Selling Other Author's Books Online

Most self publishers don't go to the bother of creating a catalog simply because they haven't written enough books to justify it. Not producing a multitude of related titles is a serious weakness in the business model of many self publishers, myself included. I can attract a large number of visitors to my website for the different subjects I write on, but for the main part, those visitors aren't interested in my other books, since all of them are niche titles.

A savvy business person would seek to "monetize" all of those visitors by presenting them with other related products to purchase. If I hadn't intentionally cut way back on direct sales of my own books a couple years ago, I would have set up a bookstore of related titles to sell direct by now. Titles from the big trades are available at a deep discount when you order them direct in quantity, you might get 65% off or more if you agree to take them on a non-returnable basis. So if you can find some relevant titles with decent cover prices, in the $25 to $40 range, you may find you can earn more selling those books than your own!

A much simpler and less risky way to make money selling other authors books is to simply add Amazon Associates links to your website. You'll only earn a dollar or two on most sales, but you'll learn quite a bit about what your readers are really interested in. For example, I'm going to put in Amazon Associates links for some of the books I often mention below:

Note that Kirsch's book was due out yesterday, they just haven't posted a cover image yet. And that's about as lazy as I get when it comes to writing a blog post, but I've got to make some dinner and run out!

Advice Isn't Worth The Price Unless It's Free

Two questions that keep coming up in my ongoing correspondence are:

1) Why can't you be more positive?

2) Why won't you charge for consulting?

I tried to answer the latter last year in my grumpy publishing consultant post, but I realize that even dedicated new readers are unlikely to read more than 100 posts backward in the blog. The two questions are closely related.

I know quite a few self publishers who are making a good living and in some cases growing their companies. I'm not negative about the future for self publishers, I think it's an open field and that every year a growing number of authors will figure out how to support themselves and build an asset at the same time. What I'm negative about is the idea that it's for everyone, and if you just get the right advice somewhere, you'll do well publishing the books you want to write.

My pessimistic outlook for the majority of authors who go into self publishing isn't based on the quality of their writing, that's a subjective matter in most cases. I'm pessimistic because I know that these authors, when they go looking for help on the Internet, are deluged with optimistic outlooks from people who want to sell them something. Of course the cover designer is going to say you'll get a great cover, and you may. Of course the editor is going to say the book will be New York quality, it's not a tough goal. Of course the marketing expert or publishing consultant is going to say their advice will help you sell more books. In all these cases, these experts know more about their field than you do, so it's fair for them to say they can help, but what does that mean?

Will the cover designer guarantee that the artwork will sell 1,000 books and make back the cost of the art? Will the editor guarantee that the polished prose will get mainstream reviewers to take notice? Will the marketing or publishing consultant guarantee that the additional profits you'll generate will pay for their services, and wait until you earn those profits for their paychecks? Too many authors confuse "professional" help with "useful" help, meaning help that will contribute value above it's cost to a positive outcome. If you want to succeed as a self publisher, you have to write books people will be willing to buy and figure out a cost effective way to reach those people. And that's a service I've never seen anybody selling.

Cooperative or Co-op Advertising For Books

Somebody sent me a few comments from a leading luminary of self publishing talking about how publishers paid placements in bookstore chains are an important part of the book business. The quote that caught my eye was:

Chains make their money on advertising.

Now I knew that the chains, Barnes&Noble and Borders, plus the giant book retailer Amazon, make money providing prime display space to publishers of books, but I was sure that there was something wrong with the magnitude of the statement. So I did some hunting around, trying to put a number on how much the big book retailers make on cooperative advertising payments and largely drew a blank. They don't break out all of that revenue in their SEC filings, it gets combined with other items. Amazon, for example, treats co-op money as a reduction in the cost of goods, while B&N mainly puts it to the overhead of the stores.

The best information I could find came from this redacted Federal court filing from 2002 The Intimate Bookshop, Inc. v. Barnes & Noble and Borders. It reports B&N received in excess of $100 million in co-op money in 1997, which if correct and extrapolated out to their 2007 revenue, would exceed their net profit. From that standpoint, you could argue that the line about chains making their money on advertising is more than true. But they still have to sell billions of dollars worth of books to do it. It's analogous to the situation with top professional athletes who can earn more advertising products than they can in salary. The catch is they can't stop playing the game and devote themselves full-time to making commercials, or that money would dry up in a hurry.

