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March 8, 2014 - 9:00 am
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Book publishing back in the day

When I was in my 20s and 30s, my dream was to publish the Great American Junk Novel. I had no illusions about my ability (or, rather, inability) to write something profound, but I truly believed I could write a Bridges of Madison County or Da Vinci Code. I was wrong. After innumerable efforts, I gave up. I have no imagination, no sense of character, and I’m incapable of writing dialog.

Thanks to the blogosphere, however, I discovered in my 40s that, while I’m not and never will be a novelist, I am an essayist. Over the past decade, I’ve written over 11,000 essays, which easily qualifies me for “expert” status. My blog has become a vast repository of my thoughts on just about everything: politics (mostly politics), parenting, education, Hollywood, social issues, national security, travel — you name it, and I’ve probably written about it.

Considering how many hours I’ve spent at the keyboard, I’ve always hoped that I could monetize my blog. Unfortunately, while I’ve got a solid, and very dear to me, following of readers who genuinely like the way I think and write, I’ve never leveraged my way into the Big Time amongst conservative bloggers. Not being in the Big Time means that any monetization I’ve done has earned me just enough money to buy a few books, not to make a mortgage payment or two.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that I might be able to make some money if I took my writings to a new readership. That’s how I decided to try my hand at self-publishing. I saw it all clearly:  I would assemble my essays, package them attractively, upload them at Kindle Direct Publishing, and sell them for a profit on Amazon. It seemed so easy….

Sadly, it wasn’t easy, at least not the first time around. That didn’t deter me from publishing a second e-book and, just recently, a third. Each book has been easier than the one before, so I’d like to share with you some lessons I’ve learned, many of which I learned the hard way.

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All Comments   (14)
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Really? Fortunately that opinion is not reflected in my tax return..
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
You've failed to learn the primary lesson of a modern author: You're not published until you're published somewhere other than Amazon--preferably in as many other places as possible. And that's as true of self-publishing as it is of going a traditional route.

It's the not-quite-there author who regards being on Amazon as an achievement to be earnestly desired. It's the professional author who regards Amazon as offering the same serious threat to independent publishing as Microsoft did to computer security in the mid-1990s.

Try and you'll find yourself at Amazon. Amazon is driven by the same bullying mentality that drove Microsoft to want to be 'on every desktop' on the planet. It's a drive to dominate, to control, and to dictate that knows no bounds and allows no genuine freedom for others.

To give a for instance, Amazon's royalty scheme is driven by an urge to drive all book pricing into the $2.99-9.99 range. Outside that range it pays a measly 35% royalty and pockets 65% for itself. Amazon has no comprehension that any other book form exists other than novels. I doesn't know are doesn't care that there are professional books with limited demand that must be priced over $9.99 to simply recoup their cost of production.

Amazon also discourages heavily illustrated books by charging download fees that are over three times what cellular companies charge for cellular data and 100 times what Amazon itself charges for file downloads with its AWS. If you put pictures in your book, you got ripped off. Apple, for instance, charges no download fees.

In short, professional authors do what they can to keep this tasteless, clueless behemoth that regards books as mere commodities (like toilet paper) from growing still larger. They publish elsewhere and encourage their readers to buy elsewhere.

Professionalism is a culture with standards that include responsibility and the wider public good. It's doesn't get caught up in thinking the technicalities of formatting a book for Amazon Kindles is the be-all and end-all of existence.

And if you want simplicity, use Apple's iBooks Author, which will handle are the formatting details for you. And if you're doing just novels, look into Vellum, which will format your book for iBooks, Kindles and the Nook.

Smashwords is also a good way to reach multiple outlets including library distribution.

But don't ever regard being on Amazon as having 'arrived' as an author. Deal with it like real computer pros dealt with Microsoft Windows in the mid-to-late 90s, as a piece of junk that had to be taken seriously simply because it dominated the market.

--Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have published only 3 print magazine articles so far, and 15 or 20 articles for an online site. And I'm working on a book.

