Publishing Business Data And Records

I've been on a little spending binge for the 2007 tax year, which got me thinking about record keeping and data collection. Most publishers who succeed in business are pretty good about record keeping, primarily for tax reasons. When you're publishing as a business, all of your publishing related expenses can be deducted from your gross income before paying your taxes, provided you keep reasonable enough records to prove those expenses. I save receipts and keep a travel log for the car, and I run 100% of my publishing income through my business checking account. With online access to historical records, it's made tax time a lot easier.

Anybody who's seen my Amazon Sales Rank analysis or retail publishing sales statistics knows I'm a bit of a data freak. What I'm not a fan of is data entry. I've never cared for spreadsheets, they strike me as a slippery slope that destroys the context for data and leads to fundamental errors in analysis. My routine is to archive transient records daily, which helps me maintain the discipline to check them. This routine means I'm never more than 24 hours away from spotting a problem with distribution, discounts or availability. The transient records I archive are the daily Ingram iPage sales and demand reports, and an Amazon snapshot taken through Aaron Shepard's SalesRankExpress.

In addition to the transient data, I check my Amazon Associates orders on a daily basis. While the numbers over the short term lack statistical significance, checking every day builds up a fluency in how sales flow, and the relationship between website visitors and sales. I'm going to have to beg your indulgence with the production quality of this little video showing my daily data collection routine. I recorded directly off the LCD with my Flip Cam rather than using software capture, because I wanted voice-over and I don't own a microphone!

I don't save Amazon Associates records on a regular basis because they retain them them going back to 2002. Somewhere on my hard drive I have saved all my Associates sales records from 1997 through 2002 for my old website, though I'd hate to have to find it. If I see the 2002 year go away after New Years, I'll start archiving that information on an annual basis as well. The part of my routine that I didn't show in the video is checking the usage statistics for my website, something that I also do on a daily basis. Again, the daily checks promote fluency in understanding how the website is functioning, and dovetail nicely with the information from the orders reports.

If the only record keeping you do is for tax purposes, you're missing out. There have been several occasions over the past ten years where the recording of transient reports has allowed me to demonstrate to the existence of problems higher up in the food chain that would have been dismissed as fanciful without the data. Nobody in the publishing industry is going to give you the time of day because you "seem to remember that it used to be different." It's also important for me to have a check on my own memory, especially when it comes to optimizing my sales approach or trying to figure out whether or not the sky is falling.

The Secret To Self Publishing Success

Many of my friends and not a few strangers have suggested that I'd make a good teacher. But I have a problem with the fundamental teacher's moto - "There's no such thing as a stupid question." I get stupid questions all of the time, primarily from people who can't be bothered to read the very page they claim to be asking a question about. But the king of the stupid publishing questions is the request to be let in on the secret. I suppose that our media drenched conspiracy theory world has encouraged the idea that it all comes down to who you know, but looking for a conspiracy in self publishing is pushing things too far. Self publishers don't have anybody to conspire with!

The secret to publishing success is that there aren't any secrets. Like any other business startup it takes a lot of hard work, some good ideas, and reasonable timing. Writing strangers and asking them to be let in on the secret doesn't qualify as a good idea. What's more, if you think I could write over three hundred posts to this self publishing blog without revealing everything I know about the subject, you've got more faith in my depth of knowledge than I do. All I'm trying to do at this point is to space out my endless repetitions:-)

But I still get e-mails and blog comments from people who think, for example, you have to know somebody to get your book listed on Amazon. There's no secret to getting your book listed on Amazon, and there must be a half dozen ways to do it by this point. You can join Amazon Advantage if you're small, or set up a direct relationship if you are very large. You can list anything you want in Marketplace, or you can have books printed by one of Amazon's two publishing companies, CreateSpace or Booksurge. Or, you can have your book printed by a company that has an Amazon relationship, like Lightning Source or Replica. Or you can place your books with a distributor who has a relationship with Amazon, which is most of them.

Figuring out a way to get your self published book on Amazon isn't the challenge. Choosing the best way is the challenge. Unless your publishing business is entirely focused on selling books on Amazon, there are trade-offs involved in any of the choices above. The Advantage program requires a 55% discount and you pay the shipping, and getting into Amazon by way of a distributor will cost even more. Both Lightning Source and Replica allow short discount access to Amazon, and in Marketplace, the pricing is entirely in your hands. CreateSpace and Booksurge have standard deals you have to agree to, their printing costs are also higher than you'd pay through Lightning Source. But the bottom line is that aren't any secrets involved in self publishing. If anything, there's too much information and it tends to confuse newcomers until they get a little real experience under their belts.

Publisher Income vs Royalties or Residuals

New self publishers, who have previously worked as authors or who have studied up on publishing from the author's perspective, often confuse income with royalties. Authors work for royalties, and the much sought after advances authors receive are advances on royalties, i.e., an up-front sum of money that will be deducted from the future royalty payments the author would otherwise receive. A book is said to have paid-out if the author actually receives any royalties in addition to the advance. I don't have any statistics on the subject, but I know of non-fiction authors who have written a dozen books without ever receiving a penny in royalties because they have never caught up with the advance payment.

Publishers don't get advances, they pay advances. When you are a self publisher, you are taking on all of the risk and working on spec (speculation). The income that you earn is regular Schedule C income, and it starts with the first book you sell. The expenses that you incurred in publishing the book are then accounted for against the income, and if you have more income than expenses at the end of year, you've made a profit on which you have to pay taxes, just like any other business. As a side note, neither the income earned by a publisher nor the royalties earned by an author are treated as "royalties" by the IRS, for whom royalties means earnings from oil-wells on your land or from the Broadway Musical that your grandfather wrote (I wish:-). If you're regularly employed in the creation of the revenue stream, it probably can't be counted as royalties, unless you die and leave it to somebody. The importance of the definition is that royalties aren't subject to self employment tax.

Now we come to residuals. I don't know if there's an official publishing definition for the term that everybody else abides by, but to me, residuals represent any income from books you've published in prior years that continue to pay long after you've earned back your expenses. Actors use the term residuals for ongoing money they receive for reruns of TV shows or commercials, long after they've been paid for the original work. The thing about residuals is that they can be a danger to the momentum of a new publisher. If the residuals reach the publisher's goal for income and remain there without the publication of new books, it can really take the wind out of your sails. It certainly took the wind out of mine.

I'm got to thinking about this specifically today as I'm staying by chance for two nights at a beach front hotel in Tel Aviv. I tried making a publishing video down by the ocean but the wind noise ruined the audio. The whole concept of living on the beach and wasting away in Margarita Ville always escaped me, but that's the ideal scenario for some writers. To achieve a level of residual income that allows for an endless round of hotels, restaurants, sunny beaches and loud disco bars, or all they trance bars now? All I know is I'm on the twelfth floor and I can hear the bass speakers thumping away to the wee hours of the morning, and I don't like it.

So I'm glad that my gross income as a publisher will be down this year, the first time in five years that it hasn't move up instead. The reason is simple, I haven't published a new book since 2004 and I spend most of my time working on projects that have little or no value for my publishing business. I like to think I haven't wasted the last three years, in the publishing sense. I've answered a couple thousand e-mails, written a few hundred blog posts and posted a half-hour worth of video. But without the goad of falling income, I'm not sure I could have put myself back to work. So remember that residuals can have a hidden cost on productivity, what the Fed would call a moral hazard (and then proceed to cut rates anyway:-)

Bestsellers And The Publishing Lottery Conception

The closest I've ever come (and ever plan to come) to a national bestseller list is a "Thank You" in the introduction of Chris Anderson's "The Long Tail." But I've made a living in publishing for the last ten years, first as a trade author, then as a self publisher. Thanks to some of my articles about Amazon, book sales, and this blog, I've enjoyed a large correspondence with literally thousands of authors and publishers. Or maybe it would be fairer to say I've conducted a large correspondence, it's not 100% enjoyable. Putting aside the loons and the authors who have the time to write multiple books but don't have the time to read a single article about publishing to the end, the most painful part of corresponding with unpublished authors is having to interpret their dreams. The most common dream, often hidden in a gauzy wrapping of serving mankind and changing the world, is to write a bestseller.

While I certainly encourage everybody to write the best book they can, writing the best book doesn't equate to winning a publishing lottery. Bestsellers share one common attribute that excludes most titles from even aspiring to a bestselling status, namely, they appeal to a heck of a lot of readers. I'm not going to pretend that I know how to create bestsellers, if I did, I'd have better things to to with my time than writing this crazy blog. But I think I have a pretty good feel for what books don't stand a chance of becoming bestsellers, unless they become the novelty title of the year that everybody buys and nobody reads. In eight years of corresponding with authors, the majority of titles I've heard described as potential bestsellers barely had a chance of selling beyond the author's immediate family.

