No Bailout For Self Employed

If you make your living in publishing by doing contract work outsourced by trade publishers, watch out. December's Book Business magazine featured an interesting article of tips for how publishers can cut costs without cutting staff. I was amazed to see one publisher publicly admit that he's telling their freelancers that they'll have to accept 20% to 30% less than this year for the same work if they want to get any work at all. I applaud his honesty, and he wasn't alone amongst the publishing execs fingering freelancers as expendable. Most publishers will attempt to increase productivity by simply telling their salaried staff to do the work that was previously outsourced. Don't expect a government bailout for self employed publishing freelancers, unless you've taken out a big SBA loan, in which case you might get a break.

Many publishers boasted about flex hours and telecommuting options while the market was hot. If you telecommute to your job, you better watch out also. You've essentially become a freelancer who still collects a salary, but however good your phone or video conferencing skills, not being there in person every day makes you easier to let go. It's counter intuitive, since telecommuting employees are less expensive to maintain (no office space) than in-house employees, but when times get tough, managers want to see their employees with their noses to the LCD, and ideally working plenty of free overtime. When it comes down to it, no matter how productive you are at home, your boss will always be suspicious that you aren't putting in a full week. And a company can fire offsite employees simply by turning off their e-mail account and telling them over the phone, without that awkward cleaning out of the desk, a security escort to the door and the ceremonial handing over of the key card.

But there is a difference between the telecommuting employee and the self employed freelancer. The telecommuting employee qualifies for unemployment and the ability to extend certain benefits, including insurances. Unemployment benefits may last six months to nine months or longer, depending on the political will against passing extensions. And six or nine months of income is a lot more than most freelancers keep in an old pickle jar under the bed. One of the joys of self publishing is being your own boss, being self employed. But it comes with a responsibility, particularly for those of us in our middle age or nearing retirement age, whether we plan to stop working or not. Self publishers must be responsible for their own financial well being, and there isn't going to be any bailout for the self employed.

I frequently try to talk finance with the successful publishers I know, but I generally get a limited picture of their contingency plans for the future. Hopefully that's due to a reticence to talk money with a relative stranger, but I worry that many are simply living from year to year, as if they had a salaried job. (If you're living month to month, or day to day, you aren't successful yet in business, even if the path feels right). I'm particularly taken by the lack of interest most publishers show in discussing tax issues. It could be that they're using accountants and don't really understand the relationship between taxes and self employment, it could be that modern software has changed taxes into a mindless "fill in the blanks" exercise that leaves no impression, or it could be that they don't file taxes and hope that the government will leave them alone. So I'm embedding a condensed version of a graphic showing the tax rate for self employed from an article I'm writing about taxes and retirement savings.

Most of the self employed individuals I talk to in all fields don't realize that the maximum tax rate is paid by those with an adjusted gross income between about $32,000and $102,000 a year. In Massachusetts, where I live, the recent legislation to try to force the population into HMO's (major medical insurance is prohibited from sale in Mass) changes the tax system from mildly progressive to regressive, with the poor schmo who comes in just over $32,000 after the standard deduction and personal exemption paying a higher percentage than somebody making $10K or $20K more due to the health care penalty. The only thing self employed individuals can do to lower their tax rate (other than spending money in the business and showing less profit) is to put a percentage of their income into a tax deferred retirement account. It boggles my mind that some individuals buy health insurance and save nothing for retirement or food for a rainy day, as if this is a responsible position to take as a member of society. Note also that health insurance is not a deductible business expense for self employed individuals in the US.

If you want to survive as a self employed entrepreneur, whether in the publishing business or any other business, your first goal should be to live and conduct your business debt free. I've heard of some very successful entrepreneurs who built their business on a credit card, but I'm not one of them and I can't believe the statistics are in their favor. Your second goal should be to save enough money for any emergencies that may come up, from a drop in sales, to a lawsuit, from health problems to writers block. Unless you can convince Social Security to give you disability payments for running out of creative juice, you don't want to be in a situation where you'll need to get a job as a supermarket bagger if things go badly for a couple months. I worked more minimum wage jobs as a young man than I care to remember, and I don't remember any of them being conducive to creative work when I got home at night. Now that I think of it, most of those jobs required working at night, so it's not surprising.

We all know somebody who complains about their financial condition, and adds how hard it is to keep up with the car payments (on their $50,000 car). We all face different challenges in life, and nobody expects somebody in their twenties or a young parents in their thirties to have it all worked out. But at some point in your life, you either start saving for the future or you can acknowledge that you're one slip away from needing a bailout or giving up your business and going back to working for the man. It would be nice if there were a lobby for the self employed to represent the inequities we face in the tax code, but the only organizations I've come across appear to be fronts for selling - you guessed it - health insurance:-) If I don't get going on a new book this year, maybe I'll start my own lobby for self employed folks.

Returnable Books Are Good For The Publishing Industry

This week, Borders announced that they will purchase books from HarperStudio on a nonreturnable basis. HarperStudio is an experimental imprint of HarperCollins that is trying to change the traditional big trade model by cutting back on author advances and returns from booksellers. I'm in favor of giving authors the option of trading off lower advances for higher royalties and I tried talking McGraw-Hill into giving me a higher royalty in return for no advance when I was writing for them, without luck. But the idea of ending bookseller book returns by selling on a nonreturnable basis is wishful thinking on the part of all parties involved. Bookstores and publishers are businesses that need to make profits to survive. The main profit drivers for large publishers are bestsellers and evergreen titles. The main profit center for bookstore chains may actually be cooperative advertising dollars from large publishers, but their main retailing activity is pushing those same bestsellers and evergreen titles.

Large publishers fantasize that bookstores will continue to give a most of their titles a chance on the shelves if they increase the trade discount to bookstores from 48% or 50% on a returnable basis to 58% or 60% (or more) on a nonreturnable basis. While a large bookstore chain may be willing to experiment with a nonreturnable list from a small imprint, it would be suicidal for them to gamble on a large number of nonreturnable titles. The majority of books in the large superstores function primarily as wallpaper, to make a warehouse sized store look and feel like a bookstore. Most of the new titles coming into a superstore get a few months on the shelves, don't sell well, and are returned to the publisher for credit towards a new batch of titles. Currently, bookstore chains can sell the small number of nonreturnable books they stock at bargain prices when they fail to move, taking a small loss. If the majority of the books in a superstore were there on a nonreturnable basis, the store couldn't stand selling them at a loss. Those books would simply remain on the shelves year after year, filling their wallpaper role and eliminating the chance for all but the most heavily promoted new titles from the trades to ever get in the door. Eventually, the bookstore chains would all come to resemble airport booksellers, with a stock of fast moving bestsellers, crossword puzzle books and timeless classics they could afford to sit on.

Bookstore owners, the large chains in particular, fantasize that they can add 20% to their gross margins by purchasing nonreturnable books. Of course, these profits only materialize if they can sell most of the books they purchase for their usual price. The only way bookstores can hope to achieve this is to cut way back on titles that aren't proven sellers, or at least backed by huge promotional budgets. Instead of a superstore chain cycling through tens of thousands of new releases in the course of a year, they will only gamble on a few thousand new titles. I predict that Barnes&Noble, the chain that has proven itself the most business savvy, would continue to increase the number of books they publish in house under a nonreturnable paradigm, until half the books in every Barnes&Nobles store are out-of-copyright classics, how-to, self help and reference books, published by Barnes&Noble and kept on the shelves until they sell.

Small publishers are likewise deceiving themselves. The small publishers who count on distributors to handle their books are currently giving up a 60% to 70% (or more) discount on returnable basis, since the distributor takes a cut. If the distributor was forced to sell to bookstores at a nonreturnable discount of 58% to 65%, the publishers would be selling books to the distributor at a 70% to 80% discount off the cover, and I'll bet the publishers still couldn't expect to get paid promptly because the distributors are always cash poor. Imagine being a small publisher with frontlist titles priced around $20 and having to sell them for between $4 and $6. Most would go out of business, and that doesn't even get into the original problem that bookstores will be less willing to try new books from a distributor if they can't get credit at the distributor for returns.

Small bookstores may have it hardest of them all. The whole business model of returnable books was created back in the Great Depression because bookstores didn't have the capital to purchase new books and publishers had to choose between stopping the presses and basically providing the books on consignment. Times are harder for small bookstores today than at any other period since the returnable model was introduced. The only small bookstores that could afford to take a chance on new titles other than bestsellers and specialty titles are those that are run as hobby stores by retired professionals or trust fund babies.

