Pricing: There is No Magic Bullet (Self-Publishing Roundtable (2/6))

(As a reminder, this is part two of the series discussed here.  This series was originally concieved to be part of a roundtable discussion, so don’t be afraid to comment, disagree, offer new suggestions, etc.)

INTRODUCTION

I’m on a lot of blogs and facebook groups for people interested in self-publishing.  One of the most commonly asked questions, in some form or another, is “What should I price my book?”

It is a complex issue, and every veteran self-publisher seems to think they know the answer.  I won’t say I’m all that different, but I will admit that I only think I know the answer.  With so many things to consider when deciding on a price, I don’t think anyone knows the right answer for everyone.

In this roundtable post, I’m hoping to identify as many of those things you need to think about as possible.  My goal isn’t to tell you what to price your book; in this business, things can change so fast that any prices I recommend could be obsolete tomorrow.  Rather, I want to give you what you need to consider when trying to set a price yourself.

STATS:  WHY THEY DON’T SAY WHAT YOU THINK

There is a lot of data about e-book sales out there, but little of it is convincing.  A lot of it is raw or poorly interpreted.  Some of it seems to say one thing, but says something else entirely.  And some conclusions can be drawn from these surveys, but rarely should they be drawn univerally across all books.

Take, for example, the Smashwords Survey.  One of the most commonly cited surveys giving statistics on sales based on things like title length, price, book length, etc.  All important information.

Unfortunately, some things need to be taken into context when considering that data  It refers to a “subset” of ALL books published through Smashwords and distributed through its affiliated bookstores.  Which means:

  1. It does not distinguish any of the data by market (Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, etc.).
  2. It does not distinguish any of these stats by genre (Science fiction\fantasy, Thriller\Mystery, Romance, etc.).
  3. It does not distinguish many of these stats by the author’s prior publishing experience (new author, veteran self-publisher, transitioning from a trade publisher, etc.).
  4. With regard to pricing, it does not distinguish books by length (short story, novella, short novel, novel, long novel).

Different markets are more successful at different prices; different genre are more successful at different prices; more experienced authors can can sell books successfully at higher prices than less experienced authors; longer books can sell successfully at a higher price than a shorter book.  All of these things matter.

Take, say, genre as an example.  The Romance genre has, historically, been a genre that sells a large bulk of low-priced books.  Higher priced books in the romance genre rarely sell well.

But the audience for mystery novels typically doesn’t buy low-priced books in bulk.  There used to be a pulp detective audience, but that market has dwindled.  Sell a mystery novel at the price that you sell a romance novel and you won’t get the same bulk sales that Romance novels do.  In fact, there is some evidence that modern Mystery readers would avoid that book, thinking the lower price suggests inferior quality.

So if the Smashwords survey tells you that more ebooks sell at $3.99 than at any other price point, that’s probably true.  But when you consider that the bulk of those sales are Romance novels, should you — as a Mystery writer — take that as gospel?

Amazon’s KDP program offers a pricing tool.  So far, I have yet to determine what formula they use to suggest book prices; if I were to follow Amazon’s advice, however, I would raise the price of all of my books by $1-2 to maximize income.  This would put my books well past the price that the various surveys suggest books sell best at… but then, I have yet to find any surveys on how successful Amazon’s pricing tool is.

So, for now, I stick to the prices I’ve already set.  Those prices seem to be working out, so far, at least .  I could possibly tweak the prices either way, for a multitude of reasons, but there we get into…

DIFFERENCES IN PHILOSOPHY

When a self-published author is setting the price for their books, they need to decide what their sales philosophy is.  Are they aiming to sell massive quantities of their book in bulk, hoping to make up for low prices through sheer numbers sold?  Do you want to be able to have promotional discounts (sales)?  Are you only releasing this book to build up your platform?  Etc., etc.  There are lots of things to think about before you set your price.

  • Do you believe you have produced a professional-grade product?
  • Are you interested a pulp sales (sometimes called a discount) model? (Hint:  If you are writing romance, your answer should be “yes.”  If you are writing science fiction\fantasy, your answer should be “maybe, depending on how fast you write.”  If you are writing mystery\thriller, your answer in this day and age should be “no.”  If you’re writing in some other genre… uh, I’ve got no idea).
  • Would you rather expand your marketing possibilities but reduce your potential customer base (by going exclusive with Amazon and signing up with KDP-Select), or would you rather have a broader customer base but fewer marketing opportunities (spreading your books through Nook, Kobo, iBooks, Smashwords, DriveThruFiction, Libiro, etc. in addition to Amazon)?

There are some writers who don’t believe they’ve produced a professional grade work, but who self-publish anyway.  Some are just out for a quick buck (most of those don’t make much), but others view this as a “practice” effort.

If you aren’t going to charge anything, and you don’t think your writing is at a “professional” level, you’re better off posting your work to a free distribution site like Wattpad or Fictionpress.  That’s where practice pieces are expected, and there is little or no risk to your reputation posting there — in fact, it can be a stepping stone towards building your fanbase for future professional-grade material.  If you insist on charging money for your practice work, however, the price needs to reflect that.  Of course, that means that when you do start producing what you consider “professional grade” work, you will need to raise your price accordingly… and hope that your reputation is strong enough that people will buy the higher-priced work.

But some people lower their prices for reasons other than the quality of their work.  Lower prices can also be a smart business decision, too, and are a requirement for pulp sales models.

What I’m calling a pulp sales model (some call it a discount or bargain sales model) relies on trading low prices for bulk sales on a large number of books.  If you are a very fast writer, and you think you can release professional-grade books at a fast enough pace pace (say, for example, you can consistantly release a new full-length novel every month), you’re probably ideal for the “pulp” model.  To keep up those bulk sales, you need something “new” and “fresh” released all the time — it doesn’t really have to be every month, but you do have to be able to manage a pretty quick turn-around.

It can be tiring, but if you can pull it off (and it’s hard to believe for slow writers like me, but there are writers out there who can) this method of pricing can be very rewarding.  A lot of self-publishers are making a living with this model.

