The $49 Kindle

This should be free.

KindleTwo days ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a status update that linked to a CNET article titled “Get a Kindle with Special Offers for $49 Shipped.” The article detailed the hoops you’d have to jump through to get a 6″ refurbished Kindle for just $49. The device normally retails for $69.

No Need for a Kindle

I don’t have a Kindle. I never wanted one. I had a NOOK on order when they were first announced, but since B&N took so damn long to deliver and the iPad was announced while I waited, I canceled my NOOK order and bought an iPad. I’ve upgraded it for various reasons ever since.

I love my iPad. I use it for all kinds of things, from monitoring the weather (Weatherbug, Intellicast apps) to planning and tracking long flights in my helicopter (Foreflight app). I also use it as an ebook reader with the iBooks, Kindle, and NOOK apps.

Ironically, it’s the Kindle app that I prefer. Amazon has a good selection of books and can synchronize them between up to 5 devices. There are Kindle readers for iPad, iPhone, and Mac OS — as well as other devices. So I can buy a Kindle ebook and read it on any device at any time — and keep my pages synchronized. No, it doesn’t support the kind of Interactive features available in books created in iBooks Author, but since Apple takes so damn long to approve those books, there aren’t many to choose from. And if there was an Interactive book I wanted, I could look at it in iBooks. If I had just a Kindle device, I couldn’t do that.

In my mind, the Kindle is an extremely limited ebook reading device. While I know some folks think the Kindle Fire is pretty close to an iPad, they’re only fooling themselves.

A Sucker for a Good Deal?

As an ebook author, I always wondered what my books would look like on a real Kindle. So there was a certain desire to get my hands on one — even temporarily — to see what it could do and how it looked. $49 seemed a pretty low price to pay to satisfy my curiosity, especially since I had a $300 credit on my Amazon.com account from selling my iPad 2 to them. So there wouldn’t even be any out-of-pocket cost.

So I jumped through all the hoops — not an easy task on a day when my 3G connection was in full frustration mode — and bought one.

It arrived today.

My Observations

Kindle with Packaging
Smart packaging. Really. (But no, that isn’t a cup of coffee on my Kindle. It’s one of the ads that appear automatically when it powers down.)

Amazon obviously took some cues from Apple on the packaging. They designed a simple cardboard box just the right size for the device and the USB cable that comes with it. Tasteful, simple. Slap a label on it and throw it in the mail. Amazon calls this “frustration-free packaging” — and it is.

When I first pulled out the Kindle, I admit I was somewhat impressed. It was very small and lightweight — like a thin paperback book. I could imagine myself reading a book on the device — throwing it in my purse and pulling it out when I was having lunch or waiting on line somewhere. Of course, I already do that with my iPad — would I take one instead of the other? I doubted it.

I plugged it into a power source to make sure it was fully charged. It came to life, prompting me for my language.

And that’s when the frustration began.

You see, I’m so accustomed to a touch-screen that I couldn’t immediately figure out how to use the buttons. To make matters worse, every time I tried to press the Select button (in the middle of a 5-way controller), I wound up pushing either the up or down button on the controller. Seeing the button I needed to “press” onscreen and not being able to just tap it was driving me bonkers.

But I got past that — at least at first — and got my next surprise: a wifi connection was required to use the device. For some reason, I thought all Kindles had built-in wireless capabilities. Silly me.

So, for a bit more irony, I connected the Kindle to my iPad’s wifi hotspot. That got my account set up so I could start looking at my library.

Around then, I was a bit irked to see that the bottom part of the screen was taken up with a banner advertisement. This 1/2 inch ad appears on the Home screen and changes periodically. I’m not sure where it comes from, because it appears even when wifi is disabled. Right now, it’s advertising an HGTV show called “Design Star.” I don’t think there’s any TV show that could possibly interest me less. Odd that Amazon.com, which knows what I’ve been reading about and buying for the past 5+ years, can’t target an ad toward my interests.

I fumbled around a bit and then realized that I really needed to learn more about how to use the Kindle before trying to read one of my own books. It doesn’t come with any printed documentation — which is really no surprise — and I didn’t have much trouble finding and opening the manual that’s included on the device. I read up about it but before I could do anything else, I got a phone call and stepped away.

