Technical Books And Technical Publishers

I got a request last week for a post about self publishing technical books, so I thought I'd give the disc jockey career a spin. I got my start in publishing by writing technical documentation to help bring money into a start-up I was working for around twenty years ago. The writing wasn't too challenging, manuals for a software product, but the production using Ventura Publisher 1.0 destroyed my self confidence for, well, forever. My first venture in technical self publishing was a short manual I wrote for technicians I was training back in 1991/92, an expanded version of which I published on the web as a free ebook in 1995. Around the same time, I co-authored a technical report on new electronic media which retailed for $125, and a little later, I signed my first contract with McGraw-Hill to write The Hand-Me-Down PC.

That's the quick background, but none of the above really describes the type of technical book that my correspondent was asking about, which would fall more into the category of a literary reference book. If anybody thinks that historical engineering type books or encyclopedic references can't be literary, I'd suggest reading some civil engineering histories for starters. At the purely technical end of the spectrum, we have all the C.R.C. books published by the Chemical Rubber Publishing Company (all the techies think it stands for Cyclic Redundancy Check), while at the purely literary end we have books like The Great Bridge by David McCullough, published by Simon & Schuster, which may never go out of print:-)

The potential market for a technical book pretty much depends on which end of the spectrum it falls on. Books on the purely technical end of the spectrum sell to engineers, university libraries and large corporate libraries (those with labs). The size of the market for those books depends almost entirely the subject. Somewhere I own a copy of a book on the radio frequency properties of certain materials that I think was published by the M.I.T. Press. The author was also the experimenter, so many of the constants measured appeared in other references. The audience for the book was limited to engineers who were interested in what happens to radio waves hitting those particular materials, so I suspect they got by with one print run. Another purely technical reference, The CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics is currently in its 87th edition, which may be some sort of record.

In the middle of the spectrum are the cross-over books, and I hope for my correspondent, a cross-over hit. These are books that contain enough detailed data and appendices to be of use as a reference text for an engineer or a manager making decisions about an engineering project, while maintaining an interesting enough storyline to be readable by engineers or technically oriented people who aren't planning on building or fixing one of the things. A sort of The Way Things Work (by David Macaulay and Neil Ardley) for just one thing, or the Soul Of A New Machine (Tracy Kidder, a local whom I've never met), but with a happy ending.

The main things authors or publishers of such technical books have going for them is a built-in audience and a (usually) noncompetitive environment. Judging the size of the built-in audience is tricky, and reaching a good portion of them in the year the book is released, as opposed to sustaining a trickle of sales forever, still requires some marketing. I think the best and most obvious place to do this marketing is on the web, with a website built around the book, but if there are any journals, magazines or IEEE type groupings around the specific subject, it would probably pay to try a little print advertising as well. The remaining decision for a publisher facing a non-competitive environment is whether to price for maximum sales or maximum profits. If the book is likely to be widely ordered by libraries, gouging is probably the order of the day. If the focus is on the retail customer, keeping the price in the literary, rather than technical range, is critical.

Time Traveling Vampires Suck The Life Out Of Sci Fi

I got so much feedback about my pre-holiday post on publishing science fiction anthologies that I decided to address one of the issues multiple people pointed out to me. It came phrased different ways, like "People would rather see it than read it" and "Horror is where it's all at now." When it comes to visuals (TV, movies), I suppose even I would rather see a vampire fashion model in the changing room than a bunch of space suit wearing astronauts drinking reprocessed bodily fluids through straws. But I ill-spent so much of my youth reading science fiction that I've been assuming it hasn't gone away without checking. So, being a big Google Trends fan, I decided to have a look at what people are searching for.

This first trend is science fiction vs. vampire, sci fi drawn in a friendly light blue and vampire in blood red.

Vampire, unfortunately, is kicking science fiction's behind, though of course, a lot of those vampire related searches are non-fiction:-) Strangely, the much maligned mainstream media had fewer stories about vampires than about science fiction. The next trend shows science fiction vs time travel.

Recently, time travel has gotten more internet search activity than science fiction, which implies that much of the interest in sci fi is disguised in other search terms. Which is a good time to point out that I didn't include trends with either "sci fi" or "SciFi" because both are closely associated with the SciFi cable channel, which is a different beast altogether. Now that I think about it, I watched quite a few episodes of Babylon 5 when it was on in the mid-90's and I had a television. Good show, whoever created it.

