The New Slush Pile: How Readers Are Choosing The Next Bestsellers

… or “Whoops! My book has started selling – I’d better get it edited.”

While the old guard in the books industry is still busy struggling to figure out how to give traditional publishers, agents and bookstores some relevance in the new order, a far more significant change is taking place just beyond their (albeit limited and utterly self-focused) lines of vision. Due to the availability of thousands upon thousands of free books by beginning authors in electronic format, and the proliferation of e-book reading devices with fodder-hungry owners, it is no longer editors or agents who are now combing through the slush pile looking for the gold: it is the readers.

A note to the non-writers: the “slush pile” is a term that has been used for centuries to describe the manuscripts that writers have sent to publishers uninvited, in the hope that they would be “discovered” and made famous. The term “slush pile” distinguished these unsolicited manuscripts from those that were sent to publishers by agents, established writers, or a senior editor’s aunt in Rapid City, Iowa. Interns generally read the slush piles, which were mostly full of dross, but (tradition has it) occasionally the readers found a Rowling or a Hemingway in there, and a career was launched.

The transition from editorial-office slush piles to online ones has happened so quickly that the mainstream books industry is largely unaware of it, as are most writers and most readers. The evolution has taken place in a climate where, over the past couple of years, new and inexperienced writers have proudly put their first books out in e-book format – usually created at little-to-no cost to them – only to discover that attempts to sell their novels or memoirs at $2.99 or $1.99 or even $.99 are fruitless. No one wants them.

That has led these writers to discover that if they put the same books out there at zero cost, e-book-reader owners will snap them up by the dozens—as if they were free marbles. Suddenly the writer’s “sales” figures shoot through the roof – from zero sales to 4,000 in a weekend is not uncommon among my social media “writer” contacts. Their books also start climbing up the bestseller-in-their-genre lists (romance, western, etc.) on Amazon.

Of course, their sales are illusions – nobody is actually “buying” their books and the writers are not making any money, and usually after a few days of skyrocketing numbers of downloads, when the writers put a price back on the book – having a new but deluded appreciation for their own worth— it drops off the bestseller lists and sales are once more insignificant.

Building An Audience of Readers

But what happens next? That is the question that all of us who are watching this phenomenon have been asking, and on a recent Monday I began to learn the answer. On that morning, I read a posting by an acquaintance on FaceBook that said, “Oh, whoops! My book has started selling. I’d better edit it.” Someone replied, “If it’s selling, why edit it?” to which the original poster responded, “Oh, nothing major. Just spelling, typos and formatting. Things like that.”

Coming from a background in the books industry—I have published four books with traditional presses, been editor-in-chief at a publishing company, and freelance-edited almost every kind of writing under the sun for thirty years—I was flabbergasted that anyone would put a book out there— in electronic or any other format—without editing it. I expressed my outrage on Reddit and a writers’ forum and attracted great interest from other writers and readers – most of whom were in my corner when it came to the importance of doing as good a job on editing as you can (and can afford) before you offer a book for “sale” – even at no cost.

What amazed me were the responses from people who have been downloading all these books for free. This was the first time I had heard them speaking – the first inkling I had gained into what was happening to cause all of those free books – good, bad, indifferent – to be downloaded onto all those Kindles, Nooks and Kobos. To my surprise, these readers (many of them quite literate) seemed far less perturbed than the writers were about the condition of the editing and formatting – what they wanted to see was good writing and good stories. They had downloaded dozens or even hundreds of free books by people they had never heard of, just because the books were free. They sampled them like new food: if they liked what they read, they kept going. If they didn’t they stopped reading after the first page, or the first few pages or the first hundred pages. They had no commitment to finishing the book: they had paid nothing for it. The only books they finished were the ones that kept them reading: which was, I realized, just the way readers of the slush piles in the publishing houses treated manuscripts.

More importantly, they said they would remember the names of the writers whose books they had liked, and they would follow up and read what these writers published next time. It sounded to me as though they might even be willing to pay for those next books.

It is in ways like this that a new books industry is being born, and the old one being swept away forever. The Publishers of the Future will not dictate what readers want to read, they will learn what readers want to read – from the readers. Then they will publish the NEXT books the readers have found in the new slush pile – which is what the mountain after mountain of free ebooks has obviously become – and they might even offer to clean up the editing on the first ones.

(And if the publishers are lucky, the writers might actually deign to give them their second books. However, after having tested their mettle on real readers without the interference of the books industry, and enjoyed the power and freedom of creating and marketing their own books, they may decide to self-publish the second ones as well. We’ll see what happens there.)

In the meantime, it is nothing but great news for writers that books in the slush pile are no longer being read by those who THINK they know what readers want (publishers and agents), they are now being read by those who DO know what they want: the readers.

I love this brave new world.

It’s A Wrap! Create a really effective cover for your book – Part II

In Part II of this mini-series of blog posts about book covers, I talk to my friend and colleague J. Allen (Jeff) Fielder about how writers can ensure that their covers attract readers to their books. Jeff is a graphic designer who has created covers for several independently published authors in the past few years, along with a number of other related products such as bookmarks and web graphics. He is employed full time as a graphic artist, and is also a writer of fiction and nonfiction and a photographer. His own second book – and first book of fiction – a collection of short stories entitled Voices of the Field, is currently in production. Check out some samples of his covers and info about him on his website: JAllenFielder.com

MWW: So, is it true that “You can’t judge a book by its cover?”

JAF: It’s completely untrue. You can judge a book by its cover—and people do it all the time, probably even more so in the digital age. Today, what your book looks like on a screen at about 1 inch by 1.5 inches can be the tipping point between whether someone clicks on it to read more, or just keeps scrolling.

MWW: Aside from being interesting to look at, what else does a good cover do?

JAF: Every genre has its own expectations about what a good cover looks like. Black and minimal is the style, for example, in young-adult urban fantasy, colorful and cartoony for feel-good adult fiction. A designer can help guide you through what your cover should look like, based on its tone, content and target audience. But there has to be more to it than just looking good: the cover has to look good up close as well. The covers of many self-published books I’ve seen have no depth to them. They are flat text on flat photos. That sends a message to the reader: if the cover is flat without depth, the book probably is, too. The designer has the experience that helps you to overcome issues like that which you might not even be aware of.

MWW: Okay, so clearly we can’t afford to go with something we whipped up in PowerPoint. But authors are often afraid that they can’t afford a cover designer. How much do you people charge, anyway?

JAF: Be ready to spend $200 to $500 on a good cover. You can probably get by with cheaper, but just like buying at a dollar store, you’re probably going to get what you paid for. You can find hungry designers in high school and college, but will they know how to work with vendors? Will they know how to set up bleeds, and trims, and the format types each vendor requires? Will your designer spend more time trying to figure out how to set the file up than actually designing?

