I don't see publishing my blog as a business model for anything. The only motivation anybody would have to buy an edited down version of a blog that can be read online for free is to get it on paper. Since it's not a big production job and I'm not going to put a value on time that I would have spent anyway, I'll price it below $10 and it will be cheaper than an inkjet cartridge. How's this for a title:
The Self Publishing Blog Printed - Compiled Posts from http://www.fonerbooks.com/cornered.htm
That's my idea of truth in advertising. Another motivation for publishing the blog would be to that 90's concept of closure, or as a friend of mine is fond of saying, "Put a fork in it, it's done." It's taking me longer and longer to write these short posts as I try to say something on the subject of self publishing without merely reporting current events or doing free PR for authors. I enjoy the conversational style of writing, but after three months of posting most weekdays, I'm just winding down again and ready for another break.
What I'm thinking of doing this time is putting a "Best Of" collection of posts on the main page of the blog, rather than going with the last three posts I happen to write. I'd just jam them into the template with Wordpad rather than using the Blogger software, and take the Fall off. The more I write about it, the better it sounds! The only question is what I'll do to fill the time. I could catch up with my Amazon blog, but frankly, I could use a break from publishing thing altogether. That's the best part of a dream job, I can take time off anytime I want.
Maybe I'll go on to form a Bloggers Anonymous chapter.
New York is known for book publishers and book critics. The former have a love/hate relationship with self publishers, the latter rarely stoop to expressing an opinion one way or another. New York publishers are always on the lookout for books they can make money on, and self publishers form a sort of farm league for the bigs. It's rare enough for a self publisher to have a hit with a novel and it would be practically unheard of for the author to turn down a contract from a big NYC trade publisher. Nonfiction is a different pan of pulp altogether, and a self publisher with a successful nonfiction title will rarely be in a hurry to sign up with a trade.
The publisher New York loves to hate is you, or me, when we turn down a contract with a fat advance in favor of continuing to publish books on our own. I'm happy when my self published titles gross sales go over $100,000 in a year and I net over $50,000, but a New York acquisitions editor whose title sales mirrored my total units sold would be fired before the year was out. NYC publishers just aren't tooled to survive on selling a couple thousand copies per title per year on their frontlist. Heck, I couldn't justify eating lunch with a New York publisher, much less renting an office there. Publishing in New York is a triumph of form over function, there's just no reason for most publishers to be there unless they've confused a social life with a social conscience.
My miniscule slice of the publishing pie doesn't have any New York publishing houses shaking in their boots, but of course, I'm not alone. One of the key advantages of Internet search and new on demand publishing technologies is that they allow for commercial titles to be published on very niche subjects. Combine a lot of niche titles from knowledgeable self publishers and there's that much less room for a general purpose title to thrive and achieve the kind of sales numbers the New York economy demands. And it's no sacrifice on my part to be going it alone. I earn more money than I would if I'd continued getting royalty checks with a NYC (or maybe the publisher's accounting department is in New Jersey) return address.
But the lure of New York to authors is both strong and obvious, as a Google search or two can demonstrate. The big name publishers all show up for a search on New York Publisher or Publishing because they are linked that way from articles and press releases all over the web. Authors are told they haven't made it unless they've made it in New York, but Broadway has never produced a hit tune about making a reasonable living. You don't have to make it here or make it anywhere other than where you live and work, and that's the difference between a dream job and a dream. For me, self publishing has been a dream job, and if that makes me the type of publisher New York won't offer an apple next time I visit, I couldn't give a fig
I was browsing through an upscale, glossy magazine for homeowners the other day at a friend's, and came across an ad for "Decorative European leather-bound books." I've been known to refer to the slow selling books in superstores as "wallpaper" but it never occurred to me that there is actually a business in selling books to designers, interior decorators and homebuilders for the sake of filling shelf space in sheetrock castles. The ad included a photograph of twenty or so colorful leather-bound books piled up in a stack, the assertion that the seller has over 70,000 volumes in stock, and a toll-free number in America.
I don't know about you, but I found the idea of books being sold as decorations to wealthy people pretty depressing. Assuming that the majority of European books aren't published in English, the odds of their ever being read even if the TV and the Internet connection fail seem pretty low. I was getting myself pretty worked up, thinking about the sarcastic comments I could work into a post about the "true" business of publishing, and then it hit me. Maybe publishing "decorative" books is the business model of these European publishers, and they churn out out-of-copyright classics in fine tooled leather knowing they are destined to provide an inch or two of eye-candy for a shelf.
And that got me thinking about self publishing in America vs self publishing in Europe, and whether there are cultural barriers to the print-on-demand business model in the Old World. While the titles I've self published using Lightning Source in the U.K. as the printer have done well enough, they mainly sell in the U.K. I'm an indifferent cover designer (some would substitute "bad" for "indifferent") because I count on my Internet published excerpts to sell my books regardless of aesthetics. Maybe selling books on the Continent requires modern art on the cover, if not the tanned hide of some creature or another. In America, most publishers focus on pleasing readers. Maybe European publishers are more focused on the critics, and self publishers are met with scorn.
To each his own, but it was a bit of an eye-opener for me. I remember visiting a cousin's home in Israel once and seeing a Hebrew translation of "Man's Search for Meaning" by Frankl. I'd read the book in English and asked my cousin's wife, a psychologist, what she thought of it. She replied to the effect of, "I haven't read it, but it was just recently translated and everybody needs to have a copy lying around for visitors to see that they have it." I don't know how serious she was. My main memory of the book was thinking he should have left for America with his wife and kids while he had the chance and said Kaddish for his parents.
I haven't marketed books to libraries for years, though they buy a reasonable number from us due to patron requests. I don't like the idea of selling a book for which there isn't a reader waiting, and one of my slim how-to titles on a library shelf could easily go unmarked until it's obsolete. While my self publishing business is clearly focused on making a living, I write books in the hope and belief that people will read them. Copyright protection runs a long, long time, but there's not much an author can do to protect his book from being republished as a decoration 100 years after he dies. I guess I'll just have to avoid writing a classic:-)
One of my many failings as a self publisher is that I'm better at giving advice than taking it. I've noticed over the past year that some of the best reactions to my blog posts come when I write about what an idiot I've been, so today I'm going to admit a few of my shortcomings as a businessman. The most glaring of these would be my failure to strike while the iron is hot and make hay while the sun shines. The print-on-demand model I advocate is probably at its high water mark, I envision more things in the future going wrong than going right, yet I haven't written a new book since 2004. What kind of businessman is a self publisher who doesn't grind out new books just for the sake of making money?
