Internet Sell-Through For Publishers with Websites

If a publisher built a website that drew everybody in the world on one day, it would crash. Whether or not it would sell some books for the publisher before crashing depends entirely on why the visitors were arriving. The sell-through for most websites is a closely guarded number because publishers don't want their competition knowing what's hot or learning from the efficiency data for the book selling platform. That's because copying is a time honored tradition in the trade industry. New publishers have trouble building websites that attract any visitors at all, but experienced publishers have trouble building websites that sell books. When you're getting visitors to your website and not selling books, or not selling as many books as you'd like, the tendency is to redesign your order flow or shopping cart to see if a little tweak here or there will double sales. But I've found that online book buyers are willing to jump through modest hoops to buy a book, so a minor tweak in the sales pitch or process will rarely make much difference. The key to a publishing website with good sell-through is attracting the right visitors in the first place and not unselling them once they've arrived.

The graph below shows sales for my latest ebook plotted against the number of visitors per day for an online excerpt from that book. The normal organic traffic for that page, primarily from search engines, has been steady at around a hundred visitors a day for the past six months. But a couple weeks ago, somebody tagged it as a page of interest on StumbleUpon, a sort of social networking or collaborative page ranking service. The problem with visitors from sites like this is that they are almost never looking for the particular book or information that is getting attention, it's more of a passing interest, a sort of internet windows shopping. My websites occasionally get these surges in visitors from casual visitors on a guided tour of some Internet segment, and the sell-through averages out to zero percent.

The page that normally draws a hundred visitors a day started drawing thousands of visitors a day from StumbleUpon alone. On some days, these visitors outstripped the total number of visitors from all other sources to all of the topics on my website. But sales of the ebook actually went down during this period, which can hardly be the fault of window shoppers, since there weren't enough of them to get in the way of the real buyers by crashing the site. What happened in fact is an excellent example of polluted data:-) At the same time that this traffic surge was occurring, the paperback version of the book was released, and on 6/16, I began promoting it on the website. I didn't remove the "buy" links for the ebook, I simply channeled most potential buyers through another page that included information about the paperback. Ebook sales crashed, and after a week I gave up and went back to sending everybody who expressed an interest in the ebook directly to the ebook ordering page. Sales jumped right back to the long term average of between two and three ebooks per day.

Selling visitors on the idea of buying an ebook for instant download anywhere in the world and then distracting them with a more expensive paperback that would take days or weeks to arrive is not a minor tweak to the ordering process. I was literally unselling some visitors who had made up their minds to purchase the ebook. The right visitors are a precious commodity for publishers, which is why it's important that somebody in your publishing company keeps an eye on the server statistics as well as the sell-through for order pages. And don't jump to conclusions based on raw data without understanding the context. If I was a manager running the fonerbooks website and didn't know about the paperback being released and promoted, I would have assumed that casual visitors were somehow depressing sales, rather than just the sell-through. Remember, sell-through depends on the total number of potential buyers, and by including a huge number of window shoppers in the total, the sell-through number is artificially brought low.

The only real measure of how well your website is performing its marketing function in selling your books is to keep an eye on the bottom line. This may be frustrating to webmasters or hired SEO guns who can "prove" to management that the website is humming on all cylinders, but if it's not selling books for the publisher, it's just another expense. I talked about this in a video last winter, which I'll embed here again for anybody who missed it.

Publishing Ebooks with E-Junkie and PayPal

Time for another update on my new and revised ebook business. As I reported in an earlier post, my initial problems with customers not seeing the download link on e-junkie and sometimes losing the confirmation e-mail to spam filters was my fault. The fix was letting e-junkie show their "Thank You" page which includes a download link, rather than my own thank you page, which I'd set up years before for selling books direct with PayPal. Since I made the change last month, the sales process has been nearly flawless, I think I've only had to send one follow-up asking why the customer hadn't downloaded the ebook yet.

I just did a quick scan through my e-junkie account reports, and I can already count ebook customers in 18 foreign countries. The list now includes: Japan, Bermuda, Australia (8), Mexico, Sri Lanka, Netherlands (3), Ireland (3), Cyprus, France, United Kingdom (13), Italy, Honduras, New Zealand, Canada, Chile, Brazil, Austria and Saudi Arabia. It seems to me that in my first month selling ebooks, the split between the US and overseas sales was around 50/50. It's now running around 75/25 in favor of the US. I'm not sure what caused the change, perhaps statistical insignificance, perhaps a change in the wording of my sales links.