But what none of my correspondents mentioned, probably because they are all in their middle age on up, is the impact of video games on what was once a core demographic group for science fiction. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the apparent lack of interest in reading spaceship and alien encounters type sci fi is due to the availability of games and gaming counsels that soak up the same free time. With the rise of multi-player games, playing at science fiction is arguably a more social activity than reading it, even if that social time is largely taken up with killing and destroying stuff.

I'm not trying to say that I'm an old man, but I know kids who play video games and I don't get what makes them tick, so trying to publish science fiction for them wouldn't be too smart. That leaves the thinking man's science fiction or literary sci fi, for the sci fi retro crowd. At the moment, I have no idea how big or tiny that crowd is, but I've started grinding the wheels of research so hopefully I'll have a better take on it by the end of June.

Science Fiction Anthology As Magazine Alternative?

Now that I'm back to thinking about publishing other authors for the twenty seventh or seventy second time this year, I thought of a new twist that would sidestep some of the business model issues. Namely, how to justify paying small advances to writers in return for a much larger than traditional royalty share, while retaining a chance of not losing my shirt (and getting abused as an "exploiter" in the bargain). A book publisher can't afford to invest in titles without having the exclusive rights to publish the works, but a magazine or newspaper publisher can and does with first serial rights.

I was a huge science fiction fan as a kid, mainly novels and older anthologies, I never found the "Award winners" anthologies from the 1970's and on to my taste. Science fiction is a great genre for short stories because it's often message driven or preachy, and building a whole novel around a single message rarely makes for a good read. From the 1930's through the recent past, magazines filled some of the gap for getting short science fiction published, though a lot of it seemed to be vam-p-orn or derivative swords and dragons tales.

While I only thought this up while installing windows up at my friend's timber frame today, I suspect the POD anthology as a magazine alternative would have a non-zero chance of success. First, the anthology could remain in print as long as there was an interest. Second, by purchasing first serial and perhaps first web rights only, the initial payment to authors could be quite low. Heck, I was thrilled to get a sci-fi story of mine published for no payment in a little 'zine ten years ago. Since each issue or book would contain tales from a large number of writers, it's unlikely that some other publisher could convince them all to sign up to do the exact same book for them if by some stroke of lightning it proved to be popular.

That would keep the cost low enough that I could fall back on the 50/50 net model, simply dividing up the half going to the writers by the number of stories used, or even proportional to word count. If the book did well, the writers would end up doing better than they would have through any trade or magazine. Whether it did well or not, they'd still be free to peddle their stories elsewhere, anytime, to anyone. I could keep the publishing costs way down by using some public domain photos (think NASA) for cover art, and probably get a few books out the door for around $1,000 each - plus a big chunk of my time.

I think it has potential. I'll see what happens in the next couple weeks with some of the recycled publishing domains I'm bidding on and give it some more thought. I suppose I should really join the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, post something on their boards, and get abused:-)

Planning A New Book

This is the 250th post to the Self Publishing blog, which makes for around 200,000 words written about publishing since I last published a book! Good grief, this blogging business is worse than socializing. If I hadn't stopped watching TV last year I doubt I'd have time to get anything done at all.

However, I find myself planning a new book, or at least a new edition of an existing self published computer title. I can tell that I'm serious about it because I've already written a couple new chapters and because I find myself working discount math while I'm out running.

The current edition of the book is priced at $14.95, printed by Lightning Source, distributed through Ingram with a wholesale discount of 25%, and I accept returns. The book was not designed to appear on bookstore shelves, it's barely over a quarter inch thick in the 8.25" X 11.0" format, but it sells well on the Internet and direct to technical colleges as a classroom text. Despite the short discount, it has also seen some bookstore stocking, due to the walk-in demand created the web published excerpts.

I have three basic choices with the new material I'm working on now. The first is to publish a new book specific to the new topics, taking a much broader approach than the I did with the existing title, which is a one-of-a-kind niche book. I'm inclined to take a wait-and-see attitude on this one, and if the material expands to the point that a whole book makes sense, that's what I'll end up doing.

The second choice is to add the new material to the existing title and publish a new edition in the same format with the short discount approach. I could raise the price to $19.95 to bring it a little closer to the low-end of the pricing range for books of this genre, and probably get Amazon to transfer the existing reviews and list positions to the new edition. This is probably the most logical approach, which is why I find it so unattractive.

