Evolution On The Margins Of Books

I just finished "The Business Of Books" by Andre Schiffrin, which was primarily interesting to me for one reason. The business of publishing that he describes growing up in is not the business that I write about, but then again, it's a publishing world that he's eulogizing. His conclusions about the new world of trade publishing being focused on the frontlist and the bottom line agree with my own observations, though he tends read politics into everything at the same time. I don't believe the publishing business has ever stopped evolving, or that there was ever a time that bestsellers weren't important for various reasons. But I do agree that publishing for backlist potential isn't in fashion at the big trades.

One of the remarkable things about the Internet is the speed at which evolution takes place. It's still a game of incremental changes and survival of the fittest, but the word gets around very quickly and to the winner belong the spoils. When I talk to publishers about working the Internet into their business model, I suspect my enthusiasm sometimes makes it sound like I'm asking them to give up paper books, or distribution relationships. So many publishers have made major commitments to the Internet and received little to show for it because their focus was on budgeting, rather than understanding how a web presence could compliment their existing business model. Evolution may come quickly on the web, but a publisher who tries to get to the finish line in one shot rather than testing incremental adaptations to their organism is just begging to become an evolutionary dead end.

Changes on the margins of any business lead to big effects over time. Positive changes to book margins (ie, the gross profit per book) when publishers face very similar costs for NYC office space, printing and authors may make the difference as to which publishers survive in the long run. Winnowing out the weaker publishers may be a process of a few percentage points on the margins, not spectacular blow-ups due to over-sized advances that don't pay out or huge bookstore returns of no longer promising titles. All things being equal, if two publishers are competing in similar areas with similar staff and cost structures, I would expect the publisher who adapts better to the Internet to be the publisher who survives. But bestseller obsessed publishers think, "If the Internet didn't work for Stephen King, how could it do anything for us?"

I believe, from multiple discussions with publishers whose Internet efforts are highly limited, that the stumbling point is the mental commitment to learning something new. Most publishers have no trouble coming up with a budget for web design and upkeep, but their desire is to write a contractor a check and not hear about it again. The website, for them, is like a space advertisement intended more for branding purposes than anything else. But those same publishers would be horrified if they found they'd spent fifty cents a book more on printing than everybody else in the business for the same quality product. Survival in the long haul is often a question of being a second faster or fifty cents cheaper. Publishers who don't spend any money on marketing, on title acquisition, on direct sales, peer reviews, focus groups and public relations can afford to ignore their websites as long as the e-mail works. Publishers who do spend money on those activities and hope to be around after the next meteor hits had better start evolving now, a little at a time.

Poetry And The Professional Poet

As long as we're talking about cold hearted calculations, I figured it was time to say something about poetry again. Not the art, I'm one of those weirdos who remembers the poems I like, even though I wouldn't agree with most as to what the poet was talking about. I probably wouldn't agree with the poet either, if any of my favorites were alive to express an opinion, but as with rock n' roll, it pays not to confuse the messenger with the message.

I read an article by Willard Spiegelman this week in which he mentioned the submission process at Poetry Magazine. It should be called a rejection process. According to the article, Poetry Magazine receives around 30,000 submissions a year and publishes around 300 poems. That's not quite as bad as a lottery ticket, submitting a poem to Poetry Magazine does actually increase the odds that it will be published. But the question for us self publishers is, does publishing significantly increase the odds that you will earn a living as a poet?

The Census Bureau lists Poet in the Industry and Occupations Index, but they lump poets into the Writers and Authors category. Likewise, the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes poets in the category A183 AUTHORS. I spent some time googling around without finding even an estimate of the number of professional poets in America, people earning their living primarily from writing poetry. I'd assume there are at least dozen or so at any given time, Poets Laureate, some poets writing on grants, some visiting scholars or chairs at universities or liberal arts colleges. I did find a reference to the Poets in the Schools program in California, where "professional poets work with children", though it wasn't clear from the reference if they get paid.

Interestingly, Poetry Magazine maintains a Poetry Bestseller List on their website, which goes to show I'm not the only person involved in publishing who expresses a passing interest in sales. The top selling contemporary poet in the country these days appears to be Billy Collins, with two books dancing around the 10,000 rank on Amazon. Between those two books and his extensive backlist, if he was self published, I believe he'd be earning a better living from self publishing than I do. Of course, the ability of a self published poet to achieve fame would depend on what came first, the publications or the platform.

