Jeff Bezos spoke at the Stanford Publishing Course for several years running in the ‘90s. At the time, the only thing Amazon was selling was books, and we loved books.
But he tipped his hand one day as he was leaving campus. “I don’t know why you ask me back every year,” he mused before ducking into a town car headed to the airport.
What an odd comment, I thought. Now, of course, it has become clear. We saw him as a highly inventive book distributor. He saw himself as something entirely different.
Now there’s a wicked fight going on between Hachette and Amazon over the price of ebooks. Hachette wants to keep those prices higher than Amazon does, and since they can’t come to agreement, Amazon has slowed the sale of Hachette books by various means—including blocking preorders and removing listing of some titles.
If you want a roadmap of the current controversy, which is now being debated by Clay Shirkey, Mike Shatzkin and Brian O’Leary, start with Jane Friedman’s excellent summary here.
Bezos himself has been mum on this issue, but his team did respond—somewhat obliquely. On August 8, they sent a mass email to their Kindle authors, asking them to rally around Amazon’s efforts to keep ebook prices low. Here’s the crux of Amazon’s argument:
Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.
Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.
(Read the entire email here).
It’s unusual for Amazon to provide hard numbers such as these. But the argument is a cogent one, and that’s probably why Amazon decided to open the kimono.
I do not think traditional publishers have it right when they argue that Amazon threatens the future of literary culture. I believe that we are seeing the birth of a new publishing business model that offers serious authors greater control and a better shot at connecting with their readers—and lower prices for ebooks are part of that model.
But having worked for the past four years with authors who publish directly through Amazon, I also see how slim the profit margins are for these authors after all the bills are paid. (See my post here. ) I would love to see Amazon seize this crucial moment not by strong-arming Hachette, but rather by rethinking its own business model and sharing more of the revenue with authors. If we’re talking about “promoting a healthier reading culture,” wouldn’t this would be a far more powerful and effective tactic?
So…take the high road, Jeff. Support a healthy reading culture. Don’t block the sale of Hachette books. Rather, spend your time and money nurturing the authors who are experimenting with it and with you. Share more of the profits generated under the new publishing model with the entrepreneurial authors who are building it together with Amazon.
One of the most intriguing announcements at Book Expo 2014 was about Goodreads’ new “Ask the Author” feature. If you’re signed up as an author on Goodreads, you can now host your own Q&A sessions, thus making new connections with your readers.
Goodreads beta-tested the program with 54 well-known authors, including James Patterson, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, Khaled Hosseini and Isabel Allende. Now they’re opening up the feature to all authors.
Patrick Brown, Goodreads Director of Author Marketing, offered suggestions on how to get the best out of this new feature. Among them:
• Set expectations early: Tell your readers which topics you’ll answer and when. Don’t feel as though you have to answer every question every day.
• Choose the questions you want to answer carefully, and post legitimate answers to them. You have control over which questions you want to show up on your page. Choose questions whose answers you’re happy to feature on your profile.
• Participate in the Goodreads reader community. Ask questions of other authors and review their books. You don’t have to give star ratings to every book you discuss. Just be thoughtful. Sometimes showing up with a thoughtful comment on another author’s page inspires interest in your own work.
Check out the list of bestselling authors already answering questions on Goodreads. Very impressive.
A selfie taken with Martin Short, one of the celebrity authors featured at BEA 2014.
Book Expo America (BEA) is one of the largest and most prestigious book conferences in the world. Over a thousand exhibitors, 750 authors, and booksellers and publishers all together in one big hall. A book lover’s paradise.
For a few more photos of all the craziness, check out my Pinterest board below.
Holly’s board of Book Expo America sights – 2014 on Pinterest.
Ever since Ingram Spark launched late last summer, we’ve been keenly interested in it for many reasons, among them: 1) Spark offers the first print-on-demand service for hardcover books with jackets; and 2) Spark provides writers with a friendlier path into bookstores than Amazon/CreateSpace. (Some bookstores won’t stock CreateSpace books because they believe Amazon is killing their business.)