Frankly, I'm not really sure where the problem lays, though I generally blame my indolence on the fact that I'm earning more today than I ever did as a trade author and the government gets nearly 50% of my incremental earnings. Unfortunately, there's a perfectly logical business solution to the success tax, which is reinvesting some of the income into the business of self publishing. I should be buying new software, traveling to conferences and networking, and stocking up on equipment and reference materials. Instead, when the IRS gets my Schedule C and sees that my business expenses don't come to 10% of my gross income, they must gather around and laugh.
Anybody can hold a tag sale and make a few bucks selling everything they own, but a businessman should be focused on where the money is going to come from next year and the year after that. Any respectable self publisher would at least be thinking about publishing new editions of existing titles, but I'm pretty happy with my books the way they are, and I had my fill of writing new editions of an existing title for McGraw-Hill. If I ever work up the courage to get married, I want to get married to a woman, not to a book. Some of the most successful nonfiction authors have been married to the same book for over twenty years, and the spin-offs never quite measure up to the original. That's too much like having kids who never grow up and leave home.
In addition to poor title management and poor tax management, I probably have the worst time management of any self publisher I know. The closest thing to a schedule I maintain is sporadic commitment to this blog! Maybe that's why a few readers have suggested that I publish the blog as a book, but I get tired just thinking about it. I'm more inclined to go back to trying to write fiction at this point, not because I think I'll be successful, but to please myself. And that's about the worst failing a self publisher can demonstrate as a businessman. The day I go back to writing books without any consideration about who will buy them or how I will market them is the day I stop telling people I'm in the publishing business.
My mom has written many children's books over the years, I think she started when we were children and we helped in the process. I still remember some of the titles and phrases, but they were largely illustrated with color drawings, and mom doesn'thave the patience at this point to go back and really make them press ready. I hate playing the heavy with her, but I did make clear that the printed book never looks better than the original, so if the original isn't something she'd be happy to see in print with her name on it, it's better to let it be.
Fortunately, she also did a series of cartoons with various subjects, including a pretty funny collection about squirrels and one man's quest for a squirrel proof birdfeeder. The cartoons are all black and white, as the were designed with newspaper publication in mind, so the should make a pretty good match for print-on-demand, as long as the page counts are high enough. I'm leaning towards doing the squirrel book, which has the added advantage that I won't have any libel risk, since squirrels have very limited rights under our legal system.
The problem, of course, will be marketing. I don't have a cartoon oriented website, though I did publish cartoons in two of my earlier computer books. Since there's no traffic coming to my site currently for either cartoons or squirrels, I'll have to use more traditional "push" advertising if I want to generate some sales to show her. While it would be an interesting challenge, I don't know anything about the cartoon market, so I wouldn't give much for my chances of success. It would give me an excuse to hire my sister to design a cover, an area she's expanded into professionally with several childrens books in the past year. That would really make it a family affair, since the model for the birdfeeder owner character who combats the squirrels is my dad!
Sometimes I think that Amazon is testing publishers to see if we're on the ball. Many small publishers preferentially direct their sales to Amazon because of the force-multiplier the Amazon platform has traditionally given our sales. Simply put, the more customers you send to Amazon who buy your book, the more visible it will be on Amazon, and the more books Amazon will sell for you. When something happens that changes that dynamic, small publishers see the difference in their sales almost immediately. :
Around five or six weeks ago, there was a radical change in the way Also Bought sorts operated in the U.S. I've speculated quite a bit on how the new results were being weighted, whether there was a new prejudice against short discount books or Lightning Source titles, whether cover price or aging was playing into it,or whether co-op advertising and multiple editions were partially responsible. Whatever the case, the old Also Bought sorts and Better Together linkings reappeared yesterday, sort of.
When I access Amazon product pages with Firefox or some other non Internet Explorer browser, I see the old results I knew and loved - and a publisher friend on the opposite coast reports the same phenomena. On the other hand, if I view results with IE, I get the new results in which my titles fare poorly due to some applied weighting scheme. The funny thing is that the old fashioned results appearing with Firefox are now prefaced with the message "Customers who bought items like this also bought" while the new results appearing in IE 6.0 are prefaced with the standard "Customers who bought this item also bought."
It's a subtle change, "items like this" as opposed to "this item", and it appears to have been applied to the wrong set of results. However, it's the A/B testing strategy here that I really don't understand. With a platform as interactive as Amazon's, it's not surprising that they check the browser and gin up a different page based on what will work best, but it's strange they should make the Also Bought results dependent on the browser, unless they are A/B testing publishers
The internet has radically changed both the quality and quantity of social networking in the publishing world. There are discussion lists and forums for authors only (a lot of complaining about contracts is common), lists for both authors and publishers (the authors do most of the posting) and lists for publishers only. The traditional publishing organizations tend to be more rigid in their membership, with networking groups for authors only and publishers only. I've been a paying member on both sides of the fence, as both a trade author and a publisher, but I didn't maintain those affiliations for more than a year or two.
I could list the reasons I didn't stick it out with the Authors Guild, despite their politics, or with the Publishers Marketing Association, despite their cheerleading, but the main point is that I didn't feel isolated without them. I hear from more authors every week via e-mail than were present at the two Authors Guild meetings I made it to in Boston, and I get more e-mails from publishers every week than I got in response to an article I authored for the PMA newsletter. I've dropped out of all but one of the publishing discussion lists I used to participate in, including the print-on-demand publishers list which I founded. The sole exception is the Studio B list for computer publishers and authors, a low activity list which I take as a digest and rarely read, primarily because I'm interested in the occasional posts from Tim O'Reilly and other publishers.
I don't mean this as a blanket indictment of publishing industry networking groups. I think they are the ideal way for authors and publishers with limited direct contacts in the industry to keep track of what's going on and to get wonderfully contradictory answers to the simplest questions. However, they can be very time consuming if you participate at a meaningful level, and they can be very frustrating if you take facts seriously. And, there's a simple alternative - direct networking.
Thanks to Google, you can find an e-mail address for anybody in the industry who wants to be found. Once you've found them, e-mail turns out to be the ideal, low key approach to making contact. I rarely have occasion to contact people I don't know, but when I do, the response rate is probably around 90%. I suppose it's gotten to the point that I actually expect to hear back from people. I think the key is that I only write to strangers if they have publicly shown an interest in what I'm writing about, and I'm not writing to pitch them some business scheme. When people share a common interest about some aspect of the publishing industry, a correspondence is likely to be mutually beneficial, unless they are operating on such different levels that their perceptions don't intersect anywhere.