MWW: Tell me about the process that a designer goes through when creating the cover of a book.

JAF: In my case, first I have to understand the book, either by reading the manuscript, or getting a detailed brief. Then I need time alone, maybe even a few weeks, to go over ideas, before I involve the author. I might spend days upon days going through stock-photo sites, or thinking about how I can shoot a photograph myself – evaluating whether a photo is even the right approach. After that, there’s constant dialogue with the author. I ask them questions about their tastes: “Do you like minimalist art? A particular text? What other book covers do you like?” Together we explore color palettes, and font treatments, and theme. In short, there’s a lot more than just going to a photography website, typing a key word or two, finding an image that appeals to you, and slapping Comic Sans on it.

MWW: You can’t just go to a website, find a photo and use it on your book anyway, can you?

JAF: No, you can’t. And it’s really not as simple as going to a stock photo Web site and buying a $10 photo, either. First, of course, there’s copyright. Even if it doesn’t expressly say it’s copyrighted, assume all photographs and images are. Just because it’s on the Internet, doesn’t mean it’s free. Also, photographs, paintings, even fonts, have what’s known as an End User License Agreement and Terms of Use. You have to read the fine print to know what it is you’re buying. Some stock photo sites will sell you a photograph, but the license only allows you to use the image on Web sites, or for personal use. Some stock photo sites require that for covers, or other resale, you have to buy an “Extended License,” which can cost up to several hundred dollars. So be careful, and know what it is you’re buying.

MWW: Sometimes you can’t get the image you want at all – as I recounted in Part I of this cover series, I ran into that with my efforts to get a Botero on my cover.

JAF: Or it might just not be worth it. One writer I was working with found a shot he really liked for his cover from a professional photographer. I contacted the photographer, hoping to work out a deal to license the image for the book. She wanted $500 to use the photograph, and $2,000 to buy the full rights. The $500 would have included the first 1,000 copies, and then the contract would have a continued life where every 100 copies after that would include royalties ($200). There’s no way the writer could ever have recouped that cost: it was probably more than the royalties he would make on his own book.

MWW: What advice do you give writers on how to work with a designer to get the best cover possible?

JAF: A good relationship with your designer should be one where there’s back-and-forth and understanding. A designer shouldn’t dictate, but neither should the writer. As a writer, you need to be able to bring ideas to the table, know what you want, and be able to express yourself. But you also need to have an open mind and be flexible. If either side lays down the law and won’t budge, you’re probably going to get poor results. Ultimately, you might get what you want and find out it’s not what your readers wanted. Your cover shouldn’t be about ego: your cover should help sell your book.

MWW: Obviously, choosing the right designer is almost as important as choosing the right cover.

JAF: You have to be able to trust your designer to take care of you. A good designer is not only going to give you the cover you want, but will know how to make it usable for all of your needs. Today, you may just want a great cover design so that you can sell the electronic version of your book, but when the time comes that you want to produce a paperback, a single front cover that can’t continue the theme to the spine or back flap isn’t going to do you any good. You need to be sure that your designer will set up the file so it can print large scale as well as small. Electronic images might look good at one inch by one inch, but if you go big and your cover wasn’t designed for it, you might have to start all over.

MWW: Thanks, Jeff. The ball’s in your court with the cover of my next novel, The Whole Clove Diet. I am looking forward to seeing what you (we) come up with!

* * * * *

Note to writers/independent publishers from Mary the Editor aka The Book Charmer: The text that goes on the back cover of your paperback version of your book is also critical. Go to a bookstore and pick up lots of books and really look at the elements on the back cover. What do you want? An author bio? An author photo? Quotes from pre-publication reviewers/readers of your manuscript? Reviews of one of your previous books? A brief summary of plot that gets the reader hooked?

Don’t try to include all of these components on your back cover – you don’t want the text too dense. And make sure you get your cover proofread: one of the first books I supervised through production as editor in chief at Lone Pine came out with the name of a government minister (who later went on to become prime minister!) spelled wrong on the back cover. And in those days, you were stuck with selling an entire print run before you could fix the error. Ever since then I triple check the text on the cover, and get someone else to take a look as well.

Once you have the text prepared, your cover designer will be able to help you compose a back cover layout that complements the design of the front cover and the spine. For a great example of this, check out the layout (and the design!) Jeff created for John A. Aragon’s first novel: Billy The Kid’s Last Ride
(Sunstone Press). The images on the cover are from John’s “Last Ride” mural in Santa Fe.

It’s A Wrap! Create a really effective cover for your book – Part I

Whether your book is published by an established press or you are doing it yourself, it is important to remember that what the outside of your book looks like is the first introduction many of your readers are going to have to the content, tone and quality of your book. Like it or not, your cover will provide the foundation for all of your marketing efforts. You have spent so much time writing the text; you do not want to reduce its impact by wrapping it in a less-than-impressive cover.

If you are publishing with a traditional press, your contract may not allow you any say in the selection of the cover of your book, although many writers are now requesting that their contracts give them at least some rights in this area (if publishers are expecting writers to do most of the promotion on their own books, they should at least give them a great-looking product that they are excited to hold in their hands and celebrate on their websites, right?).

I recommend that even if you have no legal ground to stand on, if you really dislike a cover that has been designed for your book, you say so. I never liked the cover of my second novel, Bitters, and told the staff at the publishing house how I felt, but they managed to convince me I was wrong. They suggested that I was a writer and not familiar with design elements. I wasn’t wrong – the colours are putrid and the design uninteresting – and I’ve regretted not being more assertive about it ever since.

****

In the second part of this two-part post, I’m going to interview the acclaimed book-cover designer Jeff Fielder – who created the cover of the newest edition of The Woman Upstairs (it was originally published by NeWest Press and I didn’t own rights to the original cover), and is also doing the cover for my next novel, The Whole Clove Diet. He has also created great covers for a number of other writers’ books, not to mention other promo materials such as bookmarks. You can see samples on his website here. Jeff will tell us how to find and work with a book-cover designer.

Before I report on that interview, however, I want to tell you a bit about what I learned about creating book covers when I worked as editor-in-chief at Lone Pine Publishing, and what I have attempted so far in the creation of a cover for my latest novel.

