Criticism Is Inevitable (Small Press Publishing)

The reviews on books can be frustrating at times. You put so much money, effort, and energy into creating a great reading experience and then anyone can come along and say “this sucked.” In the world of Amazon and book blogs and the Internet in general, every single person has an opinion and they’re ready to share it. As is their right. You shared your perspective by writing the book and now it is their turn to share theirs.

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Let’s take Love In Touch as an example.

  • I went over the manuscript and suggested changes, Lucy worked on those changes and sent it back.
  • I hired an editor to go over the manuscript, Lucy worked on those changes and sent it back.
  • I hired a proofreader to go over the manuscript and those changes were made.
  • I went over it again.

At this point I’m pretty confident that we’re in great shape and the typos and grammar mistakes have been caught and corrected.

Then after getting a bunch of glowing reviews, one reviewer on Amazon blasts us, saying that the book is “riddled with errors” and is “unreadable” and “the publisher should be ashamed.”

And it being an Amazon review, there’s not really any opportunity to respond to this criticism.

I am unable to find the errors she is talking about and no other reviewers say this. I leave a comment on the review to ask for examples but she doesn’t respond.

So what can you do about criticism?

Nothing.

A bad review might sometimes clue you in to something you could be doing better with your books, but I’ve found that that’s rare. Usually it is one person’s opinion and it says more about them that it does about you or your book (or your author’s book).

And every person is allowed to feel however they want to about your book. It’s out there in the world making its own friends and enemies. It’s not in your control anymore. If you don’t want anyone to say bad things about it, don’t publish it.

Because tastes vary and there’s definitely going to be people who don’t like your book. There’s nothing you can do about that. Focus on the people who did like it!

The most frustrating part is that that bad review, that opinion, is now connected to your book and other potential readers are seeing it. It’s dragging down your overall rating.

But still there’s not much you can do about it.

It always, always, always looks bad if you respond to a review. No matter how politely you try to approach it, you’ll always look like the big bad guy trying to silence the underdog reviewer (and more than just look it, that will pretty much be exactly what you are). You’re likely to come across as insecure and desperate which is also not a good look.

The best thing to do is to completely ignore it.

Assuming the review is just hateful and an attack on you rather than the book, treat it like your annoying little brother who will get bored and wander away if he can’t bait you. Not to mention if you don’t grace the person with a response, then they’re left looking shrill and alone.

If the review is focused on the book, then it’s not a bad review. It is doing what it’s supposed to do. No matter how much you might disagree with it, negative reviews have an important purpose and it has nothing to do with you.

Trust the readers.

Trust them to read the review and know whether or not it applies to their enjoyment of the book. If it’s just a personal attack, new potential readers will just roll their eyes and buy the book anyway.

If it brings up things in the book that the reviewer didn’t like, then maybe the potential new reader knows they dislike the same things and then they don’t buy it which saves you from a second bad review!

When I’m trying to decide if I’ll buy a book, I start by reading the lowest reviews. I’ll see if the things that bothered those reviewers are things that would bother me. Often they are not and then I feel confident in trusting the higher rating reviews.

I admit that the accusation of typos is a particularly difficult one to deal with. Numerous typos in books is something that I find difficult to deal with so if I see a review claiming a book has them, I might avoid that book (although I usually read the sample chapter, the “look inside” to see for myself).

That’s why for the Love In Touch situation, I attempted to get in touch with the reviewer. What she is claiming is simply not true.

If you’re a reader and a book buyer (which if you’re here, I would assume you are!) please don’t take reviews at face value. Every review is written by a person with his or her own biases and assumptions. There are cases where reviewers will claim there are typos in a book in order to sell the author on their own editing services! Always check out the sample yourself before you believe a reviewer who claims there are typos.

If you’re an author, I highly suggest never reading your reviews. Tough perhaps, but you’ll be saner for it and better able to focus on creating your next masterpiece.

What should you do instead?

I suggest having an email address for your writing that you share on social media. The emails from readers will give you a much clearer picture of your work.

When someone privately emails you that means…

  1. They are highly motivated and not someone who is just going to dash off the first things that come to their mind. They had to put some effort in to find your contact info.
  2. Because it is private, you know that they want to help you and commune with you, not show off their literary criticism skills to the world

There’s nothing more special than getting an email or a letter from a fan telling you how much they loved your work. And when someone reaches out to criticize through email, it is much more often stated in constructive ways.

Respect and value the book bloggers even when they don’t like your book. They are serving readers and not you. Just step away and let that process do what it’s meant to do. And go write another book. Strive to make it better than your  last. But know that you’ll never write the perfect book that every person on the planet will adore.

