Month: April 2017

Part 3: Changing my mind about self-publishing: Signaling con’t further

To signal some of their books as especially high quality, self-publishing companies must overcome two broad problems.

First, their high quality books must overcome the same stigma self-published authors must: if a book “couldn’t” get a “real” publishing deal, what’s the matter with it? Certainly this prejudice has been abating, and in fact, many authors now don’t even bother with the Traditional Publishing Path at all, so it’s not always a question of ability but desire to go the traditional route. Still, if a self-publishing company vouches for a book, it can ill afford backing a bomb, or even a mediocre book: That would simply reinforce the image of self-published books as inferior, as books that couldn’t make it the “real” way, which in turn would hobble the publisher’s ability to make money actually selling the books they publish.

In other words, if a publisher gets behind a book, it has to make absolutely sure it really is that good: a publisher’s not only protecting their brand but the business model of a whole class of publishers.

Second, how can a publisher, which by definition publishes whatever it gets paid to publish (with some exceptions)—including books that are not meant to be sold, or that are poorly written and get published without so much as a proofread—legitimately signal that a particular book is a cut above everything else it publishes?

Next up the iUniverse solution.

Part 3: Changing my mind about self-publishing: Signaling con’t

Finally and most importantly, it’s about money. While it’s true that an independent publisher gets paid by an author up front for typesetting, as well as possibly for editing, design and marketing services, a self-publishing company also makes money on every book they sell. Here the publisher’s interests are exactly aligned with authors of quality, marketable books: The more a given book sells, the more the author AND the company both make. Self-publishing companies want to publish good books, and to have those books sell because the publisher makes money from these sales, creating revenue streams independent of acquiring new titles and all the work that involves.

The numbers can be significant. While royalties are similar across companies, I can speak specifically only for my publisher: iUniverse makes 75% of the cover price for print and audio sales from the iUniverse bookstore, and 90% of print and audio sales from any other channel; they make 50% from digital sales via any channel, and 70% from “other forms” such as bundles. At the current suggested retail price of $23.95 for the softcover version of A Perfect Blindness, iUniverse will gross $17.96 per copy sold from the their bookstore, and $21.56 from other channels. At the current suggested retail price of $9.95 for the digital version (a price cheaper than traditionally published titles, which average about $15.95 for a book this size, as well as high enough to be able to discount it advantageously) iUniverse will gross $4.99 per copy sold. Bundles’ values are contingent on the form and what portion A Perfect Blindness can claim, so I can’t speak to actual dollars on that, and I’m excluding any I sell directly—both because it’s not likely to be a great number, and that the discounted price authors get is determined on publication and increases as the number of books purchased increases: so, as of this time, it’s unknown.

Thus for each 100 physical copies of a book that sells, supposing 90% of those sales come from channels other than the iUniverse bookstore, they pick up $2120.00, less of course printing, paper, overhead and shipping costs, and for 100 digital they would gross $499.50, less much less. Numbers do of course depend on the actual selling prices, including discounts. For 500 physical copies, that’s $10,600, and for 500 digital that’s $2,497.50—all the money in addition to what I paid to have the book published and edited.

Thus, selling more copies of a book earns the company more as well as finally earning the author money. For me, the physical copies assuming the same breakdown would earn $275.43 per 100, and $499.50 per 100 for the digital. For 500 books sold: $1377.15 and for the digital $2,497.50. I.e. breaking even means it needs to sell a lot of copies, which would earn iUniverse more money than the initial fees I paid. Quite a bit more. In this, our goals are perfectly aligned.

Yet self-publishing companies have dual problems here: overcoming the stigma of self-publishing and how to signal the special quality of some titles without denigrating all their other books.

Part 3: Changing my mind about self-publishing: Signaling

iUniverse and the publishing path of the novel A Perfect Blindness

So, while self-publishers won’t publish anything, they will publish a book for whatever purpose the author wants.

