Category Archives: publishing


At one point – long, long ago when dinosaurs walked the Earth, The Avengers movie was still just rumour and fanwank and I updated this blog twice a week – I talked about my self e-publishing as an experiment.

Well, I’ve had a think about this lately, and I’m here to say that the experiment…


…is concluded.

That’s right, I’ve decided to call self-pub a day.

But why? Why, when so many authors talk about how it’s the future of writing and they make so much money and they have so much control and everyone should be doing it? Hell, when I’ve said (on more than one occasion) that everyone should try it?

Well, I stand by that last statement – it’s something worth trying for many authors. But trying it isn’t the same as sticking with it, as divorce rates make very clear, and for me I think the jury is in.

…does that need another meme? Like a Law and Order one? Let’s pretend I posted that Batman/L&O one and move on.

Hotel FlamingoI published my first ebook, Hotel Flamingo, back in late 2010, as a way of collecting the novella-length LJ-serial I’d written a couple of years earlier. From there I put one out every year – Godheads in 2011, The Obituarist in 2012, Nine Flash Nine in 2013 and The Obituarist II in early 2015 (okay, not quite every year). I think I’ve given the platform a pretty decent shake, especially when it comes to low-priced, shorter-form fiction – something that ebooks are pretty much perfect for, probably better than print publishing.

But the thing is… I’m not enjoying it.

I don’t mean that I don’t enjoy the writing. (I largely don’t, but that’s a different discussion.) What I don’t enjoy is the publishing aspect – the work required to make the books come together, hiring editors and cover designers to polish them and make them look good, fiddling with KDP and Smashwords interfaces to tweak and correct file glitches. And I really, really don’t enjoy the marketing and self-promotion aspect – the need to constantly try to get people’s attention, tell every social media platform about my work and convince them to part with their dollars.

This all crystallised for me in early April when I read a blog post by Delilah Dawson (you should check her books out, they’re pretty cool) about how/why self-promotion on social media doesn’t work. Her basic thesis is that it’s pushy and turns readers away – and reading through it, I could confirm that every behaviour she names is something that annoys me as a reader. So doing more of it as a writer… no, screw that.

(She wrote a follow-up about ways to positively and effectively self-promote, and it’s got some good stuff in it, but the damage was already done.)

And the thing is, you can’t just publish and not self-promote – not if you want anyone to read your books. When The Obituarist came out, I pushed it as hard as I could manage (and stomach), with tweets and FB posts and email and blog posts and guest posts and more besides. And it worked, to a decent extent – I sold 100+ copies in less than two months. I did a lot less promotion with The Obituarist II, because I had less time and energy and drive, and it’s sold half the copies in twice the time.

If you self-publish, you have to self-promote.  You have to play author, publisher and marketing department. Me, I publish books for a living. And when I come home from a day of making books and working with marketing, I’d rather not do that all over again.

It’s not about the money – I make sweet fuck-all, but I can afford that. What I can’t afford is the time, effort and attention needed to make that money. Not when I could spend that writing the next book instead.

Am I telling you folks not to self-publish? Hell no – like I said, I recommend you give it a try. There are writers out there that are making it really, really work for them, and it could work for you too. If you’re writing in the right genre, for the right audience; if you’re good at networking with other writers and reading communities; if you’re happy to do the hard yards of talking about your work and why it matters to you and why people should read it; if you want total control (and the lion’s share of the royalties) and are prepared to do what it takes to make that worthwhile… if you can do all that, or even some of that, you could definitely find an audience and sell some books and do what fulfils you.

But after five years of it, I think I’m done. I’m more interested now in making my work as polished and sellable as I can, convincing publishers (whether print or digital) to take a chance on it and letting them (and their marketing team) do most of the work.

And hey, it was worth it. I maybe wouldn’t go as far as saying it was fun while it lasted, but it was definitely worth it. Thanks a lot to everyone who came along for the ride.

…and having said all that, I still plan to self-publish the more-or-less inevitable third (and last) Obituarist novella. Because who’s going to publish just the third part of a trilogy?

1208 - Obituarist-ol - new     ObituaristII-PDuffy

If you would like to publish just the third part of a trilogy, please say so in the comments. No reasonable offer refused.

In other news, my knee isn’t back to normal, but it’s healed enough that I can walk properly and don’t have to take so many painkillers.

So it’s back to work on revising and rewriting Raven’s Blood, which I hope to finish by mid-July. And it’s back to more regular blog posts. I promise.

I know I promised that last time. But baby, I mean it this time, honest.

Carry on up the Amazon

I’ve been thinking a lot about Amazon lately.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about them since the end of July, when I did my end-of-financial year tally of ebook sales. I have two sale/publication channels – Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), who fairly obviously handle Amazon (and nothing else), and Smashwords, who convert manuscripts into a variety of formats and act as a distributor to 14 other outlets, from Barnes and Noble and the Kobo store to libraries and subscription services like Oyster and Scribd.

Saying which channel is ‘better’ is difficult. While you might think that its breadth made Smashwords the much more valuable channel, especially as their royalty terms are also better, I sell more ebooks through Amazon – although I actually make less money in the process, because Amazon’s royalty terms aren’t as good. Since starting this whole ebook racket caper program in 2010, I’ve sold 182 ebooks and and made $317.25 from Smashwords, and sold 219 ebooks and made $253.38 from Amazon.

(If you find those numbers pathetically/depressingly low, imagine how I feel.)

That spread of numbers is uneven, just to make things more complicated. Smashwords was a lot more financially viable a few years ago, then fell off sharply in 2012 and 2013, to the point where I sold just one ebook through them in the 13-14 year and made only 82 cents from it. Meanwhile, Amazon sales have stayed reasonably consistent, especially for The Obituarist, which has been about twice as successful on Amazon as on all other channels/sites combined.

From my POV, the clearest reading of this is that Smashwords was a strong platform at the start, but its value has significantly dropped as the Kindle (both device and tablet-app) has cemented its stranglehold on the ebook reader market. It still has its uses – I have seven short stories on there that I can’t put on the Kindle Store because they’re free – but it looks to be on the down-cycle while Amazon stays firm.

Which has made me start thinking about the potential benefits of going Amazon-exclusive, both with my stubby little backlist and with The Obituarist II (I’m behind schedule but it’s coming along, I swear to god). Sticking an ebook in the KDP Select program means it’s exclusive to Amazon for 90 days (more if you renew) and can’t be sold on other platforms or in other formats. In exchange you get to make the book free for five days, which brings in no money but can greatly increase its visibility on charts and for browsing, and possibly take advantage of other discounts that still generate some royalties. The book also goes into the Kindle Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited programs; when readers access the book for free and read a certain amount of it, you get a share of funds from a monthly pool that Amazon maintains. How big a share? That depends on Amazon’s arcane accounting, but various accounts have it somewhere between sweet-fuck-all and maybe-two-bucks-per-read. Which is still more than I’m getting right now, frankly.

So yeah, KDP exclusivity has been on my mind. There are definite drawbacks, particularly the worry of cutting out my Nook/Kobo/iBooks audience – but then again, if that audience is smaller (and shrinking), perhaps that’s outweighed by the possibility of stronger Kindle sales, higher Amazon visibility and a share of the lending fund. Assuming that fund is actually going to pay anything worth a damn, and Kindle Unlimited isn’t going to be the failure some observers are predicting.

Should I try to expand my reading community? Should I focus on cementing the income from the one I have? How can I make enough money to pay my rent? These are questions that any indie ebook creator really needs to consider at some point.

But then, on Saturday night, the Failboat sailed right up the Amazon and beached itself.

 That’s when the ‘Amazon Books Team’ sent me and every other KDP-using self-publisher a long email that… I mean… it’s hard to describe it without getting embarrassed on their behalf, you know? It’s like they tried to send someone private dickpics but accidentally CC’d their entire mailing list. And had a really ugly dick to boot.

But basically, they begged me to email the CEO of Hatchette and abuse him for not discounting his ebooks more. And gave me his email address and some possible talking

Seriously. I mean it. You can read the whole facepalm-inducing thing right here if you don’t believe me.

Someone got paid to write that pile of wank. Someone got paid to organise sending it to every email address they had. And then they had to go home and make eye contact with their loved ones. Poor bastards.

As you may be gathering, I don’t have much respect for Amazon as a result of this. Their ongoing battle with Hatchette is messy and unprofessional, but until this point it’s been a fight between two corporations doing corporate things – shitty things for any Hatchette-published authors caught up in it, absolutely, but not super-relevant to those of us outside it. (Even if some authors wanted the rest of us to pick one side or another.) Trying to co-opt uninvolved writers, uninvolved clients and customers – as Chuck Wendig put it, ‘asking the serfs to pick up sharpened shovels and become knights for the realm’ – just opens up a whole new world of desperation, sleaze and fail. (Especially since some self-pub authors are taking the bait and sending the Hatchette CEO grumpy emails, to which he’s responding far more politely than those schmucks deserve.)

Fortunately, most people are shaking their damn heads about all this. And the books themselves are calling for a time out. So the fail boat may yet be pulled off the rocks before Amazon drowns.