I’ve just finished a project in which we published a book both on CreateSpace and Ingram Spark. Here’s what we learned:
• CreateSpace is faster to publish. Ingram Spark requires 3-5 days to produce a book once an order is placed. CreateSpace produced and shipped our book on the same day we placed the order–and that was a Saturday.
• Royalties are about equal–unless you plan to sell your book from your own site. Spark offers you a flat royalty of 45% of list price minus production costs for each book sold. Amazon offers you 40% less production costs. But if the buyer purchases the book through a link from your website to Amazon, you get 60%.
• CreateSpace gets books to market quicker. This was a surprise: after we approved our proof copy, Spark asked us to allow 6-8 weeks to get the book into their distribution channels. Yike–and we had already planned a series of bookstore signings. With Createspace, we were able to get the book up on Amazon in 48 hours.
• CreateSpace offers lower “author pricing.” For the exact same book, Spark charges our author $3.43, while CreateSpace charges $3.15.
• CreateSpace’s shipping costs are considerably lower. Whether you’re ordering a single proof copy or cartons of your books, shipping costs can be significant. Why Ingram Spark doesn’t understand this and choose less expensive shipping partners is a mystery. In our case, a single proof copy of our book shipped across country cost the following:
2nd day $173
• CreateSpace customer service is better. Their email turnaround time is a day or less–and you can get a live person on the phone if you’re desperate. With Spark, you must email your question, and turnaround time (for us) turned out to be 2-3 days.
• CreateSpace charges no service fee. Spark charges $49 setup fee and a $12 “POD market access fee”–whatever that is.
Ingram Spark is an important player in this new world of publishing–and I hope they succeed in offering writers more choices in how to publish their books. But Spark need to do a little tweaking of their offerings if they expect to co-exist with ultra-competitive Amazon.
Plenty of people will tell you that self-publishing a book is free. And it is free if all you’re talking about is the cost of uploading your files to CreateSpace or Kindle or Bookbaby.
But publishing a book that can compete in today’s overstuffed marketplace requires a number of skill sets, some of which you’re going to have to job out. And that requires an investment on your part.
Here’s how the numbers break out for the average self-published writer:
- $1,500 for a simple copyedit. More if your book is long or if you need structural help.
- $800 for a cover design (front, back, spine). That’s after you realize that the cover templates offered on self-publishing websites are so bad as to be unusable. (No extra cost for using that same design for your ebook.)
- $0 for page layout. Most people use the free templates offered on self-publishing websites to format their books. But it’s a huge time sink, trust me on that.
- $0 for technical help. Once you have pdfs of your cover and interior, it’s relatively easy to upload the files if you have any tech savvy.
- $250 for ISBN numbers. If you want to avoid CreateSpace being listed as your publisher of record on Amazon, you’ll buy your own ISBN numbers at www.myidentifiers.com. One costs $125. Ten cost $250. You’ll need two–one for your print book and one for your ebook. You can’t buy two, of course.
- $25 for a barcode. You buy that from www.myidentifiers.com, too, and put it on your back cover.
- $? for marketing. You’ll be spending lots of time and some money in marketing your book. Perhaps the most common cost comes when you decide to submit your book to Kirkus, Foreword or Publishers Weekly for review. Cost: around $450.
Add it up, and you realize that you’ll be investing at least $2,500 in your publishing endeavor. Then the question becomes: are you, the publisher, willing to invest $2,500+ into you, the author?
Pentecost, by Joanna Penn uses League Gothic font
I’m working with an author on a book cover for a nonfiction book with strong commercial potential.
Since the cover is among the top 3 reasons why readers buy a book, we’re working closely with our designer to choose the exact right fonts for the cover.
In doing research, I came across an excellent article by Joel Friedlander, the Book Designer, on the 5 best fonts for book covers. His picks:
I tend to prefer chunkier fonts because they read better when reduced to the postage-stamp size image displayed on Amazon pages. But that Trajan, which is used for many movie posters, is an excellent choice when you’re going for a more elegant look.
