Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Going It Alone

Ebooks just got a major boost!
J.K. Rowling just pushed the Harry Potter series into digital publication!
It isn’t that Rowling is making her books available as ebooks that is so important. What is so important about this is the fact she is only selling the ebooks through her own web site, the Pottermore Shop. The books are not available from Amazon, Apple iBookstore, or Barnes & Noble.
Up until now, it has been publishers that have taken the hit as more and more writers choose to self-publish via ebooks. Now the distributors are in danger. It isn’t like no one has been selling their own ebooks before. But that Rowling is the first top-name author to do it exclusively through her own channel, going directly to the reader with absolutely no middleman.
There are huge financial advantages to this move.
When you sell your ebook through a publisher, you might be lucky to get 5% of the sales. At 5% royalty, that means when you buy a book for $15, the writer gets 75¢; before taxes. Royalty checks show up about every six months. According to some writers I know, that’s if you are lucky. Usually, they have to call the publishers and remind them that royalty checks are overdue by a few months.
Sell through one of the big three ebook distributors, you can get between 65%–70% of the sales. That’s a hell of an improvement, but they hold the royalties for 60 days before transferring the funds into your account. That’s not so bad, and they are quite prompt in paying. Just don’t go spending money that you don’t have in your pocket.
Sell directly to the reader, and you get to hold onto 100% of the money they spend on your book! And, that money is available to you usually within a few business days, if not immediately.
Of course, there is a catch to doing it all yourself. The catch is, you have to do all of the persnickety financial setups in order to make things work.
You will have to set up commercial bank accounts. One for banking, the other for clearing credit card charges sent to your business. Banks charge for these accounts on a monthly basis. How much, depends on your bank. Do not ever directly use your commercial checking account for credit card receipts. If there is a charge back on a credit card, the cash disappears immediately and it can take months to get that money back, if at all. (Learned that one the very hard way!)
Second, you need to register your accounts with the credit card companies. Visa, Master Card, Discover, American Express, etc. In addition to taking a small percentage of each sale, there is a monthly charge for those, too.
Yes, you get nickel-and-dimed all the way when receiving credit cards directly.
Then there is the software you will need on your web site to receive credit card orders. The cheapest, quality software will run you about $10 per month. Many high-end internet service providers (ISP) can supply you with good and secure shopping cart software that will handle your transactions for you, once you have all your bank accounts ready.
You might be thinking you could write your own software or get free software to receive the credit card numbers and then enter them yourself. Well, if it takes you five minutes to enter a credit card transaction on a credit card clearing device. It works if you only get a few orders each day. But if you have one hundred orders, it is going to take you over eight hours to enter in all those transactions.
Then you have to take sales taxes into consideration. Laws vary from state to state in the US, so I am not going to touch too deeply on this. Just remember that it is your responsibility to collect those taxes and pay the states that ask for them.
If you have large sales numbers and your wares are flying off the shelves, then it makes a lot of sense to take on the chaos of directly accepting credit card orders. The 20% you gain in revenue can be a significant amount of money with large sales figures.
However, if you are selling less than a couple hundred copies of your book per month, the fixed costs associated with accepting credit cards directly might actually be greater than the 20% you could gain doing it yourself. So, in that event, it might be wise to go through the ebook distributors and let them handle the headache and accounting of those sales.
Rowling will obviously have significant sales of the Harry Potter series as ebooks. If she sells just two million sets of her series at $57 each, that is a gross sales of $114 million. Taking on the sales herself instead of going through a distributor will gain her over $22 million in net profit. I am being extremely conservative with two million as an estimate. The Harry Potter series sold over 450 million sets. With seven books each, that’s over three billion books! You can bet that out of over 450 million people, there will easily be more than two million who will be willing to part with $57 for the ebooks—this month alone!
For comparison, I’ll be happy if I can sell 10,000 copies of my ebook in a year. (Launch day is getting closer!)
