If you’re a cook who wants to publish a cookbook, I have a question for you:
Q: How many cooks does it take to publish a cookbook?
A: None, it takes a publisher. Besides, too many cooks spoil the binding.
OK, it was a trick question, but I’m not a cook myself so I don’t want to waste any time moving the discussion onto more familiar ground. Now that we’ve established that it takes a publisher to publish a cookbook, I have another question:
Q: What’s the main job of a cookbook publisher?
A: Selling cookbooks.
The most important thing you can learn about the publishing business before getting involved as either an author or a publisher is that printing books is as easy as boiling pasta, but selling them is harder than making a good sauce from scratch. If you think simmering tomatoes takes a long time, you’re going to have trouble with my recipe for marketing, which is, a sale a day on Amazon helps your cookbook bubble to the top few search results after few months, depending on the competitive heat.
Anybody can gather together a bunch of recipes and have a cookbook printed, and in some case, like charity fundraiser cookbooks that won’t be sold outside the community, that’s all it takes for a moderate success. The customers are motivated to buy the cookbook to support the charity, you could be selling them candy bars instead, but a cookbook is a nice way to get a bunch of people involved in contributing recipes, production, and community building is one of the benefits. But when you come to my website with a question about how to publish a cookbook, I assume that you’re talking about a cookbook for sale to the broad public, so you can make money.
Making money with any type of book brings us to the next point, which is, while there’s no easier way to get published than paying some hundreds or thousands of dollars to a subsidy publisher and sending off your manuscript, you’ll very rarely earn back the subsidy payment. There are even subsidy publishers who specialize in cookbooks, but their real function is acting as a sort of service bureau for the charity cookbook model and they won’t generate any sales for you. If you’ve already written a cookbook and you can convince anybody you talk to that people will line up to buy it, put your argument in writing and send off a proposal to one of the trade publishers who’s published similar cookbooks. While I’m obviously an advocate of self publishing, unless you have a platform that guarantees you book sales (a TV show, a column, a popular website or a professorship, you’ll probably make more money your first time out with a well positoned trade who can pay you an advance. No advance, they aren’t a well positioned trade.
The most serious question I can ask you illustrates how to publish a cookbook that will sell:
Q: What’s the main job of a sucessful cookbook author?
A: Market research.
When you’re writing as a business, the worst error you can make is to invest your time in writing a book that you can’t sell because there’s no audience. For example, you might know a bunch of recipies that will make a person’s hair fall out, their teeth rot, or give them terrible indigestion, but without having done the market research myself, I’m guessing you’d be limited to selling it as a novelty item. If you want to publish a cookbook that people will read and use, you have to write one that they either already want, or will want when you present your convincing arguments. This last bit is a serious stumbling block for most self publishers, who assume that they’ll be given the opportunity to make their argument by getting their books on store shelves and having people browse them. It just doesn’t work that way. You have to convince the chains to give your book a try on the shelves, and that’s a tougher job than setting up for direct sales and convincing customers one-by-one. Also, getting your book stocked by chains means a very large upfront investment and earning a very small proportion of the cover price, probably between 20% and 25% depending on your printing and shipping costs.
My own take on self publishing is to try to do it all with print on demand, using a model based on Lightning Source or Replica short discount distribution which lets you earn 50% or more of the cover price. With print on demand, your out of pocket investment is limited to purchasing an ISBN block to become an official publisher, and a hundred or so dollars in setup fees (you still have to produce the digital production file), then Presto, your cookbook becomes available on Amazon, and by special order through most of the bookstores in the country, not to mention direct sales. The problem is that color print on demand is just coming into its own, so for the time being, I recommend that publishers stick to black and white, and avoid greyscale graphics (photos) due to quality issues. I actually wrote something a while back about how to publish a cookbook specifically with print on demand.
If you’re a cook who wants to publish a cookbook, I have a question for you:
A quick thought on the democratization of publishing. It is quite likely that under a large, free, print on demand library system, you would get a huge number of titles uploaded, but as with subsidy published books, very few of them would get printed in any quantity. Memoirs, poetry, books that people write because they feel something in them that needs to come out are wonderful medicine for the author who writes them, but they almost never succeed commercially because strangers just aren't interested. Most people who read biography and memoir want to read about famous people or at least, biographies by famous biographers. Library patrons want to check out the latest bestseller or a classic. The local memoirs and "minor" books that get acquired over the years tend to get culled out when the library needs shelf space and they check the date stamps.
I do see many authors, particularly in the nonfiction genres, slowly disposing with publishers, but I think they'll be replaced with self-publishing partnerships that allow the author to earn a living, such as Google (thinking of their new video program), Amazon and Lightning Source. The authors who can't or won't work on spec will continue writing for the big trades who, through their business models, will continue providing the 80,000 wallpaper titles for the big bookstore chains who don't show any signs of weakening. There seems to be room in the publishing world for all these different models, but I don’t see many commercial authors wanting to work for free. Maybe it's because most commercial authors count on writing income for a significant portion of their living.
The Internet is a practical case study in the democratization of publishing. It turns out that the people who author book length content for websites, and I mean publication quality content as opposed to adventures in daily blogging, are authors. Some of them haven’t been published on paper yet and some just don’t see the need as they earn a living from their online content, but they are professional authors all the same. I suppose I’m cheating a little in my argument here, since anybody who writes book length content could be called an author by definition. Many popular blogs are maintained by authors who are searching for greener pastures. The demographics of authors haven't changed that I’ve noticed. Most of the productive nonfiction authors are in their 30's to 50's, people with the experience and know-how to work on spec, and wolves howling at the door for motivation.
The recent history of music downloads have some people outside the publishing industry convinced that copyright owners can no longer make the rules (the French Senate seems to agree). They believe that publishers and authors will simply have to accept any new distribution system and take what people are willing to pay them. I suspect that music was a somewhat unique case, and that model won't be extensible to books, forced or unforced. Very few people go to the trouble of scanning, OCR'ing and correcting books for the sake of giving them away. Most of the ripped books you see on the web are ripped from e-book versions, many which were published without DRM to start with. There’s no question that print on demand and the Internet make the public accessible to all authors, but there’s no sign that the public prefers non-commercial books to commercial titles. I guess that’s my second cheat of an argument today since titles are deemed commercial precisely because the public buys them in quantity.
Before getting into details, I want to warn off those self-publishers who have already mortgaged the house and are ready to invest $100,000 in their first book. You’re so far beyond where I’m coming from that any advice I give just won’t match the business model you’re trying. For the record, the most I’ve ever invested (obviously not including my time) in self publishing a book was a little over $2,000; the least was about $350. I don’t self publish books as a hobby. I need them to pay for the effort by the end of the first year. Keeping costs down is a good way to avoid digging a bigger hole than you can climb out of without a bestseller.
Self publishers today are faced with two basic choices when choosing a book printing company. First, can they get by with print-on-demand quality or does the book absolutely have to be printed on an offset press? There are exactly three print on demand companies at the moment that can provide their publishers with hands-off access to distribution at a short discount. They are: Lightning Source, Replica and BookSurge (BookSurge only direct with Amazon for the time being, but that’s a large chunk of the typical self publishers’ marketplace). The discount off the cover price is what determines how much money comes back to the publisher for each book sold. The shorter the discount, the more money returns to the publisher. Despite the higher cost per copy that printing on demand entails, the availability of short discount distribution from these three companies means that the publisher earns more than if the books were printed on offset for free and then supplied into distribution at the standard trade discount.