Publishing is not a lottery. Unfortunately, the lottery conception has developed quite a following in the world as a sort of an equalizer, a chance for the little guy to compete with the big guy. In reality, lotteries are about a lot of little guys competing with a lot of other little guys with the proceeds going to create some upper middle-class jobs for relatives of politicians. But the conception of taking a chance and coming out trumps seems to dominate the dreams of unpublished authors in a destructive way. The belief that publishing is a lottery and a bestseller is the winning ticket leads authors to ignore the realities of the business and to excuse their own failures. I've also heard my share of conspiracy theories from authors who believe the world is suppressing their masterpiece for socio/political reasons. Trust me on this one. If a publisher thought they could make a profit on your book, they'd publish it.

I think the attraction of the bestseller lottery philosophy is that it absolves the author of all responsibility. Writing the book becomes the whole job, after which, success is supposed to be determined by a bunch of numbered ping-pong balls coming up in the right sequence. If writing books is your hobby or your quality time activity, more power to you, but if you're trying to start a self publishing company so you can earn a living, you're not going to make it. The big trade publishers employ acquisitions editors for a reason, and that reason is to pick out the commercial books. If you can't do that for yourself, your dreams are going to remain dreams.

Book Editing vs Blog Editing

I took a look at the Word statistics for the two files comprising the new book I'm working on his morning. I was pleased to see it already a good 25% over my idea of the ideal word count for the book, even though it's not finished yet. That means I'll be able to do some cutting myself before I hand it over to my editor, who will cut it some more. A big part of the book editing process is simply cutting out text that proves a distraction from the main theme or introduces an uneven feel to the quality of the writing. It's entirely possible to improve a book by no other process than cutting, but it's pretty hard to make a book better stuffing in new content.

Unlike some professional bloggers, those who work in teams or are the spokespeople for companies and organizations, I do my own blog editing. Now you understand why I employ an book editor to go over my books before publishing them. The only part of editing that I'm good at is the cutting, but cutting is the last thing a long form blogger needs when trying to make the word count for an installment. I do get regular editing suggestions from new readers, which I appreciate, sort of;-) I can't get excited about going back and fixing old blog entries, unless somebody points out a factual error.

I'm somewhat less amused by book editing suggestions from readers, though I try to learn from them. My problem isn't with having errors pointed out, it's with suggestions that go against the theme of the book. This bothers me because it makes me wonder if the reader got all the way through the book and entirely missed the point. In some instances, I know this is just due to people seeing the world through their own filter, but in other instances, it seems to be that an open-minded person can read everything I've written on a subject and not be convinced. As a self styled preacher of print-on-demand self publishing, I find that depressing.

That brings us back to book editing, and the question of focus. I've always found it entertaining to read my professor friends academic books and see them arguing with their own point of view. That's just part of the academic style; you're supposed to think up the possible objections to your position, quote sources supporting those objections, and then dispose of them in such a manner that convinces your readers not to run out and check the sources. The result is that most academic books end up introducing a few ideas and a lot of footnotes without helping anybody reach a conclusion.

That may sound noble, but you wouldn't want to buy a nonfiction book that purposes to explain something and ends up leaving you more confused then when you started. The cutting process in editing is where the author and editor can concentrate on making sure that the book says what the author believes, and doesn't just offer a safe survey of the field. It's also a chance for the author to revisit the text and say, "Maybe I don't quite know what I'm talking about here."

edited by MR

Statistical Significance Of Book Sales Online

Every once an a while, the sell through of one of my titles through Amazon Associates will dip to surprisingly low levels and make me wonder what I'm doing wrong. This often leads to actually doing something wrong, like making broad changes to the site or to my order page in order to "fix" the problem. I keep forgetting about statistical significance, probably because I got a "C" in Statistics in graduate school. I'm a great lover of stats, but in order for the numbers to have meaning, the sample size has to be large. For example, if you take a coin out of your pocket and flip it twice, there's a good chance you'll get the same result both times. If you redesign your business around this new found fact that a flipped coin always comes up on the same side, you're making a mistake.

It's easy to mistake noise in statistics for significant information. For example, the last ten days, the sales of my strongest title through Amazon Associates has been horrible, with a far below average sell-through of just over 4%. During the same ten day period last year, the sell-through was over 17%! It's tempting to pull up a copy of my site from the Internet Archive for last December and just replace my current version. Yet, if I compare Jan 1st to December 10th 2006 vs 2007, I find that the overall 2006 sell through was 9.44% and the overall 2007 sell through has been 10.25%. Whatever changes I made during the year, my Associates sell through for the title is up around by about 10%, though I haven't computed the margin of error for the sample size.

The difference between random noise and statistics is this. The ten day sample from 2006 was based on 58 click throughs to Amazon, and the ten day sample from 2007 was based on 73 click throughs. The Jan 1st to December 10th sample was based on 2,745 click throughs for 2006 and 2,858 click throughs for 2007. The larger sample is statistically significant, the smaller isn't. Just for fun, I went back and looked at 2005. The sell through for the 10 day period that year was just 2.74% (and I have no doubt I panicked) while the sell through for Jan 1st to Dec 10th 2005 was 10.34%.

So, I hope I've reminded both you and myself not to get excited about statistics based on small sample sizes, and certainly not to rush into altering your book sales platform based on such short term information. What's really sad is how often I fall into this trap. A quick Google search shows that I wrote about this subject in a post about publisher failures at online marketing just this past March. And this from a guy who is known for writing about book sales statistics!

The Publisher's New Website

I suppose everybody remembers the story of the emperor's new clothes, how an emperor was conned into walking naked through town wearing "invisible" clothing. The emperor was taken in because the con men explained that the clothes could only be seen by intelligent people who were competent to fill their posts. This led the king, his trusted advisors, and everybody else who heard the story to pretend they could see the clothing, so as not to appear stupid and unqualified.

Publishers spend a lot of money on new websites and occasional make-overs when the old website proves to be useless, but they rarely understand what they are paying for. They end up acting just like the emperor, who walked through town naked and even held his head high after a little boy pointed out he had nothing on. I have a lot of sympathy with people who are trying to learn something new and having trouble grasping the basics, but I have no sympathy for people who put on a show that they know what they are doing and assume that their money will compensate for their shortcomings.

The publisher's challenge, when setting up a new website or embarking on a major redo of an existing website, is deciding what its purpose will be. A publisher who counts on a web designer to design a publishing business website is a fool. What do web designers know about the publishing business? It would be like a home building company hiring an interior decorator to build their model home. A professional designer might have some useful suggestions when it comes to tweaking the aesthetics or the usability, but the business structure and content of the website has to come from the publisher.

Another problem I've seen publishers run into is building a website based on their ideal business goals, rather than tying it in to the reality of their current publishing business. Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to create a new website that looks like an ideal business model than to create a publisher website that will actually generate business and profits. The aesthetics and the mission statements are the easy part. Attracting customers to buy books and the media attention that translates into free public relations is the hard part. Most publishers rely on the opinions of their friends and of the very people they are paying to design the website, and don't even realize they've failed until a small boy points from the crowd and say, "Nobody goes to that website and their books don't sell!"

So here's the video publishing lecture of the week from Moe Two Times:

Register That Copyright

Most writers today at least recognize the name Tasini from the Supreme Court's Tasini opinion, which confirmed that writers of articles used in electronic databases without their permission had some right to recourse. For a brief write-up, see Tasini Case Final Decision - Authors Win.

But apparently some of the writers weren't happy with the class action settlement that was eventually determined in the lower courts, and pressed forward with the case. That's when a fatal flaw appeared and they got the 411 on copyright law. Apparently, not all of the works included in the class action had registered copyrights, whether before or after the infringements, and registration is a requirement for pursuing a case in Federal court.

The overall settlement of the suit had been around $18 million according to my lawyer, with the bulk of the money going to authors who had registered the copyrights. The authors without registered copyrights who felt they'd been short changed appealed the settlement, which the court of appeals vacated on the grounds that writers with unregistered copyrights should never have been included in the class action suit to start with! I'm told the defendants lawyers weren't even arguing this point. The judges, or at least, two out of three of the judges, came to this conclusion on their own.

So the moral of the story is to register your copyrights before joining a class action copyright suit, or, if you are part of a copyright suit as the owner of a registered copyright, don't let any writers with unregistered copyrights join you. It's unclear whether the plaintiffs with registered copyrights will want to go back and start the whole process all over again, but it is clear that the writers with unregistered copyrights have traded something for nothing.

