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6 posts from April 2014

The value of a dry run

Stephen R. PolandIn the early days of flight, airmail pilots conducted dry runs or “pathfinder” flights to test the flying schedule, survey landing strips and facilities at intermediate airfields, and acquaint themselves with the full length of the route. Flying new airmail routes without the pressure of delivering actual mail enabled the postal service to work out the kinks before the stakes were raised.

While not as critical as challenging the bonds of gravity and delivering the mail on time, conducting a dry run in your digital content development process helps you “get it right” before publishing and marketing front line titles or content.

As one of the co-founders of a small publishing startup, 1x1 Media, I look for opportunities that help us build our processes and release better products. Our startup provides how-to content for startup founders and entrepreneurs. We’ve launched the first title in our Startup Crash Course ebook series, Startup Crash Course: Angel Funding. We are on track to publish our next Startup Crash Course ebook within the month, with our next series also in development.

Rather than learning the ropes of delivering ebook content to the various digital platforms while publishing our new series, we first conducted two dry runs using content we already had available. My co-founder, Lisa, rescued the rights for one title back from a large publishing house, and for the other, we enhanced a public domain title first published in 1914. We converted these pieces of content into two ebooks published on four platforms—Amazon’s Kindle, B&N’s NOOK Press, Apple’s iBooks, and Google Play.

Publishing a few “dry run” titles enabled us to address many decision points, including:

Software tools. Choosing which software to use for writing and editing, formatting, image creation, cover creation, and final ebook formatting and layout can be daunting. But a little trial and error with free or low-cost solutions and help from power tools such as InDesign can speed the process along.

Production processes. Our dry run titles enabled us to establish file naming conventions, experiment with image dimensions and resolutions, and learn how text formatting and styles flow through to the finished ebook file on each platform.

Platform specs and requirements. Each ebook distribution platform follows a variety of technical specs and requirements. We ironed out details such as file formats, file size limitations, ISBN usage, screen shot formats, and sample chapter formats while creating our dry run titles.

Financial calculations. Test titles gave us a chance to calculate the financial impact of content length and pricing decisions. For example, Amazon (US) charges a delivery fee of $0.15 per megabyte for titles enrolled in its 70% royalty option. With pricing, royalties, and costs understood, we can build a simple P&L and make decisions about marketing budgets and promotion activities.

Timelines. While our schedule for editing and proofreading the dry run titles fell within a typical timeline, the time it took to tweak the formatting for each ebook platform was an unexpected hurdle. The time it took for a new title to get approved and go live in each particular store also cropped up as an issue. For example, we learned that Apple’s iBooks approval timeline is rather lengthy, taking several weeks for a title to get approved and go live. After our dry runs, we can plan around these schedule issues for future titles.

Build or buy. While we decided to slog it out, learning the details of formatting our titles for several ebook platforms, the toughest moments of preparing our dry run content caused us to consider using one of the numerous services available to help prepare content for online publishing. Depending on the scope of content in your online publishing or archiving plans, consider evaluating and partnering with an experienced digital content service provider to help maximize your content.

Like the early airmail pilots making pathfinder flights to ferret out swampy landing strips and calculate flight times, our dry run ebook titles gave us the opportunity to make mistakes, build internal processes, and learn to use design and production software tools before we launched the first series titles.

If you are new to digital content publishing, consider conducting a dry run or two. The lessons learned by running the full cycle will pay off big when you’re ready for the real deal. And, yes, even low profile dry run titles can make you a little money while you sleep—ours do.

This article was written by Steve Poland. Steve is an advisor to startups and the co-founder of 1x1 Media, a publisher of how-to content for startup founders and aspiring entrepreneurs. Steve and his co-founder, Lisa Bucki, are the developers of the Startup Crash Course series. This summer, look for their new Founder’s Pocket Guide series. Steve and Lisa live in Western North Carolina, where Steve flies a 1946 Aeronca Champ over the Blue Ridge mountains, occasionally landing on grass strips and often tormenting Lisa with his obsessive use of checklists.

Location-based content in the future

I’m one of the hundreds of millions of people who use Google News in a variety of ways. Long ago I configured it for the keywords I like to track so that I can scan the latest headlines on my favorite topics. I also have it set up to show me the latest goings-on in my hometown.

