The Future of the Publishing Business

Going into the long July 4th weekend when nobody reads blogs, I thought it would be a good time to explore the future of the publishing business. I'm putting the stress on business here, the technology is more stable than we give it credit for. Most publishers still earn most of their income as value added resellers of paper, glue and ink. Some make a half-hearted effort to keep the thread industry going as well, but glue is here to stay. Toner is making small inroads, both liquid and powder, and the line between print-on-demand and digital offset will continue to blur. The Internet is the only potential displacement technology for printed books, but it will take generational change and wholesale adoption of online educational materials in the primary education system to move the needle.

So what do I see as the main challenge to this $20 billion plus industry in the U.S.? It depends in part on what segment of the publishing business we're looking at. The trades suffer from an overdependence on bestsellers. Can anybody imagine Scholastic without Harry Potter? The trade publishers increasingly remind me of the Hollywood studios, not only dependent on bestselling fiction but on the starification of the authors who write it. Star power is easier to market than quality writing, and while that's always been the case, it's a bad policy to be embracing on the way into an economic downturn. As money gets tighter, there's a tendency in business to concentrate on what works, or at least, on the last thing that seemed to be working when the axe fell. On the bright side, people like escapist fiction when times get tough.

The future for non-fiction trade books is somewhat grimmer than the future for the fiction arm of publishing. The Internet does have an impact on information and how-to books, which make up the lion’s share of the non-fiction business, and that impact will only grow as anything with a screen and a keypad gets wired to the web. Unfortunately for the larger trades who depend on publishing hundreds or thousands of such titles a year, absolute sales number will probably begin to fall in the near future. What will be interesting is to see if the quality rebounds. Publishers have become increasingly sophisticated in rushing out books to compete with titles that are selling strongly in the stores, but it forces them to acquire books in a hurry in areas where they may lack the expertise to evaluate the manuscript or the potential author. A lot of garbage gets published this way, and the book buying public, which has counted on the large trades to serve as gatekeepers to expertise, is becoming increasingly jaded.

Just a couple weeks ago I paid $24.95 for a new paperback from a publisher I'd trusted, only to give it away the same day. I only managed to read a few pages from the introduction and a paragraph here and there, certainly less than 24.95 minutes all told. I'd been snookered by a cash-in title, a book rushed out by a publisher and an author to profit from a new trend in business. I won't buy another book from either. Yet, I understand the desire of both that publisher and that author to produce a title in a segment with limited competition and proven demand. The problem is that the publisher didn't look far enough to find the right author for the job, and they lacked the experience in the field to recognize that the author was producing a few hundred pages of filler.

As the Internet impacts the non-fiction trades in a negative way, it will probably help the non-traditional presses and self publishers who don't labor under the economies-of-scale pressure to crank out titles they aren't qualified to publish. The quality titles in any particular genre should get a leg-up from the wisdom of the crowd, provided the crowd isn't rigged by unethical marketing techniques. Community based review mechanisms are subject to abuse by highly focused campaigns because out of the tens of thousands of individuals who may be part of a given community, only a small fraction will be active participants.

Not surprisingly, I like the looks of the road I'm traveling at the moment, a combination of Internet publishing and print-on-demand self publishing. What's more, when I go out searching for information on the Internet, I encounter plenty of other authors, both trade published and unpublished, doing the same. While there is no gatekeeping on the Internet to speak of, there's also no cost to investigate a few sites on a subject to find the one you trust. It does depend greatly on Google, and to a lesser extent the other search engines, to maintain the quality of their search results at the highest level possible. Fortunately, providing quality results is their business, and as long as it remains their business, there will be a terrific opportunity for small publishers to compete with the big guys in their area of expertise.

How To Get Poetry Published

I've written a couple posts in the past about getting poetry published because it's a question that I keep getting asked. I was only half joking when I suggested that the easiest way to get poetry published was to hide a poem in a trade book about something else. Out of sheer laziness, I figured that I'd just post a real example of that today, the "Poem" is titled "Fleeing Footnotes" and it was published in "The Hand-Me-Down PC" in 1997 by McGraw-Hill.

Fleeing Footnotes

More for less, more bits, more megs
A higher nomenclature yet
Although performance, you may bet
Will wither in the face of code
That takes a CD-ROM to load

Groupware fashioned from the dregs
Of products fallen by the way
But dragged forth to the light of day
By starved wolves howling at the Gates
'Compete with Tools and Replicates'

Oh, noble hardware cruelly drowned
By layer upon layer piled
Of promises to the beguiled
Who wait amidst the growing pain
For signs of productivity gain

Then let the trumpets blare their sound
And brave consultants to the breach
Who to the flock, do teach and preach
The gospel of the current year
(Behind their backs they hide the shears)

And when at last the client begs
To know why groupware he has bought
And where's the imaging he sought
The experts disappear like rabbits
And leave him with his filing cabinets.

Lest you think this isn't a repeatable approach, I managed to work the following little poem into "Start Your Own Computer Business" published in 2002 by Foner Books.

