Interview with Brian Bischof of http://www.CrystalReportsBook.com
You took the traditional path to self publishing, printing books in quantity on offset. How large an initial print run do you go for, and where does that work out in cost?
Since I'm new to self-publishing, I had doubts whether I would sell any books at all. My first print job (Crystal Reports .NET Programming, ISBN 979-0974953655) was for 1,500 copies. When that sold out, I assumed that the book's life was nearing its end and did another 1,500 print job. I keep underestimating the demand and did this a total of five times. The book is now out of print b/c I'm releasing the update in two months.
The problem with using an offset printer is that I pay approximately $4,000 for setup costs and each book is a couple dollars on top of that. When considering the cost per book, you have to take into account that my books are 500-600 pages. Smaller books would be much cheaper to print (but you still have the $4,000 setup charge)
So I threw away a lot of money by doing too many print runs. If I would have anticipated demand properly, I would have done an initial print job of 5,000 copies and then did one more follow up run of 2 or 3 thousand. Someone told me that having too much demand is a good problem to have. I completely agree, but I cringe when I think about how I threw away $12,000 for no reason.
For my latest book (Crystal Reports Encyclopedia Volume 1, ISBN 978-0974953601), I knew to expect decent success, but it is in a much more competitive field now and one author in particular has dominated for the past five years. The odds that this book would be as successful as the previous was pretty slim. I did a print job of 3,000 copies. It's been out for exactly a year now and I sold 2,000 copies. I'll do a follow up print job of 1,500 or 3,000 copies again in a few months and let it fall out of publication. I'll replace it with a new edition early next year and print 5,000 copies.
I was told that my print costs are a bit on the high side and that there are cheaper offset printers that I could use. I agree, but I learned the hard way that you get what you pay for. My first printer had poor binding and I was getting bad reviews that my books were breaking at the spine. My second printer would repeat a block of pages and leave out another block altogether. More complaints and more headaches. I now use Malloy Printing and they have done a stellar job of printing my best quality books with no errors. I occasionally get emails from Indian printers saying that they can substantially reduce my printing costs via outsourcing. I shudder to think how bad this experience could turn out. Paying extra for a quality print job with worth every dollar.
Your cover designs have certainly evolved over the years. How important to you feel covers are, and do you have any suggestion for author/designers.
My first attempts at a cover design were done with MS Word. They were truly laughable. After doing some research on the web, I found www.BookCoverPro.com software which lets you design your own book covers. I downloaded the free trial, really liked it, and bought it for $187. It had built-in templates that made designing the cover a breeze. I was really happy with my cover now. I also found many stock photography websites that had great high-res images that I could buy for less than $5 and get full rights to reprint them. Why spend a thousand dollars for a graphic designer when all these cheap tools are on the web?
When I was finished with the cover design, I sent it to my printer for review. They rejected it because there were problems with the software mixing RGB and CMYK colors together. This was a major problem and I had to quit using BookCoverPro and switch to Photoshop b/c it handles CMYK colors great (of course). Unfortunately, BookCoverPro was so simple and Photoshop is one of the hardest programs I ever learned to use. I spent hours Googling for the smallest tip. It was a huge struggle to re-produce my cover with Photoshop. After everything was finalized, I got an update from BookCoverPro.com that they had fixed all the CMYK bugs and that the software was compatible with offset printers now. Great. After struggling through Photoshop and pulling my hair out, I highly recommend BookCoverPro as the easiest way to create professional covers.
A couple tips I have for cover design:
First, don't use competing colors. I thought that my first cover looked pretty good, but after it was printed I realized that the spine had black text on a dark blue background. It looks good on my computer monitor, but on the bookstore shelves I could barely read the book's title. For the second printing I switched the text to yellow so that it really stands out. Be certain that the color scheme of your background image lets the text be clearly read.
Second, use your software to see what the image looks like as a thumbnail. Many people buy books from Amazon and they will only see your book cover as a thumbnail on Amazon's site. Make sure that the title is big enough to read when the cover size is shrunk down to a 1 inch square.
The traditional self publish route requires a distribution deal and warehousing. Can you describe your current setup and how you arrived at it?