I’ve got to say the local element of Google News isn’t exactly the service’s greatest feature. It’s littered with stories that aren’t exactly news, they’re not in line with my interests and, in some cases, they have only a very loose association with my town.

It’s amazing that in this day and age of geo-tracking, data capture and rich content there’s no killer app for location-based content.

I’m talking about a service that does the following:

  • Knows precisely where I am, whether that’s at a ballgame, in the supermarket or sitting in a coffee shop
  • Knows who I am, including my interests and habits, whether this is the first time I’ve been in this location or if I come here regularly
  • Provides me with information, stories, and yes, even deals on purchases I might want to make while I’m in that location 

I’ve seen bits and pieces of these requirements but I haven’t seen them all rolled into one service.

The first point is pretty simple. Every modern phone has geo built in, so it’s just a question of this service tapping into those capabilities. 

The second point may sound spooky, especially if you’re concerned about data privacy. Then again, anyone who thinks they can avoid being tracked and measured these days is pretty naïve. Opt out when you can but know that data is still being collected, even if it’s nothing more than your location from cell tower triangulation.

I figure that since all this data is being gathered, why not use it to my advantage as a consumer?

The second point also sounds a lot like how Zite, now part of Flipboard, tracks my reading habits to gauge my interests and uses that information to provide more relevant content tomorrow. That’s a terrific application of data gathering and one that always resulted in a more efficient reading experience.

The third bullet is where all the work still needs to happen. Tagging is critical here. When stories are written, what level of tagging is included so those same stories can be presented in a location-based service? I’ll bet there are few, if any, geo-based tags included with most articles today, so this is an important point to consider when creating content. 

Finally, the game-changer here isn’t a bunch of apps. You don’t want to force mobile users to download a new app every time they visit a new city or go to a museum. This has to be one single service that provides access to all the big stories and hidden tidbits of information no matter where you are. Sort of like Google News, only much, much better.

Community curation

With paywalls coming back in style readers are discovering more brands are clamping down on content access. Whether it’s accomplished through metering or subscriber-only access, a day doesn’t go by when I haven’t run into a paywall.

That’s OK. There’s too much content out there anyway and I certainly don’t need access to even more of it. What I really need is more curation and less volume.

I want someone else to read it all and then tell me what I absolutely need to read. They act as a filter and I pay them because they save me time and make me smarter.

I’ve written before about this content concierge concept but that was mostly for free content. The model has just as much potential for paid content though and could help publishers dramatically expand their reach.

Let’s say you’re a newspaper or magazine publisher. Assume for a moment that you’re willing to grant full, behind-the-paywall access to community content curators. There are sports experts, business experts, local community experts, etc. These curators are reading everything you’re publishing and picking the best of the best, the must-reads for the day/week/month. They in turn publish their lists to a whole new set of subscribers; these readers pay for access to only the content recommended by the curator, not the full editions. The best curators float to the top and drive more subscriptions than the others and you pay them a commission for each subscriber they bring in. Curators establish brand names for themselves, as in, “hey, if you’re into travel you need to subscribe to Bob Thomas…he finds all the best travel articles so I don’t have to.”

How do you price such a service? That depends on a number of factors including how much that audience values curation and time savings. For a professional audience, where time equals money, you’ll be able to charge more of a premium than for other audiences. Either way though you’re offering access to your paywall-protected content so this definitely isn’t a free service.

The model doesn’t end with newspapers and magazines. How can you save time for book readers? Think about summaries. There are a few book summary services out there and I wouldn’t recommend any of them, mostly because they’ve gone about it all wrong. Those summaries feel like marketing pieces for the books, not the valuable nuggets that make the book worth reading. Publishers are undoubtedly concerned about selling summaries that offer as much value as the full book but at a fraction of the price.

That’s where they get it all wrong.

Just because it’s shorter doesn’t mean it’s worth less. In fact, if you’re saving me time I’m willing to pay more, so these summaries, curated by community members, could have a higher price than the original ebook.

This is a model that requires publishers to take some risks and that’s the main reason it hasn’t been tested yet. But as newer, more nimble publishers dislodge some of the incumbents I think we’ll see this successfully deployed…and the older, less nimble publishers will do their best to adapt.

