Wasting Money on Print Exposure:-)

Somebody in the advertising business must have bought a mailing list with my name on it because this morning I got an email titled "Print Exposure Sells Books!" Being a bright boy, I cottoned immediately to the fact that they were talking about print media, as opposed to say, photography exposures. I pretty much always delete junk mail without looking at it, but I have a soft spot for book marketing related stuff, might even go as far as to call it a professional interest. So, I opened the puppy up, HTML formatting at all, to see what I'd learn.

The headline (big font) was:

"Using Print Exposure to Sell Books..."

I didn't get the three little dots after books until I read the next line:

"...Can Be the Difference Between a Best-Seller and a Bargain Bin Dweller"

Obviously the author of this ad copy hasn't been reading my blog. In my book, chasing bestseller status is for big egos and deep pockets, and thanks to a short-discount, my titles won't end up in bargain bins. Still, anybody can get a headline wrong, so I read on to the first paragraph. To paraphrase, "There are so many new books getting published that you have to do something to stand out."

I've been known to make similar statements myself, mainly related to carefully choosing your market, establishing an online presence, writing a good book and making sure you aren't living in the vacuum of your own counsel. Is that what these people are pitching?

"That's why most experienced authors and publicists will tell you 'Print is King.'"

Oddly enough, that couldn't run more counter to the book marketing advice I give. I've always figured that spending money on print advertising is the last stop on the line for a publisher or publicist who's run flat out of ideas. But maybe I'm judging them too harshly. Reading a little further, I learned that they aren't pitching paid advertising at all. Their approach is that you pay them to assist you in getting editorial mentions, press releases, and if they're clever, helping you become a resource to reporters who would rather turn to a branded database for "experts" than simply Googling them up.

So, as much as the first couple paragraphs of copy were a complete turn-off to me, I think I understand where they are coming from. Here's my take on print media publicity, whether editorial, obvious PR, expert attribution or even authoring articles. It fun to have a clipping to send your Mom and it looks good on a resume if you want to work as a trade author, because they see all this stuff as a platform for selling books. If you're following my short-discount model with print-on-demand and no bookstore stocking, you might sell a book for every hundred thousand or so people who see the print exposure - it's that inefficient. One of the problems with the print media is they don't have any hyperlinks to Amazon or your website with the option to "Buy it Now!" Another problem is that nobody is reading whatever the print media is because they're looking for your book. If they were looking for your book (or a similar title) they'd be at the library, a bookstore, or searching online.

Print exposure can't hurt you unless you're hiding from the law, but in terms of places to invest your time and money, you'd better be careful. I may be very atypical, but I've never bought a book because I heard the author talking on the radio or saw the title or author mentioned in an editorial fashion. In fact, when I hear authors talking on the radio, I usually change the station. A lot of it has to do with the subject and whether or not the chance media encounter can leave the potential buyer passionate enough about the book to track it down and buy it. Nothing I've written or published falls into that category, but I tend not to make big promises in my titles. If I was publishing books like "The Insomnia Cure", "The Worry Free Audit Guide" or "Understanding Women in 999,999 Easy Lessons" then I might value print exposure more. Maybe I'm just jealous:-)

Starting an Online Book Publishing Company

There are tens or hundreds of thousands of online publishing companies around the world today which were started for the purpose of attracting visitors to their websites to sell them something other than books. Some of the content they publish is of very low quality, even stolen or automatically generated by computer software. However, there are also a large number of top-notch writers and professionals who would have been working as trade authors or part-time journalists ten years ago, but who are now publishing online and retaining ownership of their work.

Publishing online before going to paper provides book publishers, especially those who are just starting out, and important competitive advantage. The online draft of the book will draw feedback which can help you tweak the contents for the market, and it can also tell you, before you invest in going to paper, whether or not the market you expected is really there. What's more, whether or not you decide to go to paper with a particular book, the visitors to your website may be interested in other titles or products that you can sell or market for others.

You don't need to obtain an ISBN block before you start publishing books online, but you will need to periodically register a copyright for your website if you want to be in a stronger position should infringements occur. You don't need any fancy software either, but I do recommend publishing your drafts as HTML pages, not as PDF's or through blogging software. The advantage of plain HTML is it allows you to manually link the chapters into a logical cluster and seems to be favored by the search engines in the rankings.

Don't get caught up worrying about the "company" part of starting an online publishing company before you have anything to sell. I'm not aware of any legal requirements you must fulfill before you start publishing online. The government doesn't consider it a business until you start earning or losing money that has to be accounted for on taxes. Some of the most successful online publishing companies started out as hobby sites that provided both the credentials and the platform from which the author began to publish books. That was certainly the case with my own publishing history, starting online, moving to self publishing, then authoring for the trades, and finally returning to self publishing.

The neat thing about online publishing is it's a relatively level playing field. While the search engines rank sites in accordance with both their content and their authority ranking, which takes time to build, you'll get some traffic from the start just based on the uniqueness of your writing. It doesn't work that way in paper publishing, especially in non-niche subjects where the key words in the title won't help you due to the mass of competing titles. The internet is more like an infinitely large bookstore with a billion or more people browsing the shelves. Sure, the big trade publishers and the big authority sites may have tens or hundreds of thousands of titles on the virtual shelves, but with a billion browsers, you can still draw your share of interest.

Finally, keep in mind that starting a paper book publishing company will cost you a few hundred dollars just for the ISBN block and costs will rise rapidly as you prepare your first book for publication. Starting an online publishing company costs you a few dollars a year to register a domain name and a few dollars a month to pay for hosting. Mistakes on paper cost money and can only be corrected by reprinting. Mistakes online take seconds to fix and the electrons don't cost a dime. Given my druthers (thank you, Huck Finn for pronouncing I'd rather as a single word) I'll always start with electrons:-)

What Happened to Ebooks?