The Insurance Game (or Workman's Comp)

Our business has been going poorly
So let this note inform you duly
We let go all our warehouse staff
Workman's comp's at fault, don't laugh
The secretary, techs, all lost
So please take note, adjust our cost
Our showroom's closed, we're in a tailspin
There's one guy left, and he's a salesman.

OK, you can call me a sell-out, I've given up on trying to write poetry for the intrinsic beauty of the language - certainly I have no sublime thoughts to offer the world. Still, there's a damn good reason you should consider this approach if you're writing poetry and struggling to make ends meet. You may just have what it takes to make a living as an trade author or as a self-publisher, so why not take a little vacation from writing poetry full-time and see if you have a commercial book in you. Just don't write a book about how to get poetry published unless you've had more success at it than me, and I can count well over 10,000 paid for books with my poems out there, not to mention the Chinese translation:-)

The Vocational Calling of Self Publishing

When I started out self publishing and people asked me what I did for a living, I used to say, "I'm in publishing." If they pushed me, I was more likely to talk about my contracts with McGraw-Hill or my website than to say "I write how-to books and publish them myself." Now, when people ask what I do for a living, I say, "I'm in self publishing" and if they push for details, I immediately tell them that I'm earning more a year than I ever did with a trade bestseller. That usually gets their attention, at least until the find out what the trades pay!

I've come to see self publishing as not just a vocation, but as a calling, one that fits my skill set and temperament. I'm afraid that too many of the aspiring self publishers I hear from are going into it for exactly the opposite reason, a "not calling", nobody in the trade industry returning their calls. Starting a business in a field where you can't get a job as an employee is certainly a way to do an end-run around the system, but before you go into debt, some serious vocational counseling is in order. In this, like everything else, I'm a do-it-yourselfer, so here are a few self-help suggestions for determining if self publishing is for you.

#1 Can you take rejection?

There's a reason I didn't phrase this "Do you like rejection." I think people who like getting rejected may lack motivation to get accepted, meaning their business will fail. Too many authors go into self publishing because they can't take rejection letters from trade publishers. Unfortunately, your first role in your self publishing business will be deciding what books to publish, and if you can't reject your own ideas when they're bad, you're going to lose your shirt.

#2 Do you live from paycheck to paycheck?

If you need a check from somewhere every week to pay the bills, you better make sure that those checks keep coming in, and starting a self publishing business isn't the way to do it. It takes time to learn the business, it takes time to write and publish books, and it takes time to build sales, if it ever happens at all. Self publishing is not the quick path to riches.

#3 Do you hate making mistakes?

Many authors think that neurotic attention to detail is a blessing to a self publisher, but it's really a curse. As the newest small fish in a very big ocean, you're going to make mistakes and you aren't going to get any sympathy from your business relations when you do - just bigger bills. It costs me less to publish a book these days than it cost me just to fix mistakes to my earlier books. It's better to live with your mistakes, to admit that you aren't perfect and understand that nobody cares, except other neurotics.

#4 Do you get excited about deadlines?

Self publishers need to go with the flow. I tell new publishers not to launch their publicity until their book is not only printed, but available in distribution, especially on Amazon. This goes 100% against most of the advice you'll read about marketing books before they are published, but for the new self publisher, the odds of hitting the deadlines you set are too low for fine-timing. Big trade publishers miss their deadlines all of the time, and they have plenty of practice (and technology) to ensure it doesn't happen. Don't let your one publicity triumph happen when your books aren't available yet.

#5 Do you know what you don't know?

It's funny, but I meet more and more people every year who think that admitting ignorance is to be avoided at all costs. They'll ask a question, and then repeat "Yes, I know that" like a mantra as you take them through the answer. Sometimes, with younger people who I actually care about, I'll stop and say, "So you explain it to me," in the hopes of actually teaching them something. I don't know (I'm ignorant) why knowing everything has come into vogue, maybe it's television. If you don't understand that you don't know anything about self publishing before you try it, you'll never do the necessary homework to start off properly or learn from your mistakes. This doesn't mean paying somebody because I don't think you can buy knowledge. You have to roll up your sleeves, read a variety of sources on the web, and make your own decisions.

Books for Children with Color Illustrations

In the next couple weeks, Lightning Source is expected to announce the official pricing for their color print-on-demand services. Publishers who participated in the Beta program have told me that the pricing ranged from nine cents to ten cents per page, depending on the cut size. The problem, from the standpoint of the publisher, is that all the pages in the book are charged at the same rate, whether they all require color or not. This means that "normal" size books, in the 150 to 300 page range, will cost the publisher between $15 and $30 just in printing costs, before the distribution discount.

Fortunately, if your business is publishing books for children, especially the early ages, you're probably in the 20 to 40 pages per book range. With this pricing, a 20 page children's book illustrated with color, like one my sister showed me yesterday, can be published with POD and gain access to distribution at a cost of about $3.00 per book. If the cover price is set to $5.95 with a 25% discount, it still leaves the publisher with a two dollar per book profit, pretty good for hands-off distribution of a six dollar book. The downside is we're talking about softcover pricing and relatively lightweight paper stock, not ideal for children.

