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18 posts from April 2005

Fiscal Year-End

We put the wrap on another fiscal year at Wiley today. Over the course of the last 12 months, our group managed to put out some very successful titles including The Art of Intrusion and Hacking Windows XP. While the numbers on these and many other books came together quite nicely, I’m making this post for another reason…

I’m very fortunate to work with some of the best talent in this industry. I’m surrounded by a team of acquisitions editors, development editors, marketing managers and a support staff that is second to none. You’ve already heard from a few of these people in earlier “guest appearance” posts and you’ll hear from more in the future.

I just wanted to take a moment and thank the entire team. Everyone worked extremely hard this year and I’m very grateful for your efforts and the results. Here’s to a great FY05 and an even better FY06!


Author Tip: Get to Know Your Editor

Your editor is your spokesperson to the rest of the publishing company. How well do you know your editor?

What level of communication works best for you and your editor? If you prefer e-mail and they prefer phone conversations, you better figure out a workable compromise. Trust plays a big part in all this. If there can be a strong author-editor line of trust, both parties will be more comfortable dealing with less formal communication. It’s a two-way street, of course, which is why I didn’t simply say, “the author needs to earn the editor’s trust.” You’ve got to have enough of a dialog before the contract is signed to feel the editor has your best interests in mind as well.

What if you run into a problem? What if you’re about to miss a deadline? Unfortunately, many authors choose to sit on bad news, partly because it’s human nature. Resist that temptation. The earlier you give your editor a heads-up about a possible issue, the more time the two of you have to troubleshoot the problem and take evasive action.

What if there’s a promotion tied to your title and the availability date is critical? First of all, your editor should tell you about that as soon as they know. Assuming they’ve done their job, it’s important for you to alert your editor if you anticipate any problems meeting the deadlines you’ve been given. Keep in mind that accounts will drop your book from a promotion in a heartbeat if the date is missed. That can mean the difference between getting 4-5 or more copies (per store) into a large chain vs. only having 1 or 2 copies in the chain’s top stores.

Missing a due date is a serious problem, but not the end of the world. I say that reluctantly because I don’t want to encourage authors to start blowing off dates. Give yourself and your editor the best chance to succeed though, and keep an open line of communication.

P.S. – Don’t let your editor bully you into delivery dates you can’t possibly hit. Take a realistic look at your schedule and make sure you know what you’re committing to. If the editor truly values you and wants you involved in the project, they’ll find a way to make the schedule work for you. Every publisher would prefer a well-written book a bit later to a poorly written one that’s “turned in on time.”


Writing a Book Proposal

Each publisher seems to have a slightly different take on what’s required for a good book proposal. Most of the key elements are the same, but some are emphasized more than others. I think the best way to learn how to write a great proposal is to study ones written by others. If you’re already in discussions with a publisher/editor, ask them for a sample of one they really like. More importantly, ask them why they really like the sample.

If you’re just starting out though, take a look at what Jeremy Wright has posted. He was kind enough to make his entire proposal document available for review. Here are the three things I like most about what he’s done:

  1. First, it’s crystal clear that he took the time to do the job right. He says he spent 20 hours on it and I don’t doubt it. If there’s one immutable law I’ve learned in this business, it’s this: “Authors who cut corners on the proposal are highly likely to cut the same corners on the manuscript.”
  2. Four pages of competitive analysis! Again, another sign that he’s done his homework. Note that he’s not just spewing facts (e.g., title, author, ISBN, etc.) He’s going to the trouble of formulating opinions of the all the existing titles. The rightmost column of his competitive analysis table is the most important. It explains why his book is different. Remember your audience when you to this though… Jeremy cites an upcoming Wiley book from Robert Scoble and Shel Israel. I don’t buy into Jeremy’s claim that the Wiley book “will be strongly focused on form over function”, but I respect him making the observation.
  3. Marketing and promotional plans. Excellent. An author who really understands that this isn’t exclusively the job of the publisher. As I’ve noted in an earlier post, author platform has never been more important than it is today. If you’ve got a platform to work from, be sure to spell it out in the proposal.

Are there any other authors out there who are willing to post their proposal documents so that others can learn from them?


