publishing

Oct 032010

Barnes & Noble’s PubIt self-publishing platform just went live over the weekend (I don’t know if October 1 still counts as “summer” — maybe here in South Florida it does?) and my e-books are now live on B&N.com. It’s a very exciting development, as B&N now matches Amazon and allows authors to bypass gatekeepers, publishers, and even intermediaries like Smashwords: authors can upload their own e-book files for sale on B&N.com. Since Amazon is the clear #1 e-book seller and B&N is solidly in the #2 position, this allows indie authors to reach the vast majority of the market directly.

How It Works: Authors or copyright holders can upload e-books in various formats, although it’s best to upload in the Nook’s native ePub format, so B&N doesn’t need to do the conversion for you. I believe you can also upload in HTML or text, but your results may vary. You upload your file and a cover image (in JPG format), enter your info (title, author name, book categories, etc.), and enter your book’s description, editorial reviews, and an “about the author” blurb. Once you submit, your title will go live on B&N.com (it took about 12 hours for my title to show up, but 2 days for the cover art to appear).

There are several advantages to uploading directly with B&N (over having your e-books distributed there by Smashwords):

  • More control over the final format: I can improve the quality of the reader’s experience since I can upload the finished ePub file and know it looks perfect, with a working table of contents, etc.
  • More control over the categories the books appear in, their descriptions, etc.
  • Quicker speed of updating: Smashwords would take anywhere from a couple weeks to several months to update prices or an e-book file on B&N; now, if I need to fix a typo or change a price, I can upload it and the new version should be live in a day or two.
  • Higher royalties! 🙂 B&N pays a very respectable 65%.*
  • Instant sales reporting: I can’t tell you how useful this is (to see the results of marketing efforts, etc.) compared to waiting for several months to find out sales data. It’s also great for us obsessive author-types who check sales 10 times a day! 😉
  • B&N’s “LendMe” feature is enabled, so users can loan the book to friends (once per book, for 14 days).
  • No DRM! I was able to opt-out of DRM (copy protection), which can cause problems for consumers; now users can backup their e-book files on their computer or convert them to a new format if they get a Kindle or whatever.

* Note that Amazon pays 70%; however, Amazon takes off a small fee based on the e-book’s file size and only pays 35% on foreign sales, so the true average rate is closer to 60%.

I’m very excited by this development: it provides a better experience to readers (a better-formatted e-book file, quicker updates and fixes, LendMe, and no DRM), and is better for me as well (instant sales reporting, more control and quicker updates, and higher royalties). I love win-win scenarios like that.

Also in the plus column: my ratings and the great reviews that I was fortunate enough to receive on B&N transferred over to the new versions as well. A HUGE thank you to all my readers who have rated or reviewed the books on either B&N or Amazon: it really does help me out more than you’d probably expect, and I do appreciate it greatly.

The only negative so far is that my sales ranking hasn’t transferred over, and that I now have two versions of my e-books up on B&N. I’ve requested they be removed by Smashwords, but I don’t know how long it will take for them to actually come down from B&N.com (see what I mean about being frustrated by how long it takes to update things?). But the new versions are up and ready to go — you can find them at the B&N links below. Each are in ePub format, costs just $2.99, and can be instantly downloaded to your Nook or B&N Reader app for your computer or iPhone/iPad:

WOW! Before I even finished typing this post, I just checked my B&N sales and see a couple of sales showing up already! To my mystery shopper: THANK YOU, and I hope you enjoy the novels! Please come by and let me know what you think when you’re done!

Sep 292010

Where is your money going?

I was inspired to write this post by a couple of recent articles lamenting how the e-book revolution is making things tougher on authors: a WSJ article about the plight of authors, and a Futurebook description of a panel discussion about the future of books. My first thought was that the e-book revolution has increased my sales and income almost a thousandfold (OK, so it wasn’t very high to begin with!), and that the lower costs of e-books, the worldwide digital distribution they afford me, and the ability to reach readers without going through layers of middlemen (publishers and agents) has allowed me to price my e-books competitively and sell more books in a month than I used to in a decade. How can this be bad?

My second thought was that the two articles I read, and the dire predictions and “woe-is-me” lamenting therein, were mostly coming from those same middlemen: publishers and agents.

Let’s start off with some facts about where your money goes when you purchase a print book or an e-book:

  • Hardcover: These books retail for around $25, yet cost about 1/10th that amount — about $2.50 to print.
  • Trade Paperback: Retail for about $14, cost about $1.
  • Mass-Market Paperback: Retail about $8, cost about $0.75.
  • E-Books: Retail anywhere from $0.99 to $14.99, but most new releases from large publishers are $12.99. No printing costs, although they share the editing, cover design, and other costs of print books, and do have some formatting costs as well.

One interesting thing is that, as customers have clamored for lower e-book prices — rightfully claiming that there are no printing, shipping, or returns costs for publishers to account for — publishers have claimed these costs are only a small fraction of the cost of a print book (about 10%). Now, I think they’ve underestimated the costs of shipping and warehousing books, and the tremendous cost of accepting returns (for full credit) of unsold books by bookstores — sometimes paying for return shipping, sometimes having the books simply destroyed, and other times selling them in bargain bins for a fraction of the cover price. But I’ve seen enough data to convince me that the printing costs of a book are roughly in the ranges I spelled out above, when printed in large offset print runs.