The benefits of networking with authors or publishers who work in your sphere are manifold, but there are some drawbacks as well. I can think of several publishers I corresponded with who brought out titles competing with my own after I discussed the sales numbers with them, so I wouldn't rush into business intimacy at this point. I suppose I've seen my thunder stolen once or twice as well, but to the quick belong the early adopters. The main drawback of direct networking, as with list organizational networking, is the amount of time it can eat. Before I started discouraging people from writing me about some subjects, correspondence was my main daily activity. Even now, there are days and months where rather than working to grow my business, I keep busy with correspondence and blogging and don't get anything done. This summer would be a good example:-)
I'm on the record as stating that publishing isn't a particularly civilized business. The ethics I've seen some publishers display are worse than some other industries I'm familiar with, but author fears about publisher cheating are compounded by the lack of publicly available sales data. Royalty payments, after the advance is worked off, are defined in the book contract, in terms of both the percentage paid for different kinds of sales and the schedule. Relatively few book contracts I've seen have an auditing clause that would allow the author to send a CPA into the publisher to inspect their records of book sales, and even that radical step would depend on the publisher keeping honest books.
In my own experience, when publishers make errors in paying royalties, they are as likely to err in favor of the author as the publisher. In other words, it's probably incompetence rather than cheating. Even in cases where large publishers behave unethically in business, I wouldn't expect them to knowingly cheat on sales reporting because the damage to their reputations would be very real, and the increase in profits would be marginal - they already take the lion's share. To make the reward of lying about book sales worth the risk, the publisher would have to underreport sales numbers by amounts that would make it possible to catch them at it, through comparison with Nielson Bookscan, Ingram and Amazon data. It makes much more sense for publishers to cheat authors up-front on contract terms, and if they want to lie, to lie about the type of sales. Thanks to deep discount clauses and selling books to overseas subsidiaries, publishers have plenty of room to nickel and dime authors out of royalties if that's their business model.
All that said, my gut feeling is that the vast majority of publishers are pretty honest about counting books. Interestingly, the majority of correspondence I get from authors relating to Amazon ranks and sales have been from subsidy published authors or trade authors whose books have seen falling royalties with age. When it comes to the big subsidy publishers, I can't see any reason they would want to cheat authors on sales, they've already made their profit up front on the subsidy payment for publishing the book, and the sales numbers are usually very low. I eventually had to add a note to my contact FAQ saying in essence, "Don't ask me to send you proof that your publisher is cheating you because your sales rank did a roller coaster thing and the publisher didn't report any sales." Thanks to Amazon stocking and the availability of books through third part sellers, a book that's only selling a few copies a month can move up and down by hundreds of thousands in rank without a new book being printed.
The complaints from trade authors who believe their publisher is cheating on the sales reports seem to be based on the misapprehension that Amazon sales are always a good proxy for overall retail sales. This is only the case when a book is well stocked in the big retail chains and a smattering of independents as well. Often, a new book does well enough during the first couple royalty reporting cycles, and then sales turn negative as returns come in and no new bookstore orders materialize. Whether this happens in six months or six years depends not just on the initial success of the book, but how time dependent (current events or technology) the title is and whether new killer competition from a deep pockets publisher appears. In either case, the Amazon rank may remain more or less constant from the "good years" to the "bad years" or the rank may even rise in the bad years when the book can only be obtained online. Thanks to all of the remainders available from Third Party sellers, the book can maintain a relatively high rank while the royalty reports continue to show negative sales and returns.
I've even gotten a couple of complaints over the years from authors of new books, primarily subsidy published, who are positive they are being cheated because at least a hundred people promised to buy their book but their all time sales haven't reached ten copies. It's easier for a casual acquaintance to forget an off-hand promise to buy a book than for a publisher to cheat. I should also point out that almost all of the large subsidy publishers, many academic presses, and even some large trades, use Lightning Source to print some or all of their titles on demand. I occasionally get a note from a publisher asking if I believe that Lightning Source reports the number of books they print and sell into distribution honestly, and I always say yes. I've been using Lighting Source for four years, I track my sales through various channels closely, and I've never seen or heard of any evidence that they are intentionally under counting sales.
Some comedian I can't place would say about self publishing, "It's all about the book," but he's not in the business. I would say the self publishing business is all about marketing the book and earning a profit on the sales, which means you have to put some serious thought into how you're going to do this before you ever start writing.
That's the theory anyway, but in practice, most authors including myself, want to write the books we want to write rather than imitating some successful book in a market that has room for another title. As an author, I've gone 6.5 for 11.5 on writing books that are commercially viable, or a little over 50%. Four of my successes are all editions of the same book which I wrote for McGraw-Hill. If we limited the discussion to self published books, I've gone two for four, not counting one book I never got around to publishing because I didn't think it was good enough.
One of my self published books that I don't count as a success is my book about publishing. It's sold about 2,000 copies, which would be great for a first book by a new publisher, but it's pretty disappointing for a guy who claims to be an expert. But then again, I fell into the trap that I preach about so much - I wrote the book to please myself. Or, more accurately, I wrote the book to reflect what I wish I knew before I got involved in the publishing industry. The first third of the book is just that, an explanation of publishing basics and how the trade industry works, from the perspectives of both the author and the publisher. The middle of the book is about using print-on-demand to break out of the old mold the industry tries to apply to all new publishers, and the last third is about internet based marketing.
I overestimated by a long shot how many aspiring publishers and authors were interested in starting a publishing business with on-demand printing. I was corresponding with a friend of mine this morning who's getting ready to bring out a publishing book of his own, and I warned him to lower his expectations. Like myself, his book will focus on a non-traditional approach to publishing. The problem with a self publishing book that insists you shouldn't get excited about bookstore sales is that it goes against the dream. For me, the dream was getting into publishing without having to run up credit card debt or mortgage a house I don't own, but for most authors, the dream is seeing their book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. The possibility that Barnes & Noble won't stock their book at all, or may return most of the books they do order, just doesn't worry the optimists. Since you pretty much have to be an optimist to publish a book, my "think small" model turns out to be a hard sell.
