Big Publishers vs. Self-Publishing: Who Does It Right?

January 28th, 2016

We all know that larger publishers spend tens of thousands of dollars launching a single title. Successful self-publishers spend far, far less.

Is this an indication that big publishers are doing something wrong? In general, no.

Will the successful self-publishers do better if they copy the big houses? Also generally not.

The apparent contradiction is actually easily resolved.

If your manuscript will never sell more than a moderately low number of copies, no matter what you do to it, that number will cap what you can invest in the book, and dictate that you distribute the book in the highest margin channels you can find.

If, on the other hand, the manuscript has “legs,” then investing more heavily in it, and distributing it in even low-margin channels, can make for a higher total profit, even at a lower profit per copy.

Let’s do an example, and you’ll see what I mean.

Suppose that you have a manuscript that could sell 5,000 copies as an ebook with a $500 cover image, a $300 copyedit, and a $4.99 price point, and a negligible number of copies POD. (You do the POD edition because it makes the ebook sell better, rather than to make money from its sales.)

Your revenue per sale is $3.50, for a total revenue of $17,500. You pay yourself as the author 25% of that as a royalty, $4,375, and your publishing work earns a contribution to profit and overhead of $12,325. Or, if you self-publish, you get to keep the $16,700.

Okay-ish, if you do enough of them, for a self-publishing author. Not good for a company with real overhead for rent, salaries, etc.

Now, suppose that if you can invest $30,000 in publishing the book with an offset run, investment in design, B2B marketing, etc, and you can sell 10,000 copies of the ebook at $7.99 per, and 10,000 copies in trade paperback, at $15.95 per copy.

Your revenues on the ebook will run $5.60 per, or $56,000. Your revenues on the print edition will run $7.66 per, or $76,600, for a total revenue of $132,600. After you pay the author his or her $14,000 for the ebook and $12,760 for the print edition (total royalties of $26,760), and recoup your $30,000 investment, your contribution to profit and overhead is $75,840.

It only works this way if you have the money to invest, if you can afford to lose all of it every so often (even the best publishers bet wrong with some regularity), and if the manuscript has the potential to appeal to that many readers. But if it does, and if your company and/or your author knows how to find those readers, then everyone benefits from the investment.

The author is getting almost $27k instead of almost $17k, has four times as many readers when it comes time to release the next book, and is probably doing a little less work. The publisher’s staff have (meager) paychecks for another few months, and the house chugs along just above the break-even point. Life is good.

Not every manuscript can be treated like this. In fact, most cannot. But that’s what acquisitions editors do — they decide which ones they can make work, and which they cannot.


August 29th, 2015

There is one, and only one, thing that a good cover does. It makes the right readers stop, and look more closely at your book. Standing out a little is good, but standing out too much is not. Good design is necessary, but not sufficient. A few common sense approaches actually hurt sales, and should be avoided.

If the wrong readers stop, this does you no good. It may even lead them to buy your book, under the mistaken impression that it’s the kind that they like, and then write a really nasty review. That’s worse than making no sale at all. If the right readers don’t stop, they’ll never see the descriptive copy you’ve labored so long over, and never buy the book.

I’ve heard a number of new publishers proudly proclaim that their covers will make readers notice, because they’re so different. This is a classic newbie error. If your cover stands out too much, it’s probably too different from your book’s competitors to signal that it is in competition with them. The cover must use the same sort of visual signals as other successful competitors to your book use, even as it uses them slightly differently. If it looks too different, the message that “this is a book for you” will not be communicated as your readers’ eyes sweep past it.

Experienced designers of magazines, or product packaging, or whatever, often think that they can do a better job than the normal designs used by book covers. They want to apply the things that they’ve learned in these other areas. Sometimes they’re right.

It’s still critical that the cover “look like” a [fill in the blank] in 1 to 3 seconds. If you book is alternate history with a military bent but instead it looks like urban fantasy, then the quality of the design and the ability to get people to stop and look are irrelevant. You’re either not going to make the sale, or you’re going to make a lot of sales to the wrong readers. Not a good thing either way.

