Blogging Or Self Publishing?

Blogging or self publishing, that is the question.
Whether tis nobler to write 200 posts about publishing,
Often repeating the same advice and rants
Or to publish more books on the subject.
And by publishing, perchance to profit.
To profit, to cash-in.
No longer to write without thought
Of the heart-ache and the thousand unsold books
That self publishing can bring.
'tis a conclusion I sometimes wish.
To pass it my editor and wash my hands,
To publish, perchance to profit,
But in pursuit of profit what honesty prevails?
Against the necessities of the market and expectations.
Ay, here's the rub...

It's not everyday I get to butcher Shakespeare and pretend it's all cricket, but I just hit my second century. This is the two hundredth post to the self publishing blog, and I thought I'd share a few of my thoughts about the experience. I haven't authored a new book since 2004, and the last of these wasn't even self published, but the 4th edition of a book I write under contract to McGraw-Hill. Blogging has absolutely killed my book production, giving me an outlet to write without having to worry about my audience, or undertake any of the hard work of research, marketing or production. Writing for this blog and dealing with correspondence has been my main professional occupation for the last eighteen months, though I've probably written about a hundred posts to a variety of other blogs as well. I'd estimate over 200,000 words in all.

Some of you fiction writers may think of 200,000 words is a medium length novel, but in the genres I write, it would normally be three to five complete books. That's a lot of writing I've done to please myself rather than to build my publishing business. While some of this activity has contributed to sales of my publishing book, it's got to be one of the least efficient marketing campaigns a publisher has ever engaged in and stuck with. The most popular posts in my archives never rank in the top fifty pages on my site for visitors, and only a dozen or so reach the the top hundred. Ambiguities in statistics make it hard for me to judge how many new visitors a day the two hundred archived posts together bring, but it's only a few hundred, probably less than the total from the half-dozen or so more popular publishing articles on my site. I think it's largely due to individual archived posts fairing poorly for incoming links, and the overly specific titles.

On the bright side, I've had some fun with it and heard from some interesting publishers, which all feeds back into keeping me going. My favorite post would have to be my story about two paths diverging in the publishing world and how one author traveled both rather than standing around and peering into the distance. Of course, I'm a sucker for anything I write that I only wish was autobiographical. I'm inclined to drift more in that direction in the future as I've pretty much exhausted myself, and no doubt many readers as well, on the nitty gritty of self publishing. I might also try to do a publishing version of one of my educational flowcharts. I do get a lot of questions about the publishing process, requests, in essence, for a publishing cookbook, but I find that authors ambitions and needs vary so much that there's nothing even close to a one size fits all solution. A flowchart would give me the opportunity to mix and match some of the stages in a way a linear book can't.

The problem writing a large number of short articles is tying them together to present a coherent picture without rewriting them entirely. I flirted with doing this last fall, and spent appreciable time and money producing a book based on this blog, but I when I got the final proof copy, I just couldn't bring myself to release it to distribution. In fact, I never even quite finished proofreading it, just got depressed and stopped. I suppose part of it is that I've never written two similar books to this point in my life, excluding subsequent editions, and I can't get excited about starting now. If I were to sit down and write another book about publishing, I'd almost be inclined to write a novel about publishing instead, or maybe a collection of short stories. It's just much easier to prove one's point when one doesn't feel constrained to stick with the exact truth-)

How Authors Should Measure Success

There are many ways for an author to measure success and I'm going to skip all the obvious answers like health and happiness, and stick with publishing industry measures. But I'm going to put a bit of a twist on it, by talking about self publishing industry measures, which have little to do with metrics employed by large trade publishers. Also, I'm aware that it's a bit rude to dictate to authors how they should measure their own achievements, but it's intended as a positive follow-on to yesterday's somewhat discouraging post about authors publishing fiction through subsidy presses or their own company.

Anybody who works at a large trade publisher and tells you they are satisfied when a book sells 5,000 copies is fibbing. Odds are, they aren't even breaking even. Yet, by self publishing standards, 5,000 copies sold is quite a success, and should represent somewhere on the order of $30,000 to $50,000 of net income to an author who is self publishing through his own company. Obviously, the exact amount depends on the costs and the cover price, but it's not chump change. That same author, had the book been published by a large trade and sold 5,000 copies, would probably end up with just $5,000 to $10,000, unless a large advance was involved. As an author who has been published by one of the world's largest trade publishers, with well over 100,000 books sold, I can honestly tell you I wish that I'd self published those books and managed just a quarter of the sales:-)

When you are a working author publishing books for a living, success is measured by the bottom line, and the bottom line is measured in dollars, not in copies sold. That's why relatively few nonfiction self publishers will sell out to the large trades when solicited. We simply make better money self publishing. But for fiction writers the expectations are different at both ends of the scale. For my money, anybody who self publishes a novel and is able to sell a hundred copies, outside of family and friends, is really off to a good start. Anybody who sells a thousand copies of a novel has a self publishing success story on their hands and should probably make another round of the agents and the trade publishers. The large trade publishers really do have an advantage when it comes to selling fiction, so getting published by a name publisher is a reasonable measure of success for the fiction writer.

Another way for authors to measure success is by comparing their books with competing titles or similar genre books by authors in similar circumstances. If you've written a novel and published through a subsidy press with over ten thousand titles in print, and your novel ranks in their top 100 for sales, I'd call that a success, even if the total number of copies sold in relatively small and the project is a financial loss. You shouldn't be comparing your sales to J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, or even to working self publishers for that matter. If you write nonfiction and you find people contacting you as a recognized expert in the field thanks to the book you've written, that's also a form of success. If acquisitions editors start contacting you out of the blue to make offers on your existing books or to ask you to write a new book for their imprint, that also counts for something.