Before discussing the self publishing business in its specifics, I want to take a moment to define what I'm talking about. I don't count money losing hobbies as businesses, even if you file a Schedule C with the IRS. If you're not at least trying to make a living at what you're doing, you're in it for reasons that render most of the advice I give to the back bench. There's nothing wrong with publishing for ideological reasons, to promote or defend the things you believe in, it's just that those reasons tend to trump all other considerations, making your job title that of "missionary" rather than the "publisher".
In order to make self publishing into a business, you have to be a commercial author. I mean this in a good way, that your books should be capable of creating commerce from which you can derive a living. Most authors are not commercial, which is why they have to turn to subsidy publishers to get a book published. As it turns out, the majority of titles published by the major trades aren't as commercial as the acquisitions editor and board thought they would be. Nobody has a monopoly on determining whether or not a book will find favor with readers, plenty of bestsellers have been turned down by publishers as "unsuitable for publication at this time." But it's a mistake to start out in business just to prove that the world is wrong about your manuscript. Success in the self publishing business depends on sales, and writing books for which there is a proven demand is the most important thing you can do to tilt the odds in your favor.
Since the Great Depression, large segments of the publishing business have functioned like consignment shops. The vast majority of books you see in bookstores can be returned to the publisher for credit, and that's what allows modern bookstores to speculate on stocking new titles with no proven demand. Like most ideas born in desperation, it works pretty good some of the time, but has some major downsides. For one thing, it's much more efficient for bookstores to stock as many titles as possible from the largest publishers to simplify their returns, which usually amount to exchanges, and it puts a large risk premium on starting a new publishing business.
Most new publishers rely on distributors to handle the bookstore end of their business, and since those distributors take anywhere from 60% to 70% of the cover price, the first concern of most publishers is to lower their unit cost. The sole advantage of the self publishing business model is that there are no acquisition costs, the author works purely on speculation of future profits, but all the other costs remain. The only variable in unit cost for new publishers turns out to be the printing cost. When printing on an offset press, the more copies you print, the cheaper they get, at least up into the tens of thousands. After doing the math on all of the start-up costs, a new publisher will quickly conclude they'll need to sell at least a few thousand copies to claim financial success. So why not print a few thousand more copies and get a cheaper price, or print ten thousand and get them for just 30% more than five thousand?
Because most of the time, the new publisher will be lucky to sell a few hundred copies that don't find their way back as returns. The main culprit is usually a failed marketing plan, but sometimes the publisher totally misjudges the potential demand for a new title or makes some production mistakes that render the book unattractive to potential buyers. New publishers, however, tend to think that the problem was their book didn't get a fair chance in the bookstores. Well, bookstores aren't under any obligation to try your book, and you don't have to get into bookstores to be successful. There are plenty of variables involved here, but one thing I can say with complete confidence is that the new publisher who based their business model on selling several thousand copies of their first title and only sold a few hundred has lost a lot of money. In fact, they've lost so much money they usually give up, so even if that first title would have continued selling at a slow rate for years, they've written it off and sent the remainders to a recycling facility.
The business approach for new publishers that I advocate is to stay away from offset printing and to use print-on-demand, at least to gauge your initial success. The economics of the print-on-demand model are so different from the offset model that an experienced publisher using Lightning Source can get a book in print and available through distribution for a setup fee of about $100 (depends on page count). All of the pre-press costs are nominally the same, but the truth is, you can cut some corners on costs when you know you aren't going to get stuck with a warehouse full of books. The per unit cost of a print-on-demand book is usually triple or quadruple the per copy cost of a modest offset run, but you only pay to have one printed when you have one ordered. I net a little over half the cover price on each print-on-demand book I sell.
When you're in business to make a living, the bottom line is measured in profit, not sales. I've been using print-on-demand for several years, long enough to know the steady-state demand for my titles, and long enough to know that I could sell more books if I changed my approach to include bookstore stocking. The reason I'm sticking with my initial business model is because I don't see the additional risks of the offset model creating enough incremental sales to justify the switch-over. It's not some decision I reached in a vacuum. I've received unsolicited offers from distributors, from a big trade offering a co-distribution deal, not to mention buy-out offers from a variety of trades. One well known and well established distributor who approached me has since gone out of business and might have wiped me out. I'm not offended that these people believe they can do a better job with my titles than I can, I just ask them to show me the money. So far, the short discount print-on-demand approach has made more business sense for me than chasing greater sales that may end up costing me money.
Day three of the one word title challenge brings me to company. They say that misery loves company, and misery is what a lot of authors who think they are signing up with a self publishing company get. It all comes down to language usage and expectations. Personally, I think calling a subsidy publishing business a self publishing company is misleading. As I wrote in yesterday's post, if you don't own the ISBN block, you aren't self publishing at all, you are paying some company to publish a book for you.
That little rant about truth in labeling aside, the real problem most authors have with these companies isn't a question of get branded as a vanity author or the quick and dirty production process, it's the business model. The business model is selling you their services, not selling books. If you like going out on tour junkets where smiling natives do tribal dances at dinner and you think they're smiling because they're happy to see you, then it could be the ideal way for you to publish a book. Don't laugh. I've known some very intelligent people who don't know the difference between doing business and being the business. For a so-called self publishing company, you are the business.
Why does the pay-for-play model in publishing rarely turn into a commercial success for the author? It's because the subsidy publisher doesn't have anything to offer, aside from the quick and painless path into print. You won't get rejection letters, you'll get asked for your credit card number. If all you want is a book to give your spouse on your next anniversary, it's definitely the way to go. Unfortunately, a subsidy publisher isn't going to work to sell your book for you. It would be stupid for them to try, it's not their business. It's also not their business to tell you that a book isn't commercially viable and shouldn't be published.
If you want to start your own self publishing company, it's not much more expensive than a subsidy deal, but it's a lot more work. If you want to earn significant money through self publishing, setting up your own publishing company is really the only choice, but it's not just about keeping all of the net profit rather than accepting a royalty. It's about understanding that it's going to be a lot of work, that there aren't any shortcuts, and that the book business is all about marketing.
I have a secret to share, one that I'm in a position to know only because I have a couple hundred articles about publishing on the web and have a very good statistics package. A lot of those articles are about book marketing and how to sell books, and you know what? They are some of the least popular articles I've written. The popular articles are the ones about starting a publishing company, writing a book, choosing a printer, etc. All those initial bits are fun, but the hard work is making it into a living. If you're willing to invest the time and the effort, then start your own publishing company and keep what you earn.
