Exploring various aspects of independent publishing, with an eye to children’s books, ebooks, author branding, and marketing

eBooks Becoming More Popular During the Pandemic

Highlighting a trend nobody could see coming — except anyone with two brain cells to rub together and even a passing interest in the trade book industry — ebooks are becoming more popular. And of course, this has the dinosaurs in New York clutching their mimosas ever more tightly at brunch.

The increased popularity of ebooks — in particular, checking out ebooks from libraries — is scaring the dinosaurs shitless. Alpha dinosaur John Sargent over at MacMillan worries about library e-lending just being too damn easy for the reader. I mean, shouldn’t a reader have to slap on a mask, dress for New York, slog out into the weather, social distance (yeah, I’m using that as a two-word verb), and check out a physical copy of a book the way Benjamin Fucking Franklin intended???

It’s rather hard to pity our Jurassic forebears who just refuse to die already because the public libraries, like the independent bookstores which also fancy themselves arbiters of taste and literature, are taking extra steps to prop up the dinosaurs’ overpriced offerings during the Pandemic (note to self: write a separate post dragging independent bookstores over broken glass smeared with water buffalo dung for being the house slaves of the dinosaurs in New York). The same Wired piece also notes that public library ebook purchases are helping keep the dinosaurs’ balance sheets from looking even worse.

Now to the part where we make this news we can use.

The Wired piece actually name-checked one of the primary distributors libraries purchase from, OverDrive, as well as the Libby app. Indie publishers can easily put their ebooks into OverDrive’s catalog by working with an aggregator (if you as an indie publisher have placed your work on OverDrive directly, please share your experience!).

Next couple of paragraphs are mostly for writers new or new-ish to indie publishing.

I expect I’ll be writing a comparison piece on a few of the larger aggregators some time soon, but for now, here in a nutshell is what you need to know to get started.

Aggregators save the indie publisher time on distribution, in exchange for a percentage of the profits or a flat monthly charge. Aggregators put the indie’s books out through dozens of distributors around the world, including companies that specialize in selling to libraries. Shop them. See which one fits your needs best, and offers the best deal. If you search through Dale’s YouTube channel, you’ll find reviews of all of the good aggregators, and some to avoid.

I drew up this table the other day. Indie publishing is a fast-changing industry. Always double-check to see what the current offerings are.

Smashwords has the best and most popular on-site store of the five. Informally and unscientifically, from what I’ve read and heard, the two aggregators to give the most serious consideration to at present are Draft2Digital and PublishDrive (note: I am not registered with any affiliate programs at the moment, and I’m not receiving any compensation for referencing any of these companies).

Marketing and promotion are another thing, of course, but at least the indie publisher can easily, from the comfort of their own home, make their ebooks available to libraries who serve readers checking out ebooks from the comfort of their own homes.

The fact that more readers are turning to ebooks is just additional motivation to pursue these distribution channels.

Now close those social media apps, open your word processor, and get back to making magic.

Continue Reading eBooks Becoming More Popular During the Pandemic

ISBNs, Imprints, Pseudonyms

ISBNs and Company Numbers

Brick & mortar retailers worldwide, and some international online retailers of ebooks, rely on the ISBN to track books within their systems. The five major online US retailers — Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble — either do not require an ISBN, or will use their ISBN for your book or audiobook if you don’t provide your own. The major aggregators and POD printer/distributors — except for Lulu and BookBaby — now also do not require you to bring your own ISBN. 

Amazon doesn’t even use ISBNs, with one exception. If an indie publisher wishes to take advantage of Amazon’s “Look Inside The Book” feature on the Amazon or Kindle web page for their book or ebook , they must prove they own the rights to the book. Amazon requires an ISBN as evidence of rights ownership. For all other purposes, Amazon assigns their own Amazon Standard Identification Number, or ASIN. PublishDrive issues their own PUIs, or PublishDrive Unique Identifiers. Google Play issues its own GGKEY numbers. B&N, IngramSpark, Draft2Digital, and Smashwords all provide their own free ISBNs, but the numbers are non-transferable.