Setting a reasonable goals for book sales is the best way to start achieving those goals. An author who believes that success requires thousands of sales a year is likely to give up in disgust after a month of hard marketing work only sells a dozen copies. An author with the reasonable goal of getting to a hundred copies sold and seeing what happens from there could be satisfied with a twelve books sold that first month. After all, it's just the first month, and the book is already on pace to sell over 140 copies in the year.

Getting book sales is not about asking people or chain buyers to buy your book. It's about getting people to ask you if you have a book for sale. It requires that you establish yourself as a person who either has something valuable to say or a particularly nice way of saying it. That happens outside of bookstores and bookselling circles. For some successful authors, it's all about public speaking, for me, it's all about publishing online. Whatever your platform, you'll have a much better chance of success if you're already standing on it before you write and publish a book. What's more, the view from that platform will help inform you what you should be writing about and who you should be writing for if you want the best chance of commercial success.

A Novel Approach To Publishing Fiction

Not to pick on anybody in particular, but in the past week, I've heard from a number of authors who have written and published a novel with limited success. Very limited success. In fact, one self publisher used the "F" word in describing the results, as in "Failure." In one instance, several thousand dollars was spent on advertising the novel with zero sales resulting. I'm always sympathetic to people who give it the old college try, but I'm also constrained to question, "What exactly did you expect?"

I've had a finished novel sitting around for the last twelve years that I never published, because I couldn't imagine it being anything but a guilt purchase for friends and family. OK, maybe at this point I get enough attention for writing about self publishing that some of my readers would buy it out of curiosity, but that's neither a business plan nor a boost for the old ego. It's difficult for me to assess the quality of my own novel, I'd say it's pretty poor, but that doesn't mean a lot since I find most modern fiction to be uninspiring. One rejection letter I got from an acquisitions editor way back when I wrote it said, in essence, "We publish literature with a capital "L" and sleaze with a capital "S." Your book is neither so it won't work for us." I thought that was pretty fair and accurate.

There's nothing new or daring about self publishing a novel, authors have been doing just that since time immemorial, and any self publishing hall of fame will contain many success stories with fiction. What is novel about using POD to publish fiction, either through subsidy presses or through setting up your own self publishing company, is the relatively low financial commitment it requires. As somebody who's already set up as a publisher, I could have my novel in print by tomorrow morning for a set-up cost of about $100 if I chose, but I know that writing the book and getting it into print are the two easiest steps in the fiction publishing process. Selling unconventionally published fiction takes a great salesman, and it doesn't hurt if the target audience judges the novel to be well written as well.

Whether you're talking about a few hundred dollars in fees to a subsidy publisher or buying a block of ISBN numbers for $250 and doing all the work yourself, forcing a novel into print these days costs an order of magnitude less than it would have just a decade ago. Subsidy presses in the pre-POD days used to charge anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 to get your book "published", and all that guaranteed was that you'd get a garage full of books. In the past, people used to mortgage their homes to chase the dream, and without an Amazon to list all of those books, their slim chance of ever selling a handful was even slimmer than today.

But there is a difference between the authors of the fiction being published in unconventional ways today and those self publishers or subsidy authors of the last generation. Simply preparing a manuscript in the days before wordprocessors was a nightmare for those of us without secretarial training, correction tape and crumpled up pages ruled the day. With today's technology, it's almost trivial to knock out something that at least looks like a book, and the spellcheckers will even catch some of the wrong letters, though rarely the wrong words. The big commitment of the last generation of authors, in terms of time and cash investment, may have given some pause to think before writing or printing their book. A chance to ask oneself, "What do I really know about how books get into stores?" or "How will I reach a large number of people and persuade them how to buy my book?" I'm not saying all authors did that, but in the case of those hall of famer's, I'd be surprised if they didn't.

Too many authors think that marketing is simply a matter of screwing up ones courage and asking somebody to buy a book. It may work that way if you're extraordinarily attractive, but most of us need to make a compelling argument, an argument that works from the side of the buyer. Most of the correspondence I get from authors who ask me to critique their marketing demonstrates that they approach the sale from their own side, rather than from the perspective of the potential buyer. The author ends up giving the buyer a lot of reasons why it would be good for the author if the novel gets purchased. That's just not that persuasive of an argument from the point of view of the buyer. The buyer doesn't know that it's the greatest book ever written, and would be a bit of a fool to take the author's word for it.

If you have written the greatest novel of the young century, my advice is to put all of your effort into finding a positive agent and selling it to a large trade publisher. If that's entirely out of reach, then try to find a legitimate small publisher with a moderately successful fiction list. This requires a lot of social networking for most authors, attending conferences, rubbing elbows, getting phone numbers and maybe even picking up checks. Some authors have even found that marrying a literary agent is the best way to get two feet in the door.

The only really novel thing about publishing novels with POD is that so many new authors are doing it, full of conviction that the books will sell themselves. I've never heard of it happening, and I'd assume it was some freak occurrence if I did. A large number of bookstore managers aren't going to order your book for stock just because you ask them, and while you might hear POD in the explanation, that's just a convenient excuse. If you self published your novel on an offset press or used a subsidy publisher to do the same, they'd still say no. They aren't rejecting the printing technology, they're rejecting a novel they've never heard of by an author they've never heard of who has no proven marketing resources to help them sell the book. And that's what bookstore managers are looking for in a book, something that will sell and make them money. When you walk in the door with your novel, you're just asking them to do you a favor, and it would be a novel response for somebody to say "Yes."

Google E-books Ready To Launch?

A little recap on my e-book bona-fides before beginning. I was made about $500/month selling ebooks on Amazon in the 2005/2006 timeframe, and often had titles in their Top 100. The only professional publishing conference I've attended in my life was the E-book 2000 conference put on by a few government agencies seven years ago. Invested about $700 and came away with a cloth shoulder bag I still use, and not much else. Still, I've written enough about e-books over the years that if you Google "Ebook Sales" or "E-book Sales" I come up #1 or #2, and I get the occasional inquiry from news reporters on the subject. And that's about it, because as my server stats testify, very few people are interested.

