How To Avoid Publishing-Assisted Suicide

I regularly take aim at “assisted self-publishing” because it often results in a shoddy product, a serious price-tag and/or a big chunk of the author’s royalties going to a middleman that is doing little more than uploading (which is the easiest part of the process).

This post is from 30 June 2013. It has not been updated except to clean up broken links but the comments remain open. For something fresher head to the blog homepage.

However, I’m not against assisted self-publishing per se, and today’s guest post sketches out a potential model for such companies, an author-centric approach that can benefit all parties, particularly the author. And it’s not just theory.

Phoenix Sullivan is an author, self-publisher, and IMO one of the smartest people in the publishing business. Regular readers will know that she was one of the brains behind figuring out the Popularity list and the subsequent algorithm changes to same which led to the diminution of post-free sales bumps (indeed, much of Let’s Get Visible is based on her insights).

Phoenix is also the General Manager of Steel Magnolia Press, which is not your average publishing company. SMP assists a very select group of authors to self-publish their work, in exchange for a small percentage. As you will see, the results have been astounding, but Phoenix isn’t here to shill for her company — it isn’t taking on new clients. Rather, she is here to show how an author-centric assisted-publishing model can work (and how it often doesn’t).

Phoenix Sullivan

There’s been a lot of noise, recently and not so recently, about agents and publishers adapting to the fast-changing digital world by finding new ways to fleece writers.

Everywhere we turn, we run into new “services” ready to help in the self-publishing process, beckoning from every street corner like high-priced call girls pimping their wares and making promises too good to be delivered. Trying to dress up the act by giving it a more reputable name and marketing spin, such as “escort service,” doesn’t change what’s going to happen to the customer at the end of the night.

David’s run a few scathing posts about some of the agents and publishers — even respected guilds — out to take advantage of the desperate, the naïve or simply the too-busy-to-be-bothered.

Sure, customers pay for convenience all the time. The issue here is not the willingness of the author to pay, but how much, and for how long, these publishing assistants (PAs) are asking to be paid.

A reasonable profit is a reasonable expectation. But like with distributors increasing the cost of gasoline or plywood in the face of a coming hurricane, inflating profits at the expense of the desperate or the unwary, however willing they are to pay at the time, simply isn’t justifiable.

So what’s really wrong with all these PAs who’ve come under fire?

David put it pretty succinctly: laziness. Lazy publishers, lazy agents, lazy service providers, lazy authors — all grabbing for the same low-hanging fruit.

We’ve seen the models that some of the respected names in the industry use and we’ve listened to David’s cogent reasoning against their exploitative practices.

It seems most PAs out there operate under a model of high volume with little risk. Staying in business means selling a few each of a lot of inventory, so the PA winds up turning a profit on the whole. No one work, no one author gets special focus except for a top name or two. It’s basically the trad publisher model all over again, with the midlist author still on the short-end of the profits.

Except, of course, it’s worse. The trad publisher at least bears the risk, fronting the costs of production, distribution and whatever marketing they may plan.

The easy part for PAs is coordinating one-time services to get the books produced and distributed — usually at the author’s considerable expense. The hard part is actually selling the books. That’s why these guys are being termed “lazy.” They’re not committing to the hard part.

Now, what these PAs do they may indeed do competently, aboveboard and as advertised. The beef isn’t with whether or not they deliver on their promise. It’s that their promise is thin, weak, expensive and, ultimately, not in the author’s best interest.

In essence, it’s little — if at all — better than what vanity publishers have always promised.

What’s missing is continued effective support and incentive on the PA’s side to actually SELL books, not just produce and distribute them.

But just look at the menu of marketing value-adds these PAs provide!

Newsflash: Attaching metadata and adding a book title to a buyer’s catalog are default line items in any marketing plan. As basic as having the author’s name (spelled correctly) on a book cover. What designer touts “author’s name on the cover!” as a benefit to using their design skills?

Then what about those PAs who have a proprietary website and sell direct? Those higher royalties look awfully attractive.

There’s a fine line between offering convenience and spreading too thin in the digital book business. There are many legitimate reasons to maintain a PA-supported site. Being able to sell ebooks to customers in certain countries without levying a VAT charge is one. The ability to offer signed print copies is another.

However, if the PA is concentrating their efforts to promote their site rather than your books, that’s a red flag. It’s traditional thinking that having your self-pubbed books — whether digital or print — in as many distribution locations as possible is the most effective way to sell them. The PA who sets out to woo customers away from the big online retailers needs to have a huge marketing engine — and the marketing budget to support it — to drive customers to their site and then to help sell books to customers once they’re there. Simply setting up a website and adding checkout software won’t cut it.

Attempting direct selling without that investment shows a lack of understanding for how to gain more sales in the long-term. Recommendation engines, curated lists, one-to-one marketing, and other means to visibility available on the big retail sites help to exponentially increase sales. The more sales your books make with the big guys, the more visibility they automatically give you. (For an in-depth explanation about the path to online store visibility, check out David’s newest: Let’s Get Visible.)

David’s given us a peek at what many agents and publishers want authors to believe they need in the way of assisted publishing: costly upfront help with little-to-no ongoing support for a lifetime split of the profits.

