One Hundred Years Of Magic Realism

I've been reading One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, which employs elements of magic realism in telling a fictionalized history of Latin America. I had a friend some years ago who wrote her dissertation on magic realism in French Caribbean literature, and I recall her having to explain the concept to me. I don't think I really got it until I saw the movie The Milagro Beanfield War, based on the John Nichols novel. It was real, but it was also magical, with a lot of politics thrown in.

The main reason I never went in for comments on this blog is that I hate censorship, but I hate political opportunists even more. I moderated a large discussion group for over five years, and after the first couple years, I turned on pre-moderation for all new members. In short, I censored their posts. While that got me some hate mail, it got me less hate mail than I used to get from the members who I was forced to ban from the group when they spun out of control and made the reading the list painful for everybody who isn't amused by bullying. I used to keep an eye on the membership list as these episodes began to develop, and it was sad to see members of the silent majority bailing out because one man's freedom is another man's (perhaps more often woman's) gross out.

However, I read somewhere recently that a blog with no comments is like subway with no graffiti so I'm willing to give it a go on the basis of magic realism. I'm hoping it will work something like this. A reader with a question or a comment will fill out whatever form Blogger provides, and I'll be magically notified that there's a comment awaiting moderation. If I think the comment adds to, rather than detracts from the post, I'll approve it. If it's not something I'd want to hear in my kitchen, I'll say the magic Abra Cadabra (which I'm convinced is from the Aramaic, meaning something like, "I will create with the word"), and both the comment and the commenter will go away and leave me alone.

Which is kind of ironic, when you think about it, since the sole reason for accepting comments is so my blog doesn't become known as two hundred plus posts of solitude, or something to that effect. I like to think that my writing on this blog is well founded in reality because I do correspond or talk with people about their publishing issues every day. As I replied to somebody who wrote me over the weekend to say that my writings made more sense than anything else about publishing he read on the web, I hope it's not just because I'm persuasive:-)

If if random comments from space turn out to be more realism than I can take, I'll turn them back off restore the blog's solitude. Just remember, magic doesn't hurt people, reality does.

Book Worm Links

First of all, I know that book worm is normally spelled bookworm because I checked on Google. However, if I used bookworm in the title of this post, I'd never get any visitors because the term is too competitive. By spelling it book worm, I not only have a chance of drawing a few curious visitors, I also have a subject for a rainy Sunday afternoon post. You might wonder what's the point of using the less popular spelling of term, but it turns out that book worm is just as popular as pc repair on Google trends:

I like to use Google Trends as a sanity check on the Overture Keyword Selector when I'm looking at the popularity of common terms. But what does all this have to do with books and publishing on the Internet? Getting your books noticed on the Internet is a sort of a popularity contest, where you want your website to be popular, but you can't put all of your eggs in the wrong basket. For example, I'd been posting articles about self publishing online for five years before my website crept into the top 10 on Google for the term, but I reached number one for Slef Publishing as soon as I wrote about it:-)

Book worms, the real ones, eat holes in books, but just try finding any information on the subject online. There's so much more material about human book worms that it drowns out the invertebrates unless you start adding words like "paper" and "holes" to your query. Internet publishers have to be cognizant of these problems before titling their major pages and navigation links. As with the humble book worm, it doesn't pay for publishers to bite off more words than they can chew.

But it's not worth losing sleep over, because the truth of the matter is that you'll never attract worthwhile visitors through sophistry. If, in fact, if you are publishing books about treating paper to protect it from insect larvae, you don't want to attract a lot of visitors to your site who simply love books. Oops, that's probably the worst example I could have chosen, but hopefully you take my point. If you want to grow your website and your publishing business, you want to attract the visitors who will be happy that they found you.

In the new age of Internet publishing, it's true that content is king, but it's an incomplete truth. Without relevant, incoming links to your site, all the great content in the world can go unnoticed. Years ago, having great content was enough in itself, because the search engines were weighted towards guessing site relevancy based on word density and other natural language algorithms. Today, a new website has to struggle to emerge from the noise, just to get an opportunity to grow. It's like the ages old battle between the trees and the grasses, where the trees are the established publishers. It's just really tough for the grass to compete if it's always in the shade.

The only way I know of to jump through space and time and quickly establish you publishing site on the web is through a wormhole. In science fiction, a wormhole can serve as a physical link between remote parts of the universe, allowing publishers who had the foresight to equip themselves with the appropriate spacecraft to jump from the grasses to the trees in the blink of an eye. The only wormholes I'm aware of in the current Internet economy are to either spend a lot of money on promotion, or to acquire an existing publisher with a respectable website and adapt it to your business. And that's a subject I seem to be writing an awful lot about lately, despite the fact I've never done it myself. But I'm looking.

Used Publisher For Sale?

