75% range (they pay the publisher from 25% to 35% of the cover price). Note that shipping costs make a big difference in the math, and some distributors pay for shipping.

Full service book distributors usually demand an exclusive relationship. There are some logical reasons for this relating to returns and to ordering confusion, but the one reason I don't accept is that they are investing heavily in the publishers titles. Spending some money listing your titles in their catalog and getting them into stores is their business, it's what you're giving them the big discount for, so they aren't doing you a favor. If you are looking to get your books into a specific market, like specialty retailers rather than bookstores, you should look for a boutique wholesaler in that area, rather than a full service book distributor. For example, a specialty wholesaler who works with pet stores will do a better job getting your titles on their shelves, won't ask for an exclusive relationship with the book trade, and may even pay a better price for your books.

I think that the main confusion that comes in with full service book distributors is over marketing. Many self-publishers believe that they have done everything right, except marketing, and figure that a distributor can do that for them. Unfortunately, that's not the distributors job. A book distributor has a sales force to get your titles into bookstores, not to market them to consumers. Getting your books on bookstore shelves or chain warehouses beats having them sitting in the garage, but without marketing, they are probably going to end up right back in the garage, somewhat worse for the wear. Some distributors, through their catalogs, may have success selling your books in very specific markets, such as academia, where librarians and professors may look at their catalog and order books based on their descriptions. If your titles have academic potential and the full service distributor you are considering at has a strong academic catalog, it may be good match.

The reason Lighting Source's POD distribution deal works so well for me is I never targeted bookstore shelves. My marketing steers customers to Amazon or to special ordering through their local bookstore, and it allows me to offer low cover prices, set a short discount for distribution, and earn a good living. If I move from POD back to offset printing in the future, I'll have to redesign my books for bookstore shelves, re-price them to absorb the distribution discount and returns risk. The decision I would have to make at that point would be whether to go direct with Barnes&Noble, Borders, Amazon, et al at that point, or sign with a full service book distributor to offload all of the warehousing and billing work. Whether a distributor would get my books onto the shelves at the chains any better than I could remains a question mark, but it certainly makes no difference at online bookstores.

Book Description, Annotation and Publisher Marketing

When you publish a new book, you get a chance to describe the contents in various book industry catalogs. Some publishers see these descriptions or annotations as absolutely critical for book sales. I have typos in a couple of book descriptions that I never quite got around to fixing, so you can guess which side of the argument I come down on. On the other hand, it certainly can't hurt to have an intelligent and accurate description of your book showing up in all the online catalogs, so you may as well try to get it right. That makes this one of those "Do as I say and not as I do" posts.

The first chance to get the catalog description for your book correct is when you enter the ISBN information on the Bowkerlink site. It really does pay to get the Bowkerlink info correct the first time because the software is balky and doesn't allow some fields to be changed without manual intervention from a Bowker employee. On top of that, some retailers and distributors regularly update their catalog info from Bowker, so if you get one of these downstream catalogs to fix a mistake, it may go back to being wrong the next time they do an update. The best way to get it right the first time is to type all of the information in a wordprocessor, spell check it, have a friend read it, and then cut and paste the info into Bowkerlink fields.

Amazon is the most important online retailer and perhaps the most important book catalog in the world. Amazon allows the publisher to send them changes and corrections directly, but again, those corrections may revert to the initial errors if Amazon updates their catalog from an upstream source, like Bowkerlink or Ingram. I corrected an error on Amazon a couple of times for one of my titles, only to have it reappear, I believe from the Bowkerlink listing where I never got around to making them correct it. Amazon does not automatically pick up the Publisher Marketing blurb from Ingram. The book description Amazon does show is sometimes called an annotation on Ingram. The annoying thing about the Amazon catalog is they often double list the book description, calling the second copy a download description, if the title was ever available as an ebook.

I've been thing about the book description for the non-book I'll be publishing, a printed collection from this blog. I think I'll start it off "Don't buy this book unless you're a reader of the self publishing blog at and want to catch up on old posts without burning through an inkjet cartridge." Heck, I may even leave it at that since it pretty much says it all. Or, maybe I'll throw in something about the limited printing being made possible by print-on-demand, and readers interested in that subject should buy my Print-on-Demand Book Publishing title instead. Would it be derivative to work "Don't Buy This Book" into the cover design?

