Archives for category: Self publishing

Getting the manuscripts and turning them into books was always the fun part. Persuading people to buy them is tough.

Chris McVeigh at @4fifty1 has a rant, entitled This is not a love song. He quotes a publishing marketing director who “was frustrated because she felt like she was consistently letting down the authors under her care. The sheer relentless weight of books coming through the pipeline had all but overwhelmed her and her staff some time ago — and from where she was standing things were only getting worse. We just don’t have the time to do anything properly, we’re just ticking boxes.”

But unfortunately boxes do need to be ticked: it may be boring but messages need to be sent to the relevant mailing lists, influencers need to be alerted, and review copies need to be sent to appropriate review media. These publications will insist on wanting to make up their own minds about whether or not they’ll send the book on to someone who might actually read it and review it. It’s a lot about horses and water and drinking — you can do all sorts of social media stuff but you can’t reach down the wires and force the punters to buy. At the end of the day, all a publisher can really do is let people know that this book exists, ensure it’s out there in places where they might find it, and keep their fingers crossed. I suspect most readers are fairly adept at discounting publishers’ claims of excellence: what makes the book sell is something else. Where the idea comes from that this is a book I need to buy varies wildly, but is summed up as “word-of-mouth”. You hear about the book, and having heard about it you think it sounds like something you might buy. Eventually maybe it ends up as something you have bought.

This Publishing Perspectives piece asks whether we can replicate “word-of-mouth” by using the Internet. “Every marketing expert loves — and wants — business through word-of-mouth, but nobody has figured out the perfect way to automate and digitalize this vital tool.” Well, of course, if you run a business aimed at automating “word-of-mouth” clearly you’ll think of it as a tool. However I fear word-of-mouth is not a “tool” representing a means to an end — it is the end itself. What marketing aims to create is word-of-mouth. The assumption, and the probability, is that that talk will indeed translate into sales — but what the publisher’s marketers are trying to gin up is not directly the sale, but the awareness which will provoke people out there into thinking “I might should buy that book”. Clearly, I guess, the more eyeballs you can hit with the fact, the more effective the distribution of that fact may be.

Mike Shatzkin claims Open Road’s automated online marketing operation is unique. OK, maybe it is unique, but is it working? Hard to tell from the outside — probably from the inside too when all’s said and done. We don’t see Open Road at the top of bestseller lists all the time, but how can we judge whether Open Road books are not in fact selling better than they would have done without this digital marketing help? They probably are, but not even Open Road can know for certain. These are not scientific experiments which can be rerun: so we just stumble along and tick all those boxes.

Here David Gaughran gives the self-publisher advice on how to do email marketing. At the coalface too, from Inside Higher Education, Joanne W. Golann lets us know what an author can do to publicize their own academic book. I am always tempted to insist that there’s a platonic perfect number out there which represents the sales number of any given book. In most cases in academic publishing this is a fairly low number and letting millions more know about is almost a waste of time. No amount of TikTok activity and word-of-mouthing is going to provoke anyone to buy Leucocyte Typing VII I fear — unless they were going to buy it anyway. Still getting the word out to fifty more buyers for such a book is a more rewarding feeling than trying to alert millions.

It may not be publishing’s biggest problem, but it’s certainly one of the top ones — and one we could ourselves cure, if only we had the will. We insist on being willing to take back books we have “sold”, giving full credit for them. What this means is that you never really know what the sales of a book are: they may all be out there in bookshops — but nobody knows how many, and when, they’ll start turning up at the warehouse with a request for a refund. But we are apparently hooked on returns. Returns are crazy. Returns of POD books are crazier. And returns of ebooks are beyond crazy.

NPR has a story about authors protesting Amazon’s returns policy on ebooks, which allows you seven days to cancel a purchase made in error. Now of course seven days is more than enough to read almost any book, so if you are a ruthless reading addict, you can avoid ever paying for a book. If the book’s too long, I wonder if, having bought it “in error” one week, you can buy the same book “in error” a week or so later after having gotten credit for the first purchase — and so on until you’ve managed to finish the tome, when you finally return it for the ultimate credit. That this should be an option is nuts. Obviously Amazon, maniacally customer-friendly, want to encourage you to buy that pair of shoes, confident in the knowledge that if they don’t fit, you can return them for full credit, no questions asked. This quite rational policy just gets extended to all products, and bingo, books are priceless.

