Repost: How to sell lots and lots of your books

Speak Without Interruption, a blog worth following, recently had an interesting article about how to sell lots and lots of your books. This article briefly discussed how to use the Internet to sell your books by providing samples on your website and elsewhere.

I wanted to add that this is a major thrust of Amazon’s marketing, where they have the “Look inside this book!” option that lets you thumb your way through the TOC, the index, and a few pages to give you the flavor of what you’re getting. Not every book has this, but I’d wager that a majority of books in print do because it’s a smart way to go.

My upcoming book, being a book for a specific audience (still can’t say at this moment), will have a sample chapter available in PDF format from a number of venues (again, I can’t say specifically yet) that interested readers can download and review. If the book looks like it’s worth it at that point, they can buy it. I’m probably going to peddle it through Amazon, even though they take a 50% bite of the action, simply because it’s worth the exposure.

Typing or dictating?

34 years ago, I had to learn to touch-type as part of a CETA program. FWIW, I hated the idea of having to learn this, but they said, no, you’ve gotta learn to do it. (grump grump grouse pout stomp stomp!)

Okay, I enrolled in the typing class. And I went from 0 to 48wpm in about 2 months (40 was all they required of you to graduate from that class.) Within a couple years, I’d gotten to 75wpm and 30-some years later after all these books and manuals, it’s now 130wpm when I’m really cruising. Mind you, to do that, I need an Avant Stellar keyboard, which has hard plastic keys with a wide channel, a deep stroke, and a click at the bottom of the keyboard (just like the old IBM AT keyboards). They’ve also got the function keys on the left, just like God intended, and you can reprogram the keyboard to do anything. They automatically include keycaps to put the Ctrl key, the Alt key, and the Caps Lock back where they’re supposed to go, so all those Ctrl + F-key combos are something you can do with one hand without looking. But don’t take my word for it; go look at them here. They’re expensive but they’re totally worth it to me. And they last.

I discovered on my very first book that once I’d sunk into that creative reverie that makes writing so much fun, I was thinking ahead of what I was actually typing by a couple of paragraphs. It was a magical experience for me: I was sitting there watching the screen and the fingers were blazing away and I was thinking of how this was all going to unfold. My hands were feeling like spooled devices, like printers: I’d have a paragraph or so in the mental buffer waiting to get out and the hands would work independently to catch up with things as fast as they could. It was biggedly cool. I enjoyed it enormously then and whenever it’s happened since.

This thinking ahead and letting the hands run on automatic is why I strongly prefer using keyboard commands to mouse commands when I’m working. Keyboard commands can be injected into the stream of things the hands are doing. Doing commands to make a correction or what not is probably a real-time operation as opposed to something spooled, but even so, I don’t have to move the hands from the keyboard, I don’t really have to watch the screen too much, and I don’t have to break my thinking. Picking up the mouse and manipulating the cursor is very much a real-time operation that uses a whole different set of reflexes and is, frankly, just a little distracting.

This “spooled vs. real-time” distinction is a lot of why I don’t dictate my books. I know a lot of people who use Dragon NaturallySpeaking software to dictate to their computers. Dragon NaturallySpeaking is really good software in many ways and everything I’ve heard about it suggests that it’s a product you really want to consider if you need to dictate. But it’s just not feeling like it’s something I’d want to use. Talking the book doesn’t feel right because it’s a real-time operation. I can’t really think ahead when I’m dictating. I also don’t know if I can talk for 6, 8, 10 hours a day. Shoot, talking on the phone for a couple hours a day is difficult enough at times. And there’s also the problem of not wanting to talk early in the morning. It takes more energy than fluttering my fingers. And on top of all of that, I like to have background noise like music or the idiot box, which’d be a problem.

But today I heard about a great use for dictation that I’m going to have to try. Aila Accad, president of LifeQuest International, told me that she dictates into a digital recorder, which she then inputs to the Dragon NaturallySpeaking software. The software inhales the digital information, turns it into text, and voila! I need to give this a shot, because when I’m on the road, I could in fact write notes, ideas, and other things. I could even practice some of my presentations and get transcriptions.