Overall, I suspect it's easier to earn a living as a famous dead poet than a famous live one, though the taxes will kill you in either case unless you do a lot of traveling:-)

Writing The Right Book

I was having an imaginary conversation with an aspiring self publisher who owns a pet store while I was out running this morning. She was bouncing ideas off me for both fiction and nonfiction books she was thinking about writing - I'm rubber. The conversation went something like this:

Adrian: "I really love dogs, I've been working with them for over 20 years, I go to all the shows and conventions. If I know one thing in this world, it's dogs. So I was thinking of writing a novel about an alcoholic vice cop whose daughter turns tricks to support her drug habit."

Morris: "Uh, does the cop have a dog? Does the daughter have a dog? Is there a crime in a pet shop? Do you have any experience with police work, or, uh, you know..."

Adrian: "Well, I read a lot of books and watch a lot of TV and there don't seem to be that many dogs in prominent roles. I want to give myself the best chance of success."

Morris: "If you really feel you have to start off with an action novel, I'd at least try to work some dogs and a pet shop into the plot, maybe even the title. It helps quite a bit with believability if you can write from experience."

Adrian: "Oh, if you mean I should write some how-to book about animals, I have been thinking of a book on raising possums for pets."

Morris: "Uh, is there a lot of demand for pet possums?"

Adrian: "Well, I did some research, and there aren't any competing books, so I should be really successful."

Morris: "That's not always a great sign in publishing, it could mean that there isn't much demand. Have you considered writing a book about, you know, dogs?"

Adrian: "Oh, there are thousands of books about dogs, I sell them in my store. How can I compete when it's all been done before? Every show I go to there are dog books for sale, dog breeding, dog feeding, dog psychology, dog humor, and most of them aren't any good! People are always asking me to suggest a book about choosing a puppy, but it's hard because I don't agree with the authors of the published books."

Morris: "That's usually a good sign in publishing, that there's a lot of demand. If you write a good book, even if there's direct competition in your niche, say, "Purchasing A Pet Shop Puppy", at least you know that there''s a market. If you write the better book and do a better job marketing, you'll do well."

Adrian: "But I could practically write that book in my sleep! What would that prove?"

Morris: "That you're a pretty smart self publisher."

What's A Publisher Need To Be Legal?

Life is complicated, business is simple.

OK, that's the short answer to a question I've heard three times in the past week, one by phone and two by e-mail, which I think means the British are marching on Concord.

The question is in the title of this post: What's a publisher need to be legal? Sometimes, the question is phrased a little more specifically, as in, "Do I need to incorporate to start a publishing company?"

Incorporation is complicated, unless you've done it before, and it costs money. It doesn't have anything to do with the legitimacy of a publishing business, it won't help you sell books or get reviews. Incorporation can be an important step for some businesses, but its implications are financial and legal. Corporations follow a different tax regime than individuals, have different reporting requirements, pay annual fees, and are taxed at a different rate. Businesses tend to incorporate to make it easier to raise money from multiple investors and to protect those investors from illegal or harmful actions the corporation might take.

If you're a self publisher or a new small press, you probably aren't trying to raise money through selling shares, and you probably don't have a lot of spare cash to spend on setting up a corporation. I do know a few self publishers who are incorporated, but most of them were incorporated before they added publishing as an activity. Incorporation can protect shareholders from legal actions, limiting their liability to the amounts invested, but incorporation doesn't give individuals protection from their own actions. In other words, if you're a self publisher, incorporating doesn't protect you from charges of libel (and legal awards) if you commit libel. Incorporation may protect investors in your self publishing company if you did everything right, but as the author of the libel, you're responsible as an individual.

I've never lived anywhere where a publisher was required to obtain any sort of special publishing license, but self employed people who use a made-up name for their business often have a local business licensing requirement. Around my neck of the woods, it costs $30 or so to file a DBA (Doing Business As) at the local town hall. I believe the purpose of the DBA is to prevent you from hiding from legitimate complaints. If you want to use your last name in the name of your publishing company , it's usually not necessary to inform anybody you've started a publishing business until...


The people who really, really care about how you're doing are the IRS and your state tax authority. If you make a profit, they want their money, or our money, depending how you look at it. In your first year, you aren't required to pay estimated taxes, but come tax time, you have to file a Schedule C for the business, and give them the name of your publishing company. The name of the company has no impact on the taxes you owe, it's just a label.

