Publisher On The Move

I've gotten to the point that I'm just not productive without reasonable Internet connectivity, so I cut short a free (if unplanned) lakeside vacation in N.H. and moved into a Best Western motel for a few days. I originally showed up in town for an immediate move-in that lingered in limbo all week, though I just got word that I can start moving in tomorrow afternoon. The DSL equipment is already on the way. Every time I go down to the motel lobby to work (the room connectivity is bad) my firewall informs me that it's assigning the "Laptop on the move" profile. I should rename the option "Publisher on the move."

A common fantasy among authors and self publishers I know is to get away from it all. To hit the road with a backpack or an RV, depending on the age of the dreamer, and travel the back roads of America or the world. I'm not immune to this fantasy, and I've poured over the details of Amtrak unlimited travel passes and similar "all you can tolerate" travel deals. All this from a guy who doesn't like to travel, except for the feeling of freedom I get from an empty highway at night. But thanks to my experiences apartment hopping in Jerusalem last winter and this latest fiasco, I know that what I really want is a place to call home and work for a while.

Sure, I could buy a cellular modem for the laptop and navigate from coverage area to coverage area while blogging away about everything under the sun, but I've done enough free-form journalism the past two years to know that it's not something I want to hang my hat on. I've been putting off doing a serious writing project about the economic future for some time now, so I've decided to take the short term lease I just signed as a motivator get moving. In order to start my days in the right frame of mind, I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal today, and I'm working on a publishing framework for the research progress and writing. My plan is to combine a new blog with what will eventually be a dozen or so static website pages that could double as a draft for a book. The combination of a blog and a site might be called "blight" but I'm short a few letters.

Although I should be established in my new office by Monday, my guess is that I'll have less and less time to give to blogging about self publishing, unless some of my financial research turns out to be dual purpose. At the risk of giving away the ending, I'm thinking of naming this project Bubble Bath, for the bath we're all going to take when bubble upon bubble bursts. When I told a non-publishing friend what I'm hoping to produce, he replied, "Don't be a pessimist! Work harder." I've known him long enough interpret it to mean "Work harder than that," and I can't agree with my interpretation of his meaning. I do work hard, and hard work has its rewards, but it never stopped the rain from falling.

Writers Are Accountants At Heart

Today I heard a fascinating lecture by Professor Schmandt, author of "How Writing Came About" amongst numerous other titles. Everybody knows that writing started with the Sumerians around 5,000 years ago (no feedback about space aliens, please), but the question remains, how did writing develop? Schmandt has an answer, and that answer is accountants. I'll give a brief and no doubt incorrect recap of her lecture.

Archaeologists have gathered large numbers of little clay counters, called tokens, going back to around 7500 B.C., which happens to coincide with the first domestication of animals and plants. In other words, as soon as people started accumulating stuff, they wanted to count it. These tokens were used in one-to-one correspondence with the things they were being used to count. If you saved up 6 jars of oil, you could use six tiny little clay jar tokens to number them. Assumedly, there was no way of expressing the number "six" in speech, and it probably didn't even exist as a concept. There was just that one-to-one correspondence, tiny little stand-ins for real objects. By the way, we aren't talking about statuettes or anything so complex, just simple little shapes you could roll out of clay in a few seconds.

At some later point, people began using tokens for transactions, and tokens were used in contracts. In other words, lawyers also proceeded writers/ Of the big three players in the publishing troika, writers, accountants and lawyers, writers came in last by several thousand years. Contracts for transactions were created by putting the tokens representing the goods into a envelope, really a hollow ball of clay, which could then be sealed with the rolling type of clay seal that everybody who was anybody had to have in the ancient world. One problem with the system was if you needed to consult the record of the transaction, you had to break open the clay envelope, and unless it was done in the presence of all parties who could seal a new envelope, it would have put the whole contract into doubt.

So, some smart accountant or lawyer had the idea of using the tokens to make impressions on the outside of the envelope before sealing them inside, so you could know what was in the envelope without opening it. The next logical step which might have happened overnight or might have taken a millennia, was dispensing with putting the tokens inside the envelope and just imprinting them on a clay tablet. The reason this might have taken a while to happen is that those tokens represented real goods in the people's minds, and going to the abstract "picture" of the token may have been a major cognitive hurdle. The final step was some accountant figuring out you didn't need to tokens to make impressions on a tablet, you could scratch in an outline with a stylus.

Writing, as we understand it, finally happened when the one-to-one correspondence of shapes to goods was split. In other words, when the accountants figured out how express

"jar or oil", "jar of oil", "jar of oil", "jar of oil"


"four" "jar of oil"

a truly abstract system of expression had been invented.