With ebooks of course there’s no physical object being swapped back and forth — all the reader is getting is access to a file, then giving up that access when their money is refunded. So the publisher isn’t losing anything more than the tiny electronic cost of doing these transactions. The author though, having gotten a royalty credited to their account when the ebook was first “sold”, has to watch that royalty being clawed back from their account.* This looks a lot more like losing something real! Of course both parties have immediately lost another potential customer. Assuming there’s a finite number of people who might ever buy a particular book, if lots of them are able to read it for free, that represents significant damage to the ultimate earnings of author and publisher.

I think it’s obvious that seven days is far too long to allow a customer to decide to return a product for credit. Maybe if it’s a pair of pants it’s understandable that they need to be delivered and tried on before you know whether they fit or not. I do know people who have bought an item of clothing, worn it to a party, and then returned it for credit the next day. Even this, although utterly immoral, is not quite as ludicrous as “buying” an ebook, reading it, and rerunning it for full credit.


* OK, OK; there can’t be many authors who have real-time access to their royalty statement.

The Passive Voice explains recent changes in the Copyright registration procedures covering digital-only publications. As tells us “Section 407 of the Copyright Act generally requires the owner of the copyright in a work published in the United States to deposit two copies with the Copyright Office for use by the Library of Congress. The Register of Copyrights is authorized to exempt certain classes of works from this mandatory deposit requirement. In a 2010 interim rule, the Office codified its longstanding practice of exempting all electronic works that are not available in a physical format.” [There were a few exceptions.]

In 2020 they decided that books published only in a digital version would become subject to a deposit requirement, in electronic form, when © is registered. (None of this refers to what we normally think of as e-books, where the digital version is in effect no more than a different format of a print book — the deposit in these cases will have taken place when © in the original printed book was filed.) The Passive Voice speculates that this acceptance of digital deposit might indicate a recognition by The Library of Congress that they can’t store everything in physical form, and that they may want to move more generally to e-deposit. If there’s anything to this, it will no doubt be a long drawn out process. The new reg isn’t substituting a digital copy for a hard copy: it’s introducing a digital copy deposit requirement.

For those who feel compelled to get their news from the horse’s mouth, here’s a link to the Federal Register of 12 November 2020 in which the rule is set forth.

See also Copyright registration.

The term vanity press appears to have originated in the USA, though the reality is older and more widespread. It means, of course, a “publishing” company that in return for a fee will take your manuscript and turn it into a book. This of course doesn’t constitute what we normally think of as publishing, but there are always lots of people with enough money to spend it on all sorts of services. Efforts at making sales would be made but realistically getting rid of the books was down to the authors themselves. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest reference to the business is from 1922 in Business of Writing: “Numerous devices are employed by the ‘vanity publisher’ to lead the innocent author on toward becoming famous in his own eyes and those of his friends“. This is kind of how we viewed vanity presses towards the end of the twentieth century, when they still existed: as machines designed to separate fools from their money.* Now that it’s become so much easier to get your book published, vanity presses have had to mutate in order to survive, and have followed their prey into the more open waters of the online world.

Hybrid is the label under which these actors, (some good, some bad) now conduct their publishing services business. Jane Freidman hosts on her site a piece about bad actors in the “industry”. The piece is linked to by The Passive Voice, where you can find quite sensible commentary on it focussed on their expertise in contracts. The Passive Voice tells us that they “checked out SheWrites Press [a hybrid publisher founded by the author of the piece, Brooke Warner] and quickly discovered that they offer one package for $8,500.” This fee doesn’t include the costs of manufacturing, so we are talking about a fairly expensive service.

Ms Warner analyses as foundational to the hybrid industry the action of the “Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), who released its Hybrid Publisher Criteria in early 2018. It offers nine criteria for the industry and authors alike to use as a measurement of a hybrid publisher’s integrity. The problem is that human beings run companies, and human beings fudge the rules, and in the aftermath of making public those criteria, I talked to more than a few heads of ‘hybrid publishers’ who said to me with all sincerity, Yes, we’re hybrid; we meet all but two of the criteria.”