Radar O’Reilly

No, this isn’t about the character from M*A*S*H. It’s about a fairly new blog set up by Tim O’Reilly & Co. I’ve added it to my list of must-read blogs and you probably should too.

A recent post is titled “Book Sales as a Technology Trend Indicator.” It’s a great summary of the computer book market, sales trends over the past couple of years, what’s hot today, etc. It’s important to note, as a reader already commented there, that the data presented is more of a “lagging indicator” than a “leading indicator.” Nevertheless, it’s all good information.

Here are a few of the more interesting points:

  1. The market appears to have hit bottom. A chart is used to show how 2004 sales were down vs. 2003, but that 2005’s sales (through March) are mapping well to 2004’s levels.
  2. Hot topics include Photoshop Elements, iPod, Sharepoint and Filemaker. Topics heading the other direction include Mac OS X, Dreamweaver and Flash, although Tim points out that each of these are now on older versions and are likely to pick up again with new releases.
  3. Red Hat was a topic called out separately. As Tim rightfully notes, the book market changed dramatically when Red Hat first released Fedora. He says the Red Hat book market is down 29% while Linux as a whole is up 32%. I can vouch for the fact that Red Hat books aren’t as dominant anymore, and that our general Linux Bible and our SuSE Linux Bible are both doing quite well now. I guess that in an odd way, we have Red Hat to thank for that.

Author Tip: Know the Competition

I spend a good deal of time each week reading through author proposals. It’s disappointing to see a well thought-out proposal that has almost no information on the existing competition. I’m not just talking about a simple list of titles, authors and ISBNs – just about every proposal has that skeletal information covering “what” is out there. I’m more interested in the “how” and “why”, as in “how do those books stack up to what you’re proposing” and “why does the world need another book on X?”

With all the resources available today, it’s inexcusable to submit a proposal without detailed information on the competition and why your book will be different/better. Go to one of the online retailers and read the reviews. What are customers saying about each of the existing books? Are there any clues to what might be missing, an approach that might be better, etc.? What sort of overall ranking do the books have? (For what it’s worth, it’s often hard to get excited about a computer book on Amazon unless the ranking is in the hundreds rather than the thousands.) Are any existing books hitting bestseller lists? If not, is it already an overcrowded market? I’m basically looking to see if an author did their homework and has formulated an opinion about the state of the topic.

That’s all well and good if you’re proposing a book on a topic with existing competition. What if there are no books out there on the product/technology? That’s even better, but it might require a bit more research. For example, how certain are you that no books are in the works? Have you searched Amazon, bn.com and even Google? Don’t stop there. Stop by each of the major publisher’s websites and search for the topic. If you come across a book or two in the works, list them in your proposal. If the competing book is in an existing series, you can at least assume it will have a similar approach and elements to current books in that series. Use that information, as well as anything you can uncover about the author’s previous work, to explain how your book is better.

Finally, “competition” isn’t limited to books. You might be proposing the first book-length work on the topic, but what information already exists online, for example? If there’s plenty of material freely available on the web, how does your book either add to that or replace it? It’s been said that “Google is our biggest competitor.” When you write your proposal, keep in mind all the existing online resources available to your prospective reader – if you can create an approach and provide rich enough content to cause someone to pay money for your book rather than simply Googling for the solution, you’re probably on to something.


Self-Publishing

That probably sounds like an odd subject for a publisher to blog about, right? I noticed that author Naba Barkakati posted recently about the subject, and it got me thinking. Believe it or not, I’m glad self-publishing is becoming a more viable option for some projects. Here’s why…

We turn down a lot of unsolicited project proposals from authors every year. For one reason or another, our editorial team simply decides the project doesn’t fit into our current publishing plans. Many of these proposals find their way to other publishers. My guess is they’re often rejected elsewhere as well. Don’t get me wrong, by the way…some unsolicited proposals are signed and turn out to be great projects. For those that are rejected by all publishers, many probably never see the light of day as a finished product. Others become a labor of love and are self-published by the author.