Continuing with the one word title challenge, today's post is about ISBN. I take ISBNs so much for granted that I've only written one or two posts on the subject, but they are so necessary to publishing that one of my first blog entries was about getting ISBN numbers. Note the plural. I've received a lot of e-mails since them from authors who are looking for a single ISBN number, which I discourage. You can get a single ISBN number but it's a sort of fool's gold that won't take you anywhere.
What brought the subject back to mind today was a family visit on Sunday, where the conversation came around to the subject of books. I wonder how that happened. My cousin who's a computer scientist is very accustomed to reading off computer screens. In fact, he complained that his main issue with paper books is the lack of a search function. This led to a discussion of what makes the difference between an e-book and a long web page, or a book and a stapled sheaf of paper. I came down on the side of ISBN. As far as the commercial publishing world is concerned, if it has an ISBN, it's a book, whether it's printed on paper, recorded on tape or CD, or passed around as a PDF file.
The corollary to an ISBN being the hallmark of a book is that ownership of an ISBN block being the badge of a publisher. In fact, that's how it's worked for quite a while now. It's not an elitist position. Anybody can buy a block of ISBN numbers in the U.S. The seller, Bowker, is a monopoly agency granted by the government, so they're pretty annoying to deal with, and I think they way overcharge for the service they provide. They do host a software interface for publishers to get their books included in Books-In-Print, but that's overrated as a marketing tool, and it's one of the worst web interfaces I've ever had to deal with.
As critical as ISBNs have been in the past, they may be reaching the end of their run, due to the power of search engines. The advantage of ISBN was it provided a single number that everybody had access to that could be used to order books, even in cases where authors had identical names or books had identical titles. In the Internet age, where search strings can be as long as you like and a cover image or full description is just a click away, ISBN is more of a convenience for booksellers than a necessity for book buyers. In fact, Amazon allows Marketplace sellers to add book items without ISBN numbers to their catalog, and publishes e-books without them.
For the time being, new publishers who try to save a few hundred dollars by not buying an ISBN block are just shooting themselves in the ear. Think of it as a publishing license fee, but don't get fooled into believing you can get around it. The publisher of record for a book is the entity that owns the ISBN number. If you pay a fee to a subsidy publisher to "self publish" a book for you, they become the publisher of record, not you. If you end the relationship in order to publish the book yourself or sell out to a trade, the number can't be transferred, and the book will end up listed as out-of-print through all the cataloging systems.
I challenged myself to write some posts with one word titles this week, and I thought I'd kick it off with help. Thanks to the visibility of my website, I get a lot of requests from authors looking for self publishing help. My only complaint is that most of them don't bother scratching the surface of the articles I've written before e-mailing me. By this point, I have on the order of 200 articles about publishing on this site, and while I don't expect anybody to read them all, it gets under my skin when people ask me for help with things that I plainly disapprove of or have asked people quite specifically not to write me about.
The most effective aid I can offer is probably helping authors understand the issues I'm writing about in their own context. For example, you might be planning a book full of color photography and stumble across my cost/benefit analysis for Lightning Source and not notice that it just doesn't apply to color books. I get a lot of requests to look over self publishing websites, which I'm usually happy to do, but it doesn't mean I'll have any insight as to how effective Internet marketing will be in your particular niche. I just don't know how many people are fans of this-or-that star or product, or whether members of a particular subculture are book buyers.
More often than not, I find myself throwing a bucket of cold water on authors who are gung-ho to rush into the self publishing business. The two main reasons for this are really quite simple. First, I don't sell any services so I have nothing to gain from your starting a self publishing business and needing help. In fact, I've been bitten more than once by authors who figure I've got endless free time to dedicate to their cause, and who get quite nasty when I've had enough of it. The second reason is that most authors who contact me don't really want to be in the self publishing business, they just want to be published. That's a reason to send a lot of proposals to trade publishers, to get an agent, or go with a subsidy press, not to start a business.
There are a lot of sharks in the self publishing waters who would like to take a couple thousand dollars out of your hide. I wrote a post a while back cautioning authors about either buying or accepting free help from publishing experts they encounter online. Free help can cost you a lot of money if it turns out to be wrong for your business, and paid help can cost you a lot of money even if it's right on target. You really need to do a lot of homework before you get to the point of writing and publishing a book if you're doing it as a business. Otherwise, you might write a great book for which there's no market, and even the best intended help from real experts isn't going to help change that.
The best advice I can offer, not only in regards to the publishing articles on my site, but also in regard to publishing discussion lists and other online resources, is to spend a few weeks reading before you ask any questions. On the publishing discussion lists, it's important to get a feel for who's there to share their experience as opposed to who's there to bully newbies or drum up consulting business. It's also important to spend as much time as you can studying up on what's available so that when you do ask for help, you ask the right questions. If you ask the wrong questions, even correct answers are likely to do damage, because they'll lead you off in the wrong direction. Slow and steady may not always win the race, but at least you won't go broke so fast that you won't have time to change course.
There was a time, let's call it the Happy Days era, when the publishing business was all about selling new books to libraries and schools. Since then, it's gotten a lot more competitive, and while schools and colleges still make up a huge market, selling to libraries has become a less attractive business model for most publishers. The last thirty years or so have seen the publishing industry increasingly dependent on the whims of the great unwashed, with our transient fancies and questionable tastes.
Many of the same books that are still purchased by libraries are also sold through supermarkets and mass merchandisers. To the victor belongs the spoiled lettuce. The "real" book markets for publishers who aren't manufacturing bestselling novels or political fluff posing as dialogue are the booksellers. All three of them. While that might be a bit of an exaggeration, Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon do dominate the bookselling scene in this country in a way that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. Every year I update my write-up of the big three from their annual reports (all three are public companies), and every year, Amazon is the fastest grower. But that's all dollars and cents stuff; what I want to talk about here is virtual shelf space.
I've been running a little experiment this week, perhaps one of the slowest weeks of the summer, watching the sales rank of an orphan title decay on Amazon. By an orphan title, I mean a book that sold one copy last year (I know, I bought it), and hasn't sold a copy since. The current rank of that book is 3,594,630, but it's the decay rate that's of interest. Ninety-six hours ago, the rank was 3,577,657, so it's been falling at just under 4,250 points per day. Since a year has gone by since the book was last purchased, all of the books that sell on a regular basis, even those selling two copies a year, have long since passed it. The only things pushing it down at this point are titles that haven't sold for over a year or titles that have never sold on Amazon before.