When I went to work at Lone Pine Publishing, my employer and the design and sales staff taught me an important thing or two about book covers:

  1. You want the cover to accurately portray not only the content, but also the tenor and even the complexity of the book itself. As far as content, think about conveying the era, the culture, the milieu the book is set in – not necessarily by portraying these things exactly, but by communicating the sense of them. For example, if your novel is set in early 20th-century Paris, you may not need a street scene that is an exact portrayal of the streets your narrator walks along; a drawing, even abstract, that evokes the same feeling as a rainy lamplit Paris street can have the same, or even greater, impact. If you’ve written a comedy, a somber cover will not suit, and a historical saga should not look like a steampunk novel. As far as stylistic complexity, if your writing emulates that of Feodor Dostoevsky or Ayn Rand, you may not want a cover image of a couple clutched in a passionate embrace à la Harlequin Romance, no matter how passionate your characters may be. Go to a bookstore: either a real one or online, or check out collections of book cover designs like this one. Look at books in the genre and style in which you are writing. Look at their covers for inspiration and guidance and to increase your own awareness: pre-teen novels do not look like detective novels for adults; books on creating effective websites do not look like biographies; westerns do not look like zombie novels.
  2. Design styles change. This can work to your advantage. If your novel is set in the 1950s, check out the original covers of novels published in that time period: emulating them can reinforce the time-frame of your book. The fact that design styles change is also something you should think about if you want your cover to remain effective for the next twenty years: you may not want to get too trendy;
  3. You will need to make choices about the content of the cover design. Are you going to use a photograph on your cover, like this one on a bio by my friend Peter Jonker does? A painting? A drawing? Perhaps a simple colour design with text? Each of these options presents a different message to the viewer and conveys something about the content of the book;
  4. Consider costs. Can you afford to commission an actual work of art for the cover of your book? Can you even afford permission costs to use a work of art already in existence? If you want a photograph, how will you access the one you want? You CANNOT use a photo or piece of art you find on the Internet without seeking permission from the creator and/or his/her estate: it is not only unethical, it is illegal. On the other hand, if you use a free or very cheap stock photo from a do-it-yourself cover-maker page, you may run into your cover illustration on the cover of someone else’s book or other product. But if you create your own photograph or work of art – or use a drawing by your clever seven-year-old – is it going to look sufficiently professional, or merely quaint and home-made?
  5. Did you know that the font you choose for your title, author name, and back cover text, is also communicating a message about the content of your book? Did you know that fonts also go in and out of style: there are quite a few people who actually “hate” comic sans because they’ve seen it in too many PowerPoint presentations, for example, and may be turned away from reading your book just because you used that font on your cover? You many want to investigate any non-classic fonts carefully before using them – unless, of course, the funky font you’ve chosen reinforces the tone of your book;
  6. Visual contrast is crucial to a cover. You want to make sure that people can read the text on the cover of your book. White text on pale gold may look great up close, but it’s almost impossible to see when the cover gets small enough to put on a website, or even on a shelf a few yards away across a bookstore. A very busy cover may also make your title invisible to the reader;
  7. What is your cover going to do to help your sales? Is it going to attract attention when it is reproduced for review on someone’s blog at about 3 cm x 3 cm? If a bookseller puts it in a book stand, is the title still going to show? Will it reproduce well on a poster, a brochure, a postcard, a bookmark or other materials you may choose to create to produce to promote your book?
  8. Remember that a cover is a wrapper for a book. It has three sections: the front, the spine and the back. If you choose different backgrounds for those three elements, what is going to happen to the appearance if the cover is cut a little “off angle” during the production process? Is the artwork for the spine going to actually appear on the spine, or is it going to angle across the spine? It is generally best to use the same predominant colour all the way around the cover so you don’t end up with off-kilter colour where you don’t want it.

These and many other questions should occur to you as you are creating your book cover, which you can do on your own for free with programs offered by self-publishing companies like CreateSpace, or online by Googling such terms as “book cover templates.” I recently read a great suggestion that you can make a jpeg for a book cover using PowerPoint.

You can also hire a cover designer who knows what he or she is doing (which is my preference, and as important to me as hiring an outside editor) or do it yourself. But whatever course you take, make sure you love your book cover and that it is “you,” as much as your writing is.

Fernando Botero, and The Whole Clove DIET Cover

Early in the period during which I was writing The Whole Clove Diet, I saw a painting at the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University that opened a whole new world to me. It was by Fernando Botero, a Bolivian artist I’d never heard of at that point, and I immediately identified it with the mood I was working to convey in the novel. The subject of the drawing was a young girl – round, as most of Botero’s subjects are—and she was smoking a cigarette. She looked feisty and assertive, defiant in spite of or perhaps in part because of her shape and her age-inappropriate nicotine-delivering accessory.

As I explored further I learned that the men and women in most of Botero’s paintings and sculptures may be far over a healthy BMI but they seem not to be concerned in the least about that. If they are not flaunting their pudginess, they are at least confident in their bodies and apparently certain of who they are.

Over the years since I have sought out and found many Botero paintings and sculptures to admire both online and in real galleries. I always imagined that when I was ready to publish (I assumed at that point that the world’s major publishers would be begging at my door for The Whole Clove Diet), I would ask my publisher to approach Señor Botero and secure permission to use one of his images for the cover. I had, in fact, chosen several paintings that I would particularly have liked to use.

When I decided to pursue publication on my own, I thought at first that I would need to abandon the idea of using a Botero on my book because I did not have the heft of a publishing company behind me. But then I decided that I should leave no stone unturned, so I began a rather lengthy process of figuring out how to contact the artist. With the help of a friend, I finally figured out who Botero’s representatives were in the United States, and contacted them. They said I could make a proposal to the artist through them, and so I proceeded to carefully prepare a letter to send to them, to send to him. I gave evidence to the artist (I hoped) that I was no first-time writer, that I respected and admired his work tremendously, and that although I could not afford to pay him what it might be worth for this one-time use (which I presume would be in the thousands of dollars), I would be happy to share any amount of the cover price of the book that he might be interested in suggesting. (I would not, of course, have agreed if he’d wanted too much of the cover price!) The owner of the gallery who represented Botero was very helpful, asking for additional information I had not included and even going to all the trouble to buy and read The Woman Upstairs, my first novel.

The pitch was not ultimately successful – Fernando Botero declined to allow me permission to use his art – but I gained from the experience anyway. I acquired a fan in La Jolla California (the gallery owner, who said she liked my book and is looking forward to The Whole Clove Diet. Thank you, Mary Beth Tasende!). And even though I was disappointed that Señor Botero said “No,” I would have been even more disappointed in myself if I had not tried to reach him. I would have wondered forever if he might have said “Yes” if I had just asked. I did the best that I could do, and even though the response was not what I might have wished, at least I have it.

A couple of my friends worried that if I did get permission, some prospective readers might not like Botero’s art, and might therefore not want to buy the book. Who knows? I still love his stuff, and I think that people who love good writing are also those who love good art.

However, the message I am trying to deliver here is that as writers pursuing the new world of “independent publishing,” we need to have some chutzpah. It is no longer enough for us to just write our books. Now we need to clothe them before we send them out in public. We need invest some energy, and maybe even some money, in making our books look as good as we have made them sound.

If you have a book cover you particularly like, tell us about it in the comment and add a link. Show us what you like about it. If it’s your book, tell us why you chose it.

How much more do you really earn when you self-publish?