Check out the reviews for classic books. It’ll make you feel in good company.

Bookstores and Getting Into Them (Starting a Small Press Publisher)

The holy grail of starting a book publishing company: getting your books onto bookstore shelves.

I’ve focused most of my efforts on ebooks and print-on-demand Internet orders for physical books. It’s a great model since it has such low overhead cost. It’s a pretty new model too, with ebooks taking off in popularity only in the last four years or so.

But I have my eye on getting my authors’ books onto bookstore shelves.

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The biggest thing holding me back is the nature of returns. Basically, books go to bookstores on a consignment basis. The books sit on the shelves and if they don’t sell, they get returned to you for a refund. You shipped out a bunch of books, got paid for them (at the steep discount that bookstores get) and then months and months later all that money has to be refunded! It can be a nightmare for a small business’s cash flow.

So you can’t count on any of the bookstore money until there are actual sales.

Okay, once I’ve got some money saved up so cash flow isn’t an issue, what is the process to actually get books into bookstores?

Who Is Your Distributor?

Createspace and Lightning Source both use Ingram as a distributor which means that working with them your books will show up as available for bookstores to order. The only trouble is, they set the terms not you. And they tend to set terms that aren’t attractive to bookstores. If you want bookstores to stock you, you’ve got to be willing to accept returns and give them a significant discount so they can maintain their profit margins.

I had a friend who works at a bookstore look up our books in her system and they are marked as unreturnable. That means the store is not going to take a chance on them.

Lightening Source may claim that with a fee you can make your books returnable, but my friend said in practice they are still effectively unreturnable.

The reason why? Because it is literally “print on demand” they don’t have a warehouse for returned books. The book is created when someone buys it so there is no inventory sitting around. I’m told that you may be able to tell bookstores that they can buy through Ingram but return directly to you. I’m going to try that out before I start looking for a non-POD printer, but that is probably in the future for this company.

Book Reps

Book Sales Representatives are people who travel to bookstores and present various potential books to the bookstore buyers. You can hire them to add your book to the list, but the issues with that are:

  1. Your bad terms still show up if the bookstore is interested in buying some stock
  2. It’s very expensive
  3. Your book is just one of a bunch they are representing and if it isn’t as flashy or exciting as another book they’re repping, then yours might not get much attention

More on hiring book reps here:

http://blog.bookmarket.com/2005/02/hiring-book-sales-representatives.html

http://www.andrewsmcmeel.com/for-the-trade/find-a-sales-representative

Talking To The Manager

It seems like the best way for a small press to start getting into bookstores is through the local route. Get to know the book sellers in your area. Go in and talk to them.

If you are the author or you are nearby the author, present your books as local. A lot of bookstores have a special section to highlight local authors.

Just ask if you can do a test run of books on their shelves. If they stock just five or ten copies, that’s a start!

Once those books are on the shelf, make sure they sell. Tell your friends and family, ask for help. The most important thing for bookstores is that the books sell. No matter how small the first run is, if it sells out than they will be interested in getting more copies in.

(Here is a great description of how an author did exactly that: http://www.selfpublishingadvice.org/selling-self-published-books-in-bookstores/)

Ask if you can do a test run on a consignment basis where the bookstores don’t pay for your books up front but they pay you back a percentage on sales. (Here is a list of examples of different bookstores and the terms they offer for self-published authors [which are going to be at least very similar to the terms for small presses particularly if they’re using POD technology]: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/how-to-sell-your-self-published-book-into-bookstores_b51732 Note how important it is to be up to date on industry pricing).

You can also call bookstores and speak to the manager about your book. Here is one author’s advice on how to get them to carry your book:

But … if your self-published POD book is not picked up by Barnes & Noble corporate (the dream, as it saves plenty of time), you can still get it in the stores. How? By calling the stores individually, or hiring a salesperson to work on commission. This is what I do. Though several hundred Barnes & Noble stores still need to be called (ugh!), the book has been ordered by nearly 100% of the stores individually contacted.

Here’s the spiel. First, you give them the book’s title or ISBN number. Then, as the bookstore staff person is looking it up in the computer, say, “Though it is POD, it is through Ingram and fully returnable with regular terms.” If you do that, nine times out of ten Barnes & Noble will at the very least “short order” the title, that is, order two or three to see how it goes, before they place a larger order. This is assuming, of course, that you can sell the virtues of your title.

Shouldn’t be a problem, though, if you add, “Could you just short order a few and see how it goes?”

You’ll be surprised at your results. –http://www.absolutewrite.com/novels/how_to_get_your_self.htm

Just, check and make sure that it is fully returnable and if not, remember to say it can be returned to you directly.

