Saturday, September 27, 2008

Publishing as sheer entrepreneurialism

With traditional publishers showing losses across the board, the whole industry is sure to get "tight." Bookstores are not recording the sales they once did, and when the numbers are translated into publisher terms it gets painful. Consider this:

    Harry Potter fans are undoubtedly feeling a void since for the first time in years, there’s no new Harry installment to look forward to.

    Meanwhile, American publisher Scholastic Corp. is apparently feeling the void in a perhaps less emotional but no less painful way.

    According to a Forbes report yesterday, the children’s book publisher reported a loss of $49.1 million, or $1.30 per share, compared with a loss of $2.8 million, or 7 cents per share, in the same quarter a year ago.

    “Scholastic Corp. said Thursday its fiscal first-quarter loss widened compared with a year-ago period that benefited from a new Harry Potter book,” writes Associated Press writer Michelle Chapman.

The same thing happened for Doubleday (in the States) and Bantam (in the UK) with The Da Vinci Code. The massive bestseller buoyed them up for some time, then the ride was over, and the gravy train derailed to the sounds of groaning.

Since the 1970s, the big publishing houses have called the shots in bookselling, and you can hardly argue their right to do so, since many of those huge publishers are also distribution chains. Their strings are pulled from head offices in New York and London, where marketing analysts deliberate over strategies, content, campaigns -- designing the megatrends to earn the next boatload of money.

Or at least, this was the way it worked until recently. In the last half dozen years, something changed; and the general consensus is, the culprit is the Internet. Which could turn out to be a very lucky break, at least for some writers ... the savvy ones.

In my four previous posts I've looked at how and why the Internet has undermined the traditional publishing world, and why I believe this particular megatrend is only just getting underway. Traditional publishers are concentrating more and more hype and advertising on fewer and fewer writers in the hopes of triggering the Harry Potter or Da Vinci Code effect. These days (go to Google, hunt down the figures -- check this out for yourself), when a book sells big, its figures are leviathan. Beyond monstrous. Cosmic. Ten or twenty years ago, a bestseller might have been a half million or a million. Today? Think millions, plural, and plenty of them.

Why? Advertising. Hype. Commercial space. The downside is, it comes at a high price. Sure, a big publishing house can kill the competition by throwing millions of dollars at an ad campaign for a new book; but the flipside to this coin is, they must sell millions of copies, and they must keep the competition off the shelves to maximize their chances of selling millions of copies.

These are the rules of business. This commercial machine has routines which you might not imagine -- and which, if you imagined them, you (being a decent person) would probably disallow on Page One as being despicable. Have a look at the tussle going on right now at the Random House Group, which is trying to restructure its "boilerplate" (default) contract to assert that a book shall not be deemed out of print, if the publisher has supplied ONE copy in any one year, in any format (which would include electronic or POD).

Here's the link, read it and weep:

The practical upshot of this is that any book ever published with the Random House Group will be deemed perpetually in print, even though it never sells any copies (because it's never placed on bookstore shelves, and never promoted). The writer earns nothing from this book, ever again, though there's probably a lot of income potential left in the work. However, the next bestseller is due to come off the presses, and this lesser work is competition. It has to vanish, fast, and stay vanished.

As far as I'm aware, that wrangle is still underway. If the author's group which is being targeted can raise the funds for a legal battle, they might still win, but they're up against an industry Titan whose punching power far outweighs anything a group of angry writers can throw. I wish them only the very best of luck ... and I remain skeptical about their chances of succeeding.

This case is another fine reason for looking into going the "DIY" road -- but it's still only half the problem.

If you're a writer looking for a publisher, of course you're going to set out on the grail quest! You want to be published, earn an amount you can actually live on, so you can quit the day job; so you're hunting for a major publisher -- New York or London. You're not writing in a "niche," where sales might be easier to make but the printruns are small. You're writing literary fiction with your eyes on a major contract -- you don't mind if it takes a decade to get there, and costs a couple of thousand bucks per year (which it probably will). However, in the back of your mind is a nagging little voice that wants to know the odds of coming through this with a positive result.

