As I beaver away on the new Absolute OpenBSD book, I’m pondering options for what to do afterwards. Part of that pondering concerns the business aspect of publishing. And I want your opinion.
This blog post is about tech books — or, more generally, “highly researched non-entertainment nonfiction,” a category which includes but is not limited to technology books. I’m explicitly excluding fiction and entertainment nonfiction. I’m discussing books meant to help the reader make more money, or at least keep their job.
I’ve wanted to write about certain technologies for years, but there aren’t enough buyers to support a traditional publishing run. They’re topics that would appeal to a majority of my blog readers, but a few hundred readers just can’t support a traditionally-published book. If I self-publish on such topics, I would get more money per reader. This could make special-interest books sufficiently profitable for me to invest a year writing them.
My goal is to make “enough” money so that I feel it’s worth spending my evenings and weekends writing a book. The exact value of “enough” varies with the topic, how hard the book is to write and research, how much I have to spend to write the book, who I have to work with to write the book, and what exactly I gave up in favor of writing the book. (Yes, I’d like to make great big steaming HEAPS of money. But that’s not realistic.) To achieve this, I must set the price of a book such that the reader feels he’s getting fair value, but still puts “enough” money in my pocket.
The problem comes in the payments I receive on the book.
You’ve probably heard that Amazon pays 70% royalties on self-published ebooks. That’s not quite accurate. It pays 70% royalties on self-published ebooks with a retail price of $9.99 or less. Barnes & Noble has a similar policy (look under Pricing and Payment Terms). Smashwords has a more complex royalty system, because they feed multiple ebook vendors. Royalties on books bought directly from Smashwords are about 85%, but royalties through various platforms that they feed pay varying percentages up to certain ceilings. For example, Kobo pays 60% up to $12.99, and 38% above that.
Physical book pricing is simpler. I get a certain amount for sales through Amazon, and a lower amount for sales through third parties such as Barnes & Noble or indie bookstores. Those royalties don’t have artificial ceilings.
I have no problem giving an ebook retailer their fair cut for delivery. I don’t wish to waste my time building and maintaining an ebook store when I could be writing. But the royalty scheme used by the large ebook retailers is clearly aimed at novels.
Companies like Amazon and B&N want self-published novels to be priced under $10. But there’s a definite difference between a 100,000-word novel with a potential audience of millions and a 300,000-word technology book with a potential audience of hundreds.
I cannot afford to spend a year writing a book with 500 expected buyers and sell it for $9.99. The income is not “enough.” Once I raise the price over $9.99, however, my royalty is halved. To raise my income a penny, I must increase the ebook price to over $20.
Unfair? Probably. Unnecessary? I’d say so. But that’s the retailer’s business decision, and I cannot change it, waste my time griping about it, or go on a long rant about how companies X, Y, and Z are destroying all that is good and wholesome in the world. (They aren’t, by the way. But that’s a separate blog post.)
So, for the sake of a purely hypothetical business decision, let me make up some numbers and facts. The pedantic will note that I’m rounding everything to the nearest dollar, but I’m already making up my own numbers, so who cares?
Assume I want to write a hefty book about a hypothetical project, MaguffinBSD. This project will take a year, expenses are minimal, and I have friends, allies, and supporters in the community. I decide that $14,000 gross is “enough”. My research indicates that maybe 500 people will buy the book. (How do I get that number? The community is about 1/10th the size of FreeBSD’s, and Absolute FreeBSD sold about 5000 copies in the first three years, with a dwindling long tail thereafter.) Let’s also assume that the book is up to my usual standards; it’s readable, mostly free of really blatant errors, and so on.
500 customers to raise $14,000 means that I must extract $28 from each buyer.
Option 1: I set the ebook price at $80, and sell it at that price across all platforms. Per various terms of service, the ebook must be priced at least 20% cheaper than the physical book retail price, so the print book is $100. My profit on the physical book is much higher, but sales are much lower.
Option 2: I write four smaller books: “MaguffinBSD, vol 1: Base Configuration,” “vol. 2, services,” “vol. 3, ongoing support,” and “vol 4: stupid MaguffinBSD Tricks.” Each of these books is available at all ebook retailers. I price each at $9.99.
A “MaguffinBSD, vols 1-4″ is available as a print book, with a consolidated index and Table of Contents.
The version that appears in print is available as an ebook via Smashwords, and only Smashwords. It would not go to the other ebook retailers fed by Smashwords. Where you would pay $39.96 to buy each individual volume, I could sell the compendium for $32.
People who want individual volumes have the option to get them. People who want the compendium can get it in any desired format.
Option 3: Kickstarter. I include this because someone’s going to suggest it. I don’t like kickstarting books. Yes, some people do it, but publishing is a business. If I ever hope to make a living at writing, I need to treat it as a business. You can apply this same reasoning to asking for donations.
Model 2 increases my expenses and production time. I must prepare one book five times, in three different formats. But I might pick up some extra readers who are only interested in one or two volumes of the set, so I’ll consider that a wash.
But my gut reaction to model 1 is: oh dear God, NO.
So, my question to you lot is: which model would you accept more? Which would be more offensive? Or should I give up on writing specialty tech books and start writing about Windows, Apple, and Linux?