While I don't have any proof, I suspect that fiction writing was invented at the same time as writing, because some genius must have instantly spotted that it doesn't cost anything to scratch out a few extra sheep.

Where Most Self Publishers Fail At Marketing

No self publisher can succeed without marketing, but most of us focus on creativity and content in our approach to getting the word out. We think we're smart marketers because we come up with new ways of finding customers for our books and sometimes win in heads-up matches with the large trades, especially on Amazon. But pretty much all of the self publishers I know, myself included, need to go back to school when it comes to playing the numbers game. It's not so much laziness as lack of interest, and it's a serious failing.

Yesterday I received a nice e-mail from a customer who purchased my publishing book and commented that she figured it was time since she'd already used up a printer cartridge on pages from my site. That comment took me back to 1995 and my first online book marketing effort, when my entire marketing message was (paraphrase):

"You can spend $19.95 for an inkjet cartridge to print this book or you can buy it from me for $9.95 and I'll send you a bound copy."

I've detailed elsewhere why that venture failed and I ended up selling the book to McGraw-Hill but it began generating orders as soon as I posted it. It's really a good ad pitch in that it describes a problem (using up an inkjet cartridge) and a benefit (saving money and getting a bound copy), assuming the visitor is already interested in the book.

Good marketers tweak their ad copy over and over, a word here, two words there, and test the different ads in order to find which performs best. It's a numbers game, where the right ad copy might increase sales 20%, the right ad position on the page might do the same, not to mention colors and formatting. But it takes a lot of small increments and iteration to arrive at the best ad, and it's more of a mechanical task than a creative process. Self publishers just can't get excited about it.

That's a genuine problem because publishing is a super competitive environment, and the 10% here and 20% there would be contributing to more word-of-mouth and better positioning on Amazon. Yet the only real ad tweaking I've done in the last five years was trying different formats for linking to Amazon, and some very short lived text changes on my ordering pages.

Self publishers need to learn to be systematic about tweaking their ad copy, order page appearance and linking. Good advertising managers create tables or spreadsheets to track every change, to note every percentage gain or loss, and maximize the sales per visitor. I try something for a couple days and if I sell one copy less, I panic and go back to my old order form. That's not statistically significant and it doesn't teach me anything either. So I'm going to turn over a new leaf and start a systematic optimization of my order pages and ad copy, starting first thing next year.

Interview With A Vampublisher (First Bite)

Interview conducted on March 22nd, 2007.

Rosenthal (M.R.) Let's start at the beginning, Count.

Vampublisher (C.V.) One, Two, Three, Four,...(Rosenthal interrupts)

M.R.) That wasn't a request, Count Vampublisher, and this isn't Sesame Street.

C.V.) Just a little joke I picked up at the London Book Fair.

M.R.) Getting back to the subject, how did you come to be a Vampublisher?

C.V.) I was bitten by the publishing bug at an auction when I found myself the proud owner of 1989 IBM Laser Printer and returned home to find I had nothing to print! I've always been something of a night owl, and there's not much to do when the world is asleep, other than read and feed, er, the mosquitoes, which are attracted by the, um, light. Moving from Reading Street to Writing Ave is just a stroll down Education Lane, if you happen to live in York [worth the visit]. But the journey from Writing Ave to Publisher Highway typically requires bonded servitude to a whole new York, which is more of a sacrifice than some are willing to make.

M.R.) So you exist in the shadows, feeding off the leavings of the great New York trades?

C.V.) I wouldn't put it so colorfully. Let's just say that I have my niche, and I'd rather be the master in a cottage [industry] than a slave in the castle. Vampublisher titles rarely seek out the harsh lights of chain store shelves, they prefer to glow in the gentle backlight of a hundred million computer screens.

M.R.) That sounds a little like an excuse to me, Count. Are you sure your "preference" for online sales isn't because you couldn't make it in the broad daylight?

C.V.) It's purely a question of economics. There's an unseen war in the publishing industry, between the online world and the brick-and-mortar mausoleums. Of course, some of the books entombed in the chain stores sell in great quantities, but others serve as mere wallpaper, and are speedily returned to their maker. For a publisher like myself, who frequently moves from place to place on short notice, being weighted down by an inventory of books can be like a stake through the heart.

M.R.) Speaking of heart, don't you feel bad about charging people for your words, ephemeral as they are? Don't you believe books should be free?

C.V.) GET BACK! (raising his arm up over his face as if shielding it with a cape:-). If you want a free book, visit a library or Project Gutenberg. I positively haunted libraries as a youngster, but those books didn't grow on trees. Somebody had to butcher the trees, turn them into paper, add ink and advertising, not to mention composing the words. When your sole income is derived from publishing, free books don't make a whole lot of sense, though I do have several books online in their entirety, and several more in excerpts.

