Home Business and Publishing are Practically Synonyms

It’s hard to think of a better home based business than publishing. Whether you are publishing paper books, magazines and newsletters, or have made the transition to electronic publishing, there’s practically no difference in the office setup. You’ll need a computer (I use a laptop) and a printer, though you can do without a printer for long stretches of time. Then you’ll need an Internet connection and, and, that’s it. You don’t even need a phone if you don’t like talking to people, e-mail is much more efficient. If you publish paper books and you print offset rather than on-demand, you’ll need storage space, but that’s low cost warehouse space, not a prime office address.

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.

How To Sell eBooks And International eBook Business

I'm reviewing two eBook topics in this post because I received an e-mail yesterday from an aspiring publisher who had trouble finding the information on my site. I'll start with a quick overview of what a publisher does and doesn't need in order to sell eBooks and then I'll start linking to previous posts that give more details on the specifics. For starters, you don't need ISBN numbers (or SAN numbers or any other Bowker baloney) to publish your own eBooks as long as you aren't trying to sell them through the large distributors. When selling eBooks direct from your own websites, affiliate websites, or Internet retailers like Amazon, using up ISBN numbers is crazy. I wasted several ISBN numbers that way myself four or five years ago and regret it today.

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 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:-)

Are Google Books On Demand Books Ready?

Despite the fact I've been advocating for Google Books to partner with a POD (Print on Demand) provider for years, there's something amiss that I can't quite put my finger on.

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.

Do Libraries Acquire Self Published Books?

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 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, 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.

Viral Book Promotion Is Eye Catching

Most publishers dream about seeing their book promotion efforts "go viral" by catching a wave on the social networks. That happened unexpectedly for me last week, serendipitously following my blog post about building a slow-and-steady website for book promotion. The top line numbers were impressive, as the FonerBooks website received approximately 90,000 extra visitors for the week, who downloaded some 14 GB worth of material. Our $10/month hosting service stood firm under the load and continued to perform amongst the top 10% of web servers, and I haven't been contacted about any overage charges on bandwidth yet. Viral week also provided some amusing and not-so-amusing surprises, including a stomach bug that had me serving up cookies in the bathroom (no illustrations necessary). But first, some Analytics referrals data for the three peak days:

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.