If I ran the copyright office and we fell a month behind on processing copyright registrations, I’d be working sixteen hours a day and nursing an ulcer. If we fell two months behind, I’d be handing out pink slips to my Federal employees, long spoiled with 99% positive job approval ratings, and to hell with their unions. If we fell three months behind processing registrations, I’d be so deeply ashamed that I would commit Seppuku.
I realized a couple weeks ago that a copyright registration I submitted back in the summer of 2008 still hadn’t been processed, so I went to their website to look for an e-mail address to complain. What I found was a note stating that an electronic registration may take up to six months for processing and the paper form registration may take up to eighteen months to process. In other words, as far as the Copyright Office is concerned, my registration certificate wasn’t even overdue yet! When I decided to write a post today with a copyright process flowchart I had kicking around, I went back to the copyright website to get a screen shot of the current copyright processing times:
That’s right, they’ve fixed the problem by changing their expectations. The copyright office now considers it normal to take up to nine months to process electronic registrations, and up to twenty-two months to process paper registrations. By that standard, they may feel I have nothing to complain about until April or May 2010. Shame on them! Shame on the Library of Congress, on the Copyright Office, and shame on every manager and employee who is waiting out their time for a pension and moaning about their workload and budgets. If the fault lies in their own incompetence, they should be fired, and if the fault is truly beyond their control, they should resign en masse in protest.
Yes, I’m speaking to you directly, employees of the copyright office. Have you no shame? Have none of you ever worked in real jobs, such that you know the difference between accomplishing a task and punching a clock? Do any of you really believe that the blame for your inability to perform a simple job lies with the Congress, or with the American people? Whatever money you are paid, you are stealing from the fee-paying publishers and taxpayers. The copyright office is a scandal and you should all be fired with prejudice.
I have two suggestions for addressing the problem. First, the process of registering copyrights should be split off from the depository function of the Library of Congress for all publishers, authors, creative artists, etc, who are willing to submit an electronic copy of the work separately. As those of us who have filed electronic copyright registrations using the ECO (Electronic Copyright Office) website know, the process is a bad joke terminating in printing a form to be mailed in. There is no reason in heaven or on earth for copyright registration not to have a purely electronic option, where registration receipt is instantaneous with submission. The so-called review process the copyright clerks occasionally delve into is a pointless exercise at best. The copyright clerks cannot hope to do the research for every (or any) copyright that would determine whether material is truly 100% original and properly credited and whether parts are stolen or borrowed from other works, so why go through the charade?
My second suggestion is that the Copyright Office be outsourced to as many competing entities as can pay the price of entry, just like Internet domain registration, which is a more important registration service by far. As far as I’m concerned, Congress could kick the whole copyright registration process to Google Books, who could do it in their sleep and probably wouldn’t even see the need to charge a fee. In the end, the only value of copyright registration is having a legal, time stamped record of the creation of a work that will allow a lawsuit for copyright infringement to be filed on the best terms for the creator of the work. After that, it’s all up to the attorneys and courts, the Copyright Office serves no role as an advisor or a policing entity in infringement cases. As to the depository function of the Library of Congress, if they really want copies of all the books being published, they can ask publishers and authors to send them two copies, most will be more than happy.
The one thing I would warn against is simply privatizing the Copyright Office to establish a monopoly agency, like Bowker, the monopoly ISBN registrar for the United States. Having to deal with and pay incredibly inflated fees to another Bowker would just about kill most aspiring small publishers. Of course, the continued existence Bowker may give somewhere for all the Copyright Office employees to go when they get fired - they would fit right in there.
Many authors and publishers have a fundamental concern over Google's scanning of library books without getting permission from the rights holder. Those rights holders can opt out of the agreement on the Google Book Settlement website. My current understanding is that the settlement only applies to books published in the U.S. if the copyright was registered with the Library of Congress. I'm guessing this is either because the registration records are being used in the chain of custody to establish ownership, or because the owners of books who don't register their copyrights can't take Google to court until they do register them, at which point they would automatically become part of the class subject to the agreement. A cynical person might claim that rights holders without registered copyrights don't matter because they don't qualify for statutory damages or award of legal costs. If you think legal costs are minor, the amended agreement sets aside up to $30 million for the attorneys of the plaintiffs in the current settlement. Note that the U.K., Australia, and treaty countries are also included one way or another, but I didn't pay much attention to those parts.
The main sticking point for me was the definition of "commercial availability" and Google's absolute control over pricing for POD versions of the books, which they will most likely sell through third parties such as Lightning Source or Amazon. The agreement refers to a 60 day buffer period for the Rights Registry to contact the publisher or rights owner, after Google determines the book is not commercially available. This initially struck me as high handed, as there is no absolute requirement for Google to contact the publisher, even if the publisher is easily located.
The determination of commercial availability is to be made from online sources and electronic databases, and in cases where those data sources don't agree, Google has the right to make their best guess. An obvious example might be the Books-In-Print database showing books as being available because the publisher never officially declared them out-of-print on the Bowkerlink website, but as a self publisher, I'm not happy about online catalogs and databases being accepted as the gospel. I've known many self publishers who published without ISBN numbers (including myself) and registered the copyrights, making those books subject to the amended settlement agreement. If those books are only sold direct by the publisher or through specialty outlets, they will fail the test of commercial availability. However, buried deep in the settlement language was a paragraph stating that Google may not challenge the commercial availability of a title that the rights owner states is commercially available.
Another worry was that the agreement failed to address the issue of new editions. I initially believed that previous editions of a book that is commercially available may fall into the fair-game bucket, and publishers of multi-edition books might find new POD or eBook versions of previous editions being sold in competition against the newest edition, and without the publisher having any say in the pricing. But it turns out that the agreement covers this very explicitly:
"In-Copyright Principal Work. If a Book’s Principal Work is not in the public domain under the Copyright Act in the United States and that Book is Commercially Available, then any other Book that has the same Principal Work (such as a previous edition) is also deemed to be Commercially Available, whether or not such other Book is at the time in question also Commercially Available."
One area in which Google's long battle against web spam showed through was in their insistence of controlling outgoing links from author landing pages. It wasn't clear to me if Google intends to create an author landing page for all authors whose works fall under the agreement and who sign up through the registry, or how those authors may be given the ability to add a link to the author landing page in the first place. But Google explicitly reserves the right to remove links from an author landing page to an author website if the website has nothing to do with the books or is otherwise an inappropriate site.
I remain fairly confused over the meaning of the various deadlines and dates that pepper the agreement. While I think it's always possible to opt out in the future, it looks like the rights holder loses the basic per/book scanned payment by waiting too long, and may have trouble stuffing some of the other cats back into the bag once they're on the streets. The agreement struck me as a reasonable compromise between authors and publishers need to protect copyright, and Google's dual drive to disseminate the world's knowledge as broadly as possible, and make a profit doing it. But it is a compromise, and I believe copyright protection has been weakened by Google's ability to unilaterally force the issue, if nothing else.
What I learned, at the cost of a day, is that I'm burning out on blogging even at the once a week rate. It doesn't help that I see I continuing decline in search visitors to the blog, due to the inherent limitations of blogging and the general decline of interest in the self publishing subject. The latter may come as a surprise, given the media hype about self publishing and consolidation in the author services industry, but take a look at this Google data:
That's the organic search traffic, and I don't think that Google even adjusts it for their growth in market share over the period. So while interest may be growing in author services and self publishing boutiques that will turn your photo album into a short run family publication, the number of authors using the Internet to research self publishing as a business is shrinking.
Whatever the case may be, this is just a short announcement that I'm going to give up blogging on a schedule and only write about self publishing when I feel I have something new to say. I thought I'd just link a half dozen of what I felt were the best self publishing posts I made during the past year for newcomers stumbling onto blog.
Viral book marketing case study
Authors, Customers, Editors, Distribution and Google
Pretty websites don't sell books
Why self publish?