Another thing Rowling did was state that she wanted to sell her ebooks in a way that meant her readers would not be forced to be locked in to any single platform for a reading device. That means the ePub file format. Anyone with a Nook, iOS or Android OS device can read the ebook on whatever they want. (For Kindle owners, hampered by Amazon’s closed format, she offers her books as MOBI files as well. The day Amazon accepts the ePub format into their system will be the day I go out and buy a Kindle Touch.)
This is a huge boost for the open format.
Rowling has fired the first warning shot across the bow of the publishing industry, showing how easy it is for a major author to step out and do it themselves.
What this means for everyone who is or wants to be a published author is that the publishing and distribution industry is going to need to come up with new ways to convince authors to go with them rather than eking out on their own. It won’t be sudden, it will take years. But even the “Big Six” will have to adapt if the market continues to change, or die like the dinosaurs.
Where there are companies that don’t want to change, there will be the opportunity for dissatisfied employees of the publishers to break away and start their own company. Smaller, hungrier companies may be more willing to accept smaller profit margins than the behemoths of the industry, and be more capable of adjusting to new market paradigms should they appear.
The opportunities for new authors may actually grow over the coming years. Publishing houses, in the hope of reeling in the next Rowling, Steele, or King, may start offering better deals for new writers. Offering better financial incentives than what has been the tradition.
And it isn’t just writers that can benefit from this.
For one thing, how about accountants? Take a look at the numbers listed above. Then consider this:
Q: What do you call a writer who can count over ten?
A: Barefoot!
I bet there is a market out there for accounting services for self-publishing writers.
If a writer gets 70% at best from the distributors and you can help them improve that take to 90% by managing their accounting if they sell directly, there could be a decent business niche out there. Of course, there are a lot of terrible writers out there, so you may want to set some standards before you take someone on. Or, set a base of a minimum fee for services. This would filter out unprofitable clientele.
Already, there are people who are starting their own services for independent writers. Editing, ghostwriting, typographical services—they’re all out there and starting small businesses, breaking away from the corporate bullshit that goes with managers who don’t understand the product their companies produce. 
I’m a good story teller and a decent writer. But I need other people to catch my mistakes. Often, I see the story and not the mechanics and I have a difficult time noticing mistakes. This is actually very common among writers. I’m lucky that I have friends and relatives who are actually very talented at catching my mistakes and suggesting the corrections.
For this reason, there will always be a need for these professional services. There will always be a need for the work a publishing house can do. What will change, are the terms and interaction between these businesses and authors. This change will certainly not happen overnight, and some businesses may fail due to unwillingness to accept giving authors better terms. In truth, it does mean serious downsizing. Letting employees go means some of those employees could form their own companies and easily replace yours.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Adversity is the mother of opportunity.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Friends Not Forgotten

My family moved when I was eleven-years-old.
That’s a critical age. You are right in the middle of your social development. Where all those social connections you’ve created and skills you’ve developed for the past six years are about to bear fruit as you and your peers enter puberty. When the general society of the classroom would filter down into smaller, more closely knit groups of friends.
Only, that didn’t happen.
The last day of school, I stepped off the school bus and into the car. We pulled out of the driveway even before the bus had stopped at the next stop down the hill.
Socially speaking, I was back to zero at the most crucial point of my social development.
I always wondered what happened to my various friends and classmates. As it happened, a few years later, I had the opportunity to do just that and meet up with some of my old friends.
And I was in for one of the biggest shocks of my adolescent life!
We were back in the old neighborhood visiting family friends. I decided I wanted to walk down the road and stop in to surprise one of my friends, Billy. The last time I saw Billy was from the car window as we pulled out of the old driveway, watching him in the distance jump off the school bus and run into his house.
Back then, I would have just run through all the backyards to get to Billy’s house. Not anymore. No longer a local resident, I had to walk around yards and stay on the street. It gave me the opportunity to study the expansions the new family had committed to my old house. Aside from that, the neighborhood looked pretty much the same since I had left.
I got to Billy’s house and with a grin on my face, rang the doorbell. I could just imagine his surprise when he saw how tall I had gotten! A lot had changed over the years.
And I was about to find out just how much things had changed.