Why you need to experiment with content sponsorship

Every type of content is facing downward pricing pressure. Free online news has disrupted the newspaper industry. Free article-length content has impacted the magazine model. Free and cheap ebooks have completely upended the book publishing world.

It’s time for publishers to think more broadly and creatively about multiple streams of income. Many are too focused on protecting the streams they already have and worry about the cannibalization potential of new models. Those publishers are only contributing to their own demise.

No matter what type of content you’re producing, why wouldn’t you consider at least testing the sponsorship model? 

Here’s what I’m suggesting: Find a business partner who values your content, your brand and your audience. Sit down with them to determine what you both can offer each other and gauge their sponsorship interest. Then pick a product, determine the publicity campaign, nail down the offer and make it happen.

Here are three scenarios based on what type of publisher you are:

Newspapers: Give away an entire day’s e-edition; the whole thing, not just a section or two. Make sure the sponsor’s message is prominent so readers can appreciate the generous deal this sponsor has created for them, the reader. Feeling bold? Why not make it free for an entire week? Btw, plan ahead and sell special advertising pages, and don’t forget to count all those new digital ad impressions you’ll get from this broader, free access. 

Magazines: Similar to the newspaper model, but now you’re probably talking about one weekly or monthly edition. But why not make this a richer edition with more features than what you typically offer? After all, one of your goals should be to attract new customers with your unique, valuable content. Think about video content that’s currently behind your paywall, for example.

Books: Yours isn’t a subscription model with new editions every week/month so you need to focus even more on the length of time to extend the free offer. Don’t go through a retailer! Just give readers the ebook right on your website; that way you’ll know who those readers are and you’ll be able to build a direct relationship with them. 

Each model is slightly different but there’s a common thread throughout: dramatically expanded reach. Be sure to have a plan for all those names and email addresses you’re gathering. Don’t let them just sit in a spreadsheet that nobody ever acts on. In fact, force your team to come up with a detailed follow-up plan before you ever launch the campaign.

This is an opportunity to dramatically increase your product’s reach. It’s not about giving something extra to your current subscribers; this is all about finally building a relationship with all those other prospective customers. It’s also about building a solid relationship with your sponsorship partner. If they like the results, which means the sponsor gets more visibility for their brand and products, this could be step one of a much broader, ongoing sponsorship program for you business.

Here’s another reason to do it: Even if you don’t, your competitor(s) probably will.

The best time NOT to self-publish is…..(never)

Marcy GThere are so many op-eds these days on when or if to self-publish but more so, features on the inferiority of self-published works just by virtue of fact they are self-published. This premise is applied even if the self-publishing author has the budget, foresight and professionalism to engage all manner of expert editors, proof readers, formatters, designers and thoroughly research the distributing and promotion of his/her work, the resultant book will be very bad. Worse, it will be amateur in content and looks.

 There’s also an assumption (somewhat fear, vs. empirically based) that without sufficient social media or platform, books (even great ones) won’t get noticed. I’ve seen a zillion writerly blogs with this headline: If you publish it who will find it/you? This suggests that Shakespeare (et al, Dan Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert, JD Salinger, James Patterson, Ayn Rand) without benefit of Twitter, Facebook and Instragram or a YouTube book trailer of Othello, would never have been discovered. This is to further suggest that we as authors, creators, publishers and readers actually believe form trumps content. That means greatness, is a deux et machninas/medium-is-the-message is a fail from the get-go and a Pulitzer would never percolate to a deserved level of consciousness and find a collective of readers who know a good thing (or alternatively, what they want) when they find it  - however they find it. But trust me (and the author of 50 Shades of Grey), they do and will find it.

What astounds me in the vast acreage of articulated opinions on these issues is a few-fold.
For one thing, there’s a passion, even a nervous derision or tempered contempt or dismissiveness offered to self-published authors in most of the opinion pieces I’ve read. Although I am Canadian, it is a divide akin to Tea Party-ers and Democrats, i.e. it’s a visceral thing.

There’s the assumption that a self-published author is a never-published author or can’t-find-a-book-deal author or more to the point: self-published = poor quality. How long has that been patently untrue? It’s such an old trope that to suggest self-published means inferior only marks you as out of the loop. Moreover, the articles I’ve read also seem only to refer to fiction writers when there are many other types of authors.  I am, in fact, a cookbook author, another genre of author now in the fray. Let me explain a bit about cookbook authors.

