When I first conceived of this project, I found myself idly coming up with great new wrinkles on my plan every day. By the time the project was live and the book was for sale, my idle moments had become brutal self-criticism sessions in which I lambasted myself for making stupid mistakes. But thanks in part to some forethought, and in part to luck, none of my mistakes were terminal, and now I find myself returning to the pleasant creative daydreams about how to improve the business.
This month, I'll take you through my course corrections and what I learned from them, and my one blunder of the month—which I consider an acceptable blunder-level. After all, if you're not making one big dumb mistake per month, you're probably not being adventurous enough, right?
The area of my greatest concern to date has been lackluster sales of my print-on-demand paperbacks. These sales are far, far below the level I'd planned on, and while they've picked up a little since the last time I wrote, they're still poor (a mere 182 copies sold since December). But I have identified three major causes for this poor performance.
First, they cost too much. Second, they weren't being automatically recommended to the great bulk of my readers who use Amazon. Third, I hadn't solicited or received any reviews for the book, erroneously believing that I could use Twitter, my blog, this column, and my e-mail lists to generate enough word-of-mouth to attract customers. That strategy worked fine for the high-priced, limited edition hardcovers, sales of which have generated enough profit to pay for postage on 150 review copies, which has not been insignificant. A disadvantage of living in the U.K. when most of my readers are in the U.S. is postage, about £8.20 ($13.11) for every review copy sent overseas.
But the effort has begun to pay off. There are a half-dozen high-profile reviews pending as I write this, including a major financial daily that I can't name at press time (I'll let you know how that worked out next time). I also have a small stack of review copies remaining should any other reviewers want one. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pricing, however, has been a tougher nut to crack, but I think I've finally nailed it. After much discussion, Lulu has agreed to put me into its high-volume category, which drops my net to $8 for a paperback with a list price of $10, which is much more affordable, even with Lulu's shipping costs, which are proving to be a major competitive disadvantage relative to Amazon, where readers are accustomed to free shipping with minimum orders or through the annual flat-rate Amazon Prime product.
I very much wanted to offer the book on Amazon. I know firsthand how well Amazon's recommendation engine works, and without Amazon availability, every sale of one of my other books was a lost opportunity for With a Little Help. But now that the book is listed with Amazon, it comes up as a possible additional purchase.
Getting the book on Amazon was much harder than I anticipated. At first, I considered selling the book using Lulu's wholesale channel, which can feed into Amazon. But once both Lulu and Amazon had taken their cut of the book, my net price would have been in nosebleed territory, somewhere in the $20 range. Add to that a $2 royalty for me and the book would be remembered as one of the most expensive short story collections in publishing history.
In order to list on Amazon at a decent price point, I needed fewer wholesale discounts. For me, that meant cutting out Lulu and listing directly on Amazon through CreateSpace, Amazon's own POD program. But CreateSpace, frankly, is a pain in the ass. First, it refuses to print any book that already has an ISBN somewhere else, a very anticompetitive practice. To overcome this, I had to create an "Amazon edition" of the book with a slightly different cover and some additional text explaining the weird world of POD publishing.
But the fun was just beginning. CreateSpace also has a cumbersome "quality assurance" process that effectively throws away all the advantages of POD. For example, every time I change so much as one character in the setup file, CreateSpace pulls the book out of Amazon. A human being must recheck the book, and then I am notified that I have to order (and pay for) a new proof to be printed and shipped from the U.S. to London. I then have to approve the proof before CreateSpace will notify Amazon that the book is ready to be made available again. It can then take three to five days before the book is actually back for sale on Amazon. Practically speaking, this means that fixing a typo or adding an appendix with new financial information costs about $20 upfront, and takes the book off Amazon's catalogue for two weeks.
The net result is that the "Amazon edition" of With a Little Help ($12, but with Amazon's superior shipping offers) is slowly but surely diverging from my Lulu editions, which have appendices giving up-to-date financials and up-to-the-minute corrections listing, and thanking, the readers who identified the typos.