Self-Publishing Series: I. Making the Decision

26 06 2013

Self-publishing is becoming an ever more viable option for authors, given the erosion of commercial publishing, economic print-on-demand technologies, and the marketing power of Amazon and other online bookstores.

Since I’m both a self-published and commercially published author, I thought it would be helpful to share my experience, as well as the resources I’ve found useful.

Here are links to the other articles in the series:

As to my experience, my most recent commercially published book is Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work (Oxford 2010). As an initial experiment in self-publishing, my wife Joni and IExplaining Research produced a supplementary booklet Working with Public Information Officers.

Now we’re in the process of self-publishing my novels: The Rainbow Virus, Wormholes,  Solomon’s Freedom, and The Cerulean’s Secret.

Commercial publishing: advantages and frustrations

I’ve had positive and negative experiences with both commercial and self-publishing, and I hope those experiences will help you make the decision. First, my commercial publishing experience:

Working with Oxford was generally a positive experience. The publisher provided excellent manuscript editing, visibility, and the imprimatur and distribution of a prestigious academic publisher.

But there was a downside, experiences that seem to be par for the course in commercial publishing these days. First, came the frustrating contract negotiations, in which their initial contract gave them everything, including the kitchen sink. Perhaps most outrageous was a clause in which they reserved the right to hire another writer—with the fee deducted from my royalties—to do another edition if they wanted one and I didn’t.

The royalties were also terrible; Oxford has adopted a policy now common among publishers to pay royalties on net sales rather than gross sales, significantly reducing royalties. Net royalties are paid based on publishers’ income after deducting production costs; gross royalties are higher because they are based on the retail price. I had to hire a lawyer to negotiate more reasonable terms, although the advance and royalties remained very low.

Perhaps more of a negative for me was the lack of editorial control—which is standard and understandable, given that the publisher is taking the financial risk. This control resulted in a less attractive book. For example, Oxford chose a boring “academic” cover design, even though I provided them with an excellent, dynamic alternative, designed by a professional book cover designer. And, Oxford decided the book needed to be cut by 10,000 words, which meant cutting out a useful section on working with public information officers. Finally, I was disappointed in the index, which was done by an indexer the publisher recommended, but paid for by me. I ended up having to considerably revise that index.

My ultimate decision to self-publish also reflected the fact that I had to do the vast majority of marketing myself, which is also standard in publishing today. And, since Joni and I already knew how to manage the other major component, the editorial process, why not self-publish? What’s more, given the sad economic state of commercial publishing, particularly fiction, the reality was that my novels would likely not see the light of day unless I self-published them.

What finally tipped the balance in favor of self-publishing my novels was my frustrating experience with the unnamed publisher to whom I submitted The Cerulean’s Secret. While the editors responded positively to the book, it took years to go through the frustrating process of submitting initial chapters, more chapters, the full manuscript, and waiting a year for any further response. Finally, although they had indicated that the novel had been recommended for publication, they simply stopped responding to my queries.  This stunningly slow, even unprofessional,  process may well be standard and familiar to veteran authors. However, it exhausted my patience.

A gratifying self-publishing experiment

Working with Public Information OfficersAlso, by this time, my experiment in self-publishing Working with Public Information Officers had shown me how easy it was. I used LightningSource, which is the largest print-on-demand producer. Not only did I have complete editorial and production control, the economics worked well. I priced the booklet at $10, gave Amazon a 20 percent discount, and thus made $8 per copy. Since the booklet’s publication, I’ve received a steady but very small income. However, I didn’t mean for the experiment to make money. I purposely “sabotaged” print sales, in that I posted the entire content online, because I wanted people to have access to the text. For my novels, however, I’ve used CreateSpace for reasons I’ll cover in the post, Operating the Publishing Machinery.

I’m not totally soured on commercial publishing. They still offer advantages of broad distribution and the imprimatur of a commercial publisher.

However, whether self- or commercially publishing, authors must face the hard financial reality that you will not likely make significant income, even with a bestseller. For example, a Nielsen Bookscan study of sales of 1,200,000 books found that only 2.1 percent sold more than 5,000 copies. The vast majority, 79 percent, sold less than 99 copies. Even a “bestseller” won’t bring riches, as described in this article by novelist Patrick Wensink.

To cite a widely quoted maxim in publishing: you won’t make money from a book; you’ll make money because of a book. That is, think of your book as a means of enhancing your brand as a writer/expert. Nonfiction books can build your reputation, lead to writing assignments, and give the opportunity to make money teaching workshops in your subject. I’ve made much more money from my communication workshops for scientists than I have from Explaining Research.

