During Down Economic Times a Couple of Avenues Grow in Value: Education and Art

There are a lot of talented people who have lost their job over the last few months. If I were in this situation I would have to accept the fact that the job market isn’t getting better for another couple of months at least (although there should be a slight improvement toward the end of January once 2009 budgets open up, but it won’t last and won’t be particularly significant). So in the mean time I would take stock of my skill set and what I offer to potential employers. The next thing I would consider is how I can self promote in an environment that doesn’t want to listen.

One possible answer to these questions is to write a book. It consumes time, which you have plenty of, it rounds out your written communication skills, it is a lasting resume item, and best of all, it tells the story of your labor. During down economic times a couple of avenues grow in value: education and art. A clever book can be both.

I ran across a great cnet.com article by David Carnoy called Self-publishing a book: 25 things you need to know. Check out the link for more information. And the comments are really good too. Here is an incomplete passage from his work:

1. Self-publishing is easy.

Here’s how it works. You choose a size for your book, format your Word manuscript to fit that size, turn your Word doc into a PDF, create some cover art in Photoshop, turn that into a PDF, and upload it all to the self-publisher of your choice and get a book proof back within a couple of weeks (or sooner) if you succeeded in formatting everything correctly. You can then make changes and swap in new PDFs.

After you officially publish your book, you can make changes to your cover and interior text by submitting new PDFs, though your book will go offline (“out of stock”) for a week or two. BookSurge charges $50 for uploading a new cover and $50 for a new interior.

Lulu offers very good, detailed instructions for the DIY crowd, doesn’t require any upfront fees, and is very popular as a result. Ironically, I used Lulu’s how-to content to put my book together for BookSurge, which has very poor instructions for DIYers. Interesting stat: Lulu claims to publish an average of 4,000 books a week. Oddly, the company didn’t offer the size of the book I wanted to create (8 x 5.25 inches–the standard size for trade paperback novels; Lulu only offers 6 x 9, which is too big).

2. Quality has improved.

I can’t speak for all self-publishing companies, but the quality of Booksurge’s books seem quite solid. You can’t do a fancy matte cover (yet), but the books look and feel like “real” books. The only giveaway that you’re dealing with a self-published book would be if the cover were poorly designed–which, unfortunately, is too often the case.

3. Some of the more successful self-published books are about self-publishing.

I don’t know what this says about the industry, but it’s probably not a good thing. I didn’t read any books because I was busy scouring the Internet, but there are a few that appear to have some useful information. However, take everything with a grain of salt because things change quickly in self-publishing and analysis of the industry tends to attract a lot of qualifying statements. As Mark Levine notes in a “sample” review of his The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, “Will BookPros provide a service that is $20,000 better than anyone else in this book? If your book takes off, then yes. However, if your book isn’t very successful, you may not think so.” In another noteworthy book, Stacie Vander Pol takes a stab at ranking top performing POD self-publishing companies based on sales performance. I’d like to see this stuff on a free website rather than a book. But that’s just me.

4. Good self-published books are few and far between.

5. The odds are against you.

6. Creating a “professional” book is really hard.

7. Have a clear goal for your book.

This will help dictate what service you go with. For instance, if your objective is to create a book for posterity’s sake (so your friends and family can read it for all eternity), you won’t have to invest a lot of time or money to produce something that’s quite acceptable. Lulu is probably your best bet. However, if yours is a commercial venture with big aspirations, things get pretty tricky.

8. Even if it’s great, there’s a good chance your book won’t sell.

9. Niche books do best.

This seems to be the mantra of self-publishing. Nonfiction books with a well-defined topic and a nice hook to them can do well, especially if they have a target audience that you can focus on. Religious books are a perfect case in point. And fiction? Well, it’s next to impossible. But then again, the majority of fiction books–even ones from “real” publishers–struggle in the marketplace. That’s why traditional publishers stick with tried-and-true authors with loyal followings.

10. Buy your own ISBN–and create your own publishing house.

11. Create a unique title.

12. Turn-key solutions cost a lot of money.

13. Self-publishers don’t care if your book is successful.

14. Buy as little as possible from your publishing company.

15. If you’re serious about your book, hire a book doctor and get it copy-edited.

16. Negotiate everything.

BookSurge and other self-publishing companies are always offering special deals on their various services. There isn’t whole lot of leeway, but it doesn’t hurt to ask for deal sweeteners–like more free copies of your book (they often throw in free copies of your book). It also doesn’t hurt to ask about deals that have technically expired. In sales, everything is negotiable. Remember, these people have quotas and bonuses at stake. (For their sake, I hope they do anyway).

17. Ask a lot of questions and don’t be afraid to complain.

18. Self-publishing is a contact sport.

The biggest mistake people make when it comes to self-publishing is that they expect to just put out a book and have it magically sell. They might even hire a publicist and expect something to happen. It’s just not so. You have to be a relentless self-promoter. Unfortunately, a lot people just don’t have the stomach or time for it–which is part of the reason I anted up for BookSurge’s Buy X, Get Y program, which is essentially a form of advertising.

