Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Ingram Spark Experience So Far

As I posted yesterday, I decided to bite the bullet (and the extra costs) and give Ingram Spark a try to see if it increased my print book sales. I chose my Sweetwater Canyon series for this test.  When I changed cover designers and decided on a new series look and feel, I had already decided to change the format for the books to the larger, traditional trade paperback 6 x 9 size. I reformatted the interior of the first two books and will do the last two books in this larger size.  With the final two books releasing this year, it seemed like a good time to give it a try.

One thing to note. I am NOT doing any  e-book distribution through them. The royalties on that are only 40% and it's to all the same places I already distribute for a 65-70% return (Apple, Amazon, Kobo, B&N).  I know some will choose this because they like all their reporting in one place. Not me, I like the extra money. I have other ways to bring all the reporting to one spot and run my analysis of markets and distributors.  :)

So how did it go?

I loaded my first book three days ago. First thing to know is that before you can even attempt to load your files you have to give up your credit card information and agree to pay the fees. This means there is no backing out.

I knew that the Createspace expanded system already used Ingram POD printers; so I made the assumption that the PDF interior file and PDF cover file I would normally use at CreateSpace would work. Bad assumption!  Ingram has some VERY exacting specifications.  I can only assume that CreateSpace does some manipulation on their end before sending it to Ingram for printing.

So, here are the differences.

Interior Pages. Ingram REQUIRES that the interior page margins by .5 (that is1/2) inch all around on all pages. Createspace doesn't care what you do with the margins. You can set them at 1/2 inch or 2 inches. All they care about is that the text fits within the safe space for trim. The templates I use from The Book Designer (which I love) vary the margins for left and right pages and for top and bottom. The template I use had the top at .83, the bottom at .7, the left at .92 and right at .75 in order to provide an allotment for the gutter and the binding.

Okay, not a big deal. I just went into the layout tab in Microsoft Word and changed all the margins to .5 (that is left, right, top, and bottom).  It didn't take long. It looked strange to me after formatting 8 print books, but it's a small price to pay. In the future I'll just set it this way whenever I begin a new book.

Cover Design. Ingram has a template they want you to use (just like Createspace does). Of course, it differs slightly in terms of the bleeds and safe spaces. It requires CYMK colors not RGB. Createspace let's you upload in RGB or CYMK. It accepts the upload no matter what and leaves it up to you to decide if it looks good to you or not.  In the past if the cover was slightly off, the Createspace support folks let me know by email and asked if I would like them to fix it. Yup. It's free.

Deep breath. Nothing is free with Ingram. This required going back to my cover designer and asking her to make sure it all fit the Ingram template. Again, not a big deal. It's a learning experience for me. If she had known I was doing Ingram from the start it would have been done that way. So, this will cost me a slight additional expense for her time, but worth it if it pays off in the long run. And future books will be right from the start.

PDF File Generation.  This is the one that had me tearing out my hair.  Just like CreateSpace, Ingram requires both the interior file and the cover file to be in PDF format.  My cover designer sent me the redone cover file in PDF like she always does. I took my Microsoft Word newly reformatted file, with 1/2 inch margins all around, and generated a PDF like I always do.

All stop! Wrong! Error. Error. Error.

The error generated on my interior file is an ICC profile error. What?  I've never heard of this. My interior has one image and it is a greyscale (because it's required not to be color) Windtree Press logo. After an email exchange with technical support (which is good and quick at answering questions by the way) it ends up that when Microsoft Word generates the PDF it creates this error because there is no way to tell Microsoft Word not to include ICC Color codes when it generates the PDF file. It also turns out that Ingram does not support Microsoft Word at all.  Specifically they "support InDesign, Photoshop, Acrobat ,and Quark as file creation applications."

However, they are happy to correct the problem for me for a $10 fee. Ugh! Now my book will cost $71 to get up at Ingram. That's another 5 books sales difference.  Can I sell 5 more books? Probably, but now I'm frustrated that this process has been not at all the easy experience I had with Createspace.

I do not own any of those software products. I do not want to buy them. Of the options Adobe Acrobat is the least expensive at $100. Yes, I'm technically inclined, but coming up to speed takes time away from my writing. Again!