One thing that jumps out at me is that hardcovers only cost a buck or two more than paperbacks, but can sell for $10 or $20 more. When Macmillan’s CEO John Sargent laments that “the value proposition goes ever downward when on screen … the perceived value decreases without a physical object,” I think what he’s really saying is that publishers can’t rip readers off for paper any more. I don’t think most readers understand that the extra $17 they pay for a hardcover is only $2 for the extra cost of the physical object (the paper and cover) and $15 as a “you want it first, you pay way more” tax. In other words, publishers were successfully able to charge triple the cost of a paperback for the hardcover version by combining the “it’s new, so it costs more” and the “look at how much nicer and more durable the hardcover book is” costs — without people realizing that the vast majority of the extra cost was the former, and the nicer paper and stiff cover was only a small fraction. With e-books, such intermingling is impossible, since the format of the book doesn’t change — not only are you getting the same words, but there’s no longer a different physical format to throw you off. And I think customers have said, “OK, I don’t mind paying a few bucks extra when a book is new, but there’s no way I’m paying that much more.”

Since I believe most readers overestimate printing costs, a related effect is that, once readers understand that printing costs of an e-book are zero, publishers can no longer exploit that lack of knowledge. Instead of being able to combine “new book tax” with “nicer, more expensive to print hardcover” costs, readers now understand there are no print costs with e-books, and can see the new book tax for what it is. Unfortunately for publishers, their industry had evolved to the point that the huge profits of hardcovers were what had kept them afloat.

So, let’s break down where your money goes a little more closely, shall we?

Cost breakdowns for print books vs. e-books

Your typical hardcover book costs around $25. The retailer (Barnes & Noble or Borders) typically pays the publisher about half the list price, so the publisher gets $12.50 (assuming the book sells, otherwise the bookstore sends it back!). Of that $12.50, it costs $2.50 to actually print the book, and the author gets a 15% royalty, which is $3.75. That leaves $6.25 to the publisher, from which they have to pay for their editors, proofreaders, cover designers, print layout people, CEOs, lawyers, advertising, and rent for big offices in New York City. Whatever is left over, is profit.

The typical trade paperback sells for about $13 (maybe a bit more, but this price will line up nicely with e-book pricing), costs about $1 to make, and provides an 8% royalty to the author ($1.04). Subtract the 50% retailer cut ($6.50), and the publisher profit is $4.46.

The numbers for a mass-market paperback book that sells for $8 would include about 75 cents for printing, an 8% royalty to the author (64 cents), and the same 50% ($4) to the retailer. That means the publisher is left with $2.61 for all their costs and profit.

E-Books used to be sold under a similar model: publishers priced them the same as hardcovers (!!!), retailers paid 50% of that price to the publishers, and then sold them for whatever they wished (list price, or some discount from list price, like how Amazon sold e-books at a loss for $9.99). Publishers insisted on the agency model, where the publishers set the sales price (not the retail price), and get 70% of the proceeds. Under this model, a $13 e-book garners 30% to the retailer (like Amazon or B&N.com), 70% ($9.10) to the publisher, and an author royalty of 25% of the publisher’s net proceeds (instead of the cover price), which works out to 17.5% of the cover price, or $2.27 in our example. The publisher has no printing costs, but let’s be generous and include 10 cents or so to account for e-book file creation (which is a one-time cost divided by the number of e-books sold). Subtract the $2.27 due to the author from the remaining $9.00, and the publisher is left with $6.73.

To recap, a hardcover nets the publisher $6.25 (or 25% of the cover price), a trade paperback $4.46 (34.3%), a mass-market paperback $2.61 (32.6%), and an e-book $6.73 (51.8%).

Wait, and publishers are complaining about e-books? They just found a way to earn more money on each $13 e-book than they used to make on a $25 hardcover. The percentage of your money they’re ending up with has more than doubled in the e-book world — and that’s the really important number, because don’t you think they can sell a lot more e-books for $13 than hardcovers for double that price?

And what about the author? Well, I may be biased, but it seems to me the author isn’t getting all he deserves here on e-book sales. First of all, publishers justify giving authors only 8-15% royalties in the print world because publishing a novel includes a lot of financial risk: to get those low per-book printing costs requires large print runs, and that involves up-front capital and the risk of paying for a bunch of books that never sell or get returned. There are also costs of storing and shipping all those books (along with the costs of editing and preparing the book), almost all of which occur before the first sale is made — and the publisher doesn’t even get paid for print sales until a month or two later! On the other hand, with e-books, there will be some editing and preparation costs, but there are NO printing costs or other huge up-front outlay of money for shipping or warehousing. There’s no way to lose money by printing more books than you sell, and publishers get paid much quicker on e-books as well. It seems to me that if publishers deserve the lion’s share of the revenue from books because of all their up-front financial risk, then the corollary is also true, and they don’t deserve as much if their financial risk is lower, as it clearly is with e-books. Instead of doing editing and cover design work, printing tens or hundreds of thousands of copies, and using their vast distribution, storage, and shipping network to get their books into thousands of bookstores across the country (and thus earning their share), publishers are now just doing the same editing and cover design work and a relatively-painless e-book conversion and upload process, and are taking 75% of the proceeds.