The business model of publishing ebooks is remarkably similar to publishing print-on-demand books in one obvious way. While publication takes place when the first copy is sold, or made available to potential customers, the publishing process doesn't involve the creation of stock or warehousing. A single electronic copy is all that the publisher need produce, after which the customer copies are generated by electronic reproduction or printed on demand. Since the books I publish are nonfiction how-to books, rather than literary keepsakes, I'm not married to the idea of killing and grinding up trees for the sake of being a book publisher rather than an ebook publisher.

In the case of my latest book, the ebook is priced at $13.95 and the 191 page paperback (8.25" x 11") at $24.95. An attempt to promote the paperback version immediately led to a crash in ebook sales. I only pushed hard for a week, but I easily lost two ebook sales for each paperback sale generated. That doesn't jive well with my previous ebook experience, where the ebook sales and the paperback sales seemed to be tapping two distinct markets. But there are some fundamental differences with this book as compared with my previous ebook releases. First, the ebook and paperback aren't priced the same. Second, the paperback version on Amazon falls just under the free shipping amount, so customers who are initially attracted to Amazon may get halfway through the buying process and then decide to put it off (forever) because of the shipping cost. When I went back to emphasizing the ebook sales over the paperback sales on my website, the ebook sales bounced right back to where they left off. But the relative shortage of paperback sales may also be influenced by the Slow Tail sales cycle, the idea that a good proportion of customers simply take time to make up their minds. Maybe I'll see a handful of paperback sales this week based on last week's promotion.

Another interesting point about ebook sales vs print-on-demand or offset published distribution sales is the additional visibility into the customer base. My print-on-demand books sales are generally more trackable than regular offset printed sales would be, yet I can only estimate where the books are selling by comparing Amazon and sales ranks with Ingram sales reports. With the ebooks, I know where each and every copy is going and with a little more work, I could determine exactly which page on my website generated each sale. Unless things change, I can heartily recommend e-junkie for publishers looking for a download solution for their ebooks that ties in easily and painlessly with a third party payment system, like PayPal.

Writing as Obsession, Niche, Commercial or Next Big Thing

Passion for a subject is a great reason to write about it and all the reason you should need to launch a website. But if you see writing and publishing as a path to financial independence or a second income, it's important to consider how far you can go before you start the journey. New or planned publishing websites can be categorized by their potential into four loose groups, which I'm labeling: obsession, niche, commercial and the next big thing. Assigning your planned website and book to one of these four categories is tricky, and certainly doesn't guaranty that you'll fail or succeed in your goals, but should help you manage your expectations and investment.

Writing about your obsession serves an end unto itself, but if nobody shares that obsession, it's hard to see how you're going to draw readers. There may be rare, rare cases where your personal attributes or writing are just so superior to the run-of-the-mill that people would sign up in droves to read about your summer watching a snail move down your garden path. Maybe once a month somebody in the world hits it big for a day with the equivalent of snail TV out of the millions who try. If you search the web for the subject that you're writing about, and the most popular sites related to that subject don't show a dozen incoming links, it's the opposite of popular.

Niche subjects are those that draw enough interest to support a couple of titles on Amazon, but which don't draw tens of thousands of visitors a day as websites. A small niche site may draw a hundred or so visitors a day, and if the site is compelling and the subject is commercial, can help a publisher sell a couple books a day. But niche subjects are also tricky, as a topic that can draw serious traffic on a website may fail to convert into significant book sales due to the subject or reader demographics. Niche books work well when the subject is perceived as having depth, as being worthy of purchasing a book. But take a niche subject like airport parking options. It might work great as a website, drawing people from all over the country or the world checking the parking situation at their departure airport, but a very limited audience would be willing to buy a reference book on the subject.

Commercial websites for publishers are those that can draw enough visitors that they create their own business opportunity. If you have a very popular website, you can sell advertising, sell merchandise, even sell subscriptions to walled-off resources. You don't need to bring out a book to monetize your web publishing efforts, and in some cases, that book would have very little chance of selling. Any site that shows up in the top 10,000 on Alexa or Quantcast, or draws 10,000 visitors a day from Google, can usually be considered a commercial website.