And who knows? I might get in the habit of dictating more and use it here when I’m home, too. But I’d have to turn the music down, so first things first.

The “Chapter 6” phenomenon

I’ve touched on the idea of recording your process when you’re writing in “Writing the book–during,” but I want to talk some more about it.

Long, long ago (1984), in a software environment far, far away (DOS 2.0 using Wordstar 3.3), I had just started my first tech writing job. I was documenting accounting software at a company that has been gone for about 20 years. I had gotten this job after being a programmer/analyst writing accounting software and I was rather nervous because I didn’t have any formal training writing software manuals.

And I froze; at least, that’s what it felt like. I couldn’t get words down.

It was frightening: I was worried that I have having impostor syndrome and I’d hit the wall. I kept trying to document something and I couldn’t. I’d poke at things and nothing would happen. I finally said “Well, if I can’t write this, I’ll do things that need doing and see what happens,” so I set up physical files for the chapters, I looked at the software, and did a lot of little things, and eventually, the words started flowing. A lot. I got done with the manual on time and even won an award for it: my first manual and it was an award-winner! Hurrah!!

Next manual comes in, I’m ready to rock and roll and… I froze again. “Okay, we’ll poke at things and set up files and see what happens.” And after a while of poking and playing around with the software, I wrote another award-winning manual. And so it went.

I soon discovered that what I was seeing was not freezing, it was my process. The first thing I’ve found I need to do when writing something big seems to be not write about it. I need to do almost anything but that still gives me exposure to the thing I’m writing about so I can let the ideas percolate in the back of my head. After a certain amount of time (for some varying value of “certain amount” that I can usually gauge based on a variety of esoteric factors such as the size of the project, its technical complexity, and the card you have in your hand there), I usually start writing and everything’s fine. This applies to manuals, to books, to magazine articles… almost everything, really.

Similarly, I discovered by the time I’d done my third book that I suffered from what I called the Chapter 6 phenomenon. The Chapter 6 phenomenon is that I’ve been cruising along nicely, spitting out chapters regularly until I hit Chapter 6 (or thereabouts) and it becomes The Thing That Would Not Die or, perhaps, more accurately, The Chapter That Would Not Live. The chapter goes on and on and on… and on. And on some more; nothing I can do seems to bring it to an end. When I finally get done with the chapter, it becomes apparent why I was having this problem: Chapter 6 is generally two or even three times as long as the preceding chapters, so the fact that it was taking two or three times the time to finish it isn’t surprising. Most of this is structural: Chapter 6 is about where I’m shifting the focus of the book after having laid down the basics, so I’m starting something new and there may be a considerable amount of conceptual pump-priming going on. But in the middle of the chapter, it’s impossible to see that. I have no visible perspective when all I can see is Chapter 6 from horizon to horizon. These days, all I can say to myself is “Oh, yeah, I’m Chapter 6-ing.” (Chapter 6 is kind of like a big cork, too; once I’m past it things go back to being easy again.)

I also mentioned recently in “Prison and Writing” that I had trouble near the end of the project. This is part of my process, too: maybe not as subjective as some of the others, but an important part of my process that I can expect and need to plan for. Buckling down at the last helps me get the book out, when I’d much rather go play.

The thing is, I would not have known about any of these things if I hadn’t been keeping a day log. A day log is a private file (I usually just open a flat file in Word, my word processor of choice) in which I record notes and comments about how I’m feeling, what’s going on, and so on. (Look for more about day logs in an upcoming post.) If I feel like the chapter I’m working on is taking forever, I say so. If it’s going swimmingly, I say that, too. But equally importantly, you probably won’t know what your process is the first time you write a book. Even if you’ve written a bunch of manuals before, your processes when writing a book may be very different.