YouTube Video and book marketing
The future of the offset printing business model
Pretty slim pickings, but I didn't want to go back any further. If you're subscribed to the atom feed, it will let you know when I post next.
I attended a BookBusiness webinar a week ago in which HarperCollins presented one possible vision for the future – smartphone users scanning a special code on book covers that loads the book’s web page in their phone browser. I don’t get the point of stuff like that, or why I would want to hold a book cover in front of a web cam and see a 3-D image on my computer screen, but I guess I’m not the target audience.
Predicting the future is a tough business, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. In 2007 I wrote that Internet publishing was turning into a zero sum game, but since that time, my visitor count has risen 20% a year, and my video views have gone from zero to over a half million. It's easier to look backwards, so I'm going to report a couple interesting trends and let you decide what they mean for your publishing business.
The most startling change around here is that my new e-mail correspondence, people I haven't heard from before, has fallen by well over 30% in the last couple years and by over 50% from the start of the decade. If you take into account that traffic to this website has at least quintupled during that period, it means that on a per visitor basis, the correspondence rate has dropped over 90%. There are plenty of days now that I get more notifications of eBook purchases than questions from new visitors. I’m not complaining, but it shows a fundamental shift away from person-to-person communication in favor of person-to-network communication. I think that the people who would have sent me a question years ago now prefer to bounce it off a hundred “friends” or post it on a blog where it may draw multiple responses and get some public notice. I think it also expresses a trend of treating business activity as a social activity, which I believe is a wrong path.
The search phrases that people use are getting longer. This may drive more spam generation, since it’s easier for spammers to rank in results for long tail phrases. But it also means that publishers who put a great deal of content online can expect to get some search visitors, even if their websites don't have quality incoming links. At the same time, publisher website transparency is improving (finding out what other publisher websites are doing), especially with the recent Alexa improvements which do a half decent reporting some of the top search phrases driving readers to a particular publisher website.
The number of media inquiries I received in 2009 is way down, and it's the first year in a while that I didn't get a single e-mail from a NYT or WSJ reporter looking for backstory on this or that publishing news. At the same time, the number of requests from university students to advise or provide a quote for their class projects about the publishing business is way up - maybe instructors now give assignments with guidelines that include getting feedback from a blogger. I've also seen an uptick in other bloggers asking me for interviews to post on their websites. I usually turn these down because they really seem to be looking for a blog enthusiast fellow travelers. I've also noticed an increase in the number bloggers who make contact by way of an underling, which is a total turn-off.
Another development is false traffic from search engines. In the past, most false traffic came from spiders and you could take search engine traffic legitimacy for granted. Today, it seems some people are using BotNets (slave computers taken over by viruses) to make phony search engine queries and then to generate clicks through a script. I assume the idea is to send a lot of apparently real visitors to their own websites to make them appear like valuable property for advertising, but sometimes the scripts go haywire and they send traffic to other sites. If you see an extra thousand visitors from a search engine, all coming from different IP addresses, all for the same phrase, you know there's something fishy going on or the search engine has lost its marbles.
I actually came across a spider in my room the other day who was searching for web 21.0, or any web it could find. By the size of it, I think it escaped from the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. In any case, I wrote it this little ditty:
The eensy weensy spider climbed up the bedroom wall,
Down came the shoe and made the spider fall
Out came the paper and wiped up the remains
And the eensy weensy spider has shifted astral planes
Some business people come equipped with a built in time management system called "Gathering Resources Eases Expected Disasters" or GREED. If you're constantly worried about preparing for the future, greed is both a symptom and a coping mechanism. Some "greedy" people are actually very generous, raking it in with one hand and giving it away with the other even while planning their next business coup. In terms of remaining constructively self employed, a little greed may be good, because it helps keep your nose to the grindstone. I primarily keep busy with activities that have nothing to do with my business or generating income, so it could be I need a little more greed myself. One tool I've developed for managing my time is to speculate about new publishing business opportunities on this blog and then to do my best to follow up on them. The following flowchart a first attempt to crystallize some of the ideas from my blog post of two weeks ago about interactive books. The idea was to create the kernel of a non-linear business planning book for the newly self employed and explore its potential for a book.
This interactive business planning flowchart may end up in a book one day or it may never make it past the experimental stage, so click the chart and let me know what you think. I'm definitely glad I took the time to work on it now rather than pursuing some pie-in-the-sky options I had on the plate. It turned into one of those dual-use projects where I was writing not only for the potential audience, but also for myself. Often times, the act of putting something down on paper, sketching out some possible futures, is more valuable than discussing the same issues with a whole band of friends or peers. One of the things I learned from doing the work is that I'm not cut out to become millionaire. I've always been reluctant to suggest to my readers that there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow if they just do everything right. Now I find I've grown confident in telling people that the pot of gold is called "earning a living."
Too many authors who take up the profession full time fall into the trap of thinking they should spend the majority of their work day writing, and that any leftover time should go to creative exercises, inspirational activities or drinking themselves into a stupor. That might be just the right prescription for a fiction author on a roll, but for most of us, writing doesn't even come close to being our primary activity. And for many authors like myself, daily writing usually means blogging and correspondence, not working on a new book. I know self publishers whose chief employment is marketing and shipping books, which is a great way to to keep the business going. Others are extremely detail oriented, investing large chunks of time in designing their books, adapting them for different platforms, keeping up with industry developments and software.
Planning for self employment is not just about the big picture, about choosing a market opportunity that matches your skills and resources. Your plans should also take into account how you're actually going to employ your time on a day to day basis. I generally discourage self publishers from rushing to contract out production tasks and design work simply as an issue of cost control. But if you're like me, the mechanics of preparing and publishing books will actually take more time than writing them, and that helps keep me constructively employed.
One thing that I'd really like to try in coming years is binding my own books. Not as a production technique for volume sales, but as a way to do on paper the kind of market research I do with my online experiments. Book binding also sounds like a neat way of filling some of that down time that work at home sole proprietors inevitably face. I would have preferred a voice explaining the steps than the music and titles in the following video, but it still looks fun.
Unified publishing theory has always been based on the notion of customer loyalty. Many of the assumptions that go into publishing business models assume customer loyalty to the author, to the brand, even to the press in special cases. A publisher’s backlist played the role of gravity, bending space around the publisher’s frontlist and making it easier to introduce new titles and authors, therefore drawing in the authors who attract readers. The forces that held the publishing universe together worked with large numbers, averages, digesting and smoothing out trends and shooting stars. Then along came Amazon, and the picture began to change radically. The Amazon model of cookie based one-click buying, free shipping with a premium option for serious shoppers, a robust platform for reviews and aggressively matching competitors prices without being asked, has altered the publishing universe. Amazon has successfully tied billions of strings between itself and its customers, giving it tremendous leverage with publishers and putting incredible pressure on competing book retailers. While unified publishing theory described the static publishing model of the 20th century. Amazon string theory describes the publishing business of the Internet Age.
With Amazon, we have a terrific example of a company that looked to the future and decided that the way to protect their own near-monopoly was to be first out with their own displacement technology. In one sense, the endgame for Kindle is to be an Amazon 1.0 killer, to disrupt and eventually push aside the core Amazon model of selling paper books by mail. The Amazon 1.0 model was so effective that it changed the economics of publishing for all of the major players: authors, publishers, printers and retailers. The Amazon 2.0 model, Kindle, didn't have much potential to financially impact the publishing landscape in its first two years of life because whatever you thought about the technology, its market penetration was relatively low. While publishers, early adopters and some heavy readers flocked to the device, there was never any reason to assume it would become popular with the general public who account for the majority of book sales by purchasing a few books a year. The economics of a dedicated hardware reader just don't make sense for the infrequent book buyer.