The third choice is to create a new book in a smaller cut size, designed for store shelving. Raise the wholesale discount to 55% and the price to compensate. Wait a year and see whether or not it gets modeled in the chains. One of the problems the existing book has always faced is that most customers don't look for it until they need it. It was my bestselling ebook back when Amazon carried Lightning Source supplied ebooks, and apparently sold-through when it was stocked in super-stores. But at the low cover price (which wasn't restickered) and a short discount, it made very little sense of those stores to reorder.

If I go with a $24.95 cover price which would be normal for the projected page count in the genre for bookstores, and a printing cost of $3.95 through Lightning Source (just making the math easy), at a 55% discount I would gross $7.28 per sale (before returns). At the current minimum 20% discount, which would restrict the potential to online sales and special orders only, I would gross $16.05 per sale. So why does the lure of the bookstore stocking remain so strong, despite the long odds of success and the risk of returns?

I've got three reasons to balance the three options I gave earlier. First, if the title ends up modeled in the chains (ie, stocked as part of the home office floor planning for stores), it would have a life outside of the Internet. While I remain perhaps the biggest advocate of Internet centric publishing, as a business matures, it's a good idea to spread the risks. My self publishing business is sufficiently mature that I'm willing to invest and take new risks in order to diversify my business model.

Second, there's the challenge. I already know how to make a living self publishing books and selling them primarily online, and I'd like to see if I could carry that over into the bricks-and-mortar world. There's also the possibility that the book would sell several times as many copies by being stocked on store shelves. I don't have the mathematical model to determine if the potential upside offsets the risks and lost profits, I rather doubt it, but I also doubt I'll get stuck with a garage full of returned books.

Lastly, there's the question of career path. I'm not interested in spending the rest of my life updating and self publishing the narrow range of books I have the expertise to write. If I want to stay active in publishing without selling my time, sooner or later I'm going to have to start acquiring and publishing titles written by other authors. I'd just as soon run the great trade-discount POD experiment with one of my own titles, one for which I already know the sales characteristics and demand, so I'm better prepared to make those decisions down the road.

New York Publishers Enslave Authors For Life Plus 70

It took me a while to come up with a catchy headline for this me-too post about the latest twist in the big trade publishing game. In their 2006 book titled "Keywords in Creative Writing" published by the Utah State University Press, authors Wendy Bishop and David Starkey quoted me describing publishers as "little more than law firms with an editorial department in tow..." I was trying to express the centrality of Intellectual Property rights in the publishing business, rights which are governed by the book contract.

Book contracts traditionally include some language about the rights reversion process for when the book goes out of print. It's always been understood that this reversion of rights clause is for the benefit of the author, as it wouldn't cost the publisher anything to retain the rights for as long as the copyright remained in force and simply not do anything with them. However, some publishers are getting greedy, and want to keep books in print forever, with no sales minimums.

The reactions of these publishers to the uproar amongst authors, agents and their advocacy groups are all the more surprising for their honesty. Publisher's Weekly newsletter contained the following quote from Adam Rothberg of Simon & Shuster:

"...We are embracing print on demand technology as an unprecedented opportunity for authors and publishers to keep their books alive and available and selling in the marketplace in a way that may not have been previously possible for many authors, and are confident in the long term that it will be a benefit for all concerned..."

Harper Collins President and CEO Jane Friedman was quoted in the AP story as saying:

"There is no reason for a fiction title to go out of print, because you never known when there is going to be an audience for that book."

What Adam and Jane fail to mention is that there may be a reason for the author to want back the rights of a book the publisher is failing to keep in bookstores, which is the only service most authors expect out of a large trade publishers these days. Publishers without a reasonable reversion clause in their contracts could use those contracts as a whip to punish authors who want to leave for another publisher, by effectively taking the author's titles out of print but insisting that they are still available through electronic or on-demand means. The lack of a reversion clause leaves the ball entirely in the publisher's court, and the author dependent on the publisher's honor.

Good grief, publishers with honor? The new and improved book contracts allow the publishers to enslave authors for life, plus seventy years. And the sad thing is that thousands of new authors every year will sign these contracts without legal advice on the assurance of the friendly acquisitions editor that it's "our standard contract."

