Doing just fine

26 April 2013

A lot of aspiring authors put their energies into getting published and assume the sales will look after themselves. They are wrong; as I have said before, all authors need to shamelessly self-promote themselves, especially in today’s economic climate. Nor is it just that you should never trust your publisher to do all the necessary hustling; you cannot even rely on the booksellers to do their job – something that I was reminded of once again the other day.

While attending a conference in the beautiful Dutch town of Leiden this week, I went for a stroll during a lunch break and found myself outside the Leiden branch of Van Stockum, a Dutch bookseller regularly buying our books. Inside, one of the staff was happy to answer my idle questions – for instance, who our customers were likely to be and how the business of selling books was going.

van-stockum

A constant refrain of academic publishers is that library sales are falling without being offset by rising personal purchases (on the contrary) while income from digital sales is negligible. My informant confirmed that library budgets in the Netherlands were tighter and this had affected sales but individual purchases were holding up. That said, a lot of bookstores were in trouble with many closing down.

Why?

Village bookstores have been badly affected by the global economic crisis; there are few book lovers to begin with here and, in the last resort, the latest novel by Donna Leon or a new history of baroque music is a discretionary purchase.

In the cities it is another matter. And that was when the conversation got very interesting. Traditionally, the cities have been full of book-buying students and professionals, housewives and pensioners (among others). Catering to this market, in recent decades we have seen the rise of chain bookstores like Waterstones in England and Borders in the States. Now the chains are in trouble.

Just as in the villages, discretionary spending has dropped and of course more people are buying online; many Dutch readers are quite happy to read the English edition of (say) Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 if the price is considerably lower than the Dutch edition. But where the chain stores are especially hurting is that – in pursuit of rationalisation and greater profits – they chopped their specialist staff, the people who knew what penny-pinching scholars from the Department of This’n’that at Leiden University would be interested to buy. In the good times this didn’t matter; now it does.

We can be certain that the hard times are affecting all, that booksellers like Van Stockum who still focus on quality are nonetheless also feeling the pinch. Even so, university budgets may be down but scholars still need to read books and many wish to have their own copies ready to hand. Selling books, then, is harder than it was but quality bookstores … they’re just fine.

The problem is that’s not enough. Such quality bookstores are few in number. As argued in my last post, it is time for authors to use their personal contacts, Twitter, whatever to point readers towards a bookstore like Van Stockum.


Announcing your book

2 January 2010

Oops! Before launching into several posts dealing with design and typesetting (starting with the importance of design), it would be smart first to deal with another burning issue: the kick-starting of the marketing/promotion of your book.

Promoting your book is a huge endeavour that I’ll cover in a series of posts after we have finished discussing the production phase. However, at this point (at the end of the editorial thread) it’s probably a good idea to describe the beginning of that promotional process – the announcement of your book – because this is something that happens really early and demands your participation.

Perhaps it doesn’t seem a big deal to announce your book but in fact there’s a lot involved. Moreover, a proper announcement is crucial to a book’s subsequent success.

Why?

Essentially, the success of your book will depend on the interest and efforts of a few key actors in the book trade. They need early but accurate information about your book. These key actors are:

  • Your publisher’s sales and distribution network. Warehouses need to load details of your book on their system so that orders can be taken and shelf space planned for. Whereas warehouses care only for accuracy, sales representatives prefer their information in headlines and punch lines. Sales reps often only visit bookshops every six months hence early notice of new titles is imperative. The same imperative applies for your publisher’s distributors and agents around the globe but they need far more information and packaged in a specific way.
  • Bibliographic data providers. When you order a book from a bookshop, they will do this using information purchased from companies like the UK-based Nielsen BookData and US-based Bowker. If (like Amazon) they have an online catalogue that you can browse, this too is built using such externally provided data. Libraries rely on similar information. As such, if your book is to be visible to bookshops and libraries, then its details must be provided by your publisher to these bibliographic companies.
  • Booksellers. If a bookshop is to stock copies of your book at publication, then it must budget for this purchase (and perhaps plan on where these copies will be displayed). Typically, books are ordered at least three months ahead of publication. Bookshops thus need their information early, briefly, and in a highly standardized format.
  • Wholesalers. For bigger-selling titles, many bookshops are likely to order stock from wholesalers rather than individual publishers’ warehouses. This way they can consolidate orders and maybe command bigger discounts. The warehousing needs are the same, of course. The mega-sized warehouses of these wholesalers need to load details of your book on their system so that orders can be taken and shelf space planned for.
  • Library suppliers. Until recently, library suppliers sent out bibliographic information to their library customers on CD. This required a lead time of six months. The timeliness of data has greatly improved with its online provision but the library purchasing cycle still demands early advice of new titles. Because libraries generally work on an annual budget,  for library suppliers it is crucial that a book is received and paid for in the correct year.
  • Libraries. Not only do libraries want information early so they can plan their budgets, but also they want much greater detail. This is because often the purchasing decision is made by a specialist in the subject and, once made, is normally irreversible (libraries do not have the equivalent of the sale-or-return right enjoyed by bookshops).