The IBPA criteria for identifying as a hybrid publisher are:

  • Define a mission and vision for its publishing program.
  • Vet submissions.
  • Publish under its own imprint(s) and ISBNs.
  • Publish to industry standards
  • Ensure editorial, design, and production quality.
  • Pursue and manage a range of publishing rights.
  • Provide distribution services.
  • Demonstrate respectable sales.
  • Pay authors a higher-than-standard royalty.

Ms Warner’s grumble that “human being fudge the rules” may sound good but is pretty meaningless. Surely one of the last things anyone running a company would bother to do is check to see to what extent they were behaving identically to other companies who might adhere to a completely arbitrary definition cooked up by an organization whose interest in the business cannot be concealed. The urge to fit everything into an analytical category afflicts the commentariat not business owners. For me it’s all just one big messy continuum. I guess “hybrid publishing” corresponds to the third group on Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s list of five divisions of publishing, but so what? Hybrid as a name strikes me as too wishy-washy to signify anything very precise. Vanity publishing, although a bit insulting as a term, did at least have the virtue of getting at the salient issue: you author, seeking the satisfactions of authorship although unable to interest a traditional publisher, will have to pay for the privilege. That there should have evolved a group of companies interested in collecting fees from authors without providing a full service should come as a surprise to nobody. Vetting submissions must in many cases amount to no more than vetting the author’s credit-worthiness. What “industry standards”? We’ve always published a schlock book: what’s your problem? Pursue a range of rights? Sure, we’ll write a letter. Respectable sales? If you write a boring book, how are we meant to sell more than half a dozen? The beauty of higher royalty rates is that if there are no sales, the rate is academic.

In the UK authors’ unions are banding together to call for reform of pay-to-play deals by hybrid publishers, many of which apparently end up with authors losing their investment. Here’s the Society of Authors piece on it.

At the heart of their campaign is the practice of the hybrid publisher quietly acquiring the rights in the work as part and parcel of their publishing fee. Caveat emptor. Remember even the most unpromising looking vanity project may one day become a hot property. I fear that the problem with this sort of reform effort is the whack-a-mole phenomenon. Where there’s a profit, there’s a way.

See also Self published or privately printed.


* I dare say I should allow that vanity publishing did occasionally, even often, provide a valuable service to people who lacked access to the printing press and wanted to make some personal, minority interest writing available. Psychic benefits may also have ensued. Just because the exchange of money is involved, does not mean that one of the parties must be bent on deception! Vanity publishing shades into commission publishing without visible separation.

Well of course Kristine Kathryn Rusch has every right to write whatever she wants. And, while, parfit gentil knight that I am, I am always reluctant to enter the ad hominem lists, so too do I.

I’ve got nothing against self publishing, and can’t even see why anyone would. Just let them do their thing and “we” can do ours. Our thing may even involve making a bit of money off self published authors who’ve grown tired of their indie publishing business routines. Ms Rusch’s recent Business Musings piece, which kicks off as a celebration of Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter success, goes on to tell us yet again how stupid traditional publishers are, and how the only way to win at publishing is to take classes offered by Ms Rusch and her husband. This may, for all I know, be excellent advice. You’re not going to find out much about traditional publishing though — but who needs to know that old stuff?.

Sanderson raised a whole lot of money on his Kickstarter campaign: 185,341 backers pledged $41,754,153 to receive his four books plus mystery goodies. Ms Rusch believes that “no matter what the trad pub folk want to believe, this is a game-changer”. As, I suppose, one of the “trad pub folk” myself, do I find myself believing that this is a “game-changer”? I’m not sure I do. Sure, Kickstarter has never had as successful a campaign, and is a relatively new venue for bookselling, but lining up subscribers to your books is something which has been going on for centuries. Clearly other authors are already trying the same approach, and maybe lots of them will succeed. But wasn’t Substack meant to be the game changer too? Well of course at a sort of idiot level nobody could deny that the book publishing game has indeed changed over the past fifty years, and will keep on changing even more.

One of Ms Rusch’s more startling paragraphs reads “A quick search of the publishing category on Kickstarter, sorted for active campaigns, showed me book projects that have funded and brought in (so far) anywhere from $50,000 to $500. The bulk of these are in the $10,000 category per novel . . . which is, roughly, what any new writer can expect from traditional publishing these days”. Any new writer can expect a $10,000 advance? Maybe I do need to sign up for a class!