But now I'm stuck. I've already paid my $61 to Ingram. I've already incurred additional costs from my cover designer. My books have been uploaded to their system. I don't know if there is a way to get a refund at this point. (Refund processing is not in their FAQs)  I have a deadline to meet. It's either pay another $10 or use hours of time finding a different way to generate the PDF.  With some anger at myself for not checking this out more thoroughly, I clicked on the yes-i'll-pay option.

So now I wait and see how quickly my books get into the catalog and how quickly they show up on online sites. Amazon Expanded gets it immediately into the Amazon store and within a week to B&N and Amazon UK. It's another 4-6 weeks before it's every else and often without cover images for another month beyond that.

My expectation is that it gets into U.S. store catalogs within a week (my local booksellers say their systems update weekly). As for outside of the U.S. it will be interesting to see if it is quicker than Amazon (as Amazon obviously uses the Ingram system).

Will I still go ahead with the rest of the series?

Yes, for now.  Here is what Ingram distribution offers me:
  • 35,000 independent and chain bookstores, libraries, and online retailers in more than 190 countries (this includes Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and other partners around the world).

    Libraries are big to me. I can only get library distribution from Createspace if I use the free Createspace ISBN (Doesn't that sound crazy? I'd love to know the real story there).
  • Automatic loading to Espresso Book Machines (previously I was doing this myself, more time saved for me)
  • Ability to provide the expected discount to bookstores so they can order in advance before I come for an event or signing--no more lugging cases of books with me from store to store.
  • I don't have to handle any order fulfillment on my print books, which saves me shipping costs. The only time I pay for shipping is for my own copies that I use for giveaways.
Now, the big question. Will I get more print sales to make up for the costs? If so, how long will it take to make up the difference to cover the $71 cost per book. Will it be worth maintaining each title in the catalog beyond the first year? At $12 per year, it doesn't sound like much. That would represent 6 book sales to me.  I'll post again in a couple months and let you now how it is looking, if everything rolled out around the world as expected and if it appears I have any sales yet.

If you've been doing LSI or Spark distribution, I 'd love to hear from you.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why I'm trying Ingram Spark for Print Books

For three years, I have been using CreateSpace for distributing my print books. The positives are it is easy to use. It is free. It is forgiving of small formatting errors. For example, when the spine for one of my books was slightly off for the page count, they fixed it for me for free. The PDF file I generate from Microsoft Word is completely acceptable which means I can use the templates I like and not have to learn Adobe InDesign or Quark--the premier page software used by professional interior designers.

With expanded distribution, CreateSpace gives the option for bookstores to purchase direct, though I have not found a single one that will order unless begged by a customer. It does get your book into the catalogs of all bookstores (via Ingram distribution) and it does appear in all Amazon and Barnes and Noble online sites, as well as others within about 4-6 weeks.

It is the bookstores not being willing to order direct that has always bothered me. The truth is that Amazon's sales of my print books are paltry (20 all of last year across all books). The over 200 print books I've sold are because I distribute directly to them. I purchase the books at my cost from CreateSpace and then drop ship them to the store, and give the bookseller 40% discount. This is the ONLY way I've been able to get booksellers to order in my books. It is this for advanced orders or consignment.

Why Do Booksellers Not Order CreateSpace Books?

Outside of the we-hate-Amazon feeling among most booksellers, the immediate economic reason they will not order direct is that their discount (through Ingram's where they order ALL their books and can get free shipping on orders of certain numbers) on CreateSpace books ends up to be only 25%. I know some of you wonder how that could possibly be when you are giving up 60% to do expanded distribution. Well, here is how it works. CreateSpace takes 20% for their profit before they send it to Ingram's distribution network. Then Ingram takes 15% before they release it to their catalog where a bookstore can see it. It's pretty easy to do the math. With 35% already taken, that leaves only 25% for the bookseller.

Some people may say, well 25% should be enough. It's not. With only 25% the bookseller cannot afford to discount the book at all which puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Amazon discounts print books by 20% or more on a regular basis. How can they afford to do this? Because the Amazon discount from CreateSpace is 40%. Yes they are all one big company together, but accounting wise they are separate. So when CreateSpace takes their 20%, that gives Amazon a 40% discount. Yes, Amazon is part of the "expanded" distribution. So, where Amazon and it's subsidiaries are getting a 40% discount, booksellers end up with a 25% discount. That means if the bookseller attempts to match the 20% discount in order to keep customers coming in the door, they end up with a 5% profit. That is not enough to keep the lights on.