So let's set the record straight. Returnable books are good for everybody. They allow bookstore chains to stock a real variety of books, and they allow trade publishers to offer a chance in the sun to far more authors than would be otherwise possible. Returnable books allow small publishers to make a living on books sold through distribution, and they allow small bookstore owners to follow their instincts and order the titles they think their customers will come to love, rather than stocking nothing but sure things. Returnable books are even good for self publishers like myself, whose books would never have been given a chance on bookstore shelves at a short discount if the bookstores didn't know they could return them. Returnable books are even good for printers, who would lose as much as 30% of their business it weren't for the print and pulp model. Returnable books are what differentiate the publishing business from the grocery business.

The only loser in the returnable book business model is the environment, with the extra trucking books back and forth that goes on, and the paper production process. But trees grown for pulp are a renewable resource, and as soon as the trucking companies are all driving George Jetson trucks, the last objection to book returns will be put to rest.

Retraining Newspaper Editors and Reporters for Internet Work

Last summer a friend and I discussed starting a retraining program for downsized print media employees - editors and journalists, whose jobs aren't going to come back. Newspapers and magazines have entered a circulation death spiral, and while there will be some survivors at the other end of the recession, the age of the universally available daily newspaper or weekly print magazine is clearly at an end. The main strategy that current media moguls and their advisors are following is to ramp up their Internet activities, but I have bad news for them. There's only room for a few branded newpaper websites to make any hay reporting on national and international news, ie, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, maybe the Washington Post and a west coast paper like the LA Times. The rest can only hope to draw traffic for local news, and it won't pay the bills for an extensive staff. In fact, the small advertising supported weekly newspapers that are given away free in many regions may be in better shape to survive with the help of a website than the local flagship newspaper.

The reason writers and editors who worked in newspapers and magazines need retraining is that the move online requires a new mindset, not just a different wordprocessor. The number of "newsroom" jobs for these jobseekers will be extremely limited. The two main options will be to transition to working directly for businesses or institutions maintaining their web presence, or to go into business for themseves as information entrepreneurs. Since the latter career path invoves working on spec and a long start-up period with little or no returns, it's not an option for a breadwinner watching the time run out on unemployment benefits. But the transition to writing and managing web content for businesses and other orgainizations with websites should be relatively easy and lucrative.

The main goal of a retraining program would be to instill belief in the universal value of a freely accessible resource for every type of entity that serves people - whether customers, citizens or anyone inbetween. The reason for instilling this belief is to make it possible for the out-of-work reporter or editor to make a convincing case for why the potential employer should hire that individual. In order to instill that belief, I would show how a single individual can achieve the same circulation (daily visitor count) as a small town newspaper without the overhead of, for example, a small town newspaper:-) And circulation that is driven by search becomes highly targetted, which means those visitors are the ones who are most likely to be interested in the products or services offered by the organization.

There's a lot of resistance on the part of "journalists" to the idea of becoming "technical writers", but Internet content is much better characterized as journalism than technical writing. And unlike the print media, which is characterized by a "few to many" model, where a small number of individuals communicate their ideas and biases to a very large number of individuals, the Internet is characterized by a "many to many" model. I'm not talking about the feedback mechanism of comments on blogs, it's the publication mechanisim that depends on search ranking that drives the "many to many" aspect. As long as search ranking gives heavy precedence to the number and quality of incoming links, as it does now, the visibility of websites truly is driven by the wisdom (or voyeurism) of crowds.

The Internet is all about specialization, which is why the website model won't work for a large number of overhead laden newspapers magazines hoping to monetize through advertising. The only local print advertising that really makes sense for merchants these days is space ads for local retailers. The whole classified category is better served by specialist sites, from Craigslist to Ebay and Trulia. One day somebody will come up with a one-stop website for announcements that will meet the legal requirements for advertising probate or bankruptcy auctions, and that will be the end of newspaper classifieds altogether.

Trade publisher employees face similar lay-offs and retraining requirements, but they have a headstart over journalism types, in the sense that they are used to thinking about information as content rather than news.

DVD Movie Published and Sold Through Amazon's CreateSpace

Let this be a lesson that comments can be dangerous. A couple of readers said nice things about my YouTube videos in comments on a post about writing for money last month, and I let it go to my head. After discovering that I still had all the original AVI files from my FlipCam, I decided to try out Amazon's CreateSpace service for publishing movies. Three weeks and quite a bit of fooling around later:

I have to give CreateSpace credit for the basic DVD publishing process. It was pretty painless and flexible. For example, as this experimental movie consists of videos that have already been published on YouTube and are available free to anybody, I wasn't going to charge any more than I had to. But since I'm not making money on the movie, I wasn't going to invest the time and effort in creating artwork for the cover or the DVD itself. CreateSpace has a plain text option where they just label it with the title and stick the catalog description on the back. All you have to do is send them an original with your order number scrawled on it and the packing slip, and you get back the movie:

That's my original to the left in the picture, they added the bar code sticker. They also added a copyright notice to the published movie DVD. CreateSpace advises movie producers to use Dolby audio, rather than MPEG, so the first challenge was finding movie creation software that would do it. I downloaded a few trial versions of software that didn't cut the mustard, and then found that the InterVideo Win DVD Creator which came pre-installed on my Toshiba laptop could do it. Then I experimented with navigation (I hadn't even known that DVD's had navigation) and probably made a bad choice. Another mistake was not using transitions. The software supported a couple dozen transitions (fades, flips, swirls, you name it) that can be inserted with a single click, but I never liked them so I went without. A few test viewers have already commented that they would have liked some sort of transition or title page in between the videos. Another problem with the lack of transition breaks is that if you skip back and forth in the navigation on a computer using the Windows player, it sometimes plays the last fraction of a second of the previous video along with the one to which you're moving.

There's an option to sell your DVD movies through a CreateSpace store to maximize profit, but if I wanted to sell movies outside of the main Amazon store, I'd sell them direct off my own website. For movies produced by CreateSpace and sold through Amazon the economics were pretty simple. They charge $4.95 for each DVD copy, and take 45% of the list price. I priced my DVD at $9.95, which means I should net $0.52 each, and if I should sell 34 copies, I'll make back the cost of the FedX 2nd day I used to send them the original. If any of my readers don't have broadband and have been waiting on tenterhooks for me to publish a movie version on DVD, it's here. I'd also like to point out that if you click on my name when you get there, I'm not actually in the other movie that comes up. Really.

I did record an introduction for the movie, which is embedded below.

Should Authors Buy Borders Or Start A Cooperative Bookstore Chain

At the market close on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, the market cap (total stock value) of the Borders Bookstore chain was less than 65 million dollars. No, I don't have 65 million dollars I can spare, but self publishers do. I'm not thinking about self publishers like myself who have started their own publishing companies, but those authors who have paid fees to get their books printed. Nobody has an exact count on how many authors have published books outside of the traditional system since the triple zeros came up on the calendar eight years ago, but it's on the order of a million individuals in America alone.

The biggest complaint I hear from those authors is that their books never got a fair chance to compete with the big trade books on bookstore shelves. If those authors could organize and pony up a hundred dollar each, they could make an offer for the entire Borders chain. I suspect that Borders main stockholder wouldn't be too happy with the offer, and it wouldn't be the ideal match in any case. For one thing, Borders is losing money at a rapid pace, and while returning all of the current inventory may offer a bit of revenge for authors who were never stocked on the shelves, the returns may only be good for credit towards new titles from the same trades. And I don't think the superstore format would work very well for the title mix that the newly empowered shareholders would chose to stock. Imagine walking into a warehouse sized bookstore split into three equal sections: memoir, fiction, poetry and sundries.

Kidding aside, it seems to me that all of the author services companies, or self publishing companies as some style themselves, have large and active communities of authors who are interested in gaining wider readership for their books. Many authors have already put their money where their hearts are, paying thousands of dollars for promotional campaigns which primarily benefit the bottom line of the company they've paid to get published. If just one percent of those authors clubbed together to form a bookstore cooperative ten thousand members strong, at just $100 each, they'd have a million dollars in seed capital to open a mini-chain of small bookstores to exclusively stock their books. I'll even volunteer a loaded name for the chain, "Imagined Memories."

It's not a business model for an outsider. But given tens of thousands of authors who are willing to spend money to see their books on shelves, I can't think of a more efficient way of doing it. While authors could invest the same pool of money in buying shelf space at the existing bookstores through cooperative advertising (the same way the major publishers purchase premium shelf space), the number of titles that could be displayed at any given time would be small, and the atmosphere, competing with classics and name brand bestsellers, would be wrong. If there's any potential in working with the existing chains, it might be leasing space for a store within a store, but I doubt a new cooperative would come away with the long end of the stick.