Second, does the book absolutely require access to distribution or will all of the sales be done directly from the author to the customer? If the publisher plans on fulfilling all orders directly and storing the books in the garage or the back bedroom, then the short discount distribution advantage of print on demand becomes meaningless. However, absolute price per unit is still not the only factor to decide which book printing company is best for you, since the location of the printer and their ability to produce short runs is critical as well. The location is important for two reasons. For your first book, if you’re committing to an offset run of hundreds or more copies, you want to get it right the first time. That’s a lot easier to do if you can visit a local printer, talk to their setup people to find out exactly what they need, and be able to exchange materials without incurring a huge FedX bill. The second factor in location should be obvious. Books are heavy and not particularly cheap to ship. If you can drive to a local printer and pick up a few hundred books, you’ll save yourself as much as a couple hundred dollars on shipping and handling. In other words, if you think you’re saving 40 cents a book by ordering from some place
Finally, even if you’ve decided to forego distribution and do all of your own fulfillment (which means foregoing sales to some retailers who will only buy through distribution), you still have to have a place to put the books and money to pay for them. You’ll find that the cost per book drops rapidly with the number of books printed on an offset press, but for very short runs (under a couple hundred books) it’s usually cheaper to chose a book printing company that uses print on demand equipment for the short runs. If you fall into this category, you should really rethink whether you can get by with the quality of one of the print on demand companies that can give you short discount distribution as well. At large quantities, offset is always cheaper for books you’ll be taking possession of, but the cost of money and the risk become a factor. You can get books very inexpensively by ordering a run of 10,000, but that represents several years sales for a successful self publisher, and the odds of you’re getting there on your first outing are quite low.
When I went to college back in the 80’s I found that some classes had a course packet of collected papers and chapters instead of a text. I was happy because I thought I’d save some money and not get stuck with some bulky textbook full of filler. Turned out the course packets were also expensive, bulky and full of filler, but they weren’t printed or bound properly. Thanks to the professors who would make cosmetic changes every year, they also had no resale value! Now that I’m on the publisher side of the fence, that sounds like a formula for steady sales and profits and, with print on demand, a way to deliver a more professional and lasting product to students, one that they can resell.
Course packets at most schools are an odd beast that are either produced in the school copy center with slave labor or farmed out to a local copyshop. In Massachusetts, the copyshop approach is primary, and near every campus you’ll find one burning the midnight oil at the start of each semester, cranking out course packets that are sold for anywhere from $20 to $50. The price to the student includes both the copying cost and the royalty payments for all of the papers and excerpts included, or at least it’s supposed to work that way. Professors who are on the ball are pretty good about respecting the intellectual property rights of other professors and publishers, though the payments system struck me as somewhat arbitrary and obscure.
Print on demand is ideal for course packets if the papers or excerpts they include can be obtained in digital form. The problem with many packets is that they really are a copyshop job. The professor (or slave labor) will literally make copies out of books, some in portrait orientation, others in landscape, so that the packet is nothing more than a poorly bound collection of mismatched formats and fonts. The most irritating bit about working out of a packet in class is the lack of sequential page numbers. There’s a lot of page flipping going on when everybody needs to find page
However, when the papers or chapters are available as digital text and a subsidiary rights scheme is worked out, the course packet can be published as a print on demand book, with sequential page numbers, properly oriented pages, and a genuine perfect binding. At this point, the packet has morphed into an anthology, and with the help of an ISBN number and a fulfillment service like Lightning Source, Replica or BookSurge, can be available for ordering through Amazon and bookstores. Amazon will be happy to resell used versions as well. Why every college bookstore in the country isn’t signed up with a print on demand vendor is beyond me.
I learned about seller’s regret in the trade world in a similar fashion, and while I didn’t try to cry my way out of it, I certainly do enough whining to friends. I sold my first book to a trade publisher, McGraw-Hill, back in 1997, after a failed attempt at self publishing. The book did average, sold out the advance and earned me another $5K or so before going out of print, at which point I requested and regained the rights. My seller’s regret came with the second book, due to the contract conditions. Because that book was successful, currently in its 4th edition, I’ve been married for seven years to a partner I’ve outgrown. Alright, that doesn’t sound right and I don’t like hearing people talk that way about their spouses, but it’s true all the same. I’ve moved into self publishing direction and believe I can manage my writing better than any trade publisher, as long as the content works well with Internet or print on demand publishing.
Buyer’s remorse is something I feel every time I make a purchase. For example, I put down a $100 deposit on a tourist apartment for my father who’s visiting next week, and I regretted it before I even walked out the door. It’s too far from my place, it’s too small for both of us, and two day later, my cousin just called to say they’re going away for the week and we could have their whole house! When I talk about reasons I haven’t gone into the business of publishing other author’s books, I’ve always skipped over this one because it makes me sound neurotic, but it’s true. I know that within two minutes of signing a contract and mailing an advance check, I’d be beating myself up with, "What did I buy this dumb manuscript for!" It takes somebody with better nerves than me to make a good publisher.
In the publishing business, it’s not possible to get that childhood "do over," which just goes to prove that a childhood is bad training for life and should be avoided at all costs. In publishing, intellectual property rights are the whole ball of wax, and trade publishers are understandably attentive to contract language that protects their investment, and then some. It’s that extra mile they go if you aren’t paying attention that can make the difference between a happy publishing relationship and a buyer’s regret / seller’s remorse situation. Even when both parties are making money, nobody likes being in a contentious relationship. Trade publisher contracts will always require that some rights in the work be transferred to the publisher for a length of time, otherwise it would be suicidal for them to invest in editing and production, much less a print run. Even small trades using print-on-demand have a major investment in production, but subsidy presses have no business asking for any rights to a book.
If a publisher runs a really tight ship with professional authors and whip-hand production editors who can keep things on a schedule, than all of the processes required to publish a title may go on simultaneously, chapter by chapter. In the instance of publishers specializing in tribute books to the recently deceased famous folks or last month’s disaster, marketing, design, editing and layout all have to occur at once or they’ll never make their deadline. Of course, these books are usually written, or compiled, by teams of authors and editors, so there’s no question of missing a deadline because somebody has writer’s block. However, this system only works well with real cookie cutter titles, and in practice, it’s tough to keep production on schedule even if an author makes all of their deadlines.
A typical acquisitions editor at a quality trade publisher may be required to acquire anywhere from ten to twenty titles per year. How involved they are with the actual publication process depends on the publisher and the individual, but acquiring titles doesn’t mean flipping through piles of manuscripts, exclaiming, "Oh, I like this one," and sending the author a contract. Acquisitions editors have to answer to ed boards (editorial boards), publishers (the job description "publisher" is top dog at an imprint) and the sales department. The salespeople at trades can have quite an impact on deciding the who, what and when of publishing by expressing strong opinions of whether or not they’ll be able to sell a given title. Even the major buyers, by way of the salespeople, can have an impact on how books get published. If Borders tells the sales rep, "We’ll order the book if you make it smaller," then there’s a good chance the publisher will make it smaller.
Authors are often the weak link in the publishing schedule, because as experienced editors can tell you, some of them never finish the manuscript. Academic publishers are used to delays of years, they don’t make money on retail sales in any case, but for trade publishers who have added a title to their list, missing deadlines is a major expense. In some cases, the acquisitions editor will fire the original author and bring in a pinch hitter, or, if enough material has been submitted, just boil it into something resembling a book. However, authors do have two productivity advantages over publisher employees. First, authors never get invited to meetings, and nothing ever comes of sitting around and talking about work. Second, the majority of authors only write one book at a time, and those who write multiple books at once don’t work on as many as an editor, designer, or marketing person. The more projects a person works on, the more time is eaten up in overhead and task swapping between projects. Efficiency just goes to pot even with spreadsheets and modern collaborative scheduling tools.
Once a completed manuscript reaches the publisher, there are still plenty of ways the author can keep the book from being published on schedule. The acquisitions editor may find the manuscript doesn’t come anywhere close to the book that was proposed and demand a rewrite, or the submission may be lacking permissions or artwork the author was required to provide. Some authors also drag their feet during the review and corrections phases, though publishers try to limit this contractually. Once the manuscript passes muster with the acquisitions editor, the technical editors might reject or rewrite parts of the work, or the lawyers may find it too risky to publish as is. At many larger publishing companies, the manuscript is taken out of the hands of the acquisitions editor and passed to a specialized production editor, who is responsible for coordinating the copy editors, proofreaders, cover artist, book designer and typesetter.