There are myriad reasons for publishing a book, from “sharing my story with family and friends”, and “expressing my deepest thoughts”, to “sharing information on a specialized topic”, or “enhancing my professional career”, or “writing for Fame” and “finding out if I have what it takes for commercial success” and even “writing a giveaway promotional book” or simply because a person “loves to write”. Only a couple of reasons for publishing a book imply a real intent to sell, versus the unspoken hope that a book might be so good, people will spontaneously offer to buy it, and …

For the books published for reasons that don’t specifically include competing in the market, yes indeed, the independent publisher makes all its money by getting paid up front for typesetting and printing, and possibly for editing and design services, and this is all the publisher expects to ever make from these books. Many of the books published for these reasons fit the definition of “vanity publishing” exactly.

Other writers though engage self-publishing companies with the intent of selling what they write, on the shelves shared with traditionally published books. Of course, not every book written with the goal of fame or landing on the bestsellers list is of high enough quality to sell more than a few copies to family and friends. An early contact at iUniverse wrote that the vast majority of the books they publish are not worthy of a bookstore shelf: only 5 percent of all their books even have that potential. Thus the number books of dubious quality along with the number that are published for reasons other than sales lead to the oft-quoted statistic that the average self-published book sells less than 500 copies. That number is gained simply by dividing the total number of books sold by the total number of titles in a given year, regardless of purpose or quality: an inaccurate picture of sales for high quality books written with the purpose to sell. Especially if the book has a large and reachable market.

So it is true that self-publishing companies will publish most anything, even if it’s poorly written, and yes, on these mediocre or low quality books as well as books that aren’t intended for sale, these companies do indeed make all their money from type-setting, formatting and design fees, as well as whatever additional services an author might purchase, such as editing and marketing help.

Confounding matters for self-publishing, these same additional services, which can help a book reach it’s potential as they did for A Perfect Blindness have added to lawsuits from authors whose books, in spite of all the extra money spent on editing, designing and marketing, didn’t sell as the author expected. Some of these suits have gotten press, which perpetuates the image that self-publishing companies are little more than a scam that preys on vulnerable authors’ dreams, rather than providing a new way for serious writers to get their books to market. It’s important to remember though that the class action lawsuit claiming Author Solutions, iUniverse’s parent, is a fraud was dismissed in 2015 in part because so many authors return to the company to publish more books.

Finally and most importantly: self-publishers make money by selling books too, and they know good books do actually sell.

Part 2: Changing my mind about self-publishing Cont’ even further

iUniverse and the publishing path of the novel A Perfect Blindness

Being smart, self-publishers have swiped a key marketing idea from traditional publishers.

In marketing, there is a concept called signaling. When a brand puts money and effort behind something they are trying to sell, they are signaling that they believe that it’s not only good, but that it will sell. It’s a practice that has been used in the music industry for over a century, ever since songwriters paid vaudevillians to sing their songs, and publishers paid big band leaders to play their songs. In the publishing industry, big publishers still pay slotting fees to bookstores to place books on a front table or, if on shelves, for the books to be put at eye level, or with the cover showing, or both. If a song is bad or a book is a bomb, no amount of money will fix it: a few people will buy it, hate it, and then let the world know. In industries that thrive on popularity like music and publishing, no one willingly puts money behind something that they know will be unpopular.

What this money buys for a song or a book that would otherwise be lost in a blizzard of titles is the opportunity to get noticed, and if it’s as good as the publisher thinks it is, to sell.

In the early days of rock and roll, a few giant labels dominated the airwaves. Smaller labels like Atlantic, King and Chess Records had to pay DJs to get heard, and by doing so they revolutionized music. Similar to the way self-publishing imprints are revolutionizing publishing right now.

Why would a self-publishing company bother to signal they believe a book they publish is actually that good? After all, they make all their money upfront and so publishing everything and anything, right?

Sort of, but not really.

First of all, they won’t publish anything. They need to protect themselves from defamation and libel and prohibit plagiarism, and most presses have further restrictions to protect themselves from various lawsuits and bad publicity. For example, iUniverse will not publish anything with explicit sex or drug use involving minors.

Second and more importantly, not every author publishes a book in order to sell it. Probing why a given book is being published is one of the very first questions iUniverse asks.