The doorbell rung, the smug grin on my face, I was ready.
Only I wasn’t.
The door opened, and it was not Billy.
The door opened and it was not either of his sisters, or his mother, father or any other member of his family.
The door opened and the person standing there was his girlfriend.
She stood there in a red, one-piece bathing suit.
A red one-piece bathing suit filled to perfection with an very feminine body, with all the curves and bumps in the right places. At the top of this teen-aged fantasy brought to life—virtually unchanged since the last time I saw her, long before puberty struck gold—was the head and face of my former classmate, Suzanne.
The shock of seeing someone who I knew as a little girl transformed into a young woman in an instant before my very eyes was more than my adolescent brain could handle. The sudden surging flood of hormones and trying to connect the face of the little girl I once knew with that body in that bathing suit overwhelmed my central nervous system.
My cerebrum overloaded and exploded.
My upper faculties went completely offline. I have no recollection of our conversation, other than it was very brief. I might have blurted out her name in surprise. I don’t know if she even remembered who I was. The ability to logically arrange consonants and vowels fled my mind, but apparently I mouthed out enough monosyllabic grunts and hoots to initiate some sort of communication. I hope my tongue wasn’t hanging out.
I finally came to my senses when I was half way up the hill on my return trip; I think my mouth was still hanging open. I really don’t remember much from moment she opened the door until I reached that point walking back.
They say the first impression is a lasting impression. I propose that the corollary to this is the last impression is a permanent impression. Of one thing I am certain: I came across as a complete moron. 
Despite that disastrous first time reunion, I actually enjoy running into people I haven’t seen for years. It’s always entertaining and sometimes humbling. Then there are some reunions that will never happen. Those lost to disease, violence or poor choices.
In one case, when I learned of his sudden end, it struck a particular chord in me.
There was always a competitive edge to our friendship. A sense of one-upmanship that we always engaged in when we got together. I didn’t learn of his death until many years after the fact. He apparently died just as he was getting started out on his own. Years of preparation and work getting ready for the future, and he was cut down even before he stepped over the starting line. All that effort he put into preparing for his adult life was wasted in an instant.
For me, that death meant no closure. No running into each other decades later to settle the score. It was like watching a movie where the credits roll before the story reaches its conclusion, or a joke where the punchline is never told.
It’s a tough competition where the winner is determined by who crosses the finish line last.
The competition now will have to be won by reaching new goals that I’ve set for myself. At which point, I can find a promontory with a great view, hoist a glass of aqua vitae skyward and say, “Friend, I did it. Better luck next time around!”
Then there are reunions of another kind to consider. Those where people never actually met before. We think this is a new phenomenon, where people meet over the internet and agree to get together in real life. But it has been going on for centuries, as long as humans have had extended communications through writing.
In the early 1970’s as the Vietnam War began to grind to a halt, people started becoming aware of the plight of the soldiers, and in particular those who were being held as prisoners of war. To heighten awareness of the plight of these soldiers and to show support for them, groups began selling bracelets printed with the names of POWs.
It became all the rage among young girls and teenagers. A number of the girls even in my class had some of these bracelets. I even remember seeing a few men wearing them.
My sister got one. To her, the bracelet was not something she got to be part of the trend or as a fashion statement. It meant a certain responsibility to her. She wore the bracelet until it broke. She then carefully wrapped it up and placed it in a keepsake box. She never forgot about him. Always in the back of her mind, she wondered what his fate had been.
Fast forward forty years.
She recently pulled out this keepsake box. A friend had commented about attending the funeral for a soldier whose name was on her memorial bracelet. That got my sister thinking about the man whose name was on her bracelet, put away so long ago. He had never been forgotten. The bracelet was merely set aside where it sat quietly while life moved on.
In years gone by, she might have looked at the name on the bracelet and wondered about the man it represented. To find his fate might have taken many phone calls and letters to various groups and organizations. Weeks and weeks of delays and slow communication. But today, we have the internet.
It didn’t take her long to locate his name and his story. He was a Lt. Commander in the Navy, and his plane had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile in 1967.