Either by design or due to workload and personnel issues, some publishers will outsource the production job to a contractor. The contractor might be a single individual who does most of the work and subs out any extra pieces, or it could be an all-in-one production facility who charges a fixed rate per page or word count to produce books for trades. Some of the outsourced jobs are total disasters, as the contractor isn’t sufficiently familiar with the subject matter to deal with pictures or graphics properly, or simply doesn’t follow instructions. I even know of one instance where an author working for a major literary nonfiction publisher received the final proof for her book and it turned out to contain production directives added with "Track Changes" which had been set as type! Depending on the publisher, the type and length of the book, and requirements of the marketing people, typical production schedules may last anywhere from two months to six months for books that are produced in stages. Large reference type works and textbooks may drone on for a year or more, with the production work carried out a chapter ar a time.
For those offended by the commercial side of publishing, this post about information entrepreneurs is definitely not for you. If you’ve ever spent a serious amount of time window shopping amongst the 100,000 plus titles in a Barnes & Noble superstore or browsing the subject categories at Amazon, you’ll have noticed that there’s more overlap than uniqueness between titles. It’s even true for fiction, where copycat titles from new authors or even the same author as a previous bestseller crowd the shelves, and classic works are available in a dozen editions and bindings. In the nonfiction areas, the phenomena of overlapping and tribute (i.e., all but copied) titles is so epidemic that you can set out to buy a particular book that’s been recommended to you and come home with the wrong one by mistake. Publishers don’t just use the same titles, they imitate each other’s designs, page counts, layouts and styles.
If you step back and look at all of the overlap in the book publishing world, it leads to an interesting question. How many unique books are there? I’m going to stick with nonfiction from here because I’ve found some people get their backs up when you suggest that their favorite author is merely repeating the same book over and over again, or even worse, repeating somebody else’s book. When I look at a section of shelf in Barnes & Noble or a category on Amazon, I wonder how many titles would be left if a disinterested information entrepreneur distilled it all into a single work. Given the amount of fluff that gets included in most books, it would surprise me if the average category of nonfiction could be boiled down to about a half a book.
Some modern information entrepreneurs focus on what they perceive as the low hanging fruit, information that is freely available for repackaging without copyright restrictions. Because of the extremely low transaction costs in publishing public domain, mainly government generated documents, it’s a natural target for the home based publisher. The trick is that the government is getting better and better at publishing the same information online themselves, so the packaging ends up being the product. If you succeed, there’s very little to prevent other publishers from imitating your packaging, and since you can’t copyright the public domain material yourself, their transaction cost to get into the business is even lower than your cost was.
Nonfiction how-to and self-help books are pitched to a general audience in the theory that the author actually knows quite a bit about whatever the subject is and is writing the book to share their expertise and make a buck. This is usually true for the first book out on a subject, and sometimes for the last as well, but many of the books that come in between are churned out by technical writers who are being paid to "write a book that competes with X." All of these in between books tend to be highly redundant, and while an argument can be made that they are necessary to the publishing economy, it would be hard to convince me that they are necessary to the readers. I say that despite the tendency for some readers to buy every book they can on a subject, as witnessed by the "Also Bought" lists on Amazon. The incremental books may give them confidence and a tax write-off but they may not give them any new information.
Self publishers of nonfiction books are essentially functioning as information entrepreneurs. It’s a business model that existed as long as the printing press, but one for which the transaction costs have been greatly reduced by the Internet. Some information entrepreneurs derive their living directly from monetizing their websites and don’t even bother publishing books. My own model for self publishing is more of a hybrid. I started out strictly as a book publisher with online marketing and have drifted into some online monetization, more as a convenience than as a goal.
But what about those information companies (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo) for whom monetizing the Internet is THE goal, and what about those old trade publishers and textbook publishers (McGraw-Hill, Norton, and the rest) whose sole focus remains monetizing information on paper? The internet bookshelf means bad news for the paper publishers because all of my experience online indicates that the winner gets the spoils and the derivatives get the ghosts of departed quantities. I believe that in the next five years or so, some company will emerge as the default information publisher. Maybe one of the majors will get brave with their existing content and put it all online. Maybe one of the information companies will pay to have a thousand books written, and if they avoid overlap, it may cover 90% of what people are looking for. Maybe it will be a new information entrepreneur who puts together a network of a thousand diverse authors. All I know is I won’t get credit for the idea.
Marketers like to point out that it’s harder and harder to get noticed in a noisy world, but it doesn’t pay to mix internet attention getting techniques with book design. One of the oldest methods for attracting attention against tough competition online is to use intentional misspellings. Accidentally typing the "l" before the "e" may even be how you found this post, but I wouldn't suggest using "Slef Publishing" in the title of your book. While it might bring you a typo visitor a day on Amazon, I doubt they would be very likely to purchase the book unless it were clearly a satire.
Mistakes happen in publishing, and as a self publisher, you have to determine which you can live with and which require you to halt the presses. As a trade author I can tell you that the major publishers have pretty thick skins. They might be willing to fix a double sentence or other introduced copy editing error in a future printing, but they’ll sell the ones they’ve printed without the slightest embarrassment. You almost never hear of a major publisher pulping a printing due to errors, unless, of course, they are the types of errors that can result in libel or wrongful death lawsuits. I remember in the case of one book I authored for a major trade that went through twelve or more printings. Errors introduced by the copyeditor that I caught and fixed nevertheless reappeared in a later edition. Apparently the publisher simply sent the wrong file to the printer.
When you’re considering using a clever trick to stand out from the crowd, ask yourself how it will look on somebody’s shelf, as opposed to on the computer screen, and if it’s something you want to be known for. "Oh yeah, that’s the guy who misspelled Shakespeare on the cover." I actually threw out $900 in book jackets once because my designer spelled "Sarah" with an "h" on the front cover and without an "h" on the spine. A minor matter, but the particular audience for the book included some particular people, and I didn’t want to hear about the missing "h" for the rest of my life.
Very long titles work well with database driven storefronts, like Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com. The problem is they don’t look very good on book covers. The trick there is to use the official subtitle to cram all your thoughts in and only put the main title on the cover. Publishers have been using this trick for hundreds of years, though the initial reason was to placate authors who had some twenty-five word title they thought was essential to explain the contents of the book. These days, some successful publishers use comma delimited laundry lists of keywords in their subtitles to maximize their chances on Amazon. I’m not comfortable with that approach myself and prefer my subtitles to be in sentence or phrase structure, but I have to admit I haven’t seen the laundry list approach hurt anybody’s sales.
On the other extreme, if you’re self publishing nonfiction books and will be dependent on database visibility for a portion of your sales, don’t get too cute. While an intentional misspelling will likely be a turn-off even for people who find the book through a typo, an overly artistic title will prevent them from finding it at all. A book about self publishing titled "Independent Expression and Financial Remuneration through Value Added Paper Processing" is unlikely to attract many visitors on Amazon, or at least not the visitors to whom you’re trying to market the book. When in doubt, describe your book to a couple of friends and ask them how they would search for it on Amazon or in a library catalog. Then go to Amazon and see how competing books are titled and which are succeeding. In the end, the title will only make or break the book if there isn’t any online competition, which is rare, but it’s always there in the background making a marginal difference in search results that gets magnified over time.
In a recent discussion in our POD publishers group, somebody suggested that book buyers are still shy about placing online orders. I replied "Can't agree with you there. Consumers are hesitant to walk into stores where sales people hassle them. I guess we just know different consumers." In the same sentence, the publisher suggested that relatively few people go online. I replied "I believe just about everybody who buys books in the U.S. has Internet access." If you get your facts from ten year old data or consultants who are ten years out of date, you’re going to end up with a lot of misconceptions about how the book selling world operates today.