“People who are trained in traditional publishing think that the sales up front, like a Kickstarter, are the only sales.” Well, Noooh. Who do you think invented the term backlist? She goes on, digging in ever deeper, “But in indie publishing, sales can continue for years“. Really; amazing. And I guess we’ve been wasting all that unsold inventory after a year — why did nobody tell us before that there were people out there who might buy an older book? Isn’t it wonderful that we dummies in traditional publishing have self publishers to teach us our business?

Now I know we trad pub folk are slow off the mark, but is it utterly impossible for a traditionally published book to be promoted through a Kickstarter campaign sort of along Sandersonian lines? I don’t know, and don’t plan to research whether Kickstarter refuses to deal with anyone other than an individual, or some such thing, but I would bet that some smart trad pub guy was working out how to get this done. The only difference in a self publisher’s sales efforts and a traditional publisher’s, is that the self publisher is dealing with books they themselves wrote, therefore however prolific they may be, a fairly manageable and coherent list. The traditional publisher deals with books by hundreds of different authors, and we have discovered that directing our efforts into the channel of greatest potential tends to yield the greatest benefit. Could we wring an extra couple of hundred sales out of this or that book: maybe, but maybe not. You have to balance the effort against the potential reward, and this means some old books won’t be being pushed. When the author is the one pushing, there’s no debate. Push we will: and from time to time the results will prove astonishing. Which is great. But which doesn’t mean traditional publishers don’t know what they are doing. And especially doesn’t mean that trad pub folk are out to get authors.

LitHub tells us that 50% of the films nominated for this year’s Oscars are based on books. (You have to do a bit of clicking at their post to get to the book on which the movie’s based and LitHub‘s suggestions for further reading.)

Films nominated for Best Picture which are adapted from library originals are:

  • Drive my Car: Haruki Murakami’s story of the same title (published in his 2014 collection, Men Without Women)
  • Dune: Frank Herbert’s novel of the same title
  • Nightmare Alley: William Gresham’s novel of the same title
  • The Power of the Dog: Thomas Savage’s novel of the same title
  • West Side Story: well, I guess, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

This book adaptation is a bit of a phenomenon nowadays as streaming companies in particular are gobbling up rights to books and book series. Everyone seems to be looking for material Just this week the New York Book Forum conducted a discussion of this topic, “Watch the show, Grab the book”, which you can see at YouTube.

Brandon Sanderson (link via The Passive Voice) reports on the progress of his Kickstarter campaign, and what it all means to him. This is an important piece, and ought to be read by anyone interested in the future of book publishing.

He presents his Kickstarter sales as an alternative to Amazon who have too much power for his preference — sound familiar to people who’ve been around traditional publishing for the last ten or fifteen years? Unlike traditional publishers though, Mr Sanderson seems to have cracked it: his “sales” over Kickstarter now amount to more than $32 million from more than 138,000 people with eight days to go — not too shabby for four books.

Mr Sanderson says he plans to continue his relationship with his traditional publishers, Tor (Macmillan) and Delacorte Press (PRH), and is in a pretty unique position having built up a distribution system over the years (he confesses to even having a Human Resources manager on staff) which originated with his selling leather-bound editions of his books. His concern with Amazon is based upon his perception that they are beginning to claw back a bit of that 70% ebook royalty by charging authors for adverts necessary to big sales of their books. This he sees as altogether understandable, given the realities of business, but worries that a dominant retailer like Amazon might decide almost on a whim no longer to support this or that stream of goods. The Kickstarter campaign started as an experiment to see if his fans would move to a different platform: seems that there are lots of them who will.

One proposal he makes, undeniably sensible, is that publishers should offer (as his Kickstarter campaign does) a bundle consisting of the physical book as well as an ebook. His distribution system can’t handle paperbacks though, so it’s a hardback + audiobook + ebook bundle he offers. A decade ago I had a boss at Oxford University Press who used to propose bundling ebook and print book, more or less jocularly, as we all knew no publishing executive is going to countenance such a crazy thing. But why not? Many’s the book I’ve read as an ebook while on the train, and as a physical copy when at home. Of course “giving the ebook away” means theoretically the loss of an ebook sale, but it at least seems worth experimenting with a pricing structure with more steps on it: say ebook $10; paperback $15; paperback + ebook $17.50; hardback $30; hardback + ebook $35.* As things stand very few if any buyers of your paperback are going to lay out another largish sum to get an ebook too: but some might give you an extra $2.50 or so to have the convenience of both. Still, if nobody other than Brandon Sanderson will try this, then we’ll never know whether it works or not.