It’s common sense that your book cover should accurately and prominently portray the main characters and the stuff around them. Unfortunately, common sense is wrong for most types of novels.

The sad truth is that your reader isn’t going to care about your character, until your words make them do so. You care, they don’t. Yet. They take it for granted that IF the book is of the right type, and IF you’re a good writer, THEN they’ll care. What they’re trying to learn from the cover is “Is this the right type of book? Plot? Theme? Style? Genre?” Those are the things you can answer, by using the right iconography, in a matter of seconds. Sometimes, that means that the lead character will be on the front (romances, some types of science fiction or fantasy). Sometimes not. Do as your competitors do.

Oh, and the author name? Keep it unobtrusive, unless and until people start buying books simply because you wrote them.

The best way to tell if your idea for the cover is good, is to look at the top 100 sellers that your book will be competing with. What do those covers say, and how? Be a little, but not much, different.

Stupid Things Pirates Say

May 24th, 2014

There are smart pirates. But we’ve all heard the other ones. You know the ones. So, let’s make a “greatest hits” collection, and then some crushing responses.

I’ll kick things off on the collection, but you all chime in.

— You don’t lose anything when I make a copy. You still have your copy.
— When I share copies of your work, more people read it. You should be thanking me.
— Anything you post on the web is in the public domain, and there is no copyright on it.
— Everyone knows that piracy doesn’t hurt sales. The pirates wouldn’t buy it anyway.
— Authors/publishers are all rich anyway. I can’t afford to pay what you want, so you owe it to me to give it to me for free.
— I’m just using it to study or teach, so I can copy anything I want as many times as I want, because educational uses are all fair use.

What is Money?

December 18th, 2013

Do you know what money is? Yes, the stuff in your bank account or wallet is, indeed, money, but there’s more to say.

We need money because barter is inherently inefficient. If you have some sort of “common store of value,” you figure out one price for your own offerings, and then everyone else does the same, instead of negotiating an exchange rate for every pair of goods or services that could be exchanged. You only have to carry money with you, instead of a wheelbarrow full of whatever you make.

The simplest definition of money is: a common store of value, the common element used to describe all prices.

Anything can be money, and a surprising number of things have been money. Cowrie shells are one example that most folks have read about. Wampum made of drilled shell beads is another. But there have been dozens of different things used as money.

So far, so obvious, and so very uncontroversial. But from here on, the going gets complex, and the controversy starts.

There is nothing that has any exchange value in and of itself. It only has an economic value if someone wants it, and if two (or more) people agree that “so much of thing X” is worth “so much of thing Y.”

This is far more true of money. Money is entirely a social construct. You can’t have money without having a governing body that stands behind it. Even if you use an object that has value on its own, someone has to standardize the weights and measures, and someone has to certify that the thing is genuine or pure. If you don’t have standardization, you’re back to barter, with separate negotiations every time.

Money, by definition, has to be controlled by a governing body.

Common sense says that an object that has a lot of value on its own is a better form of money than one that does not. The most popular example is precious metals. Gold and silver are real things you can hold in your hand, and they’ve been used as currency for centuries. They’re valuable in their own right for use in chemical and industrial processes, as well as for jewelry. Surely, then, they’re better, more stable, more effective as money than a piece of paper we’ve declared to be currency? No, they’re not.

Gold and silver do have value. But that value is not different in kind than the value of any other thing. It rises and falls as the uses for the metals gain or lose importance.The value also rises or falls with the discovery of new sources of gold or silver, as well.

Precious metals trading, like all other commodities trading, is a very risky form of gambling. Fortunes are regularly lost this way.

If you base your money on something that is riding its own roller coaster, your economy follows suit. On top of that gyration, you add the economic cycles that come from the rest of the activity that’s happening.

Remember the machines that medieval astronomers used to calculate the motion of the stars? The ones with wheels on wheels on top of wheels, all spinning madly around? That’s what an economy based on an item with a volatile value of its own does. It’s pretty to watch if you’re standing to the side and the motion is abstract. But roller coasters like that are only fun to ride if you’re in an amusement park. It’s absolutely no fun when the roller coaster is your economy, and the thing being turned upside down is your livelihood!