Publishers spend a lot of time talking about the impact of used books online, but nobody pays any attention to the used publishers. Since I first wrote about small press websites taken over by spammers last week, I've spent fifteen or twenty hours looking into old publisher directories and checking what happened with their businesses. I'd estimate that after about five years, a quarter of the small publishers who once had a website have gone out of business and the site has been taken over by spammers, and another quarter will probably end up there when their registrations expire. Very few appear to have sold their backlist to another publisher, and I've come across no signs that any of the owners ever offered their publishing business for sale.

I think there should be a marketplace for used publishers. A used publisher is a funny sort of a commodity because the usual reason it's been consigned to the stacks is that it wasn't commercially viable. But a publisher that wasn't commercially viable as a stand-alone may well have failed due to poor economies of scale or a simple lack of gross sales. If the only thing wrong with a publishing business is that it never reached a critical mass of titles to survive on the backlist, the obvious solution is to combine it with enough other small publishers to create a livelihood for at least one of them and keep the books in print.

I've tried shopping for a used publishing business on a couple occasions, and I've yet to kind a reasonable source for listings. Those publishers that I have found listed for sale have been both over sized and overpriced. I keep thinking that there would at least be a clearing house for publishers run as sole proprietorships that have run out of future with the proprietor's demise, but I've yet to find anything of the sort. An unsuccessful publishing business should always have some assets if the publisher put in a serious effort. It's hard to imagine a backlist that wouldn't be worth the cataloging fees to keep the books available with Lightning Source POD, and the website may have a real value for launching a new publishing business.

The corporate world has long utilized shelf registration as a method of quickly launching a new company if the right funding or market conditions materialize. A used publisher would make an excellent launching pad for a new publishing business, especially if the older entity brings with it a large block of ISBN numbers and a website that's been broken-in. And if the backlist only contributes a hundred dollars a month to the bottom line, it still fills out the catalog and adds a little bona fide to the new publisher. I'll bet there even a business model for somebody to acquire assets from failed publishers and bundle them into viable publishing businesses that could be run or sold-off. In fact, now that I write about it, I realize that I'm partially repeating a post I wrote about buying a publisher last year:-)

If anybody does know of a good resource listing publishing businesses for sale, please let me know, I'd like to be wrong in this case.

Profit Sharing Cooperative Or Book Kibbutz

I spent about five months living on Kibbutz around 25 years ago, back when they still had children's houses. Now the Kibbutz movement in Israel is more of a real estate play than a socialist utopia. My own take on why it happened is that collectivization requires shared sacrifice (even when it's subsidized) and communal sacrifice requires a shared vision (unless it's being imposed from above by a Stalin). When the vision was lost, the movement couldn't be far behind, though they had fun for a generation or two.

I bring up the Kibbutz model in the context of yesterday's post about business models for a new publisher. Any long standing Kibbutz member will tell you that there was way too much politics, and I don't mean Marx vs Trotsky. It's more like, who's stuck on dish washing duty for two weeks straight because the next person in line is sleeping with the Kibbutz secretary, and why do they have to serve carrots at every meal. When they ventured from agriculture into factories (even agricultural factories), it turned out that the management jobs couldn't be rotated as easily fruit picking duty. So if I got involved in founding a book Kibbutz, it would have to be on the new modified Kibbutz model of privatization and individual responsibility rather than along socialist lines.

But I do believe that there is room for a cooperative publishing model, one in which up-front costs are reduced by giving various professionals engaged in the book's production a couple percentage points in the net. As with a reduced advance for an author, those points would come at the expense of commanding market rates for their labor. It's an either-or system, not an and-and. The percentages would be set so that the break even point for the participating editor, designer or marketer would come at the break even figure for the overall publishing operation. Produce a stellar book that sells and everybody wins. Produce a scrap of nothing and everybody loses.

I know that personally, I lost interest in working for wages a long time ago. I 'd rather work on spec and take my knocks then knock myself out working for THE MAN. While I went through the "consulting" phase of self employment back in the 90's, I found it's not very different from having job. In fact, it's very much like having a job with no benefits , and if you're congenitally responsible, the work and the stress are the same regardless of the job title. The same is true for working as a trade author. I thought that was the road to independence, but it turned out to be another job without retirement. So, a virtual book Kibbutz (I'm not living with any of you kooks:-) could be another option for launching a new publishing company without sinking the ship of finance.

When Accepting Manuscripts For A New Publishing Company Is Accptable

I was thinking (not again!) about models that might work for staring a new publishing company as a business, as opposed to as a charity or a public service. When you sit down and start looking at the variables that go into launching a new press that isn't based on self publishing, one of the unknowns is the quality of manuscripts you'll be able to attract. It would be nice to imagine that there's some direct relationship between the advance and royalty terms you'll offer and the quality of the manuscripts you'll receive, but unfortunately, offering better terms doesn't discourage low quality submissions. Provided you have a mechanism to present your offer in front of authors, the better the terms you offer, the greater the quantity of manuscripts you'll get to weed through.

