Time to try Self Publishing?

26 Sep

In my last post I speculated about the future of Frommer’s printed travel guides now that Google has bought them. It got me thinking about ebooks and self publishing. I already author an iPhone app to Seville and I retain the rights to that content across other media. So nothing to stop me publishing it as an ebook. David Whitley recently published Hardly Paradise: Anti-Postcards From A Grumpy Traveller a stack of his travel features as an ebook. It looks like it wasn’t a particularly complex task. And, get this. At the moment the writer gets 70% of the sale price (Amazon retains 30%). That’s a pretty good deal. So I took myself off to a seminar about ebooks hosted by Women in Journalism (yes, blokes are allowed to go along) - called How to write a best seller - how e-books have changed the rules.

The session was chaired by Alexandra Campbell, author and novelist (as Nina Bell) and panellists were Catherine Ryan Howard, author of Self-Printed: The Sane Person's Guide to Self-Publishing'); Philip Jones, editor of the Bookseller, agent Antony Topping of Greene & Heaton agency, Caroline Hogg, commissioning editor at Avon (HarperCollins publishing), who specialises in commercial fiction. So – a good panel and a good chairperson too. Here are a few key takeaways for me.

Ebooks will revolutionise the marketplace
Philip Jones: “Publishers haven’t really woken up to the impact ebooks will have”. Booksellers however have. Big time. Antony Topping pointed out that whilst high street book retailers used to take a title on and order a good number of copies, they now order tiny numbers and won’t commit to more until they are sure it sells. This makes life difficult for publishers – what kind of print run, how big a risk? Certain kinds of literary fiction and  non-fiction are much harder to get off the ground now too. The future could see whole genres moving online only and the high street being the place you buy just the big photogenic coffee table books, complicated textbooks and really big selling works of fiction. Who knows? There’s innovation happening. Amazon has recently introduced a new category of ebook called Amazon Singles. Longer features which are typically much shorter than a novel, but more than a magazine article. Singles are priced $1 to $5. Typical word count is 5000 to 30,000 words. I think this idea is REALLY interesting. In the past, there was no way to easily sell work of this length. Magazines aren’t big enough, and publishers don’t want to commit to such low page counts. Ebooks have no such limitations. The format seems ideal for tablets and smartphones. You can imagine grabbing a sandwich at lunchtime and turning to your iPad to spend an hour reading about a $150 million bank heist. Lifted, by Wired and New Yorker writer Evan Ratliff is just 34 pages long. (NB I paraphrased these last few sentences from this piece in Wired.)

Certain types of eBook sell better than others
The winners at the moment are sci-fi, women’s fiction, crime and erotica – serial fiction is selling particularly well. If you have an idea for a book – better have the sequel and #3 and #4 ready to go soon after. Antony Topping: “Because journalists (like you people here in the room) are used to churning out the copy fast this could be an opportunity for you – if you can turn your hand to fiction successfully.” (I wonder if the other category that sells well is ‘How to write ebooks and make money’?)
Philip had a counter point which I agree with: “It takes time to create a great book – this new model doesn’t allow for that. To rush something out to the market can be a big mistake.” Antony agreed – he said that for him as an agent if someone comes to him with a manuscript that has already been self-published as an ebook it has been ‘tarnished’ and he’s less likely to consider it unless it has sold really well. (Then of course it’s a different ball game.)

Amazon owns e-publishing
There are other options – you can publish ebooks on the Nook (the Barnes and Noble platform and reader due in the UK soonish); Kobo (the reader is on sale in WHSmith in the UK) and Apple’s iBooks author - but Amazon is the one that shifts the product and that’s down to the Kindle. Antony suggested Amazon could start giving away Kindles for free soon. What interested me was the way the panellists spoke in hushed tones about Amazon. Amazon keeps its data about how many copies of ebooks are selling to itself. Only Amazon really knows what is selling. There are best seller lists – but the implication was that that algorithm is more complex than pure sales numbers. Could Amazon start to favour self-published ebooks where they take 30% of the sale and control the author relationship completely at the expense of ebooks from traditional publishers? What impact do reviews have on rankings? As Catherine Ryan Howard put it “Amazon pays my wages… they could change the rules tomorrow. It feels a bit like they are reeling us all in before whipping the carpet from under our feet”.
What’s to stop Amazon deciding to only pay 50% royalties rather than the current 70%? Not a lot.

