One question that loops endlessly on writers’ forums is “How can I sell more books?” The question is a natural one, but for many self-publishers, it betrays a certain lack of awareness about the publishing business. Lest I sound holier than thou, let me clarify that my own book sales stats are probably no better than yours. I write, I publish, I make my books available, and I hang on to my day job. This article isn’t about magic marketing techniques or search engine secrets; it’s about making a realistic assessment of your potential to make money as an indie publisher.
Self-Publishing: Business Basics
Smart product developers—and books are products—start by identifying the needs of a customer group. They develop products specifically to meed those needs and they mitigate risk by using surveys and focus groups to estimate how many people will buy their product at what price. How many kayakers will buy a lightweight folding paddle at $500? How many will buy it at $100. What is the cost to manufacture the item in quantity? Can you sell direct or will you have to sell wholesale to a distributor who will double the price and then pass the item to a retailer who will double it again? What will it cost to advertise? Clearly, the product developer needs more than a great product. Market research and business strategy are key elements of success.
Compare this to the business plan of the average indie novelist: “I just finished a new book. How can I get readers to buy it?” Continue reading →
Book reviews are critically important. Have you ever read a book hoping it would get better, only to find that it never did? And how do you tell if an independently published book is any good? So many are poorly edited and primitively designed, but writing off the entire self-publishing establishment amounts to closed-minded literary prejudice. Good online reviews drive purchasing decisions by separating out the Shinola—whether it’s trade published or offered by a vanity press.
In today’s digital world, consumers interested in most any product quickly look for the appraisals of early adopters. Considering a book? Or a new stereo? Or one of those “new” Jimi Hendrix albums? Smart consumers always check user reviews before clicking the “buy” button.
But if the average book takes ten hours to read and the average review takes an hour to write and post, you’re asking for eleven hours of a reviewer’s time. So how do you get people to review your book? Continue reading →
Self-publishing educators tell you how to sell your book, but very few bother to ask if that’s a worthwhile pursuit. Tacking marketing on as the de facto second phase of writing a book places many worthy artists’ resources in jeopardy. How much time, money and energy should you put into marketing your book? The answer is found in an honest evaluation of where your work lies on the spectrum between art and business.
John is a landscape painter. He has painted for decades, cultivating the skills to complement his talent. He works as a restaurant manager but he’s passionate about his art and maintains a studio in his garage. He has sold several paintings, had some gallery shows, and dreams of gaining enough stature as an artist to quit the food service business and devote himself to painting. After all, he paints at least as well as famous artists who make good money.
Wilma runs a vinyl sign shop out of her own garage. She creates graphics on a computer, exports the files to her vinyl cutter and applies them to shop windows and hanging banners. She studied design and takes her typography seriously, choosing appropriate typefaces and kerning the letters more carefully than her competitors do. Sometimes, she gets tired of doing commercial work; she wishes she could spend more time painting for fun but she’s grateful not to be working in a cubicle.
John is a fine artist. Wilma is a commercial artist. For our purposes, they represent the fiction and the nonfiction writer respectively.
WordPress is a magic web publishing tool perfect for writers and publishers who want to build attractive websites without spending a fortune and build reader communities around their work. This is the first in a series of articles that explain in non-technical terms how to get your site started and how to publish content without becoming a programmer. Search engines and marketing strategies will be discussed and I’ll steer you around common stumbling blocks.
Over 70 million WordPress sites (including the one you’re currently reading) produce over a half-billion new posts every day. Other good options are available, but WordPress offers a huge support community, thousands of add-ons (plug-ins) that extend its functionality and thousands of themes that instantly customize its appearance. WordPress is fantastically search engine friendly.
WordPress was originally developed as a blogging platform that enables writers to post articles and receive comments from readers. Eventually, WordPress expanded into a full-blown content management system. In English, this means you can post articles, create pages, embed images and publish many kinds of content with a simple Microsoft Word-style editor. Push the “Publish” button and your content magically appears on your website along with whatever links or navigation buttons are needed.
Indie publishers are everywhere and so are indie bookstores, but apart from their names, the two have little in common. “Independence” is a feelgood concept, but it’s often presented without any reference to that which a publisher or bookstore is independent from. Therein lies the difference. Does “independent” really mean anything in today’s publishing world?
Independent publishers are independent from the Big Six publishing establishment, but not being affiliated with six entities isn’t much of a distinction. For publishers, independence comes with a price. After writing, indie publishers must work independently with editors, designers and printers. They must make their own arrangements with distributors of print and ebooks. Perhaps most importantly, they must independently assess whether books they have a great personal stake in are viable products. Indie publishing isn’t better or worse than traditional publishing. There’s much to be said for having someone else push your manuscript down the long road to bookstores and there’s much to be said for cutting out the middleman and keeping creative control over your work.