If I knew how to create a website that would be the next big thing, I'd be working on that rather than sticking with this self publishing blog, which is more of an obsession than anything else. Creating a website that will draw hundreds of thousands of visitors a day has more to do with knowing people than with knowing the web. My suggestions about using the available tools to estimate the potential for a website just don't apply to the next big thing, which has no related sites until after it arrives and establishes itself. But that makes doing your homework all the more important, because if you dream is to create the next big thing, you aren't going to do it with something that a hundred other websites have already worked out.

Interview with Bob Skilnik

You've been around the publishing block a few times, working with trade publishers, subsidy presses, and an agent. What's got you looking at self publishing for your tenth title?


Like it or not, once you sign a contract with a trade publisher, you lose control of your own work. Authors-to-be will often naively ask how that can happen; after all, it's your book. Publishers, however, go through the mechanics of getting a book published and will typically have a better idea of what needs to be done in getting the book from manuscript to publication. That's why, at least for your first book, I'd subscribe to the idea of NOT self-publishing. With one book under your belt, and with the publisher sort of holding your hand during the entire process, you have a better idea of what to expect with your subsequent efforts. For a new author, it's a learning experience. Take the disadvantage of not being as savvy as a trade publisher and turn their experiences into a positive publishing event, a learning experience for you.

If you have a couple of books in you and you're still uncomfortable with striking out on your own with book two, I'd hesitantly suggest that you try a subsidy press, something that's usually described incorrectly as a POD publisher...1st Books, something like that. There comes a point however, where you'll begin to see what it really takes to sell a book, whether its through a trade publisher or a subsidy publisher. It's really the efforts of the author---especially aggresive marketing--- that makes the difference. At that point, true self-publication, going through someone like Lightning Source, is the next logical step. You've given up control of your earlier efforts; now it's time to regain control of your efforts and use the learning experiences of your initial fling(s) with a trade publisher or a subsidy press. You could jump right into self-publishing, but if you don't know what you're doing, your not helping yourself by trying to be independent, to have control. You might even hurt your book sales by blindly plodding through the process of getting your book to market.

I think some seasoned authors will never try self-publishing because they get too comfortable with having a literary agent shop their manuscript and become content with the agent getting them a nice little negotiated advance. From then on, the publisher still makes most of the decisions on the book, not the author. If the authors are lucky, they'll also enjoy a brief window of marketing efforts by their publisher and then realize that the acquisition editor or the marketing contact isn't calling like she/he used to. You're on your own.

With self-publication, how-to guide books written by people like Morris Rosenthal, and companies like Lightning Source, experienced authors have the opportunity to make the next logical step in doing a self-publishing approach and regaining control of their efforts.

Did you have a career in brewing before moving to journalism, or did you jump into writing immediately after studying brewing technology?

I studied brewing in order to build a background for the opening of a brewpub. I knew I also needed restaurant experience. After completing my studies and establishing a small deli in Chicago, dealing with 70 hour work weeks, meeting payroll and trying to pay vendor bills on time, I came to the conclusion that it might be cheaper to write about beer rather than making it on a professional level. I had already established industry contacts during my "beer school" tenure so starting out my writing profession, centered around the themes of beer and brewing, seemed to be a logical step.

Your websites, and magazine journalism give you great head start a platform for self publishing, but you've also been successful at getting TV and radio exposure. Have you been able to work out which of these has done the most to help sales of your previous books?

I'm a firm believer in using well-written news releases in generating interest in what I do. I say "news releases" because too many people use press releases to blatantly promote their efforts rather than truly offer the media what they really want---news. I also like to piggyback one book on another work. If customers like one of your books, they might be willing to invest their time and money in something else you've done.

Do you actively seek to opportunities to do interviews or offer expert commentary in broadcast media, or do you just respond to media requests? If you do market yourself to media, do you pay for a listing in one of the subscription resources for speakers and experts, or do you work your contact directly?