Publishing Your First Book

I just moved into a new temporary apartment in Jerusalem, and due to a problem with the hot water, got stuck taking a cold shower. I'd forgotten how miserable a cold shower can be when you aren't taking it by choice. Many authors preparing to self publish their first book think it will be like jumping into a cold swimming pool; a momentary shock followed by rapid acclimatization and progress. Unfortunately, I think that for most authors, self publishing their first book is more like the unexpected cold shower - short intervals of misery and a sincere wish to just get it over with.

Just an hour or two ago I found myself replying to a question from a new publisher who was suffering from information overload. There's been so much written about self publishing with POD, in the media, on the web, in books and discussion groups, that it's possible to lose track of the most essential facts in a sea of contradictory opinions, some of which are written with a great deal of sincerity. It's extremely difficult for an authors with no publishing industry experience to figure out which approach is applicable their specific situation, not to mention which approaches are merely come-ons from people trying to sell them a service.

The best way to approach information overload when preparing to publish your first book is to assume that everybody is out to pick your pocket. You'll learn more about publishing by doing a little Internet research on what their angle is, how they plan profit off your savings, than you'll learn by listening to their opinions on publishing. When you find a business model where the company you are working with will only make money if you sell books, you'll have found a partner worth working with. Off the top of my head, that list would include Lightning Source, Replica, Amazon (CreateSpace, not Booksurge), companies that can get your books in print for a trivial set-up fee, and which don't pretend they can do anything to help you sell them. Selling books is your job, as the publisher.

The reason I don't include offset printers in this list, even though they are usually honest players, is because they get their money in one chunk, up-front, and it makes no difference to their business if your books sells or are recycled. With Lightning Source, Replica and CreateSpace, their set-up fees probably cover the actual set-up cost, and a little overhead. They don't make a profit by simply getting new books in the system. It's when those books sell they make money.

But the majority of authors I hear from really have no interest in going into the publishing business. They just want to get a book printed and made available on Amazon or through special orders from customers at retail stores. For that I recommend choosing a subsidy press that doesn't claim any rights to the book, but don't pay a dime for any service beyond publication, which should be $500 or less. I can't tell you how many times authors have sent me glowing descriptions of this or that service which they've cut-and-pasted right off the site of the company selling that service. If you believe that kind of advertising, you've got a number of cold showers waiting for you, and your first book will likely be your last.

Budget Your Book Publishing Process

First-time authors and small publishers whose hearts are pure and whose motives are saintly assume that the whole publishing process works on trust and everybody is happy. The truth is, the publishing process works on contracts and most of the players aren't happy unless they are taking pills. But newbies to the business are almost afraid to ask about the price, either for fear that it will expose their lack of experience or because they think it's just not done that way. In consequence, I hear from plenty of new publishers who blow their whole production budget on a cover design or an edit, and who have nobody to blame but themselves.

I've never heard of a publisher ordering up a print run of books without inquiring what they will cost, but that seems to be the only production cost some new publishers include in their book budget. The most I've spent on the complete book publishing process (not including printing) is around $2,000, the least was around $400, when I did everything myself, except for a light edit and the proofreading. I know a couple self publishers who are capable of doing the whole job themselves, including proofreading, but first time publishers should at least run their text by an outside editor to get an opinion on suitability for publication. Whatever work you decide to contract out, be it editing, design, legal work or even (please don't) publicity, make sure you agree to the scope of work and the price up front.

I've never done a fancy written contract for work I outsource, but I always get the basic terms in writing by e-mail. I don't know that this has any more legal value than a verbal contract, but at least it's better than arguing whose memory is better. If you agree on a flat rate for a job, make sure you agree on a schedule as well. Publishers who just assume that an outside contractor will work on a job full-time until it's done are in for a disappointment. If the book production schedule isn't drawn up by experienced professionals and agreed upon, it's unlikely to be kept.

Your main budget items for producing a self published book will be the editing, interior layout, cover design and proofreading. If you are doing your own layout and cover design and using print-on-demand to avoid up-front printing costs, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to bring the book in for under $2000. But what's more important than the final cost itself is how that cost fits your business model and your budget. If you've done your homework, you should have a realistic idea of how many books you can hope to sell over a couple years, and how much profit you can expect per book based on your distribution and production costs. If you budget more money for the publishing process than you can realistically earn back in profits, you aren't running a business. The goal isn't to break even, it's to come out ahead and earn a living. So don't dig yourself a deep hole by operating without a budget or identifying your costs before you incur them.

And that's the theme of today's publishing video:

Amazon Kindle Best Textbook Replacement?

Fourteen years ago I wrote a short story about an e-book reader that changed the way people read. Today Amazon finally released Kindle, and the name makes me wonder if they read my story. The Kindle is more than an e-book reader, it's really a wireless appliance for reading text. You can buy e-book versions of popular titles, subscribe to newspapers, magazines and blogs, and the only reason I can see that they don't grant full web access is that it's not in the current business model. All of the purchasing and downloads occur over the cellular network, but without and fees or subscription plans. All the costs are in the selling price. Amazon does include access to Wikipedia as well.

The Kindle, if the electronic ink reading experience holds up, comes very close to what is needed to replace school textbooks. At 10 ounces, it represents a huge savings in children's vertebrae, not to mention trees. While it doesn't support color, color is one of the worthless enhancements to textbooks that add cost rather than educational value. I'm routing for the Kindle to succeed and for future models to be adopted by the public schools. The price is no barrier, given the current cost of textbooks, and will only fall with time. I would buy a kindle today if I wasn't leaving for Israel tomorrow, where the service isn't (yet) available. I'm not going to do anything really crazy like buying Amazon stock, but I think they might have gotten the thing right.

Amazon is now inviting publishers to sign up for their Digital Text Platform in order to publish, well, text. As I've often whined on this blog, I lost $500 a month when Amazon stopped selling my Lightning Source provided e-books, so you'd think I'd be jumping in with both feet. Currently, there are a few obstacles. First, the royalty deal is 35% of the net to the publisher, or about $5 on a $15 book. That's quite a come-down from the 75% of the net I used to earn. Secondly, the market doesn't exist yet, just a few Beta Kindle users out there. Thirdly, they strongly recommend submitting the texts in HTML, which means a reasonable amount of optimizing work.

I would have thought they'd have made the publisher terms a little more attractive, at least initially, in order to benefit from small publishers and authors pushing Kindle adoption, the way Associates helped Amazon grow in the early years. It could be they feel they have all the critical mass they need with the NYT Bestseller list, or they think the sticker price is too high for a single title to drive a customer purchase. In the meantime, the customer reviews by people who have never held one of the things much less bought one is running strongly against. I suspect they'll turn around soon when Amazon gets past the debate about what it "could have been" and actual buyers report on what it is.

Publishing A New Edition Of Published Book

A number of authors have written me recently about self publishing a book they've written for another publisher. Whether that other publisher is a trade press or a subsidy press, the one thing that remains constant is that the book contract defines what you can and cannot do without inviting legal action. It's not who wrote the book or who filed the copyright that defines who has the right to publish the work, it's the contract. In most cases, book contracts do give authors the ability to regain the rights to a work under certain conditions, ranging from simple notification for an ethical subsidy press, to being declared out-of-print and approval of a written request for many trades.

The next question that comes up from authors who have regained the rights to their work is, "Do I have to change the title?" Publishers buy and sell the rights to books all of the time, and especially when it comes to the classics, changing the title is out of the question. But to reduce confusion for the reading public and book collectors, an edition name or number is often added, sometimes as a subtitle. I'm a fan of doing this just so a reader who may own or have read a previous edition won't be disappointed when the book they receive in the mail doesn't exactly match what they expected. There may also be trademark issues involved, and it's unlikely the author would gain rights to cover art that was paid for by the publisher. If you haven't reached an iron-clad agreement with the previous publisher as to what you can and can't do with the new edition, I'd strongly getting legal advice from a publishing attorney.

Another question that comes up quite a bit is whether a publisher is required to create a new edition with a new ISBN number when making minor updates to a book. There are no laws I'm aware of governing how publishers must manage edition numbers, and it's certainly the norm to do minor corrections to a book without releasing a new edition. Major corrections or edits may result in a revised edition, and updates are generally given new edition numbers. Generally speaking, publishers welcome the chance to update nonfiction works and create a whole new edition with a new ISBN number, as it raises the possibility of repeat sales. It's not necessary to release a new edition just to change the price

I'm somewhat on the fence when it comes to making substantial changes to books to keep them up-to-date without publishing a new edition for marketing reasons, especially as relates to Amazon. I understand the argument of the authors of published books who want to keep them more current than is practical with releasing new editions, even with print-on-demand, but it does create problem for buyers of the second hand books which account for a large chunk of Amazon sales. If a potential buyer reads a review praising a book for its up-to-date instructions for doing X, but there's another version of the book available with the same ISBN number, cover design, etc, that has out-of-date instructions for doing X, it's a problem.