When I returned to the Kindle, it was displaying a fullscreen ad.

Apparently, when you leave it alone, it displays a “screensaver.” In the world of Kindle, screensaver = advertisement. It took me a while to figure out how to make it go away. I had to power it back up. The screensaver remains on screen when the device powers itself off. Repeatedly turning the device on and off displays a different “screensaver” each time it’s powered down.

I realized then that Amazon had gotten me to pay $49 for an advertisement delivery device. That’s downright offensive to me.

I played around with it a little more. I found the page turning buttons unintuitive, requiring me to push down instead of in. That might seem like a minor distinction, but with a device small enough to hold in the palm of my hand, it seems more logical to turn a page by squeezing it instead of using a finger on my other hand to press down while holding it. And, of course, my brain keeps telling me to press the right button on the 5-way controller.

And did I mention the delay when turning pages in the books it’s designed for reading? The current page kind of blurs or darkens out before the other page appears. Like a blink. I thought they’d fixed that problem.

As for the much-touted annotation feature, to enter notes on this Kindle, you have to deal with its keyboard. That opens a whole new world of hurt. The keyboard has tabs for symbols, lowercase, uppercase, and international characters. You need to get to the right tab to type the right character. (God help you if your wifi password is a mix of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols; it could take quite some time to enter those characters.) Then you need to use the 5-way controller and its center button to highlight and select characters. Rather than presenting them in standard QWERTY order, they’re alphabetical. I could imagine myself forgetting what note I wanted to type before I’d typed the first few words.

Even defining words requires you to use the controller to navigate to the beginning of the word you want to define. I’m not sure if I’d care enough to bother.

My Conclusions

Before actually getting my hands on this, I thought, hey what’s $49? Seems like a good deal to me. But in the less than 60 minutes I played with the Kindle, getting more and more frustrated every time I tried to do something, I realized that this device should be free, like razors used to be.

Do people actually like this device? Use all of its features — including the nightmarishly designed keyboard? Tolerate its never-ending stream of uninteresting ads?

I can’t and won’t. I’d lose my sanity trying to use this regularly. I could burn a $50 bill and get more satisfaction for money spent.

This puppy is going back to Amazon. I’m sure there are plenty of other suckers out there who think it’s a good deal. Let them give it a whirl.

Amazon KDP Select Double Fail

A contractual failure followed by a customer service failure.

As detailed in this blog post, I enrolled one of my ebooks into the Amazon.com KDP Select program. Almost immediately, I began seeing weird numbers on my royalty statements for the book: Sales at unit prices of 9¢, negative royalties, free books in a period when they were not authorized.

I immediately began a long and frustrating email correspondence with Amazon.com’s “customer service” staff. In this blog post, I’ll share the chain of correspondence that began in January and ended just the other day.

My original message, sent on or around January 10, 2012:

Subject: WTF? Positive unit sales with negative royalties?

This had better be a mistake.

1/7/2012 shows net unit sales of 13 yet net royalties of MINUS (-) $1.40. How is that even possible? Also, why is the royalty rate only 35%? I am set for 70%.

1/7/2012 also shows net unit sales of 169 at 70% royalty. The book sells for $3.99, yet you’ve calculated an “average offer price” of 9¢. How is THAT possible? I never authorized a selling price less than $3.99 except for 12/25 (free).

What’s going on here? Please explain WITHOUT using some canned response that does not apply to my situation.

The response from someone named Prasanna came on January 12 and, as expected, it contained a bunch of canned information:

Hello,

I can certainly understand your concern about the reports reflecting the royalties in negative. I checked our records and was able to confirm that the all the sales made in the week ending 01/07/2012 were completely free sales due to the free promotion you offered for your book.

However, among those free sales, I noticed that there was a refund that was made for your book which was for a sale made in the previous month. It is due to the refund for the sale made in the last month, the royalty amount is appearing as -$1.40.

Further, with reference to the 35% royalty option, I’ve found that one or more copies of your book were sold outside of countries where the 70% Royalty Option is currently applicable. The 70% Royalty Option is only applicable for sales to customers in these sales territories:

Andorra
Austria
Belgium
Canada
France
Germany
Italy
Liechtenstein
Luxembourg
Monaco
San Marino
Switzerland
Spain
United Kingdom (including Guernsey, Jersey and Isle of Man)
United States
Vatican City

Sales to customers in other locations will receive a 35% royalty. These sales are recorded separately in your royalty reports at the 35% rate.