You can’t go wrong with any of these choices. But if you want more, check out the huge collection of commercially available fonts on MyFonts or the free fonts available on Font Squirrel.
Author Wendy Taylor speaks at Books, Inc., Palo Alto. Photo by Rod Searcey
I’m often asked by authors how to get their books into local bookstores. I recently sat down with Tanya Landsberger, manager of Books, Inc., just off the Stanford campus in Palo Alto, to find out how they like to be approached. While her advice might not apply to all independent bookstores, it’s a good benchmark.
How often do you get approached by local authors?
In general, we hear from authors two or three times a week.
We get two kinds of authors. First is the local author whose book is nationally distributed. We may already have the book in our store. If not, we’ll order it either through the Big Seven [publishers] or through wholesalers—Ingram or Baker & Taylor.
The second is the author whose book isn’t available through traditional distribution channels. We may take that book on consignment. If we decide we want it, our consignment deal is a 50-50 split of the revenue. We keep the book on our shelves for about 2-3 months and send a check to the author at the end of that time, along with any unsold books. The only kinds of books we tend to keep in constant stock are local historical titles. They sell well on an ongoing basis.
How do you decide which books you want in your store?
We want the topic to be right for our store and for the local market. If an author who lives out of town approaches us, she has to convince us she has a tight support network in the area. The book also needs to have good design, sturdy binding and high production values—no spiral bounds, except maybe for cookbooks.
What’s the average number of titles you take on consignment?
If we’re just stocking the book, we generally take about 5. If we’re doing an event with the author, then we usually take about 20 copies, and give back all but 5-8 at the end of the event.
Does it matter to you if a book is done through CreateSpace?
It does. We don’t provide shelf space or events for books published under any Amazon imprint—including CreateSpace. We don’t appreciate their business model because we don’t think their model ultimately benefits us and the community.
What about similar self-publishing vendors? Do you feel the same way about books published through Lulu, for example?
They’re fine. We’re just hoping to open the eyes of self-published authors that there are options other than Amazon.
Such as Ingram Spark! They’re relatively new. We’re hoping to get authors to consider their services.
How should authors approach you?
We prefer that they send us an email with a photo of the cover and a short description of the book, and then follow up with a phone call. It’s useful if they also have a sell-sheet with ISBN number, price, publication date, and so forth. And they need to let us know: Is the book available through Ingram or Baker & Taylor? Is it returnable? And what’s the discount to us if we stock the book? The average discount offered by the big distributors is 45%–so if it’s 30% or less, we hesitate to order because it may end up costing us quite a bit to stock and potentially return that title.
How important is price in your decision whether to bring in a book?
Well, if disproportionately expensive, say $25 for a tiny book, we’d think twice about bringing it in.
It’s got to be returnable or we’re not interested.
Does it help if the author drops off a book?
Not really: we can decide from the information they send.
What if they want to speak? How should they approach you then?
We’re pulling back on events because there are only a handful of authors who have proven successful at events. The majority, unfortunately, just don’t do very well.
Don’t do very well because they’re bad speakers, or because they don’t attract a crowd?
They don’t attract a crowd. Even the big speakers do their own marketing these days. If an author can convince us that he or she has a big network of followers in the area, we’re interested—but for most it’s hard to tell or they simply don’t have the right amount of draw.
Do you have a shelf for local authors?
We had one, but it didn’t sell particularly well. Every once in awhile we get someone who asks who are the local authors, but not too often–and many folks already know who the Stanford Stegner [Creative Writing] Fellows are.
Book Expo, the granddaddy of book conferences, is traditionally the place where publishers meet with booksellers. But lately, there’s been a lot for up-and-coming self-publishers—not the least of which is UPublishU, a full day of sessions and exhibits specifically for entrepreneurial writers.