But I have learned to be very critical of my own writing. And unfortunately, perhaps, that has made me critical of others' works.

So I can't read anything any more without thinking, "I would not have said it that way." or "Are you saying that the Japanese invaded Malaysia or the guy watching them did so?" or "Splint infinitive again? You sure do like them. Maybe they are not so bad; what do I know?" And we are talking about books by people such as Newt Gingrich.

One book that covered an interesting subject I finally had to just put down. I found myself doing so much editing that I could not enjoy it.

So beware, those who like to read and have "a restless urge to write." One joy may detract from the other.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
1. Look into outsourcing ebook conversion. I'm about to use BB ebooks in Thailand (they also sell a book and offer free tutorials on making ebooks; check it out and you'll see why it's easier to outsource it). Cost: $50 for a novella in three formats I can use anywhere. Bigger books are more expensive, of course, but far easier on you. (Kindles, especially have a problem with differences between the plain kindles, the Paperwhite series and the color models. Things like a Table of Contents that works across all platforms, and design elements such as drop caps.

2. Yes, the first two covers are not good, but I've seen worse. Check out the Lousy Book Covers tumblr for egregious examples. A bigger problem is that the titles aren't that compelling. They're generic (even Bookworm as a nom de blog is bland and doesn't hint at the political content). Lesson #9 should be "think like Don Draper." Make your book covers stand up to anything in a bookstore (and most of them are pretty blah, too. Aim higher.) Choose a punchier title ("Bushworld" smacks you; "Life in Obama's America" doesn't).

3. Publish a trade paperback version. It's possible to do it from Word 2007 to PDF (via CutePDF because I want my art to come out at 300dpi, something Word refuses to do) to CreateSpace. You'll get more money per sale, plus Amazon uses the price of the trade to make your kindle price look like a big discount.

4. Despite Zombie's comment below, people will pay for content. But it has to be worth buying. Newspapers have forgotten that once they became a monopoly. Don't you.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have to give you credit for all the work you did. My own self-published books all had professional help. I hired an editor for a few hundred dollars. I also used a book designer who cost a bit more but I didn't want to learn how to format for either a physical book or the Kindle version. The most laborious task was proofreading again and again. My wife was drafted into this job and she did great, but if I do it again I would certainly hire a good proofreader.

Responding to "zombie:" I used my experience helping people cope with he death of a spouse and the financial impact to create an informative guide BEFORE I GO and an accompanying workbook BEFORE I GO WORKBOOK. I can't claim to have sold millions, but it has sold thousands.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
That's great! The one exception to my generalization is that How-To books -- even emotional how-to books such as yours -- still attract an audience because they serve a tangible function above and beyond entertainment or enjoyment. So you hit the right niche.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
For those of us who aspire to writing fiction, there are a couple of other lessons of equal importance:
-- Have some stories to tell that have implications for (and applications to) human life and how it should be lived;
-- Learn how to tell such a story affectingly.

The second lesson is an easier one to satisfy than the first, most reliably by the study of the works of other writers who've told stories that have thrilled you. The first lesson can absorb a whole lifetime...and often does. Richard Adams, the author of Watership Down and The Girl In A Swing, didn't start writing until he was a grandfather -- an observation that's daunting and hopeful in equal measure.

50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm just going to step in here and give some incredibly cynical, depressing and negative advice. This is not in any way a comment on your or your books, BW, but rather my observation of reality in 21st-century America:

Self-Publishing Lesson 9:


Nearly every newspaper in the world, and countless blogs, and a valley-ful of failed startups have all learned the same miserable lesson over the last decade: There is so much free content on the Web that there's basically no motivation for anyone to shell out a nickel to read anything anymore.

Remember Neither do most people. It was a test case: Would customers -- any customers, anywhere -- pay money to get answers to questions? Answer: No. $200 million in startup funds flushed away to prove that point. Information is now free: Only a fool would pay to get information.