So lets say you have a business model you'd like to test and a way to tell authors about it. When is ethical to start accepting manuscripts? It doesn't strike me as fair play to solicit a large pile of manuscripts just to skim through them and see if something of indisputable commercial value shows up. There are human beings behind those SASE's who actually go to bed the night they put the manuscript in the mail thinking that they may have taken the first step on a path to a new life. There's also the query letter and proposal process that you're putting the author through, as they torture their synopsis into something that they hope matches your criteria. It may be more humane to just accept whole manuscripts, sans cover letter, by e-mail.

Accepting manuscripts represents one half of a bargain, where the other half is that you'll actually be publishing some of them. But getting back to the new publisher's standpoint, committing to publish Y manuscripts out of a stack of X submissions amounts to buying a pig in the poke. What if none of them are commercially viable? If you put a limit on the amount of time the publisher will remain in a state of accepting submissions without publishing any, getting stuck with non-commercial titles becomes a very real risk.

Further clouding the issue is that the commercial viability of the manuscript is in part dependent on the resources and overhead of the publisher. On the one extreme, a new publisher with no experience in marketing or book production and no budget for either is highly unlikely to be able to turn the best manuscript of the year into a commercial success. It's one of the main reasons trade authors usually prefer working for the larger publishers. They know the book will at least get its day in the sun, even if it fails to make money. On the other extreme, large publishers have large overhead, and the number of books they need to sell to break even in their overall accounting can vary from 5,000 to 20,000 copies. A small publisher paying a small advance and running a very tight ship might break even on as few as 500 copies.

Let's make an unsupported leap of faith and say that there are as many manuscripts capable of selling 500 copies from a publisher with modest resources as there are manuscripts capable of selling 5,000 copies from a large publisher with extensive resources. That implies that the odds of a new publisher attracting commercial manuscripts are decent, as long as the publisher models the business around low sales. Of course, low sales means a low advance and low royalties for the author. One thing the publisher can do to try to compensate the author for the risk is to pay a high percentage of the net in royalties than the large trades. That's not difficult to do, considering the relatively low royalties on net, 5% to 15%, most trade publishers offer on trade paperbacks.

Just thinking out loud.

Novel Writing Isn't Novel Through Suspension Of Disbelief

I've never seen any statistics about the percentage of people who try writing a novel, but I suspect it would be higher than for any other writing endeavor, including memoir. I also wouldn't be surprised if a pretty high percentage of people who set out to write a novel eventually complete one or more. I hear from quite a few of them. I think the one universal barrier the new author must overcome to complete a novel is the suspension of disbelief. Not the well known suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but on the part of the author. The author puts aside all rational thoughts about the odds of the novel ever being published or read and proceeds as if it were another feather in the author's cap.

The problem for most writers isn't suspending their disbelief for the period of time required to write the novel, it's keeping the faith after it's completed. These days, with most fiction trade publishers not even accepting unagented submissions, many authors who don't want to leave the manuscript in the bottom drawer for their heirs quickly turn to fee paying solutions. Some authors choose to pay reader fees to NYC agents who claim to be connected, but I can't say I've ever heard directly from an author who met with success going that route. Other authors choose to pay a subsidy publisher to get their novel into print, usually with the hope that a break-through success will result. Both of these approaches require a suspension of disbelief.

Since the paid agent route can't be effective for the vast majority of authors even if the agent is legitimately trying to place manuscripts, those who want to see their novel in print usually end up with a subsidy press. It's a guaranteed process, the author pays the fee and some months later receives X copies of the book and can see it listed on Amazon. Depending on the subsidy publisher and the package paid for, the author's mother may also be able to order the book through the local Barnes&Noble or Borders.

The ultimate suspension of disbelief comes if the author of a subsidy published novel is so desperate for success (ie, sales) that paid marketing campaigns begin to look legitimate. As with paid agenting, I have never heard a success story from an author who paid a third party to market a novel. Whether the campaign costs thousands of dollars, or tens of thousands of dollars, novels just aren't a "product" that can be easily driven to profitability by advertising. I'm pretty good at suspending disbelief myself, I remember being thrilled by the Lensmen series when I was a kid, but idea that thousands of dollars spent on an advertisement in a literary supplement could sell even a handful of novels to strangers to me is the ultimate self deception. Nobody I know reads book review sections looking for advertisements for books from unknown authors and subsidy publishers. Do you?

In a reply today to the author of a new novel published by a subsidy press who planned to buy my publishing book, I wrote:

I'm not sure how much it can help you at this point unless you are planning to self publish other books in the future by starting your own company. That's the approach I advocate, along with not publishing a book until you have a marketing platform in place and are getting requests for purchases based on preliminary excerpts or drafts.

I'd suggest buying Steve Weber's book instead of mine, came out a couple months ago, titled "Plug Your Book." It's primarily about how to use the social networking aspects of the Internet to give your book a chance to get noticed.