One potential solution would be to use the author tools on Amazon, such as the blog, to try to keep potential buyers informed of updates and to advise them against buying used copies for that reason. I don't know where Amazon would stand on that approach. Another possibility would be to date stamp the book in the cover design or through a subtitle change. While this might raise some eyebrows at publishers locked into large offset runs, the world does move forward from time to time, and the combination of print-on-demand technology with computer cataloging systems certainly makes it practical. At least for online sales, inserting "Updated 11/07" at the start of the subtitle is probably the best bet, and if it became standardized, we could probably drop the "updated" and just go with the month/year. Unfortunately, the current ISBN centric system would lead to used copies be listed with the new subtitle, but at least the potential buyer would be forewarned. If the date code was added to the cover design in a little white circle on the spine or cover, it would serve for bookstore books as well. Of course, publishers with serious bookstore stocking would avoid such intra-edition updates at all costs for fear of getting swamped in returns. Just another reason to consider print-on-demand:-)

Book Business Partnerships

One of the "benefits" of writing a publishing blog is that I'm frequently contacted by people who want to go into business with me. Some of them have done their homework, some of them are writing on the spur of the moment. Ignoring the sillier propositions in the vein of, "Give me your money and time and we'll make a business with my unique idea", I'd estimate I get a well thought out proposition about once a month. So what's so bad about partnering up on a new business project that I haven't done it?

The majority of the serious proposals are invitations to join an individual or a group in launching a new publishing venture with print-on-demand. In these cases, the contributions requested from me in return for some equity position are expertise and marketing. I've gone more than a few steps down the path on a couple of these proposals where these business suitors have solid publishing bona-fides and express a sense of editorial direction. But they all stalled out when we get down to core business model issues and it turns out the proposed company would charge authors fees to offset risks, ie, subsidy publishing.

There are already plenty of subsidy publishers out there for authors to choose from if they've given up on getting a trade contract and don't want to start their own publishing business. It's not a business I have any interest in going into myself. I've tried to interest a couple of these potential entrepreneurs in a hybrid model, where the publisher uses POD technology but pays an advance and and largely functions like a standard trade publisher, with the exception of the marketing. The marketing efforts would largely be internet based with a view to building a solid stable of evergreen titles over time. Authors would also receive royalties on any direct website revenue from alternative monetization. In essence, it would be the self publishing model that I write about and which is being successfully used by authors all over the world, except titles would be acquired from authors of commercially viable titles who don't want to go into the self publishing business themselves.

And that's where these business partnership discussions always come to an end, because it turns out that most would be entrepreneurs are really interested in building their fortunes with other peoples money, the sure thing. I do see a new crop some small presses functioning more or less as I describe above, though many of them choose to pursue traditional marketing techniques to bypass the slow-build Internet book marketing process. I suppose one day I might gird up my loins and just undertake to do it myself, with employee help. But I lack the motivation to take on the administrative overhead and aggravation, and I have four half written books of my own I should be finishing. In summary, I just hope the next person who wants to kick the new publishing company ball around the room with me reads this post first and saves us both the time if it's the old subsidy press model. Trust me on this. You aren't gong to sneak it passed me by saving the little detail of author fees and no advance for the last minute:-)

Evergreen, Backlist And Annual Publishers

Sometimes I write about publishing using terms that are fully defined by the industry and sometimes I ignore the traditional definitions and give them my own twist. Today I want to split hairs on the topic of backlist books, dividing them up into the categories of evergreen, backlist and annuals. All three terms are used in the publishing trade, but they are normally used in such a way that the definitions overlap. I made up a little video about evergreen titles on my publishing channel, but I didn't really talk about three basic types of backlist titles.

Backlist titles are generally taken to be those that don't appear in a publisher's current frontlist catalog, but are still in print and selling. But there's a big difference between titles that are in print and selling because they happened to become modern classics and titles that are designed for the long run. I think the term backlist should be redefined to apply strictly to literary fiction and literary nonfiction, books that are to some extent timeless because they aren't purpose crafted to meet some current market demand. Solid backlists are what give, or at least, what used to give value to literary publishers as business ventures. These days, the cult of the bestseller, or blockbuster, has had a negative impact on backlist building, but building a backlist is the only way to build value in a publishing business that can't walk out the door in a huff.

Evergreen books are the how-to, professional and non-literary nonfiction titles that can sell for three or five years without a new edition, or in extreme cases, even several decades. These include cookbooks, self help books, basic how-to books ranging from investing to child rearing. Professional books are also a big part of the evergreen market, though the update tempo to new editions may be higher for the simple reason that it's highly profitable to get the same professionals to buy a new book every few years. Most evergreen titles aren't intentionally crafted for a long shelf life, but they are often acquired for that reason. The approach the author takes to the subject matter is as important as the subject itself. You don't want to fill a book with references to current events if you're hoping it will still appear fresh in five or ten years.

Annuals are books that come out every year, or at least on a regular basis, that require updating by definition. These can be almanacs, buyers guides, travel guides with the year plastered on the cover. Many annuals would seem to be good candidates for eventual replacement by Internet based subscription services, though books like Writer's Market remain perennial bestsellers in paper form. Some publishers prefer annuals to evergreens because the unit volume of annuals is potentially higher, often reaching the same customers year after year. But I believe that evergreen titles are the best investment for self publishers, because of our limited title production and often shaky finances:-)

A Fiction Query Letter From Victorian Literature

The following is from Trollope's short story "Josephine De Montmorenci." It's a fictional example of breaking all the query letter rules and simply trying to catch the attention of an editor. In this story, it worked.

Dear Sir,

I think that literature needs no introduction, and judging of you by the character which you have made for yourself in its paths, I do not doubt but you will feel as I do. I shall therefore write to you without reserve. I am a lady not possessing that modesty which should make me hold a low opinion of my own talents, and equally free of that feeling of self belittlement which induces so many to speak humbly while they think proudly of their own acquirements. Though I am still young, I have written much for the press, and I believe I may boast that I have sometimes done so successfully. Hitherto, I have kept back my name, but I hope soon to be allowed to see it on the title page of a book which shall not shame me.

My object in troubling you is to announce the fact, agreeable enough to myself, that I have just completed a novel in three volumes, and to suggest to you that it should make its first appearance to the world in the magazine under your control. I will frankly tell you that I am not fond of this mode of publication; but Messrs. X., Y., and Z., of Paternoster Row, with whom you are doubtless acquainted, have assured me that such will be the better course. In these matters, one is still terribly subject to the tyranny of the publishers, who surely of all cormorants are the most greedy, and of all tyrants, are the most arrogant. Though I have never seen you, I know you too well to suspect for a moment that my words will ever be repeated to my respectable friends in the Row.

Shall I wait upon you with my manuscript, - or will you call for it? Or perhaps it may be better that I should send it to you. Young ladies should not run about, - even after editors; and it might be so probable that I should not find you at home. Messrs. X., Y., and Z. have read the manuscript., - or more probably the young man who they keep for the purpose has done so, - and the nod of approval has been vouchsafed. Perhaps this may suffice; but if a second examination be needful, the work is at your service.

Yours faithfully, and in hopes of friendly relations,

Josephine De Montmorenci

I love the bit that goes, "or will you call for it?" That's an attention getter. I'm not sure why she uses cormorant to describe the greed of publishers, maybe sea birds had a bad name in England. It's a much better bid than an example I dimly recall given by a humor writer, maybe it was S. J. Perlman, in his autobiography. As a young man just out of school, whoever it was wrote to the editor of a large paper in red crayon,

"Need um job!"

and got back the reply, in crayon:

"Get um experience!"

A Random Walk Through Book Numbers

The publishing industry deals with a lot of big numbers, from bestselling books selling millions of copies to combined industry book sales of tens of billions of dollars. I maintain a reference page about book sales which I update on a regular basis from census bureau numbers and the annual reports of the chains and Amazon. But the questions I get tend to make me suspect many authors and journalists have trouble with the magnitude of the numbers, which makes it difficult for them to draw the sorts of conclusions for which I'd hoped I was providing that raw data. Coming from an engineering background, I can hardly read a newspaper without finding that a journalist or proofreader has made an error of three orders of magnitude (1000 times), and nobody seems to care because it's just more big numbers.

