Sunday, September 28, 2008

POD Publishing: getting megatrendy

The only reason one eventually arrives at the point of looking at POD publishing as a viable proposition is because one has drawn a blank in the quest for a "real" publishing house willing to offer a decent contract one can actually live with.

That's a flat, bald statement which probably needs some amplification, but if you're a writer, you'll have felt the "resonance" as you read it. When something is true, you don't so much think it, as feel it.

During the last thirty years, I've signed a lot of contracts, and I've been agency represented three times. Not one of the contracts I signed was secured, or negotiated, by an agent. My three agents never achieved anything on my behalf; after six months of negative reporting, one of them tried to start charging me for editorial services (which is an industry no-no), and I beat a hasty retreat. I found my own publishers ... I was lucky in that I was writing in a niche, and it's very true that niche sales are easier. The downside was that printruns were comparatively small because I was writing in a niche, and a modest-sized publishing house can't take more than two novels per year from any one writer.

The bottom line to all this is complex. Many aspiring professionals will be saying, "Hey, stop complaining, you succeeded." This is perfectly true, if your sole ambition is to see your novel typeset, inside a three-color cover, wearing the emblem of a recognized (if modest) publishing house. But what about if you wanted to write full time? Quit the day job and be a writer.

Many (most?) writers, if they tell you the truth, will confess that they were only ever able to earn, from their writings, about half as much as one needs to survive. Mortage, car payment, power bills, groceries, gasoline, kids, colleges, clothes ... we've reached a point where if you earn much less than $2,000 a week, you're struggling. Translation: you need to earn $1,000/week from book sales just to get halfway there, and hold down a job too.

With paperback royalties set at 7.5% of an item priced at around $8, you're looking at 60c per copy ... and around 1,667 units must be sold every week to keep your creditors off your back -- 2,000, in fact, if you remember taxes. That's 100,000 copies per year.

These figures are perfectly doable, if you can connect with a major publisher, and you're writing for a vibrant market. Yet this is where the odds on any individual enjoying success get long: it's the word "major" in the previous sentence that stuffs everything up. You're much, much more likely to connect with a small or modest publisher, while the big guys remain out of reach, as intangible as the planet Mars.

Small publishers are great. They're the backbone and foundation of the industry. They'll give a new writer a go, while the big boys literally can't. The minus, here, is that their printruns are typically between 4,000 and 9,000. Their books do go into stores, though; they do get reviewed in the media. There just isn't much money in this end of the writer's trade.

Now, you can still go this road, and pray a lot that your book will sell like hot cakes, come to the notice of a big publisher, and you'll make the transition. This is the J. K. Rowling story. Even Harry Potter was rejected by the big boys, and got a start with a small publishing house. (And if that doesn't depress you, what will?)

Your problem here could be a little clause in the contract you'll be signing. Your publisher will almost certainly demand, contractually, the "right of first refusal on your next appropriate work." So, anything you write within their niche, they get. It's very, very difficult to break out of this situation. One way is to not write anything else for ten years -- because the terms of the contract were set for a decade. After ten years, you have the rights back in you hands.

The conundrum is a beauty, isn't it? And then you run up against big companies trying to engineer an "in print forever" clause, which means you will never get your rights back -- and nor will this publisher ever print, sell or promote your book --

So you can see right here, right now, it's perfectly possible to spend a decade and a fortune to get published, only to earn, at best, a few hundred dollars per week, and lose the rights to your material into the bargain.

Bargain? It's a bad bargain. And it's the reason so many writers are going down the POD highway -- myself included.

POD stands for Print On Demand. These days it usually means, a reader orders a copy, one is printed and shipped. It's also known as empty warehouse.

Is POD a euphemism for self-publishing? Yes and no. Anyone can use the service. If you haven't already looked at one, take a look right now:

Lulu can be used with impunity by illiterates, well-educated but bad writers, six year olds with their "My Trip To Granny's House" essay, colleges publishing course materials, schools publishing yearbooks, small publishers reissuing their backlist, modest publishers producing just 1,000 copies of a "risky" title (too few copies for mainstream printing to produce affordably), new writers hoping to "beat the system," established writers handling their own reprints, well-known writers issuing new titles surplus to the requirements of their publishers, and also by firebrands who are sick and tired of the publishing industry as it stands right now, and are out there on the front lines, making a bold statement.

The whole spectrum of human endeavor is represented by POD publishing. Much of what is churned out by Lulu and others just like them is complete rubbish. The again, some of their product is solid gold. A few titles sell many hundreds of copies.

POD is like life: make of it what you will. If you upload rubbish and hit "print," the result will be printed rubbish. It's all a Faustian deal you strike with computers and robotized printing machines: no human eyes will see the book before you open the parcel you just received from the printshop. No one edited or proofread it, or checked your work. The book stands or falls on the effort YOU put into it.