(Third in a series of articles about the new realities for writers and readers. In this post, I attempt to compare the relative costs and potential profits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing, and explain which method of self-publication I have chosen for my next novel, The Whole Clove Diet – and why I have chosen it.) (Of course, none of us is really interested in making money from our writing, right? We are only interested in making art. ♬ )

It seems as though every time I go onto the Internet these days, I stumble over another post in which some author is enthusing over how much more he or she is making per copy on a self-published book (70% of the cover price or more) than he or she would have made with an established press (where a 10 to 15% royalty is the norm). Somewhere on The Militant Writer, I may even have crowed about this advantage of self-publishing myself. :)

While such statements may be accurate in absolute terms, they fail to take into account many of the costs outside of printing that are incurred by traditional publishers on behalf of authors’ books. Some established presses invest more than others (and some seem to invest next to nothing) in such make-or-break areas of book production as editing, cover and layout design, and promotion and marketing, but whether they are effective or not at what they do, publishers incur overhead costs with each title.

Many of these same costs are also incurred by self-published authors—or should be—but the authors may overlook them when they are calculating their final “take” from sales.

Self-published authors who fail to make their books look and read like something besides draft manuscripts that have been laid out at home and then slapped with amateur-looking covers are (in my opinion) fools. However, as soon as we start putting money into improving the quality and impact of our self-published books, the longer it takes for us to recoup the money we’ve invested. We cannot claim we are “making 70% of the cover price” of our books until we have paid ourselves back for our expenditures to produce them.

The biggest financial difference between having a book published by a traditional press and doing it ourselves is who pays the overhead, what the overhead entails, and how the proceeds are shared. In this post, I am going to take a stab at evaluating the relative costs of self-publishing versus traditional publishing, but keep in mind that attempting to compare the two approaches can be like weighing “apples” against “all citrus fruits,” due to the variety of publishing models that have begun to proliferate.

I encourage readers of this post who have self-published (aka “indie-published”) their books, participated in shared-expense publishing initiatives, or have info about traditional publishing that I may have overlooked here, to contribute to the comments section of this discussion.

No Money Down: Working With Traditional Publishers

When a traditional publisher offers to publish your book, you do not need to contribute any money. By inviting you to give them the publishing rights to your book, publishers are essentially saying that they believe that they are going to sell enough copies of your book to make up for the costs they will incur up front in order to get it to the marketplace – and then, they hope, make a profit by selling even more.

The costs traditional publishers incur are outlined in my “Authors and Publishers” post and they include:

  • copyediting and substantive editing
  • book interior design
  • cover design
  • layout
  • printing
  • promotion
  • sales
  • distribution
  • storage
  • overhead costs – these range from the rent, utilities, etc. that are part of the costs of maintaining an office and a staff (including executive editors who will read your manuscript in the first place—or pay someone to send you a form rejection letter—salespeople who go out to bookstores to talk up your book, promotions staff, art department staff, bookkeepers, shipping and receiving staff), operating a warehouse, paying the fees of freelancers, selling other (foreign, movie) rights to your book, legal, financial and accounting costs, costs associated with creating a catalogue, posters and other promotional materials, securing ISBNs and Books in Print notifications, etc., etc., etc.

If a press publishes 20 books a year and its annual expenses are $1 million, one could argue that each book costs the company around $50,000. Of course this is a vast oversimplification because books that were published in previous years that sell this year bring in income that helps to sustain the business, operating grants may be involved, or subsidies from institutions such as universities, funding may have been secured to help with marketing and promotion, and there are many other factors that need to be considered. So let us say that the cost of producing 5,000 copies of your book is $20,000.

Let us also say that the book thus created is going to sell for $20.

In that case, on each book:

  • You, the author, will receive about $3 (depending on royalty rates that are set out in your contract);
  • The booksellers will keep about 40% of the amount they receive for the books they sell, or $8;
  • The publisher will retain the remaining $9.

As you have already figured out, these numbers show that in order to pay itself back for the costs it has incurred, the publisher needs to sell nearly 2,500 copies of your book— half of the stock it printed – just to break even. Even after that, additional promotion, storage of unsold books, and other costs are going to need to be deducted from the publishers’ portion of the income from each book.

In this scenario, the author starts to make his or her paltry $3/copy from the first copy that is sold – although the author’s actual receipt of those $3 pieces is subject to such factors as:

  • Advances: The amount that has been advanced to you by the publisher must be reached before you will receive any more money. If the publisher advanced you $3,000 in our example, for example, since you are making $3/book you will not start earning any more money from royalties until after 1,000 copies of your book have sold;
  • Agents: If you have an agent, he or she will receive a cut of your take: let us say 15% of $3 =  45 cents, leaving you with $2.55. (This is why agents are only interested in working with writers who have the potential to sell a lot of books.);
  • Returns: The traditional book business is unlike almost any other business in that bookstores can return the products (books) they do not sell to the manufacturers (publishers). Your book is not sold when it is stocked by a bookseller, but only when it is purchased from the bookseller.

Costs to Self-Publish

The costs of self-publishing, by contrast, are entirely dependent on who the writer deals with, and what costs beyond book production (e-book and/or print version) he or she chooses to incur.

The Rip-Off Artists

Let us dispense first with the companies that advertise on-line that even though they accept every book that is submitted to them, they are still traditional publishers because they will give you an advance and publish your book at no cost to you. Closer examination of these companies (and reviews from those who’ve used them) indicate that the advances are minimal ($50 or so), the printed copies are expensive (e.g., $20 to $25 or more), the “publishers” often do not make any real effort to get the books into major sales outlets (including onto Amazon), there is no e-book option, and the major thrust of such companies is to hard-sell copies to the authors. (In one contract I read on-line, the company assures authors that review copies will be distributed, but only to reviewers who write to the company asking for a copy of your book. How many independent, respected reviewers do you think you can convince to write to your publisher and ask them for a book? It isn’t going to happen.)

Similar methods were used by what is known as “vanity” presses in the past: they offered you “free publishing” as long as you agreed to buy 1,000 copies of the finished book, which of course you would then need to sell yourself. People invested huge amounts of money in such scams and ended up with hundreds and hundreds of copies of unsellable books in their basements. In this era of print-on-demand, you don’t need to buy all those copies up front, but the principle is the same: the only entity that makes any money off such ventures is the “publishing” company.

Some other companies have recently been created that are in the e-books-only business. They also offer publication at no cost to you, but they spend almost nothing anyway: all they really do is pour your text into a file, slap a cover image on it, and then put the book up on the Internet. No real editing, no significant effort to market your book, no real investment on their part. They then stand back and simply take a cut of whatever sales you are able to drum up.