Every one of these companies has a couple of motivations for this. One is internal ease-of-use. Another is, it’s a selling point. They’re offering what appears to be a freebie, especially compared to the high prices Bowker charges for simply issuing a number. The real reason these companies use their own numbers or issue “free” ISBNS is to try and lock the independent publisher onto their distribution platform. Each of these companies also gets some bragging rights over the independent publisher’s work. They will in almost all cases list their own company as the “publisher” of your book, even though all they’re really doing is distribution. Your book falls under THEIR imprint.

This should stick in any self-respecting independent publisher’s craw.

The Independent Publisher’s Imprint

An imprint is the name of the independent publisher’s publishing company. Just as major legacy publishers use the names of their various houses to communicate to readers which genre of literature to expect — Harlequin, for example, has become synonymous with romance fiction — so independent publishers may come up with a name for their imprint, use that same imprint for all of their work, or all of their work within a particular genre, and use this imprint name as part of their author branding.

This does involve an additional expense. In the US, the independent publisher must research the imprint name to make sure some other entity isn’t already using it  — anyone who tries to name their imprint “Amazon Press” is rather likely to run afoul of Jeff Bezos’ considerable army of lawyers — and register it as a fictitious business name, or a “Doing Business As” (DBA). The research isn’t that difficult today. Doing a thorough multi-engine search, and double-checking with a search on Amazon’s Kindle Store, is enough. The idea is to avoid obvious conflicts and confusion. Registering a fictitious business name costs about $100 at present through LegalZoom.

Authors also need to search their author names, and if there’s a duplicate, change their name. I checked my name on Amazon. There is one writer whose last name is Heiser, but there are no other living published or self-published Heisters on Amazon at the moment. Even if there were, so long the first names are different, there shouldn’t be a problem. A couple of quick stories from different industries. The actor Michael Keaton took the professional surname of his favorite silent movie comedian because his given name and surname was already taken by another union actor. The late musician David Bowie was born David Jones, but changed his last name because when he was breaking into music, there was already a David (Davy) Jones, singer for The Monkees.

Pen Names

This leads us consider pen names, or pseudonyms. Many independent publishers choose to write under pseudonyms, most often to protect their privacy, because their favorite authors did it, or they don’t wish to for their work to be judged by their gender. Harry Potter series author JK Rowling chose to use her initials for the third reason. The Brontë sisters all originally published under men’s names.

In my own case, I feel the need to draw a bright line between my Baha’i children’s book work and my novels. I will, to cover all three topics in this section, be purchasing my own ISBNs, registering two different DBAs for two different imprints, and publishing the Baha’i children’s books under my own name and my novels under a pseudonym. All of these things I am doing as part of building and strengthening my writer platform(s).

Continue Reading ISBNs, Imprints, Pseudonyms

I gotta stay detached from the effin’ Outrage Machine

When we’re not dealing with life issues, and I’m not distracted by the Facebook and Twitter machines, I’ve been continuing research on the thesis. My goal is to have a draft completed in the next 14 days, and then tackle editing.
In the meantime, I recently started following a number of writing/self-publishing pages on the Facebook advertising/social-control machine, and offered an answer to someone asking how much it costs to publish a book.
I’m seeing overall from my cursory glance into independent publishing that potential content creator interest remains high. I have run across various consultants who don’t want to give away any information, for fear of giving away the store, I guess. There are also, of course, the PT Barnums out there who package information and advice for a fee, that is readily available at zero charge to anyone who bothers to spend a few minutes on a search engine first.
I’m all for paying legit experts for specific services. A professional marketer who’s developed a Rolodex of websites for a virtual book tour, and knows the asks of the folks running those websites, for example, can save an author hours and headaches, and, depending on the book, may well be worth the extra $. Any huckster who wants you pay them to tell you to format your book properly, put a cover on it, and use Amazon, however, can kiss my posterior.
I also stupidly wasted a few minutes on the Twitter liver-obliterating machine in the past day telling a couple of SJWs where to place it and how, over the issue of an author — this one signed to a major legacy publisher — who pulled a Young Adult (YA) novel before its release because she’s white, one of her main characters is a POC, and some self-appointed judgmental person received an advance copy and savaged the author. I haven’t read the book, so there’s no way I can know whether the book is trash. What I do know is the fundamental argument was that white people have no business writing POC protagonists, which, of course as someone who’s versed in the First Effing Amendment, I believe is utter poppycock. By that logic, we have to cancel Melville for writing POC on the Pequod in Moby Dick and Mark Twain for making Jim the runaway slave one of his main characters in Huckleberry Finn.
One reply to me was basically a whine about the big legacy publishers still apparently putting out books by white people featuring POC protagonists. This is a YUGE eye-roller for me bc why is anyone rattling the gate in the year 20-EFFING-20 when the fence has been torn down??? Nobody needs permission to publish. Independent publishers AKA self-published authors now own more than half the market in the romance and science-fiction/fantasy genres, and are making serious headway against the Big Five legacy publishers in non-fiction.
Yes, I know I jumped into the Outrage Machine.
So, here’s what I wrote in response to the question about the cost of publishing:
——-
If you’re a one-woman band, $0 to self-publish an ebook. This, BTW, was true well before 2007, when Amazon established its ebook store and opened it to independent publishers (self-publishers). There were a few people already putting their novels up on blogs, offering PDFs of their magnum opus through their own websites, and so on.Of course, since 2007 an entire cottage industry of professionals who can assist you every step of the way — for a price — has mushroomed. Again, this kind of help was available before 2007, but the power of Amazon as a distributor completely upended the game, and the cottage industry of consultants, editors, book cover designers, so on, has become rather substantial.