The basic unit to keep in mind when dealing with practical large numbers is 1,000. If you don't mind rounding a little, which is always fair when doing estimations, take a 1,000 as the number of times you walk your dog every year if you usually get out three times a day. It's not an unimaginably big number, and it's certainly one you can do basic math with. If you put five dollars in a jar every time you go out to walk the dog, at the end of the year, you'll have around $5,000. Of course, while you're out with the dog, somebody may steal it, but that's a separate issue. A thousand thousands is a million. If there are a thousand people in your town walking their dogs three times on most days, by the end of the year, that's a million dog walks. If everybody puts seven dollars in a jar before they go out to walk the dog, by the end of the year that's seven million dollars ($7,000,000). A thousand millions is a billion. If there are a thousand towns in America where a thousand people walk their dogs just under three times a day, that's a billion dog walks a year.

The basic publishing industry numbers are of the same magnitudes. Ignoring the mass merchandisers (supermarkets and discount stores) who sell small selections of bestsellers, romance and life style books, there are a limited number of outlets for trade books in the US. There's Barnes&Nobles at around $4,000,000,000 (four billion), Borders at around $3,000,000,000 (three billion), and Amazon at around $3,000,000,000 (three billion). The college bookstores do another $4 B ("B" is a friendly short-hand for billion), and the independents all combined probably do the same. The leftover couple billion from the Census Bureau number of around $16 B (ex-Amazon) is taken up by specialty bookstores, primarily religion and professional books.

So, where do these big numbers get us in terms of our basic dog walking unit? If we add the Amazon number back into the Census number, and drop the college bookstores and specialty stores that most authors books aren't stocked in, any more than they are stocked in mass merchandisers or specialty shops, we're left with a mainstream bookseller number of around $14 B per year. Don't mind the rounding, it only gets worse. If we took the average price per book sold as a convenient $14, that would give us one billion books a year sold through mainstream bookstores. Or, we can say that if one thousand Americans in one thousand towns buy a book for every time they walk their dog in a year, they've purchased the total number of books sold by mainstream book retailers.

Whether you think that one billion books number is large or small depends on primarily on whether or not you own a dog and enjoy walking it. In this case, I did a lot of rounding and took an arbitrary price for the average book, but I hope, if you need to do some calculations using my raw data for book sales you won't let all those extra zeros get you frazzled and concentrate on the simple ratios. Just because numbers are big doesn't mean you can't get meaningful information out of them. Another way of looking at the one billion books is by estimating that there are less than 5,000 bookstores involved in selling them (Amazon US is one big store). That comes to an apparently meaningless average of 200,000 books sold per bookstore. Meaningless, because the stores vary greatly in size, but meaningful because it coincides with the roughly two full inventory turns a year one hears is the norm for a superstore with 100,000 books.

So I hope I've conclusively proven that while dog years are much shorter than people years, it depends greatly on the breed and how often they get walked. Besides, it's not how many years you live, it's how many books you chew.

Publishing Alternatives For Authors

The "publishing" context of this blog has always referred to books. Every once and a while I stray into ebooks, or take a brief nod at audio or video publishing, but I've usually treated those alternatives as secondary or tertiary products. Part of the reason is that book publishing is my main business, but I also maintain a simplistic view that books are good and everything else, not so much. Whether we're talking about education or entertainment, books were always the first place I turned, so why would I suggest otherwise.

But when it comes to education, in recent years, the first place I turn is Google. And lately, when it comes to entertainment, the first place I turn is my Flip Cam. I don't know whether the publishing videos I'm making are educating anybody, but I'm sure entertaining myself.

The process has got me thinking about the alternatives available to publishers that I've mainly ignored since Amazon dumped Lightning Source ebooks, putting an end to my $500/month ebook business. I've just been too lazy to set up to sell ebooks directly myself, which is foolish, given that half of my Amazon ebook sales came directly from my website through Associates. It also makes me wonder if the entry barrier to video publishing will remain low for years, just like web publishing has remained an affordable option for authors.

A friend and fellow publisher is currently experimenting with podcasting as a way to reach his audience, and he hopes to get to the point where he can sell podcasts as a subscription service, the same way a publisher would sell newsletters or magazines. Given the amount of time most people spend sitting in traffic, podcasts may become to audio books what the Internet is to paper books. A source of up-to-date, rough around the edges information for professionals on the go.

This video publishing business I haven't quite got a grip on yet. It seems to me that the videos that dominate YouTube, and I'm speaking of the legitimate original content, are mainly or gross-out or titillation. I've been doing an extensive survey of the latter at great personal sacrifice and hope to have a report for the board soon. I'm sure there's plenty of room for good instructional or educational videos, but I'm not sure what the business model would be for the publisher, to justify the time invested. In my case, I'm hoping the videos one day might bring visitors to my website, but for the time being, it's my website that's sending visitors to the videos. I think it's important for all publishers to keep an eye on the alternative distribution channels for their works, but it probably doesn't pay to jump in with both feet unless you can see the bottom of the pool.

Travel Publishing Plans

Bought my tickets, off to Jerusalem before Thanksgiving for a few months. Every year I consider doing something with my online Serial Tourist's Guide to Jerusalem, in the book sense, and every year I end up thinking, "Who am I to write a travel guide?" Which reminds me of the old Yom Kippur joke about a Hollywood congregation, where some movie producer is beating his breast calling out, "Oh, Lord. I have sinned. I have done wrong. I'm just another mortal before you, a mere nothing in your eyes." An associate producer across the aisle nudges his screenwriter companion and says, "Look who thinks he's nobody."

The question, as always, is what does it take to be qualified for a job that has no qualifications. Anybody who can write can write a travel guide, but as a publisher, I like to stick with writing books people will buy. Comparing my own travel writing with what I've read here and there, I can see that I'm not your typical travel writer. On the other hand, I've spent a few months a year in Jerusalem for some fifteen years now, so I must know something about it.

When I get over telling myself that I'm not qualified, I start worrying about scope and audience. The easiest audience for me to write for is serial tourists like myself, who neither need a travel guide nor would find much they didn't know if they bought one. I never stay at hotels, I don't visit tourist sites (at least on purpose) and I prefer grocery stores and street food to sitting down in a restaurant. The one group that might need the sort of guide that I could do a good job writing from experience would be new immigrants, except as I've never been an immigrant myself, I don't know anything about all the interaction with governmental entities that would make up a critical part of a guide for that group.

But there is a strong attraction to travel publishing, because if you can stay away from hotel pricing guides and train schedules, well written books have a pretty long shelf life. I think the real value a travel book can offer is orienting a person in the local society, so they don't spend their trip moving from one embarrassing incident to the next. Of course for some people, living without knowledge of the social norms is what's fun about travel. Who can hold a tourist responsible for their actions? But if you're going to spend time in Israel outside a guided tour, you should do your homework the same as if you were going to any foreign country. Israel isn't Florida with an air force.

Oh, and I haven't found a place to live yet, so if anybody knows of a reasonable B&B or tourist rental I haven't tried, drop me a line.

Selling Other Author's Books Online

Most self publishers don't go to the bother of creating a catalog simply because they haven't written enough books to justify it. Not producing a multitude of related titles is a serious weakness in the business model of many self publishers, myself included. I can attract a large number of visitors to my website for the different subjects I write on, but for the main part, those visitors aren't interested in my other books, since all of them are niche titles.

A savvy business person would seek to "monetize" all of those visitors by presenting them with other related products to purchase. If I hadn't intentionally cut way back on direct sales of my own books a couple years ago, I would have set up a bookstore of related titles to sell direct by now. Titles from the big trades are available at a deep discount when you order them direct in quantity, you might get 65% off or more if you agree to take them on a non-returnable basis. So if you can find some relevant titles with decent cover prices, in the $25 to $40 range, you may find you can earn more selling those books than your own!

A much simpler and less risky way to make money selling other authors books is to simply add Amazon Associates links to your website. You'll only earn a dollar or two on most sales, but you'll learn quite a bit about what your readers are really interested in. For example, I'm going to put in Amazon Associates links for some of the books I often mention below:

Note that Kirsch's book was due out yesterday, they just haven't posted a cover image yet. And that's about as lazy as I get when it comes to writing a blog post, but I've got to make some dinner and run out!

Advice Isn't Worth The Price Unless It's Free

Two questions that keep coming up in my ongoing correspondence are:

1) Why can't you be more positive?

2) Why won't you charge for consulting?

I tried to answer the latter last year in my grumpy publishing consultant post, but I realize that even dedicated new readers are unlikely to read more than 100 posts backward in the blog. The two questions are closely related.

I know quite a few self publishers who are making a good living and in some cases growing their companies. I'm not negative about the future for self publishers, I think it's an open field and that every year a growing number of authors will figure out how to support themselves and build an asset at the same time. What I'm negative about is the idea that it's for everyone, and if you just get the right advice somewhere, you'll do well publishing the books you want to write.