At this time, the reports don’t show the specific location where your titles were sold. I’ve shared your request for this feature with our business team for consideration as we make future improvements.

Thanks for using Amazon KDP.

This did not make sense. I had authorized only one day as a giveaway for my book: December 25, 2011. That’s the day I advertised it as being free on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. There should be no free book sales in January at all.

I replied on the same day:

I’m sorry, but this is NOT true. The book was offered for sale for free on just one date: 12/25/11. That is NOT in the week ending 1/7/11.

Kindly explain why there were unauthorized giveaways of my book.

This time, Anuradha replied on January 14:

Hello,

Please know, the Prior Six Weeks’ Royalties report shows the sales you’ve made over the past 6 weeks. The total “units sold” and the “units refunded” will fluctuate each week depending on which day you view the reports and the number of sales made over the combined previous six weeks (to date). Keep in mind the “Week ending” column shows the date that the week ends instead of the week beginning.

Thus, as communicated earlier, the refund which is reflects in week ending 01/07/2012, was for a sale made in the previous month. Hence, the royalty amount is appearing as -$1.40, in week ending 01/07/2012.

Further, the price at which we sell your book may not be the same as your list price. This may occur, for example, if we sell your book at a lower price to match a third party’s price for a digital or physical edition of the book, or Amazon’s price for a physical edition of the book and it appears that your title was price matched with a third party’s web site (to match the competitor’s price).

I hope this information is helpful. Thanks for your understanding and for using Amazon KDP.

This information was not helpful. There could not be any “price matching” because the book was available only on Amazon.com due to their KDP Select requirements.

I replied on the same day:

I did not authorize price matching. At least I did not intend to. If I did, kindly tell me where I can de-authorize it.

There is no other version of the book to match to. Amazon has an exclusive for the ebook title. THAT WAS REQUIRED BY AMAZON. The only currently available print copy of the book sells for $14.99. How is 9¢ matching that?

You are obviously picking prices out of thin air and it MUST stop.

On January 18, Violet replied:

Hello Maria,

Our price for your title, Making Movies: A Guide for Serious Amateurs is $3.99 and it was never offered for $0.99. You can confirm the price here:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005ZSZMCS

I hope this helps. Thank you for using Amazon KDP.

Of course, this didn’t help either. I replied on the same day:

No, this does NOT help. Your reports indicate that you sold over 100 copies of the book for 9¢. WHY? You told me it was price matching. There is no price matching since Amazon has an exclusive on the book.

WHAT IS GOING ON? It certainly seems to me that you are either lying on my royalty statements or selling the book for a lower than authorized price. Which is it?

Violet replied again on January 21:

Hello Maria,

I’ve raised a request to the concerned department to check why your title was offered for a lower price in the week ending January 7, 2012.

I will contact you with more information by the end of the day on Wednesday, January 25.

Thanks for your patience.

And then again on January 30:

Hello Maria,

I wanted to send you a quick e-mail to let you know that I’m still researching on this issue. It usually takes 1-2 business days for this sort of research, but in this case it’s taking a little longer. I’m very sorry about this delay.

I’ll be in touch shortly with an answer for you. Thanks for your patience.

I guess “shortly” has a completely different meaning to the folks at Amazon.com than it does to most folks. I didn’t hear from Violet again until March 20 — more than two months after my initial support request. She finally admitted that Amazon had screwed up:

Hello Maria,

I apologize for the delay in getting back to you.

Your books’ promotion did not occur as scheduled on December 25th, and began instead on January 6th. A technical error then caused the promotion period to last longer than expected, but this issue has now been resolved.

We’re sorry for the inconvenience this may have caused. Thanks for your understanding.

So let’s get this straight:

  • Amazon did not do my free book promotion on the day I authorized it.
  • All the advertising I did that day to generate interest in a free copy of my book was not only wasted but must have looked like a cheap lie to the people who followed the link and couldn’t get a free book — thus damaging my credibility.
  • Amazon then ran the free book deal for “longer than expected” — a length of time that is still a mystery to me — thus giving away free copies of my book for longer than I wanted the offer to run.