Tim Ferriss in his blog points out that you can also pay a ghostwriter to actually write your dang book for you. For some types of biographical works and non-fiction, if you know just what you want, you’re not afraid to manage the process, and you’ve got a few thousand Samolians burning your pocket, this is an option a few folks whose real expertise is something else, but need a book to offer as part of their work or brand, choose.As for what services you pay for, I guess that depends on how much time you want to spend writing versus doing those other things, whether you have the money for professionals, and most importantly what your goals are.

My first piece of advice would be, don’t pay for advice. There are fantastic author blogs out there, from Chuck Wendig’s to Jane Friedman’s. Search them out! There are also some great vloggers, like this guy:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKv8xcrFntOERL7NUXgkypg

Dale offers his advice at no charge to you, but don’t cry for him. He gets Google ad money from clicks, and if he’s smart, he’s participating in an affiliate program or two.Happy journey!

Continue Reading I gotta stay detached from the effin’ Outrage Machine

William Goldman Strikes Again

I’m at the point in my research where I’m pretty sure William Goldman is right. Nobody knows anything.

My goal is to make my thesis an (overly-detailed) stepped marketing plan to build my author brand (hi, blog! boy will I need to improve you!), and to launch my new product into the market.

So I’m shootin’ the breeze with my brother last night — and I don’t think he’d quite grokked before our convo that literally tens (hundreds?) of thousands of independent authors have posted their brilliance or their drivel (or maybe their brilliant drivel? But I interrupt myself entirely too much) on Amazon’s Kindle Store until I’d laid it out for him — and he’s all, sooooooo, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

He unwittingly asked the right question using a simple aphorism. Publishing worldwide is a $100B industry. The number of ISBN requests in the US has shot through the roof in the past few years, going from about 461,000 in 2013 to more than 1.6 million a mere six years later. And that doesn’t count the thousands upon thousands of ebooks self-published on Amazon organized on the site by ASIN. That’s a LOT of chaff along with however much wheat.

There’s no churn in the ebook business, as there would be at your local bookstore, or even the local library. Where the brick-and-mortar destination is constantly making decisions about which catalog books to continue to stock or keep on the shelves as they make room for new product or books, ebooks require so little server space that companies like Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo can and do keep all of these titles “stocked” essentially in perpetuity, until the publisher decides to pull a title, or the e-commerce site chooses to delist (or remove the “buy” button from) a publisher’s titles in a fit of pique or as a hardball tactic to extract better co-op fees and shipping terms.

And just how many ebooks are now in the wild? Amazon really doesn’t want us to know. Apple doesn’t share, either. Fortunately Derek Haines is on the case. We know Amazon was hawking more than six million ebooks in June 2018, and their rate of growth is AT LEAST one million new ebooks annually, which would put the total number now at more than eight million, maybe nine. It’s a fair guess that the overwhelming majority of ebook authors publishing elsewhere also put their stuff on the big behemoth.

