Notes on publishing with Lulu (part 3)

published: Wed, 11-Oct-2006   |   updated: Thu, 12-Oct-2006
New cover for The Tomes of Delphi: Algorithms and Data Structures

Now that I've gone through the entire process of actually getting The Tomes of Delphi: Algorithms and Data Structures (ToDADS) republished and people are buying it and receiving it, it's time to consider the wider scope: getting even more people to buy it (cue evil taking-over-the-world manic laughter).

The first thing I would like to emphasize, and emphasize strongly, are these two points.

  • ToDADS had already been published. People knew about it and wanted to buy a reasonably-priced copy.
  • It's a technical computer book. It is not fiction or poetry or autobiography or something like that.

Bear these two points in mind as I continue.

Today, ToDADS is 536th on the Lulu book sales rank. There are, according to my calculations, nearly 53,000 books on Lulu, so ToDADS in one week has sold better than 99% of all books on Lulu. Ever.

Before swooning and clapping myself on the back and popping open that there champers (not to be attempted in that or any other order), let's look at this a different way. So far, in one week, I've sold just over 110 copies of ToDADS. In other words, rounding like crazy, we can say that 99% of all books on Lulu sell fewer than 100 copies, and we can guess that the majority far, far fewer than that.

The book sales chart, if plotted, would have a great blip on the left and a huge long tail to the right, with the vast majority of sales, and therefore revenue, being made for the top 1% of books.

Ladies and gentlemen: making any money through self-publishing is a risky business. Well, "risky business" is perhaps the wrong phrase since the down payment is $0, so how about "improbable".

I suppose the only way to improve this for a given book is two-fold: one, marketing, and two, getting your book on the shelves of a major bookstore or getting it registered on Amazon.

I really can't talk much about the marketing of my book. I was in the enviable position that it had already been published by a traditional publisher, it had already been reviewed, already been bought from Amazon and B&N, already had garnered a need-to-have cachet (rightly or wrongly). Over the past few years, I would get emails regularly from people asking whether I had a forgotten secret cache of unsold books in my basement because they really needed one. So, luckily, the marketing was easy in a way: just announce it where Delphi programmers congregate. And that's all I've done for now. There was a pent-up demand for the book, and that pent-up demand has pretty much been satisfied. Increasing sales in the future will have to involve some more innovative ideas (and unfortunately the wall I'm staring at hasn't produced any).

Jeff Duntemann, an author and editor and magazine publisher and book publisher in his own right, has been thinking a lot about the future of POD (print on demand) and self-publishing over the past few months, if years. He's posted many articles on that subject (for example: one, two) and also on the subject of ensuring that people who may want to buy your book actually get to know about it. His thinking on this is far more advanced than my own. I know he's been following my saga with Lulu with interest and so I'm watching out for his latest thoughts.

The next way to improve sales is to get the book on the physical shelves. Even with Amazon in the ascendancy, well over half of books are bought in a physical bookstore. People like to go in, browse through the shelves, and buy something that grabs their fancy. Just think what your book would do, eh?

Unfortunately, behind this genteel facade is a whole industry aimed at getting books from the publisher onto the bookstore shelf. And you cannot circumvent it.

The traditional path is this. Publisher gets Author to write a Book, for which the Author gets an advance and some royalty plan and X months to write it. Publisher gets an ISBN for the Book and advertises and markets the book in trade publications. A book Distributor (the largest is this space in the US is called Ingram) gets a stock of the Book once written, and distributes it to Stores. Stores put it on the shelves and Customers buy it and go home and read it. Lovely, and everyone is happy.

Unfortunately, some (many?) books don't sell that well. The Store therefore wants to get rid of any unsold copies. Luckily for the Store, books are bought as returnable. In other words, the Store merely returns the unsold copies to the Distributor who will then refund the cost. The Distributor then returns the books to the Publisher and is refunded in turn. The Publisher and Author then just swallow the loss (the Author just has to refund the royalty of the returned Book) and the Book is pulped. Everybody's happy again; well, apart from the Publisher and the Author, of course.

And that is how the whole system works. You may argue that it's inefficient and the publisher and author get a bad deal with an unsuccessful book and the bookstores and the distributors have it easy, but that's just the way it is.

The big issue for us here though is that POD service providers do not accept returns in this fashion. (They'll accept returns if the book falls apart or is printed upside down or something, but not because the book is unsold.) The mere fact that the book is non-returnable means that physical bookstores are extremely reluctant to accept POD books, to the point of just not doing it at all. Compounding that with the problem that the majority of POD books are usually badly written, badly edited, badly typeset, and badly proofed means that you will be very lucky to get a POD book on a shelf at your local bookstore.

You see, the entire raison d'être for a publisher is not just to accept returns for books that don't sell, but also to provide all of those services for those hidden jobs you forget about: a proper editor to ensure it reads well, a proper typesetter who ensures that it looks good, a proper graphics designer to pretty up the illustrations, a proper marketing department to send out review copies prior to release. These services are not free. They are expensive and self-publishers don't use them: they can't afford to. That's why you don't get a lot of royalty from a traditional publisher: all those other people have to be paid and it's a risky business with the risk spread through all of the books that a publisher may print (hopefully the sales from the best sellers are more than the returns from the dross).

So, my conclusion is this. If you have never published a book before and want to try the POD route, be aware that it's very unlikely that you will be able to get strangers to buy your book (you will of course coerce your friends and family into buying). That's especially true for fiction. (Would you buy Deathjester: The Legend of Battleblade by Robert Coward, hardcover, priced at $38.19, unrated, unreviewed, Lulu sales rank 9754? I'm sure it's a right riveting read, but I'm not ready to plop down forty bucks to find out. Mind you, Deathjester sounds like a great character.) Of course, if you just want a copy of your book to put on your bookshelves, be my guest, publish away.

For computer books, it's possibly less of an issue, especially if you are known within the sphere you're writing about. For in that case, you have a captive audience who are reachable by your marketing and are more likely to buy just because it's you -- they "know" you (but of course not necessarily the other way round). If you have already published, and got good reviews for your books, then POD publishing is certainly a very viable outlet for your work. Just don't expect to see it on the store shelves.

(For ease of browsing, here's part 1, part 2 and this is part 3 of this series on publishing with Lulu.)