All of a sudden, I see an article in Yediyot Achronot (the main Hebrew daily in Israel, affectionately termed by Anglos, "The Last Idiot") that Google is preparing a revolution in E-books. The article is vague enough, essentially quoting from a London Times story which I ran down. The Times story was titled "Google plots e-book coup" and there wasn't any news in it. They quote the head of Google Book Search saying, "We are working on a platform that will let publishers give readers full access to a book online." Timely news? Let me quote myself for a change:

"Today (March 10th, 2006) I got the e-mail I've been waiting for since signing up with Google Print on the first day. Google will enable publishers to charge for downloadable and printable versions of books in the program that were previously only available for search. The split I just heard from them was 70% for the publisher, 30% for Google, which I hope will eventually replace the money I was earning publishing ebooks through Lightning Source." The second sentence was added in July, 2006 when Amazon dropped Lightning e-books.

I've been a fan of the Google Books program all along, and at the risk of be a double quoter, can point to the publisher section of the Google Books program where they blurb my line from this blog, "Google Book Search can only help book sales." When all the Lightning ebooks disappeared from Amazon, including thousands and thousands of titles from the major trades, I e-mailed my one human contact at Google, the PR person who contacted me about using the quote, and told them if they got off the stick and started selling all the ebooks they'd gotten publisher approval for, they could move into the vacuum left by Amazon. Moving at the speed of a huge corporation, it appears that seven months later, they are gearing up to do just that.

The real tip-off things are moving isn't the filler piece in the Times that got picked up by Yediyot. It's the e-mail I got from Google this morning asking me to testify, under the penalties of law, that I do indeed own the rights to the titles I have in the Google Books program for which I signed up to sell ebook versions nearly a year ago. The deadline to reply was February 6th, so maybe that will be the first day of the rest of the history of publishing. In honor of the occasion, I changed a couple lines in the first short story I ever wrote, initially about books on CD. Visit my dark side and read "Books Are Our Friends."

What I Read And Hope To Sell

Every once and a while I get a little discouraged by the rapid changes in the self publishing arena, especially the recent visibility issues on Amazon, and I start dreaming about what's next for me. As I spend every day desperately searching for a house to buy over the Internet, in commuting distance of my folks, I find crazy thoughts of opening a bookstore intruding in the process. I've had a couple recurring professional fantasies in my life, and owning a used bookstore has always been in contention for a top slot. I'm not sure "used bookstore" is really the term to utilize here, because that whole business model has been changed by the Internet as much as self publishing has been. What I'd like to do is specialize in books I like to read:-)

When I was a kid, my tastes were a moving target because I read so damn fast that I used up authors and subjects. My modus operandi was to look for clusters of books by the same author in the stacks at whatever library I lived near, and take home books from a few authors as samples. If I liked the book, the next week or two would go to finishing the poor author off, and that was that. Way back in my early teens when I thought nothing of reading two books a day, I was mainly focused on science fiction and historical fiction. Eventually I drifted in contemporary fiction, and then added nonfiction history (no jokes, please) and biography. For a stretch, Maugham was my favorite author AND short story writer. And then the worse thing that could happen to any reading addict happened to me - I wrote a novel.

Suddenly, I became both a critic and a skeptic. I'd never thought much about the construction of literary works before stringing some tens of thousands of words together myself, but I discovered that there's a certain internal logic to it. Books, to some extent, do write themselves, once you give them a good push to get started. And I started noticing that this logic played out in a lot of nonfiction, especially mainstream (literary) history and biography. The sequence of events in the lives of great and famous people began fitting together just a little too well for me to believe that the author wasn't taking some liberties with the truth. It's a sad thing when the vicarious pleasure of reading about fantastic things loses its flavor to the overwhelming sense that they only occurred just that way in the author's mind.

So, I started drifting backwards through literature, initially to the early 20th century, which included many of the lions of modern English literature. Hemingway, Joyce, Lawrence, Miller, Faulkner, etc. And for a while I enjoyed them, with Scotch, though Joyce was quite a chore, but in retrospect, I felt that they were all trying too hard to be modern. I look back now at something like Tropic of Cancer, which shocked America with it's use of expletives and graphic, you know, and wonder how some critics and academics could declare it the greatest book of the 20th century. When I got to the end, I threw it in the trash, and I've only done that to a book maybe two, three times in my life.

Finally, following in my father's footsteps, I got back to Dickens, and I've more or less stayed there. Dickens, Trollope, various Frenchies in translation, pretty much the 19th century. In America, there was Twain/clemens and Wilkins/Freemen (not a pen name in the latter case, she just married late) and when I want something modern, I read "really" foreign novels, which usually aren't very good. I found Grant's memoirs highly credible, though a little of the humor in the earlier chapters may have been edited in by Twain, or inspired by Grant's reading him. I tell my religious nephews who have a limited knowledge of history that they should read old fiction. The plots are romantic, but the prices and the depictions of daily life had to wash with the audiences that read them at that time, and are probably more useful than the birds eye view so many historians attempt to provide.

So I'm thinking of opening a classic bookstore, whether on the web or with a funky little walk-in location as well. I picture going a little upscale, not first editions or rare books, but nice editions, illustrated when possible. The illustrations in 19th century lit are excellent, even though they often give away the plot turn at the start of the chapter. I was fooled in a Trollope book I read recently, I think it was Phinneas Finn Redux, when the illustration at the start of a chapter was a gallows with an open trap-door and a dropping rope. I was sure the bad guy was going to get his neck stretched, but he got off with transportation! As a business plan, the great thing is that I've never accumulated a library of books myself, living in little apartments the last 20 years, so as long as I stick with the books I like I can't lose.

