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.
I stopped to chat with Erin, who runs the machine, and we got to talking about With a Little Help and whether it would make sense to print and sell the book there. After a couple rounds of e-mail, we agreed that they'd print and sell the book for $10, shelving it alongside my other titles, as well as making it available through mail order.
One of the original inspirations for this whole project was the experience of hanging around the Harvard Bookstore, which also has one of these wonderful machines. The deal with McNally-Jackson now has me thinking that I should talk to other Espresso-equipped stores. After all, one of the pig-in-a-poke heuristics is whether a book has made it onto the shelves of a respectable bookstore. Perhaps this is one missing ingredient that could lift my POD sales.
Of course, the multiplying complexity of managing all these relationships is rather daunting. Having to keep up with two online POD channels (Lulu and Amazon), several bookstores, and multiple payment systems requires a rather involved set of books that is sure to give my accountants fits. But this is an experiment, after all, intended to identify opportunities for automation and commercialization for self-published works. Maybe if I find enough stores to carry the book, that will form the basis for someone else to create a business for making the account-management less burdensome.
At present, I've netted $15,083.11 off a gross income of $39,802.72. The custom hardcovers remain the largest source of both expense ($13,458.19) and ongoing income ($17,598), and I've presently got about $1,400 tied up in hardcover inventory that'll retail for $2,750. Paperbacks have grossed a mere $789.75, a fraction of what I've spent on review copies, etc. Donations have brought in $2,222.73, less $153.53 in Paypal fees.
What's next? In addition to pushing up paperback sales, I've also decided that I need to get the e-book into more retail channels, such as the Kindle, Nook, and Kobo stores, along with anyone else who'll do a DRM-free distribution. To that end, I've gotten involved with BookBaby, Brian Felsen's spinoff from CDBaby, the wildly successful independent music distribution service. BookBaby is trying out a live updating service with me that will allow me to do my near real-time corrections with all the major, suitable e-book channels.
But it's the success of the donations program that has me thinking hardest—specifically, about the value proposition of the donations. Could donations form the basis of a new retail channel for e-books? Perhaps a widget that commercially published authors could embed in their own Web sites and social media pages based around this pitch: "Buy my e-book on a pay-what-you-like basis, and I'll split the take 50–50 with my publisher, still a much better take than I'd get from your e-book purchases on Amazon, Nook, or iBooks."
Why not? Commercial entertainment conglomerates understand that "pay creators, it's the right thing to do" is a better pitch than "pay multinational entertainment conglomerates, they deserve your money." This is why so many antipiracy ads focus on creators, not on corporate profits. Authors who collect directly from readers have a commercially valuable moral high ground, and figuring out how to incorporate the special relationship between creators and their audiences into a business model has the potential to rebalance the current relationship with the existing online retail channels.
It's not unprecedented—pay-what-you-like programs like the Humble Indie Bundle (video games) and Radiohead's In Rainbows and Nine Inch Nail's Ghosts I–IV (music) have been runaway successes. The pitch from these projects, "pay the creator you love," is a message that clearly resonates with my readers, some of whom have donated as much as $200. And this can help with the "pig-in-a-poke" problem. Without locked-in channels or DRM-laden works, authors and publishers can put together new titles in a single package to cross-promote their works—new writers could be bundled with established ones, for example. The Humble Indie Bundle has been very successful with this strategy. Readers could even nominate some of their payment for charity—say PEN, a library friends organization, a literacy trust, Creative Commons, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or ACLU.
Sure, most readers will still pay nothing. But for the readers who do pay, the donations from With a Little Help suggest that the net proceeds, averaged out, could be greater than the current channels, and what's more, the wider the distribution, the more likely it is that we can tip the balance from "free rider" to "paid customer" for some fraction of readers.