The Power of Personal Storytelling: How to Write a Memoir that Resonates

A memoir is a powerful tool for self-discovery and understanding and a way to share one’s life story with others. It is a deeply personal and often emotional journey that requires courage, vulnerability, and a willingness to be honest with oneself and one’s readers. But what makes a memoir genuinely great? In this article, we will explore the critical elements of a well-written memoir and how to craft a story that is both engaging and meaningful.

Oil painting of a woman writing at a table, in front of a window looking over a green hillside.

At its heart, a memoir is a story, and like all good stories, it needs a clear and compelling narrative structure. The author should have a clear sense of the story they want to tell and then guide the reader through the events of their life in an engaging and logical way. The author can organize events chronologically or thematically. This structure builds tension and creates a sense of momentum that carries the reader through the story.

The next important element of a memoir is honest and self-reflective prose. A memoir is a deeply personal endeavor, and the author should be willing to reveal their thoughts, feelings, and motivations to their readers. Depending on the type of memoir, this implies being open and honest about one’s mistakes, regrets, and vulnerabilities. It also means being willing to explore the deeper meaning behind the events of one’s life. The author should ask themselves why certain things happened and what they learned from those experiences. This self-reflection will not only make the memoir more authentic, but it will also make it more meaningful to the reader.

Along with authenticity, vivid details and sensory descriptions are crucial to bringing the story to life. The author should make the reader feel like they are right there with them, experiencing the story’s events. To accomplish this, use descriptive language that evokes the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of the places and moments in the story. These descriptions will help the reader to connect with the author’s experiences on a deeper level and make the story more real and relatable.

The author’s voice and personality are also key elements in a memoir. The author should make their story unique and engaging by infusing it with their voice and perspective. Be true to yourself and write in a way that feels authentic and natural. The author’s voice should be consistent throughout the book and reflect their personality and the story’s tone.

Another aspect of a memoir is the sense of resolution or closure that ties the story together and provides a satisfying conclusion for the reader. The author should bring their narrative to a close in a satisfying and meaningful way. To do this, the author could reach a new understanding of themselves or their life, or they could come to a place of peace and acceptance. The conclusion should be a natural outgrowth of the story.

In addition to the personal narrative, a sense of balance between the author’s story and the larger historical, cultural, or social context in which the story takes place can add depth to the memoir. The author should connect their story to the world and show how their experiences relate to the issues and trends of the day. The goal is to help the reader understand and connect with the memoir beyond the author’s tale.

Lastly, a sense of authenticity is crucial in a memoir. The author should be able to support and verify their story, and they should handle sensitive material with tact and sensitivity. The author should be willing to fact-check their story and ensure that it is accurate. Even though memoirs are personal accounts, authors should still be mindful of the people and events mentioned in their book and respect other people’s privacy.

A well-written memoir is a powerful and personal account of an individual’s life experiences and reflections. It allows the reader to gain insight into the author’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations while also providing a glimpse into the larger historical, cultural, or social context in which the story takes place. To craft an engaging memoir, the author should include a clear and compelling narrative structure, honest and self-reflective prose, specific details and sensory descriptions, a strong sense of voice and personality, a sense of resolution or closure, balance between the personal story and the larger context, and a sense of authenticity.

To sum it up, when working on your memoir, consider these ten components:

  1. A clear and compelling narrative structure
  2. Honest and self-reflective prose
  3. Specific details and sensory descriptions
  4. A strong sense of voice and personality
  5. A sense of resolution or closure
  6. Balance between personal story and broader context
  7. A sense of authenticity and fact-checking
  8. Use of descriptive language
  9. Emotional depth and vulnerability
  10. Tact and sensitivity when handling sensitive material

A Guide to the Editing Process

So you just finished your manuscript. Maybe there are a few typos, but in your heart you know that the writing is perfect. You enlist your partner, your best friend, your mom, or your dad to “proofread” it—for free. And then it’s time to hit publish!

Publishing a piece of long form writing can be done this way, but it really shouldn’t. But why? Real writers don’t need editors. Editors are just gatekeepers holding writers back.

Somewhere in school, I don’t remember if it was in grade school or high school, I was taught a terrible myth. I was told that when Ernest Hemingway was ready to write a book, he walked up to his typewriter and started typing. What came out the other end was literary gold and didn’t need a single word edited—such was his prowess as an author.

This was a lie.

I have a copy of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms sitting on my shelf. At the back of the book, the publisher included several of the over sixty different endings. And guess what? Many of the alternate endings were heavily edited.

Everyone needs an editor, even Hemingway.

First, some realities

To kickoff the editing process, the author must acknowledge a few fundamental truths:

  1. Writing is easy, editing is hard.
  2. There is no room for ego while editing.
  3. The author still owns the car, but someone else is driving.
  4. Not all editors can edit all writing.

Editing can be really easy. Or it can be absolutely brutal. This depends on the type of writing and the author’s goals.

When I start a project, I strive to ask tough questions, for example:

  1. What is the goal of the writing?
  2. Who is the writing for, the author or the audience?
  3. Why should readers care?
  4. Does the market really need another book on [fill in the blank]? And what is unique about this book?
  5. If non-fiction, where is the data/science to back up claims in the book?
  6. Is the author avoiding an uncomfortable or unflattering series of facts?
  7. Is the author actually open to being edited? (Remember that bit about editing being hard? Not all authors are into that).

The answers to these questions guide how the editing process should unfold.

Sometimes the goal of the writing is the personal enjoyment or questing of the author. For example, a family legacy book. In this case, the goal is typically to collect, archive, and pass on an eloquent piece of family history. Editing a book like this is easier than say a revolutionary idea aimed at mass audiences. And editing scholarly work involves opening up an entirely different tool chest.

The Process

Running a book through the complete editing process is rigorous and time consuming. However, it is worth the labor, every single time. Authors pour an incredible amount of physical and emotional energy into writing a book or article or even a poem. So it makes sense to run the book through the finishing touches to get a high quality workpiece.

Developmental/ Conceptual Editing (1-2 editors plus the author)

The first stage of editing is the Developmental or Conceptual stage. (I prefer Developmental Edit). Here, we focus on the big picture: the story and the style. We do not worry about grammar or typos at this point (if we see something, we’ll fix it, but we’re not implementing the Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Stylebook at this point.

These are a few of the things we focus on in Developmental Editing:

  • The author’s style and voice
    • Is there a distinct writing style and is it consistent?
    • Is the narrator’s voice clear, distinct, and consistent?
  • What is the plot? The focus of the story?
    • Does the story wander too much or stay on point?
    • Does the plot raise questions that go unanswered?
    • Is there sufficient background information to understand the plot?
  • The first sentence, the first paragraph, the first chapter. And then the first paragraph of every chapter thereafter. And finally the last chapter, the last paragraph, the last sentence.
    • Do they hook the reader?
    • Do they carry the story forward? And at the end resolve something?
    • Are they the essence of the author’s style and the narrator’s voice?
  • Broadly, highlight what works and what doesn’t.
  • What is the Story Arc?
    • To answer this, I create a Story Map on a spreadsheet.
  • Does the story flow?
    • Where are the speed bumps? Are they good or bad?
    • Where are the straightaways that allow the story to go fast?
    • Are the chapters in the best order?
    • How are the chapter transitions?
    • Should some chapters be combined, split, deleted, or added?
  • How is the readability?
    • Are some sentences, paragraphs, or chapters cumbersome, awkward, or difficult to read?
  • Is the verb tense consistent?
  • Is subject-verb agreement correct?
  • What, if any, additional material does the book need?
    • Prologue, Preface, or Introduction?
    • Epilogue, Appendices, Bibliography, Glossary, or Index?
    • Images and Illustrations? Maps and graphs?
    • Footnotes and Endnotes?

Copyediting (1-2 editors plus the author)

Next comes copyediting. I love copyediting. Copyediting focuses on clarity, coherence, consistency, and correctness. It is very much a process that focuses on the nuts and bolts of good communication. Here is where I direct energies during copyediting:

  • Mechanical Editing and Grammar
    • This is all about consistency and often involves the use of a style guide. The guide can be the Chicago Manual of Style (for non-fiction books especially), the AP Stylebook (primarily articles), or an in-house style guide (the Chicago Manual of Style started out as the in-house guide for the University of Chicago Press).
    • Punctuation
    • Spelling
    • Capitalization
    • Numbers and numerals
    • Hyphenation
    • Quotations
    • The list goes on and on…
    • Wrong word usage
    • Pronouns
    • Verb tense
    • Sentence fragments
    • Adverbs and prepositions
    • Parallelism
    • Passive voice
    • Jargon
    • Run on sentences
    • Restrictive vs nonrestrictive clauses and commas
    • Scare quotes
    • Apostrophes
  • Fact-checking
  • Permissions (Acquiring permission to use long, copyrighted quotes or copyrighted images)

Proofreading (Minimum 10 readers plus the author)

And finally comes proofreading. This is the last step in the editing process before moving to publication. Remember that proofreading is not editing, rather it is a detailed reading that looks for errors. While some folks will proofread un-formatted manuscripts, I suggest sending the book or publication to the designer after the copyedit but before the proofread. Why? This way the proofreaders are checking the final typeset workpiece and can catch errors in the design.

