Amazon Raising Lightning Source Book Prices?

Many of us have wondered if the day would arrive that Amazon would raise the prices of short discount titles printed and distributed through Lightning Source and Ingram. Today, an unexpectedly large number of direct mail-order purchases made me suspicious something was up, and when I checked Amazon, the prices of my books had all been hiked by odd amounts. Below is the price info that is showing at the moment for my publishing title:

That's a $2.34 boost over my cover price, the $14.95 Amazon sold the book for up to today. Another of my $14.95 cover price titles is now selling for $17.11, or a $3.16 premium, and a third (which happens to be the most expensive to print and ship) is selling for $16.54, or $1.59 above the cover price. The publishing title is set at a short discount of 30%, the other two at 25%.

Hopefully it's a temporary glitch of the kind I see come and go on Amazon.UK, though they only fiddle with the discounts, not the prices. Still, I have seen it with titles from other publishers using Lightning Source, including some of the large subsidy publishers. At the same time, I see more discounted titles from the subsidy publishers than I recall seeing in the past, so perhaps it's a major re-shuffling of prices in respect to the discounts assigned. Well, I suspect I'll have an answer pretty soon, I just hope it's one I want to hear:-)

How To Publish A Magazine, Or NOT

I've never reviewed a book without reading it, but I can't help commenting on an odd couple of books I stumbled across on Amazon. The first is, "How to Start a Magazine" by James Kobak, published in November 2002 by M. Evans and Company, Inc. The second is "How Not to Start a Magazine" by B. Ann Bell, published in January 2006 by Palfrey Media. The two books are paired as "Better Together".

I got a tremendous kick out of the "How Not To" in the title. I thought it was pretty original, until I searched on the phrase on Amazon. The top 10 relevant titles:

How Not To Become A Little Old Lady by Mary McHugh

How Not to Write a Screenplay: 101 Common Mistakes Most Screenwriters Make by Denny Martin Flinn

How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life: Opening Your Heart to Confidence, Intimacy, and Joy by Susan Piver

How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins

How Not to Look Fat by Danica Lo

How Not to Start Third Grade (Step into Reading) by Cathy Hapka, Ellen Titlebaum, and Debbie Palen

How Not to Audition: Avoiding the Common Mistakes Most Actors Make by Ellie Kanner and Denny Martin Flinn

How Not to Eat Pork, Or, Life Without the Pig by Shahrazad Ali

How Not to Write by Terence Denman

How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar by William Safire

So, not only isn't the idea that unique, but the last two books in this list with the same "How Not To Write" title were published within a couple months of each other in 2005! Amazon actually lists 380 books with "how not to" in the title.

And this concludes today's lesson on how not to write a blog post during Succos.

Sending Customers To Amazon And Barnes and Noble

A couple years ago I settled on discouraging customers from buying books directly from my site by doing away with a discount. This means that buying direct from me is the most expensive way to get my books, compared with special ordering through a bookstore or buying from Amazon with free shipping. Admittedly, the main reason I did this was that customer service was getting to be a hassle. Once you start shipping a couple books a day, you get pretty regular stream of "where's my book" e-mails from customers if you use Media Mail. By dropping the 20% discount, I reduced my direct mail order business by at least 70%, probably more if you take into account the growth in my web traffic since then.

On the other side of the equation, I saw some growth in Amazon ordering, and Barnes and Noble started stocking my most popular title in selected stores due to walk-in demand. The question is, did that sales growth offset the lost direct sales? I can't make a direct computation for various reasons but my gut feeling is it didn't. Since the move was motivated by the desire to cut back on customer service and not to increase sales, I can't call it a failure.

Losing some customers who visit a bookstore and don't find a book in stock or who don't feel like buying two books on Amazon for free shipping that day is just part of a changed business model. What does get under my skin is seeing visitors follow the link for my publishing book to Amazon and buy competing publishing titles without buying mine. I don't think it's a judgment on my book which has pretty good reviews, though the PowerPoint cover may be a turn off for some. I think it's just the hazard of sending a shopper off browsing, so that after a casual click or two, they forget who sent them. The consolation prize is that I probably earn about a dollar per sale in Amazon commission on those books.