As you can see, each of these key actors requires quite different sets of information. At the same time, however, a publisher’s marketing department has only so many minutes in the day. As such, it is likely that your book will be first announced by the following means:

  • An advance information sheet, sent to key customers as soon as possible.
  • An entry in your publisher’s next catalogue (and those of its international distributors and agents), though it may be months before these catalogues are produced and disseminated.
  • Brief details on your publisher’s website, loaded immediately (though not by all publishers – strangely, I feel, some publishers display no details on their website until the book is out).
  • Bibliographic data, sent individually and directly to Nielsen BookData, Bowker, etc. before any information goes out to potential customers.

Timeliness of the announcement is of essence here. More customized and targeted marketing of your book will follow (more about that in a few weeks time).

What is needed to produce this material are:

  • a book description
  • bibliographic details (format, price, extent, publication date, readership, etc.), and
  • a first draft of the cover

This, in turn, will require your input in the following ways, by:

  • completing and returning your author/marketing questionnaire
  • identifying and (ideally) approaching well-known and/or trusted figures in your field, asking them to write an endorsement of your book for inclusion on the (back) cover and in marketing material, and
  • being actively involved in the cover design (though not all publishers welcome this)

I’ll return to this material and your involvement in its production in a few weeks time after finishing the different threads on book production. Meantime, back to the posts on design and typesetting.

(Post #1 of the Marketing & Promotion section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Live update from the Frankfurt Book Fair

26 October 2009

Live update?

I’ve been back from Frankfurt a week now and this is my first post in weeks. So much for the live update that I had planned.

The problem is that the wireless connection on my Macbook Pro is broken, a major hassle that made communication at Frankfurt rather difficult. Must get it fixed (when I can afford to be without the laptop for a few days – sigh).

Recessionary blues

Anyway, Frankfurt was somewhat subdued, far fewer editorial types in evidence than usual and the usual hype over bidding wars for the latest Dan Brown or whatever was unconvincing. Even the end-of-day receptions at different stands seemed ho-hum this year.

But the significant revelation for me was when one of our regular buyers, a guy called Holger, pointed out that the aisles in Hall 8, where as usual our stand was (and where most of the other English-language presses hang out), were wider than usual. So I strolled to the end of the hall and looked. Holger was right. There were about 3 rows of booths fewer than usual. The recession is biting, if only a bit.

Sadly, one of the casualties was The Guardian, whose attendance in its usual slot in row B was in the fair catalogue but at the last minute was replaced by some publisher or other. Normally, the good people from The Guardian dish out free copies of the newspaper, hoping we’ll be tempted to subscribe. Obviously, not enough of us have been doing so.

More e-readers, so what?

Every few days another e-reader is launched. There were a few at the fair. One looked interesting but incredibly the exhibitor had it behind a plastic shield so actually twiddling with it was quite impossible, a huge turn-off.

Just before Frankfurt, Amazon went (almost) global with the Kindle. Interestingly, this did not seem to make the splash at the fair that I assume Amazon had expected. The Kindle has some nice features (not needing to upload its content from a PC, for instance) but increasingly its power-saving e-ink technology is being seen as drab (no colour) and the machine lacks some of the wow stuff you’ll find on an iPhone. And rumours persist of an Apple tablet that blows the Kindle and the other e-readers out of the water.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, despite the ever frenetic hype about digitization and e-sales, I felt there was a general wait-and-see attitude beginning to be noticeable among publishers. Their core profits remain in print sales, despite 400% increases in digital sales here and there (four times very little is not much more, no matter how impressive the increase may sound).

Also, publishers remain wary about Amazon getting to dominate the e-book market. But Google’s ‘land grab’ (as some have put it) in the e-world is potentially more revolutionary. To me, it seems more and more likely that the Google Book Settlement – an American legal settlement but with global effects – will be challenged by the European Union.

And if Apple and Microsoft enter the fray? All hell could break loose.

The Indians are coming

Finally, I found it interesting that this year the guest country was China (you may have heard about the ham-fisted attempts to stifle the voices of dissidents at the fair) but in business terms the Indians made a far greater impression. Not only were Indians selling a profusion of different publishing services (they now dominate globally in pre-press services and maybe have already overtaken the Chinese in printing services) but Indian publishers are increasingly visible – and confident – as buyers as well as sellers of publishing rights. As always, my various Indian visitors were charming, often witty.

