Figuring Out the Publishing World

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Since I’ve spent the last several blog posts talking about writing, I’m not surprised that most of the Red Sneaker email is about publishing, trying to fathom how to crack the market, where to send manuscripts, how to survive in a world where bookstores are online and books look like Star Trek PADDs.

I wish I had all the answers. I don’t. At best, I can offer a few guidelines, but at least those guidelines are based upon experience gained publishing over forty books in every possible way during the last thirty years. Here’s what I know for sure about where to publish your books:

  1. It depends on the book, and
  2. It depends upon you.

When I started submitting manuscripts back in the 80s, there was no confusion about it. Unless you had a NYC publisher, you weren’t in the bookstores, and that was where books sold. But somewhere in the last twenty years, Amazon became America’s top bookseller–by far. (#1 retailer, too.) In 2009, digital gizmos like iPads started catching on, and pretty soon people could carry thousands of books on a device that weighed less than a pound. If you’ve ever packed books for a long trip, you can see the advantages. Yes, you may prefer snuggling up to a nice hardcover when you’re in bed, but you aren’t always in bed (I hope) and hardcovers are expensive and increasingly harder to find. So what’s the upshot?

  1. Adult genre fiction sells more in eBook than paper. Figures vary, but it looks to me like sales are around 75% eBook. Books for kids, art books, and some nonfiction still sells better in paper–but the margin in narrowing.
  2. The Big Five NYC publishers are becoming increasingly dependent upon genre fiction (which they sometimes call “upscale fiction” to make it sound more different than it is). You will need an agent to pitch them.
  3. Smaller publishers are less likely to care about agents, and that may be where your non-genre work is heading anyway.
  4. New York is not publishing poetry to any significant degree.
  5. Amazon Publishing is not yet the largest share of the market, but they are the fastest growing slice–by far. Given the high visibility Amazon gives books in which they have a vested interest, that just makes sense.
  6. The Kindle Scout program is one way to get a book into Amazon. Amazon has other houses, but some still require agents (and even if you have one, do you want to give up 20% of your slender royalties)? It works best for adult genre fiction, though there have been exceptions.

And this is why last week, I worked on a book for a large publisher, sent one to a smaller publisher (cross fingers) and launched a Kindle Scout campaign for another book. These days, you need to try everything–based upon what’s right for the book and what’s right for you.

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Maximize Your Writing Time

If there’s a universal lesson that I think all writers must learn, it’s that your most valuable commodity–by far–is time. I can teach people to write cleaner, more effectively, more dramatically, but the one thing I cannot do is teach people to write more quickly. Finishing a book is extremely time-consuming, and that will be true whether you’re on your first book or your forty-fourth. As soon as you hear someone grin and say, “I write fast,” you know it probably isn’t going to be very good.

As a writer, you have to measure “to-do” items, not simply in terms of need, or cost, but time. Sure, it will save you fifty cents to drive to the other side of the city and buy gas at that 7-11, but what is the cost to you in terms of time? To be more specific, how many words are you giving up to save fifty cents? Is it a good investment?

Given the importance of time to every writer, I’m going to list a few productivity tools I think are valuable. The most essential one is Dropbox or Google Drive. You need one or the other for two reasons: 1) to make sure you have a safe place to store your work, and 2) so you can share large files with agents, publishers, friends, fans. You may back up your computer to a cloud, or an external hard drive, and that’s a good idea, but you probably don’t want to share access to your complete hard drive. An inexpensive Dropbox account will allow you to share specific large files with anyone. It also allows you to access key files regardless of where you are or which device you’re currently using. (If you don’t have an external hard drive, CrashPlan provides a continuous 24/7 backup for the contents of your computer.)

Evernote is the world’s most popular organizer, or “to-do list” program. It is beautifully designed and easy to use. I compose the first drafts of these blog posts on it. I’ve also used it for outlines, research notes, or random ideas that occur to me when it’s inconvenient to write them out in detail. You can carry the app version on your phone, so even if you don’t have your computer with you, Evernote can store your ideas. If your desk is perpetually surrounded by Post-It notes, it may be time to consider Evernote.

Zoom is the best and cheapest online meeting service for conferencing with editors, agents, friends, students, colleagues. Apple users can use FaceTime, but amazingly, not everyone uses Apple devices.