Indie publishers generally sell books to niche audiences in lower volumes. They usually offer one or just a handful of books. Unlike big publishers, they aren’t able to circulate and promote hundreds of books until they find a blockbuster that pays for all the ones that don’t sell, but they are often positioned to make a profit with very low sales volumes.
The notion of real publishing as opposed to self-publishing and the stigma surrounding it is obsolete. I have no objections to traditional publishers but every one of them started off as a “self-publisher” with a first book. I have pretty much stopped referring to myself as a “self-publisher.” I produce and market books like anyone else in the business.
Real Publishing vs. Vanity Publishing: Self-publishing is often confused with so-called “vanity publishing.” If you pay someone like XLibris or iUniverse to publish you, you are not a publisher—and neither is the company that claims to be your publisher. Vanity presses take zero risk on your book. They make money producing it and they take a piece of the cover price as a royalty, double-dipping at your expense. If your so-called publisher has not made an investment in your work, they are not a real publisher. Real publishers invest in books, pay royalties when there are profits and incur losses when sales don’t match projections.
Discussion forums are a powerful medium for promoting your book, your art or your business. Facebook, LinkedIn and other communities are a major source of traffic for blogs and websites, but whether you post directly or embed links in responses to others’ posts, make good forum etiquette a priority. There are important rules to play the forum game by. Break the rules too many times and you’ll lose your community.
I posted a link to one of my blog articles on a discussion group’s board. Though I generally get positive, relevant responses, one reply went something like this:
Response:Why not post a profile on [my site]? This is a free site for writers, poets, photographers and artists. You can advertise and sell your work for free. Make sure you include a link to your site so others can learn even more about you and purchase your work. Please help us spread the word in your vast network of connections, it will inevitably be one more piece of the pie to maximize your exposure.
My Reply: Did you even read the article? It’s considered good practice to participate in a posted discussion rather than change its topic. It smells like canned lunch meat in here.
There is a direct relationship between the number of sales you can expect from a book distributor and the value-added services they provide to publishers and readers. Publishers are best served to ally themselves with book distributors that do the most to earn their sales commissions and inspire customer loyalty. What do they offer in exchange for their cut?
Brick and mortar retailers generally demand 50% or higher commissions from publishers and therefore offer decreasing value. The idea that book retailers should make more money than writers and publishers do for wedging a tiny piece of merchandise spine-out on a shelf full of competing products is absurd, but the state of retail bookstores tells its own story. Publishers and readers have already switched en masse to online book distributors. Some physical retailers do sell eBooks, but it’s hard to justify going to a physical bookstore to buy one when you can sample books, read reviews and purchase them online. Selling eBooks at a bookstore is like selling DVDs of a stage performance at the box office. Continue reading →
I recently responded to an article on Publishing Perspectives by Andrew Pantoja that innocently advises self-publishers about sources for cheap book covers. It is technically easy to create your own cover; therein lies the problem. It’s also easy to sew your own parachute. I have seen successful covers made by amateurs but I’ve seen plenty of authors proudly displaying horrible design abortions.
Why hire a pianist for a wedding when you can get a digital piano cheaper? This same flawed logic is often embraced by do-it-yourself cover designers. It substitutes obtaining a tool for solving a problem. It’s even more embarrassing when the purchaser of the piano can’t hear the difference; a guaranteed room-clearer.
Graphic Design is not about making something “pretty” or even finding something you personally “like.” Design is a craft practiced by professionals who not only understand how to use their tools, but how to choose and mix typefaces, combine colors, achieve tension and balance, and avoid cliches. Graphic design uses text and images to solve a problem or achieve a goal. As with dentistry, there’s much to be said for working with a professional. Continue reading →
It’s the latest big deal in publishing: Big publishers are being sued; accused of using the ‘agency model,’ to keep prices of eBooks artificially high. Amazon, the world’s largest bookseller, is complying but only offering agency terms to the Big Six publishers. But in spite of all the brouhaha, independent publishers don’t need to worry themselves about it.
Certainly, Amazon has well-founded concerns that if they don’t meet the terms of their largest suppliers, they could lose the right to distribute their eBooks. Not only would that be costly, it would dilute Amazon’s strategy for the Kindle; namely having the world’s largest selection of popular, desirable eBooks.
But small publishers—especially self-publishers—operate under an entirely different set of business conditions. While the judicial system referees the conduct of the publishing industry’s big players, other market pressures are more deserving of indie publishers’ attention. Continue reading →