Trade publishing, on the other hand, likes to price new-release eBooks very high — above the cost of a paperback — in order to encourage people to buy the print copies instead.  Then they gradually reduce the price for people who refuse to buy a book at that high of a price, until a year or two after they’re released the prices are down around the level most Indie models keep them.

I’m not sure what it is formally called, but some self-publishers succeed using what I would call a “modified trade” model.  Basically, you charge the maximum amount you’re comfortable with on your book (ensuring it is large enough that a discount matters).  Once you get book two or three out, you start discounting book one.  By book three or four of that series, you make book one free.  With each “phase”, you’ll open your books to a whole new customer base, some of whom will buy all of your other books once they’ve read the first.

Whatever sales model you use (and there are more models than the ones I’ve listed here), you have to decide on the exclusivity issue.  Exclusivity with Amazon can effect your prices.  I would argue the largest impact exclusivity has on price is on print sales (which we’ll go into below), but there is one point to consider:  Going exclusive through Amazon allows (and only makes sense with) participation in the Select program.  The Select program offers the following:

  • Automatic Enrollment in the Kindle Unlimited program, one of several attempts to create a “Netflix for Books”
  • The ability to discount your book for a limited number of days over the course of the 90 day enrollment.  Please note that discounts are only possible if your book is priced over $0.99.
  • The ability to make your book free for a limited number of days over the course of the 90 day enrollment.  This ability is unaffected by price.
  • The ability to purchase KDP Select ad campaigns.

Kindle Unlimited is a virtual library program Amazon offers.  In it, customers pay a flat fee to be able to “borrow” up to ten books in the program at a time.  The authors used to be given a flat fee when 10% of the book was read.  For many authors, this was a very hit and miss prospect, and a number of them were dissatisfied enough to leave Select over it.  Some people were taking advantage of it by “serializing” long novels, or publishing extremely short stories, as you got paid the same amount for someone reading 10% of a 100 word flash fiction and 10% of a 100,000 word novel.  It also ignored how much you charged as a cover price, so reading 10% of a $0.99 flash fiction gave the author the same amount of money (in some cases, more than the cover price) as the author of a $9.99 novel whose book some borrower read 10% of.

Very recent — and controversial — news has come out declaring a complete revamp of how Kindle Universe handles payments for borrows.  There is no real way of knowing how much the new system will change things, but it’s pretty much guaranteed that it will change things.

And that isn’t the only incentive the KDP Select program offers that is of dubious value — the KDP Select Advertising program hasn’t yet built a track record that makes it seem all that useful.  It’s still very new, however, and I am confident that someone has had some success with it, somewhere — otherwise, I doubt it would exist.

That leaves the two more useful things KDP select offers — scheduled discount days and free days.  And these are biggies — most of the more successful advertisers out there (BookBub being the best known and most successful) require you, or at the very least strongly encourage you, to have a “price promotion” (a discount, sometimes all the way to free) every time you run an advertisement with them.  It is technically possible to do these promotions without KDP Select, but it adds layers of complications.

For this to make sense, you must price your book high enough that a discount, in fact, is recognized as a discount.  If you’re charging $0.99, you simply can’t discount (outside of making your book free).  If you’re at $2.99, any discount halves your royalty rate (so you will need to make at least double your normal sales just to break even).

As always, I’m not trying to tell you how to price anything — I’m just giving you things to consider.

COMPETITIVE PRICES

I’m mostly using print pricing for my examples, here, but the point stands for every form of published work (or any product, for that matter):  You need to know what books similar to your own are priced at.  This means Trade publications, not just other indies.

One of the things some self-publishers find hard to understand is what their print books are actually competing against.  I have seen authors horrified that Print-on-Demand books are so expensive, judging them against the price of Trade publishers’ Mass Market Paperbacks.  These self-publishers believe they can’t put them in Expanded Distribution because it forces the price too high, or even that it’s so expensive there’s no point in producing a print book at all.

This is a mistake on their part.  They’re comparing apples to oranges.  Full length novel-sized Mass Market Paperbacks (MMPBs) have list prices (I used to have a links, here, but they no longer distinguish MMPBs from other types of PBs, so that is temporarily removed) that run between $7.99 and $9.99 (please note we’re talking list price, here, so look for the crossed out number).  The minimum price for a (roughly) 350 page Createspace-printed novel (the equivalent length of several of those novels) in Expanded Distribution runs somewhere between $12-13, wholesale (leaving no room for profit for the author, mind you).  (Note:  To clarify, by “wholesale,” I mean for people to purchase from expanded distribution.  You will still be buying your book at the same wholesale price, whatever distribution service you use or price you set).  So, it would seem impossible to match a Createspace-printed novel against Trade and enter it into the Expanded Distribution program.

What the people who use this line of reasoning don’t consider is that POD books are not MMPBs.  They are Trade Paperbacks.  MMPBs are intended to be cheaper and more disposable, while Trade Paperbacks are intended to be lasting and collectable.  There are differences in size, paper quality, and more.  The production of a Trade Paperback is more expensive than a MMPB, and so the prices of Trade Paperbacks are higher.

If you look at a similar list of trade paperback costs, you’ll find that list prices tend to run from $15-20.  Now, with POD, if you want to avoid exclusivity with Amazon you probably will be required to price it in the middle to high range of that; otherwise, Expanded Distribution won’t mean anything (for reasons which we’ll go into more, below), but even if you remain exclusive you aren’t gouging your customers if you price at the low end of that window.

Now, when it comes to eBooks, your competition is all over the map.  Other self-publishers might publish brand new novels as low as $0.99 or even free; trade publishers frequently publish new novels in ebook form at $12.99 (I’ve seen them higher, in fact, but this is a fairly common price point for Trade publishers) but will price their backlist titles all over the map.  Amazon strongly encourages self-published writers to price between $2.99-9.99.  And if you’re doing non-fiction or textbooks, the price range gets even wider (from Free into the hundreds of dollars).

There are people who will not buy your book if it is more than a certain amount (say, for example, $5).  There are also people who believe if a book is priced for less than a certain amount (say, for example, that same $5) they must be priced that low because they are an inferior product, and hence are worthless.