On the bright side, it will be possible to publish very niche titles for children in full color, and even if you won't get rich, you can start building a list that may sell for many years. One example that comes to mind is highly localized books. Small publishers utilizing POD will be able to publish a book about visiting the local park, or even the local dentist. Might help take the fear out of visiting the dentist if the child has a picture book about a happy kid getting a cavity filled by the actual kindly dentist. The dentist may be your biggest customer. In fact, I may have just invented a new niche for children's books, personalized versions for local health care professionals.

My sister works in the area of books for religious children, and religions often have very local flavors, based on leadership and tradition. Ethnic groups in a particular geographical area may also share interests and values that they want to get across to their children through color illustrations. Educational books for children can also be targeted to very specific areas that simply couldn't have been supported under the traditional offset model unless they were being published at a loss.

What it boils down to is that POD for children's books has (almost) arrived. I wrote an article earlier about using the standard B&W print on demand to publish books for children based on limiting the subject matter and presentation. That approach doesn't work very well for most authors who write and illustrate books before they start thinking about finding a publisher or self-publishing, so the inclusion of color illustrations in the POD arsenal is a sea change. It means that aspiring publishers can now get a color children's book out without spending thousands of dollars on printing, but it doesn't change the need for marketing if you're planning on publishing as a business.

Selling Books Direct and Customer Service

I used to think that direct sales were the plum of any publishing business. When I stopped buying 10 packs of shipping envelopes at Staples and started ordering boxes of 100 from Viking, I really thought we'd arrived as a publisher. A year later, I eliminated the discounts we'd given to single book customers to encourage them to buy direct from us, and redesigned our order pages to encourage customers to go to Amazon or special order through their local bookstore. The main reason is the other side of yesterday's rant about customer service at big corporations. I don't like being on the giving end any more than the receiving end, and direct sales put you squarely in the customer service business.

We still sell direct to commercial accounts at about the same rate as we used to, some drop shipping for larger orders, and out of our small stock for onsey-twosey orders to library distributors and independent book stores. Our terms aren't flexible for these sales, it's a 35% discount plus shipping, prepaid. No prepayment, no sale. When a distributor sends us their paperwork to set up an account, we throw it out. Otherwise, you aren't just in the customer service business, you're in the collections business, and book distributors are notorious for slow-pay and no-pay. On the other hand, the commercial accounts have never required any customer service after the sale, they know books can be a while in transit.

Retail customers are pretty good on the whole, but as your sales volume picks up, you'll find that if 5% of your buyers are anxious types, you'll have your hands full. Part of the problem is the Post Office; Media Mail can take three or four weeks to cross the country, and Delivery Confirmation doesn't tell you where it is, just when it gets there. The other, probably larger problem, is the nature of Internet based retailing and e-mail correspondence. Relatively few people will go to the trouble of writing a letter and paying for a stamp just to ask where a product is after a couple days, they know it's likely to show up before their complaint even arrives. Likewise, even for businesses with a 1-800 number, many people are shy on the phone, afraid of getting shuttled through layers of voice mail, so they don't rush into calling until they know there's a problem. E-mail doesn't cost anything, allows the most timid person to talk tough, and offers instant gratification to the individual doing the sending. I've received some "Where's my book you crooks" e-mails from customers who hadn't waited four days, despite the 4 to 14 business days we used to warn about for Media Mail. Selling books direct just wasn't any fun as the volume increased.

When we did away with the direct sales discount, we started shipping all books by first class mail, though it's actually first class parcel post at that weight. Costs us an extra dollar and change, so we actually lose a little on our $2.25 shipping and handling charge. Looking back on it, I wish I'd read The Home-based Bookstore by Steve Weber before I started selling books direct, but it hadn't been published yet. While his book is about running an online bookstore rather than publishing, the shipping and customer service issues are identical. What Steve recommends (and I can't believe I didn't think of it myself) is preparing some standard responses to customer complaints that you can quickly and easily customize for the customer, fire and forget. I used to agonize over every complaint, compose a reply, make myself nuts. The bottom line is, before you settle on direct selling as the core of publishing model, understand that it's a customer service business.

Reality of Starting a New Publishing Company

We all live in two worlds, the world of Lake Wobegon and the real world. Lake Wobegon is a great place to relax, but business happens in the real world where people lie, cheat and steal. If a company you do business with cheats and steals, it's time to call a lawyer. The lying part often has more to do with ignorance, incompetence or laziness than intent to defraud you, and what may appear to you as fraud may actually be a case of caveat emptor, being sold a bill of goods. One of my favorite movie lines of all time comes from "The Long Hot Summer" in which Paul Newman tells Joanne Woodward something to the effect of - "Life is long and full of salesmanship." Starting a new publishing company is a process in which you're going to be sold some services that aren't going to meet your expectations, unless your expectations are very realistic indeed.