If an author is willing to go through all the work to self-publish, it tells me several things, the most important is that they author is extremely passionate about the topic. After all, they’re willing to invest their own time, money and efforts to do the work of several people on a self-published product. Passion is one of the attributes I often look for first in a new author.

Self-publishing success stories are another way for us to continue mining the list of emerging topics for the future. If a self-published book does well, maybe it’s time for a publisher to hop on board and produce a book that is likely to get broader distribution.

If you’ve proposed a project to several publishers and have been rejected by all of them, give self-publishing some consideration. Take a look at Naba’s blog – he lists some good resources.

Are there any authors reading this blog who have some self-publishing experience? If so, please post a comment here or on Naba’s blog so that others can learn from your efforts.


MyFi & DirecTV

I couldn’t resist any longer. I visited my local Fry’s and bought a MyFi the other night. What’s not to like? It’s great for the car, at home and anywhere on the road. I figured it was a better solution than an MP3 player because I could listen to live broadcasts and always hear something new.

That’s all wonderful, but the darned thing just didn’t work. Or should I say, it didn’t work here in central Indiana. I read several reviews of the device on sites like Amazon and Circuit City.  Most of the comments were favorable, but every so often I came across one that was critical of the weak signal. XM apparently has repeaters set up in the larger cities, but if you’re in a smaller metropolitan area, you’re 100% reliant on the satellite overhead.

All the ads, the website, etc., make the MyFi look like a completely untethered solution for high quality audio. You’d never know that by looking inside the box. There must have been a dozen different antennas and add-on components for the main device. There’s one antenna to use at home and another for your car. What bothered me the most is that you’re even supposed to wear yet another antenna if you’re not using the home or car one. The “wearable” antenna is no small object either – good luck trying to accessorize around this thing! I found that even when I had the wearable antenna plugged in, the signal would come and go.

Needless to say, I returned the MyFi the next day. The XM representative tried to sell me on one of their other radios, but they’re only for use in a car or at home, not in between. He finally acknowledged that this is a “first generation” product and that they’re working on improvements. I love the idea and I’m sure I’ll try the next version. In the mean time, I’m stuck listening to radio the old-fashioned way.

On a related satellite note, I had the pleasure of flying on Frontier airlines recently. What a treat. Besides having very clean jets that always left and arrived on time, they offer DirecTV service for $5. There were about 30 stations to choose from, including both ESPNs, ESPN News and ESPN Classic. It’s a great way to help pass the time on a long flight. But it got me to thinking… If DirecTV has the ability to enable concurrent viewing of 30 channels on a plane, why do they limit you to one channel per tuner in your home? Jim Minatel tells me it’s because they can get the bars to pay a much higher monthly rate for multi-channel service and DirecTV doesn’t want to lose income from those premium subscribers. Couldn’t they more than make up this loss by the dramatically increased volume in subscriptions? I mean, that whole “one-tuner, one-channel” limitation is the only reason I never left cable for satellite. I’ve got to believe that’s been a deterrent for plenty of others who never made the switch. Wouldn’t this put a huge dent in the cable business if the satellite people could figure this out?!


More Publishing Model Tinkering

As you’ve seen in some of my earlier posts, I’m a big advocate of trying new publishing models. (For example, see the lively discussion we had about an alternate publishing model.) That’s why I was so excited to see Naba Barkakati’s latest post on The Future of Computer Books.

Naba’s description reminds me of an experiment I tried a few years ago called “The Unlimited Edition”. Books in this program had a website where the authors posted additional chapters as the topic evolved. It enabled us to extend the book long after copies rolled off the presses. The experiment unfortunately didn’t generate much enthusiasm, despite there being no cost to the customer.

The Unlimited Edition was tested prior to the popularity of blogs and RSS feeds. Were we ahead of our time? Should we take another crack at this, as Naba suggests on his blog? Are there any other features that could be added to this to turn it into a killer idea?

Take a peek at Naba’s idea and contribute to the thinking…


What’s the Average Advance?

A large number of people wind up on this blog by doing a Google search for “average advance.” Although I’ve talked a bit about advances in previous entries (royalty calculations, advances and royalties: risk/reward and returns reserves), I thought I should address the idea of an “average advance” in a post all by itself.