In any event, the upshot for all this from my point of view is that I spent weeks considering the KDP Select option, trying to weigh up the pros and cons, and composing the first half of this post to get my thoughts in order. Then this turd-in-the-bedsheets email arrived in my inbox and made me think that the last thing I wanted was to ally myself more tightly with jerks who willingly misrepresent George Orwell while asking me to be an unpaid author for their standover business.

So. You know. Take the time to think things through, kids. That’s the moral of the story.

In other news, our landlord had kicked us out and we have four weeks to find a new place and move in.

Hooray! Excitement! Panic!

So my priorities for the rest of the month are finding houses, looking at houses, applying for houses, applying for different houses and eventually packing everything and putting it in a different house.

Given this, blog updates are likely to be sporadic. As is progress on the two books on my to-write list. Will see how I go.

Editors in the wild – a public service announcement

I’ve seen some confusion around the traps of late about the different roles covered by the tag ‘editor’, so I thought it’d be useful to give y’all a breakdown on what editors are and what they do in the book publishing business.

KNOW YOUR EDITOR. YOUR LIFE MAY DEPEND ON IT! You will not be able to see his eyes because of Tea-Shades, but his knuckles will be white from inner tension and his pants will be crusted with semen from constantly jacking off when he can’t find a rape victim. He will stagger and babble when questioned. He will not respect your badge. The Editor fears nothing. He will attack, for no reason, with every weapon at his command – including yours. BEWARE. Any officer apprehending a suspected editor should use all necessary force immediately. One stitch in time (on him) will usually save nine on you. Good luck.

– Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Random House’s YA Department

Wait, that’s not right. Let me start again.

This is actually a tricky business, because different companies, industries and countries have different names for the same role, or the same name for different roles. But I’m just gonna roll with what I know.


This is a person who reads proofs, just like it says on the tin – ‘proofs’ being the laid-out pages from the typesetter that then get printed as the final book. A proofreader’s job is to go through proofs and mark up any typographical or layout errors they find so that the typesetter can correct them and then send the pages to print. And that’s it. They don’t make changes themselves, they don’t suggest improvements, they don’t alter the text in any way – it’s all about pointing out errors that someone else can then fix. This is why proofreaders provide the cheapest editing service, but also the one that’s least useful for most writers, because all you’re catching are basic errors and you still need to clean them up yourself.

Copy editor

This is what folks often muddle up with proofreaders – the people who get into a piece of writing and fix up any problems. Copy editors look for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, as well as oddball formatting things like a paragraph being underlined for no reason, and they correct those things before the MS is typeset or laid out. Depending on the project, they might also apply styles and format text, but then again they might not. The key thing about copy editors is that they work on a sentence level, fixing up technical problems, but without looking at the text as a whole; they don’t care if the collective makes sense or is worth reading, just whether the individual bits work on their own.

Substantive/development/content/critical/I’ve-probably-missed-one editor

Or, as they’re often called, ‘editors’. This is the big umbrella of folks who look at the entire manuscript, tell you what’s wrong with it and (depending on the agreement) fix/change it as needed to make it the best book it can be. In non-fiction, development might mean bringing the MS in line with a specific structure, re-ordering material, updating details and (possibly) fact checking. In fiction, it can mean changing plots and characters, tightening language, requesting additional content from the author and more. Substantive editing is the Big Fun Exciting Editing, at least as far as I’m concerned, but it’s also the one that requires a strong relationship with the author, a shared vision and an assumption of trust. Otherwise you get your author copies when the book’s published to find your teenage protagonist has been replaced with Starscream.

Technical editor

Technical editors are kind of like substantive editors, but they’re attached more to the production/design/layout end of things than the writing end. Fact checking and content editing is probably a concern, but so is consistently styling of headings, layouts, images, fonts, page breaks and other structural features. If you’re writing or contributing to a highly designed book, like a technical manual or textbook, then a technical editor is probably going to make sure all your work fits that design; if you’re writing fiction, then there isn’t the same need.

Compiling/consulting editor

If you ever pick up an anthology and it says ‘edited by BLAH DE BLAH’, then that person is a compiling editor, a role that (perversely) doesn’t really involve any editing at all. A compiling editor who assembles material probably doesn’t actively edit any of it, and if they do it’s usually only the lightest of edits done in consultation with the author. What a compiling editor provides is a consistent vision for what the book/project is and what pieces of text should be in there, usually then going to individual authors and asking them to contribute. That’s no small job. And it gets your name on the book cover, which is pretty sweet.

Series/line editor

‘Vision’ is also the job of the series editor, a job mostly found in work-for-hire or media-based properties. Akin to the showrunner of a TV show, a line editor makes sure that the material submitted by authors fits the vision for the property, both right now and as part of future plans and developments. If it doesn’t, the editor may need to rewrite it themselves or push it out to another writer for revision. When the series editor has a light touch and gives writers room, you can get great, unique stories. When they’re hamfisted commanders of the IP who view writers as interchangeable word engines, you get New 52 DC comics OOH SICK BURN

They made Captain Carrot grim and gritty WHAT THE HELL PEOPLE

Permissions editor

If a book has copyrighted material in it that wasn’t created by the author – quotes, song lyrics, images – then the publisher needs to get permission from the rights holder to use it, usually paying for it. A novel might have only a couple of such items (or none at all), while a textbook could have like a thousand. Sourcing and negotiating for that material is the job of the permissions editor. It’s a job that involves working with image libraries and other publishers, tracking down rights holders, grappling with legislation and a bunch of other tasks. I wouldn’t do it for quids.

Project editor

If your contact in a publishing house is called a project editor, that means they’re working on 5-10 other books at the same time as yours. Project editors are in-house editors who juggle a set of books for the company, hiring freelancers to do the copy or content editing while they give what oversight they have time to provide, all the while working with the publishing and production department. It’s a big workload and one that requires a lot of organisational skills, while still demanding a fair bit of editorial input and direction. So be patient if they don’t answer your emails right away.

Commissioning/acquisitions editor

The last one really isn’t an editor at all, for the most part; this is another word for ‘publisher’, used mainly to distinguish between the person and the company as a whole. Commissioning editors are the ones who choose the books that get published, whether by going out and commissioning work to be written or deciding to acquire already-written texts for their house. They’re the ones who build relationships with writers, the ones you submit your work to, the first ones to read it and decide whether it’s good or not; everyone else listed above follows after them on the road to getting a book in print. This is what I do for a living, although rather than work with boring old fiction I work in the sexy, sexy world of commissioning high school maths textbooks hey wait come back I wasn’t done.

Got all that? Well, good, but don’t rely on it too much; different places break roles down in different ways. There’s a lot of crossover between these jobs, especially once you get inside a publishing company. A commissioning editor probably also acts as a substantive editor; a compiling editor might also handle permissions; the line editors I’ve worked with also did a bunch of copy editing on my first drafts. Pretty much the only thing consistent across the board is proofreading.

Let’s not even get started on how there are totally different roles and breakdowns of duties in periodical/newspaper/magazine editing, online editing or other specialist forms of print media. And film and TV editing is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT AGAIN. Fuck it, let’s all go get drunk.

The key thing to take away is this: saying ‘I need an editor’ isn’t enough. Not when looking for someone to work on your book, not when thinking about what needs to be done to your book, not when talking to whoever’s changing your work to fit their remit. If you’re self-publishing, work out exactly what kind of service you want before you hire someone, or you may end up paying a tonne of money for work you didn’t want or need. If your book is being handled by a publisher, work out who’s doing what to your work so you know who to talk to and how to supply the direction and feedback they need, rather than wasting time/effort with the wrong person or at the wrong stage of the process.

And if you end up working for me, please don’t submit your diagrams in longhand. Redoing that stuff digitally eats up my whole freaking week.

The long and short of Goodreads ads

As part of the early marketing of The Obituarist (still just $2.99, available for all devices, oh god please buy a copy), I bought a block of advertising on Goodreads. Well, the campaign has just wrapped up, so I thought it might be useful to look at the details of it all, pull apart my numbers and talk about whether it’s something other writers should consider.

I hope you all like graphs.

Before we start, though – is there any need for me to explain what Goodreads is? Yes? No? Social media site where people list, rate and occasionally review the books they read? Occasional source of INSANE AMOUNTS OF FUCKWIT DRAMA over said reviews, which cause some writers to lose their shit because they didn’t get five stars? Yeah, we all know what it is, and if you don’t, well, it’s worth a look, especially if you’re into genre fiction or like reviews that are mostly series of animated GIFs and the phrase ‘so many feels’.

Anyhoo, GR offer a self-serve ad service – ‘self-serve’ meaning that you create it and they host it, which is fair enough. It’s not a complex ad; just a photo of the cover, a title, a link and a tweet’s worth of text (140 characters). Once it’s all submitted, you then pick a target audience (based on what they already read) and pick a cost-per-click – how much you pay Goodreads whenever someone spots the ad on the right-hand side of their page and clicks on it. That can be as little as 10 cents, and as high as no-seriously-just-hire-a-fucking-billboard – and the higher you go, the more priority Goodreads give to your ad and the more often they’ll show it to target readers. Oh, and you also set a per-day limit on clicks; hit that budget and the ad gets shelved until the next day.

(That’s all pretty cursory; if you want to get more info, here’s the GR advertising page.)