In contrast, the Chinese were only interested in selling, and little thought seemed to being put into getting onto the wavelengths of Western publishers, i.e. into tuning into how to open their wallets.

An interesting contrast.


2010 starts tomorrow

30 September 2009

Tomorrow is October 1st, time for a new year on the copyright page.

What?????

It would be reasonable to assume that the copyright date on a book matches the calendar year in which a book is published, wouldn’t it? Well, yes. However, this isn’t so. (Nor is this date the same as the release date.) Rather, a convention among publishers is to use the next year’s date in the copyright notice for any book published on or after October 1st.

This practice confuses many authors when first they encounter it but really the answer is simple. Moving books from one warehouse to another (or from printer to warehouse) can take weeks. Add to this the time to deliver a book from warehouse to bookshop – and for a customer to then come in, find and purchase that book – and, before you know it, more than two months have elapsed. Suddenly it’s January and that brand new book now looks like last year’s book.

Perceptions matter – as simple as that.


What do publishers want?

25 September 2009

Like everyone else (and especially like their authors), publishers want to be successful. Just how they get there is another matter, one that baffles some authors and leaves others enraged.

Perhaps the best way to approach this, then, is to understand where publishers are coming from and where they are going to.

Environment

I have described the woeful state of academic book publishing earlier (and no doubt shall do so again) and also pondered on the very survival of publishing but here are a few quick points:

  • There has been a dramatic decline in library sales, the bread and butter of academic publishing, in part due to rising periodical subscription charges and IT costs swallowing bigger chunks of libraries’ budgets.
  • Sales to individual scholars have also fallen, in part because too much is being published (thus hard for scholars to maintain comprehensive, personal libraries).
  • No significant new source of income has yet been tapped.
  • Falling sales have prompted publishers to raise prices causing further falls in sales.
  • The recent global recession has seen universities cutting back on their funding for their presses (indeed, some university presses have been closed or sold off in recent years).
  • New print-on-demand (POD) technology is allowing single-copy printing but, though this is excellent for reprints, it is not cost-effective for quantities over 300 copies (and for most books an initial printrun under this amount is not commercially viable).
  • The POD revolution may lead to on-demand ordering/printing for consumers (e.g. using the Book Expresso machine described here), leading to the death of the traditional bookshop and end of the current global book supply chain.
  • There is a proliferation of e-book readers, none of them particularly good yet in terms of reading for extended periods of time but the likelihood is high of an ‘iPod moment’ in e-publishing within the next five years.
  • Hopes of new income from electronic sales are driving massive investment in e-publishing but economic returns to date have been negligible (and, worse, this development undercuts the status of the printed book, currently the prime revenue earner).
  • Demands from funding agencies for Open Access is pushing publishers into offering free electronic content but a viable business model for this is not yet in place.
  • Copyright, the bedrock of the publishing business model, is under attack from several quarters, not least because it is seen as incompatible with the internet and e-publishing revolutions.

Some of these developments will have a huge impact on the future shape of publishing and already today they shape publishers’ perceptions and expectations.

Which publisher?

Another key point – but one that many people lose sight of – is that (unless you are dealing with a really small press) ‘the publisher’ is more than one person.* Each has their own personality, interests and agenda. Over and above that, an author will encounter at least three faces of a publishing house:

  • editorial (focused more on scholarly content)
  • production (focused on costs and deadlines), and
  • marketing (focused on financial returns).

These divergent interests interact, not always coherently, nor to the benefit, comprehension or sanity of the author.

(*Note: Actually, in any publishing house, the publisher is often one person but here we are taking about ‘publisher’ in another sense.)

Ramifications

OK, so these are some of the places where academic publishers are coming from but what effect has this environment (and recent changes to it) had on publishers’ expectations and behaviour? The main effect is that today academic publishers are taking a more hard-nosed, commercial approach to the books they publish than was the case a decade ago. In concrete terms, the key changes are:

  • Increased commercial behaviour.
  • Cost cutting, outsourcing of especially production work to outsiders, and increased workloads and stress for remaining in-house staff.
  • The rising power of marketing departments and corresponding decline in the power of editorial staff to decide what is published.
  • Editors must take the bottom line into consideration when signing up a new title.
  • Each new book project must stand or fall on its own merits (far less cross-subsidization).
  • Demands for author subventions are more common.
  • Greater aversion to financial risk, hence to taking on book projects that look commercially unpromising or expensive to produce.
  • A far greater proportion of book proposals and manuscripts are rejected.
  • A big increase in the number of ‘crossover’ titles (of interest beyond an academic readership) and interdisciplinary titles.
  • Greater willingness to publish purely commercial titles (aimed at the general public) with little or no scholarly value.
  • Reluctance to publish highly specialized studies.
  • Reluctance to publish edited or multi-author volumes (more about this in a latter post).
  • More ‘fad’ and ‘me-too’ publishing as publishers seek to emulate the successes of their competitors.