To Be Continued [sometime]

The Great Salary Divide In The Book Business

I've spent more time lately reading other book business blogs and I find myself dividing them into two categories. I think a lot of readers categorize publishing related bloggers as either insiders or outsiders, but bloggers who make a living at publishing are all "insiders" in a sense. If the blogs I've been checking were written anonymously, I'd still come up with the same division, because the differences in style and content are fairly stark. It comes down to who's on salary and who's self employed.

Blogs of salaried book business employees tend to focus on the hot-button issues in publishing, on the future of the large trades, on the latest gadgetry, latest conference, latest standard. They reflect the industry breakfasts, lunches and dinners the bloggers attend and the panels they serve on. While these bloggers may be viewed by some of their peers as radicals for "going public", from the standpoint of a self publisher, they look more like conservatives focusing on incremental changes that support rather than challenge the current trade-centric models that pay their salaries.

The self employed bloggers tend to focus on making a living, and frequently enter into discussions about the cost of printing and postage, or how a single misstep can result in disaster for a business in start-up mode. Self employed bloggers also focus on their own experiences or answering reader questions, while the salaried employee blogs contain a lot more journalistic posts. Based on talks with salaried publishing personnel, from proofreaders to executives, I think the disconnect runs pretty deep for people who are working in the same business.

Recently, I was treated to an hour long discourse about retirement, health benefits, vacation days and perks, and how important it was to negotiate the continuity and improvement of these when moving from one job to the next. When people start talking to me about what percentage of their salary they expect to receive from the day they retire to the day they die, I just have to wonder. Self employed people, whether in book business or any other field, don't even qualify for unemployment, much less the benefits our salaried friends seek to improve. Excuse us if we can't empathize with golden handshakes, job-hunting on your employer's time, or expense accounts. My expense account is my wallet. Self employed people earning a living in the book trade get what they prepare for every day, not what they negotiate for on signing. It has a very real impact on our business priorities and what we view worthy blog material.

I attended my second book auction last night where an inscribed copy of "Barnaby Rudge" went for $42,000. What a great business model! Just sell one copy of Barnaby Rudge per year and earn the median family income in the States. If I had dropped that line into the middle retirement monologue I mention above, I'm sure I would have gotten a, "Yeah, that's great, but do I take the 100% pay-out or the 80% pay-out that continues for my spouse if I die first. You can't imagine how tough these decisions are."

No, I can't.

Sold By Google Books

One year and one week ago I received an e-mail from Google Books saying I could authorize them to sell ebook versions of the titles I included in their program. I authorized them immediately, but for whatever the reason, that option remains in limbo. I thought they might bundle the launch with their Google Checkout™ program, but it didn't materialize. I even sent the one Google contact I had an e-mail suggesting they get their electrons together and launch when Amazon stopped carrying Lightning Source ebooks. Maybe they're waiting for the perfect portable reader.

But I received confirmation over the weekend that Google Books had indeed sold at least one book for me, and I got it from the least impeachable source on Affiliate program purchases I've encountered - a customer:

"PS - I found you in the #1 spot on Goggle:

Book results for print on demand books
Print-on-demand Book Publishing - by Morris Rosenthal - 173 pages
Washington Rock and Roll - by Mark Opsasnick - 196 pages
Handbook of Print Media - by Helmut (EDT) Kipphan - 1207 pages"

She actually pasted in the Google Books result above, which is particularly interesting because I can't reproduce it myself. Not on the Book Search site and not through the normal Google Search page. I'm not terribly surprised because the Books results on Google's main page have been coming and going as long as I've been paying attention. I'm not sure whether it's due to a massive A/B test, a "we're watching you" customization, or just some random number generator. What's also strange is that the results she pasted in show a different page count than I get when I search on the title at Google Books.

But what really struck me from the context of her e-mail was that she went to Google to search for a book. I've granted Amazon the same search monopoly on books I've granted Google on web pages, to the extent that I've gone to Amazon to find books to buy on with a Barnes and Noble gift card. My gut feeling is that the basic search function on Amazon has been driving an increasing proportion of their sales over the years, as customers became comfortable with the notion of browsing an online bookstore. If book buyers start turning to Google to do their book browsing, it could end up costing Amazon sales, since Google lists a number of retailers for books. Maybe Google is just waiting for some critical mass of book browsers before they start selling ebooks, or maybe that's wishful thinking.

All My Friends Use Spell Checkers

I think publishing needs a country western song, or maybe a country publisher song, and I've decided to start with the chorus:

All my friends use spell checkers

And that's as far as I've gotten. It needs a verse about my wife taking off with a slick talking trade rep in our book delivery van, backing over my dog and leaving me with nothing but remainders. But I want to go on the record as saying I do use a spell checker, I'm just not very good at it. So much for the theory that the tools make the workman.