Writer's Retreat Or Shining

Just a couple weeks ago I wrote abut running away, I mean, making a tour of the small publishing industry in the US. A couple things have come up since then which have left me more indecisive than ever, and I'm considering going on a writer's retreat instead. Not an official one, though I suppose I should look into that as well. But I've made the accidental discovery that people who own vacation homes in the mountains and on the beaches have increasingly upgraded them to be year round dwellings, but still only spend the summer there. Many of these now get rented out for September 1st through May 1st. I wouldn't be shocked if some end up with house sitters, just so they don't sit there empty.

Of course, there's always the Shining risk, going insane and typing "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" over and over all winter, getting locked in a walk-in freezer, seeing ghosts and all that sort of thing. But there's something to be said for trying a new place when you've fallen into a rut, and I've always been much more productive when I get off by myself. I'm also reluctant to commit myself to any deal that would prevent me from getting to Jerusalem this winter, and maybe beating my nine-years-in-the making Serial Tourist's Guide To Jerusalem into some sort of publishable shape.

New Hampshire seems the most likely state for off-season vacation rentals, primarily on lakes or the sea shore. Some include heat in the price, which implies the owners never shut down cold (what I'd do if I left a home in New England for the winter), and based on the number of listings in mid-July, I'm betting the availability is will be pretty high by August when the procrastinators get off the stick. I spent a winter living in a beach-front rental in New Jersey twenty odd years ago, and while I didn't get any writing done, I certainly drank like a literary lion. It's also interesting to note that sabbatical sublets are often advertised as writing retreats, homes near universities with decent book collections. Maybe that's just what I need, a sabbatical year, take a break and wash my brain from all this whatever it is I do.

Or is this all a huge overreaction to the personalized recommendation from Amazon that I purchase "Self Publishing for Dummies?"

The Matt Cutts Effect And Amazon Bestsellers

Last week Matt Cutts praised a Digital Photography book on his blog. The sales rank of the book, which had been averaging around 100, appeared to bounce up around 50 for a couple days as a result. In response to a question posted on that blog, I tossed out the guesstimate that Matt's recommendation might have sold a couple hundred books for the author. It really was off the top of my head as I stopped looking at the ranks of top sellers on Amazon some years ago as being both undecipherable and unimportant to the vast majority of working authors.

I've been writing about Amazon Sales Ranks since the late 90's, during which period both the sales rank algorithm and my approach for reverse engineering the ranks has changed several times. In the early years, I relied heavily on Amazon's public statements about their dollar sales volume and how it was divided up, computed an average price, used a limited number of data points to fix a curve and plotted it on log-log paper. In later years I shifted to numbers for my self published books and ebooks, and data sent to me by friendly publishers. It all got very confused a couple years ago when Amazon started including marketplace sales in the ranks, and I was forced to rely more heavily ebook data. I also stopped trying to estimate sales for the top three decades of the curve, the top 1000 titles.

But thinking about how many extra sales would result from a book moving from an average rank of 100 to 50 for a few days got me curious about those top sellers. I decided to do something I'd been procrastinating for some time and try to see if I could get a feel for what's going on at the top of the curve with Aaron Shepard's Rank Checker, which also displays a stock number. Some of the limitations of this method are that it doesn't include marketplace sales, the stock number often moves up as new stock is received into the Amazon system (at least that's what I hope it is:-), and perhaps most importantly, the ranks themselves are changing every hour. While the top two or three books may be more or less nailed in place for long periods of time, most books move every hour, which is why an average rank must be estimated. Another important factor is that the proportion of marketplace sales versus Amazon stock sales is not proportional for all titles. A top seller that's been in print for years may see half of it's sales coming through the marketplace, while a brand new title may see virtually 100% of it's sales coming from Amazon inventory.

All that said, here are some observations about the meaning of the top Amazon sales ranks for a quiet week in the middle of July, or the first few days of the week. It's just after 2:00 PM EST as I'm writing this entry, and the stock of the #2 seller on Amazon has dropped 38 copies in the last half hour, with me checking every couple minutes. The top seller is the new Harry Potter book which hasn't been released yet. The same #2 title moved 173 copies during a three hour period yesterday evening, and 261 copies during the two and a quarter hours I was out for lunch. Assuming I didn't miss a restocking during any of these periods (and they're normally pretty obvious), the #2 rank on Amazon today is selling about 2,000 copies a day. Sure, there's a huge fudge factor in there (though I didn't list all of my data points), but I'll bet it's a lot more accurate than any other number you may have in mind.