I've mentioned on this blog a couple of times that e-books add about $500 a month to the bottom line of my publishing business. That's in the past tense now, since Amazon was my main outlet for e-books and they've begun eliminating all LSI e-books from their catalog. It will be interesting to see whether my direct and distribution sales pick up most of the slack, in terms of units if not profits, or whether Amazon e-book buyers were really preferentially shopping for an e-book from a vendor they were comfortable doing business with.

On the bright side, I'm not the only publisher with a list of e-books disappearing from Amazon. I used their Power Search function to check some of the big trade publishers’ e-book offerings for the past three years, and there were even more than I'd surmised. HarperCollins has listed 1569 paperbacks with Amazon after 2002, and 2765 hardcovers. They also listed 1148 e-books after 2002, all of which are likely versions of the paper books (didn't check them all for obvious reasons) and most of which now appear to be unavailable. Random House has 564 e-books listed after 2002, vs 1534 hardcovers and 1544 paperbacks. Time Warner had 622 e-book titles listed after 2002, Simon and Shuster had 225; the other big names I thought of seemed to have experimented less and dropped it. Still, there was plenty of variety for a while, much of it NYT bestseller list material. None of the titles I clicked on were still available for sale so I'm assuming they all got caught in the LSI wipeout.

It also occurred to me to check my website statistics for how many visitors have been drawn to my blog this month by an earlier post which is the #1 result in Google for "e-book sales." Hold onto your hat, the grand total was 32, or just over 1 visitor a day. That's a pretty sure sign that not many people are all that interested in how e-books are doing. The funny thing is I still hear from businesses on a fairly regular basis which have just developed the latest thing in DRM that they think will change the landscape of the e-book market. Personally, I don't think e-books will go anywhere in this country until school textbooks are replaced by electronic readers and a new generation grows up with them.

I did a little searching around the web for predictions from five years ago about what the size of the e-book market would be 2006. The range went from about $250 million to $2.5 billion, so some long forgotten analysts have some serious pie on their faces. I don't know of any realistic figures for the true size of the e-book market this year, but if you leave out the libraries and academic institutions who buy e-book material because they have to, I wouldn't be surprised if it's less than $25 million in the U.S., and that would include a lot of questionable literature.

So what happened to e-books? Are they even relevant to publishing discussions anymore? I spent around $700 attending a conference on e-books hosted by the National Institute of Standards in Washington, DC in 2000 because I thought e-books were the future of publishing. I came home from that conference convinced that free books are are future of publishing, with online publishers finding other ways to monetize the pages through advertising or sales of paper books. I'm not complaining about the two years I had a few e-book titles on Amazon, it put around $10,000 in my pocket (well, $5K for me and $5K for Uncle Sam). I can't say I'd encourage anybody to go into e-book publishing today unless they had content that just couldn't be monetized or delivered any other way.

Starting a Christian Book Publishing Company

I first wrote about self publishing Christian books last year, and I've heard back from a number of aspiring Christian publishers in the interim. I'm not going to got into the technical and business details about how to start a publishing company in this post, I must have returned to that topic at least a dozen times by now. Rather, I want to write about some of the more recent changes in the publishing industry that allow you to test the waters and start a publishing company on a shoe-string. Start small and you'll grow the business as you grow your skills. Try to make a big splash starting out and all you'll grow is your debt.

I don't see religious book publishing in general or Christian book publishing in particular as just another niche in the publishing world waiting to be exploited. I'm sure there are all manner of publishers out there looking to cash in on the Christian market by adding the word "Christian" to the front of their titles, then bragging to the trade publications about how smart they are. When I look through the Amazon catalog, I see all sorts of books in the religion categories that are promoting activities that are discouraged by any religion I'm familiar with, starting with self obsession. To be a true Christian publisher is to publish books that reflect what your market understands as Christian values. As blurry as that line can get, it certainly doesn't include "Build Your Own Christian PC" or "The Christian's Guide to Lawn Care." Those made-up titles would be obvious attempts to cash in on how people identify themselves, though perhaps a tribute to the size of the market.

Having the sort of captive market that comes from a self-identified group is a mixed blessing to publishers. On the one hand, it may guarantee a subsistence level of sales on niche titles with limited competition, but on the other hand, it largely limits your potential audience to your co-religionists. That's one of the reasons that Jewish publishing turns out to be a much smaller business than most people expect. While there are a small number of Jews who buy a large number of books, it limits a Jewish book publisher to becoming a big fish in a small pond. Christian publishers can build businesses on the scale of the largest trades, because the market for hits is an order of magnitude greater.

The problem with targeting a smaller audience is if you miss your target by a little, there may not be anybody standing beside them or behind them. A self-published book on a niche subject that may have eventually sold a couple thousand copies if it hadn't been limited to the Christian market may only sell a few hundred copies, or much less if it's a serious miss. Before starting a Christian book publishing company, I'd suggest you start a Christian publishing website for market research purposes. The smaller the audience, the more important it is you nail them with the first shot. The most important benefit you can gain from the website is that of watching the usage statistics and finding out if anybody comes. If your traffic doesn't start building after a few months of reasonable promotion efforts on your part, the odds are you are targeting a niche in your community that isn't sufficiently populated to support a new title.

