I considered myself lucky. I’ve got a creative bone that just needs to be itched, and I had something entertaining and enlightening to write about—I rode a bicycle around the world in quest of happiness. Combining work and play seemed a recipe for success. I thought there couldn’t be a simpler business plan than to produce a book, and I would have the added benefit of fulfilling another dream. Well, years later, including a year of promoting Falling Uphill, the book about my quest for happiness and the meaning of life, I seem to keep surprising myself how difficult it is to sell a book. And that’s not including a 4-year, 26,000 mile trek, including dengue fever in India, being imprisoned in Zimbabwe, suspected of terrorism in Israel, nearly dying of dehydration in Mexico, meanwhile discovering the meaning of life along the way; and let’s forget the degree in graphic design and production, and the on-the-job education of learning my P’s and Q’s as a copywriter, and nevermind the thousands of hours of writing. That’s all simple stuff compared to the publicity stunt of selling a book.
It should also be noted that I achieved some stellar results. I started a book tour again riding my bicycle around the country as a publicity stunt. Spending 6 hours a day pedaling wasn’t a great use of time, but it did produce results even without a PR agent. I had dozens of media interviews, including the New York Times, far exceeding the average 1% return rate on my cold emails. I advertised on Youtube with a movie about my trip that actually got conversions. I had friends helping me. My mom sent out 200 letters to agents. They actually responded. Even publishers were showing interest. My book was translated into Korean. I had rave 5-star reviews. And I broke at least 4 records at bookstores for author signings. In fact, I have 18 spreadsheets of actions and ideas that are too numerous to list. The bottom line is I sold about 4000 books so far, which is 8 times more than the average book even by a big name publisher. But yet, I have still burned/invested every penny I own, hoping someday my book will go viral. Yet, the world seems to have had other plans, for one inventing a thousand upon a thousand devious ways to get a slice of my pie, or prevent my pie from getting to the market. So, what is my devious solution? Why not fight fire with fire?
Why not enter the world of online innovation and publish an e-Book?
This will save me the cost of manufacturing and shipping, especially opening up the overseas market. I can tap into this market that has seemingly exploded overnight. (Two new e-readers have hit the market since I was asked to write this article.) And, hopefully, I can claim some online real estate, since it seems people are skipping books and even televisions and going straight for instant online satisfaction. Plus, there is fairly convincing evidence that you will sell 35% more books at the click of a button.
What the heck is an e-Book?
Well, obviously it is an electronic book that can be read on a computer or portable device using a variety of file formats. The most basic kind is an ePub format, which is basically a variation of HTML so that the type can be reflowed and resized at whim. The second kind is a PDF, which can look fantastic, but the page layout is static. And, there are a bewildering array of other file formats: DRM, XML, LIT, DTP, PDB, JPG, GIF, PNG, BMP, MP3, Kindle (AZW), TXT, Audible, MOBI, PRC, HTML, XHTML, DOC, RTF, BBeB, and more.
What kind of e-Reader should I choose?
It seems every e-reader is different and uses different formats, which means publishing numerous different versions of your book. The big players at the moment are the Amazon Kindle, iPad, Barnes & Noble Nook, Adobe Reader, MS Reader, Palm Reader, and your basic old computer or cell phone. However, the current battle that is revolutionizing the publishing world seems to revolve not around the e-reader itself, but the unique distribution network each one is attempting to capture.
So the next question is: Which distribution network do I use?
My printer, a division of Ingram, the largest book distributor in the world only deals with a handful of devices, excluding the Kindle and the Nook; however, they just struck a deal with Apple’s iPad. The cost is astonishing! Apple takes $250 to join plus 30% royalties, and Ingram gets another 5.6%. So far, Barnes & Noble, in traditional fashion, snubs the small publisher, offering no information except an email address. And Amazon’s Kindle takes a whopping 70% of my literal blood, sweat and tears. There are also a variety of online bookstores that will distribute your book for you.
So what’s the answer?
Well, I haven’t been able to find a good solution. So, I plan to take a few small steps in the general direction and see what happens. I think my book, Falling Uphill, would simply be lost on the e-shelf of most of the distributors (there were a record-breaking 1,000,000+ new books in print in 2009); and, since publicizing my book and driving the customers to the bookshelf is 99% my problem (i.e. being an unpaid employee for the distributors), I’ve decided to simply sell the e-book on my website. I know how to make a PDF and ePub file, and those two formats work on every device. One of the consequences will be security. The benefit of the aforementioned distributors is being able to prevent people from pirating your book, you can even set your book to expire. However, since after a year of hard work it still hasn’t gone viral, I don’t foresee e-piracy as being a big problem. (I never figured into my business plan that multiple people would read my paper book or the used market further undermining my promotion efforts.) Also, though I like to attribute Amazon as one of my biggest problems (read my article “The high cost of low price”) I have to give them credit for making publishing on their Kindle open to everyone and super easy to convert to their format and distribute inline with your existing paper book, rather than having to buy a separate ISBN at another $125 bucks and marketing a second e-edition. Plus, they promise to lower their royalties to 30% this summer, provided you meet their list of unmeetable requirements.
And, if you are new to this, you will soon realize that e-book or paper book, the great grandmother question of them all is: How do I publicize my book? Well, that is a whole other e-ball of wax.
Stay tuned for an update of how this whole dream manifests itself into some kind of cyber reality.
This article was originally written for Keeping Up: Chronicling Technology Innovation Online