Starting a small bookstore chain may sound crazy, but I think it has more upside than downside. For starters, it would help give the most active advocates of the fee based self publishing approach something concrete to invest their efforts in, rather than remaining trapped in an endless circle of discussion list postings. Handled properly, the new venture would get plenty of free publicity in the media, a value that might even exceed the cost of setting up the cooperative. Perhaps most importantly, it would give a large number of human beings a reason to work together on a positive project - setting up some small bookstores at a time when they're a vanishing breed. Stores might even be partially staffed with volunteers, and could go the coffee shop route to provide a nice public space and help pay the rent. Even the downside, losing the small amount of money invested, has a potential upside. It could be an investment loss rather than a hobby loss on taxes (I think:-)

Just watch out for scam artists and cooperatives that are set up to provide a living to the executives.

Interview with Holly Payne

Interview with fiction novelist Holly Payne. Holly conducts workshops and offers coaching through her Skywriter Series.

Your first novel, "The Virgin's Knot", went through the whole evolution from hardcover to trade paper and audio books. How did the initial deal come about?

I completed the book in March of 2001, but needed to do one more trip to Turkey before I submitted it to double check historical and cultural accuracies, etc. At that time, I was fortunate enough to have an agent in New York express interest in the book, even one year prior to its completion, so I always had him in the back of my mind when I went to submit. I knew I had once chance with him, and I wanted the book to be in its best possible submission shape and told him that he wouldn’t get to read it until it passed through my initial readers; and if I had to go back to the drawing board after that and start the whole thing over, or complete a major rewrite, then he’d get it after I finished. In a nutshell, I wasn’t in a hurry, which worked to my benefit in the long-run. When the agent received the manuscript in mid-July, 2001, he sold it by the end of the month. I had no idea how lucky I was at the time, but looking back, I do. It was like winning the lottery. The timing was uncanny. If I had finished the book any later and if it had been sold in the fall after 9/11, there is a good chance it would have never been published because everyone was a afraid the market would be flooded with Muslim-themed books. They say timing is everything and now that I’m older and have more experience, I believe this really is true.

Were you surprised by the commercial success of your first novel and did it match the expectations of your publishers?

Hmmm. I’m not sure it was a ‘commerical success’ in that way — if you mean it made it on to ‘lists.’ What I do know is that I was very happy that the book had been reviewed and that it was being read wildly enough for me to realize, ‘hey more than my friends and family actually want to read this book. Isn’t that great?” I really had no idea what commercial success was and didn’t aim for it. I don’t write stories with that in mind. I just write what’s wedged between my heart and gut. Whether or not writing from that place results in dollars in the bank wasn’t something I thought about --- in fact, the opposite was true. I was told by a screenwriting mentor in LA that if I left Hollywood, chasing down this story about a rug weaver, that I would end my career. I’m glad I listened to my gut! The Virgin’s Knot was selected as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writer’s pick and also a Border’s Original Voices selection, and went on to be published in 9 countries, which was a total surprise to me. Getting my first novel published was a huge surprise, so I considered everything that happened after the initial sale a bonus — like a royalty check!

Novels often draw wildly mixed reviews on sites like Amazon. Do you read your reviews and do they affect your writing?

I did at first, but then I stopped reading them — regardless if they were good or bad. You have to keep writing no matter what people say about your work. You have to keep believing in the transmission of the stories, not about the criticism. Everyone’s a critic. Few people have the courage to actually sit down and risk making a mistake in public. I love that there are so many bloggers out there now — people who really care about what they read, not about trashing the author. I see the sophistication in blog reviews that I don’t always see on places like Amazon. I think other readers are savvy to that now, too, and search for other opinions before they make purchasing decisions, even though they still read those reviews.

Your current manuscript ran into that legendary rule of fiction, that the third novel is a tougher sell than the first if the book inbetween isn't a big seller. Would you accept a trade contract for the right deal, or have you made an emotional commitment to self publishing this book so you can control the outcome?

This is a great question. Over the course of the last two months as I’ve made this decision to start my own small press, I’ve been floored by the support from colleagues and friends who know the risk that I’m taking. One thing that a good writer friend told me recently was that I have to make a total commitment, that I can’t be on the fence. I’ve made that commitment. I’m going to do this and if I fail, at least I tried. I’m tired of waiting for permission to give my readers access to my work. So many of my readers keep asking me, “When is your new book coming out?” with the assumption that it already had a publisher. I kept telling them that their guess was as good as my own. And this gets old after a while. Also, I had to make the decision to leave my agent — a very well respected New York literary agency — without any safety net. Sometimes you just don’t click with the agent, and you need to go your separate ways. We parted very amicably. It was all quite clean and professional, which is a blessing because it can often be messy and put you in a head spin about what you could have or should have done differently. I think for this particular story, it was forcing me from the very beginning to dive into the unknown and trust that free fall, which is where I am and it’s very empowering to stay in the flow of this new adventure of ‘self-publishing.’ I guess if I want to “control” anything and I use the term tongue and cheek, I want to change the way mid-list authors like myself and other talented yet unknown writers experience the publishing industry.

This is so much more about a commitment to how I want to be in the world, how I want to treat others and how I want to be treated, versus about a contract. Having said that, this is also an opportunity for mid-list authors to reinvent themselves, and to ‘prove’ (for lack of a better word) to the larger houses that we do have readers and that we do understand the business and can make decisions not only as artists, but also as business people. Imagine that...! Obviously, distribution is the key issue in all of this and definitely affects anyone’s decision to become their own publisher, but with the print on demand options out there, it’s one that I’m excited to explore. If I was able to sell ‘enough’ copies to get a New York house interested in my third book, then yes, absolutely, I’d give myself that opportunity for larger distribution. This is how Brunonia Barry sold The Lace Reader --- and coincidentally to my first editor. So, who knows what will happen?

My first publisher told me the Amish have been done and canned my outline for the story in 2005. I wrote the book anyway and it’s a totally different story than what was delineated in the initial outline. Though I was deeply hurt and frustrated at the time, I now see the amazing opportunity it gave me to start my own business and learn the inside of the industry. Now I look back and laugh at the absurdity of someone telling me ‘the Amish have been done.’ That’s like saying the Jews have been done — or that forgiveness has been done, or love, or friendship. They could have just told me, “Hey, the whole of human existence has been done,” right?

Website Development In New Publishing Ecosystem

I received an interesting email from an aspiring publisher this weekend who laid out all of the steps he planned to take in publishing his first book. It looked like he covered all of the basic points I've written about, and his question was whether he had left anything out. The one thing missing from his plan was the time line. If you're going to follow the Internet centric approach, creating a website to establish a marketing platform while carrying out market research and drawing feedback on your work in progress, you have to start publishing online BEFORE you print the book.

The correspondence reminded me that it's time to post another progress report for my new website, which is now three months old. Last month I used data from YouTube Insight to contrast the success of the simple car repair videos I've made for the IFITJAMS.COM website with the relative obscurity of my short publishing talks that take much more time to produce. That gap has continued to expand, as those simple repair videos now draw more than three times as many viewers a day as the publishing talks.

If we extrapolate from the rising slope of the curve, it can be proved that within a couple years, all YouTube visitors will be watching my car repair videos 24 hours a day. I should get a job on Wall Street:-) Over that same period of time, the number of direct visitors to the website (a mix of robots and human visitors who arrive by typing the website URL directly into the browser) has tripled as well. While those numbers aren't huge, at around 5% of overall traffic, it shows that there's some value to mentioning the website in the videos and displaying the address in a video annotation, even though YouTube doesn't allow it to be directly linked.

But search is by far the most important source website visitors unless you're running a site that's already a destination, such as a bank, government agency or a newspaper. Search is, perhaps, the most important publishing technology to come along since the printing press. I've written extensively about building a website with compelling text content and presenting it in a search engine friendly format (simple HTML), but the greatest challenge for most new publishers is attracting quality incoming links. Without those incoming links, the website won't appear high in any searches, unless the material being sought is so obscure that your site happens to be the only source.

The graph below shows the total number of search visitors per day over the first three months of life for the new website. While the number of pages on the website has increased somewhat over the three months, the pages that draw the most visitors were published within the first few weeks. Those pages, troubleshooting flowcharts for some basic car problems, each required several days of work just to publish in draft form, say two weeks of full time effort. Creating a time intensive resource for your website that isn't available anywhere else helps establish the website as a serious effort, rather than some fly-by-night blog thrown together by a keyword writer looking to make a few pennies from advertising.

I employed a two phased approach for launching this new website, starting with the initial resource content, then slowly adding photo and video illustrated car repair procedures as work on my project car progressed. This gave the initial content a chance to age in place a little longer, which doesn't hurt since some search engines treat websites like wine, preferring those that have a few cobwebs on the cork. After adding a new page that I thought would be particularly useful to people facing the same car repair challenge, I'd go out and search the web for open discussions on the topic and try to find a thread where a link to my new page would be both appreciated and contextually useful in helping the search engines figure out where the new page fit in their ecosystem. Going out and joining discussions to tell people about a new web page is exactly like cold calling - you can expect a lot of rejection to make a single sale. But unless you're already a somebody in that community, blowing your own horn is the only way you're going to get any attention.