All my self publisher friends also work out of home offices except one, and he's got a couple other businesses running so I'm not going to count him. I'm looking to get out of the home office myself, but I'm having a hard time finding the right situation. It doesn't help that I'm a bad shopper and spoiled by a decade of living in the same apartment.

My current ideal is a two story brick building or house on a Main Street type commercial district in a small town around here. I'd really like the first floor to be currently used as an office or retail, so I can just move in upstairs and dedicate the first floor to an office/bookstore. Maybe I could hire my editor to come in and give writing seminars or something, get some use out of the space. Maybe I should attend. I've just had enough of my work being in front of me, 24x7, and I want some free time and space to work on other work.

I'm even thinking of moving my primary publishing platform back to a desktop PC, just so I can't carry the office around with me. I'm not a religious man, but I haven't touched my computer on the Sabbath (Friday dusk to Saturday dark) for a decade. I used to be champing at the bit to get back online, but now I'm just happy to give my mouth a chance to relax. I unplug the laptop and close the lid as well, it's important to give your beast a day off (Exodus 20:10 repeated in Deuteronomy 5:14).

My great grandmother, the first woman to publish a novel in Hebrew, borrowed heavily from Biblical quotes and grammar. I sat with a Concordance as I worked through the translation and simply looked up any phrase that struck me as bibley (spell checker doesn't like that, but I'll be damned if I'm going to use bible-like, literally:-)

Some of my publisher friends use grammar checkers as well, but I can't stand how Word pesters me over split infinitives. It would be easy enough to work grammar checkers into the song. Who wouldn't sympathize with a publisher sent to the slammer for bad grammar.

Don't answer that.

Large Print Or Big Backlist For Public Domain Publishers

When word of the Lightning Source POD model got around, quite a few entrepreneurs figured there was gold in them thar out-of-copyright books. The problem with the business model is the "quite a few" bit I mentioned above. The only entry barriers are a thousand bucks for big block of ISBN numbers, electronic versions of out-of-copyright texts and a little formatting. What's even worse, from the perspective of the republisher, is that they can't copyright these books constructed from public domain text. So, if a publisher stumbles onto a big hit with an out-of-copyright book from a hundred years ago, there's nothing to stop a dozen other publishers from rushing a version out next week.

Publishers working the free content angle can come at it from multiple directions, provided they have the time and the funding. I've come across at least one publisher with nearly 7,000 large print public domain books listed on Amazon, though I can't say they are selling like hotcakes. But then again, the main market could well be offline, to libraries, senior centers, etc. The big backlist approach has been adopted by so many print-on-demand startups that I can't even estimate the number, though I must have come across at least a dozen at random. One has just under 15,000 out-of-copyright titles listing, and the big surprise is they aren't all Lightning Source. It's possible the publisher is printing the others themselves, since I saw 4 to 6 week ship times on them, or perhaps they are waiting for an order to format them and add them to the live catalog.

The large print angle falls in the category of funny once. Somebody must have thought of it first and can have all the credit, but they can't have a monopoly so it's hard to see the business model. The publishers with the huge backlists of out-of-copyright books may be better heeled and organized than the pikers with just a few hundred titles, and will probably outlast them on the Long Tail. One thing they all seem to have figured out in a hurry is not to spend a lot of money (or time) on cover design. Either you see thousands of identical covers, except for the text, or a clever use of public domain images in a repeatable fashion.

I wouldn't have bothered writing about this phenomena at all except for the Tom Swift titles from various publishers that caught my eye because they were actually selling! This is the original series, from the 1910's and 1920's. I found them all at my grandmother's house when I was a boy, a whole bookcase full of my father's books which she had saved. The titles for Tom Swift back then were thrilling science fiction, like "Tom Swift and His Motor-Boat" or "Tom Swift and His Motor-Cycle" and even "Tom Swift and His Wireless". In addition to Tom Swift, I remember the original Hardy Boys, The River Motor-Boat Boys (or something similar) and the Boy Scouts fighting in World War I. Now that I think of it, it seems to me that there was a lot more killing than in the newer series. They weren't exactly politically correct either.

I still think there's a business model in out-of-copyright books, but I see it in nonfiction. The publishers who have the smarts to choose the forgotten classics of nonfiction for which they have a modern marketing platform and update them for our time would get the benefit of a proven winner with some copyright protection. The publisher could file a copyright for the new editing and commentary and it wouldn't surprise me if simply updating the English usages throughout a book from the 1800's turned out to be sufficiently extensive to provide very good protection for the version. Given the effort and expertise required to do it and the modest size of the market, I doubt there would be instant competition. I think bringing out a series of updated books within a niche could work well, I just have to find the niche and the books!

