September 2nd, 2011, 2 Comments »
While eating lunch on Tuesday, James Erwin noticed a question in the AskReddit section of Reddit.com, the popular social news site, that struck his fancy. Another user asked: “Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion?”
Drawing on a degree in History–he recently finished an encyclopedia of US military actions–he began writing this piece of fiction under his Reddit user name, Prufrock451:
The 35th MEU is on the ground at Kabul, preparing to deploy to southern Afghanistan. Suddenly, it vanishes.
The section of Bagram where the 35th was gathered suddenly reappears in a field outside Rome, on the west bank of the Tiber River. Without substantially prepared ground under it, the concrete begins sinking into the marshy ground and cracking. Colonel Miles Nelson orders his men to regroup near the vehicle depot – nearly all of the MEU’s vehicles are still stripped for air transport. He orders all helicopters airborne, believing the MEU is trapped in an earthquake.
Erwin wrote 3000 words over the next two hours. They read like the first chapter of a novel, a kind of Romans vs. Marines companion piece to World War Z.
Reddit goes nuts. Reflecting the opinions of many, one Reddit user asked Erwin, “Do you have a job? Because this should be your job.”
Within hours of his first post, Erwin was the star of a ‘sub-Reddit’–a categorized section of Reddit.com–and now has nearly 7000 readers clamouring for the next installment of his work.
They’re also helping Erwin out. They’re debating historical minutiae, mocking up book covers and offering him authorial advice.
Erwin, a technical writer from Des Moines, Iowa, tells me that he’s overwhelmed by the response. “I’m astounded that something I churned out over my lunch hour turned into this,” he writes in an email interview. “I’m excited and very grateful and a little terrified.”
What’s most striking about Erwin’s story is the speed with which he accidentally assembled a readership that any writer would envy. However, as my publishing-savvy friend Monique Trottier points out, the trick is capitalizing on this burst of interest. “Really good publishers are looking for this exact sort of untapped talent–particular someone who is able to build an audience.”
Traditionally, publishers would rush to have the author write and produce the hardcopy book, a process that can take six months to a year. Instead, Trottier recommends that Erwin self-publish an ebook. “The period of time when you can make money off a book is shrinking. Ebooks obviously offer a much faster production cycle, and they work particularly well in the fantasy and science-fiction genres”.
Erwin plans on turning his instant fame into some kind of published work. “When people are literally demanding to give you money, that’s a no-brainer. But I’m carefully weighing my options on when and how. In the meantime, I appear to have a winning formula, so I’ll try to push it forward a bit and provide some meagre reward to my readers.”
Image by Reddit user JamieTeamCool. Used with his permission.
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December 3rd, 2009, 9 Comments »
As regular readers know, I recently co-authored a book about social media marketing entitled “Friends With Benefits”. Before that, we wrote an ebook on the same topic. We distributed the ebook as a PDF, enabling people to buy it through PayPal. The traditional book is published by No Starch Press and distributed by O’Reilly Media.
A longtime reader asked that I write a post comparing the two approaches.
If you’re self-publishing, you have complete control over what your book is about. You can publish a book on as narrow a topic as you like (“Capri Pants of Upstate New York, 1963 to 1965″), and you get to decide what goes into the table of contents. When we wrote our ebook, we pretty much skipped MySpace because, well, we didn’t know a lot about it, and we didn’t feel like learning.
On the other hand, we negotiated the book’s outline with our editor. This proved a healthy and useful process, as it ensured that we covered all our bases. We did, however, have to write a chapter on MySpace. That was almost certainly the least fun chapter to write in the book.
An editor has a ton of earned wisdom which they can impart to you. They’ve confronted hundreds of decisions–from ideal chapter length to whether website names should be italicized–that the self-publishing author needs to consider.
Your eBook can be as long or as short as you like. A traditional book has certain expectations around length. In addition to the practical marketing requirement that it occupy enough shelf space to be visible to the bookstore browser, it needs to seem substantial enough to merit its price.
Our eBook was about 25,000 words long, while “Friends With Benefits” clocked in at 90,000. The latter, obviously, is a lot more words than the former.
Marketing and Promotion
With a self-published book, you do all of the marketing and promotion yourself. If you’re up for this work, and maybe have done some kind of marketing in the past, this isn’t a big deal. It’s a lot of work, but it’s not rocket science. If you’ve never promoted anything before, then you’re going to face a learning curve.
