Saturday, June 9, 2018

Self Publishing Lessons

Over the past several weeks I've learned far more than I ever wanted to about the self publishing process.  I'm posting some of my findings here in the hopes that they may help others. 

TLDR;


If you're going with eBooks, and you should, consider using an author website to sell it "early", and once your book is finished publish it with Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords.  Keep the author website / store up even after, so you can maximize returns.  Price your eBook between $2.99 and $9.99.

If you're going to go with Print, start with Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing first, unless you're only needing a small run of books printed only in the USA (in which case TheBookPatch.com looks good).  Once you're book is really done, and you're ready to branch out to see it available internationally and from other bookstores, publish it with Ingram Spark.

Get and use your own ISBNs (From MyIdentifiers.com -- buy 10 at a time), and make sure you opt out of Kindle Select!

More details are below.

eBook Formats


Let's start with ebook formats first.  Be aware that I'm writing this from California, with no "nexus" elsewhere, and electronic goods (when they are purely electronic) are not taxable here.  That means I haven't worried much about accounting for VAT or Sales Tax, because I don't have to.

Leanpub


Leanpub is how I started out, but they've altered there terms several times.  Right now their royalties are not substantially less than anyone else (they used to be), and you can get an even higher return selling through your own store (such as Selz.com).  The one thing they have over everyone else is their Markua tools, and their focus on helping authors in the early stages -- you can "publish" before the book is complete on Leanpub.  I'm not sure how useful Markua is to other people -- I don't use it at all.  If you have a book in progress, this will let you sell copies early.  But, they do take a cut -- 80%. Frankly, their business model seems a bit iffy right now, and I wouldn't like to put too many eggs in that basket.  You won't need an ISBN at Leanpub.  They pay 80% royalties, allow free updates (to a limit most authors are unlikely to hit).  Leanpub has very limited reach, and doesn't distribute to anywhere else.

Author Website


The cheapest and most cost effective way to sell your ebooks is to open your own author store.  Sites like Selz.com will let you do this for free, and only charge reasonable transaction fees.  With this approach you can get about 95% of the book sales.  You can publish as soon as you want, send updates as often as you want, and don't need ISBNs or anything like that. On the downside, you have to do a little more work to set things up.  You'll also have limited reach, and pretty much look like a fly by night operation.  If you want to "pre-publish" before a work is complete, this is a way to do that, without paying that 20% to Leanpub.  You can also leave this store open, and point to it from your personal author pages, even after you are working with the larger distributers.

Ingram Spark


Ingram Spark's ebook distribution service gets broad reach through relationships with the various outlets.  You can use them to get to Apple, Kobo, even Amazon.  And yet I would not recommend doing this.  First off they charge to set up the book, typically $25.  Then if you want to make a revision to the book, it's another $25.  And then you're typically going to set it up so that you get only 45% of the royalties (or 40% if you really messed up and didn't opt out of the Amazon agreement.) . Furthermore, I found that their conversion of my ePub to Kindle format was inferior, leading to a poor reading experience on those devices.  (I have some complex layout, and custom fonts, as the book is technical in nature.)   I had much better luck generating my own .mobi format and working with Amazon directly.   Their service takes forever to get back to you -- I'm still waiting while I try to remove my eBook from their distribution.  In short, I would not use Ingram Spark for eBook.  You also will need an ISBN if you use Ingram Spark.

Amazon (Kindle Direct Publishing)


Using the Kindle Direct Publishing was pretty easy, and this let me provide a .mobi file that was optimized for Kindle, addressing issues caused by converting from ePub.  (To be fair most authors won't have these problems.)  If you want to reach Kindle readers (and you do!), you should just set up a KDP account.  One word though -- don't opt-in to Kindle Select!!  Amazon is great, for distributing to Amazon customers.  But you don't want to give away your exclusivity.    There is a weird set of rules about royalties with KDP though.  If you want to get their best 70% (which won't be in all markets, but the main ones) you need to set your List Price between $2.99 and $9.99, inclusive.  (Other values are used for other currencies.)  Deducted from your 70% rate is the cost to transfer the data to the user, which turns out to be pretty cheap -- less than a dollar typically.  (But if you're only selling a $2.99 book, make sure you keep the file sizes down, or this will hurt your rates.)  You can opt for a flat 35% royalty instead, which might make sense if your book is heavy on content, and its required if your book is outside the price points.  (This is why you never see ebooks listed for $11.99 or something like that on Amazon.)