Set Up A Signing

Ask your local bookstores if you can do an book signing at their location and offer to supply the books yourself.  Bookstores like events that will draw people in and if your book is selling well, they may consider stocking it.

Make sure that you get lots of people to your signing. Again, call in any favors you’ve got! If you bring the bookstore traffic, they will be interested in working with you.

Ask Fans To Request the Book

You can also create demand for the book before it is on shelves. Ask your fans to request them. If a bookstore doesn’t have the book, it can be special ordered for a customer. Tell your fans to ask at the customer service desk. Enough demand and the buyer at the store may want to stock it.

Networking

Up next for me are to look into getting a non POD printer and hiring my own distributor. I plan to make some connections to help me do that when I go to Book Expo America next May!

I’m super excited to have a booth at the trade show. This will allow me to present my books to bookstore buyers, library buyers, big chain buyers, as well as distributors.

It’s expensive to attend but it has fantastic potential to grow my business. Later on we’ll talk about booth set up because it’s important for both trade shows and bookstore signings!

One of the nice things about doing ebook first is that I have a sales record to show buyers and reps. I have books that have shown their market potential already. That’s a big benefit!

As the publisher, you’re going to be thinking about sales and proving your book’s sales potential. That’s a big part of the job or a publisher.

Keeping Track of Money (Starting a Small Press Publisher)

Once your books start selling you’re going to have a business bank account with a big (or maybe not so big) pile of cash in it. You know you want to use some of that to pay yourself, some to pay your authors but then you also know you want to use some of what’s left for advertising or for saving up for future editing and cover design. How do you keep track of how much money you have for each thing and not overdraft your account?

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I have tried a number of different systems from Excel spreadsheets to Mint.com to the “envelope system.” Then I found the YNAB program:

YNAB stands for You Need A Budget. And you really do! Let me show you some screenshots of my YNAB budget and take you through a little bit of how it works:

YNAB1

So first, every time money comes in or goes out you record it on the account page (number 1 above). Then the balance that you have appears in “available to budget” (number two above). You divide that into each category (the first column) as you desire until the “available to budget” is zero. This way you know what every single individual dollar is doing for you! The third column (circled above) are like your envelopes. Any money you put into them stays there and builds up as each month goes by and you add more to that category. If you spend it that’s recorded on the account page (number 1 above) and it shows up in the second column, automatically updating your “envelope” to how much you have left.

You can also put a note to yourself when you set up the categories if you want to have a particular percentage of your income go to each category. For example the “Cover Artwork” category could also say “Cover Artwork 2%” and each time you get money in, you put 2% of it into that category. The YNAB does allow you to be flexible, though, since you can always see how much you have in each category and if you need to pull some from something you don’t use as often for an immediate need, you can.

YNAB2

Eventually you get to a point where you’re recording your money in as income for the next month. So when you get money for, say, July, you record it as available for August and it shows up in August’s “available to budget.” This way you are always working from and paying bills from money that you earned already the previous month and is in your account. There’s no speculating.

It will take a few months of sales to get you there. Many sales channels, as with most businesses, will pay you in March for money earned in January. So there’s going to be a two month lag to start seeing money for your first sales. (This is called Net-60 and it means that the business has 60 days from the time you earned the money to get you paid. So for money earned in March, April first they know the full amount of March’s money and then they have 60 days so they will likely pay you at the end of May. Some, like Smashwords, only pays you quarterly and that based on how much of your money they have managed to collect from their sales channels. So there can be a bit of a wait for your cash).

You can also save for yearly or irregular bills by adding a small amount to the category each month, such as paying for this website which happens annually.

Here you can see some of the categories that I have. There’s also payroll, taxes, and paypal fees and a “to invest” category. I figure I can save a little bit each month until I have enough to put into a high-yield savings account and start generating some interest to put back into the business. But I’m not even close to that yet!

Membership fees are for professional organizations like Romance Writers of America and small business guilds.YNAB4

I completely adore YNAB. I use it both for Dev Love Press and for my household finances (you can easily create another budget and switch between them). It gives me a lot of peace of mind knowing exactly how much I have that I can spend on each thing and allows me to switch amounts around if I really want to buy a thing or a service that I haven’t budgeted enough for.

That said, I have not tried many official business softwares like Quicken. In the future I may need to upgrade to a system that has payroll included in it (Right now I pay my authors through Paypal and I have a category of money just for the Paypal fees).

I highly recommend trying out the free 30 day trial. Also, sign up for the web seminars teaching you how to use it. They are free and plentiful!