Of course, this method is much better suited to starting a publishing company with an existing stock of manuscripts, your own or your friends’, so you'll have sufficient content to launch the website. Most businesses don't have the long-term view or financing to allow them to pay advances for manuscripts that they may not ever publish if the web interest isn't sufficient. I suppose you could ask your authors for a little Christian faith and charity, but I wouldn't call that a business model. My own rough rule of thumb is I wouldn't even consider publishing a book from a manuscript that couldn't attract 100 casual browsers a day on the web, but it takes a lot more visitors than that to sell significant numbers of a published title. Of course, patience is a virtue, and new publishers often find their titles selling more with each passing year as improved marketing and word-of-mouth show their effects

Romance Novel Genre Sales and Printing

Some of my readers would be amused to know how often I respond to an e-mail about self publishing with an additional comment to the effect of "Why not take a couple months and run it by the trades?" I've never made that suggestion to the author of a romance novel because my impression of the romance genre is it offers the worst publishing contracts on earth. I've heard tell of royalties as low as 3% and even forced authors to write under a pen name that belongs to the publisher. It's bad enough that most authors have to argue about next edition clauses. Work-a-day romance novel authors have to worry that if they don't toe the line, the publisher will slide a new author in place!

I've seen estimates on the web that romance genre sales account for over half of total book sales, but that is a mistake based on a misreading and is a good 2000% too high. In other words, romance novels account for less than 5% of book sales and are probably losing marketshare. I think the error starts with a number published by the Romance Writers of America in which they stated "romance fiction comprises 54.9% of all popular paperback fiction sold in North America." Popular paperbacks are also known as mass market fiction, which does huge sales in supermarkets, airports, etc, but the books are relatively low cost, especially compared to hardcovers. I don't want to get into a long winded rant about how poorly the book industry seems to deal with numbers, I just don't want you thinking that the romance genre is the be all of publishing. The RWA put romance sales at $1.2 billion in 2004 and I wouldn't be shocked it that's optimistic. The total North American book market is up in the mid twenty-billions to $30 billion range, which is how I'm confident romance is well less than 5%.

Some authors get very rich writing romance fiction, but it's not a big number and they probably aren't in a hurry to share. If your ambition as a romance writer is to win the lottery, this blog isn't going to help you because I write mainly about clawing your way up to making a living writing and self publishing. What's even worse is I tend to come down on the side of slow and steady wins the race. The problem with my model when it comes to the romance genre is that romance novel buyers are accustomed to mass market pricing. Self publishing is poorly suited to mass market printing or distribution through the supermarkets and similar outlets.

Fortunately, today's romance writers have access to the Amazon and through the Internet, directly to their customers. Printing a romance novel is no challenge at all, making money at mass market pricing is nearly impossible. Getting back to my earlier comment to go with the picture, I can't offer specific advice about succeeding as a self publisher in the romance genre because I couldn't know less about something. What I believe is, if you can find a niche in which readers will be searching for your subject matter, be it location, historical period or protagonists of specific types, you can attract readers and buyers on the web. How about a book about a heroic self publisher who wins the heart of a nice Jewish woman without having to date? I'll buy a copy, as long as you promise to ship it in a brown paper wrapper

Home Based Business Opportunities in Publishing

When most people think about the publishing industry, they think of NYC skyscrapers and newsreel footage of giant offset presses spitting out sheets faster than the eye can follow. What isn't immediately obvious in that picture is the outsourcing that goes on behind the scenes. While this blog is usually focused on self-publishing, today I want to talk about home based business opportunities in publishing for non-authors, or authors who are still struggling to make ends meet.

Before you start fishing for freelance or contract publishing work on the Internet, you better get your tools and skills up to speed. I'm going to run through some of the publishing job functions you can perform out of your home, all with the obvious caveat that you have to be a fair hand at the work and you have to be able to market yourself. If your idea of starting a home based business is taking out an advertisement somewhere and waiting for the phone to ring, good luck.


There are several types of editing in the publishing business, all of which can be performed as easily by a home based editor as by a salaried editor in an office. I've worked as both a technical editor and as a regular, or content editor. Anybody who has read a couple of my posts knows I wouldn't stand a chance as a copy editor, somebody who applies Chicago Manual of Style rules and enforces corporate codes. Some of these jobs pay by the book (I recall $2,000 for a technical editing job), some pay by the page (a couple dollars a page is a good start) and some pay by the hour. How you get paid is often in your control as a business, but if you don't give good value, you're unlikely to get follow up opportunities. I always hire a freelance editor for my own self published titles.


I know there are some freakish people out there who can do a pretty good job proofreading their own prose, but I'm not one of them (as this blog proves), and you probably aren't either. Professional proofreaders can charge as much as copy editors, often they are the same people, but there's also a demand for "another pair of eyes" proofreaders, especially from small publishers. I always hire a home based proofreader, and I've even hired a few dormitory based proofreaders as extra insurance. I think it's actually easier to earn money as a home based editor than as a proofreader, because there's just too much amateur competition for the latter.


I wouldn't dream of trying to do illustration as a professional, but I have a sister and a niece who do just that. There are all sorts of levels and niches in the illustration business, from children's books to technical illustrations. I'm including photography and image enhancement work as illustration work for brevity; most illustrators wouldn't. You can charge per illustration, per job, or per hour, and if you include book design in your services, your average ticket may be in the $5,000 range or higher. Whatever your computer of choice, it's important that you be well versed in the leading Adobe software packages which are the default standards for most of the publishing industry. You should also own a decent flatbed scanner, not a $30 cheapy.

Book Design

Book design is a bit of a black art in the sense that you can do a great job and still have the client hate it due to personal aesthetic preferences. A couple of the trade books I authored were completely designed by freelancers. One was great and another was a disaster. If you're going to run a design business out of your home, make sure that either your clients provide you with an example of the exact look they want to imitate (flattery, etc.) or that you maintain excellent communications and get approval at each stage before you invest significant time actually pouring the book into the design. Cover design is usually a specialty business or a sideline for illustrators, but plenty of books designers and layout artists offer cover design as well for one-stop shopping.