One of the best ways to convince people that guesstimates are in fact data is to plot a graph.

The little marks that aren't buried under the thick blue line are my data points, all of which required some averaging before plotting. There is no data point suggesting that the the #1 book (Harry Potter in this case) is selling 10,000 books a day. It could just as easily be 4,000 or 40,000. If you compare the graph with my permanent sales rank article, you'll see that this graph puts the 1000th rank book at 18 copies a day, while the old graph puts the 1000th rank seller at 100 copies a week. That's pretty darn close considering I wasn't trying! And yes, it really is time I cleaned that old graph up.

So, take it with a shaker of salt, or go nuts watching Amazon stock numbers, try adjusting for Marketplace, time of day, week and year, check continually so you can catch stock adjustments, and plot your own graph. I'm either too lazy to set up an automated script to do it, or too skeptical of the results to bother. And back to the Cutts effect. According to this graph, a move from a rank of 100 to 50 for a few days would sell between 100 and 200 books, so not a horrible guess. Wish I could blog like Matt, like Matt. Be like Matt. C'mon, am I the only one who remembers the "Be like Mike" commercial?

Returning Books Beats Burning Them

Today's Wall Street Journal carried an in-depth interview of Borders CEO George Jones. Jones was quoted at the very end as saying, "Also, some things don't make sense, such as physically returning books all the time...There has to be a more efficient way."

Book returns are even more painful for publishers than for retailers, which is why stripping off covers and sending them back in lieu of the books for credit was once seen as an acceptable alternative to returning the physical books. I don't know if it's still commonly practiced, I only know about it because I used to buy stripped books at a neighborhood paperback shop when I was a kid. Obviously, then, it wasn't working exactly the way the publishers had envisioned. I didn't understand the ethical questions involved in reselling stripped books when I was twelve or thirteen, I just though that tearing off book covers was a mean thing for anybody to do.

Many publishers using short discount POD for printing and distribution have found a solution to book returns, they don't accept them. When I first changed over from offset printing to using Lightning Source for POD, I didn't accept returns either. I figured there was no point accepting returns when I was selling at a short discount because no store would order for stock anyway. At some point, perhaps because I was worried about the Amazon availability of my titles back around 2005, I started accepting returns. To my great surprise, one of my titles now occasionally gets ordered in quantity by the Barnes&Noble chain, and starts popping up on the shelves of some of their superstores. Retailers may regret having to deal with returns, but they have little motivation to order books for stock unless the publisher accepts returns or offers them a heck of a non-returnable discount on a book with proven demand, like 65% or more off the cover price.

While publishers and retailers alike bemoan the effort and expense of dealing with book returns, the alternatives are worse. An easy solution for bookstores would be to only stock books that are selling like hotcakes or classic fiction that they know will sell eventually. While that wouldn't hurt publishers whose books aren't getting any shelve exposure, it would mean the end of the standard trade publishing model that's driven the business since the Depression. It would also result in bookstores that stocked a thousand or so "bestsellers" and a few thousand classics, and not much else.

The superstores that the Borders and Barnes&Nobles chains are built around stock 100,000 or more titles, and most of them aren't going to be big hits. Returning the books that don't sell (chain-wide average) after a couple months is the best way to ensure that the maximum shelf space is being used for books customers may actually purchase. If the chains wanted to declare that all but the top 10,000 sellers in each store were there for wallpaper, they could treat the others as a capital expense and not worry about whether the wallpaper titles ever sold. Of course, after a few years, the affect on the book industry would be the same as if they'd simply filled 90% of their wall space with photographs of bookshelves and kept the real books close to the cash registers.

I don't really understand the complaint on the part of Border's CEO. It's the willingness of the publishing industry to provide his superstores with returnable books that allows them to fill their shelves with a variety of fresh titles and keep the people coming in. It makes a little more sense to me when publishers complain about "reckless" ordering for stock, though school bookstores may be bigger culprits than retail chains. Barnes&Noble has been working on their own solution to limiting book returns by publishing more and more of the books they sell, especially evergreen titles, classics and certain nonfiction. Barnes&Noble stock is up about 60% over the last ten years, Borders is down about 20%.