The common supposition, at least in the US, is that Amazon will remain the unchallenged online bookstore and ebook leader for the foreseeable future. They do own the lion’s share in the US and a have giant footprint in dozens of other countries, BUT Apple’s and Google’s worldwide footprints are just as daunting. All three understand that content is king. Google Play for ebooks I haven’t really looked into yet. It’s a sliver of the market, but Alphabet can’t be ignored, what with its massive digitizing of all public domain literature ever thing (not to be confused with Project Gutenberg).

Apple, however, recently did something that’s flown under the radar outside of Mac fanatics and close watchers of the ebook market. Just in the past couple of weeks, they opened up their ebook submission process to non-Apple devices. Previously, if an independent author wanted to sell their tome through Apple Books, they had to either own a Mac, have a patient friend with one, or pay a third-party to do the registration and uploading. Now, Apple offers a relatively easy avenue for Windows desktop users to sell through the Apple Book store. Apple’s royalties are just as good as Amazon’s, if not better in some instances. In this era of click and go, easing the process will be the difference for thousands of independent authors between selling only on the biggest site and selling on the TWO biggest sites.

Amazon has another problem — Kindle sales are down. As more people turn to their tablets, phablets, and phones as e-reading devices, the OS becomes key. Apple and Android devices come with Books and Google Play already installed, respectively. Both companies leverage their OS to make purchasing a breeze.

Amazon and other companies are working on color e-readers. The devices may deliver a nice reading experience, but at this point, how many screens does the average consumer want to juggle? E-readers are slow, specialized devices ripe to be replaced by inexpensive tablets. Amazon is all about the customer having a one-click experience. How is Bezos going to defend his turf???

Bezos will have to rely more and more on the Kindle Fire tablets. Amazon’s tablet sales have more than doubled year-to-year between Q3 2018-19, making Amazon the largest seller of Android OS tablets, but Apple still sells almost twice as many iPads. As well, Amazon just came out with a freshened series of Fire HD8s. The screens are nowhere near as good as the iPad’s, and while Apple keeps pushing the iPad further into the world of multitasking business productivity where it’s now essentially a laptop replacement for large percentage of tasks, Amazon’s devices are still primarily aimed at media consumption and gaming. Bezos’ tablets compete against Apple and Android on price. The Amazon Fire HD8 base model clocks in at $90, while a similarly-sized entry-level iPad is around $400. Amazon offers their devices, I’m guessing, either at cost or at a very low margin, because Bezos is banking on them as a portal for the purchase of content and physical goods.

Apple, for its part, coupled its swinging open of the walled-garden ebook publishing door with friendly advice about marketing through Apple Books. Apple Books for Authors has a step-by-step publishing guide, along with videos offering marketing advice. Long-time Apple watchers know that Apple doesn’t make a move like this without a follow-up plan. Apple Insider, while questioning Apple not rebranding iBooks Author or even seriously updating the app in favor of pushing new and pretty book templates in Pages, does make the point that the marketing videos on Apple’s site resemble Masterclass videos. I know from browsing a range of independent author websites that many nonfiction authors in the self-help and how-to world sell themselves as much as their books — they make money doing corporate and other seminars, video masterclasses, and consulting; in some cases, it’s hard to tell if the seminars/videos are supporting their book business, or vice versa. For creatives whose product is themselves, a one-stop shop for their video masterclasses AND their books would be quite attractive.

This leads me to the next thing I think Apple’s going to do — and this is just wild slightly-educated guessing — jump headlong into the print book business. I can only speculate about what their approach would look like. Apple has long treasured its relationships with artists, graphic designers, photographers, filmmakers, and other visually-oriented creatives, so it wouldn’t make much sense for Apple to simply copy Amazon’s print-your-words-on-bound-paper approach. Of course Apple would offer text-centric book printing, but my guess is they are working on a solution for independent authors to print graphics-rich picture books (think children’s books), coffee-table books, maybe even niche textbooks. Speaking selfishly, it would be really awesome for Apple to offer a picture-book on-demand printing service that lets readers get a slick copy of a children’s book on child-friendly glossy stock with just a couple of clicks. Amazon, BTW, also offers picture-book printing, as do paid services such as BookBaby.

