Publishing Your First Book

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

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

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

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

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

Budget Your Book Publishing Process

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon Kindle Best Textbook Replacement?

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

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

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

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

Publishing A New Edition Of Published Book

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

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

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

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

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

Book Business Partnerships

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

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

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

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

Evergreen, Backlist And Annual Publishers

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

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

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

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

A Fiction Query Letter From Victorian Literature

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

Dear Sir,

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

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

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

Yours faithfully, and in hopes of friendly relations,

Josephine De Montmorenci

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

"Need um job!"

and got back the reply, in crayon:

"Get um experience!"

A Random Walk Through Book Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publishing Alternatives For Authors

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

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

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

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

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

Travel Publishing Plans

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

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

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

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

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