For me, proofreading includes checking the following:

  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Grammar
  • Consistent formatting and design

Sometimes a proofreader may offer unsolicited developmental edits. But that is not their job. At this point in the process, we do not want to be rewriting the book. Proofreading is all about finding each and every typo or mechanical hangup and resolving them. There is nothing worse than a book with lots of typos!

Concluding Thoughts

If you read this entire post, you have realized that editing is a process that requires effort. And it is worth the effort! We create polished and professional writing by following the editing process.

*Plug for our services: if you are in need of editing help, reach out to me.

Thanks for reading!

Easy and free Royalty Management for Book Publishers (And Anyone Else)

What follows is an easy and zero-cost way for book publishers to generate book royalty statements for copyright holders in a matter of minutes. In particular, this royalty management method is ideal for publishers using Lightning Source, Ingram Spark, Amazon KDP, or any other wholesaler who sends sales reports in CSV or Excel format. You don’t need expensive software to do this, just a copy of Microsoft Excel or access to Google Sheets (I use Google Sheets and will explain the process from this perspective).

There is one caveat, a large book publisher (1,000+ book titles) might need something more robust. This method is ideal for small to medium sized publishers, and it would also work for any other organization managing and paying out royalties.

Once the spreadsheet is set up, generating multiple royalty reports is as simple as copy, paste, print. It’s a massive time saver!

The Process

First, you need to learn how to use Pivot Tables. These will allow you to sort, calculate, and analyze data across columns and rows. These external links will tell you how to do it:

How to make Pivot Tables in Google Sheets.

How to make Pivot Tables in Excel.

Once you ready to begin, create a new spreadsheet in Google Sheets. Name it for the royalty period that you want to report on (in the future, you will just duplicate this spreadsheet for new royalty periods).

The first sheet we make is called “Currencies.” This sheet contains the exchange rate for the various international markets that you work in and collect royalties from. It is also a good place to write down any instructions for using the spreadsheet or reminders.

A Google spreadsheet that contains sheets within it.

Next, create unique sheets for each source from which you, the publisher, receive checks, and thus sales statements. For clarity, the above screenshot has three sales sources: eBook (Amazon KDP), Paperback (Amazon KDP), and LSI (Lightning Source Inc.). If you use other wholesalers or distributors, you will need to create unique sheets for them as well. If you as a book publisher handle direct retail and wholesale orders as well, then create the appropriate sheets for those.

This sheet contains Amazon KDP’s statement for eBooks sold in all markets. Note that one title can have many sales listed separately or combined.

The next sheet we create will contain the sales statement issued by Amazon KDP for all eBooks sold in all markets. This sheet is called eBook Creating sheets for other sales channels mirrors this process.

Download the CSV or Excel version of your sales statement, and open it. Copy the column headers into your new spreadsheet. Don’t delete any of them, even if the data they contain is useless to you.

Add a column at the end called “True Royalty.” This column will contain the total amount you, the publisher, received for the sale adjusted to the appropriate exchange rate (home currency won’t change, i.e. if you are in the United States, then the amount will stay the same). Note: we will get to the Copyright Holder’s Royalty later.

Next, copy and paste your sales statement into the new sheet. To do this, highlight everything in your sales statement expect the headers and hit copy. Then, click on Row 2, Column A of the new sheet and hit paste.

Now, set the value for the “True Royalty” column. For every row that has sales data, make sure this is the value. This is the Google Sheets version:

=IF(J2="USD",O2,IF(J2="EUR",O2*Currencies!$B$2,IF(J2="JPY",O2*Currencies!$B$5,IF(J2="CAD",O2*Currencies!$B$3,IF(J2="GBP",O2*Currencies!$B$4,IF(J2="AUD",O2*Currencies!$B$6,IF(J2="BRL",O2*Currencies!$B$7)))))))

If you need more or fewer currencies, then adjust appropriately.

If you did everything right, the values in the “True Royalty” column will reflect the total amount that you received in your home currency. Run a couple of manual calculations to verify that you did it right.

Note: this formula uses Net Sales for royalty calculations. If your organization uses List Price or Gross Sales as the basis, then adjust the formula.

The True Royalty column adjusts the Royalty to the appropriate exchange rate. The highlighted row changes the Royalty from Canadian dollars to USA dollars. Note: if the book publisher uses the list price as the basis for the Royalty, then the Avg. List Price column would be used.

Next, we will make the first Pivot Tables. These will be used on the sheet called Totals, which displays the Units Sold and True Royalty for every book in every sales channel. I have mine set up to combine all markets (USA, UK, EU, etc). So in this example the Pivot Tables displayed on the Google sheet “Totals” are: all Amazon eBook sales, all Amazon paperback sales, and all Lightning Source Inc. paperback sales.

Here is a snippet of that sheet:

A Pivot Table displaying total unit sales and exchange rate adjusted royalties for all currency markets for all Amazon KDP eBooks sold for the given period.

You can edit the Pivot Table from the Pivot Table Editor on the right of the dashboard. Here it is:

This particular Pivot Table grabs all of the data from the eBook sheet (the sheet containing the sales statement for all Amazon KDP eBook for the period). In the Editor, you can adjust how the data is sorted and what is displayed, calculated, and filtered. The Filters will be used on the Royalty Statements for individual rights holders.

Finally, the Royalty Statement:

Example of an auto-generated Royalty Statement using Google Sheets and Pivot Tables. Hit Command+P to print this to a PDF.

Above is the Royalty Statement for the Copyright Holder of one or more titles. On this statement, there are 3 Sales Channels, and each of those is created using a Pivot Table similar to the “Totals” sheet Pivot Tables. The only difference is that these Pivot Tables have filters applied to the book title data.

The rest of the sheet reflects the Copyright Holder’s royalty rate and the total they will receive. There are also places for deductions to cover Author purchases or other expenses that get applied to the account. You can customize these calculations.

Concluding Thoughts

Once these sheets are set up, they really are a massive time and money saver for book publishers. This is especially so for small and medium sized publishers who have better things to do than sort data and run reports all day long. Remember, we got into publishing to be creators, so let’s spend as much time creating as possible.

Enjoy.

Elements of Book Design: The Grid

One element of good book design, or page layout for any print or digital application, is the grid. The grid could be compared to the rough framing of a building. In the building, the framing determines where the interior finishes will go and how they will be fastened to the structure. Similarly, a grid in graphic and book design determines the interior divisions upon which the elements, from type to visuals like illustrations and photographs, are laid out.

It is important to note that sometimes the grid is cast aside in favor of a more expressive approach versus the rationalism of the grid. However, in the instance of a traditional, trade book that presents a strong narrative into which the reader will lose themselves, I favor using a grid to create predictable and purposeful form that does not distract from the content the reader is after.

Grids can be designed around several styles. In this post, I am showing a proportional geometric grid that is based on subdivisions of the book dimensions. The German designer Paul Renner described a similar process in his book Die Kunst der Typographie, published in 1948. The grid here is 18 X 18 for each page, or 36 X 18 for a spread. Note that the diagonal lines intersect each division.

The document grid with horizontal lines intersecting the diagonal line.

Below is the text box stretched out over the grid. This particular book is over 400 pages long, so I wanted the text box not to get sucked into the gutter. There is also plenty of space at the top and bottom for headers and page numbers, and ample space on the outside edges for thumbs.

The text box with ample room along the margins for the gutter, headers, page numbers, and thumbs.

Next, I estimated the approximate leading and type size that I wanted to use. I then subdivided the grid units until I found the right match. In this instance, 2 units divided by 5 created the ideal leading for the type size. Digital typefaces allow this style of grid to really shine because the typefaces can be scaled to any size, into the thousandths if need be. Note that the baselines split every other grid line, adding a touch of the expressive to the geometric by both keeping with the grid and breaking it at set intervals.

The baselines, where the type will run, are built on the document grid.

Finally, the content is set into the text block, and headers and page numbers placed onto the grid.

The first lines of the paragraphs are indented 1 em, i.e. height of the leading. The block quotes are indented two vertical grid units into the text box.

New sections are conveyed with a line break, no indent, and small-caps. Having more than just a line break is important for when a new section starts at the top of a page.

Headers have a slight tint applied to fade them from the main text and thus be less distracting.

The reader sees the canvas of the typography stretched over the hidden frame of the grid.

Designing a book this way is very enjoyable. Some might argue that a grid will constrain the typography and other visual elements. But I think that the grid frees the designer to find expression through form.