And for novels, building a brand means publishing multiple novels and working to create a following such that readers of one novel will buy others.

A self-publishing trend

My decision to self-publish is very much in line with the times. For example, Guy Kawasaki author of APE (Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur) How to Publish a Book—has listed these “Top Ten Reasons to Self-publish Your Book.”

Self-publishing is also very much the wave of the future, contends David Vinjamuri in his overview of the publishing industry, “Publishing is Broken, We’re Drowning in Indie Books—And That’s a Good Thing.” Vinjamuri predicts that “. . . mainstream authors who don’t reach the blockbuster sales of Brad Thor or Sue Grafton—but have an established audience—will choose the favorable economics of Indie publishing.” He also points out that “authors like Edgar-winning mystery author Lawrence Block and Margaret Muir have already embraced indie publishing for the obvious economic benefits.  There are also many authors who started as self-publishers and are making a solid living in Indie-land.”

Here are other recent articles on the subject:

However, there are major cautions that should be added to these writers’ upbeat views of self-publishing: In your marketing, you will be trying to distinguish your book from masses of self-published dreck and battling the still-questionable image of self-published authors—although some of this may be sour grapes, as pointed out by Debra Holland in this blog post.

The decision and the process are complex; and I hope this series helps you to decide whether to self-publish, and if you do, to successfully navigate those complexities.

Multimedia E-books: Immersive or Subversive?

15 04 2012

It’s a troubling, even agonizing, question: How will authors who are crafters of text cope with the new era of multimedia e-books? For me, three recent articles brought that question into greater focus:

Knapp’s and Wattercutter’s articles cover how publishers are aggressively launching e-books as multimedia apps. Knapp cites three as exemplars of the features of multimedia e-books:

  • NAL’s “amplified” edition of Atlas Shrugged, which besides text Atlas Shrugged screenshotcontains video and audio of Rand, personal letters, original manuscript pages and notes, an illustrated timeline of author’s life and works, and an interactive quiz. The e-book also allows readers to share passages with others.
  • The narrated and interactive children’s book The Gift
  • The “novel” Chopsticks, which is the most non-linear of the three. It’s not a narrative story, but a collection of newspaper clippings, songs, and other paraphernalia that together paint a picture of a teenaged pianist and the boy next door.

A fourth example, The World of Richelle Mead, is not even a book, but a “free community powered, enhanced e-reading experience.” It’s more of a social media platform by which readers can buy the author’s books and interact with the author and each other.

Knapp quotes producers and authors both pro and con on the value of such e-books. For example, he quotes multimedia e-book producer Ian Karr as saying “Just as there can be stream of consciousness in writing, there can be a ‘stream of literacy’ in reading, where reading one thing lights the fire to start something new. The bottom line is just providing that richer experience.”

On the other hand, author Jay Bell declares “The more I think about it though, the more these ‘enhancements’ are probably too intrusive and will potentially get in the way of the story.”

And multimedia e-book author Andrea J. Buchanan declares in Knapp’s article “First and foremost, I’m a reader . . . So I want an immersive experience. As a writer, I was really conscious of respecting that. I didn’t want to put stuff in there because I could—I wanted to support and enhance the story.”

ChopsticksIn the most radical view of e-books, Wattercutter quotes e-book publisher Panio Gianopoulos as envisioning a far more social experience. Writes Wattercutter,

For instance, secret chapters could be unlocked as a person’s friends read a book. [Gianopoulos] foresees readers using a reddit-like model to up-vote characters or storylines they enjoy, or publishers forming partnerships with Foursquare that could reveal clues to readers who check in at certain locations. “Multimedia is more than a tie-in—done right it becomes a new kind of product entirely, a hybrid of book and film, or Facebook page and TV show, or something no one else has even thought of yet. . .

However, in a powerful argument for the preeminent value of text, Paul’s New York Times article reveals why unadorned prose is such a powerful medium. She reports studies of the effects of reading on brain activity, as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of readers’ brains. The researchers found that reading a text narrative activates not only the language regions of the brain. It also activates sensory-processing regions associated with the description being read. For example, reading descriptions of odors activates the olfactory cortex; and descriptions of textures activates the region that processes touch sensation. Similarly, descriptions of motion or activity stimulate the motor cortex that processes movements such as grasping and running.

Paul also cites fMRI studies showing that the “reading brain” treats scenes of characters interacting as if the reader was experiencing those interactions.