But the release of the Kindle reader for PC and Mac changes the economics of Amazon's eBook effort in a fundamental way. Today, customers shopping for books will have to consider price and convenience in every purchasing decision when a Kindle version is available. Since Amazon customers are all computer owners, or at least have access to a computer, they are now only a brief, free software installation away from being able to choose a Kindle version. That installation will tie a whole new generation of strings between Amazon and its customers, but it’s a problem for publishers. The only real competition Amazon has in the unified publishing space is Barnes&Noble, whose new eReader, brand, and existing platforms give them a chance to convince publishers and customers that they at least remain an option. Barnes&Noble also surpasses Amazon in at least one direction, that of publishing their own original books for sale in their stores, and that doesn’t earn them any brownie points with competing publishers.
I began running a Kindle experiment a few months ago, “giving away” the Kindle version of my publishing book for $1.95, and it tripled the sales over the last three months (my apologies to the correspondent I told it had little impact, I hadn’t been paying attention). But that tripling of sales led to a 40% decline in Kindle revenue for that eBook, and worse, it seemed to have had a negative impact on paper sales. Now that Amazon is making that “give away” available to everybody, I’ve submitted a price increase back up to the paper book price, though a few days have gone by without the change taking effect. Publishers of newspapers and magazines who adopted the Kindle platform and priced their publications in accordance the assumption that Kindles aren't common enough to eviscerate their print economics are so far excluded from the new PC and Mac reader programs.
As I wrote back in 2005 when I first noted that Amazon was on the way to competing directly with publishers on public domain books in print-on-demand, "Now that they own the cow, the milking machine and the distribution, the economics would be interesting." With Kindle, Amazon has taken it a step further to own a space in your home, be it the Kindle reader or the Kindle application on your computer, for the exclusive use of Amazon products. I tend to believe that gravity is working in Amazon’s favor, I just hope they don't turn into the black hole of publishing. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for publishing supernovas, companies throwing every last dollar into one brief burst of unsustainable activity before collapsing in on themselves and their industry creditors to become white dwarfs of bankruptcy.
Publishers seem to have forgotten that evolution can only work if every intermediate step is viable. There’s a rush on to bring out pointless “next generation” eBooks in the hope that they will be a stepping stone to a new type of interactive book that publishers can’t quite describe yet. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. The reason people put up with mainframe computers programmed by stacks of punch cards is that the mainframes replaced large numbers of clerks doing work on mechanical calculators and filing by hand. Mainframes were cost effective, time saving devices. Yet publishers seem intent on bringing out ill-conceived book hybrids with video or a gloss of glitz added by designers simply to demonstrate that it can be done. Whether books are read out loud, on paper, on screens, or written in the clouds, the essence of the book is to be read. Slipping in some multi-media isn’t an improvement or an evolutionary step for books. It’s way to grab headlines and raise money from gullible investors.
I started with the bean counting mainframe example for a reason. The closest thing I know of to a mass market interactive book today isn’t a book at all, it’s tax preparation software. Every year tens of millions of Americans spend a couple hours reading screen prompts and answering interview questions for a simple piece of software to complete their tax filing. Tax interview software is a compelling model for interactive books because it works well, is widely accepted, and performs a critical task. If people are willing to use what is essentially a simple interactive eBook to keep the IRS at bay, it’s a proven foundation to build on. Math performed by the tax software is trivial in most cases, primarily addition and subtraction. The interview questions save users from having to read through large piles of puzzling IRS publications, and having read plenty of them in 17 years of filing my own business tax returns, I can understand the savings. So I would define non-linearity as the first evolutionary step for smart books, a form of addition by subtraction. There’s tremendous value in a reference text that doesn’t make you read through the parts you don’t need to get the information you want, and that requires a new level of interaction between the reader and the book. A traditional index doesn’t do the job because you can only use an index if you already understand enough about the subject to make meaningful choices.
I’ve been working on ways to make my books interactive since I started publishing online back in 1995. Since paper books lack the built-in processing power of computers, the only way for readers to interact with a paper book is for the processing to come from their brain power. The first edition of my smart textbook was published in 2003, and used flowcharts to guide the reader through a troubleshooting process, with a nonlinear text offering additional information on-demand. The figure below shows a basic flowchart:
And the next figure shows how the flowchart decision points are used to navigate the nonlinear text by repeating the flowchart symbols in the margins.
The result is an interactive book that offers some of the advantages of an expert system without requiring a computer processor. Today, with readers and publishers pushing to move eBooks into the mainstream, the opportunity to introduce interactive books and living texts on all available platforms is wide open. Although Wikipedia defines “rich media” as “interactive multimedia,” in current practice I see publishers using rich media for anything that offers text plus. The plus can be audio, video, pictures, hyperlinks, but the only richness I’ve seen provided is through the reader starting things in motion by clicking. Well, a light switch is interactive because you flip the switch and the lights go on or off, but it’s hardly innovation at this point in history.
A book can be interactive in several different ways. A paper book can interact with the reader powered by the reader’s brain as with my flowcharts or any other nonlinear schema. An eBook can drive the interaction through a computer program conducting an interview process or otherwise reacting to reader input, and a living book can also interact with data sources by way of the Internet. One critical element for future books read on any dynamic surface will be live updates. Why should a financial planning book be full of obsolete information about interest rates, stock prices and bond spreads, when all of that information can be updated each time the book is opened? Why should a tour book leave disappointed people standing in front of buildings that are closed for renovation or which have doubled the cost of admission? Tour guides are also a natural for integration with GPS enabled devices. Adding a little programming and an interview process could produce tailored tours that get people to the places that interest them and don’t strand them at noon a two hour walk from the restaurant where they want to have lunch. By asking the right questions, a truly interactive book will leverage the knowledge of the author so that the reader doesn’t need to master the subject before getting any benefit from the book.
Creating useful interactive books will require close cooperation between the author and publisher, though I’m sure plenty of publishers will settle for adding a gloss of interactivity that’s all smoke and mirrors. Hyperlinking all the proper names or paying contract designers to add rich elements will create a distraction rather than true interactivity. All of this translates into an advantage for self publishers who can choose their platform without regard to some overarching corporate strategy and quickly take advantage of new devices for reading interactive books. Self publishing also allows the author to control every stage of the publication process, and to react on the fly if the experience of the real-world reader doesn’t work out as planned. A model for interactive fiction might look less like today’s novels than like computer game games, primarily role playing fantasy games, as opposed to shoot-to-kill video console stuff.
My first foray into smart textbooks was creating an educational multimedia CD back in the early 90’s. Based on a local author’s natural history textbook for K-12, it started with the idea of using simple animation sequences along with narration. But I quickly found myself adding true interactive features, quizzes and matching games, such as identifying birds by their calls or classifying trees by their leaves, bark or silhouette. The program could keep track of right answers and wrong answers, so as the “game” went on, it would naturally focus on whatever the child was having trouble learning. The amount of useful interactivity you can add to any smart textbook along these lines is limited only by your budget and the available technology. For the time being, I don’t see any way to do this with Kindle or the other eBook readers which seem focused on presenting dead texts, but it would be easy to implement with netbooks, iPhone apps or other smart devices being used to read eBooks.
The ultimate model for smart textbooks and interactive books will be “always on” connectivity with the Internet, though it will be entirely transparent to the reader as a cloud computing application. All that’s required is a device capable of displaying text or playing an audio book to the reader, and some way for the reader to physically interact with the device (touchscreen, buttons, movement sensors, etc.) It’s the direction I’d like to move my publishing business, and I’m ambitious to expand beyond the areas I’ve been publishing in to date. This week I’m trying to decide whether or not I want to work with partners on projects that I wouldn’t want to take on alone. For the time being, I think the simplest platform for developing, marketing and selling interactive books remains a website, and a website optimized for cell phone display may be the way that I end up going. I hope some of my blog readers are thinking about similar projects, because the time is now.
So why do most self publishers make their living writing nonfiction, and why do most successful boutique publishers focus on nonfiction as well? Even though the seven-to-one rule doesn't include self published books, you might think that the relative lack of competition would make fiction the low hanging fruit. It doesn't work that way because fiction is dominated by bestsellers that pull the average sales for fiction titles way up, and persist year after year as backlist titles long after most nonfiction books have become obsolete. While there are niches in fiction as well as nonfiction, they are not as sharply defined in fiction, and therefore serve a wider audience.