I thought it would be a challenge to get some quality inbound links for the new site, and it has been, but it's been a useful exercise for the sake of being able to write about it in the context of the new publishing ecosystem. The Internet has changed quite a bit since I first started publishing online in 1995, and from the standpoint of attracting quality links, I'd say the two biggest changes have been blogs and social networks. In the past, people spent serious time mining the internet for useful links to add to their hobby site or to a resources page of a school, library or business. Today, the majority of organic links end up posted on social networks or blogs, where their aggregate value is quite low, due to the large number of often unrelated links getting published on those sites. And the individual blog posts or pages on the social networking site usually have a low search profile themselves, once they age out of the spotlight.

Essentially all of the search visitors to the new website, over 95%, are coming from Google. Aside from demonstrating Google's superior taste in content, it says something about how Yahoo! and Microsoft struggle to match search queries with relevant websites. From my own search activity, it appears to me that both Yahoo! and Microsoft give tremendous weight to the keywords in the domain name, path and file name, which are all easily faked by software applications that build websites from scraped content.

I'm just getting to the point where I think there's enough quality content on the new website to begin asking individuals who still maintain links pages for automotive or related DIY resources to take a look. One of the most common mistakes enthusiastic new publishers make is to go pestering everybody who maintains a links page to visit their brand new website. It may be pretty, but it's almost always devoid of content when it's new. Nobody is going to give you a quality link because the site navigation includes plans for a forum that doesn't have any members, or placeholders for content that you haven't gotten around to writing yet. Building a new website is like building a house on spec. It's rare to find a buyer until the house is substantially finished, unless the market is so hot that people are willing to buy a promise.

I'm happy to be getting some positive e-mail feedback and over a hundred visitors a day from search already, with some visitors staying on the site fifteen minutes or longer. I'm not planning any books on the auto repair subject, but it's a highly competitive area in the online world, so it shows that the Internet remains open for business to publishers who have the patience to follow the organic approach to growing a website. I don't know if search traffic will reach 200 visitors a day by the end of the year, an arbitrary goal for success that I chose as being out of reach, but it gives me an excuse for this early video rerun:

Author Income and Getting Paid to Write Books

One of the regular questions I hear from aspiring authors is some variation on "What's the average income for authors?" Fortunately, there aren't any reliable statistics, because if there were, quite a few writers would give up without trying! Last July I wrote about the average income for small publishers (including self publishers) and quoted the BLS figure of $13,348 for those publishers reporting a profit. As discouraging as that may sound, trade authors and self published authors share a common economic truth, which is that most of them don't earn a living at it. Getting paid to write books is not the same thing as making a living writing books, and those six figure advances that get so much publicity are strictly for bestselling authors, or for newcomers to whom the publisher is paying a big advance more to create industry buzz than to close the deal.

In my experience, trade authors who are earning a decent living on advances and royalties still aren't ecstatic about their relationship with the publisher. Quoting from the correspondence of Frederick Marryat, a successful novelist writing in the 1830's and 1840's:

Your remark as to the money I have received may sound well, mentioned as an isolated fact.; but how does it sound when it is put in juxtaposition with the sums you have received? I, who have found everything, receiving a pittance, while you, who have found nothing but the shop to sell in, receiving such a lion's share. I assert again it is slavery. I am Sinbad the sailor and you are the old man of the mountain, clinging on my back, and you must not be surprised at my wishing to throw you off the first convenient opportunity.

The fact is, you have the vice of old age very strong upon you, and you are blinded by it; but put the question to your sons, and ask them whether they consider the present agreement fair. Let them arrange with me, and do you go and read your Bible. We all have our ideas of Paradise, and if other authors think like me, the most pleasurable portion of anticipated bliss is that there will be no publishers there. That idea often supports me after an interview with one of your fraternity.

Most of the "successful" trade authors I know, successful because they are always in demand to write another book for a modest advance, don't actually earn their primary income as authors. Many hold full time jobs in the professions or make their living as speakers and consultants, and some have sufficient wealth or retirement income to render any royalty payments a pleasant bonus. On the other hand, the common definition of a successful self publisher is one who makes a living at it. Therefore, successful self publishers earn a higher median income than successful trade authors by definition. I won't say I higher average income, because it doesn't take many J.K Rowlings or Rick Warrens to raise the average.

I think most unpublished writers would argue that anybody who gets paid to write a book is a successful author, without regard to what happens down the road. I remember very distinctly being out running one day in the mid-1990's and swearing to myself that if I could just break into the trades and earn $20K a year as an author I'd be happy for life. Not long afterwards I started earning that income and more as a trade author, but my attitude changed by the third book, despite the fact it brought in well over $50,000. As I learned more about the business of publishing, I went from feeling lucky to feeling I was trapped in a bad contract. An agreement first signed in 1998 continues to tie my hands in an area where I once had a terrific Internet following, lost to the publisher's inflexibility on managing the intellectual rights.

Turning down a trade contract to self publish is an iffy proposition for most authors, and I generally discourage anybody writing fiction from doing so. For nonfiction writers, the financial results are going to vary on a case by case basis, but if you care about control, self publishing will always be the better choice. Control isn't just about the editorial process, when to release a new edition, and whether or how to publish on the Internet. It comes down to the most fundamental question of all facing any author - What's my next book?

Google Ebooks in Print or Sabbath Kindle

Back in 2005, the Author's Guild (which I had quit by that time) launched a lawsuit against Google Print, the predecessor of Google Books. After three years, a settlement was reached last week that will allow Google to start making the content of millions of out-of-print books scanned from participating library collections available as ebooks for a fee. The fee will be shared with presenting rights holders, as will any ad revenue from those pages. The ad revenue will likely be a bigger source of income for both Google and publishers than ebook sales.

The primary concession from Google's side to achieve the settlement appears to be that they will cease to display snippets of in-print books in search results without permission from the rights holder. I'm not sure what argument was made on why the snippets shouldn't qualify as "editorial usage", perhaps because they were variable, produced on the fly in accordance with a query phrase. In my estimation, this settlement was a big win for Google, and does not represent a strengthening of intellectual property rights, as some in the publishing industry seem to be claiming.

But that's OK, because the mainstream players in the publishing industry never grokked the Google program any more than then they understood how the Internet is changing the publishing landscape under their feet. The snippets they are so proud of eliminating for in-print books could only have helped readers find those book and increased sales. I wrote about this in a blog post back in 2005 that Google blurbed on their publisher page:

Books can be loosely divided into three categories: in-print, out-of-print but in-copyright, and out-of-copyright. The snippet issue relates to in-print books. The out-of-copyright books were never an issue, though determining whether or not books are out-of-copyright can get tricky. Out-of-print books aren't making money for publisher or authors, but somebody, either the publisher, the author, or the legal heirs of either, still owns the rights if they are in-copyright. Google's initial argument was that Google shouldn't have to make an effort to find those rights holders, because it was likely to be difficult in many cases. At the time I didn't think that was a very reasonable legal argument. Three years later it makes a great deal of sense to me, though I think they could have described their position a little better at the time. It's not that it would have been difficult to find the original rights holders for many out-of-copyright books, it would have been nearly impossible, and involved legal proceedings to determine rightful heirs in many cases. That burden would have resulted in those books being lost to the public, who could otherwise access them as ebooks. If Google was a Hollywood studio making a multi-million dollar movie based on an out-of-print but in-copyright book, it would be a different story.

All but one of my self published titles are in the Google Books program. I kept one out as a "control group" so I could have a subject for an analytical blog post one day. As soon as Google introduced the option to list those titles for sales as ebooks, I signed up, and have been waiting, year after year, for that part of the program to become operational. I'm hoping that it's been on hold all this time due to the lawsuit, and that they'll be adding "Buy it now" buttons as soon as the legal niceties are completed. But I'm also holding out hope that ebooks aren't the end of the road for the Google Books program.

What I'd like to see Google do is to sign up with some major print-on-demand vendors, such as Lightning Source and Amazon, and make all of the out-of-print books available as POD. These printed books, with simplified covers and other quality limitations, would still have an impact on used book sellers, but as somebody who once paid a used book dealer over $100 for a book on acid paper that was falling apart because it wasn't available elsewhere, my sympathies lie with the readers in this case. I don't think it would be a huge business. Most of the ebook action will probably be in nonfiction, where people are looking for reference information that's contained in a few pages and can be printed or be read from a computer screen, and they won't normally be willing to pay for a bound copy. But I may be too old a dog to make the transition to reading literature on a Kindle, Sony Reader or a computer screen. And then there's the Sabbath.