Now, I’ve done a lot of proofreading and editing, and designed my covers, formatted my e-books, and uploaded them to Amazon and elsewhere. And it takes a good deal of time and effort — but it does NOT take 3x as long as writing the book in the first place! For a large publisher especially, the formatting effort should be minimal — I know my third book took a lot less time to format than my first once I got the hang of it. More importantly, these jobs don’t require huge publishers with lots of money: authors can hire editors and cover designers by the hour or for flat rates, without giving up the majority of their books’ revenue forever!

I find it interesting when literary agent Simon Lipskar chides readers that they “should feel guilty if they buy a Kindle edition versus a hardcover, but not versus a paperback, in terms of what the author gets.” Whoa. Who determines how much the author gets? Right, the publishers. And, besides, even at 17.5% of gross, an author’s e-book take is still better than their hardcover take, let alone the measly 8% they get from paperback sales. (Of course, for an independent author like myself, I get the full 70% of e-book revenue after Amazon takes its 30%, so I have no complaints — I can charge readers much less for an e-book and still make a higher royalty than on a paperback, which is a win-win in my book.)

The bottom line is, e-books not only cost a lot less to produce (no printing costs, shipping, warehousing, or returns), but also require far less up-front investment and risk. Since those are costs and risks borne by publishers in the print world (and they are compensated for it), it only makes sense that removing those costs and risks should reduce the cut publishers are fairly entitled to take. Instead, publishers want the best of both worlds: reduced costs and risks, and they want to keep more of the purchase price for themselves.

Now, I do understand the publishers’ current dilemma: they’re caught between the new economic realities of e-books and their old business models, and 92% of book sales are still print. So, they may need to do a lot of painful downsizing and re-organizing, but they can’t do it all just yet and abandon their print sales model. But what frustrates me is that publishers aren’t telling us this, they’re not saying, “This is a tough transition time and we need to do certain things for the next few years and then here’s how we see things shaking out.” They’re not offering authors 17.5% of e-book royalties for the first 5 years, to increase to double that once e-book sales overtake print, or whatever. They’re not moving forward with their transition plan, they’re just trying to protect the status quo by fighting e-book adoption. And, like lots of businesses, it seems they’re more interested in protecting their own short-term profits and salaries and bonuses than in working on a long-term, sustainable business plan that’s fair to readers, authors, and publishers in the new digital world.

To follow up on my earlier post about print-on-demand paperback self-publishing options, here is a primer to help you create, format, upload, and distribute your writing in e-book format. The best part is that the process I detail below is 100% free. Always be wary of anyone charging you money in relation to publishing your book — not that it’s never a good idea to get some professional help, but you should know exactly what you’re paying for and whether it’s worth it.

The down side to spending zero money on your e-book is that you have to do all the work. Cover design, editing, formatting, uploading, promoting, etc. Don’t expect to spend an hour and have a nice-looking, professionally-formatted e-book. I’ve spent many, many hours getting my e-book files just right (ensuring proper indents, special characters, interior images, and tables of contents in various electronic formats). Hopefully, my experience can save you some time.

The first thing you’ll need is a novel (or short story) in electronic format, probably in Microsoft Word. For purposes of creating an e-book, you generally want to strip out all the fancy formatting you might use in a printed book: get rid of fancy fonts (just put everything in Times New Roman), strange indents or block quotes, and weird symbols. You can keep bold and italics, and smart quotes and em dashes should translate properly, although they sometimes cause problems. It’s generally better to use first-line paragraph indents in Word (instead of hitting the tab key — and never use spaces to indent paragraphs). Do not leave blank lines between paragraphs, since some e-book readers add them and you’ll end up with triple spacing! The basic rule is: the simpler, the better. Various e-book readers will display your text in different ways, and users can adjust font sizes at will, so just forget about the idea of controlling every aspect of how the text will look and where pages within a chapter break (like you would in a printed book), and keep the formatting clean and simple. Do not use multiple line breaks, those look terrible on the screen — use a blank line and a row of asterisks to indicate chapter or section breaks instead.

The second thing you’ll need is a front cover, which should be in 2:3 ratio. It should be at least 800 pixels tall, although you’ll be using the same image (along with a spine and back cover) if you make a paperback, and that requires at least 300 dpi, so it’s best to make it high-resolution to begin with (1800×2700 pixels for a 6×9 paperback). Any interior art (like an “about the author” photo) should be black and white and at least 150 dpi. The less interior art, the simpler it will be.

Amazon

Amazon is the most important e-book distributor; it still probably accounts for somewhere between 50% and 80% of all e-book sales. You publish e-books to the Amazon Kindle store using Amazon’s free Digital Text Platform (DTP) service at dtp.amazon.com. There, you can enter info about your book (author name, description, price, etc.) and upload your e-book cover and interior file. Amazon pays either 35% or 70% royalties; there’s more info in my recent post here.