I won’t say the numbers are equal, but there’s enough variation between the groups that, perhaps, the number of customers lost by pricing higher can be made up for by the higher prices of the books.  (This is debatable; I’ve seen surveys which disagree with this assessment.  As the earlier section on stats mentions, however, those surveys aren’t definitive.  They (a) do not distinguish by genre and (b) were conducted by a self-selected audience of book-bargain hunters.  The numbers they talk about are probably correct if you’re selling at a promotional discount, but beyond that….)

So what I’m saying is, with eBooks, don’t be afraid to price your book at, well, whatever you feel is reasonable.  If the quality shines through, you’ll find readers who will buy it.

EXPANDED DISTRIBUTION’S LESS-OBVIOUS COSTS

I mentioned, above, that books sold through expanded distribution must be priced on the high end of Trade Paperback prices in order for expanded distribution to be worth anything, and that I would explain why, later.  Well, it’s later.

Please note:  The numbers used in this example are all fictitious, but are close (probably within rounding in most cases) assuming you have  your book printed and shipped inside the US.  Amazon is said to outsource printing in other countries for their Expanded Distribution chain.  What effect this may have on sales outside of the US I don’t know.

When you are selling a Createspace-printed novel without Expanded Distribution, Amazon will sell it even if you set a price that pays you nothing in return.  The reason it will is that all of its expenses and all of its profit are accounted for in their minimum cost.  Say, for example, that the minimum price, no expanded distribution, of your book was $8.  $5 (roughly) would go to Createspace — the wholesale cost of printing your novel.  The remaining $3 goes to Amazon.  This $3 is profit for Amazon, but frequently would be dipped into for Amazon’s discounts or to cover the cost of the “free” shipping some customers get.  This ‘profit’ is, therefore, not guaranteed; $8 is approximately their worst-case-scenario break-even cost; they only make a profit on something better than their worst-case-scenario.

“Expanded Distribution” costs more, however, because there are more people trying to pull money out of that purchase price.

Createspace Expanded Distribution offers three potential channels in addition to the Amazon.com channels:

  • “Bookstores and other Retailers” (this is actually Ingram, which is the largest book distributor in the United States; possibly the world, but I’m not certain about that.  However, this gets you listed, at least for special or online orders, in bookstores like Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, and Powells)
  • “Createspace Direct” (this is a wholesale distribution service run by Createspace itself.  It claims that independent bookstores and book resellers use this service, but I cannot find verification that anyone actually uses it)
  • Libraries and Academic Institutions (this is actually Baker and Taylor, the second-largest book distributor in the US (an increasingly distant second).  This service is only available if you use a “Createspace-assigned” ISBN.  I’ll go into ISBNs in a later post, but unless you’re doing high-price textbooks this option is unnecessary; anyone who uses Baker and Taylor as a distributor is just as likely to use Ingram)

Which of these services your bookseller or library use to acquire your book is irrelevant; all that matters is that, if you are trying to get people (or libraries) to buy your book, they must go through one of these services first.

So, take that book which had a worst-case break-even of $8 going through Amazon.  Well, if a distributor buys that book, Amazon still gets its $8.  Then the distributor’s cut is added onto that — say, another $3, just to make it consistant with Amazon’s cut.  Also, there are shipping costs (add an average of $4, though it can ship for a little more or a little less) that are tacked on to the price.  That brings the cost up to $15.  And that’s before the bookstore gets to sell it.  Your profit and the bookstore’s profit are split on top of that.

To make the bookstore to want to put it on his shelf (and this does not guarantee he will put it on his shelf, mind), he needs to make a profit.  Kristine Kathryn Rusch suggests that minimum profit needs to be $2, but I imagine that’s up to your local bookstore.  Regardless, if you aren’t making a profit, your bookstore isn’t making a profit either.  So, just for argument’s sake, add $4 ($2 for you, $2 for the bookstore) to that $15.  Then drop a penny, because it looks nicer.  $18.99 — on the high end for a Trade Paperback, but still within the range of prices you can find in stores.

Now, these numbers are — admittedly — fictional; the real numbers would never be that clean (that $8 figure would probably be $7 and change, for instance; the shipping is a variable number; the cuts going to Amazon and the Distributor are percentages, etc.).  You could probably knock a dollar off that price in real-world numbers and still get that $2 bookstore profit.  You might, if your printing costs are high (due to illustrations or whatnot) have to add another $1 to get to that level.  Regardless, if you want to be on a bookstore’s shelves, you need to price it at the higher end of the Trade Paperback costs rather than the lower.

And if you don’t want to be on a bookstore’s shelves, why are you bothering to put it through Expanded Distribution, anyway?

CONCLUSION

I have seen discussions about pricing in fiction become quite heated.  The thing is, as my subject title suggests, there is no “magic bullet” formula for determining exactly what you should price your novel.  Books can sell at just about any reasonable price point; there are multiple factors which make one price better than the other, but nothing is right for everyone, or even for the majority of writers.

But if you consider the stats, business strategies, and other factors, maybe you can figure out the right price point for your own books.

Covers and Editors: Cheap, Fast, and Good — Pick Two (Self-Publishing Roundtable 1/6)

(As a reminder, this is part one of the series discussed here.  This series was originally concieved to be part of a roundtable discussion, so don’t be afraid to comment, disagree, offer new suggestions, etc.)

INTRODUCTION:

When an author decides to self-publish, they must assume responsibility for turning their raw drafts into a finished product (arguably, that’s true even if they decide to go through trade publishing, today — submitting a raw draft to a publisher is a surefire way to a rejection letter).  That means, in addition to doing the writing, an author must deal with getting the book edited, designing the book’s interior, and attaining an attention-getting, story-appropriate cover.

Covers are the first thing your reader will see of your book.  They will sell your book to more “new” readers than anything else you can do.  Arguably, of the three components you are most likely to outsource in the production of your book, the cover might be considered your highest priority.