How it worked for me

Back in the second week of June I decided to give Goodreads ads a try. I read through their advice and tried to come up with an appealing tagline for The Obituarist, one that had a ‘call to action’ (i.e. tells the reader to do something):

A social media undertaker gets dragged into a dangerous mystery in this witty crime novella. Click here and add it to your ebook reader!

(Yes, ‘witty’. Come on, it’s a funny book. At times.)

I attached that to the book’s cover and included a link back to its GR page, which I figured would be more useful than its Amazon or Smashwords pages. (Which, yes, makes that ‘call to action’ kinda bullshit.) For the target audience, I went with genre tags – Crime, Ebooks, Fiction, Humor and Comedy, Mystery, Suspense and Thriller. (Humor was a stretch, I admit it.)

Last and most important, I decided to put $60 into the ad campaign – come on, I’m not made of money – with a 50-cent cost-per-click and a 5-click/$2.50 limit per day. I figured that meant the ad would run for 3-4 weeks before running out of money, since obviously I’d be hitting that cap almost every day.

In practice… not so much.

GR provide some nice analytic tools and graphs so that you can watch people ignore your book on a daily basis; here’s how June shook out.


What you can see there (click the graph for a bigger image) is that 50 cents don’t buy you a whole lotta pageviews. For most of the month I was getting about 400-500 views of the ad per day, which in turned prompted zero clicks. It was only when the pageviews spiked to 4000-6000 that I got any clicks on the ad. By the end of June I’d amassed 26 361 views and 15 clicks, taking $7.50 from my $60 budget.

Clearly I needed to change things up. So in early July I added a second ad to the campaign – well, the exact same ad, but this one targeting readers of specific crime authors, mostly those that I liked as well. That didn’t have a huge impact, so towards the end of the month I bumped the cost-per-click to 60 cents. Here are the results:


Once again there’s a low level of baseline activity punctuated by big order-of-magnitude spikes; my best guess is that those are periods when a significant number of higher-paid ad campaigns finish, leaving room for little fish like me to swim around for a short time before getting crowded out again. And, once again, the clicks tend to only come when we break four figures in pageviews. The second big pageview spike is when I upped the cost to 60 cents, but I can’t tell if there’s a definite correlation to the change or if it’s due to external reasons.

We can also see that targeting by author, rather than genre, does pretty much dick. It might be because most readers don’t nominate favourite authors, or because there’s too much overlap with the genre targeting, but the author-focused ad doesn’t even get 100 views most days.

Anyway, July had 39 398 views but only a disappointing 9 clicks, for a total cost of $4.70.

Moving on to August:


Much better! We’ve got more jagged spikes than a pro-wrestler’s teeth here, closer together and higher than before, as are the corresponding clicks. The baseline activity between spiked has also moved up to about 700-900 views per day. (This is also the point where I realised that I hadn’t adjusted the $2.50/day limit on clicks when I upped the per-click cost, so I kinda shot myself in the foot there for the first few days.) It’s also very clear that the author-focused ad isn’t achieving a damn thing; no-one’s seeing it, no-one’s clicking it. Still, it does no harm by existing.

Stats for the month: 83 800 views, 34 clicks and a spend of $18.80.

By September I felt that the campaign was dragging, so in an attempt to amp it up I changed the text of the ad to this:

Chandler meets Facebook in this crime e-novella as a social media undertaker is dragged into a dangerous mystery. Available in all formats.

 No call to action (or exclamation marks), but it’s a more accurate and (I think) more interesting précis of the book. What kind of effect did it have?


Umm… I think maybe there’s a slight improvement in how many clicks I got on the good days, but that’s just total guesswork. Also, despite not changing the price-per-click, the number of pageview spikes fell right back – confirming, I think, that that’s entirely due to external factors and the number of campaigns competing for eyeballs on a given day.

Also, yay – one author-ad click! Hooray for the cult of personality.

Monthly stats are 78 489 views, 25 clicks and $16.40 spent. Why the extra 40 cents? Because at the end of September I saw that the budget remaining was a multiple of 70 for the first time and decided to bump the cost-per-click again. This time I also remembered to up the daily limit as well.

And thus October, where the campaign trundled along before ending about two weeks in.


The graphs pretty much speak for themselves at this point. Stats for the month: 44 335 views, 18 clicks, the last $12.60 gone from the budget.

Was it worth it?

For 60 bucks I got 272 383 page views over four months. That sounds pretty damn baller on the face of it. But that’s only the first data point. More importantly, those views translated into 101 clicks on the ad. Well, okay, a hundred clicks doesn’t suck.

But of course, not every click is a sale, or even more than a flicker of interest. It’s a little difficult to work out exactly what those 101 readers did after clicking – I think the data is there, but I can’t find it in GR’s records right now – but I can see that during the course of the campaign, 37 strangers added The Obituarist to their list of books to (maybe) read. If all of them buy a copy, and assuming a rough and largely inaccurate average of $2 royalty per book (it varies depending on who buys it and from where), then I’m looking at $74, or a total profit of $14. And that’s best case.

Not, um… not the most amazing result.

On the other hand, it’s not a god-awful result either; it’s not like I just pissed the sixty bucks up a wall. Sales-per-click is a crude metric and one that can only disappoint. On a social media site, it’s also about visibility and exposure; it’s about finding readers and then getting them to boost and pass on the signal. This is the start of that, not the end, and as a start I think it’s pretty viable. I may do another round of ads later on, or I might look at Facebook ads instead. Or both.

My recommendations

So if all those graphs didn’t send your brain into vapour lock, and you’re thinking of going the GR route for advertising your own books, here are five quick recommendations based on my experience.

  1. Target genres, not authors. It’s really clear from this data that the author-ad was completely useless. Well, maybe not completely; it did garner two clicks, but then again I might have got those clicks from the other ad at some point. Certainly, though, you need to make the primary ad in your campaign a genre-focused one, with an author-focused one only as backup.
  2. Set your cost-per-click above 50 cents. I definitely got more exposure and clicks when I upped the price to 60 cents, and I suspect I would have had more improvement at the 70 cent mark if the campaign hadn’t ended. I think a dollar per click is probably on the high side, though. 60-80 cents would be my mark.
  3. Write a decent ad. This shouldn’t need to be a recommendation, it should be obvious – but I’ve been looking at other people’s GR ads these last few months, and most are completely terrible. Like, ‘incoherent gibberish that doesn’t even tell you the name of the bloody book in question’ terrible. Forget the marketing talk and the ‘call to action'; if you can string together 140 characters that make sense, you’ll have a much better chance of standing out from the trainwrecks.
  4. Back it up with other activity. Goodreads isn’t just an advertising platform; like any social media site, it works because of its communities and their energy. If you become part of those communities, readers are more likely to recognise your name and style and be interested in your work. Just be sure to do so in a genuine way, rather than ramraiding forums to spruick your book and then fucking off again. Be open about how much you love books, talk to other readers and make connections; that gives you a base level of visibility that can be raised by the ads. (This is the bit I have to work on.)
  5. Have realistic expectations. You will probably not become an overnight sales sensation from GR ads. You will probably not blow out your budget in two weeks. You will probably get fuck-all clicks and you won’t be able to meaningfully control the ebb and flow of pageviews. With luck it’ll pay for itself; without luck it won’t lose that much money. It’s just another arrow in your quiver, another frog in your blender; set the ad, let it go, do something else and don’t worry about it.

Right, well, there’s 1900-odd words on putting out a 140-character ad. Never let it be said that I can’t talk endlessly about pretty much anything.

Next week – dialogue! I’m not very good at it and now you can be too!

Dead reckoning

It’s been a long and very busy May for me, what with a new book to sell and promote, and… wait, what? It’s already June? Like nearly two weeks into June? Well, shit. That just shows how deep in the self-publishing K-hole I’ve been these last 5-6 weeks.

‘Self-publishing K-hole’, by the way, is a phrase you will never see used in Amazon’s publicity for KDP Select.

Anyway, it’s been close to six weeks since The Obituarist came out, and I’ve tried to abide by my promise not to talk incessantly about it here and become a boring spammy snake-oil merchant. But I also promised, back when I started this blog, to be as open as possible about the process of not just writing but creating, promoting and selling my ebooks, in the hope that any data I can share might help someone else with their own efforts.

So it’s in that spirit of sharing, rather than shilling, that I’m here to pick apart the numbers of how The Obituarist is going so far, where it might go next, what conclusions we might draw from the ebb and flow of sales and whether I’m ever going to make enough money from it to justify writing the sequel I’ve already started plotting out.

(If that sounds boring, you have my permission to skip this weekend’s update. There’ll be new flash fiction later in the week – come back for that, it should be fun!)

As of today, I have sold 94 copies of The Obituarist, netting me a pre-tax royalty of something like $160. It’s hard to know exactly how much, because Smashwords and Amazon both work in US dollars (or in pounds for the three copies that sold through Amazon UK). Let’s assume that the currency conversion and the 5% that the IRS will retain more or less cancel each other out and stick with $160 for argument’s sake.

In case you’re wondering, THIS IS GREAT.