I get a lot of offers to work as a publicist or a marketing consultant, but I don't accept them because I earn a good living self publishing and don't want the aggravation. If you're a successful self publisher who's simply written-out and wants to try a different business, publicity may be a good bet since you have the track record. I often see ex-trade publicists running a freelance business out of the home after getting downsized or leaving to raise a family. For me, the key to the publicity and marketing is matching the promotion to the author's abilities and credentials. If you treat everybody like a bestselling guru with TV potential, you're robbing them. Fees are usually charged by the hour or for a fixed package of promotional activities of questionable value. For heaven's sake, don't get the authors' hopes up by charging them for bookmarks and flyers and calling it publicity.


Research is often overlooked as a home based business opportunity, but it's great work if you can get it. Just keep in mind that if you're any good at market research and fact finding, you should probably be writing your own books and self publishing. Market research is a funny business because it's usually based on easily obtained data, like Amazon rankings, bookstore shelf stocking and libraries. But, most authors and publishers really don't do a good job, preferring to follow their guts until they're forced to spill them on the floor

How to Price a Book

Pricing a book is one of those areas in publishing where if you do everything else right but price the book wrong, you can cancel out all your hard work. How wrong you price the book would be directly proportional to how much harm you do, and it cuts in both directions. If you price your book too low, you can easily get into a situation where you are losing money on the average copy sold. If you price a book too high you can end up with no sales at all. It all depends how far you misgauge your market.

One way to approach the pricing challenge is to establish a low price and a high price, then pick a number in between. The low price is fixed by the minimum at which, after all of your expenses (authoring, editing, design, printing, warehousing, shipping, and distribution discount) your net per copy is just enough to break even at your projected sales. If you're smart, you won't project sales of more than a couple thousand copies unless you've had quite a bit of experience publishing, in which case you probably aren't reading this. If you go work with Lightning Source, the main provider of print-on-demand services in the US, you can nail the printing and distribution costs down to the penny before you publish, and not take on any inventory risk.

On the high end, the place to start is pricing competing titles, or at least books in the same genre. The rough measure is simply looking up a dozen titles on Amazon and noting the cover price. A better approach is to find titles of a similar cut size, page count and binding to compare with. If you plan on Amazon being your main outlet and you really want to get fancy, you can use the new selling price on Amazon rather than the cover price. In addition to determining an average price for competing or similar titles, you want to note the highest and lowest of these.

Now we get into the fuzzy math. You've figured out how to price your book so you can break even if you make your projections, but obviously, that's not the price you want to go with. The important thing is that this price better be well below the average selling price you worked out for related titles, and at least a little below the low cost of your cheapest competitor. If not, I'd strongly suggest you rethink your business model, There's no set rule for how much a publisher should try to earn on each book sold, but it's nice to target 40% to 50% of the cover price. I say "nice" because small publishers using large distributors for offset books may find themselves giving away 60% to 70% of the cover price just to get the book into distribution!

Once you establish that you can pick a cover price substantially higher than your break even point, the math gets even fuzzier. I like to price my books below the average competing titles when possible, but I also like keeping the profit up around 50% of the cover price so I can generate revenue without having to go the bookstore stocking route. It's a risk vs reward game. I may lose out on substantial sales, but I earn substantially more per sale than I would if I'd chosen a business model that would have given my titles a shot at store shelves. I stick with the short discount model available through Lightning Source so I net a little over 50% on every copy sold at cover price of $14.95, which I've used on all of my titles to date.

I know some small publishers who change their cover price several times after publication, trying to find the sweet spot. I've never fooled around with this myself; one of the issues I have with it is they end up making pricing decisions based on such short term trends that I don't see how they can trust the data. Book sales go up and down with the season, with the news, with the school year, and with your promotional activities. If you do your homework before you publish, you should be able to set a price that, if not ideal, is at least a price you're happy with. Last but not least, don't forget about taxes. If you're successful as a publisher and you keep your expenses low, you may find at the end of the year that you're counting out your money saying, "One for me, one for Uncle Sam. One for me, one for Uncle Sam."

Before You Write Your First Book

Earlier this week, I was discussing ways to help new authors promote their books with a friend who's published quite a few of them. With hard work an author can always increase book sales, but doubling sales from one a month to two a month doesn't do much to pay the bills. If your sole ambition in writing a book is deriving self-fulfillment from the process, than this post doesn't apply to you. If you’re ambitious to earn significant money from your first book, then you have to treat it as a business. Whether you are setting up your own self publishing company or submitting proposals to the trades, the following three paragraphs cut out of an e-mail I sent my friend might help:

“Most authors shoot themselves in the foot before they even start by writing a book first and trying to figure out how to sell it later. Many books have no market beyond, say, immediate family, or people who share such an odd set of experiences that they are few and far between. The Internet is a great way of reaching obscure markets, but who wants to author books that sell two copies in a good week? That volume of sales might work for Lightning Source, Amazon, or a thrifty subsidy publisher with enough titles in print, but not for the author. I've written several posts and dedicated a chunk of my book to the idea of choosing to write the book you know you can sell. I don't agree with the notion that everyone has one book in them. Everyone has dozens of books in them if they want to write, but in some cases, none of those books will be commercially successful.

And that's what my fairly extensive correspondence with authors has taught me, and what you must know as well from your publishing experiences. The vast majority of first books are written without any market research or time spent establishing the author as an authority on the subject, especially on the web. Some authors get lucky in their timing or their subject matter, but most don't have a clue unless they wait a while to see what happens with their first book, and then get serious with their second. Over the years, I've heard from some of the same authors over and over again telling me, ‘Your advice about choosing subject matter is great, and I'm going to take it on my NEXT book, but I just had to write this one first and I just know it's going to sell. Now help me, please, get the sales started so word-of-mouth can take over as I'm sure it must.’