Publishers offer marketing help. I hear a lot of authors complain about how little marketing support publishers offer, but they may not understand the economies at work inside publishing houses. The publisher may have dozens of books to promote, and few (or one) staff members to do this work. Our publisher helped with a lot of the marketing legwork–writing press releases, pitching reviewers (we helped assemble the list of reviewers to contact) and so forth. Knowing what I do about publishers and marketing, I’m entirely satisfied with their efforts.
I should also mention the process of signing a book deal. For us, it was super-easy. We were introduced to a literary agent, and she asked us to write a three-page proposal for the book. Armed with that and our ebook, she got interest from a publisher within a couple of weeks. I think we got really lucky, so your mileage may definitely vary.
When creating an ebook, you can apply as much or as little design work as you like. I’ve seen ebooks that are style-free Word documents, and ebooks that look indistinguishable from published books. I made the mediocre cover of our ebook myself. It’s adequate, but certainly nothing to write home about. The self-published author needs to handle or outsource all of the production aspects–cover design, layout, illustration, indexing and so forth. For our ebook, we hired a designer we know to tweak our layout and give us some good advice on how to make the book look more professional.
If you’re planning on using Blurb, Lulu or the like to sell your self-published book, be sure that you layout our your book to their standards. This was one of the reasons we didn’t use these services–we couldn’t be bothered to match our layout to their requirements. Another reason, if I recall correctly, was that some services only accepted US-based customers.
The publisher takes care of all of this for the author. In a couple of cases, I simply drew illustrations on our whiteboard, photographed them and sent them along to the illustrator to render as actual diagrams. We’re very happy with the cover and illustrations in our book.
Obviously there’s a difference between self-publishing a book and convincing a publisher to produce your book. The latter includes an implicit endorsement of you and your work. Of course, we’ve all read really bad books from publishers and great ebooks, so one should take this with a grain of salt. However, there’s no question that people view published books as more ‘legitimate’ than self-published ebooks. Take that for what’s it worth.
Here-in lies the rub. As I said in an earlier post, you don’t write a book to make money. You can, however, write an ebook to make money. The math is pretty simple.
- We sold our ebook for $29. After transaction fees, we made about $27.25 per book.
- On our actual book, after our advance, we make less $2 per book.
It’s a little hard to say at this stage, but we’ll probably make about the same amount on the actual book as we did on the ebook.
If you consider all the above factors, the ebook is by far the better money-making proposition. Say you spend 100 hours writing and producing a 25,000-word ebook. Then you spend another 100 hours promoting it, and you sell just 500 copies at $27.25 a book. You’ve just earned $13,625, or about $65/hour. Not serious money, but better than a kick in the pants with a frozen boot. This is doubly true if you’re passionate about the subject matter. Plus, if you write five ebooks, and offer them for sale in perpetuity, then there’s a lot of potential for ongoing passive revenue.
Which is Right For You?
If you want to make money, go the ebook route. You’re the captain of your own fate, and your hard work can translate directly into hard-earned cash. If you’re looking to (as we marketers say) ‘establish expertise’ and ‘build your brand’, then get a publishing deal.
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November 25th, 2009, 2 Comments »
At the book launch last night, my brother reminded me of this awesome New Yorker piece entitled “Subject: Our Marketing Plan”. It’s written as an email from an intern to a book author, and simultaneously pokes fun at so many things:
- Web marketing and its endless jargon.
- Authors’ very common anxiety around promoting their books.
- Tightening belts, cost-cutting and staff turnover at publishers.
- General workplace incompetence
Here’s my favourite bit:
Do you blog? If not, get in touch with Kris and Christopher from our online department, although at this point I think only Christopher is left. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll be out of the office from tomorrow until Monday, but when I get back IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll ask him if he spoke to you. We use CopyBuoy via Hoster Broaster, because it streams really easily into a Plaxo/LinkedIn yak-fest meld. When you register, click Ã¢â‚¬Å“Endless,Ã¢â‚¬Â and under Ã¢â‚¬Å“ContactsÃ¢â‚¬Â just list everyone youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve ever met. It would be great if you could post at least six hundred words every day until further notice.