My pessimistic outlook for the majority of authors who go into self publishing isn't based on the quality of their writing, that's a subjective matter in most cases. I'm pessimistic because I know that these authors, when they go looking for help on the Internet, are deluged with optimistic outlooks from people who want to sell them something. Of course the cover designer is going to say you'll get a great cover, and you may. Of course the editor is going to say the book will be New York quality, it's not a tough goal. Of course the marketing expert or publishing consultant is going to say their advice will help you sell more books. In all these cases, these experts know more about their field than you do, so it's fair for them to say they can help, but what does that mean?

Will the cover designer guarantee that the artwork will sell 1,000 books and make back the cost of the art? Will the editor guarantee that the polished prose will get mainstream reviewers to take notice? Will the marketing or publishing consultant guarantee that the additional profits you'll generate will pay for their services, and wait until you earn those profits for their paychecks? Too many authors confuse "professional" help with "useful" help, meaning help that will contribute value above it's cost to a positive outcome. If you want to succeed as a self publisher, you have to write books people will be willing to buy and figure out a cost effective way to reach those people. And that's a service I've never seen anybody selling.

Cooperative or Co-op Advertising For Books

Somebody sent me a few comments from a leading luminary of self publishing talking about how publishers paid placements in bookstore chains are an important part of the book business. The quote that caught my eye was:

Chains make their money on advertising.

Now I knew that the chains, Barnes&Noble and Borders, plus the giant book retailer Amazon, make money providing prime display space to publishers of books, but I was sure that there was something wrong with the magnitude of the statement. So I did some hunting around, trying to put a number on how much the big book retailers make on cooperative advertising payments and largely drew a blank. They don't break out all of that revenue in their SEC filings, it gets combined with other items. Amazon, for example, treats co-op money as a reduction in the cost of goods, while B&N mainly puts it to the overhead of the stores.

The best information I could find came from this redacted Federal court filing from 2002 The Intimate Bookshop, Inc. v. Barnes & Noble and Borders. It reports B&N received in excess of $100 million in co-op money in 1997, which if correct and extrapolated out to their 2007 revenue, would exceed their net profit. From that standpoint, you could argue that the line about chains making their money on advertising is more than true. But they still have to sell billions of dollars worth of books to do it. It's analogous to the situation with top professional athletes who can earn more advertising products than they can in salary. The catch is they can't stop playing the game and devote themselves full-time to making commercials, or that money would dry up in a hurry.

Many publishers offer a single digit percentage of their net sales through a retailer back to that retailer in return for promotions that retailer runs. A large part of the lawsuit, to my unprofessional eye, had to do with the availability of similar co-op advertising money to independent bookstores or the relative amount of work they had to go to in order to claim it. As near as I can tell, co-op advertising has been around for nearly 100 years, and may be named for the early efforts of the Greeting Card Association members in banding together and paying stores for cooperative displays after The Great War. Maybe their first great success was the card with the young man and the young woman sitting under a tree with a book, and the man asking the woman "Do you like Kipling?" She replies, "I don't know, you naughty boy. I've never Kippled." I don't know when it was published, I just remember the 1922 Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia saying it was the bestselling greeting card of all times.

Over the years, that model has morphed into individual publishers paying retailers to promote their titles so they can manufacture bestsellers, increase the predictability of sales or beat competing titles. I'm still reading through the documents, but a side benefit is it brought up the name of the Federal law that regulates discounting practices, The Robinson-Patman Act. Somebody asked me about that very recently, but I couldn't recall it. Coincidentally, the predecessor was the Clayton Act of 1914, which probably preceded the co-operative advertising efforts of the Greeting Card Association.

Flip Video Publishing And Market Research

I'm having quite a bit of fun with this Flip Video Camcorder that cost $118.38. I've learned that shooting "on location" is a lot more complicated than meets the ear, all sorts of audio pollution in the great outdoors. I've also learned that trying to get a few minutes into a single take is pretty tough for somebody with no acting or public speaking experience, and that without a script I tend to get lost. That's what happened in this video I posted today, about market research.

The point I was trying to articulate is that market research for a self publisher isn't limited to just determining the potential market for a title. It also needs to include a sober look at your ability, as a self publisher, to write and produce a book that meets the market's needs, as opposed to just bringing out the best title you can manage and hoping it will win some market share. I took timber framing and copper roofing as examples for the video, two subjects I've written about on my website as an enthusiast.

In the first case, timber framing, there's a pretty good market for these books, you can find them in chain stores, in specialty stores, through a variety of professional and hobbyist outlets. The market is dominated by classics that were written 10 or 20 years ago, and to give people a reason to buy a new title, you'd really have to produce a doozy. For a self publisher who isn't an established timber framing professional with a long resume of completed projects and engineering degrees, it would be a difficult task. The books tend to require heavy illustration, both engineering drawings and photographs, and without a serious platform to sell the book from, I don't see how newbie would justify the investment.

In the second case, copper roofing, I think it would be pretty easy to dominate the market. A quick search on Amazon turned up only two copper roofing titles, both out-of-print, one published in 1959, the other in 1961. This makes quite a bit of sense as it's unlikely there's much demand for do-it-yourself standing seam copper roofing books. It's an incredibly expensive and time consuming process, requires specialty seaming equipment that costs tens of thousands of dollars and which probably can't be rented in most areas. Most importantly, it requires a level of expertise in both metal working and roofing. So, while even a mediocre book should take 100% of the market share, that might amount to a few sales a month. I wouldn't be surprised if a coffee table book focused on beautiful copper roofs would do better than practical how-to title.

Do Book Reviews Sell Self Published Books?

Self publishers often obsess about getting their books reviewed. I've written about how book reviews matter to authors, but the real question is, do they matter to book buyers? As usual, it depends on the specific circumstances. A publishing company with sales reps who are in regular contact with bookstores may be able to convince them to stock a book they would otherwise pass on, based on a pending review in a large market media outlet. Same thing goes for scheduled author appearances on TV. But that's about selling books to bookstores, not to readers, and there's a lot more involved in getting bookstore stocking than one good blast of publicity.

Book reviews on Amazon help sell books, if they are positive, but only if the book product page is drawing visitors. Otherwise the reviews go unread. You can always spot a book for which the publisher or author has made a big pre-release push with book reviewers, because the product page on Amazon will display dozens of glowing reviews before Amazon even has the book for sale. But reviews on Amazon don't alert people to the publication of the book the way print media reviews do. I've long been convinced that the most effective book reviews in terms of increasing sales are those that serve as free advertising for the publisher to promote the fact that a well-known author has written a new book. The author's fan base probably don't read the review, they're afraid the reviewer will spoil it for them. They just make a mental note to buy the book next time they see it in a bookstore.

Authors who put a lot of effort into getting newspaper or magazine reviews for self published books that aren't stocked in bookstores are largely wasting their time. You can't expect many people who read the review to jump through hoops to order the book if it's not at the local bookstore. The exception would probably be self-help type books that offer a solution to a specific problem. I've frequently been contacted by authors trying to figure out the best way to break into some review publication or another, and I'm sure they are universally disappointed with my reaction of, "Why bother?"

When it comes to reviews online, the best book reviews for generating sales aren't written by professional book reviewers, but by people with a good reputation and a large following. When a big name blogger reviews some book that has no relation to the subject matter of the blog, some number of readers will buy it because they were already interested in a book on the subject and have faith in the blogger's judgment. It's just a new form of word-of-mouth, which remains the best way to sell anything. So don't get carried away trying to get reviews in the magazines dominated by large trade books, it's not a business model that works well for self publishers.

Virtual Publishing Or Paper Gorilla

Got another question that might work with a video component, though I'm writing the post first. Randy wrote asking for a comment on a publishing thread where somebody claimed:
To be a success in book publishing, you must get stocked in brick-and-mortar bookstores, who in turn require a 40% discount shipped.

Taking the latter part of the question first, there's nothing holy about the 40% discount, some publishers (particularly academic presses) sell at a shorter discount, some of the chains get a larger discount for books going to their warehouse. Accepting returns is far more important than the exact discount when it comes to making it feasible for bookstores to order your titles for stock. But if you want, you can achieve the 40% discount and accept returns using Lightning Source on demand printing for a virtual publishing solution.

But the real meat of the question is what constitutes success as a book publisher. Perhaps the best answer would be achieving the goals you set for your company when you start, and having the flexibility to build from there. If somebody's idea of success in book publishing is to publish the next Harry Potter series or compete with Random House and McGraw-Hill for gross sales, that's just not my idea of a business plan. I'm not saying it's impossible, I'm just saying it makes less sense for a new publisher without extensive industry connections than, say, starting to learn guitar after college with the goal of becoming a rock star. It happens, just not very often.