Hit list

Although these developments have wrought great changes in publishers’ expectations and behaviour, what publishers want from their authors is not all that different than before (though there may be far less flexibility and room for compromise than there was in the past). Here are some of these wants and desires:

  • Publishers want to publish only books that will succeed. This has important implications for what book projects are viable, and hence for how you formulate and develop your book project, find its ‘right’ publisher(s), and pitch it to them.
  • Once a book proposal *is* accepted, the publisher wants the book to succeed. This requires full commitment from publisher and author, and no half measures from either side.
  • Your publisher expects you to deliver the manuscript that was agreed upon (and contacted). If different, make sure that the manuscript is far better than promised (and accept that this is not something for you alone to judge).
  • Your publisher requires you to be a team player working your butt off to achieve the book’s final publication; tasks assigned will be finalized swiftly and efficiently (and without any comment or criticism of the publisher’s own delays and failures!)
  • At all time (not just after publication), the publisher wants you to tirelessly promote your book to its widest possible readership, especially by utilizing channels and contacts not available to the publisher.

All the rest is detail.

But coming later …

That said, a detailed ‘bitch list’ is something that I shall prepare one day soon, possibly together with my assistant, Samantha, who yesterday reeled off a screed of pet hates – top of the list: ‘Don’t inundate me with lots of tiny corrections. Why not instead just send me your manuscript when it’s finished.’


Requirements and costs of self-publication

6 September 2009

Not easy, nor cheap

Due to technological developments in the last 25 years, it is far easier today for private authors to prepare, typeset, produce (in printed and/or electronic form) and promote their own work – in other words, to dispense with the services of a publisher altogether. Easier, but not easy.

Self-publishing is not something done in five minutes nor is it about saving money (though an attraction for some authors is the potential to earn more by getting a bigger cut in sales). If you are venturing down the self-publishing route, be aware that you can face a lot of work and considerable costs achieving your goal.

That said, what you face here are different trade-offs: between doing the work yourself and hiring someone else (the subject of my next post), and between producing a high-quality product and turning out something that is (and can look to be) done on the cheap. Obviously, the publication format (discussed in my previous post) also has a huge effect on effort, costs and which skills are required.

In the costs stated below, $ = U.S. dollars. These rates are approximate and based on charges I have encountered for hiring freelancers. But they may also be close to the fees charged by the author-pays presses discussed in my next post.

Editing

Whichever format you settle on, there is editorial work to be done first of all. Anything that you put effort, money and your name into demands respectful treatment. This means that the work you eventually publish – whether in printed or in electronic form – is a coherent piece of scholarship, written tautly and without typos (though in my experience completely avoiding typos is probably impossible).

Therefore, once you have finished revising the text to your satisfaction, it needs to be scrutinized, to be sweated in an editorial purgatory, so that what actually is published is to the satisfaction of your readers as well. This is vital to the success of your work.

There are two kinds of editing involved: substantive editing of your text, focusing on its structure and argumentation, and copy-editing of your finalized (maybe restructured) text, focusing on its language – e.g. finding any typos and inconsistencies – and ensuring that it complies with accepted conventions. (You may find it useful consulting a publisher’s house style; many – like that for NIAS Press – are freely available on the publisher’s website).

Doing this editing yourself requires superhuman detachment from your text; most of us lack this. As a substitute for substantive editing, revisit the readers reports commissioned by the publisher(s) who rejected your work, if you have them, and seek feedback from colleagues capable of commenting fairly and fearlessly on your work (they are often hard to find). And, as for copy-editing, try to recruit your life partner or best friend – or, better still, one of those special people (often your departmental secretary or a maiden aunt) with the uncanny gift of spotting other people’s errors at fifty paces; sadly, all too often, such geniuses only spot these errors after publication.

Doing it yourself is free, though you will be wise to reward the help of Auntie Mame with serious chocolate or other forms of sincere appreciation. A freelance editor will cost you $1,500-$5,000 depending on rigour and how much substantive editing is included in the copy-editing. (I have not heard of any freelancers only offering substantive editing.)

Layout/typesetting

Most scholars using Microsoft Word or another word processor think that this is all that is required to lay out the final pages for printing. This work is definitely something they can do themselves. Think again. The design (or layout) of your book and the typesetting of the actual pages is skilled work that only really succeeds if it is invisible.

Laying out a book using a word processor is a particularly vicious form of torture. Word, for instance, may be full of features but things like the subtle adjustment of line and letter spacing are beyond its abilities.