The Grumpy Publishing Consultant

I get a pretty steady stream of requests to consult on self publishing issues for financial remuneration. That's the consultants fancy word for pay. I've never accepted any of the offers, I don't like selling my time, and more so, I've always been happy to answer questions I fell competent to comment on sans remuneration (fancy:-). I'm writing funny to avoid using the first four letters of FREEDOM, which causes unnatural spikes in unwanted traffic. Just read through my contact FAQ before shooting off an e-mail because there are some questions I've answered too many times and written too much about to want to hear again.

I used to be happy to pick up the phone and call anybody who wanted to talk about publishing (cheap phone service) but I've found it's easier to filter out loons through e-mail. Speaking of loons, it drives me nuts to get involved in helping a would-be publisher who's looking for emotional support. That's not my bag, I'm not going to give you the answer you want to hear if you ask the question enough different ways, I'm just going to give up on you.

The interesting part of accepting questions from aspiring publishers is seeing just how many of them are related to paid marketing. It's well over half, it may be as high as three quarters. Most authors rush through the initial phases of self publishing, skipping all research, writing a book and getting it printed. Then, when a month goes by and the book doesn't sell, the authors who don't sink into depression start looking for help.

The authors who write me about advice for paid publicity and canned marketing campaigns must think I'm pretty grumpy. An innocent question about benifit of adding options A, B and C to marketing plan Z will usually draw a response like, "Never mind about putting mayonnaise on it, you shouldn't be buying plan Z to start with." Too many authors make the assumption that a nicely packaged promotion campaign may be a little overpriced, but they're willing to take their lumps while they learn the ropes. There aren't any ropes to learn, they're primarily designed to separate you from your money.

Book marketing is hard work and the main job of the self publisher. Sure, it gets easier as you go along and build an infrastructure and a network of contacts, but it's never something you can throw money at and expect a positive return. A friend of mine recently joked he was going to set up a publicity agency where he'll charge authors $1000 to promote their book and give them back $500. He thought his plan would give them the best deal their marketing buck available. My own take was if he would keep the whole $1000, but spend $500 buying the book through various retail outlets, authors would beat a path to his door.

Don't get taken in by get sales quick schemes.

Community Based Internet Book Publicity

I just read an ARC (Advance Reader's Copy) by Steve Weber tentatively titled "Internet Book Publicity - Book Marketing Using Blogs, Social Networks and Google." Many authors, myself included, have written about their experiences marketing books through their websites and through Amazon. This book offers a comprehensive look at Internet publicity opportunities, with a strong bias towards social networking, touching on many of the same elements as Chris Anderson's Long Tail thesis. An author who successfully implements all of these marketing strategies would almost be guaranteed a measure of success. While I differ with Steve about the relative value of some of the approaches, there's no question that they all have their place. Weber's methods even offer hope to first time authors and publishers who didn't quite do all of their homework before their first book was published.

The book starts out by describing the current book publicity landscape and how the Internet has changed the nature of word-of-mouth. Weber rightly points out that modern book promotion is more author centric than ever, with many publishers functioning as little more than printers and intellectual rights holders. Success and failure online is more dependent on the wisdom of crowds than the proclamations of self appointed gurus and critics. The online publishing environment could be described as a level playing field, but one on a mesa, a broad, flat mountain top. You have to do some climbing to get to the playing field, but once you reach it, you can compete on fairly equal terms with the biggest NYC publishers.

Just as the Amazon is at the heart of the rain forest ecosystem in South America, is the center of the online publishing ecosystem. In addition to functioning as a retail store, Amazon created a social network where readers and buyers influence the way Amazon displays the merchandise. Some of collaborative filters used by Amazon are strictly dependent on sales, others are open to input from readers and publishers. Weber discusses some of the approaches that work, and some that are questionable in terms both of ethics and efficacy. As an expert on running a home-based bookstore, he also offers insights into the retail side of selling books online.

Social networking is the new face of the Internet, with sites like MySpace and FaceBook regularly making the news for events both good and for bad. I'm not a social networker myself, beyond the extent to which my own website is part of a social network of publishers, but I'd have to be blind not to see that social networking may one day compete with Google in terms of routing traffic around the Internet. While there are plenty of titles out that discuss MySpace and other social networking sites from the standpoint of usability or safety, Weber's book focuses on the features most applicable to book publicity.