Because I work with writers interested in self-publishing, I viewed BookExpo this year through that specific lens. Here’s a recap of the most interesting things I saw:
- Hardcover print-on-demand books with matte covers become easier to produce.
Ingram, owner of LightningSource, has just launched Ingram Spark, a new print-on-demand site that allows entrepreneurial writers to produce hardcover books on demand, with matte covers. (Amazon’s CreateSpace still offers only softcover with gloss covers.) As of this writing, the service is entirely untested, but it’s well worth watching since LightningSource has already established its credibility in the self-publishing world.
- Ultra-short print-runs are now possible in four-color offset.
If you’re working on a children’s book, a cookbook, a photography book or any other kind of book that depends on beautiful photos, you’ve probably been disappointed by the quality of the proofs you’re seeing. Digital short-run printing (using toner on paper) tends to lack the richness of color that four-color offset printing (using ink on paper) delivers. But four-color offset has been expensive, requiring you to order print-runs in the thousands of books for economies of scale.
But all that is changing. Exhibiting at BookExpo this year was Four Colour Print Group, a company that offers four-color offset printing for print-runs in the low hundreds of books. I checked them out carefully for a client of mine who’s doing a children’s book: the quality is much better than digital printing, and the cost is no higher than mid-range digital printers’ costs.
- Nook may be dead, but don’t count out Kobo.
Writers who publish ebooks tend to think that the only e-readers of importance are the Kindle and the iPad. But it’s becoming clear that the Kobo is still a serious platform for self-publishers. Why? Because it can get your ebook in front of patrons in indie bookstores.
Kobo, which used be Borders’ answer to Barnes & Noble’s Nook, has survived Border’s demise, and has even thrived abroad, becoming the number-one e-reader in much of Europe. Now it’s reappearing in independent bookstores in the U.S. with a new twist. If a patron buys a Kobo at her favorite indie bookstore, that bookstore gets a cut of every ebook she purchases for her Kobo. Indie bookstores love that program, and indie bookstore patrons (zealous supporters that they are) now have a way to buy ebooks and support their favorite indie bookstore.
Sometimes it’s best to hear the truth from writers in the trenches.
Here’s a guest post from Marcia Kemp Sterling, who’s just self-published her first novel. She came to one of my Stanford classes looking for advice on her book project. Since she launched, she’s had good success getting her book noticed. Here’s how she did it…
Guest Blog by Marcia Kemp Sterling,
author of One Summer in Arkansas
Most of us writers hate being told that we must pry ourselves away from the computer and go out into the world to promote ourselves and our work.
But in today’s market for books, whether you are self-published or not, your story is not likely to be read outside your own circle of friends and family without a heavy investment of sweat equity.
The industry is in upheaval. Publishers, bookstores and agents are struggling to survive. Except for Amazon and a handful of lucky “winner takes all” established writers, nobody is making money. Although virtually anybody can publish a book (whether they can put together a sentence or not), there are no longer effective mechanisms to separate the wheat from the chaff.
You’ve written a book you’re proud of and you want it to be read. What is a modest, scholarly, introverted writer to do?
Website and Blog: Invest upfront in an appealing website and learn how to write a blog. Trust me, there are plenty of bloggers who can’t write and it’s a natural platform for anyone who can. I have become a regular blogger and continue to work at getting followers and putting up notices on Facebook and Twitter when I post a new blog.
Network: In an Internet-connected world with traditional channels for books weakened, you need to tap into networks of friends, old business colleagues, relatives and new contacts to create momentum for your book. I formed a new book publicity company and hired daughters-in-law, nieces and young adult children of friends to help me. Each of them worked their connections to bloggers, to regional contacts where the book might attract interest, to people-who-knew-people. I posted notices about any new book happenings on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and my website, always featuring images of the cover. The publicity girls would pick up my postings and repeat them on their own social media sites.
Amazon: Most books today are purchased from Amazon and you have to understand their system, develop an effective Amazon presence, get help to activate search engine key words, solicit reviews and guide people there through your website or otherwise. Their system rewards success with success.