I've never paid for publicity. My first book was about Chicago's old brewing industry, taking a wide historical approach of how the brewing industry influenced Chicago's economic, political and social developments. That approach gave me crossover with people interested in Chicago's early history. Since my Chicago history approach was so unique, and because I'm the only one to have written about the brewing industry, I've got a list of future speaking engagements at local libraries, historical societies---including a stint with a traveling program by the Smithsonian---that broadens my appeal beyond people simply interested in the old Chicago brewing industry. I've also done consulting and organized focus groups for advertising agencies that work with breweries that are trying to stimulate sales in the Chicagoland area. Because I also took a historical look at past beer advertising and marketing efforts in Chicago, I was the person to turn to for a historical analysis of what has worked---and not worked---in beer advertising in Chicago. I did a follow-up edition called "BEER: A History of Brewing in Chicago" that has solidified my reputation as the "Chicago beer history guy" and this book is my ticket to local lectures---paid lectures---where I also sell my books.

I also did two books a few years ago that had widespread commercial appeal. These were deliberate attempts on my part to go beyond the niche of Chicago beer history or Chicago history in general. I broadened these two efforts towards the then hot low-carbohydrate trend, and using my brewing industry contacts, gathered the carbohydrate content on more than 1,000 beers, 400 wines and scores of liquors and liqueurs. Along with a strong news release campaign and a lot of follow-up e-mails and telephone calls, I found myself on ABC's "The View," ESPN2 and the FOX News Channel as the "beer guy" or the "Low-Carb Bartender," reflecting a title of one of my books. I must have done 100 radio interviews in a peiod of about three months, many of them national, some with Canadian programs and even a few in Europe. I even received a call from brewer Anheuser-Busch to fly out to St. Louis. They were about to go public and correct the misleading assumptions about beer, promoted by a famous diet book author, and wanted my input on beer, carbohydrates and how to work the moderate consumption of beer into a low-carbohydrate diet.

I used this momentum at the time to become a columnist for a glossy-page national magazine, adding this job to my pile of freelance writing jobs for the "Chicago Tribune" and national magazines like "Draft." When you're "hot," one thing leads to another. I still get calls or e-mails a few times a month for one-on-one interviews about beer or booze in general, or as a contributor in a boozy story that utilizes input from a number of people. I recently was asked to comment on a story for, for instance.

During the research of my last book, "Beer & Food: An American History," I sent an e-mail out to The Boston Beer Company for some beer-related food recipes and wound up with brewery owner Jim Koch doing a book intro for me. It's amazing what can happen if you simply ask for some help.

I've tried trade publishers, subsidy presses, and publishing with an agent and without one. I now have the kind of established platform that has encouraged me to put the finishing touches on another book with nationwide commercial appeal. I've kept a record of all my media contacts, and when I release this new book in the fall, the news releases and upcoming Internet efforts will pave the way in creating buzz about the book.

I also have a blog, that links back to other websites that I've let fall into disarray, but their presence on the Internet still keeps my name out there. In preparation for the new book, I'll be spinning off another website that will be heavy on instructional video presentations (vlogs) and podcasts.

I just wish that I had begun my writing career twenty-five years instead of getting started with an article in the "Chicago Tribune" back in 1997. It was this 1,000-word piece that gave me the impetus to jump full time into writing.

The Leading Amazon Expert and Analyst

In an earlier post about the publishing jungle, I made it clear that I'm in no position to judge the legality of corporate actions. An argument can certainly be made that in today's global economy, with sovereign wealth funds, public pension funds and private equity firms wielding cash like a weapon, a large corporation that fails to establish a dominant position in its industry can expect to be bulldozed. This weekend's news that the largest publisher in the UK is now pushing back against Amazon's pricing demands is being read by many as a sign that Amazon may have advanced a bridge too far. But I've been following Amazon for ten years, and have probably written as much about their growth and numbers as anybody. So for those who are trying to read the tea leaves for what's in publishing's future, I think I can declare that the leading Amazon expert and analyst is - Jeff Bezos.