Book reviews are another topic recontexted in the new social networking landscape with amateur book reviews taking center stage. Book reviews are a sensitive subject for many authors who read them through the eyes of a child looking at a report card. A lack of reviews is seen by some authors as a greater insult than bad reviews, while the slightest criticism has other authors climbing a tower with a rifle. The online publishing community has yet to develop an ethical code of conduct for reviews, and some of the methods discussed may someday be seen as grey hat at best, but it's all important information for today's author to be aware of.

Another important social networking tool in the author's kit is blogging. Blogging is an effective way for authors to quickly get online and build a following without any technical prowess required. It's important to differentiate between the blogging approach advocated in the book which is blogging and the true sense of the word, and using a blog as a content management system, as I do here. Strategies for fitting into the blogosphere are examined, along with approaches for getting started and common pitfalls to avoid. Developments in the blogosphere are discussed, including tagging and blog tours, along with the pros and cons of RSS feeds and syndication.

Of course, search remains the killer application of the hypertext web, and successful search algorithms all employ community based filtering at some level or another. While most authors will never become experts at search engine optimization, it's not really necessary, and they would be well served to steer clear of quick-fix experts who may actually hurt their site with black hat optimization techniques. While the book doesn't tackle SEO in any great depth, I'm convinced writers are better off focusing their efforts on human readers than trying to please computer algorithms.

The book winds up with a survey of the newest developments in web based publishing, including the recent ebook efforts of Amazon and Google. The final topic addressed is the ethics of online marketing. Unfortunately, the Golden Rule doesn't prevail on the Internet, and all authors who pay attention to the online marketplace will sooner or later be confronted by competition using questionable, if not outright dishonest methods. The hardest decision you may have to make in your online publicity efforts is when you complain about black hat methods to peers who tell you "Get onboard, everybody is doing it." Consult your conscious. A successful book a good reason to celebrate, but a poor reason to end up in Hell.

Knowing Somebody vs Nepotism in Publishing

I got a phone call this morning from a friend of a friend who's done some self publishing in the education field and was interested in connecting with a trade publisher. One of my previous trade editors has moved to an education publisher, and I'm looking forward to playing matchmaker, whatever the outcome. Knowing somebody in any business is always a good way to get your foot in the door, but nepotism is also at work in the publishing industry, and unfortunately, nepotism pays. It all goes back to the fact that marketing is king, and names sell. If you were a big trade publisher and you had the opportunity to sign the child of a bestselling author or a famous person to write a book, you'd have to take the name recognition into account.

When I was a teenager, you had to know somebody to get a job at a supermarket. The job market was tight, now they have hiring booths by the entrance in supermarkets and they practically beg retired people to come in and work a few days a week. For some reason, I have fond memories of the old system, even though I never knew anybody with enough pull to get me a supermarket job. Maybe that's why I've spent so much time trying to put people together with jobs, or maybe I'm just a busy body. In either case, the only "industry" where nepotism really bothers me is in government. State government in particular. Massachusetts to be specific:-)

Getting back to the publishing industry, the latest thing (going back more than 20 years) in knowing somebody or outright nepotism is agents. As the major trades have consolidated and eliminated readers, agents are responsible for an ever growing percentage of the unsolicited manuscripts that are given real consideration by trades. This is especially true in fiction, where the writer's professional qualifications can't be used as a first screening for the slush pile. Many fiction publishers rely on agents to function as an outsourced acquisitions department, and some of those agents have been very successful in obtaining six figure trade contacts, for their spouses!

Like all other form of nepotism, outside of the government monopoly, there are natural limits. If an agent continually promotes inferior manuscripts from family or friends over better manuscripts that are in circulation, the agent will slowly lose currency with acquisitions editors, unless they too are related. So, while it certainly helps to have a low friend in a high place, the system hasn't approached the point where outsiders are simply locked out.