I replied to her message the same day:

Screw-ups like this, and the amount of time it took you to answer my question — more than TWO MONTHS — are why I’ll never be in KDP Select again.

I promoted that book as free on Christmas Day. So I look like a liar to everyone who attempted to get the book that day on YOUR program for free.

By extending the sale beyond the allowable time, you gave away more copies of my book than you should have. How will you compensate me for those lost sales?

You’re already ripping me off — in comparison to other ebook sellers — by charging a bogus distribution fee and cutting my royalty rate to certain countries. You are clearly using your position in the marketplace to take advantage of authors and publishers.

You should be ashamed of yourself.

But I know you don’t care. It’s business as usual at Amazon.com.

Even though I replied to her message by using the same technique I’d been using all along, the automated response I got said:

Our Customer Service department didn’t receive the e-mail message below. If you still need help, please visit one of the pages below so we can quickly provide you with additional information or give assistance via e-mail or phone.

In other words: fuck off, we’re tired of you.

Think KDP Select is a good deal? Think Amazon actually cares about its publishers? Think again.

An Objective Comparison of Ebook Distributors

What I’ve noted so far.

I published, through Flying M Productions, my first ebook in October 2011 and have since published two others. (Learn about all of these titles here.) I went mainstream on all of the ebook distributions, choosing Amazon Kindle (custom mobi), Apple iBookstore (epub), and Barnes & Noble NOOK (epub). With about five months of sales and reseller experience, I thought it was about time to share my observations of these three platforms.

For each criteria, I provided a grade and notes to back it up. Remember, this is based on my experience with just these three books. For the iBookstore, I do not include my experience with iBooks Author-generated books in the table; that’s discussed briefly at the end of this post.

Criteria Kindle Store iBookstore NOOK Store
Ease of Publishing A
It’s very easy to get into the Kindle Direct Publishing program and publish books.
C
Apple’s iTunes Connect program requires a lot of paperwork and acceptance of agreements that are often updated. Its interface for publishing is surprisingly unintuitive (for Apple). It requires a unique ISBN for every book sold.
B
Getting into the B&N Pubit program is relatively easy, although there is an approval process that takes some time. Its online book submission process is easy.
Publisher Support D
Publisher support is nearly non-existent. It’s difficult to send questions. Most questions are answered with a “canned” response. Often, I’m told my question needs more research, but an answer never comes.
D
Publisher support is handled primarily through a menu-driven help system that’s poorly designed. It can take more than a week to get an question answered and it’s usually with a “canned” response.
n/a
I have no experience with B&N’s support system.
Ease of Creating Acceptable Documents B
I convert from epub to Kindle using the Kindle Previewer app. This usually goes smoothly the first time around, but it does require that conversion.
C
Apple is extremely particular about formatting and unusual characters in ebook files. For example, it doesn’t like uppercase filename extensions or spaces in file names. This often requires a lot of digging around in epub format files to fix problems. To be fair, I could probably improve my templates to prevent some of the problems I encounter.
B
BN.com accepts just about any epub I send, as long as it isn’t any larger than 20 MB (which I think is too restrictive.)
Appearance of Ebook C
The Kindle format inconsistently formats bulleted lists and font sizes and completely ignores some formatting. As a result, my books are not usually formatted as I’d like to see them.
A
My iBookstore books usually look very good. Apple is true to all epub formatting.
B
My NOOK books usually look very good, although I sometimes notice instances where formatting is ignored.
Speed of Review Process A
Amazon consistently makes my books available for sale within 24 hours of posting.
D
There is no consistency in the speed of Apple’s review process. I had one book appear within an hour of posting while I waited a week or more for others.
B
B&N consistently makes my books available for sale within 48 hours of posting.
Sales A
In most instances, Amazon sells the most books.
B
Apple sells reasonably well — unless a book has an unusual amount of appeal to Mac users, in which case, it sells best.
D
B&N’s sales are sluggish and rather disappointing.
Royalties D
Amazon offers the worst publishing deal. To get 70% royalties, you must price the book between $2.99 and $9.99. The 70% commission rate is only available for books sold to certain countries. All sales to other countries earn just 35%.You must also pay “delivery fee” based on the size of your book file for all books sold at the 70% commission rate. Amazon enforces price matching, so if your book is available for a lower price elsewhere, Amazon will arbitrarily lower the price of your book in the Kindle Store. And don’t even think of getting into the KDP Select Program; that’s something else I need to blog about soon.
A
Apple offers the best publishing deal: 70% flat rate on all books. No hidden costs, no exceptions to the 70% rate.
A
B&N also offers a good publishing deal: 70% flat rate on all books.
Sales & Royalty Reporting C
Amazon’s reporting system is inconsistent and confusing, although it does have up-to-the-minute sales figures. Amazon’s staff does not reply promptly (or at all) to sales/royalty report questions. Reports seem to indicate book sales at unauthorized prices, making me wonder whether Amazon is ripping me off.
A
Apple’s reporting system is updated daily. Reports can be viewed its iTunes Connect website as well as in an extremely well designed iOS app.
B
B&N’s reporting system is minimal but accurate.
Final Grade B
The only reason Amazon gets such a good grade is because it sells a lot of books. Its royalty structure sucks, but I can still earn more there for most titles than anywhere else.
B
Apple’s fair royalty rate and reporting help it score well, but its disappointing sales figures and inconsistent review process keep it from getting a better grade.
C
B&N is a nice platform, but low sales keep it from getting a better grade. In all honesty, if it weren’t for the fact that publishing there was so easy, I probably would’t bother.