You can upload the interior file in MOBI (the Kindle’s native format), or DTP will convert it for you if you upload an HTML or Word file. MOBI is best; HTML should be OK, Word is iffy. You can create MOBI files using the free Calibre (Mac or PC) or MobiPocket Creator (PC only) programs. A full MOBI or HTML tutorial is beyond the scope of this blog post — but see below for an easier, non-technical solution.

Smashwords

You’ll probably also want to upload your e-book to the free Smashwords e-book seller/distributor service. Smashwords sells e-books through its own website, but also will distribute them for you to be sold on B&N.com, Kobo, Sony, and the Apple iBook Store. They charge nothing up front, but they take a 15% cut of royalties.

Smashwords has an excellent free Style Guide that will help you prepare your Microsoft Word document for upload. It basically explains how to do what I said above: simplify and clean up your Word document, remove line breaks and extraneous formatting that translates poorly to e-books, etc. You can then upload your Word file and Smashwords will convert that file to all the e-book formats you need, including MOBI and ePub.

The Easy Way

The simplest way to get your e-book distributed as widely as possible and looking pretty good is to: (1) read and follow the Smashwords Style Guide, (2) create a Word document with simple, clean formatting, (3) upload that Word document to Smashwords and let them convert it for you, and (4) take the MOBI file that Smashwords creates and upload it to Amazon’s DTP. You should end up with a nice-looking e-book, and it will be available on Amazon and all the major e-book sellers.

The Perfectionist’s Way

Some of us, especially after you start selling more than a handful of copies, want to craft the most pristine, best-looking, and most full-featured e-books possible. It’s a lot of work and takes a lot of time and effort and research (it’s also beyond the scope of this blog post). But it’s possible to create a proper cover, page breaks, special formatting, interior photos or artwork, a table of contents, and other useful e-book features. This involves creating an HTML file, which is trickier than it sounds, since Word’s “Save As HTML” produces code that needs a significant amount of manual cleaning up. That HTML file is then fed into an e-book creation program (like the two I mentioned earlier) and tweaked to produce a MOBI file that can be directly uploaded to Amazon, and that should retain all your exact formatting and features.

Conclusion

Basically, the aspiring e-book publisher (make no mistake: if you’re doing this yourself, you now become a publisher, not merely an author, and must take on all the duties of a publisher) has three choices: (1) go with a simple, clean e-book that will be OK but not spectacularly formatted, (2) spend a lot more time and effort producing perfect MOBI (and possibly ePub) files, or (3) hire a professional to format the e-book for you. Which option you select (I went with #2) depends on your budget, your technical ability, how much time you have, and how many e-books you realistically expect to sell.

Publishers vs. E-Books

Posted by Always Write at 10:27 PM Tagged with: ,
Jun 012010

400 more years! 400 more years!

I’ve known for some time that the large print publishing companies are not fans of e-books. Many people wondered how publishers could be so silly, pricing e-books above (sometimes well above) the price of paperbacks, delaying e-book releases, providing simple OCR scans of paper books (instead of properly formatting or often even proofreading their e-book releases), blocking useful features like text-to-speech and lending, and infesting e-books with invasive copy protection (DRM) that annoys legitimate users. But I knew it wasn’t that publishers didn’t “get” e-books … OK, it wasn’t just that publishers didn’t get e-books: they are actively trying to forestall e-book adoption as long as they can. Why? Because there are 6 huge, multinational publishing conglomerates on top of the current food chain, divvying up the lion’s share of the $25 billion/year book industry, and a change as dramatic as the switch to e-books threatens to shake up their industry. Some publishers, by undergoing lots of painful downsizing, restructuring, giving up large New York offices, and doing some long-term thinking at the expense of this year’s profits, might remain relevant in the publishing landscape of the future. But not all will. So I’ve said before that they are forestalling that day of reckoning as long as they can. (They must understand how typewriter manufacturers and buggy-whip makers felt.)

But I’ve never before seen them admit it. See, they’ve always claimed to be in favor of e-books, since it’s clear that more and more authors and readers (their supposed allies and customers) like them. But now, David Shanks, CEO of Penguin Group (one of the “Big 6” publishers) came right out and admitted that We need to protect as long as we can the apparatus that sells physical books.

UPDATE: As another example, Nan Graham, the SVP and EIC at Scribner (Steven’s King’s publisher) created a nicely-crafted hardcover, and explained that “We hoped that a handsome object would slow the migration to e-book for King.”

In other words, it’s not about innovating, or even keeping up with changing times and technologies. They’ve stopped pretending they’re doing this for authors. They’re no longer claiming that they’re just trying to “preserve the value of e-books” or create “sustainable pricing” — for the authors, of course. They’ve finally admitted they not only don’t care about the readers, but they’ll do whatever they can to hold onto their position, at the expense of authors and readers and progress. As I said all along, it’s really just about protection. Not protecting literature or the future of books, just protecting themselves and their bottom lines.