I might also point out that there's not really that much difference between "knowing somebody" and being "in the know." Being in the know means that you don't waste time approaching agents who don't work in your genre, that you package and pitch your manuscript properly for the publishers and agents you approach, that you don't spend your time trying to explain to everybody why they're wrong about your book. It's like the old supermarket job I never broke into, you have to play their game. If you didn't show up in a suit and tie to apply for a job as a bagger, you didn't stand much of a chance back then. Playing the part of a professional writer is just as important in the publishing business today as it was in the bagging business twenty-five years ago.

Procrastination In Book Production

It looks like I may reverse myself on publishing my blog as a book. I wouldn't publish the whole thing, I repeat myself too much, but I copied all the posts into Word yesterday and it came out to over 100,000 words. If a sculptor can look at a block of stone and find the lawn ornament within, I ought to be able to find a book inside a 150+ post blog. I'll print up the posts, start sorting them into piles (ie, chapters) and see what I get.

I don't see publishing my blog as a business model for anything. The only motivation anybody would have to buy an edited down version of a blog that can be read online for free is to get it on paper. Since it's not a big production job and I'm not going to put a value on time that I would have spent anyway, I'll price it below $10 and it will be cheaper than an inkjet cartridge. How's this for a title:

The Self Publishing Blog Printed - Compiled Posts from

That's my idea of truth in advertising. Another motivation for publishing the blog would be to that 90's concept of closure, or as a friend of mine is fond of saying, "Put a fork in it, it's done." It's taking me longer and longer to write these short posts as I try to say something on the subject of self publishing without merely reporting current events or doing free PR for authors. I enjoy the conversational style of writing, but after three months of posting most weekdays, I'm just winding down again and ready for another break.

What I'm thinking of doing this time is putting a "Best Of" collection of posts on the main page of the blog, rather than going with the last three posts I happen to write. I'd just jam them into the template with Wordpad rather than using the Blogger software, and take a few months off. The more I write about it, the better it sounds! The only question is what I'll do to fill the time. I could catch up with my Amazon blog, but frankly, I could use a break from publishing altogether. That's the best part of a dream job, I can take time off anytime I want.

I think.

Maybe I'll go on to form a Bloggers Anonymous chapter.

159 - Procrastination In Book Production

Procrastination - Sung to the tune of Carly Simon's "Anticipation"

Well, we all know that a book can't write itself
But we all hope it does just that anyway, yay
When it's written, the real job's just getting started
And the marketing campaign is underway.

Procrastination, procrastination
Is makin' me late
Is keepin' my book waitin' …

The corrections are sitting in my inbox,
And the new Beta Office is installed,
But I wasted the whole day on idle emails,
And took a welcome break when my lawyer called.

Procrastination, procrastination
Is makin' me late
Is keepin' my book waitin' …

I'll admit it's no way to run a business;
Where's the profit in sitting on my thumb?
So I'll get tough and set a one month deadline
But all this tracking changes makes me numb.

(Track changes makes me numb)
And maintain a back-up 'cause track changes makes me numb
(Track changes makes me numb)
(Track changes makes me numb)

How to Publish a Memoir as Self Help

The editor going through my blog posts for collection into a book had a comment about my hiding a poem in a computer book by McGraw-Hill. She says I've now figured out how to hide a memoir in a book of blog posts! I don't think of it that way myself, though I'm a diehard advocate of anecdote in how-to and self help books. I need to see references to personal experience for me to count an author as credible. I'm not interested in authors telling me how to do something that they've never attempted themselves, unless they have some clearly related experience.

There are memoirists working away even as you read this, recording every meal and bowel movement for posterity, in the belief that they are creating an invaluable historical record. Invaluable, unvaluable, amazing the difference a little vowel can make. If you're writing a memoir that you hope to sell, the simple story of your life as you lived isn't going to cut it, unless you happen to be famous, infamous, or the first memoirist of some famous events. If you're writing for yourself or your kids, do what you want, but if your goal is to publish a memoir you can sell, think about disguising it as self help.

The only book about health I've ever taken seriously was a book about running injuries written by a doctor who was an avid runner. I'm embarrassed to admit I can't remember the title and can't check because it's down at my folks’ house, but he included anecdotes about his own running injuries and those of his patients. The one thing I never remember him advising was to quit running. Maybe he didn't write much about his childhood, maybe he didn't mention who he voted for in the 1960 presidential election, but he wrote a very useful book that left you with a feeling for who the man was and how he lived.

