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 They've mainly been replaced by Form CO - Application For Copyright Registration.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.

Building Website Equity vs Missionary Zeal

Publishing is a business, or at least, that's always been the theme of this blog. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to self publish that don't involve a profit motive, but you don't need my advice on how to write a check. This post comes as the result of some recent news items and articles, not my usual fodder, so we'll dispose of them as quickly as possible. But let's start with new video about growing your website:

First, I read an article in one of the publishing newsletters that an organization sends me for free (I assume they print extra) advising readers to beware of online experts. That's an old subject with me, how he stretched it for a magazine article I'm unsure, but the ironic thing is I had no idea who the writer was or what he had done to make him an expert on online experts. Perhaps the only segment of the U.S. manufacturing industry to show stellar growth in recent decades is the manufacturing of experts, and I'm personally in favor of exporting the ones I don't agree with to help with the balance of trade.

Second, I read an article about the value of different types of web traffic in one of the glossy publisher magazines. The author posited that the best traffic to get is direct traffic (bookmarks, people remembering your website name and typing it in the browser), followed by referrals from other sites (links) with visitors from search coming in last. I believe that author had plenty of experience, but I also believe he is exactly wrong when it comes to publisher websites.

There are several problems with direct traffic, not the least of which is the number of false positives if you go by server statistics packages, but the primary problem being that direct traffic amounts to regular visitors to your site. If you're running a newspaper, maybe that's what you're after, but if you're selling books, how many times do you think you can sell the same person the same book? You can go nuts building visitor loyalty with all sorts of services and gimmicks, but for my money, you're buying friends rather than converting strangers.

Traffic from referral links remains the middle ground with us both. Links can bring in high quality visitors, and some of them stay on my site quite a while. But it can also bring visitors who just like clicking on links and cruising around the web, as opposed to people seeking something specific. While search delivers all sorts of people, many whom have been misaddressed and punch out instantly, search also delivers the highest proportion of people who are looking for an answer to a question. Some sites are 100% focused on trying to sell answers, my own philosophy has always been to give away as many answers as I can for free and hope that interests visitors in a book that may answers to questions they haven't thought of asking yet. I'm not claiming that my soft sell is the most efficient way to run a publishing website, but it works for me.

The final news item was a Friday story in the WSJ announcing that Microsoft had purchased Greenfield Online for just under $500 million. The value of Greenfield is a comparison shopping site they own in Europe that attracts 26.5 million visitors a month, though it isn't entirely clear if that's unique visitors or includes return visits. It comes to $18.34 per visitor per month, and if I used that math to value the equity in my FonerBooks website, it would be worth several million dollars. I'm waiting for offers:-)

The point being, even if millions aren't within your grasp or mine, a popular website can build serious equity value over time, probably more than the backlist for a small or medium sized publisher. And you would think that websites created by publishing experts would build great equity for their owners over time. So why do you regularly see publishing pundits closing down or abandoning their blogs and moving on with their lives? I think there are two reasons: the failure to build website equity and the passing of missionary zeal. Giving myself and fellow bloggers the benefit of the doubt, I think the passing of missionary zeal is the larger motivation in the shuttering of top publishing blogs and websites. For better or for worse, I'm not entirely out of zeal yet, though I'm going to try to stick with my reduced posting frequency going forward.

But I think the failure to build website equity is real reason for many, in terms of both long term value and monetization through book sales or advertising. Now replace the word "equity" with "traffic" and you'll reach the crux of the matter. Publishing blogs and publisher self-help sites just don't get much traffic. I spent a half hour or so looking at Quantcast estimates of traffic to various publishing blogs and websites (try it, it's fun), and realized that none of the sites I considered great successes had a lot of traffic. Some of the slickest blogs, with professional artwork and multiple bloggers barely had enough visitors to even show up on the radar of Quantcast, Google Trends (Websites tab) or the improved Alexa, and had very limited subscription bases as well. I'm not naming any of them here because they may prefer not to have the harsh realities of math messing up their good feelings about their work. My own feelings were inured a long time ago when I realized that my last couple years of blogging about self publishing haven't done much of anything to add to my daily visitor count, simply spread them out a little more thinly.

Interestingly enough, the publishing related websites that do get a lot of traffic are the ones that sell author services. Some of that traffic is from paid advertising, but a lot of it is from their forums, as they have tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of their own authors signed up. And a lot of that traffic (their best kind) comes from the fact that most writers aren't searching for advice, they're searching for a way to get their book in print quickly. I've never spent time on any of those forums, but it would be hilarious to find an author services company monetizing their forums by selling advertising for other author services companies.

So my advice to new publishers today is to avoid blogging about the publishing process at all costs! No, I'm not worried about the competition, I get plenty of that from my own blog posts of prior years. It's a question of focusing your efforts where you can expect the greatest return. If you're publishing books about publishing, go ahead and blog about it or build a publishing oriented website, but if you're publishing books about anything else, focus your efforts on the subject and not the process of publishing the books. Do your homework with Google Trends (phrases) as to how people really use search engines before you make any final decisions about the focus of your web publishing efforts. And don't let your final decision be the last nail in your website's coffin, a new direction is only a click away.