The one thing that makes me feel like all my babble on the subject may be useful is that so many new authors are writing books every year that even the small proportion that are serious about doing it as a business add up to thousands of individuals. If I were to write another book about publishing (which I doubt) it would all be about matching your knowledge and authoring strengths to a title that both has a market and is marketable by the author. I should be able to come up with a better way of saying that. If nothing else, before you write your first book you should publish your first website. It's like all the ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure scenarios. By the time most authors contact me about low sales, it's already too late to do much about it. Not because they can't improve their marketing, but because they wrote the wrong book.”

If that reads even more preachy than usual, it's because it's from personal (and slightly edited) correspondence. Authors tend to get caught up in whether or not a book is "good", when they should be worrying about whether it's good business. I'm not a professional critic. I've read some horrible books written by famous authors from big trades, so I'm willing to concede that one man's art is another man's toilet paper. I don't read manuscripts for authors, but I read their marketing plans and provide the best feedback I can on how I see their chances for commercial success. A common mistake made by first time authors is the assumption that their book sales will make them an authority, after which they'll get invitations to promote their book. That's entirely backwards. You have to establish yourself as an authority first, before anybody will give you authority based promotional opportunities. A popular website is more of an authority credential than a poorly selling book.

Reading Between Lines in the Ebook Industry

Yesterday I made the kind of mistake reading some correspondence from my lawyer that drives me nuts when people do it to me. I read into his note something that wasn't there at all, not even hinted at, and chided him for it. Reading between the lines is often touted as a clever man's skill, but it's subject to coloring by preconceived biases and the psychological trick of seeing what you want or expect to see. A lot of this goes on in the e-book industry, and a lot of it goes on with blogs.

One amusing example you can easily find by Googling "Rosenthal recants." It's a trackback on another blog from somebody who completely misunderstood the discussion he'd read, and posted to his own blog with my supposed recantation in his title. I have no idea how he read black into white, but it happens all of the time on blogs. In fact, I'd say that somewhere between a quarter and half of the statements I see ascribed to myself are either touted as saying the opposite thing or taken so badly out of context as to be misleading.

On the other hand, sometimes I fail to catch a sea change in the e-book industry because my reading of the data lacks the sort of subtlety that reconstructionists of all feathers thrive upon. When Amazon UK dropped Lightning Source e-books last year, just a month after acquiring the French e-book vendor Mobipocket, I missed the signs. I should have at least looked into Mobipocket, but I figured that most of my e-book sales came from Amazon in North America, so there was nothing to worry about. A week or two ago when I noticed a flood of hacked Mobipocket titles showing up on Amazon here, it didn't occur to me to wonder why I was seeing Mobipocket for the first time. I focused on the fact that somebody was abusing the system.

Well, it turns out Amazon is dropping Lightning Source e-books, and the $500 a month they were netting me. It also turns out the Ingram, in what probably amounts to a strategic retreat, is assuming control of the LSI e-book operation and rolling it into their Digital Ventures.

"IDV is assuming management responsibilities of Lightning's existing e-Book business and will be working to develop future digital businesses, including new types of content, delivery platforms, and other evolving markets."

I have no idea who their customers will be with Amazon off the bandwagon, perhaps they'll focus on the academic and library markets that smaller players have been serving. I suppose I could start selling e-books direct, but I guess I'll try Mobipocket first and wait a bit to see how things shake out.

Sell-in and Bookstore Sales

There's an old adage in the publishing business that you can't sell any books if you aren't on the shelves. OK, I just made that up, but I have to believe it's been said thousands of times by book industry professionals in all sorts of meetings. Like many adages, real or imaginary, it's both true and false at the same time. Publishers get their books onto store shelves through sell-in, getting bookstore buyers, chain buyers in particular, to order books from a catalog before they are even published. In an odd push-and-pull, the projected print-run for a book helps convince store buyers it's a good gamble to order, while the sell-in numbers help the publisher determine how many books to actually print. Trade authors love to see a high sell-in, because it shows them that their publisher is serious about their book.

Let me concede a point right here. A title with a big sell-in is likely to sell far more books than a title with no sell-in and no bookstore stocking at all. So, the question you have to ask yourself is, are you in the publishing business to sell a lot of books, or to make a living? The problem with a big sell-in is it demands offset press economics, a big print run. It demands the trade discount as no store will pre-order a lot of books at a short discount. It demands a big marketing budget, because when a publisher shoots the moon with a big print run and the expensive production budget that entails, it locks them into making a big effort to sell the book. Again, great news from the author's standpoint, not so great for the publisher's accounting department. The greatest problem with the big sell-in is it doesn't guarantee the title will sell. I wish I had some statistics on sell-in vs lifetime sales, but I've never come across any.

So what happens to a title with big sell-in that fails to sell in the bookstores? It may start out stacked on tables in the aisles or with face out (full cover showing) paid for placement on the shelves, but it ends up the same place as all titles that don't hit their stride in a couple months - back to the publisher for pulp or remainders. And this finally brings us to the inspiration for today's post, a brief discussion I had with somebody about the Long Tail and middlemen. The one thing a large sell-in practically guarantees is that if the book doesn't sell well, dirt cheap copies will displace the new sales through Amazon and Internet bookstores. It's a short and violent life for a book.

For the big trade publisher, a failed title is a failed title and they go onto the next one on the list. They're playing the odds, like the Hollywood studios. A big trade will publish from hundreds to thousands of titles a year, so a single failed author is someone who can and will be forgotten. For the self publisher, every title counts. Self publishers who try to play the big trade game may hit it big and earn six figures on a single title, but it's a long shot in the dark. Conservative self publishers work with on-demand printing and short discounts, never even considering bookstore sales. Rather than looking for a single title that sells 100,000 copies a year and flames out, the conservative self publisher tries to build a stable of titles that sell a few thousand copies a year, for years and years.