In an interview, he tells us, he was asked how he planned to spend the Kickstarter money. “I will spend the money as I spend the rest of my money.  Part into savings, part into paying salaries (along with nice extra bonuses because the Kickstarter did well), part reinvested into the company.  (We’re still planning on building a physical bookstore, and this will help accelerate those plans.  Also, it’s not outside of reason that as I move into doing more film and TV, I will want to partially fund some of the projects.) . . .  don’t underestimate how much money it costs to maintain the infrastructure (like a warehouse–or in this case, probably more than one) it takes to be able to ship several hundred thousand books.  It will likely be years before we can be certain how much this actually earned us after all expenses.  More than we’d get from New York on the same books, but potentially not that much more.”

The man seems to have energy on a nuclear scale. His books are many and some are being written simultaneously. Despite this writing blitz his blog posts are long and well thought out. And his books are popular. In assessing ahead of time the likely demand for this Kickstarter campaign he thought — “I could guess that the upper end of the number of people willing to show up to buy a Sanderson book in the first year of release is somewhere around 800k, while the lower end of people who will show up for one is around 50k.” At 138,000 buyers on Kickstarter Mr Sanderson has clearly, as he states in his blog, still got considerable sales potential left. I’m not sure what he plans to do about a paperback edition of the four books. I suppose he could sublease the paperback edition to a traditional publisher if he feels his distribution system isn’t up to dealing with such quantities of books!

It’s worth going to the Kickstarter page and watching the number pledged go up every 20 seconds or so. It’s quite extraordinary. In the few minutes I’ve spent revising this post this morning the number of subscribers has almost reached 139,000, so I’d better post this right away!


* And why not while you’re at it throw in more options, hardback + paperback $37.50, hardback + paperback + ebook $40? The mechanics of such a deal do require some thought: just printing a code in the book which enables you to access the ebook (as many textbooks do) exposes you to the risk of book browsers “stealing” access without buying the book. IT wizards can surely work out a methodology.

John James Audubon was born in Haiti on 26 April 1785, illegitimate son of a French sea captain and his chambermaid. His mother having died, his father took him with him back to France where his loyal wife brought up the boy as her own. In 1803, probably to dodge conscription in Napoleon’s army, Jean Jacques shipped out to an estate of his father’s near Philadelphia. He married and set up as a trader in Kentucky, achieving bankruptcy in 1819, whereupon he was put in jail. After his release he made a precarious living as a portrait painter and teacher.

Birds were among the subjects he painted and a small showing of them in Cincinnati in 1820 was well received. Later that year he embarked on a flatboat as a working passenger with his drawing materials, his gun, a flute, the clothes he was wearing, and a letter of recommendation from Henry Clay. Audubon had met Alexander Wilson, author of American Ornithology, and believed he could do better, though he could not but recognize that Wilson knew a lot more about birds than he did. The boat took him to New Orleans which became his headquarters for the next six years. His living was made painting portraits, teaching art, music, dance, and fencing, with help from his wife who joined him in the south fourteen months after his arrival. All the time he was painting birds, and as this picture from one of his notebooks shows, kept studying ornithology.

Some insight into his working methods may be gained by his statement “The many foreshortenings unavoidable in groups like these, have been rendered attainable by means of squares of equal dimensions affixed both on my paper and immediately behind the subjects before me. . . . I have never drawn from a stuffed specimen . . . nature must be seen first alive, and well studied before attempts are made at representing it.” He did in fact end up having to use a few stuffed models or skins only. Working from dead models presented its own problems — he had to work fast before the color of the eyes and feet faded. In the spring of 1821 he had difficulty getting his image of the great white heron to come alive on the paper. “By the time he was finished the bird was putrefying, but braving the nauseating stench, Audubon opened the bird’s carcass to determine the bird’s sex and its eating habits.” Apparently either from hunger or curiosity he ate a large number of the birds he pictured, testifying that “starlings were delicate eating” while flickers he complained tasted too much of the ants they fed upon. Perish the thought, but how would you know what ants taste like?