Table Of Contents For Self Publishing

You asked for it (we did?) and you got it. I've ground out a sort of table of contents for the blog:

I created it by cobbling together all of the monthly archives, which I'd previously edited down into one-line descriptions and links. Haven't included March yet.

The question is, should I try to organize the TOC into an online self-directed self publishing course. I'm not sure how much work it would be since I haven't tried it yet. One possible approach would be to do a giant flowchart of the decisions facing self publishers, with problems and solutions, and link the symbols to blog posts. Another approach would be to go governmental style:

1.0 Self Publishing
1.0.1 Starting a publishing company
1.0.2 Applying for a government grant you don't deserve Hiring people to do the work for you

But I can't say I've ever been a fan of that genre.

I could try to weave all of the posts into a long narrative about publishing, but it would be a bear to update, and a bore to read. With over 200 posts in the archive and growing, I should probably just start leaving some out, but my tired fingers might walk out on me.

I'm open to suggestions, check it out and let me know if you have a good idea I can pretend I came up with myself.

Making A Living Writing and Self Publishing

I spent some time searching my own archives before titling this post "making a living" because I was sure I had used it before. Unless Google is wonky, I haven't, which strikes me as strange. I was thinking about the parallels of the writing and publishing career paths today while stuck on a long drive, and I'm not really sure which is the harder lane to hold.

Many concerned parents have given their scribbling children the sage advice "It isn't easy making a living as a writer. Why, I read in a magazine last week that only 100 people in the whole of these United States makes a living as an author." What's truly amazing is that somebody made a living writing that oft-quoted magazine article. But most writing jobs are 9 to 5 salary positions, writing technical manuals, churning out documentation and company newsletters, writing for grants or composing ad copy. That's not counting the whole of professional journalism, newspaper and magazine writers, columnists, some of whom earn a very good living. Overall, I'll bet that people who make a living writing have a higher median income than people who make a living other occupations, if you take the "other occupations" crowd as a whole.

On hand number two, I'd be pleasantly surprised if one out of a hundred authors who enters the field of self publishing ends up making a living at it, even in the short term. Of course, that's because most writers get involved in self publishing for the wrong reason. I wrote once that most self publishers shoot themselves in the foot before they even start by writing the wrong book, or they self publish because they can't get a trade contract. That's sort of like running for public office, losing the primary with zero percent of the vote because you didn't follow the instructions in the booth, then deciding to start your own party as the surest way to get elected. Self publishing isn't about a sudden promotion from Joe citizen to Joseph author, it's about kissing babies and selling books.

But let me throw you a curve ball. I think that most of those who make a living writing could transition to making a living self publishing if they have a head for business and two eyes for marketing. And, I think it's a lot less risky for writers to make the transition to publishers than for cooks to make the transition to restaurant owners, bartenders to club owners or teachers to private school moguls. There's a lot less paperwork involved, no need for employees, no special regulations to comply with, expensive licenses, etc.

Thanks to the Internet, I'm not sure there are many other occupations where it's so easy to make the transition from an employee to the being your own boss. It's the making a living at it part that's tough, because unlike house painters or landscapers, you usually can't rush out and undercut your old boss doing the same thing, often for the same customers. And unlike the restaurant and bar employees, you can't open a new place right across the street. Yet, once you have the system beat, it makes you wonder why everybody doesn't work for themselves.

Of course, there's always the problem with holding your own nose to the grindstone. If I could just figure out how to stop posting to the blog and get back to writing books, I'd have a future in self publishing myself:-)

NYC Publishers On Mesozoic Dangers

This morning I saw an announcement in Publishers Weekly newsletter for a breakfast meeting in New York, part of the "Think Future - What's Next In Book Publishing" series. The next scheduled discussion on March 21 is "Technology: Opportunities and Threats for the Book Publishing Industry." I'm thinking of going, but I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be part of the industry or one of the threats. I'd hate to drive all the way in to Manhattan and find myself attacked by a bunch of angry publishing executives in the Luce Room of the Time Warner building. I don't think my publishing attorney does personal injury law:-)

I'll also admit to a bit of an attitude problem. My fantasy scenario of such a discussion, based on programs I've seen in the past on Book-TV, would go something like this:
A bunch of dinosaur publishers are sitting around the breakfast table snacking on giant ferns and discussing the future of the Mesozoic Era. The panel takes up and quickly dismisses such concepts as global cooling and big, dirty snowballs whacking into the planet, and moves on to the heart of the discussion. How to continue doing exactly what they have been doing for the last 165 million years, while convincing the media and their underlings that they are publishing innovators. In order to get the point across, two T-Rex types have been invited. Let's call them Mr. Softy and Hell Boy. Mr. Softy speaks first.