POD doesn’t mean low sales, but due to the huge number of titles turned out by subsidy presses, academic publishers and trades using POD for backlist, statistics would make the average title sales appear very low. I've never seen an apples to apples comparison of sales by, say, self publishers who use POD vs self publishers who use offset. It's very hard to create such numbers, because survey participants tend to be self-selecting and many of the failed businesses drop off the radar with 10,000 books in the barn. I know we've sold far more copies of books printed by POD than printed by offset, but part of that has to do with the title choices and our evolution as a publisher. Book sales numbers overall are simply much lower than most new publishers realize. Books published by academic presses probably average a few hundred copies in their lifetime.The main market for most of these books are academic research libraries who buy everything on a subject, of which there are maybe 200 -
The only way to raise the industry average for POD sales would be for everybody to publish far fewer books, but that's hardly a solution. There's nothing wrong with tens of thousands of authors who just want to see their book in print and have a few copies to give family and friends turning to subsidy presses every year for an inexpensive dream. The real sin is when they get conned into blowing money on promotional campaigns that won't sell a single book, but it's still cheaper for them than the old offset subsidy press model which could cost over $10,000 up-front.
Successful POD publishers take advantage of online booksellers (mainly Amazon) and ordering from Ingram available to Lightning Source customers, plus any direct sales and drop shipping the publisher wants to do if a larger discount seems required. I limit my drop shipping to schools and specialty stores, who I give a 35% discount for prepaid orders. The best thing you can do is stop thinking about your titles as "POD books" and go about publishing titles that work well with the POD publishing model – mediocre printing quality, minimal overhead, and short discount distribution if you use LSI, Replica or to some extent, Booksurge.
There no reason to lock yourself into the "normal" markup model for books which is based on standard offset printing and traditional distribution if you aren't using them. I don't even consider markup when I'm looking at a potential title for the POD short discount model. I look at the market for the genre to see what a reasonable cover price would be, and that cover price minus the discount and printing cost equals the profit. OK, there's the acquisition and setup cost, but you know what I mean. There's no need to include "experience" factors for inventory carrying, cost of money, shipping, returns, and (gasp) remainders if you don't have them.
Some newcomers to POD publishing figure the easiest thing to do is start their own subsidy press, but I doubt it's that easy or that fun of a business in which to be. I do enough corresponding with unhappy subsidy published authors, some of whom even get angry for not supporting their claims to a secret bestseller. I can't imagine having to answer the phone or check my e-mail every day to endless accusations of "I know I've sold at least 5,000 copies but you've only paid me for two!" Besides, assuming you ran a legit subsidy press, you'd have to do a huge business to make the kind of money you can make publishing books that actually sell. I know that if I took up subsidy publishing and if the fees were pure profit (no work, setup charges, etc) I'd have to publish about 200 titles a year to make the same money I earn self publishing. Somehow I suspect publishing 200 titles a year would be a very full time job:-)
All that said, I published my first book without an ISBN number back in 1995, I’m not sure I even knew what one was at the time. The book was a copyshop job, not from disk, but from a laser printed master copy that I produced at home. The format was 8.5" x 11", and the binding was perfect (glued), but with a two piece cover. In other words, the cover didn’t wrap around the book, it was just two pieces of colored card stock with a black adhesive for a spine, and the pages glued into place. Nobody would do it that way now, just about every copyshop can print direct from an Acrobat file you bring them on disk, and covers are usually produced at a single sheet on treated paper on a large format color laser or inkjet.
Given a nice four color cover and a perfect binding, there aren’t that many people who can tell the difference between a paperback produced at a copy shop and one from a trade publisher. The cut size and the paper choice can be a give-away in some cases, but for the main part, the toner based copying is sufficiently high resolution to pass as offset, and depending on the equipment, may come out better than production print-on-demand books. Copyshops are an excellent option for producing books with comb bindings, particularly craft books and cookbooks. Not only are comb bindings a requirement for books to lie perfectly flat, but a copyshop gives you the opportunity to hand collate the contents. That means you can use color copying to produce a few expensive color inserts and black and white copying for the balance. That’s appreciably cheaper than doing a whole book with color print-on-demand, though it requires a bit of labor on your part, or an extra payment to the copyshop.
If you are publishing special purpose crafts books that you’ll primarily be selling direct to customers, either face-to-face or through your own shop or Internet site, you can get by without an ISBN. However, you’ll be missing out on the special orders market these books can reach, even without being stocked in stores or available through regular distribution. You can add an ISBN number at any time if you decide to purchase a block, and you may be surprised to find that your book becomes quite a hit on Amazon. There’s no problem selling copyshop published books through Amazon once you have an ISBN, you just sign up through Advantage or sell them strictly through Marketplace. Amazon does allow vendors with merchant accounts to sell books without ISBN numbers by creating an ASIN (Amazon) number for them.
Unfortunately, my own adventure in copyshop book publishing came to a premature end back before anybody had ever heard of Amazon. The problem wasn’t with the quality, the lack of distribution or an ISBN, or even the marketing, since I was able to generate orders through my website. The problem was with the money processing. At the time, it was extremely difficult for a new business to get authorized to accept people’s plastic over the web, and solutions like PayPal were nonexistent. The first few checks that came in from the U.K. and cost me more to deposit than the face value convinced me that I was in over my head, and I sold an expanded version of that book to McGraw-Hill rather than continuing to publish at that time. Biggest mistake I ever made in the publishing business:-)
I’ve never written or published a book about either health or alternative medicine, but I’ve read too many. Like many people, I read them when my health was deteriorating back in my 20’s. I know now that the disease was unhappiness, but then I was ready to blame any external cause that came to mind. I spent a year as a vegetarian, and like chicken soup, if it didn’t help, it probably didn’t hurt. I tried meditation (Jewish and traditional), and read a big mix of pop psychology books and suicide studies. Short of happiness, I found the best cure to be exercise, and for many years I became a running addict. Oddly enough, I only remember reading one book that advocated running for health and I don’t have it in front of me, but it was by a running doctor on the subject of dealing with runner’s injuries.
These past three years, chronic calf muscle cramps and tendon injuries have limited my usual
The collection where I found this book, a private collection donated to the National Library here, is one I discovered maybe five years ago, with a friend of mine who is known as a macrobiotics guru. Don’t send me any macrobiotics questions, I’m not one of the faithful or even a fellow traveler, but I did attend three winters worth of a friend’s weekly dinner lectures. He was a very good speaker who would prepare notes along a theme, with a pun in the title and an anecdote or two as supporting evidence. Anecdotes are a common thread in alternative medicine books and lectures, because the lack of consensus regarding accepted scientific evidence is what make alternative medicine "alternative." Repetition is also very common, both in lectures and published books, because the number of anecdotes an author can come up with from real life are necessarily limited, if the author if honest.
I believe that both folk remedies and alternative medicine can sometimes provide useful outcomes for people with health problems, but I get offended when the practitioners use scare tactics to attract followers. Anybody who believes that drinking milk makes a person cow-like hasn’t seen very much of life, and insisting on causal links between universally consumed foods and rare diseases and mental conditions is a game for the faithful. I’ve read alternative medicine books that led me to try something new, but I’ve never read one that persuaded me the author had any real understanding of cause and effect. Like folk remedies, there’s no reason that received knowledge should be immediately dismissed as voodoo. Sometimes the old folks did the right things for the wrong reasons. But, if you’re interested in publishing a book for a reader like myself, stay away from the pseudo-science.
If you spend enough time in library stacks, you’ll see plenty of multi-volume memoirs from semi-famous people who lived hundreds of years ago. In many cases, their semi-fame is entirely derived from the fact that they wrote a multi-volume memoir and had the money to pay a publisher to put it out. It also means they had the leisure time to write the thing, and probably to pay a personal secretary to transcribe it into better handwriting with some of the more obvious spelling and grammatical errors corrected.
A lot has changed since those early days. There are now millions of retired people with the leisure time to write memoirs, computers to do the quick spelling and grammar checks, and any number of inexpensive subsidy publishers willing to print them. Another thing that’s changed is that very few people paying to have a memoir published today can expect to be semi-famous on account of it a couple hundred years from now, nor can they expect to see their memoir acquired by libraries, beyond the local branch they frequent.