If you create graphics, check out Canva. It’s somewhere between Gimp, which is completely free but limited, and Photoshop, which can do about anything but is extremely expensive. I wouldn’t use Canva to design a cover, but it’s fine for creating social media materials. I’ve started posting about my poetry on Instagram, because that’s the largest poetry community in the world today. But Instagram requires a visual. Canva allows me to create good ones. (If you need free/public domain visual images, go to VisualHunt).

SignUp Genius is the best bargain in online scheduling software. We used it at the last Rose State Writing Conference to schedule private consults, and it was a huge improvement over pencil-and-paper scheduling. Acuity Scheduling has more features, but it does require a small monthly charge.

Virtual Response is the email newsletter service I prefer (I use it to send out the Red Sneaker Newsletter). VR makes it easy and cheap to send email to large numbers of people. Inputting the addresses is streamlined and simple. If you have fewer than 2000 names on your mailing list, MailChimp is free–but you may find you soon outgrow it.

Just remember: Cool gadgets and gizmos are only advantageous is they give you more time to write–not if you’re playing with your gadgets when you should be writing. Make yourself write as often as possible, whether you are “in the mood” or not. That’s how books get finished.

What’s New in Author Earnings?

I will return to the series on writing myths next week (probably) but I wanted to comment on the latest report from Author Earnings while the news was fresh. As many of you know, the people at AE have been using computerized data-gathering and number-crunching programs to collate book sales data, particularly at Amazon. Since Amazon never releases official sales figures, this data is invaluable. Every single time AE has released findings since it began over two years ago, it has shown indie publishing sales on the rise.

Until now.

It’s true. In the October report, for the first time ever, AE data indicates that the indie market share has declined. Not drastically, but significantly. Basically back to where it was in early 2015. Traditional publishers have gained some ground in the eBook arena, and Amazon’s publishing program continues to grow.

First, please note that these figures pertain to market share–not how much money is earned by authors. Authors at traditional houses take a much smaller royalty percentage, so the two are far from the same. Authors at small and medium-sized publishing houses take home about the same amount of money as authors at traditional houses (in the aggregate). This amazing. Two years ago it would have been inconceivable.

But it has declined since the last report.

How can this be? Everybody’s got a theory. Early speculation was that the decline was attributable to traditional publishers finally lowering their eBook prices, but this turns out to not be possible–because they haven’t. A more likely explanation is that the Big Five, and many small and medium-sized publishers as well–have started adopting the marketing strategies and tactics pioneered by indie authors. That would include price pulsing, discount newsletters, Facebook ads, retailer-specific metadata, and similar tricks. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose. Especially when it works.

I think this explanation may be correct. Do you get the Bookbub daily newsletter? I do. It has a huge distribution list and it offers deeply discounted books, usually 99 cents or perhaps $1.99. I’ve bought way too many books because of this newsletter. (AE says Bookbub may be responsible for 5-6% of Amazon’s total eBook sales.) But I’ve also noticed how its content has changed. Originally, the books promoted by Bookbub were mostly indie books. These days, books from traditional publishers, who are presumably willing and able to pay more, take up an increasingly large share of the newsletter. By stealing indie thunder, they’ve managed to halt their sales decline. At least for now.

This doesn’t change anything. We are still fortunate to live in an age in which authors have options, not only publishing options but sales venue options. Your decision about how and where to publish should be based upon your book, your goals, and your personality. Digitalization and online sales have been the great equalizer and a great friend to many indie authors. Since the Old Guard has learned to imitate the first batch of tricks, indies will have to develop new ones.

I’m betting they do.

Author Earnings: http://authorearnings.com/report/october-2016/

Create Your Own Audiobooks

Last week, I blogged about the dramatic rise in audiobook sales. This week, I’m going to tell you how to make one yourself.

The simplest, least expensive, most cost-effective approach (though not the only approach) is to use ACX, which is a subsidiary of Amazon. ACX is basically a platform for pairing authors with narrators (what ACX calls “producers”), uploading the work, and listing it for sale on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.

You’ll sign up as an author, then search for your book. (If it’s on sale at Amazon, it will be there). Claim it as your own. Then you can choose to read it yourself (complicated) or find a professional audiobook narrator to read it (less complicated, but you will share your profits). You post a script of about ten minutes of your book, and invite interested narrators to record the sample and send it to you. If you like what you hear, you can hire them. If not, you don’t.