To me, these findings strongly suggest that integrating video, audio and interaction into e-books may not be immersive—keeping the reader engaged in a story. Rather, they might be subversive—distracting readers from the rich internal world that prose can construct within the reader’s mind.

I contend that prose has an “idea density” that video and audio do not. I also believe that prose has an “emotional density” that can be more deeply affecting than that of visual media. My ten-year-old granddaughter’s deep love of reading offers an excellent example of the lure of prose. She becomes so engrossed in text that she reads books while walking and must be guided to avoid lampposts and fellow pedestrians. When I watch her read, I see a young mind totally immersed in the realm of the written word. E-books’ interactivity, sound tracks, and video, it seems to me, would distract from that engagement.

I also worry that interactive children’s books such as The Gift will compromise teaching The Giftchildren to love reading. The interactive process might distract from the warm, intimate environment created when a parent (or grandparent!) reads to a child—an environment that will form a deep-seated enjoyment of reading.

I’m not arguing that multimedia e-books have no place in publishing. The added features of the amplified Atlas Shrugged do not intrude on the prose and offer new pathways for exploring the book’s history. And clearly, video and animation could enhance how-to books and textbooks.

But to repeat the question raised at the beginning of this post, how should authors cope with the issue, some would say specter, of multimedia e-books?

It’s an immediate issue for me, because I’m involved with both fiction and non-fiction projects. One of my science fiction novels is now under consideration by a commercial publisher. And I’m co-authoring a non-fiction book—tentatively titled Mysterious Baby—with my daughter, emergency room pediatrician Dr. Wendy Hunter, on the exotic physiology of infants.

So as a fiction author, should I offer publishers music and sound effects to accompany my book, as produced by the Booktrack service? Should I develop links to videos or background about my characters, the novel’s setting, or the technology it depicts? My current position is that I will ignore creating such content. I will concentrate solely on making the written story as compelling and rich as possible. If the publisher wants multimedia for the e-book version, a rather intense negotiation will ensue.

On the other hand, the Mysterious Baby nonfiction book might represent a stronger case for such multimedia. For example, parents might be greatly relieved by seeing video of a newborn in the throes of  harmless-but-scary involuntary jitters called benign myoclonus. It’s no more dangerous than hiccups, and seeing such a video might make it less likely that parents will rush their jittery baby to the emergency room.

But in writing this nonfiction book, I will also ignore the eventuality that it may become a multimedia e-book. Given the cost of such productions, the doubtful profitability of multimedia e-books, and the turmoil of constantly evolving e-book formats and readers, for now I’ll concentrate on writing, thank you very much.

E-book Guide Update: Keeping Up with a Bullet Train

2 02 2012

Even though I posted a guide to publishing e-books and e-articles only months ago, the field is moving so fast, it’s already time for an update. While e-books can be read on any platform, the heavy sales of tablets and e-readers is a major force driving the e-book rise. For example, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that over the holidays, the share of adults who own a tablet or e-reader nearly doubled, from 10 percent to 19 percent. As the price of those devices continues to drop, that percentage will almost certainly continue its rapid rise. And thus, so will e-book sales.  Amazon reported last May that their e-book sales had passed print books, and in December, Publishers Weekly reported that e-book sales rose 81.2 percent in October, even before the Christmas season and the debut of the new Amazon Kindle Fire tablet and Kindle e-readers.

What’s more, libraries are moving rapidly to offer e-book lending, according to OverDrive, a leading source of e-book services for libraries. Library lending is progressing despite attempts by with publishers to put up roadblocks, as reported in this New York Times article. Amazon was not one of those publishers, already launching its own lending library for Kindle e-books through OverDrive.

E-book vendors have reacted to this explosion of sales by offering new marketing schemes and e-book development software. For example, Amazon launched its new Kindle Select program, by which self-publishers could offer their books for lending. Depending on how many people borrow their books, they could be eligible for royalties from a Kindle fund. Some publishers have complained about Amazon’s demand for 90-day exclusivity for Kindle Select books. But others, including suspense author Cheryl Kay Tardif, report that making some titles available for free significantly sparked sales of other books.

In my September post, I wrote that the future might see more multimedia e-books.  That prediction was too timid. New design and formatting tools are making e-book layout more sophisticated and multimedia e-books significantly easier to produce.

For example, Kindle has launched its new Kindle Format 8 e-book format that includes tools for creating more visual-rich layouts. For almost all other e-readers, there is EPUB 3, the new version of the widely used e-book format. It allows for embedded audio and video files, besides enabling more elaborate layouts and navigation.