When big publishers (like Jonathan Galassi) start talking about how they need to “maintain the value of time-honored roles,” I think it’s safe to say the writing is on the wall. (Although they probably get a sympathetic look from alchemists, blacksmiths, and cave-painters.) Companies that look to the past and seek to maintain the status quo don’t even notice the innovators (the Amazons and the Googles) as they rush past them and into the future.

As one last example of the “e-books are the enemy” attitude, consider this exchange between author Scott Turow and Galassi:

Turow: “Why did publishers agree to allow e-books to be available at the same time as paper books?”

Galassi: “It was a mistake to let Amazon put out e-books simultaneously and charge the price it did [$9.99]. It will have a negative effect on the paperback.”

So, there you have it. It was a mistake to let the largest bookseller in the world sell books to readers who wanted to buy those books (publishers should have delayed them and charged readers more instead). Why was it a mistake? Because it was bad for readers? For authors? No, bad for the paperback. Which really means: bad for the current crop of the Big 6 publishers, whose entire business model isn’t about selling literature, it’s about moving paper. The only thing that confuses me is, if they clearly care more about paper than they care about authors or readers, why are we supposed to care about what happens to them?

B&N Announces "PubIt"

Barnes & Noble announced today that they will be opening their doors to independent publishers and self-published authors through their “PubIt” program, expected to launch in “Summer 2010.” While this move isn’t exactly groundbreaking (my novels are already available at Barnes & Noble), it’s still a welcome step forward. Currently, self-published e-books are made available on B&N.com through an intermediary: Smashwords, which is a fine company that offers a great service to independent authors. Soon, however, we will have the ability to upload our work directly to B&N, which will presumably offer us more control, a faster turnaround (it can take months to get your books or any changes to show up on B&N), and possibly higher royalties. B&N says royalties will be announced within a few weeks, and promises they will be “competitive.” It is hard to imagine how they could offer less than the 70% that Apple offers and that Amazon will offer starting July 1.

Amazon led the way for the self-publishing revolution with its Digital Text Platform, which allows any author to upload their work in e-book form to be sold on Amazon.com. So while one could argue that B&N has been following rather than innovating (releasing the Nook 2 years after the Kindle and arriving over a year late to the self-publishing scene), I’m glad to see B&N moving toward and embracing the future, unlike some businesses I could mention. I would expect a direct upload channel to B&N will enable me to create a higher-quality, better formatted source file (with Smashwords, it’s best to upload a simple, generically-formatted file that gets converted to multiple formats), quicker upload and revision times, better control over the description and category, and — hopefully — a higher royalty rate.

Another big benefit might be quicker sales reporting: currently, Amazon Kindle sales are reported instantly … which leads to incessant checking several times a day. 😉 B&N sales, on the other hand, get reported through Smashwords, and are currently on a 3-5 month delay. I started selling on B&N at the very end of January, and I haven’t even received my first sales report yet — all I can do is watch my sales ranking and guess. So I don’t know if B&N is turning into a worthy second sales channel, or if B&N sales are still just a tiny fraction of Amazon’s. It would behoove B&N to get this info to me more quickly, so I would know whether or not it’s worthwhile to devote more promotional efforts their way.

My only concern is whether the new file I upload will replace or sit alongside the Smashwords version that’s already active on B&N. I’d certainly like to keep my description, reviews, and sales ranking (Right Ascension has made it into the Top 7,500 there!).

Anyway, it’s an exciting development, and having both the #1 and #2 booksellers in the world throwing their weight behind self-publishing is certainly an encouraging sign. I still have more questions than answers (How many am I selling on B&N? What will the royalties be? When will it launch? What format do they want me to upload? Can I migrate over my existing product details?), but I remain hopeful.

P.S.: I seem to get most of my feedback from Kindle users, so I’d love to hear from a few B&N / Nook users: Have you purchased my books from B&N? Have you enjoyed them? How did the formatting look on the Nook? How many of you are out there??

A few friends have recently asked me about self-publishing, and it’s clear there are still several misconceptions out there. Most people think about self-publishing or print on demand (POD) services, and they think of high prices, large minimum order sizes, and the term “vanity publishing.” True, numerous companies still exist that are looking to make a buck by preying on the aspirations of new authors. It is important to do your research to avoid paying for overpriced services and “self-publishing packages.” But, the good news is that there now are ways to get your new novel, your family’s history, or your local cookbook into print for very low cost. In fact, you can print up a single copy of your book (and even make it available online and at Amazon so others can order additional copies if they wish) for literally ZERO in set-up fees — you just pay the cost of a single print copy plus shipping, which is under $10 for most books.

The service I most highly recommend is called CreateSpace. CS is a subsidiary of Amazon, and they offer a very low cost print on demand service that is suitable for printing small runs of trade paperback books (even just a single copy). While CS does offer optional, expensive author services packages (which I do not recommend), there is no charge to upload your work and make it available. You simply pay for a single proof copy and a reasonable rate per additional copy that you want to order. The price is based on the number of pages in the book, and includes a full-color glossy cover, perfect binding, high-quality white paper, and unlimited black-and-white interior photos.