Next up, purpose plus quality = how money is made.

Part 2: Changing my mind about self-publishing Cont’ further

iUniverse and the publishing path of the novel A Perfect Blindness

Perhaps most importantly for changing minds: some authors actually started making money publishing their own books. A few made very good money, as in six figures good.

Following this money, agents and acquisitions editors at publishing houses started taking advantage of the many sites offering sales rankings, reader ratings and reviews, using them to prescreen self-published books for ones that show promise. This led some self-published authors to land agents who then got traditional publishing deals. Thus, self-publishing became an alternate route onto a Traditional Publishing Path while it worked on becoming a legitimate route on its own.

These changes have all combined to shift the public’s attitude towards self-published works, which in turn has driven more sales, leading to more respect and higher profiles, and thus more sales: an upward spiral, lifting all titles. Yet while what it means for a book to be self-published, or for an author to self-publish continues this metamorphosis, the stigma of “why couldn’t it, couldn’t s/he, get a ‘real’ publisher?” still clings to these books and their authors like bits of skin incompletely sloughed off.

Paradoxically, the very opening of the gates to publishing that lead to the rising quality of self-published books bears most of the responsibility for this incomplete transformation. Certainly, the opening of access to the means of production, distribution and sales—once the exclusive domain of traditional publishers—has given rise to many good books that might have never gotten past the gatekeepers of yore; it has also let flow the dross and mediocrity that would have previously been screened out—by cost or those same gatekeepers; not that Traditional Publishing didn’t pump out quantities of poor quality books for profits: Penny Dreadfuls anyone?

Further, this torrent of new books coming at readers, critics, bloggers and booksellers makes sorting the gems from the junk, even with on-line reviews, ratings and rankings a task that swamps even the most dedicated bibliophile: there are so very many possibly good books with lots of stars and thumbs up, so many opinions from so many influencers, some so very specialized: how can a self-publisher wave a flag that stands taller than the others in this ever more crowed market?

By swiping a page from the Traditional Publishing Path.

Next post: Signaling

Part 2: Changing my mind about self-publishing Cont’

iUniverse and the publishing path of the novel A Perfect Blindness

This shift towards online sales in particular has been decisive in the erosion of the differences between the two kinds of publishing paths and not merely for E-books. In online stores, all books are found on the same shelf: books from the big five publishers are next to books from small houses, as are books from mid-sized houses, which are next to books from independent publishers, which are next to books from a single author acting as a publisher; hard covers, paperbacks and E-books are all found mingled together—frequently, three forms of a book are all offered on a single webpage.

On line, the books put out by Penguin are not only next to ones by Ten Speed Press, which are next to books from iUniverse, which are next to volumes by Morsby Press, but accompanying them are ratings and reviews by readers. A book by Random House can get a 1 star rating and a host of disparaging reviews, as easily as a release by iUniverse could get a 5 star rating, and reviews calling for it to be shortlisted for the Pulitzer—online, all books can be found as peers, no matter what form or who publishes them.

The way sites make sales rankings available, akin to trending posts on social media, helps drive the sales of popular books, which could be from any publisher and in any form, further emphasizing the lack of any real difference between these books as texts. While there might be different ways to sort the ranking—by genre, reader ranking, or by physical form such as hardbound, softcover, or Ebook—on most sites, there simply is no wall keeping self-published books outside and in their own ‘lesser’ place.

Since checking ratings and comments is an organic part of buying online, standalone sites dedicated to reader rating and book reviewing sprang up, such as goodreads.com. The growth of social media has helped boost the reach of authors and imprints. Pages for authors, individual books, and genres proliferated, many with direct links for purchase; fans built pages to spread their enthusiasm for a work or writer. Any individual could evangelize any book they like to all members of their group on-line. Blogs dedicated to books, publishing, and the most specific genres imaginable sprang up, establishing a class of influencers able to boost a book’s reputation in the eyes of their followers, and from all this sales followed: For all types of books, regardless of origin.

Perhaps most importantly, some authors could actually make money publishing their own books. A few made very good money, as in six figures good.