Many publishers offer a single digit percentage of their net sales through a retailer back to that retailer in return for promotions that retailer runs. A large part of the lawsuit, to my unprofessional eye, had to do with the availability of similar co-op advertising money to independent bookstores or the relative amount of work they had to go to in order to claim it. As near as I can tell, co-op advertising has been around for nearly 100 years, and may be named for the early efforts of the Greeting Card Association members in banding together and paying stores for cooperative displays after The Great War. Maybe their first great success was the card with the young man and the young woman sitting under a tree with a book, and the man asking the woman "Do you like Kipling?" She replies, "I don't know, you naughty boy. I've never Kippled." I don't know when it was published, I just remember the 1922 Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia saying it was the bestselling greeting card of all times.

Over the years, that model has morphed into individual publishers paying retailers to promote their titles so they can manufacture bestsellers, increase the predictability of sales or beat competing titles. I'm still reading through the documents, but a side benefit is it brought up the name of the Federal law that regulates discounting practices, The Robinson-Patman Act. Somebody asked me about that very recently, but I couldn't recall it. Coincidentally, the predecessor was the Clayton Act of 1914, which probably preceded the co-operative advertising efforts of the Greeting Card Association.

Flip Video Publishing And Market Research

I'm having quite a bit of fun with this Flip Video Camcorder that cost $118.38. I've learned that shooting "on location" is a lot more complicated than meets the ear, all sorts of audio pollution in the great outdoors. I've also learned that trying to get a few minutes into a single take is pretty tough for somebody with no acting or public speaking experience, and that without a script I tend to get lost. That's what happened in this video I posted today, about market research.

The point I was trying to articulate is that market research for a self publisher isn't limited to just determining the potential market for a title. It also needs to include a sober look at your ability, as a self publisher, to write and produce a book that meets the market's needs, as opposed to just bringing out the best title you can manage and hoping it will win some market share. I took timber framing and copper roofing as examples for the video, two subjects I've written about on my website as an enthusiast.

In the first case, timber framing, there's a pretty good market for these books, you can find them in chain stores, in specialty stores, through a variety of professional and hobbyist outlets. The market is dominated by classics that were written 10 or 20 years ago, and to give people a reason to buy a new title, you'd really have to produce a doozy. For a self publisher who isn't an established timber framing professional with a long resume of completed projects and engineering degrees, it would be a difficult task. The books tend to require heavy illustration, both engineering drawings and photographs, and without a serious platform to sell the book from, I don't see how newbie would justify the investment.

In the second case, copper roofing, I think it would be pretty easy to dominate the market. A quick search on Amazon turned up only two copper roofing titles, both out-of-print, one published in 1959, the other in 1961. This makes quite a bit of sense as it's unlikely there's much demand for do-it-yourself standing seam copper roofing books. It's an incredibly expensive and time consuming process, requires specialty seaming equipment that costs tens of thousands of dollars and which probably can't be rented in most areas. Most importantly, it requires a level of expertise in both metal working and roofing. So, while even a mediocre book should take 100% of the market share, that might amount to a few sales a month. I wouldn't be surprised if a coffee table book focused on beautiful copper roofs would do better than practical how-to title.

Do Book Reviews Sell Self Published Books?

Self publishers often obsess about getting their books reviewed. I've written about how book reviews matter to authors, but the real question is, do they matter to book buyers? As usual, it depends on the specific circumstances. A publishing company with sales reps who are in regular contact with bookstores may be able to convince them to stock a book they would otherwise pass on, based on a pending review in a large market media outlet. Same thing goes for scheduled author appearances on TV. But that's about selling books to bookstores, not to readers, and there's a lot more involved in getting bookstore stocking than one good blast of publicity.

Book reviews on Amazon help sell books, if they are positive, but only if the book product page is drawing visitors. Otherwise the reviews go unread. You can always spot a book for which the publisher or author has made a big pre-release push with book reviewers, because the product page on Amazon will display dozens of glowing reviews before Amazon even has the book for sale. But reviews on Amazon don't alert people to the publication of the book the way print media reviews do. I've long been convinced that the most effective book reviews in terms of increasing sales are those that serve as free advertising for the publisher to promote the fact that a well-known author has written a new book. The author's fan base probably don't read the review, they're afraid the reviewer will spoil it for them. They just make a mental note to buy the book next time they see it in a bookstore.