The iterative process of book cover creation

How does one create a book cover? Does it materialize in the mind of the designer in a brilliant moment of inspiration? Or is it a formula in which the designer plugs in the genre of book and out pops a cover?

I liken it to an architect designing a building, though admittedly designing a book cover is a far simpler task.

There is a discovery phase in which the designer learns about the needs and wants of the client and about the restraints of the project. The drafts come next. These are conceptual ideas that can be presented to the client. Once a draft is chosen, multiple iterations are created within the style of the draft. Lastly, one of these iterations is chosen and refined, refined, and refined some more.

I am a visual learner, so here is the draft by draft process of creating a recent book cover.

The Initial Drafts

The book is a collection of the writings of Cindy Kamler, a community leader in wildlife rehabilitation. This background information established the theme of the book and directions for the cover.

We had several meetings after drafting these covers. We decided to create iterations based on the two covers with tracks. The vector-based cover with mountains was eliminated.

Note the aspen leaf background on the middle cover. This was a sample stock illustration. Using stock illustrations helps to speed the drafting process. Later, if custom art is needed, you will be further along in the creative process and thus have a better idea of what you need.

Also, note that we used two different subtitles. We did this to get a feel for how the different subtitles would interact with the layout of the cover.

Iterations of the Selected Drafts

Next, we created a different version of each draft. We decided that the human footprints were a digression from the book’s theme, centering the book on a human rather than wildlife. And the cross-hatching on the cover with the animal tracks also had to go. So here is where we arrived after that:

At this point, we needed to pick one or the other. The cover with the various types of animal tracks was selected. It speaks to the style of nature guides and books of the past, including some that the client admired.

Creating Iterations of the Final Draft

Once we picked a draft and its accompanying style, we were then ready to create numerous versions, or iterations, of that draft. Here three of those, but in fact, there were far more. Many of the iterations had a minor color or layout adjustment.

On this round, we decided on the cover with grass above both the title and the author’s name. With that decision, we were ready to create the back cover and refine it.

The Final Cover

Here is the (almost) final cover. I say “almost” because there will be a few inevitable minor changes to the back blurb copy, and the subtitle is still undergoing iterations.

Print Considerations

Once the cover is ready to submit for a printed draft, we will have to decide between a gloss finish and a matte finish. I have a suspicion that a matte cover will look best (I like glossy covers for photographs and matte covers for illustrations). But all of this remains to be seen …

Creating an Oral History Program

I recently attended an oral history workshop sponsored by the California Conference of Historical Societies. The presentations from archivists at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley and the Sacramento Public Library were excellent and highly informative.

The workshop focused on the process of developing and running an oral history program.

First, what is oral history?

Oral history is the collection and study of historical information about individuals, families, notable events, or everyday life using audiotapes, videotapes, or transcriptions.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oral_history

I’ve been creating oral histories for some time, from interviewing members of the Missouri and Yosemite climbing communities to documenting the personal stories of monks. My work on biographies, family histories, and regional histories has also reminded me of the importance of oral histories.

Before I get into the how’s of creating an oral history, I want to highlight why oral history is essential to our communities.

A client recently remarked that they were unsure if anyone would find their story of interest because they had no particular claim to fame. I disagreed; their story is and will be important. This person’s account and experience of the world provides a glimpse into a cross-section of time and place. Readers today, particularly those living in the same location and engaging in similar activities, will learn from this individual’s life and insights. Readers and researchers in the future will be able to compare this person’s story with the stories of others who lived at the same time and experienced the same economic, political, and societal paradigms, though from perhaps different personal circumstances.

Oral histories are a reasonably easy way (far easier than, say, creating an entire biography) to document a perspective that might otherwise get lost to time. As such, a lot is possible. We can interview winners and losers. We can question the significant players in an event, as well as the folks who played a minor role. All of these perspectives create a multi-faceted story that can help those in the future have a more comprehensive understanding of history.

Whether you are interviewing a head of state, a coal miner, or a spiritual director, all oral history efforts will share certain elements. What are the parts of an oral history program? 

Preparation

First, the interviewer needs to research their interviewee and the topics they will discuss. Did the person write a book? If so, read the book. Were they in a war? Then read about the war. Familiarize yourself with the person and the things they have experienced. This preparation helps interviewers to ask the right questions and lead the conversation in a productive direction.

The copyright ownership of the interview also must be sorted. Will the interviewee have a chance to review the transcriptions of what was said? Can they keep the recording from being released? Does the recording belong to an institution? Who owns the copyright of the oral history? After you make these decisions, a contract must be drafted and provided to the subjects of the interview.

pre-interview questionnaire can be sent to the interviewee. The answers to these questions will help to guide the interviewer in developing questions and running the interview.

An alternative to the pre-interview questionnaire is a preliminary interview. This interview can be recorded or not. Similar to a questionnaire, it will help both the interviewer and the subject to create a high-quality final interview.

Finally, an oral history project needs a good interviewer. A good interviewer knows when to allow digressions and when to bring the conversation back on track. The interviewer can also be someone from the same community as the subject or have experienced similar things in life.

The interview

Once you get to the final interview, you should have put in enough preparation that the interview itself is fluid. You know what questions to ask, you have researched the subject and what they will talk about, and the paperwork is out of the way. Only two things remain: the setting and the equipment.

The setting for the interview is essential. More than once, I made the mistake of interviewing a subject in a loud, distracting environment. Poor surroundings affect the audio/video and prevent the interviewer and subject from focusing on the story. Find a quiet and comfortable place, and if you are using video, make sure that the lighting is right.

Know your equipment. You do not need the best camera or recorder. You need to know how to use what you have and its limitations. Make sure that you have plenty of batteries and storage space. And know what file formats you are creating.

After the interview

There is plenty of work that must be completed after the interview.

Someone must transcribe the audio; this can be done in house or outsourced to a contractor. If the interview was filmed, then it needs to be edited and formatted for distribution.

Once the post-production is complete, the content will need to be archived for future preservation and distributed to interested audiences.

For secure archiving, the use of both cloud back-ups and physical back-up drives is the best solution. When backing-up anything, redundancy is critical.

Distributing the oral history will depend on the copyright, funding, and goals of the project. A simple, cheap solution is uploading the audio or video to a site like YouTube. Another option is to host the material on the organization’s website. The transcribed audio can also be published as a book (or assembled with other oral histories into one book), which will require book design and printing (I could write an entire post on this topic). If the oral history is intended for private distribution within a family or organization, then the book option is probably the best way to share the content.

Concluding Thoughts

The process of creating oral histories is often exciting and rewarding; it does entail a lot of work, but the results are worth the effort. While creating this post, I have also been developing the outline of my next oral history project, I am thrilled with the prospect and know that this work will provide a service to the interested community.

Enjoy the process of building your next oral history project, and if you need help, please reach out to me.

Inspiration from the Authors I Work With

I often wonder what it is that I enjoy about publishing. It is not the sales or marketing, nor the challenges of distribution; these are logistical hurdles to be overcome.

I certainly enjoy the design elements. What is not to love about creating things?

What I genuinely love about publishing are the interesting people whose passion and dedication inspire them to write on fascinating, and sometimes obscure, subjects. Nearly every week, I learn something new that completely captures my mind, and this is all thanks to the authors and organizations who work with me.

Through publishing, I have learned that there are countless people in the world doing interesting, creative things. How can one not find hope in that?

Here are three authors I work with whose dedication to knowledge, sharing, and caring inspires me. Cindy Kamler spends every waking hour running a wildlife rehabilitation center in the Eastern Sierra, including feeding baby hummingbirds every twenty minutes around the clock. Evelio Echevarria has spent decades researching mountaineering ascents in the Andes and contributing to the field of Summit Archaeology, documenting a trove of pre-historic and historic mountain ascents. And Lonny Thiele, through oral history and persistent research, has documented the history of mule use in Southern Missouri and World War I.

These individuals are committed to their causes. And there are millions and millions more like them. Each helps this endeavor that we call humanity; through documenting the world around them or caring for the creatures in this world. In their dedication and curiosity, I find hope for the world. They remind me of all the joy to be found in life.

Thank you to all of you for doing interesting things, no matter how small or how big.

The Basics of Book Binding Types

Perfect bound. Case bound. Soft cover. Hard cover. Sewn signatures. Glued signatures. Case wrap. Dusk Jacket.

Board book. Chap book. Saddle stitched.

What does it all mean? And what combination is best for your project? In this article, I will explain the basics of the most commonly used book binding types and the types of publications for which they are suited. In the next article, I will discuss book cover types.

First, what does it mean to bind a book? A book consists of the interior pages (called the book block), a binding that holds the block together, a binding that attaches the block to the cover, and a protective cover. Binding a book refers to the method used to hold the book block together and then attach a cover to the block. In sales and marketing, the book cover type is often used to describe the binding, but, as we will discuss, that can be misleading, for cover types and binding types can be mixed.