My great-grandmother published a Hebrew memoir of her childhood over a century ago that's very interesting to me for its description of life in a little town in Latvia in the 1860's. It survives in the corpus of research library memoir because it was one of the
first written by a woman in Hebrew, giving it a place in literary history. But it wouldn't have been very interesting in the 1860's, or the 1890's for that reason. Memoir about everyday life requires a much longer maturation period than wine to develop character, and if you publish a memoir today in hopes it will be read in a hundred years you'll probably be disappointed in your grave.

But who has lived a life, or even half a life, without learning anything? If you can write, and if you believe you understand something better for having lived through it, you can write a book the may help other people cope with the same issues. Many of the books published about surviving an illness or dealing with a tragedy are essentially memoirs that have been cast into self help books for people who find themselves in similar situations. Take advantage of hindsight and make sure that even when you write about confusion, the writing itself isn't confusing.

You don't need to have suffered some horrible loss to write a self-help memoir. I'd be interested in reading the memoirs of a successful self publisher myself if it were titled "My Life in Self Publishing" by Jon Doe, rather than, "My Life" by Jon Doe. If I'd read some engineering memoirs as a young man, it may have saved me six years of higher education! Now that I think of it, I don't recall ever seeing any engineering memoirs, outside of historical accounts of famous engineering projects. That's how to publish a memoir, make it a historical account of something people are interested in reading about, and hide your childhood in the introductory chapters as "background."

Creating An Index With Word In Microsoft Office

Update: I just posted an illustrated page on book indexing with Microsoft Word.

Microsoft Word has always been the best word processor to use for index creation because it deals so well with large file sizes. I don't know many people who buy Word a stand-alone product anymore, most people get it through the Microsoft Office bundle. If you aren't currently running Office and you want to try it out, the Beta copy for Office 2007 can be downloaded from the Microsoft Site for $1.50.

As I wrote in my article about book contracts, some trade publishers will include a clause where they charge the author for index creation, often at a rate of several dollars per page. My advice in this case is to do your best to get rid of that clause, or it will cost you a good chunk of royalties. Another option which is common with many academic publishers is to give the author the option to create the index, under some time pressure, after the book is typeset. Now that I think about it, I did the index for my first McGraw-Hill book since the contract gave an either/or option, either I’d do it or they’d charge me to have a professional indexer do it.

I've helped a couple friends in academia create indexes for their books in Word, even though the publisher only supplied a text file and a printed galley. It turns out to be a simple process once you get the hang of it. Just paste the text file into Word, and set the page size to be larger than the page size in the printed book. Then, page by page, manually insert page breaks (you can use the pull-down menu or CTRL-Enter) in the Word file to force the page lengths to be the same as the printing supplied by the publisher. If you aren't a fast skim reader, just use the Search function to find the last couple words on the end of each page. It might take a couple hours, but it's well worth the time.

Once you have the complete text in the Word file with the proper page breaks, you can start marking words for inclusion in the Index. The pull-down menus for Word from Office 97, Office 2003 and Office 2007 are all different, but the key combination to mark a selected word (highlight with the mouse) for the index is ALT-Shift-X. The pop-up indexing dialog box is shown below:

This dialog box has remained essentially unchanged through all the Office versions because they got it right the first time! Note that the dialog box remains open so you don't have to keep hitting ALT-Shift-X for every new entry. You just highlight a new word for the index, then click in the dialog box to return the focus there. Once you've marked all the index entries you want, you just use the Insert Index command from the pull-down menu, and a full index is dropped in place. If you need to change the page layout at a later date, the entries remain marked, and a new index can be generated with one click that will reflect the correct page numbers, just like creating a new Table of Contents in Word.

It's also worth experimenting with the indexing options to see how they work before you index an entire book. I would exercise caution using the "Mark All" button, which does a universal search on the word you have highlighted and adds all occurrences of the word to your index. That may be fine with proper names if you want every instance in the index, but it can create a real mess with common nouns or names that are used multiple times on a single page. Word even lets you create a subentry if you have a good memory for what other related items you've indexed.

Barnes & Noble Had My POD Book On The Shelf!