We know the ideal model from the author’s perspective: we call it front-list traditional publishing — with big marketing budgets, big advances, and big expectations.

What then is the middle ground where assisted publishing gives the author a fair return, plus gives the PAs a reasonable profit margin?

Ironically, the only way big publishers can survive the thin profit margins of doing assisted publishing right is by not doing it at all. In a world where boutique generally means expensive, it’s the boutique assister that can actually provide authors the most cost-effective and response-effective services. This is good news for agents who truly have their clients’ interests at heart.

Here’s What Agents And Publishers Could Be Doing To Earn A Fair Commission

Separate yourself from vanity publishing. Anyone can publish and distribute your clients’ books – most at a substantially lower cost. Be the partner who can actually sell your clients’ books.

The issue, of course, is time. You don’t have several hours per day to handle the minutiae of publishing and promotion for a large roster of backlist books in an effective manner and still conduct your primary  business. What other choice do you have but to outsource to a company, such as Argo Navis, that charges high fees (yet doesn’t seem to be selling books)? And how can YOU make money on the whole enterprise unless the cost of outsourcing comes out of the authors’ royalty cuts?

One way is to contract with a dedicated book manager to handle publishing and promotion in-house. An effective manager will be able to drive more sales, resulting in higher profits for all parties.

How? If you invest the time, effort and cost to promote through effective venues, the difference in sales for curated books that get promoted vs those that don’t can more than compensate for the book manager’s commission. Yes, commission. An incentivized manager is a hardworking manager.

And don’t put a clueless intern in charge of the promotional efforts; use a professional who understands the digital marketplace. Selling into it is NOT the same as selling in the trad market. Throwing money at ineffective blog tours and nothing else, for instance, just to give the illusion you’re doing something serves no one’s best interest.

The cost of effective promotion can be high, both in terms of advertising dollars and time. But with your backing, a good book manager will be able to ferret out the successful activities from the promo fails. Here are some tactics both you and the book manager should be willing to embrace.

  • Identify which venues have the most cost-effective return for the genres represented
  • Build relationships with site owners and follow through with quality products and prompt payment
  • Use the entire inventory to build cross-promotional opportunities
    • within each author’s body of work;
    • between popular books of several authors; and
    • using more popular books to help lift the sales of less-popular ones

Be willing to pulse prices across titles, even to offer some free as loss-leaders. Embrace the competitive spirit.

Set a limit for advertising costs that you bear, either per author or per title, per month or per annum. Set favorable commissions (20% tops!) that will cover baseline advertising costs and recoup the costs of any advertising done – with consent – above the threshold through author royalties.

Be entrepreneurial, not big corporation, and handle no more than 400 titles per full-time book manager.

Contract books for no more than 2-3 years at a time with no auto-renewal, allowing clients to walk away if they have disappointing results. Earn the business.

Coordinate all aspects of getting the book produced, offering a tiered menu, where appropriate, of services that the author pays for at cost. Note these are one-time charges and should NOT be used to bump the commission structure higher. Does the general contractor who oversees the build on your house get a cut when you re-sell it? Of course not. Why then should PAs get a continual income stream from piece work?

Front the money for all production, distribution and advertising costs. Fronting all money, especially ongoing ad costs, gives you a higher stake in the authors’ success and encourages better performance for each book, which encourages better management of all the titles.

Can an author-centric model realistically make the PA money?

Using 400 managed books as an example, let’s look at a conservative breakdown.

If each book averages $300 in royalties per month, that’s $120,000 gross per month or $1.44 million per year.

In our example, the PA takes 50% of the 15% royalty commission and shares 50% with the book manager:

15% = $18,000 less $2000 ad costs borne by the PA = $16,000

For each, that’s $8000 per month or $96,000 per year, with the PA also receiving a tax write-off on $24,000 in yearly ad costs.

That leaves $1.248 million for the authors, with one-time production fees and any additional ad costs coming out of that pool. In the first year, where all books have production fees of, say, $1200 each plus $300 in additional ad costs per year, total expenses = $600,000. Net profits of $648,000 for 400 books result in an average of $1620 per book, with subsequent years earning each book an average of $3120 per year.

Remember, too, this is passive income for the PA who has only to identify the clients, work the contracts, hire the book managers, and cut the checks. Plus, the ratio of books to book managers doesn’t affect the bottom line, so even with a more author-friendly ratio of 5 managers handling 1000 books between them, the PA could still earn $250,000 in a year with $72,000 in tax write-offs for advertising – all without adding much burden to their schedules.

The only catch? Finding the right people to manage the inventory who won’t lead authors down the path of publishing-assisted suicide. The good news is people like David are helping to train up potential candidates right now.

* * *

Phoenix Sullivan is the General Manager of Steel Magnolia Press (Jennifer Blake, President), whose original 4 authors have, across 60 digital titles, sold 248,000 books; given away 835,000 copies; and earned $210,000 – mainly from backlist, and mostly in the past 6 months. In the past year, SMP has placed 14 titles in Amazon’s Top 100, 5 titles in BN’s Top 100, and sent 3 titles to #1 Free on Amazon. SMP is delighted to have 2 more bestselling authors joining them this month, and anticipates an inventory of 100 titles published by the end of the year. SMP is not taking on new clients.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.