Take a large fiction genre, like Tolkien style fantasy books. Some readers might like stories with lots of dragons in them, some may prefer heroines over heroes or magic over swashbuckling. But the mainstream of that audience will read any well written adventure tale set in a distant past or future earth where there are no cars, some seemingly unremarkable young villagers destined for greatness, and plenty of good and evil. Yes, I'm sure there are subgenres where everybody is naked and the plot lines are little thinner, but even there, readers are paying for the author's story telling ability. Most fiction readers would rather pay a premium for "Book The Sixth" of a twelve book series than a read a free copy "Book The First" from an unknown, and that's a fact.
Now take a large nonfiction genre, like diet books, though many dissapointed readers may conclude that diet books should have be sold as fiction as well. While every year does yield a few bestsellers promising weight loss, there's an even larger market for specialty diet books, which promise everything from low environmental impact to longer life and cures for whatever ails you. And these diet books don't just give a chapter to each subject. Whole books, even series of books, are written about systems of selecting food, cooking and eating, that essentially target converts to the system. Most are from boutique presses or self publishers, their print runs are short and they are usually sold at lectures, in specialty food stores or by mail order rather than through bookstore chains.
The math is really pretty simple. The smaller the niche, the less likely a commercial trade publisher will have any interest in targetting it. While a large trade may not automatically fire an acquisitions editor for sponsoring several books in a row that sold less than 5,000 copies, they'd be within their rights to do so since they need higher sales to make their overhead. So access to the true niche markets is basically restricted to small trades, boutique presses and self publishers who have very low overhead, long time horizons, and a deep understanding of the market they are targetting. Large trade publishers can't afford to develop a deep understanding of a market that won't support the salary of the editor assigned to learn it. And niche publishing is ideal for website marketing, something the large trades seem incapable of learning.
So what about the fiction authors, graphic novel and comic book writers who do the convention tours and starve for their art? I've seen some really beautiful self published comics and graphic novels over the years, some were even critical successes, but I don't personally know anybody making a decent living at it through self publishing. There simply aren't the sort of natural audiences for creative art that exist in nonfiction for self identified cultists, do-it-yourselfers, and fanatics for every obscure branch of learning. The artistic markets are driven by popularity, and popularity is that funny thing that once it's acheived, you're no longer in a small niche.
Because popularity is the coin of the realm for fiction writers, and because that coin has much more value in the Internet age than it had just a dozen years ago, I believe that trade contracts for fiction authors will become much more restrictive in the future. In the days before POD and eBooks, large trades primarily worried about their authors moving to a different large trade. Today, it's becoming apparent that many of those authors, particularly those who scratch out a living but aren't getting rich, would do better cashing in their popularity by self publishing or forming co-ops. The large trades will figure this out, and will start moving all new fiction authors in the direction of romance writers, where contracts often give the publisher rights to the author's pseudonym, characters and brand. It also means that much of the advice aspiring fiction authors receive from established fiction writers will be of limited use. The world won't change that much for those authors who have already established and own their brands, but new fiction writers, even those with agents, simply won't get the same opportunities.
The artwork in this blog post comes courtesy of curbside garbage on a public street that I happened to walk by just as the rain was starting. It's always bothered me to see people trashing art, and when it's framed art behind glass and you know somebody who needs picture frames, it looks like a crime. I rather like the top one, can't make out the artists name, though it may be something like Ruhl. If it will separate from the mat, I'll bring it home in a mailing tube. The third one is a numbered print by a Giora Oppenheimer, if I'm reading the name correctly, and I believe they are all works from students of the Bezalel art and design academy done in the 1970's.
How is it that the publishing industry has survived with second hand book sales for as long as there have been books, but is threatened by second hand eBook sales? Two of the strongest reasons are that eBooks don’t wear out and that the Internet is a super efficient zero-cost mechanism for delivering “used” eBooks. If user-friendly eBooks are sold without Digital Rights Management (DRM) or license agreements that prevent the buyer from reselling the eBook, there’s nothing illegal in somebody establishing an eBook library or second hand eBook store, which might quickly become the first stop for eBook readers. Remember, the effectiveness of the DRM isn’t the issue since breaking the DRM is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which gives the publisher a strong legal lever for preventing resale and recovering legal costs.
You might argue that book buyers buy new books to support the author and publisher and would do the same thing with eBooks. But buyers of new books buy them to get a new book, not a used book, and to get that book when they want it, rather than having to wait for a second hand copy to become available. If you believe that the Internet is a super efficient mechanism for selling used paperbacks, you’re forgetting about shipping costs. A couple dollars change hands every time a penny book is sold online. And you’re forget ing that paperback books break apart, lose their covers, and turn yellow with time. An eBook that transfers ownership without the device (laptop, reader, iPhone) it's stored on literally becomes brand new in the transfer process. If no DRM is used, resale can occur immediately with the original owner retaining a copy to read at a later date. And some enterprising readers may decide they have the right to sell as many copies as they choose, however they came by the first copy.
Let’s look at an example of how used book sales used to work. I purchased two second hand Conrad novels last week for my flight to Israel and received another one through a library discard gift. As it turned out, the cabin lights in plane decided not to work for the 10 hour flight, which means I would have been better off purchasing a USB reading lamp and one new copy of Conrad on bright white paper. In any case, it took visits to several second hand book shops to find the two used books I purchased, and the selling price turned out to be double or triple the new price when the books were printed. Over the years, I’ve paid from two to five dollars for plenty of worn out paperbacks in second hand book shops in the U.S. and in Israel that were originally priced at 25 or 35 cents. Does that mean paperback books should be the next hot investment area, maybe with their own ETF (Exchange Traded Fund)?
The pricing model for used paperbacks is structured around the overhead costs of the seller. The Conrad novel (Nostromo) that came free as a library discard was never even in the collection – they accept used books from patrons to fill out the discard rack. Current pricing for Nostromo as a Kindle eBook also starts at free, but you can pay several dollars for pricier Kindle editions. Nostromo is also available as a second hand book from Amazon where the price varies from a penny to many dollars, depending on the edition. The penny sellers make their thin margins on the shipping. Free eBooks versions of thess out-of-copyright books are available in numerous formats. Kindle sales are new sales by definition, and for out of copyright books, the republisher is the one who makes money.
While there are obvious problems with the old pricing models based on the pre-Internet world of selling returnable books to people browsing physical shelves, that’s no reason for the publishing industry to commit collective suicide by adopting a pricing model that doesn’t pay the bills. Structural change that will lower the overhead for publishers has been underway for some time. Ironically, the Internet is the technology that has made massive outsourcing of design and editorial work possible. The challenge going forward is finding a model that will allow professional authors to earn a living, while allowing publishers to make a profit publishing books. So far, the pricing model we inherited from the pre-Internet generation does a better job of this than new models that are based on wishful thinking. If you read between the lines of many suggested solutions to the pricing challenge, they make the basic assumption that authors and publishers don’t really deserve to get paid for books, and that we should all go on the public speaking tour and work as entertainers.
The following is an edited version of my side of the correspondence with a colleague from last week. The discussion focused on the discount eBook model, and it turned out we agree that established trade publishers are better off staying away from competing on price, albeit for different reasons. We also argued about the recent Publisher’s Weekly viral issue.
I don’t think all of the large trade publishing executives are as stupid as the ones who run around to media outlets talking about how half their sales will be eBooks in a couple years. Some established fiction publishers will figure out that losing money on every sale isn’t a business model and keep their prices higher to achieve the same margins they net on paper sales, as many already do with nonfiction. If fiction publishers are going to net 75% less on their books, they need to sell 4 times as many, and I don't see it happening. Talking about zero manufacturing cost is dumb when they are paying six figure advances. The problem for established trade publishers isn’t obscurity, it’s making a profit, and the main profit centers for years have been bestsellers and backlist. It can only hurt them to lower those prices.
