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Self-publishing books on the Internet

by Jean Hollis Weber

Note: Many of the details in this article are out of date, especially those related to recommended services. To be updated.

In 1999, I began self-publishing books for technical writers and editors and marketing those books on the Internet. This article summarises some of the issues I had to deal with and the solutions I found.

So far the self-publishing experiment has been a qualified success. I’ve solved most of the initial problems, published six books, and made a modest profit — though not nearly enough to pay for the time I’ve spent. The big remaining problem is marketing.

The overheads on the books are minimal. The main expense is for an editor. I sell most of the books as downloadable PDFs, so once the book is uploaded to my website, the only expenses are for advertising, processing customers’ payments, and any charges by my webhosting company for too much download traffic. If I didn’t already have a suitable website, I would include the cost of webhosting. I also produce a few printed copies of each book, mainly for the Australian market.

Why self-publish?

I self-publish for several reasons:

  • The target audience for my first book was too small to interest a commercial publisher.
  • I wanted more control over the content and the entire process than I could have with a publisher.
  • I wanted to sell electronic books at a low price but retain a high percentage of the sale price.
  • I thought the books might attract potential clients to my website.

At the time of starting work on the first book, I was between contracts, so I had plenty of time. The first two books (Electronic Editing and Editing Online Help) grew out of stacks of lecture notes and other stuff I had previously written. I wrote the third book (Taming Microsoft Word) in an attempt to reach a much wider potential market; it was mostly a revision of two chapters from Electronic Editing. The fourth and fifth books (Taming Microsoft Word 2000 and Taming Microsoft Word 2002) were updates and revisions of the third book. The sixth book, Taming OpenOffice.org Writer, explored a new program.

Developing the website

Self-marketing books over the Internet requires a website, or several websites if the books are aimed at very different audiences.

I had previously bought a domain name and set up a website for my online portfolio. This site evolved into the Technical Editors’ Eyrie, a major collection of material for technical editors. I did all the design, production, and maintenance work myself (because I enjoy it and find it interesting). I do much of my HTML design coding by hand, but I also use an older version of Dreamweaver (v.3) for maintenance; the templates feature has paid for itself many times over.

The cost of domain names and hosting has been dropping over the past couple of years and is now around $30 or less a year for a .com name (more for .com.au) and $200 or less for hosting services. Most webhosting companies will handle domain name registration for you, often at a lower cost than if you do it yourself.

Recently I changed webhost companies to Server101 from WebCentral, which had been much more competitively priced when I first chose them four years ago. It pays to shop around.

Accepting credit cards online

Accepting credit cards online was a big problem four years ago but is much less so now. Anyone who already has a merchant credit card account should be able to get the bank to allow its use for Internet transactions. I didn’t have an account and could find no affordable way to have one, so what I needed was a company that did all the credit-card processing for me. Many such companies exist on the Web; some are a bit dodgy, but others are quite reputable.

Four years ago, almost every affordable reputable credit-card processing company on the Web would deal only with residents of the USA, or their setup and monthly maintenance fees were too high for a small-volume business, or they would deal with either tangible goods (printed books) or intangible goods (e-books) but not both. Today many more companies deal with non-residents of the USA, but the other problems are often still there.

The company I use, Multicards, is based in Europe. They charge a fairly high percentage in transaction costs, but no fixed fees; if my turnover gets high enough, I can change to a different plan. Their setup fee is low (US$15 vs US$200 or more for most other companies), with an extra one-off charge of US$25 to include a rudimentary shopping cart facility. A potential problem for many users is that they pay by cheque in US dollars, which may incur a substantial bank fee for conversion; because I have a US bank account, this isn’t a problem for me. Multicards originally processed all credit card charges in US dollars, but now allows multiple currencies, including Yen, GBP, and Euros.

I was also able to join the US-based PayPal system three years ago, but only because I had a US-based cheque account and a US address (my mother’s). At the time, they did not accept non-US merchants; now they do, and they now handle multiple currencies. PayPal’s charges are reasonable, working out about the same or less than Multicards’ charges, and they have a shopping cart facility included at no extra cost.

A roundabout way to take credit card payments is to allow purchasers to buy me an Amazon.com gift certificate. I buy a lot of books through Amazon, so this has worked out well. Of course, I also accept payment in cash (in person) and by cheque (in several currencies).

E-books and hard copy

I prefer to sell e-books (downloadable PDFs) so I don’t have to deal with printing, keeping an inventory, or sending out copies. However, many Australians ask for printed copies, and they are useful at conferences and workshops, so I have a few copies printed and bound at an instant-print shop such as Office Works. A good alternative is dbooks, a Sydney-based service that had a display at an ASTC conference two years ago. I was quite impressed with the quality of their work, and their pricing is competitive for short print runs.

