Writing A Book For Self Publication

There's a big difference between self publishing a book because you can't land a contract from a trade publisher and writing a book for self publication. A book that no acquisitions editor is willing to pay you an advance for is probably a bad gamble from a commercial standpoint, no matter how well written and polished it may be. But the business of writing for self publication doesn't stop with choosing a subject for which there's an audience, be it weight loss or teenage vampire romance. It's just as important to match your writing and production capabilities to the business model you choose.

A simple example would be my collection of computer titles. Since I use Lightning Source to do my printing on demand, and since color POD is still too expensive for producing books with reasonable cover prices, I chose from the inception to write books that didn't require photographic illustrations. That may sound simple, but I can assure you that books related to computer hardware have always been published with heavy photo illustration. In some instances, like a step-by-step book for building PCs, those photographs are very useful, but more often than not they are filler to bulk up the page count for a higher cover price. So back in 2003, I developed an approach for troubleshooting computer hardware based on black and white flowcharts, and I even turned the lack of photographs into a selling point in the promotional book video I wrote about a few months ago.

A more general example is simply writing lean books. Trade publishers love bulking up books to achieve wider spines for shelf visibility (thicker paper stock is also common for low page count books) and the perception of higher value which allows higher cover prices. More subtle reasons include the perception of higher value for competitive purposes, and the belief that bulk equates with quality, especially in nonfiction and reference type titles. After all, if the reader is simply overwhelmed by the amount of material in the book, they are more likely to blame themselves for failing to understand the subject than to blame to author for failing to explain it. For trade publishers ordering large offset runs, the incremental page count has limited impact on the final cost of the book, the more important cost is performing the editorial and production process on the larger number of pages. When you're writing for self publication, especially if you are using print on demand, the printing cost rises far more rapidly than your ability to raise the cover price while keeping the book competitive with similar titles.

As a self publisher, you have 100% control over what you write, and that includes the ability to make changes during the editorial process. I can't tell you how many self publishers I've corresponded with who were planning to follow my print on demand model, but who changed to short run offset at the last minute because they couldn't leave out a beautiful color photograph that they referred to in the text or an accompanying DVD of photographs, audio or video. My advice to make a minor edit in the text and leave out the spoiler falls on deaf ears. Authors who have never written or published a book become married to the notion that the "something extra", the color, the DVD, the odd shaped book, adds value that will make their book sell. In my experience, the "something extra" wouldn't help sales even at the same price point, much less when it doubles the cost to the customer.

Unless your publishing business is supported by a trust fund, it's also important to write books for which you can produce all of the content. I spoke about photographs above, and while I don't use them in my own publishing business, I took thousands of photographs and published over two hundred in some books as a trade author. When the publisher asked me to provide photographic illustrations for the first trade book I wrote, I borrowed a 35mm camera, read a couple books about lighting, and learned to take photographs that were good enough to do the job. If I had hired a professional photographer, my earnings from that first book would likely have been negative, and I never would have tried a book that required a hundreds of photographs. The same is true for illustrations. I've included cartoons in a couple books, one for a trade publisher and one for self publication, relying on family members to produce finished drawings from my stick figures. Every expense you incur in preparing your book for print raises the bar for how many copies you need to sell to break even. It's easy to dream up art work and other add-ons that would make your book more attractive, but my advice is always to save them for the next edition.

Publishing is not a game of chance where either you get lucky or you don't. That view is sometimes put forward by successful authors who wrap themselves in false humility in the hope that attributing their success to luck will save them from having to correspond with aspiring authors. While there are factors beyond any individual's control, like the timing of events or the rise and fall of fashions, it requires great dollops of either talent or industry to make a living as an author. I've noticed that some of the best writers put reading other authors at the top of their list of things you can do to improve your chances. Lately, I've been reading George Meridith, and the following picture is from the last volume of his multiple novel set on the Italian war for independence from the Hapsburg Empire.

I wonder is it's some Smith College thing I don't know about, like, by finding the four leaf clover I get to marry the student who put in in the book if I can locate her today. Of course, the book was last checked out in 1966, which means that student is close to collecting social security. I guess that would make me a gold digger:-)

Clouds Threaten Fine Print

Is there no pity sitting in the clouds
That sees into the bottom of my grief?