While covers attract new buyers, well written and well edited text will keep them.  Readers are willing to forgive some small mistakes if the story is engaging enough, but good editorial work will make it so they don’t have to.  This usually requires multiple passes through your work (one thing about writing and publishing:  There are exceptions to just about everything), but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to hire multiple editors (more on that below) to get a quality product.

Of these three most commonly outsourced objects, Book Design is the easiest to DIY.  Now, if all you’re releasing is an eBook, you should be able to handle this one with just a bit of research.

Key word there is “should.”  Having seen some rather horrid eBooks in my day, I’d argue that indie writers may be more than likely to get this one right than trade publishers, but I’ve seen both do things that ruined otherwise fine books.  Print books, on the other hand, require more training to get right — this can be self-taught, to a degree, but there’s a lot more work involved in making a print book look professional.

There are a few people out there who are, in fact, capable of doing all of these things themselves.  And there are even more people who think they are capable of doing all of these things, themselves; if you disagree with them, you’re disagreeing with their mother\father\husband\wife\brother\etc. who told them so, and don’t you be insulting their mother\father\husband\wife\brother\etc. by calling them a liar!  *sigh*

To create a good product as a self-publisher, you need to be able to recognize your own limitations.  That’s true of a lot of things, but I’ll add this to it:  There are some people who think they’re able to “learn on the job,” who recognize that their editing\cover design\book design\etc. isn’t up to par but think they can learn those things after “getting their feet wet” by publishing a book or two, first.  I suggest that such a person is not able to improve from experience unless they also have a guide to help them figure out their mistakes.

Some people may have professional skills or training that allow them to handle certain tasks.  Others are self-taught, using blogs or books to learn how to draw or design or edit their own work.  Others pick things up from a friend or relative who has such skills.  If this is the case for you, great!  But there needs to be some starting point beyond just jumping in off the deep end — if you know nothing about art and start trying to design your own cover, don’t be surprised if your book winds up on LousyBookCovers.com.  Even if your friend\relative\barber who is a “pretty good” artist gave you free artwork to use, you can still mess things up if that artwork is inappropriate, or your typography is horrible, or if you place the title over the artwork’s best feature, or if… well, you get the idea.

For myself, I think that I’m decent with book design.  It’s one of the only parts of this process that I’ve actually had formal training in.  It has, admittedly, been more than a decade since I took those college courses, but re-learning this stuff was much easier for it.

Despite that, I think that I made a few minor design mistakes with the print version of In Treachery Forged (nothing worth the effort of releasing a second edition, but I could have — for example — chosen a better font).  By the time I got around to producing The Kitsune Stratagem, I think I’d worked out most of the kinks and managed a better, more “professional grade” product.  With two more books hopefully coming out in the next few months (though they’ve both already faced significant delays), I expect to continue improving until what I produce is better than merely “professional.”

That doesn’t mean I necessarily do things the same way every established book designer would — I don’t always agree with modern book design, and I do still make the odd flub — but I’ve learned enough about it I’m comfortable on my own.

However, while I may know something about design, I am not an artist.  If I want good cover art, I have to employ someone else to draw it.

Likewise, I may feel capable of editing my own books, to a degree.  I was taught how to edit by my late father, a librarian and all-around book man who, among his other industry credits, professionally edited translations of foriegn poetry (and other things, but I’ve always been most impressed by that).  However, I am also mildly dyslexic, so there are some grammar and spelling issues I know I cannot be certain of without a second set of eyes.

I think it’s important that an author know how to design a book, make a book cover, edit a book, and how to find and hire people to do all three.

ON BOOK DESIGN:

As I said in the introduction, of the three things most commonly outsourced,  Book Design is probably the easiest of the three for an author to do by themselves.   Ebooks require little in the way of design to look good — you don’t have to worry about hyphenation, widows and orphans, justification, and any of a number of other things that are a component of print book design; with dynamicly formatted ebooks, it’s all handled automatically.

But that hasn’t stopped some people from ruining their ebooks with poor design.  For most trade publishers, that usually comes about with their backlists when they do OCR scans of print books and don’t bother proofread afterwards.  All sorts of wierd graphical artifacts (and strange spellings, bizarre margin errors, inexplicable hyphens, etc.) get left behind, sometimes to the point of rendering the book in question illegible.

Self-publishers usually mess up their Book Design in other ways — after all, most self-publishers (unless they started in trade publishing and so have a pre-existing backlist of their own) aren’t converting their print books to ebooks.

One book design flaw indies make in ebooks is re-designing the wheel.  Now, I have heard people making decent cases for using block paragraphs instead of indented paragraphs in their ebooks.  I have heard people who want to move the table of contents around for technical reasons.  I know self-publishers who are required, for one reason or another, to embed monotype font in one particular section of their books in order to properly line up characters vertically as well as horizontally, but leave the rest of the book as a different (or undeclared) font.

But then there are authors who feel that hey, we’re self-publishers, the gatekeepers are gone, we don’t have to follow any rules! In some cases, these authors do things just because they want to take it to “The Man,” and make design decisions specifically because they want to make their books look as little like print books as possible.  They think these books look good, but in the end what they’re doing is trying (and in most cases failing) to “re-invent the wheel” of good book design.  It’s a self-defeating effort that makes their books look unprofessional.

Things I have seen show up in eBooks (both self-published and trade) include:  Books using both block paragraph style and indent paragraphs at the same time, ebooks without a table of contents (in this case referring to the .ncx file, which allows you to navigate between chapters), books in double space (a book is not a manuscripts; manuscripts are double-spaced to leave room for comments.  A little extra space between lines is acceptable, but double-spacing a book makes it look… unfinished; a subconscious tell, to me, that the book hasn’t been fully edited), and books which change fonts (and\or font size) just about every paragraph.  Heck, I’ve seen a trade-published book that had graphical scene seperators (which can be a nice addition, depending on the book and the graphic) that were over-large and cut across multiple page-turns, and which seemed to randomely rotate in design with other scene seperators for no apparent reason.

It need not be that extreme to look garish.  If you don’t know your coding well, a single drop-cap at the start of each chapter can turn an otherwise professional-looking book horrid and ugly.  Even a simple embedded font can mess up a book (for example, changing all the text in your novel to comic sans in an effort to make it look “handwritten.”  Yes, I’ve seen people do this).