94 copies in about five weeks? I’m really goddamn happy about that! That’s more than double the number of copies of Godheads I’ve sold in a year, and not that much less than what I’ve sold of Hotel Flamingo in 18 months. And $160 is about a dollar more than what I’ve made from Flamingo‘s sales to date (thanks to dropping the price to 99c back in January). Right now this means that I’ve made a little more than half my expenses back, and I can assume that if I sell another 90 books I’ll be in the black and can start writing the sequel everyone keeps asking about.

It has a badger in it.

Of course, this is the initial sales point, and it’ll either slow down markedly or dramatically surge as I become SUPER FAMOUS WRITING DUDE. Which is more likely? Well, let’s look at the Amazon sales graph.

First thought – man, Amazon sales rankings make no fucking sense. They measure something like books sold in a specific period of time as compared to other books in the same category, which leads to things like The Obituarist having its highest ranking (about #22 000) the day after it was published, because it had sold half-a-dozen copies overnight, but being 50 000 spots lower a month later after selling a bunch more copies. I get the concept, but it’s weird.

Second thought – I can map the spikes and jumps to specific times I’ve promoted or talked about the book. For instance, the big jump on May 23 is when I was on Byte Into It to talk about the concept and the book. That gigantic jump – from #200 000 to #63 000 – is only four sales, but that’s just Amazon weirdness. So what I should do is confirm what gets the attention for those spikes and keep doing it, and I’ll talk about that below.

Third thought – I haven’t sold a single copy yet this month. Which isn’t good. For all that I get more money from Smashword sales, Amazon sales rankings are really important because they can increase a book’s visibility and improve the chances that someone discovers the book on their own rather than because I’m pushing it on them. So I need to turn this around soon.

And speaking of Smashwords, here’s a set of graphs from them:

Do they line up with the Amazon graph? Hmm. Kinda. You see some spikes and peaks in the same areas – like, obviously, the launch day – but not in others. That Byte Into It spike isn’t there, for instance – well, it might be, but it’s a sale of one copy if it is. Does that mean people who hear/read about the book are more likely to head to Amazon? Probably, and that’s something to take into account.

The next thing to note is how page views translate into sales and samples – or how they don’t. Again, lots of spikes at the start of the process, and lots of downloads to match, but later the page views fall faster and further than the downloads. This might mean people check it out when it hits the SW front page right after launch while not buying it; it might mean later interest comes from a smaller group of non-browsing customers who want this specific book; hell, it might mean that all the data-mining bots swarmed on it to gather data right away and now only boring humans care. There’s information there, but it’s hard to translate.

The good news is that I’m still selling copies on Smashwords in June while Amazon is quiet. The bad news is that I’ve sold like three copies – and yes, that’s better than zero, but I’m not setting fire to my underwear with joy about the difference.

In any event, it’s clear that May was an excellent month for me, but also that it was a launch month when the book’s visibility was high and when I was all over the internet talking about it. The last week has seen less of that and more of me talking about it in real space, such as at the EWF and Continuum, and that’s not been as effective. That’s not surprising – the best way to sell a book you find on the internet is to market and promote it on the internet. And I don’t regret that period, because it’s been good to tell people about it face-to-face – and, indeed, to talk to people full stop. People are cool.

But if I’m going to stop that slow spiral down to the bottom, I need to pull out a few more stops. And I have some ideas about what to do next.

Exciting new forms

The Obituarist is an ebook not because DIGITAL RULES DEADTREE DROOLS but because it’s hard to make a print novella commercially viable – but not impossible. I picked up a couple of discount vouchers for custom-publishing outfit Blurb during the EWF and I’m looking into the costs and possibilities of doing a small print run of physical copies. The tricky part will be working out whether the return will be worth the cost – not just of printing the book but of distributing it to customers and to local bookstores – and how much I’d need to charge to get that return. But it’s definitely something worth trying, even if in the end I only print 50 books; if nothing else I can give them away as Christmas presents to people I want to make feel guilty for not buying it already.

But that’s not all! I’m in discussion with awesome voice actor (and BFF) Ben McKenzie about doing an audiobook version! Ben actually read the first chapter aloud to the very, very small audience we had for our reading session at Continuum yesterday and he sounded amazing. We’re working out the costs, practical difficulties and potential for distribution and hopefully can come up with a plan in the next week or two. Believe me, when it comes together, I’ll be on here talking the hell out of it. You won’t miss out on Ben’s melodious voice and the charming, almost-but-not-quite-British inflection he brings to my book where people say ‘fuck’ a lot.

Make Goodreads my bitch

Goodreads is shaping up as one of the most important social media sites for books and readers, and I want to explore it much further to see what I can get out of it – and, just as important, what I can bring to it to make it more worthwhile for its users.

Obviously The Obituarist already has a page on the site, and people have been leaving reviews and putting it on their to-read lists, which is great – but I need to see what else I can do. One option is advertising; Goodreads has a number of pay-per-click advertising packages for authors. I will admit that I rarely – okay, pretty much never – bother clicking on ads on the site (or indeed many others), but that doesn’t mean that others don’t or that those ads can’t be useful as well as annoying. So I’m going to check those out and maybe give them a limited try to see how it all works.

Goodreads also has a large number of discussion groups dedicated to crime, ebooks, Australian fiction and more, and I’m going to start checking those out and maybe joining a few. However, I’m not going to just join and then dump a HEY DOODZ BUY MY BOOK IT’S GREAT SEE YA post, because that’s just spammy bullshit. The thing I keep telling people who ask about ebook promotion – other than that they should really ask someone more qualified – is that it’s about being genuine and about being honestly interested in your book, your genre, your themes and your readers (or at least how they engage with those things). So joining those Goodreads groups – and for that matter similar groups elsewhere – needs to be a genuine attempt to be part of those communities. Which can be time-consuming, but it can also be rewarding, and not just in the Amazon-sales-spike fashion.

And hey, if you are on Goodreads and have read or are thinking of reading The Obituarist, it’d be pretty goddamn sweet if you could add it to your list or leave a review. Every bit helps. If you’re super keen you could recommend it to others, too, but obviously I’d never ask that of you. NEVER.

More interviews

The thing I’ve gleaned from the graphs above is that the most effective things I’ve done are the various interviews I’ve done about the book on other people’s blogs and on RRR. And that’s not surprising, because interviews and discussions are a chance to not sell the book but to talk about its themes and ideas, the whole digital afterlife concept, my take on Chandlerian crime and other topics – in other words, a chance to talk about and be enthusiastic about writing rather than just this one thing I’ve written. Enthusiasm is infectious, after all, and interviews are a chance to share the love without being a (say it with me) boring spammy snake-oil merchant. They’re also just plain fun to do.

I’ve had a ball doing the ones from last month, and I’m hoping more opportunities come up soon, especially with crime-focused blogs/podcasts or those based outside Australia. I’m working on that, but if you have such a blog, podcast or platform and would be interested in having me pop in for a while to rabbit on about death and Facebook, give me a holler.

Hang on, let me check the wordcount on this post OH HOLY FUCK.

Man, I could go on about this, but if you’ve stuck around for the last 1900 words then I don’t want to punish you by making you endure a thousand more. Let’s bring it back to the core concept – I’ve sold some books, I’m really happy, but I’m going to try to sell more without being any more boring about it than I am already.

Jesus, I could have just said that two hours ago and then gone to bed. The long weekend has left me verbose; we should all be grateful that the day job usually leaves me too exhausted to do much more than type a few paragraphs and dump in a LOLcat.

If any of this has been useful to you, I am a) shocked and b) glad. And if you think my ideas have gaps or holes, or that I really should learn to edit them down, then speak up! Please, help turn this blog’s comment function into more than a spam-trap and leave me your thoughts.


Not judging a cover by its book

I want to talk tonight about what I liked about a book I didn’t like.

…okay, that intro could have been clearer.

Last month I decided to check out some books published by Angry Robot Books, which are putting more and more SF/F/H books out these days. I didn’t really care what I read; my main interest was seeing what the standard of editing and typesetting were in their books. Which is normal, right? Plenty of you just grab books at random from library shelves because you want to check on the level of skill and care taken in their production, right?


Anyway, I looked at Angry Robot’s Wikipedia page and grabbed the first novel by the second author listed (after Dan Abnett, as I’d already tried and quickly cast aside his Triumff.) This was Guy Adams’ The World House, and frankly it’s not very good. It has a decent premise (there’s a surreal and spooky house inside a box and shit’s going down) that’s let down by pedestrian writing and clichéd characters and dialogue. (As for the typesetting and editing, there were a few glaring errors but on the whole it was acceptable.)

But I don’t want to get into that; others may get more out of the book than I did, and anyway I don’t want to use this blog to talk about negative things. Instead I want to talk about what was terrific about The World House, and that is its cover, which is fucking boss.

Let’s start with the front image:

Really strong sense of design here that makes the most of a stark black-and-white palette for maximum contrast. Bang – title. Bang – spooky house. Bang – author name. Lots of hard lines and blocks with occasional curves to break things up. And then you’ve got that single spot of red in the window that pulls in your eye and tells you that something important is up in that room. Add in the intro sentence at the top and the whole point and premise of the book is spelled out to immediately grab your interest. Personally I wouldn’t have bothered with the moth and the pull quote from Kilworth, but then again I’m not a professional designer and they’re more likely to be write about this than I am.