I believe in the cowboy movie line, that sometimes, if you just listen carefully to what a man says, he'll tell you exactly what he's going to do. This has certainly been the case with Steve Riggio's drive to vertically integrate Barnes&Noble by publishing a growing share of the books that they sell, and it's always been the case with Jeff Bezos. Jeff has always made clear that Amazon was first and foremost about growth, and he's been prescient, as the growth numbers for Amazon North American Media Sales the last five years show:

2003 +14%
2004 +14%
2005 +18%
2006 +15%
2007 +23%

Jeff has also been saying for years that Amazon is "comfortable being misunderstood" which is another way of saying, he's not afraid to break a few eggs. Lately, Jeff has been talking about the centrality of Kindle to the future of books and Amazon, and I don't think he's kidding. Reading between the lines of both recent Amazon actions and their earlier run of acquisitions, I'm more convinced than ever that they want to become that dominant player in the publishing world whom none can gainsay. That would be a great thing for Amazon shareholders if they can pull it off, but how it would affect the rest of the publishing ecosystem depends on whether or not you think that central electronic storage, reproduction and sales of most trade books is somehow inevitable. I don't think that it's inevitable, but I do think it's probable if Amazon manages to divide and conquer any trade publishing opposition through a misunderstood application of carrots and sticks.

Many small publishers feel their hands are entirely tied by Amazon, which they rely on for the majority of their income. My own publishing business doesn't have that reliance on Amazon, part by plan and part by fortune, and I have as much sympathy for the medium and large trade publishers as for my own peers in this dust up. Publishers that have multi-year leases on buildings, large payrolls, bank debt and even stockholders to whom they must answer, can't make business decisions based on feelings or hunker down in the basement. With a few notable exceptions, like Microsoft, large corporations can't drop a customer that makes up 20% of their business and not immediately cut 20%+ of their employees and operations to compensate. Large companies are all about scale, and loss of scale often means loss of an independent existence. A large publisher who shuns a shotgun marriage with Amazon may disadvantage itself amongst its own peers to the extent that it becomes lunch. Amazon is the world's largest book retailer, and that's saying something in an industry with a limited number of large players. If the large trades want to stand up to Amazon without breaking the law by colluding or forming a cartel, they'll have to do it based on faith in a common goal and the sort of follow-the-leader tactics airlines use to raise seat prices.

The bottom line on this father's day is how the big trades will respond to the question: "Who's your daddy?"

I suspect the answer for most will be "Amazon".

Why Self Publish When You Can Sign A Trade Contract

I just took a moment to search all of my recent blog posts, and was surprised to find that I haven't been writing much about the reasons to self publish lately. Maybe it's because I spend so many keystrokes writing about how to self publish, or the drawbacks of self publishing. The funny thing is, in person, I usually recommend self publishing to working trade authors. But when writers contact me through my website with their questions, it's frequently apparent that self publishing is unlikely to be the solution to their particular puzzle. It's rarely a road to fame and riches, and the energy spent trying to achieve fame and riches through self publishing might be more efficiently applied elsewhere.

The best reason to self publish books is because you've studied the publishing industry and decided that self publishing is the path that will most likely bring you a steady income and satisfaction in your work. It's also the least common reason people cite when asked why they decided to self publish. In fact, the few authors I can remember telling me that they had studied the publishing industry and decided to self publish because they would make the more money for less hassle were basing their arguments on the advertisements of author services companies!

Not surprisingly, the authors in the best position to weigh the pros and cons of self publishing against signing a trade publisher contract are authors who have already worked for trade publishers. But most authors who write for trade publishers earn advances and develop an "I get paid upfront" attitude that makes self publishing look very unattractive to them. I can't make an argument in favor of bestselling authors self publishing their literary fiction or nonfiction because I don't think it makes much sense. Bestselling literary authors get the best book contracts and other perks that should discourage them from going to the expense of setting up their own publishing companies, unless they aim to publish other authors books as well. An unhappy bestselling author is probably better off changing publishers than changing careers.

The authors who would likely benefit the most from self publishing are those who are in the worst position to give it a try; the hand-to-mouth writers who rather than advancing in their careers are spinning a squirrel cage to keep up with the bills. The problems keeping those authors from breaking through with some titles that would have a reasonable shelf life and contribute to the author's income and peace of mind over the long term are sometimes their publishers problems. Assigning or accepting book projects that have limited market opportunities because the publisher is risk averse is a major issue. Trade publishers have a need for product, and they will stick with reliable (ie, deadline meeting) authors whose books don't embarrass them, but which rarely sell enough copies to earn the author more than the advance. It's a tough way to make a living, and because such authors aren't all that difficult to replace, a single misunderstanding or shift in publisher personnel may leave the author out in the street.