So why don't I set up an Amazon A-Store with nothing but my titles, or fool around with Amazon web services to have people add directly to their shopping cart on my site? The truth is, I've made a couple half-hearted efforts with these things but I just don't find it that interesting. But if I was managing the retailing for another publisher, I'd force myself, so do as I say and not as I do.

Fast Means You Go Hungry

It's Kol Nidre this evening, so I'm looking forward to the fast. Being a bad Jew, it's the only fast I do religiously, I don't even notice when the other ones come up unless my sister calls to remind me. I enjoy fasting and have always looked forward to Yom Kippur as a chance to stroll up and down memory lane. I think I've found a lesson in the fasting which I can share with everybody. When it comes to your publishing business plans, the only thing fast about the fast lane is the speed at which your bank balance will go down. Fast means you go hungry.

There really aren't two popular camps when it comes to building a career in self publishing. Pretty much everybody hangs out in the break-through camp, where they talk about pushing the ball to the top of the hill and then letting it roll down, gathering momentum and sales. It's all about the big push, mortgaging the house and quitting your day job. It's about radio and TV, publicity firms and viral marketing. It's about telling millions of people about your book and getting them into a buying frenzy, and who cares if they read it.

I hate that approach to publishing for more reasons than I can list, but the #1 reason is because I have to hear about it from correspondents making one of the dumbest mistakes of their lives. When an author pushes a book over the top of the hill through deft use of their money and personality, any success they achieve isn't about the book, it's about the author. They can't tell you how to duplicate their path. Becoming somebody else is not a practical business plan you can follow, especially since there's a big helping of luck involved in becoming a minor celebrity. Even worse, the momentum for most titles is illusory. When the pushing stops the sales stop.

The slow approach to building a career in self publishing doesn't guarantee success any more than the fast approach, but it does remove luck from the equation. If you build your publishing business one customer at a time, you'll have built a career and an asset that will survive the day that the media loses interest in you and moves on to the next fashionable thing. I've heard from enough authors who have achieved minor celebrity status to have learned a couple things from their experiences. However entertaining an author is, people won't buy the book unless they have a reason. Even more importantly, most of those buyers aren't married to the idea, so they'll only buy the book if they come across it on display within a short period of time. That's why the trade industry functions the way it does, with storefront displays and super-sized print runs.

I finished filling out the rough framework for my online book about building a publishing career with a website. It needs a lot more work that I probably won't put in, because I'm convinced that most writers are addicted to the fast track approaches which run counter to everything I've written. I'd hate to be looking back on 2007/2008 from next Yom Kippur and saying, "What did you publish that book for when you knew nobody would read it?" Or maybe all it needs is a good title:-)

New York Times Discovers Internet

The big news yesterday in the Wall Street Journal was that the New York Times has discovered the Internet. They didn't exactly put it that way, because the truth be told, the WSJ has yet to really discover the Internet themselves. It comes down to the publishers of both newspapers not having understood that the working model for Internet news distribution is free access. So, the NYT wins this particular race, discarding their subscription based model first.

This is just what I've been writing about lately, why authors need to create a resource on the Internet, rather than a store. That's what brings all those lovely visitors from the search engines who may then shop in the store if you add one, but who will go shopping in other stores for your books if you convince them they're worth reading. The NYT hadn't planned on Google et al becoming the driving force behind Internet traffic. They figured if somebody wanted "news" they would naturally go to the NYT. The WSJ figures the same thing, for financial news.

Where they both went wrong is thinking that people in the Internet age look for information in terms of news and non-news. People look for information in terms of the Google search box. The vast majority of what is printed in the NYT and the WSJ isn't news by any stretch of the imagination, it's analysis, opinion, health, human interest. When people want research the latest kidney treatment options or figure out why honey bees are dying, they wouldn't start with a newspaper, they would start with Google. If the newspapers aren't open to Google and the search engines, even if they have the best and freshest content, they are just throwing those visitors away.