When Shakespeare's Juliet first uttered those lines, the greatest threats to data were hungry mice and chimney fires. Today we are all drowning in so much redundant information that the very notion of losing something valuable seems almost ridiculous. Yes, we all know somebody who never bothered backing up a manuscript in progress and lost it, or a business where they changed the backup tapes every night only to find that they couldn't restore their server when disaster finally struck. But cloud computing will save us all from bothersome data management tasks, or will it?

Before you start throwing away all of your computer hardware and start running your business on netbooks or thin clients plugged into the cloud, read the terms of service. What I've found, while normal for software services, would come as a shock to most publishers and other businesses accustomed to ironclad contract terms. For starters, the terms of service I read for Amazon and Google, the gold standards of cloud computing, reserve the right to change their terms at any time by posting an updated version. Depending on the services you are paying for, you may be given a few weeks grace period to adjust, but I wouldn't produce books in Microsoft Office if I thought Microsoft could show up at my door and demand I give it back.

The cloud promises high up-time, up to 99.9%. But what happens if your e-mail is unavailable when you have a deliverable deadline, or if the conferencing service chooses the hour of your big conference to take its yearly time off? The agreements I read indemnify you for the failure by giving you a few free days of service. That's nowhere near as satisfying (or effective) as calling your IT guy onto the carpet and explaining in measured tones that he has five minutes to make it work or he can start looking for another job. In recent weeks we've seen denial of service attacks hitting government entities and companies that somebody sees as worth the trouble of attacking - bigger isn't always better.

But the real threat I see in cloud computing is the moral hazard associated with outsourcing any critical tasks or record keeping. The manager who signs the agreement today will read it and be aware of the limitations, but those terms of service will change over the years, as will the manager. Ten years, twenty years down the road, when everybody in the organization is conditioned to treat the document and message archives of the cloud like Fort Knox, a Black Swan will rear it's lovely head and a bunch of people who preferred not to worry about the future will be left without a past. I call it the Rollerball moment for the central archive of the future that misplaced a century of human history.

As an option to temporarily expand the computing power of your organization for specific tasks without having to invest millions in new hardware and software, the cloud is an elegant solution. Whether it's an experiment in serving video or other bandwidth intensive content, the occasional data mining drive through your databases or a massive spidering effort on the web, cloud computing is the way to go. But if you find that your day-to-day business operations have become dependent on the availability of cloud services, you better get a stronger contract than "As Is, As Available", with no meaningful warranty or assumption of liability.

I don't question the ability of Amazon or Google to safely store data with a higher availability, on average, then the average business or individual. And whether you use a data warehousing service or regularly e-mail unfinished book manuscripts as attachments to your Google, Yahoo or Microsoft account, having offsite back-ups is critical for preserving your data. But you can't outsource your thinking and attention to detail and expect to survive beyond one business cycle. If you read between the lines of hype surrounding clouds and software as a service, you'll find that promise is the same old promise that's haunted us throughout the information age: "You do the strategic thinking, and we'll take care of the details." It's a great sales pitch, appealing as it does to human vanity, but it's a lot easier coming up with the names of companies that succeeded taking care of details than thinking strategically.

Backing up data is easy. Backing up the applications that work with that data is harder. I still fire up my ten year old laptop once or twice a year to use some old programs that don't run under modern versions of Windows. They aren't critical to my business, just convenient, and it sure beats being dependent on software as a service when the service provider decides to abandon support for earlier applications to better serve customers. That's my main complaint about working with Amazon and Google over the years. They make unilateral decisions to abandon support for this or that service, and there's no appeal. While a vendor may stop supporting software that you licensed and installed on your computer years before, in most cases, it will continue to work.

Drawing A Line Under Amazon Kindle Numbers

There's a reason that publishing pundits of all stripes look to Amazon for numbers to use in articles about the state of publishing, and it's not simply because Amazon is winning an outsized portion of the future. Compared with most bookstores and websites, Amazon is a model of transparency, the only free source for data about sales trends, title momentum, total sales and relative positioning. There is one small caveat, which is that these numbers aren't reported in spreadsheet format with nice color bar graphs you can present at your next editorial board meeting. Amazon numbers need to be coaxed from the belly of the beast, by monitoring sales ranks of books and paying attention to their bestseller lists. Once you understand the basics of how the system works, Amazon becomes a transparent as a thick piece of glass that hasn't been washed for a while, in a city with pigeons.

