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Can you afford to be fashionably late to the digital party?

In general it’s always a good thing to be the “first” at something. Being part of something on the ground floor tends to give you an advantage. This is why Bob and I are always trying new things and open to new innovative technology. But there is an inherent flaw in being “first”.

What was the first eReader? A Sony. They were first, but they aren’t really a big player anymore now are they? What was the first “smartphone?” Most people would probably say the Blackberry. Nope. It was a phone designed in 1992 by IBM called Simon. And well, we all know that IBM used to be synonymous with Personal Computer, except they have made a PC in years.

Anyone ever hear of Kodak? Did you know Kodak actually developed the technology for the digital camera? In 1995 they were pushing the Kodak DC40. They had pulled in Kinko’s and Microsoft to help develop digital making software and put kiosks inside Kinko’s stores. Even IBM collaborated with Kodak to make an internet-based network image exchange. These campaigns helped launch digital cameras to the consumers and now everyone uses them, but what has happened to Kodak?

It’s not that being first is the flaw. The flaw is the inability to adapt to continued change. Kodak made some ground breaking advances, but they never adapted to their own creation. The danger in being first and successful at something is the standard thinking that it can be re-created in identical format. Also, we have to remember that usually being first means it’s only the beginning. Too many people sit back and relax because they feel as though they’ve already achieved it. Whatever it is.

So, what does this brief little history lesson bring us to? Last week I visited the Corporate Offices of Kobo. During a tour of the offices with Mark we discussed various technologies, and how it has impacted the business of publishing, the writers, and the readers. I sort of joked that Kobo was a little late to the digital party and Mark responded with, “perhaps a little late, but with a solid plan.” One of the things that impressed me with Kobo is their ability to see what is going on around them and then act instead of react. They took their time launching the new Writing Life Portal. It’s been in the works for about a year, but they were busy watching, listening and learning. They are very aware of what is going on with other on-line stores and they welcome the competition. Mark constantly repeats how Kobo feels that the author should be able to get their book on as many platforms as possible.

They are also very aware of the problems they face and the changes they need to make with the portal. They have well defined phases and while we’d all like them to increase their category selection as well as create a “preview” for the ePub file conversion, its all part of the next phase. The problem with rolling out too many updates or changes inside a program that big is it can create other problems, making it harder for the end user because more bugs have been created. Always best to work out a few kinks, get it working right, then add to the system, then working out those kinks. Kobo is going to be around for a long time. They are the major player in Canada and have a good solid plan.

While I was there, I got to meet my personal rep for “the old way of doing things” before the Writing Life Portal. She’ll still play an integral part in the team effort to migrate all Cool Gus titles to one account, without losing sales rankings and any other data that is dealt with differently than inside the portal. Their approach to business is two-fold. They need to get quality content to their readers and they need to provide quality service to their content providers.

Kobo is expanding into other markets. Right now, the majority of Cool Gus Sales are in Canada (where Kobo is located) but they are reaching out and partnering with companies in places like Italy to bring their content to readers in those locations. We sell more in the Australian market through Kobo than we do on any other platform. Foreign markets are even more so in the infancy stages of eBooks (except Japan, or so Bob and I have been told).

Kobo is adapting to current changes, but also looking a few years ahead. They have a long-term plan, and they are doing things in phases. One thing I loved about my visit at Kobo was I got to see how they work. They have an open office. There are no offices and no cubicles. So when I email Mark that I have a problem, or that I crashed the portal again, he can roll his chair over to his tech team and say, “what can we do to fix this?” Even more cool is when I’m in Australia visiting my daughter I will hopefully be meeting with the Australian Kobo rep.

So Kobo might be late, but they are growing in leaps in bounds. But does this mean that those first to the party are doomed? No. Only those who don’t continue to adapt and change will be doomed. When we don’t learn from history, we will repeat it. Music business?

Amazon has been a leader in the digital party since the beginning. One could argue they are the ones who sent out the invitation to the rest of us. I’m a little tired of people calling Amazon the evil Empire. They might be an empire, but they are far from evil. The programs they have developed have given authors an opportunity to connect with readers, and that is what it is all about. If you don’t like exclusivity, then don’t do Select or submit to their imprints. The people at Amazon are forward thinkers and we really enjoy working them.