This is all theory, right? Nope. We’ve seen it in practice. In the times when gold and silver coins were the currency, economies regularly crashed or soared because of fluctuations in the intrinsic value of the metals (as vs. their value as currency).

For just one example: Spain went through one paroxysm after another when the treasure galleons were bringing bullion back home. The value of gold and silver, as metals, dropped precipitously, because the supply spiked. And this happened independently of all the rest of their economy. Its after-effects meant that Spain missed out on most of the Industrial Revolution.

Back then, gold and silver were most valuable as jewelry or coinage. But these days, we’re using them for so many things that there are many, many more reasons for the value of the metals to be volatile.

If traditional currencies aren’t ideal, what is? If you want to avoid “extra” bubbles and crashes, you need a currency that has almost no intrinsic worth — one that is valuable only because we have all agreed to use it as currency.

But it has to be rock solid.

Today, that’s a currency backed by the “full faith and credit” of a major economic powerhouse. Examples are the paper or electronic money regulated by the US or the EU. The paper itself has little intrinsic value, and what value it has is ignored by all who use it. When the paper changes, the value of the currency does not.

These forms of money do shift with the economic strength of the countries sponsoring them, but only with the economy and economic forecasts. (Yes the political strength of the countries involved has an impact, but only as it is expected to impact the economy.)

The problem with this type of money is that it gives those governments a great deal of power over their economies. And no one likes to be controlled.

So now, is that power is a bad thing? Governments are run by politicians. Elected politicians are predictably prone to doing the expedient thing, rather than taking an unpopular but necessary course. Elected politicians tend to be good at politics, but can’t possibly have a deep understanding of every thing that the government controls. So, they’re likely to choose an emotionally appealing, but ultimately stupid, course of action.

Fortunately, our politicians are aware of that, and many decades ago, they took themselves out of the day to day, or even year to year, control of the money supply. Instead, they select a board of highly qualified, experienced, and highly educated specialists who in turn do the controlling. These few people aren’t elected, so they’re not vulnerable to the type of short-term pressure that politicians are. And they don’t have to know anything except how their own actions in regulating our money will affect the economy.

Is it bad that they have this kind of control? Shifting from the gold standard to paper currency did reduce economic volatility. With time and experience, the US Federal Reserve Board has made great strides in reducing the number and severity of our panics, depressions and recessions. It may not seem that way, since this has been happening over more than any one person’s life time. But it is true. The more control over the money supply that our government has had, the better off we have been, over the centuries.

Is it better to avoid economic consequences or to have less governmental interference in things that affect us? Each person has to answer that question for him or herself.

For me, the control is beneficial, and its control is not such that I feel any negative impact.

Comments? Countervailing evidence?

How to Sell Books

December 9th, 2013

You all know that I’m not a marketing maven. But I have developed some strong opinions about what works and what doesn’t over the last couple of decades. Here’s the distilled version:

— Is it a good manuscript? In what way?

— Who is already looking for a book like that? Why? What needs are driving them? Even novels are read to fill a need. Define it more narrowly than entertainment: different people find different things entertaining in large part because they fill different emotional needs. Know the needs that your book’s audience wants to fill.

— How many of these target readers can you find? What media, social or old-style, are they following? Who influences them? What messages or stories are they paying attention to in those groups?

— How does your manuscript fill the needs that are most discussed in those groups?

— How can you increase the benefits that your readers will take from your book? How can you demonstrate that you can deliver those benefits? Tip articles, second serial sales (aka excerpts), short stories or anecdotes (for a novelist, especially), offering advice in social media, comp copies to influential figures: the list is long.

— Worry if you hear yourself say the word “should,” as in “Everyone with ADHD should read this book.” It’s a danger signal. It means your about to try to get people to pay to be force fed the things you think will help them, instead of allowing them to pick out the things they think they need.

And last, but not least, don’t spam. Don’t post information about your book with every comment on new media. Don’t advertise. Don’t give books away indiscriminately.