I originally sold all my books via Amazon's Advantage program. I was happy to have a way to sell my books, but it was frustrating at the same time. Amazon typically sells books at a 20-30% discount, but this isn't available for authors in the Advantage program. I had to price my books cheaper than my competitor so that I would hit a similar price point without the discount. This cost me a lot of money. Secondly, they are very slow about requesting new orders and my book was consistently out of stock. By accident, I discovered that I could send them more books than they ordered and they would still take them. So I just always shipped more than they wanted and I didn't have any more stocking issues.
I got really tired of going to the post-office every few days and I searched for a distributor. I found out that distributors will only work with people who have a solid sales record. For new authors, this means that you have to start out by selling the books yourself and if you can rank in the top 10,000 on Amazon then they will take you. I don't know if this is a hard and fast rule with every distributor, but it was what I was told at the time.
My distributor is Independent Publishers Group (www.ipgbook.com) because one of their sales teams is focused on the technical book market. They warehouse all my books in Chicago and get them distributed to book stores internationally. They also take care of marketing my books to major chains and at book shows worldwide. They charge 28% of Net. Oh yeah - using them also gets me the standard discount at Amazon.com and I can price my books higher and still be competitive. This helps offset their 28% fee.
I've been very happy with IPG. The only problem I have is that they have very strict requirements for filing new titles and release dates into their system almost nine months in advance (so they can market them for the next year). Personally, I have no idea when I'm going to publish my next book and I have to make all this up. Thus, I never meet any of my publishing deadlines and I keep making changes to the book info. Definitely not good.
The dream of all website owners is recurring revenue, and you're having success publishing some of your work in serial form on a subscription blog. What trade-offs have you encountered in going this route, and do you see it supplanting your paper book sales as a income source in the future?
The hardest part of creating an online membership site for my books was figuring out how to get my existing books onto the web. I have over 1,000 pages in MS Word that I need to convert. I could export them to HTML, but I don't like plain HTML pages. I like the blog format because it gives me a chance to have a one-on-one conversation with my members. They can post comments on each part of the book and I can respond. Having this two-way interaction will be key for keeping customer satisfaction high and getting them to renew their subscription. I looked all over the web for a way to convert Word to WordPress (the blog software). There are a few tools out there, but they are terrible. They lose all your formatting and don't have a way to split a long chapter into multiple blog posts. This was critical for me. Since I'm a geek who writes programming books, I decided to build my own converter. My tool works great and allows me to keep my book in MS Word format and quickly export new content to WordPress. I even debate whether I should sell this tool, but I'm behind on so many projects that I can't imagine adding another one to my plate.
Having my books online via a subscription model has some major benefits. First, of course, is that I make money every month for almost no money out of my pocket besides the basic web hosting fees. You can never go out of stock on the web! Secondly, it opens my market to the entire world because the paperback version of my book isn't available in every country.
The software I use to handle memberships is www.aMember.com and I use PayPal to handle the credit card transactions. I spent almost $200 to buy the aMember software and it was money well spent. It makes managing members a piece of cake and they installed the software on my server for me. Sweet! Unfortunately, the built-in reports are terrible. Some of the data isn't accurate and some of the stats just don't make any sense to me (and I build reports for a living). Bad reports aside, I still recommend the software. It doesn't have much competition in this area and there are a ton of features that makes it easy to have a membership site.
I've been disappointed with PayPal for processing my credit card transactions. I found out that many people just don't like paying via PayPal. I have no idea why because you don't need a PayPal membership to complete a transaction. People have emailed me saying that they are simply against using PayPal (for reasons beyond me). When people see the PayPal logo on my site they leave. I'm now looking at replacing PayPal with using CCBill.com. They work internationally and they also integrate with the aMember software I use. They charge 14% per transaction (ouch!), but they make it easy to process credit cards and they support recurring charges. Authorize.net looks pretty good, but they don't support recurring transactions and this is key to having long-term revenues. If using CCBill increases my memberships by 30%, then this will more than justify the 14% transaction charge.
Another downfall of having my book on the web is that there is no index. A great technical book has to have an equally great index b/c you need to look things up quickly. On my subscription site I don't have an index. I could add this feature to my converter tool, but it would be an enormous amount of work to perfect it. The blog does have a search feature, but this just doesn't compare to having a well prepared index. So I'm very disappointed that I can't give people an index to make my site easier to use.
I think that putting my books on the web in a blog format is a fantastic way to generate more income from my books. Since I've only had the membership site up for four months, I still have a lot to learn about my users as well as the options available to me. But, it's an exciting process!