Publishing an ebook on Amazon is easy
You go to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing page, sign up (which takes about half an hour) and upload your book and cover pic. Job done. According to Catherine there’s no real quality control. She quoted an example (which has since been removed) of someone uploading a book called ’50 Shades of Grey’ which featured 50 pages each with a different hue of grey on it. For a while it was a best seller. People used to price stuff on there at 99c – but nowadays there is some kind of price/quality equation in play in her opinion. People steer clear of the 99c price bracket because it denotes dross. The sweet spot for pricing is USD2.99 she thinks. Right now images just don’t really work – it’s just words. And that for me is a big disappointment. Travel books need images in my opinion. It looks like it will be a while before this happens. Maybe apps remain the better product for an online travel guide? (Actually – there’s no maybe, I think they do.)

Small could well be beautiful
Ebooks don’t have geographical boundaries the way traditional publishers and printed books do. Once you publish online anyone who speaks the same language can buy your book. This means that smaller more niche topics that wouldn’t sell enough copies in one market to be viable could well work when exposed to the worldwide market on line. So, write a really good book about say food for toddlers with milk allergies and you could be selling copies to people in Canada, Australia, the US etc etc. I can see a whole new discipline not dissimilar to SEO of people analysing the Amazon product list for ‘content gaps’ that would be profitable and then finding writers to fill them.

Presence and profile online are essential
Catherine the self-publisher talked about self-publishing being about entrepreneurship (above and beyond writing skills) and Caroline the publisher agreed. Even for a more traditional publisher authors have to be socially connected online – doing the twitter, blogging and Facebook stuff is considered pretty essential for new authors regardless of whether they’re self publishing an ebook or working with a publisher. A word that kept coming up was discoverability. To be successful an ebook has to pop up in search results – both in the Kindle store and elsewhere online too. That could be about choosing a really tightly defined niche and writing about that. It’s also definitely about thinking laterally when you upload your ebook about what tags to give it - one great example from Caroline was using the tag ‘Downton Abbey’ for a work of romantic fiction that happens to be set in the 1920s. People often want to find a book a bit like something else that interests them.

A final word from Catherine – who had some really smart stuff to day – “Self publishing probably won’t make you a fortune – it’s something to consider more as a sideline.

19 Responses to “Time to try Self Publishing?”

  1. Steve Keenan 26. Sep, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    Hi Jeremy - very useful, and thanks for that. I've never thought I had a book in me - but a series of long stories. Hmm, maybe.

    I also went to a self-publishing seminar, at Tbex in Girona last weekend and took some notes which you may find useful...

    Beth Whitman of Wanderlust and Lipstick blog gets $1k a month from self publishing. She sells at $7 a book. She also has sponsors (such as gear firm Briggs and Whiley to speak on their behalf – they want brand awareness, logo) who will pay a day rate to talk at launches – sponsor buys 40 books and gives them away in return.

    Janice Waugh goes down the print on demand route with Lightning Source - but difficult for PoD to get distribution. Amazon does sell tho. And, as you say, only takes 30% whereas bricks and mortar shop takes 45%. Bookbaby charges $2k for set up but takes no commission. If book is text only, you can do it yourself.

    • Janice 30. Sep, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

      Hi Steve,

      Just a clarification: Lightning Source is an Ingram Company and through their network you can get distribution to the online stores of many major retailers (the UK is more challenging than North America). However, clearly, PoD is useless for a bricks and mortar shop.

      Bookbaby has three pricing options with their most expensive being $250 (no commission on all their plans) and they get your book distributed through all the major digital channels.

      If your book is simple text, you can likely do a fine job of the digital conversion yourself but you will need to submit to each channel (Amazon, iTunes, Nook...) individually. When books have photos and tables, the conversion is more of a challenge. The Traveler's Handbooks have both which is why we went with Bookbaby. There are certainly other digital conversion service companies in the market.

      Best,
      Janice

  2. Jeremy Head 26. Sep, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

    Hi Steve
    Thanks for your info - interesting!
    That was my thinking too about what I'd write if I did one. A bunch of short stories. You could even add to it with new stories from time to time (do ebooks update like apps do?) Or else write a whole bunch of 'singles' and then create a (ahem) greatest hits as a fully fledged book. David - could you publish some of your Anti-postcardss as stand alone Singles? Might be interesting to try?
    Another question I have is can you have live hyperlinks in an ebook?
    Anyone know?
    J

    • Danny 26. Sep, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

      As far as I know you can have links within ebooks, but if you're clicking from a kindle the browser is very poor. One solution is to stick 'http://www.instapaper.com/text?u=' in front of the url so it give you a plain text view, or use the readability short url generator - http://rdd.me.

      Here's a link to this post as an example:
      http://rdd.me/qb5tqwui

      Makes sense to do this anyway with any poorly designed websites!