If you know what you’re doing, there are little things you can do to tweak your ebook away from boring and basic without crossing the line into gawdy.  Embedding a font for titles, for example — you can decorate the front of your chapters without overwhelming your readers by trying to make them read your book in, say, Lucida Blackletter from start to finish.

And yes, it is possible to embed a font into an eBook; despite what some veteran self-publishers think, embedded fonts will not ruin your book.  Those veteran self-publishers had a point; back in the early days of the Kindle — for generation one and two and part of three — there was a glitch that made it impossible for the e-reader to interpret embedded fonts.  Those characters were replaced with blank boxes or gibberish characters that made the book unreadable.  That was a software issue, and it is my understanding that this has been corrected (confirmed going back to at least the Kindle 3\Kindle Keyboard version), though this shouldn’t be taken as license to fiddle with the fonts of your book willy-nilly.  Readers will frequently change the basic font type and size at will, so trying to ensure that your whole book is 10-pt. Garamond won’t do you much good.

The key thing here is, if you want to try something… unusual, say, for your ebook, run it by someone unbiased, first, to see if it makes sense to them.  This can be a book designer, another experienced author, etc., and it gives you a sanity check over whatever it is you plan to do.

Print books are another matter entirely.  Book design for print is much more complicated, and if you are unable or unwilling to educate yourself (and much that can easily learned in theory can still throw you in practice, even with simple book designs), I would strongly recommend hiring a book designer instead of just winging it.

Unless you are writing non-fiction (and even then, narrative non-fiction looks better if it more resembles fiction in design), you almost certainly don’t want to use block paragraphs in a print book.  You never want to use ragged right (or, worse, ragged left) justification.  You don’t want it doublespaced.  You don’t want to use comic sans.  Heck, you don’t want to use any bizarre or ornamental fonts.

Doing these sorts of things makes you look like an amateur, and I don’t care if “there are no gatekeepers so I can make it look like I want,” you’re far better off not re-inventing the wheel, here.

That doesn’t mean there are no areas where you can disagree with “modern” typographical and design choices.  Designers love to go on about how they hate “rivers and channels” in fully justified text which they claim are produced by… well, just about anything the are obstinately opinionated about — hyphenation, the spacing after a period, even line spacing and font choice.  Two spaces after a period is wrong, they tell us, and it’s always been wrong, they lie.  They love hyphenating words to change where word wraps take place — it think its ugly, and interferes with reading flow (in fact, I’m looking for a way to turn the automatic hyphenation off on this blog.  Any wordpress veterans out there know how?).

Those are stylistic choices, they haven’t been enforced universally for decades and decades on end like the “no ragged right” rule, and I’m sure some typographer or book designer can come in and give a long explanation as to why what I think is ugly is “best for readability.”  Honestly, it only matters if the readers care, and I’m pretty sure most don’t even notice those things.  As long as there’s a significant precedent somewhere in the history of publishing and typography, it’s okay to disagree.

If you go your own way, though, you need to learn that there’s only so far you can push things.  A “line break after every sentence” would be very strange, and your readers would notice.  You might get away with it in, say, poetry (where doing unusual things is part of the job), but if you wrote a novel that way you would drive your readers crazy.  If you worry that your favored design choices might be pushing the envelope too much, that is the time to hire a book designer.  Using one at least once in your self-publishing career to help you figure out where the “unbreakable” rules are can help you learn where these design choices are really rules and where they are simply guidelines.

Book design for novels should be relatively cheap.  Last time I priced it out, I found reputable book designers willing to handle simple (if your novel isn’t illustrated and isn’t poetry, it’s usually simple) book design for $200-350.  It’s been a couple years since then, but I doubt the cost of book design has skyrocketed, considering the other services I’ll be talking about in this blog have remained fairly steady in price.  A warning, though — if you’re doing something more complex than a basic novel (for example, you’re writing a non-fiction book and you’re going to be putting in lots of illustrations, charts, tables, etc.) that cost will skyrocket into the four or even five figure range.

Finding a reputable book designer is fairly easy.  There are people who specialize it, but the easiest way to find one is to package the book design with your cover design, as the two services are often offered together.  Now, finding a cover designer….

COVERS:

Recall that the title of this blog post is “Cheap, Fast, and Good: Pick Two.”  Well, that’s the problem with finding cover artists and editors — it’s almost impossible to find someone who is all three.  It’s not exactly all that easy to find a cover artist who fits even two of those traits, sometimes.

You need a good, high-end cover in two weeks?  Well, you can get that… for about $1000.  You want a cover for free?  You might be able to stumble across one or two free covers somewhere on the internet, but good luck getting exclusive use rights to it.  Don’t want to spend much money and want it fast?  Well, there’s always Microsoft Paint to the rescue!

If you have no time and need a good cover now, it’ll cost you in one way or another.  If you’re on a budget and need a cover, you either need to DIY it — and if you aren’t a good artist, readers are getting better at discerning (and disliking) DIY covers — or you need to find someone cheap.

The “money” part of that doesn’t have to be too much.  Indie Designz, while it isn’t my style, offers quality book covers for far less than that $1000 mark I mentioned above.  Those covers are build around stock imagery — an effective method, but it can have a few flaws:  You (the author) won’t know how much the final design will cost until the stock imagery is chosen, some stock images get used on so many covers that they’re mocked when they are identified, and the style required by using stock imagery does not work for every genre.

There are other options.  Here was how I took care of my covers:

I started getting “In Treachery Forged” ready to publish almost eight months before it came out.  I knew I needed a good cover, but attempts at home-made covers (my brother gave it a try) were… well, I knew they weren’t what I wanted on a book cover.