I spend a lot of time poking fun at NYC publishers for only starting to talk about the new world ten years after the boats sailed. I suspect they'll get it right eventually, just like the Times, but they'll have lost a lot of steam to Wikipedia and small information entrepreneurs by then. Not that I'm complaining:-)

Title Sales Math For Authors

I'm a big numbers nut myself, and I've developed a bit of a niche writing about publishing industry book sales. Which reminds me, I heard back from the census bureau and they don't include Amazon in their bookstore sales stats. But this post is in reaction to an e-mail from a writer considering one of the big subsidy publishers, or author services companies, in which he enclosed some of their boasting about sales.

They claimed to have books in over a million American households. Now, I'm not sure how one goes about substantiating a claim like this, my guess is, they have shipped over a million books and feel free to translate a million shipments into a million households. It sounds like a big number, until you consider they have published around 25,000 titles. That works out to "over" 40 copies per title, shipped. That doesn't sound so impressive anymore. It would be interesting to know how many shipments represented the sale of a book to a customer other than the author. If most authors are buying copies to send to reviewers, family and friends, you could end up with a very low number for "real" sales indeed.

Another claim was that a book is ordered by a bookstore every three minutes, around the clock, seven days a week. A sale every three minutes means 20 sales per hour, or 480 sales per day. Spread that over 25,000 titles, and you get an average sales rate of just over one copy every two months, or about seven copies per title per year. Again, a couple of those are no doubt ordered by the authors themselves, just to make sure the system works, or the author's mother, just to make sure the author doesn't go ballistic. The point is, next time a publisher of any ilk tries to dazzle you with their sales, sit down and do the math. It may turn out that they are being more honest than they intended. Selling seven copies per title per year through bookstores doesn't quite jive with their claims to be a traditional publisher:-)

Book Proposals And Competing Titles

Everybody who follows the guidelines for a book proposal knows they are supposed to include something about complementary and competitive titles. You'd think that writers would want to study up on the subject, go to Google and search for "competing titles" or "competitive titles" to learn more about what the agent or editor wants to see. After a quick experiment, I'm estimating that one or two authors do that each day, IN THE WHOLE WORLD. I think my correspondence gives me a little insight into why.

In the first place, authors are highly resistant to doing any homework at all. If people were as resistant to the common cold as authors are to studying up on the publishing industry, we'd call it the uncommon cold and persecute the people who got it. But when you get past the "I've written a bestseller, why should I waste any time on this stupidity" attitude, I think a lot of authors assume that it's a trick. As in, "These people just want a reason to reject my book, and if I admit to any successful competing titles they'll say it's been done already. Hah! I'll outsmart them. I'll say that the book is unique!"

Lack of research is a big part of why so many authors who can write nice prose fail to get published. Either they don't provide the information an agent or editor has asked for in a book proposal, or they write their special book without looking at the market first to see if there's any existing demand. Publishers really want to see competing titles on a book proposal. If there are competing titles that have strong sales, that's even better. If the competing titles are commercial failures and you can't give a persuasive argument as to why your book will do much better, it will hurt, but the publisher is going to find out anyway. Agents and editors will take two minutes to pop over to Amazon and drop some key words from your title or you query letter into the search box to see how related titles are doing. If you've written a book with little chance of commercial success, you aren't going to hide the fact from people who make a living selling books. I just searched my archives and found I've written two related articles about being your own acquisitions editor and self publishing as a business.

Trade publishers don't expect unpublished authors to have access to Neilsen BookScan to check title sales, but they expect you to be able to go to a bookstore and browse the shelves, and to visit Amazon. Amazon has these beautiful category lists to help you look into what is and isn't selling in very narrow niches, but make sure you use the ones near the bottom of the product page, under where it says "Look for Similar Items by Category." The lists right under the sales rank, where it says "Popular in this category" are updated every hour, so the results show wild variations. But the most important tool you can bring to competing titles research is your common sense. Read the competing books before you praise or trash them in the proposal, and you might learn something about the advantages, or flaws and omissions of your own book.

I'm planning on taking a three day break for the Jewish New Year, so forgive me if any comments linger in the queue even longer than usual:-)

Publishing What I Preach

I've never been very good at taking my own advice. Truth is, I've never been very good at taking anybody else's advice either, so I'm an equal opportunity donkey. But as I started roughing out some material today about researching the market before writing a book or building a website, I ran into a snag. I knew that the audience for a book taking the long view of building an author platform would be limited, because most publishing related books are sold to authors who have a finished manuscript and just want to get it published. When I got around to looking over the Internet landscape for the theme of "author platform", I found that it was pretty desolate. So my inclination is to finally take my own advice and start repositioning the work.

