The joys of electronic self-publishing

As I hope many of you will know by now, I recently e-published my latest book. You’d enjoy it, so buy a copy:

You don’t even need a Kindle now, you can download kindle software free for PCs or for iphones or ipads. But I discovered this afternoon that a lot of people don’t know that, which obviously affects the potential market. Anyway, to the point, how is it going after the first week, and what have I learned already by doing so?

I used the Kindle Direct self publish route. I have done 3 previous books via publishers but although the people I worked with were very nice and competent, the production timescales are just too long and in IT, half the stuff is history by the time it comes out. And the royalty deal is favourable too, so it looked a great idea. It is early days, and I am not panicking yet, but sales have been lower than expected so I did some research.

One of the big problems that I hadn’t realised was the sheer volume of competition now. Last time I published a book, in 2002, there were about 50,000 new books a year, but I sold over 10,000 copies of mine in hardback before we went to paperback and then the publisher evaporated (now a collector item). Now there are apparently 3.5 Million new books per year, and what surprised me even more was that most are computer generated, using software that automatically compiles free stuff into books or uses cheaply bought content (you can buy existing articles for net to nothing, and even commission new work by bright people for as little as $6 per 1000 words). Some automatic book production packages are sold with claims that you can make 5 or 6 new books a day! Mine took months, some people take years.

Those figures are hard to compete with. Vast quantity, a lot of which is low quality computer generated. But a lot of high quality stuff too. I am not the only person with a ‘proper; book that has discovered the new route, there are a lot of us.

So, a wake-up call for me in terms of book writing. But I will still do more, because writing a book forces me at least to organise my ideas, resolve contradictions and discrepancies that may have crept into my thinking, fill in gaps and explore new ground. So even if I don’t sell any, it is still productive in other ways.

I look in the high street and see book shops really struggling to survive, , but not all book buying has gone onto the net. A lot is in the supermarket and that will manage to compete much better against on-line purchasing than high street bookshops. The economics of supermarket books though are quite different. They can only stock a few hundred titles, presumably the very best sellers. If only a few hundred books are bought and sold by supermarket chains, then we will see vast concentration of revenue in both distribution and publishing, and there is little incentive for them to use a wide range of new authors, quite the reverse. Best selling authors will capture an even higher share. By contrast, on-line book selling can support millions of books easily, so in one way it is a level playing field, but authors compete to get any attention and it then comes down to marketing budgets and brand awareness, so a few well known authors will account for a large proportion of on-line sales, with the rest spread very thinly across a vast army of also rans.

A buyer is likely to search first by author name, and only use subject area or keywords if they don’t know a particular favourite in that area. Subject is fine if your book has a single subject, but many cover lots of areas. And you have to choose two main areas to file it under, which is awful enough for a futures book, but especially so since ‘futures’ isn’t one of the options.

Publicity is getting harder too. The ads market is supersaturated now. Most of us get thousands of tweets and status updates and other stuff from thousands of contacts every day, so getting someone even to see an ad is hard, getting them to take time to click on it when they have so many others on the screen is even harder, and even then there is only a small chance of a sale. Having tweeted it and Facebooked it and Linked-Ined it and blogged it a few times, and even advertised it on 3 radio stations, I have sold to less than 1% of my followers, even less to casual observers. That tells me a lot. Either I need different friends (only kidding, honest), or attention is really hard to get now. Or maybe the book just sounds dull, who knows?

It is easy to get loads of reciprocative following of course, but I don’t see the point of that, I can’t even keep up with the tweets of the 100 or so that I do follow. And if I cant read even those, how would anyone notice me if I am one of 15,000 people they follow. These same problems are shared by many of the ‘community’ on the e-publishing forums. But I guess it is the same ultimately as any other channel. There are millions of blogs, but the few I read are also read by loads of others. They are superstars. There are superstar authors, singers, and artists of all kinds. And the rest of us fight over the scraps.

I should know that before I started. I have been lecturing about the increasing concentration of power in the elite for years. The gap is widening every year. Even if you are good enough to squeeze into the top 1%, you share that status with 70 million other people. More than half are online. And if there are 1000 fields to specialise in, that narrows the top 1% competition in your field down to 35,000. Those are tough odds! I guess I am lucky as a futurist to be in a much smaller field, but there is still plenty of high quality competition. It was never going to be easy.

So, initial conclusions: bad ones first

A: Social networking only works weakly as a sales tool. Getting attention needs more than just followers and subscribers, something has to grab their attention more effectively from the vast pile of other stuff also competing for it.

