Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Book Publishing Experiments

One of the fun things about running an independent book publishing business is that unlike a traditional business I get to make experiments! I've been e-mailing books to buyers of the digital edition of An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups directly, and more than one person suggested e-junkie.com, which performs digital fulfillment. At $5/month, this is very cheap and would enable me to keep digital sales going while I was on vacation, for instance. (In practice, I find a friend to do fulfillment and pay them in chocolate from Europe)

I experimented with e-junkie for a week. All I can say is that for a low volume seller with unpredictable sales, e-junkie's one week trial period is too short. For instance, there was something wrong with the Google checkout integration, and I actually had a buyer call me up and ask me how to download the book. I ended up having to send her the book manually anyway, which defeated the purpose of e-junkie. I didn't get a chance to debug the problem and had no way to figure out what I did wrong, so at the end of the week I just turned off e-junkie and went back to regular fulfillment the old-fashioned mom-and-pop way.

My second experiment was with the Kindle store. For as long as the book's been launched, I've had people ask me why the book was so expensive, with a few folks asking brazenly for discounts. My response has always been that the book's targeted to a very niche audience, and if you're outside the niche you will have no interest in the book! In other words, I'm not writing entertainment and I'm not competing with Stephen King. Goodness knows why anyone would consider a book with a voluminous chapter on taxes and another one on financial planning to be entertainment. Nevertheless, one the second edition was up, I put up the first edition on the Kindle store. Over the last month, the second edition digital sales (at the full price of $24.95) has far outsold the first edition (at $9.99), demonstrating that indeed, I was reaching the audience I wrote the book for: high income professionals for whom the biggest cost of the book is the time spent reading it, not the paltry $24.95 that I ask for my time spent writing it!

Just for grins, I typed "An Engineer's Guide to" into the Amazon Kindle store's search box and the first entry is $99.99. I charge $360/hour to help engineers negotiate compensation, and so far, every client has been very satisfied with my services. The book's your way to get all that experience at $24.95, which if you think about it is a bargain.

My third experiment has been to do away with the Kindle version of the second edition. There were two reasons for this. One was that I wrote the book using OpenOffice, and had to export to Word before converting to Kindle format. The automated tools aren't perfect. so I end up having to fix them up manually in Emacs. Then I got a Kindle 3 as a gift and noticed that it rendered PDF just fine. The trick is to rotate the screen 90 degrees and read books in "wide format." This doesn't quite work for the two-column layout that I use is Independent Cycle Touring, but works fine for the Engineer's Guide. I waited to see if I got howls of protests, but nobody complained, which meant that my assessment of the situation was correct --- the audience for the book who cared about the Kindle knew what to do with the PDF, even without instructions.

I will keep experimenting with the business. Unlike a traditional publisher, I can move quickly and am not tied to existing processes at all. And unlike a traditional publisher, I don't care whether my book sales are mostly digital or mostly paper.
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