Or you can be more proactive about it. The narrators all have pages with samples of their work. Listen around, and if you hear someone who sounds perfect for your book, send an email inviting them to audition. If they’re interested, you may save yourself a lot of time and get someone you really like.

Once you have your narrator, you have two choices. You can pay them an agreed-upon sum up front, or you can split the royalties 50-50. Most people choose the later. Partner up with your narrator. Make it a joint enterprise.

Some of you may be tempted to record your books yourself (as I have done with the Red Sneaker books). I will warn you–this will not work unless you have a studio and professional recording equipment. You might be able to reserve time in a recording studio, but this is expensive. When you consider recording, editing, and post-production work, you will likely have an hourly bill three to four times the actual length of the book.

You can set up your own studio at home, but again, you need professional equipment which is not cheap. I had it easy–my wife is professional audiobook narrator and already had a studio I could borrow–but if you’re setting one up from scratch, you will have to invest both money to buy the equipment and time to learn how to use it. Even then, unless you are a professional sound engineer or experienced narrator, you will have to send your work out for post-production work.

ACX does have specific and high recording standards. They will not accept anything that is not of first-rate quality. So if you’re thinking you can do this on the microphone built into your computer, forget it. Not gonna happen. Believe me, unless you have a pro in the house, the simpler approach is to seek out a narrator. Let the pros do it and split the profits.

And then the work you did on that book starts earning money in an entirely different realm, one that is growing by leaps and bounds. You’ve done the hardest work. Make the most of it.

ACX: http://www.acx.com

What’s the Fastest Growing Format in Publishing?

Audiobooks.

If you’ve been to one of my writing retreats in the last three years, you’ve heard me say that audiobooks are huge and getting huger. It’s still true. In fact, despite the huge growth of recent years, audiobook sales jumped another 21% last year, while most publishing sectors declined. Audio revenues increased by 36%. As a result, publishing houses are increasing audio budgets and hiring big-name talent. Reese Witherspoon recorded the audio for Go Set a Watchman. Stephen King released “Drunken Fireworks” in audio format four months before it was released in print.

But the fact that the Big Five are producing audiobooks doesn’t mean you can’t too.

Once upon a time, audiobooks were impossible for self- or small publishers. No longer. Now anyone can do it. I won’t say it’s easy. But I will say it’s possible. And if you don’t do it, you’re not giving your book its maximum possible exposure. To put it in Hollywood terms: You’re leaving money on the table.

The reason for this surge in sales is digital downloads. Audio is no longer dependent upon bulky and fragile physical media like CDs and cassette tapes. Listeners can download audio directly to their phones or iPods in seconds. They can listen while they drive, exercise, run, watch a kid’s softball game, even while they swim (waterproof iPod). Listeners often switch between media–listen with the phone in the car, listen from a tablet while they eat, then switch to actual reading (eBook) when they’re at home. WhisperSync allows them to pick up reading right where they stopped listening to the audiobook.

The largest producer of audiobooks is Audible (now owned by Amazon). Their membership increased by 40% last year. And the stats indicate that Audible members also buy 40% more books in all formats after they become members. They read with their eyes, too, when they can.

In other words, if you still have the audio rights to a book and you haven’t produced an audiobook yet, you’re making a mistake. My wife Lara records audiobooks, and what she has seen time and again is that the existence of an audiobook increases the visibility and spurs sales of both the audio, print, and eBook editions. She has also seen books that have middling print or eBook sales but surge in audio. Sometimes, publishing is just not predictable. You want your book to be available to as many people in as many places as possible.

Have I convinced you that you need to produce an audiobook yet? Good. In the next blog, I’ll tell you how to do it.

When Do You Get Your Rights Back? Never?

For a law student studying contracts law, this principle is axiomatic: You don’t give away your rights unless you get something of value in return. Sadly, though, writers historically have done that all too often. Because they hunger to be published, preferably by a large corporate publisher, they sign contracts with poor terms and pitifully low royalty rates. In the past, however, they at least knew that if the book went out of print, those publishing rights would revert to them.

Not any more.

When does an eBook go out of print? Never. When does a print book go out of print? If the publisher sets it up for print-on-demand, never. So today, writers face the possibility of granting licenses that will never revert.