Of course, it remains to be seen how well my iBooks 2 interactive (enhanced) books do on the iBookstore, since Apple is taking so damn long to approve them.

Do you have any experience with any of these publishing platforms? If so, what have you observed? Share your thoughts in the Comments for this post.

More Self-Publishing Insight

With project #3 done, I have a few more experiences to share.

Late last month I wrote a typically lengthy post about my experiences to date as a self-publisher. At that time, I’d finished two book projects and was in the middle of my third.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m not new to publishing. My first self-published book was my 79th book. I’ve been at it for 20 years. But as my publishers begin to cut back on their publication schedules, I had to do something to find a market for my work. My self-publishing solution seemed like a good idea.

The jury is still out, however.

What Book #3 Taught Me

My third and biggest (so far) self-published book.

My most recent project, iBooks Author: Publishing Your First Ebook, taught me a few things:

  • I don’t write as fast as I used to. Sure, I knocked out a 242-page book with 274 screenshots, all laid out in InDesign CS5.5, in about 10 days. But they were grueling days that never seemed to end. And the whole time, I was racing against the clock, doing what I could to be the first book out about iBooks Author. I’m not sure, but I may have succeeded. But I’m really tired.
  • An InDesign to EPub conversion process doesn’t always work as smoothly as it did the last time I did it. Indeed, Apple’s iTunes Producer program kept choking on the epub I created, even though it proofed fine in multiple tools. (Note to self: Make sure the name of the InDesign file does not include spaces. Further note: Make sure all filename extensions are in lowercase. Sheesh.)
  • None of the ebook sellers are interested in providing support for publishers. Amazon.com sends an automated response, follows it up with a canned response two days later, and then ignores subsequent requests for help on the same issue. Apple’s Contact page takes you through a list of possible FAQ responses and then tells you to get an aggregator. Barnes & Noble won’t allow pubs over 20 MB in size. Period. If you don’t know their rules or have a clue what you’re doing, you’re screwed.
  • Amazon.com will squeeze every single penny they can out of a publisher. My final book was huge — after all, it included 274 color screenshots. Amazon.com’s “delivery” fee ate up half of my royalties. I had to recompile the book with all images converted from PNG to JPG to regain about 50¢ per copy in royalties.
  • DRM might not be a good idea. I’d been sitting on the fence about this option and decided to try it for this book. I really thought Amazon.com and Apple’s iBookstore would have had this figured out, but apparently they don’t. On the third day after publication, I was getting complaints from readers. I wound up republishing the iBooks version with DRM turned off. We’ll see what happens with the Kindle version.
  • I hate indexing books. Well, this book didn’t teach me that. Other books taught me years ago. But it did remind me. Unfortunately, when there’s no advance and no guarantee of sales, I can’t afford to hire an indexer. So I have to do it myself.