A few weeks ago I completed my 2009 update for major book retailer sales as reported in their 2008 fiscal year. Each year (going back to 2001) that I do this sales analysis based on SEC filings it becomes more and more a story about Amazon, as the graph below illustrates:

The other thing that happens each year is I receive questions, often from academics, asking me to break out how much of Amazon North American media sales are books, vs eBooks, DVD's, CD's, etc. Well, that's where the pigeons come in. I can't tell you an exact percentage, because they don't tell me. What I can tell you is that many years ago, when they were still selling less than Borders, Amazon let slip in a press release that non-book media sales made up a little less than a third of total. Since that time, CD sales have crashed as the music industry has been moved online and options to purchasing DVD's, ranging from Netflix and RedBox to digital downloads have multiplied. So my guess is that today, books and eBooks make up a good 75% of Amazon's media sales and I wouldn't be shocked if it was higher. I don't know the media mix at Barnes&Noble or Borders either since they don't report it.

Last month, I published a new Amazon analysis page, this one about how many Kindle ebooks are being downloaded. This turns out to be a fun exercise for graphing because you can come at it from two different directions. The first approach is to monitor Kindle sales ranks for a period of time, and then graph the actual number of downloads that took place. I'm referring to downloads rather than sales in this case because some Kindle downloads are free. The data points are exaggerated on the graph so you can see them.

So why didn't I draw the line through the thickest area of points? Two reasons. First of all, Kindle ebooks with sales ranks in the high tens of thousands can go a week or longer without a download taking place. That makes the data extremely sensitive to which ebooks you happen to be watching and over what period of time you watch them. As time goes on, I'll move the line as required to express an average of the data points. Secondly, I drew the original graph by translation from my fairly stable Amazon sales ranks for books graph, after creating a reference line for the relative weight of book rankings vs eBook rankings. This was possible thanks to Amazon bestseller lists including both Kindle eBooks and printed books. You can work out the relative value of an eBook ranking by searching bestseller lists until you find that book (or one with a similar rank) closely bracketed by two paper books. You might find that paper book bestseller #13 on some list is ranked 10,516 and paper book bestseller #15 is ranked 10,563, so the Kindle eBook ranked #14 on the same bestseller list with a rank of 3,706 is selling at a rate between those two paper books. That's how I produced the larger Kindle sales rank equivalency graph.

Graphs aren't just for looking up single points of data. For example, when you have a curve expressing sales over time at different rankings, the area under the curve will give you the total sales occurring in that period of time. That's how I quickly estimated that Amazon is currently selling, or providing downloads of, 600,000 Kindle ebooks a week - by adding up stripes of area under the curve. What I've never done is use any mathematics software to find the function describing the curve of the moment and then used that function to make all sorts of definitive assertions about what is or will be. The curves are estimates, that's why engineers plot data points on graph paper. If all of the data points actually fall right on the line, something is suspicious, because the real world shouldn't line up that well with theory unless you are shooting cannon balls in a vacuum.

When I did my first graph of Amazon sales rankings back in 1998 or 1999, I used the area under the curve as a check to make up for the limited data points I had at the time. Since Amazon reported their total sales, and I could look at a large sample of books to estimate an average selling price, the total sales for the year (reported in their SEC filings) should come out around the same as the area under the curve multiplied by the average price. It seems to me I spent a good week working out that first curve, and back then, music was reported separately and use book sales didn't affect ranks.

The kind of Amazon numbers I don't try to deal with are those that are derived from non-Amazon sources, like the number of Kindle ebook readers sold. I've read a half dozen estimates of Kindle device numbers, but I'm not linking any of them because they didn't give me any confidence that their methodologies (rumor or "insider information") were valid. Another widely misreported Kindle number is that Kindle eBooks sell for $9.99 or less. While Amazon has made every effort to make the top bestsellers available for $9.99, many of the Kindle eBooks being downloaded are priced well above that, as a browse through any of the category bestseller lists of professional books, etc, will show. Kindle eBook prices in the $20 to $40 are common and Kindle eBooks priced above $60 can be found.

If you're wondering what makes a publisher so interested in math, aside from the obvious business ramifications, once upon a time I was an engineer working with radio frequency technology. Below is a twenty year old snapshot of a prototype antenna I built out of plumbing supplies for an insulated antenna used for air/sea interface communications. The math was horrendous (see Hankel functions) and the data was, to say the least, wavy.