I’ve read a number of memoirs by people nobody has ever heard of and I’ve enjoyed them all. The problem, from the perspective of a memoir publisher, is getting people to buy them. I haven’t paid for any of these unknown memoirs I’ve read, and the truth is, I wouldn’t have been a customer. It’s not a question of quality, it’s simply that it would never occur to me to buy a book by somebody I never heard of about somebody I never heard of unless the marketing was compelling, and I have yet to encounter that situation in real life.
Unfortunately for authors who are self-publishing a memoir, selling the books beyond a small circle of family and friends to whom you should really be giving free copies is almost as hard as selling poetry. Maybe it’s because they are both so personal, but the sad fact is that you basically need to achieve fame before you can sell a book about you, not the other way around. When you see memoirs by people who were "unknown" before their memoir was published, you’ll usually find that there’s a catch. Either they had a platform as a journalist, blogger or a speaker to promote the book (and attract the publisher), or they nailed a market niche, often by bending the truth.
If you can identify with a major trend in current events; a war, a health issue, a religious chasm, and if you can hold your nose and write your memoir to make your life appear to be a perfect example of one or the other side’s view in the controversy about it, then you have a marketing plan. If I sound more cynical than usual, it’s because I suspect that to be the case in nearly every commercially successful memoir of a non-famous person I see, and there aren’t many. When people ask me about publishing memoirs I generally tell them not to look at it as a commercial enterprise. Lying about your life to get people to read about it strikes me as pretty self-defeating, and if you’re in it just for the money, there are easier publishing nuts to crack than memoir. Before you fork over your money to a specialty memoir publisher, do your research and find out if they sell any books outside the same friends and family you can reach by self publishing. If they do, drop me a note, because it will be the first I’ve heard of it.
The shelf life of the book is obviously important to sales in the sense that the longer the book is viable, the greater the number of years you have to sell it. A long shelf life is a terrific boost for books with no bookstore stocking, as long as they are available to stores through special orders, or directly to customers through online stores and direct sales from the publisher. Ironically, a long shelf life doesn’t make very much difference in the lifetime sales of the average trade book with a successful sell-in to the Barnes & Noble and Borders chains for the simple reason that the average trade book is a failure. Despite their huge superstores, the chains manage their inventory every bit as carefully as the smaller independents, and with their large networks, they have more information available to quickly determine if a book is succeeding in the marketplace. Whether the average trade title lasts on the chain shelves for two months or six months before being returned in quantity isn’t as important as the fact that most books don’t last for a year.
So why do trade books that initially have higher sales than their unstocked, short discount print-on-demand equivalents tend to collapse completely after six months, even if their potential shelf life is years? It comes down to the difference in models. When a well-stocked trade book fails on the store shelves, it means a couple thousand books coming back to the publisher from both retailers and distribution warehouses. These books are typically remaindered, which means they quickly appear on Amazon Marketplace and through other used books outlets at a steep discount, bringing to a rapid end the sales of any copies at the cover price. The failure in the stores causes the salespeople at the trades to completely lose interest in promoting the titles, the extent of which was usually just to get them into the stores in the first place. Depending in the accounting system and returns policy at the publisher, they may hurry to declare the book out-of-print and write-off their losses against more successful titles.
Books published with the short discount print-on-demand model are only ordered for stock in quantity if they establish a strong sales record, and are almost never remaindered. Book returns are minimal, and then only if the publisher accepts returns, and sales can actually rise on a year to year basis. My own print on demand titles have seen increasing sales for three years running, and I’m aware of at least one popular title which sells several times as many copies now as it did six years ago. Publishing books with a long shelf life is only effective if you can maintain their availability over the long run, and print-on-demand certainly achieves that goal. So, next time you hear somebody talking about the shelf life of a book, find out whether they are talking about how long the chains will give the book to prove itself before dumping it, or how long the title will be a viable seller. The offset publishing model can generate big sales quickly, rather like the hare in the immortal race, but if you’re publishing a book with a long shelf life, it might pay to be the turtle.
A few months after Amazon purchased CustomFlix which allows you to self publish movies on DVD, the big "G" has gone one better with a program that allows you to sell self published movies or videos via download. You can also give the videos away for free if that’s your thing, but if the video is very long or very successful, Google Video reserves the right to charge the downloader (i.e. customer) a fee to cover their costs. The restrictions are: You must own all of the rights to the video, you must upload the video via the Internet and, it can’t be obscene or too racy. They’re going to get a lot of grief about censorship over that last one, but I don’t blame them for trying. If you decide to charge, you can change the price at any time, which is great for experimentation.
Unlike Amazon’s DVD publishing program, Google Video may actually tempt me into making some instructional videos and seeing if I can get any customers. In my last post, I talked about how you can’t edit quality into a book, but as it happens, you can’t produce a quality video without a lot of editing. I wouldn’t recommend shooting 100 hours of raw footage and hoping to find a 90 minute story line in the cutting room, or computer room as the case certainly is, but don’t expect to shoot 90 minutes of video and end up with a 90 minute movie. I would strongly advise writing a script, even if there’s no dialogue, and sticking to it.
I’ve had quite a bit of experience story boarding videos that never got made because the sales channel wasn’t there yet. This means I have hundreds of pages on the internet that show sequences of photos, many of which are very popular and help me sell my books. In the how-to books I’ve authored for McGraw-Hill, I’ve published some photo sequences with instructions that are 60 and 70 stills long, which would provide a pretty good script for shooting a video on the subject.
Writing a script for a video differs from writing instructions for a how-to book primarily in terms of the added direction you have to provide both actor and camera. An actor doesn’t know where you want him to stand or how to hold his hands or his head based on a simple text description taken from a photo sequence. You need to story board the script with precise instructions for how the action will occur. The videographer, whether it’s you or a hired gun, also needs a script for camera angles, how long to hold a shot, close-ups and lighting, the qualities you can’t edit in by using software tricks. Even if you’re only writing a script for a ten minute video, it wouldn’t hurt to read some books targeting the "How to Write a Hollywood Script" market, because whatever else you can say about their movies, the production quality is usually excellent.
You can’t edit quality into a book, you can only edit out problems. This is equally true whether you are editing yourself or manuscripts you’ve acquired for publication. If this strikes you as self evident, it’s not always the rule at large trade publishers where acquisitions editors or contract editors are often asked to turn piles of words into quality books. Unless the editor rewrites the book from scratch, the best you can hope for starting with an average manuscript is an average commercial title. Quality books can only be developed from quality manuscripts, and when you start with a quality manuscript, the best way to preserve quality is to do as little editing as possible.
Plagiarism breaks down into two basic categories, one of which is easy for an editor to detect and the other which is practically impossible. The first category of plagiarism, which is tough for an editor to detect, is the type that results from laziness or sloppiness on the part of a knowledgeable and competent author. This is also the type of plagiarism you’re most likely to see in the news, because some very prominent academics and commercial historians suffer from either laziness or sloppiness. The lazy form of plagiarism comes about when authors do too light a rewrite of material that fits in well with their own theme because they’re just too lazy to rethink and reword it in an original manner. The sloppiness form of plagiarism comes about when authors get confused between notes they’ve taken and verbatim quotes, and accidentally uses work they would have happily rewritten or attributed without attribution because they think they wrote it. Since the general quality of the manuscript is excellent and the plagiarized material blends right in, there’s no easy way for an editor to detect it. Self publishers who lean heavily on research, rather than writing books off the top of their heads, can end up being plagiarists without even realizing it.
It’s quite easy for an editor who’s knowledgeable in the subject to detect plagiarism of the second category, which is the wholesale plagiarism of the incompetent author. It’s impossible, barring some form of mental disability, for this type of plagiarism to be an unconscious act, so we can assume you’ll only encounter it when editing manuscripts you’ve acquired for publication. An author who doesn’t know enough about a subject to be writing a book faces the characteristic problem that the plagiarized parts are better written and more accurate than the original bits the author adds to try to glue them together. When you’re reading a manuscript where the author does a fine job for a few paragraphs, then includes some truly inane comments that may even contradict what you’ve just read, then returns to quality writing for a few paragraphs, then repeats the stinkers, it will be pretty obvious. I’ve come across it myself when working as a contract editor, and I’ve seen it repeat in a number of how-to type books.