Important in the binding process are the signatures. A signature is a folded sheet of paper that makes multiple pages. A book block typically consists of multiple signatures. One signature can have 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, or 128 pages.

Saddle-stitching

A saddle-stitched binding is what you will often find in magazines, notebooks, comic books, or small booklets. Staples go through the center fold of the publication. This is a fast and cheap binding type, and works best on thinner publications.

Board book

A board book is a special type of book in which the book block and binding are made from the same heavy duty paperboard. They are designed to be very durable, and therefore are used almost exclusively in children’s books. The pages and cover of a board book are typically two pieces of paperboard glued together, then the entire book is cut to shape (often with rounded corners for safety).

A board book.

Perfect bound

Perfect binding, or adhesive binding, is the most popular book binding used (it is also used in some magazines). It is also the fastest and cheapest method. Signatures are glued together to create the book block and the cover is glued to the spine of the block. In some production processes, the ends of the signatures at the spine are cut off before the glue is applied. While in other processes, the signatures are glued together intact. In the later case, sections of the signatures are milled to allow glue to penetrate into the spine of the block and thus adhere to each page. Fully cut signatures are what you will see in most Print-on-Demand solutions. They are less durable than the alternative, but cheap.

If the book block is going into a softcover (a.k.a. paperback), the cover and book block are trimmed to size once assembled.

It is important to note that hardcover books can have a perfect binding. Once again, this production method is used for cost and time. Print-on-Demand hardcover books are printed this way.

Perfect binding on a Print-on-Demand book. Note the trimmed signatures, making each leaf independent.
Perfect binding with intact signatures. Note the folded together signatures.

Sewn bindings

The terminology can get confusing here because the terms are often used interchangeably between the block binding and the cover type. Case-binding is a popular sewn binding for hardcover books, but can also be used for softcover books. Signatures are stitched together, then fabric is glued over the spine of the book block. The cover, or case, is then glued to the book block.

There are different types of sewn bindings, including oversewing and Smyth Sewing. Again, it is important to remember that sewn bindings can have either hardcovers or softcovers. Softcover books with durable sewn bindings include nature and outdoor guide books, which need to be both durable and portable.

Softcover with sewn binding. Signatures are sewn through the center fold and glued together. Softcover is attached to spine via glued endpapers.
A hardcover, case wraped, with sewn binding. Signatures are sewn at the center fold and the block glued together. Case wrapped hardcover is attached to block via glued endpapers.
Cloth hardcover with dust jacket and sewn binding.

Further Reading

Book Design: A comprehensive guide by Andrew Haslam is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to dive further into the art and engineering of good book design and production.

Excerpt from Haslam’s book.

Cover Types

But what about hardcover, softcover, case wrap, and dust jacket? I’ll discuss those in the next post.

Market Forces Affecting Publishers, Content Creators, and Marketing

In July, I presented a talk at the Eastern Sierra Book Festival. The organizer asked me to give an update on trends in the publishing industry. I decided to spend the allotted 30 minutes discussing current market forces that impact not only independent authors and small publishers but also impact any business competing for an audience’s valuable time.

The first two market forces are Our Competition and Our Content. These synergistic forces are evolving faster than many large businesses can adapt.

The third force is Amazon.com. In particular, I will emphasize the importance of diversification away from Amazon while continuing to use their platform.

Continue reading “Market Forces Affecting Publishers, Content Creators, and Marketing”

5 Tips for Editing Your Writing

Writing a rough manuscript or draft is often a solo endeavor. However, getting that draft into a polished piece ready for public distribution is a collaborative effort. Therefore, I do not recommend being both the author and sole editor on a writing project. However, sometimes it has to be done. Here are some basic tips that will help you edit your own writing. While it’s not easy, it’s possible.

1. Leave it.

  • Once you are finished with the first draft, set down the pen or close the document for at least a week and forget about it during this time. The longer you can leave it be, the better. This exercise will help to give you a fresh set of eyes when you go back to edit the writing.

2. Use more than 1 round of editing.

  • Good writing requires multiple rounds of editing. First, read through the document quickly. Along the way, resist the urge to edit, but you can fix a few small things or make quick notes if need be. Second, read the document again, but this time go slow and make any big changes to content, style, or structure. This is where you rewrite. And on the third round, fix all of the small spelling, grammar, copyediting mistakes.

3. Cut redundant words, sentences, and paragraphs.

  • You must be vicious. Too much writing contains redundant phrases. Saying something several ways because it can be said several ways will not make the writing stronger, instead, it will distract from what is being said.

4. Invest lots of time in the first sentence, first paragraph, first page, first chapter, and last chapter.

  • One of the techniques in speed reading is to read the Table of Contents, the chapter titles and subtitles, the first chapter, the first page of all subsequent chapters, and the last chapter. This is also the way that many readers decide if a book is worth reading. As a writer, dedicate the most editing time to these areas.

5. Use a software editor like Hemingway or Grammarly.

  • Spellcheck has come a long way in recent years. Applications like Hemingway and Grammarly use clever algorithms and machine learning to polish writing. However, these applications are not the end-all-be-all. Rather, they are one tool in the writer’s quiver. Use them to find common mistakes and suggested clarifications.

After all of this, you still need an editor.

Even though self-editing can get you far, it is not a replacement for having another person read your writing. The more editors that you have, the better and tighter your writing will be. Some editors are good at the big picture, some are great with punctuation, and others will see patterns and ask questions that never crossed your mind.

Creating Elegant eBooks for Academics and Students

The current trend in Higher Education is moving towards Open Educational Resources (OER). These resources are freely accessible course materials that bring down the costs of obtaining a degree and facilitate research. The materials include textbooks, workbooks, course outlines, and even videos of the courses.

However, there is no universal format being used in the OER movement. Some universities are using Markdown as the base format language, which then allows a book to be exported in ePub, HTML, PDF, or a Word file.

To create a resource using Markdown, you will need to get a Markdown editor like Atom. The challenge with Markdown, however, is that your textbook will come out looking pretty basic and even a little raw.

What if you want to create an eBook that is more elegant and openly accessible?

There are several resources available for creating digital books that look good. The two that I use are Sigil and iBooksAuthor. Sigil is the more basic application and is used for creating primarily text-based books with little media. It creates books using the open source ePub format. To use Sigil, you should know some HTML and CSS.  iBooksAuthor can create either ePubs, PDFs, or iBooks.

Since the goal of this post is to create a more elegant eBook without coding skills, let’s focus on iBooksAuthor. First, this application is made by Apple. This means it will only work on a Mac. However, if you choose an ePub format, you can create digital books on a Mac but that will work on any device.

Creating an ePub in iBooksAuthor is as easy as creating a document in Word. Import your text, and then start the fun part of making it look good. The key thing to remember with an ePub is that they are not fixed layout (and you don’t want them to be). The text will adjust based on the device and the display settings of the user.

Photos can be embedded into the text, and thus attached to the eBook. For videos, it is best to provide a link to an external website (this way the book file does not become a behemoth to large to download). iBooksAuthor is a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get editor, so that will make many users lives much easier.

All of this said there is a confusing array of formatting options out there. It can certainly be frustrating to the author who just wants their books to be accessible. It can be doubly frustrating to anyone who wants their book to be modestly aesthetic.

If you need helping formating your eBook project, please reach out to me. Or learn about all of the services that I offer.

Book Printing: Print Only What You Can Sell

Note: As of 2023 this post is ageing. Some aspects may be dated. However, the core lessons hold true for the new author looking to self-publish or an entrepreneur looking to start a small publishing business.

When a new publisher is looking at printing options, there is a temptation to print too many copies. The more books the publisher orders, the bigger the discount the printer will give. It is very easy to fall into the trap of asking for a quote for 1,000 copies and ordering 5,000. The discount of 25% to 50%, or even more, that the publisher would get by ordering 5,000 copies causes the publisher to forget everything discussed in the book pricing chapter.

I was guilty of this mistake, once. Then I vowed to never again forget one simple rule: print only what I have sold. Today it is easy for a publisher of any size to use offset printing, Print-on-Demand, or electronic formats to publish their books. These options allow the publisher to develop a game plan that will stick to this simple rule.

Learn from my mistake

For the first book that I published I ordered a print run of 1,500 copies.

Initially I wanted to order only 500 copies. Based on all the research I had done and pre-sales, I knew that I would sell at least 500 copies in the first year. My plan was to have the first 500 copies, which were as good as sold, printed using offset printing. Then I would fill all subsequent orders using Print-on-Demand.

So I asked the printer to give me a quote for 500 copies. Feeling curious, and slightly optimistic, I also asked the printer to give me quotes for 1,000 and 1,500 copies. I never should have done that.