It's absolutely try to say, "Nothing ventured, nothing won." You'll never know if you don't try. Unknown writers do sign major contracts. It's just so rare, you probably have a greater chance of being struck by lightning. You can beat these odds. Someone is always going to beat them. But they're long odds, and in the next five or ten years, they're going to get even longer.

As the major publishers concentrate on writers whose track record is proven (King, Smith, Lustbader, Clancy, Brown, Binchy, Steel, Rowling, Rice...) and invest massive amounts of money in hype to try to trigger another Harry Potter or Da Vinci Code, lesser writers, and the unknown wannabe writers, must go to the wall. Breaking through into the professional world will be harder than it's ever been -- and it's been a backbreaker for thirty years that I personally know of.

Now, against all of this, you've got the skills you've built up over years, maybe decades, of learning your craft; you have your desire to write, which is burning you up; you have a flood of creativity which never stops; and the ambition to bloody succeed, no matter what the bast-nice people throw in your way.

In other words, you're going to take a crack at going it alone. Having been rejected out of hand for years (you've even had your query letters rejected! You never realized your chosen agent receives 200 query letters per day, and s/he automatically rejects 90% just to stay sane). Having invested thousands of dollars and many years in the quest, you're officially fed up, sick and tired of the whole deal, and you're going to go it alone.

All right. Deep breath. And another. Be calm. Make a cup of tea...

You're absolutely confident of your writing skills. You've been writing for a group, or club, or workshop, and fellow aspiring professionals who used to guide, correct and encourage you are now offering only praise. You can afford professional editing and proofreading, or are friendly with folks who are either qualified or experienced, and ready to help you get through this without charging four or five grand.

In other words, the book is ready to go. It "just" needs layout and design, a cover, and then (!) a plan for selling copies.

And in the back of your mind is the thought, "It'll be lovely to have even one person buy this, read it and like it ... but I wonder if I could sell 100? 1000?" You wonder how good this venture could be.

Have a look at this:

When indie publishing is good, it's very very good. And of course, what it's bad, it stinks. Just don't be involved in the aromatic end of the trade! Independent publishing is about (as the title of this post suggests) entrepreneurialism unbound. Stop thinking about your venture as "publishing a book." Think of it as "manufacturing a product." Your book is your product, just as surely as if you were selling your home-baked blueberry pies, your hand-crafted bird houses, your hand-knitted sweaters, or whatever.

Publishing is the START of your endeavor, not the end. SALES are your new holy grail. You might not get knocked down in the rush (if your book has that much potential, it stands to reason a major publisher would have seen it, right?) but if you're as good as you think you are, you should be able to earn some nice money. How much? Who can tell. But ... you'll never know unless you try, and what have you got to lose? You've already exhausted the possibilities of (or your ten years' worth of available patience with) the traditional publisher system. So: go for it.

With the book finished, edited, polished and gleaming, you'll be looking at layout, design and cover. You have a learning curve to climb here, but as a matter of fact, I can give you a pointer or two, because I've looked over shoulders at DreamCraft for long enough to know exactly what they use, and how they use it.

The best layout and design tip I can give you is Serif.

DreamCraft, their cover artist Jade, and by extension Keegan, have sworn by Serif for over a decade. This software is used to set type for the books and ebooks, as well as designing covers, webpages, and a lot more:

(If that looks like an affiliate link, it is. DreamCraft is so dead-certain of Serif, they don't even mind selling it. So call this a product endorsement. Here's the good part: you can download Page Plus 10 in an hour, for about $40. It's hard to think of a reason not to.)

Now, you have your software online ... learn it. Serif is not a toy. It will take you several weeks at least to learn how to drive it properly, but with this program, you'll be able to composit covers which are fully professional, lay out the interior of the book, and make the graphics for the website you're going to need after you've "gone to press."

This is also the time to choose your digital printer, and the major pointer I can give you here is ... if you're going to be marketing on the Internet and not trying to get your books into local bookstores. If you're looking at bookstores, you want a printshop in your own location, to cut shipping costs. If you're in a major city, you can certainly find some independent booksellers (they're rare, but they're not extinct yet) who will take consignment copies from you.