Remember the San Francisco Chronicle paywall? (And innumerable other newspaper paywalls?) I know people on the inside there: 100% complete disastrous failure. Basically NO ONE paid actual money to read the super-special extra bonus content that the Chron hid behind a paywall. They had in fact selected all their "best writers" to be pay-to-view only, to lure in readers -- but the end result was that their best writers all suddenly had a combined readership of 0, while the free paper was full cruddy writing. They're still toying with the remnants of the concept, but for the most part the idea was abandoned (as it was at most papers).

In the book world, "Self-publishing" used to take two forms, back when books were made of paper: Vanity presses, and (for the truly entrepreneurial) starting your own publishing company. Since it took time, effort and skill to start a publishing company, most people never went that route, and took the "easy" way -- paying a vanity press to print up your book for you. Problem is, you at least had a CHANCE at success if you started your own company; but in the entire history of vanity publishing, I think approximately 0.00% of all books ever published this way sold enough copies to pay for the amount the author paid to have it printed.

As "new" as e-book/Kindle self-publishing is, it is still just a modern variant of the vanity presses of yesteryear. The only difference is that now, the upfront costs are much much less, so there's much less of a "risk" that you'll lose money on the deal. That's the upside. The downside is that still close to 0.00001% of all e-books/self-published Kindle books ever become "popular." The vast majority of them are amateur efforts by amateurs.

The problem is that amateur books comprise such a large percentage of the e-book ecosystem that the general public gives a blanket dismissal of ALL books published this way, pre-emptively. So that when a rare book such as yours comes along with actual good content, it's doomed from the start because it's in a product category that the public had already filed in the "ignore" category.

Even the traditional big-publisher physical book world is in crisis, as the market for "back catalog" or "small" books is drying up; overall, publishers are still selling books, but increasingly the sales almost ALL come from blockbuster titles by famous authors (or famous people who decided to cash in on their fame by allowing the publisher to put their famous name on the cover of a book actually written by a ghostwriter). Gone are the days when publishers have a stable of decent writers who write decent books and sell decent amounts. Now, it's a handful of megastars with blockbuster bestsellers, and everyone else is a failure whose book flops utterly.

Tis problem is exacerbated with e-Books, especially e-Books that are composed of previously published content such as yours. Every single word in your compilations can already be read for free on your Web site. So what motivation would a potential customer have to PAY to read the same stuff?

You might reply that you have gathered it all together in a convenient package for them to read on their Kindle. But that's just another way of saying that you have interposed yourself as a "filter" between the reader and the Internet and pre-selected a few things that you deem they should see. But the revolution of the Internet is the abandonment and in fact vigorous rejection of the "filter" model of content consumption in which you concede power to some expert or editor or news anchor or whomever to determine what you get to see. Nowadays, people want access to "the raw feed" of reality, and choose themselves what they want to read, thereby becoming their own "filters."

And not only are you asking people to let you assume the role of their filter, but with an e-Book you are asking them to PAY for the privilege of having LESS access to the raw material.

Much of this decision-making on the part of the customer is unconscious, but it helps to explain why your (and almost all other) e-Book compilations didn't become big s
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Formatting with html & css and direct conversion using KindleGen is a reliable method. It's straightforward and does not produce conversion surprises. It's just like any old markup for a webpage, but much much less complicated. This assumes you won't run screaming from command-line programs...

50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Fascinating read. I used to work as a mid-level manager for an electronic book publisher. At the time ebook production was very new, and I remember well all the trials and tribulations some of my more committed folks went through trying to uncluster kindle formatting issues.

Here's a left-field type of question--do you think there's any place for professional proofreading in the self publishing market? In other words, if one was, or was planning to set up as a freelance proofreader/copy editor, would it be worthwhile to commit any marketing resources to self publishers?
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
John Kremer has a huge amount of book marketing resources (many free) at His paid resources are worth every penny, too.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
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