When the printer sent the quotes to me, I was amazed at the massive “discount” that I would get if I ordered 1,500 copies instead of 500 copies. The discount was a little over 33%. A 33% reduction in printing costs per book! I ordered the 1,500 copies and justified my action with the thought that eventually I would sell all 1,500, and when I did I would have made more money per book versus printing 500 copies.

So what happened? I sold the first 500 copies—the copies I knew I would sell—within the first couple of months. The rest of the books sat around in storage for years. They trickled out copy by copy, a painful thing to watch.

The added cost of printing an extra 1,000 copies over what I needed hurt my cash flow, which stopped me from spending more money on marketing, which in turn hurt the overall sales of the book. It was another hard lesson to learn: print fewer to sell more.

Print only what you have sold

That’s right. Print Only What You Have Sold!

Here are some good reasons to follow this rule:

  1. It forces the publisher to do more marketing before releasing the book.
  2. It forces the publisher to pre-sell the book as much as possible before releasing the book.
  3. It forces the publisher to face realities: if the publisher can’t market the book and can’t pre-sell the book, then it will be more difficult to sell the book once it is out.
  4. It helps keep more cash on-hand, and not lock up that cash in inventory.
  5. Less inventory.
  6. The project will turn a profit faster.

Choosing the best printing option

When abiding by the rule of Print Only What You Have Sold, there are a few printing options publishers can pursue.

For the trade paperback publisher, which is where I do most of my business, Print-on-Demand or offset print runs will work equally well. POD printers like Lightning Source produce paperbacks that often are better quality than a lot of offset printed paperbacks. No longer should questions of quality push publishers towards making financially unsound decisions!

If the publisher must do a traditional, offset print run—for example, a photograph art book—then pre-selling the book is vital! For many real life example, look at the books on the Kickstarter website. Why are the publishers and authors putting their books on Kickstarter? So that they can pre-sell as many books as possible before they have invested a dime in printing.

So, for the trade paperback publisher, the key is matching pre-sold volume to the best printing option for that volume. Here is a general rule of thumb:

  • Fewer than 500 copies—Print-on-Demand
  • 500 copies or more—Offset

Here is another fear that the modern publisher can vanquish:

  • Do not worry about having enough supply!

With Print-on-Demand, books can be ordered, printed, and shipped within a couple of business days. Books are now part of the Just-in-Time fulfillment cycle, where manufacturers produce only what has sold and then ship the products worldwide direct from the factory. And often everything is done overnight! It is a revolutionary change. Yet the publishing industry, despite having access to POD for decades, is still underutilizing this technology compared to what could be done.

So, unknown supply needs should not influence the publisher’s decision on what printing process to use or how many copies to print. Supply is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, worldwide.

Here is an example. If I pre-sell 500 copies of a book, then I will order those books from an offset printer. I will fill all other orders using POD … Unless there are enough new orders—after the first 500 have been printed and sold—to justify another offset print run. In this situation, the POD will fill the gaps between offset production times so that orders are never delayed. Customers will not experience delays nor significant differences in quality.

SUPPLY AND DEMAND

Ultimately we are left with a near perfect economy, where supply and demand are almost in harmony.

Know your audience and which format they want

Most of the audiences I publish for want print books. This is something I realized only after investing months of time formatting beautiful ebooks, sometimes coding them from scratch.

To be honest, it was obvious from the beginning which formats my audiences prefer. My books fall into several categories: academic, outdoors non-fiction, and inspirational. The audiences that I sell to are, for the most part, well-defined niche audiences. I am not publishing Harry Potter, which appeals to almost everyone. So it makes sense that eBooks account for only 2.5% – 5% of my business.

If a publisher is producing fiction and general audience non-fiction, then eBooks are likely to be a more important part of the publisher’s income.

Similarly, if a publisher wants to produce an art book of photographs or paintings, then Print-on-Demand is not the right solution. The publisher will have to use more traditional printing methods to get the very high quality that their audience will demand.

If the publisher knows the audience, the publisher will know where to invest time and money during the design and production phases.

Conclusion

Do not print 1,000 books with few ideas for selling them. Do not fall into the trap that so many passionate authors and publishers have fallen into—if we publish it, they will buy it. This is a sure recipe for a garage full of books.

In sum:

  1. Know your audience and what format/s they prefer
  2. Pre-sell the books (especially important for printed books, less important for eBooks)
  3. Print only what you pre-sold
  4. If the content category permits, use Print-on-Demand to fill orders during low demand

Remember! Print Only What You Have Sold!

Accounting for Book Publishers

Creating a solid business requires good accounting and budgeting practices. If the publisher does not know where the money is spent, how much is spent, and why it is spent, then the publishing house is going to fall. The way to answer where, how, and why is through good accounting and budgeting.

To read my newer article on creating an Easy and Free Royalty Management System within Google Sheets or Excel, click here.

Here are some accounting basics for publishers that I have learned over the years, including the importance of dedicated accounting software, cash flow, budgets, foreign currency sales, and royalties.

Good Accounting Starts with Good Software

The first two years that my publishing company was in business, I used spreadsheets for all of my accounting. This worked fine while the publishing business was a hobby. But, as the business grew, the importance of good accounting records became clearer.

Are spreadsheets a good way to manage the accounts of a business? Well, they certainly work, but good business accounting software will do a better job, providing some of the following benefits:

  • Saves time.
  • Creates a broad range of reports, faster.
  • Automates more tasks.
  • Scales up easily. Behind the scenes, the database that the software maintains grows with your business, but the front end still looks the same.
  • Follows standardized bookkeeping procedures, like double entry.
  • Makes the accountant happier at tax time.
  • Makes it easier to sell the publishing business.
  • Makes it easier to attract investors to the publishing business.
  • Allows the publisher to clearly understand the real financials of the business—where is it losing money and where is it making money.
  • Allows the publisher to generate complex, historical analytic reports that will drive the future direction, growth, and profitability of the publishing company.
  • Double entry accounting catches errors that would otherwise be missed.

I am a Mac user. I have been my entire life. And I feel that Macs are intuitive computers for designing books and doing the other creative work required of a publisher. However, there is not a large choice of business accounting programs for the Mac. I use AccountEdge Pro by Acclivity, and I am pretty happy with how well it works.

Remember, this is a real business. So treat it like a real business! In publishing, it is easy to forget this fact and instead focus too much on the creative process. Accounting is absolutely vital to a successful business no matter the size. So, when designing the budget of a new publishing company, add in a couple of hundred dollars for a good business accounting program. And learn how to use it! This is one purchase and labor cost that will generate knowledge and profit far beyond its cost.

Cash Flow—Seeing into the Future

Cash flow statements give transaction by transaction insights into how much cash is flowing in and out of the publishing business at any point. When the publisher assigns to the vendors and customers the correct payment terms in the accounting software (e.g. 30 days, 60 days, etc), cash flow statements allow the publisher to see into the financial future of the business.

Obviously, this is a powerful tool for the publisher who needs to invest lots of money in forthcoming projects, from acquisition and editing costs to marketing and printing. Understanding cash flow allows the publisher to better budget limited resources and create a strategy for growth.

Early in the life of my publishing business, I visited the S.C.O.R.E. office in St. Louis, Missouri. S.C.O.R.E. is a non-profit that provides free business services to upstart and small businesses.

I sat down with a retired business owner in a high-rise in downtown St. Louis. He asked me the usual questions about my business. What does it sell? Who is the market? Etc.

Then he asked me a question that I didn’t know the answer to. What is your cash flow?

My response was, Cash flow? What’s that?

Within a few minutes he gave me a lesson on cash flow and stressed its importance in building a business.

Now, every time I launch my accounting software, I check the business’s cash flow for 30, 60, and 90 days. Using that information, I can revise my budget and publishing plans for the coming months.

Budgeting

Budgeting is far simper than keeping the books. But that does not diminish its importance in the success of the publishing business.

Using the cash flow statements from the accounting software, the publisher can design a budget that meets the needs of a growth or profit oriented strategic plan.

Here are some points to consider when pursuing growth or profit:

Growth

  • Focused on building the size and cash flow of the business.
  • Most likely, spending will either match or exceed revenue.
  • Focused on allocating assets to the areas that will create the most growth, and thus have the greatest profit potential.
    • In addition to new publishing projects, this can include growing or strengthening the core structure of the publishing business, such as through building a database that will ease rapid growth or through purchasing equipment that will make the business more profitable.

Profit

  • Focused on making profit, i.e. the business brings in more cash than it spends.
  • Focused on cutting back on expenses. Purchase only the bare essentials.

The publisher uses budgeting at different levels of the business as well. The publisher should have a budget for the entire business, a budget for each imprint, and a budget for each book. And the profit or growth strategy applies to each budget.

Some accounting software will allow the publisher to create budgets. That said, budgeting is one area where a spreadsheet does a good job because it is a simple process.