UPDATE (I rarely do this, particularly the same day:-)

A serious author friend just e-mailed to ask why authors would ever want rights back if the publisher was willing to keep the book in-print. We aren't talking about traditional in-print here, where the publisher has books in the warehouse that they are motivated to sell. We are talking about fake in-print, where the publisher uses the fact the book COULD be ordered through POD or as an ebook to keep the rights long after the author's death.

In the case of fiction authors, it may be that they wouldn't generate many sales if they got the rights back and self published, but authors have traditionally had the right to try. In the Internet age, authors can't lose by publishing older works on a website to judge the demand, make contact with readers, and generate interest in newer works.

In the case of nonfiction, the perpetual in-print clause is even more obnoxious. It prevents authors who have signed a contract with a non-compete clause from ever working that area again, unless they are willing to stick with the same publisher (on that publisher's terms) or risk legal action. It also prevents the author from updating the work in a new edition to either sell to another publisher or to self publish, not to mention web publishing. It leaves all of the decisions about the future of the book in the hands of the publisher, forever. The perpetual in-print contract turns the author into a slave.

Typo Award May Spell Trouble For Author

I've often lamented the lack of book publishing business coverage in the newspapers, or anywhere else for that matter, so I was excited today when I saw the page two headline in the Journal:

Typo Award May Spell Trouble For Author

The only problem is that on re-reading, it turned into the far less interesting:

Tyco Accord May Spell Trouble for Auditor

That's a pretty bad misreading even for a serial misreader like myself, but it goes to show why I'm so bad at proofreading my blog posts. And then it hit me. Rather than beating myself up over my special misreading talents, maybe I should get a prize for all my typos. It seems to me that Hollywood critics hand out special honors for stars with questionable taste in clothing, why not have an award for typos?

On further reflection, in the competitive field of online publishing, it may encourage a race to the bottom with intentional misspellings. But it would be fun to give a prize for typos, some of which are likely Freudian slips, that improve rather than detract from the writing. I immediately thought of a couple I've come across, but I can't justify the time it would take me to run them down for quoting.

As to the typo award spelling trouble for the author who wins it, I have my doubts. The adage about all publicity being good good publicity is true for book reviews as well as web pages, since links to a page pointing out how bad it is end up raising its value in the eyes of the search engines. Personally, I'd be thrilled to receive the 2007 blogger typo award and exposed as a hasty typer and bad proofreader in major media outlets, as long at they get the URL of my blog spelled right!

You Only Get 365 Shots A Year

Every day brings the optimist new opportunities and the pessimist new ordeals. When it comes to self publishing, it's never too early for the pessimist to give up or too late for the optimist to sell books. Reading a WSJ story today about what it takes to get noticed online, I get the impression that they are unconsciously talking a lot of people into the pessimists corner. It reminds me of the chorus of the Academy Award winning EMINEM song from his 2003 film 8 Mile (and you didn't think I was down with the hood:-)

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime

It's an attractive philosophy to kids and to thrill seekers who want to cram their whole life into a make-or-break split second, but it's not what I'd call a rational approach to making a living self publishing. You can spend your days trying to get onto Oprah and your nights trying to build and finance a website that can stand 10 million visitors in an hour, but the odds are long against you on both accounts. Not impossible, but not something that reading how-to books is going to help you with.

In self publishing, you only get 365 shots a year. OK, 313 shots a year if you take my advice and observe one Sabbath or another, maybe knock off another week for festivals, fasts and the such. Every book that you sell is another book that may land in the hands of a seriously connected blabbermouth who will tell everybody on the planet to buy a copy. Every compelling page you post on the Internet is another page that might be found by a fan with a thousand MySpace friends or linked by a NYT reporter desperate for supporting documentation. Each new book you publish will benefit from the lessons you learned doing everything wrong with the last book.

Perhaps most importantly, every day you stay in the business is another day you have your eyes open looking for your next publishing opportunity. It's not by chance that many self publishers end up publishing clusters of related titles, though each cluster may be on very diverse subjects. Working in a space is the best way to find out what that space is hungry for, what titles readers are waiting to read rather than what titles authors are anxious to write. The tortoise and the hare both met their end on the menu of a French Restaurant, but it's the patient publisher who can afford to eat out - not that he would because it's all treif.

