Publishing is all about overcoming the pig-in-a-poke problem. Readers just don't know in advance what's worth paying for, and there are lots of heuristics that help distinguish worthy from unworthy texts. Is the book by an author you've heard of? An author you've read? An author you've seen reviewed? An author who has secured the imprimatur of a well-known publisher, with all the attendant sales support, distribution, and retail display that brings? As you can imagine, this can be a particularly difficult challenge for anyone self-publishing a book on the Internet.
Which brings me to the status of With a Little Help. As you'll recall, I've made the book available as a free download with an option to kick in a donation; a cheap(ish) POD paperback; and as a beautiful, eye-wateringly expensive (and extremely lucrative) hand-bound limited edition hardcover. In my last column, I lamented the poor performance of the paperback, celebrated decent sales on the hardcover, and reported a bump in donations, once I clevered-up and put the donation box next to the download links for the e-book (duh).
But the biggest lesson I've learned is that, while a popular blog is helpful in launching a self-published work, it is by no means sufficient for selling one, and if I wanted to generate interest in paperback sales of With a Little Help, I'd have to go where the traditional book buyers are: the mainstream press, the review sections of major newspapers, and Amazon's retail system. To that end, I asked Lulu (which does the majority of my POD titles) to supply some review paperbacks, and I asked Tor, the publisher of my latest novel, for a list of potential reviewers. Both were gracious enough to comply; I shelled out for mailers and postage; and I sent out roughly 150 free review copies.
It paid off. In addition to some notable reviews, I scored a glowing full-page review and writeup in the Wall Street Journal by Tom Shippey, who was fascinated with both the stories in my book and the meta-story about how I was producing the book. The piece coincided with the book's appearance (finally) on Amazon, via its comparatively cumbersome and inflexible CreateSpace self-publishing program, which I've found to be a distant second to Lulu in nearly every respect except that it gets books into Amazon's system at a relatively low price ($12, which includes my $2 royalty), and the book comes with free shipping for subscribers to Amazon's flat-rate annual delivery service.
So how did the media attention affect income? Most visibly, there was a sharp increase in donations. In the month following the press reviews, 89 donors gave a total of $916.75. By contrast, the previous six months had garnered $1,305.98 from 112 donors (most readers don't donate anything, of course). But the articles and reviews didn't do much for the Lulu editions, garnering a mere 26 sales in the following month. Amazon CreateSpace editions fared only a little better, selling 54 copies over the same period. But it's fair to say that the paperback editions have fared worst to date and continue to lag far behind expectations. Why?
I think it's the pig-in-a-poke problem. So far, price seems to be the most effective way for self-published authors to break through, as we've seen an explosion of stories about self-published e-book success from authors who've put their work in the Kindle store at low prices—99 cents to $3.99. The 99-cent price point has two important fitness factors that help overcome the off-putting, received wisdom about self-published material: first, as an e-book, it can be bought on a whim—there is no physical object to have shipped or to carry around. Second, it encourages spur-of-the moment purchases. Readers can take a chance, get a book on their device immediately, and if it's a dud, hey, you're only out a buck. Of course, there are many more failures in the Kindle store at 99 cents, but that's true at any price point.
But what to do about POD paperback books? For one, the price is linked to fulfillment costs and 99 cents isn't really an option. I've managed to whittle the paperback price of With a Little Help down to close to par with comparable trade paperback titles (about $12, including shipping, whether you get it from Amazon or Lulu). And in the case of Lulu, the comparatively long shipping lead-times, the friction of setting up a new payment account, and navigating an unfamiliar checkout process acts as a real drag on impulse buys. I'd be interested to get some stats on the ratio of people who follow Lulu links to completed sales, and to know where people bailed on the process; I think this is one reason why my Amazon sales are outperforming Lulu.
I really want to do better with the paperbacks, and I've got a plan to make that happen. In my last column, I mentioned that Melbourne University in Australia had a new print-on-demand setup that could service both its university bookstore and distribute books at industry-standard discounts into Australia and New Zealand. My first month of sales there wasn't anything to write home about—a mere five copies—but the service is just starting.
Then I happened to be in New York City for a conference a few weeks ago, and walked past McNally-Jackson, the brilliant independent bookstore in SoHo where I've done many signings and readings. I loved McNally-Jackson long before I ever did an event there—it's one of those beautifully organized stores, where the tables and shelf-talkers burst with such good recommendations that I always end up taking home one or more books. And now McNally-Jackson has an Espresso Book Machine on the premises.