Also, to enable easier creation of multimedia e-books, Apple has launched its free iBooks Author, to enable multi-touch interactive e-books for the iPad. The system has gotten good reviews, such as this one from The catch is that, although books created using the software can be given away for free, any sales must be done through Apple’s iBookstore. Apple’s restrictive contract has generated considerable criticism among publishers and intellectual property lawyers.

Apple is not the only new player in e-books though. Self-publishers are developing their own software, including open-source software such as FLOW, described in this post, for creating basic multimedia e-books.  Duke University scientists led by marine biologist David Johnston developed the system to publish their interactive marine science textbook, Catchalot (French for sperm whale). Importantly, they decided to develop the software when their book idea was turned down by publishers as being to expensive for a limited market. Although FLOW is currently Apple-specific, the scientists plan to develop a version for Android, and  to make FLOW widely available for inexpensive creation of other multimedia e-books.

The multimedia e-book arena has also seen the entry of new commercial ventures, such as Cathedral Rock Publishing and Inkling, which aim to simplify the creation process. Here are demos of a Cathedral Rock e-book and a more elaborate Inkling multimedia e-book

Finally, here are some excellent sources of information on e-book publishing. Smashwords founder Mark Coker has published The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, which is free for download. And here’s a  a useful interview with e-book publishers on their experience. Also, the premier science communication conference ScienceOnline 2012 featured a session on e-books that included this extensive list of articles and sources about e-books.

Certainly, the e-book train has not only left the station, but is accelerating down the track. Stay tuned for reports on more milestones.

Should You Publish an E-book or E-article? Here’s a Guide

17 09 2011

With the explosive growth of the market for e-books and e-readers, writers find themselves considering whether they should publish an e-book or e-article. While e-books represent a potentially liberating and profitable outlet, they have their complexities and pitfalls. This guide aims to help you make the best decisions and navigate the rapidly shifting terrain of e-books. (Note: I recently added an update to this article.)

First the good news: e-books are very inexpensive to publish, often even free. They are distributed instantly worldwide and give buyers immediate gratification. There are also a multitude of outlets, including your own web site, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, Barnes & Noble Pubit!, Apple iBookstore and Google eBooks. Such outlets also include independent sites such as Kobo and Smashwords, which not only offer sales from their sites, but distribution to major outlets such as Kindle. While Smashwords is a very popular distribution service, many authors prefer to publish separately to Kindle because of better royalty rates.

Importantly, none of these sites is exclusive, so you don’t have to pick one place to publish and sell. You can do it everywhere!

Another piece of good news is that e-book royalties are considerably higher than for print books produced by traditional publishers. For example, Kindle offers a royalty of 70 percent; and Smashwords offers a royalty of 85 percent for sales on its site, and 70.5 percent for sales on affiliates such as Apple and Barnes & Noble.

For other discussions of e-books, see Wikipedia’s comprehensive overview of e-books and their pros and cons and this article from The Science Fiction Writers of America.

Still a minor market

Now the bad news: Although sales of e-books are growing rapidly, they are still not a major percentage of the overall book market. That mass market still belongs largely to print books, although Amazon reports that its Kindle e-book Kindlesales now surpass all its print book sales. However, given that the cost of e-readers will continue to drop, most forecasters believe e-books will ultimately become the major publishing medium overall.

If you write nonfiction, there is the bad news that less than 20 percent of e-book sales are for nonfiction; but that’s good news for fiction writers, who garner about 80 percent of the e-book market.

E-books are also not yet part of the publishing mainstream. Don’t expect your e-book to be reviewed by The New York Times or any other major media outlet. Such lack of reviews is not necessarily terrible news, however, because fewer media outlets are reviewing books, anyway. Readers are relying far more heavily on reviews by fellow readers on Amazon and other sites. And you can solicit those reviews yourself, rather than submitting your book to the traditional media reviewers.

Perhaps the most cautionary news, however, is that the low cost of producing e-books has resulted in mountains of “e-dreck”—badly written and badly edited books that clog the marketplace and turn readers off.

So, before you make a decision to e-publish, you should develop a comprehensive, targeted marketing plan to determine how or whether you can distinguish your work from e-dreck. If that marketing plan really doesn’t reveal a significant market for your work, reconsider whether you should publish at all. Of course, if your e-book is a freebie to advertise your business, you wouldn’t expect to earn income from it, anyway.