So that’s a really strong front cover that stands out in a shop or in a set of Amazon listings, and that’s a hugely important thing. For a lot of publishers that would be enough. But Angry Robot really went the extra mile with an amazing back cover:

(Sorry about the drop in quality; I had to scan it myself because no-one bothers showing the back cover of books online.)

Let’s look at each part in turn:

  • Blurb: Short and simple, this fleshes out the promise of the front cover with the first line in red to immediately tell you what’s important – there’s a ‘they’, they’ve been around for a long time, and you can bet that they’re bad guys. The rest of the blurb tells you that weird shit is in this house, and bad stuff, and a prisoner and that all of that is important. I personally think there should be more in the blurb about the characters of the novel to make it clear that the narrative involves people doing things in this weird environment, but at the same time it needs to stay short so this is probably okay.
  • FILE UNDER: This box in the top right tells us right away that the book is MODERN FANTASY and gives us a handy précis of plot points – ‘worlds within worlds/ a sinister prisoner/ dimensional mayhem/ break out!’ No spoilers being handed out, but if you want to know if the book has the kind of story elements you like, or you can’t spare an additional 20 seconds to read the blurb, that box tells you everything important about the book in 14 words.
  • Pull quotes: I’m not terribly impressed by the opinions of Mark Chadbourn or Christopher Folwer, to be honest, and I don’t even know who Stephen Volk is. But I’m not the sole target audience, and it’s not like many readers drop a book just because they don’t like another author who liked it. For those who do like these authors, it’s a drawcard, and if you don’t know the authors, you still get the impression that people who probably know lots about MODERN FANTASY liked this book and think you will too. It’s win-win. Also, the use of red for the quotes and black for the attribution keeps the contrast flowing on the cover, quickly drawing your eye from the slugline at the top to the recommendations and then letting you drift back to the blurb proper.
  • IF YOU LIKE THIS TRY: Now this is clever, because they start off by recommending three books that aren’t published by Angry Robot. None of them are new books, either – Simulacron-3 (1964), Otherland (1996) and Weaveworld (1987). By suggesting these, Angry Robot potentially help newer readers learn more about some of the history and significant texts of the genre/subgenre, which is a really cool thing and worth pursuing. They also aren’t diluting their own brand by pushing readers towards competing modern titles.
  • OR ANOTHER ONE OF OURS: These, of course, are the modern titles Angry Robot want you to buy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s smart to just show the covers with no additional info, because it stops the cover from getting too cluttered and because we can assume that if those books are shown then they’re probably in the same subgenre or ballpark as this one. I also think that it’s smart to use covers that are primarily black and/or red, so that they align with the design and colour palette of the rest of the cover.
  • MORE?: Last, it’s important to have a URL on the back of the book, of course. It’s even more important to have a URL that still works and that doesn’t redirect you to a Harper Collin site that has nothing to do with this site or with Angry Robot, but I’m sure it worked when the book was printed and time marches on. It’s also good to have that note that the book is available as an ebook, because the only way someone will see the back cover is if they have the book in their hand in a shop or library; knowing that there’s a digital version may be enough to sway a Kindle owner to buy it that way if they’re not sold on the hardcopy.

Wow, this turned into another long post. Why am I incapable of using fewer than 1000 words to say I liked something?

Anyhoo, I don’t really want this post to foster discussion about either The World House or Angry Robot. I didn’t like this book, sure, but I’m looking forward to Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds (which also has an amazing cover) and I’ve been hearing great and intriguing things about Adam Christopher’s Empire State (ditto) which are both from this publisher.

A completely unrelated angry robot

What I’d rather talk about is what you think of this cover design, front and back. What do you think works? What doesn’t? What would you do differently? What are some cover designs – especially back cover designs – that have grabbed your interest and packaged information in a really effective way?

And, most of all, what are some ways that ebook authors/publishers, who don’t have the luxury of a back cover, can format and deliver this kind of information without just dropping a bunch of text onto a title’s Kindle Store page that no-one will see because they don’t scroll down far enough?

(PS – if you’re Guy Adams and you stumble across this entry, sorry to be a douche about your book. Feel free to be a douche about one of mine in return.)

Big Numbers part 3: Costing the zeroes and ones

So far this month we’ve mostly been talking about the costs of developing and printing physical books, whether textbooks or novels, using the costing numbers and estimates I work with in my day job. Some of it’s been hard and fast, some of it’s been a bit squishy around the edges, none of it’s been universally applicable but all of it’s been honest.

Is everyone still with me? Because now we sail off into the land of conjecture and guesswork – which is a lot like Narnia but with fewer talking mice and feline Jesuses – to talk about the work and considerations that might (emphasis on might) go into making an ebook and how that affects the final cost.

But before we go on, let’s split the discussion in half, because when we say ‘produce an ebook’ we’re talking about two different things – making an ebook version of an existing print book and creating an ebook from scratch (a manuscript). There are other options beyond those two, of course, but let’s keep this simple.

The ebook version

Let’s say that we have our bestselling novel My Dinner With Batman already produced and published, as per last week’s post. It’s costed to be profitable, the books are in the warehouse, all the production fees have been paid… it’s done. So does that mean that it costs nothing to turn the pre-press files into an ebook, that any ebook sales are just a bonus, and that we should just charge 99 cents for the e-version?

…long-time readers probably realise that the answers to my rhetorical questions are almost always ‘no’.

For a start, it’s going to take some work to turn the pre-press file of the novel (probably a PDF) into a MOBI or EPUB file. You can’t just push a button and have a computer do all the work; you can push a button and have a computer do most of the work, but you still need someone to check it, fine-tune it and make sure it displays well on all the potential readers. But having said that, this could potentially be an internal cost for the publisher, and we’ve been handwaving those away so far, so let’s do the same here.

More pertinent is that the ebook sales aren’t just free money, because they potentially reduce sales of the print book. Obviously it’s not a zero-sum game, and there’s a market that just wants physical books and a market that just wants ebooks – but there’s also a market that will be happy with either, and the cheaper the ebook the more likely the readers in that market will buy it instead. You’ve already spent $19 607 printing books with the expectation of selling 4818 of them at $22.95 and making $68 271 in revenue – and of paying the author $8192 in royalties – and the last thing you want is to reduce your bottom line (and short-change the author) by pricing the ebook too low and cannibalising your print sales.

So what do you charge? Well, this is where the hard numbers aren’t much help any more. We can use things like our target gross margin (59%), our expected revenue, the unit cost of the physical books (each book cost $3.38 to develop, print and ship) and the rest of our data to give us some ideas, but what we can’t really estimate is the size of the overlap between the print and ebook markets and how it will respond to different price points. All we can really do is work on instinct and occasional math.

Well, we know one thing for a start – whatever we charge, we’ll only get 70% of it, because Amazon will take a 30% cut. That’s assuming we do all our sales through the Kindle Store, which is obviously untrue, but that’s probably a solid averaging of the cut the various e-distributors receive. It’d be great to sell direct, and you can do that, but right now you need the various digital bookstores. (This also assumes that you’re selling all your books into countries where you get the full 70% from Amazon; sell an ebook to an Australian reader and you only get 35%, which is something that’s great for Aussie authors like me with mostly Aussie readers. Just great.) Then we’ll also need to pay the author a 12% royalty from our 70% share, so that in the end we only get 61.6% of our asking price per sale.

I mentioned that unit cost of $3.38 per book above. Well, we probably don’t want to make less than that for each ebook sale, because if the e-sales do end up cannibalising print sales, we don’t want to actually lose money on each sale, right? That would mean – and stand back, I’m going to use algebra – that 61.6% of our asking price should be $3.38 or higher:

.616x = 3.38

         x = 3.38 / .616


So we could charge $5.48 – or $5.99 for convenience – for our ebook version? Is that ‘fair’? Well, probably not, because that assumes that the ebook sales entirely cannibalise the market for print sales, rather than cannibalising some of it but also creating a new market, and we know by now that that’s not the case. It could be cheaper and still make money without damaging print sales too much. If 20% of buyers only ever want ebooks, we could then tailor the price to cover the 80% of sales that risk cannibalising print sales, so that’s $5.99 * 0.8 = $4.79, which we can again round up to $4.99. And that’s not an unusual price for an ebook.

But at the same time, it could be more expensive and still be fair; we’ve number-crunched a lower boundary where we don’t lose money on the ebook, but we’d actually like to make some worthwhile profits and give the author a decent royalty. Looking on Amazon, it seems like many of the books that would retail offline for around the $20-$25 mark (US, but whatever) have Kindle editions coming in around eight dollars or so. (That’s from a skim, and I’m sure there are many exceptions, but let’s just go with it.) That suggests that we could go a few dollars higher – let’s say $6.99 – and still be pricing our book in a market-appropriate fashion. While we only get $4.30 for each sale (and the author gets just 59 cents), we can hope that the sales volume will make up for it and that we still end up selling all the print copies we had planned to over the three-year sales period.

…or not. It’s guesswork. But it’s guesswork that publishers have to make to create non-hypothetical ebooks, and everyone’s going to come to a different answer. It’s going to depend on the costs of the print book, the market you’re selling to, the additional resources required to produce and market the ebook, the danger of cannibalising print sales, the potential of long-term sales long after the physical books are all sold… Dump some numbers in a hat and pull one out. Or look at the numbers other publishers have pulled from the hat and do the same thing. Or charge two bucks and go all in. Let it ride.