Returning to the initial theme, you can’t produce quality books through editing unless the editor
rewrites the manuscripts from scratch. If that’s the case, the editor is really acting as the author, so the rule still stands. It all comes down to the old adages about writing what you know and publishing what you know. If you start publishing books in a field where you are entirely dependent on the authors for the expertise, you’ll have no way of knowing whether or not you’re ending up with copyright infringements or quality books until the reviews and lawsuits come in. One of the reasons I stick with self publishing rather than taking up authors on their offers to publish some pretty decent manuscripts is my concern about liability. If I don’t know the topic well enough to have written the book myself, I’ve got no business publishing it. The only way I know how to detect plagiarism in an unfamiliar subject is through checking the best written bits on the Internet to see if they’ve been copied, a string of five or six words usually is best for searching. If I know the topic well enough to write a quality book, I’d be a pretty poor excuse for a self publisher if I hired somebody else to do it.
Since part of the customer’s perception as to whether or not they are receiving good value for their money is based on the prices of similar books in terms of genre, size and binding, it’s best to do your homework at your local bookshop or on Amazon. Frankly, it’s easier to use Amazon, because amongst the other sorts they let you do for a given subject area or collection of related titles, is a pricing sort. Unlike browsing your local bookstore, this is also a good way to find out what the true market price for a book is to a serious shopper who does price comparisons. Amazon lists both the cover price and their discounted price for those titles which they discount. While I’m considering how to price my books, I keep in mind that in some instances, the price paid for the book is what the buyer will remember, not the cover price.
The two factors that I see as most important for pricing a book are the perceived value to the customer, and the net profit to the publisher. This requires that you understand the economics of your distribution channels before you print the book, unless you plan on leaving off the cover price. Some publishers do leave off the cover price to give themselves maximum flexibility, but I see it as a sign of a publisher who hasn’t figured out their business. Keep in mind that there’s nothing holy about the cover price you set, the book will almost certainly be available for less through some outlets and may even be sold for more through others. When retailers sell your book for less than the cover price, they normally brag about it, stating X% off the cover price. When they sell your book for more than the cover price, usually because they couldn’t obtain it cheap enough to meet their own profit margin requirements, they normally resticker the book. Restickering is where they produce a nice sticky label with your ISBN and bar code that shows the new price at which they are selling the book, and stick it over your existing bar code and price.
The only way to determine how to price your book so you can make a profit is to use a combined printing/distribution cost, where the profit (minus returns) is baked in from the start. For large trade publishers, this usually means contract printing combined with their own distribution, since their title lists are large enough to justify going direct with all of their major customers. They may still use distributors like Ingram and Baker&Taylor to cover some independent stores or libraries, but the majority of their sales go through their own warehouses. Some very small publishers also do all of their own warehousing and distribution, simply because they can’t operate with a master distributor who requires a 60% or 70% discount off the cover price and still make a living. Most of the publishers rely heavily on distribution to reduce warehousing costs and in some cases, to get their lists exposure. In all of these instances, if you do your homework before you print the book, you can come up with a pretty good estimate of how much you’re actually going to net for any given cover price.
The easiest way to figure out exactly how much you’ll earn per book is to use Lightning Source or Replica, the print on demand providers who allow you to set one discount rate and get your book distribution through Ingram (in the case of Lightning Source), or Baker&Taylor (Replica). If you set a short discount, 25% is the minimum I’d use, you can net over half the cover price on most books, unless you price them well below the market. Using the short discount and not accepting returns guarantees that you’ll make a profit on each book sold, but it also guarantees that your books won’t be stocked on bookstores shelves, unless you make a separate arrangement with those stores for quantity pricing. So, forget about the rule-of-thumb multipliers you’ve seen that say you have to charge 5X or 8X the printing cost of a book to make a reasonable profit and work it out for yourself on a title by title basis. Sometimes you might get away with 3X, sometimes the market might allow you to charge 10X or more. The printing cost alone isn’t sufficient to tell you how to set the cover price.
A friend of mine has written about the difference between the traditional "build a business and sell it" entrepreneur and what he calls a "life style" entrepreneur. If you’re thinking about starting a home publishing business, you probably fall into the second camp, with me. My goal was never to build my publishing business up so I could sell it, although a recent bout of estate planning brought home the fact that I have created an asset. My goal was to free myself from the frustrations of being a trade author, because even when it pays well, it’s too much like having a regular job. On the other hand, my business background doesn’t leave me too much room for sentimentality about business. Either you’re making enough money to live on, or you’re in your first year and on your way to making enough money to live on, or you’re not really in business. If your goal is simply to fill up some spare time and not spend too much of your spouse’s money doing it, you’re talking about a home hobby, not a home business.
Running any business out of the home really puts your discipline to the test, especially in the starting phases of a publishing business, where there’s a limited amount of mechanical work to fill your days. I’m using mechanical work here in the sense of daily tasks that account for some amount of your time and lend structure to your day. You can’t count on shipping and handling or customer service to fill any part of your day before you’ve had any sales, and more creative work is simply hard to sustain in a meaningful way for more than a couple hours a day. The most important activities you can engage in early on are market research and marketing. Internet book marketing with a website has a long lead-time, anywhere from three months to a year to start having a positive effect. As soon as your market research tells you which direction you’re going, get a skeleton site up and running with whatever you’ve learned in your research, and start filling in the details later as you write or acquire books to publish.
Starting a home publishing business doesn’t require much of a capital investment; $250 for a block of ten ISBN numbers is about it, assuming you already own a computer. Anybody who wastes their savings on business cards and company stationery at this stage is at risk for playing at business rather than working at it. You need market research, one or more titles that fill a niche your research has identified, and a way to market to that niche once those titles are turned into books. Don’t leave the marketing for last on the assumption that it’s something you can buy once you’re ready to sell, it just doesn’t work that way for most publishers. The rule of thumb I apply is, if I can’t get a hundred unique visitors a day to a site closely related to the content of a book I plan on publishing, I won’t publish it. The hundred a day doesn’t guarantee you anything more than a chance, some titles need ten times as much traffic to generate meaningful sales, but it’s a lot more than most small publishers start with. I broke my rule once and it cost me over $10,000, though I’m glad I published the particular book anyway.
Self publishing is a great way to economize on start-up costs, and not just because you won’t be paying out an advance to authors. Dealing with authors is expensive. You’ll need legal advice for contracts, a more robust accounting system than you can get by with for just yourself, and a business structure or insurance that limits your liability. You’ll probably find that trying to please authors leads to extra expenses as well. Most trade publishers include a clause in their publishing contracts stating that changes to a final proof initiated by the author above a fairly low thresh hold will be charged to the author. Part of the job of being a publisher is deciding what "fit for publication” means, and you can have your time-table and your profit margin held hostage by an indecisive author who can’t sign off on a work.
Amusingly enough, one of the things you don’t need when starting a home publishing business is a home. I’ve run my business off a cheap laptop for the last four years and I’ve only had dial-up access for most of that time. While the companies you deal with will require a home address, all financial transactions these days can be done electronically, both payments for book and services, and accounts receivable. I’m in the habit of traveling to Jerusalem for three months every winter, and my publishing business runs exactly as it would if I were home in the U.S.!
If you’re writing children’s books to submit to trade publishers, my best advice is to read Aaron Shepard’s "The Business of Writing for Children." I’m not a children’s book writer myself. My primary areas of publishing experience are self publishing and marketing to niche markets. The self publishing business isn’t a scaled down version of a large trade publisher anymore than a home based cookie business is a scaled down version of a supermarket chain. When you’re writing any type of book for self publication, you can’t count on a sales department to get the book initial exposure on store shelves or for name reviewers to even look at it. Publishing a high quality children’s book might guarantee that the people who see it will like it, but getting the book in front of them in the first place is the challenge. On top of that, the economics of self publishing preclude a full color, board bound book, unless you have tons of money to gamble or are willing to purchase a very short offset run to sell at a loss and test the market. I don’t recommend either of those options.