Authors who put a lot of effort into getting newspaper or magazine reviews for self published books that aren't stocked in bookstores are largely wasting their time. You can't expect many people who read the review to jump through hoops to order the book if it's not at the local bookstore. The exception would probably be self-help type books that offer a solution to a specific problem. I've frequently been contacted by authors trying to figure out the best way to break into some review publication or another, and I'm sure they are universally disappointed with my reaction of, "Why bother?"

When it comes to reviews online, the best book reviews for generating sales aren't written by professional book reviewers, but by people with a good reputation and a large following. When a big name blogger reviews some book that has no relation to the subject matter of the blog, some number of readers will buy it because they were already interested in a book on the subject and have faith in the blogger's judgment. It's just a new form of word-of-mouth, which remains the best way to sell anything. So don't get carried away trying to get reviews in the magazines dominated by large trade books, it's not a business model that works well for self publishers.

Virtual Publishing Or Paper Gorilla

Got another question that might work with a video component, though I'm writing the post first. Randy wrote asking for a comment on a publishing thread where somebody claimed:
To be a success in book publishing, you must get stocked in brick-and-mortar bookstores, who in turn require a 40% discount shipped.

Taking the latter part of the question first, there's nothing holy about the 40% discount, some publishers (particularly academic presses) sell at a shorter discount, some of the chains get a larger discount for books going to their warehouse. Accepting returns is far more important than the exact discount when it comes to making it feasible for bookstores to order your titles for stock. But if you want, you can achieve the 40% discount and accept returns using Lightning Source on demand printing for a virtual publishing solution.

But the real meat of the question is what constitutes success as a book publisher. Perhaps the best answer would be achieving the goals you set for your company when you start, and having the flexibility to build from there. If somebody's idea of success in book publishing is to publish the next Harry Potter series or compete with Random House and McGraw-Hill for gross sales, that's just not my idea of a business plan. I'm not saying it's impossible, I'm just saying it makes less sense for a new publisher without extensive industry connections than, say, starting to learn guitar after college with the goal of becoming a rock star. It happens, just not very often.

Small publishers often throw around numbers that they've seen in Publishers Weekly for the print runs of new titles from big trades, and they associate those numbers with success. Not only are print runs of tens of thousands of books impractical for a small publisher, they don't guarantee success for a large publisher either. A large percentage of those books fail to sell out the initial print run, go into the remainder channel, or get pulped. The large print run isn't just an attempt on the part of the publisher to lower the cost per book, it's the publishing industry equivalent of gorilla chest thumping.

"Thump, thump, thump. Look here, bookstore buyers. I'm printing a lot of copies of this book. I'm confident that it will sell. You can be confident I'm going to spend a lot of money promoting the book to try to get my investment back. I'm even willing to pay you some co-op money to pile them up in your window or front and center in the store. Thump, thump, thump."

Most small publishers don't have the muscle to get their books front and center in a couple thousand bookstores on launch. Even if a small publisher achieves a real publicity break through, they won't see the same sales as a big trade would with the same publicity, because they haven't managed to fill the channel with books before the publicity hit. If a small publisher wants to take a big risk on a title, print a lot of books, spend a lot of money and time on pre-launch publicity, scores some top reviews and has an aggressive distributor, it is possible to emulate the big trade model to an extent, but it's a big financial gamble and the odds of success are low. Printing all of those books makes a small publisher into a paper tiger, or a paper gorilla, but I'm convinced that virtual publishing is a much more logical business model for most publishers starting out today.

I don't doubt that the big print run, along with the frantic publicity efforts and expenses that commitment entails, give the paper gorilla a leg up if the goal is to sell 100,000 books. I don't know of any print on demand titles (at the moment) that have sold 100,000 copies without being transitioned to offset. But for small publishers whose goal is to earn a living while doing what they love, rather than mortgaging the house and getting ulcers chasing a long-shot, virtual publishing is the way to go. And for every new publisher who sells 100,000 copies of a title, I'll bet you can find 1,000 new paper gorilla publishers who spent $100,000 chasing that dream and lost their shirts. You just don't hear them bragging about it.