Foreign Currency

Several decades ago, most small publishers would not have dealt with foreign currency. They sold most their books in the domestic market. However, Print-on-Demand and eBooks have caused a paradigm change in book distribution. Some of the books that I publish generate most of their sales in foreign markets like the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Foreign sales make up about 8% of my overall book sales. 8% is a lot, especially when considering that I have done almost no advertising in those markets and that it is only a couple of titles that generate those sales. I owe the success of my foreign sales to good research, something I talk about in the book pricing chapter. I looked at what books the market wanted but publishers were not supplying, and I supplied those books. A classic example of supply not meeting demand.

Remember when I said that early in my publishing career I used spreadsheets for all of my accounting? Well, sorting through the mess of remittances in foreign currencies at different exchange rates for multiple book titles quickly became a time-consuming task. This was one of the accounting headaches that pushed me toward using dedicated accounting software.

I am not going to describe my early workflow for dealing with these transactions, because it was pretty anarchic. But here is my current workflow using AccountEdge Pro on the Mac:

  1. Receive sales statement from distributor for each foreign market for the previous month. This statement includes the quantity of books sold and the amount in the local currency (e.g. euros or pounds) that the books sold for.
  2. I enter the sales into my accounting software. Each market and each distributor gets their own sales transaction. I use the foreign prices that the books sold for. I will update this price when I know what the exchange rate is. I save the transaction for later updates.
  3. Receive a remittance notice from the distributor that they have initiated payment for the period. This notice will include an invoice or event number. I update the sales transaction with this number, entering it as the purchase order number. This will help me to quickly verify transactions and reconcile bank statements.
  4. Receive a statement from my bank alerting me of the foreign deposit. This statement includes the invoice number from #3 above and the price in US dollars that was deposited into my account.
  5. Calculate the exchange rate using the bank statement, update the price of each book in the sales transaction, and receive payment for the sales in the accounting software.

Publishers may want to use a different process for dealing with foreign sales. The one described above works well for me and I am able to do it quickly and accurately. Ultimately, the publisher’s goal is to develop an accounting process that handles these transactions quickly and accurately. We didn’t get into publishing to spend our days dealing with accounts, but we must do it, so let’s do it right the first time!

Royalties

Royalties are a liability—an expense. And they are an easy liability to lose track of during the course of the royalty period—in my case six months.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of affordable small business accounting software with royalty management capabilities.

This means that the new or small publisher must develop their own process for managing royalties. After a few years of dealing with increasingly complicated royalties and accounting for them, I redesigned the royalties that I pay, how I pay them, and how I account for them. Here is my process:

First, I now pay royalties for all new contracts based on net price received. So, if I receive $10 for a book at wholesale, then I calculate the royalty based on the $10. If I receive $20 from the sale of a book on the imprint’s website, then I calculate the royalty based on the $20.

Why do I calculate royalties this way? Because net amount received is the amount that I receive for every single transaction, and therefore it is an easy number to use in reports. If I based the price off of retail price, then I would have to deal with several prices for each book (domestic prices for print and eBook, and foreign prices for print and eBook), which would entail having to create more detailed royalty reports which means spending more time calculating royalties.

Using net amount received, I only need to generate sales reports for each title within the accounting software and then pay the copyright holder a percentage of the total amount for each applicable title.

Here is the process, from generating the sales report to writing the check:

  1. Generate a report for the copyright holder’s books for the royalty period.
  2. Enter the total sales (net price received) and volume for each version of each title into a predesigned spreadsheet for the copyright holder.
  3. The spreadsheet uses already entered royalty percentages to calculate the copyright holder’s royalty payment.
  4. I enter the royalty payment into the accounting software and cut a check to the copyright holder.

I believe in transparency, especially with my business partners. Each copyright holder who I work with is a business partner. Each of us depends on the other. In the royalty reports that I send to the copyright holders every six months, I show the following:

  • Net amount received for each title, broken down by market.
  • Volume sold for each title, broken down by market.
  • Their royalty percentage.
  • Their royalty amount.

This is a transparent report because it shows how much I received for the books from customers and how much of that the copyright holder receives.

Now, how do I keep track of the royalties accrued during the royalty period so that I can have accurate cash flow reports? The best method is to keep an open invoice for the copyright holder, the same invoice that will be used when entering the final amount at the end of the royalty period—as described in step #4 above. Update this invoice with the new amounts at regular intervals (e.g. 30 days) using the workflow described above. This will make sure that the cash flow statements generated using the accounting software will be accurate and include future royalty payments, which are often sizable liabilities.

In Conclusion—Keep Good Books!

One of the goals of this book is to help new and small publishers develop a publishing business that is professional. Keeping the financial books organized and accurate will make the publishing business stronger, smarter, and more valuable. The best way to do this is through dedicated accounting software and thought-out, efficient accounting procedures. The business will profit from this and the publisher will gain valuable insights into the financials of the entire business, the imprints, and each project. These insights will help the publisher in making decisions when developing or updating the strategic plan of the publishing house.

To read my newer article on creating an Easy and Free Royalty Management System within Google Sheets or Excel, click here.

Quality Control for Books and Content Management

Creating quality control protocols is just as important for the book publisher as it is for the factory. At the end of the day, book publishers are producing a product that will be mass manufactured on an assembly line and, hopefully, consumed by many people. The implication here is that we need to take great care in producing the books we publish, from design and editing to marketing and distribution.

Learn from my mistakes

At one point I blindly expanded my catalog at lightning speed. I assumed that the workflow I had developed would maintain the high standard of design and editing to which I had become accustomed. However, as the number of projects that I was working on piled up, so too did the number of mistakes in the books that I was releasing.

I brought in more people to help manage the workload. But I still encountered the same problems because I had no system in place for tracking what work was getting done and what remained.

Cover descriptions were not getting updated before I sent the file to the printer. Prices were getting mixed between books. Annotations were missing or finding their way into the wrong place. And Table of Contents weren’t getting proofed.

This cost me time, money, and reputation.

To make the problem worse, because the catalog was growing, I was spending increasing amounts of time searching a disorganized array of files for information on specific titles.

One of the small, but common snags occurred when a wholesale customer would call and want prices on specific titles. Because I did not have all of this info in one place, I often had to visit the imprint’s website to find the retail price. And if the customer asked for the price in pounds sterling, then I had to search even harder.

What I needed was one place where I could track books for their entire life and deposit all the metadata that selling books requires.

The solution

A database.

When I think of databases, I think of expensive and cumbersome software bundles that create just as many headaches as they solve.

I tried to use FileMaker to create a custom database that could manage everything, from images to metadata, book descriptions to customers, invoices to royalties.

After a weak of stumbling around within FileMaker, I abandoned that path. It was too complicated and had too many bugs.

I knew that I needed something simple. Super simple. iPhone app simple.

So I searched the App Store and found exactly what I needed.

Tap Forms is $34.99 and has the simplicity of a well-designed iPhone app. It is available for Mac computers and phones. I use only the desktop version, but I can think of scenarios where the mobile version could come in handy.

It worked intuitively from the start and within a day I had hundreds of cross-linked entries.

What to do with the database?

Databases, even ones as simple as Tap Forms, can do tons of things. They can create and manage checklists, like an operating room checklist for a patient. They can be customer management tools that document each interaction with a customer. They can create and manage orders. They can track expenses. And they can hold an infinite number of lists.

They can also link all of this information together.

At the beginning, when building the database, the publisher must ask what the database needs to do.

Here is what I wanted my database to do:

  • Contain all the metadata for each book. This includes prices across different currencies, descriptions, ISBNs for each version, links to websites that sell the book, display the cover image, etc.
  • Link each book to a series of quality control checklists.
  • Contain detailed quality control checklists that will help find more errors in books and prevent new errors from being introduced during the editing, design, printing, and marketing phases of each book.
  • Contain ranked and detailed lists of books that I am considering for acquisition.
  • Tell who distributes each book.
  • Give the status of each book in every possible state of existence.
  • Manage bulk mailing lists.
  • Manage annotations across several languages.
  • Manage the production of guidebooks and similar books.

I am happy to say that the database that I built using Tap Forms does all of this.

Do the quality control checklists really work?

Yes. They work really, really well.

I find that quality control actually speeds up the book creation process. Yes, there are more boxes to check, more forms to fill out. But these serve a clear and quantifiable purpose, to track what gets done, when, and by whom. Work no longer gets duplicated. Did we check for orphans and widows? Yes. Great, on to the next thing. Did we do our secondary check that the index page numbers go to the right place? Nope. Gotta do that.

Does this mean the books are error free? Most of the time, yes. But sometimes an error slips through all the layers of redundancy. After all, humans are creating this content, and we are prone to errors. But, the error occurrence rate becomes much smaller when I use these controls.

If you are not already using a database to manage content and content creation, please use one. Using a database takes a publishing company to the next level of professionalism and adds value to the business.

Book Submissions and Acquisitions

Here is how it is going to happen.