But still. Maybe we can look at this and say when a publisher charges $4.99 for the ebook version of a $22.95 novel, it may not be from greed or lack of awareness of the market; it may be because that’s what the spreadsheet demands. For now.

Original ebooks

And finally let’s talk about independent, author-created ebooks. This is a very different ballgame because we step away from the requirements and costs of a publishing company and a print book, but we also step away from the production infrastructure and larger budgets to DIY it. But we can still look at the costs from the previous examples and see what’s applicable. And hell, I’ve made a couple of these, so I can share the fruits of my minimal experience.

Let’s assume we’re going to produce a novel of about 200 pages – well, no, because ebooks repaginate themselves based on the device and the user’s preference. We’re probably better off thinking in terms of wordcount. Let’s say this new book… You know what? Let’s actually talk about my novella-in-progress, The Obituarist, and use it as an example here; if nothing else it’ll help me work out how much to charge for it when it’s done.

My target for The Obituarist is 20 000 words; it won’t be exactly that, but it’s close enough for disco. So if we think back to last time, what are my costs?

Manufacturing costs – zero. That was easy. It means my mother will never read the book, but I can live with that.

Editing – page rates aren’t appropriate, so we’re either paying by the hour or by the word. Looking online, I can see rates of around 2-4 cents a word being offered by editors. While I could get something at the low-end without much trouble, let’s assume I pay the middle rate of 3 cents a word, which would cost me $600.

Proofreading – a page rate is again hard to calculate. It’s also difficult in a situation like this to distinguish cleanly between an editor’s role and a proofreader’s role. Probably the simplest thing is to bump up the page rate for the editor so that it covers proofreading as well; another half-cent a page will cost $100. In a perfect world it’d be good to have a separate proofreader to catch mistakes the editor misses, but little is perfect on this bastard planet.

Typesetting – none, because we’re not laying out final pre-press files in a stable format; we’re taking a text/Word file and converting it to EPUB or MOBI. Which in theory is pushing a button, but like I said above, it’ll probably require tweaking and fine-tuning. If I was going to pay someone to do it for me, I’d expect it to take about an hour, so I’d probably pay that person (which would probably be the editor) $50; since it’s not difficult, so I’ll do it myself for nothing.

Text design – there almost isn’t such a thing with ebooks, although you still want to start the process with an idea of how things will look at the other end. Still, fonts and layouts are morphable things and mostly up to the reader, not the writer. We can fold this into the typesetting cost, which is nothing.

Cover design – this is the place where a lot of ebook authors try to save money and do it themselves. Stuff that. I think that a strong, professional cover is pretty much your third priority when making an ebook, after writing a damn good book and making sure it’s been edited. It doesn’t have to be spectacular, it doesn’t have to be 100% original, but it needs to be polished and it needs to show readers that you take this shit seriously. The covers of Hotel Flamingo and Godheads were created by a Melbourne designer (Design Junkies, who are great) and cost me about $220 each. I might not use the same design concept for The Obituarist, or indeed the same designer – it’s good to mix things up occasionally – but I figure that I’ll pay something similar. Let’s call it $250.

Other costs – no, not really.

So there’s a total cost of $950, which is a lot for a dude like me to fork out. In practice, I’ll probably be able to get the editing and proofreading done by friends in return for doing the same for them in the future, or as payback for help I’ve already given them. I’m lucky there in that I have friends who are writers and editors and who can help me out. But if they can’t, then I’ll have to wear that cost.

So what should I charge for the novella?

Well, if it’s more than 99 cents, I can demand the full 70% royalty from Amazon – but as pointed out above, I’ll only get 35% for Australian sales, which will be most of them. I’ll get a more consistent royalty from Smashwords (between 66% and 75% for direct sales, less about 15% for affiliate sales) but generally expect fewer sales from them. Without really good stats about who’s buying and from where, all I can really do is assume the median value, which is going to be around 55%.

Let’s say I charge $2.99 for The Obituarist, which is what I was charging for my other, shorter ebooks before I pulled them down to 99 cents at the start of 2012. That means I can expect about an average of $1.65 for each sale. So if I can make a deal-in-kind on the editing and proofreading, I only need to pay the $250 for the cover, which I’ll do after selling 152 books. If I have to pay the entire $950, I’ll need to sell 576 books just to break even, and previous experience tells me that that is not very likely. If I charged $3.99, I’d get $2.20 per book and would break even after 114/432 sales. Better, but the market isn’t likely to respond positively to that price for an indie book. And if I go lower than $2.99 I’m cutting my own throat, because the royalty rate would also drop; at $1.99 I’d probably only get around 45% and it would take more than 220 sales just to make up for the cover costs.

So is $2.99 a fair price for a novella like The Obituarist? I don’t know if that’s the right question, because ‘fair’ is going to have a different meaning for the reader than it does for me. What I can say is that, assuming that I can work out the editing costs in trade and pay with my time rather than my money, and assuming that I can devote more time to promoting and marketing the book in useful places, and assuming that I can maintain that price for a decent period without the need to discount, I’ve got a pretty good chance of paying off my costs eventually, or at least defraying them to the point where I don’t feel like I’ve pissed $250 up against a wall. Which is not exactly comforting, but the game is what it is.

But I’m not really trying to justify charging whatever I eventually charge for a book I haven’t finished writing yet. What I’m hopefully doing is showing you, the reader of this here post, that even the humblest DIY ebook operation has costs, and that it’s worth working those out ahead of time so that you’re not surprised by them or left shocked by how much work is still required to make it all come together. Because what I’ve learned in my day job is the value of planning and costing a project ahead of time – and, sometimes, to look at the poor projections and say fuck it, let’s do it anyway.

Don Quixote is my spirit animal.

2500 words on this today, and I could keep going. But I think the point has been made by now about what it might cost to make a book, physical or otherwise, and if it hasn’t then I probably can’t make it even with another 2500 words. So let’s call it a night.

In the aftermath of these three posts I’m going to be a bit quieter on PODcom through March, because I want to finish The Obituarist – and get it edited, and pay for a cover, and etc – and publish it online before the start of April. And time spent writing mammoth blog posts is time not spent writing about Kendall Barber getting beaten up by bikers.

Which doesn’t mean I’m closing up shop. I’m still aiming for 1-2 posts a week, and will be offering up some flash fiction next week as a relief from all the number crunching. But they’ll be shorter, faster posts that don’t require sitting in a hot office for four hours to get them done.

Until next time, true believers.

Big numbers part 2: My Dinner With Batman

So last week we looked at the cost breakdowns and predictions for a secondary school textbook, using a real costing for a real textbook published by my real day job.

But textbooks are something of an outlier in publishing, with specific and potentially expensive requirements such as image permissions and complex text design and layout. A standard novel doesn’t have those same requirements, and some of the costs it has will be lower. So we can’t just extrapolate from textbook costs to say that a novel will cost x dollars; we need a different set of numbers.

Which, yet again, I have.

But first, a few quick caveats and qualifiers.

1 – I forgot to mention it last week, but part of the business of publishing is that you rarely sell directly to the reader/audience; you sell to a bookseller or distributor for a percentage of the cover price, who then sells it to their customers. The bookseller gets about a 33% discount, so the publisher’s revenue is roughly 67% of the price. That’s factored into the final figure I quoted, but not stated in the working to get there. Sorry. Oh, and you have to calculate for GST somehow.

2 – Just to repeat last week’s disclaimer, these are real numbers but they aren’t universal numbers. I’m certain that other companies in other areas of publishing would have different costs and maybe a very different balance between those costs. I’m not trying to say this is how it always is, just this is how it is for some operations. I hope this real data is educational, but that’s all it’s meant to be.

3 – The aim of this exercise isn’t to prove that ebooks should be more expensive, although I can see how the preamble to the last post may have given that impression. All I want to do is get people on the same page and share some information about what goes into making a book, whether physical or electronic. I don’t have an agenda; I just want to show off how clever I am spread some knowledge.

So anyway, tonight I’d like to calculate and project the cost of producing a novel. Now, we don’t publish novels where I work, so I can’t give perfectly accurate numbers this time. I did, however, publish a number of anthologies in the last couple of years, which combined short fiction with writing/comprehension exercises. Those books had much more ‘traditional’ editing/typesetting/design costs, so we can use those details to extrapolate a composite book that has largely accurate ideas of costs.

What should we call this imaginary novel? Well, in keeping with the usual themes and motifs of this blog, I’d like a semi-literary, semi-genre work that’s heavy on metatext. How about… an 204-page novel about a meeting with a fictional character and the subsequent discussions about purpose, heroism and intellectual property rights.

I call it My Dinner With Batman.

This is why you need a cover designer

Development costs

Editing – Last time was about $40 a page; this time we’ll drop down to $30 a page, for a total of $6120 (you quote based on total page count, even if some are blank). That’s pretty reasonable, given that the standard fee of a freelance editor is $50 an hour. The editor will be copyediting to fix grammar and sentence construction, but also doing a substantive edit to make the writing and the story better.

Proofreading – A dollar a page is probably fine, for a total of $200 (we’ll round this one down to a convenient sum).