The same with the people at Pubit. I don’t think they will be dying off anytime soon. Perhaps the print business might, but those who have a Nook; well they love their Nook and Pubit is continuing to develop and adapt.

Smashwords, well, I’m not so sure about them. I think they were leaders and offered writers a very valuable distribution service, and they still do for those who can’t get into Apple or other outlets, but please, I beg of you, allow writers to upload their own ePub and Mobi files. As a professional formatter I cringe at what happens to Word documents, even those that have followed the guidelines in Smashwords Style document (which is actually very good, but Word is a horrible source document). I’m really not knocking Smashwords, I think it’s a great idea, but I do think in order for it to thrive, some adjustments need to be made.

At Cool Gus we revisit our Business Plan every couple of months. We rewrite it twice a year. Today Bob just uploaded the new plan, to which I need to add and make adjustments. Then we will hone it down into a plan of action for the next 6 months, but we’re not married to it either. If something doesn’t feel right, we’ll get on the phone (yes, occasionally we do talk on the phone) and hash it out. eBooks are organic and fluid, so we has business professionals have to be fluid as well.

The key to success in the digital party isn’t being first, or being late, or even last. The key is in the ability to adapt, change and think three years ahead.

Apple? Anyone out there? Hello?

Kobo’s Writing Life: The Long Awaited Self-Publishing Portal

We’ve been publishing Cool Gus eBooks with Kobo for over two years. We applied for an account, signed the documents and began sending our eBooks via FileZila (an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) program). We also set up tab-delineated spreadsheets to send our metadata over through the FTP. When I explained this process to Bob I gave him a killer headache.

It’s really not a difficult process. Once you set up the account on FileZila you simply connect. Once connected, you find the appropriate files and drag and drop them over to the Kobo side. You have to have your ePub file saved by ISBN and same goes with your jpeg. They have certain specs that are required, so it was important that I read through all the documentation they sent me. I create a separate eBook file for each platform, so it wasn’t really a big deal to make another one for Kobo and save it under the ISBN. To load to Kobo this way, it took me maybe 40 minutes. That doesn’t include creating the ePub file.

There are, however, some glitches in the old system with Kobo. The spreadsheet has to be just so, or it hangs up their system and your metadata does not get through. When I change metadata, I also have to send an email to their changes department. With this system, there is no dashboard, so I really can’t see what is going on with each book. And I have to wait a month or so before I know the sales numbers for al our author’s books.

But for us, it was better than using Smashwords. While I think Smashwords has an excellent system, they have their own set of faults that frankly out weigh the positives of finding ways to load eBooks myself to all platforms.

Back to Kobo. Last week I got to hang out with the staff at Kobo at BEA. See my post here. What a blast. Everyone was so much fun and energetic. The excitement was palpable. It was also contagious. I’ve been waiting a year for this portal. I’ve been hearing about it for a while and my first thought was, well, its about time! Perhaps a little late to the party. Better late than never.


I spoke with Mark Lefebvre, the Director of Self-Publishing and Author Relations at BEA and I loved what he had to say.
They are all about authors and readers. They understand that we want our books across as many platforms as possible and they respect an author’s decision to try different things. But they also knew it was hard for an author to get their books into Kobo and control their pricing, metadata, etc. That’s where Writing Life comes.

I got the email on Friday after BEA giving me access to the beta test of the new Kobo Portal. I had a book from an author to load, so I immediately said why not try it this way. The portal was very easy to use. I simply added my information and hit publish. It’s very much like some of the other dashboards, but it has a few neat things that I can access, like sales trends. I can also access hourly sales numbers. Something I couldn’t do before.

Click on image to buy at Kobo.com

Lick on image to buy at Kobo.com

There are 4 basic pages with information that needs to be filled out for your eBook. It took me 10 minutes to load the first book and it appeared in the bookstore less than a day later. I made a mistake in one of the books that I loaded and the change, after I fixed it, took only about an hour. So far, I have loaded two books via the new portal:  A Compromising Situation and a Dangerous Compromise by Shannon Donnelly. Check them out! I will be loading her third in the series when I’m done with this blog post.

