Archive for January, 2008

Just Got My Kindle!

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

And I love it! Celebrate with me!

I’ll blog more about it, and possible improvements, later.

What is a Publisher?

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

As our industry starts to change, it’s important that we think about what the essence of publishing really is. This is especially true as the barriers to entry drop and many new people flood in to join our profession, without any indoctrination from the rest of us.

My list starts with owning the ISBN block, which is critical to making the book available to the public. If your national ISBN Agency doesn’t have you as the publisher for those numbers, none of the functions below can override that.

Publishers also must either do or hire someone else to do the design and editorial work on the book. The design must include both the design and composition of the interior, as well as tailoring the cover to the market. The editorial work includes making sure that the structure and overall execution of the content are adequate, as well as getting copyediting and proofreading, etc.

Publishers are the venture capitalists of the book world. They fund the joint venture of author and publisher in launching this book and reap a share of the rewards.

Publishers provide appropriate marketing to the target audience. They also provide distribution to the sales channels where the audience will shop for books.

Publishers have expertise in their industry and the market. They may not do all the functions themselves, but they know who can and how to find them. And they control the process, ensuring that quality standards are met.

So, what did I miss? What needs to be amplified? Where was I just plain wrong?

What do YOU think are the critical functions?

Self-Publishing vs. Using a “Self-Publishing Company”

Monday, January 28th, 2008

You’ve just spent a good chunk of your life writing your book-to-be. You have decided against submitting it to agents and established publishing houses (which may not be a good decision, but that’s another topic), and you’re now looking for the best way to self-publish. And let’s assume that widely dispersing your message, fame and/or fortune are among your goals.

First, let’s clear up some confusion. If you buy the ISBN from RR Bowker (or your country’s ISBN Agent), you’re self-publishing. Otherwise, you’re using a vanity press. It doesn’t matter that they call themselves a “self-publishing company,” or a “POD publisher.” It’s still the latest version of the vanity press.

Second, let’s put a stake through the heart of another common misconception: you do not need a “POD publisher” to use POD printing. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of POD printers who will happily print your correctly formatted manuscript as a book for a far lower cost.

So, one of the reasons to self-publish, instead of using a new-style vanity press is a lower printing cost. And, of course, if your book takes off, you can always switch to an offset run.

But wait, the vanity press probably tells you that you can terminate the contract at any time. So you think that if your book takes off you could still go offset? Nope. You see, most vanity presses do the design work on the text and the cover. And they own those designs. Even if they do give you the rights to the designs, they still own the ISBN. And that they can’t give you.

The first few digits in ISBNs identify the publisher of the book. You can’t transfer those numbers, and if you tried, the old publisher would still get all the orders, all the payments and all the liability for your book. And that’s a mess.

So you buy a new ISBN for the new edition — and lose all the sales momentum. The ISBN might as well be the book as far as bookstores and Amazon listings, etc. are concerned.

And here’s the real kicker: everyone from the people who select books for stocking in the bookstores, to reviewers, to librarians — that is, everyone between you and your readers — knows the major vanity press imprints. And they look elsewhere for quality. Even if you do put out a quality product through one of these imprints, that fact is unlikely to be noticed.

True self-published books can be produced in such a way that they can compete on an even basis with anything else in the store. It’s not easy, and there are no shortcuts, but it can be done. It is done with astonishing regularity.

The chances are very good that you already own books that were self-published, without having noticed it. Most well-published books from author-publishers will not advertise that fact.

Do I advise you to self-publish? It depends. It depends upon you, your book, your abilities and resources, and your goals. The publishing business can be addictive. You may love it so much that you quit your day job, and join our ranks. You may starve, but saving small publishers from that fate is why I’m here.

Most writers really aren’t best served by self-publishing. And doing it well takes everything you need to be published by a “big NY” house, and even more. It’s not a shortcut or an easy way out.

But, if you’re really good at self-promotion, and you have business management down pat, if your book is actually ready for primetime and it has a narrowly defined, easily found market, and if you have the money to invest in preparing it for publication, then, MAYBE, it might be a good option.

Are Returns A Bad Thing?

Monday, January 14th, 2008

There’s an obvious answer: of course they are. Like many simple answers, this one is wrong. Or at least it’s incomplete.

We all know that the current system was invented to allow bookstores to order current stock during the Great Depression. It lived on later both because it’s hard to reverse a system like this one, and because publishers benefitted from it as much as bookstores do.