Typesetting$2496. That’s about $12.24 a page, which is much lower than the $33/page cost we had for Cooking with Graeme. Typesetting is much simpler for a novel than a textbook, but it still requires attention, care and a couple of passes through page proofs to fix mistakes.

Text design$800. Yep, that’s exactly the same as it is for the textbook. Part of that is because it’s a basic cost that designers don’t vary much, and part of it is that novels require text design too – font choices, layout styles, design elements that make it more than just plain text. Anything that sees print is going to need more than just a dude plugging it into Word and exporting to PDF or InDesign, and $800 is a small price to pay for My Dinner With Batman to be not just professional-looking but simply readable.

Cover design$850. A bit cheaper than the textbook, mostly because it’s simpler, but not much cheaper. And this is just for designing the concept  and layout of the cover; it doesn’t cover the cost of artwork. That comes under…

Illustrations$650, which is for the cover. We’re assuming no internal illustrations for the book, which isn’t going to be the case all the time; lots of Very Serious Novels still have the odd illo inside to break up sections. But not this one.

Permissions – Nothing this time round, because this is a 100% original work that involves no photos, text extracts or agreements that allow us to use Warner Brothers’ trademarked characters. Which means we’re gonna get sued, but hey, so it goes.

Software development, image scans, some other stuff – look, let’s not worry about any of that, okay?

Miscellaneous and contingency$336. Hey, I don’t make these numbers up, I just report them.

So our total development costs for this first print run – remember, there are two – is $11 452. This is quite a bit cheaper than the book I’m using as my model, because it had a big permissions budget, but we’re primarily extrapolating this time around.

Manufacturing costs

Just two costs to worry about here for our initial print run, which is going to be 3000 copies.

Printing and binding – $3990. Now this is for a two-colour book that uses a second colour (e.g. the midnight blue of Batman’s cape) to give the pages more visual pop. A true black-and-white print run would be even cheaper, but this is still costing just over a dollar a book to print.

Freight – $415 to ship 3000 books from China to Australia. That’s even cheaper than it was for the textbook because the books have a smaller page size.

Total manufacturing costs – $4405.

Second print run

Let’s just extend this out for another run of 2000 copies, which will give us three year’s worth of books and projected sales.

Development costs – just $154 budgeted for contingencies.

Manufacturing costs$3320 for printing and $276 for shipping, for a total of $3596.

So let’s stick it all together for a total cost – to edit, develop and print 5000 books over two runs – of $19 607. Which straight away tells you that novels can be a lot cheaper to produce than textbooks.

Financial voodoo

We’ve printed 5000 books but we only plan to sell 4818; the rest go towards marketing, archiving, author copies and the like (mostly marketing). The author’s royalty is 12% and  the target gross margin is a minimum of 55% (same as usual). So how much do we charge for this book?

Well, the anthology I’m using as the basis for this sold for $29.95, which was enough to bring in a projected $89 203 in sales (meaning $10 704 in royalties, which doesn’t suck) and a margin of 58%. But that book cost about $7000 more to make than this one, so we’d expect a higher margin. And if we crunch the numbers for the same receipts, we in fact come to a final cost (including royalties) of $30 311, meaning the final margin is 66%.

Wow, that’s good. Too good, probably; as the publisher, I could easily bring that $29.95 price down and still make my 55% cutoff. A lower price means less profit and lower royalties for the author, but it also means the book is perhaps more likely to sell – and that the price is fairer to the customer. Which matters, believe it or not.

Lemme play with the numbers a bit and spit some totals at you, which I’m working out on the back of a piece of paper because I’m honestly not very good with spreadsheets. If we assume the same sales (4818, giving up 32% to the bookseller):

  • $27.95 retail – $83 303 in sales, $9996 in royalties, $ 53 700 in profits, 64% gross margin
  • $24.95 retail – $74 293 in sales, $8915 in royalties, $45 771 in profits, 62% gross margin
  • $22.95 retail – $68 271 in sales, $8192 in royalties, $40 472 in profits, 59% gross margin
  • $19.95 retail – $59 414 in sales, $7129 in royalties, $32 678 in profits, 55% gross margin

Okay, so $19.95 is as low as I can go for a 204-page book and still make it worthwhile to produce. To be honest, I’d probably for the $22.95 price point instead; it’s still a fair price, it means the author gets another thousand bucks in royalties for his hard, wildly illegal work, and the extra profits help pay a bigger chunk of my wage. I got bills, girlfriend.

In closing…

What do these numbers mean? Look, not as much as I might like. They’re pretty accurate (except when they’re just guesswork), but they’re predicated on a certain set of margins and expected costs and for a print run/sales target that some publishers would find wildly optimistic and some wouldn’t bother getting out of bed for.

But still, the numbers tell a story. A story that’s not just about Batman, but about what might go into making a printed novel you can find at your local bookseller, assuming it wasn’t Borders.

What about ebooks? What happens when there’s no physical product and very different design/typesetting needs and costs? Well, then we venture into the crazy world of Educated Guesswork. Come back next weekend to explore that world with me.

Bring a pith helmet. Things just plummet from the sky all the goddamn time in the Land of Educated Guesswork.

Big numbers part 1: Anatomy of a textbook

A few weeks ago I was cruising the Australian users thread on the Kindle forums, looking for opportunities to plug my ebooks insight into how Aussies are reading and buying ebooks. One of the recurring themes I noted from skimming that huge thread (with hundreds of new posts every day) was that physical books were too expensive, and that ebooks should be much, much cheaper – after all, the main costs involved in making a book are printing, shipping and storing, and there’s none of that with an ebook, so they should be a fraction of the cost.

I found that interesting because I’m in a position to know that it’s completely wrong.

See, when I’m not writing blog posts full of insight or playing video games in place of working on my novel/novella, I work as a commissioning editor for a major international educational publishing company that I prefer not to name. (It’s not a secret or anything, but I like to compartmentalise things.) I edit and publish textbooks, mostly maths textbooks, and as part of that process I help crunch the numbers that lets us work out how much a book will cost, how much to charge for it and whether it’s worth publishing in the first place. And that costing process paints a very different picture of how it all works.

So I thought it might be fun – and even better, useful – to pull up a set of costings for a fairly typical secondary textbook and go through them with you. They’re not universal numbers, of course, but they’re real numbers rather than something made up for an argument. And while these only apply to a textbook, which has specific needs and features other books don’t have, they can serve as the starting point from which to extrapolate further – which I figure we can do next weekend, since this is going to be a pretty long post. (Correction: it’s a really fucking long post.)

Before making this post, I checked with my boss that it was okay to draw on real data, and she was fine with that. Still, in the interest of protecting my source, the numbers are accurate but the names have been changed. So let’s pull apart the costings for Cooking With Graeme, a 212-page Home Economics text in which everyone’s favourite cat teaches 14-year-olds about the nutritional value of raw mince and his secret turkey ice-cream recipe.

Why am I always the example?

Development costs

Before there is a book, there is a manuscript, written by a team of authors dreaming of fame, credibility and a decent royalty payment. Let’s say you have that. That’s not a book; that’s not even the idea of a book. That’s your raw material, and a lot has to be done before it can go to print.

Editing – $8672, which is roughly $40 per page. That’s a combination of copyediting (finding and fixing grammar and spelling errors), substantive editing (improving the text to make it more effective), fact checking, tweaking the layout, matching text to images and a bunch of other things, repeated through several iterations of layouts (or ‘proofs’) to get things right. It’s a skill that goes above and beyond simple proofreading – in fact, there’s a separate proofreading budget and that’s just $200, or about a dollar per page. Editing costs, but it’s utterly vital; even the best manuscript will have errors and problems, and even the best typesetter will make mistakes and misinterpret instructions.

Typesetting – $7072, which is about $33 per page, although it’s not just based on page count. Typesetters take the edited manuscript, all marked up with the editor’s instructions as to what goes where, and lay it out onto what will be the finished page that the reader reads. Again, it’s a technical skill, not just a matter of dumping everything into InDesign, that requires attention to fonts, kerning, page size, paragraph/page/section/chapter breaks, styles, flowing text around images and a bunch of other things. Textbooks are some of the most finicky and complicated books for layout (as are RPG sourcebooks, for much the same reasons).

Text design – $800. Not very much, but it still costs something for a designer to give your book its distinctive look – to choose fonts and colours, styles of headings and sections, page trim and visual elements and everything that makes the book more than plain black text. In fact, books that are plain black text still need some degree of text design.

Cover design – $1000. That’s front cover, back cover and spine; it’s choosing images, designing the title and subtitle(s), fitting the blurb and other information onto the back in a useful and appealing way, making sure the spine is exactly wide enough for the pages and so on and so forth.

Illustrations – $1000. Cartoons, complex diagrams, maps, artwork and anything else the typesetter can’t do themselves. $1000 might buy anything from five to 50 illustrations, depending on type.

Permissions – $2000 to purchase the right to print/reprint other people’s copyrighted material. For a textbook that usually means photographs, but it also covers text extracts from primary sources and other books. $2000 isn’t much, and means this book will primarily use general images from stock libraries and collections, rather than highly specific images that carry a high price tag.