My two basic rules in life are that I don't work on computers on the Sabbath and I don't read novels that are in-copyright. The latter is a question of taste, not a legal position. Coincidentally, this past weekend I finished reading Scott's forty eight volume Waverly Novel collection, and discovered to my great chagrin that there was a glossary of Scottish terms at the end of the 48th volume! I'm fortunate to live in the home town of Smith College, which claims to have the largest college (not university) library in the US. But even in a library as good as Smith's, older books, which crumble when read or which are simply vanish from the collection, often go unreplaced. I can tell by the occasional uncut page in the Waverly Novels and the relative lack of circulation date stamps that the lesser known works haven't been in high demand the last 100 years or so.

As a reader, rather than a book collector or fetishist, I prefer reading books where I don't have to be careful about breaking the pages as I turn them. And since I stay off the computer on the Sabbath, it's often a big reading day for me. My staying off the computer isn't based on Orthodox observance of the Jewish law that prohibits making a fire (which the rabbis have interpreted in modern times as many new prohibitions, including throwing an electrical switch), but on my treating the computer as a beast of burden that deserves a day of rest. That way, I get the day off as well. But would I use a Kindle or another ebook reading device on the Sabbath for recreational reading?

First of all, I think it would be relatively easy to write the program to create a Shabbos Kindle. It would have to turn itself on at a preset time, Friday evening or Saturday afternoon, and proceed to flip through a book at a preset speed. It would probably make it more kosher if the buttons were disabled during the Sabbath to prevent accidental work. Orthodox Jews have long accepted Shabbos timers (clocks that turn lights off and on automatically) and even Shabbos elevators, which run a preset schedule for the entire Sabbath, stopping at every floor. So I'm relatively confident that a Shabbos ebook reader is not far away, and may even have a religious purpose if used in large print mode for religious texts that aren't otherwise accessible to people with limited eyesight.

But I think that it's a case where the intention of the law is more important to me than the letter of the law, and I'd be inclined not to use a Sabbath Kindle as being too close to making my beast of burden work when I'm resting.

Do Ebook Sales Hurt Paper Book Sales or is it all Instant Gratification?

The main problem with writing about specific ebook vs books sales issues as a self publisher is that my access to in-depth data is limited to my own titles. In this instance, I only have year over year comparisons available for two titles, taking the August 1st to October 27th time frame. Further complicating the comparison is the worldwide economic downturn that I'm estimating has shaved at least 25% off my sales in October.

Even for ebooks as low as $9.95 with the customer benefit of instant gratification, people are holding onto their credit cards a lot tighter than just a month ago. Since a high proportion of my sales are generated directly through my website, whether ebooks, direct sales or Amazon Associates sales, I get a sort of instant feedback on book market conditions that publishers who rely heavily on bookstores may not see, unless they are getting real-time sell through data. My website traffic levels are pretty much where I'd expect, visitors just aren't becoming buyers at the usual rate.

The two titles I have year over year data for are my POD publishing book and my computer business title. For shorthand, I'll refer to them as POD and CB. In the last 90 days, I sold 35 ebook versions of POD (15 outside of the US) and 31 paper copies through Amazon Associates. During the same period last year when there was no ebook version for sale, I sold 53 copies through Amazon Associates. In the same time period, I sold 62 ebook versions of CB (13 outside the US) and 23 paper copies through Amazon Associates, while in the previous year I sold 52 copies through Amazon Associates.

So the quick math would imply that I lost 51 paper book sales, but gained 97 ebook sales, where the ebook sales are a little more profitable. If we eliminate the overseas sales for these two titles since those buyers wouldn't be a good match for the US Amazon Associates referrals (28 copies), I'm still generating more sales through offering ebook versions. While the overall numbers are small, the percentage differences are very large.

The caveats even on this limited data set are many, including the fact that the paper version of POD was updated this year while the paper version of CB was not, making CB with its 2002 copyright date a harder sale on Amazon with every passing year. But the bigger caveat which stands repeating is that October sales have been depressed by the global economy. Even Saudi Arabia (where I got a second sale this morning) has seen their stock market fall 50%.

Another consideration is whether steering some sales away from Amazon is hurting the visibility of my titles there. It doesn't matter in the case of CB which is the #1 title in a tiny and ever-shrinking market, but in the case of POD it's possible that I'm losing a little traction. It's very hard to say because the top book in that segment, Aaron Shepard's "Aiming at Amazon" has been unavailable for several months while he revises the text. But as long as the visibility damage is limited, it's more than offset in my mind by the diversification offered by ebooks. And as testified by a US based customer of POD in an e-mail this weekend, he bought the ebook for instant gratification. Even Amazon Prime shipping can't compete with ebooks.

To put a country with a concept, I'm going to conclude by pasting in the list of countries where people have purchased at least one e-book, which is now 40 strong. The numbers in the parenthesis () are the totals for those countries:

Australia (21)
Austria (2)
Belgium (4)
Brazil (2)
Canada (20)
Costa Rica
Denmark (2)
France (2)
Great Britain (48)
Ireland (9)
Italy (5)
Mexico (2)
Malaysia (2)
Netherlands (4)
New Zealand (2)
Papua New Guinea
Saudi Arabia (2)
Spain (3)
Sri Lanka
Thailand (2)
Trinidad and Tobago

400th Executive Staff And Strategic Editorial Board Meeting

Blogger informs me that this is the 400th post to the self publishing blog. There's something scary about that, especially since the law of diminishing search engine returns took over around 350 posts ago, but I suppose it's not as frightening as being a long-time newspaper columnist or cartoonist. My first reaction to the impending anniversary was to produce a little lecture about the dangers of falling into a rut in your publishing business and writing life:

But on further reflection, especially thinking about some of my earlier posts making fun of big trade publishers and their staff meetings , it occurred to me that this blog has become the Foner Books executive staff and editorial board meeting all rolled up in one. While most self publishers don't think of themselves as publishing executives, it's a fair description if your publishing business is a going concern, and those of us functioning as sole proprietors pay an appreciably higher tax rate than the corporate trade publishing executives. So, from the nuts-and-bolts of my publishing business to blue sky projects for the future, this blog replaces the strategic staff meetings with coffee and donuts I'd be holding if I had an office in Manhattan.

It's a funny thing, waking up one morning and finding out that you've become a publishing executive holding weekly staff meetings. And it's even funnier if you consider all of the unpaid executive interns who have participated in stress testing the Foner Books publishing strategies by way of comments to the blog. I do appreciate it, and I'd buy you all a coffee if you were here (but I'm not letting go of my key to the executive washroom). Since I finally got around to enabling a feed a while ago, the meeting has picked up a hundred or so subscribers who may very well be reading along over their fourth mid-late morning or coffee break.

Unlike my memory of business meetings back in my youth when I worked for the man, this forum does keep me interested, probably because I get to do most of the talking and have the last word. I intend to bring in more guest speakers, by way of interviews, and write more about Internet centric publishing strategies and business development. And I'll keep hammering away at the basic truth of Internet age publishing, that information and ideas trump production values and packaging for all but the fattest wallets.

Amazon Becomes America's Largest Book Buyer

The book selling wars that began four decades ago with the rise of the mall chains, followed by the growing power of the Barnes & Noble, Borders and BAM superstore chains, has been won by Amazon. Amazon sales are on track for double-digit gains again this year, aided in part by high fuel prices discouraging trips to the regional superstores that have replaced so many local bookstores. Amazon's North American growth in media sales (books, music and movies) may exceed the incredible 23% gain they turned in last year. Amazon is on pace to sell more books in the US than the entire Barnes & Noble chain in 2008, even allowing for a higher music and video mix. If you add Amazon's international stores to the mix, they will easily sell more books than Barnes & Nobles plus Borders this year.

On the bright side, large trade publishers may find that having Amazon as their #1 customer will free them from having to cater to the tastes of powerful chain buyers. In past years, buyers at the large chains had significant input in everything from the title mix at some large publishers to the physical format and design of new books. These chain buyers and a handful of review publications formed a cabal of gatekeepers in the American publishing industry, and while some may lament their waning power, I was never impressed by their choices. The exclusivity that they fostered contained the seeds of their own downfall. Amazon, to date, has offered the closest thing to a level playing field for booksellers that's existed in the publishing world since the beginning of time.