I should mention that, perhaps because our publisher handles mostly technical books, they ‘get’ the web, and have been very pleasant to work with on a promotional (as well as every other) front.
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October 16th, 2009, 7 Comments »
Today I attended BookCamp Vancouver at SFU. It’s was a well-run, well-organized event that frequently featured an engaging exchange of ideas. It probably could have used a few more of the unconference features that make BarCamp so special. I expect some industries are more comfortable than others with this kind of open, egalitarian model, so better baby steps than none at all.
Throughout the day, I recommended a number of articles to various writers, editors and publishers. I figured I might as well gather them here in case they’re of interest. Long time readers have probably seen me recommend one or more of these articles before:
- The Economy of Ideas by John Perry Barlow – From 1994, but still pretty relevant today. Extremely prescient for the time. “Even the physical/digital bottles to which we’ve become accustomed – floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and other discrete, shrink-wrappable bit-packages – will disappear as all computers jack-in to the global Net. While the Internet may never include every CPU on the planet, it is more than doubling every year and can be expected to become the principal medium of information conveyance, and perhaps eventually, the only one. “
- The Next Economy of Ideas by John Perry Barlow – Six years later, and even more insightful. I’ve been saying this next sentence ever since I read this piece: “Art is a service, not a product. Created beauty is a relationship, and a relationship with the Holy at that. Reducing such work to “content” is like praying in swear words.”
- 1000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly – I recommend this to every artist I meet, regardless of medium. It’s an extremely elegant way of thinking about fostering community and building an audience. For some reason it reminds me of the central metaphor in Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”. “A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.”
I wanted to offset those first three from the next two because the former are truly remarkable, visionary pieces. The next two are smart thinking and worth reading, but might pale a bit by comparison.
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November 12th, 2008, 6 Comments »
Playboy is among the many periodicals making job and budget cuts this year:
Playboy Enterprises Inc. disclosed in a Wednesday regulatory filing that upcoming cost-cutting measures will include eliminating 55 jobs at the Chicago publishing and entertainment concern.
In the Securities and Exchange Commission document, Playboy said that a plan to reduce annual costs by $10 million is being increased to $12 million “in light of current economic and media conditions.”
In fairness, there’s more to Playboy than a magazine, but the news got me thinking about the 55-year-old periodical. I don’t know that it’s in any serious trouble. According to Wikipedia, it’s got a circulation of 3 million, down from a high of 7.1 million in 1972. That’s still better than, say, Maxim (2.5 million), Esquire (700,000) or Details (500,000).
But let’s imagine that the magazine is struggling. I got to thinking about what radical action I’d undertake to right the ship. The first thing that occurred to me: get rid of the naked women.
“But,” says the VP of Marketing, “the naked women are our brand! They’re what differentiates us from Maxim et al!”
Nay, I say. Nudity stopped being a differentiator some time in the mid-nineties, when the web became a den of inequity and rife with porn. As any web surfer knows, there’s all forms of nudity to be found for free on the web, from the gentlest erotica to the weirdest fetish. The same is true for periodicals, obviously. There’s Hustler, obviously, but even mainstream magazines like Maxim are often exactly two exposed nipples away from precisely mimicking the images in Playboy.
So, I’m unconvinced that anybody really buys the magazine for the pictures anymore. They buy it for the fantastic essays, interviews and short fiction.
Personally, I’d feel still feel a little sheepish buying an issue of Playboy and a lot sheepish reading it on the bus. Maybe Playboy ought to drop the naked photos altogether, and focus on what really differentiates them from the herd?
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December 6th, 2007, Comments Off
James pointed me at a fascinating article by Scott Karp speculating on the future of (and the future prices of) print and digital content. There are a number of excellent propositions in the piece. Here are two:
To find the right price for ebooks, publishers need to FORGET the value of distribution in the traditional print model. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s only one question Ã¢â‚¬â€ what is the CONTENT worth? (Even the ability to search an entire library canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be valued Ã¢â‚¬â€ Google has commoditized it.)…
Print publishing wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be dead until the people who value print distribution are dead Ã¢â‚¬â€ and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to take at least a generation. People will still pay for print publications when they DO value the print distribution, e.g. the newspaper on the doorstep, the book or magazine in your bag on the plane or at the beach.
Not the all-too-common doom and gloom, and thus required reading for anybody who publishes anything printed on dead trees.