Cookbook authors are writers (we are not verbose home economic teachers – we are specialty writers with a second specialty in food. Some, as I am, are trained chefs in addition to being wordsmiths). Consequently our challenges are even more than regular writers. We battle the plethora of amateur recipe blogs and infinite numbers of free recipes (sometimes even our own when we encounter our own recipes on repository sites), the charisma of celebrity chefs on TV, blogs or YouTube phenoms. In addition, our books require expensive food photography and complicated book design, our recipes need extraordinary copy editing and we also need legions of volunteer recipe testers to make sure our recipes work. When it comes to food photography in our cookbooks, many a time my advance (in traditional publishing) was a quarter that of the food photography/photographer budget.

In short, if you think self-publishing the average black-and-white 300 page paranormal novel is difficult, try self-publishing a 300 full colour cookbook. No one (sane or otherwise) would chose to do this alone – not even Mrs. Jerry Seinfeld, Rachel Ray or the ex-Mrs. Billy Joel. Jamie Oliver and Ina Gartner (Stephen King or Joanna Rowlings) could well buy Random House ten times over (I imagine) and even they don’t self-publish. Why? Because even the well-heeled and well-connected use publishers for their cookbooks (or novels) because it’s hugely difficult – even with a team assisting you. Writing is lonely enough – who wants to be a self-publishing author? Unless of course, you had to…(Did I also mention that recipes are not copyrightable, stolen constantly and generally free online?).

So it’s not about money – because given self-publishing garners you 65% royalties or so versus 15% royalties in traditional publishing, if it was, wealthy authors would indeed, do it themselves. On the flip side, what is more prestigious (or used to be) is saying you’re a Random author or Scribner author – at least, when that meant something and had a fiscal bottom line.

But here’s my pain: overall there is a premise that if you self-publish you are either an inferior or unaware author or (and this one blows me away) having had a reasonable advance, you somehow chose to ‘go rogue’ and venture into self-publishing due to a misplaced vanity press adventure spirit or thought you could out earn on your own what a traditional publisher was offering you.

As a traditional and well-established cookbook author (nay, a Julia Child 1st Book Nominee) with track record and solid book sales, I don’t see myself represented in these discussions and yet I am part of a silent majority – the mid-list cookbook author. Furthermore, let it be said that I find it hard to believe that any traditional author, with great book numbers, a brand, a platform and a plan would consider self-publishing if in fact, the advances hadn’t shrunk dramatically. It’s not a whim choice; it’s a have-to choice. We love what we do and we’re not ready to call it quits. We have reason to believe we have something to offer a large amount of readers.

After 25 years of great publishers, great cookbooks and what I thought was an upward spiralling career, I self-published my first cookbook, When Bakers Cook, two months ago. I did this not because I wanted to but because I had to. I love words, books and in my case, creating ambrosial baking I want to share with my readers. As publishing up-ended itself (blame transitions of the times, publishers being old school and late in their response to the new world of everything, the economy and….life itself) I realized (with skepticism, then denial, anger, sadness and then finally, pro-activeness), I had three choices (and early retirement or marrying rich weren't in the trio). I could quit and be a Wal-Mart greeter, I could take tiny (untenable) advances and supplement with freelance writing or I could dive into the Bermuda Triangle of self-publishing.

I’m a Taurus and we don’t quit so I chose Door #3 - self publish.

It took me three years (when I was otherwise wallowing in self-doubt and existential, mid-life angst about my value as a baking author) to simply research the self-publishing partners and players. I had no idea what formatting really meant and I had to cobble the budget to pay my editor, copy editor, indexer, proof-reader, photographer and publishing costs with Create Space and Kindle. Let it also be said that some of the talented staff I hired were recently let go from the prestigious traditional publishers.  And let it also be said that we can no longer assume that having a traditional book deal insures a ‘team’ of editorial and sales help – things are lean everywhere. Speaking more directly to that, I recently was in Barnes and Noble and stumbled on a cookbook by a great colleague by a huge publisher renowned for their wonderful cookbooks and in this book was a 3-page addendum of text and recipe errors (my own self-published cookbook has but one error – and it’s a homonym). My point is: we can no longer assume ‘perfect’ and ‘quality’ is only the domain of traditional publishing.