Or, as EMINEM concludes, You can do anything you set your mind to, man.

Competition Is Healthy For Everybody Else

It's a given that competition is healthy for the capitalistic system. Without competition, prices go up and quality goes down. Even with competition, prices can go up and quality can go down, but at least the consumer can choose their poison. Publishing has always been a competitive marketplace. In the early days of copyright, publishers competed with each other to produce the same book in different countries, and the publishers in the US often didn't pay foreign authors a penny. If I remember, improvements in this situation helped to improve Charles Dickens view of America after a long absence:-)

In the modern publishing industry, competition can be organic (authors independently conceiving and writing books for publication) or it can be driven by business calculations (authors or publishers creating books specifically to compete with successful titles). Both types of competition are generally seen as healthy for the publishing industry, and there's no proof that the latter produces lower quality books than the former. I'm certainly aware of cases where the progenitor of a new niche title had a great idea with mediocre execution, while later competing titles did a better job, whether or not they supplanted the market share of the original.

Me-too publishing is at least as common in fiction as in nonfiction, and the resulting "product" in fiction probably has less to recommend it than in the nonfiction world, where at least the author of the knock-off might get a few of the facts right. I've been buying increasing numbers of nonfiction books over the past couple couple years, as I've gotten less tolerant of myself for making mistakes that could have been avoided with a little homework. While I'm still more inclined to experimentation than narration, a little guidance can save a lot of time. About half the books I buy don't get read when on closer inspection they turn out to be fluff pieces on the subject with excellent titles. Anecdotally speaking, the fluff books turn out to be calculated competition far more often rather than original sin.

Competition does result in a larger variety of titles to choose from, but it also leads to overly specific tomes in which the whole message of the book is delivered on the cover. New titles keep printers and pulpers in business, and it would be tough for Barnes & Noble to fill a store with truly unique books and remain in business. But it's easier for the large trades playing the numbers game to dish out and take competing titles than for the small press or the self publisher. My view is that competition is healthy for everybody else, but I'd just as soon be left in peace, thank you very much.

Bulk Sales And Private Branding Books

Earlier this week I had a nice phone conversation with the representative of a corporation that was interested in purchasing a several hundred copies of one of my titles, providing I would private brand the cover with their corporate info. I've never had any objection to private branding, publishing is a business for me, not an ego game. Book clubs often produce their own editions of bestsellers, with new covers, perhaps on cheaper paper in a smaller format, and I still regret that McGraw-Hill failed to sell the earliest book I authored for them to AOL ten years ago, for a private branded version. They were negotiating for 50,000 copies when the sale fell through.

On the other hand, I've never gotten excited about one-time scores in my self publishing business, even if the sale is well into the thousands of dollars. It's just not part of my business model to sell my time or services. If you take the taxes into account, you may also find that the bulk sales are only worth 50% or 60% of the gross profit when all is said and tithed. Of course, the beauty of private branded books in the Internet age is they won't (or shouldn't) come back to cannibalize sales of new books on Amazon, especially with a title and ISBN change. So, I told the intermediary on the proposal that I'd be happy to do the business if the terms worked out, and promptly lost the phone number of the decision maker (I think it went out with the recycling:-) It's not the first time I've had interest in private branding this title, one of the technical college chains that uses it as a text was interested, but decided in the end to just buy the regular edition of the book.

Since I'm using print-on-demand to manage my inventory, I never have any motivation to go for deep-discount bulk sales, and I've been pretty amused over the years by some of the offers I've gotten from Amazon booksellers that would simply take money out of my pocket. I guess they're used to dealing with large trades who still see deep discount sales as additive to their current quarter top line rather than subtractive from their longer term bottom line, thanks to the efficiency of the online marketplace. Even if I was using offset printing and had a garage full of books, I'd have to think long and hard about letting any out the door at a deep discount, as long as they were still selling new online.

I've worked in and around small business for my entire working life, and one of the strongest warning signs of impending doom (beyond the owner taking home all the office furniture and replacing it with leased furnishings) is chasing business opportunities that aren't part of the day-to-day operations. When the owner of a business starts believing that the grass is greener in somebody else's pasture, it usually means that his own pasture is in danger of flooding. In the publishing business, falling sales often lead to a radical overhaul of the business model, the attractive gamble on a new technology or market. But the key to success in any business is knowing what you're doing, and a sudden change in course usually leads into unknown waters.