Also, consider whether you should publish only an e-book, or make it an adjunct to a self-published print version. A very popular self-publishing model is to use Lightning Source to produce print-on-demand (POD) books, and to create e-book versions for the many outlets. For example, I used Lightning Lightning Source logoSource to print my booklet Working with Public Information Officers as a supplement to Explaining Research. I also posted the text of Working with Public Information Officers online.

While Lightning Source does offer an e-book publishing option, it does not distribute to the major outlets. Among the best sources of advice on POD are Aaron Shepard’s book POD for Profit and this article by book designer Pete Masterson on the business model for POD.

For a good overview of best practices for e-book production and sales, see this article from the independent publishing group SPAN and this Kindle e-book by James Matthews, How to Make, Market and Sell Ebooks – All for Free. And for a view of the future, see book marketer Penny Sansevieri’s article The Next 10 Ebook Trends to Watch For.

Publishing e-articles

Besides publishing book-length manuscripts, you can also publish and sell e-articles. Major e-article outlets include Kindle Singles, Apple Quick Reads, and Smashwords Shorts. Kindle is perhaps the largest such e-article outlet. Helpful resources for publishing Kindle Singles include Larry Dignan’s review My Amazon Kindle Single publishing experiment, Megan Garber’s article 1,900 copies: How a top-selling Kindle Single is generating new audiences for ProPublica and the Kindle book How to Publish and Sell Your Article on the Kindle: 12 Tips for Short Documents.

Rather than publishing your article on one of the e-book sites, you might also consider e-article web sites. Popular e-article sites include The Atavist, Byliner,, Scribd and the “e-reading community,” Wattpad.  Each of these Wattpad logohas a different publishing model: The Atavist charges readers for articles, Byliner links to articles from other sources, and and Scribd offer free articles. Wattpad hosts free e-books and e-articles by untried authors, who can receive coaching and criticism from readers. Once an author feels his/her work is ready for commercial distribution, it can be published on Smashwords, a Wattpad partner.

Besides article publishing sites, there are also article syndicates that provide articles free to other web sites and blogs. Such syndicated articles are mainly how-to pieces aimed at promoting a web site, service or business. Syndication sites include, Ezinearticles and Goarticles. John Kremer, author of 1001 Ways to Market Your Books offers a listing of free article directories and online article sites. This site also includes fee-based services and software that claims to enable writers to produce and syndicate free articles.

Avoiding layout pitfalls

If you are seeking to create an e-book, the first challenge is figuring out the confusing welter of e-book formats. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, as outlined in this Wikipedia article and this listing on ePublication Marketing Associates. The safest bet is to produce your book in the formats preferred by the outlets you want to use—for example the .mobi format used by Kindle. Also, you can use such distributors such as Smashwords to convert your book into multiple formats that will serve a range of outlets.

Another complexity is that laying out any e-book is quite different from laying out a print book. Unlike a print layout, an e-book layout allows text to “flow,” according to the screen size. Also, readers can customize font size, font style and line spacing. So, page numbers are meaningless in e-books, and it is difficult—sometimes impossible—to control the placement of images, footnotes, endnotes, columns, tables, superscripts, subscripts, and other design elements. And given the low resolution of e-book screens, images will not be as crisp as in print.

If you do your own layout, some sites, offer authors substantial formatting help. These sources include the Kindle Direct Publishing site, the Amazon Smashwords logoKindle Publishing Guidelines, the Barnes & Noble ePub Formatting Guide and the Smashwords Style Guide. The software Jutoh has also received good reviews as an e-book formatter.

There are also many excellent books on formatting and publishing e-books, mainly for Kindle, which represents about 70 percent of the e-book market:

However, if your book has complex design elements such as images and tables, and if you’re not up to tackling a sometimes a technically difficult conversion process, you might find it wiser to pay an expert to format your book for you. Good sources for formatters are this Bookmarket list of e-book producers and distributors and this list from self-publishing guru Dan Poynter. To hire a Smashwords designer, you can obtain a list of authors who can format e-books and create e-book cover designs by emailing Other e-book sites, such as AuthorLink, Bookbaby and eBookIt! offer formatting services as part of their fee-paid publishing package.

While Apple offers only minimal help in posting e-books to its iBookstore, it does offer a list of recommended “aggregators” that can provide layout and other services. A word of caution: while the list includes free aggregators such as Smashwords, and commercial services such as Ingram, it also includes the subsidy publisher Lulu. While Lulu offers a free e-book publishing service, such subsidy (aka “vanity”) publishers also promote paid publishing packages that are of doubtful value. See Masterson’s article on vanity publishers for a good summary of the drawbacks of such publishers. BookLocker is another subsidy publisher that offers conversion and distribution services for e-books.