Despite having a complete manuscript, self-publishing took me another 13 months to get my book out. When Bakers Cook launched on December 20th  2013; thanks to a galley physical copy I had to send to one editor, it was later named one of the Best Cookbooks of 2013 by the Washington Post. It continues to sell quite nicely, day in, day out. I am now working on my second self-published cookbook, due for this summer, as well as a book on tango and one on scent and probably I will indeed, publish my book of poetry. Why? Because ….I now can. And I am quietly and proudly building my own backlist. While I respect and miss my publishers (who I also feel bailed on their mid-list authors), I am no longer waiting for a publisher (or worse, the sales force or book buyer at Barnes and Noble) to determine I am the next hot trend or its derivative, or have enough platform to merit a book deal which is about the same as four freelance features for the Huffington Post or such. This is a new publishing world and what looks like something (like the best of illusions) often isn’t. Twitter followers don’t necessarily distill down into book sales and a good Google ranking doesn’t make me the next Julia Child. But how we hate to release an old romance – however bogus it really is.

In those 13 months (and horrific learning curve) of self-publishing, as my spirits and confidence rose, I noticed the put-down features on self-publishing. I couldn’t fathom it. I also tried many times to share my great adventure which it has been and continues to be. Few, if any colleagues, struggling themselves, wanted to hear. Overall, I’ve had a sense I’ve betrayed something or someone and crossed a line into a land I never wanted to visit, albeit as its sole resident and ironically, one who is beginning to thrive. That’s the part I still don’t get. I’m not unique as a mid-list author having to face things I hadn’t anticipated. I am not unique in forging a new path but why would authors, both those traditionally published and those eking by, be so disparaging to their fellow authors on the subject of self-publishing?

I never wanted to self-publish. I imagined a continuance of Random House, Harper Collins book deals for my growing baking author platform and more features in the leading newspapers and online venues. I envisioned more Christmas baskets from my publishers, publisher web staff to help me with my blog and website, publicists to set up my interviews and promotional spots. Instead, I am now River Heart Press (my own imprint) and I am boldly going where I went when I was 12 years old and was editor-publisher of my own street newspaper The Goldman Times. That little girl knew then what this grown woman/adult author is just learning all over again. Better to publish than to perish.

Here’s my take-away. If you want to publish – whether you’re rife with talent or no one has dared tell you you’re not – do it. If you are traditionally publishing and even established but have another genre of book your current publisher won’t consider – do it. If you are incredibly talented, passionate and have wonderful book numbers and fate or the times have left you without a chair in the musical chairs of book deals – do it. If you’re a reader who’s hungry for new, for good or great, don’t overlook the unknown, ‘selfie’ scribes out there. They are writing for you. There are no ‘sides’ in all this – there is no either/or approach. There are pros and cons to it all but overall, between no book or an ‘ok’ self-published book (in content and production) and a potential Pulitzer prize winner (or thwarted or unattempted dream) languishing in your drawer or a Word file – I will take the mediocre (or not) self-published book. I suggest you do too.

Oh and by the way, addressing the EIR (Elephant in the Room, aka Jeff Bezos, Amazon and company), when editors, agents and publishers I’ve worked with for years forgot to call or email me back on so many occasions, one email, eight hours later, garnered a call from the Jeff Bezos executive team to see how they might expedite my self-published cookbook when I encountered a snag. So the Big 6 (now, Big 5) might walk and talk like the sauve and handsome gentlemen publishers they are, the EIR is the one who was most attentive and offered the most respectful TLC. I got Cadillac service on the self-publishing journey for my $248 publishing ‘package’.

And to my colleagues who try so hard to dismantle my efforts to stay afloat and bring my words and recipes to my readers, I say – jump into the pool. The water’s warm, there’s plenty of room.

This article was written by Marcy Goldman. Marcy is the host of, now celebrating it’s 17th year online, an independent baking site that also has been successful monetized since 2004.  A cookbook author of several titles, she recently published When Bakers Cook, rescued her bestselling, but briefly-out-of-print A Passion for Baking. This spring, look for her first book of poetry, Love and Ordinary Things and this fall she will launch The Baker’s Four Seasons. All her books are doing very well, in print and as ebooks. She avoids most social media, focuses on creating content and is the most happy she’s ever been.