The trade publisher or self publisher following the traditional sell-in model counts a few thousand copies a year a failure. For the conservative self publisher who's structured pricing so that every copy nets five or ten dollars, a few thousand copies per title per year add up to a real business. All without bookstore stocking, sell-in, or significant brick-and-mortar bookstore sales. For more ambitious self publishers using the on-demand model, you can go with the trade discount and a low cover price to try to mimic the big trade model, but it often makes more sense to just go offset and trade distribution at that point. Some self publishers using the on-demand model and who have better instincts for the jugular than I do focus on higher priced titles. The five to ten dollar net you can achieve with cover price in the $10 to $20 range can turn into $50 to $60 net per copy on titles priced in the $80 to $100 range. I just don't know anything that valuable to write about:-)

The Long Tail of Publishing

I just finished reading Chris Anderson's "The Long Tail" and I genuinely enjoyed it. Chris offers a fairly comprehensive look at how modern information and distribution systems have greatly increased the number of unique products available, and how that affects the businesses involved in producing and selling those products. While the book doesn't offer a formula for success in the publishing business, it's about as close to a "must read" as I've seen for people who wonder where it's all going to end. The Long Tail was ranked #2 on Amazon yesterday, about as far from the tip of the tail as you can get!

Publishing has always been a business with a long tail, but most of the only people who used to make a living on the long tail were the second-hand bookstores and a few giant distributors, like Ingram and Baker&Taylor. These days, the main beneficiaries of selling a large number of slow-selling titles are Amazon, Lightning Source, third party sellers using internet store fronts (especially the Amazon Marketplace), and a couple large publishers with very large backlists.

Authors can't make a living on the Long Tail by definition. It's somewhat ironic that the very paradigm that allows for anybody to be a "star" ensures that the sky is so full of stars that only a few particles from each will reach earth each year. It's great that over a million unique titles will sell a couple copies this year, but nobody makes a living selling a couple books a year, even if they've authored dozens. The only parties that profit from Long Tail sales (other than the consumers) are the middlemen.

Neither authors nor publishers aspire to having their titles show up on the long tail. Everybody want to be in the short-head, the top ten books, the top 100 books, the top 1,000 books. By the time you get out of the top 10,000 books, they aren't commercially viable in any sense of the word, unless they are self published and the author is netting the publisher's share. A large proportion of the commercially viable books sold every year aren't new, they are classic fiction, classic non-fiction, books in edition, etc. What this means is you can't look at the 100,000 or so new books published in the U.S. each year (some people put the number closer to 200,000) and say, "10% will be successful". The real number is much lower.

The rest of the books end up on the long tail of publishing. They generate a couple years of depressing royalty reports for the authors, give the reminder houses something to do, and cost a new crop of acquisitions editors their jobs. The also contribute significant income to Amazon's bottom line, to Lightning Source, and to a large number of home-based bookstores who play the mail order game. As an author and a publisher, I don't want to see any of my books appearing on the Long Tail, but based on the time I've spent around big animals, I guess I'd rather be on the tail than under it:-)

POD vs Print on Demand Publishers

I was all geared up to write a mind-bending post about the difference between the subsidy presses who have been given the POD publishers label, and the print-on-demand technology used by trade publishers, academic presses and independents alike. I used to get all worked up when I saw POD being used as a generic term for books from companies like iUniverse, Lulu, PublishAmerica, xLibris and AuthorHouse, but I've concluded that it's silly to fight against the tide of language usage. I imagine there are some lawyers at Google who are bothered that using their Google as a verb will result in trademark dilution, so compared to them, I have nothing to lose by going with the flow. Too bad I was born a salmon.

A couple years ago, I put together a list of a thousand or so random books that were printed and distributed by Lightning Source, including titles from some of the biggest trade publishers and academic presses. I thought that today I'd sit down and list them all, and then ask the question: Do you define this title from Wiley or the Cambridge University Press a POD book? Unfortunately, I can't find the list in the clutter of my hard drive, so I decided to try to recreate it (the publishers’ part) from memory by looking up random titles on Ingram and checking for the Lightning Source On Demand emblem.

After checking a few titles I was sure were published with print on demand and coming up dry, I began to worry that my memory is even less trustworthy than I imagine. It finally occurred to me to check some of my own titles, and the Lighting Source emblem was gone from them as well. I don't know if this is a temporary Ingram glitch or if it's a permanent change, but it's a bit inconvenient for people studying the spread of POD through the publishing world. On the other hand, if Ingram has decided to keep confidential which titles are printed by Lightning Source, it will put an end to bookstore clerk snobbery based on the "POD stigma."

Personally, I'd rather have the emblem back. The deciding factor as to whether or not a store will order a book through Ingram when requested is their store policy on special orders and the discount assigned by the publisher. If the publisher assigned a 55% discount at Lightning Source, the book should show up in the Ingram catalog at the trade discount, usually resulting in a 40% profit margin for the store. I'm firmly in the short discount camp. I currently assign a discount of 25% at Lightning Source, which means some bookstores will not special order, or will add a service charge. I've written a great deal about that business model on this blog, and I've indexed a bunch of the posts with excerpts.

Back to the semantics argument. If you asked me the difference between POD (subsidy) publishers and small publishers using whatever printing technology, it comes down to marketing. Subsidy and other non-traditional presses don't market books unless you pay them, and that kind of marketing just doesn't work. You can hire editors, proofreaders and book designers who are just as good as any large trade staff (if not better) on a freelance basis before signing with a non-traditional publisher, but you can't buy meaningful book promotion. You have to do it (or be it) yourself. What bothers me more about language use in the publishing industry than the abuse of the POD acronym is the confusion between self publishing and paying to get published. Self publishing is a business for the author. Paying a subsidy to get published is a business for the subsidy publisher. The only way you can be a self publisher is to be the author and the publisher.