Book Return Economics

I tried my first video for self publishing today, company spokesman needs work. The subject is the economics of book returns, in response to a question from Jason of Hood Press. In this text version, I'll hit some of the specifics that I plan to leave out of the video.

I accept returns for my Lightning Source printed books, and I pay to have them returned to me instead of destroyed. The reason I accept returns is that no bricks-and-mortar bookstore will order books for stock unless the publisher accepts returns or it's a college bookstore where a professor has insisted a book be ordered for a classroom text. Jason specifically asked whether college bookstores are the worst return risk. I'd say yes and no.

Yes, because they prefer to order books to meet the maximum possible demand so they don't get yelled at if they run out. However, I offer college bookstores a higher discount to buy direct from me, pre-paid, on a non-returnable basis. Most college bookstores would rather do that than buy at or near the cover price through Ingram to get the returnability.

No, because college bookstores, at least individually, order a limited number of books. The largest order I've had from a single college bookstore (non-returnable, 35% discount) was 50 copies. Your biggest return risk is convincing a Barnes&Noble or a Borders to model two copies in every store, and then getting most of them back a couple months later, thousands of books. Or, if you are printing offset and using a distributor, your biggest risk is getting all of the books you shipped to the distributor back, on pallets.

When you accept returns at Lightning Source, they debit your account the profit you earned on each sale, plus the printing charge for each book returned. The profit on the sale was already paid to you, so that's not really a cost, but the printing charge is out of your pocket. That's if you have the book destroyed (and hopefully recycled). I pay an additional $2 per book to have them returned to me. Judging from the mint condition they come back in, I suspect they destroy returns as they come in and then print new copies once a quarter for publishers who pay to have the "returns" sent back. In my case, since I sell books direct as well as through distribution, when I pay to get the returns back, I'm really buying my own books for $2 more than they would otherwise cost me, or closer to $1.50 if you take the S&H and minor "for purpose" pricing differences into account.

I did get my biggest batch of returns ever in September, some 52 books, which knocked my September net down by $683.22. I don't know if the majority of the books came from bookstore special orders that never got picked up, from Barnes&Noble who was still stocking one of the titles last time I checked, or from one or more college bookstores who chose to order from Ingram rather than from me. You just don't get that kind of visibility when you deal through Ingram, which is part and parcel of the Lightning Source deal. Still, my year-to-date returns are barely 2.5% of books shipped, so it's just not worth getting excited over. The major trade publishers would kill for return numbers that low.

Free Printing Costs Too Much

I had a request yesterday to do some more publishing math, comparing the self publishing route to the subsidy press route. I didn't want to single out any particular author services company, and most of them have too many hidden costs to make a real comparison in any case. So what I'm going to do is lay out the basic math to let you make the comparison yourself. To keep it interesting, I'm going to compare publishing through Lightning Source to getting the books printed free. In keeping with the extremes, we'll do a 20% short discount book with Lightning (the minimum they currently allow), a 55% book (the standard which results in a 40% discount to bookstores ordering through Ingram), and a low cost distributor for the book with free printing, say, 65%.

In all three cases, if you aren't already a publisher, you'll have to buy a block of ISBN numbers, around $250 with the fees. We'll call the book in question a 200 page 6" x 9" paperback, with a cover price set of $15.95. For all three cases, the set-up costs with the printer will be about $100, so free wasn't exactly free:-) Also note that neither Lightning Source nor our free printer are going to help you prepare the book for publication, you have to present them with a ready-for-printing PDF file.

Case #1 - 20% discount

200 pages x 1.3 cents per page = $2.60 plus $0.90 for the cover = $3.50 for printing.

20% discount off the cover for sales into distribution is $15.95 x 0.80 = $12.76 wholesale price

Publisher net profit = selling price minus printing cost = $12.76 - $3.50 = $9.26 per book.

Case #2 - 55% discount (plus accepts returns)

200 pages x 1.3 cents per page = $2.60 plus $0.90 for the cover = $3.50 for printing.

55% discount off the cover for sales into distribution is $15.95 x 0.45 = $7.18 wholesale price

Publisher net profit = $7.18 - $3.50 = $3.68 per book.