Reviews Matter for Author, Author!

I'm not a fan of recent Hollywood movies, haven't been to one in a decade, but I still enjoy "Author, Author!" when it comes up on T.V. Al Pacino is the lead role as a playwright with a highly confused family situation who ends up taking care of all of his ex-wives children, and needs a hit play to pay the bills. After the opening, the whole family stays up all night and waits for the Times to hit the streets, so they can read the theatre critics review and find out whether the play will be successful or not. I've never been part of any N.Y. scene, much less the theatres, but I'm told that critics do play a pretty big role in the success or failure of plays and shows, even though there are occasional prominent exceptions.

Maybe I'll get a flood of e-mails after this post, but I've never known a published review to make a difference for a self published book. I'm sure there are prominent exceptions could be found, but I don't know them, any more than I know any Hollywood stars. On the other hand, I know a lot of self publishers, myself included, who put a big effort into getting books reviewed, saw those reviews published every manner of publication at every level, and didn't benefit at all in terms of sales. I can explain this a number of different ways, including the lack of bookstore stocking for most self published books until after they prove their gold, but I think an important factor is that most reviews real purpose is to serve as a publication announcement. Seeing a review of your favorite author's book, be it fiction or nonfiction, be it a good review or a bad review, serves to inform you that a new book has been released. You don't need to read the review, you already know whether or not you like the author.

But many self publishers are review obsessed, because they believe that a good review will vault their book into the bestseller ranks.The discussion lists for small publishers and self publishers abound with stories about how a review in the Library Journal will usually sell a couple thousand copies, or how a PW review is the only way to break into the chains. I could never establish if the former was true, I think the publishers who have great success with the Library Journal may be more inclined to talk about it than the ones who have been reviewed there and still haven't sold any books. I know for a fact that PW reviews aren't required to get chain stocking, and it would be interesting to know what percentage of books stocked in a typical Barnes&Noble or Borders have ever been reviewed in PW, Library Journal or Kirkus.

What worries me about self publishers who pursue reviews is how it affects their overall approach to publishing. Sometimes they throw money away trying to act like the big trades, or make themselves nuts delaying publication by a half a year to meet some reviewers timing requirements. When it's literary nonfiction or fiction, the big trades grind their books out slowly, and they probably smile down their sleeves at self publishers who can't wait to get their books in print. It's no big deal for them to send out early review copies and ARCs a half a year before the book is ready to hit the street, it's all built into the production schedule. Let somebody famous expire and the trades will have tribute books out within two weeks, it's all a question of which game they're playing at the moment. Self publishers may also go over the top on the cover design budget in the mistaken notion that getting reviews is all about looking like money. A review copy with a cover like generic canned food may serve even better, as long as it's clear that it is a review copy. In some genres, the attempt to get reviews may even spill over into the titling and writing. The lowest level of hell is reserved for authors who write for critics.

I stopped sending my new titles out for review more than five years ago, but I know some self publishers who still put in a big effort, primarily because a good review makes the author happy. That's the danger of wearing two hats in a business. BTW, reviews have nothing to do with press releases and PR, which can be very effective selling tools for self publishers. Book marketing is a must, but advertising and chasing reviews are rarely effective.

Jazz and the Solo Author

If you're wondering where the current explosion of publishing posts is coming from, I spent an evening in a Jazz club scribbling out topics I wanted to write something about and ended up with around thirty. I suspect there's something about Jazz that helps loosen up the knots in my head, maybe makes me a little less self critical and willing to accept my own ideas rather than dismissing them out of hand. As a solo author and self publisher, I tend to be very harsh about my own book ideas (and often recommend to other self publishers that they act the same way) because it's so tough to pull the plug on publishing a book once it's written. I know that some arts programs teach self criticism with the hope students will learn to judge the relative value of their works in progress, but I've heard artists misapply the lesson, as in, "I know it's good because I took a criticism course and I only do good work now."

While Jazz musicians and authors may share some common traits, there's one area where we certainly have different expectations. The most amusing thing I've seen in the hundred or so Jazz performances I've attended in the last few years was the head of a trio explaining how audience interaction is supposed to work in Jazz clubs. I don't know what possessed him, maybe the fact the club was under new management and drawing more first time Jazz fans, but in essence, he made a little speech saying that it's normal for the audience to show it's appreciation after each solo. And it is normal to applaud or call out a "Yeah," or a "All right," after a solo in a Jazz performance, and even to offer a little polite clapping if the solo wasn't anything special. I expect that the musicians feed off the applause to some extent and I've certainly been to performances where they really warmed up as the night goes on. One thing I never seen in a Jazz club is a solo being received with boos, and that includes first time performances by nervous nellies at open jam sessions.

Authors who expect a minimum of polite applause to greet their publication are in for a nasty surprise. In fact, any author who goes into publishing with the idea of building self esteem through the wonderful things people are going to write or say about the book has started a new career for the wrong reason. I remember when my first trade book was published by McGraw-Hill about ten years back, I got a horrible review from some "professional" reviewer who ran a sort of an independent review newsletter. I mentioned to a friend with some publishing background that I sent a copy to my editor at McGraw-Hill, and the friend saying he didn't think that was very smart. Maybe it wasn't, but when I got over the initial shock of having my book trashed, I figured I'd better start working on growing a thick skin if I was going to continue as an author. I don't think it even occurred to me to write the reviewer and point out his errors in both facts and judgment:-)

While Jazz musicians thrive on feedback, authors frequently wither under it. The funny thing is, some of the nastiest e-mails I've gotten have been from people who've never read one of my books! It can take a bit of back and forth to figure out, but some readers figure that an author who writes about a subject is somehow associated with it, and makes as good a place to send general gripes as any. I've tried to learn to differentiate between people who are just trying to be mean and people who are genuinely seeking answers, but it's my batting record is nothing to brag about. I suppose you might argue it takes a lot more effort to become a Jazz musician than an author, and it might be true in some ways, but you see plenty of kids playing music at a high level, and not that many kids writing great books. Who knows, maybe the polite applause is part of the reason. Kids aren't stupid.