Fiction is a very tough sell for new authors using an author services company or subsidy press. It's not that easy for trade publishers either, though they have the advantage of being able to get the books some shelf exposure. I'd suggest focusing your marketing efforts like a laser beam on the demographic you mention in the theme of your book, and promoting it as a realistic look at the real issues faced by people in that situation.

I'd also moderate your expectations and expect a lot of hard work. Although I write and publish for a living, I never published the novel I wrote more than a decade ago because I couldn't figure out a realistic way to market it. I'd written it without any thought to audience or marketability. The only absolute rule I can suggest is not to spend money advertising. It won't work, nobody buys fiction from an unknown author because they see an advertisement. You essentially have to hand-sell the books to try to get word of mouth going. The social networking described in Weber's book is one way to do that, because the Internet allows you to plug into niche networks of people scattered across the country or the globe.
There's nothing wrong with paying to get your novel published because you want copies to give to family and friends or to try to sell to strangers. Just don't get caught up in the idea that it's a legitimate business proposition that will repay any investment in a year or a lifetime. I heard from an author years ago who had taken out a second mortgage on his house to promote his book and wanted advice on how best to spend the money. My advice was pay it back.

Small Press Websites Gone To The Devil

I set out to measure the small press failure rate today because I needed a task to keep my mind off itching and missing the On Demand conference. I was going to use my old PMA directory, but I didn't have it with me and it's too darn large anyway. I settled on the Yahoo! Literary Small Press directory from September 2000 as my starting point, since Yahoo! had human beings vet the entries and would remove garbage on request.

Of the 132 publishers listed in that directory, 67 have an active web presence today. That doesn't mean that the other 65 websites are no longer accessible, only 25 of them will result in a browser error. Of the 40 that still load a page, 29 have been taken over by fake directory sites and other spam. Most of these include pop-ups and there may have been a hijack attempt blended in there, I didn't stick around long enough to find out.

Fully fifteen of the missing small presses never purchased their own domain name, they used a hosting service like AOL or a subdirectory at a University and never grew passed it. A few did and redirected their old homepage to the new domain. In one case, the old homepage was real, the new domain had expired and gone to the devil. Five small publisher sites were parked or mothballed, the registrations had time to run, but they were no longer active. Six were redirected to sites that may have been a new effort of the publisher, in one case, a lawyers office, in another, an art gallery.

I calculated a 49% failure rate for small publishers since September 2000 and 22% of those have already had their old sites taken over by the dark side. Three of the domains on the list were currently available but didn't have any incoming links, so they aren't worth the bad guys wasting time on. It's just sad to read down the original descriptions of the small press websites, most of which include several of the following words: independent, quality, literary, non-profit, serious, fiction, poetry, contemporary, dedicated, drama.

And what's sadder still, is the outcome of the work many of those small press editors did in begging and swapping links to raise their visibility on the web. Those relationships they built are now feeding into various get-rich-quick schemes of professional domain jockeys who buy them by the barrel and play the numbers game. There's nothing illegal about it, but seems analogous to reading somebody else's mail because they didn't pay for a forwarding address. If you stop paying for a website you own, you'll end up leaving all of your ex-friends linked into a bad neighborhood. I suppose some white knight publisher might land an expiring domain and redirect to their own site, but that's a long odds proposition given the competition.

Itching For On Demand In Boston

Every year I try to make it to one professional conference or meeting, just to prove to myself that I'm not living in a cave. My outing for this year was to be the On Demand Conference and Exposition in Boston, which started this morning. I'd intended to catch them in Philly last year, but the schedule clashed with something and I went to WebmasterWorld instead. I've been looking forward to the On Demand Expo for weeks, got my camera all ready, polished up my press credentials, and even picked some interesting sessions out of the conference catalog.

Unfortunately, no well intended act goes unpunished. I spent an hour Friday evening cleaning up a woodsy area by the house I'm renting, and by Sunday evening I was coming out with poison ivy (or oak) all over the place. I'm stoic enough about most things not to have visited a doctor since the early 90's, but I made an exception this morning in hopes they had some miracle cure that would fix me up for tomorrow or Thursday. I can still see OK since my eyes haven't swollen shut, but it's not looking good.

The two primary conference tracks for the show are Print on Demand Technology and Print Service Provider. In terms of technology, I was hoping to see some of the new high volume color inkjets, to find out if they'll ever be competitive with color lasers or the HP Indigo approach. I'm also interested in seeing what the industry now terms "light production devices" to see if they're suitable for the stay-at-home book printer. Questions about which equipment to buy for printing at home still come across my screen on a regular basis, and even though I use Lightning Source to do all my printing, I like keeping up with the options.

At the top of the Print Service Provider category they are featuring opportunities for photo books. I see a lot of new companies getting into this field, mainly to serve individuals with upscale ambitions for their personal photo albums, but I'd like to know what the more innovative printers are offering. Since On Demand is primarily a corporate show, there's also plenty of crunchy big business topics that it's fun to keep an eye on.