Check the fine print in the contract with any self-publishing enterprise as closely as you would (or should) with any other venture in which you have chosen to participate. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Ask to see what the publisher is prepared to do to help promote your book (and then make sure they do it), seriously consider the books it is already offering and determine whether you want to be associated with those books and authors, and Google to find if there are any negative comments about them from authors who have used them in the past. Keep in mind that the testimonials that appear on the “publisher” websites are those that have been pre-approved, and even their on-line forums may be censored to weed out negative feedback.

In other words, caveat emptor.

Bare Bones Self-Publishing

The lowest cost I have found to self-publish a book with a reputable company is $299. With this very basic option, the author provides all text pages and the cover in “camera-ready” PDF format so that the publishing outlet doesn’t need to do anything but assemble the book on a computer so that it is ready to be printed, one copy at a time (known as “print on demand,” or POD), whenever anyone orders it. An example of this basic service is the CreateSpace Author’s Express, and CreateSpace also offers a slightly enhanced version of its basic package that provides you with a template for the interior and the covers, and costs $499. It is called the Author’s Advantage.

(Note: I am using CreateSpace not only for my examples in this post but also for my book production because of that company’s close association with Amazon. A book produced by CreateSpace is not likely to encounter any problems entering Amazon’s distribution system. I know that Amazon has created a monopoly that is taking down all competitors, including lots of mom-and-pop bookstore operations, and I’m sorry. However, with my little novel I cannot afford to become a one-person protest movement any more than I already am: I need my book to be available everywhere, as soon as I publish it.)

The Cadillacs of Self-Publishing

At the opposite end of the spectrum, those who want to buy a publishing package that already includes all the bells and whistles, in the hope (probably erroneous, but who knows?) that they will need to do no work at all to make their books bestsellers, may choose an option like the Total Design Freedom Marketing Pro from CreateSpace, which sells for $4,999.

For this price, the author receives two rounds of copyediting, which CreateSpace estimates to be worth just over $1,000 per round, a custom-designed interior ($499) and custom book-cover design ($999), a video book trailer ($1,249), promotional-text creation ($249), assistance with the creation and distribution of a media release ($598), and registration for a Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN), which allows libraries to catalogue your book correctly if they buy it, but does not guarantee that they will buy it ($75). (This is a worthwhile investment, as far as I’m concerned.)

Options In Between

CreateSpace offers a variety of packages that range in cost between the Author’s Express and the Total Design Freedom Marketing Pro, and other companies (LuLu, for example. Update: Comment linked here says there are no costs at all with LuLu if you’re prepared to do all the work yourself) offer similar ranges of packages. These companies also offer a range of royalties on each copy sold, depending on the agreed-upon forms of distribution and other factors.

The various expenses and reimbursement options can be found on the companies’ websites, although sometimes you need to trade your email address for specific details. When you look at their charts and numbers and offerings of royalties, it is very important to remember that your profit does not begin until you have paid yourself back for what you have invested to get the book published.

Most writers will decide that there are some aspects of book production and promotion that they can do themselves, or that they want to hire people they know to carry out certain functions, and they will choose a publishing package that allows them to incorporate the options they have chosen to do independently with the services for which they require direct assistance. If you use outside services to complement the package you have purchased, the costs of these too need to be added into what you pay back to yourself before you can start to look at profits.

How Much Will You Make?

On this page at CreateSpace you can start to estimate the royalties you are going to make on the book you have created.

In order to compare your profit as a self-published writer to the model I set up to illustrate the disbursements to you by a traditional publisher, let us say your self-published book is also going to be marketed at $20 per copy. ($20 is quite a lot to charge for a POD book, because [at least at this point in the history of publishing] no matter what you do, the quality of a print-on-demand book is not going to match that of a book produced on an off-set printer running 500 to 2,000 copies at a time or more; however, for the sake of argument we will leave the price there so that comparison is possible.)

Let us say that this book is 120 pages in length, and the trim size is 5½ by 8½ inches. (Page count and trim size are important matters that you will need to take into consideration when you are publishing your book. So is paper weight, cover quality, etc.) The royalty that will accrue to you from this set-up if your book is sold on amazon.com (depending on various options you have chosen) is just over $8/copy. (The chart says you can make 50% more if you set up your own e-store with Amazon, but I haven’t even considered that: I could be wrong, but it sounds like a lot of work.)

If you have chosen the basic package from CreateSpace ($299), at $8 a piece, you will need to sell 38 copies of your book before you will start to earn any income from it. If you have purchased any additional services, from typesetting to cover design to marketing, either from CreateSpace or individual suppliers, you will need to add those amounts to the $299 before you can start counting profits. And if you went with the Total Design Freedom Marketing Pro from CreateSpace at nearly $5,000,  you will need to sell 625 copies before you start to see a profit.

The Whole Clove Diet: The Option I Am Choosing – And Why

I don’t want to spend any more than I need to on bringing my new novel, The Whole Clove Diet, to market. However, I want to be proud of how it looks because I think it’s a good novel (funny, and other good things as well), and I spent a lot of time writing it. I have also paid to have it edited, and I want it to look professionally produced so I can market it with confidence.

My experience as editor-in-chief at a publishing company, and work I’ve done since as a freelance production manager of books, newsletters and other publications, have taught me that it is not a wise investment of my time to even try to typeset my own book. Typesetting requires specific skills, knowledge and experience in order to ensure that pages look professional and avoid common errors (such as widows and orphans—do you even know what those are?) that instantly tell the reader that a book is self-published.

I believe that the price offered by CreateSpace to typeset books is reasonable, so I am going to use them for the typesetting part of the production. I will work with them to decide how the typesetting should look (what font, what the running head will look like, etc.), but they will do the work.

I also know I am incapable of creating my own book cover, although I want to have a lot of input into what that looks like, too. I have worked with a book cover designer in the past (Jeff Fielder) and I want to work with him again, so I am going to pay him to provide a custom cover for my book, which he will submit to CreateSpace in the format they require. Hiring an artist/designer for a book can run anywhere from about $500 and up, depending on the experience, knowledge and reputation of the designer and what you want him or her to do. (CreateSpace offers this service at $999 if you buy it from them.) You may also need to pay for cover art or photographs that are included in the cover.

I’ve paid my editors, and I am going to pay for my own marketing, including promotional copy, a video trailer (if I decide to use one), sending out review copies, and other promotional activities. Some of these tasks I will do myself; for others, I will hire other people.

I am therefore choosing a package offered by CreateSpace for $499 in which they will do the typesetting, and I will be responsible for the rest. I will send them the edited text in a Word document, and the cover I have had designed by my friend. They will do the layout, send me a proof to check over, and then make the book available for sale in both Kindle and POD formats. (Kindle conversion is normally $69 but I took advantage of a special offer from Amazon that was available when I placed the order for my book.) I have paid an additional $75 to obtain an LCCN.

Note in all cases that there is an extra charge for illustrations, photos, charts and other visuals included in the book.