19. Getting your book in bookstores sounds good, but that shouldn’t be a real concern.

20. Self-published books don’t get reviewed.

21. Design your book cover to look good small.

Traditional book publishers design–or at least they used to design–a book cover to make a book stand out in a bookstore and evoke whatever sentiment it was supposed to evoke. Well, with Amazon becoming a dominant bookseller, your book has to stand out as a thumbnail image online because that’s how most people are going to come across it. If you’re primarily selling through Amazon, think small and work your way up.

22. If you’re selling online, make the most out of your Amazon page.

I’m a little bit surprised by how neglectful some self-published authors are when it comes to their Amazon product pages. I’ve talked to self-published authors who spend a few thousand dollars on a publicist and their Amazon product page looks woeful–and they’ve barely even looked at it. I ask, “Where are people going to buy your book?” They don’t seem to realize how important Amazon is. True, some people market through a Web site or buy Google keywords to drive traffic there. But you need to have your Amazon page look as good as possible and take advantage of the “tools” Amazon has to help you surface your book (“Tags,” Listmania, r
eader reviews, etc.). It may not have a major impact, but it’s better than doing nothing.

One tip: Make sure your book is put into five browsing categories (it’s only allowed 5). It helps to categorize your book to readers and also will make your book look better if it’s a bestseller in those categories. No one at BookSurge suggested this to me; I had to figure it out on my own. (Again, they don’t care, you have to make them care).

The manifestation of categorizing your book.

23. Pricing is a serious challenge.

The biggest problem with going the POD route is that it costs more to produce one-offs of your book than it does to do produce thousands. I can buy my book–it’s a paperback–from BookSurge for $5.70. It’s about 370 pages. Now, if I went ahead and had the thing printed up directly through an off-set printer–and ordered a few thousand of them–I could probably cut the cost of the book in half, and maybe even a little more. But I’d have to pay the upfront fee to buy the books and then I’d have to figure out a way to sell them (this is how vanity presses used to work–you had to agree to buy a few thousand books).

Amazon sells my book for $15.99 (It stared at $17.99 but I’ve managed to get BookSurge to whittle the price down by $2). BookSurge royalty rates seem to be standardized: authors get 35% of the book’s list price. You can also sweeten the pot by becoming an Amazon affiliate: if customers buy the book through the Amazon affiliate link (say, on an author-produced website that advertises the book), that’s an additional 7% in the author’s pocket.

Those are actually quite good royalty rates (interesting article here) in the world of subsidy self-publishing. But the fact is, to compete against top-selling titles from traditional publishers my book should be a little cheaper (I barely beat the hardcover prices of bestsellers). Some of the other subsidy self-publishers seem to have a little more flexibility with price setting on Amazon, but BookSurge appears to have a better overall rate of return compared to the likes of Lulu, iUniverse, and Xlibris. In other words, if I was using Lulu and I set my selling price at $15.99 on Amazon, I’d make less money. (Lulu.com touts its own online store, which is well designed and has a big audience, but–compared to the Amazon juggernaut–I have my doubts you can sell a lot of books there).

As I said, I’ve generally had a good experience with BookSurge and have been pleased with the service. However, the one thing that I truly resent is how my book is priced on Amazon. There’s no discount on it! Every book from every “real” publisher has a slash through the list price and then there’s the Amazon price. On mine, the list price is the price.

That’s not cool, Mr. Bezos. I mean, if BookSurge needs to set a price floor to hit certain margins, set the list price higher, put a slash through it, and put the street price at a buck or two less and give the author the royalty on the street price. That way, the book looks like every other book and the buyer thinks he or she is getting some sort of discount. That’s important. As it is, I guess I’m looking at sort of an Apple pricing model, where the list price is the street price. I should note that there is a chance my book might get discounted–but it’s dependent on an Amazon algorithm that kicks in when you hit some sort of milestone that remains shrouded in mystery. To be fair this is not a BookSurge problem exactly, it’s more of an Amazon/BookSurge synergy problem and a database issue.

24. Electronic books have potential, but they’re still in their infancy.

25. Self-publishing is a fluid business.

About benleeson
My name is Ben Leeson. I currently work for a large financial company in IT. I went to school at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY. I graduated with a B.S. in Business Administration concentrating in HR. Professor William Brown taught me and I enjoyed his classes; even acquiring an appreciation for just about all things HR. I didn’t pursue a job in that field after college but I’ve kept up with it. This blog will further my fascination with all things HR. I hope to grow my knowledge of the area through thoughtful writings and spirited feedback. I will attempt to have a fairly routine style so anyone reading can come to expect certain segments. Please excuse my incorrect grammar and occasional misspelling.

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