Many e-book distribution sites, however, do not offer layout services, although they are still worthy outlets. These include , eBookMall, ePublication Marketing Associates, Fictionwise, and Scribd. Two other sites, Payloadz and E-junkie, sell all digital goods. Another, Overdrive, distributes e-books and other media to libraries, schools and universities.

The future of e-books may well extend beyond text to include sophisticated multimedia. Such enhancements may involve only adding a soundtrack to an e-book, a service offered by Booktrack. See this New York Times article on the uses for Booktrack. Or, multimedia may take the form of elaborate apps for the iPad and other tablet computers, as discussed in this New York Times article and in my blog post How the iPad is Inspiring New Publication Formats. Already, early pioneers such as Push Pop Press and Vook are creating extraordinary multimedia e-books. However, such multimedia apps are expensive and complicated to produce, and unless there is a mass market for an app, authors are perhaps wisest in sticking to simple, traditional text.

Considering Writing a Book? Read “Explaining Research: the Aftermath”

7 05 2011

If you’re thinking of writing a book, this piece I wrote for ScienceWriters, the magazine of the National Association of Science Writers offers what I hope is a useful reality check.

Explaining Research: the Aftermath

by Dennis Meredith, reprinted from ScienceWriters, Spring 2011

Most authors have experienced that darkly hilarious moment when they open their royalty statements and discover their minuscule income for years of toil. Indeed, my latest royalty statements for Explaining Research show that my recompense for three years of interviewing and writing, and for an investment of thousands of dollars (see below for financial breakdown), were a whopping  $1,646.97—still not enough to offset my $2,000 advance, not to mention my own investment.

But the royalty statement doesn’t tell the whole story of the book, and it’s a story that I hope my fellow NASW authors and proto-authors will find useful. The lessons I learned about negotiating with publishers (discussed in the Winter 2010 ScienceWriters), marketing, self-publishing and ancillary income have made the project eminently worthwhile.

And the book itself might well ultimately turn a profit. The initial royalty statements reflect only very early sales of the book. Given indications that teachers are adopting it for academic courses, the income might be larger in the future . . . I hope.

I’m certainly pleased with the book’s publisher, Oxford University Press. Although commercial publishers give significantly larger advances and better royalty rates, Oxford was the right choice, given the book’s potential as a textbook. Also, an agent whose opinion I trust told me that the book would likely not be considered by a commercial publisher, given its academic audience. And while Oxford did all the promotion it promised—for example, sending the book widely to reviewers—the vast majority of marketing fell to my wife Joni and me. It’s a reality that faces even authors of high-profile commercial books, and one that all authors must embrace if their books are to be successful.

Marketing free (or at least cheap)!

The book taught me two major lessons about marketing. First, marketing is largely based on hunches. Investment in any marketing efforts almost never yields hard data on payback. The only measure we had of return on investment from our marketing initiatives was an increase in Web site hits, since the book is heavily integrated with its Web site.

The other marketing lesson is more comforting: that almost all the effective marketing efforts an author can undertake are either free or cheap. So, with those lessons in mind, here’s which marketing efforts seemed to work for me, and which ones didn’t:

The book’s Web site was a highly worthwhile investment in time and money. Of course, the Web site was necessary because I posted the book’s references and resources there. But beyond that, the site was the prime marketing “brochure” for the book. I think a key to the site’s usefulness was that it didn’t concentrate on highlighting me as the author, but rather the content and value of the book itself. I’ve been told that readers really don’t much care about the author—unless he/she is a brand like Stephen King—but the information the book offers.

Social media did not really work for me. I launched a blog, Research Explainer, a Twitter account (@explainresearch) and an Amazon author page. Perhaps I did not blog, tweet or cultivate contacts enough, but the traffic to none of them seemed to offer sufficient payback for the effort. A major issue—and one that faces any freelancer—is whether to spend time blogging, which doesn’t bring in a check, or freelancing, which does. So, I ultimately decided to continue to blog, but to post only when I have an idea really worth blogging about, and only when I don’t have a paying freelance assignment on deck.

The blog posts were more useful as updates for the book. When I wrote a blog post that contained new information or insights, I added a link to the post in the relevant chapter listing in the references & resources, so readers would readily discover it.

More productive, I believe, were the guest posts I did for the Oxford University Press blog. They reached the publisher’s huge audience, and seemed well worth the effort.