Software development – $500. This goes towards any digital material, such as extra material on CD-ROM. Often this money doesn’t get used up, especially as publishers move towards putting that material onto a single proprietary website with a standardised interface, but you budget for it anyway. Anything more complicated probably gets costed as a separate product.

Miscellaneous and contingency – $391 on this specific book. Yeah, it’s a weird little number, usually a small percentage of the other costs, just there in case a freelancer goes mad and eats the manuscript and we have to pay to get her stomach pumped.

Other costs – none on this example, but other projects might require non-royalty-based author fees, manuscript development fees, indexing (which ain’t cheap) and a number of other costs. They all have to be costed beforehand.


Manufacturing costs

The above costs all go into getting the content into shape. You don’t have a book yet; you just have the extensively-developed plan for a book. To actually make a physical product, you have two (occasionally three) more costs.

Printing and binding – $7400. That’s enough to print, in this case, 2000 full-colour books. Printing more would bring the per-book price down – 3000, for instance, would only cost $700 more – but you work out the print-run based on sales projections and don’t print books you can’t sell just because the ones you can sell will be a little cheaper.

Freight – $534 to bring 2000 books over from China to Australia. Not much, really, but that’s because they’re on a boat with a couple thousand tonnes of other stuff. Not every publisher prints in China, of course, but it’s the best option for publishers in this country creating full-colour material; printing locally would cost much, more more.

CD duplication and packaging – $1018. This book comes with a CD, which only has a PDF of the book. Those are pretty much history now as publishers move onto online models, but I’m including it for the sake of accuracy.

And that’s it. Developing the book before printing cost $21 635; creating 2000 physical books cost only $8952. Less than a third of the overall cost.


Setting the price

So you know you’re spending $30 587 to make 2000 books. Now how much do you charge for it? Well, 30 857 ÷ 2000 = 15.42 – so about $16, right?

Um, no. Not if you want to publish any more books in future.

There are two main considerations you take into account to set the price.

Royalty – oh yeah, that’s right, you have to pay the writer. Royalties are a percentage, so you have to calculate them off expected sales and after you set the price point of the book. In this case, we’re paying a 12% royalty (which is decent) on expected sales of 1841 copies of Cooking With Graeme (the other 159 are channelled into sales/marketing activities), and we can backtrack to estimate out how much that actually is once we set a price and work out expected sales.

Don't ever just image search for the word 'gross'

Gross margin – this is the big one. It’s not enough to break even, and it’s not enough to make a profit – you have to make enough profit to make the whole activity worthwhile. You particularly have to make enough profit to pay the salaries (or part of the salaries) of the in-house staff who worked on it – the publisher and project editor who oversaw it, the production staff who coordinated the printing, the sales and marketing teams that get people to buy it and several others. And on top of that, you need to make enough profit to keep the business going to make more books that people want. Not every book will make a squillion bucks – it’s pretty much only the maths textbooks – but every book needs to provide a decent return on investment.

So you aim for a minimum gross margin – which, if you’re not familiar with the term (I wasn’t because money confuses me), is the percentage of sales income that is profit – of 55%, or maybe some other number, but that’s the usual we work with. Slightly more than half of your price needs to be profit. And to be honest, you’re better off aiming higher than that, because otherwise you should have just given up and made another book about trigonometry instead of adorable cats.


The bottom line

In the end, these considerations go into a blender (or more accurately a spreadsheet) and after some back-and-forth and rending of garments it spits out a price of $49.95 per book. Which, in turn, adds $5685 in royalties to the costs, which the spreadsheet somehow manages to take into account, so it costs $36 271 to make 2000 books, which we expect to bring in $56 847 in receipts.

If you have a calculator, you can work out that that’s only a 36% gross margin, which seems to belie everything I’ve just said. But the above figures apply to a single print run, while in actuality you usually plan and cost two print runs that cover 2-3 years worth of sales. Planning is everything, and the second print run is often the one that actually makes the money. That first printing has all the development costs beforehand; the second print run doesn’t have any (hopefully), just printing and shipping costs, which drive the gross margin for that run way down, and you clump them together to make that target of 55%.

See, I can handle maths. But this is accounting, and it makes my head bleed.

Anyway, our second print run of Cooking With Graeme is 3000 copies; we put aside $296 for development contingencies, just in case, then spend another $10 943 for printing and shipping the larger print run. Expected income is $92 573, and expected royalties are$9257; the book really starts to pay off for the author in that second year. Gross margin for the run is a whopping 78%, proving that books would be much more profitable if you didn’t have to spend time and effort making them readable.

So our total investment is $56 768, our income is $149 420, out actual profit is $92 653, and our gross margin is 62%. If Cooking With Graeme does as expected – and remember, these calculations are made before a single word is written, much less a single book is sold – then it’s been a worthwhile publishing project. We could have maybe dropped the price by $5 and still hit the 55% target, but that’s about it; no possibility of selling it for $20 and still staying in business.


Now what?

So that’s how a textbook gets created and how much it costs. In next week’s blog post, I continue acting like a lecturer at the world’s least-respected accounting college and talk about how we can extrapolate those number to understand how much regular ol’ novels cost to make and what costs still apply to ebooks.

Sounds exciting, no?

Pollyanna Patrick versus the death of publishing

There’s been a lot of doom-and-gloom this week in discussions about the future of the publishing industry, much of which was spurred by a presentation by Ewan Morrison at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in which he said that the industry was doomed and that writing as a profession was doomed along with it.

Wow. Way to bring the mood of the party down, Ewan.

Morrison brings up a lot of interesting points, but he takes a very pessimistic stance in his article. I think he’s done so to get people talking and thinking, and that’s important, but so is maintaining some optimism and some perspective.

Here’s a rebuttal of sorts by writer Lloyd Shepherd, which provides facts and figures to argue that while the publishing industry isn’t what it was, it’s premature to sound the death knell yet. I don’t have that degree of recourse to facts – not that that has ever stopped me – but speaking as a writer, an online self-publisher, and a commissioning editor at a major publishing house (albeit in education rather than fiction), three things in Morrison’s article leap out at me.

Avast, and here are some free Dan Brown books!

Piracy – and look, I say ‘pirate’ rather than ‘file-sharer’ or ‘unauthorised copier’ because it’s shorter and pithier, okay? No value judgement. Anyway, piracy of straight-up fiction is not that big a deal. Pirates focus heavily on sharing electronic media, music, movies and games; they generally don’t care about books, and book readers generally aren’t pirates. Even those publishing arms that are hit harder by piracy, usually fan-media or roleplaying, are seeing data that suggests piracy isn’t hurting them as much as they thought, because many people who torrent scans and PDFs generally wouldn’t have paid for that product anyway; they would have simply gone without. Over in fiction publishing, piracy of things that aren’t mega-bestsellers is minimal, because most pirates don’t want to read/share that stuff, and the people who want to read it are generally happy to pay for it. Maybe books would make more if piracy was impossible, but they wouldn’t make that much more.

The death of the mid-list and the loss of advances – yes, this is true, this is happening. More precisely, it’s been happening since the 1990s; it’s not as new as Morrison implies. Much like in film, publishers are under pressure to produce nothing but blockbusters – they want to publish either JK Rowling or the next JK Rowling, and that gives less room for writers that will never be JK Rowling but will produce good books nonetheless. This has been the case for years, and it sucks, but at the same time it’s not exactly a surprise. And for all the pressure on them to produce high-selling books, most publishers – the people, not the companies – care about good books, and will push to get worthy-but-lower-selling books out there. If anything, it’ll be interesting to see how the success of ebooks affects this – midlist titles are starting to find a larger audience, and the value of establishing writers who continue to sell, but never need to be reprinted, is becoming more obvious.

The race to the bottom for pricing – okay, this is a real concern. Books shouldn’t be priced as low as the market will bear, and 99 cents is too little to charge for a book. But there’s a growing realisation that digital products are priced too low, not just in publishing but in the more commercially powerful world of iPhone apps, and the prices are starting to bounce back. Are there consumers who will balk at paying $4.95 for your ebook when they can get someone else’s ebook for $3.95? Yes. But those are generally not the consumers you want – these are people to whom books are essentially fungible, and often they just want extruded word product to fill up their Kindle. I’ve come across so many people with Kindles who only use them to download free books – and then almost never read them, because it turns out they don’t want to read Moby Dick, they just want to feel like they own the book. Many readers are prepared to pay more sensible prices for books they want to read from authors they respect, and we should see that happen more often within the next couple of years.

(There’s been a good discussion recently of e-book pricing and the .99 cent model over at Terrible Minds; go there to see some more and different takes on the topic.)

This is just what the offices at Penguin look like. Honest.

This is a time of transition, and it’s one where things are happening quickly and the old order is being torn down faster than it can adjust. It’s all very much like Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga – THERE CAME A TIME WHEN THE OLD GODS DIED! – except that we don’t have any villains as cool as Darkseid.

I’m not saying it’s the Golden Age of publishing, because it sure as hell ain’t. But it’s not the End of All Things either. Large established presses will either adapt and survive or sink, but they won’t drag everything under with them. Small and independent presses have the chance to craft something new and be at the forefront of change. And for writers, there are opportunities that there never were before, even if we have to work harder to get money from those opportunities. So less doom and gloom, and more optimism, please.

The New Gods may yet come. If we believe. And keep writing.