You might even be wondering if you can score distribution. Well ... maybe. Before you go this road, understand how the system works. There's the retail price, the wholesale price, and the price-to-manufacture. The retail price is the maximum you can expect to get for a book, when it's sold; the price-to-manufacture is the cost to you, to actually make each copy. Wholesale price is negotiable; this is what the product leaves the hands of your distributor for, which is usually (!) 50% of the retail price.

The only figure left to work out is, how much the distributor will be paying you for each copy sold. This is negotiable too, and they can try to talk you down to 10% of the retail price ... which is where the whole thing falls apart.

At (or any other digital printer: Lulu is highly competitive), an average book will cost about $5 - $8 per copy to manufacture. It will sell in a bookstore for a maximum of about $20. The bookstore takes $10; the distributor will want 50% of what's left. You end up holding $5. It's called the "hundred percent markup system," and this is just how it works -- plus or minus a few percent here and there for give and take within the industry itself. In other words ... you sold copies, but you lost money.

Attack this from the other perspective. The book costs $8 to produce. Add $2 for yourself. Add an average of $1 per copy for shipping to the distributor. That's $11. The distributor doubles it to $22; the bookstore doubles it to $44, and then offers a discount back to $39.95 ...

Will your book sell at that price? Will it sell enough copies to be significant? You have to sell 50 to make $100. (You also have to pay for shipping costs on the returns -- unsold stock; and you won't get paid for copies sold for 6 - 9 months. Ouch.)

This is the major problem facing POD publishers. POD is expensive -- the costs involved with printing one copy, or a small number, are so high that putting copies on store shelves is usually out of the question. And fortunately for us all, there's the perfect alternative. The Internet.

If the book costs $8 to produce and you retail it for $20, you'll come out with something like $10 left after you've paid the printshop's commission. This pays (pro rata) for the costs of professional editing, professional cover artist services, website construction, landing page design, website hosting, advertising, and should leave you a profit margin too. By the time you've sold 150+, you should be smiling.

When you choose a digital publishing service such as (there are others; I'm talking about Lulu specifically because this is where I have the personal experience), they do a lot more for you than manufacture the books. They take orders; process orders; ship stock for you; field customer support; and report on sales. (Empty Warehouse. Embrace the concept.) You'll find all this invaluable, because you're going to be incredibly busy...

Doing what? Marketing! will also market for you to a point, but it can get expensive. You'll be investing hundreds of dollars in advertising "packages" ... which you can certainly do, if you want to, and can afford to. But there are other, cheaper, ways to go.

Here's a tip: Using -- supply your own ISBN, if you want the privilege of being able to organize your own taxation. If you buy an ISBN via Lulu, withholding will start, which is fine if you're in the USA, but it will make your life incredibly complex, come tax time, if you're not!

To research ISBNs, and get one for yourself, go here:

About this point, you'll be thinking about the cover. Do you have a design in mind? You could do a hell of a lot worse than have a look at this, the Book Design Review:

...books are out there with awful covers. Horrible covers. Your covers need to be GOOD ... but who sets the standard? Remember, every one of those hideous covers you see on books was given the royal nod by a publishing house's art director! Some of them must be legally blind.

Here's a link to a slideshow of our new edition covers -- which only shows you what WE like. Another art designer, at another publishing house, might say, "They're krudd, what made you put such garbage on your cover?" Well, to quote the old cliche, "we might not know much about art, [in fact, we do!] but we know what we like." here's the link:

If you're blank on the question of cover design, get help. Seriously. Look at the Lulu services forums; you'll be astonished what's out there. Look at sites like these:

...get into the business: you'll be very welcome. Set a budget, and try to stick within it. When your cover has been designed and delivered, it's time to kick the whole thing into three dimensions (off the computer screen and into reality), and see what it looks like.

Printing time. Time to order your pilot copy, hold it in your hands, and assess it.

...and yet again, I'm out of time. In today's post I'd wanted to talk about actually marketing the damned things, but that's going to have wait till tomorrow! I'll pick up the threads again, right here, and finish in the morning. Time to go back to work, guys, so ...

Ciao for now,

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