Since I travel a lot, I have to make arrangements for someone else to keep the copies and post them as needed. I would like to find an affordable print-on-demand service that would also handle fulfilment, yet does not want to act as the publisher. In the USA, Lightning Source provides this service for a reasonable price.

So far I’ve chosen not to password the PDF files, but rather to sell them as shareware: download it, see if it meets your needs, then pay for it if you keep it. Thus I have no idea how many people may be taking the book and not paying. I could spend the time to change this system, but I don’t think the increase in income would be worth the effort. Also, I’m rather fond of the shareware principle.

I’ve also provided one book (Editing Online Help) on CD, after finding a company that does a great, but inexpensive job on short runs (under 50 CDs at a time). This is the Disk Emporium in Baulkham Hills, NSW.

Marketing

Marketing is the biggest problem area. How do I reach a wide audience of potential buyers without spending too much money that can’t be recovered in sales?

For the first two books, I relied exclusively on notices in my technical editors’ newsletter, signature ads on my postings to relevant lists (TECHWR-L, HATT, WORD-PC, and others), and word of mouth. This cost nothing, sold books, and attracted lots of people to visit my website and sign up for my newsletter.

These techniques are still a large part of my marketing effort, but I’ve also done some targeted paid advertising, as described below.

A problem for some time was my ineligibility for listing my books on Amazon.com, as they do not accept self-publishers located outside North America. In late 2002 I solved this problem by getting an account with Lightning Source, a US-based on-demand publisher which distributes books through Ingram; Ingram gets both e-books and printed books listed on Amazon.com.

Advertising in my e-mail newsletter

For several years I’ve been publishing an e-mailed newsletter for technical editors, so advertising in it was an obvious first step in marketing my books. The response was quite good, considering the low number of subscribers, and those subscribers told other people.

My original webhost (WebCentral) provided one free mailing list per website and did not add any advertising to the mailings I sent out. Server101 does not provide a mailing list service, so I needed to find another place to keep the list. I rejected the free services (like Yahoo Groups and Topica) because I was unwilling to allow their advertising to intrude. I then looked at several paid services and chose AWeber; no doubt other services would have fit my requirements just as well. If I had the interest and wanted to spend the time, I could modify a freely-available script and run the list myself, at no extra cost, through my website.

Paid advertising

Paid advertising is a potentially large expense, so I’ve concentrated on one highly-targeted publication, Woody’s Office for Mere Mortals (known as WOWMM), and only for my Taming Microsoft Word books. This fortnightly publication goes to about 65,000 non-expert users of Microsoft Office. I first bought a 6-line ad in 3 issues and sold about twice the ad cost in books. Then WOWMM began offering 2-line ads for multiple insertions over the course of a year, at a very attractive rate. Those ads have done quite well, boosting the hit rate on my website by more than a factor of 4 (on days the ads are published, my site statistics show quite conspicuous peaks). Just under 2% of the hits on the pages are resulting in sales, bringing in 5.5 times the cost of the ad. Two percent is a fairly respectable sales ratio, but doesn’t translate to enough books sold.

As an experiment, I also bought one ad in Woody’s Office Watch, which has over 200,000 subscribers. That ad cost several times as much as the one in WOWMM and brought in far fewer customers; it barely paid for itself.

One unexpected spinoff of this advertising has been several enquiries from potential consulting clients who saw the ad, checked my website, and phoned me to ask about solving some of their Microsoft Word problems. One of these calls turned into a real, paying client.

Tracking sales

I started seriously tracking sales far too late; I should have been doing it properly from the beginning. "Properly" means having a way to tell which clicks come from which ad (or from the signature block in my emails, or from other places on my website), and then knowing which of those clicks result in a sale. When I had only one book for sale, I was guessing this information from crude site and sales statistics, but this year I signed up with an ad-tracking
service (Adminder) and am getting much more detail. Numerous ad-tracking services are available on the Web, for a fee.

Conclusions

As one way of earning money, self-publishing and selling books on the Internet has certainly worked for me, but without a lot more marketing effort and (probably) more books to sell, the resulting income won’t be enough to live on. (I never expected it would be.)

Many of the problems I encountered several years ago are much easier and less expensive to overcome now, and I’m sure the situation will continue to improve.

Marketing and sales take a lot of time, and I have to continually do my cost-benefit analysis to see where I need to make changes and which things are best done in-house or contracted out. Good tools and services, many of which are not free, can pay for themselves by helping me increase my sales and profits.

Website addresses of companies mentioned in this article

Adminder, http://www.adminder.com/
AWeber, http://www.aweber.com/
d-books, http://www.dbooks.com.au/
Disk Emporium, http://www.diskemporium.com.au/
Lightning Source, http://www.lightningsource.com
Multicards, http://www.multicards.com/
PayPal, http://www.paypal.com/
Server 101, http://www.server101.com/
Woody’s Office for Mere Mortals, http://www.woodyswatch.com/wowmm/


Last updated 24 July 2003

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