The Authors Guild and other organizations have proposed various contract provisions to alleviate this situation, but the sad truth is the Authors Guild has little to no clout. The Big Five publishers are cogs within large corporations and large corporations do not give up anything of value if they can avoid it. Why would they?

Some have advocated contract clauses providing that if a book doesn’t sell a certain number of books, say, 200 copies a year, the rights revert. But a publisher can easily circumvent that. Make the book available online for 99 cents (or less) and it will cross that threshold. Some have advocated clauses providing that if an author doesn’t earn a minimal amount, say, $200 a year, the rights revert. But the publisher can easily circumvent that. Even if the publisher has to pay a small fee to an author, it might be willing to do so to hold onto the rights. Bottom line, I don’t think clauses based on sales or money are the solution.

Here’s what I recommend: whenever possible, limit the term of your licenses to a number of years. License the rights for five years, or ten years, long enough to make it worthwhile for the publisher. But when the term is over, the rights revert, or the publisher may request an extension based upon the same or better terms. Something like this:

The Author grants and assigns the Publisher the following rights (insert rights)The period of this license shall be for five years, at which point, the contract may be renewed on the same or better terms, provided both parties agree.

You may be thinking, no publisher would agree to that. But I’ve gotten it and I know other writers who have as well. If you’re a first-time writer dealing with a Big Five publisher, it may not happen. But you can still ask, or tell your agent to do so. And if you can’t get it, you might think twice about signing that contract. Are you getting enough value to justify giving those rights away forever?

And just so you know, Amazon Publishing traditionally offers contracts with term clauses.

Is Social Media the Key to Publishing Success?

If you would much rather spend time writing your book than posting on social media–you’re not alone. But there’s no denying that social media has become an indispensible tool for spurring book sales.

In the early days (my first novel was published by Random House in 1991), publicity was primarily print ads (ineffectual), book tours (largely ineffectual), and book signings (boring and largely ineffectual). At least social media can work–and doesn’t cost anything, except of course the precious hours of your life.

Here’s a startling statistic: According to Statista, 78% of all Americans have a social media profile. You would think that just eliminating the elderly and children under ten would make 78% impossible–but it doesn’t. And 2.72 billion people worldwide will be social media users by 2019. Internet users have an average of five social media accounts.

But that doesn’t mean they use all five equally. As I’ve written before, Facebook seems to me to be the most effective for promoting books, book events, and authors. But you have to find the platform that works best for you, the one that allows you to engage readers most effectively. I like Facebook, but my pal Mel Odom swears by Google Groups, and Instagram has created the most popular poets writing today. So don’t try to do everything. Do what works best for you. That means you must:

  1. Know your target audience
  2. Know where they hang out, and
  3. Build your outpost there–and work it regularly.

One final thought you may not have considered. According to Technorati’s Digital Influence Report, blogs are the third-most-influential digital  information source for consumers making purchases, following only retail sites (like Amazon) and name-brand sites (like a publisher’s webpage). Are you blogging? Are you guest-blogging? A simple Google search would turn up fifty potential blogs that might be a good fit for your book, and most of the blog hosts would welcome a guest columnist with something interesting to say. Send them a short query and you may find yourself selling books in an unexpected way.

What’s Really Going On in Publishing

If you keep up with the publishing “news,” you may be confused by recent contradictory indicators. Some sources claim that eBook sales are declining, but any popular-fiction authors who’ve looked at their royalty statements lately sees a different story. The NYTimes consistently suggests that Amazon is the Antichrist and destroying literature, but a growing number of independent authors credit Amazon for the ability to work without a corporate overlord. Who’s right?

Good numbers are hard to come by in the book world, because the Big Five  play their cards close and Amazon won’t release sales figures at all. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe the statistics coming from AuthorEarnings.com are, while perhaps not perfect, the most reliable statistics we have. Why? Because by using computer data-gathering bugs to collect sales information, they take into account Amazon sales, which is currently more than 50% of all books sold in the US and about 75% of all eBooks. Those articles about eBook sales declining are based upon data from the AAP or Neilsen–so they include the Big Five but not Amazon. EBook sales are declining at the Big Five, because they’ve raised their prices, which you’ll recall they fought hard for the right to do. At Amazon, the far bigger share of the pie, eBook sales and independent authors are increasing.