There are something like 150 vendors scheduled for the expo hall, primarily equipment suppliers and paper products companies. On Demand is co-located with the AIIM (Association for Information and Image Management) conference this year, which is a pretty good match-up. It seems to me I went to a PC Expo in NYC some years back that was co-located with AIIM, and that pairing didn't make much sense to me. My old business partner was active with AIIM for years and he worked with some of the original Xerox technology, so you know he's not my young business partner.

So, I'm sitting at home itching to go to Boston, but knowing I'm not going anywhere until the itching calms down a little. In the meantime, if anybody who knew I was going to the show planned on showing up just to take a swipe at me, my suggestion is to pick on some six foot four guy with a name tag that says "Billy Bob" because that could be me traveling incognito.

2006 Book Sales In North America

Just finished my annual review of retail book sales in North America based on the SEC filings of the big three, Barnes&Noble, Borders and Amazon. Or should I say Barnes&Noble, Amazon and Borders, since for the first time ever, Amazon's North American media sales topped the domestic sales of the entire Borders chain. In fact, Amazon's International sales also edged out Borders North American sales.

I break down books sales by retailer, and report the percentage changes going back over the six years I've been doing this. Amazon was the only double-digit grower this year, Barnes&Noble was up 2%, and by my calculations, Borders was down 1%. Overall US book sales were also down a little in 2006, according to the Census Bureau. Barnes&Noble, in their conference call, reported that they will stop breaking out B. Dalton sales after 2006 as the store closings reduce their impact. I always combined the numbers for the two so that's fine by me.

Total sales for the big three in North America were $12.03 billion in 2006 (books and media only for Amazon), which includes DVD's and CD's along with books, calendars, etc. However, the headline number for me, which I saved for the end, is that Amazon third party sales stuck at 28% for 2006, the same as 2005. This means that third party sales (Marketplace and other programs) didn't gain item shipment share at Amazon. Keep in mind that third party sales still grew in 2006, but they grew at the same pace as Amazon shipments of new items sold by Amazon, so the percentage remained the same.

Does this mean that used book sales and third party fulfillment of other items have reached equilibrium on the Amazon platform? I hope so, but I suspect that Amazon Prime and their free Super Saver shipping for most book orders over $25 has something to do with it. I mention this in case Amazon ever decides to drop their subsidized shipping programs, which cost them hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Internet Publishing Is Now Zero Sum Game

I don't like to throw around the word epiphany, but I was looking at some internet publishing trends last night and the flashbulb popped off in my gloomy head. With the exception of blog feed subscriptions, the publishing pages on this website have seen a slow decay of visitors over the past year. The blog archives are holding about steady, but that's only thanks to the geometric growth in content. While I've experienced some problems with duplicate content (copyright infringements on other sites) and a slowdown in organic linking, the real problem turns out to be with the Internet using public. Internet search is now a universal tool in America and much of the English speaking world, and all of the "I've been wondering all my life about..." searches have already been made.

We're now in a steady-state universe for internet publishing, with moderate contraction in the forecast, and Internet publishers are engaged in a zero sum game. If you're posting articles about publishing on the Internet, your gain is my loss, or vice versa, we're now competing over a fixed number of visitors and page views. For example, this blog ranks in the Top 10 for a Google search on Self Publishing, which brings in a grand total of a dozen visitors on a good day. Searching through the thousands of queries that brought visitors to my site on a typical day this week, only 25 had "self publishing" in any combination of words. So I consulted Google Trends to see what was going on. Over the three plus years they've been tracking the phrase, search volume is down about 20%. A search on Print on Demand shows about a 40% loss of interest over the same time span. But it's not just publishing related search.

I searched on gardening, car shopping, cooking, computers - all of these showed either a loss of volume or a plateau. To find growth these days, you have to choose subjects with a rapidly expanding audience, like global warming or Scarlett Johansson. As a publisher who's been tracking the performance of my web sites since 1995, I should have seen this coming two years ago, but nobody likes calling the top in a new economic model, even if it's not a bubble.

So I drew up a graph of the big three search engines daily reach on Alexa, and sure enough, the growth has topped out, despite the huge investments they are all making in gaining and holding users. My guess is the recent spike in MSN (green) has to do with the IE 7 upgrade and Vista winning them some default visitors:-)

So internet publishing is no longer a garden of low hanging fruit, it's a mature industry subject to the same competition and economies of scale as the book publishing industry. What I expect this means is we'll soon see consolidation taking place, as medium sized internet publishers will need to swallow up smaller publishers to grow, and big internet publishers will swallow the medium sized ones. It's been going on in all the media related industries for years, and now it will start in the Internet space.