On the dark side, there's Amazon's attempt to force a new printing paradigm on the publishing industry. Strangely enough, they're in a better position to dictate surrender terms to the large trade publishers than to self publishers like myself. If Amazon changes the rules such that I no longer want too play their game, I may lose over half my sales and a third of my after tax earnings, but I'll still make a living thanks to diversification. Large trade publishers are only seeing their dependence on Amazon grow. If Barnes & Noble announced plans tomorrow to install print-on-demand machines to print ALL of the books they sell at each store location to save on fuel, what large publisher could afford to say no? Well, replace Barnes & Noble in the previous sentence with Amazon and replace "save on fuel" with "better serve our customers" and the economic decision remains the same. If Amazon actually builds the capacity to print all of the books they sell, the large trade publisher will be faced with an existential question. If the choice is to sign on or have the Amazon playing field tilt against their titles, they'll be forced to sign. Amazon is their buyer who is too big to fail.

And why am I revisiting this topic today? Since Amazon announced that they are are rolling out in-house print-on-demand services in the UK last week, several publishers with books printed in the UK by Lightning Source have seen them go "temporarily out of stock" in the international Amazon stores. Considering that the lead line of Amazon's press release begins "POD titles are effectively always in-stock" it appears that Amazon may be trying to draw a branding distinction. If it's not Amazon POD, it's not POD. Strangely enough, the Amazon relationship with Lightning Source in the UK had worked like a charm for the previous six years, maybe somebody changed their mailing address.

I can't predict exactly how far into the future the day of reckoning will arrive for large publishers, but it's clear that Amazon can control the timetable with the pace of their investment in POD and Kindle. Speaking strictly as a reader, I would prefer a world where Amazon dictates the physical form of books to one where a small number of chain buyers and opinion makers dictates the content and artwork. Speaking as a self publisher, I'd prefer to have the small publishing world continue just as it is today, with Lightning Source providing a single source solution for zero inventory publishing that encompasses both regular bookstores and Amazon at home and overseas.

But the bottom line is that the future of the publishing industry can no longer be extrapolated from past performance. The business of printing and warehousing large numbers of books, distribution through wholesalers and distributors, cozy relationships between buyers and publisher reps, is on the decline. The Internet is the infrastructure on which the publishing world of the future will depend, not the offset printer. And eventually, the transition from a "print and warehouse" business to a "data warehousing and print" business will do more to hasten the rise of ebooks than all the pretty devices in the world.

Don't Play Business - Hunker Down And Write A Book

I don't remember ever quoting one of my own blog posts before, but as dusk and the time for reflecting on the year approaches with the Yom Kippur fast, I want to repeat a couple thoughts from the previous Kol Nidre:

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.

And in January I wrote about the approaching economic downturn and how publishers could act to recession proof their businesses:

But perhaps the main point I'd like to remind myself and my publishing friends of is to beware that knowledge has a time value. What we all "know" about publishing in the mid 1990's through mid 2000's time frame may no longer hold true going forward. I've been involved in small businesses as long as I've been working, almost 30 years now, and I've seen many a small business fail by sticking with their business plan despite changes in the market. The final nail in the coffin is often a desperate attempt to prop up the old business model with advertising. Don't panic because your publishing business stops growing, or even sees declining sales. Try to see your complete economic picture, and ask yourself if you're better off than you were five or ten years ago. If you keep producing quality titles and weather the down-turn, at some point in the future, you'll see windfall profits when the economy picks up. Unless, that is, you've shifted your entire title list to books about the end of capitalism:-)

My January prediction stagflation may prove to be correct, or we may be in for a sharper economic contraction, but in either case, don't expect the publishing business to escape unscathed. I've heard from a few of my regular publishing correspondents about their plans or worries for the waning of the business cycle, and I want to reiterate my basic small business advice. Don't spend money in the hope that it may come back to you multiplied several times over. That's called speculation, and it's a lot easier and far less time consuming to speculate on stocks than on book publishing. Hunker down, cancel your trip to the London or Frankfurt book fair, and write a new book. Writing a book won't cost you anything but your time, and if it keeps you at home rather than going out shopping or partying, it will help your economic position even if it never gets published.

Focus on your core business objectives. I heard from a publisher in Taiwan a couple weeks ago who was interested in buying the Chinese rights to my latest book. I sold the Chinese rights for an earlier title of mine last year, it was far more trouble than it was worth. So I took a pass, even though a rights sale means cash in the pocket. I don't have the energy of a 20 year old to work on my business 20 hours a day, so I'm not interested in chasing every opportunity to make a buck and getting distracted from my bread and butter business model.

While statistics don't mean much over small data sets, I've seen a clear drop off in my business over the past two weeks, as the newspaper headlines turned from merely depressing to bleak. When Americans actually cut back on credit card spending, it means that the economy is contracting. Some book retailers, particularly Amazon, may see continued if moderate growth thanks to the high price of gasoline making their free shipping more attractive than ever, and the ongoing closure of brick-and-mortar bookstores. But Amazon, in the end, is a credit card business, so their immunity may be illusory.

Since I wrote about knowledge having time value and staying open to new paradigms in publishing, I've pushed back into e-book publishing with results that surpassed my expectations. E-books have accounted for around 20% of my publishing revenue since summer, and have helped my business model regain some of the independence from Amazon that I lost when Barnes&Noble stopped stocking my most popular title. I've also cut down my Self Publishing Blog posting frequency to around once a week, as it's not central to my business model.

In any case, moderation does it. My own approach to fasting is to eat a cheese sandwich and drink a glass of water beforehand, which makes the fast so easy that I almost feel like I'm cheating. But for those readers who prefer the traditional stuff and starve approach, I'll leave you with a little eye candy:-)

Insight Into Self Publishing on YouTube

I've been posting my little video lectures about self publishing on YouTube for nearly a year now. YouTube does offer some publicly viewable information about the source(s) of the video views under the Statistics&Data tab, but it's limited compared to the data available to the channel owners when logged into their accounts. For example, the quick stats for my fonerbooks channel (accessed by clicking "account" at the top and not choosing any drop down items) shows:

Videos Uploaded: 22
Video Views: 26,955
Channel Views: 2,161
Subscribers: 35

Or in longhand, that my 22 videos have been watched a total of 26,955 times, that 2,161 individuals have clicked on my channel to check other videos, and that 35 people have signed up to be notified whenever I post a new one. But when I logged into YouTube yesterday, I saw a new option on the "account > My Videos" page called "YouTube Insight." Below is a screenshot of the main Insight data for my publishing channel for the past year:

The main takeaways are that my video are currently averaging a little over 80 views a day, that just over a third of the viewers are female, and that the vast bulk of viewers are in their productive professional years.

Next I'm going to show the YouTube Insight data for my new website, for which I promised to publish progress updates on this blog. The sad truth is it has already gone off-mission, as my plan for a general repair site has bogged down into endless work on the project car which was originally intended to give the site a narrative thread. The mechanical work I wanted to start with has all been pushed off until I finish repairing the unibody and installing new floors. But the new site does offer an interesting insight of its own into self publishing videos on YouTube.

In the past week, all of the viewers (as measured by YouTube) were between 18 and 44, with half as many female viewers as my publishing channel. In addition, the overall number of video views per day isn't that far below my publishing channel total, despite the fact that this website generates large numbers of publishing video viewers, while the website generates relative few viewers for the car repair videos. All of which tends to support the generally held view of YouTube, that its main audience is younger people, and that it's not generally seen as a source of specific professional information. Many of the little repair videos pick up a number of viewers on YouTube who are planning a repair themselves and are looking for How-To instructions. But relatively few people, especially in the demographic who watch my publishing series of videos, would go to YouTube and search for various publishing related phrases in hope of finding a video to watch. The publishing videos probably pick up a few viewers directly from search when they show up in Google results.

I'm a little disappointed that the little live action repair videos I knock out while working on the car attract nearly as many viewers as the publishing videos which I put a real effort into, including multiple takes and talking to myself. But it's important accept the various Internet publishing options for what they are, and not waste too much time trying to force the wrong content into a publishing platform just because it's available or popular. I also gained a little insight into my failure to find a wife and settle. Analyzed objectively, the problem must be that I'm sending out the wrong publishing signals for finding a nice Jewish woman within walking distance:-)

My other excuse for embedding this re-run video is to point out that it is embedded with the "Don't include related videos" option. So when the video finishes playing, YouTube doesn't display a bunch of related videos. I do this whenever I remember in order to combat video hijacking. I don't want a bunch of random videos from unknown pitchmen showing up on my web pages, especially when many YouTube videos are designed for that specific purpose.

Online Copyright Registration and Form CO (replaces TX, VA, etc)

With the Jewish New Year coming early next week, I figured I'd double post today and take a week off. Last month I wrote about unregistered copyrights and the benefits of registration. Today I'm writing about the electronic registration option the US copyright office has been pushing, and how badly it worked out for me. But I'm going to start the story at the end to save you all some time. Unless your work isn't published, is ONLY published electronically, or a published work that requires ID material only (generally artwork I believe), you can't submit an electronic deposit. Argg. An hour plus of fighting with their stupid forms has me talking backwards. To put it the other way, if you publish books, you're still gong to have to mail them two copies. So the only "savings" of electronic registration is that it's $35 instead of $45.