B: Pay-per-click ads costs a fortune, 50p per click-through with no guarantee of a sale, an enormous proportion of the profits from an ebook.

C: Converting to paper is tedious and frustrating. Microsoft have crippled their word processing by trying to make it look pretty instead of easy to use.

D: The market is not mature yet. A lot of people are unaware of alternatives to investing in a Kindle.

E: There is a vast amount of competition, some good, and a lot bad.

F: In this transition phase for book publishing, the old forces still hold power – the big publishers, wholesale distributors and the big bookshops. Meanwhile the new ones are even more polarised if anything because in a vast sea of content, brands and name familiarity are even more important.

but most important of all I think, in spite of some frustration, the joys far outweigh the problems:

A: most of all, writing helps clarify your mind, debug and organise your thoughts, and refine other, so you become more expert in your own field. Even become a bit wiser.

B: By writing, you discover what you know, and what you don’t, and get a well motivated opportunity to fill in important gaps. Humbling but exhilarating.

C: Even if sales are low, it is nice knowing that you have something there that will survive after you die. And you have written proof later when you say ‘I told you so’. And you can put the book on your CV. And a million other little things that all add up.

D: with e-publishing, you can get a book together far faster than doing it by conventional publishing. And you have more control over the content. And you don’t have to worry so much about length.

E: self publishing avoids a great deal of stress in some areas that compensate well for the extra stresses it also causes. I know there are lots of things yet to do to get more sales, just takes time.

F: I may make it later in paper form, via Createspace perhaps, or even use a more conventional route, I haven’t decided yet. I’d really rather use my time to write another one. But it is a relatively easy if tedious option.

On balance, and I think I share this with most other self-publishers, I am a bit frustrated at a slow start but still very happy and eager to get on with the next one, while pushing a few more buttons to get this one flying. Doing it myself is harder than I thought, but also more fun than I thought. I’d recommend it to anyone.

4 responses to “The joys of electronic self-publishing

  1. Good post. I totally agree that publishing is in transition — but moving very quickly, and Kindle is now a great ecosystem for (self) publishing. The publishers just do not get it. I am currently in the painful final months of the publication of my 7th book with a mainstream publisher (delivered March, will be out Jan, and later in the US!), and will follow you into self-publishing for my 8th book. So it will come out only a month or two after the 7th. And hence actually be up-to-date!

    Kindle is also interesting because it makes writing interactive. My last book was Kindle-ized (if that is the term) and I find it fascinating to be able to see which bits people highlighted. We may soon even be able to see how far they have read!

    On social media, it works if you put the time in — and a lot of time. As you say, superficial follows and subscribers don’t help — but people you interact with become very loyal. Social media is a way of living and thinking.


  2. Ian –

    I suspect that a number of people operate like me – and use a wishlist system on Amazon to keep track of the ‘wants’ – my list is huge, and collects as I wander around, using the Amazon app on the iphone to add things I want (you can photo the book, or scan a bar code). They sometimes get bought – either when I want a new book, or when people buy gifts for me, or if I see them second hand (my favourite way of buying expensive ones).

    I’m still not sure of e-books, which is odd, because I’m a pretty intensive internet user. I do have them on both iPhone and iPad. They tend to be cheaper than paperbacks. And I have just borrowed my first ebook from my local library. And I can see how easy the books are to read. Yet, I still have a strong preference for paper. But I’m trying to train myself to use the iPad. We’ll see if I convert.

    Anyway – the point I started off trying to make was that I suspect that sales will have a built in lag. I often buy a book months after first adding it to the wishlist.




  3. Hi Ian, I just bought the book. We are still at the beginning of the e-book revolution. The Kindle has been the first really practical e-reader, and there was no Kindle a few years ago.

    I just don’t buy paper books anymore, and I am sure most people will switch to e-books over a few more years. This will be facilitated by more books available in e-format and new and better e-readers. Now there is the Kindle Fire, and others will follow soon.

    I am happy that most of the money I paid will go directly to you instead of supporting the inflated costs of a traditional dinosaur publisher. I encourage you to keep on, the money will come.

    Tip: next time please include a ToC!


    • Thanks Giulio, I learned a lot just by looking at the ranking figure fluctuations. One sale makes a huge difference, and jumps my book into the sector top 10 occasionally, a clear indicator that most e-books sell very low quantities.


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