Laying aside all of the complications of going into business for yourself and all the downsides of working for "the man", the question comes down to how much the publisher is really doing to sell the author's books. If the publisher's marketing effort is limited to listing the books online and getting them a brief stint on some chain shelves, the author is giving up the majority of the title's revenue for some design and editorial services that could be outsourced to freelancers. If the publisher is employing the author for titles in strongly branded series that pay five figure advances, it may be that the author has benefited greatly from the association. But it's important for trade authors who aren't advancing in their careers to at least look at their options in self publishing. If they're afraid of trade publishers noticing and adding them to a blacklist, I've never heard of such a thing, but there's always the mighty pen name.

Online Fiction Contests

I've been thinking about running a contest for web published fiction, so I've been doing a little research. If you want to have some fun, try Googling "fiction contest" and "canceled" or any variants thereof. It seems that launching fiction contests online and them canceling them for a wide variety of reasons is at least as common as continuing them through to the prize awards. The reasons for cancellation vary from prosaic (lead judge required back surgery) to the failed next generational plans of the major trades and agents. Some educational institutions run contests for young writers that are paid for by grants or endowments, and special interest groups may do the same. But when it comes to a straightforward, submit your manuscript and compete for a prize competition, there aren't as many legitimate looking contests as you'd think.

The main fault I see with the majority of writing contests is their business model, which is they are run for a profit. It's not the profit motive in itself that renders them suspect, but the impression that the profit motive is the only motive. In other words, collect fees from a bunch of hopeful rubes that cover not only the prize amounts but also the overhead and a generous allowance for the time of the contest managers, and if enough fees aren't forthcoming, cancel the contest. I'm highly suspicious of anybody whose business model doesn't include a substantial risk in terms of time or money. Some people would call elimination of risk in business wise - I call it stealing.

Another type of contest which I've mused about running in the past is one where the prize is an advance payment on the manuscript, which the publisher running the contest acquires for publication. Arguments about whether a given author is best served by a given publisher aside, I think that's a clever way to drum up interest for submissions, provided there aren't any fees involved. As soon as the publisher starts charging authors a fee to submit their manuscripts, it turns into a scam, even if the winner gets published.

I have several concerns about running a contest, but the primary concern is getting electronically buried in manuscripts. I can justify a contest as a business expense, so giving out some modest cash prizes isn't going to break my bank, but I can't justify hiring help to vet submissions. The main trick used by other online contests is to require the authors submitting manuscripts to rate one or more other manuscripts, in order to thin the field. My own modification on the process would be that I'd only accept entrants who followed (or follow) my advice and publish their fiction online. That would help cut down the potential pool of contestants and save a lot of file management overhead on my part. I'd just post a daily list of web addresses, perhaps on this blog, and come up with a way to count votes before reading a handful of finalists cover-to-cover. Speaking of cover, I'd probably draft a few friends to read the finalists so I wouldn't be the sole buck stop.

Whether or not I'd want to get involved in actually publishing a winning manuscript, assuming the writer wasn't already published, is another matter. But running a contest for nonfiction doesn't strike me as very interesting, and despite making a living as a nonfiction author and publisher, I don't feel that I could judge other author's nonfiction works in an objective manner without being conversant with the subject matter. Judging fiction is much easier in that it's strictly subjective to start with, though stories set more than a hundred years in the past or the future are objectively better than contemporary tales:-)

Another issue, at the risk of shocking the better half of my readers, is that women and men tend to like different books. Or to put it a little more bluntly, I'd define about three quarters of the novels that pass my way as "women's fiction", though I wouldn't be surprised if women make up over 75% of the fiction reading public. But I suppose there would be some educational value in reading past the first page for a change. If you have any thoughts about running an online fiction contest, feel free to comment on this post or drop me a line. It's a thought in progress.

How Professional SEO Works for Publishers

All publishers want to get more visitors to their websites. Sometimes, they are sophisticated enough to follow top SEO related blogs, like Google's lead Webspam detective, Matt Cutts, but they get often lost in the technical details. Google drives the majority of English language search traffic on the Internet, and they are very, very careful to be vague about exactly how they rank pages in their results. I've written a lot about search engine optimization and website design for publishers in the past, and it continues to come down to a couple basic principles. Write and publish high quality content and get relevant links. If you need an SEO company to write your content for you, it's not clear why you should be in the publishing business.