The majority of what I've written so far amounts to an argument for why authors should get started publishing online long before they finish writing a book. It's a subject I've written about many times before, but somehow, all the recent questions I'd heard about getting a website up and running made it seem new again. What the approach needs isn't a new set of articles or a book preaching the same gospel, it needs new packaging.

I don't quite have the heart to pull the plug on finishing up a draft more or less as I had planned, at least in terms of the points I'm going to hit, but I'm not going to think about bringing out a book unless I can figure out how a better way to position it. I want to reach those unpublished authors with vision and the limited number of publishers who are focused on building their sales and an Internet publishing asset at the same time. Maybe that's the approach I should really be taking, a new look at Internet publishing as a business model.

I'm also aware that the majority of this material, the vast majority, is just as applicable to building a website that isn't intended as an author platform. I keep giving author oriented examples, but the real audience is probably entrepreneurs who can write. I don't mean that the approach isn't perfectly suited for unpublished authors, but that the only ones who will have the gumption to take it are entrepreneurs who happen to be authors as well. I suppose that's just another definition of entrepreneur: a person who starts their own business when they want to get something done, like getting a book published. The entrepreneur develops the idea until the commercial value is obvious to all, and then decides whether to go it alone or to sell. The entrepreneurial writer can choose to self publish or sell the work to a trade publisher. But how to fit all that in a book title?

Fighting Over The Definition Of Self-Publisher, Again

It's not often that there's an article about self publishers in the Wall Street Journal. Today was no exception. I sent them the following e-mail to complain about their headline and language use:


On page B6 of today's Journal, there's a story titled "Author Solutions to Acquire Rival Self Publisher iUniverse" which goes on to touch on the details of the deal and offer a few thoughts about the subsidy publishing (also known as vanity publishing) world.

Neither Author Solutions nor iUniverse are self publishers. A self publisher is an individual who publishes his or her own books. What Author Solutions and iUniverse do is sell a service where they "publish" books for authors who pay them a fee. Publishing and selling books in the traditional sense is not their business model, selling services to authors is their business model. They are Author Services Companies.

What's more, the authors who use them, are not self published. They are published by those author services companies, who appear as the publisher of record in Books-In-Print, on Amazon, on the book cover, etc. It's a growing business, and it's sometimes an ideal match for authors who write books with limited commercial potential and no ambition to become publishers. But let's be clear about language usage here, none of the players involved are involved in self publishing, and none of the companies involved are self publishers.

I wasn't trying to be snarky by putting "publish" in quotes when referring to to Author Solutions and iUniverse. I was just trying to point out to the editors of the Journal that language use matters, and while words obviously have different meanings in different contexts, sometimes they are simply misapplied. As far as I'm concerned, authors who pay Author Solutions or iUniverse to have a book published are in fact published, but most of the trade industry doesn't agree with me. Maybe we can at least agree that they aren't self published.

Comic Book Fortunes

I went to lunch with a friend yesterday, and got a fortune from a cookie that read (between smiley faces) "Keep your plans secret for now." Obviously, this budding Confucius has never been a blogger. I'm so desperate for blog material to keep posting, I'm surprised I haven't told everybody where I keep my pot of gold buried. Then again, if actually I had a pot of gold buried, I would have spilled the beans by now.

But the fortune reminded me of the comic book course I took at the writer's conference a couple weeks ago. It was taught by Peter David, who has written over 1,000 comic books and quite a few sci-fi novels besides, and it would have been a highly enjoyable experience if he could have kept his politics under his hat. I took the five day course because I don't know anything about comic books, hadn't read one in thirty years or so, and I figured I'd be less likely to keep finding fault with the presentation. I didn't count on the four to six hours a day of homework, but that's where the fortune cookie comes in.