Why I Self Publish

I'm writing this in response to a comment on my last post that sounded the familiar lament about prejudice against self published books. It struck me as particularly ironic that the comment came on my post about estate planning in which I was pointing out that my self publishing business would likely generate a couple hundred thousand dollars in net profit over the next five or so years if I drop dead tomorrow. That contrasts with the many trade authors I've known who crank out multiple books a year for advances that rarely earn out; writing books for a modest hourly wage with no significant royalties expected. Self publishing is the business you make of it. Working as a trade author is often a frustrating work-from-home job with low pay, bad hours and no benefits.

I haven't encountered any unfair practices aimed at keeping down self publishers. The most common complaints I hear from authors who went into self publishing with their eyes shut relates to reviews and bookstore stocking. Reviewers who write for newspapers and magazines are a vanishing breed, but those who remain often state in their submission guidelines that they don't review self published books. I don't blame them, because I'm guessing that whatever explanation they offer, the real reason is that they already get too many books from established trades and are desperate for ways to reduce the crush. If I worked as a book reviewer, I'd be inclined to only review books by people whose names began with "X" or "Z", but that's just a question of taste. Nobody seems bothered by the numerous blogs that exclusively review books by self publishers, and in some cases, only books published through particular companies that provide author services. "Oh," you say, "But nobody buys books that get reviewed on those blogs." Maybe not, but hardly anybody buys books based on newspaper or magazine reviews either, especially if they can't find those books on bookstore shelves.

So why won't bookstores stock your self published book? It's not your book, it's you. If they won't stock your book, it means you've failed to convince them that they'll make money by stocking the book, and perhaps you've adopted a business model (such as not accepting returns) that prevents them from doing business with you. Bookstores are in much the same position as book reviewers. Every year, more new titles are published than would fit into several Barnes&Noble superstores stacked on top of each other. An independent bookstore owner would have to own a chain of twenty or thirty stores to stock every book published each year. The reason they don't try to stock over a half million new titles every year has nothing to do with bias against self publishers. It's sound business practice to focus on stocking the books they believe they can sell. Bookstores count on a number of signals to tell them what books will sell, such as whether previous books by the publisher or author sold, how the subject fits with the local demand, how much ongoing effort they expect the publisher to make marketing the book, and of course, personal taste. If you want them to take a chance on an unknown, you better have a better reason for them than being unknown.

Self publishing does not mean independence from all outside parties unless you are printing and binding your own books and hand selling them to each customer. Three years ago for July 4th I wrote about the dependencies of an independent self publisher, and for most self publishers today, the main dependence is Amazon. That's more of a blessing than a curse, I've steered many authors into signing up with CreateSpace and publishing direct through Amazon. For authors who have no web platform or marketing plans for their books, it's hands-down the best way to self publish. But it means putting all of your eggs in Amazon's basket, something I would never advise as a plan for a business when other options are available.

You may be a great author, but if you can't sell your books, you're a failed publisher. Four years ago I wrote a short story about publishing choices, and at the risk of spoiling the ending, you don't want to end up like the author who signed the trade contract. For most authors, the main take-away from being published by an established trade publisher is the credential of being published by an name publisher. That's why some trade authors and fellow travelers trash-talk self publishing. Many trade authors have gone through extensive rejection before getting published, only to find they can't even earn a living at it, so they are jealous of the jewel they derived from the journey, the credential of "author." In some cases, the strongest critics of self publishing are writers who have yet to "break through" but have been trying for many years. They are seriously invested in the trade model, so don't blame them, they aren't hurting you any.

I came at publishing from a different direction. After an early drawer full of rejection notices and returned manuscripts of my novel (no, I didn't follow instructions and query before sending a bound copy:-), I took to Internet publishing. After I wrote a how-to book supported by my website, I received four contract offers from trades, and to my everlasting regret, took one. I wrote my next four books as a trade author, the junior partner in an uneven relationship with a multi-billion dollar company. As time went on, we argued about everything, or at least, I argued and they pointed at the contract. Eventually I decided that I wouldn't sign another contract unless I got to write it. The waves of offers (steady trickle anyway) from various publishers since then have always broken on the rocks in my head.

And that's why I self publish - because I have rocks in my head.