In my sister’s investigating, she came across a phone number. After giving it a great deal of thought, she decided a few days ago to make the phone call. The phone rang and the man who answered was the Lt. Cmdr. himself.
He spent six years imprisoned before being released in 1973. He came home. He eventually met a woman at a POW Memorial event, they fell in love and married.
The full story is far greater than just the above summary. And it is still unfolding at this moment. I feel it is better to leave the telling of the story to my sister at a future period. It is her experience and she can tell it so much better than I.
I will continue to look forward to those moments of coincidence when I happen to be in the right place at the right time and I get to run into someone I once knew.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Daytime Astronomy

Here’s something interesting you can do during the day: look for Venus in the sky. It is visible in the middle of the day in the bright, clear blue sky. Yes, even while the sun is still in the sky. For the next few weeks, it will be visible in daylight.
Finding it is the tricky part.
Venus in the day lit sky on Tuesday, March 13, 2012.
First of all, it is silly to look for it if you don’t have any idea where to look. There are astronomy programs for both iOS and Android that allow you to point your phone at the sky, and the program will show you what is in that direction. Look around the sky for Venus using this program, and it will show you roughly where to look with your own eyes.
Second, stand near a tall tree or building. If you stare into a featureless blue sky, your eyes have nothing to focus on and your eye muscles will relax. When relaxed, the average human eye focuses at just under a meter. Naturally, this means that anything beyond this point will be out of focus. As Venus appears to be a point of light in the sky, if it isn’t in focus, you aren’t going to see it. If you stand near something tall, the top of the object will give your eyes something to reference for focusing at a distance.
Another good reason for using a tall object is it gives you a point of reference to explain where it is in the sky. Invariably, people are going to note that you are standing there staring at something and will want to know what you are seeing.
Venus looks just like a star in the bright blue sky. When you spot it, you will be amazed at just how bright it is! You will then wonder how you could ever have missed it. (See my second point above about focus.)
Another trick for finding Venus is to look for the moon when it comes around again and is in the sky close to the planet. The moon is a little easier to spot and you can use it as a visual reference to find Venus. It helps to look at the moon the evening before to figure out where it is relative to Venus. Keep in mind that the moon moves more than you think in does, and by the next day it will have moved from where it was relative to Venus the previous evening.
If you really want to raise the bar, take a look at this picture. Move the cursor over the bottom-left and top right-corners if you can’t figure it out. I took this picture back in November, 2004. I'm trying to repeat that image, but the weather hasn't exactly been cooperating with me the past few days. I also think that Jupiter is further away this time, and so isn't quite as bright as it was back then.
Looking at Venus in the daytime gives me an idea of what people might have seen when SN-1006 appeared in the sky, which was much brighter than Venus can ever become. It was the brightest supernova recorded in human history. People could see their shadows by it. Not too many years after that, SN-1054 exploded, creating the Crab Nebula.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Marketing: Watching the Numbers.

Yes, I am getting very close to finishing my book, Nobody, Aggadeh Chronicles Book One.  The final chapters have been outlined and end of the story is in sight. That being said, there is actually one more phantom chapter that was created that didn’t make the original cut when I decided to rewrite Nobody. I figured I would set it aside until the end, and now I have a better idea how to rework it back into the story.
One task that must eventually be completed is writing the blurb of the story. That short summary that is usually printed on the back cover, inside the lining, or on the web site that is supposed to intrigue the reader enough to want to buy the book and read it. There are actually two that must be written. One is usually a single line that works like a catchphrase. The other is the summary as described above.
That first task is actually a small part of the second task that must be addressed, second in importance only to actually writing the book. That task is: selling the book!
That means getting the word out when my book is available. I can’t just rely on uploading the ebook and then sitting back and wait for the sales to roll in. I have to get out and actually tell people that it is out. That means hitting Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and a few other forums and message boards that I haunt. But, it must go much further than that.
I know at least three or four dozen copies of my book will be sold almost immediately. Those sales will be from friends and family that have known I’ve been writing this book and have been waiting patiently for me to finish it. While it will be exciting to actually watch that initial sales count roll in, I have to temper myself with the fact that those are technically “courtesy purchases”. 