Being the owner of a website that's largely designed with 1995 vintage software, I'm usually the last person to criticize website aesthetics. Unfortunately, something just isn't "right" with the Electronic Copyright Office site. From low resolution button text that looks like it came off a 9-pin dot matrix, to truly weird and irregular navigation between screens and forms, it looks like it was designed by a committee of crack smoking librarians. This is worse than the old Bowkerlink site. It locked up a couple times, especially at the end when all of the data was entered, and didn't wake up for five or ten minutes at a time. At the final screen, it never woke up, I had to log in again and was thrilled to find they'd actually saved the forms under "working" documents.

But the copyright office is phasing out all the good old forms, such as the TX and short TX forms most publishers use, and the VA (Visual Arts) form that I used one to register a poster. They've mainly been replaced by Form CO - Application For Copyright Registration. I'm guessing the CO may stand for Copyright Office. But they encourage everybody to use the online electronic registration instead, so I gave it a shot. The screens you go through are somewhat unfamiliar to regular Form TX filers, but they follow along the new Form CO fairly closely.

The online navigation is somewhat bizarre. Help options in large type appear where you would expect action items, and you only figure out they are help options by reading the small print or clicking on them, thinking you are getting somewhere. The whole process for me went something like this (I took notes).

Start - select "register a new claim" from the menu to the far right.

On the "Start Registration" screen, select the type of work in the small checkbox at the bottom of the screen - everything else is help, then click the 9-pin dot matrix printed "Next" button AT THE TOP.

Select "New" at the top - sort of a filler confirmation page.

Input the Title Type and Title, "Save" (all buttons continue to appear at top).

Review screen, hit "Next."

The next screen asks if the work has been published, if you select "Yes", the screen morphs on its own with no further action.

After you fill out the publication details, you hit "Next". This is the only screen where I noticed a note at the bottom saying to hit "Next."

On the Authors screen, hit "New" to get started, "Save" to move on.

Fill out authors and contribution type, hit "Next."

Claimants screen offers the "Add Me" option, didn't notice if it was available for Authors, hit "Save."

Review claimants, hit "Next."

Limitation of claims screen refers to previous registrations. I had to fill this out, and got bounced the first time, screenshot shown:

If you have trouble reading the error, it states "If material excluded is selected, new material included must also be selected, and vise versa." Somebody should get an award for that error message. What it meant is that they wouldn't let me proceed without excluding material from the original while adding material from the new revision. I didn't stop to agonize over the logic, it's just a form, but I suspect the logic would be flawed in some instances.

Rights and permissions included a bunch of highlighted fields that normally mean "You must fill these in to continue" in online forms. I skipped the contact phone number fields, and it let me proceed, when I hit "Next."

Correspondent was a "Next" followed by Mail Certificate which was an "Add Me" "Next".

Special Handling is where you can get express service if you're in litigation, trying to get customs to deal with the import of an infringing work, or facing a a funky deadline. Passed on with a "Next."

On Certification, I checked that I was authorized and chose "Upload Electronic" assuming that was the whole point of the exercise. Waited five or ten minutes while it locked up with no progress.

On what appeared to be the final screen, the hourglass never went away so I couldn't "Add to cart". Who the heck came up with "Add to cart" for a copyright registration?

In any case, I eventually logged in again, paid with a credit card, and moved on to electronic upload, where I found the information I'd failed to find previously, namely, that I couldn't submit an electronic deposit for a published paperback book!

The interesting thing is that in an earlier part of the process, they had a help link for what works could be deposited electronically, that took me to the overall guidelines for the whole copyright process, where I couldn't find the information I gave you at the top of this post. So, I'll send off two copies of the book next week with the form I printed that shows the transaction ID. I suppose the big upside is if you're neurotic, you could log into the electronic copyright office site twice a day for the next six months to check for progress. I am neurotic, but not like that.

Publication Process Quotes and Agreements

A couple of questions have come in lately about outsourcing editorial and design work that aren't specific to self publishing. The latest was from an aspiring publisher who was concerned that a book designer, who was also a small publisher, would sneak his own ISBN into the book and thereby steal the revenue stream. I've heard of all sorts of frauds and rip-offs in the publishing world, but that would be a new one on me, and it's a basic business law issue. It did remind me that for many authors, self publishing a book is their first experience in business since selling scout cookies, and they may become overwhelmed with all the new relationships. Nearly all self publishers will at least contract with a printer and enter one or more distribution agreements, and most will outsource some part of the editorial and design components of the publication process.

An author who goes the full route of hiring an editor, copy editor, proofreader, cover designer and interior designer ends up with over a half dozen new business relationships. Some of agreements are take-it-or-leave-it deals offered by distributors or retail chains, where your only option to do business through that entity is to sign on the dotted line. But most outsourcing deals are undertaken without a formal contract, and in many cases, without even obtaining a written quote or establishing a scope of work.

The first rule in business is to get it in writing. It's not only a question of establishing a paper trail should the worst business outcome (a legal dispute) arise, it's also important for a good human outcome. Without a written agreement, even if it's just an exchange of e-mails, both parties will be relying on the memory as to what was said and what was intended by in a verbal agreement, and honest differences of opinion can result in disputes over thousands of dollars. A written quote, ideally one that includes a timetable and milestones at which the ongoing work must be reviewed and approved, limits the downside for both parties. No editor or designer wants to complete the work on a book only for the client to say, "That's not what I had in mind at all, I won't pay (or want my deposit back)."

The issue of scheduling is often overlooked in agreements, and I've stumbled over this one myself even when working with people I've previously employed. Anytime your publication schedule is dependent on outsourced labor, delays on the part of one individual can affect several other people whose own schedules may not be flexible. If your editor is running two months behind, that pushes back your copy editor, proofreader and typesetting start times by two months. Each of the people you've contracted to do that work may not be immediately available when their newly scheduled turn arrives, creating further delays. And while you can rough out an interior design for book without the final text, or design a near final cover (the spine width isn't final without the page count), it's easy to lose three or four months before you know what hit you.

So put it down on paper and maintain an open line of communications about the progress so you don't get blindsided with a "I haven't quite gotten started yet" phone call on the delivery date. When I was working for McGraw-Hill as an author, I used to fume over their slow publication process, even when they got it down around three months. These days I'm happy if I can get a book through my own publication process in three months, and that's really just editorial outsourcing since I do my own design work.

The following is a rerun of a mini-lecture on the outsourcing subject from last year:

Interview with Joe Wikert

Interview with Joe Wikert, Vice President and Executive Publisher of the Professional/Trade division of John Wiley & Sons, and author of the 20/20 Blog.

Do you see hardware readers (Kindle, Sony) as critical to increased industry ebook sales in the future, despite rapidly dropping laptop prices and increasing wireless Internet access?

Yes, I think the real momentum in this area is going to be from devices other than backlit-display computers. We’ve all had access to e-content on our computers for many years now and, despite advances in how that content can be presented, there’s little movement in the PC as a delivery platform. The problem comes down to not just portability (do you want to lug your laptop everywhere?) but also long-term readability. I find I can read from my Kindle for hours and hours with no eyestrain or discomfort, just like reading a print book/magazine/newspaper. Reading from a backlit computer screen, however, becomes uncomfortable for me after only about 5 minutes.

I'm a recent convert to PDF e-book publishing without DRM after years of offering more restrictive solutions, and in a couple months have netted sales in 35 countries. What are your own thoughts on DRM, and do you fear that less restrictive solutions could put large trade publishers in the shoes of music publishers?

I see the problems with DRM and I’m not a fan. That’s why two of the more recent e-content initiatives from my group at Wiley have been done without DRM (WROX Blox and Chapters on Demand). Although most publishers and authors don’t want to see their paid content released in the wild and being freely distributed, we need to focus more on our customers and less on the bad guys. I have yet to see a DRM solution that’s truly customer-friendly.

In a post on your own blog last summer, you expressed regrets about publisher websites being divided into catalog or personalities. My own view is what publisher websites lack (especially nonfiction publishers) is useful content, like draft books and original and useful supplementary material. Do you think publishers need to worry about giving too much away, or was your post primarily addressing the specific issue brought up on Booksquare?

My post was mostly a response to the insightful piece on Booksquare. You’re absolutely right that we (publishers) need to figure out how to add more and more content to our sites. What’s the compelling reason for customers to visit it if we’re not offering something more than catalog pages for our books? And no, I don’t think publishers should worry about giving too much away. We’re too far on the other end of the spectrum, focused on being way too protective and not willing to offer more content as a service to our readers. That’s one of the reasons I like the Smashwords model. It lets authors/publishers decide how much of the work is freely accessible, well before a penny is spent. If you want to make 90% of your book freely available Smashwords can accommodate.