How do publishers benefit from the returns system?

It’s easier to get booksellers to take a chance on innovative books. After all, their risk is much reduced. Many people in our business bemoan the lack of variety and quality in trade books. The return system gives a break to those new and risky books that do get onto someone’s list.

Net sales increase. Very few readers will special order a book that isn’t on the shelf when and if they look for it. If your book isn’t there when the customer comes, that’s a lost sale. With the returns system, bookstores order more copies, and your book has a better chance of being available for purchase.

Net profits increase under the current system, for most publishers. If you have the right balance between increased sales, and increased returns, you can make more profit. Of course, you can go too far in this direction. You need to find the point where the margin you’ll make from the next extra sale will exactly balance the cost of the extra returns necessary to make that extra sale.

Returns give you information that isn’t always easy to get any other way. Until recently, it wasn’t possible to know how many of your books were being sold to end readers. (Thank you, Bookscan, for changing that!) The only way you knew a book hadn’t walked out the store’s door was a return.

It’s still not possible to find out if books have been unpacked and shelved, or not, until you look at the boxes that return. And you won’t know if readers pick the book off the shelf and then put it back (meaning that the spine or front worked, and the copy didn’t), until you look at the condition of the returns. There’s at least some value to that information.

This system distributes rewards and penalties fairly. A book that sells through well, and a publisher that consistently brings out such books, will bear a lower cost. If we had no returns system, and simply gave larger discounts, those discounts would be applied across the board. Returns are more accurate in assigning costs.

Last, but not least, publishers are going to bear the cost anyway. Chains have much more power in today’s book business than the publishers do. So the cost of the books that don’t sell will hit publishers in either the form of returns or of higher discounts. In the current regime, at least we get the books back.

This isn’t the prevailing view, I know. I eagerly await your comments and arguments!

Is the Book Business Headed for Big Changes?

Friday, January 4th, 2008

Not yet, but in another decade, I think we will be.

Why? Because of revolutions in the way we handle data, including e-books and our sales techniques.

Let’s start with the controversial part: we all know that the e-book devices on the market aren’t as good as printed books. (Let’s call the printed books p-books, shall we?) But in another few years, they may well be. And e-books have obvious advantages in weight and volume, in convenience of purchasing books, and in cost.

Some market segments are very price sensitive and very sensitive to convenience. If a significant fraction of the readers for a given segment switch to e-books, the rising price of the remaining p-books will push the remaining readers ever faster in the same direction.

So, if some formats just stop being offered in some market segments, or even in many of them, what happens to bookstores? To wholesalers? To distributors?

No one in the book business has much margin to spare right now. We need to figure out what the changes might be, and have plans ready to implement when we see the cascade start, or we risk being caught very short.

When p-books aren’t purchased as often, what will bookstores have to offer? Can gift books, art books, and other premium forms of books sustain bookstores? Or will they need to offer more sidelines? And e-book readers? And more book-related programming, making them a shopping destination?

Some of them, of course, will look at challenging Amazon’s primacy. That’s going to be a very hard slog for obvious reasons, but it could be done if the new stores offer some sort of community experience or added value that Amazon’s site isn’t delivering.

Wholesalers and distributors are necessary now because of the numbers of small bookstores and small presses, and because of the volume of business done by the indies.

They can aggregate the orders and build enough volume to make large fixed investments in handling books and orders more efficiently. But when the volume of p-books being shipped drops, especially when the indie publishers surge into the e-book arena by preference because of the lower barriers to entry, then a big part of their role disappears.

Will the efficiencies of wholesalers and distributors order processing, credit and collection, and payment systems be enough to earn them a reasonable place in the supply chain? Or will they need another role?

As it becomes less and less possible to have sales reps showing all the new books to all the bookstore buyers, is there a place for an automated system that integrates Bookscan-type data, bookstore buyers’ feedback, and publishers’ catalog data to produce useful ordering recommendations? Could this turn into a wholesale version of

Is there a role for such a system in the e-book world? Probably not. There may well be a role for retailers, but I’m not sure that I see a near-term need for another layer of intermediaries. But p-books might well be a profitable niche for wholesalers that can add this kind of value-added service.

If you’re a bookseller, I’d like to hear whether you see an advantage to you in such a system? And how you are preparing for the future.

If you’re in wholesale or distribution, what do you think of the above?

And if you’re in publishing, how do you see the future of the books you’re making? Will p-books ever lose market share to e-books?

Am I completely out to lunch?