Aggressive discount eBook publishing isn’t a viable long-term model for large fiction publishers. The only way to sign up name authors would be to grant deals even better than the 50/50 some superstar authors already get for print, with rights sweeteners thrown in and big advances. Successful authors have no reason to work for free, even if their publishers are that dumb. The surviving fiction houses will be the ones with smart managers who don't blow all the income from their backlists running up debt trying to make ridiculous business models work. All they have to do is play it cool and hold the line on pricing and they'll survive the next wash-out. Then they'll be the only ones left with deep enough pockets and pedigree to attract authors.
I don't agree that the current system creates scarcity. There is incredible selection in fiction and always has been, through all manner of channels, with and without gatekeepers. The problem isn't scarcity, it's human nature. The Long Tail head (80/20) turns out to be an underestimate for fiction. The more selection you offer, the more the commercially viable sales clump at the very top, because the second tier authors never get the momentum required to support anybody. If the penny eBook model wins, which I don't believe it will, all but a handful of bestselling writers will be retired hobbyists or people living Social Security disability because nobody else will be able to afford being a writer. Don't expect a new Eden peopled by independent fiction authors who stay free of “the system.” Any new authors that do break through will be wooed and won by the big trades, or at least, the big agents, because they don't really want to sit in out-of-the-way places working on an Internet connection and making a fair wage. They want to be BIG, and FAMOUS.
Wisdom is having a sustainable business model. Giving things away and hoping for the best is not a sustainable business model. If you were a stockholder in a publisher with hundreds of millions or even billions in sales, you'd be right to sue if they started giving away all their books in hopes of gaining market share. They should dig in their heels and stick with selling hardcover fiction and trade paperbacks based on their current lists, and if it means losing some sales over the next few years, so be it. Their option is to follow the path of the newspapers which turned themselves into permanent money pits by rushing into web publishing without a sustainable business model. The big trades will definitely have to focus on print, but they can do eBooks as well, they'll just do them at a premium and if people don't want to pay it, they can read free stuff. Just like the Internet.
The whole concept of underselling is irrelevant to fiction, it’s only making noise in self publishing circles at the moment because there’s a limited number of penny titles available for multi-hundred dollar eBook devices. The fiction market doesn't compete on price and there's no reason to suspect it will. Starting free and raising prices works for introducing products that people use and replace on a regular basis, not for products that they use once, or in the free Kindle downloads case, products that they look at once and never use. Judging by the hundreds of thousands of authors who are paying to get books printed every year, there will be essentially infinite input stock for free and penny books on Kindle when the idea catches on - if Amazon continues to allow it. Just wait for the first success story and then it will be all over. These new futures are all funny one time only.
Most viral book marketing is about tricking people into showing brief interest in something they wouldn't have bothered with otherwise. Works once for each genre, then it's dead. Free and dirt cheap eBooks for proprietary readers as a way to break through the noise fall into this category, because nearly everybody will try it. It’s all great fun for little publishers and unknown authors who are just trying to get noticed, but it would kill the large trade fiction business model if enough people owned eBook readers. Free eBooks are a good promotion model for the first few unknown fiction writers who get discovered that way, but as soon as the market floods, nobody will rise above the noise without a promotion campaign that would have worked regardless of price. Free eBooks in and of themselves are neither new nor compelling.
The reason the majority of viral promotion these days is happening on Facebook and Twitter is because it's painless to try. There’s no cost (other than time) and no real rejection since it’s not really face to face. It might work for one in ten thousand goes, but it’s not going to be a business model for anybody other than the gurus and consultants who promote it and charge for advice. It's just more "new economy" speak that will turn into "what we're we thinking?" If you count on the Internet to run popularity contests for new fiction talent, it will be worse than the teenage vampire stuff that dominates today. It will be teenage dominatrix vampire stuff, and only the top two authors will earn a dime.
I don’t accept the notion that normal people want to buy cheap eBooks just to have them on a device in case they feel like looking at them. There may indeed be a small percentage of the population willing to shell out small amounts of money to have a lot of titles loaded on a device because they feel insecure about running out, but that's not how most readers live. People buy fiction books with the expectation of being entertained for a fixed period of time, and that’s why they prefer above all buying thick new books from bestselling authors they have read in the past who write with some reliable formula and won't let them down. I'm guilty of the same thing, though instead of bestsellers, I read books from the 1800's that were popular enough with somebody to survive on the shelves in collected editions. I stopped reading contemporary fiction fifteen or twenty years ago, despite the fact it was a short walk to the library, because I hate sitting down with a book for the evening, struggling not to give up, and finally laying it aside in disgust. The cost isn't dollars and cents, it's in time, just like Chris Anderson preached in Free. Does anybody walk through the supermarket and take one green bean and one pea in the organic section because it doesn't really cost anything and it doesn't matter that they aren’t a meal because you're just going to throw them away? Normal people are not going to spend money downloading eBooks just to check them out. Not people that I know. And reading a few pages is no big investment? I value my time more than that.
There has always been a subculture of people involved in computers who invest tremendous time and effort into downloading “free” software and fooling around with it. There was freeware even before the PC was invented, before Microsoft and Apple existed, and some of it was very good. But most people don't want to spend their time rummaging through random collections of software, and the same is true for books. That’s why bestsellers exist, why name authors exist, why Hollywood stars command premium salaries and why people go to see aging rock stars in football stadiums. People place great value on their leisure time and are willing to pay a premium for reliable entertainment. Readers are much more willing to take a chance with nonfiction, when they are searching for answers or professional help.
I’ve spent some time looking at the rankings of Kindle books on Amazon, and I’ve seen a number of publishers experimenting with “spare change” pricing for both original and classic fiction. Some of those books are downloaded in huge numbers. But when I look up the print editions of the same books from the same publishers, they aren’t selling at all. The only Kindle bestsellers I’ve seen paralleled by print bestsellers are instances where the print version would have been a bestseller on its own. The one thing the free Kindle version earns the publisher is a place on a conference panel for one of the employees who can claim involvement in the “success.”
My purpose in attending the conference was to write this blog post about the online networking environment, so I tossed aside my normal ethos of keeping my mouth when on a free pass and did my best to seed conversations in the chat box. Eventually, it developed that a lot of the people hanging out in the hallway were interested in eTextBooks. Now I have to point out that those of us reading the scrolling chat box can’t be paying much more attention to the audio feed than idiots who text while driving, but that’s par for the course at most conferences. While it’s possible to use @ signs in a shared chat to let people know that a response is targeted for a particular individual, everything goes by so quickly that it’s very difficult to carry on a meaningful conversation. And of course, it’s all public.
So I offered to talk to a few people after the conference if they’d give me contact information. My thought was we could do a conference call on the phone and quickly find out if we had anything in common to talk about, but the “please add me” messages piled up so fast that I got tired of searching back through the continuous chat for their e-mail addresses and set up a Yahoo! Group to park them instead. In the end, I counted 43 people asking to be added to the eTextBook discussion, about 15% of the peak attendance, which means most of them simply saw it as a conference attraction, like heading for the booth with the biggest crowd. I contacted O’Reilly during this process and they agreed to host the group as soon as they could get it set up, which will hopefully happen today.
So was the virtual hallway at TOC online a success? It worked in the sense that a public chat was available and people started using it for something other than complaining about the audio quality or sending questions to the moderators. But it could have been much better and added real value to the conference. One of the downsides of running a single track online conference is that there’s nowhere for the beginners to go when the presenters are talking over their heads, and nowhere for the professionals to hide when the presenters have less experience in a particular area than they do themselves. At the brick-and-mortar TOC in NYC with four or five concurrent tracks, a display floor packed with vendors and equipment, and ample hallway space for networking, there are endless opportunities for birds of a feather to flock. The highlight for me at the last TOC was meeting some publishers I had previously known only through e-mail, and being able to sit down with a couple, show them website analytics, and talk dollars and sense about specific business activities.