Case #3 - Free printing and a 65% discount into distribution

Printing cost = free (No, I don't know of any printers who print books for free)

65% discount off the cover for sales into distribution is $15.95 x 0.35 = $5.58 wholesale price

Publisher net profit = $7.18 - $3.50 = $5.58 per book minus S&H to distributor

The 20% short discount book will be listed at Amazon and other online stores, and will be available through special order order through bookstores, though some may resticker the price, charging the customer more than the cover price so they can make a profit.

The 55% book with returns will be just as attractive to bookstores as any large trade book on a price/profit basis, but none of them will order the book for stock unless you have terrific marketing to create demand.

The book printed free and placed with a full line distributor for a 65% discount might get into some bookstores if you've done all of your homework and produced a quality book. But you will have to pay for shipping those books to the distributor, be prepared to get them all back, and be prepared for the distributor to fail owing you a pot of money, as happens several times a year with independent book distributors.

Questions of Quantity vs Quality

According to the Blogger Dashboard, this is my 300th post to the Self Publishing blog. In terms of quantity, I'll guess it's up around 200,000 words, equivalent to about four books I should have written. The quality has been evolving over the years, though I couldn't say in which direction. I hope I'm doing a better job at proofreading myself, at least I now make an effort. My main complaint is that the blog is increasingly about me, rather than about the nitty-gritty of publishing, as the first hundred or so posts were. It's just difficult to go over the same ground over and over again without either repeating or contradicting oneself. In the mean time, my total lack of book production has left my editor so bored that she's taken to cleaning her roof every week.

But back on the question of blog quality, I think the most useful posts I've made in the last year have been in response to questions that people send me. I don't always point that out in the post, in part because I'm usually more interested in answering a question that doesn't exactly match what I've been asked. Also, several of the posts about subsidy presses and fee based services have been inspired by stories of rip-offs authors send.

The quantity vs quality question is also an important one in terms of writing for your website. If you try to make every page on your website "book quality", you run into an economic problem, namely, paying an editor and proofreaders to go over content you are giving away for free. Clearly, I don't, but I know some authors who put as much effort into their web postings as they do into their books. I'd say it's a mistake, but somehow they find the energy to write more books than I do, so maybe it's a form of brain exercise.

I've been inspired by my editor's tireless housekeeping to try to freshen up the self publishing blog, so I ordered up a flip-cam from Amazon, which will hopefully make web-ready video without a big learning curve. If I find I can talk into the camera for more than 30 seconds without biting my tongue, I'll try answering some questions on video, maybe with a few graphics thrown in. I'll also revisit some of my earlier posts, pretending that it's all new. So by next week, I'm hoping the blog will be an audio/visual experience worth every penny of free. If you have any questions that you think would make quality fodder, feel free to send them to me direct or to just comment on this post.

Magazine Rights And Pre-Publishing Book Excerpts

First serial rights for magazine publication used to be the only way to go in book publishing. Think Dickens, Trollope (a great writer currently undergoing a revival) et al. I'm using "magazine" a little loosely here, many of the serials that publish stories and book excerpts are really newspapers or newsletters. The attraction for the writer is making some money up front, often before a book is even finished, and lining up potential book customers if the excerpt is well received..

Last week, basically on a lark, I e-mailed an unsolicited proposal to the editor of a highly specialized computer magazine suggesting they might be interested in the first serial rights to some technical material I've been working up. My pitch to them, since it's reference material and could be spread out over a year's worth of issues, is that it would help retain subscribers and give the magazine a long shelf life, which should be attractive to their advertisers. On my side, I'd get paid some cash and get a free promotion for the book, assuming I published one.

One of the dumbest moves I ever made in publishing was giving a niche magazine the rights to publish an excerpt from a book without making any stipulations as to the timing. They used it in the first available slot, which means it went out to their 100,000 plus readers a full year before the book was available. That's about tweleve months too long for the purposes of book promotion.

Selling first serial rights to a print magazine, or even donating them under some circumstances, can be a great way to promote your book and to build your resume as a writer. The only thing I'd be cautious about is making sure that if the magazine has an online version, the article is either linked to your website or included in their robots exclusion file. Otherwise, it may appear to be duplicate content and compete with the version on your own website, hampering future book promotion efforts.