Image 1

So gross unit sales are rising, but…

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…the books that are selling are increasingly those from independent authors, not the Big Five. The Big Five have (somewhat) larger gross profits, due to the higher prices, but of course most of that money does not end up in the hands of authors:

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As a group, independent authors are taking home more money than Big Five authors. Remember, an independent author can claim a 70% royalty at Amazon, whereas a traditionally published author will get somewhere between 4-15%. So you can sell far fewer books but still take home more money.

I urge you to visit AuthorEarnings.com, read the report, and draw your own conclusions. Read May 2016 Author Earnings Report: the Definitive Million-Title Study of US Author Earnings.

 

Use Preorders to Crack the Bestseller Lists

Traditional publishers have long known the advantages of taking preorders. Did you realize that in most cases, the New York Times bestseller list number are based upon preorders rather than actual sales? True. It’s based on how many copies go into the store, which can sometimes be wildly different from the number that are purchased in the store, which has led many to question the validity of the list.

Up till now, taking preorders has not been an option for independent publishers, but that has changed. Amazon’s KDP platform for self-publishing eBooks now permits you to take orders for a book before the launch date. The advantage? When that launch date finally arrives, you’ll get credit for not only that day’s sales but all the preorders as well, and that extra boost can propel you to the top of the list (especially if you have carefully and strategically chosen the list when you categorized your book). Although iBooks and Kobo have done this for a while, this is a recent policy change for Amazon.

Does it work? Last year, almost two-thirds of the top 200 bestsellers distributed by Smashwords took preorders (though overall, only one book in eight at Smashwords took preorders). It would appear preorders get you on bestsellers lists.

This won’t happen by accident. You’ll have to work Facebook and other social media to encourage people to preorder. Presumably you’ve posted a lot about the book in advance, building interest and anticipation, before you actually offer it as a preorder. But once the book is available, every post about it should contain a link to the preorder site.

If you really want to spur preorders, the obvious play is to offer a lower price. 50% off for preorders, but the price jumps on release day.

Don’t start taking preorders until the book is a done deal, finished, uploaded, perfect and ready to roll. A book not ready on the release date will not only not get you on the bestseller list, it will be a personal embarrassment and a business disaster.

Get your superfans, your near and dear, to post positive reviews as soon as possible, preferably on the release date or, where possible, earlier. That can only help push you up the list.

Update the back matter in your previous eBooks to tell readers about the new book with a hyperlink to the preorder site. You could even lower prices or pulse prices to get more people reading the older books–and seeing the promotion for the new one.

And then? Plan an agressive marketing campaign that covers the entire week of the release. How? That will be the topic of next week’s blog.

Should You Pay for Reviews?

I’m guessing your first-glance response was, Of course not. I don’t even need to read this. I would never do such a thing.

But then again…everything else pertaining to publishing has changed in the past few years. And we all know some shoppers will only consider a book if it has 4+ stars. And it’s hard to get people to review your books…

You’ve probably read about Amazon’s discovery that some entrepreneurs had multiple Amazon accounts and were using them to upload positive reviews bought and paid for. Amazon tried to crack down on that, as well as reviews from spouses, close friends, etc., whenever detectible. But a lot of perfectly legal review sales still take place–from respected and venerable sources.

Publishers Weekly has a program called PW Select. For $149, PW will run the cover, a synopsis, and will consider the book for a full review. Blue Ink Review specializes in self-published titles, reviewed for $395. Kirkus Reviews will offer “professional, unbiased book reviews for self-publishers” in 7-9 weeks for $425. And if you’ve spent much time on Amazon book pages, you know that Kirkus reviews are often pulled out and featured prominently above all the other reviews as if they were official editorial content.

None of these sources promises glowing reviews, but of course, they wouldn’t be in business long if they were selling lousy ones. Quoting successful self-published writer Tamara Linse, “I actually have done paid reviews for all three books with PW Select, Kirkus, and IndieReader. I’ve definitely gotten some good publicity from it. I got a starred review from Publishers Weekly…” Linse essentially writes literary short fiction, and the success of the book that got the starred review led to her getting an offer of representation from a major literary agency. Another author credited his paid-for Kirkus review with getting him a film option.

As always, when self-publishing you must make your decisions for yourself. But with about half a million self-published titles coming out each year, you must seriously consider any option that will draw attention to yours. Blue Ink has now published over 5000 reviews of self-published titles since they started in 2009. They must be doing something people find valuable.