Archive for the ‘On Writing’ Category

Publishers know profit, but haven’t tapped best seller lists

Posted in Blather, On Writing  by John Brown on April 19th, 2014

In The Business Rusch: Generational Divide Kris Rusch points out that the new on-demand and long-tail market for books has changed the duration of the opportunity a book has to be successful, but that it seems the industry still isn’t recognizing this in how they measure success.

The problems come from the fact that those of us who run things—people in our forties, fifties, and sixties—use metrics that were developed by our parents for their world, that tightly controlled Mad Men world where everyone was expected to be the same, not just in what they wore or bought but in what they listened to or watched or read as well.

The bestseller list?

It measures velocity. (A good essay on this topic, “The Meaningless Metrics of Fame,”  came from Mike Briggs, husband of Patricia Briggs, earlier this week. I’ve also dealt with it.)


They only want new books, and then only at the time of release.

Brick and mortar bookstores?

They only have room for the latest releases, and then only the ones that are the most popular with their customers (whoever those folks might be).

Books have come late to this fight. Books have been available on demand for only about four years now, in the U.S. In other countries, there’s been even less time.

And we’re all still fighting over meaningless metrics, to use Mike Briggs’ term, because those metrics only measure things that were important around the water cooler, not things which are important now.

What’s important now?

She goes on to say:

The publishing industry isn’t even talking about new metrics. That idea hasn’t occurred to traditional publishing, and indie (or self) published writers are constantly seeking validation from the old system—trying to figure out ways to game the bestseller lists or to get a fantastic review from somewhere that has old-world prestige . . . But at some point, traditional publishers are going to have to develop new ways to figure out which products sell well and which ones don’t. All of their systems—from sales figures (which measure books shipped not books sold) to bestseller lists to critical acclaim—are based on the old models.

Kris is a very experienced with publishing, but her last point conflates internal accounting with marketing. Publishers DO know which products sell.

The primary measure of success in a financial enterprise s not new. It’s been around for 100′s of years. And on demand and long-tail markets don’t change it.

The measure is how much a product or service contributes in profit to the bottom line. You take revenues, minus expenses, and that’s the contribution that product (a book in this instance) makes to your total profit. Or to covering your fixed costs.

Booksellers have measured the success of their books with actual or estimated profits for quite some time. Publishers already know which books sell well and which don’t. No accountant in the world is going to report books shipped as the measure of success. And they don’t. The very fact that publishers have a profit and loss statement and show returns on royalty statements demonstrate that. They look very closely at actual and estimated profits. And to they do this by channel, which is reflected in a small way when they break out ebooks on royalty reports. This is all basic accounting.

Here’s an example. Until Ender’s Game the movie, Ender’s Game the book hadn’t appeared on any best seller list since it was first released. And its release was 30 years ago! Yet over the years Tom Doherty touted its sales numbers many times. Tom knew that book was gold. Of course, he did. Because he doesn’t use best seller lists to tell him what’s selling well. He knows those lists are marketing devices. He has the real data in house. Why would he need a list to tell him anything?

And Tom isn’t going to use books shipped either. Tor may report those numbers to Publishers Weekly for marketing purposes, but he will always multiply that number by an expected return rate to estimate sales. He wants to do that. Because books shipped is meaningless to the bottom line and everyone knows it, including the auditors.

Publishers are well aware of the long tail. They see it with books that have been rotated out of the brick and mortar channels but are still selling in the online ones. They report it in their annual statements. They know the online channels work differently from the brick & mortar ones.

The measure of success is still the same as it ever was—how much profit is this property contributing to our bottom line?

Marketing, however, is a whole other ball of wax.

What the long tail and on-demand allow are marketing campaigns that are impossible in the brick & mortar channel. In brick & mortar you have a limited time to advertise (roughly 8-15 weeks). After that period, most books are rotated out of the store. This means that any marketing for those brick & mortar buyers MUST coincide with the period when the books are in the stores.

But the online channels open up all sorts of other opportunities. You can market forever. And the contribution margin is always positive. The online and POD costs are easily recouped with each sale. (Publishers are well aware of this profit potential; this is why we have so many making grabs for backlists.)

And I see publishers taking advantage of these new marketing methods. This last week I saw publisher books not currently stocked by brick & mortar retailers on BookBub, BargainBooksy, and Book Sends. And the industry isn’t totally focused on new books for reviews. I just had a large newspaper agree to look at my book that was published four months ago. Still, Rusch is right when she says that the publishers haven’t adapted one of their biggest marketing tools to take advantage of the new opportunities–they haven’t done anything with the best seller lists.