    • David Whitley 26. Sep, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

      They're too short for singles (hence going for the anthology approach). But there's probably mileage in a big 3,000 word feature as an Amazon Single. The sort of thing you'd get as a weekend magazine supplement piece normally... Hmm.

      And, yes, you can have live hyperlinks.

      • Jeremy Head 26. Sep, 2012 at 4:52 pm #

        Yep. Absolutely. It wouldn't surprise me at all if you could earn more writing a full-on well researched 5000 words Amazon Single on something really topical/interesting than if you managed to place it in a weekend supplement. Particularly if you did a bit of research and looked for content gaps first.

        • David Whitley 26. Sep, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

          I suspect there may be some mileage in running part of a story on the web, then saying: "For the full story, buy the Kindle single".

          It'd annoy the hell out of many people, but I guess it's a premium, paid-for content model.

  3. Hal Peat 26. Sep, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

    Jeremy, great blog I was looking forward to from you as you know:) I think there's certainly more than one perspective being expressed in what you report from that meeting, even though we're talking about "self-publishing" in its present-day evolution of epublishing. What I feel positive about in a general way, is that the prospective writer has more than one type of POD business schematic to choose from - and it seems to be still growing. Of course, that also entails more diligence and research for the writer to go through before making a decision on the best fit. But aside from all the business model considerations, I see that a writer also has to take stock of the type of creative content - non-fiction (travel or other), fiction (novel and short story) - and assess the best strategy for presenting those as far as traditional print publishing route or doing an ebook. There just is what one of those participants describes as the "tarnished" factor for instance with the novel form going straight to epublishing. The flip side of that, however, is that some writers with a long view to developing careers spanning multiple formats - non-fiction, novel, short story - can initiate that journey by appearing first say in short story or non-fiction collection format in the epublishing sphere. They can establish both a following and sales profile there to position themselves later for a conventional book contract if they want to venture into that for a novel or longer-length non-fiction book.

    • Jeremy Head 26. Sep, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

      Hi Hal
      Yep. I really like the idea of using the ebook/Kindle platform as a place to experiment. I wouldn't publish my lifetime work masterpiece novel on there, but I might publish a few chapters of it as Singles. Or else perhaps it could work the other way - I start with a few short stories as Singles and eventually combine them into a broader narrative and end up writing a complete book. Lots of fiction writers do this in traditional publishing. They try out characters. plot ideas etc in short story form first. What's more interesting with Kindle is you have a much bigger audience for your prototypes... so you should get a much better feel for whether what you are writing (and how you are writing) has a potential market.
      Cheers
      J

      • Hal Peat 27. Sep, 2012 at 3:17 am #

        I like your final point about Kindle and its potential as a prototype to test audience response to content. On the other hand, this all got me to wondering about the calculations you heard at that seminar - if any - on what the word length/number of pages optimum range is in relation to the price points on these Amazon sales? I have two other friends who've written ebooks which were in the standard word length you'd find in a conventionally published book. Both were through Amazon and one was a travel book. Both authors are rather lukewarm most times when I check in with them on the progress of sales. I think that goes back again to underscore what we've already said, though - that with most of these POD deals the best content is going to be something you've already created and published and which gets a new life in a collected version ebook. Writing book length manuscripts by contrast is a risk and investment of time that would seem to typically take much longer time to pay off for all the effort.

        • Jeremy Head 27. Sep, 2012 at 9:00 am #

          I'd have loved to get some info about word counts and price points but they didn't share any. I agree though - something to test the water without too much time investments seems the way to go. I'm wondering about writing some kind of companion book to go with my app to Seville - profiles of interesting people who live there or something.

  4. Danny 26. Sep, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    Always been a fan of making everything you create available on as many platforms as possible so people can have it the way they want it…like Burger King.

    http://www.hyperink.com/ seems like an interesting approach, encouraging bloggers to put their knowledge into ebook form.

  5. David Whitley 26. Sep, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

    Self-publishing my ebook was an experiment. It might work, it might not, but it's worth trying. As you say, it wasn't that hard to do. I see it as another arm of my website - if I can sell a couple of copies a week over a couple of years, then it's been worth it.

    I suspect destination-specific books (or Singles) will work better, however.

    I've a few hunches about the Kindle...

    1) People will buy something on a whim if it's priced right. Amazon's system makes it so simple to buy with one click. And I think people will give something a go for a couple of quid if they think it might be right. If it turns out to be rubbish or useless, well, it's only a couple of quid.