Peter offered students a chance at writing an episode for the comic book series "Tales from the Crypt", meaning he would pass along the work to the editor of that series who would then decide whether or not they were interested. Now, I was never a fan of the horror or thriller genre, but I developed the compulsive homework habit in graduate school, and I believe I was the only student who turned in a completed story for a 20 page comic book, laid out in panel and balloon scripting, before the final class. Due to a misunderstanding in the cafeteria when I asked Peter how many panels we should do per page, I came away thinking the number should be between five and nine, rather than the three to four panels per page (manga style) I'd written for the draft. So I redid the whole thing, adding a lot of close-ups and additional panels, changing it from a manuscript that met the technical criteria for manga style to one that missed by a mile.

But the real reason I didn't bother redoing it again to meet the manga criteria had nothing to do with the work involved. The script I'd written was a morality tale, based loosely on the Maugham story about a young man who takes the equivalent of early retirement with the goal of living out a twenty year annuity on a tropical island, and then committing suicide. In order to make it sufficiently lurid from my perception of what Tales from the Crypt would expect, I wrote something that I wouldn't have wanted my name appear on, and where's the fun in that? Oh, and I used the lottery numbers provided by a fortune cookie to make the young man rich at the end of the first act, and the waiter rich at the end of the story. His second dip into the dangerous world of comic book fortune cookies did produce a winning number, but also a cryptic pronouncement of his impending doom by fugu poisoning.

It did strike me that had I been one of the young men in the class who were obviously hoping to break into the world of comic book writing, it would have been an exciting opportunity. On the whole, the various industry professionals at the conference seemed to expect that they'd be asked to give unpublished writers a leg up. Whether or not they were willing or capable of doing so, I didn't see any aspiring authors get their heads bitten off for asking. Now that might have made good comic book - zombie authors who feed on unpublished writers brains to get fresh ideas. Ugh...

The Author Website As Platform

I finally found a good excuse to procrastinate finishing the book I've been working on since April. I'm taking a break to write a book about how authors can build a platform with a traditional website. I knocked out an outline in an hour or two, which is always a good sign, and I walk around mumbling catchy lines to myself that I promptly forget since I don't carry a notebook. Anyway, when you read the online bits and say, "this isn't very good", remember that it was terrific when it occurred to me, I just have a bad memory.

My week at the Cape Cod Writers Conference is what put me over the top on starting this book, and I believe I'm passionate enough about the subject to see it through without interruptions. From my correspondence, discussion group reading and the odd news story, it's always been clear that there's a tremendous amount of misleading information out there as to how a website can function as an author platform, what it should consist of, how it can be built and what it will cost. Oh, and the small matter of what an author can expect to accomplish with a website.

There are almost unlimited ways for writers to raise their profiles online these days, from home made videos of publicity stunts to social networking and constantly commenting on discussion lists and blogs. I'm not going to be writing about any of that, except in the context of comparisons. All of those activities are a great way to do book publicity, if you have the patience and the nerve, but they rarely qualify as platform building. It's also important to note that the work you do in communal spaces will always be under certain limitations in content and structure that the host website places on users, and you won't have access to the vital statistics that come with owning your own website.

A platform, in the publishing world, is like a professional degree, affiliation, and a regular place on a speaking circuit all combined. The platform needs to ensure that readers find you and to establish that you're somebody worth reading. Blogging can play a part in this, but for most authors, a traditional, static website provides a better foundation. Yet traditional websites have been declared dead by the visionaries of the 21st century, who are endlessly pushing for the next level of technological engagement. The irony, of course, is that books themselves are printed on static media, paper. In most cases, readers would be very disappointed if they returned to the favorite novel to find that little Nell is now murdered in chapter 2, or their guru has changed the path to Nirvana so that anybody who followed the previous path for even a day is now doomed to perpetual unenlightenment.

I don't see this as a book that will have much sales potential, so I plan to have fun with it and not pull any punches. The main reason I'm convinced it won't find favor with aspiring authors or those who are published and looking to increase their sales is that I'll be laying out an approach that can take years to fully mature. Developing a meaningful web platform requires foresight on the part of authors, while most of the authors I hear from think foresight means sending out paid press releases a month after their book appears and fails to sell. As usual, my as-of-yet untitled book about the author website as a platform is posted online as I write. Enjoy the typos.