Laying out the book yourself might cost you nothing but you would be wise to have the following things:

  • a reasonably powerful computer with a large monitor
  • a scanner (if there are illustrations to be digitized)
  • a laser printer (printing hundreds of pages on an ink-jet printer invites bankruptcy)
  • desktop publishing software including a typesetting program like InDesign, an image processor like Photoshop, and a PDF generator
  • manuals/courses on how to use this
  • fonts that you are licensed to embed in high-resolution PDF files

In addition, you will need to:

  • ensure that all of the elements of a book are present and organized correctly (e.g. the copyright page is on page iv).
  • ensure that these include all mandatory information (e.g. an ISBN)
  • adopt a standard book size (anything else is horribly expensive)
  • determine the likely extent of your book (so as to avoid unpleasant surprises – see my later post for a detailed explanation and instructions on how to calculate book length).
  • use a layout and graphical format that is printable (e.g. nothing too close to spine or edges, any images at high resolution, any colour in CMYK format)
  • carefully consider if colour is to be used (and if so where)

Alternatively, you can hire a freelance typesetter to worry about all of these and many other issues. It is common to pay either a flat fee for the entire job or on a  per-page basis (typically $6-$10 per page but inclusion of illustrations, colour, non-Latin text and other potential hassles will undoubtedly drive the price up).

Proofing

Text corruptions can happen when a Word file is converted for typesetting, without this being picked up by the typesetter. For example, recently I converted a Word file to plain text, then brought it into a web page that I was making. Only at the last moment did I discover that all of the superscript ‘th’ letters (in usages like ‘19th century’, which Word automatically converts to superscripts) had vanished.

Here, sharp eyes are needed. Yours are free but have they already looked at the text far too often to notice all the errors and last remaining typos? A proof-reader will cost you $2-$5 per page.

Indexing

No scholarly book expecting to be taken seriously (and bought by libraries) can omit an index (though it is another matter how ambitious your index is).

Good indexes are tricky to prepare. Please feel free to consult our indexing guidelines on the NIAS Press website.

The rates quoted to me by professional indexers have varied wildly – $2-$20 per typeset page.

Cover

Many publishers won’t let their authors get anywhere near the cover design, so crucial is it regarded to a book’s commercial success. Now you are responsible for producing something that doesn’t immediately scream ‘amateur’ to every bookshop you approach; what is needed is a cover that whispers ‘pick me up’. It must also meet certain technical and legal requirements (e.g. meet printers specifications and include a bar code).

The problem is that you can get a cover designer to do a proper job for about $500. But, if your book is to overcome its self-published origins in the nasty book world out there, then your cover needs to be inspired.

Printing

This is not something that you can do yourself; you are going to have to pay someone else to print your book.

Printing used to be the big barrier to self-publishing because with lithographic printing a minimum of about 1,000 copies of a book had to be printed. This required a huge investment (and a lot of spare space to store the books). Nowadays, however, the digital printing revolution has brought numbers down to single-copy printing at acceptable prices (and of an acceptable quality); self-publication of printed books is now within the reach of most budgets.

If you use an internet-based POD printer like Lightning Source, then you will be guided through the complexities of printing but will need to rigidly conform to their specifications. Set-up charges may be $75 and then you must pay for each printing order, each page printed and shipping (with a 300-page book costing you about $7 per copy), and often an annual file storage charge of $10-$20 charged.

If printing quality is an issue (because of the importance of your illustrations, for instance) and you have the belief and budget to print a minimum of 400 copies, then you are likely to get a better deal, better quality and much more human treatment by approaching a short-run printer. But be warned. ‘Real’ printers can be funny blokes; theirs is an utterly different world than yours. Many of the things that you find crucially important, they will find incomprehensible – and vice versa.

E-Book

You can of course avoid the perils (and costs) of printed publication by going down the e-route. (This option was discussed in my previous post.) However, I would suggest that you will still need to typeset your e-book and, while you avoid dealing with printers marks, bleeds and all such arcane stuff, instead you will need to meet the requirements of e-books (introducing hyperlinks, for instance). Be aware that PDF is not the only game in town (there are over 20 competing and incompatible e-book formats) nor is a computer screen necessarily the only display medium (the Amazon Kindle and iPhone being two other major destinations for e-books).

If you would rather have a professional guide you through the e-jungle, the journey may cost you thousands and thousands of dollars.

Website

An alternative to a proper e-book is to self-publish your work on a website (or even as a blog, wiki or via another Web 2.0 channel like Twitter). Though feasible, the divergence in form of a ‘proper book’ is now so wide that increasingly you will find it hard to gain any recognition for this work.

If you can do all the work yourself and have free access to/use of your institutional website, then web publishing can be almost cost free. If you set up your own website, of course, then you will have to pay small but ongoing charges for the URL registration/maintenance and for a web hosting service. Bare-bones blogs like this one are free to set up and run.