So what can a professional SEO company actually do for a publisher? For starters, it depends on how bad a job you've done for yourself. If you've published your website with a content management system or web authoring package that doesn't take search engine visibility into account, they can point that out to you and help you migrate your website to a different platform. Of course, you can figure that out for yourself as well by just checking if your pages appear in Google and looking at your page titles. An SEO professional can certainly point out if you or your designer has done things that search engines consider bad practice, and which get you penalized. But some SEO professionals follow bad practices themselves, to get their clients a short lived bump in the search rankings and prove that they've "earned" their pay.

But beneath it all, the main thing a search optimization company can do for a small publisher is get you more links. A cheesy SEO expert will get you a lot of worthless links, perhaps from his other clients websites, or paid links from grey area neighborhoods and link-sharing networks which will likely do more harm than good. A quality SEO expert will use research and tools to identify the appropriate websites to solicit links from, and then do it in your name.

Just a week or so ago I got a particularly persistent link request from a legitimate site in one of my publishing areas. So I took the time to reply and tell them I don't trade links, something I don't bother doing for the more incoherent or dicey link requests. To my surprise, I got back an e-mail from the individual offering to write a whole article about me and link my site from it in return, something which I again, politely denied. Then I happened to notice in the e-mail header that while the return address was for the well known site, the real originator was an SEO company. It was a legitimate SEO company using a return address identified with their client's site to make it look like the link request was an internal mom-n-pop affair, rather than a professional search engine optimization effort the client had purchased.

All of which is perfectly legitimate, but it struck me as kind of funny after I checked up on the SEO company, a business that's been around for a few years and claims offices in a half dozen countries with a large staff. I'll bet they pitch their clients on their in-depth knowledge of how search engines work, with all sorts of graphs and technical gibberish, but in the end, the real value of their service is based on getting relevant links for their clients by asking for them, persistently, and trying to barter for them if asking fails. Because after getting your content right, it's all about the links.

There is another way to get incoming links without going through a drawn out process of begging for them or paying for an SEO firm to do the begging for you. If you're a nonfiction publisher, publish some of your best material online, and if that doesn't do the trick, the odds aren't very good that a book will do much better. Despite all of the competition for eyeballs, there's always a shortage of quality content, and most websites have no way to generate that content internally. Increasingly, companies count on social networking, blog comments and forums to get their customers and visitors to generate free content for them. Some of it is actually pretty good, but as a professional publisher, hopefully you can do better. And sign up for Google's Webmaster Console to find out what Google really thinks of your site.

Interview With Richard Curtis, Literary Agent

Most writers today see an agent as an absolute necessity for getting their manuscripts considered by literary fiction houses. To what extent is that really the case?

There are always exceptions, especially today when a self-published book or blog can attract a publisher's attention and lead to an offer. But the rule is pretty much that you have to have an agent. Publishers have vacated the responsibility for discovering new talent and left it to the agents. Most trade book publishers will not consider a solicitation that does not come from an agent.

Nonfiction publishers have been on an "author platform" kick for years, seeking authors who can sell their own books. Have fiction publishers gotten the platform bug? Is it easier to get a novel published if you have a popular blog, newspaper column or MySpace page?

If a publisher has to ask "Who's that?" when an agent pitches a novelist, the game is half lost before it begins. If an author doesn't have a platform, he/she or the agent must create one that will at least give the illusion of familiarity when an editor reviews the author's work. At the very least an author must have a website.

Do agents typically lend value to manuscripts by creating a marketing plan and an irrefutable proposal, or does it come down to knowing what particular publishers are looking for and maintaining personal relationships with the editors and executives?

Agents have an advantage in that they can get in the door by relying on their relationships with editors. But once they're there, it still comes down to a good book. Marketing plans don't usually help sell the book, but, once sold, a good marketing plan will be welcome by the publisher.

What has been the greatest change to the title acquisition process of publishers you've seen in your 30+ years as a literary agent? Was it a turn for the better or the worse?

It used to be that if an editor liked a flawed manuscript, he or she would say, "I'll buy it and we'll fix it." Now editors say, "Fix it and we'll see." That's bad enough, but usually when the author fixes it, the editor rejects it anyway.

Richard Curtis Associates, Inc
, is a leading literary agency representing over 100 authors.