I Like My POD Printer

A few days ago, I searched for my first self-published book, Making Movies: A Guide for Serious Amateurs, on Amazon.com and was pleasantly surprised to find both the print and Kindle versions. Apparently, the Amazon.com Website is automatically populated from data in the Ingram Catalog. Since my print books appear in that catalog, they also appear on Amazon.com. The second book was there, too.

What was odd, however, is that the book is available from other booksellers who sell through Amazon. They’re discounting it. I don’t personally care what they sell it for because I don’t earn based on a fixed wholesale price, which is 55% off the retail price. The POD printer gets the money they send, subtracts the cost of production, and sends me the rest. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. We’ll see, I guess.

I should mention that the print books are on Barnes & Noble’s Website, too. BN.com even showed the correct cover photo. (I had to contact Amazon to get the cover photo to show up for the print book.)

Books Do Sell

Although sales for my first two titles were a bit sluggish — and remained so — the third book is selling quite briskly, especially on the iBookstore. I’m able to monitor sales at Apple, Amazon, and BN on a daily basis for the previous day’s sales. I’ve sold about 100 copies in 3-1/2 days.

Oddly, it’s also the most “popular” of my books on Amazon.com right now, even beating out my Lion book. It’s currently #9 in the Graphic Design category in the Kindle store; it was #16 yesterday. (Of course, one of my Mac OS books once hit #11 storewide on Amazon.com, but I fear those days are long gone for me.)

But I’m no fool. I figure I need to sell an average of 80 books a day to make a living doing this. So, in a way, I’m back to where I was when I started my writing career 20 years ago. Back then, I realized that if I wanted to make a living as a writer, I’d have to write a lot of books.

What Are Your Experiences?

Someone recently commented on my first self-publishing post to thank me for sharing my experiences. But I’d like to read what others are going through. Why not use the comments link to share your experiences with me and the others who read this? Surely we can all learn from each other.

I don’t know about you, but I never stop learning.

My Experiences (So Far) as a Self-Publisher

Making it up as I go along.

I’m in the middle of my third self-publishing project since October and, of the three projects, this is the most challenging. But what’s more interesting, perhaps, is what I’ve experienced and learned along the way.

Project One: The Test


This is actually the revised cover for this book; the first one was just too awful.

The first project, Making Movies: A Guide for Serious Amateurs, went remarkably well, despite the twists and turns along the way. From the start, I’d wanted to publish the book in both ebook and print formats. I built an InDesign CS3 template and used it to lay out the book. The text and illustrations were already written; they’d been published online and I got rights back for them. I struggled a bit to create the epub and Kindle mobi formats I needed to publish the ebooks on the iBookstore, Amazon.com, and BN.com, but with the help of an excellent Lynda.com course by Anne-Marie Concepcion, I succeeded.

I took a wrong turn with the print edition of that book. For some reason, I thought MagCloud would provide a good solution. MagCloud is a print on demand (POD) printer which also sells through its website. The quality of MagCloud’s work is excellent — they print in full color and the work really does look good. But they’re also terribly expensive. My 64-page book cost 20¢ per page to produce, making it far too costly for its size. It would not be possible to sell at a retail price that included a cut for me. And, frankly, the book that resulted didn’t have the kind of look and feel I wanted.

Clearly, I had to either give up on the idea of printing the book or find another POD printer.

So the first book, which was done as a sort of proof of concept to see if I could actually get a self-published title out there, was a limited success.

Finding a New POD Printer

I had already done some research on POD printers. I did not want to go with Amazon’s CreateSpace service because it was acting as a publisher instead of a printer.

There’s an important distinction there:

  • A publisher pays an author a royalty percentage on every book sold — even if the author buys the book.
  • A printer charges the publisher a fee for each book printed; the publisher earns money based on the difference between the book’s selling price and the amount it cost to print.

I felt that the CreateSpace percentage was not very generous; they were obviously set up for self-publishers who needed a lot of help with manuscript preparation. I didn’t need help. I’ve been preparing camera-ready book pages since my first Visual QuickStart Guide back in 1995.