Marketing and promotion

It is not enough to produce your book; you also need to bring it to the attention of its potential readers. Many books have been written on this subject and this blog post is already much too long. Suffice to say, you will need to draw upon all of your hustling skills to bear. By all means produce a flyer, issue a press release, buy advertising space in and send review copies to appropriate journals, and cold-call different bookshops – all the sorts of things that publishers do. But the best use of your time will be to exploit your own connections, to reach out directly to other scholars in your field – via notices to mailing lists and attendance at conferences, for instance.

None of this is easy and I seriously doubt you can afford the services of a publicist.

Sales and distribution

Traditionally, getting copies of your book into the hands of readers and getting them to pay for it has been a huge problem with self-published books. This remains so if you are only looking at the old sales channels – bookshops, library suppliers, etc. – who remain suspicious of book trade outsiders. Likewise, it is difficult to sell directly to libraries as these prefer to order and pay in bulk via a library supplier and try to avoid dealing with individual publishers.

But the internet revolution has opened up whole new possibilities to reach the individual reader, your prime target. Today, it is possible to sell your book directly via Amazon Marketplace, eBay, Abe Books, etc. or indirectly via one of the above-mentioned author-pays presses. And, while it is still not cost-efficient to accept credit card payments directly from individual customers, nowadays internet-based financial services like PayPal make this relatively easy. Amazon, PayPal and the others will charge you for their services but the commission is not a lot.

Note that all of these companies help you process any sales but the actual sending of copies sold to the customer is still something that you will have to do unless your book is being printed and shipped on demand by an author-pays press. (While the business of book trade warehouses is to hold stock and process and orders, I cannot imagine that it would ever make financial sense you to use such a warehouse or for them to take you on.)

It is even possible for you to handle all aspects of sales, not just the dispatching of orders. This would be by having a website with an inbuilt retail module (shopping cart, payment processing, etc.). However, such an advanced website would not be cheap to develop; it would also be a bit of an overkill for the sake of a single book.

Legal requirements

Be aware that as a (self-) publisher selling to a public audience, you will be obliged to comply with various commercial regulations. These vary from country to country but you should expect to:

  • register an ISBN for your book (normally, a small charge)
  • deliver gratis copies of your book to your local legal deposit office(s)
  • register for sales tax

For many countries, this list is much longer.

And there’s more

This has been a very long post to write and yet the above points are not the only ones you need to consider. Moreover, space requirements – and a crass desire to sell more copies of our book (which includes perhaps twenty times as much information as found here) – have limited how much detail is included in the information presented here.

But now, decision time is looming. There is just one more thing to ponder, just who is to do all this work: you, a freelancer or a author-pays press? This is the subject of my next post.


The future of the book (#1)

11 December 2008

It is a bad idea to run a night-time seminar for PhD students on ‘Getting Published’ if you haven’t had your dinner. Come to think about it, no matter what its subject is, running such a meeting without food and not finishing until after 10 p.m. just isn’t smart.

Well, that’s my excuse for my negative attitude at a session that I ran in Norway recently.

With me at the seminar was a librarian who shared her vision of the future. Where once her library had shelves and shelves of journals, now almost everything is online. Half the shelving has disappeared. The rest is used to hold various newsletters that probably no one looks at and the few journals still determinedly holding out against the digital future.

The monograph collection is next. Within five years, she announced, 80% of her library’s book acquisitions would be e-books. The printed book has a limited future.

What my librarian colleague said might be true, but it certainly wasn’t what the students had come to hear. Nor did I help by weighing in and pointing out (again truthfully) that the business of academic publishing isn’t thriving and maybe a book was not the appropriate form for the material they were gathering and presenting in their thesis. Perhaps they should rework their theses into articles or create an online resource or …

In short, I forgot an essential requirement of being a book publisher: being positive. Sorry.

So is it only doom and gloom?

The global economic recession is starting to bite. Someone I was talking to the other day works for a company selling specialist equipment to businesses around the globe. He glumly revealed an 80% drop in sales. British high-street booksellers are praying for a Christmas lift in their sales but so far the talk is of a 5–10% fall in sales since this time last year.

On the other hand, academic sales seem to be holding up for now. For instance, earlier this week, Wiley (which is a significant academic publisher but probably is more known for its books for accountants, lawyers, architects and the other professions) announced a modest increase in sales compared with last year. It was indeed academic and educational books that kept Wiley in the black, whereas professional and trade (general public) sales plunged 12%. For what it’s worth, this is substantiated by my daughter; she recently started university and complains about the number of books they are supposed to purchase – and the prices.