To make POD work on the most basic level -- as a writer in search of an income -- you have to become a pocket-sized publisher, not just a "self published writer." What this means is, you'll switch hats a dozen times a day. You're the writer, then the copy editor, then the proofreader, (and the tea lady!), then the cover designer, the webmaster, the maketing analyst, the salesman, the accountant, the press liaison...

If, like most writers, you want to write the book, hand it off to a company for editing, proofing and all the rest, and just sit back and receive royalties, POD is not for you. There's too much work involved -- more work that you can imagine.

But if you're determined to beat the system, and you're good enough, motivated enough, with the courage, the tenacity, a few years and a small investment in cash to spend on this -- you could do a lot worse.

There are two basic formats for your work: paper and ebook. You can get into hardcovers too, and within the domain of ebooks there are currently a good half dozen formats, from Microsoft Reader to old fashioned PDF. The good news is, 80% of the work is already done for an ebook version of your book, by the time you've finished the PDF required by your digital printshop. A few tucks and tweaks, and you're good to go.

You can get free converters, to make almost any file into a PDF: (This is the best. Free.)

Or, you can get ambitious and put down some money: (Pretty good, not to expensive, at $99)

(DreamCraft uses Serif Page Plus, which does the conversion right there inside the DTP software -- hit the button, nothing else to do. $40 for the download.)

You'll need to research the requirements for screenreaders and learn how to format your work to fit. You'll also want to look at securing the document, to prevent readers from printing it out (possibly en masse). Nothing will stop people giving a copy of your PDF to their friends ... but look at it as free advertising. The friend who gets the free copy might love your book, visit your website and buy your next book, while your original customer drifs away.

Selling ebooks is another world of marketing, and how far you go into this depends on many factors. Do you gave just one book, or a few? Are you marketing for your whole writer's workshop group? Are you going to sell commercial ebooks too?

If you plan a massive store, by all means look at the $5,000 investment in a kiosk:

...but if you're marketing anything around 100 ebooks (your own, your friends', a small selection of classics, perhaps), my advice is Payloads:

It's free to set-up, with a simple, quick interface, and offers everything you could need. Incorporate their code into your own pages -- design your own kiosk. Here's ours:

Phase One is about learning. You're about to morph into Jack (and/or Jill) of All Trades, and you'll need to be master of most. You can outsource some services, but it gets too expensive to outsource everything. You'll need to conquer every aspect of writing and editing; you must get the DTP software and learn it, to design your product; learn the digital publisher's interface ... and then the fun begins.

To crack open a window into the world you're entering, have a look at these:

(Get on Google and do some research. Know what you're getting into!)

Phase Two is about turning inspiration and perspiration into income. Getting sales. The work of writing, editing, proofing, laying out and designing, ISBN'ing, jacketing, uploading the digital copy and ordering your pilot proof ... all this is fun, and ought to be relatively easy, especially if you enjoy a challenge. You'll have spent under $100 at this point. Let's say you decided on Page Plus 10 for $40, and bought just one ISBN, which should be about $15, and your proof copy is a normal size book which is delivered, ppd., for something like $25. You're out $80. Not too bad at all, to get the first copy in your hands.

But who's going to buy them? Where are your readers? How do you find them -- and convince them to pay good money for your book?

In my previous post, I looked at bookstore distribution, and why it probably won't work for POD:

If you think you have a chance, give it a shot. Talk to local distributors, see if they'll work with you, and find out their terms. You might strike it lucky, though the odds are long. Good hunting!

For the rest of us, marketing is mostly about the Internet. The WWW is a massive place. It all starts with a website ... a good one ... and this is where you can start to outlay a lot of money, if you're not careful. Paying a thousand dollars for a ten-page site is quite common.

You can give it a shot yourself, working with something like Front Page. Even here, there's a learning curve -- be prepared to work and learn. Also, ask around on Facebook or something like it, see if a gifted amateur will do the job for a lot less. There's top-line talent hiding everywhere.

A good-looking website is essential. It doesn't have to be Java-scripted to death, but it does have to be attractive functional, easy to navigate, bug-free, and also hype-free. People can smell a blatant commercial at fifty paces. If you're offering the solution to their problems (a book on defeating asthma; on living with cancer; on raising ADD kids), they'll probably stick with your page to the end -- the "buy now" button. If you're offering a novel ... beware hype, and also be prepared to be generous.

What do you say to convince people to buy your novel? To begin with, don't tell them where you were educated, or what your degree might be. No one cares. Seriously. There are writers out there with a polished MFA who can't string words together to save their lives; others who went to Oxford or Cambridge, and can't write a coherent laundry list; and others who dropped out without a high school diploma, forty years ago, and who will rivet readers to the page.

Let your writing speak for itself. Give readers a couple of whole chapters, not just the first few pages. You're not Wilbur Smith or Dan Brown (yet). Readers don't know you from the proverbial hole in the ground. They can only get to know you by reading your work -- so zip up to 10% of your book into a PDF file and give it away.

