Taking the leap

Decisions have been made, wheels set in motion. After publishing more than one dozen books with traditional publishers – both small and large, I have decided to dip my toes into the world of self-publishing. Why am I making this move? A number of reasons, to be honest. Some are commercial, some are philosophical, some are simply practical.

My first publishing contracts came many years ago – the mid Eighties. At that time I wrote a couple of practice manuals for the legal profession. They were, frankly, awful and probably satisfied no one, including most certainly myself. I was jaded by that and stayed out of publishing for a long time after that experience. I got back into writing in 1995 while working as the multi-media editor for a small publishing house in Korea. As is typical with smaller houses, my role bridged several publishing functions. It wasn’t long before I drifted into the author role and, as unlikely as it sounds, I wrote a number of children’s books, mostly about famous artists (think it’s easy? Try describing Cubism to pre-teens).

I didn’t get into tech publishing until 2006, when the large American publishing house Wiley & Sons approached me to write one of their first CMS titles, the Mambo Visual Blueprint. The timing could not have been worse. During the production period, Mambo imploded. With most of the Mambo community jumping ship to Joomla!, the book was stillborn. It was truly a book without an audience. We sold a few copies and got good reviews, but it came nowhere close to recouping my advance.

Despite the rocky start, that book started a long relationship with Wiley. Over the next years I did a number of titles for them, including the Ubuntu Visual Blueprint, the Joomla! Bible, and the Drupal 7 Bible. While I was never a big fan of the Visual Blueprint series (the methodology and design of this books doesn’t appeal to me personally) – I was thrilled to be able to be offered a chance to write for the Bible series. I’ve owned a number of Bible titles over the years and have always found them to be useful and authoritative. Of those books, the Joomla! Bible has done very well and the Drupal 7 Bible is selling well.

My issues with the commercial side of the business have nothing to do with Wiley in particular; rather, these issues are endemic to the business model employed by all major publishing houses. In short, publishing houses work just like record labels. The publishing house considers all monies spent to be advances to you, the author, and you don’t receive any royalties until all of those advances are recouped. In that fashion, the publishers limit their exposure to risk. That would all be fine, but for two issues: First, once all expenses are recouped, authors earn extremely small percentages. I’m not naming numbers here, but it’s well under 20% for most authors. Second, if your previous title did not recoup, the shortfall is carried over to the next title and you don’t break into royalties until the expenses of the current and the previous titles are recovered. So, if you have one dog in the kennel, everyone suffers. Looking at my situation, the stillborn Mambo title has meant that despite really solid sales of later titles, I haven’t seen a penny in royalties. So, after 6 years and 4 books at Wiley, I have yet to see one cent in royalty income. (That’s going to change very soon, but at this time, it’s reality.)

In Wiley’s defense, they do offer decent advances, so I have made OK money on some of these titles. (Indeed, every time I go in to negotiate the deal, I have to balance the desire for a large advance against the desire for royalties. Guess which way I lean these days?) Also in Wiley’s defense, they do bring to the table significant distribution and a talented production staff. The Bible books, in particular, are well curated, well designed, and have excellent reach. I don’t regret the Bible series at all, but I can’t say that I find the deals to be very commercially attractive.

Wiley represents the traditional publishing house business model. While I appreciate their work, when it comes to subjects like open source software, traditional publishing houses are at a huge disadvantage. The production cycles are long and drawn out. If the subject matter of the book has a limited lifespan – like the most recent release of an open source product – then their books have limited lifespans. Wiley also tends to have very large production runs, which again increases the barriers to recoupment (due to returns and production costs). From my perspective, the combination of short lifespans, long production cycles, and painful recoupment policies make working with a traditional publishing house on open source titles a very hard case to justify.

Over the last 5 years I have also worked with another, very different, publishing house: Packt Publishing, a boutique house in the U.K. Packt specializes in software titles and has a very different approach to publishing workflow. Packt is an on-demand publisher, with fast turn-around times and small production runs.

Packt’s production cycles mean that the books hit the market faster and have longer lifespans; the dynamic is more suitable for open source software titles. This is good. However, Packt’s production policies are not always optimal. Technical editing is rather hit and miss. There are times when I get up to my knees in code (not my forte) and need a good technical editor to slap me around and say “don’t do it like that.” I never get that at Packt and as a result, I am more conservative than I would like to be about some of the technical aspects of my books.

The business model works somewhat differently at Packt. I’ve done 4 titles for Packt. All 4 have broken into royalties. That said, Packt’s royalty rates are not any better than anyone else’s and their advances are much smaller. At the end of the day, it all winds up being about equal. The large advances with no royalties (at Wiley) about equal the small advances with royalties (at Packt). Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Commercial reality may say that the publisher has hidden operating costs and overhead that are not included in recoupment, but you know what? So do I. Moreover, the common argument authors hear is that publishers spend money on promotions. Well, maybe they do for best sellers, but for the rest of us – I’m not so certain. When I get emails from the “marketing team” asking me for lists of reviewers to send the book to, it irritates me. “Don’t you have a killer list in house?” I wonder (and when I ask for the list of people they’ve sent it to, I never get it). When I have to nag for weeks to get a press release written, it grates on my nerves. When I push for special promotions and get nothing in return, I get frustrated.

As authors, we have to follow strict formatting guidelines and we have to shoot our own screenshots and create our own exhibits. In the electronic age, much of the work that would have been done in the past by the publishers has been pushed on to the authors. We, as authors, bear more of the production overhead than ever in publishing history. Some of us do significant marketing on our own – micro-sites, maintaining Facebook Fan Pages, etc. The royalties haven’t shifted to reflect any of these changes.

At the same time, our ability as individuals to access production resources and distribution has increased greatly. With the explosion in the popularity of eBooks and the liberalization of distribution channels, a shift is occurring in publishing. I’ve watched this happening, but have waited. Now, I’m making the move. Maybe I won’t do any better on my own, but I’ll have no one but myself to blame. I may not retire rich, but I’m certain to learn a few things in the process (and most likely gain a greater appreciation for the publisher role) – compensation comes in many forms.

My first title, HowTo: WordPress 3, is now in production. I’m sticking to what I know and love: tech books in general, open source CMS titles in particular. I’ve had a cover designed, built a micro-site, got my ISBN, and am well on the way. The first chapter is in the can, the second will be done shortly. My plan is to hit the street on 15 July, both through direct sales and via the Apple Store, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I still haven’t sorted out my distribution partner, but we’re getting close to a deal. (We’re not doing physical books; I’m through killing trees.)

Will I ever work with a traditional publisher again? Sure, I’m certain to. I have two more titles in production at Packt right now, and am discussing another with Wiley. That said, if the self-publishing route turns out to be a revelatory experience, well, things may change. I’ll blog about this more here. Wish me luck. And buy a book…or three.

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