CreateSpace also offered a free ISBN for those who didn’t have them. That’s a huge stumbling block for many self-publishers. Apparently the prices for ISBNs have risen to cash in on the self-publishing craze. Fortunately, I set up my publishing company, Flying M Productions (formerly Giles Road Press) back in 1994 and have all the ISBNs I need. So that didn’t attract me to CreateSpace, either.

Finally, I just wasn’t willing to jump into bed with Amazon.com — unless I had to.

Lulu wasn’t an option. Too costly and I’d heard rumors that Amazon.com wouldn’t sell Lulu books. (Wish I could remember where I’d heard that so I could link to source for you.)

I wanted a more professional-level POD printer, one that worked with real publishers and not the average self-publisher. What I wound up with was Lightning Source. This is a real printer, one that assumes you know what the hell you’re doing. Best of all, they’re part of Ingram, the company that catalogs books for resellers and libraries. Publishing with them would automatically get my book listed for sale in all retail outlets. They had a great deal of flexibility with book sizes and styles, from small to large, from softcover to hardcover, from black and white to full color.

And their prices were reasonable.

As a test, I redid my Making Movies book as a black and white title, redesigned the cover, and sent it in. The proof came back looking great and the book cost about 1/4 what it did through MagCloud. I was very happy. I’d found my POD printer.

The Logo

I had developed a series of books — Maria’s Guides — and I felt that I needed branding to go with it. So I started looking for a designer to come up with logo.

I already blogged about my Elance nightmare. My advice: don’t waste your time.

A friend of mine, learning of the problem I had with Elance, mentioned on a list she subscribes to that I was looking for a designer. I was contacted by one. I looked at his Web site. I liked what I saw. We chatted back and forth. We came up with a budget. I signed a contract. I paid him 1/3 up front. And then the trouble began.

He’d spend days laboring over what should be a simple task, like choosing a font I liked. I loaded up a bunch of fonts, picked about 10, and sent him samples in a PDF. He then proceeded to make sample “word marks” using four fonts I didn’t have. I liked only two of them; buying those fonts would have added another $150 to the project budget. I told him to pick one of my fonts and that I’d send him the typefaces to work with. He did so, grudgingly. Two weeks gone.

Then it was time to come up with the graphics to go with the word mark. No matter what I suggested, he pushed back, telling me I was wrong. I was getting pissed off very quickly. Finally, I emailed him, told him to keep my 1/3 deposit, and to forget the project. I never heard from him again. I’m beginning to think that’s how he earns a living: 1/3 of a job at a time.

Maria's Guides LogoIn the end, I took one of the fonts I liked and threw together a simple graphic word mark. It would have to do for now.

My Deal with the Devil

I guess it was around Christmas time that Amazon announced a new program for its customers. If you were an Amazon prime member and you owned a Kindle (not another device with the Kindle app), you could borrow ebooks for free.

This freaked out a lot of authors and publishers — at least at first. After all, if people could read our books for free, how would we sell books and make money?

It soon became clear that only a limited number of publishers would allow Amazon to use their titles this way. My publishers were not among those participating. Amazon had obviously used this well-publicized offer to get more people to buy Kindles.

Of course, when publishers made it clear that they weren’t interested because there wasn’t any money in it, Amazon stepped up to the plate and created the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select program. They’d put $500,000 in a special account each month. Publishers that put titles into the KDP Select program and allowed Amazon Prime members to borrow them for free would get a cut of this big pie based on the percentage of borrows their books got. So suppose there were 1000 borrows during the month and a publisher’s book accounted for 16 of them. The publisher would get 16/1000th of the $500,000. Of course, the numbers would be much bigger than that and the percentages much lower. But the potential for sales was there.

Of course, there was a catch: you’d have to give Amazon an exclusive on ebook sales. That means it could not be sold as an ebook anywhere else. And you’d have to commit for three full months.

A friend of mine who self-published the novel Soléa, decided to give this a try. Since my book sales weren’t exactly stupendous, I figured what the hell? I’ll try, too.

So I took the book off the iBookstore and BN.com. And I turned off the PDF ebook option on MagCloud. And I enrolled Making Movies into the KDP Select program.