The "real world" situation I'm describing above applies all the more to new publishing companies and self publishers because we are very small fish in the publishing ocean. In Lake Wobegon, it wouldn't make a difference to the printer or the bookstore whether you are starting out with 100 copies of one title or 10,000 copies of 100 titles. In reality, it makes all the difference in the world. The customer service rep you deal with as a new publisher, working with a business for whom you don't represent even 1 hundredth of one percent of their current sales, may be even newer at their job than you are. They may not know the answers to the questions you are asking, they may not be able to do High School level math. The things they tell you may turn out to be untrue, but they aren't necessarily lying, they're just poorly trained. The good customer service reps get promoted over time to work with the good (ie, BIG) customers.

It's not fair, from your standpoint, it is fair from their standpoint. I've heard from new publishers who expect hand-holding from every vendor they deal with, when the profit on the business they are bringing that vendor won't pay for an hour of the customer service rep's time. In other words, you're asking them to lose money on you, because you see it as being necessary overhead for their business. They might not agree. The most frequent argument I hear from new publishers who believe they have logic on their side is, "I may become a big publisher one day." You may, you may not, the odds are on their side that you won't. The odds are also on their side that if you do become a big publisher, you'll put aside your personal feelings and deal with them if they can give you the best value for your money. Another movie classic you may recognize, "Tell Mike it was business, not personal."

If you're starting a publishing company and you're sensitive about the way you'll be treated, you may be best off working with a new printer or a new distributor. They're desperate for your business and will treat you like a big customer because to them, you are. The problem is, you won't get the benefits of working with a business partner who has national clout, one who all the bookstores deal with, one whose systems will treat your books just like everybody else's books, for better or for worse. Don't confuse customer service with service, there's almost no connection between the two. The service you are paying for is the printing, distribution, etc, that is detailed in the agreement you sign. A reputable company will make good on mistakes they make, but don't expect them to be polite or apologetic about it. You're just another new publisher.

I usually try to candy-coat this sort of advice a little, but I was inspired by a nice "Thank You" from a new publisher today who accepted my "reality check" and advice to count his blessings rather than attacking me as a corporate apologist. The truth is, I'm as likely as the next guy in the bar to rant about corporate incompetence and greed, but I'm convinced that fighting City Hall every step of the way is a bad way to start a new publishing company. If your personality is all about the "I'll show them who they're dealing with" thing, then knock yourself out, but be aware that they don't have to deal with you. They don't have to accept your business, respond to your e-mail or voice mail, or give you satisfaction for anything that falls outside that signed contract. All you're accomplishing is burning your bridges, and there are relatively few bridges open to new publishers who are trying to make a living at publishing rather than throwing money at a cause.

Becoming a Cookbook Publisher

I've written a couple posts about becoming a cookbook publisher in the past year, despite the fact I think of scrambling eggs at Haute Cuisine. The first post dealt primarily with the advantages of writing a cookbook online, and the second was focused more on making sure there's an audience for your cookbook before you publish it. After writing a five point checklist about becoming a publisher yesterday, I decided to revisit the topic of start-up decisions that will set the course of your self publishing company for some time to come. The example of a cookbook publisher is ideal for this purpose because of the huge variations in start-up costs depending on the path you take.

Few cookbook publishers aspire to seeing their glossy color books on the remainder table at a traveling discount book show, but that's where the big offset productions often wind up. Self publishers take it for granted that color printing is expensive, which it is, but the cost difference between color and B&W hardcovers in large quantities (tens of thousands or more copies) isn't the main cost of producing those books. It's the production, especially the expense for photography and the interior design, both justified printing cost, which drives the production budget. In other words, if you're dealing with black and white offset in small quantities or POD, you aren't going to try to use a lot of photographs that aren't going to look good in any case, which saves the expense of taking them and moves the cookbook from the visual art category to the how-to category. If your ambition is to publish the eye-candy style of cookbook, you'll either need to have professional grade photography and book design skills or you'll have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to get your first book out.

Spending next to nothing on a text-only POD cookbook or spending tens of thousands on a work of art aren't the only options available. There are at least three intermediate options which I'll call, the folksy cookbook, the color POD cookbook and the short-run offset cookbook. The trade-off in all three cases is that you have to do more production work (beyond writing the cookbook) without the dream of a large and speedy profit that may come with the large art cookbook. You risk less for a smaller potential gain, but you live to publish another version another day.

The folksy cookbook is my personal favorite, I've see many of these in kitchens over the years. These are often perfect bound, large format books with color covers and black and white interiors that can easily be produced with standard print-on-demand because the artwork is limited to line drawings. As long as you don't go overboard and use several drawings per page or pay too much for them, you can publish a handsome cookbook with either print-on-demand or offset short-run (perhaps with a comb binding for lay-flat in the kitchen) and not have to spend more than a couple thousand on production.

I'm waiting to hear back from Lightning Source about the cost structure for their color POD service, last rumor I picked up was ten cents a page, which would make the cover pricing noncompetitive unless that can charge separately for pages with color and pages without. Even if you held your cookbook down to around 150 pages and stuck with a 25% short discount, you'd need a cover price of about $22.00 just to break even on distribution sales, which is no reason to go into the publishing business. On the other hand, if the pricing allowed for 50 color pages and 100 B&W pages, a $15 cover price and a 25% short discount would leave the cookbook publisher with a little more than $4.00 in profit. As soon as I get that information, I'll post a cost breakdown.