You also won’t necessarily have the same experiences I do. One of my co-authors observed that she never seems to have Chapter 6 problems, but another has it on most of the books we wrote together. It happens. You may have other personal reactions to various stages of the book that I don’t. The message here is: whenever you’re writing a book, keep a steno pad or a Word file with notes about how you’re feeling a couple times each day. You won’t have enough data to draw conclusions during the first project, but at the end as part of your post mortem, you may be able to match feelings with productivity and even identify some patterns that let you predict what will happen the next time you write a book.

Agents: a brief thought and a recommendation

After I wrote my first book, I started wondering if I needed an agent. You hear a lot about that kinda thing, you know, so I shopped around. I signed up with an agency that was, shall we say, less than desirable. I ended up firing them for reasons that (comparing notes with other authors years later) are reasons other authors have fired them. I then went without an agent for the next 15 books. I learned a lot about negotiating contracts from Richard Curtis’s essential book, “How to Be Your Own Literary Agent.”

But after 17 books over a little more than a decade, I decided that maybe I really did want to get an agent. It was getting to be a lot of work finding books, negotiating the contracts, and managing things. I knew I could do it really well; I was just tired of it. So I started talking to Studio B, an agency specializing in computer books out of Indianapolis. It took me a long time to decide to sign with them, as I’d really felt burned by my previous experience a decade before, but sign I did and I have never been sorry I did. They’re great people and they do an excellent and very personal job of representation. The key question I needed to answer with them was this: “Will you bring in more business than I can do on my own, even when you figure in the agency percentage?” The answer has been an unqualified “Yes!”

I’m really happy having an agency and this agency in particular. Not every agency works for everyone. For example, I’ve heard of people happy with the agency I won’t name and who’ve been there for years and good for them. You don’t need an agency. You may not want an agency. But if you are doing high tech books and you do want an agency, then you could do far worse than checking out Studio B.

When life hands you lemons, drink more tequila

I just don’t know what it is, but I seem to be having a bad case of disk rot here. I’ve just had my fifth boot disk crash in a year and a half. (Other hard disks have failed as well but the boot disks have been the most painful.) I felt like I’d mined all the satisfaction out of this experience that I was likely to have after just the third disk crash at least, but, nope, the universe seemed to think I needed more experience with this. It’s not been just hard disks; I’m on my third motherboard, too. New RAM, new processors, almost everything. It really sucks.

Okay, so what have I learned from all of this? There are several things I want to pass on to you:

