Report from Self-Publishing Book Expo, Part One

On Saturday I attended the fourth annual Self-Publishing Book Expo in Manhattan. I boycotted the first one in a feeble effort to protest what I viewed as a misuse of the term “self-publishing.” By the time of the second expo, I stopped fighting a losing battle, and went over to the dark side. In reality, I was not joining Darth Vader, and the three Expos I’ve attended have been both pleasurable and informative. Here’s what I wrote the first time, including a look back to an event I covered in the same venue for my first job as a journalist way back in 1970.

When attending conventions, trade shows and symposia for various industries and groups, it can be useful to try to distill an overall trend, mood or message. For this expo, there was no message. The mood was definitely optimism. The trends I detected were:

  1. A diversification of services offered by companies that provide services to authors
  2. A growing number of companies trying to unite authors and writers online
  3. Concern about the quality of self-published books (the concern may be bullshit)

Some exhibitors have been at the Expo since the beginning, so they obviously find it beneficial. Other companies, such as Outskirts Press and Author Solutions, tried once or twice and did not return. Hope apparently springs eternal, and each year there are new companies in the exhibit hall to replace the dropouts. There seems to be a lot of personnel turnover in this business, and many people who manned the tables for companies in past years were replaced by fresh faces.

The saddest faces this year, as in past year, were on authors who paid to exhibit so they could tout and sell their books. These folks get little ‘traffic’ in the exhibit hall compared to service providers. I admire their perseverance — but not their business judgement. SPBE is simply not a place where people go to buy books. If someone does stop by an author’s table and does get interested in a book, it’s easy to delay the purchase and order it for less money from, and not have to carry it around.

In addition to the exhibit halls, SPBE provides teaching and discussion “panels” all day long. These are extremely popular (and unlike the exhibit hall, not freebies). Some are ‘standing room only’ or draw overflow crowds of eager acolytes listening from adjacent hallways. Because multiple sessions are held concurrently, attendees may have to choose which sessions to skip. Some trade shows offer audio or videotapes of sessions, and I encourage SPBE to investigate this.

The first session I attended was “The Secrets of Ebook Publishing Success” conducted by Smashwords boss Mark Coker. While I disapprove of books and seminars that use the term “secrets,” (few if any ‘secrets’ are secret) Mark is a fine speaker and provided useful information and guidance for both novices and veteran self-pubbers. Some of his points:

  1. It’s too easy to publish. There are lots of unedited books with bad covers (he showed some real losers).
  2. Authors must honor their readers, or readers will ignore the authors.
  3. It’s important to turn readers into evangelists.
  4. With a limited budget, self-pubbers should spend more money on editing than on marketing.
  5. Publish more than one book. They can promote each other.
  6. Give books away (however, some freebies don’t ‘sell’ because they are so bad or are poorly promoted).
  7. Self-pubbed e-books can stay in print forever — there is no pressure to yank them from store shelves.
  8. Maximize availability — make your books available wherever readers are.
  9. Don’t worry about piracy. Obscurity is a much bigger problem. If you make your book easy to buy, few people will steal it.
  10. Virality (word-of-mouth) is critical; eliminate friction that hurts virality. Avoid negative virality.
  11. An improved cover can double book sales.
  12. In one study, a $2.99 book sold six times as many copies as when it was priced at $9.99. Less expensive books sell in greater quantity to build your reader base, even if the overall income is the same.
  13. (I’m not sure if I’m ready to accept this one.) Be positive. Don’t say mean things about other writers.
  14. Think globally. E-book growth will be faster outside the USA than inside.
  15. Pinch pennies. Do as much as possible yourself.
  16. Never borrow money to publish or use money needed for necessities.
  17. Reinvest your income from publishing — in publishing.

The other panel I attended was “Distribution for the Independent Author” with David Lamb of Vantage Press, David Wilk of Creative Management Partners and Alex Kampmann of Midpoint Trade Books. Some of their points:

  1. With traditional publishing, books must become popular FAST. There is just a 60-to-90-day ‘window’ before slow-selling books are returned by booksellers to publishers.
  2. Although many e-books sell for 99 cents, there is also a trend to higher-priced e-books. Some sell for as much or more as the printed versions.
  3. It is nearly impossible for self-published books to get into ‘big box’ retailers like Costco and Walmart. These stores are ‘product-driven’ for books as with clothing and electronics. They require big co-op advertising allowances, have limited space, and will return books in just 30 days if they don’t sell. Costco chooses different books than Walmart.
  4. Some stores put their own price stickers on books and then return them, making them unsuitable for reselling to other stores.
  5. Your book can travel the world. Lightning Source has established printing facilities outside the USA. A reader in Singapore can get a book printed on demand in Australia.
  6. With indie books, Barnes & Noble often starts regionally to see if the book has appeal, before trying national availability.
  7. Marketing is the key to publishing success. (However, Mark Coker said it is more important to spend money on editing than on marketing.)
  8. Lots of stores that are not bookstores sell books. Think about gift shops and even supermarkets. Local retailers are interested in local authors.
  9. Sell books to friends. Use the power of personal marketing.
  10. Most distributors prefer to deal with publishers that have multiple titles, but sometimes will work with single books.
  11. There are many barriers to selling print-on-demand to bricks-and-mortar booksellers. Consider offset.
  12. Barnes and Noble will not stock books published by Amazon’s CreateSpace.
  13. Booksellers are interested in NEW books, not books which have been on the market for months. Purchases are planned six or more months in advance.
  14. Retailers and distributors want to know your marketing plan. You have to prove that a book will sell. It’s not enough that a book is the best book ever written.

More tomorrow (probably).

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