Another option is a short run on offset or even on a HP Indigo press, which does perfect color reproduction on short runs. While not cheap, as long as you plan the cookbook around short runs (ie, no professional color photography on every page), you might keep the initial run well under ten thousand dollars. Unfortunately, sitting on a small inventory of books may limit your distribution options to only selling direct or through Amazon advantage. On the other hand, the Lightning Source print on demand approach gets you access to distribution, though deciding on a discount may cause you to pull your own hair out.

Just remember that getting a cookbook printed and available in distribution isn't even half the battle. Marketing is everything in the publishing business, especially if you aren't getting shelf placement in the chains. I do know at least one publisher who succeeded in selling more than 60,000 hardcover copies of a beautiful book (printed offshore) through primarily direct channels, but he was a tireless speaker and promoter, and the book won serious market share in an important and recurring segment.

A Book Publishing Company Start-up Checklist

Many authors who decide to start a self publishing company seem to think writing a book is the first step. That's backwards. Authors who write a book first and then start a self publishing company are usually operating in "I'll show them all...” mode after receiving one too many rejection slips from big trade publishers. One of my favorite posts on this blog was a little story I wrote about the two publishing universes, and why self publishing can be the better option for many authors. The first thing on your check-list for starting a publishing company should be an ISBN block. Without an ISBN block, nobody will take you seriously as a publisher because you haven't taken the first necessary step.

The next thing you need is a platform to market your books. In many cases, the author is the platform, that's what the trade publishers look for in a new author. If you are famous in some field, by right of family name or professional accomplishments, you have a platform from which to sell books. Just don't assume that being the winner of the World Prize for Astrology will help you sell detective novels or cookbooks. It can't hurt, but the platform works best if it's aligned with the product - books in this case. If you have achieved fame and fortune in some other field and you want to write detective novels, go ahead and do what you want, but if you only have fame and you're trying to earn fortune, write what you know you can sell.

Now that we're solidly in the second millennium of the Internet age, authors have the option to write a book and build a platform at the same time. Some choose to do it with blogging. I mix blogging with a tradition page oriented website, but the bottom line is you'll know whether or not your book stands a chance before you finish it. It's not just the total number of visitors to your site that tells the story, it's the feedback from strangers reading your unedited prose. If you start getting e-mails asking you when the book will be published, you're in pretty good shape to start your own self publishing company or sell out to a big trade publisher. The closest parallel in history may be Charles Dickens writing novels for serialization in newspapers before they were published as book, but it's not a close parallel because he was a genius and we aren't.

Still, before you worry about finishing writing your first book, do you have the production talent lined up or self taught, and can you afford to pay for the bits you can't do yourself? I've never met a professional in the publishing business who would edit a manuscript or layout a book just because you begged really hard for help. You can get plenty of amateur help that way, the results will be hit-or-miss, but self publishing isn't something you should plan to do on a $500 budget your first time out, with half of that going to the ISBN block. I spent something on the order of $10,000 for my first self-published book (which bombed) and about $2000 on the second, when I opted to dump the offset printing model and move to print-on-demand with Lightning Source. I did get a book out for under $500 once that earned it back a hundred times over, but that was after I had learned how to do just about everything myself.

Here's my five point checklist for starting a book self publishing company:

#1 ISBN Block
#2 Platform for Marketing
#3 Internet Site (can combine with #2 if you're good)
#4 Production preparation
#5 Finish writing the book if #1 to #4 go well

If all you really wanted was to get your book on Amazon and to your family, then sign up with a subsidy press, pay a few hundred dollar fee, and save yourself a lot of heartache. A publishing company is a business, not a hobby, and the odds of failure are greater than the odds of success. Still, it beats being a trade author:-)

Testing Your Book Promotion Campaigns

I talk with many authors and publishers who spend a lot of money and time trying to promote their books. If I had to pick one bad characteristic most share, it's a refusal to make an effort to test whether or not their book promotions are working. I think it has to do with the home run mindset. Authors and publishers alike have the goal of selling a lot of books, many even dream of bestsellers, so the only number they watch for feedback on their promotional efforts is their total book sales. I can honestly tell you that total sales is the only number I DON'T watch. Every day I check my Ingram sales, my Amazon Associate sales, my direct sales, the number of visits to my order pages and my overall web statistics. I don't really know how many books I sell in a year until I do my taxes.

There are several reasons why the total sales number is a pretty pointless figure to obsess over, the most important of which is that you're probably involved in more than one book promotion activity. If all you track is your total sales, how do you know how much your website is contributing, how much your Amazon listing is contributing, whether your sales are coming from great shelf placement, a third party pushing your book, or just having the right keywords in the Books-In-Print title at the right time? You don't. I've known publishers who spend thousands of dollars on mailings to libraries who make no attempt to track the results; those dollars may be responsible for all of their sales or none. They just keep randomly spending money on book promotions, shooting in every direction, and as long as they make a profit at the end of the year, they figure that's the best they can do.

