At the time of my last column, I was in a three-quarters panic about the book: negotiations with Lulu and my agent had bogged down in miscommunication; Christmas was fast approaching; and I was about to go in for hip surgery. So, what happened? Literally a day after writing that column, I simply launched the book. I made the site live, uploaded the book to Lulu's servers, and set up the sell pages. The good news: I've made some money, and I didn't turn into a ravening monster on a blind quest for fortune and sales. But I've also discovered a lot of tiny errors—and two gigantic ones.
First, the good news: I've made a ton of money on the $275 limited edition. I've already sold more than 50, and I get a new order every day or two, without news or advertising. The recipients have been universally delighted with their purchases and the packaging. The combination of a cardboard book mailer, a section of burlap coffee sack, and acid-free tissue paper is a huge hit, with some customers even producing lavish "unboxing" YouTube videos and Flickr sets.
The typo-hunting project has also been a smash success. My readers have sent in 123 typos to date, about the same as I turned in for the second printing of my first story collection, which was proofed by my editor. With a Little Help was proofed by my mother, who routinely scores on par with professional proofers who do my novels. The number of reported typos has slowed to a tiny trickle, which tempts me to believe I may, in fact, perfect the text of this book, possibly a first in the history of publishing.
Now for the mistakes: first, the minor ones. I blithely assumed that I would spot all the errors without outside help, forgetting a key lesson I'd learned as a software developer. I was wrong. Turns out that I failed to notice that the e-mail addresses for reporting typos and requesting copies for libraries and schools were both malfunctioning. The former took less than a day to fix, but the latter took a month. I also failed to notice that my e-commerce system (the free WordPress eShop plug-in) was adding $15 shipping charges to orders of the hardcover. Thankfully, I noticed this about a day in, but I still had to send refunds to about 10 people who hadn't noticed they'd been billed for $290 instead of $275.
I'm also unconvinced that having multiple covers was worth the effort. I love all four of the covers that I sourced for the book, but overwhelmingly my readers have chosen the Pablo Defendini cover, which incidentally is the only one without a real painting. What's more, having four covers has geometrically multiplied the complexity of updating the text (to fix typos). Having done about 100 re-uploads of the source file to Lulu's system—which is decidedly not optimized for editing your books several times a day—I've probably lost a good five hours to maintaining the separate editions. If I was starting over right now, I'd probably go with one cover, though I'd solicit several sketches and try them out on my Twitter followers to pick the best. But now that I have four covers I can't see any reason to eliminate any of them.
I also put a little too much confidence in my printer's estimate of his ability to produce hand-sewn limited editions on a two-week turnaround. The first two consignments went well, but when it came to the Christmas crunch, he was overbooked, and the next consignment took more like six weeks. On the other hand, I completely underestimated my customers' willingness to wait for the limited edition. I thought for sure I'd lose some orders, but so far the only one that seems perturbed by this delay is me.
The Balance Sheet
Now, let's talk about money. My total outlay to date is $10,275.87. This does not include the hand-sewing for the most recent 50 limited editions, which will be about $3,500. Almost all of the outlay is printing, binding, packing, and shipping costs for the limited editions. Take those costs out and what's left is about $3,000 for some studio time, artwork, fonts, software, Web site setup, etc. On the income side, I've brought in over $31,000, including the $10,000 super-limited edition that came with a story commission, sold to the Ubuntu project's Mark Shuttleworth. But this is where my two big blunders come in.
Paperback sales have been rotten. In the first six weeks, I sold a scant 137 copies, as well as 12 MP3 CDs and five Ogg CDs. In all, I've earned a lackluster $490.03 in royalties from Lulu.com. When I realized just how bad these sales were, I was gutted. So I did what every writer should do when he needs professional advice: I called my agent, Russ Galen.
Russ was a lot less doom-and-gloom about the poor early paperback sales than I was, and he made a couple of excellent general points. First, sales of anthologies and collections are way, way down, unprecedentedly so. But because this is a print-on-demand title distributed outside of physical bookstores, it doesn't have to have the same front-loaded distribution cycle of traditional trade books, which need to hit critical sales volume inside of a month or two lest they be returned and never ordered and shelved again. Instead, I can look at a much longer sales cycle, with the opportunity to tweak my strategy over time and see what works and what doesn't.
But Russ also pointed out my two big, stupid (he didn't use that word, but it's deserved) mistakes. First, I hadn't done anything about getting traditional reviews of With a Little Help. I knew I should have solicited reviews by sending out early copies of the book. But the tentativeness of the publication date made this problematic, because I couldn't tell reviewers when the book would be available, and because when it was available, I was already up to my armpits in fixing all my tiny but time-consuming mistakes. Luckily, this should be easy to remedy. Lulu has been good enough to supply 200 review copies, and Patty Garcia, Tor's head of publicity, who oversees all the excellent publicists I work with at Tor on my novels, has agreed to send me a list of reviewers. Of course, I'm also hoping that reviewers reading this article will drop me a line (firstname.lastname@example.org) so I can get you a copy. Two of the stories from this volume have already been picked up for Year's Best anthologies this year; "Chicken Little" in Gardner Dozois's collection, and "Visit the Sins" in Hartwell/Cramer's collection. So, reviewers, there's reason to suggest there's something worth your time in here.
And finally, the paperback book is just too damn expensive—and the price issue is a little harder to fix. The net cost of the 360-page book from Lulu is $11.60. When I launched, the system required me to price them at $18, so there'd be some room for offering a discount to retailers like Amazon. After a few weeks, someone at Lulu showed me how to knock that down to $14.40 by applying a "discount" to my books in Lulu's database. But add to that Lulu's shipping charge, between $5 and $20, depending on your location, and that is one expensive paperback, especially when compared to a bestselling, comparably sized traditional trade paperback on Amazon, which is apt to sell for $10 or less, shipping included, if you're an Amazon Prime subscriber, as many heavy readers are.
My agent is talking with Lulu about ways to shave down that price to something a little more in line with industry pricing, and, importantly, to price it comparably on Amazon.com. There are a lot more readers shopping at Amazon and searching for Cory Doctorow than at Lulu, and if my book is not there, that's a ton of lost sales.
To be honest, I also completely overestimated how far word-of-mouth and a popular blog would get me. A positive review from me on Boing Boing of someone else's book can routinely sell 200–300 copies directly, as measured through my Amazon affiliate link and any number of retail sales elsewhere. But people just aren't as persuaded when you review your own work. And even when they are, without their sales registering in Amazon's recommendation engine, there's no knock-on sales arising from future recommendations.
Lackluster sales have been accompanied by fairly lackluster donations, too. So far, I've netted just $542.99 from 34 donors, with a median donation of $10. The lowest donation was $2, while two donors gave $50. I have heard from hundreds of people over the years asking how they can donate to me to thank me for my free e-books, so I'm willing to bet that there are a lot more donors who'd chip in if they knew about this project. We'll see. In the meantime, I'll always be hugely grateful to those first 34.
Here's where we stand: after PayPal commissions, I've brought in $23,173 for the limited editions, including the $10,000 commissioned limited edition; $542.99 in donations for the free e-book editions; $490.03 in paperback and audio product sales. I've also made $6,800 writing this column. That's a net of $31,006.02 for With a Little Help, putting me up $21,730.15 overall. This is actually more than I'd hoped for the first six weeks, but I'm going to do better. By this time next month, I'll have mailed out those review copies, and with any luck I'll have beaten the price issue. Watch this space.