The title of this post is self explanatory. I stopped in my local Barnes & Noble yesterday to check the stocking of some big trade titles, and was shocked to see my POD printed book of diagnostic flowcharts on the shelf! My guess is that somebody must have special ordered it and then never returned to pick it up, but it's beyond me why Barnes & Noble didn't just send it back, since the book is returnable. The reason they would never order a copy for stock on their own initiative is that it's a $14.95 book with a short discount of 25%. Not enough profit for any bricks-n-mortar store to stock.

I expect some of the shoppers browsing through the computer books at that Barnes & Noble must do a double take. The cover looks like an amateur spent 15 minutes designing it in PowerPoint, probably because an amateur DID spend 15 minutes designing the cover in PowerPoint. I never intended for the book to be sold in stores and designed it accordingly. It's really just a collection of flowcharts with some explanatory text, and the first sentence of the book is, "This book was not designed to be read from cover to cover." It's also printed in the large 8.25" x 11.0" Lightning Source POD format for the sake of making the flowcharts readable, which resulted in a very thin book, about a quarter of an inch.

Interestingly, B& now shows the book as in stock and shipping in 24 hours. The vast majority of titles printed by Lightning Source are listed as being available for shipping 2-3 days at, even if they are physically in stock at Ingram. I don't know if this means that the Barnes & Noble warehouse actually has a copy in stock, or if their computer system is tracking all books on all shelves at all stores and in case of a sale, would instruct the local Barnes & Noble staff to pack it up and ship it. I do know Barnes & Noble store computers have access to the stocking information at other regional stores and can always tell you the closest location of a store with a book in stock.

It strikes me as very funny that I spend so much time blogging about a POD business model that bypasses bookstore stocking, yet the local Barnes & Noble currently has one of my titles in stock. I was really there to see if the book I write for McGraw-Hill was in stock because I'm waiting to see if they are going to take it out-of-print or try to get me to do a new edition, which would be the fifth. It also gets me thinking along those dangerous lines of publishing books that are intended to be stocked on store shelves. The little devil sitting on my shoulder is whispering, "If you can get a POD book onto the shelf in at least one Barnes & Noble without even trying, imagine what you could do if you went back to offset printing and offering the trade discount."

I could go broke is what I could do.

Damn devil!

Ingram Greenlight and LSI POD

This morning I thought I noticed a surge in the number of titles Ingram is listing as Greenlight in their online catalog. I tried to Google up some current information on the Greenlight program, but all I could find were some references from the late 1990's and a single PDF document on the Ingram Book site that mentioned Greenlight on a form. Back in the mid-90's when we were publishing on offset and trying to get our books included in the Ingram catalog, it seems to me that Greenlight was an option we looked at and didn't sign up for, but that may just be my imperfect memory. Ingram was trying to grow their catalog at the time so they could become a one-stop source for bookstores and online resellers, and the Greenlight program was supposed to handle low demand titles.

Some titles from LSI (Lightning Source Inc.), the sister company of Ingram Book that serves as the main POD (print-on-demand) printer for the industry, are now listed as Greenlight in the Ingram catalog. It looks to me like one of the factors affecting whether LSI POD titles are listed Greenlight is the distribution discount. A friend recently changed the discount on several of his LSI titles from 25% to 50%, and they were all changed to the Greenlight program. I notice that a lot of slower selling Wiley titles, including some Dummies books, are also in that Ingram program, and Wiley does mention on their site that their POD books are not returnable.

Since Ingram stopped showing the LSI graphic on POD books a couple months ago, I'm not sure whether having titles listed as "Greenlight" in the Ingram catalog is a good thing or a bad thing for the publishers. For example, some of the Wiley titles listed as Greenlight at Ingram are heavily discounted in the Amazon catalog, but others carry no discount at all. A heavy discount at Amazon can be a positive thing, especially if Amazon is weighting search results and Also Bought sorts with a discount factor. A quick search of the Ingram catalog shows that many titles from all the major trades (McGraw-Hill, Random House, St. Martin, Tor, Bantam, every publisher I checked at random) are listed as Greenlight, and since some Audio books are included, it's clearly not limited to LSI POD.