I was on a very tight budget (after the money I’d hoped to use was re-allocated to repairing a non-functioning hot water heater, I had to borrow money from my mother for the cover), so I knew that those $1000 covers were beyond me.  I also knew those Indie Designz covers weren’t to my taste.  While my brother continued to try and refine his design (you might find the final result of his effort buried somewhere deep in the archives of my Facebook page), I tried a longshot:  I went to the artist behind one of my favorite webcomics (as background, I had never met the man before, nor was I very active in posting in the comments section of his comic, so there was no pre-existing friendship of any kind there) to see if he was willing to do it, and how much he would charge.

To my surprise, he was quite willing… and for about half of what I was expecting to have to pay.  The search for an artist took a while, and negotiations took some time, but three months before the final release of the book I managed to hire him for the cover.

Now, my experience may be atypical, but I’d heard stories of professional artists that weren’t experienced with book covers who failed to understand their requirements.  My new cover artist was not a cover artist by trade, so I made sure we discussed the following things before signing him on:

  • What rights was I getting?  (In addition to both exclusive rights to the artwork for ebook and print book covers, I needed to be able to use the artwork for marketing.  That included the right to make slight modifications — such as cropping — for use in different formats)
  • What fees did he charge for changes? (Up to a certain point in the design process, they were free.  I wound up being charged a small fee because my mother, who was bankrolling the cover, insisted on a significant tweak after that point.  Some cover artist specialty services limit you to two or three changes, total, or charge a fee for every change; you will probably need your artist to make tweaks, at least, so keep that in mind)
  • How and when to pay (we agreed to no payment until completion, but some cover artists will want pay in advance, or a split payment part in advance and part at completion)

Once we agreed on these things, I had to give him instructions on the artwork itself.  I’ve heard horror stories about artists who got the scale wrong, or the dimensions wrong, or didn’t leave room for a title.  So, in addition to giving him a pick of scenes to choose from as possible cover illustrations, Imade sure he knew the following things:

  • The exact dimensions needed.  Since this was for both eBook and the front of the Print copies, I needed to account for bleed edges on three sides (the fourth side would be the spine), the proportions of the image, room for cropping to account for the different proportions, and the size of the book (I did mention the size by pixels, too, but it turned out that the pixel size was smaller than the dimentions of the print cover size — 6″ X 9″, not counting the aforementioned bleed edge and cropping space)
  • How far from the edge the title needed to be.  I also warned him that I would need space for a few additional lines of text (author name, series title, and possibly a space to incorporate a line from an editorial review in the future).
  • I warned him that it needed to contrast well in grayscale\black and white, as it would frequently be seen on an e-ink reader (such as the Kindle\Kindle Paperwhite\etc.).
  • I offered to place credits for his art wherever he wanted (on the cover, inside the book, etc.)

Now, I was a little concerned that — in giving him such instructions — I might be venturing a little too far into “teaching grandma to suck eggs” territory (ugh… who came up with that phrase, anyway?).  My artist didn’t take offense at all.

From that point to the completion of the cover, it took almost exactly two months.  That was after about a period of querying, negotiating, and so forth — much of that delay on my end, as I was investigating other options, but I would say at least a few days to a week should be budgeted in order to vet and negotiate with your cover artist.  It may take even longer, depending on the artist.

The second cover artist I hired proved this was not a fluke.  I was quite satisfied with my first cover artist (and just recently opened discussions with him about producing the cover for “In Forgery Divided”), and will continue using him as long as he is interested, but I was starting a second series.  When it comes to multiple series, there is always the possibility that you will be in the production phase of two different books (editing, covers, books design) at the same time, so I knew I’d need to find another cover artist.

This time, I went a different route:  I went after someone with experience designing book covers, but I still wanted original artwork and not photography.  I found a half-dozen veteran cover artists and sent queries asking if they were taking commissions, what their rates were, etc.

I got one reply.  The artist wanted close to $1000.  Now, my budget for this cover was a bit higher than the last cover (and I didn’t spend to the limit for that cover), but $1000 was too much.  I was stumped, but then I found the name of an artist listed in the amazon.com credits of a book I liked the cover of.

Once again, I took a chance and asked him to do a book cover for me… and I got back a bid to do this cover for even less than my first cover.  I went through roughly the same process as before on roughly the same timeline.  Even though this artist had a few dozen more credits to his name and probably knew things like how to leave space for the title and so forth, he still didn’t react as if I was “teaching grandma to suck eggs.”  And I think I got some pretty good artwork in the end — better than I would have gotten from that $1000 cover artist I’d found.

My point is, (1) don’t be afraid to approach any artist you like to make your cover.  Yes, the likes of Michael Whelan won’t do anything for you (he says so in his FAQ), but you’d be surprised who will.  And (2) when you do find a cover artist, it is okay to give them precise instructions.  They will listen, and not be offended.

EDITORS:

Note:  Ironically, this article needed editing after I posted it.  (The final revisions I made didn’t save when I clicked the “publish” button)

And now for the job the fewest number of authors can, or should, attempt:  Editing.  I’m not saying it’s impossible for someone to edit their own work — their are outliers who do that and do it well — but  more people think they can edit their own work than actually can.  That doesn’t mean that doing your own editorial pass is worthless, or that you need to spend great gobs of money on editing, but — if for nothing more than a sanity check — someone else (and someone who knows the basics of both your genre and the English language, please) who you know will give you an honest opinion should look at it first.

Let’s start with something I’m sure most people who’ve done any research into the process already know:  There is more than one type of editor out there.  I usually see it broken up into proofreader, copy editor, and developmental editor.

But then there are:

  • line editors
  • content editors
  • substantive editors
  • structural editors
  • stylistic editors
  • manuscript editors
  • book doctors
  • technical editors
  • fact checkers
  • SEO Editors (better known as marketers)
  • project editors (mostly found in trade publishers, but sometimes someone working on an anthology would be called this)
  • acquisitions editors (which should be, by definition, exclusive to trade publishers)
  • layout editors (another name for book designer, as is design editor)
  • …and probably one or two I’m forgetting.

To add to the confusion, many publishers use different editors (assistant editor, associate editor, editor, senior editor, editor-in-chief, and a couple others) to place people in their corporate hierarchy rather than to indicate any editorial skill in their employees.