  • Always use an offsite backup system. It’s not just enough to have DVD copies of critical files, because the DVDs are of necessity always out of date. You need to have a good online backup system that automatically backs up critical files whenever they’re updated. I use Carbonite these days. There are other online backup systems that cost about the same and are probably just as good, but I’ve been pleased enough with Carbonite. There’s a referral program, so if you want to do that, I can officially refer you so that you and I get extra free months. Ping me and we’ll do it.
  • Don’t depend on the offsite backup system exclusively. I’ve got my email files backing up with Carbonite every night. This ought to be enough, right? Apparently not: on the most recent disk crash, when I went to recover my email, it turned out that the email had not backed up correctly to Carbonite in the last throes of the hard disk’s life… and the munched information overwrote the good information and ~poof~ no more email files. Fortunately, I had a disk-to-disk backup from November 27th, so I only lost about a week’s worth of responses and had to resift a bunch of email. More time lost, but not a complete disaster. The moral of this particular story, though, is not to depend on one single backup method. I survived because I had things backed up to another hard disk. I’m also considering putting together a small RAID system just to keep a complete immediate backup of everything. It’ll only cost about $400 and will be Yet Another Layer of backup.
  • Have physical backups that aren’t part of something accessible online. I might not have lost nearly so much email if I’d been burning things occasionally to DVD. Normally, I do this every week or two to make a permanent image of email and other job critical files, but the computer was giving me too much grief and I was relying on the more electronic versions. Mistake. But I’m also reminded of my very first hard disk crash ever, back in 1987, when I was writing my very first book. I was copying the current chapter file off to a floppy disk every hour or so (I’d just leave the floppy in the drive and copy when I hit a breakpoint). I’d copy all the files off at the end of the day and carry the floppies upstairs with me when I left the office. And lo! I lucked out: the hard disk I was using crashed and I was able to restore the files on the floppy to the other hard disk and no data was lost and only a few hours of writing time were compromised. Files these days take a lot more than the capacity of a single floppy, but the principle’s the same: for a project you’re working on, copy short-term files to a flash drive or a CD or DVD and carry them with you when you’re away from the computer. For large blocks of files, get a cheap 1T hard disk in an external enclosure and use that to do a file slurp of everything and then save that at a friend’s house. If you’re robbed or your house burns down–and trust me, both things have happened to good friends this year–your files will still be recoverable from the drive at your friend’s house as well as the Carbonite backup.
  • Run a lot of anti-virus and anti-spyware programs. The purpose of most viruses these days is not to randomly damage your computer as it used to be 15-20 years ago, but rather to avoid detection and enslave your computer for use as part of a botnet. Nevertheless, not every piece of software is perfect even if it’s intended to work without a ripple. Anything that tampers with the operating system can cause problems. Spyware is much more common and it’s not nearly as benign, ironically. Spyware can and does slow down your system. It also can be an open door to much nastier software (such as the aforementioned viruses). There are several free anti-virus programs for home users such as Avast, Panda, and AVG. (Panda also has a rootkit detector you may want to try.) Many other programs are available for a free trial, but I stay with Avast and AVG because they’re free and they work fine. For spyware, consider Ad-Aware and Spybot. There’s no reason you can’t have multiple spyware detectors on your system and it’s been my experience that different programs are better at catching some things than others. Do I think that I lost hard disks to viruses or spyware? No, I’m fairly sure that this was all hardware-related. But I’m not absolutely sure. And I know that as soon as I stop testing for viruses and spyware, I’ll get hit by them.

My overall tip is if you find yourself saying “I don’t have time to back up my data,” stop immediately and back up your data. Disks fail for all sorts of reasons and none of them are pretty. Every time this happens, it takes me the best part of a week to recover all the programs, all the configurations, all the settings, and all the links, even when I haven’t lost any actual data. And I’ve usually lost at least some data–bookmarks, links, and so on.

The one thing out of this I have not learned is any really good new swear words, and believe me, I could have used some. (Although I want to be really clear that, now that I am hopefully past all of this problem, I don’t want to have this happen yet again just for the opportunity to learn more words.) I am best reminded of one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes: “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”

Believe me, Mark Twain was $%*@#$_)^!!! right.

Do you want to self-publish or go with a traditional publisher?

One of the questions I get asked a lot is “Should I self-publish or go with a traditional publisher?” A good friend asked me this today and I decided it was time for an article on the blog.

There are lots of good reasons to self-publish… and just as many to go with a traditional publisher. My answer is always “It depends on what you want to accomplish.”

Take the following simple test. Rank your desires for doing a book by numbering in order your reasons for doing a book:

  • Making money
  • Being famous for what you’ve written
  • The thrill of having a book to your name
  • Having someone else do all the layout/editing/printing/publishing/distribution
  • Having a product to sell as part of presentations or through one’s website

All done? Good. Okay, here’s how these things tend to work out.

Making money is a key question. If you have any market at all (and a way of reaching that market), you’ll make more money by self-publishing. For example, if your book is selling for $39.95 and you go with a traditional publisher, you’ll get between 10-15% royalty on the publisher’s net receipts on sales (generally about 50% of the cover price). This works out to about $2 to $3 a copy for you.