In any case, tearing the covers off books or burning them for fuel isn't a solution I want any part of. If Mr. Jones was referring to putting POD machines in stores or pushing ebooks, it wouldn't have any effect on the crux of the problem, namely, what to do with all that shelf space if not trying new titles?

A Website Lesson For Publishers

Jim Millot reported for Publishers Weekly today that MediaBay was shutting down after spending millions of dollars working on an Internet based distribution system for audio books. They made what I believe is a classic mistake for any Internet business, diluting their original domain ( with multiple spin-offs:,,, and I doubt this dilution had a major effect on the outcome, because none of the sites showed any real legs on Alexa is concerned, but it couldn't have helped.

I've been fortunate enough to talk with some top people from all manner of publishing companies, and if one thing comes through, it's that their Internet efforts are managed by non-Internet savvy people. In some cases, the entire focus is on aesthetics, and the designers who do this work for top dollar would be shocked to hear there even exists such a thing as search engine visibility. They think web traffic is only supposed to come from people typing the name of the publisher into their browser. And the funny thing is, if that's what you design for, that's what you'll get. I recently saw a beautiful literary press site designed 100% with graphics, there weren't even alternative text tags. If the domain name hadn't been the publisher name, it would have been entirely invisible to Google.

Other publishers have a decent sense of text content, what to put on a website, but figure the more websites they put up, the better off they'll be. Creating a new website for every title is a losing proposition, both in terms of maintenance costs, and in terms of drawing visitors. If a domain name for every title is desirable for branding purposes, fine, but redirect them all to the publisher's main site with 301 permanent redirects.

What really drives me nuts, though, are the blank expressions (or those long telephone pauses followed by "come again") in response to basic questions about the website usage statistics. Every web server maintains logs that are stuffed with far more information about visitors and how they arrived than even I have the patience to digest. But for a publisher to say that their website is a part of their overall business strategy, much less a major part, and not to know anything beyond the number of page views a month, is almost criminal. It would be like a publisher with many books in print only paying attention to the cumulative sales total each month, and instructing the printer to print more copies of random titles in hopes they might be the ones that are selling. If you're going to spend money on a website, not setting aside a couple minutes a day to check what's working is no different than handing out book contracts to random authors and hoping it somehow all works out.

The topline number that most publishers are at least familiar with is page views, the gross number of web pages the server coughs up in a given period of time. This number is almost entirely worthless on its own, the vast majority of the traffic may be false impressions or misdirected. All of your traffic may come from your publishing company being voted the worst site on the web five years running. If you get excited about page views, the ones to watch are your order pages. How many views are they getting, and how many of those views translate into book purchases? Simple tweaks to order pages can have more effect on sell-through than all of the aesthetic improvements you can dream of on an infinite budget.

But my two favorite web statistics to watch are referrers and key phrases. Keeping an eye on referrers, the places your visitors are coming from, tells you how much of your traffic is legitimate. I generally check out every new referring site I see show up in the statistics, just to keep current with what it is that people are finding interesting and useful on my site, useful enough to tell somebody else about it. The key phrases tell me how people are finding my site through search engines. I rarely look at key words (single word totals) but they can also be valuable in tracking how site development is affecting traffic over time.

For example, I just checked the year-over-year change in my top five publishing related keywords from the second Monday in July. The main keyword, "book" was up modestly, from 225 search appearances last year to 300 this year. The next most popular, "publishing", was up to 125 appearances this Monday from 85 a year ago Monday. The plural "books" was doubled, from 35 last year to 73 this year, but "published" was down from 42 queries a year ago Monday to 26 three days ago. For the keyword "publish" however, there were 52 visitors this Monday versus 38 a year ago.

This is the first time I've checked the top keywords this year, and it puts me in a good mood because it means this blog hasn't flatlined for search engine traffic yet. I'll check later using a whole month worth of totals, but I figured the small numbers would be easier to grok in a blog post. One of the problems with writing so much about the same subject is that my old blog posts compete with new blog posts for visitors from the search engines. However, as long as the number of visitors using those basic publishing keywords in search terms is growing, I know that the number of appropriate visitors is still growing overall. If I'd checked phrases, on the other hand, and saw that all of my traffic was coming from "know-it-all-jerk", I'd have to rethink my approach.