"We believe that through technological innovation, it will become possible to feed your readers to aggre... No, wait. That was, aggregate your reader's feeds..." Hell Boy interrupts.

"We can replace your current readers with with mass produced machine readers, and eat them!"

"Feed them," whispers Mr. Softy, "This is a vegan crowd."

"Eat them!" Hell Boy repeats, "It's part of our new recycling initiative."

One of the vegan publishers chips in something he heard while doing lunch with an agent. More of a rumor really, about an author who has a blog he feeds. The agent wasn't sure whether the blog was a reptile or a fish but promised to get back to him. The V.P. of another publisher mentions that a staffer had shown her a thing called Google the other day. It clearly lacked the graphical elements consumers crave, she pointed out, and would surely fail in the marketplace.

Mr. Softy bellows at the mention of Google and tears into the publisher. Hell Boy attacks the moderator. A giant glowing ball appears in the sky, growing rapidly, and on a collision course with the Straits of Mexico. Fade to black.

While you can see I'm clearly handicapped by preconceptions, I'm nothing if not curious, and I'm genuinely tempted to pay the $45 and try to make it. Granted, I find some of the questions painfully naive, like "What is the future of content?" and "How can we best open the floodgates of 'discovery' and content search without sacrificing the economics of 'consumption?'" If I'm translating the latter correctly, it means, "How can we participate in this Internet 'thing' without changing our business model?"

I shouldn't laugh though, I'm something of a dinosaur myself. I still think that the future of the Internet remains text - more text, and hopefully, better text. I think the fundamental models for monetizing that text have already been established as well. Selling the text to readers who want to buy it and selling advertising space to merchants who want to sell those readers something. You can fool around with the delivery technology for both of these things, POD, e-books, text-to-speech or telepathic implantation, but there's still going to be a buyer/seller relationship, or publisher/reader, if you like.

What worries me about attending such a discussion is that I'll put in three hours of driving (and contributing to global something) and I'll end up boiling in my seat the whole time. In my experience, publishers are still looking for ways to make the Internet more book-like, and they don't have much trouble getting the big technology companies to play along with them. What's been happening in the background is that books are getting Internet-like, with lower entry barriers for publishers, fewer middlemen, and more errors and omissions (like this blog). I suppose the best compromise would be if I go, but to take the Flintmobile.


First Book Auction For A Bookseller Wannabe

Long time readers know I've been thinking about expanding my business from authoring and publishing into bookselling, with a sideline in reprints. Last night, I attended my first book auction, put on by New England Book Auctions at the Hotel Northampton in Northampton, MA. When I searched about the web this morning trying to find the next closest place with regular scheduled book auctions, I came up empty. Wouldn't it be funny if the most convivial book auction in the country turned out to be in the town I lived in for the last ten years, and about a half hour from my current residence!

My main interest in attending was to start the learning process of buying books for resale. The luck of the draw brought me to an uncatalogued list auction, where the books were laid out on four rows of folding tables in 300 lots, for inspection in the hours before the auction opened at 6:30 PM. The list descriptions of the books were very brief and not particularly informative, like "Nine Michigan", "1644 Hebrew" or "3 Law." Of course, I guess that's the meaning of uncatalogued. The atmosphere was very nice, the forty or so buyers in attendance appeared to be book professionals.

There were eight or nine people involved in working the auction, including some who I'd guess were family or friends of family of the auctioneer. I think two women were employed in taking down the winning bids, and another in cashing buyers out when they left. Two men worked as back-table support, bringing lots up to the table to the immediate right of the auctioneer, and three more women and a man (some might have been teenagers) worked in a continual line, holding up the lot or some part thereof to be bid on and delivering it to the buyer after the winning bid.

In order to bid, I had to register beforehand, and not having brought my reseller ID, I would have been stuck paying MA sales tax if I bought anything. There's a 10% premium on all bids, which I assume pays the expenses of the auction and hopefully makes it worth their while to put it on. I'd estimate the handle for the evening around $20,000, so the take for New England Book Auctions would have been $2,000, minus the cost of the ballroom and the expenses for all the auction employees. I'm sure they have plenty of overhead to cover back at the shop as well. Bids were opened at $10, unless there was a pre-auction bid on the part of somebody working for the auction house, and in several instances, I think the auctioneer was bidding on his own behalf.

If bidding on a lot of books or a single item reached $200, the bid increments were changed to $25. If bidding got to $500 (only happened once) the increment went to $50. The whole auction took less than two and a half hours for 300 lots, call it 130 minutes, so the average selling time for a lot was less than 30 seconds. The final price had little to do with the amount of time it took to sell an item, in fact, a joke was likely to slow things down more than aggressive bidding. Some buyers would keep a bid running by nodding "yes" or some other body language, others just hold their number up as long as they're willing to keep bidding the increment.