UK Lightning Source and EU Publishing

Publishers on our side of the pond often view Europe as an expensive place to do business with a limited number of English speaking readers. Two of the publishing industry's premier events, the Frankfurt and London book fairs, obviously take place in the EU, but American publishers assume the main opportunity there is for selling translations. We've had the occasional offer on one or another of our books to do a translation, but the potential upside was outweighed by the possible risks and probable legal costs. But, thanks to treaties that allow for free flow of goods, a publishing relationship with any EU publisher can make your books available in all of the member countries.

EU sales for Foner Books, printed and distributed by Lightning Source in the UK, amounted to about 25% of our U.S. sales in 2006, and are on an upward trend. For us, choosing to have our books printed and distributed in the EU was a simple check box when setting up the titles for the US, and setting a price in English £'s. There were no extra setup charges or costs, and the income is deposited in dollars directly in our business checking account. We didn't attempt to do any regionalization for our titles, in terms of the English or units usage, but our feedback from customers in Europe has been terrific. Since English is the second language of the Western world, it's also unclear that we would sell that many more books if they were translated.

As in the US, the UK branch of Lightning Source maintains a relationship with the Amazon outlets there, including,, and of course, We get some sales through all of these outlets, and I've occasionally seen our books stocked for immediate delivery in all of these stores. The POD services company that Amazon acquired, Booksurge, used to maintain printing relationships in several European countries, but I'm not sure how that's been impacted since the buy-out. Also, if you move beyond the trade paperback market, book tastes in the Europe may be very different from those in the US, in terms of prices people are willing to pay and products they expect.

I've been tempted for years to go to one of the European book fairs, as much as I hate traveling, just to see how different things really are. My main experience with foreign language books is in Israel, where books are very expensive because the numbers printed are relatively small. An Israeli Bestseller need only sell tens thousand or so copies, the population being only about 2% of the US. New paperback novels cost in the $15 to $25 range, and hardcover fiction is relatively rare, and often classic. Although France and Germany are large markets compared to Israel, their populations are about a fifth of the US for France and a little more than a quarter for Germany, and I don't expect the export market for those languages is as large as it was a hundred years ago.The UK population is about the same as France, so those of us who "chose" to write and publish in English can pat ourselves on the back for being astute business people:-)

Ignore the Editor Behind the Curtain

I hope everybody can place this movie paraphrase - "I am the great and powerful author (ignore the editor behind the curtain)." I bring it up because I keep getting friendly e-mails pointing our some or the other numerous typos in my blog. I think these correspondents are usually disappointed when I thank them for the input but never quite get around to making the corrections. I draw a very sharp distinction between producing a blog and a book, and I don't get excited about errors on my blog, except for broken links. The laptop I'm traveling with has a fun trick where it doesn't always register the letters I type, which adds to the general confusion. On book projects, I always employ an editor and several proofreaders, and they still don't come out perfect. I'm not some humbug whose books are actually written by the editor, but depending on the project, I can accept quite a bit of input and cut-and-pasting.

Editors are not always held in greatest esteem by self publishers, many of whom have been taken in by "New York Editor" advertisements in the back of some magazine and have spent several thousand dollars having a manuscript butchered without any particular rhyme or reason. My own inclination is to stay away from editors who have been trained in the big trade houses, because they have difficulty seeing the world through the eyes of a self publisher. Whether you're publishing your first book, or your fourth, you can afford to do things a little differently than the trades, who try to force everything into commercial straight jackets they are comfortable with. When I began self publishing the second time around and needed an editor, I wanted an english major from an exclusive women's school who actually reads books for pleasure in her spare time. As to affordability, I can only refer to the old engineering joke about students of different majors graduating from university:

The chemistry student goes out into the world and asks, "I wonder what it's made of?"
The engineering major leaves school and asks, "I wonder how it works?"
The business major completes his studies and asks, "I wonder how I can make money from it."
The english student enters the real world and asks, "Would you like fries with that?"

You'd think this would create a situation where fine editors would be available for minimum wage, but you'd have missed the part about the exclusive women's school. You can tell the difference between run-of-the-mill colleges and exclusive havens of learning by the presence of an equestrian program. Ignoring such issues as student loans and general life expenditures, the best editors for my money are always saddled with the expense of keeping one or more horses. If you think the vet charges a lot to work on your cat, think again, because they pretty much charge by the pound. So, reviewing my guidelines for hiring an editor:

1) English major
2) Good College
3) Horse
4) Reader
5) Available

That last one is an afterthought, but there are few things more frustrating in book production than having your schedule bog down thanks to outsourced help, like an editor, who can't get through the job in a reasonable amount of time. I had a book sit with a proofreader for a few weeks once with no progress made before taking it back, and I guess I learned my lesson because she never spoke to me again. When you hire any kind of freelance help, it's best to set a schedule up-front and hold them to it, because we all have different conceptions of "reasonable" when it comes to time. Note that the one thing I'm sure you don't need in an editor is publishing industry experience. As the publisher, you're the one who's supposed to know what you're doing, who the audience is, and how the book should be edited, and it's also your job to give the editor some basic guidelines unless she's telepathic. I always recommend that publishers working with a new editor, or any outsource labor for that fact, start the job in small phases so both parties don't end up getting an unexpected surprise at the end. And next time you read one of my books, ignore the editor behind the curtain, but know for certain that she's there, on horseback.