I decided to wave my hands at the math and say, adjusting for the fact we're in the low season and that a book that sold one copy more than a year ago isn't much more likely to sell a copy than one that never sold at all, every day Amazon is selling 4,000 more titles for the first time. That's about 1.4 million titles a year. Of that total, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 are probably new titles. The rest, over a million of them, are books that have gone out-of-print and which are only listed in the Amazon catalog thanks to imported laundry lists of ISBN's and Third Party Sellers.
I wish Amazon would break out the percentage of Third Party items it sells that are sold in North America, and if I get two wishes, the percentage of those items that are books would be nice as well. Based on their current numbers, I could make the argument, if everything tilted the right way, that about one out of three book purchases on the Amazon site are being sold by Third Party vendors. If the proportion of Marketplace sales is much higher in the U.S. than abroad, that number could easily approach one out of every two books they sell. It makes me wonder if the future of publishing is in self publishing used books
Just for a change, I'm going to talk about how I write a book with no heavy-handed advice about doing it for a living. I already covered that in my post about writing a commercially viable book. All I'm going to address here is how to start writing a book with a reasonable chance that you'll actually finish it and have something that a jury of your peers would acknowledge as a book manuscript. So, if you normally read this blog for the self publishing business advice, just skip to the next entry.
I was one of those horrible book worm types as a kid, read two novels a day when I should have been chasing girls, and I always thought that writing books would be easy for me. When I was in my late teens, working as a security guard at night, I figured I'd knock out my first novel just for practice. I don't think I ever completed a chapter, despite having plenty of free time at work, for which I was getting paid minimum wage. I would sit down with a vague idea for a science fiction story and write:
"John said to Mary..."
After a paragraph or two, I'd run out of conversation and look back to see that what I'd written was garbage. After a few nights of this I gave up. Fast forward to my second job out of college, where to support the high-tech start-up I was working for, I got stuck writing technical manuals for the contract that was paying all of our bills. I turned out to be pretty good at that since, in a sense, technical manuals write themselves. You sit with the product and try option A, then you write what option A did. Monkey see, monkey write. Oddly enough, I took writing the best quality manual I could seriously, and then I ended up doing all the pre-press work in 1.0 version Ventura Publisher. It was buggy software. I believe that's the closest I've come to having a nervous breakdown at work.
It wasn't until I was 30 and decided that I really wanted to try writing as a career that took another shot at fiction. I saved up some money, went to Jerusalem for the winter, and started writing everybody I could think of letters about everything that came to mind. Eventually, I expanded into little sketches, and finally I started trying to write short stories. Oddly enough, in the first complete short story I wrote, I found myself using some imagery from the old mill buildings where I'd first tried writing back in my security guard days.
However, my attempts at a novel failed again and again, usually within the first couple chapters. I was talking about it to a friend of mine who happened to be stopping by for lunch today, and he asked me to tell him the plot.
And I thought I already knew how to write a book! That night I sat down at the local coffee shop and sketched out a 20 chapter outline on a napkin, just a sentence or two per chapter, and two months later I had a bad novel written. I really wish I'd saved that napkin. The plot changed a few times as I wrote, but I kept at it four hours a day, really four hours a night since I tended to write from around midnight to 4:00 a.m. being a real Bohemian wanna-be. I think it ended up around 70,000 words.
I soon got over my dream of writing fiction (hunger set in) and I took that great plot advice to nonfiction, where a plot is called an outline. I don't write those college style outlines with Roman numerals, upper and lower case letters, etc. I just write as many one phrase or one sentence subjects as I think I want to include on a piece of paper (scraps are traditional), and then rewrite the sheet with the subjects grouped into chapters. I usually find at this point that I've lost a few brilliant ideas due to my inabilility to make out my own handwriting. If I look at the outline at this point and realize there's not enough there to justify writing a book, I either give up or try to rethink the whole thing. This helps explain why I haven't written a new book since 2004.
Beyond the fact that it really helps to have a plot or an outline before you start writing, the only real trick is discipline. I can't give you advice about how to juggle your life so you can write a book while working a full time job because I never have. I started writing while living on savings, after which I'd work when I had to and write when I had a little in the bank. I need to write about four hours a day to maintain momentum and finish a book; it's just not something I can do with stolen minutes here and there. I don't have to spend the whole four hours actually typing away at the computer, but there's research, jotting down ideas, and thinking about the next step, all of which counts. And to repeat the warning at the start of this post, if you want to do this for a living, writing a book isn't the starting point. Determining what you can write that has the best chance of paying for your time is the first step.
The business of publishing is all about intellectual property. When new authors and publishers talk about protecting their work, they are usually referring to copyright protection or trademarks, but there's another type of protection that often gets forgotten. In the software trade, it's called version or configuration control, and it's a combination of back-up regimen and carefully identifying what you've saved. It's just as important for publishers to maintain version control, which I'll illustrate with a couple examples.
Even the largest trade publishers make plenty of mistakes, so they often ask the author to carefully read a published book from the first print run so they can fix any typos that got past all the pre-press checks for later printings. I found a number of such typos in the last edition of a book I author for McGraw-Hill, and sent them in. The errors were fixed in the second printing, but reappeared in a later printing. Since that book went through a dozen printings, I didn't check them all, but it was clear that either somebody at McGraw-Hill lost track of which file was which, or they were using a couple different printers who had different versions of the files.
The next two examples are from my self publishing experiences. I used a contract designer for my first couple self published books because I lacked the confidence to do it myself. With the second book he designed for me, he took it upon himself to do a little proofreading as he did the layout, right in Quark. The result is that I don't have a Word file with the exact text of my published book! I don't know if he found some genuine typos or was tweaking my writing style in tiny ways to suit his fancy, but it's darn annoying not having the exact text should I want to do a new edition.
Another example is this three foot square poster I generated three years ago from flowcharts in another book of mine. About a year after I published it, I saw some bits I wanted to update, but I couldn't find the original vector drawing. I went through all of my back-up CDs, searched the hard drives of the computers I was using at that time, to no avail. Apparently, when I was cleaning up not long after publishing the poster, I deleted the original drawing! Here I'm writing CD's on a regular basis to protect my work, and I managed to lose the original, so it can't be updated without a great deal of work.
Besides recording CD's several times a year with all of my working files, I'm very careful about saving works in progress every day I write. My favorite method is to e-mail the working file as an attachment to my Yahoo! account, and letting several days worth build up there before I start deleting the oldest. That way, you don't just get an offsite copy of the work that you can access from any Internet connected computer, you also get several clearly dated versions so you can revert to an older copy if you make some horrendous formatting error that's too labor intensive to correct. I also use my own website to publish draft versions of my writing as I go along. It's a great way to get feedback before you publish and to start building traffic that will help promote the published book.