On the other hand, if you’ve printed the book yourself, you keep all the money for yourself. If you go the full route and print the books yourself, you can get 1000 books printed in China for $3 each, delivered to the US. Selling them at $39.95 means you get to keep $36.95 as gross revenue. You’d need to sell only 100 copies of that first 1000 to be in the black for your physical costs. Sell all 1000 copies of the book and you’ll have grossed maybe $35-37K, 12-18x as much money as through a traditional publisher. And that’s without distribution through Amazon. Self-publishing is all about the money.

You might not have space for 1000 books in your house or apartment or want to invest the $3K up front to print them. If so, you can go with print-on-demand (POD), where a POD vendor has a PDF of your book and the cover art and does onesie-twosie printing each time they get an order. This has the advantage of you not having to buy books up front nor store them. The POD vendor also handles the order fulfillment, which can be a pestiferous job in its own right. The POD vendor takes more money for all of this (maybe $9-$15 depending), but you’re still making oodles of money more than if you have a traditional publisher.

You may also want to write a book because you want to get your ideas out there. It always seems a little foreign to me, who likes the money, but there are people who want to write a book because they feel like they have something important to say. (I do, too, but it’s frequently a variation on the theme of “I’ve written something so cool that you just have to give me money for it!”) For people who just want their book out there, a traditional publisher is likely to be a better way to go. The traditional publisher has better publicity and distribution in place and they’ll get economies of scale that individual authors can’t manage.

A related reason for writing books is the thrill of having a book to your name. This can either be personal branding, where you’re publishing the book to establish your personal brand, or a “publish or perish” situation, where it looks good to have a book on your resume. Both are good reasons for writing a book. This one’s a gimme: you can publish a book either way and accomplish this goal, but it’ll get down to cases if this is your prime motivation.

You might want to go with a traditional publisher because you just like writing the stuff! I’ve had this feeling on several books. I just wanted to write it and not worry about anything else. If you don’t want to do all the work associated with producing a book, that’s just fine. But you may want to consider learning more about the process so you could do it if you wanted to; look at the potential for money if you do. You might split the difference and self-publish, find someone who can help you package the book. You hand them your ms. and they do all the rest of the work for a few. There are many companies that do that for people. Shoot, I do that for people. Talk to me. We can both make money.

An increasingly popular reason for doing a book is to have something to sell through your website and/or as part of presentations or courses that you offer. This is closely related to personal branding, but it’s more about the product aspect… and in this case, you definitely want to do this yourself! If you’re selling a book as a product, then you’re looking to make the most money you can.

What’s the right choice for you?

The big advantage of self-publishing is money. You can easily make 10x as much self-publishing as with the same book through a traditional publisher. The disadvantage of self-publishing is the amount of work you have to do on your own. Anything that needs to get done, you either have to do yourself or hire someone to do it for you.

The big advantages of a traditional publisher are exposure and simplicity. The traditional publisher will likely have a wider reach for marketing and distribution. The publisher also handles everything that’s not part of the writing… and if you’re mostly interested in just writing the book and not having to do anything else, that’s the way to go. The disadvantage of a traditional publisher is that you don’t make nearly as much money. If you’re in this to make money, it’s not as fast or as profitable.

Deciding what’s right for you is a function of your desires and your circumstances. FWIW, my last 26 books have been published with traditional publishers. The book I’m working on right now is going to be self-published (and I’ll be saying more about that as time rolls on). There’s no reason you can’t self-publish some books and go with a traditional publisher for others.

If you’ve got a niche market and a built-in clientele and mailing lists or lots of web traffic, self-publishing may be the way to go. If you don’t want the trouble and you don’t care about the money, talk to a traditional publisher.

Note: Okay, you may decide that you’re happy with a traditional publisher doing your book. Unfortunately for you, the traditional publishers may not feel the same way. This frequently happens if your book doesn’t have a big enough target market. A niche book that’s never going to sell more than 4000-5000 copies will get passed over by a traditional publisher, but that’d be a fortune for you if you self-publish. If that’s the case, embrace the opportunity to make a lot of money and learn more about the publishing process. And if you don’t want to do anything but write and are willing to pay someone else to handle the rest of the publishing process, for goodness sake, call me!