Smashwords


I just set up my account with Smashwords, and I'm thrilled so far.  It looks like you'll get about 80% royalties through their own store, and 60% if your book is bought through one of their partners -- which includes just about everyone -- including Apple, GooglePlay, Kobo, etc.  This gets you pretty much everywhere, except Amazon.  But you did set up a KDP account already right?  They take the royalty, and you're done.  There is one fairly severe draw back to Smashwords -- they want you to upload your manuscript as a specially formatted Word document.  (They do have direct ePub though, which you can use if you want.  I did this because I don't have a Word version of my book, and it would be difficult to get one -- it was authored in Asciidoctor.)   You will need an ISBN to get into their expanded distribution program, of course.  They will offer to sell you one, but I recommend you not do that and use your own.  (Especially if you're uploading your own ePub.)

Direct Retailer Accounts


You can maximize royalties by setting up direct accounts with companies like Apple, Kobo,  and Barnes&Noble.  In my experience, it just isn't worth it.  Dealing with these all is a headache, and it takes forever.  Some, like Google Play Store, are almost impossible to get into.  As the list gets large, the percentage of your distribution that are covered here diminishes, consider whether that extra 10% royalty rate is worth the headache.  Some of these will need ISBNs, and the pricing and royalties will all vary of course.

Printed Books


If you've spent a lot of time making a great book, you probably want to see it in print format, right?  Nothing is quite the same to an author as being asked to sign a physical copy of professionally bound book of their own work.  Note that it takes some extra effort to set up a book for print -- you'll need to ensure that you have a press-ready PDF (I had to purchase a copy of Adobe Acrobat DC so that I could properly preflight my files), and setting up the cover can be a challenge if you're not a designer.

Note that details such as print margins, paper weight, and hence cover sizes, can vary between the different printers.  Be prepared to spend a lot of time if you decide to go down this road, and to have to spend a lot of time for each printer you use.

TheBookPatch.com


After doing some research, I decided to give these guys a shot at printing my first version.  I was really impressed with the quality -- while the first printing of my book had a number of issues, none of them were the fault of TheBookPatch -- they were all on me.  The problem with these guys is that they are tiny.  Almost nobody has ever heard of them, and you won't get be getting this listed at places like Barnes&Noble.  Additionally, they are rather expensive, particularly if you want to send books to places overseas.  At one point I wanted to send one copy of my book to the Netherlands.  The shipping cost was going to be about $80.  Needless to say, my relationship with TheBookPatch came to an abrupt end.  (I'd still recommend giving these guys a shot if you're printing books for your own use here in the USA.)   One big advantage is that they were able to put together an attractive cover using their website cover designer, with no special skills.  You also don't need an ISBN to print through TheBookPatch.com.

Ingram Spark


Ingram Spark has the best rates internationally, and is reputed to have excellent print quality.  My book is available from them.  They charge $49 to set it up, and $25 for updates.  This is super annoying, so I wouldn't publish with them until and unless you know that you're ready and need international distribution or want to see your printed book available via Barnes&Noble or other retailers.  They're also slow.  I ordered 3 copies of my book a week ago, and they only confirmed that they are shipping them today.  If you're serious about selling printed books widely, I would definitely go with them.  But unless you anticipate the volume, I'd hold off.  You will need an ISBN as well.  With Ingram Spark, you set up your royalty rates which are usually 45% of net.   Typically this means you'll get something like a 20-25% actual royalty, depending on the book.