So Who Cares if Booksellers Are Getting Screwed? It's All The Same Money to the Author.

I care! I care because booksellers have been good to me. They review my books. When they like them they tell other booksellers who then try me out. They tell their customers. They include me in their newsletters to their customers, extending my reach. They order my books when I come for events. Even if I didn't already consider many booksellers my friends, I would still care because they are my street team to thousands of readers.

So, I decided to bite the bullet and try Ingram Spark (the service that was designed to replace the Lightning Source interface with something easier for the small press or independent publisher).  I already decided I would go for the 55% discount (norm for booksellers) but that I would not offer returns. With a 55% discount (after Ingram takes their 15%) the booksellers get the 40% discount I offer when I do direct sales to them. Why not offer returns? Let's face it, I'm not a bestseller--at least not yet-- and I have no illusions about bookstores automatically buying 50 of my books in hopes of selling it and then returning 10. I just want them to order them in as their customers make requests and to order them in when I come for an event or develop a relationship with them. Bookstores are much more lean these days and they know what will sell and what won't when they place their orders. It's not worth it to me to worry about returns.

I knew there would be a $49 setup fee for each title. I also knew there is a $12 per year per title catalog fee.  In other words, each book costs $61 to get into the Ingram system (that's over 28,000 bookstore outlets).  Okay, I am willing to do that if it helps booksellers order and sell my books.  That extra cost represents 30 additional print books that need to be sold to make up for that $61 price. If I take away my cost for shipping books from CreateSpace to booksellers, it reduces the break even point to 20 additional books that need to be sold to make up for that $61 price. With over 28,000 bookstores and libraries in their system, it seems likely I'll sell at least 20 additional books AND I won't have to handle all the direct drop shipping functions myself. It seems like a no-brainer to me.

Tomorrow I'll tell you about my experience.  It is not as easy as I had hoped. Now the question is will I see a return on my investment of both time and money, and will I change the way I prepare my print books?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Scrivener Does Create Good EPUB and MOBI files

When I wrote my DIY Publishing book, I documented my personal process for both print and ebook formatting, publishing, and distribution.  That process includes using Joel Friendlander's Book Design Templates for the interior design in print, and then Jutoh for the formatting of that Word File into good MOBI and EPUB files.  I will still continue to do it that way because I love the options I have for presenting my stories.  Also, my creative process involves Microsoft Word has the foundation for my writing.
However, many readers have asked me about Scrivener.  There is a large contingent of authors who absolutely love using Scrivener and have given up Microsoft Word, or other word processing programs, in favor of creating in Scrivener. Invariably, they ask my opinion of the EPUB and MOBI files that Scrivener creates. Not having used it, I had no opinion.

I still haven't used it. However, I have spoken with several authors whose technical abilities I respect. Each of them have told me the EPUB and MOBI files are excellent. They say that Scrivener is particularly easy to use for the more technically-challenged writer and they like having all their research and notes, pictures and chapters in one place that can easily be rearranged as needed.

The test for me happened when I recently helped an author upload her files to the various distribution vendors. It was my first upload of Scrivener generated EPUB and MOBI files. They validated in all venues and uploaded easily. I loaded to Apple, Kobo, B&N, and Amazon as well as for direct sales on Gumroad.

So, I admit that all of you who love Scrivener are in good hands with your file exports. I'm sure there are some configuration things you need to know for the compile to go well, and I can't help with this. However, I will look at getting a guest blogger to talk about his/her experience with Scrivener in more detail in the future. In the meantime, I found this article on how to article for exporting the various file types. Scroll below the table of contents links and start reading at the first narrative paragraph.

Thank you to the many authors who shared their love of Scrivener and provided great information on their use of its file export capabilities.

I am ALWAYS open to learning about new software and new writing processes that are helpful. Every author makes choices about where to spend their time, and when to take the time to learn something new. I'm not in a position at the moment (too many books to get out in the next few months) to learn something new. If you have things to share from your personal journey, please contact me. If it makes sense to share on this blog I'm happy to let you do a guest spot too.

I'm open to recommendations on a Scrivener guest for the future.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Write, Publish, Repeat

Over the past four years I have read a LOT of books on self-publishing. Yes, I've learned from them. But I must admit that most of them say the same thing about marketing, gaming various algorithms (mostly Amazon) for higher rankings, and price manipulation techniques (free or 99 cent suggestions). Each one purports to have THE  "secret" to making the high dollars the author did.