Second to that, I know that almost 90 people have downloaded the sample chapters of my book. Again, about half of those are from friends and family. It is the other half that is more intriguing. Those are people who I may have met in passing or noted a post from a social site and were interested enough to take a look. Or, they may be friends of friends who were guided to my site. It is a most important number, because it represents the general public, people who I don’t know personally or don’t meet with on a regular basis!
The question is, who and where are these people?
If you stand on one street corner to sell your wares, after a couple of weeks, everyone who passes by on a regular basis has either already bought your product or isn’t interested in buying your product. You aren’t going to sell anymore. Eventually, you have to move to another corner. The same applies to social networking sites. I can post about my book all I want, but ultimately the message is going to the same people over and over again. Over time, that means almost 200 people that would be very annoyed and bored with me.
Sales is the process of selling the product. Marketing is the process of identifying who and where to sell the product. Are you going to sell more things standing by the train station at rush hour or at the entrance to a sewage treatment plant at midnight? Making that determination is marketing.
Marketing is all about demographics.
Is your book a hardcore sci-fi cyberporn extravaganza that exceeds the limits of human savagery and sexuality? Chances are, it might be a tough sell at the local church reading group. How about a coming of age story for a young girl that has lots of unicorns, glitter, bows and rescuing a handsome young prince in distress? Maybe setting up a table at the biker bar isn’t a good idea. (But, hey! You never know….) Determining who might like to read your story is all marketing; identifying demographic groups that would be interested in your story.
I spent one evening going through my list of friends on Facebook. I chose thirty who I knew were avid readers or I knew who were very well connected on Facebook. Then I visited each of their profiles and got the count of friends they each had. The final tally came in at just over fourteen thousand! Yes, connected to those thirty friends were fourteen thousand people.
If you think I was sitting at my computer staring at that number with my jaw dropped open in disbelief, you would be correct. I even went through the list a second time to make sure I didn’t punch in a wrong number somewhere. But the number was correct.
Hopefully what this means is if I announce the release of my book on Facebook and each of those 30 friends click “Like” when they see the announcement, then all of their friends will also see that announcement. This means the announcement of my book will be exposed to over 14,000 people through one degree of separation. Fourteen thousand people who might think, “Hey! My friend actually knows this author! Maybe I should take a look at his book.”
That little bit of market research told me that Facebook is probably the very first place I want to run to the moment I make my book available for purchase. Since doing that bit of research, the number of people I am connected to has more than quintupled (increased by over 500%). So, that number of 1° connections may actually be much higher now.
But that sales push will only work for a short while. I am basically relying on word-of-mouth to sell my book, and I can’t expect that my friends are going to go out and constantly beat the bandwidth of the internet for me. I also need to hit other social groups with the announcement. The announcement must also be repeated on a regular basis for a while, to keep reminding people that my book has been released.
This blog serves just such a purpose. It is both a promotional (sales) and a data-collection (marketing). It is a place where potential fans can come to and get a look into my mind, and at the same time, I can collect counts of how many people come to my blog and read it.
For example, I cannot see data that tells me that Fred Mertz of 123 Main Street, Anytown, USA visited my blog. But I can see that twenty-three people visited my blog at some point after I posted an entry, and fifteen of those people connected by following the link from Facebook and four followed the link from Twitter. It’s the remaining five that are a mystery. How did they come to my blog?
Marketing is driven by numbers.
When I post on Facebook that I have a new blog entry, how many people respond to that? What about the time? Do more people show up if I post in the afternoon or in the evening? Those numbers are a little more difficult to come by. And timing an announcement could make a huge difference in how many people actually see the announcement.
I’m publishing my books as ebooks first. Which platform is the most popular? Amazon’s Kindle? Apple’s iPad? Barnes & Nobles Nook? Or some other platform? That’s why I put the survey up on the right. That could determine where I launch my book first.  (So far, the Nook is winning.)