Other Options Besides Self-Publishing

In addition to straightforward self-publishing packages, a host of other publishing models are now available, thanks to the opportunities for POD and e-books that are offered by the new digital technologies.

A number of collective approaches to publishing are out there, for example. Some, such as ShelfStealers which is the brainstorm of my friend Sheryl Dunn and her colleagues, have a strict editorial process that ensures the quality of books they are publishing.  The company does the cover design, layout and some of the promotion, and offers authors 50% gross royalties on audio and e-books, and 50% of net on print books less the cost of book (approximately $5.50 each).

Other coop companies involve authors to a greater or lesser extent in the publishing process, and royalties are related to the contribution the author makes. There is certainly something to be said for publishing as part of a collective—a group of books is better able to attract attention than a single book, and it is often easier to promote someone else’s book or a group of books of which yours is a part than it is to promote your own book. These collectives do not necessarily make you eligible for consideration in awards programs or by writers organizations, reviewers or bookstores who require “traditional publishing” status before they will even consider you or your book, so be sure you know what benefits you will gain from participating in such cooperatives, and how much time and energy you will need to invest, before you sign anything. There are lots of writers in this world who no longer have time to write because of commitments they’ve made to help get other people published.

In order to stay in business, some established publishers are also now offering co-publishing agreements to writers. The publishers do the same things they have always done for the books they publish (editorial, layout, design, distribution, etc.), but the authors contribute several thousands of dollars up-front to the overhead, and their royalties reflect the fact that they are essentially co-publishers. The authors get the cachet of the publisher’s imprint, but this can be an even more expensive alternative than self-publishing.

Reprinting Your Out-of-Print Books

For the information of those who are considering self-publishing books that have gone out of print – here is my experience.

I had my novel The Woman Upstairs, which was well reviewed and won an award for excellence in writing but had been out of print for twenty years, reprinted by CreateSpace. Since I didn’t own the rights to the original cover or its artwork, and I wanted to revise the cover text, I had new cover made and paid for that separately.

I paid $191 to have the book scanned (5 ½ x 8 ½ in., approx. 120 pages) by CreateSpace. I paid $69 for Kindle Conversion. I needed to pay an additional $50 because I changed the copyright page to reflect the new ISBN, my current name, the LCCN, etc. I also paid $75 for the LCCN.

So for less than $800, my first novel is now available in both print-on-demand and e-book formats. Now all I have to do is sell about 160 copies to recoup my costs. :)

Note: If the book that you want to reprint—or create—is in a non-standard format or requires special layout or certain types of paper, such as poetry, children’s books or art books, some specialists are now making their services available to help you prepare your book for self-publication. Two examples that I know of are so far in these areas are Really Love Your Book in the U.K., and Blurb.

So there you have it — all I  know about the costs of publishing a book, and perhaps more than even you wanted to know. The time it took me to write this post would probably have been more profitably invested in moving The Whole Clove Diet closer to being ready to submit to CreateSpace. But since I am investigating these issues for my own purposes anyway, I figure I might as well share what I find out. I hope you will find something of use here — and please do add your own experiences with publishing by way of comments, for the benefit of others. (Update: Note the positive feedback re: Lightning Source in the comments.)

The Author as Publisher

(Second in a series of articles about the new realities for writers and readers.)

It seems inevitable to me now that unless they take up the sideline manufacture of weaponry or bath salts to subsidize themselves, the major publishing houses are going down. There will certainly be a role for niche publishers in future (literary presses that focus on poetry or esoteric fiction among them, teetering on the brink of expiration as they always have, and non-fiction houses that specialize in such limited areas as the flora and fauna of Paraguay or the battles of World War II), but for the majority of mainstream fiction and non-fiction book writers, independent publishing will soon become the norm.

In this post, I examine the “services” publishers have traditionally provided to writers and their books (and therefore to readers, I suppose), and then I look at how I believe these same functions can be managed—often in a more effective manner—by the authors themselves when they publish their own books. The post examines five specific areas:

  • manuscript selection
  • editing
  • production
  • promotion/sales
  • distribution

There are other areas that publishers have traditionally managed for writers, often with the help of agents. Most of them relate to subsidiary rights—e.g., translation rights,  dramatic rights, merchandizing rights, and so on. Publishers have traditionally taken a chunk of the money that accrues when a book has been translated or made into a movie. They have argued (with good reason) that after a manuscript has been accepted by a publisher and turned into an attractive book, it becomes more appealing to rights purchasers. Publishers have at times facilitated the process by presenting their books to prospective foreign publishers at the London and Frankfurt book fairs, for example, but for the most part they have simply secured some portion of the subsidiary rights without actually doing much to encourage an income flow for either themselves or the author from such sources.

So, on to the “services” they have offered and fulfilled.

 Manuscript Selection

Looking Back

Most readers and many publishers have always believed that publishers performed an invaluable role in the book-production process by making the initial selection from the thousands of manuscripts that were submitted to them every year of the books that would reach the marketplace. These selections were made, at least ideally, and perhaps twenty years and more ago, on the basis of writing quality, uniqueness of voice, and a variety of other subjective criteria that only highly trained, well read, passionate, experienced and discerning editors could make.

However, publishing companies have realized increasingly in the past decade that they are businesses. Senior bean counters have required the editorial departments to make decisions about which books to publish on the basis of how many copies of those books are likely to sell. Sales departments have increasingly had veto power over book selection . . .  and the sales department of a publishing house is itself directed in large measure by the buyers for the major booksellers, who are the ones who ultimately choose which books are going to end up on the shelves.

To attempt to ensure sales, publishers release books that are just like the books that sold like hotcakes last year—hence the proliferation in recent years of vampire books and in future years, I am guessing, of detective stories starring androgynous computer geeks with photographic memories. They also want books that are written by people whose last books sold like hotcakes. When publishers do pick up a new writer, they want her or him to be sexy, well-spoken and distinctive. Sometimes they will even go and get her, if she is famous enough: watch for the book by Lady Gaga which is sure to be out soon.

The days when literate editors fell in love with new literary voices and argued successfully to publish their books is long gone. If there is no research evidence (i.e., last year’s sales figures) to justify the company’s taking on a book, it isn’t going to happen.

In the initial post on this blog (“How Literary Agents Are Destroying Literature…”), and in others since, I have described at length how the book selection process is skewed away from quality literature and toward shlock. For additional and truly eye-opening discussion of how books are selected for publication, I also direct all readers, and particularly mid-list writers, to an article by Stephen Henighan that appeared in Geist –“The BookNet Dictatorship” — which discusses how book-sales data affect the selection of book manuscripts for publication (the article is about the Canadian industry, but the same system applies where you live).

