Looking Forward, Looking Back Redux

1 Sep

September 1st seems like a dramatically different day than August 31st.  Summer is not officially over – but it suddenly feels like it is. Even if the days stay warm and the nights mild, there is a change in the light and a shift in the way shadow lies across the ground. It feels like the end of something. Yet it feels like the start, too. Maybe all those years of going to school makes September feel more like the start of a new year than January.

Eight months ago I acquired Bundoran Press. I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do: publish good science fiction books and put them in the hands of readers. I had a reasonably good idea how to go about it, too. Publishing has been around for a long time and the basics are pretty clear. Acquire and develop good novels, bring them to the public’s attention, find a simple and easy way to put them in their hands. Those three steps don’t change, whether you are producing print books or e-books. I knew this year would be about learning exactly how to do those three tasks efficiently.

You might think step one would be dead simple. After all everybody is writing a book. Which is why some estimates suggest 500,000 or more e-books will be published this year, many of them self-published.

Most of them – sorry, but it’s true – are badly written, poorly edited, ugly and will sell 50 copies, mostly to family and friends. Some will sell tens or even hundreds of thousands. And their authors may land traditional publishing contracts from major houses – which they will gladly take. Why? Because most self-publishers have discovered – producing a good book means getting an editor, investing in a cover and proper design and converting text in a way that suits the e-book format. It takes time and money. While some writers thrive as small business people, most just want to write. Getting a traditional publisher to deal with that other stuff seems like a good idea.

So, I should be flooded with books. Not so much. We’re not that well known and our advances won’t let you quit the day job. Still, between January and March, I received 39 submissions from half a dozen countries. From those I bought 3 books (I offered on a fourth but we couldn’t reach a deal). Another book was acquired through direct solicitation of an author I thought might have something on hand. He did and Right To Know was published last month. Two more books were acquired as sequels. I also have an anthology coming out next spring.

Still, I have a gap in my 2014 publishing schedule that I need to fill soon – which is why I’ve re-opened submissions as of today. I have to acquire (and edit and do all the necessary design and marketing, etc.) a Canadian book for publication in October 2014. I’m limited to Canadian because of the rules Canada Council funding, which I hope to get next year. But I also have 3-4 books to acquire for 2015 so I am reading non-Canadian authors a little later in the fall. 2015 may seem a long way away but it’s closer than you think. Will I get something that fits my mandate (Science Fiction only), is fresh and well written enough that it can be polished in a few months? I hope so – but only time will tell.

Despite that, finding good books is the easiest step in the process.

Putting them in peoples’ hands is a little trickier. Small publishers face particular problems when it comes to selling books. Until you have distribution, you have no real way to mass market your books. You can sell them on your web-site, you can make deals with individual stores to take a few copies outright – or a few more on consignment – and you can sell them at book fairs, SF conventions or similar events. Distribution (which Bundoran now has with Diamond Book Distributors) gets the books into more stories and on-line venues. Each sales method has its own cost of sales issues. Postage is expensive, stores and distribution companies take their share, conventions charge for space and incur travel costs. Once you have distribution, you face the peculiar situation of competing with yourself: if a big on-line retailer drastically discounts your product, how do you continue to charge full-price on your own web-site or convention table? Everything is designed to squeeze the margin of the publisher – which means you can’t make a profit by selling a few hundred copies of every book. It’s true – the long tail (the slow and steady sale of back-list books) may eventually increase your revenue stream but only if you have enough capital to actually survive that long. The only immediate solution is to sell more copies: risk larger print runs and sell a higher percentage of the run in the first six months of publication.

Which brings us to the middle task – bringing your books to the public’s attention. It is by far the most daunting – everyone I know, including people with a lot more experience in the book business than me – are uncertain what works best. That said, most people have come to certain conclusions about what doesn’t work. Here’s what I’ve learned and what I’ve heard.

Twitter is filled with people screaming: ‘buy my book!’ Some say it is a roaring success; others claim it is nothing but noise. I know I’ve never even looked at a book because of a tweet, let alone considered buying it. Not can I say for certain that I’ve ever sold a single book because of Twitter. I do think that used judiciously, Twitter does provide an opportunity to make yourself look interesting – which might lead people to buy your book.  Facebook provides a better opportunity to present yourself as a complete and complex entity but its reach is limited for any individual. You usually have to be famous to get famous on either Twitter or Facebook. I suspect the same is true throughout social media. Exceptions, as always, make the rule. I continue to experiment to try to determine its value.

Reviews may or may not be useful – depending on who writes them and who reads them. The one scientific study I’ve seen seems to suggest it doesn’t matter much if the review is good or bad as long as it appears in a prominent place. A bad review in the New York Review of Books will sell more books than a dozen good reviews on little-known blogs. Why? Because the NYRB reviews so few books that any that makes it pages must be ‘worthy’ of being read – even if that particular reviewer didn’t like it. Do reviews on Goodreads or Amazon matter? Again, the evidence is vague or non-existent. People grow increasingly cynical as we discover they can be purchased in bulk. Still, getting reviews seems worthwhile and I’ll keep pursuing them as long as it doesn’t become onerous in terms of time, postage costs and free books.

Books-in-stores remain one of the best ways to bring your books to the attention of the most important group of people of all: people who regularly buy books. As I learned at When Word Collide and Fan Expo, showing your book to thousands of people who don’t buy books is less valuable than showing them to hundreds who do. Fan Expo had 200 times as many attendees as WWC but resulted in one-third as many sales. If you want to hunt ducks, go where the ducks are. If you want to find book buyers, go to bookstores. Books-in-stores have their own issues. They can be returned for full credit – potentially disastrous to small publishers. Still, it does seem like a necessary risk – so I will be expanding distribution next year.

E-books continue to be a conundrum. Even large publishers are uncertain what drives e-book sales. Author name is key, as is print book success. Word of mouth, driven by on-line communities, has certainly worked wonders for the indie authors who have made the magical transition from obscurity to fame. How to create that buzz seems more idiosyncratic that systematic; each author finds their own process and, despite claims to the contrary, each process seems hard to replicate. To a small publisher, does it matter anyway? In Canada, e-books represent 20% of all sales (in the US, closer to 30%) but growth seems to have leveled off and a large percentage of book buyers (as opposed to the general public) claim they would never buy an e-book. The truth is: succeed in selling print books and e-books will take care of themselves. It’s not proven yet that the opposite is also true. For now, I’ll continue to produce both simultaneously but focus on print book marketing.

So eight months in, I’ve made a few mistakes and done some things right. I’ve learned some lessons – occasionally the hard way. I still have money to spend and, finally, revenues are starting to grow. Most importantly, I’ve met all my milestones. If I can keep doing that for another eighteen months, Bundoran Press should have a long and happy life. If not, well, I’ll have had a lot of fun.

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