Will Bookvideos Work Like iPublish or Safari?

How many of us remember I didn't make the link active because it just points to a placeholder page these days. The rise and fall of Time Warner's big Internet play took just eight month months, not counting the pre-launch preparation. Time Warner blamed the failure on ebooks lack of market acceptance, but as a potential candidate for the iPublish fiasco, I seem to remember it being pitched to fiction authors as a path into print. I also seem to remember the contract terms being abusive, which is why I didn't sign. The model involved peer review of manuscripts (free labor) to bubble the cream to the top. These were the good old days when it was assumed that nobody in the publishing community cheats.

Another notable failure was the Sobol Award, announced in late 2006, denounced by everybody who was already somebody, and renounced just four months later. The Sobol Award looked too much like a pyramid scheme, with it's $85 entry fee and $100,000 prize. The real carrot for writers was the promise that the top three fiction manuscripts would receive contracts with Simon and Shuster. If they had attracted the 50,000 manuscripts they were hoping for, they would have grossed $8.5 million. Instead, they issued refunds and closed down the contest with some serious out-of-pocket expenses.

A notable success story would be Safari, the ebook subscription service that for technology books, a joint venture of O'Reilly Media and The Pearson Technology Group. Considering that O'Reilly and Pearson are the two most web savvy publishers out there, it's not surprising that they could create a going business. Sales of O'Reilly ebooks through Safari between May '05 and May '06 exceeded sales of O'Reilly paper books through Borders, though the results are heavily influenced by corporate consumers of software titles.

Yesterday, we were treated to Simon & Shuster announcing a "book-centric video channel" christened BookVideos that will go online in June with a ".tv" domain. It's a good way to lose a large proportion of your potential visitors who read about the "channel" in print but who will type ".com" when they sit down at their computers. The channel will launch with 40 videos of top authors produced by TurnHere. My guess is that Simon & Shuster hopes to leverage initial fan viewings of the videos into subscriptions to e-mail lists and memberships in fan forums. It seems unlikely to be a crashing failure or a resounding success, though I suspect the more web savvy authors will eventually figure out that they are sending fans to the Simon & Shuster site at the expense of their own traffic.

The BookVideos initiative sounds more like a a new shopping channel than an exciting books and Internet hybrid. If they had announced a new site for audio books with novel distribution through pod casting to cellphones, that would have been interesting:-)

Book Expo America And The Publishing Economy

It looks like I won't make it to Book Expo America this year, despite a Friday night party invitation and a couple requests for face-to-face meetings with people who I only know as e-mail correspondents. It seems to me that Book Expo America is always scheduled as a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, which creates a very inefficient business trip for those of us who don't work on one Sabbath or the other. I stay away from both computers and publishing on the Jewish Sabbath, which wipes out Friday night and Saturday. Christian publishers lose out on Sunday and Muslims on Friday. I guess it's a positive that Reed doesn't favor one religion over another and gives air travelers an "includes Saturday" itinerary - but maybe it's a Buddhist conspiracy!

There are some conference sessions starting on Wednesday that look pretty interesting and might be worth an overnight trip, so I think I'll contact them and see if it's too late to get a press pass. Of course, there's always the possibility of ego bruising if I don't meet their relevancy standards. Trying to wear my blogger hat as a credential always makes me stop and think about my place in the greater publishing economy as both a publisher and a pundit. The sad truth is I'm probably best known for my early analysis of Amazon sales ranks, which has worked it's way into a dozen academic papers and gotten me mentioned in a NYT Bestseller (The Long Tail by Chris Anderson), various newspapers, and even a "crappy" slide on authors@google.

Self Publishing has never quite fit into the blog-o-sphere, I only enabled comments last week and started an RSS feed a month or two ago. I always saw a blog as more of a content management system, and figured a thousand new visitors a day from organic search is better than a hundred thousand subscribers. Having no interest in big trade insider trading (of editorial staff), I rarely comment on news items, which are the meat and potatoes of trade connected bloggers. Despite having published one book about publishing and almost publishing a second, I remain on the fringes of the independent publishing world, due to a reluctance to attend conferences or consult.