Looking Ahead

In the brave new world of publishing, the worthwhile books (and the standard for what is “worthwhile” has infinite variation) are selected after they are published. The sorting is done by the readers and reviewers. They are the ones who decide which books will be popular and critical successes. No more gatekeepers who are “more knowledgeable” than readers about which books will sell, or even be of interest. If a book has an audience of three, now it will find that audience: and a few other people might pick it up as well.

This democratization of the manuscript-selection process is in itself cause for huge celebration and excitement among both writers and readers, although the haughty “I know literature better than you do” types see it as the greatest drawback to the proliferation of self-publishing. The great books will still be there, folks, and—thanks to on-line resources that you will come to rely upon the way you do now on the New York Times Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement—you will still be able to find them.

Editing

Looking Back

Traditionally, once a manuscript was accepted for publication by an established press, it would be assigned to either an in-house or a freelance editor who would work with the writer to improve the manuscript substantively. This “substantive” or “content” editor would suggest areas where more information was needed, sections that could be cut, even whole new passages that needed to be written. The writer would then do the revisions (or—at least, ideally—the ones he or she agreed with).

After the major revisions were complete to the satisfaction of the writer and the publisher, the whole manuscript would go to another editor for copy-editing. This final editing step would get the manuscript into a clean format ready for the printer, free of spelling and grammatical and punctuation errors, and adhering to the “house style” of the publishing company (often a variation on the guidelines set out in the Chicago Manual of Style, although books in certain disciplines use other style guides).

To my mind, and that of most other writers, the editorial phase was probably the most important step of the book-production process. An editor worth his or her salt, working closely with the writer, often turned an interesting manuscript into a truly spectacular, award-winning novel or non-fiction book. Despite this, in-house and freelance editors didn’t get paid very much and often received no acknowledgement at all.

Looking Ahead

Really good editors are already leaving the publishing houses because their love for turning good into great books is even less valued than it has ever been in the industry. Many of them have started taking on freelance clients (and charging what they are worth).

In future, certain editors will become so well known that having their name appear on the self-published book as editor will be enough to guarantee the book attention from the media and readers. The participation of certain outstanding editors will become a new way of sorting out the quality books from the crap that proliferates in a world where everyone can publish.

Self-published writers who do not invest the time and money in good editing are going to pay the price. Within a few paragraphs, readers like me put aside a poorly edited book: it is simply not worth the effort to read a novel or non-fiction work that is riddled with typos and factual errors, or where the point of view doesn’t work or the flashbacks are too choppy—no matter what the underlying quality. A poorly edited book means the writer doesn’t understand the value of an editor, and I am not impressed with writers who don’t value editors. We can live without publishers, but we cannot live without editors. (See my related post on the rise of the literary editor from May 2009.) In this world, “Look Inside The Book” options on booksellers’ sites become the friend of the wary reader,  and the enemy of the sloppy, unedited writer.

I can hear writers moaning that they will not be able to afford to hire good editors, that their access to publishing companies in the past meant that they had access to good editors at no cost to them, and that this possibility is now lost. Keep in mind that the vast majority of writers never had access to top-quality editors because they never had their books accepted by any of the publishing companies where these editors worked.

If you need a good editor, and your aunt is an English teacher, explore that possibility for copy-editing. Do that at least. If you really care about your book, get quotes from substantive/content editors on line and save up to pay for one, the way you would a car. The publishing collectives that are springing up offer editing services to their writers, and I am sure that editors who love great writing will occasionally take on pro bono work (No. Don’t ask. I don’t mean me. I can’t afford to do that yet.)

Please note IMPORTANT: No credentials are required in order to set up shop as an editor. Most editors’ organizations do not require any track record from their members, so membership in an editors’ association is not in itself a credential. There are people setting themselves up now as editor/publishers who can’t even spell their Twitter posts correctly or deliver them grammatically.

Ask for names from writers you respect. Check references of those you find on-line. Demand credentials. Remember, you are the creator. You are the talent. And now, you are also the employer.

 Production

Looking Back

When your manuscript had been edited to perfection, it was submitted to the layout department where the pages were set. A careful in-house editor working in cooperation with the layout department would make sure that all chapters started on the right (usually the right-hand) side of the page, that there were no pages with just one word on them, that there was an appropriate running head across the top of the page, that paragraphs had not accidentally run together, and that all the other details were adhered to that made for a professional-looking book. If you had included figures or tables in your manuscript, they would be laid out and proofread at this stage. Captions would be checked, illustrations inserted where appropriate, double-spaces and fluerons would be added where they should be, and again checked. If there was an index (usually created at the author’s expense), the typeset pages would be printed off to be given to the author, who would then insert the page numbers.

The cover design would be completed and the text for the back cover and any other promotional inside notes would be created, set and proofed. Tables of Contents would be created if necessary, Forewords inserted, Acknowledgements checked and placed.

When all of this and other related bits of work had been completed, the page proofs would be sent to the author for final checking. Then the laid-out version of the novel and the cover would be sent to the printer.

A few weeks later, the printer would send back what was known as a “blue line” (this can be imagined sort of like a negative of a photograph, although it isn’t really a negative), which would show exactly how the pages were going to look when the page was produced and what order the pages would appear in. The in-house editor would give this blue-line a final check, and would also check all the colour separations with the art department for the cover and any illustrations.

The order to print was then issued to the printer. Within a certain defined period of time (which was almost always exceeded by the printer, meaning that books were often late for important events such as book launches), 500 or 2,500 or 3,000 or 10,000 or whatever number of copies of the books had been ordered would be delivered to the publisher for warehousing and distribution.

Looking Ahead

With self-publishing, the writer submits the edited manuscript to a layout artist (paid or a relative, depending ;) ) and/or does the layout himself or herself, and then submits the laid-out version of the book to the publishing company, according to the page specifications that are provided by the company.

The author also arranges for a cover to be designed and prepared in the manner required by the publishing company.

Depending on the knowledge/skill of the layout artist/typesetter and the cover designer, this step makes the difference between a book that “looks” self-published and one that does not.

Most self-publishing houses and publishing partners now deal only in print-on-demand books, rather than running off 2,500 copies using an off-set printing press. This means that when someone orders a copy of your book, one copy of that book is created on the spot, packaged and delivered to them immediately. Since 2,500 copies of your book are not sitting in a warehouse somewhere, waiting for someone to order them, trees are saved and many middle-people are eliminated. Customers don’t need to wait any longer for the bookstore to take their order and then to contact the publisher, who then contacts the warehouse department, which waits until enough books have accumulated for shipping to one address to justify the delivery charges, before the order is fulfilled. (By which time your customer has forgotten that he or she ordered the book, has no money left in his or her account, and refuses to purchase it.)