The children’s book market is vast, and competing toe-to-toe with name brand and classic authors backed by major corporations is a tough challenge. Chain buyers, review magazines and trade salespeople have retained their importance in the children’s book sector better than most other sectors, because children’s books sell based on branding, shelf appeal and buzz. I don’t mean anything negative about the word buzz here, though buzz can be heavily manipulated by professionals, but the network of mothers talking about children’s books really has an impact, and it can stretch across generations. As a new publisher, you not only don’t have any of these things going for you, you can’t expect to get them any time soon, so another approach is required.
Rather than going after the vast, somewhat generic, children’s book market, it’s easier to go after a niche. The narrower the niche, the more likely your title will have a chance to become prominent, though it will still require both a quality book and a serious marketing effort. Unlike professional books where niche markets tend to define themselves, when you’re writing children’s books, you have the opportunity to define the niche yourself through the characters and the story. For example, if you’ve got a book in mind about a small dog, don’t be shy about picking a breed that you haven’t seen many children’s books about. It doesn’t matter how obscure the breed may seem to you, with a little research you’ll probably find that hundreds of thousands of Americans own that dog, and many of them have small children. There will probably be owners groups and maybe even a publication that offers inexpensive advertising, as well. Without changing in any way the story you wanted to write, it gives you at least one natural niche you can go after, to offset some of the disadvantages of the self publisher.
Writing children’s books for ethnic and religious markets is another way to reduce the amount of competition and give you some natural market advantages. Obviously, it would be a good idea to write for your own ethnic or religious group so you know what the hell (oops) you’re writing about. Writing for the children of immigrant communities in their parent’s language is an interesting hybrid, particularly if you can use American situations and lifestyles in the story, so the parents and children can learn something together. Serious children’s books that offer child-sized explanations of problems that adults face seem increasingly popular. I suppose I could write "When Mommy Publishes a Book and Can’t Pay the Rent."
The obvious thread through all of these examples is that even though you’re writing children’s books, you’re selling them to adults. Adults have their own interest in children’s books, from the art of illustrations, to the use of language to the lessons they hope to teach their children. Children’s books can take people out of themselves and make them better than themselves during the short time they spend reading them. The golden rule, honesty, modesty, any number of values some parents have deemphasized in their lives can be passed on to a new generation. I’m not advocating that you lie to children and make the world out to be a better place than it is, well, actually I am. Who knows, if enough kids believe it, faith can move mountains.
I think there's a collective memory functioning in the book industry of the good old days (circa 1960's) when library buying was at a peak and was on the order of 40% of all book purchasing. I wouldn't be surprised if it's under 10% now, including university and school libraries. As near as I can tell, the priorities for public library budgets these days are as follows:
#1 Latest bestsellers (paperback and hardcover)
#2 Children's books (hardcover) new and classic
#3 Replacement of worn-out and stolen bestsellers
#4 DVD and CD bestsellers
#5 Books requested by patrons
#6 Collection building
#7 Replacement of worn-out and stolen classics
This is my impression from 35 years or so of library patronage; I haven't done a survey. #4 might swap with #3 at some libraries, #5 jumps to the top at some libraries as a matter of policy. All of my library sales come from priority #5, books requested by patrons. What's interesting about the list of priorities, if you accept something like it, is how it plays into library budgeting. In a wealthy community with a well financed library, collection building may far outstrip the higher priorities in terms of the number of items acquired because there's plenty of money leftover after acquiring the must-haves and patron requests. But the golden days of collection building are long over. Many libraries are trying to reduce their collection size to make room for more computers, or simply open space, as the idea of what a library should be has been changing. A publisher with library sales experience or an inside track to a library review pub might make a living at it, but selling books to libraries is a risky strategy for a new publisher to bet all their marbles on. Obviously, a publisher can target both libraries and retail bookstores, but I've noticed in practice that most new publishers end up concentrating on a single market and give up if they don't break through in fairly quick order. A final note is that due to the low priority libraries hold in most city governments, library sales are more highly leveraged to the economy than direct retail sales.
We made an effort trying to sell books to libraries with direct mail a few years back. A co-op mailing cost $600 and we spent an additional $150 or $200 printing up 3,000 fliers for the general mailing on nice stock. One book was a collection of Hebrew translations, the other was a WWII ship history/memoir. Both books had been well reviewed in their respective fields, and review excerpts were featured on the flyer. Distribution was available through B&T and Ingram. One book was a hardcover, the other was paperback. Both were cover priced at $21.95, a 30% discount was offered for direct orders. One book had been in print for two years, the other for less than a year. The initial sales bump through reviews and other publicity was over by the time we did the mailing, the only ongoing sales the books were receiving was through direct mail-order and through Amazon. This means that the impact of the mailing was highly trackable for us, since we literally knew where almost every sale was being generated.
The mailing sold two books for us. The approximate cost, therefore, was $400 per book, or a net loss of about $390 per sale. This doesn't mean that mass co-op mailings are necessarily worthless, but I'd investigate any such deal carefully, talk to people who have had success selling books to libraries by mailings, and make sure that they have sufficient knowledge of where their sales are coming from to have a meaningful opinion. The press that recommended this mailing to us, on further investigation, turned out to have no clue how and where their sales were actually generated. Live and learn.
There are several possible reasons this mailing may have worked so badly for us. Library budgets were in serious straits a few years ago, many still are, so techniques that worked well in the 80's and 90's may be entirely irrelevant now. Our books may have been poorly suited to general library acquisitions. The other fliers in the co-op mailing (there were two others) may have been such a turn-off to librarians that they ignored all three. Our own flier may not have been tweaked properly for library sales. The season may have been wrong; if I recall, we did the winter mailing.
Print on demand books sell as well as their marketing makes them sell. The reason the majority of books published with print on demand don't sell well is because they are either low demand academic frontlist or trade backlist books, or, they are subsidy published and self published books from authors who don't do any effective marketing and give up after a short time. Publishers who use print on demand for their frontlist books and invest serious time and effort into marketing and producing books for which there is a market do quite well, and have very low costs. For new publishers, I believe it’s far easier to learn how to promote books published with print on demand and only move to offset later if the economics make sense.
One of the problems with traditional pre-market publication when using LSI, Replica or Booksurge for print on demand is they just tend to blow up once a year as their systems are changed. Publishers who get too clever with their timing (and I've been guilty of this myself) can end up with a bunch of orders cancelled by Amazon and no Ingram availability right when the publicity hits. I know some publishers would like to believe that potential customers will keep a good ad stuck to the refrigerator door for a couple months if the book isn't available when they go first go looking, but I have my doubts.
Learning how to promote books online requires just as much study and work as any other type of marketing. I've seen the sales increase for each one of my titles on a year-over-year basis, doubling or more in the first two years and than smoothing out some. That's the dead opposite of the traditional model, where most new books, if they get that far, don't survive the trial period on the shelves, and see the majority of their lifetime sales in the first six months. One of the reasons my sales tend to go up over time is that it takes a while for the increased visibility at places like Amazon to kick in, and word-of-mouth requires mouths. You can jumpstart your Amazon sales with paid promotions, I've never used one myself, and it also requires careful study to be cost effective. I’ve found the key to promoting books with a publisher website is very simple. You have to give away a lot, by posting major excerpts from your books and associated material. This is the only way that people who find your site will link to you as a resource. Most publishers remained terrified of doing this and just never experiment with it in depth. Websites that are essentially online advertisements for books don't attract anybody. You don't need super high numbers of visitors if excerpts are compelling enough to encourage buyers. It does take a lot of effort, but the cost is minimal if you do the work yourself, unlike say, paid advertising, where you can't.