So here are my suggestions for O’Reilly or anybody else running an online conference to provide support for networking. First, a single streaming chat with no private communications (other than to panelists) isn’t going to cut it. Ideally, the software should support multiple tabs which would be set aside for “conference”, “hallway” and “vendors.” The conference tab would give access to one or more tracks of the scheduled presentations, along with their slide shows and an open chat for questions. The hallway tab would give access to person-to-person chat, ideally with useful options like being able to expand a chat to full screen so that typed lines would extend all the way across and scrolling would be much slower.
One possibility would be to have volunteers manning four or six chat rooms with general titles, like “Text Books”, “Romance”, “DRM (Digital Rights Management), Pricing, etc, so that attendees could quickly find the discussion they were interested in. It would be important for those volunteers to be prepared to answer very basic questions, because a large percentage of the attendees to any open conference will have no experience in the field. I'd volunteer for this, and I think it's important that the conference find volunteers who don't sell services, so it doesn't turn into a marketing ploy.
Another possibility would be to have four or six empty rooms the attendees themselves could title on the fly, like “Talk About Kindle,” or “Are ISBN’s Really Necessary?” and the conversations would flow or not. I think there’s something to be said for limiting the total number of chat rooms available, even if there are multiple tabs for chat at a large online conference, because the “thrown together” aspect is usually a benefit. But private chat should always be available by directly addressing an individual. It might also be desirable for individuals to be able to filter out other individuals who they have heard enough of or simply consider obnoxious.
A vendor booths tab is also a must. It’s not that I’m enthusiastic about having people trying to sell me things, and the online aspect means no free hats or pens, but it’s good idea to see what other people thought was important enough that they built a business around it and rented booth space to try to sell it. I remember the founder of the company that developed the Rocket reader grabbing me outside a conference hall around nine years ago and enthusiastically demonstrating the eBook device that was a decade before its time. Vendor booths could easily include embedded videos (let YouTube do the hosting) to demonstrate products like the Espresso 2.0 or the Kirtas Scanner.
Best of all would be conference software integrated with Skype or with built in audio capability, so people engaged in chats could switch to audio if they get frustrated with typing. At that point, there would only be two important things missing from the online conference: free food and body language. I can live without the free food (especially if you have to pay a couple thousand dollars to get it), but the eye contact and body language are essential time savers. I’ve spent hours on the phone or weeks in correspondence with people in publishing before we ran into dead-ends that would have been apparent in two minutes if we were standing face to face.
When I meet somebody in a conference hallway, pretty much the first thing I ask is, “So, what do you do?” That provides the context for the rest of the conversation, if it continues, and I think I can spot baloney pretty quickly if somebody starts talking in generalities because they have no specific business experience. By the same token, if somebody at an eBook conference asks me what I do, I’m going to tell them in the first sentence that I’m selling around $1500/month in eBooks, I experiment with them but it’s not my main business, and I’ve written a couple dozen blog posts on the subject. Make that a couple dozen and one.
A reader of this blog sent me a link to a Seth Godin video the other day and asked my opinion. I’d seen Godin’s name before on Matt Cutt’s blog (the only blog I check on a somewhat regular basis), but I didn’t know anything about him or his web marketing. So the first thing I did after listening to the video was to check his blog on Quantcast:
It turns out that Godin has “Quantified” his blog, meaning the traffic report shown above isn’t an estimate, it’s based on actual visitors. So are 147,000 U.S. visitors a month a strong showing for a blog? If you have any favorite blogging gurus check them out on Quantcast, and chances are they won’t even have enough visitors to show up at all, because most popular blogs depend on subscribers taking (and not reading) feeds. I checked a few sources that report on the popularity of blogs, and if we go with Technorati, Godin is the most popular individual blogger in the world. The stress is on “individual blogger”, there were 15 blogs ranked higher than him, but they were all collaborative efforts. So, if you think you have the potential to become the most popular blogger in the world and share the conference circuit with internet publishing prophets like Chris Anderson and Tim O’Reilly, blogging and tweeting may be the way to go. But what if you’re just another author like me who writes and publishes books for a living?
Seth Godin and I have something in common in that we both talk about marketing books by giving away free content, and it turns out that we both get around the same number of U.S. web visitors. Godin’s traffic is growing at a much faster rate than mine, but as a blog, two thirds of his visitors are repeaters, either regulars or “addicts.” Less than 20% of his blog visitors arrive from search, if we go by the Alexa estimate and double it to calibrate with my benchmarks. My fonerbooks website gets around 80% of its visitors from search, and barely over 10% from returning visitors, both by design. In the course of a year, over 1.5 million U.S. visitors will arrive on my site from search, and not because they are searching for “Morris Rosenthal”. If we estimate from the adjusted Alexa percentage, perhaps 300,000 U.S. visitors a year will find Seth’s blog through search, and I’m willing to bet Godin lunch if we’re ever at the same conference that most of his popular search phrases include “Seth Godin” in them.
All of this isn’t to say that Godin is doing anything wrong. In fact, I would say that’s he’s done pretty much everything right. He’s a bestselling author of 10 books, writes the most popular blog in the world according to Technorati, he's a recognizable name in marketing and a sought after speaker. I assume Godin hears from corporate executives seeking help with launching and marketing new products at the same rate I hear from college kids hoping to trick me into doing their homework. The problem is that I don’t see his success as a model that will help the average working author. A top blogger may end up with over 100,000 subscribers, but we can’t all be top bloggers unless every one of us subscribes to over 100,000 blogs. People may follow thousands of Twitter feeds, but they have to use filters and make endless heart-wrenching decisions over whether or not to actually read 140 characters. After all, who has the time? It’s true that niche success is somewhat easier to achieve, but blogging is probably the hardest way to get there.
Godin’s blog has eight times as many pages as my website and almost a hundred times as many incoming links. So why doesn’t it dwarf my search traffic? It’s not a technical problem, though the blogging structure does have “issues”, it’s that blog content tends to be heavy on repeated opinions and commentary which do poorly in search. If you are an author, you already have the prime ingredient for a website in your niche. It’s the book you’ve written and any intelligent research notes, updates, or additional material that didn’t make the final edit. You don’t have to put your whole book online, you can use excerpts, chapters, or any approach that makes you comfortable. A blog with occasional updates will help with repuatation, but it's only required if your goal involves becoming a public figure. The important thing is that you provide enough resource content so that visitors will find your website useful without having to buy the book, and that you don’t break it up into a hundred blog posts. If all you provide is a teaser, it may be more effective in terms of sell through, but you’ll never get the links and increased traffic to put your website on the map because you’ve created an advertisement rather than a resource. Drawing visitors from search is about informing the general public, not preaching to the converted. Dave Taylor has had tremendous success simply answering topical questions, and his traffic (primarily from search)makes Godin and I look like losers:
Famous authors can sell books through their websites simply by announcing that a new book is coming out and “allowing” fans to sign-up for the first copies. I’m not a famous author and you probably aren’t a famous author either so it won’t work for us. Nobody will buy my books because I’m a cool guy, a compelling speaker, or offering a path to success through some clever insight that fits into a book title or a tweet. I would argue with some of Godin’s conclusions, especially the souvenir thesis as a model for the publishing industry, but he sells a lot more books than me and he sits at a higher table. Just remember that he sells those books by being Seth Godin and choosing to write on marketing subjects with large potential audiences. And I’d like to see Seth do the following with one of his hard covers:-)
So why would anybody with a successful home publishing business rent office space? There’s really no reason at all, which is why I’m embarrassed to admit that I did rent some shared office space this past summer just to see if it would make me more productive. I carefully selected an office with air conditioning (which I don’t have at home) that was a half hour walk from the house so I wouldn’t be tempted to run back and forth for no reason. I actually did make it to the office twice before giving notice, both times to talk about Internet publishing with my erstwhile office mates. And that was all the use I got out of my three month rental.