Where I suspect I measure up quite well is in the correspondence department. I've never sat down and tried to count how many individual authors, publishers and journalists I've talked with over the Internet or the phone, but it's well into the thousands. I've also noticed a unwelcome increase in the number of rip-offs of my publishing commentary, a classic back-handed compliment. I suspect the RSS feed and the rise of anonymous blogs built on public services contributes there.

Of course, the real question for any self publisher is whether or not it's worth investing the time and effort to become more involved in the greater publishing economy, or whether it makes more sense to fly under the radar in your niche and hope that nobody notices you. There's no question that a lean-and-mean self publisher can earn a living off a single successful book, and that inviting additional attention and competition will only reduce earnings. If you've published a book that's selling 20,000 copies a year and has escaped the notice of the cookie-cutter trades, you're probably better off not attending trade shows or talking about your sales online. Otherwise, you're likely to see the other side of Schumpeter's "Creative Destruction" coin.

Occupational Hazards For Writers and Publishers

I put aside another post I started this morning to write about occupational hazards faced by authors and publishers in the Internet Age. The subject came to me when I had to turn away from the screen, crying out in disgust, because I was getting so dizzy I was worried about hurling on on the keyboard (pardon the eighties-speak, dude). Since moving into my new rental, I've been trying to figure out whether it's an old problem gotten worse or just glare coming through all the windows, but I haven't had the patience yet to spend a day working in a shaded room to see if it makes a difference. Maybe tomorrow.

Visual problems are the most costly occupational hazard I've encountered in publishing because I don't have a work-around that allows me to do most of my work without staring at a computer screen. Which reminds me, I should take a crowbar to the wallet and buy a glare filter as an experiment, or maybe just a larger, brighter LCD. Or maybe a new notebook, I've never been crazy about this one and I like to blame the keyboard design for some of my spelling problems as well, but that's another post.

The more common complaints I hear from people working in publishing are related to repetitive stress injuries. Doing her first full book illustration job on a computer, my sister developed excruciating shoulder pain until she traded in her mouse on a stylus. I bought a stylus and tablet myself last winter for map drawing, but my hands are so shaky that I ended up using the mouse on the tablet instead, just to have better positioning control. I don't even know where it is at the moment, as I'm back to using a roller mouse on a tablecloth. But the tablecloth is checkered.

Going back to the early 90's, I spend three months cropping photographs in some early Photoshop variant for an educational CD I was preparing for publication. I ended up with such pain in my right shoulder that I switched over to mousing left handed and have never gone back. Now that I think about it, I did quite a bit of my translating work in the 90's left-handed in long-hand, one of the few writing related occupations where there's little advantage in typing the first draft.

But all of that is peanuts next to stress. I've been absolutely floored by things going wrong in my business from time to time, my head feels like a block of wood in a vise and the whole world looks like a conspiracy of incompetence. Since the solution or patch usually requires working online, it's fun to compound the stress with the visually inspired vertigo, and maybe mix in a little repetitive stress mouse or typing pain as well. And that doesn't even get into tongue injuries suffered by inexperienced publishers licking stamps and cheap envelope flaps.

But mind you, I'm not complaining:-)

How To Sell A Publishing Company

I did some research and found that I've written a half dozen posts about buying or selling a publishing company, so I figure it's time to do something about it. The first problem I encountered in looking for another small publisher to buy is that there is no central directory listing publishing companies for sale. So I've decided to try to start one:

Publishing Business For Sale Listings

All I need now is listings from people trying to figure out how to sell a their published backlist. But listing a publishing company or assets for sale is one thing, and packaging titles such that they will be worth a good price as either a turnkey publishing operation or as a valuable addition to the catalog of another small press is another. Reminds me of the commercial with the catch line something like, "Would you buy a used truck from this man?"

The most important asset any publisher has is the intellectual property rights to the works they publish. In the case of a self publisher, establishing who owns the intellectual property rights isn't too difficult. It's either the publisher or the publisher's estate, if the author who established the business has passed away. But you can't assume that any other small publisher has dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's in their author contracts. I've even come across small publishers who boast that they don't use contracts at all. They do business on a hand-shake, the old fashioned way. Well, that business isn't going to be worth much to a potential buyer unless all the authors the original publisher shook hands with are willing to put pen to paper for the same deal.