Amazon KDP


Now available for authors, you can use Amazon Print on Demand.  After setting up the layout, and doing the work to ensure the quality is good -- which can take some effort -- it's pretty easy.  Amazon will sell you an ISBN if you want one -- I'm not sure if they are required for print books or not.  (I already had one from my Ingram Spark journey.)  Amazon gives a much better royalty, of 60% of net, and their printing costs for small runs seem to be fairly inexpensive, as is shipping.  For example, my 430 page, 2 lb (7.5"x9.25" paperback) book cost about $6 to print, and about $10 to ship.  That means that as my list price is $49.95, I can expect to receive about $20.  Amazon will cut into their own margins to discount the book as well, to optimize the price.  Having said all that, I'm still waiting for my proof, which Amazon apologized for taking an extra day or two to print -- I should be getting it in a couple of days (I opted for the cheap shipping -- you can't use your Prime account to ship author proofs which are made available to you at cost).  Their paper is thicker than Ingram's and so I had to redesign the cover, and their margins are stricter (my page numbers fell outside their strict .5" margins), so I wound up having to re-do the whole layout.  It would have been better if I had started with Amazon first.

There are other print-on-demand players, but I've heard enough complaints about print quality when using them, that I just avoided them.  After all, if you're bothering to put your book into print, you want the results to reflect all the effort you put into it.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Altering the deal... again....

(No, this is not about GitHub or Microsoft... lol.)

Back in March (just a few months ago), I signed up on Leanpub to publish the NNG Reference Manual.  I was completely in the dark about how to go about self-publishing a book, and a community member pointed me at Leanpub.

Leanpub charged $99 to set up, back in March, and offered a 90% (minus 50 cents) royalty rate.  On top of it they let me choose a price from free, or $0.99 to $99.  Buyers could choose within that range.  This looked great, although I was a bit hesitant to spend the $99 since there was no way to try their platform out.

Note that at this time I was not interested (and am still not interested) in their authoring tools based on Markua.  I had excellent tooling already in Asciidoctor, plus a bunch of home-grown tools (that I've since further expanded upon) to markup and layout the book, plus previewing, etc.

Everything was great, and I made sales ranging from $0.99 to $20.  Not a lot of sales, but enough to nearly recoup my $99 investment.  Now, I wasn't looking at this as a money making venture, but as a way to help support my work around NNG -- having a professionally produced reference manual was something I considered an important step for NNG.

Shortly after I created the book and published, Leanpub changed the minimum price that buyers could pay to $4.99.  We're talking about a digital good here.  First time the deal was altered....

Then in April, they introduced a new SaaS pricing model, where I could have ditched the $99 fee.  So I'm feeling like a chump, but hey at least I have that 90% royalty rate, right?  (By this time I'd sold enough to cover that initial $99 outlay, thanks to generous supporters from the NNG community.) . Deal altered again.

Then they introduced a freemium model in May, where I really could have skipped that $99 outlay.  But they told me that I was grandfathered, so I could keep my 90% rate, so I was getting something for that $99 I spent originally.  Deal altered third time?

Now, they've told me that they've changed their mind, and no, they aren't going to let me keep that grandfathered rate.  Deal altered again?!?

They posted a long essay explaining why they "had" to do this.  I get it, their old business model wasn't working.  But in the past 3 months they've made not one, not two, but three changes to their pricing and business model.  They've made promises, and gone back on their word.

But it's ok, because at 80% I'm making more than with Amazon, right?  Well, no, not really.  I won't repeat the calculations here, but it turns out that I would have made slightly more money with Amazon.  Now, that's partly due to the fact that my sales have been quite slow (as they were predicted to be -- this is a really niche book -- a reference manual for a product that isn't even 1.0 yet.)

The thing is, I'm slightly irked about the loss of income, but I'm much more angry about the lack of respect they've given us, their authors and customers.  Clearly, their promises don't carry much weight.  They've offered lifetime free Pro accounts to customers who were with them long enough to have at least $500 in royalties, but everyone else is out of luck.  As to those lifetime pro accounts -- well, it's "lifetime, or until we change our mind".   Which seems to occur about once a month.

Now Leanpub isn't some big bad company, but their attitude and thinking reflected in how they've handled this process shows clear alignment with the same thought processes that those big bad companies have.  As an author you're not a valued partner to them -- you're a source of revenue, with very little effort on their part required to support you.

I've started rethinking my use of Leanpub obviously.

It seems like I can make use of Selz which seems to have really good support for selling digital goods like eBooks (and even has a Pay What You Want option!), and with my small number of digital goods will only charge me the transaction processing costs -- either 2.9% or 3.9% depending on location.  (Digital goods are not taxable in California.)  So what was I gaining from Leanpub again?