Overall Audubon worked principally in water color, but he employed other media such as pencil, pastel and ink. Most of his earliest surviving work is in pencil and pastel color. He drew on the largest sheet available, double elephant, 40″ x 30″ and it was at this size that he commissioned reproductions from English engraver Robert Havell Jr. Havell printed the paintings on the same double elephant size sheet — they measure 29½” x 39½” (no doubt they got a little trim on all four sides, though standard sizing was probably a bit more variable back then). Printing, by a combination of aquatint and etching, was of the outlines only: the colors were added by hand. At one time Havell had fifty men and women working on the coloring of the job. The prints were offered for sale loose as folios of prints, and this I suspect is what explains the habit of referring to the paper size as “double elephant folio”. Folio, in the book paper context, implies there was one fold, which would have resulted in book with an untrimmed page size of 20″ x 30″. But of course books containing bound-up selections of Audubon’s prints are twice that size. They must have incorporated the prints by tipping them onto stubs bound in place.

Audubon worked hard at developing the business represented by the selling of prints of his paintings. The creation of The Birds of America is said to have cost $2 million at today’s values, and selling subscriptions was a never-ending process. Apart from business and birding he managed to write enough to fill a 900-page volume in the Library of America’s edition.

Towards the end of his life he was helped by his son John Woodhouse Audubon, to create a smaller format edition of The Birds of America. The art was allegedly copied by his son with the aid of a camera lucida for lithographic reproduction— presumably we are talking here of projecting the images onto litho stones and drawing them there. I may be guilty of inadequate imagination here, but to me this seems to suggest that the images would end up reversed unless they were printed by offset lithography— but allegedly offsetting wasn’t discovered till the early twentieth century. Were mirrors involved? Must be so.

He died in 1851 at his estate overlooking the Hudson, about twenty blocks south of where I sit. He’s buried in the cemetery on his estate’s southern boundary. The area is referred to as Audubon Park Historic District. On the map below it’s located at the end of the label for Hispanic Society Museum and Library. A few blocks further north, on Broadway, can be found the Audubon Ballroom — well its facade and part of the interior anyway — site of Malcolm X’s assassination.

The Audubon Ballroom facade

In 1863 Audubon’s widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, sold to The New-York Historical Society her husband’s preparatory watercolors for The Birds of America (published serially in London between 1827 and 1838). The Society owns all 435 known preparatory watercolors. They also have a double-elephant edition of The Birds of America, as well as the octavo edition and his Ornithological Biography

Northern Manhattan is the center of the Audubon Mural Project, where all round the neighborhood bird paintings have sprung up on public walls and doorways.

And of course, perhaps the most appropriate memorial, The Audubon Society is named after him.

Though he was a shooter, Audubon would be happy that we are now able to look out from his estate and observe almost every day peregrines, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks and bald eagles. These last, I like to think, have been coaxed back to the city by a program a decade or more ago whereby fledglings were raised in Inwood Hill Park at the very northern tip of Manhattan. The idea was that by growing up there they’d be more likely to come back to live (and breed) as adults. Seems to be working, though I don’t think we’ve gotten to breeding yet. I’ve observed a couple eating their lunch on an ice floe floating upstream just below my window. Bald eagle populations have recovered nationwide from close to extinction to about half a million, almost their assumed numbers at the time of the arrival of that scourge, the European.

Audubon’s bald eagle

The Passive Voice links to a story from Slate about fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of a four-book series. He has gathered commitments for almost $26 million which makes this Kickstarter’s best-funded project. (His original target was a mere million!) Mr Sanderson is apparently best known as creator of the Cosmere fictional universe, in which most of his novels are set. This includes the “Mistborn” series and “The Stormlight Archive”.

This is effectively modern-day subscription publishing. The article implies that Mr Sanderson is offering printed books in various versions of elegance. In fact you can invest at eight different levels, ranging in price from $40 to $500. Here they are:

As the Slate article suggests Mr Sanderson will have to get the product printed and distributed. This will obviously eat into his funding (and writing time), but as we in publishing know, doing this is great fun!