Writing Articles to Promote Books

When I got back into self publishing around seven years ago, I thought that writing articles for large circulation magazines and websites would be a pretty good way to promote books. I did get some articles published in large circulation magazines, prestigious in the area I was publshing a book, and likewise with some authority websites. I didn't see any boost in sales, but then again, I did a number of things wrong. My worst two mistakes were getting a book excerpt published in a magazine a full year before the book was available for sale and not noticing the magazine had made a typo in the "about the Author" info that referred readers to a website that didn't exist!

Many authors focus almost exclusively on article writing to promote their books, and I've seen instances where it works pretty decently with magazines and newspapers. Newspapers, in particular weekend human interest inserts, have a surprisingly welcoming policy to thinly veiled promotional material, as long as you get on the editor's good side. I lack the people skills for that sort of thing, and I've never been enthusuastic about generating one-time pops in book sales. Grinding out article after article or repreposing existing material and trying to pass it off as new is too much like, well, writing a self publishing blog.

What triggered me to post about article writing today were two requests this morning from websites who wanted permission to repost some of my articles. I turned them down, as I always do, for a number of reasons. For one thing, granting permission to somebody else to use your material always opens the door to abuse. I'm not a lawyer and I don't want to have to hire one every time somebody asks for permission to republish my articles; it's easier to just say no. If it was the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, I'd give them permission in a heartbeat, but I'm not going to open the door to some unknown business run by unknown people.

Another issue is duplicate content penalties. Although this shouldn't be an issue as long as they include a link back to the original, you never know how the search engines may change their algorithyms in the future. There's also the issue of mission creep on the part of the republisher. I don't want to have to check their site on a regular basis to see if they are using my material in accordance with whatever agreement we've reached. The potential upside simply doesn't outweigh the potential downside to me. If you want to write some articles for other websites to help you get off the ground when you launch, write original content that fits their site better than yours, and in addition to avoiding duplication, the article will generate more traffic (and visitors to your site) then something that doesn't quite fit.

There's an even better reason than any of the above not to pursue writing articles for website distribution, which I'll call "focus." If you're focused on building your own authority website to promote your books and build a platform for the future, you should focus on doing that and not get distracted by the fools gold of "free" publicity. There's a reason why publishers of other websites are interested in republishing your articles, and it's not to send you traffic. It's to increase their standing and draw more traffic themselves. To some extent, the Internet, and even the publishing world in general, is a sum zero game. In some cases, a browser on another site might follow a link to you, but most traffic is driven by the search engines, and people tend to stop looking when they find what they want. Do you want them to stop on your website, or somebody elses?

A Book Launch Party in NYC

I got an invitation to a book launch party in Manhattan next week, and it got me thinking about the places where the worlds of self publishing and trade publishing diverge. I don't know NYC prices for renting a major performance space, for bringing in a half dozen name bands, not to mention free food and drink, but I'd be surprised if it weren't closer to $200,000 than $50,000. It sounds like a heck of an event, but I'm the sort of guy who will walk around the block to avoid a party, so driving a hundred miles to NYC for the evening isn't in the cards.

Most veteran self publishers would be happy with a net profit at the end of the year that wouldn't pay for this book launch party. Most new self publishers would be thrilled to death if they sold enough copies of their first title to pay for just one of the bands! We're simply talking about two different worlds with two different outcomes. The event isn't going to pay for itself with sales of autographed copies to guests. In fact, I'd be shocked if the book is even sold there. Outside of having a good time, the only thing the author of this book launch can hope to accomplish with the party is creating buzz. Even the big trade publishers usually don't go to this much expense in creating buzz for nonfiction, so I'm guessing it's really a case of the author wanting to throw a big party and maybe gain some momentum for highly paid speaking engagements.

This approach to publishing runs entirely counter to the model I advocate for self publishing which is predicated on the notion that authors shouldn't have to be performers. Getting invited to speak at conferences and to make corporate visits just gives me the chills. It's tough enough for me to speak coherently on the telephone. What I do is write and publish on the Internet, and I let my writing sell my books for me. I have a friend who threw a book launch party for a self-published book (I'd have shown up for that one but I was out of the country at the time) but it was strictly a celebration.

Sometimes, new authors will get extremely bad advice from publishing "professionals" or dashed-off articles in writers’ magazines which basically encourage them to imitate the trades on the cheap. It can't be done. I recently heard from a nice woman who read somewhere that she should pass out fliers to her neighbors announcing a book launch event in her home for her self published book. The only thing it accomplished was to get the neighbors laughing at her behind her back. You can sell your neighbors kitchenware or cosmetics in some communities without raising an eyebrow, but the only places I've been where you could sell your neighbors books were deeply religious communities, and they'd better not be books you wrote yourself.

Help Self Publishing a Book

When I started self publishing in 1995, I did it blindly, and I made a lot of mistakes. The biggest mistake I made was not studying up on the subject before I started publishing. I believed if I published a "good" book, the world would beat a path to my door. I was half right. All of my initial sales came from overseas, and I had no way to process the payments without losing money. Rather than reading some business books or publishing books to try to learn where I went wrong, I gave up and signed a trade contract - without legal advice!!! If I had read just one article about book contracts I would have saved myself seven years of servitude, but that's what I got for being too proud to ask for help.

Aspiring publishers can find everything they need to know on the Internet. The only thing you need to know before you start searching is that you can't buy help self publishing a book. You'll encounter lots of businesses interested in selling you their services, including experts of every stripe, but it will be money thrown away. We learn in our childhood that "free" always comes with strings attached, and that "you get what you pay for." However, when it comes to learning about self publishing, the best information is free, it's just not very well organized. As to paying for help, if you understood what you were getting before you paid for it, you'd keep your wallet in your pocket.