Another tip: I linked my blog with my Twitter and Facebook accounts and Amazon Author page, so my blog posts automatically appeared there. Also, I posted blog pieces on the relevant LinkedIn groups, of which I was a member. These groups can be quite large. For example, the Science & Technology Media Professionals group has 1,500 members, and the PRWise group has 7,310.

Also useful for marketing purposes were articles I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education and The Scientist. They reached large audiences that were prime targets for the book. Again, I synergized the effort by posting the articles on my blog and listing them in the press room of the book Web site.

E-mail seemed to be by far the most effective marketing tool, and it was free. Joni sent about 30,000 (yes, 30,000!) personalized e-mail messages to teachers, researchers, librarians and administrators involved in research communication. We decided that recipients would not consider the message spam since we sent only a single personalized message, and the information was useful. Indeed, we only received a few complaints, in contrast with the scores of thank-yous and requests for review copies from teachers. And, when Joni sent an e-mail blast to relevant lists, we saw a major increase in Web site traffic.

The one exception to “free or cheap” in our marketing was the $936 we spent on 500 packages of gourmet cookies imprinted with the book’s cover and reviews. We distributed those at the 2010 AAAS meeting as part of the book’s launch. They were quickly snapped up, and we did see a large jump in Web traffic at that time.

Skloot, the marketing champ

As extensive as our marketing efforts were, we don’t hold a candle to Rebecca Skloot, author of the bestselling The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Of course, central to her success is that she wrote an extraordinary book that has garnered deservedly rave reviews. But she is also highly adept at marketing. For example, over the decade spent writing her book, she managed her writing career to make contacts that would help secure reviews, published excerpts and media attention. And she is an adept user of Twitter. As of this writing, she has 10,988 followers and has sent out 6,608 tweets.

However, as important as Skloot’s book is, she and her father still had to organize her own book tour. Her publisher and others in the business declared the book tour “dead.” However, Skloot drew on her extensive social network to solicit expense-paid speaking engagements, and her father scheduled the four-month tour.

Lesson in self-publishing

The book also taught lessons in self-publishing, because I elected to publish a supplement Working with Public Information Officers myself. After Oxford asked for 10,000 words to be cut from the manuscript, I excised that section and used the print-on-demand company Lightning Source to produce the booklet. The advantage is that Lightning Source books automatically appear for sale on, Barnes & Noble and other outlets. The books are also listed in the database of distributors Baker & Taylor and Ingram, which owns Lightning Source.

The disadvantage is that Lightning Source demands that you act like a publisher, not an author. There is no handholding, and you are expected to supply the cover, layout and other data, as would a publisher. Fortunately, there are many design companies that can supply just such handholding, and I found one in 1106 Design.

Importantly, Lightning Source is not like the so-called POD publishers like Lulu, iUniverse, etc. These are vanity publishers that make their money from charging fees to authors, rather than book sales.

The print cost for the booklet was $2.52 per copy, and I set a cover price of $10. I found that I could give a “short discount” of only 20 percent, and the online booksellers would still list the book. And although bookstores will not stock a book at that discount, they weren’t an appropriate outlet for the booklet, anyway.

I’ve not made that investment back—probably in part because I purposefully “sabotaged” print sales by posting its content online as a service to researchers and public information officers. However, the experience taught me about the machinery of POD; and with the rapid rise of ebooks, self-publishing is becoming a more cost-effective route.

Platform key to making money

The key to making money from a book, I learned, is to use it as a “platform” for workshops and paid speaking engagements. After some research, I found that I should charge $2,500 for half-day communication workshops, and I charge $1,500 for one-hour talks on research communication topics. This latter fee is low. Speaking fees typically range from $2,500 to $10,000, according to professional speakers. And the fee schedule in Writer’s Market lists $5,000 as the average fee for a “national event.” The schedule also lists average fees for regional events ($615), local groups ($219) and class presentations ($183).

And while my topic of research communication is a natural for workshops and talks, just about any nonfiction book could provide fodder for an interesting fee-paid talk.

Beyond directly earning income, of course, a book also enhances a writer’s reputation and visibility, quite likely leading to freelance assignments—a phenomenon that is not quantifiable.

So, given this experience, should you write a book? The best advice I’ve heard is from veteran New York Times writer Cory Dean. In her book Am I Making Myself Clear? she declares “Don’t think about writing a book unless you really cannot help yourself.”

Well, I guess I can’t. I’ve already started on my next book.