It will be interesting to see how longer the independent internet publishers like myself will be able to hold on. I wrote early last year that the business model of the internet information entrepreneur was vulnerable to a concerted effort by any major book publisher with rights to a large backlist of nonfiction, or any other deep pocketed entity with Internet savvy willing to invest a few hundred million dollars into becoming THE destination for information seekers. Now that it has clearly become a zero sum game, I think the displacement effect of a new Goliath will be even more destructive to independent publishers than I had imagined. I'm not ready to give up on internet publishing yet, but the odds of it ever bringing me to Scarlett's attention have sunk from around one in trillion to one in a googol.

Trade Authors Who Hate Self Publishers:-)

I unsubscribed from a trade author's posts to my Amazon Plog today after he quoted from and linked to the blog post of another trade fiction writer beating up on self publishers. I'm not giving either of their names because I don't want to generate publicity for them, but I thought the basic phenomena is worthy of comment. Why would a couple of successful trade authors feel they have the either the need or the expertise to write about self publishing?

For starters, I don't think it's fear of competition. Their take on self publishing is so negative that they undoubtedly see their posts as a public service. As to expertise on the subject, I write on all sorts of topics where I'm hardly an expert, so I can't really fault them for trying:-) But it's a phenomena I've seen quite a bit of, trade authors stepping up to "debunk" the business of self publishing, branding the vendors as con artists and the authors as suckers. In nearly all cases, they conflate self publishing with vanity publishing and confuse POD with the latter. They also declare in no uncertain terms that nobody would self publish a book unless they couldn't get a trade contract.

Taking the last point first, I quit being a trade author after authoring books that sold well over 100,000 copies because I earn more money and sleep better as a self publisher. I've turned down at least one trade contract every year since I began self publishing, including offers with advances for the last three titles I self published and for a couple more that were just a twinkle in the acquisition editor's eye. That's not an unusual situation for a successful self publisher, but the argument of the trade authors who have it in for self publishing would be that this sort of success is rare. Well I have news for them. Success as a trade author is rare as well, but it's easy to forget that once you're in the door and the checks and the offers are coming in regular.

Most trade authors commenting on self publishing fail to differentiate between authors who start their own publishing company and authors who pay a subsidy publisher to have a book printed and distributed for them. Thanks to years of participation on Internet discussion lists for trade authors back when that was my chosen career, I know why they fail to make this distinction. They don't care. It's of no interest to most trade authors who are settled on their career path to do homework about self publishing, anymore than they study up on printing, warehousing or distribution. There's about as much relation between starting your own publishing company and paying a subsidy publisher for publication as there is between playing professional sports and buying a ticket to the game. Which brings me to the final point.

The authors beating up on self publishing in this case were focused on fiction published by subsidy presses. Both authors are fiction writers themselves, and while they are undoubtedly aware that they have beaten some long odds to get there, one gets the feeling that they are as convinced as your typical billionaire that were they dumped naked on a street corner in Iceland without a dime to their name, much less a name, they'd be back on top of their game in no time. Never having been a billionaire, I don't know how well that would work. But as a former trade author, I know that luck, timing, and most importantly, my economic situation (savings and part-time consulting for income) were instrumental in getting an authoring career launched. It took time.

Not everybody has the time or the fire in the belly to embark of a dicey career path or to change horses midstream. Should such peoples be barred from writing books, or from dreaming about becoming a published author? I tell everybody who asks me questions about making a living as an author to start their own publishing company, but most of the unpublished authors who write me just want to get their poetry, memoir or novel in book form. Some have submitted to trade preses or agents, others never saw it as a career move to start with, they just want to see their years of late nights or early mornings printed up as a book. For those authors who have no business ambitions and aren't looking to publishing for an income, I recommend choosing an honest subsidy publisher who doesn't take any rights, paying a few hundred dollars, and not wasting any money on advertising or promotions.

It's hard for the professional authors to remember, but most people who write a book will never make any money from it and didn't write the book for that reason in the first place. When it comes to paying to see a book in print, just remember that the people who buy a ticket to see a game probably have a better time watching than the professionals who are playing it, and they don't have to take pain killers to get out of bed in the morning.

Book Of The Month Club (Buch des Monatsklubs)

Today the PW newsletter reported that Bertelsmann had bought out Time Warner's 50% stake in Bookspan, which Time Warner must have acquired with Doubleday at some point. I'm far from an expert on book clubs, but it seems to me that Bookspan has aggregated most of the remaining book clubs of yesteryear under a single banner. Their booksonline site lists "over 30 clubs to choose from", I counted 32, so it's a fair statement. The most famous of these must be the Book Of The Month club that filled American homes with classic history books most of us never read. I think people just couldn't resist getting all those volumes for 99 cents, or whatever their initial come-on offer used to be.