The one drawback to the print on demand (POD) system today is that the books can look flimsy and the covers don’t always get stuck on straight or properly. But before too long the technology of self-publishing partners like CreateSpace will become increasingly refined so that books that are self-published will be harder and harder to tell apart from those that have been designed and typeset by traditional publishing houses using big printing presses. And, of course, e-books make this step much simpler; far fewer quality-control steps are required in the production of an electronic book than in the production of a “real” book. However, real books are always going to be desired by many readers, so this part of the process should not be ignored by self-publishing authors–at least for literary works that someone might want to hold.

 Promotion/Sales

 The primary sales tool upon which most traditional publishing houses rely is the catalogue. As an author, you and your book receive top billing (usually along with five or six other writers/books) in the season in which your book is actually published. For a few months you and your book are featured in the front pages of the publishing company’s catalogue, and then your book falls farther and farther back in the subsequent editions until it forms part of the company’s “backlist.”

I have heard from booksellers that one of the most important ways they have to discover which books in a publisher’s catalogue they might want to stock is the enthusiasm of the sales person when he or she comes around to the bookstore. If the publishing company’s salesperson has read the book and really likes it and can talk about it, the bookseller (we’re talking primarily independent booksellers here) will likely be convinced to stock a book that he or she has not heard about before. Unfortunately, the sales reps from many publishing companies have not read all the books (or at least may not have read your book) and so you just become one of many new voices in one of many catalogues the bookseller receives. Some sales people never even go around to booksellers any more, apparently. So the bookseller gets your publisher’s catalogue in the mail or on–line about the same time that he or she gets an avalanche of catalogues from other publishers, and often that is that.

In addition to the catalogue, most publishers will send out review copies to newspapers and magazines, but unless there is some unique way of getting the attention of the book-review department, your book is likely to languish in a pile of other newly published books that reaches to the ceiling and is soon shunted off to a backroom somewhere. Many traditional outlets will not review ebooks. Or POD books. Even if they are published by traditional publishing houses.

Many writers make very poor interview subjects so there are legions of radio and television hosts who do not want to talk to writers. Apparently we just don’t know how to capitalize on and entertain audio/visual audiences — our preferred medium is print! — and since so many of our number have bored viewers and listeners to death in the past, even if we are ourselves great guests on tv or radio, we will need to overcome established prejudices before we can have our moments in the sun. . . either that, or we will need to do something newsworthy that interviewers can talk about with us, like robbing a grocery store or walking 2000 miles in our bare feet.

Another unfortunate bit of news: publishers and booksellers have found that hosting book-launch parties and readings are not very cost-effective, so this happens far less often than it used to.

Looking Ahead

When it comes to promotion of self-published books, the sky is the limit. I have a bunch of crazy ideas and some more time-tested ones, and I’ll be doing a whole column about that in future.

At the Writers Union meeting I attended this past weekend, there was a panel discussion on promoting one’s own work through blogs and social media, and aside from the fact that everyone agreed that blatant self-promotion was more off-putting than attractive, there were a range of ideas that I’ll be happy to present here at some point before long.

Stay tuned.

Distribution

 Looking Back

Publishers have always had huge problems with book warehousing and distribution.

If you print 10,000 copies of a book and ship 3,000 of them out to bookstores when the print run comes in, what do you do with the other 7,000 copies? On the other hand, if you only print 3,000 copies and they sell out quickly, what do you do about the fact that it’s going to take a couple of months to get more copies printed? Or what happens if the author’s book wins an award, and you don’t have enough copies available to fill the orders that result (this happens all the time, in fact). Where do you situate your warehouses? Near the editorial and sales offices, or out in a lower-rent district where the shipping department becomes like a whole separate entity. Do you combine forces with other publishers to reduce duplicate costs of distribution? How can you be sure your books are being rushed out to customers if the other publishing companies with which you have combined resources have a run on a particular title?

The craziness of the book business also means that if retailers don’t sell the books they order, they can return them to the publisher. So publishers need somewhere to put returns – unless they plan to simply shred them (which also happens).

Looking Ahead

The age of technology has resolved many distribution problems in ways that benefit writers and readers more than they do publishers and traditional booksellers. With Print on Demand and electronic books, readers can press a button and the book is on its way to them –either in the mail or electronically. No warehouses are necessary.

Of course, booksellers don’t make any profit from e-books, or at least they haven’t figured out how to do so yet, so they don’t like them. And they don’t like Print on Demand books, because they can’t return them after they have ordered them. Booksellers and publishers both look down (with good reason) on the poor quality of many POD titles, and don’t want them in their stores.

The whole area of book distribution is evolving as rapidly as any other area of book publishing, but the bottom line is that the changes are good for writers and readers—the latter can actually impulse-buy our books!—and for that among many other evolutions in our business, we can look at our futures with a new optimism, even knowing that our role as publishers or at least publishing partners is going to mean a lot more work for us.

So there you go. Poof! You’re a publisher.

E-books and self-publishing are NOT THE SAME THING!

I am currently working on a blog post tentatively entitled, “Why do We Even Need Publishers?” which I hope to have posted by Sunday night, but in the meantime I want to clear up a rampant misconception that I’ve noticed among writers AND readers.

Yesterday I was discussing the issue of self-publishing (or “independent publishing”) with another widely published writer, explaining how I felt that the writers’ organizations to which we both belong were not doing justice to the dramatic way in which the new opportunities for publishing were affecting our industry and improving opportunities for writers in the future. The friend said, “Well, [one organization] did have a few really good sessions on e-books last year.”

And that reminded me of a problem I have noticed over and over again in writers’ and readers’ forums and even in articles from some established media outlets. For some unknown reason, there seems to be a confusion among many people between electronic publishing and self-publishing. They are not the same thing at all, and aside from being co-incidental in that they are both arising in the past few years, and that they are part of the same transformation, they are entirely unrelated.

Electronic publishing refers to the production of an electronic version of your book. That is all it refers to. It doesn’t matter if you are self-publishing or if you are being published by Simon & Schuster (are they still in business?), there can be a print version of your book and there can be an electronic version of your book. There can also be softcover and hardcover versions of the print edition, and there can be an audio-book version. These are merely different formats: they do not indicate different publishing paradigms.

The confusion has arisen because many of those who self-publish choose to publish ONLY in an e-book version, which is short-sighted on their parts as I will explain later. But that doesn’t mean that e-book publishing and self-publishing are synonymous in any way.

If you are publishing with ANY established press, you must make sure that they are going to make an e-book version available at almost at the same time as the print version appears, that the e-book will be available to the different reader platforms that are now available: Kindle, Kobe, iBooks, Sony Reader, Nook, etc.

There is a big argument going on about how much writers should get in royalties on e-books, which is an issue I intend to explore as soon as I finish this series on the death of the traditional books industry. But in the meantime, don’t get locked into any particular royalty for e-books in your contracts with established presses for the time being. The Writers’ Union of Canada recommends that you allow for renegotiation of the clause in your contract that relates your e-book rights/income in two years or so when this issue has settled down a bit, and I agree.

More soon .  . . .