Does it sound too good to be true? There is one “catch.” Since you’re not paying them anything (except the cost to print however many copies you order), you have to do all the formatting yourself. That means you have to create a PDF that is the right size with proper margins for the interior of your book (they offer numerous print sizes; my novels are 6×9 inches). Doing this is relatively easy, and you can use Word or pretty much any word processing or page layout program and save it as a PDF (even easier if you have a Mac). The more difficult part is designing a cover file. The cover will be a “full wrap” cover, which is the back cover, spine, and front cover all saved as a single PDF:

The full-wrap Right Ascension cover

Making a cover like this isn’t the easiest thing in the world. I did mine with Photoshop, and it took a LONG time to figure out and get it just right. CS does provide some templates to help you out, which are based on the page size of your book and the spine width is calculated based on the number of pages. Even still, I had to find a high-resolution cover image (you want 300dpi or more for it to look its best), fiddle with the text and all the effects, mess with the color, etc., etc. There are easier ways to do it, and you can find simpler cover templates where you pretty much just add a photo and some text, if that’s enough for your needs. There are artists who will offer cover design services for a fee, but that only becomes worthwhile for commercial books where you think you can sell several hundred copies or more to justify that up-front cost.

Assuming you can come up with your cover and interior PDF files, you simply upload them to CS. So far, you haven’t spent a cent. Now, CS will ask you to order a proof copy of your book to make sure it looks good. If you only want a single copy, the “proof” copy can be it. Your book is priced based on the page count, and a 200-page novel (70,000 words or so) costs $5.50, with another $3 or so for shipping.

Once the proof arrives, you check it out, and if it looks good, you log into CS and “approve” the proof. Then you can order additional copies (as many or few as you want). If you’re buying more than 17 or so, it becomes worthwhile to pay $39 for the “Pro Plan,” which reduces the per-book printing cost: our same 200-page book would drop to $3.25. (Do this before ordering the proof to save a couple bucks on the proof copy as well.) Shipping is more economical on larger purchases, as a single book may cost about $3 to ship while a 20-book shipment may cost around $10. Obviously, if you order more, your total per-book cost will decrease. For example, 50 books ($162.50) with the Pro Plan ($39) and shipping ($15) should cost about $4.33 per book.

Once you’ve approved the proof, you can decide if you’d like to make the book available for purchase through CreateSpace, Amazon, or Expanded Distribution. If you’re just ordering a few copies of something for yourself and your immediate family, there’s no reason to select these options. However, you may want to offer a family history book, but don’t want to order 50 copies and possibly be stuck with them, or deal with shipping them or collecting money. In that case, you can enable CS distribution (which is free), and just email people the link where they can purchase however many copies they want, CS will print them up and ship them directly when ordered. CS takes 20% of the purchase price for CS sales, and you can set the “list price” so you make zero royalty (at 20% more than the per-book printing cost), or price it higher and even make a buck or two for your trouble.

Similarly, you can make your book available on Amazon or through Expanded Distribution, although Amazon takes 40% and ED sales take 60% of the list price. The ins and outs of selling on Amazon and ED (which makes it available for order in bookstores and libraries) are beyond the scope of this post, but leave a comment if you’re interested in more info and I may devote a later post to it.

Anyway, there are low-cost options to create your own printed books for family reunions, your short story collection, or anything else you’d like to see in print. You do have to put in some effort, but the cost is very low, and there are no set-up or other up-front fees (you just pay for the books you have printed). I recommend CreateSpace for their low prices and high quality, but some other solid possibilities include Lightning Source and possibly Lulu. I would avoid Author House, iUniverse, and xLibris, as each charges several hundred dollars or more for what you can get through CS for free.

UPDATE: For info on self-publishing for e-books, check this post.

20/20 vision only beyond this point

I’d like to highlight an issue that has steadily become a bigger and bigger deal for me, and something that I think really exemplifies how several large print publishers are just taking the complete wrong tack when dealing with their readers. Instead of embracing readers (i.e., their customers) and thinking of ways to make their reading or purchasing experiences better, publishers have been raising e-book prices, delaying e-book releases, slapping on restrictive copy protection (DRM) that confuses and limits readers, blocking features like lending, and, perhaps most egregiously, blocking text-to-speech.

Text-to-speech (TTS) is a technology that allows printed words to be read aloud by a synthesized computer voice. While the quality of this artificial voice is acceptable to some but irritating to others, it as an option that Amazon spent time and money building into the Kindle 2. Amazon partnered with Nuance (makers of Dragon Naturally Speaking) to build TTS into the K2. That means that, in addition to all the other advantages of e-books–like adjustable font sizes that make it easier for those with poor vision to read–now your Kindle can read any e-book to you, which opens up the joy of books to the vision impaired, the elderly, or anyone else who can’t read printed words. While I’m fortunate enough to still have (relatively) good eyesight, I’m glad to see such technologies emerge to help those who aren’t as fortunate. And I’m in favor of anything that enables more people to read or enjoy the written word.

And what do I, as an author or publisher, have to do to enable this wonderful technology? Nothing. It’s already built into the K2 and turned on by default. Talk about a win-win-win. More people get to enjoy books, I can reach a whole new market, and Amazon can sell more e-books and Kindles.