Catch readers' eye with the cover. Color, vibrancy, design balance, the right fonts and point sizes -- it's an art form. Study covers. Pull 200 books from your own shelves and lay them out on the floor. Pick the 20 that work best for you, toss the rest behind the couch. Analyze. Reverse-engineer what the cover designers did, and emulate their process. Figure out what colors work best, and how, and why -- and why not.

Don't know an artist? Get on the Internet and find one! They're out there, hoping to get work, just as the writer is hoping to get published. Expect to pay $100 - $250 for a digital cover from a really good "wannabe" artist. S/he hasn't made the breakthrough yet either, but s/he can score jobs like yours, and one day a major publisher might stumble over the work and offer "the real deal."

Let's assume you have your website done. Your next problem is driving traffic to it ... without paying so much for advertising that you sell copies and lose money. Beware of Google ads. They can cost $2.50 per click (when you're buying clicks, rather than selling them), and if you have to get 10 readers to your page to sell one copy, that's $25 for the visitors ... and $10 profit on the book. You're spending faster than earning.

Instead, consider blog ads. Seriously. For around $20 you can place a prominent display ad for a week on a blog where maybe 3,000 like-minded people will see it. Choose the theme of your target blog carefully. A book about writing should be advertised on a writing blog; a romance novel wants to appear on a romance blog, and so on.

Consider a press release for your book. Shop around, find a PR service which charges in the $30 bracket (Lulu's PR partner charges $80 -- too much). The services are out there, hunt them down.

Consider buying targeted clicks from advertising companies other than Google. You can buy 5,000 visitors for $30.00...

Giving away review copies can be a double-edged sword. A good review will certainly help; bad reviews do hurt sales. Magazine and newspaper reviewers sometimes refuse to review
POD books -- and many are buried in books sent in hoping for a mention. Which book gets this week's review can be an "eenie, meenie, miney moe choice, which makes the submission a crapshoot -- and a quite expensive crapshoot for the POD enterprise.

Many people will tell you that having a blog is great advertising, but be cautious: posting every day, serious posts, is very time consuming, and blogs grow slowly. There's not going to be much traffic on your blog for months, and even then, only a small percentage of visitors will click through to the "landing page" for your book. Do you have the material, the time, and the willpower to blog successfully?

Google searches are a great way to get traffic -- if you can get your page into the top 20 or 30 listings on the SERPs (search engine results page). This isn't luck, it's a pseudo-science. Google is delighted to tell you you to do it, but it's not easy work:

Pages are built from the ground up to be Google-friendly. It all starts with keywords -- not advertising keywords, but the search terms people are using to pull up SERPs. This is a whole 'nother subject -- and a massive one. Tomes are written about it. The best I can do here is offer a tip:

You can at least find out what the right keywords are, before you start to structure your pages to meet Google's requirements. This loads the dice, as it were, in your favor. Gives you a fighting chance. It's a lot of work, but it's doable, so long as you have the time to study the system, climb the learning curve.

Driving traffic to your page is your new holy grail, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of ways to do it. Learn. If you have the time to invest in this, and a few hundred dollars, rest assured, you'll get your traffic. Potential readers WILL land on your page. A small percentage will buy your book...

And then you're down to your moment of truth. The hall is hired, the band is playing. Time to find out if you can dance! Sales and feedback will pretty soon tell you if you can indeed dance. This can, and does happen:

...and you're on your way.

Keegan's tips? Here's my Baker's Dozen:

1) Learn every aspect of the writer's trade, including bookselling.
2) Become your own most uncompromising editor. Learn to be ruthless.
3) Write for a social group for some time before trying to go pro.
4) Do try to find an agent or publisher. Give it a good, solid shot.
5) No joy in 3-10 years? Decide if you can handle the workload of POD.
6) Serif Page Plus 10 is the software solution I recommend.
7) is our digital printshop of choice.
8) is your ebook solution.
9) Get the very best website you can afford, plus a "landing page."
10) Explore all your low-cost advertising options; choose the best.
11) Set a budget and stick to it, no matter what.
12) Keep all your receipts. If -- when! -- you succeed, you'll be taxable!
13) Take nothing for granted. Learn. Pick everyone's brains. And ENJOY.

My advice? Go ahead, take the whole thing for a spin. In the end ... it's fun, too.




The Blue Suit Team said...

Very thorough article about ebook publishing!

One other option for monetizting PDF ebooks that you might want to mention is Ads for Adobe PDF. It is a free program that allows publishers of PDF content to include Yahoo ads that are contextually matched to the PDF contents. Ad revenue is paid to the publisher when readers click on the ads within the PDF. For more information:

Mel Keegan said...

*Darned* good idea -- ads for PDF ... I'll be blogging about this in the next few days. Many thanks for your comment: I've actually seen ads in PDFs, but I tend to have a chronic case of "ad blindness," so the concept never actually stuck in my mind! I do believe it took your comment to make an impression on me ... most grateful!


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