And if you're a publisher who said "come again" on reading this post, drop me a line and maybe I can walk you through it over the phone:-)

The Runaway Bridegroom Publisher Tour Of 2007

My sister just sent me a diagnostic flowchart for achieving matrimony. It's her take-off on the education reform flowchart I gave her a copy of last week - we work fast in my family with whatever tools are at hand. I mention the tools because she didn't have a copy of Visio and did the marriage flowchart in some Adobe software, maybe InDesign, which really isn't designed for the job. Unlike my education reform flowchart, her matrimony graph (it's not exactly a flowchart) was prepared especially for me, so I can't guarantee it suitability for other users.

The point is, having carefully considered my options, I'm leaning towards running away. My lease here is up in a month and my house hunting efforts have taught me that there are a lot of really bad houses available, so I'm thinking it might be a good time to buy a tent and see the country. I tried seeing the country on a camping trip after graduate school fifteen years ago, but I mainly saw the highways as I drove as much as sixteen hours a day in a hurry to get nowhere in particular. Given the cost of gas and the fact that I'm older and slower, it might make sense to go with a hard limit of 200 miles a day, maximum, and actually stop and visit places.

Many authors go on extended tours of speaking engagements (did he say engagement:-) and book readings at least once in their lives. But has anybody ever gone on a cross-country publisher tour, visiting self publishers and writing about them online? I don't know that I'd be the right person to do it, but it sounds kind of interesting at first blush, and could give some structure and meaning to my midlife crisis. I have standing invites from a couple of self-publishers around the country to drop in and say "Hi" if I'm in the area, but I'd have to run the quantity up quite a bit if I was to have any chance at getting good at it, much less coming up with some useful prose. I suppose some new self publishers wouldn't mind getting their photo and titles listed on my website, but I may be too honest for some people's taste.

How would something like the Runaway Bridegroom Publisher Tour work? I'd have to line up some publishers interested in meeting me ahead of time, call them when I'm going to be in reasonable driving range for a day or two, and plan to meet somewhere for a coffee. I've corresponded with too many "interesting" authors to have any inclination to meet them in their homes, invariably located on isolated country roads, complete with a kid playing the Deliverance theme on a banjo. I'd also be inclined to setting a pretty short time limit for a meeting, like a half-hour, to make sure we talk about the publisher's titles and not sit around swapping publishing war stories.

My guess is that it would be a learning experience for me and a disappointment for any self publishers who expect enough publicity to have a noticeable impact on their sales. It would also force me into a cellphone and cellular Internet service, the latter which I'd love and the former which I've been avoiding like matrimony, dating, and most other things universally adjured as good. At least, I haven't come across a cellular Internet service that you can buy without a cellphone, but I have a month to look. I'm not exactly committed to the venture, if I came across a good house sitting or sublet gig in the next month, I'd probably take that instead and just keep going as is.

In the meantime, I'm reading a biography of Darwin in which he is quoted as having written (during his bachelor days) that a wife would make a better companion than a dog for old age. I have a hard time taking the words at face value as he was famously dependent on his eventual (religious) wife, who gave him ten children and did more for his gene pool than all the barnacles he dissected. Or is it considered "not cricket" to point that out?

Publishers Who Use Print-on-Demand

I've heard from not a few self publishers over the years who embraced offset printing to their detriment, simply because they wanted to avoid being tarred by the POD brush. They never quite believed me when I pointed out that print-on-demand is used by just about everybody who is anybody in publishing when it makes sense, namely, for titles that aren't expected to sell in large numbers on bookstore shelves. Dedicated POD users include a large number of academic presses, small publishers and self publishers, but also include big name trade publishers managing their backlist and special editions, such as large print, in the most cost effective way possible.

So, for all the non-believers out there, I've come up with a simple way you can
browse print-on-demand titles and look at the publishers. It doesn't create an all-inclusive list, just those pages that happened to be indexed by Google for some reason or another on the Books-A-Million website. You can use the advanced search page on Google or just copy and paste the following as a single line into Google:

booksamillion "print-on-demand" -next, -matches

The result I get this morning includes some 16,000 titles, only a small fraction of the print-on-demand titles in print, but a good sample to surf through. In the first ten pages of results, I saw the following "name" trade publishers:

Little Brown and Company
Delphi Books
Tor Books
Pocket Books
Atria Books
Lyle Stuart
Fredonia Books
John Wiley & Son
Palgrave MacMillan
Basic Books
Simon & Schuster
HarperCollins Publishers