The cost to buy it is a one time $60, however you can save $6 by buying it through my referral link here. I bought it for $54 through another person’s referral link (after the trial period I went back to her website, which is where I first heard about YNAB, and bought it through her link). You get $6 off and I get $6 for you buying it through me, so it’s a win-win.

Whether you use this system or another, you’re going to need something that helps you manage your money!

There’s a lot of advice on this in the book Publishing for Profit by Thomas Woll. He has a ton of information about money management for publishers and some of it is a bit over my head, but I’m processing it piece by piece and integrating it into my business. He also has an appendix with recommended software for publishers that integrate sales, inventory, royalties, etc. I’ll be looking into some of those to see if they will be better than YNAB paired with a whole lot of Excel spreadsheets.

The book also has a number of suggested spreadsheets for things like Profit and Loss statements (to determine if a manuscript you want to acquire will be worth the cost to produce it) and Editorial Plans, Comparison of Books Sold, etc. I highly recommend picking up a copy. It will give you a great sense of the business side of publishing!

Writing Contest: First Sentence Prompt

We wanted to do something fun and get those creative juices flowing since nice summer weather can be such a distraction to writing!

Introducing: a prompt contest

How does it work? Below you’ll find a first sentence. We want you to develop that sentence into a scene, a story, or maybe even a book. Minimum is 2,000 words.

What is the deadline? You will have until September 1st (2014) to submit your entry to carolyn@devlovepress.com (subject line: contest entry)

What will you win? A $25 giftcard to Amazon.com! (Your choice whether a digital code or a physical giftcard)

***

There’s no entry fee, we just want to see what you come up with.

UPDATE: I originally thought we’d do a random draw for the winner from the entries, but the feedback I’m getting is that that method isn’t very inspiring. So Carolyn will judge the entries and declare a winner sometime after September 1st and before September 15th. We will randomize the entries to ensure a lack of bias.

(In the future we’d like to run a more formal contest with a publishing contract as the prize, so stay tuned for news on that!)

If you agree, we’d like to post selections from the entries here at the blog (with attribution to you, of course!) All entries must use this sentence as the first sentence of the piece (though you can replace “she” with a character name if you would like):

  She turned the corner of the ramp and eyed the doorway in front of her, unsure that her wheelchair was going to fit through.

Your entry only needs to be 2,000 words, but if you continue to develop the story after the contest we’d love to see the finished result. Follow our submission guidelines here: http://www.devlovepress.com/submission-guidelines/

Starting a Small Press Publisher: What Is It You Do?

It can be hard for people outside the book industry to understand what publishers are there for.

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When I told my family that I was starting a publishing company, they thought what I meant was that I’d be charging writers to format their books for them and put them up for sale. That’s what’s called an Author Services Company (or Vanity Press) and the vast majority are super scamy.

If you’ve been a writer for any amount of time I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that publishers don’t charge authors, they pay authors. You as an author should never be asked to pay fees or to pay for publisher’s services. That’s because authors are not a publisher’s clients.

The authors are not my clients.

The authors are, to make an analogy, my manufacturers. They create the product that I then sell. (By the way, going back for a moment to the legal side of things, my accountant has told me that the authors are 1099 contractors for me and as such I need to have them fill out a  W-9 form providing either their social security number or the EIN of their own business identity in order to report on taxes how much I’ve paid them. Check with your own accountant about this).

So who is my client? Readers. Anyone who buys books.

What’s the problem with Author Services Companies?

As with most things, you have to look at what the incentives are. If I’m making money from charging an author to edit her book or format his book, then what motivation do I have to hussle and sell that book? I’m already making money! Why would I care if it sold? I would be incentivized by the wrong thing.

The way publishing companies are set up is that we get paid when the book sells. We are incentized and motivated to sell that book as much as possible because the more money it brings in, the more money we all make.

I could have created a company around charging a small fee to format someone’s book or upload it to Kindle for them, and there’s be nothing wrong with that (as long as I was upfront with the authors about what service I’m providing), but that’s not being a publisher. That’s not the business I’m interested in being in.

So what do I do?

Get the book ready to sell and then sell it! Basically all the things on this list I either do or coordinate the hiring of someone to do and then I do all the publicity and talking to bookstore reps too. I hope that this series is illuminating the many things that a publisher does do for their authors’ books…there’s plenty of work left between finished manuscript and finished book!

Publishers Are Not God

I’m an author as well as a publisher so I know how it is. You send out your work and once there’s finally interest in it you’re so thrilled that you accept any offer you get. Getting your book any contract is not the best thing for your beloved story. You want to get it the right contract. Sometimes even a great publishing house isn’t the right fit for you and your book, so be cautious when accepting an offer.