Distribution and Warehousing: Even if you keep a stock of books to sell directly, you need a distributor for a chance at placement in bookstores and libraries. They keep a portion of the profit, but it’s worth it.
Events: The formula for arranging events is straightforward. Bookstores are struggling to make a profit and you have to both (i) make it easy for them and (ii) essentially guarantee you can turn out 30 or more people for the event. For that reason, you should work on venues in locations where you have personal contacts who will help. Local advertising (cheap in small local papers) brings a double benefit: it gets people out to the event and publicizes the book to others who may not show up but may go to Amazon and purchase anyway.
Giveways: If you care about readers, you need plenty of books to give away – to bookstores, to reviewers, to influencers, to bloggers, through Goodreads, etc.
This sounds daunting, but do not despair. I am not a “people person” and have never been even remotely entrepreneurial. But I am finding a good deal of personal satisfaction in building a business from scratch and am deeply gratified to be getting positive feedback from readers.
For a look at an excellent example of an author website–the one Marcia built to promote her book–click here.
Below is a terrific summary
of practical things you can do to make your book more visible on Amazon.
It comes from the enewsletter of Smith Publicity, Inc.
Kudos to Book Publicist Jennifer Tucker who put together the list.
1. Author Central
Think of Author Central as your “main hub” in the wide world that is Amazon. Beyond creating an author page, which will educate customers about you and your book and display essential information about your biography, blog posts, etc., you can also use Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to set up your book for the Kindle if you own electronic rights. Also through Author Central, you can track book sales numbers across the U.S. for the past four weeks to identify sales trends, utilize the CreateSpace platform to publish your next book, and explore Kindle Direct Publishing Select, which will allow you to earn higher royalties.
2. Amazon Forums
Amazon offers a variety of discussion forums for authors, which can help you to network with other authors and expose your book to a new audience interested in your genre. You can also learn just by reading other posters’ questions, advice, answers, tips and tools. Feel free to reach out to other authors (who are often avid readers themselves) to ask for feedback on your book, to position yourself as an expert in your field, and to just have fun!
3. Amazon Keyword Tags
By using the tagging feature, you can make your book more searchable almost immediately, if done correctly. Check out tags on other books (especially top selling titles!) in your book’s genre and make your own tags accordingly. The more keywords you have tagged, the better readers will be able to find your book within a slew of other books. Fun tip – think like a reader: what keywords would you use to search your book? Also, changing tags each week or every few weeks gets your book in front of new audiences.
4. Amazon’s Listmania!
Listmania! is another tool that authors can utilize to reach potential book buyers. Listmania positions your book among other books in your genre by adding your book to book lists, but word to the wise: for best results, make sure to be very selective and true to your book’s genre when choosing your lists.
5. Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book”
Just as book excerpts draw readers in, Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” feature allows readers to flip through some of your book, with the goal of making them want to read more. This feature also works to prevent negative comments because by previewing the book, the reader has a better understanding of your book’s content. Be sure to have your personal Amazon page set up before you move forward with this tool, as it can take time to be approved by Amazon.
6. Amazon Marketplace
Amazon Marketplace serves as a third-party online storefront where you can sell your book alongside the array of other Amazon goods. While it’s a great tool and can offer you more freedom as an author (you can choose to give autographed copies of the book, for instance), authors must be willing to carry a book inventory and must have this inventory already on hand to be set up in the Marketplace. It also requires plenty of time and patience for authors to manage their own online book sales, though many authors enjoy the control that they have over the price of their book and fulfillment of book orders.
7. Amazon “So you’d like to…” Guide
With the Amazon “So you’d like to…” guide, you can actually build a guide around your book topic, genre, or specialty, which will position you as the expert of your book or field. This free tool allows you to think outside the box when it comes to book promotion and gives you the option to include your book with other Amazon products, essentially creating a “bundle” of items relating to the “So you’d like to…” Guide topic. Authors can choose to write content about the subject and, within the content, mention that the book is for sale on Amazon.