In summary, copyright is important, but you generally don't register a copyright until you arrive at your best version of a work, so protecting that work during the creative process is also key. I may even do the e-mail attachment thing twice in a day if I'm working hard. Keeping copies on your hard drive for version control is OK, but it's not protecting you from fire, theft or hardware failure, so you're just asking to have to start writing the whole book again from the beginning.
Here's a question I get in lots of variations: "How Many Books Does An Author Need To Sell ..." where the "..." can be:
To make a living
To have a bestseller
To get speaking engagements
To get a big trade contract
To get translation requests
and so on. I can answer all of those questions with two words:
Take the first question - How many books do I need to sell to make a living? It depends on how much you net from each copy sold. If you're a trade author or subsidy published rather than a self publisher, you'll get a much smaller share of the net than the 50% or so that I get. It also depends on what you call a living. Most of the self publishers I know who publish books as their sole income net between $5.00 and $10.00 per book, so to make $50,000 per year, they need to sell from 5,000 to 10,000 copies. On the other hand, as a trade author, my average net per book was around $1.25. I needed the book to sell around 40,000 copies a year to make the same money I earn selling about 5,000 books a year as a self publisher.
The second question - How many sales are needed to be a bestselling author? It depends on who's handing out the accolade, the genre, the season, and the sales rate. Most bestseller lists are about sales rate, rather than total sales, and sales vary widely by season. In sector books, the "bestselling" label is usually a relative measure, comparing the book with the competition. I can claim that I wrote a bestselling trade book because McGraw-Hill put "By the best-selling author" on the cover of my last title. It meant they were pretty happy with the previous edition, but I'm not aware of any strict quantitative test. Anybody can be an Amazon bestseller for a day by selling a couple hundred books, but who cares? Having a bestselling sector book on Amazon is even easier. They have so many sub-sectors that selling a couple copies a day for a few months is often enough.
The third question - How many books do you need to sell to get speaking engagements? You don't have to sell any books to get speaking engagements, you have to be good at self promotion or have a hard working publicist. I probably get more invitations to speak from my website than from my books, not that it matters since I don't accept any of them. I'm in the publishing business to sell books, not to sell myself. When it comes to public speaking bona fides, unless you're talking about real fame, it's probably more important to author several related books that add up to X sales than to author one title that sells X by itself.
The fourth question - How many self published books do you have to sell to get trade contract offers? It depends on how visible those sales are, whether or not the book appears to have "legs" and the publisher in question. Most trades would probably give your book a look if you achieve low five-figure unit sales self publishing and if the title fits their overall list. Plenty of trades would be impressed by anything over a thousand unit sales, provided they don't think the audience is limited to a couple thousand readers. The visibility is key also. If your book sits on top of an Amazon sector list for a few months, you may start hearing from trades even if you've only sold a couple hundred copies to get there. It depends on whether or not an editor happens to watch the Amazon lists in their genre and whether they are on the hunt for new titles.
Finally, how many copies does your book have to sell to get translated? If it's a trade book and they make an effort to sell the rights, you may get a translation in the works before it's even published in English. For self published books, it's all about visibility. I've received at least one request for each of my titles from publishers who wanted to translate them without their even inquiring about my sales. The requests were based on Amazon bestseller sorts, Internet visibility, and at least in one case, on overseas purchase of a book by somebody with a publisher connection who recommended it to them.
In cases where you are pitching your book to a trade or trying to promote yourself as an expert, the number of sales is less important than the quality of your pitch. Selling is hard work, you can't expect your book to go out there and do it for you. There's also something to be said for timing. If you author a book about a new trend before it takes off, you might become the expert by default. If you wait until there are twenty books published on the subject, it's much harder to break through the noise.
Authors are from Pluto. I speak with, correspond with, and simply encounter in the wild far more authors than publishers and a healthy percentage of them are out there. Mental problems start with not knowing what you want (I'm an expert in this field:-) and most authors haven't even asked themselves the question. I primarily talk with authors who are interested in self publishing, and the first question I normally ask them is, "Do you want to be a businessman?" If you don't want to be in business, don't go into the publishing business. If all you want is to see a manuscript that's been turned down by the Martians a hundred times in print, pay a subsidy press a few hundred dollars to print it and get on with your life. If you want to be famous, mingle with the "quality", have beautiful young people in thrall, you better stick with the big trades. You also better stick with novels unless you're a college professor and already have the adulation of a captive audience. A typical photo of an author from Pluto below:
When you're a self publisher, you win the bonus prize of having to act as your own acquisitions editor. If you want to make a living, you have to be that jerk who rejects your manuscript because it's not commercial. If you're smart and don't suffer from multiple personalities, you'll do the market research and make that decision before you sit down and start writing. It's supposed to be a business, not a horror movie. The publishing industry is not the three headed monster so many outsiders make it out to be. It's actually a three tongued monster, one that is more interested lapping up the dollars out of your wallet than eating your children. Occasionally, though, the publishing industry does go after a kid for variety:
If publishers are from Mars and authors are from Pluto, readers are from everywhere. I doubt there's a country with a major population from which I haven't received an e-mail about something or other that I've written. In fact, I seem to get a large number of e-mails from some rather small countries where the readers were so enthralled that they want to go into the banking business with me! English is probably as close to a universal language as the planet has had since pre-Babel days, but translation opportunities abound for both authors and publishers alike. I figure the majority of the worlds population can read one of my books in their native language, since I've had translations in Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Russian. I even had a book translated to Farsi, though the Iranian publisher neglected to pay for the privilege. Ironically, the language I've never been published in is the one I've did a whole book of translations from, Hebrew. Readers are indeed everywhere, except Jerusalem:
I originally signed up with Blogger for the same reason I get started with most things - it was free and easy. In the year I've been blogging about self-publishing, I've noticed that the archived posts drew far less traffic than similar length articles on related topics that I've posted in plain old HTML. As I look around at the blogs of very successful bloggers, including Matt Cutts of Google (which owns Blogger) I've noticed that many of them use Wordpress blogging software. Maybe that has to do with the relatively heavy code Blogger produces, the peak period outages, or fairly clunky interface. I can deal with usability issues, but I worry that the Blogger generated pages are costing me visitors.