Perhaps I'm a curmudgeon, or reliving personal issues around trust, but I've never bought into the whole secret handshake concept.  Before making the decision to go indie, I published traditionally in both non-fiction and fiction. Over the past 15 years I learned that a book does what it does and there wasn't a lot I could do to make a difference except write a good book that met the needs of my readers. In non-fiction, it's easy to identify who my readers are. In fiction, not so easy because I write cross-genre stories. My fantasies have some SF too, not to mention possible love interest. My adult romances are too much women's fiction to fit straight into the romance category, and too much romance to fit into the women's fiction category. Then there are the romantic suspense and SF adult stuff. In other words, I still haven't identified "my people." Also, most of these marketing secrets are shared by people who "made it" with their non-fiction book (yes the one about marketing secrets that you just paid $10 for), yet are aimed at the multitude of fiction writers. Many of them have never written a fiction book.

Here's the thing. Non-fiction sells better than fiction because it is based on an easily identifiable readership for the book.  Fiction? Not so much. It's squishy. Readers move between genres, have streaks of reading and then times of less reading, and can be extremely loyal one year and then move to the next big thing in another year. In other words, marketing fiction is a different animal., I rarely rave about a book that purports to finally give you the secret. I have never told my peeps that one of these books is THE one for making sure you become a successful fiction writer. 

That has now changed.

Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant is a must read by every indie publisher. Even traditionally published fiction writers will learn from this book. Whether you are just starting out or on your tenth book, you will learn something from this book--something that can truly make a difference in how you approach publication.

If you are truly serious about writing being your career and you are willing to learn the true secret about how to sustain that career, YOU MUST GET THIS BOOK.  The title completely gives away the secret. Write. Publish. Repeat.  Even if you understand that already (as I did), this book will still hit you over the head with how much more you can be doing by timing and releasing your work in a way that maximizes future sales.  And the things they suggest have everything to do with producing work, and nothing to do with luck or spending gobs of money or time to make your book rise above the hoards.

Yes, I admit the book matches my personal philosophy of publishing that I have been screaming from the rooftops for the past five years (write more books instead of spending hours, time, and money promoting one book). Yes, it satisfying that at least a few other people agree with me--actually I know about 30 people who agree with me. :) However, the book is much more than that. It also provides specific instruction on how to maximize all that writing by making good business choices regarding how to release your books in a way that will maximize profits. It also clearly delineates what part of the process is mandatory and what parts of the process fall in the twenty-percent-only-do-it-if-you've-already-done-the-other-eighty-percent category.

Everything you think you know will likely be debunked. Here are a few of the "myths" they tackle:
  • Only the lucky ones make it in this publishing environment. (I never believed this, but a lot of people do)
  • Stay in one genre, so you don't split your readers. (I believed this myth even though I didn't follow it in my own writing)
  • Make sure your book follows all the tropes, meets the largest number of reader needs. (Yup, I believed this one too and knew it was why I wasn't a best seller)
  • Make your book perfect before releasing it to the masses. (I know I'll never be perfect so ignored this advice)
  • Spend time, money, worry in a marketing and promotion scheme that ensures high rankings. (okay, I admit, even though I KNEW this one wasn't true I still tried because I questioned myself and had this niggling voice that said "you have to make more money now." Okay it was the voice of my DH--but it was persistent)

Of course, if you still believe there is a book that will reveal the one big secret--the easy way to get one book to become a bestseller, then do not buy this book. You will hate it. If you are looking for the easy path, do not buy this book. What they propose is far from easy.

Do I agree with everything they say? Nope. Will I likely buy their fiction? Probably not. I don't think it's my cup of tea. However, I will take advantage of their lead in book(s) to see if I'm wrong. (Part of their funnel approach to gain new readers) Here's the thing. I DO agree with more than 90% of what they say and that is very high for me. I can't think of any book about self-publishing (other than my own) where I can say that. Even my own book has its shelf-life of ideas--that shelf-life began deteriorating the moment it was published.

Please, run and buy this book. For only $5.99 in ebook it is well worth the price.

P.S. I've never met these guys. I've never listened to their podcast. I didn't even know they existed until another writer told me "You have to buy this book!"  Thank you, Elaura!!!