Paper, the market has shown us, is an enduring media for books. Boomers and near-boomers are more comfortable with e-readers, while children (and their parents) still have a strong preference for paper. A scroll down Amazon’s top-selling books for 2019 proves the popularity of children’s books on paper, be they picture books, chapter books for middle school readers, or YA novels like The Hunger Games. That’s a huge chunk of change for Apple to have left sitting on the table for all of these years, and I don’t think they will continue to do that, especially as the trend in the publishing industry overall is towards exploiting content across media in entertainment, educational, and other markets.

If I was Tim Cook, I’d play to Apple’s vertical integration strengths by offering self-branded experts (everyone from Tim Ferriss to David Lynch), and publishers, from the Big Five to independent and niche, a one-stop for book, picture books, ebooks, video, apps, and live/interactive.

Now back to my brother’s question. I had to explain to him that independent publishing is just that — independent. The author takes responsibility for writing, graphics, page design, editing, proofreading, cover design, choices of distribution channels, marketing; in short, everything. Almost any author who wants to make a living has to be a businessperson and self-brander/promoter. There are free and/or very low-cost resources available on the Internet for every step, along with reams of advice available through websites, videos, and of course, books. A small but active part of the gig economy today is independent ghost writers (Tim Ferriss suggests outsourcing the actual writing as a possibility), editors, proofreaders, graphic designers (think book covers and picture-book design), marketing specialists, publicists, social media advisors, website designers & managers, photographers, and artists/illustrators who, for a price, can help with every aspect of producing and marketing an independently-published book.

An independent author distinguishes themself through their author branding, their business/marketing savvy from choice of subject matter through promotion/followup, their consistency and tenacity, their artistic taste (again, think book covers, which are rather important), and last not but not least, their actual books. Unless I rant about Amazon, that’s likely what my next posts will be about — finding a niche and putting together your author branding and book marketing plan based on who you are, what you’re producing, and who you’re producing it for.

Then again, half the bestselling self-help books right now have the word FUCK in the title, so maybe all you need is a hook, a good agent, and a sucker buyer at a Big Five imprint chasing a fad. What the fuck do I know, eh?

Continue Reading William Goldman Strikes Again

Making sense of independent publishing

A couple of weeks ago I started research for my MBA thesis, primarily because I need the acronym after my name so that people who value such things will believe I know what I’m talking about — and I already do, grrr — when I teach a seminar. Also, a friend reminded me I should have better things to do with my life than engaging in pointless arguments with buffoons on social media. Fair point, Michelle.

My game plan, I thought, was pretty simple. I’d already spotted an opening in a publishing niche I’m familiar with as a parent, and plan to write a series of children’s books that my daughter can read. I am relatively confident other parents who share our religious faith might find my planned books of interest as well. I know from marketing that I’d better be absolutely up-to-date on the industry, and have a marketing plan. That means R E S E A R C H, which I have to do a shit-ton of for a thesis anyway. So why not make my MBA thesis pull double-duty? Now that I’m ankle-deep in research, yeah, um, this is gonna be work.

Which brings us to this blog. In a few months, my MBA research observations/rants will be relegated to a business of independent publishing section of this site as I work to highlight the great work of other authors I come across as well as books I write, but in the meantime, this is where we’re going to sort a few things out.

From what I can tell, independent publishing is now deep in the throes of a massive disruption. Pandemics can have that kind of effect. Most everything in the book marketing playbooks developed over the past decade requires fresh assessment. There is precious little academic research I can draw on to map out a marketing plan for my planned books, hence my thesis. I must use primary sources, and those sources are entirely on the Internet. I am accessing what information the big players — Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Smashwords, legacy publishers, so on — offer, of course, but they, especially Amazon, are like selfish children who only share a couple of M&Ms when they think they’re going to get a whole box of chocolate bars in return. This is why I am relying pretty heavily on published authors, both independent and traditional, who have generously shared their experience and expertise — and in some cases, hard numbers! — through their own blogs. Publishers Weekly is helpful, as are small publishers. And then there are the charlatans, which makes part of my thesis research work separating the wheat from the chaff.

I welcome you to come along with me on this trek. Offer insights & wisecracks. Along the way, maybe we can even make a positive contribution.

Continue Reading Making sense of independent publishing

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