My Children's Book Idea

As a change in pace from the business aspects of writing and publishing, I thought I'd share my favorite idea for a children's book. I've tried to interest my sisters in doing it, both of whom write for children, but their audience is a religious one so non-kosher sea creature isn't the best central character. I haven't written a children's book since I was a child myself, but I'm in the habit of looking at all books I see from the engineers perspective (I wonder how it works) and it seems to me that good children's books share some common elements. First and foremost, they must appeal to both children and adults, which sometimes means dialogue or art that works on two different levels. Second, they have to stretch the credulity a little because children love spotting the difference between reality and fantasy for themselves. The books don't have to deal in magic realism, but it's a good sign if a child asks, "Can it REALLY do that?" Where would children's books be without talking animals? And while the dialogue doesn't have to rhyme, it better have a certain lyrical quality if you hope the book will become a classic.

I'd like to write a children's book about an octopus that lives in an above ground swimming pool with a family in the suburbs. If you've ever seen swimming pool cover with a big bump in the middle where the owners have stood the ladder or placed a beach ball so the rain will run off, that's the opening picture in the book. I think it would be best to build up for a couple pages, with a tentacle here or there sneaking out from under the cover to do this or that, but save exposing the whole "secret" for the fourth page (third turn). A good name for the octopus would be August, since August is the eighth month of the year and octopi have eight "arms." It could lead a sharp kid to ask about October.

I stumble a bit on whether I want the octopus to be invisible to everybody except the children, or an accepted reality in the neighborhood. I kind of prefer the latter, in part because it makes it much easier for August to end up in a school play, or saving the town from flooding by putting eight fingers in the dam - from the outside! If a catch line is required for a series, I think adults and children would get a kick out of "Speak to the beak" in their own context. When you think of all the useful things August could do, like putting out fires with her own bucket brigade, dunking the neighborhood bully, teaching children to count in base eight (it's the new math), I'm sure the idea has legs.

So you're thinking, if the book idea is so great, aren't you worried somebody will steal it? No, because you can't really steal an idea, at least not in the copyright sense though having written about it may give me some proprietary claim for "Speak to the beak." While it's a book idea I really think could work, I'm not an illustrator, and unless my sister who illustrates children's books comes around, I don't see myself doing anything with it. Book ideas are a penny a pound, and if you've tried weighing an idea lately, you can imagine how many of them you can get for a penny. I came up with the octopus in the swimming pool while working on a friend's house, where they have both a small above ground pool and various other livestock, including dogs, horses, snakes and chickens. I have no way of knowing whether a hundred other authors have tried writing a similar book and given up, or if there are a dozen titles out there with an octopus living in a swimming pool that I just haven't seen. All I know is that mom never wrote a children's book with an octopus, though she does have one with a dragon living in a basement.

Independent Writers and Authors Compensation

I got caught up today in industry statistics, since planning a move to New Hampshire would require me to come up with a fair amount to use as compensation for personal services to my publishing business. My search for this information led me to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles all sorts of fascinating information about employment statistics, including in the arts. In the Federal category of NAICS 711500 - Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers, the BLS estimates a total employment of 43,590, with a mean annual salary of $43,590. For starters, this is more than I expected it would be, but I suppose there's a lot of self selection going on if they don't contact starving artists. The truth is, I don't really understand if they are estimating total numbers of writers employed, or only estimating the total number of writers for whom they believe they have data.

Of the 43,590 independent artists, writers and performers, only 1,710 are listed as "Writers and Authors", with the mean annual salary of $75,140. I think there's a little trick involved, because they get the mean annual salary by multiplying by the mean hourly rate, and they use a full-time year of 2080 hours. This means if they are getting the hourly rate any other way than dividing the annual gross by 2080 hours, they are probably overestimating. On the other hand, if they can't get hourly data for a group, they use the reported annual income. My disclaimer is they didn't contact me for the survey, so it can't be too accurate:-)

Despite only 1,710 listed independent Writers and Authors, there are an estimated 43,020 working writers in the survey data. The majority work for either newspaper, book, and directory publishers or advertising and related services. These jobs pay less than our independent group, $47,950 for the book publishing grouping and $57,400 for the advertising. This might leave you with the impression that there's no better paying work for authors than working independently, but even if we accept the mean salary measure on the face of it, there's one group that out earns the $75,140 earned by the independents. That's the $79,800 earned by the motion picture and video industries writers, with 1,300 employed.

Again, if we accept all these averages as meaningful, it would mean there are just about 3,000 authors and writers in the country earning over $75,000 a year, with those working in California earning more than $10,000 a year more than New Yorkers and even Conneticutians. There is no separate category for self publishers, at least not that I can find, so it's not really clear if the data they are using for authors is limited to authors working for royalties or work-for-hire. One of the funny things I've encountered in writing about our industry is that even though there must be tens of thousands of self publishers trying to make a go of it, there's no way of surveying ourselves, since most of us have no affiliations whatsoever. It's much simpler to make sweeping statements about subsidy published authors, using companies like iUniverse, Xlibris or Authorhouse, since those companies have all the vital information for the tens of thousands of authors they have published, and occasionally let a little something slip. My own estimate, from extensive correspondence, data releases and watching Amazon, is that the average subsidy published author never earns back the fees paid for publishing.

Technorati and Better Blogging Visibility

I've been blogging along for close to two years now, so I thought I'd finally link my Technorati Profile and claim my blog. At the same time, I figured I may as well stop hiding from the world and enable my Atom feed, so that Google Blogs and the other blog search engines can pick me up. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I forgot that the Atom helped so much with visibility, I turned it off a year ago and deleted the file!