Let's say you run three or four book promotion campaigns the first year your book is available: paid print advertisements, paid Internet advertising, organic website promotion, and writing guest features like crazy to bring attention to your book. Odds are, at least 50% of your sales will result from one of those activities and at least 25% from another. So why are you putting equal time and dollars into the other two activities when you could be concentrating your efforts on the promotions that work? If you don't make the effort to test your book promotions with measurable and repeatable metrics, you're flying in the dark.

The best book I've read about book promotion wasn't written by a publishing industry markete. It's the classic "Tested Advertising Methods" by John Caples. He returns to the same point over and over again with examples that many of us would find counterintuitive, where businesses carefully tracked the results of their promotions. The results show that the advertisements that appealed the most to the business professionals often fell flat with the reading public. You can't project your view of the world on your potential readers before they've even picked up your book. You might be offended by a big banner on a website that says "Buy the Book Now" - I would be too and I don't use the hard sell on my website, but you never know until you try.

The key to all of this, beyond sitting down and monitoring all of your book promotions on a regular basis to figure out how they are doing, is to stick with promotional campaigns that you can track. Websites are great, since server statistics tell you how many visitors see every page on your site, associates programs (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) not only tell you how many of the people you send them buy your books, but what percentage. Book readings and signings are tough to beat for immediate sales feedback if you like speaking in public. One time media events like interviews on TV, radio or print are fairly easy to track in that the results will be immediate, if there are any results at all. The toughest type of promotional activity to judge is print advertising, unless you use mail-order type coupons or response codes, because it can take a long time to work. I don't advocate print advertising for books.

Writer's Resources and Seminars

Every once in a while I like taking a break from writing what I know and write about what people tell me. In today's post about writer's resources and paid seminars, I'll be repeating some thoughts people have given me in correspondence and phone conversations, so forgive me for the non-specificity. I'll start by giving my own opinion that the only resources writers really need to succeed in today's market are books and the Internet. There are tons (literally) of books about writing and publishing on sale at Amazon, and they aren't all written by people who couldn't make it as writers and decided to write about it instead. I can't go a lot further than that on recommendations because I've read very few of them myself, but I would suggest that every writer aspiring to make a living at it read at least one book about publishing law. Kirsch's book, which I read, is currently between editions, there's one by by Kozack "Every Writer's Guide to Copyright and Publishing Law" with some honest looking reviews that I haven't read. I only recommend the publishing book I wrote to writers who are interested in self-publishing as a business. It's not a get rich quick scheme or a formula for fame and fortune.

What really triggered this post was a phone conversation with a publisher this week who had attended a $400 seminar which he said cost him ten thousand dollars in mistakes. I've never attended a self-publishing seminar, whether paid or promotional, but it's not the first time I've heard from a publisher who thought that it was the single biggest mistake they made when starting out. My own take on seminars is that any time you are spending a couple hours or days listening to somebody speak, the product they are selling is themselves. If you want to learn about their approach to writing, publishing, or whatever the seminar is about, just buy their book. If you find the information worth a few hundred dollars, you can always attend the seminar later as a "Thank You." Aside from the cost of the seminar, plus any travel and lodging considerations, my main objection to seminars comes if they do a good job getting you fired up! If they bore you and you come away out the cost of the thing and a little wiser for the wear, that's fine, but if they get you pumped up to rush out and start throwing money around, that's bad. Any book or consultant that encourages you to spend a lot of money is a liability, not a resource.

Seminars and conferences that are aimed at improving or fine-tuning your writing and helping you network with industry professionals are a bird of another feather. My only experience with writers’ events was during a brief stint as an Author's Guild member, and I did enjoy the two meetings I attended in Boston. Unfortunately for new writers, you need to have had some success before they let you join. On the other hand, I've heard from writers who have attended all sorts of retreats, summer programs and even local writers’ circles. While very few of these programs seem to encourage, or even respect, self-publishing, a lot of writers have a good time. I suppose if I enjoyed traveling I'd go to one just for the tax write-off.

The resource that gets overlooked because it's become so much a part of the landscape is the Internet. Google is the information seeker’s best friend. The more specific you are in your searches, the better the information you're likely to find. You can easily investigate who's publishing what on Amazon with their Search capabilities. If the titles feature Search Inside, you may even find out who the acquisitions editor is. A quick stop at Google will find you the publisher's website, and perhaps the editor's bio and contact information. Otherwise, another Google search with the editor's name and the publisher may turn up posts from their participation in publishing lists, where they talk about what type of writing they are looking for, what they like seeing in a proposal, and how they hate getting e-mails on their private address from aspiring writers. Now that's a real resource!

Humor in Writing and Book Promotion

We all know the difference between the funny where they laugh with you and the funny where they laugh at you, but sometimes we don't figure it out until the laughter dies down. I try to use humor in my writing because I like to laugh myself, but also to soften the blow when I'm saying things I know my readers might not want to hear. I even try to use humor in writing this blog, to temper my hectoring people about some of the publishing How-to questions they send me.