While one group or another (some with official status, such as the “Editor’s Association of Canada”, and others with less official status, such as “Seth’s Blog”) have tried to define each type of editor, I’ve never seen two groups (even two “official” groups) agree on every definition.  But let’s try and group these editor types into “what you kinda\sorta need these people to do for you” types.  (Some of these job types will be in multiple categories)

If you are done writing, but you think your beginning is a mess, your middle is just full of continuity editors, your climax is misplaced, and don’t think you can fix these things yourself, you want:

  • Developmental Editor
  • Content Editor
  • Substantive Editor
  • Structural Editor
  • Book Doctor
  • Stylistic Editor (heh… more on this below)

Of course, if your book is in that bad a shape, you might not be READY for an editor.  I’d recommend self-editing, using beta readers, maybe even consulting with friends and family asking them for advice (which may be useless, but even if it is useless it might inspire you to fix it yourself).

I’ll probably get in trouble with one or two of my Facebook friends for saying this (as some of these are their job titles), but you’re more likely to find frauds and scams in the above editorial types than you are anywhere else in the editing field.  To be clear:  There are a lot of legitimate editors who use the above titles.

However, a lot of old, classic vanity press scams used to send authors to shady “editors” or “book doctors” with the above titles.  These so-called editors charged exhorbitant rates, and their service was sub-par at best.  The scam vanity presses don’t employ that strategy as much, these days (they have other ways of extracting money from authors), but a lot of those ex-“book doctors” have hung their shingle as freelance editors to try and swindle authors on their own.

If your book is in pretty good shape in that regard, but you need a grammer overhaul to go along with a sanity check and maybe a little more smoothing of your manuscript, you might want (at least one of):

  • Copy Editor
  • Line Editor
  • Substantive Editor
  • Structural Editor

If all you want is a typo hunter and last-minute grammar checker, you probably want a:

  • Copy Editor
  • Proofreader
  • Technical Editor
  • Stylistic Editor

Please note, technical editors are usually for business writing, not fiction, though there is some crossover there.  Also, if you want to employ a “stylistic editor,” read their own description of what they do.  Sometimes a “stylistic editor” means they fix the “broad strokes” style of your book, trying to make your story flow better; other times, it means they go through and change your otherwise gramatically correct book to convert it from one style guide (say, Turabian, which was an “interpretation” of the “Chicago Manual of Style” my college insisted of for every course) to another (say, the Oxford Guide to Style — a.k.a., you’re converting your book from American English to British English).

Sometimes an editor doesn’t actually know which of these types of editor they are (for quite understandable reasons, since the definitions seem to be so varied).  They will hang out their shingle as a line editor or a structural editor, but when they write out what they think a “structural editor” is, they turn out to be a developmental\content editor.  Sometimes, they’ll call themselves a copy editor but will actually be a proofreader (I’ve heard a copy editor described as a “proofreader on steroids” on occasion, so this one isn’t that big a stretch).

This doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t any good — in fact, there are a lot of very good freelance editors who think they’re one kind of editor while they really are another one — just that you need to make sure you know what sort of editor you’re hiring.

The editor will generally say what they do with each type of edit they offer, but if you want to really experience their editorial process, don’t be afraid to ask for a sample edit.  Most editors will do the first thousand or so words of your book as a sample.  You can also ask them for editing credits and contact past clients to see if they were satisfied with the work.  Basically, whatever kind of edit you want to get done, make sure you check out the editor to be sure they’ll do an edit you’re happy with.

Editors cost money… usually.  With In Treachery Forged, I made a deal for an editor in exchange for babysitting services (at the rate babysitters are charging, nowadays, I’m not sure that was all that much of a bargain).  It helped that we were related, but I’d nearly negotiated an an exchange of the services with another editor I’d never met (again, I did research him, just to be sure) for one of my mother’s art quilts.  (As I’ve said before, my budget was tight with that book, which was partly why it took so long to get it out the door).  So, if you want editing services and are tight on cash, don’t be afraid to try and go the bartering route.

If you are paying cash, it’s a good thing to know what an editor costs.  Unfortunately, there is a wide variety of prices, partly delineated by region, and the only official guidelines (the suggested rates by the Editorial Freelance Association) are obscenely high for 90% of the country.

The EFA calculates its rates based on the overhead of its most frequent employer of the past fourty or fifty years — New York City based publishing houses.  New York City-based publishers had to pay their freelancers at a rate that allows those freelancers to pay the overhead for living in New York City, since they needed to be able to meet with those editors in person.  As the internet has taken off, editors could find work living in places much less expensive than New York City, and many of those editors were able to undercut the New York City based editors.  But those NYC editors continued to find employment at the EFA rates.

That doesn’t mean that people who charge the EFA-suggested rates are trying to rip you off; it most likely means they’re probably getting enough business from bigger publishing houses that they don’t need to compete with the outside-of-NY houses.  And those editors who do undercut the EFA-suggested rates aren’t really “cut-rate” editors — they just don’t have the same overhead as the other editors, which allows them to price their service for customers on a budget.

There are processes for “self” editing, as well.  Now, as I said before, I don’t really recommend publishing your book without getting a sanity check on it, at a minimum, but I think a lot of expense can be saved and quality added to any edit by first completing one or more “self”-editorial processes.

The reason “self” is in quotation marks is because not all of these processes are not done alone.  Dean Wesley Smith suggests a process involving multiple beta\first readers, for example.

There are options if you’re on your own, however.  For example, Holly Lisle’s One Pass Manuscript Revision technique can be done entirely by yourself, but her process isn’t for everyone.

Then there’s a technique I’ve heard from everyone (though it was first introduced to me by Allen L. Wold):  Give your manuscript a dramatic reading aloud; where you stumble (and I will add the caveat the stumble shouldn’t be related to a dry mouth, an unexpected phone call, etc.  Only a “natural” stumble), you need to make a fix.

Or you could just go through and make line-by-line revisions, just the way you would edit anything else.  Yes, it’s hard to retain objectivity, but that’s why you get someone else to give you a sanity check.