A few years ago, somebody from McGraw-Hill sent me congratulations that the book I authored for them had been selected for a Bookspan club, must have been Computer Books Direct. Unfortunately, I remembered that the book club clause in my contract meant I'd be making about a dime a copy, so I wasn't very pleased. In the end, I think the book club ordered 2,000 copies, which they featured in a "Get 3 Books for $1.99" type membership drive. The one good thing that came out of it was they sent me a poster that must have been used as a magazine foldout, with my title being one of the two featured books blown up large in the center. I think I gave it to my dad.

I wish Bertelsmann luck with their acquisition, the last joint venture I can remember them in went the other way, with Barnes&Noble acquiring Bertelsmann's stake in I owned 1,000 shares of, and thanks to buying them rather late in the game, escaped a few dollars ahead when Barnes&Noble took private. Unfortunately for Bertelsmann, I have a hard time imagining that book clubs are going to make a comeback, though they might just be cost averaging with their prior acquisition of mail-order the Columbia House music and movies clubs. I remember the Columbia ads from the Sunday circulars when I was a kid, nagging my folks to let me sign up to get 10 records for a penny when I didn't even have a stereo. They didn't go for it, and I never did get a stereo.

I just don't quite understand what market mechanism these clubs are supposed to fill, when Amazon,, and other mail order booksellers are just a click away. I suppose the X titles for 99 cents or whatever is still a good come-on to get people signed up for the club. But with the declining market share of book clubs, their main attraction to publishers is also fading fast. Publishers used to know, or at least believe, that a book club selection meant lots of free publicity, so they could sell the rights at a minimal profit and benefit from the added sales boost. Without the promotional value, the publishers have little motivation to sell rights for a minimal profit, and the book clubs will find their ability to feature hot new titles limited.

I prefer my own self publishing book club, and you don't even have to sign up to enjoy the low prices. I call it the Lifetime Self Publishing Club. All you have to do to join is buy one of my books at some point during your lifetime, and you'll receive all the benefits of membership. For starters, you can read the book. Later, if you don't want to read it again, you can give it to somebody else or use it to level the kitchen table. There's no obligation to purchase another one of my books during your lifetime, the way I'm going lately I may never publish another. You can even quit anytime without notifying me, and we never sell your name or personal information to list marketers. We don't even ask who you are:-)

Legal Requirements , Tax Laws and Forms for Publishers

Two authors wrote me in the past week asking about legal requirements, forms and tax laws for self publishing or starting a publishing company. I remember going on the same quest myself eleven or twelve years ago and getting pretty confused. Part of the problem is that there are all sorts of business forms you can assume at startup, from C corporations to sole proprietorship. One thing for self publishers to keep in mind is that the legal liability you assume as an author can't be avoided through the business form you choose. You're just as liable for libel and copyright infringement as if you wrote the book for a major trade. If you're planning on publishing books by other authors, then choosing the right business form is important to limit your liability.

A new publishing business faces the same legal requirements as any other new business. For example, if you are making up a name for your publishing company as opposed to using your own name, you may need to file a DBA (Doing Business As), which is done on the local level. I'm sure the laws are different all over the country, but at the time I filed in Massachusetts, the penalty for not filing was a couple hundred dollars, but only if somebody complained. If you are going to resell books in a state with a sales tax, you'll need a tax ID or resellers license from the state so you can collect and pay sales tax. The state doesn't charge for it, they just want the money. Some printers will want a copy of your tax ID before they ship you books without charging you sales tax. If you don't sell direct to retail customers in your state, you don't collect sales tax.

Legal requirements for publishing businesses are the same as legal requirements for any other business. Copyright registration will help you protect your intellectual property, and I wouldn't suggest signing an author to a book contract without sitting down with a lawyer and making sure you understand what you are offering and what you are buying. I don't recommend to anybody in business to try to do their own lawyering, it's just too specialized. Still, it can't hurt to read the latest edition of Kirsch's Publishing Law just to get an idea of how much you don't know:-)

I attended an IRS/DOR seminar some years ago and asked the IRS specialist if it was true that all publishers had to use strict accrual accounting. He looked into it for me and got back with response that the IRS was fine with publishers whose sales were less than a million a year doing cash accounting. I just tried to run down that same information on the IRS website, but I find it elusive.

I do recommend that new publishers do their own accounting and taxes in order to gain an understanding of how tax laws shape the business environment. If you're uncomfortable doing your own taxes, do them anyway, and then hire a professional to do them again. You can read all you want about tax laws, but there's nothing like doing your own taxes year after year as your business operates at different levels of profit to gain an understanding of how timing of expenses is critical. Spending money simply to save money on your taxes never makes sense. Investing money in your business during December instead of January can makes thousands of dollars of difference on taxes to even a modestly successful self publisher, depending on which direction your income is tracking.

Anybody who wants to print books and call themselves a publisher can, there are no special forms to fill out. However, if you want book retailers to be able to order your book, you need to get ISBN numbers from the Bowker agency for a couple hundred dollars. There are some work-arounds for for publishing a single book, but I don't recommend them. If you're serious about being in the publishing business, getting ISBN numbers that uniquely identify you as the publisher of the books and allows them to be listed in databases is a required start-up cost.