Prison and writing

There are many connections between being in prison and writing for a living. A few of them are good, most of them are not so good, but none of them are the things I’m going to talk about.

Some years ago, I was talking to my stepmother on the phone. I was near the end of a book at that time and I asked her if, as I suspected, she had noticed a stage in the writing of any book that I just became really grumpy with the project and had a hard time working on it, regardless of how much fun the book was and how much money I expected to make from it. She said, “Oh, yes!” and told me a story that I think will be interesting and educational for all of us in this silly business.

(Background: my stepmother was on the police force for 20 years. She was the first woman to graduate first in the class at the Tucson Police Academy and she worked her way up through the ranks to become one of the very few woman police chiefs for a major metro area in this country. I’m enormously proud of her.)

Elaine said that the worst point for escapes and attempted escapes is right before prisoners are due to be released. This has been recognized in incarceration for decades. This is because you’ve been incarcerated for however long and you can see the end in sight but it’s not there yet and it really pisses you off.

What they generally do for prisoners as they get to be short-timers is put them in solitary and lock them up tight so they can’t get out. This isn’t really done out of any sense of charity for the prisoners, who don’t appreciate being put in lockdown at all for some odd reasons. No, the jailers’ idea is to prevent escapes because it looks bad on their records. But it’s still the best thing you can do for the prisoners, too, who don’t need to try to escape and get time added to their sentences.

Elaine said that this can and does happen as close as 2 weeks before release: The prisoners just hit the wall and they say to themselves “I’m due to get out of here and I can’t take it any more!” She says that you can see that the end is in sight and you really resent the last effing bit!

Elaine went on to say that this is much the same with any major project. She went through much the same thing, she says, when she retired from the force some years ago. As she was getting down to the last couple months of her 20, she was having more and more motivational problems with heading to work. However, she had structured it so she had enough vacation time to give her an escape hatch if she just couldn’t deal with it, so she could phone in on vacation for her final 5-6 weeks if she needed to. 🙂

What can we learn from this?

1. Writers will always feel cranky right near the end of a project.

2. Possibly the best kindness an editor or publisher or manager can do for a writer is to tighten the thumbscrews and make sure they don’t leave their desks as the deadline approaches.

How to Be Famous in Your Profession–Summary

Being famous is really all about extending your reach. It’s great for hearing about that next job or finding someone with hard-to-get information. Fame even lets you get a free drink or lunch occasionally, but it’s not a substitute for having a life of your own. Relax and have fun with it.

Fame is not a zero-sum game. Everyone can be well-known if they want to be. Because of this, never make the mistake of assuming that because you’re famous you’re entitled to more than anyone else. And remember that it’s not enough to be famous just for being famous; you need to be famous because you actually have something that you do reasonably well. If you forget to do things for yourself, you will soon discover that you don’t have anything new to offer… and you’ll become a parody of what you once were.

Make connections between people

One of the values of being known by a number of people is that you can make connections between people and increase the networking. For example, as your own circle grows, people will often ask you questions like “How can I get started in this business?” or “Who do you recommend I talk to for a job?” Knowing a lot of people allows you to introduce people in your network to each other, making them happy and increasing your own prestige in the process.

Have some opinions

Having opinions is part of being human. You don’t have to tailor your opinions to what is popular, but you should be willing to discuss your point of view with other people. But be ready to disagree with people appropriately: Having opinions is part of what makes other people human, too. Your opinions are guaranteed to brush up against someone else’s opinions. It will broaden your horizons to hear that someone disagrees with you keenly on some fundamental issue (even if you’re sure in your heart that they’re a jerk for doing so ~grin~). Be professional in your disagreements and try to accept the people that disagree with you. Remember Hedtke’s Law: a person who doesn’t offend somebody couldn’t possibly interest anybody.