There are a few things I’d like to see changed in the portal. There needs to be more category choices. For example, when loading one of my books the option for “Romantic Suspense” is not an option. There are actually only four options under Romance. This needs to be change. They do, however, let you choose 3 categories. I believe that is a good number. 3-5 is perfect. But just as a small piece of advice, if you book only fits in 3 categories on B&N where you get 5, don’t just go pick 2 more because you can. That will upset readers. And Readers Rule.

Writing Life is a work in progress, but I really do believe that once more authors are on there we will all see a spike in sales. Kobo has a strong reputation, especially in Canada, which for me is only an hour and half drive. Hockey anyone? Eh? Got to love Canada!

Keeping up with eBook technology

There are a lot of conversations regarding how to publish digitally. We’re seeing more and more authors take the plunge, and more and more authors are choosing to go it alone. Completely alone. While we find the team approach to be part of our success, it isn’t impossible to self-publish and do all the work yourself. In earlier posts we’ve discussed the importance of good covers. We’ve also discussed marketing, promotion, pricing and other topics important to all authors, regardless of path of publication. In this post I’d like to discuss the actual making of an eBook. The file that will get uploaded to various platforms. Today we will focus on the 4 main ones. Smashwords, B&N, Kindle and iBooks.

Lets start with Smashwords.

Smashwords uses a Word doc as a source file. As you will find out later, I’m not a fan of Word, but for Smashwords it’s your only choice. The key to using Smashwords effectively is to follow the Style Guide. Any short cuts in formatting will cause either the file format to fail when it tries to convert, or the file will not pass inspection for the Premium Catalog. This is important for two reasons. First, simple things like proper indentation for a paragraph is important to the reading experience. Try reading a document that doesn’t follow standard practice. It’s annoying. Or maybe a diagram that doesn’t convert during the process because you used Word’s Table function. You could lose a reader with something like that. Second, if there are any glitches in formatting you won’t make into the Premium Catalog and depending on where you want your eBook distributed, if your book fails, you won’t be accepted into those stores. So, follow the Style Guide. Mark Coker has done a bang up job making it as simple as possible.

PubIt! (Barnes and Noble)

PubIt! allows you to use Word, HTML or ePub as a source file. I don’t recommend using Word, although I’ve seen decent results. HTML works well, if you have a really clean file (see below in Kindle on why I don’t recommend the .htm in Word). Your best bet here is the ePub file. I don’t recommend using something like Calibre (a free download) to generate an ePub file to upload on PubIt. I’ve used Calibre for a variety of file options and have uploaded files generated from it. Some of our PubIt eBooks currently are created from this program, but I have found a better way of creating this file and am redoing all our books. It will take some time, but well worth it. So what do I use you ask? I started with InDesign (a very expensive program) but have found that Pages (iWorks on Mac) makes a really nice ePub file. I still have to check the code and make sure it’s clean, but I find it easier to work with. I have to say PubIt is probably my favorite uploading experience.

Kindle

Kindle is a Mobi file and you can upload a Word doc, HTML, mobi file or an ePub file. Again, I don’t recommend Word and frankly, Kindle is the worst place to upload a word doc. I’ve mentioned HTML and a lot of writers will use the “save as .htm” function in word. That is the worse thing you can do if you want to create an HTML file to upload on Kindle. I’m not going to get into the details, but here is a video that explains why and offers a solution if you are bent on using Word and or HTML.

We use the ePub file I created from Pages for the source document for Kindle. Then I run it through Calibre to make the Mobi file. This is the one time I will say use Calibre to upload. Make sure you understand Calibre and use the right settings. This is key in creating a quality eBook.

Finally lets talk iBooks

iBooks is very simple, yet, if you don’t have a Mac, you have to use something like Smashwords. While I can’t say enough good things about Mark Coker and Smashwords in general, we don’t use them. We have a Mac, so we can create the ePub file that passes all the requirements for iBooks. It’s the same process. I use Pages, convert to ePub with a TOC, check the code, and then save the file as an .epub. You have to download iTunes Producer and you upload through that, but the process is much like all the others when it comes to the actual upload.