There were plenty of books from the 1700's and 1800's for sale, and a few from the 1600's. If I'd just wanted a book for the office to impress visitors with a "Here's a three hundred and something year old book I picked up at an auction..." I could have bought one for just over $100. And impressing visitors is probably all it would have been good for since I don't know anything about antiquarian books.

The obvious message that came through from this auction was that the buyers all knew what they were willing to pay for a lot, had written in down on their sheet, and shook their heads "No" if the bidding exceeded that number. Some of the buyers were obviously specialists in some area or another and wouldn't bid on the majority of lots, a few had broad enough operations or knowledge that they were always happy to throw in an opening bid of $10. Sometimes the opening bid picked up a lot if nobody else had seen the value in the books or been interested enough to check it out in the pre-auction inspection.

I never placed a bid, though I worried a little towards the end that if I did want to bid, the auctioneer might not notice me as I'd sunk into the wallpaper category. Since I don't know much about the middle range of the bookselling business, the only lots I was really interested in were gifts for friends, and the bids got out of my range too quickly. That said, I didn't feel that anybody really overpaid for anything, which is ideally how auctions work when professionals are involved and both sides get what they need. Only a single lot failed to draw an opening bid of $10, and the auctioneer quickly lumped it in with the next lot as a bonus.

As a publisher, it re-raised the idea in my mind of one day attending an intellectual rights auction or an auction that included the possibility of buying a defunct publisher's assets. It's not just a business opportunity, I'm somebody who's offended by waste, and to let a going business fail because owner runs out of steam or the heirs don't know what to do with it is just sad. I feel the same way about out-of-print books that still have an audience, which is a great match for print on demand technology. If anybody knows of a venue where intellectual property rights in books or publisher lists are auctioned off, please drop me a line.

Subsidy Press or Author Services Publishers

A lot of authors in the self publishing world think that subsidy presses are all evil entities perpetrating rip-offs on helpless writers. I spend most of my time on this blog trying to explain to authors why they would be better off setting up their own publishing company and self publishing, rather than paying a subsidy press or an author services company to publish a book for them, but I'm fully aware that most authors choose the faster route. If you want to get into print quickly without having to learn anything about the publishing business, there's no quicker way to do it than handing over your credit card information and paying for the process. The subsidy publishers are even faster than most trade publishers, unless you're talking about a "still warm in the grave" biography of somebody famous.

Subsidy presses aren't evil unless they engage in the business of selling dreams and stealing your rights. Any subsidy publisher that tries to sell you a bunch of expensive add-on services, especially in the marketing department, should be avoided. Subsidy presses with contracts resembling those of trade publishers, who take the rights to your work in return for publication and a royalty, should also go in the trash. Trade publishers need those rights because they are paying you an advance and investing in the publication of the book. Subsidy publisher make money from you for publishing your book, they shouldn't be asking for your rights as well.

When an author makes clear to me that they don't want to be in the publishing business but they can't find a trade publisher and want to pay to get their book into print, I usually recommend Booklocker. I like their no-nonsense contract and I've corresponded with one of the owners quite a bit and he clearly understands the business. I'm also given to understand that they turn down many books that are submitted, and as a consequence, they earn more from selling books than they do from author fees.

Another subsidy publisher with terrific PR is Lulu, which is almost synonymous with self publishing in some circles. Their free setup in-house jobs aren't the same quality as their Lightning Source printed books, though the photos may actually turn out better. They use Lightning Source for their distribution package, as do Booklocker, iUniverse, Xlibris, PublishAmerica and most of the other author services or subsidy publishers. I'm no expert on subsidy publisher contracts and fees, but there's a book out by Mark Levine which compares the contracts of all the major subsidy publishers, exposing rip-offs and explaining terms.

As I've written before, subsidy publishing is a business model for the publisher, not for the author. Authors who want to make a living today in should spend some time on my current self publishing blog, this one is just a host of things past. If your goal is to make a living as an author and you can't or won't sign a contract with an advance paying trade publisher, my advice is to set up your own publishing company. All of the subsidy publishers who offer "self publishing" services are really playing with language. You aren't self publishing if they are the publisher of record.

So why do I bring up the topic of subsidy publishing at all? Because after years of participating in discussions on writing lists and taking questions from authors through various incarnations of this site, I've learned that it's an all-or-nothing game for most writers. Either they want a trade contract with an advance and a miserable royalty on net, or they want to pay somebody to publish the book and get on with their lives. The author's services industry exists to fill the latter demand.