  1. The new publisher establishes an imprint with one or more books that will sell.
  2. A website is built for the imprint. This includes a book submissions page with information on how to submit book proposals.
  3. The initial books are successful and penetrate the market, the publisher gains new contacts in the industry, and the imprint becomes known.
  4. Authors and others learn of the imprint and the submissions roll in.
  5. An undisciplined, new publisher sees these submissions and gets excited. This enthusiasm leads to taking on projects that the publisher doesn’t know how to market.
  6. Alternatively, the disciplined publisher browses the submissions, finds no leads and thus rejects all submissions, and then continues with the original business plan.

Discipline and hard choices

What does it take to be disciplined?

I do a lot of high risk sports, like mountain climbing and rock climbing without ropes. I’ve also worked in high risk industries, like logging and tree trimming. Participating in these activities demands discipline. If I climb into an area beyond my abilities, the probability of injury or death increases, substantially. More often than not my ego and passion want to push deeper into the danger zone, past where my abilities end. Strong discipline reins in my ego and passion, keeping me in the realm of possibility. Discipline reminds me to stick to the plan.

Don’t mistake discipline for being risk averse. Discipline is a methodical way of dealing with risk. Discipline says, I can’t do this today, but with strategic training and experience I can do this in the near future.

Following the plan that I laid out in the chapter on pricing will help you to stay disciplined while making the hard choices that all publishers must eventually make—rejecting good books because the publisher doesn’t know how to sell them.

Here are some basic rules to follow:

  • Stick with what you know.
  • Stick with what you can sell.
  • If you don’t know it and you don’t know how to sell it, don’t publish it.

Reviewing submissions—separating the wheat from the chaff

When reviewing submissions, there are a few basic questions that must be answered.

Many publishers ask that inquiring authors answer these questions in their submissions—this is a good, time-saving technique. It forces the author to think about who is going to buy the book. And it helps the publisher to see how savvy the author is and how well the author understands the audience.

Here are some questions to ask when reviewing submissions:

  1. Who is going to buy this book?
  2. Why are they going to buy it?
  3. Do they already want to buy it, but it is not available?
  4. What does the competition look like?
  5. Is there a good reason no one else is publishing this or similar content?

Let’s assume that every question about the audience is answered. The publisher then needs to ask a second round of questions to decide if the book is right for the publisher.

  1. Is this a quality book or a bargain book?
  2. Does this book have to be printed using a specific method?
  3. How much editing is this going to take?
  4. How long will it take to design the cover and interior?
  5. How much marketing must be done to reach the audience?
  6. What is the overall labor investment?
  7. Finally, and once again, does the book make financial sense based on the publisher’s pricing and volume strategy?

Notice that most of the second round questions have to do with the publishing process. Each publisher will have a unique publishing process, or workflow, and books will need to fit into this to be published. Just as each artisan has a process for sculpting, painting, sewing, or carving, the publisher must have a process for publishing books. The office is the publisher’s workshop. The computer, pen, and paper are the tools. The publisher needs to develop a successful, profitable process and stick with it. The publisher can modify the process, but slowly and incrementally.

Be wary of publishing books that deviate too far from the proven formula.

Learn from my mistake

The first unsolicited submission that I received truly piqued my interest. The gears started turning in the creative part of my brain as I read the proposal. I saw how the book could expand my business into a parallel niche market—newer and larger than the market where I operated. I saw huge potential for the book—bigger than any book I had published.

However, I knew nothing about the new niche market. I had no contacts (aside from the author) within it. And I didn’t know how to sell the book to the audience. I didn’t even know who the exact audience was. Sure, I had a broad idea for who the audience could be. But that was it. I did not know how to reach them. And that is not enough to market a book.

In my enthusiasm for both my first unsolicited submission and the theoretical potential of the book, I went forward and published it. Yet throughout the publishing process, when any of the above questions arose or I looked at pricing and volume options, logic told me to abandon the project. But I never listened.

The book was a complete flop. Dead on arrival. I lost lots of time and money on the project.

My problem: I did not have the discipline to say no even though all the evidence pointed to that conclusion.

It is always nice to get submissions. Submissions validate the publisher’s existence almost as much as sales. But the publisher must avoid hubris when facing reality.

Book pricing—Solving the Great Mystery

Book pricing is difficult and a bit like cold fusion—many people claim to have discovered the key to success, but none can prove it. That being said, there are steps that publishers can take to eliminate some of the magical guesswork from the process of setting prices for books.

Publishers must always remember why prices exist. Prices exist to create profit. The publisher should strive to generate their desired profit from the primary audience. Understanding the primary audience and the price elasticity of the book within the primary audience is critical to designing success and achieving profit goals. What follows is the method that I use to decide prices for books.

An early, tough lesson

Five years ago I spent days obsessing over how to price the first book that I published. Most of my thoughts swirled around one aspect of the book pricing game: What price is the audience for this niche book willing to pay?

I priced the book at $14.95. However, I now know that I could have priced the book higher, at say $18.95, and I would have moved the same volume. Though the book has been successful, that error in pricing lost me about $5,000 in profit.

Where did I go wrong during my first pricing decision?

I focused too much on the price that I thought the audience would tolerate. While the question I asked when I set the price is a good question and an important one to answer, it is not the only question a publisher should ask. Asking only that question can create misconceptions with big consequences. As it turns out, I did not understand the audience as well as I presumed. Often, our assumptions are our worst enemies.

A better process for pricing a book

If I were publishing that book now, for the first time, here are some of the questions I would ask:

  1. Who is the primary audience? And do I have enough knowledge of and access (i.e. marketing and distribution) to the primary audience to sell the book?
  2. Is the primary audience fixed at a certain number of readers, and do I know that number?
  3. Using the answer from #1, what price at that volume covers my costs (including labor) and my profit?
  4. Is the primary audience going to buy this book regardless of price?
  5. Beyond the primary audience, can I sell this book to anyone else at a profitable volume?

These are very important questions. And I should ask them not only when setting the final price of the book, but also during the acquisitions process when deciding whether to even publish the book. Here is what I am looking for in the answers:

  1. The primary audience is going to generate the bulk of the revenue and momentum for the book. If I cannot answer either part of Question #1 with detailed, knowledgeable responses then I do not publish the book. It does not matter how passionate I am for the book, or how awesome the author is. If I don’t understand the audience, then I can’t sell the book. It really is that simple. Stick with what you know. Part of this question also deals with marketing, which I talk about in another chapter.
  2. Question #2 is one of the most important questions I can ask, and this is especially true for niche publishers and self-publishers. If I can answer yes and I know the approximate size of the audience, then this answer will decide the price of the book. Then I only need to use the following equation to set the price: cost+profit/volume. I love it when I get books like these because I know from the beginning how much profit I am going to clear on the project. This question is also connected to Question #4. Knowing the size of the audience and an affirmative response to #4 is the best outcome for most small publishers.
  3. This is a great question because it forces me to understand the true cost of pursuing a project. See the next section for an example of the spreadsheet setup that I use to create a variety of profit predictions at various price points, discounts, and volumes. I believe it is very important to visualize this part of the pricing process, and so I recommend that every publisher use a similar spreadsheet when setting prices. This spreadsheet not only gives me the answers to Question #3, it also forces another gut check when looked at after getting the answers to the other questions. And it automatically triggers other questions. Is the primary audience big enough to buy the minimum volume for the book to create a profit? Do I understand enough about the primary audience to move the needed volume?
  4. If I can answer yes to this question then I am very happy. I still need to figure out if the primary audience is big enough to provide the needed profit, and I can determine that using the data from the spreadsheet that I will use to answer Question #3.
  5. This is often a difficult, but very important question to answer. If I stick to the model of generating desired profit from the primary audience, then finding new, secondary audiences puts icing on the cake. For each new audience, I try to use the same method just described—this is the best process for predicting outcomes and ensuring success.

The answers to these questions allow me to do several things:

  • Determine if a project is worth pursuing
  • Determine if a project is worth continuing
  • Determine how important the book is to the success of the business
  • Plan for the future by estimating expected cash flow

What I just described demonstrates that the process of choosing a price for a book creates a detailed qualitative and quantitative analysis that deals with more than trying to pick up a few more customers through clever price points. The process gets to the very core of the book, asking the core questions that many publishers willingly disregard at their own peril. I too have fallen into this publishing trap while in pursuit of creative passion and beautiful literature—enough times that as I write these words I grind my teeth thinking about all the profits wasted on projects that were long dead before they started. If only I had used this process …

Looking at all the options—quantitatively

Now that I have outlined the basic process, let’s go back to Question #3: What price and volume covers my costs, including labor?

Below is an image of the spreadsheet that I use for making the calculations that will answer my question. I call it the Publisher Profit Calculator.