Amazon has lead the way in creating new ways of marketing books to different types of readers with their best seller lists. These lists create the excitement of discovery.

But every one else is still reporting weekly sales on the big lists.

If I were a publisher, I’d be asking USA Today to provide more than just the weekly view of the top 150 books. And USA Today is THE list to watch because their numbers are not based on units shipped to a sample of stores, but actual sales. Here are some lists that readers would be interested in.

  1. Most anticipated this week: based on pre-order totals
  2. Most anticipated this month: based on pre-order totals
  3. Hot new releases: based on weekly numbers
  4. Hot new releases for the month: based on monthly numbers
  5. Books with legs: last 3 months; I know it needs a different name (grin)
  6. Best sellers of the last 12 months: annual total of units sold
  7. Best sellers of the last 18 months: total units
  8. Contenders: for each of the lists above show the next 150 books (I always want to see the next 100 books after the top 100 on Amazon’s lists; why not show readers the top 300?)
  9. Movers: for each of the lists above show those that have the biggest rise in percentage sales and meet some unit minimum (you don’t want to feature books with 2,000% increase because they went from selling 1 unit to 20), even if they don’t break the best seller lists
  10. Genre: allow all of this to be sliced by genre.

Let the reader select the view they want to see!

Avid readers will gravitate towards the shorter time periods. Those that read fewer books will gravitate towards the longer periods. Everyone who wants to discover something new will go to the contender and mover lists.

This is about marketing. Not publishers measuring success.

And then armed with those numbers guess what the publishers will do? They will go back to the brick & mortar venues and pitch to have some of these same books carried in the stores for the first time (some publisher books are printed digital first) or carried again.


Binge read

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on April 14th, 2014

“When you are really and seriously stuck and you hate everything you’ve written, BINGE READ.”

That’s from super author Maya Lassiter. If you recall, she did a great guest post here on her creative process. I love this technique for getting unstuck. When you binge read (or watch), not only do you see other options that you might take and adapt for your purposes, but those other options also spark whole new ideas.

I just used this with the battle I’m writing for Curse. I wasn’t to the hate stage; I actually liked what I had. But I didn’t quite know how to get it to where I wanted it to be. So I decided to read some books by one of the masters of historical battle.

I binge read and listened.

And enjoyed the heck out of both the reading and the ideas I gleaned for my sequence.

Binge read.

It’s an awesome creative technique.


My working process

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on April 4th, 2014

Because I get questions about how I work, whether I outline, etc., and to satisfy the curiosity of those waiting for Curse about what I’m doing right now, I’ve decided to share my working process.

I use five types of documents in Word to write my books.

1. Pre-draft documents
2. Working outline
3. Chapter development docs
4. Manuscript drafts
5. Book

I then import the book into InDesign to create the ebook and POD versions.



I start developing and collecting ideas for character, setting, problem, plot, and sometimes even text. This includes brainstorms, zings, setting sketches, character sketches, scene or dialog snippets, plot sketches, photos, maps, story setup statements or problem statements, etc.  I’ll often have separate pre-draft documents for character, setting, problem, and plot. Or it might be one big document. At some point all of that electricity has built to the point where the story starts to buck and kick in my hands. When I start to see scenes rolling out in front of me, I know it’s time to create the outline.


Looking at my pre-draft material, I create a sequenced list of the events or scenes in the story. Sometimes I’ll describe an event with just one line, sometimes I’ll describe it with more. These events or scenes often match up to individual chapters, but they often change as I go because the outline changes as I work. This outline is usually 4-12 pages long.

I usually have more detail about the first parts of the book when I start than I do the last parts. But even if some parts are sketchy, I usually have at least a line for each of the big events all the way to the end. When I start drafting (steps 3 and 4) and moving through the book, the details for those later parts begin to fill in. Again, it’s a “working” outline so things change.


When I finish the working outline to my satisfaction and start chomping at the bit to write, it’s time to start drafting. I open a new chapter development doc for the first event on the outline and copy/paste the event’s material from the outline into it.

I do some sketching if necessary (see my posts on scene primers) in the new document. Then I begin to write with the outline material and scene sketch as a guide.

