I suppose I should give my bona-fides for talking about this at all. My first self-published work was in 1978 (the first public appearance of Syr Agricoli!), and involved a Xerox machine and a saddle-stapler. Since then, I’ve been a member of an amateur publishing association (which is where my short story, “The Little Prune That Couldn’t Talk” was first published—you can read it here today). I’ve self-published various other works over the years, not counting the major posts here at ML (e.g. Chesapeake v. Shannon, Ash Wednesday, and the Trauma and You series). My first POD self-publishing experiment was in 2005, via Lulu. I’ve had an Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing account since August of last year, with my first work published there in September 2010. Since then I’ve put up all of the short stories to which we had clear rights, and three of our out-of-print novels, via Kindle, Smashwords, and Google.
So when my good friend Mitch Wagner asked
Can you point to any good information on the business of self-publishing, including where to post work, how much to charge, and best ways to market?what could I do but try to answer?
I’m planning to self-publish four science fiction and fantasy novelettes.
I’ve already listed some useful software. Here’s the rest of the mix:
The only way to get onto the Kindle is through Amazon, via Kindle Direct Publishing. Currently, this is free. Unfortunately, Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla. Most of our pricing and distribution decisions will be influenced by their gravity hole. But you absolutely have to be on the Kindle.
The next must-publish place is Smashwords. They distribute to everywhere that isn’t Amazon. They automatically convert MSWord doc files into a variety of ebook formats. In order to make that work, they have very particular requirements for the file you upload.
If you want to publish directly at B&N, rather than use Smashwords to distribute there, you can use PubIt. There’s a slight difference in the royalties. Allegedly there’s a difference in the visibility at B&N’s site, too.
The tough one to get into is the iBookstore. You have to have a Mac to create the content in the format they like, and you have to have a US tax ID number and already own an ISBN for your work. Or, you could go through an aggregator. Like Smashwords or Lulu.com. But the cost of producing an ebook via Lulu.com is ridiculous. Priced right out of the market. I don’t recommend it.
Fictionwise.com is the grand-daddy of the self e-publishers. They have some peculiar requirements. At one time, they required that any work you uploaded had to be previously commercially published. They also wanted at least ten works, and they wanted to be the exclusive on-line distributor. Those requirements may have gone by the wayside.
Lulu.com is the classic for producing a hard-copy POD version for free. Avoid all of their blandishments and attempts to lure you into spending money. And don’t buy an ISBN. All that will do is double the cover price of your work, kick your royalties straight in the ass, and not do a single blessed thing for sales.
When I originally published Atlanta Nights I bought the ISBN through Lulu (after enough income had arrived from sales to pay for it). Royalties through online distribution through Amazon were $1.19 each. Then Amazon pulled their Let’s Kill Everyone Else’s POD games, and royalties per sale through Amazon, B&N, and the rest of the non-Lulu bookstores are now $0.12.
Publishing at Lulu requires that you be able to produce .pdf files. They will take word-processing documents, but the results from that can be bizarre.
You don’t need an ISBN on the hard-copy book to get it listed at Amazon. Slapping on an ISBN is a profit killer. No ISBN means that the hardcopy can’t be special ordered at your local bookstore … but face it, that isn’t too likely to happen anyway.
One more place to upload your e-text: Google Books. They’re confused, confusing, and slow. But other than that … why bother? Wait ’til it’s out of beta.
Now let’s talk about pricing. Free books—you can give away a ton, and at the end of the day, all you’ll have accomplished is you’ll have given away a ton. Folks may scarf them because they’re free and never even open them.
The lowest price you can assign at Kindle or Smashwords is $0.99. That’s where I’ve priced a bunch of my short stories. That brings in $0.35 cents each at Amazon, slightly higher at Smashwords. Once you hit $2.99 at Amazon, the royalty rate goes from 35% to 70%. Let me give you an example of what that means in practical terms:
In June of this year, through Amazon Kindle, I sold 16 copies of Two From the Mageworlds at $0.99, and two copies of The Confessions of Peter Crossman at $2.99. These brought in, respectively, $5.60 and $4.14. That is to say, the $0.99 story sold 700% more than the $2.99 book, but only brought in 35% more money. Therefore: Going below $2.99 is nuts.
Since Amazon demands that the price in their Kindle store be the lowest that the book’s trading for anywhere, that’s the effective floor everywhere.
Here’s a neat little toy: E-Book Royalty Calcumatic
Okay, you’ve got your book uploaded, and you’ve got it priced. Now comes the deucedly difficult question of how to sell it. Just being listed in a database isn’t much good.
The first, best, grandest way to sell books is to write and publish more books. Anecdotally (which is what most of e-self-publishing is these days), you need to have between three and seven different books listed in the Kindle or Nook or iBookstore virtual shelves to have much of a chance at all.
Then, the next major force are the book-bloggers. You need reviews. The slush-pile has moved…again. Used to be the slush-pile was in the publishers’ offices. Then it shifted to the agents’ offices. Now the slush-pile is in the process of shifting (at least for the self-published) to the reviewers. You need to find folks who will review self-published, electronic works (which pretty much means The New York Times is right out).
Here is a handy list of book-review blogs that are receptive to self-published e-books.
Beyond that there’s the silly stuff, like listing your books in your e-mail sig file, mentioning them in your blog, and so on. The conventional wisdom is that you have to spend forty hours a week touting your books on Twitter and Facebook. I’m not convinced that’s a good use of your time.
One final word: Before you self-publish, make sure the book is as good as it can be. That means editing. If you can’t make your own covers, you’ll have to hire an artist/designer. You’re the publisher, so you either perform or hire all the functions that publishers perform. The key to a successful career is to never publish anything bad.
This doesn’t violate Yog’s Law. The publisher is still paying for everything. You, as author, get to collect 15% of the cover price of every book sold, and deposit it into a savings account labeled “Retirement” (or whatever). The rest of the income (if any) goes to you-as-publisher, to attempt to recoup whatever you-as-publisher spent on producing the book. Just like in commercial publishing.
Let me mention two more toys much beloved by the self-published. Amazon lists Sales Ranks, and there is a never-ending stream of folks who pretend that they can somehow divine the actual number of sales of the books from those ranks. The results they come up with vary from the laughable to the completely bogus.
Most of the automated tools to derive sales from sales rank now return Code 404 (anyone remember Charteous?). Two that are currently up are NovelRank (which is notoriously an order of magnitude or two off—it’s so bad that they include a disclaimer on their own page) and MetricJunkie. I won’t waste time by explaining all the reasons why any results you derive from Amazon sales ranks are wrong (including but not limited to the fact that an Amazon sales rank only refers to sales through Amazon—it’s obvious, I know, but some people still haven’t figured that part out). Just be advised that if you want to waste time while waiting for your own particular miracle, the time-wasters are already on scene. NovelRank even has a widget you can put on your webpage!