The problem with writing and publishing humor books is that they tend to violate the neat little subject boundaries book retailers employ. A couple friends of mine wrote a great book about bad resumes, titled "Resumes From Hell." So, is it a humor book, a resume book, or a career guidance book? Some retailers might even want to drop it in the computer section since most of the resumes reviewed were from the IT industry. I spent a couple hours on the phone the other day with a publisher who'd been very successful with direct sales of a humorous self-help book about dealing with people in the professions, but bookstores kept shelving it in the reference section, where it languished.

There's also the issue that humor and money don't necessarily live so well together. Humor can be very disarming, and for that reason, most people have learned to be a little careful about pulling out their credit card while laughing. You don't see a lot of high powered sales people dressed in clown suits or doing stand-up in front of serious prospects. Selling is always a business, even when it comes to humor books.

I haven't seen a lot of publishers trying to use humor in book promotion. Maybe books are inherently serious, at least in comparison with some of the more fleeting entertainments and information sources surrounding us. The Dummies and Idiots series are an example of humor being employed for branding books, and some of the smartest people I know were avid Dummies fans when those books came out because they enjoyed the titles so much. Appealing to potential customers’ self-deprecating side is a pretty subtle promotion technique, and I suspect it may be exhausted for this particular go-around.

Humor can be extremely effective for Internet book promotion because everybody loves to pass on a good joke. I'm not talking about the fifth-generation e-mail full of >>>> that your 3rd cousin twice removed sends you three times a week. I'm talking about a good site gag [sic]. If you've written a nonfiction book about how to do something, a web page displaying in graphic detail how NOT to do that thing may end up being the most popular page on your site! Aside from the promotional value of the page itself, people like linking to humor pages, and will usually do so with a straight face. In other words, the links to your page about baking a cake that ends with the dog cowering in the corner and the kitchen in flames will be linked as "How to bake a cake", not "Here's a page about some idiot...", which means it will help your whole site in the search engines.

Bargain Books and Remainders Bad Deal For Authors

I received an e-mail newsletter the "Remainder News" from Bargain Book News yesterday, unsolicited. Maybe they got my e-mail address from the PW newsletter I subscribe to, maybe from another professional association, but it provided an interesting look at a business I usually ignore. Remainders are a necessary evil in the traditional publishing world with their large offset printed book runs. Big publishers can't sit on inventory forever (sometimes they can't wait three months) and I suppose it's better those books get a second chance at readership before they get pulped or landfilled. It's just a cost of doing business for publishers, and it creates a business opportunity for bargain book specialists, but it's all pretty painful for the author.

The Remainder News featured a big story about ABE Books, one of the premier Internet booksellers, so I popped over to the ABE site for my first visit in a while, and did a publisher search on Foner Books. Lo and behold, of the 30 copies available through their network, the cheapest one was priced a dollar ABOVE my cover price. That's a dollar more than the book costs new on Amazon or Barnes& or ordered through your local bookstore. That's what I call good remainder news.

The reason my titles aren't available at bargain book prices anywhere are twofold. First, I never sell them at bargain book prices because I want to make a living. Second, nobody can buy them at bargain book prices from distribution, because I assigned a short discount of 25% at Lightning Source. One of the side effects of this approach is that my books all end up having a high resale value on Amazon, I've seen them sell as used for just a dollar below the cover price. It's just a different business model.

The sad truth about the traditional publishing industry with their pulp-and-remainder model is that many books never get a fair chance to succeed. There can be numerous reasons for a new book to get off to a slow start, especially if the publisher marketing is mistimed, misplaced, or totally absent. Unfortunately for traditionally published authors, as soon as some retail chain pulls the book and the publisher panics into remaindering them rather than accepting them back at the warehouse, the game is half over. Those remainders rapidly appear on Internet book sites, including ABE and Amazon, and cannibalize some percentage of new sales that would have otherwise occurred. This feeds back into "the book is failing" logic, creates more remainders, and depresses prices even further, making the bargain book option even more attractive to potential buyers.

One of the beautiful things about self publishing is the author controls the remainder cycle, including whether or not that cycle ever begins. If you control your inventory with print-on-demand, there's never a reason to consider selling bulk lots to remainder houses, just don't print them. Your titles will remain commercially viable longer, you'll save a couple trees and ink creatures, and your bank account will thank you.

Trade Publishers Buy Self Published POD Titles

Every month or so I get a question from an author who has one major worry about self publishing with print-on-demand - whether the "stigma" will prevent a major trade publisher from purchasing the rights to their title down the road. If the author is talking about paying a subsidy publisher to publish his book, there may be some complications with the contract if it included rights, and it will be more difficult to get a trade publisher to take the book seriously unless sales are in the 5,000+ range. On the other hand, if the author is talking about becoming a true self publisher, purchasing his own ISBN block and signing up with a print and distribution provider like Lightning Source to do the heavy lifting, most trades will be happy to acquire the rights to a book if it fits their plans.