If I run out of steam, or the take of the scene doesn’t work, I do another take. I just stop, create a new heading titled “Take 2″ or 3 or 4 (whatever the take is), and start again. I may brainstorm as well in this document and do other pre-draft work that has finally presented itself to me to be done. There have been a couple of times that I’ve had to do 20+ takes to get a take that works. Most of the time I need 1-3 takes. Using Word navigation view I can see in the sidebar all the takes etc.

The nice thing about these chapter development documents is that they’re working documents. I can be messy.


When I’ve gotten a good take of the scene, I paste that take into my manuscript document which contains all the final takes from the chapter development documents. This is “draft 1″ of the manuscript. Usually each scene/event becomes a chapter, although I might split it if it goes long, or combine it with others if it’s short.


I repeat steps 3 and 4 until I’m done with the book. Using Word navigation I can see all the chapters in the sidebar.


Before I print the manuscript for the cold read, I will review the chapter breaks one more time based on what I feel is right for the length, the right effect, especially at the ending and beginning of the chapter, and what I think goes together.


After cold reading and marking up the printed form of draft 1, I copy the manuscript file and replace the suffix “draft 1″ with “draft 2″, then make the edits for the cold read in draft 2.

Then I send draft 2 out to my beta readers. When the manuscripts and comments come back, I copy draft 2 and change the suffix to “draft 3″ and make the beta reader edits in draft 3.

I do this for as many drafts as I go through, including those for the copy edits.


When I’m done with drafting, I copy the final draft and replace the draft suffix with “book”. Then I add front matter and back matter (title page, copyright page, teaser, map, author’s note, table of contents, etc.) in preparation for importing into InDesign to create the ebook and POD (print-on-demand) versions.

9. POD

I create an InDesign document, import the Word book, then save it with the suffix “POD”. Next I finalize the interior formatting for printing. There’s quite a bit that goes into this with chapter breaks, widows, and orphans, breaks, etc. When that’s done, I upload it to CreateSpace and then print off the proof they provide.  By now the cover is finished as well.


I read the POD proof to catch any last errors and make the appropriate updates to both the Word book and the InDesign POD document.


I copy the POD InDesign document and replace “POD” with “EBOOK”. I then add the appropriate changes (links etc.) to the front and back matter for the ebook. Next I export the InDesign document as an EPUB. I have to use Calibre Book Editor to edit a number of things in the EPUB. When that’s done I open the EPUB with the Kindle Previewer to create the MOBI version (Kindle file).


The next step is the easiest–click a few buttons to upload the final version of the POD and ebooks to the various online retail venues. I go direct with Amazon, CreateSpace, NookPress, and Kobo. I use Draft2Digital for iTunes and Smashwords for all the rest. 

“Story Turns” video, bootleg style

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on April 1st, 2014

And here is the bootleg recording of “Story Turns”, my second presentation at this year’s LTUE. You can also downlad the PDF of the presenation.

A big thanks goes to Aaron Allred who recorded the audio and Michael Barker who mashed it up with the presentation.


“Vivid and Clear” video, bootleg style

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on March 27th, 2014

Michael Barker generously offered his time to mash up the audio and PowerPoint for my LTUE presentation “Vivid and Clear.” He didn’t have tons of tools so ended up playing the audio on his computer, clicking through the presentation as it played, and recording the event with his iPad as a movie. So the result isn’t Hollywood. But it’s not bad for a bootleg (grin).

You can find it in seven-part Vivid and Clear (almost…) series on YouTube. Enjoy! And here’s the PowerPoint.

He’s now working on Story Turns. Stay tuned for more.

BTW, a big thanks goes to Aaron Allred who recorded the audio.


Audio for my presentations

Posted in News - updates on books, events, appearances, etc., On Writing  by John Brown on March 14th, 2014

Folks. I have 2 mp3 files. One for Story Turns. One for Vivid & Clear. They are each about 48mb in size. But I don’t have the time to figure out how to make them available to you.

But I know someone out there does have the skillz to mash the slides with the audio in a short period of time and make it available. Maybe create something to upload to YouTube.

So if you have been waiting for this and would like to offer your services, I’d be happy to throw in a free copy of the ebook edition of Bad Penny and Servant for your efforts. It would in no way cover your time, but it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. And the project will also give you all sorts of glowy goodness inside knowing that you’ve served a whole bunch of writers.

That’s my offer: glowy goodness and ebooks.

If you’re interested, click my picture in the left sidebar and and let me know :)