The most general measure used to value sole proprietorships and other small businesses is probably copies of their tax returns. It could be that I'm in with a bad crowd, but I've known people to present fake tax returns to a bank when applying for a mortgage (and there are plenty of banks that are happy to take their word for it) so a series of tax returns that a publisher allegedly filed with the IRS is hardly proof positive of business activity. I'd want both the statements and the contact info for all of the vendors and major customers the publishing company deals with, along with the legal authority to confirm the account activity with them.

When the executor of an estate needs to figure out how to sell a publishing company or how to to estimate the value of a publisher's assets, they have limited resources beyond looking at past performance and talking to the business relations of the publisher. The real problem, especially with a small press, is that the majority of the sales activity was likely due directly to the efforts of the publisher who has gone on to that great printing press in the sky. This is especially true with self publishers whose public appearances and promotional activities are what drove the sales. It doesn't mean that the assets of the business fall to zero value on the publisher's demise, but they become a risky bet at anything other than a steep discount.

I don't expect an immediate burst of activity to populate the directory page I just set up, but I expect, over time, there will be a few listings and a marketplace may begin to form. Both buyers and sellers benefit from a thriving marketplace where values can be established by market forces rather than guesswork. I'm not going to rush around setting up a new domain with a catchy name for the time being, or establish automated listings. Anybody with a publishing company to sell can contact me directly, and I'll manually add a listing to the directory. If there's enough interest, that's when I'll get serious and establish a real auction site. It's the internet entrepreneur's dream. Start out giving a service away for free, establish value, and then start charging:-)

Bookstore Returns Follow Bookstore Orders Through Ingram

Many publishers using Lightning Source to print their titles on demand for distribution through Ingram don't accept returns. I didn't accept bookstore returns when I started out either. I had never planned to get my titles onto bookstore shelves, having set a short discount to maximize profit per sale and minimize risk. After a year or so of publishing, I realized that getting swamped in massive returns from bookstores wasn't going to be a problem, and isn't a problem for most small publishers. Getting bookstores to order the books in the first place is the challenge. At a short discount, it should be a nearly insurmountable challenge that can only be overcome by special orders through customers.

So I started accepting returns to see if it would make any difference in the ebb and flow of my business. Since we don't suffer from multiple personalties (stop that!), I didn't have to worry that my alter ego would be running around to bookstores all over the country and placing orders for my books in an attempt to get them on shelves. I remember seeing a trade author on Book TV years ago, boasting about how his mother did this for him, and I'm sure he wasn't unique. These days, Barnes&Noble and other retailers don't shelve books that are special ordered which aren't picked up, they send them back to the warehouse. And I can't imagine that there are many bookstore clerks left out there who are so naive that they would special order short discount POD books for "customers" calling in by phone, whether returnable or not.

April saw my returns at the highest level I can remember, a little over 4%, compared to 1.5% for the 2006 year and 2.0% for 2005. Compared to the double digit figures some trade publishers see in bad years, it's a drop in the bucket. More to the point, bookstore returns indicate a very interesting phenomena. Namely, that bookstores sometimes order my short discount books. From my perspective, getting returns from bookstores is a positive. It means that my marketing has been successful enough to get some customers to walk into stores and persuade the sometimes reluctant clerks to order my books. Clerks have good reason to be reluctant, by the way. I've heard that no-show rate for special orders that aren't secured with a prepayment can run as high as 40%!

Last year, I saw one of my titles shelved at the local Barnes&Noble superstore. I bought it, and the next time I was there they had another one on the shelf, so they actually had it modeled for some reason. I know that visitors to my website produce walk-in demand for the title because they occasionally e-mail me if they have trouble getting clerks to order it, but I was still surprised to see it sitting there at a short discount. They didn't have a copy in stock last time I looked, so maybe that was one of the returns.

Where I think accepting returns really helps out is with academic bookstore sales. One of my titles is used as a class text at a dozen or so technical colleges, and college bookstores have notorious stock management problems with uncertain class enrollments. In this case, they could always pop onto Amazon and sell it in Marketplace rather than returning it, since it sells well online. I don't know if any college bookstores are using Amazon Marketplace for inventory management, so my accepting returns through Ingram may be helping with my non-direct college bookstore business. I do know that one regular bookstore I sell to direct does use Amazon Marketplace to boost his bottom line a little, and I actually net less (and for more effort) selling him books that he sometimes turns around and unloads online. Can't really begrudge him making the extra buck or two, it's a tough business.