Since this morning is the first time I ever looked to see how widely the Greenlight designation was being used in the Ingram catalog, I don't know if this is a recent event. As I look into it further (I'm writing this post in real-time) it becomes obvious that returnability isn't a factor asmany Greenlight titles are listed as "returnable." Some even have the old green warning "Backorder now from DC Pairs" which is the kiss of death for impulse sales. It seems like the only way to determine from an information only Ingram account whether or not a title is printed by LSI is the virtual stocking number in the TN warehouse, either exactly 100 or 100 plus a few copies that are physically in stock. It also means there's no causal tie between LSI and Greenlight. I can't even find a correlation between Greenlight books printed by LSI and the Amazon discount, though that may be due to Amazon having existing stock of these titles.

Books In Boxes Or Digital Libraries

I bought a four-pack of 16 ounce drinking glasses in February because I returned to an apartment with nothing but mugs. This morning, the first of September, I noticed that three glasses remain in the cardboard four-pack. I use the other one every day. While some self publishers are arguing over whether the glass is half empty or half full, I'm wondering what to do with three extra glasses when I move. If I weren't a publisher I probably wouldn't see 48 ounces of unused capacity as excess inventory. At least if I leave them here when I move out next month, I shouldn't have to worry about anybody packaging them up and returning them to me.

Some publishers seem to find comfort in surrounded themselves with boxes of their own books. I suppose that might be nice if you have a lot of money to dispose of and don't like a lot of empty space in your life, but unless you're using the boxes as office furniture, it's hard to see how they're doing your business any good. The option is not to print books until you have customers, and the most efficient way to do that is with print-on-demand. The economics of print-on-demand dictate that it be used for titles with modest expectations. It would make no sense to use print-on-demand for a title with an initial print run of 10,000 books, but it only costs a few dollars a year to keep a title in a digital library ready for printing. To sell 10,000 books over three to five years with short discount print-on-demand does make more sense than to sell 10,000 books over the same time period with offset printing, trade discounts and warehousing. In this instance, more sense also means more money.

Estimating the demand for a potential title is obviously a first step for any publisher, but new publishers tend to do a horrible job of it. The most common mistake is starting with a demographic and working backwards. I've heard too many publishers trying to justify a large initial print run with logic that starts with the population of the U.S. It goes like this: "There are around 300 million people in the U.S. and at least 10% have thought of moving to California, and at least 10% of them would be willing to buy a book about it. That's 3 million people, and in the worst case, if we only sell to 1% of them it's still 30,000 books!"

Am I supposed to say, "Gee, I checked your math and you're right"? It's fun to throw around big numbers to get an acquisitions editor's attention if you're an author, but it's the wrong way to go about managing a publishing business. The way to estimate demand for a book is to look at competing books and try to figure out how well they are selling. If there aren't any directly competing books, find something similar, and if you can't find anything similar, talk to some friends and family for a sanity check.

Amazon is a great place to find competing titles due to their Power Search functionality and category bestseller lists. Once you make up a list of competing titles, you'll want to keep a record of their daily sales ranks for a month to see how consistently they sell and to get an estimate of the absolute sales. However, Amazon isn't the whole book market, and it's not even representative for some genres. You can get the last two years worth of sales data from Ingram, the largest book distributor in the U.S., but those numbers are highly dependent on whether the publisher in question uses Ingram at all, or if they only use Ingram for servicing smaller accounts.

You can make the most of this fragmentary information if you back it up with a lot of field research. Visit the chain stores to see if they stock the competing titles, especially Barnes & Noble and Borders, and take note if they model (stock) more than one copy. If they have a whole pile of them, it's more likely a co-op advertising deal (the publisher paying for stocking) than modeling. If your proposed title is in a genre that is carried at specialty chain stores, check their stocking as well. I wouldn't spend too much time trying to assess stocking at independent bookstores because they will either reflect the chain stocking or they'll be all over the place.

Finally, find a local library with access to a good regional or national cataloging service to see how well a title is stocked in libraries. You can also get some great information online from With all of these methods, keep in mind that the market focus of the competing publishers will have a lot to do with where the book does well, and their focus might be quite different from yours. However, you may find that none of the competing titles are doing particularly well. It doesn't mean they are all badly written or marketed. It means the glass is half empty and if you go with offset printing you'll probably get stuck with many unsold boxes of books.