As with the rest of my posts on this blog, it’s important to keep in mind that my perspective comes from the computer book publishing market. If you’re searching for information on the typical advance in the science fiction area, for example, you’re looking in the wrong place. It’s also important to realize that although it’s possible to calculate a true average advance, there are all sorts of exceptions and variables to consider. More on that in a moment…

In our business today, a typical author advance is around $10,000. Some are lower and some are higher. In fact, some authors completely opt out of the advance and choose to delay their earnings till the first royalty payment.

What are some factors that tend to drive up the advance? An urgent demand for the topic (which might include a shorter writing schedule) and an author's unique platform are two good examples. If a publisher is anxious to get a particular book/topic on the shelves they might be inclined to pay more for the author advance. As I note, however, this often results in the publisher asking the author for a shorter writing schedule. Be sure to read the earlier post on What Makes a Bestseller? to see where author platform fits into the equation.

What sort of factors might cause the advance to be on the lower end of the scale? One example is if the book covers a riskier topic with limited upside. Sometimes it’s hard to justify even an “average” advance on an emerging topic. It’s virtually impossible to gauge a sales forecast on a topic for which no books are currently available. Ironically, this is exactly the type of publishing that can create a breakout title that far exceeds the publisher’s wildest expectations. It all comes down to how much faith your editor and publisher have in the title.

If the lack of existing titles on the topic might cause the advance to be lower, shouldn’t the opposite be true? The more books out on a topic would therefore cause the advance on the next book to be higher. Nope. It doesn’t take long for the “next” book to be considered a commodity, once again driving down the advance the publisher is willing to pay. If there are already a dozen books out there on the topic don’t expect the publisher to treat yours (the 13th one) as something special that deserves a high advance…unless you’ve got a great platform or there’s some other compelling reason.

Many new authors often think page count plays a role in the advance. Truth is, there’s really no correlation between page count and advance dollars. An 800-page book won’t necessarily pay out two times the advance of a 400-page one – the smaller book might even get a higher advance than the bigger book. Finally, keep in mind that first-year earn-out of the advance is often an important consideration.

Many seasoned authors have been reading this blog. How does the information in this post compare to your experience with advances and an overall average?


The Sales Rep’s Role

Earlier posts featured perspectives from a Development Editor, an Acquisitions Editor and an Author. This one covers the role of the Sales Rep. Amy Blanchard is one of the best in the business. Here’s what she has to say:

In Sales we jump into the publishing process beginning with the book proposal. It is our job to set realistic expectations for sales of a title. They can’t all be bestsellers as much as we’d like them to.

The role of a Sales Rep involves more than simply selling books. One of the key aspects of the job is relationship management. It is easy to sell a book or load product into an account; the challenging part of the job is building trust and rapport with the buyer. My overall responsibilities involve account management, title presentations, forecasting lay downs and giving feedback on new titles. I work closely with Marketing to create account promotions and feature key new titles. My mission is to increase market-share and make sure our books are well represented in the marketplace.

I am a National Account Manager and work with a single large account. I have a wide range of duties, which include sell-in, overseeing operations, and merchandising. I sometimes think of myself as an Air Traffic Controller because I coordinate between so many different groups. I feel lucky because I have a great relationship with my account. They are always open to trying new things and come to Wiley whenever they want to test new programs. My favorite part of the job is coming up with cool new promotions and creating out of the box ways to increase sales of our books.

What makes Amy such a great rep? First of all, she’s extremely enthusiastic about her job. She is personally interested in technology and enjoys what she’s doing.  Secondly, she’s great at building relationships. As Amy notes above, this is one of the keys to account management. Finally, Amy brings a great deal of creativity to the table. Accounts appreciate that these days, especially when the shelves are so crowded. Every buyer is looking for creative ways to promote and sell their products, especially if the idea helps differentiate them from other retailers.

A rep often only has a minute or less to pitch a book idea to a buyer. The good ones figure out how to prioritize and make the most of that limited time. The great ones (like Amy) know their account so well that they truly become partners, not just selling something to their buyer, but helping create long-term strategies that are much larger than a single book.