    2) People will shop differently on the Kindle. They'll buy when bored, sat on a train or a bus, and idly flicking through the store. Also, they don't browse as they do in a bookshop - they search for keywords. What you say about an SEO-like approach is bang on.
    If someone is in an airport, waiting to go to Malaga, they will browse through all the travel books until they find one about Spain or Andalucia that covers Malaga. They will type "Malaga" into the search bar. A specific guide to Malaga will come up before the Lonely Planet guide to Spain. There's money to be made in niches that would not be viable as a print book, but with research and writing time as the only overheads, become viable as an ebook.

    3) People will buy material that is available for free on the web if you put it in Kindle format. Massive hunch this, but it's about presenting something in a way that people prefer to read. And, crucially, it's about being able to read it without being online.

  6. Mark Hodson 26. Sep, 2012 at 7:17 pm #

    Very interesting stuff.

    I reckon Amazon is the 3rd or 4th biggest search engine in the world yet few people know much about it.

    A friend of mine has recently published an e-book and has been doing some basic research on where his title ranks.

    It's *not* as simple as keyword correlation, so even if you write an e-book called "Malaga! Malaga! Malaga!" it won't necessarily rank above the Lonely Planet guide to Spain for a search of [Malaga].

    It seems that all-time sales are a factor, as are recent sales. My friend reckons that one sale is worth a ranking boost of 3-4 hours.

    It seems there's a whole new niche industry on the horizon: AO (Amazon Optimization).

  7. Stuart 27. Sep, 2012 at 8:37 am #

    Good article as per Jeremy.

    Don't have a Kindle but actually really enjoying my Kindle for PC, ipad and iphone. Automatically syncs (from Buy with 1 click) and I can read books on the bus, bog, in bed etc. On or offline. Have also bought books recently straight off a recommendation of someone I trust on Twitter, which thinking about it is a bit odd. Hey ho they were good. Also the "is it going to be good factor" is more important than price (the last two books were £8.99 and £7.99.

    AO - I like that. So might be worth reducing price to get higher sales and higher ranking? A chum of mine did the "free for a day" thing and he said he got double sales the week after. Food for thought.

    • Jeremy Head 27. Sep, 2012 at 9:02 am #

      Yep. Catherine the ebook publisher was talking about 'free days' - I forget how you set them up though.
      How do you find reading on the iPad etc. Backlit screen is apparently tiring on the eyes? Was having this debate in the pub with an old mate last night who swears that you need a Kindle-style screen to read for long periods.

      • Michael 30. Sep, 2012 at 3:28 am #

        On Amazon, I believe you have to be enrolled in the KDP Select program to do the give-away thing. That means giving Amazon exclusivity over your book for 60 or 90 days (I forget exactly how long). I never enrolled in Select because it seemed unreasonable to have to take down my book from Smashwords, iBooks, B&N and all the other places they are sold, including my own site. One of these days I should probably just figure out how to do a giveaway from my site.

  8. Stuart 27. Sep, 2012 at 9:27 am #

    It was fine, but I eat a lot of carrots. The real danger is you get distracted. Thankfully Twitter apps are pish on the ipad2.

  9. Jodi 30. Sep, 2012 at 10:17 am #

    Interesting post. I'm part of the collective of travel writers publishing the traveler's handbook series (Janice spoke on our behalf at TBEX, which was the talk that Steve summarized above). It's been fascinating to compare e-pub models and design to traditional publishing, and I agree that an existing online presence is imperative to ensuring you get as much exposure as you can.

    re: Amazon 'free days', yes, you need to give Amazon exclusivity for that, for a set period of time. (We opted not to do this because we wanted the books out on all platforms from the gate.)

    I'd also add two things:
    1) Design really, really matters. Even if you're just talking Kindle, the people, they will revolt if it's terrible. Look at what happened to JK Rowling with her new book and how it was not a pleasure to read on the kindle. For ideas and comments about design, I love Craig Mod's piece "Hack the Cover" - http://craigmod.com/journal/hack_the_cover/

    2) I love the innovation behind some of the other publishing ventures. While Kindle remains the most powerful (and it's in black and white primarily, especially with the new PaperWhite), there are some really smart companies working in the space. HyperInk is an example, as is Inkling but see also Open Air Pub, building interactive iPad apps for learning. It's been really interesting to see these kinds of publishing models changing the way we interact with words and text, and with learning. That's not to say they'll all be successful but I've very much enjoyed watching these new books come to market and the reaction to them.

    As Catherine noted, I don't think it's likely to make you a fortune unless you're an outlier (in the genres she specified) but it is a very good tool to reach a new audience, build a foundation for expertise in a subject you care about and lead you to bigger and more in-depth projects based on that expertise. It's also been a great learning experience for me, as I'm used to writing 1500-2000 words a post, not 25,000 word pieces! :)