Small publishers often throw around numbers that they've seen in Publishers Weekly for the print runs of new titles from big trades, and they associate those numbers with success. Not only are print runs of tens of thousands of books impractical for a small publisher, they don't guarantee success for a large publisher either. A large percentage of those books fail to sell out the initial print run, go into the remainder channel, or get pulped. The large print run isn't just an attempt on the part of the publisher to lower the cost per book, it's the publishing industry equivalent of gorilla chest thumping.

"Thump, thump, thump. Look here, bookstore buyers. I'm printing a lot of copies of this book. I'm confident that it will sell. You can be confident I'm going to spend a lot of money promoting the book to try to get my investment back. I'm even willing to pay you some co-op money to pile them up in your window or front and center in the store. Thump, thump, thump."

Most small publishers don't have the muscle to get their books front and center in a couple thousand bookstores on launch. Even if a small publisher achieves a real publicity break through, they won't see the same sales as a big trade would with the same publicity, because they haven't managed to fill the channel with books before the publicity hit. If a small publisher wants to take a big risk on a title, print a lot of books, spend a lot of money and time on pre-launch publicity, scores some top reviews and has an aggressive distributor, it is possible to emulate the big trade model to an extent, but it's a big financial gamble and the odds of success are low. Printing all of those books makes a small publisher into a paper tiger, or a paper gorilla, but I'm convinced that virtual publishing is a much more logical business model for most publishers starting out today.

I don't doubt that the big print run, along with the frantic publicity efforts and expenses that commitment entails, give the paper gorilla a leg up if the goal is to sell 100,000 books. I don't know of any print on demand titles (at the moment) that have sold 100,000 copies without being transitioned to offset. But for small publishers whose goal is to earn a living while doing what they love, rather than mortgaging the house and getting ulcers chasing a long-shot, virtual publishing is the way to go. And for every new publisher who sells 100,000 copies of a title, I'll bet you can find 1,000 new paper gorilla publishers who spent $100,000 chasing that dream and lost their shirts. You just don't hear them bragging about it.

Book Return Economics

I tried my first video for self publishing today, company spokesman needs work. The subject is the economics of book returns, in response to a question from Jason of Hood Press. In this text version, I'll hit some of the specifics that I plan to leave out of the video.

I accept returns for my Lightning Source printed books, and I pay to have them returned to me instead of destroyed. The reason I accept returns is that no bricks-and-mortar bookstore will order books for stock unless the publisher accepts returns or it's a college bookstore where a professor has insisted a book be ordered for a classroom text. Jason specifically asked whether college bookstores are the worst return risk. I'd say yes and no.

Yes, because they prefer to order books to meet the maximum possible demand so they don't get yelled at if they run out. However, I offer college bookstores a higher discount to buy direct from me, pre-paid, on a non-returnable basis. Most college bookstores would rather do that than buy at or near the cover price through Ingram to get the returnability.

No, because college bookstores, at least individually, order a limited number of books. The largest order I've had from a single college bookstore (non-returnable, 35% discount) was 50 copies. Your biggest return risk is convincing a Barnes&Noble or a Borders to model two copies in every store, and then getting most of them back a couple months later, thousands of books. Or, if you are printing offset and using a distributor, your biggest risk is getting all of the books you shipped to the distributor back, on pallets.

When you accept returns at Lightning Source, they debit your account the profit you earned on each sale, plus the printing charge for each book returned. The profit on the sale was already paid to you, so that's not really a cost, but the printing charge is out of your pocket. That's if you have the book destroyed (and hopefully recycled). I pay an additional $2 per book to have them returned to me. Judging from the mint condition they come back in, I suspect they destroy returns as they come in and then print new copies once a quarter for publishers who pay to have the "returns" sent back. In my case, since I sell books direct as well as through distribution, when I pay to get the returns back, I'm really buying my own books for $2 more than they would otherwise cost me, or closer to $1.50 if you take the S&H and minor "for purpose" pricing differences into account.

I did get my biggest batch of returns ever in September, some 52 books, which knocked my September net down by $683.22. I don't know if the majority of the books came from bookstore special orders that never got picked up, from Barnes&Noble who was still stocking one of the titles last time I checked, or from one or more college bookstores who chose to order from Ingram rather than from me. You just don't get that kind of visibility when you deal through Ingram, which is part and parcel of the Lightning Source deal. Still, my year-to-date returns are barely 2.5% of books shipped, so it's just not worth getting excited over. The major trade publishers would kill for return numbers that low.

Free Printing Costs Too Much

I had a request yesterday to do some more publishing math, comparing the self publishing route to the subsidy press route. I didn't want to single out any particular author services company, and most of them have too many hidden costs to make a real comparison in any case. So what I'm going to do is lay out the basic math to let you make the comparison yourself. To keep it interesting, I'm going to compare publishing through Lightning Source to getting the books printed free. In keeping with the extremes, we'll do a 20% short discount book with Lightning (the minimum they currently allow), a 55% book (the standard which results in a 40% discount to bookstores ordering through Ingram), and a low cost distributor for the book with free printing, say, 65%.

In all three cases, if you aren't already a publisher, you'll have to buy a block of ISBN numbers, around $250 with the fees. We'll call the book in question a 200 page 6" x 9" paperback, with a cover price set of $15.95. For all three cases, the set-up costs with the printer will be about $100, so free wasn't exactly free:-) Also note that neither Lightning Source nor our free printer are going to help you prepare the book for publication, you have to present them with a ready-for-printing PDF file.

Case #1 - 20% discount

200 pages x 1.3 cents per page = $2.60 plus $0.90 for the cover = $3.50 for printing.

20% discount off the cover for sales into distribution is $15.95 x 0.80 = $12.76 wholesale price

Publisher net profit = selling price minus printing cost = $12.76 - $3.50 = $9.26 per book.

Case #2 - 55% discount (plus accepts returns)

200 pages x 1.3 cents per page = $2.60 plus $0.90 for the cover = $3.50 for printing.

55% discount off the cover for sales into distribution is $15.95 x 0.45 = $7.18 wholesale price

Publisher net profit = $7.18 - $3.50 = $3.68 per book.

Case #3 - Free printing and a 65% discount into distribution

Printing cost = free (No, I don't know of any printers who print books for free)

65% discount off the cover for sales into distribution is $15.95 x 0.35 = $5.58 wholesale price

Publisher net profit = $7.18 - $3.50 = $5.58 per book minus S&H to distributor

The 20% short discount book will be listed at Amazon and other online stores, and will be available through special order order through bookstores, though some may resticker the price, charging the customer more than the cover price so they can make a profit.

The 55% book with returns will be just as attractive to bookstores as any large trade book on a price/profit basis, but none of them will order the book for stock unless you have terrific marketing to create demand.

The book printed free and placed with a full line distributor for a 65% discount might get into some bookstores if you've done all of your homework and produced a quality book. But you will have to pay for shipping those books to the distributor, be prepared to get them all back, and be prepared for the distributor to fail owing you a pot of money, as happens several times a year with independent book distributors.

Questions of Quantity vs Quality

According to the Blogger Dashboard, this is my 300th post to the Self Publishing blog. In terms of quantity, I'll guess it's up around 200,000 words, equivalent to about four books I should have written. The quality has been evolving over the years, though I couldn't say in which direction. I hope I'm doing a better job at proofreading myself, at least I now make an effort. My main complaint is that the blog is increasingly about me, rather than about the nitty-gritty of publishing, as the first hundred or so posts were. It's just difficult to go over the same ground over and over again without either repeating or contradicting oneself. In the mean time, my total lack of book production has left my editor so bored that she's taken to cleaning her roof every week.

But back on the question of blog quality, I think the most useful posts I've made in the last year have been in response to questions that people send me. I don't always point that out in the post, in part because I'm usually more interested in answering a question that doesn't exactly match what I've been asked. Also, several of the posts about subsidy presses and fee based services have been inspired by stories of rip-offs authors send.

The quantity vs quality question is also an important one in terms of writing for your website. If you try to make every page on your website "book quality", you run into an economic problem, namely, paying an editor and proofreaders to go over content you are giving away for free. Clearly, I don't, but I know some authors who put as much effort into their web postings as they do into their books. I'd say it's a mistake, but somehow they find the energy to write more books than I do, so maybe it's a form of brain exercise.

I've been inspired by my editor's tireless housekeeping to try to freshen up the self publishing blog, so I ordered up a flip-cam from Amazon, which will hopefully make web-ready video without a big learning curve. If I find I can talk into the camera for more than 30 seconds without biting my tongue, I'll try answering some questions on video, maybe with a few graphics thrown in. I'll also revisit some of my earlier posts, pretending that it's all new. So by next week, I'm hoping the blog will be an audio/visual experience worth every penny of free. If you have any questions that you think would make quality fodder, feel free to send them to me direct or to just comment on this post.