Right up until the part where publishers demand that Amazon block text-to-speech on their titles.

This move just strikes me as so backwards-thinking, so antagonistic, and so wrong–considering which segment of the population will be harmed the most by the move: the disabled.

The publishers’ argument is essentially that TTS-enabled e-books will cut into their (expensive) audiobook sales. To me, it’s just another example of publishers alienating readers, and fighting instead of embracing technology. They’re so worried about e-books hurting their hardcover sales and audiobook sales, they’re forgetting that e-books are reaching new readers who are buying more e-books than they used to buy in print. They’re forgetting all the cost savings inherent in e-books, since they don’t have to print or ship or store books or accept returns or produce audio files. They’re forgetting that technology marches on, and they can march along or be trampled underfoot along with the typewriter manufacturers and buggy-whip makers. Most importantly, they’re forgetting the reason they exist: to provide literature to readers. Readers are not your enemies; please stop fighting them. How did it work out for the RIAA and the music industry?

In the meantime, all I can do (aside from posting about it here) is continue to try to embrace technology and provide value for my readers. To me, that means fair pricing, multiple formats, no restrictive DRM, and enabling text-to-speech on my novels.

Apr 022010

So, we’ve already established that e-books are taking over the world (yes, I use the term “established” somewhat loosely). What does this mean for bookstores?

Well, first of all, the smart bookstores are hedging their bets. Barnes & Noble (the largest physical bookstore chain) produces the Nook e-book reader, and Borders (the #2 chain) partners with Sony and the Sony e-book reader. Barnes & Noble already sells books and e-books on their website. So, these companies are at least attempting to embrace the digital future and sell electronic content.

But e-books are still a relatively small percentage of print book sales, and bookstores are in dire financial straits as it is. People are reading less in general (with the notable exception of e-book readers, who are voraciously purchasing and devouring more content faster than ever) with the distractions of TV and iPhones and Twitter. What will happen to them?

While I have fully embraced the e-book revolution, I do enjoy visiting bookstores (and libraries) and browsing the stacks of books, checking out magazines, and generally spending some time there. (I much prefer spending time in a bookstore to a mall, for example.) It would be a shame to see them disappear.

I don’t think bookstores will go away, but I do think they will adapt — for the better. Gone will be huge shops with three floors full of shelves carrying thousands of titles, one or two copies of each, spine-out on the shelves. Instead, what I think we’ll find in your typical bookstore in 5 or 10 years is:

  • A display table with stacks of the latest big blockbuster release (hopefully not Harry Potter and the Enlarged Prostate).
  • More and more book-related accessories: mugs, notepads, gifts, journals, calendars, greeting cards, bookmarks, e-book cases, etc. (these constitute more and more of bookstores’ current profits).
  • Coffee shops and cafes will continue to expand; perhaps we’ll see wine bars and such as well.
  • The bookstore will be smaller, and will lack the upper floors of lesser-selling titles. Instead, there will be kiosks where shoppers can browse a virtually unlimited catalogue of books, order one, sit and sip a cappuccino, and their newly-printed book will be delivered to them in 15 minutes.

This last part is the real quantum shift (the other parts are just accelerations of current trends). Instead of devoting lots of space (which is expensive) to slow-selling titles, the bookstore will have a print-on-demand (POD) machine or two in back. Not only will it save space and help with inventory, shipping, and returns issues, but it will expand the bookstore’s available stock exponentially. No more worrying if a store carries a particular title or if it’s in stock. Just about any book ever written — from the latest release to Shakespeare — will be available.

(Note that, while I think e-books will become more and more popular, I don’t think physical books will ever completely disappear — some small percentage will still be useful as collector’s editions, children’s books, gifts, home decorations, etc.)

The bookstore will become more about browsing and hanging out and chatting and sipping coffee — a place where book lovers can still go and shop and mingle and sample books (and grab that special edition hardcover they want for their shelf). They’ll probably even browse the store catalogue and submit POD orders from their Nook 3 or Kindle 5 in addition to the kiosks. And the bookstore will save money with smaller stores, a wider selection of titles, and more focus on high-profit hardcovers, gifts, and food sales.

It’s a win-win, and it’s coming soon to a bookstore near you.

As I mentioned in my last post, e-books are surging in popularity, and for good reason. I mentioned that the surge in e-books has impacted me as a reader. But it has impacted me even more dramatically as a writer.

I wrote my first novel, Right Ascension, in 2000, and the sequel, Declination, was completed in 2002. While they enjoyed some early success and some sporadic pockets of sales, and received positive feedback from readers, they essentially sold about as well as most self-published books, which is to say: hardly at all. A few hundred copies over the course of several years.

Then, I learned about Amazon and their Digital Text Platform, and I published my novels to be sold through Amazon for the Kindle.

And people started buying it.

Not a ton, mind you, but some. And so I did some research. And I spent weeks learning how to perfect Kindle formatting. I spent time on Kindle boards, getting to know readers and what they wanted. I learned that the stigma against self-publishing is disappearing, just as it did for “indie” musicians and movies. In fact, people were sick of the same regurgitated tripe being spewed forth by the big publishers. Think about the three biggest hits of the past five years: Harry Potter, Dan Brown, and Twilight. Are any of those examples of great writing?