I've self published three titles with print-on-demand and I've received trade offers on all of them, some multiple times. I haven't solicited any of the offers, they've all come from acquisitions editors who've seen my titles ranking well on Amazon or encountered them while doing market research for a new title or series of their own. However, this year was the first time I got an offer for my entire list. I was initially a little annoyed with the offer, thinking, "If this guy had read anything on my site he'd know that I'm not some wide-eyed newbie waiting for a trade to knock on the door," but I decided to hear him out and maybe educate him a little in the process. The following is an edited version of my reply to his offer. My bits are original, I've paraphrased his lines to make them clear and because I've left out much of his original prose. AE is Acquisitions Editor, MR is Morris Rosenthal:

AE: You must be receiving far more returns than you would with a traditional publishing house.

MR: You meant fewer, I'm sure. My return rate is well under 1%, and the truth is, most publishers using POD simply don't accept returns. At a short discount, it doesn't make a difference since nobody orders without an order in hand.

AE: On the other hand, our distribution would bring you a much larger audience.

MR: I've had offers to distribute my books from McGraw-Hill, for whom I author one title. Economics never made sense, they wanted 30% of net, and I didn't want to print a lot of books and get returns.

AE: You have to ask yourself if your titles sales would grow significantly from being in the chains and independent bookstores.

MR: Answer is, I believe not, but thank you for asking. I've had a "bestseller" with a major trade, around 150,000 copies sold, wasn't impressed.

AE: We'd likely offer you our standard contract to new authors: a $2,000 advance on royalties and royalties of 14% of net. How does this fair against your agreement with Lightning Source.

MR: Ah, read my case study at and replace 35% with 25%. I net around $8.00 on a $14.95 cover price. Always interested in hearing offers, but I suspect I have a better chance of talking you into Lightning Source than you have of talking me into returning to authoring for a royalty. If you have any questions about the Lightning Source model, feel free to ask. BTW, if you read between the lines of the top 10,000 books on Amazon, you'll find plenty of Lightning Source titles from small publishers and self publishers.

The AE's reply to this was:

AE: Thanks, Morris. Best of luck to you. Sounds like you've got self-publishing down.

The amusing thing about the exchange, to me, was the AE wasn't just looking to acquire all of my titles, he was looking to get them on the cheap! Last three advances I got in the trade were all above $10K, with some of the cash showing up before I even started writing the book. This outfit was "tempting" me with $2K per title and 14% of net for titles I'd already published and proven. Sounds like a pretty good way to cut my income by about 75% while giving up control, devaluing my business and seeing my titles get remaindered early.

If you get an offer from the trades, keep in mind that they probably haven't done their homework. Oh, they might have a notion of how many copies they might be able to sell a year, and they might even share that number with you, though you'll probably be hearing the high end of the range. What they won't have done is sat down and figured out how much money you are likely making in your publishing business and what sort of offer they'd have to make for you to take them seriously. They have the tools to do this, it's not a lot of work, but they expect you to roll over with your paws in the air and beg for a bone

Small Publishers SHOULD Think Small

I've decided to separate my blogging about publishing into two streams, an Amazon related stream and a business/market stream. I'm keeping the business and marketing side of publishing here, and I'll continue obsessing about Amazon on my Rank Economy blog.

I've been having a lengthy correspondence recently with a new publisher whom I think got a little carried away with the big picture before selling his first book. That's alright, I did the same thing. In fact, I was so focused on how the big trades did things when I started out self publishing that I wasted the original subtitle of my first book on a branding effort. I was going to achieve fame and fortune through branding my blunt style of books as "The Unembellished Guide." I even had the perfect book cover design, I thought, a scan of a brown paper bag. Sales for that book picked up appreciably when I got rid of the branding subtitle and replaced it with something more descriptive.

Many a splendid public speaker has earned millions telling people that they need to think big. It's a positive message, easy to sell, just call anybody who doesn't agree a naysayer or afraid of success. The problem with thinking big is that by definition, it can only succeed for a very small proportion of businesses. There's only so much room for so many big success stories. In my humble experience, the only reason public speakers hit the road to talk about how they got rich by thinking big is that they found their original idea was a one trick pony, a show that could never be repeated, so the only asset they have left is the sales pitch.

If you take a careful look at the book market and put the Dummies and Idiots of the world out of your mind, you'll find that the most powerful branding in publishing is the author. Oddly enough, this is true for fiction as well as nonfiction, and there aren't that many general principles that cut both ways in publishing. Sure, there are Chilton's auto repair books and other branded series, but they have the brand as a result of publishing all of those books and getting them into auto parts stores, not the other way around.

If I could have a rule attributed to my name in the publishing business, it would be - "First, lose no money." Losing money publishing books is stupid if you're in business. There's no glory in giving it your best shot and failing if your best shot is throwing a lot of money at consultants and contractors to do work for you, and giving up when your spouse threatens divorce. If you start your publishing company on a shoestring and you don't blow cash on over-designing your "masterpiece" or buying advertising in the place of working at marketing you won't lose money. You may not get rich, but you can't lose what you don't spend. The successful small publishers I know, who are many, are all somewhat surprised by their success, myself included. That's because we all thought small, spent small, and with every incremental sale and title saw our bank accounts and tax burden grow.