Elsewhere, not many weeks ago, the general publisher Bloomsbury acquired the respected Oxford academic press, Berg, and via this platform is launching an academic list whose titles will all be free to view and download. Bloomsbury are gambling that sales of printed copies will hold up or even increase because the free digital copies will help promote these sales. We shall see. The publisher wryly notes, ‘If I’m right, we’ll be profitable. If I’m wrong, I’ll get kicked out’.

A contradictory vision of the future

There are other bright spots on the generally bleak academic skyline, too, but let’s not dwell on this matter any longer, at least not for now. Rather, it is worth exploring the contradictory situation of the book and its future. Here are some of the issues:

  • If Wiley are making money in academic publishing, what kind of material is this and in what format is it published?
  • Bloomsbury is not the only academic publisher offering free content. What exactly is this approach, how does this work, and what does it mean for authors?
  • Amazon.com says it’s selling a lot of e-books for use on its Kindle e-reader, which apparently is now sold out (several weeks before Christmas). No more stock will be available until the Kindle 2 is launched in February. Meantime, over on Apple’s iPhone, downloads of the Stanza e-book application have vastly exceeded Kindle sales and tens of thousands of new titles are being added every few weeks. Has the e-book revolution finally taken off?
  • The Book Expresso machine is slowly spreading across the globe. Recently, the first such ‘ATM for books’ to be installed in an actual bookshop went live in Australia. What future has the modern-day bookshop? Will it end up as a book kiosk and coffee shop?

Certainly, for authors the future need not be bleak, even if the book seems to be evolving into many different formats. In short, I had no excuse to be so negative. And maybe I should have put the perspective of my librarian colleague in a broader (more positive) publishing perspective. I’ll have to think about doing that more in future.


Why selling isn’t cheap

2 November 2008

The other day I finally sent off a budget calculation to help one of our authors apply for funding. There were several things in the funding agency’s Excel spreadsheet that confused and irritated me. But what really got up my nose was being asked to state what the likely warehousing and distribution costs were and then finding out that the spreadsheet’s ‘Total Expenditure’ figure ignored these costs.

Perhaps the omission was an error, perhaps not. Whatever, I plead guilty. I changed the formula in their spreadsheet to include the missing costs. And I told them I’d done it, so I won’t be surprised to get a snooty response any day now.

This experience got me thinking about what it costs us to sell our books and how most people haven’t a clue just how much this is. They probably don’t care, either, and nor may you. However, if you are an author earning royalties on sales of your book, then it does matter. And if you are a reader keen to continue getting access to high-quality, peer-reviewed research results, then it matters that academic publishers can afford to produce them. In short, go figure.

So let’s take a wee tour of the economics of warehousing and distribution.

Warehousing? Distribution?

Of course, I’m assuming you know what I mean by warehousing and distribution. Here’s a quick explanation for those who don’t.

Occasionally, someone turns up at NIAS Press and asks to buy a book. We try to oblige but frankly the hassle of processing such sales through the university accounts isn’t worth it. More to the point, we don’t have a lot of space at the Press and certainly not enough to store all of the books that we print. And can you imagine the added cost of posting all of these sales copies round the world? Danish postal rates are not cheap, I assure you.

No, 99% or more of our sales are handled by external agents and in one way or another they want to get paid.

For our European sales, we have a warehouse just south of Oxford (actually there are two warehouses, each the size of a football field, and we don’t own them; a company specializing in warehousing does). Our books fill a tiny corner of all of this space; the books of many other publishers, some of them big, well-known academic presses, fill the rest of the space.

The warehouse stores our books and holds all sorts of inventory details on its system. If an order comes in for a book that isn’t available, its staff will record this order. But if a copy is in stock, it will be picked, packed and sent to the customer, who will be invoiced at the same time. (Let’s not get into details about which customers pay up front and who only has to pay after 30 or more days.)

The warehouse does much more than this, too, but what it doesn’t do is market and promote our books. This is done by the Press itself.

Outside of Europe, we use distributors. Not only do they have their own warehouses (handling the storage and sales described above) but also they market and promote our books in their territory.

Fees and commissions

For all of their good work, our warehouse and distributors are paid. Just how they are paid is a bit complicated but the main thing is that we pay a percentage on each sale. Just how much is none of your business (however, you’ll get an indication of the all-up cost down below).

For our distributors outside of Europe, there is one (large) commission on every sale, and that’s about it. This covers all of the many costs incurred by the distributor all the way from warehousing through to payments to the sales reps who go round visiting all of the bookshops.

Our warehouse charges a far smaller commission because it isn’t paying for sales reps let alone all of the other ways in which a book is marketed and promoted (catalogues, advance information sheets, flyers, adverts and bibliographic registration to name a few – more about this another day). But in addition there is one or another processing fee on each sale plus various other administration fees calculated monthly and (let’s not forget them) charges for storage.