Every once and a while I figure it's a good idea to admit I have rocks in my head, and that being a publishing pundit doesn't protect me from making all sorts of mistakes. It just gives me a platform to write about them. In this case, my mistake has been using a blog for content management, but hiding from the blogosphere. My main reason for doing this was simple stubbornness. I'm a bad sport about opening my own blogs to public comments, so I figured I'd just use blogging for content management and let it go at that. The problem is, blogging isn't a particularly good for of content management, and I have numerous archived posts that barely draw a visitor a day. The most popular archived blog post on my site doesn't come close in popularity to my top 50 pages.

All that said, in the past two years, I probably spent 90% of my publishing effort on writing for my blogs! What kind of idiot spends all of his time writing blogs and then hides them from the world? That's the question I asked myself this morning, and I couldn't provide a sane answer. So, in addition to enabling by feed and claiming at Technorati, I'm going to spend the next hour looking for web resources where I can announce my Self Publishing blog after 180+ posts. It's a good thing I'm the publisher (job title for the top dog at a publishing company) or I'd have to fire myself.

Publisher Assets and Intellectual Property Estates

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intellectual property assets a publisher accrues, and how for most publishers, the intellectual property is the only real value in the business. In the case of self publishers, that property is wholly owned by the author and publisher, in the case of large trade publishers and small presses, the property rights are defined by the book contract. Certainly some of the large publishers have accumulated real estate and infrastructure assets, and while the real estate is probably a winner, the infrastructure only has value to somebody who wants to run a similar sized publishing business. Some large and medium sized publishers have some strong brands and customer relations that could be valued as good will, but there are a very limited number of these compared to the overall number of publishing businesses in extent. While brand recognition in small niche markets is a nice thing to have, there will always be a question as to whether it’s more cost efficient to buy it in the form of an existing publisher, or to build it from scratch with new titles and niche marketing.

In looking at the future for my own publishing business, I’ve looked about a bit for some other small publisher to buy, in hopes of changing my own economies of scale and making more tax efficient use of the business income at this point of my life. The more I think about it, the less sure I am that I want to be running the same type of business that I’m running now, just two or three times the size. Traditional publishing and Internet publishing have been waging a ten year battle in my head, and I increasingly find that the Internet publishing model holds more interest for me. It’s also telling that the majority of the responses to my post about buying a publisher were in the form of partnership offers from small to midsize publishers who were looking to expand their Internet presence.

One business model I’ve become fascinated with is that of setting up an agency and brokerage for intellectual properties belonging to authors and small publishers. The idea would be to take partial responsibility for maintaining the value of the works, to whatever extent possible, with the ultimate goal of selling them to other publishers who could make the most of them. Just yesterday, I heard from a small publisher who had read my article about acquiring another publisher and who have done just that. They purchased a small publisher that had reached the end of its life cycle and was letting books go out of print, and they’ve already revived several of those titles. In doing so they’ve saved real value from going to rot, in both societal and financial terms. In the internet age, online books and intellectual property are exactly like real estate, in the sense that their value depends on their neighborhood, condition and earnings potential.

The problem in valuing such intellectual property is it requires an honest third party who is intimately familiar with the legal status of the assets (read “lawyer”) and also knows something about both the book publishing and online publishing worlds. There’s no difference between purchasing intellectual property rights from people they don’t belong to and receiving stolen property as far as I can tell. Having paid the wrong party won’t protect you from infringement claims, and you aren’t going to get your money back from a crook. There are also a number of important yet often overlooked Internet related chores that an agency could take care of, like filing regular website copyright registrations, keeping up domain registrations, and watching for infringing websites and suspicious activity on the domain.

However, I think the most important job for such an agency would be in concentrating relatively low value intellectual property assets and packaging them for sale either to existing publishers or as turn-key publishing businesses. It would be an especially useful tool for estate executors, who on the death of an author or owner of a small press, may be faced with valuing and temporarily managing assets they have no experience with. In the time it takes the executor to sort things out, those assets may be tremendously diluted or even turn into expenses.

I suspect in the vast majority of cases today, self publishing assets are simply allowed to disintegrate if the author becomes disabled or dies, not to mention authors who simply can’t make a go of the business or run into extraordinary life expenses that force them to seek a buyer. Small publishers that are incorporated and run by professional managers would be easier for an estate to deal with, but many small publishers are essentially a one man or woman show, even if they are incorporated and have very solid legal agreements with their authors. Rather than having to separately obtain the services of lawyers, auctioneers and appraisers and publishing experts, both paper and online, an agency could provide one stop shopping for a standard percentage. It would also give me something to do when I get up in the morning.

Transition from Author to Publisher

I stumbled across a forgotten electronic filing cabinet in Eudora, one which holds correspondence from earlier years. I probably have correspondence dating back to the mid-90's on CD back-up somewhere which would include my original venture in self publishing, but this particular batch of correspondence is from 2001 - 2002. I was becoming disillusioned with working as a trade author and was in the process of stubbing my toes badly as a small offset based publisher, and I was also at my height of joining professional authors organizations and participating in online groups. Back then, this blog was the contents page of my writing related articles, which I'd titled "Cornered Writers," which explains where the blog file name came from. Most of the out-of-the-blue correspondence I got back then was related to reverse engineering of Amazon sales ranks, since this was in the pre-Neilsen era, when Amazon and Ingram were pretty much the only public indicators of book sales. Does anybody else remember the Category Bestseller Lists Ingram used to publicly report for a dozen genres? I also got some interesting correspondence related to articles I'd written about book contracts and breaking into trade publishing by way of the Internet.

What surprises me looking back on this nearly forgotten period is that I recognize many of the names from the correspondence as people who have gone on to success as authors or publishers. One e-mail from September 2002 was from a publisher correcting me on a decimal point problem with an article I'd written about Lightning Source before publishing with them. Included in his e-mail was the line, "It is a hell of a lot of work to make a book be successful." One of the titles he published was later sold to a NY trade and went on to become a bestseller and a major feature film. Another author concluded an e-mail with "Needless to say, publishers think I am daft. A crank." I saw no reason to disagree.