Magazine Rights And Pre-Publishing Book Excerpts

First serial rights for magazine publication used to be the only way to go in book publishing. Think Dickens, Trollope (a great writer currently undergoing a revival) et al. I'm using "magazine" a little loosely here, many of the serials that publish stories and book excerpts are really newspapers or newsletters. The attraction for the writer is making some money up front, often before a book is even finished, and lining up potential book customers if the excerpt is well received..

Last week, basically on a lark, I e-mailed an unsolicited proposal to the editor of a highly specialized computer magazine suggesting they might be interested in the first serial rights to some technical material I've been working up. My pitch to them, since it's reference material and could be spread out over a year's worth of issues, is that it would help retain subscribers and give the magazine a long shelf life, which should be attractive to their advertisers. On my side, I'd get paid some cash and get a free promotion for the book, assuming I published one.

One of the dumbest moves I ever made in publishing was giving a niche magazine the rights to publish an excerpt from a book without making any stipulations as to the timing. They used it in the first available slot, which means it went out to their 100,000 plus readers a full year before the book was available. That's about tweleve months too long for the purposes of book promotion.

Selling first serial rights to a print magazine, or even donating them under some circumstances, can be a great way to promote your book and to build your resume as a writer. The only thing I'd be cautious about is making sure that if the magazine has an online version, the article is either linked to your website or included in their robots exclusion file. Otherwise, it may appear to be duplicate content and compete with the version on your own website, hampering future book promotion efforts.

People Of The Scroll

I'll be skipping my Friday post for Simchas Torah, the Jewish holiday marking the last reading from the Torah scroll, before we rewind it and start all over again. I don't know enough about scroll terminology to know whether a scroll stored on two wooden spindles has a special name, I just know it's not a codex. For my non-Jewish readers, the Torah scroll contains the five books of Moses, written on parchments sewn together in one long strip, a publishing technology that's been around for a couple thousand years. The rest of the Bible was also recorded on various scrolls, but relatively few are still published that way. The Scroll of Esther comes to mind. Since these scrolls have to be prepared by hand by a scribe following very strict rules, the end up costing tens of thousands of dollars. No print-on-demand need printers need apply.

While many readers know all this already, there's a physical aspect to the practice of Judaism that often goes unnoticed. It's the duty of Hagbah, the lifting of the Torah scroll, unrolled enough to show the portion that has been chanted out loud to the congregation, or is about to be chanted, in Sephardi shuls. Since the scroll is slowly rolled from one spindle to the other through the course of the year's reading, the weight leading up to Simchas Torah ends up all on the right hand of the Hagbah, and the following week, shifts all to the left hand. The person performing the act, the Hagbah, lifts the Torah off the readers desk raising the handles around shoulder height or higher, and turns around 180 degrees so the open section is visible to the congregation over his head. It's recommended to put a seam in the center of the open section as the seams are the strongest part of the scroll.

Depending on how quickly the congregation sings and how fast the Hagbah moves, the whole operation takes between 30 seconds and a minute. If something goes wrong and the Torah gets dropped, everybody present has to fast for 40 days. When the local congregation tried to sustain a morning Minyan (a quorum required for mourners prayers and public Torah reading) for a few years, I was usually the Hagbah because I'm too ignorant to do much of anything else. I dreaded Simchas Torah, intended to be one of the happiest days in the Jewish calendar, because I'm right-handed, and that left-handed lift that hadn't been tried for a year starts looming pretty large.

When I signed up, prior to my birth if I recall, I'd heard that Jews were the people of the book. I've come across plenty of Jews in town who read a lot of books and some of them are even in the publishing business. I just wish more of them had showed up for that morning Minyan. If you're ever attending services in a new place for the first time, and an old man teeters up and asks you if you're right-handed or left-handed, consult your calendar and answer appropriately.

Selling Boatloads Of Books

This (hopefully temporary) Amazon pricing glitch is a fine excuse to revist some thoughts about publishing and selling books. The connection is that the higher prices, about two dollar per book on average, haven't shown any tremendous impact on my Amazon sales yet, while direct mail order sales have picked up since I'm now the cheaper source. The problem is, I don't price my books based on an analysis of what the market will bear, I just go with the price I'd be happy paying for a similar book. I'm less concerned with the sales total than I am with having control over my happy price. Apparently, I'm pretty happy at $14.95, though I'm hoping to convince myself that I deserve better:-)

I just got around to sorting through a boatload of junk mail, and it included a flyer titled "Sell Books By The Truckload". The telephone seminar was scheduled for a couple weeks ago, so it looks like I missed out on becoming a millionaire, but the flyer itself was interesting. The pitch seems to imply that ANY self publisher can sell huge quantities of books to corporations who will give them away to employees. There's even a line about raising money for charities by forming some sort of alliance.

Here's the problem I have with it. I don't want to sell books by the anything-load. As much as I enjoy earning a living writing, giving corporations a cheap employee perk is not a personal goal of mine. Perhaps if I wrote motivational or feel good type books, I'd be happy to get them out there under any circumstance, and who cares if 95% of them end up in the company recycling bins without leaving the building. I can just picture a major corporation holding their annual company wide meeting (close circuit TV and Internet video), and the president speaking:

"And so, in lieu of a bonus this Christmas, we're giving you all free copies of Morris Rosenthal's book, 'How to feel good about earning less.' It's actually a book about self employment, and we thought it would help you review your career options over this holiday season. Since we purchased the book in large quantity, we earned the option to add our own subtitle, namely, 'The option is to earn nothing and lose your house.' Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all."

Some publishers make a living selling boatloads of phone books, it's just not for me. I know there are some literary publishers out there who look at my how-to titles as phone books, so I don't mean it as a put-down. I'm just pointing out that if your goal in publishing is more getting by than getting rich, there's no need to sell out at the first opportunity.

Amazon Raising Lightning Source Book Prices?

Many of us have wondered if the day would arrive that Amazon would raise the prices of short discount titles printed and distributed through Lightning Source and Ingram. Today, an unexpectedly large number of direct mail-order purchases made me suspicious something was up, and when I checked Amazon, the prices of my books had all been hiked by odd amounts. Below is the price info that is showing at the moment for my publishing title:

That's a $2.34 boost over my cover price, the $14.95 Amazon sold the book for up to today. Another of my $14.95 cover price titles is now selling for $17.11, or a $3.16 premium, and a third (which happens to be the most expensive to print and ship) is selling for $16.54, or $1.59 above the cover price. The publishing title is set at a short discount of 30%, the other two at 25%.

Hopefully it's a temporary glitch of the kind I see come and go on Amazon.UK, though they only fiddle with the discounts, not the prices. Still, I have seen it with titles from other publishers using Lightning Source, including some of the large subsidy publishers. At the same time, I see more discounted titles from the subsidy publishers than I recall seeing in the past, so perhaps it's a major re-shuffling of prices in respect to the discounts assigned. Well, I suspect I'll have an answer pretty soon, I just hope it's one I want to hear:-)

How To Publish A Magazine, Or NOT

I've never reviewed a book without reading it, but I can't help commenting on an odd couple of books I stumbled across on Amazon. The first is, "How to Start a Magazine" by James Kobak, published in November 2002 by M. Evans and Company, Inc. The second is "How Not to Start a Magazine" by B. Ann Bell, published in January 2006 by Palfrey Media. The two books are paired as "Better Together".

I got a tremendous kick out of the "How Not To" in the title. I thought it was pretty original, until I searched on the phrase on Amazon. The top 10 relevant titles:

How Not To Become A Little Old Lady by Mary McHugh

How Not to Write a Screenplay: 101 Common Mistakes Most Screenwriters Make by Denny Martin Flinn

How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life: Opening Your Heart to Confidence, Intimacy, and Joy by Susan Piver

How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins

How Not to Look Fat by Danica Lo

How Not to Start Third Grade (Step into Reading) by Cathy Hapka, Ellen Titlebaum, and Debbie Palen

How Not to Audition: Avoiding the Common Mistakes Most Actors Make by Ellie Kanner and Denny Martin Flinn

How Not to Eat Pork, Or, Life Without the Pig by Shahrazad Ali

How Not to Write by Terence Denman

How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar by William Safire

So, not only isn't the idea that unique, but the last two books in this list with the same "How Not To Write" title were published within a couple months of each other in 2005! Amazon actually lists 380 books with "how not to" in the title.

And this concludes today's lesson on how not to write a blog post during Succos.