While technology makes things easier, it also complicates things. A basic understanding of the technology helps us to make educated decisions regarding our careers.

Bob and I will be teaching a 6 week long on-line course on Publishing Options where we will take a much closer look at all these platforms. The course is only $30.00.

Write It Forward!

The myth of backlist and a dramatic change in publishing

For many years I wondered why no traditional publisher bought my latest manuscript, not only for the manuscript, but with the thought of breaking that book out and then acquiring my extensive backlist. I always felt like I was sitting on a gold mine, but not a single publisher saw it that way—in fact they viewed it quite the opposite way. I understand the problem was shelf space, but now that’s no longer an issue. And I have the numbers to prove it. Even though shelf space was an issue, it always felt like publishers belonged in gambler’s anonymous rather than in business. They were always betting on throwing one hundred new books against the wall, hoping one won the lottery. There was little sense of nurturing an author’s career or looking to the future with a long-term commitment.

I was very fortunate to hit the sweet spot in publishing. Where my print sales had dropped so low, but my eBook sales had not taken off, that I was able to exercise my rights clauses in my contracts to get my books back (I’d already gotten the rights to most of them years earlier, but there were still some key ones I needed, like my Area 51 series). I even did a blog where I offered Random House reverse royalties on Area 51 if they just let me publish them. No response. Here’s a question—do publishers and agents even use google alert to see when they’re being mentioned on the Internet? I know Mark Coker from Smashwords does, because he’s always responding to mentions, which tells me he understands the future. Are you reading this now Random House? Doubtful. When I proposed a promotional program for Area 51 to coincide with the release of Super 8, a blockbuster about Area 51, my editor told me they could barely promote their frontlist, never mind their backlist. This same editor loved a proposal for a new series, wasted two months of my time on it, then told me they couldn’t buy it because of sales figures from the last books in my Area 51 series. Huh? They sold over a million copies. Why even look at something if you’re not going to buy anything from me? Which leads me to:

The left hand isn’t talking to the right. I’m not even sure they’re hands. Like most big organizations, my sense is that most publishers don’t have a coherent plan to deal with backlist and with their authors. They haven’t ripped themselves away from the one in a hundred crapshoot to consignment distributors and realized the business has changed in a very fundamental way.

Also, Random House, through 16 editions of Area 51 I constantly asked my editor (whoever the latest one was) to fix a major error on the back cover copy where it said Nellis Air Force Base, New Mexico. Wrong state and I’ve gotten nasty emails about that and 1 star reviews on Amazon. Not once could someone be bothered to fix the mistake. They were too busy throwing new books against the wall and had no focus on what they already had. Most midlist authors know what I’m talking about: the lack of focus from editors on current authors.

Oh yes. The numbers. I have 11 of the top 100 science fiction sellers on Amazon (2 in top 10). From backlist. I have 11 of the top 50 titles in War on Amazon. 10 are backlist, one is a new title, Chasing The Ghost. I have twelve titles in the top 1,000 on Kindle. I have a title in the top 50 on Nook, Area 51. I have five series I’ll be moving into the future with new titles. I still have 6 backlist titles to upload, including my Psychic Warrior series and Shadow Warrior series.

The best salesperson a publisher has for a book is the author. Work with them. Make it worth their time. I actually think the advance model might be antiquated and a profit sharing model could work much better, if the author gets a bigger slice of the pie for motivation but also shares the cost of failure (a blog post about this later). I sell more in one day in eBook than Random House managed to do in six months with the same books.

And here’s the even more amazing thing. Random House wouldn’t buy a new series from me because the infamous “sales force” felt my last mass market numbers were too low and they couldn’t sell another book from me to their accounts. But now that I have fantastic numbers in eBooks, not a single publisher has approached me about my frontlist. About the possibility of getting future titles with a proven sales record. So is it just me, or does this make no business sense at all?

Also, I’m proud to announce that The Jefferson Allegiance will be published on 31 August exclusive to our web site and Nook for one month with support from Barnes & Noble!

Backlist is gold.  Frontlist is even better!

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