August 13, 2012

8 Things to Learn from Jake Needham about eBooks and Publishing

It's not everyday in Thailand that you get to hear an internationally-acclaimed author talk about his work. The last time I had the opportunity to hear a writer speak was Stephen Leather over a year ago. Author Jake Needham gave a great talk yesterday morning at the Pattaya City Expats Club. I'm not a dues-paying member of this club, just some bum who happens to have a residence in the same province. Thankfully, I was invited to join the audience by the friendly folks at the PCEC. I've been working through Jake's latest thriller: A World of Trouble. People who have spent time in Thailand will recognize some of the familiar personalities and typical foibles of the country, but those who haven't been to the Land of Smiles can also enjoy this great crime novel.

Jake Needham sells around 5,000 eBooks a month and has been writing for years, so when he talks it is wise to listen. One nice thing about being part of the author community is that veteran writers often share tips and tricks of the trade and are extremely helpful to people just starting out. You cannot say this about every community--how many investment bankers are going to give you stock tips without charging an arm and a leg? Anyway, here's 8 good points he brought up on publishing, eBooks, and the future of reading.

1) Print Books are Hard to Discover

Due to the distribution challenges, logistical requirements, and high fixed costs for print books, it can be hard for authors to even get your book in a bookstore in the first place. Joel Friedlander touched on what a pain distributing to bookstores was in a blog post a few weeks back. Once you get your book into a bookstore, it might not even be worthwhile. Unless you're some bigwig author, most bookstores are just going to turn them sideways and stuff them on a shelve in between the Woman's Studies section and the bathroom. Jake mentioned some of his frustrations with this process.

2) Retailers of Print Books are a Commodity Business

One of the "dirty little secrets" of the book business, Jake noted, is that the Barnes & Nobles, Waterstones, and Asiabooks (in Thailand's case) of the world just want to stock shelves with books and move them out the door. They're not really interested in selling specific books or figuring out what customers really want. In a lot of ways it's like going to Walmart or Tesco and buying sugar. Jake asked the audience do you really care what brand of sugar you buy? No, not really. You just want to know that the sugar (or books) are there, because the customer is probably going to buy some no matter what the brand name is. Of course you and I know that a business model involving mass sales without customer feedback or a solid marketing strategy is not well-suited to the information age...just ask Borders.

3) The Publisher's Main Reason for Existence was Product Placement, but That No Longer Applies with eBooks

Once upon a time, the big added value that publishers offered was the infrastructure and capacity to get your book in a bookstore. If you were a top-tier author, they might even do a little promotion for you (ads in magazines, swag, etc.) However, with the rise of eBooks the playing field is becoming much more level. The Amazon algorithm is about as mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle, but one thing for certain is that it doesn't really discriminate whether you are self-published or Big 6-published. Jake said that this reality truly benefits the author and the reader.

4) With eBooks, Readers are the Gatekeepers, Not Publishers

Jake said he was pleased that readers are the ones who decide whether a book will be a success or not. Under the publishing process for the last several hundred years or so, authors had to write to impress the publisher, but not the reader. By allowing a direct connection between author and reader through eBooks, an author can better understand their audience. This of course also has the benefit of improving your writing and sales. If you're the kind of author who enjoys writing so they can hobknob with the blue-hairs on the wine and cheese circuit of Manhattan, this new paradigm of writing for the masses might be a bad thing. However, if you're like the rest of us trying to make a living, this is great.

5) The Accessibility of eBooks Can't Be Beat

Speaking as a reader, Jake noted that he really enjoyed the accessibility of eBooks. As a person who actually has the money to travel (he must not be married to a Thai woman), Jake enjoys carrying around an iPad rather than a suitcase full of books. He even mentioned that he would read on his iPhone in a pinch. Jake prefers the back-lit eReading off tablets (same as me), but other folks in the audience mentioned the e-ink displays were easier on the eyes (same as Jeff Bezos). One gentleman during the Q&A even stated that he needs to read on a MacBook plugged into a 32" monitor due to trouble with his eyesight. Whatever format the reader prefers, the reflowable nature of eBooks allows a good reading experience for people of all different preferences.

6) As an Author, Don't Be Afraid to Outsource

Giving some hope to our new startup, BB eBooks, Jake noted that he outsources his cover design and interior design/eBook formatting. He said that the EPUB and MOBI/KF8 formats were the major standards, but he didn't really know how they were put together. That sounds about right, because you sort of have to be a big nerd with skin problems and some time on your hands to figure out the technical requirements of eBooks. He paid a company to turn his word document into the eBook format, which is the crux of our own business model. He also talked about the need to invest in a cover designer and editor. All in all, he said you could get your book published for about $500. This is in the same ballpark as we advise our clients; however, it really depends on what you want to do and not do.

7) Marketing is Somewhat Mysterious, but Get to Know Your Readers

Like every other author, small press, and big publishing houses, the bulletproof way to market your eBook is a bit of mystery. Jake knows this and every author who isn't full of himself knows this. eBooks and social media are just so new and dynamic that it's difficult to say. However, Jake did provide some tidbits on marketing. He says that word of mouth works best for him and he is constantly connecting with his readers, which lets people know he is a good guy. No one wants to buy a book from a jackass. Lindsay Buroker has some great tips on how not to be a schmuck when you market your eBook.

8) eBook Piracy is not a Big Concern

Perusin' the Thai Rath
During the Q&A, I asked Jake about his approach to the problem of eBook piracy. He said because his eBooks are priced reasonably and fairly (about $4.99), he isn't really worried about it. This is extremely good news for a high-profile author to be saying this, since Digital Rights Management (DRM) is holding back the entire eBook industry. Jake said he had never heard about one of his eBooks being pirated. I checked some of the torrent sites that are known to have pirated eBooks (no, I won't share the links), and lo and behold none of Jake's books were there. Hopefully, Jake will take this message to other authors who equate eBook piracy with the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.

A big thank-you is in order to Jake Needham for making time to give a talk on a Sunday morning (over a three-day weekend in Thailand no less). Show some love by picking up a copy of A World of Trouble.


Marla M said...

Yes, marketing is certainly mysterious!
Great blog post, love Jake's writing and enjoyed the 7 points. Encouraging for all us eBook authors!

Joe Hefferon said...

Jake is a real pro and his advice should be heeded. I also like the post because the embedded links were useful. Thanks to all

Joe Hefferon

Paul Salvette said...

Glad that the post was useful. Was trying to capture the big takeaways from Jake's talk. It was great.

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