What day would be a good day to announce my book? A lot of newspapers print upcoming weekend events on Thursday, because that is when most people start thinking about what they want to do on Friday or Saturday. That would certainly be the evening to announce a “meet the author” event! But when do people sit down and decide they want to buy a book or start going through Amazon or B&N to find a good book to read? If everyone sat down Wednesday evening around 9 PM to peruse for a new book, then maybe I should make my announcement Wednesday evening at 8 PM.
These are things you need to ferret out in order to improve the salability of your book.
I just activated Google Analytics on my web pages to glean more detailed information about visits to my web pages. It definitely will NOT tell me that Fred Mertz just visited my blog. But, it will tell me that someone visited my site around 9 PM and they stayed on my site for about thirty minutes, which tells me that the visitor hung around and read a few things. Up until this point, all I could tell was that someone merely visited a given page. I can’t tell how long they hung around or if they downloaded something. Hopefully using Google Analytics, I’ll be able to glean this information.
What this will all tell me is how effective I am being in getting the word out. If doing one thing results in a lot of visits, then that effort is a good one to continue. If doing another results in no visits, then clearly that effort is a waste of time. The more effectively I can get people to look at my book, the more likely I am to generate sales of my book.
My goal is to sell at least 10,000 copies of my book. If I can do that, then I’ve got a future! The only way that is going to happen is if I properly market my book to people who are most likely to buy it and enjoy it. If those people like it enough to recommend it to friends, then my book will be a success. So the more people I can the book to that will promote my book to their friends, the more likely I will reach that goal.
Then there are other activities that must be done should sales of my book surge ahead.
For one thing, book signings. This, in my opinion, is vital for selling a book. People who might not look twice at your book are more likely to take a chance on it if they meet you as the author in person. It really is a thrill to meet the person who wrote a book you truly loved. It's even better when that author turns out to be an incredibly nice person. The corollary is, it really sucks when that person is a jerk. And I have seen the look of utter devastation on a fan's face when they waited for so long to get an autograph or even just meet their admired celebrity, only to have that celebrity whisked away to another event at the last moment.
Now, didn’t I just say above that you can’t autograph a computer file? Seeing as I am publishing as an ebook first, I figured I would print up copies of the cover on high-grade card stock and autograph those for anyone who purchased the ebook and wants an autograph from the author. Eventually I will get around to printing physical books, but for now, I just can't afford it.
I’ve already been approached by friends that belong to reading groups asking if I would be interested in me being a guest. Most people I have met that attend reading groups prefer to read from paper books than from ebooks. This is a quickly changing demographic, but currently within this population, paper books are still holding the lead.
When someone gets the chance to meet the author of a book, they do want some physical reminder of that occasion. So it behooves me to come up with something that can be done.
Printing actual books is expensive! How soon I move forward with this will depend on a number of things. Certainly the number of ebooks I sell! Without money, I can’t afford to print up actual books. Demand for print copies comes next. If there isn’t much demand for print versions of my books, then it doesn’t make sense to spend several thousand dollars to print them up if they aren’t going to sell. (Interestingly, dipping back into demographics, about half the people I know are interested in buying both the ebook and hardcopy versions of my book.)
I am considering turning to Kickstarter to raise money for doing a physical printing of my book sooner than later. I do recognize that it is important to try and go to print as soon as possible. If the ebook is proving successful in sales, then it would be wise to invest in a print run. Kickstarter allows people to offer a donation in return for a token of thanks. It has been very successful for a number of authors and other projects.
People want that keepsake from meeting an author. While I think the cover card is a good idea for those who have ebooks and are satisfied with that, there will be many more who prefer to have a book for their collection. I have a few autographed books I have received over the years, and I treasure that tactile memento as a shared presence between myself and the author I met. At some point or another, I hope my path crosses with Spider Robinson so I can get my copy of Variable Star autographed. (Though, I suspect that will happen after his Orphan Stars is released.)
So, I’ll be watching the numbers to see what is happening and hopefully be able to guide my decisions in the most advantageous way. I’ve had a general plan in place for some time now, but the moment to put all that in motion is fast approaching.