Instead, demonstrate the benefits that your book will deliver, without mentioning it prominently (or at all, in many arenas). Leave a trail of breadcrumbs so that those who like what you have to say can figure out that you have a book, but don’t be in their face about it all day long. Those who are interested will find the book, and they’ll be so proud of themselves and their relationship to you that they’ll give it great word-of-mouth buzz. That’s effective marketing.

Reader-centered marketing. It works.

Marion’s Rules

May 17th, 2012

I’m procrastinating. Today, that means I’m blogging. I hope that the following helps you avoid whatever you don’t want to do right now, too!

The RULES of PUBLISHING, according to me:

It depends.
This one answers almost every question I get on-line and off, when it comes to making books and making a profit at the same time.

Publishing is high-stakes gambling. Don’t risk anything you can’t afford to lose.
There are no sure things in this business, and I have the stories to prove it.

Publishing is addictive.
Consult your accountant and psychiatrist before you begin.

New models that will revolutionize the industry arrive regularly.
And some of them actually do change things. But never as much as the pundits predict, especially if these pundits are from outside the industry.

There are no shortcuts to success.
And if you think you’ve found one, look harder. There’s something waiting out there in the woods to jump out and bite you.

Copyediting is not the same thing as editing.
And you need to do both!

There is no such thing as a book without competition.
In the US, at least. In a smaller market, it might be more possible.

Marketing to “all readers” is the same as marketing to none.
Know your reader(s), first, and everything else follows.

Marketing works best when you’re helping first, and selling second, or not at all.
Most people have an utterly different picture of marketing. In my experience, marketing works best if most of your audience doesn’t even realize that you’re engaged in marketing. They should be thrilled to get the help or the information or excerpt or whatever it is that you’re putting out there, and then they should think that it’s their own idea to go look for your book.

I’m sure that there are more. What are your favorite rules?

And which of the rules above do you disagree with?

Vampire Myths: The Ones We Simply Can’t Kill

January 15th, 2012

Do you have an authors’ or writers’ myth you’d love to kill? Ones that just keep going in defiance of all logic and reality? I have more than a few, and I’m collecting yours today, too!

Myth #1: The way to get published is to send your manuscript, in full, to a publisher or agent.
Why would they want your full manuscript before they ask for it? They have the instructions all over their sites, and all say to send queries or proposals. Many say that unsolicited manuscripts will be returned unopened. Believe them!

Myth #2: Editors will change your work until it sounds like them, not you.
Not if they’re any good, they won’t. The purpose of an editor is to help you figure out how your book can work better for the reader, while remaining true to your vision of it. That’s why one editor can have many very different, but excellent, authors on his or her list.

Myth #3: Editing is about fixing spelling and grammar.
That’s copyediting or maybe proofreading. Editing is about fixing the structure of the book, and the macro issues. Some of the small stuff may be caught along the way, but that’s not the point.

Myth #4: Big publishing is terrified of the self-publishing’s new modes, especially the e-book revolution.
Wish fulfillment, anyone? 99% of all manuscripts that float around are not worth publishing. They’re either so bad that it’s not worth trying to fix them, or they are good, but have a very limited market. So now, those manuscripts are going straight to ebook or being “POD published” (which is NOT the same as self-publishing with a POD printer). This is simply dumping the slush pile on an unsuspecting public, most of whom are showing the sterling good sense to buy elsewhere, or to do a pan review if they do accidentally purchase one.

Good stuff will sell, and be on the front pages of the on-line searches, and on bookstore shelves. And publishers still offer all the advantages that they always have. (Should this be another blog topic for later? Are you interested in this?)

I could keep going for a good long time, but I’ll give the rest of you a chance. What are your favorite myths? Skewer away!

Reversion Clauses in an Age of Change

October 17th, 2011

As the book business changes more and more quickly, we need to write flexibility and clarity into our contracts, in ways that are fair to all parties, and yet allow for futures we cannot yet see.

I see reversion clauses that have problems in this respect, but I think I have one that works. What do you think?

My reversion version:
Rights to this work shall revert to the author(s) when royalty earnings, exclusive of any reserves taken or released, have fallen below $XY for one full year. At that point, rights shall revert within 1 month of receipt of the author’s written request.