Writing proceeds apace. At his own website he shows us, on 3 March, the first five chapters of the first of the four “secret” books, Tress of the Emerald Sea. Next week he assures us he’ll unveil the first chapters of the second volume. This sort of energy deserves all the rewards it can get.

In his commentary on an extract from Bloomberg Law about the Maryland library ebook suit (about which no doubt more later at Making Book as the case evolves) The Passive Voice, reliably rude about publishers,* proudly tells us that he “has suggested on many prior occasions that traditional publishers are foolish in their pricing strategies for ebooks because, after the first copy of an ebook is created, additional copies cost the publisher no more to produce. In a perfectly-sane publishing world, ebooks would always cost much less than printed books and still generate a much higher profit margin without killing any more trees and shipping physical books long distances from the low-income nations where they are printed.”†

I say — in a perfectly sane world commentators would better understand what it is they comment upon. Funny how they never go on about the wickedness of newspapers and magazines, who despite the fact that after they have sold their first online subscription find also that “additional copies cost the publisher no more to produce”, yet never seem to offer the second and third subscribers a massive price break.

This claim about ebook pricing is such obvious nonsense to anyone involved in “real” publishing, that you have to wonder how it might come to pass that obviously intelligent people can say such weird things. It almost has to be a case of talking about different things, of using the same words but with different meanings. And maybe that is all it is. —

To a self publisher — a real self publisher publishing books which he/she has written themselves — there really is no upfront cost involved in publishing a book. You wrote it, it’s over, and whether it’s published or not, what’s done is done. Your right brain doesn’t start a conversation with your left brain, saying “OK, now I’ve given you this product, you have to reward me. I need x, y, and z from you before you can do anything that might look like selling our work”. But, if not precisely in this form, this is exactly the sort of conversation that has to take place between author/agent and traditional publisher. So not only does the publisher have to pay the author in order to get the manuscript, but having got it they have to pay to get it converted into their system and style. Now the punctilious self publisher no doubt does spend some time and effort doing the analogous things, editing, design etc., but there’s probably not a bill to be paid. If there is, (i.e. if they use some freelance service provider) then they immediately have to start thinking like a publisher — “How am I going to recover my sunk costs?” Selling an ebook for 99¢ and telling yourself you’ll make it up on volume may get past your personal internal auditor, but won’t fly if you need to involve other people some of whom may hope to make money.

There’s so much talking past one another that many self publishers seem amazed that it’s hard for them to get their books into bookshops or libraries. Here, at The Creative Penn (link via The Passive Voice) is a piece about getting your self-published book into libraries. Well, OK, if you’ve got unlimited time, go for it; but the real way to get your book into libraries is the same way that you can get your book into bookstores — contract with a traditional publisher. Libraries and bookstores‡ are sales channels which traditional publishing has evolved to serve, or is it the other way round? To agonize over your self-published book’s chances there is a bit like wishing the song you are singing would show up as a moving picture on the side of that building. It’s just a different medium.

However here is one way to achieve your aim: a bit of direct action.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser. (Link via The Scholarly Kitchen.)

Dillon Helbig’s technique, “I always be sneaky”, may work for self-published physical books, but self publishers should be wary about placing their ebooks with the library. Underlying all the agitation about library ebook pricing lies the concern about control over lending rights. The problem is that if there’s an ebook available free of charge from the public library there could in theory cease to be any reason for anyone else to bother to spend money to buy another copy. Much of the pricing debate is about the number of loans which are “bought”.


*See the footnote to Gaul’s divided into five parts now for my reaction to a similar snarl.

† Paradoxically, although he doesn’t realize it, and certainly doesn’t mean his sentence to be read this way, the second sentence of this extract is in fact a pretty good description of how publishers are in fact pricing their ebooks: they are cheaper, and they do make more profit. The ebooks in question are apparently just not cheap enough for The Passive Voice, though one suspects that anything a traditional publisher might do would be wrong, wrong, wrong for The Passive Voice.

For my absolutely irrefutable argument about ebook pricing please see The price is right? from early last year.

‡ And do bear in mind that part of the basic problem for bookstores is that self published books are too cheap. Bookstores work off a discount from the supplier (publisher) and cheap books are a problem unless they can sell huge numbers of copies. Cheap books just don’t make enough for the bookseller to warrant the time spent selling them and the capital cost of inventorying them.