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August 14, 2011

More Self-Publishing Blather
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 02:45 PM *

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?

I’m planning to self-publish four science fiction and fantasy novelettes.

what could I do but try to answer?

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 But the cost of producing an ebook via is ridiculous. Priced right out of the market. I don’t recommend it. 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. 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.

I have The Confessions of Peter Crossman up at Lulu without an ISBN. And miracle of miracles, here it is over at Amazon too!

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!

See also:


Comments on More Self-Publishing Blather:
#1 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2011, 03:35 PM:

You know those "other books by this author" lists you find in commercial books? Indispensable in self-pubbed e-books.

#2 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2011, 05:01 PM:

what I don't understand is under what circumstances you need to have an ISBN.

#3 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2011, 05:13 PM:

You need to have an ISBN for distribution through physical bookstores. The ISBN is the book. Among e-books: Apple, Sony, Google Books, and Borders US require ISBNs. Others appreciate ISBNs. ISBNs get you into Bowker's Books In Print.

Amazon has their own system of numbers for those cases where there is no ISBN. will sell you an ISBN. You can buy an ISBN on your own from Bowker (though the smallest number they sell is a block of ten numbers). Smashwords will allow you to use your own ISBN, they will sell you an ISBN, or they will issue you a free ISBN.

I've been going with Smashwords' freebies.

#4 ::: Deirdre Saoirse Moen ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2011, 05:27 PM:

First, thanks for the Calcumatic mention!

Actually, the iBookstore wasn't difficult for me to get into, though I did already have a developer account. I'm not sure that made a difference. I also had cover art and an ISBN.

There's one quirk I hadn't counted on: I posted my book on iBooks and it didn't enter the QA queue until the publication date three days later. From there, it was 9 days before it went on sale. Amazon took two days and Barnes and Noble was faster.

Possibly because my Twitter/Facebook/LJ/etc. audience is so iPad/iPhone heavy, I've sold about 40% of my copies on iBooks.

#5 ::: Deirdre Saoirse Moen ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2011, 05:40 PM:

Jim @ 3: Google's current language is that they will assign you an ISBN. They only require ISBNs for distribution through bookstores. That, frankly, is their coolest feature -- that you can still sell your books through indie booksellers. Thus, if you're doing a signing at a bookstore and they are signed up with Google books, you can promote your self-published work without guilt as the bookstore will be able to get a cut of the profits.

#6 ::: Christopher B. Wright ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2011, 07:20 PM:

You can actually buy a single ISBN through Bowker, but it is half the price of a block of 10, so you might as well get the block of 10.

#7 ::: simon ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2011, 01:32 AM:

Thanks for the mention.

A couple of things...

"Conventional wisdom" among "indies"... write more books - the more content you have, the more you sell. Quite a few "backlist" trads have been seeing good results with this.

Use Amazon to set floor and use Smashwords "coupons" to drive the occasional promotion - it takes too long to filter the pricing through SW otherwise and then you get nailed by Amazon.

"The key to a successful career is to never publish anything bad." - great advice.

Love your blog.

#8 ::: Frida Fantastic ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2011, 02:07 AM:

Nice informative post. I'm one of the book bloggers listed on Simon Royle's Indie Reviewers list. I've been running my speculative fiction review blog for a few months, and with its focus on ebooks from independent publishers and self-published authors, I have a few comments to make.

Jim, I definitely agree with Amazon and Smashwords as the top two ebook retailers. I whenever I see small-press or self-published authors who only upload ebooks to Amazon, and I think they're needlessly limiting their audience.

Amazon is the 800 pound gorilla, but there's still 40-50% of the ebook-reading audience that can't read books in the Amazon proprietary format or don't like Amazon DRM, and Smashwords caters exactly to that crowd as they publish ebooks for all major formats and are DRM free. I don't think just doing Amazon and B&N is enough, as B&N is useless for readers outside of America. I'm just across the border and I can't buy crap from B&N. Why limit potential buyers? Think multi-format and global.

I've been enjoying reading ebooks from indies, and I've come across some really excellent reads. I've also seen some books that are honestly not ready for public consumption, and some of them are sitting in my inbox, waiting to be rejected on that basis. Here are my two cents for new e-published authors:

-Don't put blind trust in an auto-formatter, check the ebook at least once. I've read samples where there were bad line breaks in the first three pages, and that's instant rejection from most book bloggers and the reading public at large.
-I've seen a range of quality in ebooks, with some seriously fantastic stuff that I'd place beside my favourite SF/F legacy-pubbed reads (if I had a physical copy) and there's just some awful newbie stuff. Self-publishing is a place for finished products. Newbie writers can only hurt their name by selling stuff that's not ready, even if they're having it available for free. Readers don't like to waste time and readers can be unforgiving, with good reason. Bad reviews can't be deleted (if some get deleted off Amazon, they may reappear on Goodreads, etc.), so if a series of reviews say "awkward sentences, bad formatting, typos", that understandably says something about the book's lack of professionalism.
-Good covers and good descriptions are a must. People won't know about a book's excellent prose or story if they're not enticed to sample the book to begin with. None of that has to be expensive, just well thought-out, and some investments are really worthwhile.