Quite a bit of correspondence was related to the Authors Guild, where my Amazon Sales Ranks analysis had created a little notoriety for me at the two meetings I attended. Everybody was watching ranks back then, and while I was hardly a celebrity, I was sort of known. I only lasted two years in the Guild before quitting over their politics, and had one letter published in their newsletter before going. I wrote it in response to a mailing they sent out in April, 2002 titled, "Time to De-Link from Amazon." Their contention was that sales of used books in Amazon marketplace was something evil, though I wouldn't be surprised if they all shopped at the Strand. The key sentence was "We believe it is in our members' best interests to de-link their websites from Amazon. There's no good reason for authors to be complicit in undermining their own sales. It just takes a minute, and it's the right thing to do." I just found my response in my out-box, the key line of which was "Look, I once watched seven used copies of a book of mine sell in a single day, but most of that will occur whether or not I link the site. You're asking authors to cut off their noses to spite their faces."

There was quite a bit of correspondence from people trying to sell me something, or trying to sell me on something, which is even worse. There were requests from trade publishers to write books for them, or to participate in the editorial process of books they'd already acquired. Initially, I was pretty polite because I was honored they were contacting me, later I came to see some of the requests as financially insulting. They could afford to write nice things to potential slave labor. I was also amused to come across a couple letters where people misquoted me and then agreed with the misquote!

The only bad feelings I got from looking through all of the publishing related questions was how many people didn't bother reading anything on my site beyond the title of the page they found and my e-mail address. Too many questions included a request for general information that was covered in triplicate on the very page they would refer to. If I paste in an exact quote from the page that answers the question, they tend to get defensive, like a kid caught lying. It's not that I place such a high value on my time, I just don't place a higher value on their time. Another type of inquiry I don't enjoy because I don't pursue a bestseller approach to publishing is the request for advice on hitting a home run. I hear from publishers who haven't sold a hundred books trying to perfect a scheme for selling a million, and trying to tempt me with a percentage. I'm not tempted. I do my best to answer reasonable questions because I learn from the process.

I even got an e-mail addressed "To Whom It May Concern" saying "This may sound silly or just plain ignorant, but I was wondering if you sent a manuscript to an editor or publishing house could they take your book and publish it without letting you know about it?" I'm sure it didn't concern me, but I answered anyway. Another early classic that's repeated many times in the past four years, "I read some of what you wrote on the POD stuff, and it does interest me. But is it really possible to make money on internet publishing or POD publishing?" Gee, thanks for reading "some of it," but you stopped before the bottom line where I gave exact costs and profits.

I guess the best e-mails are the "Thank You's" that come in from authors and publishers who have neither a question to ask nor an axe to grind. Sometimes they include information about the progress of their own businesses or careers as a quid-pro-quo for the information I publish about my own. Sometimes they're more successful than I am, other times they have a better attitude or a unique approach to publishing. I've heard from authors with genuine bestsellers and top 100 books on Amazon, and from publishers who spent thousands of dollars on advertising to sell a handful of books. Without that input, I could never have written a fraction of this blog, and would no doubt have made more mistakes in my own publishing business.

How To Make Books and Influence People

Every couple months I allow myself a satiric title, with the honors this post going to “How to make friends and influence people.” That I never read the original is witnessed by my lack of influence, but fortunately, I have books as friends. Simply making books, as I pointed out to a marketing oriented correspondent yesterday, is an increasingly trivial process given today’s technology and word processors. If you just sit and type for X hours a day, within a couple months you’ll have something you could bind and call a book, and if you run out of things to say or ways to express yourself, you can always ask the word processor for help. However, if you want to create a book that will influence people, it’s a little trickier, because you’ll have to write a book that they’ll read.

Marketing isn’t the answer to this particular question anymore than is giving books away for free. You can make a book with a fine leather binding, and that may get it onto somebody’s shelf as eye candy, but they won’t read passed the first page if you don’t have something to say and a way of saying it that’s simpatico with the reader. You can run the most effective marketing campaign in the world and sell umpteen copies, but if nobody reads beyond the first demagogical passage, you won’t influence a soul. I know from correspondence that some of my books have had positive effects on people’s lives, well beyond what you might expect from slightly philosophical how-to titles, but it’s a just the result of being the right preacher in the right place at the right time. If your goal is to make a better future, i.e., one where people who think like you are in charge, what you’re really talking about is propaganda. Oddly, the negative connotation we apply the word in the U.S. is not an international rule, many countries have offices of propaganda, which to them is just another word for pushing their official point of view.

I have a good friend who works for a famous newspaper, one that has a strong editorial point of view. Some of their columnists produce books that they hope will influence how people think, but in the style of most modern political tomes, they spend all of their effort preaching to the converted. Aside from the lack of sport (may as well shoot bunnies in a hutch), it’s a purely an exercise in profit motivated journalism. An author can’t seriously expect to bring about social change by writing a book that will only be read by people who even the author might find to extreme in their support of the author’s views, which are often summed up in the subtitle. So the only point of writing such a book is a grab for royalties and speaking fees. What makes somebody buy such a book escapes me.

If you want to influence people, you have to meet them more than halfway, then bring them along in your direction in a series of easy steps. You don’t have to get the whole job done in one book, and in any case, it’s better for business if you can publish a sequel. Normally, I wouldn’t write a post like this because I’m bothered by the political books I see published on all sides of the spectrum. My rationale today, beyond having thought up the cute post title, is that the work of making a book that has a real chance at influencing people is probably a good exercise in moderation for the author. You’re not going to convince anybody that their point of view is flawed unless you study their point of view sufficiently to see things from their side and understand where they are coming from. And, if you reach that point, you may find out that they’ve been half right all along. If you write that book, you may not make a lot of money, but maybe you’ll make some worthwhile friends.