In one case, "My Sister's Keeper" from Atria Books, the current BAM page showed the title as in stock somewhere, as opposed to the print-on-demand designation that was in the page in Google's cache. It could be they use POD for stop-gap while reprinting books, or that they have books printed on demand in sufficient quantity to stock some vendors. Next it occurred to me that looking through random pages was silly when I could just add a publisher name to the search string. Reading publisher names off the spines of books next to my desk, I quickly added the following publishers with some print-on-demand titles to the list:

Random House Trade (random)
McGraw-Hill Professional (mcgraw)
Alfred A. Knopf (knopf)
William Morrow & Company (morrow)
Back Bay Books (back bay)
Vintage Books (vintage)
W. W. Norton & Company (norton)
Scribner Book Company (scribner)
Addison Wesley Publishing Company (holt - mistaken hit:-)
Ballantine Books (holt - another random hit)
Jossey-Bass (houghton = more random)

Finally, I realized we need some sort of normalizing factor, like, what percentage of POD books are actually represented in these Google searches of So I repeated the search with iUniverse as the keyword, and got just 437 results. That compares with the 16,131 results for iUniverse (who I believe uses POD exclusively) in the Amazon catalog, suggesting that roughly 4% of the print-on-demand titles available are being turned up through these searches. I tried PublishAmerica, got 276 results on Google/Booksamillion and over 20,000 on Amazon, putting the number of titles represented under 2%. Xlibris drew just 67 through Google/Booksamillion and 16,000 through Amazon, again suggesting that a very small fraction of print-on-demand books in the Booksamillion site are being cataloged directly by Google.

So, what does it all mean? For one thing, it means I couldn't think of anything else to write about and returned to an old theme. For another thing, it means that next time some big publisher you're talking to says something snide about POD, you have a way of checking (with a probability somewhere in the low single digits) whether or not they've used print-on-demand themselves. If they've used POD for a large enough number of titles, they should show up.

Amazon Associates Publishing Book Sales

The Amazon Associates program is my longest standing business relationship on the web. I've been with them so long that I remember when they sent us all T-Shirts. Mine wore out back around '98 (hint, hint). While the Associates program adds a couple hundred dollars a month to my bottom line and helps me promote my own titles on Amazon, I think my favorite part is the reports. I'm just a numbers freak, always looking for causal relationships and trying to reverse engineer systems from the outside. Just for a change, I thought I'd share my Associates sales of publishing books for the last quarter, April - June 2007. I'm leaving out titles that sold less than 5 copies, and were are a lot of them.

My top publishing book for the quarter was my own Print on Demand Book Publishing, as it better be! It sold 73 copies through Associates during the quarter, just under a copy a day, and essentially all of the sales were direct. A direct sale is where a customer clicks on my Amazon link and buys the book as a result.

My second and third best selling books of the quarter were both Aaron Shepard's. Associates logged 33 sales of Aiming at Amazon and 24 sales of Perfect Pages. In the case of Aiming, only a quarter of the sales were direct, which means most of the customers went to Amazon to see my book and then purchased Aaron's in addition, or instead. In the case of Perfect, half the sales were direct, the other half were probably split between people finding Perfect by way of my book and by way of Aiming.

Associates also logged 11 sales each of Steve Weber's The Home-Based Bookstore and Dan Poynter's Self-Publishing Manual. In the case of Weber's book, all 11 sales were direct, from my page about Amazon sales ranks. In the case of Poynter's book, all the sales were indirect, people arriving at Amazon by way of my book or one of the others, then buying the Self-Publishing Manual. Bringing up the long tail was Steve Weber's Plug Your Book with seven sales, all but one indirect, so I can't be doing a very good job plugging it.

On a lark, I went back and looked at the Associates report from my last pre-blogging quarter, April - June 2005. It turns out I only sold 26 copies of my publishing book through Associates that quarter, and I didn't sell five or more copies of any other publishing book. So I can credit the blog with tripling the Associates sales for that title and boosting publishing book sales in general. That doesn't mean that I'm selling more overall than I did a year or two ago, in fact, I know I'm selling less than last year. It just means I'm getting less bang for my force-multiplier buck on the Amazon site itself, thanks to a lot of new competition and the widespread use of on-Amazon promotion techniques I've stayed away from.