The Accounting: Money Out, Money In

Explaining Research

(Not counted: travel expenses for interviewing trips)
Lawyer fees: $2,950.00
Indexing: $1,245.00
Cartoon rights: $1,200.00
Cookies: $936.00
Books purchased for marketing: $967.86
Web site (two years)
$299 setup and $29.95/month: $658.40
Total Cost: $7.957.26

Income (as of December 2010):
Book advance: $2,000.00
Allowance for cartoons: $1,000.00
Total Income: $3,000
NET LOSS: [$4,957.26]

Working with Public Information Officers booklet

Cover, layout and proofing: $650.00
Amazon Search Inside file: $25.00
Lightning Source setup: $100.00
ISBN: $28.00
Total Cost: $803.00

Income (as of February 2011):
Payments from Lightning Source: $262.00
NET LOSS: [$541.00]

Invaluable Lessons in Book Marketing

27 09 2010

(This post was originally published on the Oxford University Press blog on September 27, 2010)

Since Oxford University Press published my book Explaining Research in February, I’ve learned a great deal about book marketing. And since the success of a book depends so critically on adept marketing, I’d like to share those lessons.

First of all, authors should always consider themselves critically important marketers of their own books. After all, it’sExplaining Research your book, so who else would know the most about it and care most about its success? Begin by assiduously filling out your publisher’s author questionnaire, supplying comprehensive information on the book description, unique features, newsworthy topics, audience, promotional targets, and sources for advance comment. Many departments, from marketing to sales, will use this information as a guide to their marketing efforts.

While your publisher will manage such marketing efforts as sales and distribution, sending review copies, and advertising, there are many marketing efforts you can make as well. The good news is that most of these are free or very inexpensive. Here are some marketing tips that I found most effective:

– Work with your publisher to notify your institution’s news office and professional associations about your book. The news office will likely do a news release and promote you to the media, while your associations may review on its website and in its publications. Also, notify internal publications such as the alumni magazine. They’ll likely review it.

– Offer to be a “media expert” on your topic. Volunteer to be listed on your institution’s list of people willing to talk to media, as well as in national experts directories such as Profnet, Help a Reporter Out, PitchRate and the AAAS Science Talk Experts Director & Speakers Service.

– Promote your book and drive sales at your publisher’s website by including your book’s information in your email signature, in talks and articles, and on your institutional web page.

– Blog about your subject by creating your own blog and by “guest blogging” on others’ blogs about your topic. For example, I’ve created the blog Research Explainer, in which I offer tips on communicating research. I’ve also found the blog useful in updating and expanding on the information in my book.

– Write articles and op eds about your book topic for professional and popular publications and Web sites. Make sure the author identification mentions your book.
Market on Amazon. Ask readers who like your book to write a positive review. Create an author page. See Amazon’s Author Central for information. Have your blog posts automatically feed to your author page. Ask Amazon top reviewers to review your book. See this guide to getting your books reviewed on Amazon.

– Give public and professional talks about your book’s subject, in which you mention the book. Work with your publisher to organize book sales at public talks.

– Distribute your talk on the Web as a narrated “slidecast” via such services as SlideShare or Slideboom. For example, my slidecast talk “Using Multimedia to Advance Your Research” has received more than 2,000 views.

– Track Web mentions of your book using Google Alerts. Such alerts will notify you of reviews of your book and other mentions.

– Offer to make “virtual” appearances using Skype. Buy a quality webcam, set up a well-lit area with a nice backdrop, and advertise your availability for video talks to seminars, classes, book clubs, and other groups of potential customers.

Importantly, before you even begin these efforts, give your publisher’s marketing contact a complete copy of your marketing plan, so your efforts will be coordinated with theirs. Also, they are the experts at marketing, and may well have suggestions and contacts to make your efforts more effective.

Finally, keep your marketing contact in the loop, letting him/her know about talks you’re giving, reviews, articles on your book, and other developments. Your marketing contact knows how to use such information to your book’s best advantage.

Evolution of Explaining Research: Lessons for Authors

31 01 2010

(If you’re considering writing a popular science book, my experiences in bringing Explaining Research to publication might be helpful. Here’s an article I wrote on the process for ScienceWriters, the magazine of the National Association of Science Writers. Below is the introduction, followed by a link to the full article:)

Explaining Research (Oxford University Press, 2010), began its eccentric evolution as a modest booklet-sized manuscript that I planned to self-publish; but ended up as a 368-page book produced by a major academic publisher. The tale of that evolution, I think, offers useful lessons for authors who face a daunting new era of self-publishing technology and an economically depressed publishing industry. (Read the article)