In December of 2009, I lowered my e-book prices to just 99 cents each. I debated back and forth for a while. But they’re worth more than that! I cried. But I did it, as a grand experiment, and it worked. While I had cut the price down from $5 to $1, my sales went up by a factor of 7. Cool.

Then, as I started becoming more active on various forums, and (I hope) started getting some positive buzz and word-of-mouth going, my sales more than doubled. Then doubled again. I sold more in a month than I had in the past decade. Then it happened again the next month. And, guess what? Readers didn’t care that my book wasn’t printed by a big publisher. Heck, they didn’t care if it was printed at all. They didn’t care that it wasn’t in bookstores. Because over 98% of all those sales were e-books. And my e-books look just as good — actually, better — than e-books from big publishers. In fact, mine are meticulously formatted and proofread and have a table of contents, while theirs are often error-filled scans of printed books. Mine enable text-to-speech, while theirs block the feature. Mine are not saddled with DRM (copy protection), and I offer them in multiple formats instead of tying you down to one device. And, while readers feel gouged by publishers raising prices from $9.99 to $14.99 and charging more for e-books than paperbacks, mine are just 99 cents.

Now, for the first time, I feel that there is a possibility — certainly not a certainty — but a chance of actually making a living at writing. For a long time I was told that I had a real talent for writing, and I worked hard at it, but the only option was to send query letters into the black hole of agents’ and publishers’ “slush piles,” sometimes getting a polite form rejection letter, sometimes a scrawled “NO” written in the margin of my own letter and sent back in my return envelope, usually no response at all, and never even once did anyone actually read the book they were rejecting.

So I’ve bypassed the gatekeepers, and am taking my work directly to the readers. Yes, it’s taken a ton of time, but it’s cost me very little money in the digital realm, and my books sit on Amazon’s virtual shelves next to (and even above!) Asimov and Heinlein and Vonnegut. And maybe, if I continue to work hard and hone my craft, write more novels, promote like crazy, get great editors to help ensure the books meet or exceed the quality of “traditionally-published” stuff, and get a bit of luck, I just might eke out a living at doing what I love. And that chance, remote though it still might be, did not exist two short years ago.

I’m excited. Are you?

Apr 012010

If you’ve been following e-publishing lately, you may have heard that today, 5 out of the “Big 6” publishers forced Amazon to agree to an “agency model” when selling e-books instead of the previous “retail model.” Under the retail model, publishers set a “list price” for e-books (usually the same $25 or so they set for the hardcover), and retailers like Amazon pay them a fixed percentage of that price, such as 50%. Amazon would then pay the publisher $12.50 for each e-book sale, and price the book however they wanted: $12.51, $19.99, $25, or even $9.99 (as a loss leader).

As of today, 5 large publishers told Amazon they must sell their e-books under the agency model (physical books remain on the retail model). Under the agency model, the publisher sets the final sale price, and Amazon gets a flat 30% cut of each sale. That means Amazon is not allowed to have “sales” on e-books, and that a particular e-book should be the same price everywhere. This shift was caused in large part by the entry of the iPad (which I am still not convinced will be a popular place for people who actually buy and read e-books) and Apple’s embracing of the agency model (just like in their iTunes Store and App Store).

Apparently, the large publishers weren’t happy about Amazon taking a loss and selling NYT bestsellers for $9.99 (even though they sent the publishers $12.50 per sale), because they are concerned Amazon is “devaluing e-books.” If you ask me, the large publishers are terrified of e-books, since they require a massive shift in their business model (involving costly layoffs, restructuring, reduction of rent and other overhead, changing contracts and relationships, etc.). They know that some publishers might adapt well and stay on top … but not all of them will. So they seem intent on stalling e-book adoption as long as possible (as evidenced by them trying to raise prices in the face of clear consumer outcry, attaching invasive DRM to their titles, disabling TTS access, delaying e-book releases, and generally releasing poorly-formatted scans of physical books).

So, today, most large publisher e-books will go up in price from $9.99 to $12.99 or $14.99.

It’s times like this that I’m glad to be an independent author … while the idea of a huge book deal with a traditional publishing house had always been my dream, I’m thinking more and more of the benefits of being nimble in a quickly-changing e-book industry. I wonder if the big publishing houses read forums and blogs and comments like I do; I wonder if they have any idea what their customers are feeling or how they think. Sometimes I wonder if they “get” e-books at all. It sure seems like they see them as a threat to be fought, instead of an amazing opportunity to be embraced. “Let’s delay releases! Jack up prices to double that of paperbacks! Infest books with DRM! Format them like crap!”

One thing I know for sure is that the vast majority of Kindlers are passionate readers (in a world where readers are an endangered species). In other words, the publishers’ very best customers. Or, as I see it, the reason I write.

I hate to say it, but the big publishers jacking up prices can only make the prices charged by most indie authors look that much better in comparison ($0.99 vs. $14.99 — wow). But, if they succeed in killing the fledgling e-book industry before it can really take off, then we all lose.

© 2010 David Derrico