After corresponding with thousands of aspiring authors over the years, I've concluded that the most costly mistakes result from hurrying. You've spent months or years writing a book, pushing yourself on and on with the promise that you'll see that book published. Then you find that the trades are neither interested nor polite, and you start looking around for other options. You come up with a budget for self publishing and you start looking for help. Five minutes of search work on Google turns up enough offers that you can start comparison shopping, and before you go to bed, you've chosen a subsidy publisher or a book coach. Your budget gets spent, you get a book to put on your shelf, and that's pretty much the end of it.

If you want to go into self publishing as a business, to sell a significant number of books and possibly earn a good living, you have to become knowledgeable first. It takes time, effort, and learning from mistakes, but the sooner you start with the mistakes, the less help they'll be in teaching you something of real value. It doesn't make sense to start suggesting mistakes you should make, so I'll stick with saying something about time and effort.

You'll learn a lot in your first thirty minutes of reading about self publishing on the web if you stay away from publishing company sites that are trying to sell you a service. You may learn more in your first 2 hours of reading than in the next twenty hours, because sources (and writers) will start repeating themselves. But if you take careful notes, it should quickly become apparent to you what parts of the self publishing process you don't understand. Use that knowledge to fine-tune your Google searches for more specific results, until you find meaningful answers to every open question you have.

In the end, you'll still need some help self publishing your book, but that help should be limited to services you can contract with individuals for editing, proofreading, and design. If you can design the book and cover by yourself, that's great, I've gone that route myself, but don't kid yourself that you can do your own proofreading,. What you absolutely don't need if you want to self publish as a business is one-stop shopping, a company who will do everything for a fee. Those subsidy publishers are great for authors who just want their book in print, but it's a business for the subsidy publisher, not for the author.

If you read through a couple dozen of the archived posts on this blog, you'll find that I continually return to one central point. No matter what else you do right, your book won't sell unless you market it. You can't buy help marketing a book, you have to learn how to do it yourself if you're going to have any long-term chance of success. My own approach to self publishing combines print-on-demand for printing and distribution with Internet marketing as the lowest cost entry into publishing, but there are certainly other approaches that work. Just don't take anybody's word for what does or doesn't work without seeing the details and confirming them independently.

Authors and Writers Independence Day Compromise

I decided to "work" this July 4th, to make a point about the independence I found in self publishing and the compromise involved in business. The greatest gift of being self employed as an author is that we can write when and what we want. Of course, as our customers are free to buy whatever books they want whenever the fancy strikes them, there's no guarantee we'll make a living next year. The fundamental compromise in self publishing is we can do what you want, but, if we want to make a living, we’d better consider what our potential customers want as well.

I rarely quote authors at length, but I made sure to get the following passage from John Donne up on my original website in 1995, one of the most concentrated bits of prose ever written.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.


What Donne expresses so elegantly with "No man is an Island" is that as much as we stand on our own feet, we're all of us born and raised and buried by others. As a "completely independent" self publisher, I have more dependencies than I care to count. What makes me more independent than when I was working as a trade author is that none of my current dependencies are absolute or exclusive. Starting with the Big Three:

I'm dependent on Lightning Source to print my books and get them into Amazon and distribution, here and in the U.K.. If I wanted to sign up with Replica instead, I could get the same printing deal in the U.S., with Baker&Taylor distribution instead of Ingram. If I wanted to sign up with Booksurge, recently purchased by Amazon, I'd get the Amazon part of the equation. I could use any other print-on-demand or offset printer and take delivery of my books for resale through distribution, Amazon Advantage or direct mail order, but it would be a lot more work for a smaller profit per book. Lightning Source, in turn, is dependent on Foner Books for maybe one tenth of one percent of their printing volume. I don't think they're scared of losing us.

I'm dependent on Amazon to sell a goodly percentage of my books, a relationship I encourage by sending potential customers to the Amazon site through the Associates program. I could send them to Barnes& instead, I could just suggest they order through their local bookstore, or I could sell direct only. The advantage of sending customers to Amazon is the force multiplication factor, the more books you sell through Amazon, the more books they sell for you, through enhanced placement in search results and in their Also Bought lists. Foner Books nets about $500 per quarter through referral fees to Amazon, meaning we directly sell about $25,000 a year worth of books for them, about one thousandth of one percent of their annual book sales. They wouldn't even notice if we ended our "partnership."

I depend on the search engines to help people find our website, primarily Google. If Google decided to eliminate small publisher websites from their results, reworked their algorithm in some way that our pages no longer appeared, or simply went out of business replaced by a search engine that didn't work in a similar way, we'd be in trouble. I could try to rework my website to do better with other search engines or in the new system, I could advertise for visitors (costly), or work from dawn to dusk trying to rebuild traffic, but that wouldn't be much fun. Google indexes billions of web pages; Foner Books has well under a thousand web pages online. Foner Books comprises far less than one millionth of their index.

Independence in the publishing business is a compromise for authors. Nobody can tell you what to write, but you can't tell anybody what to buy. Nobody can make you sell books through this or that outlet, but you can't force this or that store to sell your books. When I worked in a more conventional business years ago, I figured if we could reach 10% of our supplier's total volume, we'd be in a pretty good position to negotiate terms and conditions, and we did. As a self publisher, I'd have to pick a pretty small printer or distributor for our sales to reach 10% of their volume, which means they wouldn't have much weight in the broader publishing business either.

The Big Three dependencies I gave above aren't our only dependencies - we're dependent on the U.S. Post Office, on UPS and Federal Express, on the ISBN agency, on our editors and proofreaders, and on any other freelancers we bring in to produce a book. We're dependent on our web host, on our Internet Service Provider, our bank, our lawyer, and even the tax agencies we work with. I'm proud to be a self publisher on Independence Day and I believe self employment was at the heart of the Founding Fathers’ concept of Republic. But, I understand that as far as independence goes, authors and writers are a pretty dependent lot!