I recently spent some time crunching sole proprietor tax statistics to see what failing small business have in common. The results aren’t specific to the publishing business, but they agree 100% with my experience. The main reason home businesses fail is because they don’t sell enough. In the case of new self publishers, many never sell anything. They just get a bunch of books printed and stare at them in hopes that they will sell themselves. Not surprisingly, the failing businesses hold twice as much inventory as the successes. But the most glaring difference between businesses that make it and businesses that lose money is the amount of debt they carry. All of the self publishers I know who are making a good living from books launched their businesses on a shoe string, working out of the home.
The advantages of a home business are manifold, starting with no commute and no overhead expenses. The money you invest in your business will really be invested in growing the business, not in having a place to go every day to drink too much coffee. The IRS rules for business use of your home allow you to dedicate part of your home to your business, and then deduct the expenses for that part of your home (which you're paying for anyway) from your business income. It is one of the few areas in the tax code where renters usually make out better than home owners, since the renters get to deduct a percentage of their rent while the owners can only deduct mortgage interest and utilities, plus depreciate the land the house stands on.
But the real advantage of keeping your publishing business at home is it will keep you from thinking you’re some big shot and spending all the business income playing at business. I’ve gotten to the point where I enjoy telling people who are calling from corporate offices that I work at home. I don’t answer the phone “Foner Books” or “Morris Rosenthal”- I answer the phone “Hello?” I’m not trying to kid anybody and you shouldn’t either.
You never want to lose sight of the fact the business is about selling your books, eBooks, etc. It’s not about trying to convince people that you are a legitimate publisher by looking and sounding the part. I know plenty of people who wear expensive suits and have self published books, but none of them sell enough books to call it a legitimate business. So stay at home, work naked if you want to, and don’t spend money trying to keep up with the NY trades. They all face publishing extinction anyway.
You will need to a reseller tax ID to sell anything in states with sales tax in the United States. I collect Massachusetts 6.25% sales tax on eBooks sold in-state and pass the money on to the Department of Revenue each year. Assuming you are selling your own eBooks, you'll want to file a copyright for each one you publish, unless they are simply electronic versions of your printed books. Sticking a copyright notification in the text does not give you the same protection as paying to register a copyright. There are two distinct approaches to selling eBooks. The first is publishing quality eBooks the same way you would paper books, which is my eBook business model. The other approach involves buying resale rights from a so-called master reseller. That's basically a get-rich-quick scheme based on heavy use of advertising, and I seriously doubt anybody has ever gotten rich doing it, unless it's master resellers who grind out eBooks and resell them to "downstreamers."
Once you've written your eBook and put it through the editorial and proofreading stages, you have to decide what form to sell it in. I can't get excited about ePub or other special eBook formats. Until there are a billion dedicated ebook readers out there, why limit your sales by focusing on proprietary readers? I currently sell printable PDF eBooks generated directly from Microsoft Word, without any active DRM (Digital Rights Management). Although the eBooks I've published this way have appeared on file sharing networks, I haven't noticed any drop in sales, which pretty much move in lock-step with the number of serious visitors to my web pages. I should also note that the eBooks I published with DRM years ago have long been available on the same file sharing networks. After consulting with my publishing attorney, I decided to use a click-license to specify the terms of the eBook purchase. I'll paste in the license agreement for my POD ebook here:
I started selling eBooks again in 2008, using PayPal to process the money and e-Junkie.com to handle the downloads. Initially, I had some problems with customers paying for an eBook and not receiving the download link because it bounced off their e-mail filter. Eventually I figured out it was my fault for trying to customize the e-Junkie "Thank You" message, and once I fixed that, the success rate for eBook sales transactions jumped up to around 99%. Of the 1% who have problems, half may be real download issues with fire walls or connections and the other half are probably scammers, but it's not a big deal in any case.
As an English language eBook publisher, just under 70% of my eBook sales come from the United States, where eBooks don't appear to cannibalize from paper book sales in any significant way. My international eBook business has already reached 65 countries, with the UK, Australia and Canada being the biggest customers. Other countries where I've sold five or more eBooks include: Spain, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Netherlands, Malaysia, Mexico, Italy, Ireland, India, Germany, France, Denmark, Brazil and Belgium. Altogether, my international sales come to 487 copies as of this morning, for a net profit around $6,000. Most of those customers would never have paid for and waited for a printed book if the eBook option wasn't available. I have speculated, however, that the availability of print books may help sell eBooks by demonstrating that they are true books and not some cut-and-paste public domain snippets from the web.
The ten links embedded above in this post explain how to sell eBooks, but they don't specifically address how to market eBooks because there's no difference between marketing ebooks and marketing printed books online. I leave choice of whether to buy an eBook or a paper book to the customer. The only marketing I do for my eBooks are the text links on this website; no pop-ups, no paid advertising, no sending e-mails to previous customers or people who have contacted me with questions. I haven't set up any affiliate programs or placed my eBooks in any online bookstores, yet I average around $1500/month in eBook sales with just three eBooks. More aggressive marketing would probably raise sales, but it's not part of my basic business model. Authors and publishers who want their website to be popular enough to sell eBooks could do worse than reading through my redacted guide to online book marketing. And let me know if you have any complaints since I'm getting around to the first edit, two years after posting it:-)
How about two fingers?
Or the whole hand:-)
I only downloaded one book from Google Books this year, and it included more than a half dozen such image errors which I'm going to call "finger spam." Google has come to dominate the competitive business of Internet search in large part because of their ability to fight spam. If they are going to be successful making scanned books available on demand, they're going to need to start fighting finger spam as well. My suggestion is that the Google Books department appoints Matt Cutts their new editor-in-chief.
There's a large difference between the search business and the book business that Google and On Demand Books may have missed in their deal to move scanned books back to print with the Espresso Book Machine. The book business, even the out-of-copyright public domain book business, employs people called editors, who at least glance at the pages before putting a book in print. The search business is about incremental improvements, where "good enough" is as good as it gets. The book business is fussy, and readers who encounters finger spam in the wrong location aren't going to click on the next result. They're going to ask for their money back and buy their next book from Amazon or visit a library instead.
I've been writing about Google Books since 2005 and came out in September of that year with a quote Google uses on their website, that Google Books (then called Google Print) can only help book sales. Since that time I've frequently commented that making the scanned eBooks available on-demand through a partnership with Lightning Source or another POD vendor was the logical next step. Well, the logical next step was actually selling eBooks, a program I signed up for in early 2006 that Google never got around to implementing. And as recently as June of this year I recommended that Google hook up with On Demand Books and their Espresso 2.0 Book Machine in this hurried video (around 2:30 in if you want to skip forward:-)
I'm not having a change of heart about the synergy between scanned books and POD or the benefit to the public of making out of print books available in print again, my problem is strictly with the implementation. Both Google and On Demand Books need to recognize that printing books with unreadable pages is a major no-no in publishing. I'm sure they realize that already, but in the world that Google has lived and worked up to this day, getting things right the first time has never been that critical. Perhaps Google plans to come up with an algorithm that tracks book returns and uses the data to determine which scanned books have problems that make them unreadable - an elegant engineering solution. But it's not good enough for readers who pay for a printed book, take it on vacation, and get to the final page of the novel where the hero - who knows?
Memo to public domain book publishers who didn't believe me when I told them that eventually Google or Amazon would eat their lunch: On Demand Books is just the first step, so heads up.
Memo to Google Books. Say "no" to finger spam. Don't do evil. Call Matt Cutts.
Memo to readers. I'm off for Rosh HaShanna this weekend, and I'm planning to revert to my old Tuesday posting schedule next week.
I recently stumbled upon an Internet discussion about how to "trick" libraries into ordering self published books. It was a great example of doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason, and failing at it to boot. Some self publishers fall in love with the idea of being underdogs fighting against the system, but authors who get libraries mixed up with the enemy should be forced to turn in their library card and watch televison for the rest of their lives. Libraries are the good guys, and, as it turns out, they do acquire self published books.