I saw a really sad example recently. I met someone online who had written a disability memoir and I wanted to learn more about her book so I could feature it in our monthly newsletter. I asked and she sent me the link to the book’s Amazon page.

I don’t want to call anyone out, but the page was awful.

The cover of the book was one of the most unprofessional I’ve ever seen. It was a home photo of the author slapped on a white background with text that looked like the whole thing was created in Word. The description was blah and not formatted. There were no editorial reviews or blurbs.

And there was no ebook version.

That can be fine, but it depends on the kind of book you have. Disability memoirs from unknown people don’t really sell in bookstores. Ebooks are where the sales are for that market. To not have one was just begging to have zero sales.

I asked the author to check her contract and the publisher never asked for e-rights, so she is free to put it up herself on Kindle and Nook, etc. But of course she went with a publisher partly because she didn’t want to learn to do all those things herself and said that she didn’t have any money to put into it (to which I said if she has the edited files than she doesn’t need any upfront money).

The author of this book gets to know that she’s an author and tell people she published a book. That’s a great thing! But I doubt she’ll get many people engaging with her story and actually buying her work.

When you’re considering an offer from a publisher, please look at their track record. Look at the covers of the books they’ve already done, look at the blurbs they’ve gotten, make sure that they can produce a quality product and actually sell it. Don’t be afraid to say no and get a better offer. Your rights to your work can get tied up for years with a publisher and you want to make sure that you’ve placed your book with people who will care about it and nurture it the way you have.

Optimizing Your Amazon Sales Page (Starting a Small Press Publisher)

Getting your book found on the Internet is different from getting your book found in a bookstore. In a store, publishers can pay extra for special displays like the ends of the shelves or the tables at the front and that’s great for visibility. Online you have to do some other things to gain visibility.

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SEO

This to some is a scary word (or acronym, I should say). It stands for Search Engine Optimization and means setting up your page to be as friendly to search engines as possible. Sometimes people try to use tricks to scam the system and that’s why Google and others are often coming out with updates that change how SEO works. But the basics remain the same: keywords, tags, high-quality links. From what I can tell, it really isn’t complicated at all!

The high-quality links is something to work on for your publishing company’s individual website rather than for the Amazon or Barnes and Noble sales page. It means that search engines see it favorably if other people link to your page, it shows that they find something valuable there. The software will crack down on you, though, if the links back to your page are from link farms and scammy pages. Build links slowly and organically for your personal webpage!

For your book’s sales page at Amazon and other e-retailers, keywords are something you’ll want to pay attention to.

Keywords

You’ll want to come up with about 13 keywords that someone looking for a book just like yours would type into a search engine to find it.

Brainstorm lots of words. Words that relate to the subject of the book, the genre of the book, some of the key elements of the book. Then take your list of words and plug them into a tool like Google Keyword Search. This tool will give you an idea of how popular that search term is and will give you some ideas about related keywords that might be searched more often.

Also look at the categories on Amazon’s Kindle store. Figure out which category or “theme” (this is a new thing!) your book would best fit in and then use those words as some of the tags (Amazon will ask you for 13 tags when you are uploading the book).

Book Description

You may already have your back cover copy, which is the snappy and intriguing few paragraphs that will entice people to pick up your book. That same copy will be the description you use on the e-retailer’s page. See if you can work in a few of your keywords to the description in a natural way. Then you’ll want to repeat those same keywords as tags too.

Page Presentation

The most important thing, though, is that the description of the book makes people want to learn more. It should match the tone of the book too so that it gives people a sense of what to expect.

You can use some html coding in the description area (it used to be Amazon’s own language there but now html works). Here is a good overview of the html you can use: http://www.jesusp.com/how-to-format-your-amazon-kindle-book-descriptions-html-images/ Some people will suggest updating the book description from the “author central” page, but if you’re the publisher and you have lots of authors you aren’t going to be the one updating those pages. You’d need a different Amazon account for each one, I think. I haven’t actually tried it on any of the authors other than myself. I would suggest telling the authors to claim their author page and fill it out with headshot and bio.

You want to make full use of this ability without going overboard with fonts and changes. This page is your store front and it needs to look beautiful and inviting. You don’t want a bunch of text crammed together but you also don’t want wild changes of formatting and text size every couple of words either!

How I’m Doing It

Right now I’m happy with our keywords and tags, but the look of the descriptions could use some polishing I think. I recently experimenting on the page for (W)hole and I’m going to be working on updating the others now that I see that the html actually works! I will probably still tweak (W)hole’s also. I like to add in the endorsement quotes on the description page too.

bookdescription1