For Kindle and iBooks, it also looks like dealing with Amazon and Apple directly look like a better deal than Leanpub.  You get their expanded distribution, and yes, you only get 70% royalties, but you don't have to pay any recurring fees.  Unless you're doing large volumes, the math on these works out better than any of the Leanpub paid plans.

 (IngramSpark, where I have also posted the book, also works, but I've had less than satisfactory results with their epub->mobi conversion, so I can't recommend using them for Kindle at least, and I think the royalties you get from dealing directly with Apple are superior anyway.)

This all seems like a lot of work, but I hope this helps other authors who might be considering using Leanpub.

(There is one feature which is nice on Leanpub, which is the ability to publish an incomplete work in progress, and then keep updating it.  But let's face it, you can do that equally well from your own website and something like Selz.)

Not Abandoning GitHub *yet*

The developer crowds are swarming off of GitHub in the wake of today's announcement that Microsoft has agreed to purchase GH for $7.5B.

I've already written why I think this acquisition is good for neither GitHub nor Microsoft.  I don't think it's good for anyone else either... but maybe at least it alerts us all to the dangers of having all our eggs in the same basket.

At the moment my repositories will not be moving.  The reason for this is quite simple -- while the masses race off of GitHub, desperate for another safe harbor, the panic that this has created is overwhelming alternative providers.  GitLab reported a 10X growth.  While this might be good for GitLab, its not good for people already on GitLab, as there was already quite a well understand performance concern around GitLab.com.

At least in the short term, GitHub's load will decrease (at least once all the code repo exports are done), I think. 

The other thing is that Microsoft has come out and made some pretty strong promises about not altering the GitHub premise, and the "new leadership" over there is ostensibly quite different from the old.  (Having said that, there is a lot of bad blood and history between FOSS and Microsoft. A lot of the current generation of millenials don't have that history, but some of us haven't forgotten when Steve Ballmer famously said "Linux is a cancer", and when Microsoft used every dirty trick in the book to try to kill all competitors, including open source software.  If Microsoft had had its way back in the 90s and 00s, the Internet would have been a company shanty-town, and Linus Torvalds would have been a refugee outlaw.

Thankfully that didn't happen.

Microsoft is trying to clean its image up, and maybe it is reformed now, but the thing we all have to remember is that Microsoft is beholden first, foremost, and exclusively to it's shareholders.  Rehabiliting it's image is critical to business success today, but at it's roots Microsoft still has those same obligations.)

The past couple of years of good behavior doesn't undo decades of rottenness; many of us would have been thrilled to see Microsoft enter chapter 11 as the just dessert for its prior actions.

Microsoft was losing mindshare to OSS and software like Git (and companies like GitHub). Purchasing GitHub is clearly an effort to become relevant again.   The real proof will be seen if Microsoft and GitHub are still as FOSS friendly in two years as they are today.  Promises made today are cheap.

But I'm willing to let them have the benefit of the doubt, understanding that I retain my options to depart at any time.  I won't be creating *new* repositories there, and my private one's will be moving off of GitHub because I don't want Microsoft to have access to my proprietary work.  (Probably they can still get it from backups at GitHub, but we do what we can...)

But my open source stuff is still there.  For now.

That means mangos, NNG, nanomsg, and tcell remain.  For now.

It's up to Microsoft and GitHub to see if they stay.

 - Garrett

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Microsoft Buying GitHub Would be Bad

So apparently Microsoft wants to buy GitHub.

This is a huge mistake for both companies, and would be tragic for pretty much everyone involved.

GitHub has become the open source hosting site for code, and for a number of companies, it also hosts private repositories.  It's the place to be if you want your code to be found and used by other developers, and frankly, its so much of a de facto standard for this purpose that many tools and services work better with GitHub.

GitHub was founded on the back of Git, which was invented by Linus Torvalds to solve source code management woes for the Linux kernel. (Previously the kernel used an excellent tool called BitKeeper for this job, but some missteps by the owners of BitKeeper drove the Linux team away from it.  It looks like GitHub is making similar, albeit different, commercial missteps.)

Microsoft already has their own product, Visual Studio Team Services, which competes with GitHub, but which frankly appeals mostly to Microsoft's own developer base.  I don't think it is widely used by Linux developers for example.