You mentioned being impressed by Authonomy which to me looked a lot like an iPublish clone, the Time Warner website for manuscripts that dangled contract opportunities based on community voting and which lasted all of eight months back in 2001. Do you remember the iPublish fiasco and do you see Authonomy as doing something different, or just their timing being better? (I feel sorry for the smart guys who bet against house prices a year too early - they were right and they still lost a bundle).

I have to admit I don’t recall iPublish, but I wonder if it was simply ahead of its time. I don’t know what the HarperCollins expectations are for Authonomy but I think it’s a fantastic idea. First of all, it’s a great way to encourage up-and-coming authors to post their content and let others critique it. As a publisher I like that it creates yet another platform where new products are being built and tomorrow’s authoring stars might be found. Secondly, I’m a huge advocate of community-based web initiatives. Even if Authonomy never produces a hit title I’ll bet countless authors will get loads of valuable feedback (and encouragement) from the experience.

Vampire Bees and Disaster Books (I Told You So:-)

Fall is here, the stock market is wobbling, and the interview I had planned to post today is running late:-) All good publishers are turning their eyes to "I told you so" titles and disaster books, like "The Crash of 2008" and "The End of The Housing Economy." Most titles will blatant attempts to snatch low hanging fruit - any old tripe mixed in with public domain government statistics to fill out the space between the covers and leave readers with the satisfying bad feeling that they crave. I do my own economic ranting in a blog, but I've never been tempted to publish a "I told you so" title because I don't think those books help anybody. One day I might publish a title about managing personal finances in the hopes it might actually help a few people understand credit and savings, but it's a project I'll back my way into through web articles.

As publishers stampede to publish disaster books, I don't want to be totally left out, so I was thinking about doing a title on vampire bees. I think it would work on several levels, as vampire titles are extraordinarily popular, bees are in the news with colony collapse disorder, and bees are also a huge demographic group, although their limited access to credit may turn out to be a stumbling block. All of this would be pointless if I hadn't captured photographic proof of vampire bees at work in Massachusetts last week:

I'd hate to be the bee victim at the bottom of that feeding frenzy, I didn't stick around to find out. Another factor is that I already have a vampire fan club of sorts, though I worry she might be talking fang in cheek. On the practical front, vampire bees provide a simple explanation for colony collapse disorder that politicians can understand, so maybe I could get funding from the Farm Administration for my research. I think I'd start by buying a lot of honey and making sure it's still sweet.

The interesting thing about disaster books of all kinds is that it pays to have bad timing. For example, most people with common sense realized the country was in a housing bubble by 2003 or 2004 at the latest, but savvy investors lost billions of dollars betting too early on the collapse of the housing market. Being right doesn't translate into making money in the investing world, timing is everything. Disaster books, on the other hand, do best if they are published well before or well after disasters. Books about the housing bubble published in 2003 or 2004 did well with the pessimistic crowd and are getting a second life today. Books published as authoritative histories of the housing crisis will do well in a couple years. Disaster books aren't as news dependent as publishers think, it's impossible to get the timing exactly right and unless it's a how-to book, it's hardly a compelling buy for people who've had their life's blood sucked out by investment banking vampires.

In case you've actually read this far, I may as well throw in a serious warning about writing and publishing in an extended economic downturn. When businesses have a hard time attracting new customers, they try to maximize the revenue they earn from their current customers. In the author services business, where the worst publishers are no better than vampires preying on aspiring authors, this means multiplying the useless marketing and promotional services they offer. The only useful service you can purchase from and author services company is getting your book in print. Anything on top of that is blood poured in the gutter.

A POD Title Sales Life Cycle

Self publishers often ask me what kind of sales they can expect for their POD title. The answer is always "it depends", but I realize that most new publishers would like a little more data:-) Before we get to the data, let me give you the "it depends" part in brief bullet form.

1) Title sales depend on customer demand. If you publish a book nobody is interested in reading, it's a really hard sale.

2) Titles sales depend on marketing. If you publish a book that a tiny percentage of the population wants to read, but you have a way to reach a large proportion of them, you can sell a lot of books.

3) Title sales depend on availability. If you have a great book and great marketing but can't deliver through a sales channel your customers are willing to use, you're losing a lot of potential sales.

4) Title sales depend on the book meeting the customers expectations. If the book doesn't meet their expectations, it will get no word-of-mouth or reviews.

The image below shows the Ingram Distribution demand and sales for my second POD title (published in 2003), which I just replaced with a new edition. It shows just over five years of distribution sales for the book. It does not include my direct sales, ebook sales, overseas sales or school sales (unless they ordered through Ingram). It is also atypical for a large trade book, but the expected result for a niche title.

The first thing you'll notice is no initial demand! I did no advertising or promotions for this book and only launched the web version a few months before publishing the POD book. Consequently, the first full month it was available (July 2003), I sold all of 13 copies through Ingram distribution (sold more than that by direct mail order). If I was an acquisitions editor at a large trade publisher, I would have lost my job. The first five months the title was available it averaged well under a sale a day through Ingram, until the Christmas rush jumped it up to 86 copies in a month.

In 2004, the sales rate more than doubled as the website gained traffic and the book gained word-of-mouth and useful Also Bought and Better Together relations on Amazon. Sales through Ingram would have been over 1,000 for the year except there was a distribution snafu for Lightning Source books in September and October of that year, as you can guess from the sudden drop in what would normally be the beginning of the high season.

In 2005, the third year of the title's life, the sales rate through Ingram was more than triple the rate of the first year, and this despite the fact that 2005 was the record year for ebook sales of the title. I believe March 2005 was also the first time the Barnes&Noble warehouse laid in a stock of books from Ingram, but I didn't keep careful enough records to work it backwards.

In 2006, sales through distribution dropped a little, and I don't remember if it was due to the book losing many Also Bought and Better Together relations on Amazon due to a software problem on their platform, or new competition, of which there was always plenty. Amazon dropped Lightning Source ebooks halfway through 2006, effectively putting me out of the ebook business for the next two years, but the paper book received no sales bump from this, which leads me to believe that ebook and paperback book buyers on Amazon have limited overlap. I think this agrees with Amazon recent Kindle statements suggesting that Kindle owners buy more paper books.

So the title peaked in 2005, and drops off into remainder sales and obscurity, right? Not with POD. Even today, copies rarely come up for sale used, and never last long. The sales bounced back and 2007 may have been its best stocking year at Barnes&Noble, with the book appearing on the shelves at about one in four superstores that I checked. Sales for 2007 through Ingram set a record for the title, running at quadruple the sales rate of the first year.

In 2008, returns started coming in for the book, eventually reaching nearly 10% of sales. I believe the main source was from store shelves where the 2003 copyright date was becoming a turn-off for buyers and bookstore purchasing software alike. A couple of college instructors who use the book for a course text were also asking when a new edition would be available, so I finally published a new edition last month. As soon as the start of the school year has safely passed, I'll take the original edition out-of-print, so you can take the data above as the complete life cycle of the title through distribution. The 2008 year was on track to do around the same as 2006, and only time will tell if releasing new edition was premature and a long term mistake.

The title in question was a $14.95 book of diagnostic flowcharts, on which Foner Books netted approximately half the cover price on Ingram sales. I didn't add up the sales numbers above, but it looks to be a little over 6,000 copies, or about $45,000 in net through the Ingram channel. Over a quarter of those sales were generated directly through the Amazon Associates links on the Foner Books website. How many of the sales were generated indirectly through those links is unknown, but my guess is you could at least double the number, attributing over half of the Ingram sales to customers who ordered through a bookstore, or bought through Amazon after the Associates link lost track. Over the years, the website sent over 18,000 book shoppers to Amazon to look at the book. And since I never approached Barnes&Noble to stock the book, I believe that the two or three years they did stock it were thanks to walk in demand generated by the website.

A few concluding notes about the title to help you make comparisons. First, computer hardware books are a niche subject, and not a popular one. Over the five year life cycle give above, they became even less popular, so my title was really gaining market share in a shrinking market. I would estimate that between 2003 and 2008, my POD title was the #2 computer hardware book sold by Amazon, yet it didn't even average in the top 10,000 books for the last couple years. A few examples of other niche genres that sell as many or more books than computer hardware would be: root cellaring (far more:-), concrete garden ornaments (around the same), how to read books (far more), beer (around the same). In two of the examples given, the lead book averages in the top 1,000 on Amazon and was published more than fifteen years ago!

Back in 2004 I did a one year case study including a detailed month-by-month sales account of the first POD title I published, including direct mail order sales and UK distribution. That case study is also included in my title about POD publishing.