People Of The Scroll

I'll be skipping my Friday post for Simchas Torah, the Jewish holiday marking the last reading from the Torah scroll, before we rewind it and start all over again. I don't know enough about scroll terminology to know whether a scroll stored on two wooden spindles has a special name, I just know it's not a codex. For my non-Jewish readers, the Torah scroll contains the five books of Moses, written on parchments sewn together in one long strip, a publishing technology that's been around for a couple thousand years. The rest of the Bible was also recorded on various scrolls, but relatively few are still published that way. The Scroll of Esther comes to mind. Since these scrolls have to be prepared by hand by a scribe following very strict rules, the end up costing tens of thousands of dollars. No print-on-demand need printers need apply.

While many readers know all this already, there's a physical aspect to the practice of Judaism that often goes unnoticed. It's the duty of Hagbah, the lifting of the Torah scroll, unrolled enough to show the portion that has been chanted out loud to the congregation, or is about to be chanted, in Sephardi shuls. Since the scroll is slowly rolled from one spindle to the other through the course of the year's reading, the weight leading up to Simchas Torah ends up all on the right hand of the Hagbah, and the following week, shifts all to the left hand. The person performing the act, the Hagbah, lifts the Torah off the readers desk raising the handles around shoulder height or higher, and turns around 180 degrees so the open section is visible to the congregation over his head. It's recommended to put a seam in the center of the open section as the seams are the strongest part of the scroll.

Depending on how quickly the congregation sings and how fast the Hagbah moves, the whole operation takes between 30 seconds and a minute. If something goes wrong and the Torah gets dropped, everybody present has to fast for 40 days. When the local congregation tried to sustain a morning Minyan (a quorum required for mourners prayers and public Torah reading) for a few years, I was usually the Hagbah because I'm too ignorant to do much of anything else. I dreaded Simchas Torah, intended to be one of the happiest days in the Jewish calendar, because I'm right-handed, and that left-handed lift that hadn't been tried for a year starts looming pretty large.

When I signed up, prior to my birth if I recall, I'd heard that Jews were the people of the book. I've come across plenty of Jews in town who read a lot of books and some of them are even in the publishing business. I just wish more of them had showed up for that morning Minyan. If you're ever attending services in a new place for the first time, and an old man teeters up and asks you if you're right-handed or left-handed, consult your calendar and answer appropriately.

Selling Boatloads Of Books

This (hopefully temporary) Amazon pricing glitch is a fine excuse to revist some thoughts about publishing and selling books. The connection is that the higher prices, about two dollar per book on average, haven't shown any tremendous impact on my Amazon sales yet, while direct mail order sales have picked up since I'm now the cheaper source. The problem is, I don't price my books based on an analysis of what the market will bear, I just go with the price I'd be happy paying for a similar book. I'm less concerned with the sales total than I am with having control over my happy price. Apparently, I'm pretty happy at $14.95, though I'm hoping to convince myself that I deserve better:-)

I just got around to sorting through a boatload of junk mail, and it included a flyer titled "Sell Books By The Truckload". The telephone seminar was scheduled for a couple weeks ago, so it looks like I missed out on becoming a millionaire, but the flyer itself was interesting. The pitch seems to imply that ANY self publisher can sell huge quantities of books to corporations who will give them away to employees. There's even a line about raising money for charities by forming some sort of alliance.

Here's the problem I have with it. I don't want to sell books by the anything-load. As much as I enjoy earning a living writing, giving corporations a cheap employee perk is not a personal goal of mine. Perhaps if I wrote motivational or feel good type books, I'd be happy to get them out there under any circumstance, and who cares if 95% of them end up in the company recycling bins without leaving the building. I can just picture a major corporation holding their annual company wide meeting (close circuit TV and Internet video), and the president speaking:

"And so, in lieu of a bonus this Christmas, we're giving you all free copies of Morris Rosenthal's book, 'How to feel good about earning less.' It's actually a book about self employment, and we thought it would help you review your career options over this holiday season. Since we purchased the book in large quantity, we earned the option to add our own subtitle, namely, 'The option is to earn nothing and lose your house.' Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all."

Some publishers make a living selling boatloads of phone books, it's just not for me. I know there are some literary publishers out there who look at my how-to titles as phone books, so I don't mean it as a put-down. I'm just pointing out that if your goal in publishing is more getting by than getting rich, there's no need to sell out at the first opportunity.