Yesterday, I began manually de-blogging some of my posts from last year, including my original post about publishing online with Blogger! I suppose it might have been more efficient to view the previously published posts online and cut and paste them into new files, but I took the path less traveled by - Notepad. I edited the raw code in Notepad, moving the content to a simple table format, and line editing to get rid of the oddball formatting. The de-blogged posts came out less than half the size in bytes than the Blogger generated originals, so there certainly was quite a bit of overhead. Time will tell if that overhead was hurting the pages’ ranking.
Traffic aside, I do have some other concerns about relying on blogging for book promotion. For one thing, blogs are really designed to attract repeat visitors in a blogosphere of related sites. The problem with repeat visitors is that they are unlikely to buy your book (if you only have one) over and over again. You might get a big kick-off if your blog is very popular and you publish a book, but for steady book promotion over time, you want organic search engine traffic. Another issue I have with blogs is the increasing use of RSS feeds. If I wanted the pressure of writing a new post every day for fear of losing my "readership" I'd be a salaried journalist. I'm also not crazy about some of the places blog feeds end up. In addition, it's very tempting for an author with a blog to start shooting off in all directions, and the resulting readership may not have any interest in the books. Lastly, I have a theory that the overly specific nature of archived post file names actually hurts in the search engines.
I'm somewhat guilty of going off the reservation myself as I find myself writing more and more about the publishing industry and less about self publishing and print-on-demand. This blog is actually the successor to my old "Cornered Writers" page which had more to do with the ups and downs of being a trade author than about self publishing. I suppose it's also possible that I'm just running out of things to say again, happens every few months. On the bright side, I have a bad memory so I can come back in a few months and repeat all the same stuff thinking that it's new. In any case, I'm not sure how far I'll go with this de-blogging effort because it's a ton of work and my mouse arm is getting sore.
Republishing books with expired copyrights is usually the first idea every publisher who learns about print-on-demand thinks of trying. It seems like a no brainer, the content is both free and, to an extent, proven, but there is the little problem of it being so obsolete that it probably won't sell unless you choose and market the title very intelligently. But thinking about it, who doesn't have a relative who's holding onto their clothes from the 1950's, insisting that fashions repeat themselves? When it comes to cookbooks, whole foods and organic farming have become quite the craze in recent decades. Now it seems to me that whole foods and organic farming were the rule a hundred years ago, so republishing old cookbooks may make a lot of sense for both nostalgia and practical marketing purposes.
Before you republish a cookbook, you want to make sure it is indeed in the public domain, that the copyright has expired and hasn't been renewed. The rule of thumb is that copyright protection has expired for books published before
There may be a liability issue in terms of providing harmful recipes. "Take ye one Pound of lard, not rancid, add to skillet on well stoked stove. Next add ten Pound of well aged venison, taken after the Chestnut season for flavour. Finish with two measures of good corn whiskey aged in Oak." That recipe for "Deere Steak" is obviously off the top of my head, but I can imagine similar formulas in an old cookbook that could cause a heck of a kitchen fire if the reader lacks 19th century sensibilities.
One of the most attractive aspects of republishing old cookbooks from the print-on-demand publishers perspective is they are highly unlikely to contain any color illustrations. Old black and white line drawings can be scanned and reproduced, or you might do your own original artwork to have something in the book that's copyrightable. By the same token, notes and explanations that you add, like what temperature an electric stove should be set to when the cookbook calls for "exceedingly hot" are original and can be copyrighted. Likewise, you could edit up a collection of old recipes from a variety of cookbooks with expired copyrights.
Since today is exceedingly hot, and I'm just a ten minute walk from the Smith College Library, I'm going to stroll over there this afternoon and see what they have for old cookbooks. I used to think that republishing books with expired copyrights was the last refuge of a scoundrel. Maybe it is, but I haven't published a new book in two years now, so it's about time I tried something new just to keep in practice. Besides, I'm down to eating peanut butter sandwiches and tuna sandwiches on alternating days, so it's about time I read a cookbook. I'll be depressed if they all start out with, "First, buy ye some monosodium glutamate."
I thought I'd go with the folksy Barnes ‘n Noble spelling in this post to accent the point that they aren't just another neighborhood bookstore. According to their last quarterly filing, they are now up to 684 of the big stores for a total of 17.1 million square feet. That's about 60% of a square mile worth of bookstore, or about
Barnes & Noble is also in the book publishing business, primarily through their Sterling Publishing subsidiary, which has passed 5,000 titles with several hundred new titles appearing every year. That's makes them a large trade publisher. Sterling specializes in "books for enthusiasts," which is another way of saying, books with predictable demand. That means the folks running Barnes & Noble are pretty smart. Their annual report makes clear that almost 50% of their books comes from their top five suppliers, probably a couple of the biggest trade publishers, plus Ingram and maybe another distributor or wholesaler, where the largest of the five suppliers provide about 14% of their books.
Since Barnes & Noble is the biggest retail bookstore chain, many self publishers believe this is the nut they have to crack. With one of the largest book warehousing operations in the world, Barnes & Noble says they maintain regular B2B ordering relationships with over 1,700 publishers, which covers a pretty good share of the commercially viable trade publishing universe. The vast majority of self published books purchased by Barnes & Noble are probably obtained through the 20 or so wholesalers and distributors they do business with. They've occasionally ordered a book direct through us, which we're happy to provide because they pay for shipping. But for the main part, they draw our titles directly from Lightning Source or Ingram.
What got me going on Barnes & Noble today and their success in replicating (publishing) a successful bookstore model all over the country was seeing a popular financial show covering them in the context of Amazon and Borders. While I follow Amazon extensively, I think I've been in a Borders just once in my life, and I've had customers report problems with ordering my self published titles through Borders. Barnes & Noble, much like Amazon, is focused on growth and plans to open another 30 to 40 stores this year. That's about a 5% growth rate in stores coming from the chain that's already #1.
If I were to go nuts and return to offset printing and drop print-on-demand, I would make Barnes & Noble stocking my primary goal. My preference would be to deal direct with their warehouse, whatever the requirements. Going through one of those 20 odd distributors means giving up 55% or 65% of the cover price and accepting returns that have been shipped so many times they probably aren't salable as new. Distributors also tend to manage their inventory in a manner most advantageous to them, which can result in extra shipping and handling expenses for you, not to stocking requirements you may not want to finance. The main downside to playing with the big boys, like Barnes & Noble or Amazon, is that you may find that your whole business is dependent on the continuation of the relationship. That's easy to say, but it's not just painful if it goes wrong, it's potentially deadly.