Possible variations:
–The publisher shall have the right to dispose of or sell any printed copies on hand at the time that reversion is requested, if the author(s) does(do) not choose to purchase that stock for amount it cost the publisher to print those copies.

–The publisher shall have 6 months from the date of request to issue a new edition or otherwise improve sales and royalty earnings.

So, what problems and misunderstandings might occur under this sort of contract? How would we fix those issues fairly?

Writer Beware vs. Another Troll-Blog

October 12th, 2011

Writer Beware is doing battle again on behalf of all of us who work in small press publishing and all of the writers who are entering the industry.

Go, read, comment and support them, and all the other writers and editors who have been attacked by the trolls.

POD: Some Very Good Questions

June 26th, 2011

Most of my readers know that POD publishing and POD printing are not synonymous. It’s entirely possible for anyone to set up a publishing company (which is totally trivial to do), and send a file into a POD printer. And you’ve probably heard that it’s a much better idea. The questions that many of you may still have include:
–Why is it a good idea?
–Would price per copy be the only reason for not printing with a POD?
–Is there a marketing or PR reason to use one POD over the other?

Why is it better to use a POD printer than a POD publisher?
Sometimes it’s not. Those times are when you expect to sell fewer than a 100 copies in the life of your book. This might apply to a gift edition of Aunt Peggy’s early poetry, or a family history.

When you have valid reasons to expect sales of a few thousand copies over a couple of years, then you should be using offset printing, and an inexpensive warehousing option. Or perhaps an inexpensive fulfillment house.

In between those areas, and in a few other special circumstances, you will probably do best with a POD printer. POD publishers charge much more per copy (although those charges are often unclear to the new author — they’re certainly not broken out for you). No one in this business can afford to give away part of their profit. It’s a very low margin industry!

Would price per copy be the only reason you would avoid a POD publisher?
No. POD publishers tend to charge very, very low rates for their design and layout services, but you’re not getting more than you pay for. The quality, although good enough to a besotted author’s eye, tends to seem “a little off” to regular readers who don’t know you, and to show glaring problems to the educated eyes of the people (reviewers, buyers for bookstores, etc) who stand between you and large numbers of readers.

Is there a marketing or PR reason not to use a POD publisher?
There’s the company you’re keeping. Most books produced by POD publishers are, I’m sorry to say, dreadful, in design and in writing. They’re often labors of love, but that can’t save them from an audience of people who don’t know the author. If your book is classed among these “book-shaped objects,” it’s easy for gatekeepers to dismiss it, without a single second’s examination.

And gatekeepers must weed out most of the books submitted to them immediately. There were 3,000,000 books published in the US last year. That’s one every other second, for the every working hour. Reviewers and buyers don’t get to look at books all day, every day. At some point, they have to read some and write reviews, or look at some longer, and decide how many to order, for which store or library branch, or do whatever else justifies their paychecks.

Oh, and one last reason why you may want to go to POD printer: your book might actually do well!
If your book “breaks out,” you’ll probably need print runs of several thousand copies each month. You can’t afford to give away half of the possible profit, or more, by not switching to offset. But if you publish through a POD publisher, when you want to change printing, you have to change the publisher. That means changing the ISBN (because the original one came from your publisher’s block), and that means starting over with all the marketing, reviews, and other momentum builders.

Most POD publishers also don’t sell you the rights to the cover or the layout. You pay for these things, but you don’t own them. So, when you need to start printing more inexpensively, you also have to get a new cover and a new text design, and that, too, will damage your sales momentum.

There are other reasons, of course, for any decision. And there are exceptions to every generalization.

When you’re making decisions about publishing:
–DO YOUR HOMEWORK FIRST! There’s usually a simple, obvious solution that’s quite wrong for your book and your bank account.
–Read books before you make books, because even blogs like this are much too short to cover all the important things you need to think about.
–Crunch your numbers. Your P&L spreadsheets should be at least 2 pages, if they’re to include all of the important variables.
–Be aware that the popular press is an unreliable guide to the complexities of something like this industry.
–Don’t blindly follow the herd. It may be thundering over a cliff.