That’s when things started getting weird on my sales reports. The report would show sales with an average selling price of 9¢ per copy. (I’d priced the book at $3.99.) When I contacted Amazon about that, they said it was due to price matching. I responded that (1) they had an exclusive on the title, so there was no one to match with and (2) the book had been (and would again be) available at the same price everywhere; no one discounted it. I’m still waiting for an update on that.

And then there was the positive sales with the negative royalties. WTF?

Oh, and about Amazon’s royalty percentage…the 70% is only for sales in 6 countries that, for some reason, have favored status. If you sell to any of the other countries in the world, your rate drops to 35%. I’m still trying to figure out how they can justify that.

Needless to say, when the 3 months is up, my book will be yanked out of KDP Select so I can get it back in the iBookstore and BN.com. And no, none of the other titles will ever be part of KDP Select.

Project Two: Fine-Tuning the Process


I fine-tuned the cover design to make the book name larger.

My second project, Sorting Excel Data: The Basics & Beyond, went more smoothly. Encouraged by what I’d read about InDesign CS5.5 and its ebook publishing features, I upgraded. I ported my InDesign template to the new version, fine-tuned it, and wrote a 114-page book with dozens of illustrations.

The writing took about four days and went very smoothly. I felt good about the template design, especially since I watched the CS5.5 version of Anne-Marie’s Lynda.com video and adjusted my template to take advantage of new features.

Once the InDesign file was done — including title page, copyright page, table of contents, and index, I was ready to publish. I budgeted two days: one for the print edition file submission and one for the ebook file submissions to Amazon.com (Kindle mobi), Apple iBookstore (iBooks epub), and BN.com (NOOK epub).

I had the print edition’s files, including the cover, submitted before noon. After lunch, I knocked off the three other submissions. It went that quickly.

The iBooks edition was available first. It appeared in the iBookstore less than 2 hours after submission. The Kindle version appeared the next day. The NOOK version appeared the day after that.

I got my proof from Lightning Source a week later. I approved it the same day.

At this point, I felt that I had the process down to a science. Only a bit more fine-tuning and it would be perfect.

Project Three: The Challenge

I knew as soon as I heard about iBooks Author that I wanted to do a book about it. I downloaded the software the same day. I learned it over the next two days.

I spoke to one of my publishers about doing a book. They were interested — at first. Then they got spooked about the EULA that everyone is whining about; I addressed some of those issues in this blog post. By the time they confirmed that they weren’t going to do a book about it, I was already 1/4 into my own book. You see, I never really thought we could come to an agreement on the book, so I’d started writing it for Maria’s Guides.

This is going to be a much longer book — likely 200 pages. I’m about 1/3 finished now. Although I’m trying to stick to the basics, I don’t want to disappoint readers by leaving important information out. So it will be quite a complete guide.

I’m thinking of changing the dimensions of the printed book to bring it more in line with trade paperback titles I’ve written in the past. This won’t affect my ebook editions, however. It won’t even delay them; they’ll go out first — likely sometime next week.

There will be a “multi-touch” version of the book available for iBooks readers. That’ll have a separate ISBN and likely more multimedia content. I’ll do that after the print edition goes to the printer.

Motivation…and Uncertainty

The real challenge, however, is motivation. As I’ve aged, I’ve developed a remarkably short attention span. I get bored with any project that takes more than a week or so to complete. Normally, there’s an editor out there, waiting for the next chapter. This time, there isn’t. It’s just me. I’m the author, the editor, and production person, and the publisher.

No one — except me — will know if I slack off and put this project aside.

But the worst part about it is the complete uncertainty. When I write for another publisher, I get an advance on royalties. If the book doesn’t sell well, they don’t take that advance away. In other words, I’m compensated for my work no matter what.

Not so with self-publishing. You only get paid when your work sells.

So I could be working my ass off on a book that no one will buy. A book I’ll never make money on.

It’s a terrible gamble, one that nags at me. In the back of my mind, I’m constantly wondering if I’m wasting my time.

But to help prevent me from slacking off, I’ve publicly announced the book — not only here but on a variety of other places. I’ve had potential readers contact me, telling me that they’re waiting. They’re motivating me to finish.

So I’ll finish.

And maybe in a few weeks or months, I’ll blog an update to this story to let everyone know what else I’ve learned.