When I started publishing and selling books on the web ten years ago, I thought there would be a limited window of opportunity before the web would be simply flooded with quality sites from kids who grew up online. Nothing could be farther from the truth, the quality seems to be slipping and most kids who look like they know what they are doing online are just in it for the movie and music downloads. I've helped a number of people launch sites recently, and now as ever, content is king. If you put out the best content and work at keeping it current, you'll get more readers and sell more books. Blogs offer a pretty nice content management system for those lacking design savvy, and they also help undisciplined writers add content on a regular basis.
Some people avoid trying to promote books online because a failure to attract visitors stares you in the face every day you check your metrics. Traditional advertising is far gentler on the ego. If you run an ad in a magazine or send out a big mailing and you don’t sell books, you can always find something else to blame it on. I don’t know what kind of marketing isn't hard work and doesn't take many months to come to fruition. With online marketing, the cost is measured strictly in time.
A few years ago I took the liberty of modifying the best advice any author can give a new writer, "Write what you know," to be beneficial for self publishers, "Publish what you know you can sell." I don’t want to get carried away with adages, but when you set out to write a book that sells, first dig two graves. No, that’s not what I meant to say, little Freudian slip! The truisms I’d like to talk about today are, "Don’t write what you don’t know," and "Write what your readers want to read." There you have it, the businessman’s advice on how to write a book that sells, be it fiction or nonfiction. Art does not trump life unless you’re trying to become a critically acclaimed writer, in which case you’d better write what the critics want to read.
Learning not to write what you don’t know is a critical skill, failing which some authors never start to write because they’re doing endless research in fear of leaving anything out. Maybe I should add a fifth adage, "Write what you know you can finish." Very few authors are the world’s leading experts on the subjects they’re writing about, though they may be acknowledged as such after the fact if their books are commercially successful. The world’s leading experts on most subjects got there by working at those subjects, not sitting around writing books, and on top of that, few books are limited in scope to the extent that one person could be said to be the top expert on all of the content. This is especially true of novels, which have to take place at a given place and time and involve human behavior of characters from a variety of backgrounds, but it’s carries over to the blandest nonfiction subjects as well.
Putting it another way, don’t take stupid chances. There’s nothing that will put a reader off as quickly as a novel that opens with a bar scene in a country that’s famous for being dry, or a family canoe trip on a made up river in a state that doesn’t even have running water. I’m using obvious examples because it’s not that easy to give sweeping advice about how to write a book that cuts across all genres. If we’re talking about nonfiction, let’s say you want to write a cookbook, and you’re a vegetarian. Hint: Write a vegetarian cookbook. If you try to write a cookbook that includes meat recipes, even if you study up sufficiently (i.e., copy) from other cookbooks or cooks to get the recipes right, the odds of your connecting with readers on the subject are quite low. The sad thing about authors who get caught up in endless research or caught out faking some bit they don’t really understand is that it’s unnecessary. Just leave that bit out, you’ll still have a book, and it will be all the more coherent for that fact that you actually understand it.
My other advice for the day about how to write a book that sells is to write what your readers want to read. You might have figured out from my writing style that I’m not going to recommend that you pander to anybody. Just don’t be so quick to appoint yourself an arbiter of the public taste and then lock yourself in an attic to write until your book is ready as a gift to the world. Being somewhat lazy, I have an extremely simple system for finding out what my potential readers want to read, I let them tell me. I publish draft writings and related materials online long before I sit down to write a book, and I let readers contact me by e-mail for questions and comments. The result is I get a fairly broad sampling of opinions not only about what I’ve written but about what I should write. At times, it’s almost like my readers are telling me how to write a book! If you haven’t already written a book, it also pays to do some market research first, to make sure there is a market. Even if you get everything else right, there’s little chance you’ll have much success selling a how-to title about the care and feeding of dodo birds, except as a novelty.
Finally, keep in mind that this brief piece was about how to write a book that sells, not about how to sell a book you’ve written. The main job of a self publisher is selling the books, writing them is just a necessary business preparation, though hopefully one you enjoy. Anybody can write and publish their own books, but it’s not really a business unless it pays for itself and earns you a living. I do all of my marketing over the Internet. There are certainly other approaches, and the archives in the left-side navigation contain many posts on the subject.
Even though this blog is about the self publishing business, I often stray into talking about other publishing business models, like subsidy presses. The most famous of the subsidy presses is currently iUniverse, which is widely reviled in "professional" publishing circles as a vanity press. I’ve always thought that extremely unfair. I know plenty of authors who have turned to subsidy presses because they have poured their soul into a book that they couldn’t find a publisher for, but who have no interest in going into the publishing business themselves. Many of these authors chose iUniverse, despite the relatively high cost compared to Booklocker or Lulu, because there’s a slim chance of getting into the iUniverse Star program, which means stocking at Barnes & Noble bookstores.
What triggered my writing about this subject today was a visit to a university campus, combined with seeing the expression "supported publishing" in conjunction with iUniverse. I don’t know if "supported" is supposed to have a friendlier connotation than "subsidized" but I do know that I’d heard it before in publishing circles. About a decade ago, a friend of mine who’s a well respected senior academic at a major university had a new book accepted for publication by a rather famous academic press. I won’t use their name here in case their lawyer is better than mine. At some late stage in the process of signing a contract, the editor at this academic press mentioned that of course, they’d require a payment of $3,000 from my professor friend or his department in order to support the publication of this valuable book, due to its limited appeal amongst the great unwashed. When my friend asked around, it became clear that such supported publishing had been making inroads in academic publishing, and today, academic departments paying a subsidy to "help" a professor’s book get published is quite commonplace.
I thought it might be interesting to look at this issue in terms of the societal cost / benefit. In the first instance, an author who turns to iUniverse, we expect to see an individual who has written books on his own time, and who has a limited platform (credentials and position) for promoting his books to either trade publishers or to the general public. Instead of going the self publishing route, buying a block of ISBN numbers and setting up his own publishing company, he pays iUniverse a fee that’s almost always less than $1000 and his book becomes available for sale through online sellers and special orders. The book isn’t stocked in stores unless it is accepted into the Star Program or the author is an extraordinary promoter, but compare that with:
The second instance, in which a department of a college (or in desperate cases, the professor himself) puts up from $3,000 to $5,000 to publish a book with a title like, "The Significance of the Pimple on the Dog’s Butt in Early Joyce." If the money comes from the department of a public institution, one way or another it’s coming out of taxpayers’ pockets. If it’s a private institution, one way or another it’s coming out of student tuition. The only customers for such a book are, you guessed it, academic libraries and the poor students of our literary professor, which means more money drained from taxpayers and students. And oh, what boon to the world, when a rival professor publishes a book rebutting the thesis, starting a debate that gives birth to ten more books rebutting the rebuttals. Nobody ever gets around to pointing out it was a young man, not a dog, and the pimple was on his nose.
Vanity, thy name isn’t the iUniverse and the authors who just want to see their books in print without a great deal of hassle. Vanity, thy name is the academic institutions who want to boast about productivity of their faculty and train students to look down upon "commercial authors."
I’ve been using Lightning Source for print on demand publishing since 2002, and I’d gotten used to seeing the delivery time estimates on Amazon drop from 24 hours in mid December to 11-14 days, or even 2 to 3 weeks. Not this year! Amazon and Lightning Source came through for print on demand publishers in 2005, our titles never lost the 24 hour shipping designation right through New Years. It may have been due to Amazon laying in a larger stock of books, to better Amazon – Lightning Source coordination, or to the "always in stock" status Lightning Source titles now have at Ingram.
It will be interesting to compare 2005 holiday sales with previous years when the numbers come in. Since none of my titles are what you would call "impulse buys" I’m not sure how badly they were hurt in the past by a couple weeks of poor availability. Throughout the same period, Barnes&Noble.com carried all of my titles on 2-3 day shipping, their current standard for Lightning Source printed books. In any case, here’s hoping the Lightning Source – Amazon relationship lasts throughout 2006 so I can post good news again next year.