Saturday, May 03, 2008

Looking to the Future

It's the weekend. I'm off writing, but I've left you a post from September 15, 2006:

Over this past year, I have nattered on and on about the risks of self-publishing and the dangers of getting scammed by the so-called subsidy presses (the new PC term for what used to be called vanity presses).

At the same time, I have repeatedly said I thought self-publishing was the wave of the future--once the significant hurdles were overcome. IMHO, the three largest hurdles are:

1) Vetting for Quality. Bookstores and libraries trust that "real" publishers that make their profit from reader income (as opposed to subsidy presses that make their profit off payments made by the author) will vet the manuscripts. A large part of the reason why libraries don't accept self-published books is that they trust in the quality of the books they order from publishers' catalogs. There is no system in place to guarantee quality in self-pubbed books.

Please understand, I'm not saying there are no quality self-pubbed books. I'm saying there is no CONSISTENCY in the quality of self-pubbed books. This makes them suspect in the eyes of booksellers and libraries.

2) Establishing a Marketing System. The vast majority of self-pubbed books sell less than 100 copies. This is because there has been no viable system set up for selling self-pubbed books. Yeah, you can list them on eBay and Amazon, but that doesn't guarantee that anyone will see them there. You need something to drive traffic in your direction. Merely having a bound book is not enough.

3) Overcoming a Negative Reputation. The subsidy presses have peed in their own pool. Greed led to their accepting any manuscript--no matter how bad the quality--and has given their industry a reputation for poor quality. At this point in time, only the most naive and impatient authors do not realize that claiming to be a "published" author and then saying, "My publisher is PublishAmerica," (or any of another dozen subsidy presses) will result in derision and eye-rolling.

Having said all that, I see signs that self-publishing is making real progress. Yahoo had an article on August 31 [2006] titled, "Book Publishing Turns the Page, Thanks to Technology."

It's important to note that the article was geared toward non-fiction, not fiction. By its very nature, non-fiction has some advantages, especially when it comes to the marketing issue.

Most people who purchase a non-fiction book are predisposed to be interested in the subject matter. Those of you who remember my June 20th blog will know that I said authors writing for a niche market may be one of three groups that would do well to self-pub.

A niche market is a small segment of the publishing industry. Large publishers may be reluctant to take on a manuscript for a tiny and very specific area of the market because the anticipated return on investment is not high enough. However, an author who takes advantage of print-on-demand technology is able to economically do a small print run of books. If the author is well connected to his niche market and has a pool of readers ready and willing to buy his book, he can overcome obstacle #2 above.

Allen Noren, director of online marketing for O'Reilly Media (a company that helps writers self-pub technical books) says, "Other publishers aren't our biggest competitors. Our biggest competitor is what people are able to find for free via the search engines." Noren validates my point re a niche market. Readers will go looking for a book on a subject in which they are interested.

The Yahoo article describes O'Reilly's, which "caters to professors who want to build their own custom textbooks by combining selected chapters from other texts, course notes and article handouts." O'Reilly will manage the copyright issues, create an index, design the cover and oversee the printing.

Of course, when you're talking about a college professor who dictates what book his students must buy, you're talking about a captive niche market. Even so, the technology has now improved to the point that O'Reilly estimates the cost of a 200-page text at $32 as opposed to the cost estimate for a standard college text, estimated to be $125 by Pearson Education. If the price for that self-pubbed text is set at $75 (a bargain for a new textbook these days), you can see why the professor might be interested in self pubbing. And, using print-on-demand technology, the non-fiction author can order just the number of books he needs when he needs them. Far be it from cynical me to suggest that the professor could issue a new edition of the book every couple of years, ensuring continued new purchases and to defeat any secondary market in used books growing up around the college in question. :)

According to the Yahoo article, "The falling cost of owning a press is key to the growth of print on demand. Hewlett-Packard's Indigo line of digital presses has been called the Cadillac of on-demand printing technology. The presses cost $150,000 to $750,000--chump change compared with the $1 million-plus cost of a full-size offset press . . . this kind of economy is making small markets much more attractive for booksellers."

As more legitimate operations like O'Reilly Media's come available, hopefully the rapacious subsidy presses will be driven out of business. The new print-on-demand operations need to focus on developing a decent reputation, instead of allowing greed to encourage them to print any manuscript offered to them.

Non-fiction is already making headway in the self-publishing arena. It's only a matter of time before the fiction genre develops some viable marketing methods, and self-pubbing starts making headway over there, too.

Then I really will say neener-neener, I told you so.

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