Unless you have a big budget for acquiring titles from authors or enough money in the bank to give your full-time self publishing endeavor a couple years to make it or break you, I recommend starting on shoe-string. This means not spending any money playing at being in business. You don't need stationary, a new desk and chair, the latest laptop or an accounting package. You especially don't need to spend your first couple months in business learning how to run that accounting package. Just keep paper records, and at the end of your first year, you may find that you don't need to file a Schedule C for your publishing business because you don't really have one yet There's no glory in failing big, it's just more expensive than failing small.

I'm aware that this isn't the step-by-step recipe for creating the paperwork infrastructure of a publishing company that my correspondents were asking about, but that's because there is no recipe. Anybody who gives you a laundry list of things you have to do to start publishing (and suggests you retain their professional help in doing so) is just blowing smoke up your eyeglasses. The only thing you really need to do if you want to minimize the number of expensive mistakes you make getting started is as much homework as possible.

Trade Publishing Ethics

It seems I'm getting more e-mail about trade publishing ethics lately, especially in relation to rights and royalties. I rarely quote from questions authors send me, but I can't resist a couple paraphrased quotes from a response one trade publisher sent an author this week:

"there isn't any money in publishing"


"think of it as more of a lifetime achievement and don't expect any financial reward."

I might expect to hear that from a poetry house, but not from a publisher responding to an author whose books have actually sold. But it's not unique, and reading the occasional professional author's list, I've picked up the feeling that many new writers are buying into the "prestige" argument. Rather than looking at writing and publishing as a primary or significant income stream, they see it as a form of credentialing that brings them speaking engagements or professional recognition. That may be the way that academic publishing has worked for a hundred years, but academic presses don't generally have shareholders reaping dividends and executives with stock options.

I'm not going to argue with authors who are happy with their "lifetime achievements" and don't care whether royalties come in at less than the water bill or more than the mortgage. But I don't believe an author should have to become a public performer to scratch out a living, and I certainly don't think it's the duty of a professional writer to subsidize the trade publishing industry. There's an amusing thought. Most trade publishing professionals have nothing but scorn for the subsidy publishing industry (also known as vanity presses) but those same executives and editors cry poor-mouth when working authors ask what happens to the money from sales.

The ethics of the big trade publishers are the terms of the publishing contract. I've known some very nice people in the publishing world who will go beyond those terms if their management will let them, and I've also known some who need a lawyer or a CPA pointed at them to live up to the terms. But I still hear from authors who assume there's a code of conduct in the trade publishing world that puts the truth first, or the integrity of book first, or even the author first. Large trade publishers are in it for the money, they put the dollar first. As individuals, they don't come to work every morning thinking, "money, money, money" but at the end of the day, if they don't earn profits for the corporation, they won't keep their jobs.

In any discussion of business ethics, I need to point out that I've strayed into the occasional grey area, but only when working as an employee for others. There's something about being part of a team and struggling to make a business work that colors the world in terms of "us" and "them" with predictable consequences. In self publishing, I'm comfortable making the sort of decisions that involve risk or loss to the business that I wouldn't always make if I had co-workers and infrastructure obligations depending on the outcome.

The Instant Passover Cookbook Publisher

It's funny how often writers find that a blog post written for fun turns out to evoke a strong reaction. I got such a positive reaction to my post about publishing a cookbook for bachelors that I decided to revisit the subject with a holiday version. In a couple hours, it will be time for the first Seder, which I'll do alone for probably the tenth year in a row. Although I fall into the "casual Kosher" crowd during the year, I'm strict on Passover. None of my thirty second recipes are permissible for eight days, so I have to get a little more creative.

This year, the hands-down winner for the publisher on the move is "Bone-in Chicken, with diced potatoes and carrots in sauce." The recipe is, buy it in a box from Meal Mart, no refrigeration needed. My guess is they irradiate it, which means no preservatives are required as well. If I understand the sell-by stamp, it's good for another three years, but I'm eating it this week.

My runner up instant recipe I call "Fillets of Herring in Sour Cream." I buy it in a big jar from Rite Brand, I think Nathan's makes it as well. It's just easier than buying the sour cream and herring separately and having to mix them together.

Speaking of which, my third and final recipe is sour cream and bananas. Compared to the last two, this is fairly complex as you have to peel the banana, slice it into a bowl, and add the sour cream. Getting the special plastic seal off the lid of the sour cream container is probably the toughest part.

As with my regular year cookbook, I suggest eating fiber for a healthy diet, and I've taken to buying whole wheat matzos, trying Streit's this year. I know some skeptics won't think this amounts to much of a recipe, or even a start for a cookbook, but it's like everything else in publishing. You don't necessarily get out what you put in, but you sure won't get anything out if you don't in the right effort and ingredients.