Oddly enough, what the two approaches have in common is that neither is likely to enable you to quit your day job and make a living as an author. The majority of trade books don't earn the author enough to take even a year off from working, and the majority of subsidy published books must result in a net expense to the author. If you follow the path of true self publishing, starting your own company and earning the publisher's share on every book sold, if you don't make a living, at least it won't be a mysterious riddle.

Online Bookselling And Price Wars

Before I start talking about the race to the bottom in online book pricing, I want to plug the latest book from Steve Weber. I read the draft when it was tentatively titled Internet Book Publicity and read the finished version, Plug Your Book ($18.99 at Amazon), last week in two sittings. Steve does a terrific job presenting the case for community based Internet marketing and laying out a strategy to for authors to follow. I'm not much of an online community guy myself, but I decided to take his book's advice about occasionally looking outside my own room for post material.

A week or two ago, a Marketplace Seller on Amazon mistakenly listed a couple of my titles as new for cheaper than he could have obtained them. I ordered one to make sure there wasn't some sort of shenanigans involved, then contacted the seller and explained that he must have gotten incorrect pricing info somewhere to think he could order new from Ingram and not lose money on the transaction. He confirmed it was a mistake, thanked me, and a few weeks later I got a refund credited. What I found interesting is what happened in the immediate aftermath to the marketplace pricing of my two titles which he had listed as available some 30% off the list price.

Since I use Lightning Source for for print-0n-demand fulfillment and there are never any remainders, true second-hand copies don't appear all that often in the marketplace and usually sell within a dollar or two of the cover price. However, when the incorrect low prices were listed by one seller, a race to the bottom ensued, and a few subsequent sellers, real people who resell every book they buy new, were tricked into offering the book for $5 or $6 less than they could have gotten. The whole genesis of the price war only took a few days, then the available used copies were gone and the marketplace prices rebounded to their normal levels.

I saw something similar happen to a book I authored for McGraw-Hill when it was still relatively new. The marketplace prices were usually within 15% or 20% of the cover price, and then a large number of remainders hit the market. I think it was CompUSA reorgainizing their shelves, and for a couple months, you could pick it up for an 80% discount. I should have bought them all on speculation. Eventually, the excess burned off and the prices for the used copies recovered to a more respectable fraction of the cover price.

I thought I'd take a look at Steve's Selling Books blog to see if he had anything to say about the book selling price wars, and oddly enough, he'd written about it just last Friday, with a twist I hadn't thought of. Apparently, some book buyers and some competing sellers take advantage of automatic repricing algos used by many sellers to get better prices or to hurt competitors.

It struck me how similar the online bookselling market is to the trading in low volumes stocks that goes on in the equity markets, especially in the pre-open and after-market sessions. Simply listing a price in an open system can affect what somebody else is willing to pay for something, or price their own something at. I just hope it doesn't lead to a whole new generation of spammers sending out e-mails for pump-and-dump schemes on used book titles!

Google Brings International Readers To Publishers

Apparently I jumped the gun by suspecting Google Books of creating some of my recent visibility problems, as publicly debated and recanted in the Publisher's Obsession blog. I expect some of it was misdirected anger towards the recent Blogger changes, but that's all moldy hay in the barn now. I did find a silver lining in spending the last two weeks exercising the keyboard when I ran some Advanced Searches in other languages, something I'd never thought to do before.

What do Estonian, Hungarian, Icelandic, Latvian, Slovak and Slovenian have in common? Of the thirty six languages currently supported by Google, they are the six that don't have any native results for a search on my fonerbooks domain. In a few instances, the native results are merely versions of an Open Directory page that includes a link, but others look pretty interesting, and many of them are apparently publishing discussions. Of course, I can't read most of them, so maybe they all start with "For an example of a REALLY bad publisher's website..."

Here's an example from a Japanese posts discussing Chris Anderson's Long Tail:

And a Swedish post that's either about print on demand or a 1996 Volvo:

Plus a French site with a title I can almost read in English about printing one copy at a time:

I usually don't look for the web pages of non-English publishers that show up in my site statistics, but I spent some effort last year tracking down the landing page for a foreign referrer which turned out to be a leading Jihadi site. Since I've published an online guide for visitors to Jerusalem, I was concerned somebody might be using it for nefarious purposes. It turned out that my sudden popularity with that crowd was due to something I'd published about replacing a CD drive:-)

Speaking of all things international, it turns out there is an International Publishers Association of which the local (US) branch is the Association of American Publishers. I check their website from time to time for studies on book sales, and I've considered joining, but the application process is too much work. Well, it's not so much that as I hate admitting to zero titles published in the last year, not to mention the sin of not publishing a catalog. So if any of my readers were wondering, I'm not part of the international publishing conspiracy. I'm just a verbose self publisher with an Internet site.