That's all for now from this book blogger :) Happy publishing!

#9 ::: bkd69 ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2011, 08:21 AM:
The key to a successful career is to never publish anything bad.

Interestingly, that's the exact opposite of the advice to follow if you're trying to minimize piracy.

#10 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2011, 08:56 AM:

There's a couple of things I've seen, in the Smashwords guide and elsewhere, which are maybe worth a mention.

Smashwords makes an effort of keep out the Public Label Rights content and other drivel that's plaguing Amazon. Partly, it's being done as part of the dishonest SEO business. Making Light has a certain status, as a website, through the collective efforts of the regulars.

I've seen a couple of writers trying to check Amazon sales rank on their new novel, and finding it distressingly low. Well, PLR is one of the things messing things up.

There's also Gutenberg texts popping up. And collections of Wikipedia pages. Do you want a book about German AFVs of WW2: there's a lot of stuff on Wikipedia on that topic, and Wikipedia has some real howlers sometimes.

Second point: again mentioned in the Smashwords style guide is the "3D cover". And I have seen plenty of the bad cgi art produced by programs such as Poser. I'll admit to producing some of it.

The downside is that the software to produce these images can be pretty inexpensive. DAZ3D Even have their software for free, and some of the models. So it's dead easy for somebody to produce a picture of a scantily-clad woman, and it is often obviously the same woman. It's also a commonplace that the model data depicts the shape of a woman wearing a bra, with all that implies for her body shape, and the scantily-clad woman, obviously lacking that assistance, is still the same shape.

Getting the datasets to break away from that default costs money. Using them to make something more "real" takes time and effort. And sometimes, even when artists work that way, the results don't look quite right. The ranked guards on the cover of A Civil Campaign come to mind. And the US edition of Saturns Childrenlooked, to many, more like bad art than an attempt to depict a specific character.

People argue about whether the uncanny valley exists, but cheap cgi images do exist. You almost need to add unreality to the image for them to work.

But let us for a moment consider an image which Jim has used. The cover of The Confessions of Peter Crossman is the sort of image that could be cgi or it could be a photograph. Get a good-quality CGI model of a gun, and a good rendering program. But getting a good result is a lot of work. (I tend to think in terms of setting up a photograph: did the camera replace the pencil or paintbrush?)

Anyway, what it comes down to is a cover image done by an unthinking amateur, and that's going to be bad however it's created.

#12 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2011, 10:48 AM:

Jim, this is outstanding! Far more than I hoped or ask for. I owe you dinner next time I see you (last time was, what, 1992?).

#13 ::: Dangerous Bill ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2011, 04:06 PM:

Lulu has been adding ISBNs to paper titles without being asked (or paid). I just discovered ISBNs on my three titles. OK by me.

#14 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2011, 11:10 AM:

Something else to worry about: The bug where an italicized word appears on its own line in the Kindle version. I'm told that this shows up in the Kindle version of Julian Comstock (which has a lot of italicized words).

Now I see (using the "look inside the book" feature at Amazon) that this bug appears in at least one of my titles there, but not in others. Both texts were created in exactly the same way, using the same software. The Smashwords version of the buggy text, produced from the exact same file (with the exception of the addition of the Smashwords text slug on the copyright page) doesn't show that bug in the Kindle version. Oh dearikins me.

#15 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2011, 02:22 PM:

Things I've learned: Kindle can't handle Small Caps.

I'll have to go back through all my texts and replace them, then re-upload.

#16 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2011, 12:18 PM:

My sales through Kindle have exploded in the UK over the past month, with a 300% increase!

Of course, that means going from 2 to 6, but it sounds so much better the other way....

#17 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2011, 02:31 PM:

What I like best about low-cost/easy true self-publishing is that it's kicking the vanity presses straight in the ass.

Those human leeches are getting more desperate by the day. I can see the signs everywhere.

#18 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2011, 01:49 PM:

... I see a blog post on the signs....

#19 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2011, 11:20 AM:

Dr. Doyle on E-pubbing as a Gold Rush.

Things I've added to my self-published e-books:

Now, every one of them includes an "About the Authors" and a link to our homepage.

All of the self-pubbed books contain a direct link to one particular title, and that title has a complete list of our self-pubbed e-books, with links to each of them.

I don't know if the major publishers are including direct links to "Other works by..." or "If you enjoyed this book, you'll certainly like..." but if they aren't, they're missing a chance.

#20 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 01:58 PM:

Since I'll believe anything that someone puts on a blog, in response to this article about e-book pricing I've raised the prices of the individual Bad Blood novels to $3.99 and the trilogy collection to $7.99.

We'll see if that makes a difference.

I've left the prices of the short stories at $0.99 and the short-story collections at $2.99.

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