And that’s not all.

Bookseller discounts

Obviously, the bookshops don’t buy their books at the price they sell them to you. They get a discount. Typically, in Europe this is about 25% for a normal bookshop and 30–35% for major customers. Then there is Amazon who usually won’t accept less than a 40% discount – and publishers give them this. Who can afford to be invisible on Amazon?

In North America, the discounts are a little higher, in some parts of Asia higher again. And if you want your book in an airport bookstore, the discount demanded is usually higher than 50% (not least because the rents charged these bookstores at a place like Heathrow are astronomical).

These are typical discount rates for academic books. Those for ‘trade’ books (sold to the general public) are much higher, often more than 50%. At times the discounts get suicidally high.

Sending back the pizzas

On top of these discounts is the cost of returns.

Think for a moment about your local supermarket. On its shelves and in its fridges and freezers are thousands of products with a limited sell-by date. Stocking such a supermarket requires the flair and instincts of a gambler. You need enough but not too much stock. And every few days, if you are round the back entrance at the right time, you might see the result of all those failed gambles: big rubbish bins being wheeled out to the garbage truck. Amongst all the stuff being thrown out will be loads of old frozen pizzas.

Imagine instead if your supermarket could send all those pizzas back to the pizza factory and be credited their value against any new pizzas ordered. Your supermarket might be pleased with such a scheme but I doubt the factory would be, especially if even those pizzas whose boxes have been knocked about a bit (and frankly are not saleable as a result) also qualify for a full credit.

This is the bizarre situation experienced by all publishers. Booksellers have a right to return stock within a certain period for a full credit. And they do so, typically a few days before they must pay for these books.

The rate of return for trade books is horrendous, from memory it being about 50% in the United States where the situation is worst but not a whole lot better elsewhere. This is not because bookshops are greedy or ripping off their publishers but is due to the pressures of competition and the difficulty for most booksellers to make a profit. Essentially, then, if a trade title doesn’t take off and sell lots of copies within six weeks, chances are that most copies will be returned to the publisher.

Many small publishers have gone bust as a consequence. Their initial print run has sold out, sales look brilliant, a second bigger printing is ordered and – just as this is delivered – thousands of returns come flooding in. Crunch!

Thankfully, return rates for academic titles are much lower (the main culprit again the US booksellers). Nonetheless, several times a year I see our US monthly sales figures hammered by credits for returns. It hurts, and it costs.

Reality check

Let’s work all of this through with an example. Here, the book published is a $30 paperback.

750 copies printed in China at $5 per copy $3,750
Shipping to 3 warehouses $1,600
Total printing/shipping costs $5,350

500 copies sold (75 free copies, 175 unsold) $15,000
Average bookseller discount 33% $5,000
50 copies returned (including discount) $1,000
Distributor’s commission 50% $4,500
Net receipts (residual income to publisher) $4,500
Author royalty (5% of net receipts) $225

Loss (prior to inclusion of editing, etc.) $1,075

Note: A huge amount of expenditure prior to printing is not included in this equation. Peer-review, editing, typesetting and marketing are just the big-ticket items.

The bottom line

What does this mean? Several things, actually.

  1. It costs to sell a book, quite a bit actually. At worst (as in the example above), it costs more to sell a book than is earned on the sale. Too many sales like this, of course, and a publisher will be toast unless income can be earned in other ways, too.
  2. The profit margin on books is pathetic. Until a few weeks ago, I’d have said that publishers would make more money investing in the share market. Maybe not now, but I hope you get my point. In short, publishing is a mug’s game (though one that many mugs like me willingly devote their lives to).
  3. It is also a mug’s game for authors, or at least for those expecting to earn not just fame but also fortune. Receiving a royalty of $225 on $15,000 of sales (as in the above example) looks utterly unfair but it is the going rate. Normally, author royalties are paid on net receipts (the publisher’s residual income) not on the retail price. Here, the going rate for academic presses is only 5–10% and often a royalty is only payable after (say) 500 copies have been sold.
  4. Everyone bitches about prices with certain commercial academic publishers like Routledge and Brill attracting particular criticism. But it is also clear that publishing a $30 paperback and selling only hundreds of copies is a suicidal strategy unless income can be earned elsewhere than sales.

Which brings me back to the funding agency. Their support is vital if the book we have in mind is to be feasible. So maybe I shouldn’t be p*ssing them off by altering the formula in their spreadsheet.

But what really irked me with the people at this research council was not so much that they failed to account for warehousing and distribution costs in their expenditure analysis; rather it was that they were oblivious to the realities of academic publishing today and indeed commented that our book looked quite profitable and seemed hardly in need of a grant.

Time to give them a reality check perhaps, if I dare.


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