CONCLUSION

I’ll remind everyone that this whole blog series is built around a panel I was putting together for CapitalCon.  And this is only part one.  Obviously, I’m presenting more information here than I would have had time to mention at the convention itself.   I was preparing for discussions, and filling in (usually with anecdotal information) where I thought needed.  The added content kind of obscured my intended theme for this section, “Cheap, Fast, and Good: Pick Two,” but I think I’ve given you all some good information.

But I’m still one of those “intermediate” self-publishers I mentioned in Part Zero.  I think I’ve got a little experience and am pretty well-researched; I believe I’ve done a good job of seperating wheat and chaff in the realm of other people’s self-publishing advice; but I know there are self-publishers out there who have more experience and more knowledge than I do.   There probably are people out there who have less experience than me but still have some insight on the topic.  That was why I wanted this to be a roundtable discussion.

With that in mind, I’m inviting anyone who wants to speak on the topic to comment below — I’d love to discuss this with you.

Self-Publishing Roundtable, Part 0/6

Well, I was SUPPOSED to be running a Self-Publishing Roundtable this weekend at Capital Con DC.  This panel was supposed to be a roundtable discussion amoung self-publishers (especially targetting what I’d call “intermediate” self-publishers.  I.e., those people who actually had SOME experience self-publishing, but who might find some of the advice written for veteran authors (people who have a history in traditional publishing or who have dozens of self-published titles under their belt already) ineffective) to share thoughts and ideas for improving the efficiency and skill of their self-publishing enterprise.

Unfortunately, even though I had done a lot of the preparation for my panel already and had adjusted some things in my schedule to account for the convention travel, Capital Con had to cancel at the last minute after problems arose with the hotel (I sincerely hope this isn’t the end of the line for them; from what I could tell, they had taken the time to do everything right getting this convention started).

I’d put together an outline for the panel, and did a lot of research (well, okay, much of the ‘research’ was just finding citations for things I’d already figured out or had researched previously) for the topics I planned to discuss.  Now, since it’s largely in ‘scattered notes and outlines’ form, I actually had more material than I anticipated needing for the convention (just in case we covered some things faster than I expected).  Also, I’ve edited out a couple things that I’d rather cover from a different perspective (for example:  I had mentioned in my “In An Effort to Actually Use This Darned Blog Thing…” post that I wanted to discuss the software I use in writing and producing a book.  One of the topics I was going to raise in the Roundtable was what software people found was best for producing epub\mobi files; I know I’ll be covering my opinion on that topic later, so I’ve omitted it here).

Since the convention isn’t going to happen (at least, not any time soon), I figured I’d give the presentation here, on my blog.  If any other authors with self-publishing experience want to chime in with thoughts, please go ahead — I was hoping I wouldn’t be the only one with ideas at the panel.

The Outline listed six parts.  This is part Zero.  The series will run as follows:

Part I. Covers and Editors: Cheap, Fast, and Good — Pick Two

Part II. Pricing: There Is No Magic Bullet

Part III. Hybrid Authors: Advantages and Precautions

Part IV. Print Editions: Why Not?

Part V. ISBNs: A Big Deal About A Small Matter

Part VI.  Marketing: Well, We Know What Doesn’t Work….

In An Effort to Actually Use This Darned Blog Thing….

For months now, I’ve been trying to figure out something I could do with this blog.  I wrote up one convention report… and then I still couldn’t figure out anything for several months, at which point I came out with another convention report.  Most likely, my next post will also be a convention report, as Capital Con is lingering just around the corner.  (Of note:  I am scheduled to appear on a panel at Capital Con.  My first time as a panelist since self-publishing my first book, and my first at an science fiction convention (though I used to regularly do fanfic panels at local anime conventions, including multiple Katsucons, Otakons, and the very first Nekocon).  I was hoping to have a book or two to release during this period, but I’m way behind on them.  And, really, I don’t think you want to read me talking about how “I wrote another 376 words today!  I’m that much closer to finishing things off” every day.  Trying to devote more time towards my books to complete “In Forgery Divided” has also contributed to my lack of blog posts.

But those are not the only reason this blog is so sparse.  I have no desire to use this blog just for convention reports and book releases, but so far I haven’t really come up with any content that seems worth posting to a blog.

Excerpts for upcoming titles?  Um… maybe some day, in the run-up to publication, but I’m not ready to start those, yet.  Advice on writing?  Well, maybe sometimes, but it seems like half the author blogs do that — I want to be a little more unique than that.   I love getting reviews, but I’m not comfortable writing them myself (my review style is to look for and write about what’s wrong.  Now, I only do this for things that I like enough to feel like commenting on, but I’ve known people who took things wrong when I did that).

I do have some ideas for things to post, but most of what I can think of only really works once this blog has at least a small following.  That makes these ideas catch-22s:  I can’t write these blog posts until I build an audience, but I can’t build an audience without having more blog posts.

Well, for the past few days I’ve been brainstorming to try and figure out something to add as content.  So far I’ve come up with the following ideas:

1.  A blog series on quirky things I’ve researched for a book… and never used.  I would avoid mentioning those sorts of things that might get you put on some sort of watch list, but instead concentrate (at least initially) on “things you wouldn’t think you needed to research until you need them,”  I would include details about why I was looking for this bit of research, how I went about it, when I gave up on it, and why I ultimately decided not to use it… or at least, why I’ve decided not to use it so far.

2.  A discussion of the software that I use to publish a book.  This would include programs like Adobe InDesign, Microsoft Word, Scrivener, the (rumored defunct, but I’ve seen a release since hearing that rumor) freeware project Sigil, the Hemingway App, and more.

3.  A very few specific writing posts on certain things (such as a why and how for House Style Guides for the self-publisher… which might also include a small diatribe on the Chicago Manual of Style.  Though most of what I’d say on the later has already been said by CJ Cherryh here).

4.  Once I’ve built up a few posts on other topics, I might offer some author interviews (cross-promotion!  A subject I will probably mention at my Capital Con panel, among a dozen or so other things).  And, of course, I will continue to talk about conventions I attend… and, hopefully soon, I will actually get around to finishing those two books in my pipeline, and can post about them as well.