Library acquisitions peaked at around 40% of the book market in the 1960's, and have been going downhill ever since. With the exception of the decently funded university and research libraries, collection building has been largely replaced by an attempt to serve the immediate needs of the community. As an avid reader of classic literature I regret that libraries no longer mantain collections, but it turns out to be a positive development for self publishers. Yet, if you search the various Internet discussion groups for information about library purchasing, you'll often encounter definitive statements that "Libraries don't buy self published books!"
So what gives me the confidence to state that libraries do in fact acquire self published books, and that they appear to be entirely uninfluenced by the publisher of record? Rather than relying on anecdotes or conversations with part time employees at the checkout desk, I took a look at the numbers on Worldcat.org. Worldcat does not have access to the catalog of every public library, but several thousand libraries is enough to get an excellent sense of how the acquisitions process works. I spent some time this morning looking at the titles of various self publishers I know, and I didn't come up with a single one whose books weren't stocked in the collections of both public and university libraries.
Is the playing field really level, or do libraries stock books from the big trades in large quantities and books from self publishers only to please local relatives of the authors? In order to come up with an answer, I looked at the Worldcat numbers for a series of how-to books I authored for McGraw-Hill which sold over 100,000 copies through four editions. Worldcat currently shows copies in stock at 649 libraries. Then I checked my most popular self published how-to title, which has been acquired by 115 libraries in the Worldcat system. It turns out that my self published title can be found in library collections at a higher rate (proportional to sales) than the bestseller that I authored for McGraw-Hill. While it's probable that some libraries have eliminated earlier editions of the McGraw-Hill books from their collections, it's also important to note that I have never marketed any of the Foner Books titles to libraries.
I also spent some time searching the Worldcat listings to see how library purchasing correlates with the marketing efforts of the authors I know. It quickly became apparent that library purchasing tracks overall sales reasonably well. That makes perfect sense since the vast majority of library orders for self published book are triggered by a patron coming in and requesting the book. Those requests come as a result of whatever the publisher is doing correctly to sell books in general, whether it's initial marketing or great word-of-mouth. I didn't see any difference between the library acquisition rate for self publishers who primarily sell through Amazon and those who primarily sell through stores. Most of my own sales to libraries are handled by Ingram or Baker&Taylor, but a couple dozen have come by way of smaller distributors contacting us direct to purchase books.
Authors obsessed with where their books end up can also check LibraryThing.com, which catalogs and shows ratings for books from private collections (the books owned by whoever signs up). I don't spend much time on LibraryThing, and unlike the libraries, it appears to be skewed toward the collections of people who are interested in publishing and writing. Another interesting use for these services is to check the relative success of fee based publishers. Worldcat doesn't have a publisher keyword search, but the entire record is searchable, so with a little fooling around, you can get a pretty good idea of what proportion of a given publishing service's titles make it into libraries, but make sure you check the number of libraries that have purchased each book. If it's one copy per title, that's very likely the author (or author's mother) conning the local library into buying a copy.
A little quick math will tell you that the ten main referring sites above don’t add up to 90,000 visitors, but the main reason is that around 25,000 visitors were directed to a PDF file which doesn’t include the Google Analytics code. The #4 spot is people using the Google services to read blog feeds, not search. But the sites that are missing are almost as interesting as the sites that are listed. Twitter didn’t finish in the top 10, despite several hundred tweets about the "discovery." Most of the people tweeting the news either tweeted the PDF file, or they sent their followers to the social networking site where they had discovered the story, as opposed to the site (ahem) that the story was about. Given the link shortening services used on Twitter, tracking is tricky.
In addition to the main referrers above, there were hundreds of modest new referring links to FonerBooks from blogs, forums and other social networking sites. Yet, a little research on Google suggests that most people passing the story along did so by linking to the sites where they read about it, rather than linking to FonerBooks. How that will all sort out in the search engine rankings may not be apparent for some weeks or months to come. This approach of reporting the news about the story rather than the story itself seems to be common in the world of social networking. But what exactly is the story they were all reporting?
The main attraction for the buzz was the PDF file I keep mentioning, a large poster I created from some of the flowcharts used in one of my computer books. I created it specifically as a viral book promotion, thinking it would be popular with techies and students, especially if they printed copies for schools or dorm rooms. The funny thing is that I launched my viral book promotion blitz SIX YEARS AGO, in 2003! And over the last six years, around 200,000 people downloaded that poster, and I don’t know how many printed it. But it didn’t become “news” until September 1st, 2009, when Steve Leckart included a miniature image of the poster in a BoingBoing post about the collection of flowcharts on my website. And ironically, Steve’s original source for the story wasn’t my website at all, but another blog that had made pretty free with the graphics, though I can’t get too angry with them after the unexpected publicity. It's also the first time in my memory that an anonymous individual e-mailed to warn me that a site (the story source) was making free with my content. The same individual (I assume) took it upon himself to comment in my name on the Steve’s post, which he fixed after I told it wasn’t me:
To show how powerful a couple viral mentions can be for a website that doesn’t already have an established search presence, the graph below generated on Alexa shows how that site where Steve first spotted the flowcharts benefited from the exposure. I erased their site name from the graph, but note how their traffic rank which normally fails to register actually peaks above FonerBooks on the hottest day of the story:
Some of the comments people made in reposting links to the work were pretty funny. To paraphrase a couple:
"Some guy made these charts"
"He’s sure giving away a bunch for a dude trying to sell a book!"
Which brings us to books sales resulting from the publicity surge. While it’s impossible to associate each sale with the source, I would estimate that the 90,000 extra visitors, plus the much a higher number of people who saw the flowcharts on other sites along with the book title or even a link to Amazon, may have doubled sales of that book for the week. I saw a minor knock-on effect for my related titles through Amazon Associates, but overall, the impact to the bottom line of my self publishing business is well down in the fraction of one percent area.
So how can publishers get their own viral marketing campaign going, and perhaps see a bigger impact on their overall sales? Clearly, it starts with having some content that people can get excited about, and visual content, whether graphics or videos, is pretty much a must. Remember, it’s not so much about providing a solution or information, it’s about wowing visitors, providing some eye candy that makes somebody want to tell a million friends "Hey, you gotta look at this!" For book publishers, this generally means coming up with something in addition to your book, as opposed to simply using material from the book itself. If you have the time on your hands and like coming up with neat graphics or making publishing videos with a clear focus on the entertainment value, it can’t hurt to try. But as with any other type of book marketing, if you don’t have an existing platform in place to launch your campaign, it’s a long shot.
Generating higher sales if your plague ship comes in is another issue. Most marketing consultants and promotional experts aren’t focused on bottom line sales because they can’t deliver them. They’ll expect you to celebrate the number of websites quoting your story, the number of visitors to your site, the number of links that show up on unrelated sites around the world. I think my site might have converted a few more of these viral voyeurs into customers if I had an eBook version for sale, but this is the title that I kept out of the eBook market as a control group of one. The abridged eBook version that I give away received 10,000 hits over the week, accounting for 5 GB of bandwidth, and maybe a few of them will become customers by-and-by.
There are plenty of risks in viral transmission, and they aren’t limited to links and credit going the wrong places. You could also end up with a massive number of links with silly anchor text from strange contexts that could hurt your search visibility with your proper audience, the collateral damage version of Google Bombing. There's also the loss of control that comes when your material is excerpted from its own context, which may lead some people to use it improperly and then react negatively. If your books are fairly specialized, only a tiny portion of the people responding to the eye candy are potential customers. A "success" could end up straining your resources which would be better used in serving your natural customer base. This type of book promotion will work much better for titles aimed at a general audience, such as mainstream fiction.
Should publishers put any effort into viral marketing? My short answer is "No" and the long answer is, "Maybe, if you can resist paying for help." I’ve seen quite a few publicists trumpeting their ability to create viral results, but I wouldn’t recommend shaking hands with one and then rubbing your eyes.