Implications for Open Source


Microsoft has been much more "open source friendly" of late, but I have to admit I still don't trust them.  I'm hardly alone in this.

It also is a breach of sorts of an unwritten trust that the open source community has placed in them.  There is much bad blood between Microsoft and open source software.  Many of the most treasured open source systems exist directly in conflict to proprietary systems.  Think about software like Samba, and Wine and OpenOffice.  These were created as alternatives to Microsoft.  Being acquired by Microsoft means that these projects will feel compelled to abandon GitHub.

As this happens, many tools and services that offer services that are tailored to GitHub (automated code review, CI/CD, etc.) are going to be rushing to find a way to offer services for alternatives, as their client base runs screaming from GitHub.  (Back in February of 2016 I tried to leave GitHub, because of philosophical differences of opinion with their leadership.  I abandoned the effort after discovering that too many of the external support services I used for these open source projects were either GitHub only, or could only be converted away from GitHub with large amounts of additional effort and big negative impact for my users.)

This is a watershed moment for GitHub.
I predict in as little as 6 months nobody will be creating new open source projects on GitHub.

Unfortunately, it's probably already too late for GitHub.  Unless they were to come out and immediately deny any acquisition attempts, and make some public announcements recognizing the trust they've been given, and asserting the importance of honoring it, nobody will trust them any more.


Implications for Commercial Use


This is also going to harm commercial customers, driving them away.

Microsoft has many commercial ventures which overlap with those of almost everyone doing anything in software.  GitHub being acquired by Microsoft will in one fell swoop make GitHub a direct competitor with vast amounts of their own customer base.  (Essentially, your either a Microsoft competitor, or a partner.  And often both.)

If you're using GitHub for private repositories, it probably is time to rethink that.  Unless you trust Microsoft not to do evil.  (They've never even made any such promises.)  This also means, I think that it might be time to reconsider hosting your private data with anyone else.  GitLab and BitBucket look better to be sure, but what's to prevent another large company from acquiring them?

It's time to reconsider the cost of hosting in the cloud.  I've been expecting a move back to on-premises storage and hosting for some time now, but this will only accelerate that.


Implications for Microsoft


Microsoft will spend quite a lot of money to acquire GitHub.  But instead of acquiring a goose that lays golden eggs, they are going to have one that needs to be fed and turns that into fecal material.

At the same time, while this may help bolster some of the technology in VSTS in the short term, the reality is that most of the best stuff isn't that hard to build, and most of what GitHub has can be done on any cloud based system with sufficient storage and compute.  Most of their tech is not tied to Windows, almost certainly.

The VSTS team will no doubt be impacted, and there will be a lot of pain and suffering attempting to more tightly integrate VSTS with the new adopted child.  I'm sure there are redundancies that will be eliminated, but I expect part of what is going to happen is a shift in focus from providing the best experience for Visual Studio developers and making things work well on Azure, to figuring out how to more tightly integrate GitHub's toolset into theirs.  Can you imagine trying to reconcile the differences between VSTS and GitHub's issue tracking systems?  Yikes!

The uncertainty will annoy customers, and I suspect will drive them away from the existing VSTS stack.  Whey they leave, they probably won't be moving to GitHub.

Like the proverbial dog with the bone looking at his reflection in the water while on the bridge, instead of having one bone, Microsoft's greed will leave it with none (at least in this space.)

I'm sure that the founders and investors of GitHub will make a mint taking Microsoft's money.  Normally I'd applaud anyone with plans to part Microsoft from some of it's funds.  But this move is just plain bad business.


Anti-Trust Violations?


As I mentioned above, Microsoft has their own product, Visual Studio Team Services, which competes with GitHub.  This alleged acquisition of GitHub seems to me to fly in the face of anti-trust rules.  Microsoft clearly has been trying to make inroads into the open source community with projects like Visual Studio Code and Linux support for VSTS, so I would hope that the regulatory bodies involved would examine this with great scrutiny.

Of course, if GitHub is for sale, many of the same concerns except the antitrust legislation would apply.  It would be a Bad Thing (tm) if GitHub were to be acquired by Facebook, Google, or Amazon, for example, for most of the same reasons that being acquired by Microsoft would be bad.

Now please pardon me while I go back to setting up gogs on my own systems...