Book_Profit_Calculator

This spreadsheet includes a lot of parts. No unique piece of data provides that much information. But the relationship of all the pieces provides an incredible amount of useful information that will influence the final price of a book.

Here is an explanation of each part:

  • Retail: This is the retail price. It is a part of the calculation used in all the other columns.
  • Page Count: This is the final, total page count of the book. It is used to calculate the printing cost (used in the After Printing column) and the Page Profit column.
  • Discount: This is the wholesale or distribution discount. When estimating future cash flow and profits, always reference the biggest discount given. Referencing only the biggest discount will keep expectations realistic, provide room for error while forecasting, and sometimes it results in unexpected profits later in the life of the book. Just like disaster preparedness, always plan for the worst—but in this case using the biggest discount and slimmest margins.
  • Royalty: This is the percentage the author receives. It is used to calculate the dollar amount that the author receives in the Author Royalty column.
  • Wholesale: This is the wholesale or distributor price. It is calculated using the Retail and Discount columns.
  • After Printing: This is calculated using: Wholesale less printing cost (printing cost is calculated in the background based on the Page Count). This number gives the gross revenue before royalties.
  • Author Royalty: This is the amount the author receives per book. For the purposes of this example spreadsheet, the Author Royalty is the Royalty percentage multiplied by the Wholesale price—which is based on a net-price received royalty model.
  • Pub. Profit: This is the amount the publisher clears after printing costs and royalties. This is an important column in the final price making decision.
  • Profit Margin: This column uses the Retail price and the Pub. Profit columns to calculate the percentage of the retail price that is publisher net profit. This is a good column to watch across all the books being published under an imprint. I try to the keep the Profit Margin around 30% with margin of +/- 5%. Remember to look at the row with the largest expected Discount.
  • Min. Volume: This is the minimum volume that I must sell to recoup the cost of publishing the book. The total expenses for this example are listed in the upper right corner: $2,200. The column uses the Publisher Profit calculation and the total expenses to calculate the number of books that must be sold to break-even. This number should include the publisher’s labor. This column has the most influence on my final price setting decision. This number can be modified to include profit as well.
  • Page Profit: This is the publisher’s profit per page. It is calculated using the Page Count and the Pub. Profit columns. This column has a similar role to the Profit Margin column—it gives the publisher a benchmark to aim for. I must note that profit per page tends to decrease with longer books because the retail price has a hard time keeping up. But that is okay because I am selling more pages and so profit holds steady.

Example of my method in action

Let’s say I’m getting ready to acquire a new book. Before I begin the publishing process, I want to get a good idea for the primary audience and whether I can make a profit publishing the book. Let’s pretend that the book title of the book is “Paddling Missouri’s Big Rivers.” It is a guide, a memoir, and a history to the big rivers of Missouri.

Now let’s work through the questions and the Publisher Profit Calculator to find out if I should publish the book.

  • Who is the primary audience? And do I have enough knowledge of and access (i.e. marketing and distribution) to the primary audience to sell the book?

The primary audience is paddlers, people interested in the Missouri’s natural and cultural history, and people who know the author. I am connected to the Missouri paddling community and I was born and raised in Missouri, so I believe that I have enough knowledge and access to the primary audience to sell the book.

  • Is the primary audience fixed at a certain number of readers, and do I know that number?

The size of the primary audience is limited, but I do not know the exact number. Using my unique knowledge of the primary audience, I estimate that the primary audience is 300 strong. I believe that this is a conservative estimate, but when estimating it is always best to err on the side of caution

  • Using the answer from #1, what price at that volume covers my costs (including labor) and my profit?

My costs, including labor but excluding printing, are $2,200. The book is 200 pages long and I already entered the cost of printing the book using Print-on-Demand into the above spreadsheet. Using the Book Profit Calculator spreadsheet, I see that I need to price the book at a minimum of $24.95 to break-even, given that the primary audience is 300 strong. This price assumes that I will sell all 300 books at a wholesale discount of 50%. In reality, I know that the margins are often better because I will sell a few at full retail value and I will sell many of the wholesale copies at a 40% discount. Again, I am creating a safe forecast.

  • Is the primary audience going to buy this book regardless of price?

This can be a hard question to answer. Much of the time it is qualitative question. From market research, I know that similar titles have sold at prices ranging from $22.95 to $29.95, and the primary audience did not balk at the higher prices. They are a passionate primary audience and will pay a premium, up to a point.

This is good news. At $29.95, I will make a profit on 61 copies, a net profit of $561 after covering my labor costs, other expenses, and royalties.

  • Beyond the primary audience, can I sell this book to anyone else at a profitable volume?

I believe that this book has the potential to be popular beyond the primary audience, especially in local bookstores (where I can organize signings and talks) and at local outdoor stores (where I can also organize signing and talks).

I have talked with the owners and buyers of the bookstores and outdoor stores. They tell me that $29.95 is too high for their regular customers. They suggest that a price of $22.95 would be perfect.

As much as I would like to price the book at $22.95, that price does not give me a break-even profit based on the estimated size of my primary audience. But I believe in the wider appeal of the book beyond the primary audience. I price the book at $24.95—the minimum break-even price.

The real price of books

The method discussed above takes a micro approach to book publishing and book pricing. Now lets switch to a macro perspective.

Macro is the big picture. It is the entire industry. It is books vs. music vs. movies vs. television.

The real cost of a book to the consumer is not the retail price listed on the cover. The real cost is the time it takes to read the book.

In the example above, the book costs $24.95. If the customer clears $25 per hour at their job, then it costs an hour of their time to buy the book. However, the real cost is in the time it takes to read the book and the other things the customer could be doing during that time.

Let’s estimate that the average reader needs 8 hours to read the 200 page book. For the customer making $25 per hour, that is $200 worth of time. The real cost of the book to the customer is $225. That is an expensive book!

A 2 hour-long, $10 HD movie downloaded from iTunes has a real cost of only $60.

Should this insight affect how I price books? Sometimes, yes. But it depends on the book. Is the book competing with other cultural products? Or does it stand alone? …

Consumer demand for books and price tolerance

There are several good academic research articles out there covering the book industry, including accounting, profits, and pricing.

The demand for books estimated by means of consumer survey data” by Vidar Ringstad Knut Løyland is a good resource to reference while reading this chapter.

Here are the highlights from the article:

  • Books are price sensitive and compete with other cultural goods.
  • Sex and age matter.
  • Single persons and households with small children, especially those with children less than 7 years, are frequent book buyers.
  • The decreased price of substitutes like TV, video, and music could crowd the demand for books.
  • Books are luxury goods.

When asking a question like, “Will the audience buy this book regardless of price?”, I am trying to get at the above points. Is the book a luxury item? Or is it something that the reader needs? Does it compete with other cultural goods? Or does it stand in a class of its own?

If the reader is an average hiker with no navigation skills and no desire to get lost in the woods, then the reader will probably buy a hiking guide because it is a tool that she must have to go hiking, just like good shoes. If there is only one hiking guide to the area she wants to hike in, then the reader cannot be overly price sensitive. If there are multiple guides to the area, then the hiker becomes more price sensitive because there is competition in the market. And if the reader is not sure if she even wants to go hiking, then the book is facing even more price sensitivity.

The points highlighted by Ringstad and Løyland in their study are important to consider beyond the pricing process. The publisher must also take them into perspective while acquiring material and editing material. Will the 800 page sprawling opus sell as well as a 100 page quick and intense read? And which will readers appreciate more? We must remember that we are in the age of short blog posts, tweets, and 30 second to 3 minute YouTube videos. How do books fit into this paradigm?

Using historical data to understand the relationship between price, volume, and profit

I have published books for 5 years and have about 60 titles in print across a diverse range of subjects. Using the consolidated sales data for all the years and all the titles, I have created the following two charts.

Looking at these charts I see that books priced under $10 account for very little of my gross sales and volume.

The majority of the published books fall between $10 and $20. While the $10-$20 range has the highest volume, the gross sales are too heavily weighted toward bottom.

The $30-$40 range has the fewest books, but they surpass in gross sales the majority of the books in the lower price ranges. Yet the volume is not all that impressive when compared to the high volume achieved by some of the $10-$20 books.

How do I interpret this data?

I look at these charts and conclude that, historically, I have under-priced my books. It is clear that assigning low prices to books did not help sales and assigning high prices to books did not hurt sales.

Of course, when I look at these charts I have the benefit market and business specific knowledge not displayed on the charts. Much of that knowledge came from asking the four questions that started this chapter. Asking those four questions has ultimately led me to the conclusion that I must give higher prices to the books I publish and that the primary audiences for the books I publish are not as price sensitive as I once thought.

Concluding thoughts

When choosing a price for a book, publishers must take many variables into account. Failure to consider all the variables can mean the difference between publishing a profitable book and losing money on the book.

The most important aspect of the pricing process is finding the break-even point and ensuring that the primary audience for the book will buy the needed volume to reach that point.