Thursday, 31 March 2011

Business Bestsellers - An Unachievable Dream?

I just came across a BBC feature article that looked interesting:

The writer, James Melik, looks at the growing number of business books that comprise nothing more than hyped up twaddle and the idea that setting outrageous goals is the key to success.

As a publisher, we don't only see the books that actually make it into print, mainly because of the author's existing fame, we also see the manuscript submissions that promise to make us millionaires with the latest best-seller.

Here are one author's words on the subject; "The best selling copies have achieved even more than 50million copies.. Please check your sources carefully. I dream big and act big so I prefer to work with like minded people, not people that even doubt the sale of a few million copies."

If you are an aspiring author with similarly ambitious goals then please consider that thinking big within some realistic boundaries can help you to focus your efforts and achieve your dreams faster. The goal here is not to do something unthinkable that has never been done before, such as putting man on the moon or climbing Everest, it is to achieve something within the boundaries of what exists today - the worldwide book and ebook market. Books have been sold before, the market is clearly defined and others have covered your subject before you. Even the 'digital revolution' makes only a tiny shift in the industry, lowering barriers to entry and flooding the low end of the market with poor quality self published titles. Of course, in that flood is an occasional nugget of gold too.

The best selling business book of all time has sold around 26 Million copies ( since 1998 - that's 2 Million copies per year.

Dale Carnegie's 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' has sold just over 15 Million copies since 1936 - 200,000 copies per year.

What Colour is Your Parachute? has sold 10 Million copies since 1970 - 245,000 copies per year.

If Richard Branson, Donald Trump or Bill Gates wrote a book on business (which they all have) then readers will say, "Ah! There's someone who obviously knows a lot about business!"

What sells a book is not the quality of the book itself; as with any product, sales are down to how well known the author already is (past reputation) and how much money is spent on marketing the book to get it in front of potential readers (future reputation).

The quality of the book is not what makes someone BUY it, the quality simply makes someone READ it. How many books on your bookshelf are still unread? How many life changing products are in your kitchen drawer unused? How many clothes are in your wardrobe with the tags still on? What makes us buy something is very different to what makes us use it - and recommend it to our friends.

If Richard Branson wrote a book on raising chickens, he would sell some books based on his past reputation because people would be curious, but he would need to invest heavily in his future reputation to prove to people that he had experience in this area and should be regarded as a credible source.

What is it that tells your potential readers that you are a credible source of business information when they could buy Donald Trump's book, or the books of a dozen other self made Millionaires and Billionaires?

Personally, we would not recommend that anyone takes the advice of someone with that big a comb-over. Obviously, he's so rich that people are afraid to tell him how it looks.

To get the kind of marketing exposure and therefore investment that will overcome the problem that not many people have heard about you requires a major publishing house to see a return on that investment. By not seeing your book as an investment that you are selling, but rather a fantastic idea that you are excited and optimistic about, I suggest that you won't get very far with the major publishing houses.

The best advice that I can give you is to watch a TV program on the internet, if your connection speed permits. It is BBC TV's Dragon's Den, and if you look at the reasons that the 'Dragons' invest their money, you will understand how to pitch your book.

A publisher doesn't really care how wonderful your idea is. A publisher is an investor, and any good investor is interested in returns, not potential.

Of course we'd love our books to sell in the millions, who wouldn't? You just need to remember that high sales come at a price...

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

ebook adventures

We've been working long and hard to get two new ebook formats into production; Amazon's Kindle format and Apple's iBooks format. They're similar but different enough to create a whole host of file conversion problems.

Some of this post is rather technical, which is aimed at anyone who is having similar problems and understands what we're babbling about.

Our first ebook release is The Pitching Bible by Paul Boross. It's a 70,000 word book with around 100 images, so it was quite a challenge to format it correctly.

ebook readers such as iPads, Kindles and a whole host of less popular devices as well as software readers for PCs share a fundamental design principle; they display text. Because the file format used for web pages, HTML, is a ubiquitous and simple text formatting language, it's perfect for use in ebook readers. An ebook is essentially a mini website stored locally on the ebook reader. Whilst Apple's iPad is a complex product capable of displaying many different file formats on its high definition screen, Amazon's Kindle uses e-ink technology. Its power consumption is tiny, giving you enough battery life to last through your summer holiday, but it can only display text and greyscale images.

The majority of ebooks are text only, so support for images in an ebook format is actually quite messy.

Here's the meandering and torturous route that we took to finally get everything working.

First; Amazon. Amazon like to hold their cards very close, so they let you upload a 'raw' HTML file which they kindly convert for you. A helpful hand? Maybe, or another way to look at it is that all Kindle conversions go through Amazon which means that they have total control over distribution and therefore royalties. You can't load an ebook onto your Kindle without going through Amazon. Whilst we could debate Amazon's business practices, from a technical point of view, this ebook was relatively easy to set up. The only downside is that you can't fiddle with the formatting; once it's uploaded, you have to wait for it to be approved before you can then upload a revised file, so if the formatting isn't quite right then it's easier just to leave it alone. Amazon don't make life easy when you're a perfectionist.

Apple's iBooks are far more complex. Apple use a 'standard' format called epub which, apparently, is the future of the ebook format. It's much more complex, so what can it do that good old HTML can't? So far, we can't find anything. It is, however, much more difficult to set up.

We use OpenOffice for the actual writing and formatting, and export the book as a HTML file. Then we used a piece of software called eCub to convert the HTML book to an epub file. Then we used another piece of software called epubchecker to tell us everything that was wrong with the ebook. Finally, a piece of software called Sigil allowed us to make the changes to correct the errors.

We went through about 20 file conversions before realising that the strange and meaningless errors displayed by the iPad were caused by exporting the book from OpenOffice as HTML instead of the more complex XHTML, even though eCub is supposed to convert HTML to epub. An epub file is actually just a renamed XHTML file, with all of the supporting files such as images packed inside.

OpenOffice fills the exported XHTML files with an unbelieveable amount of junk; formatting and styles, peculiar 'span' tags that only contain apostrophes and other miscellany. This creates two problems. Firstly, all of this hidden text doubles the file size. Secondly, the hidden text isn't actually hidden. Whereas a web browser wouldn't display all of the formatting, the iPad displays lots and lots of empty space instead. So, we went through and manually took all of the unecessary formatting out. Perfect!

The next problem was images. We create images for books using Inkscape, a SVG drawing program. Images are output in .png format and imported into OpenOffice. Being lazy, I make the images bigger than necessary and size them in OpenOffice so that their resolution is always more than 600dpi for printing. The problem with this is that when OpenOffice converts the file to HTML or XHTML it exports them at full size with image 'width' and 'height' tags to resize them. On the iPad, the images looked terrible. The first solution I tried was to resize all of the images manually and then take out the width and height attributes of the 'img' tag, however this just resulted in the iPad not being able to display the book at all. So we bit the bullet and re-inserted all of the images back into OpenOffice at the correct size so that OpenOffice would format them at 100% of their original size. In OpenOffice, the images were tiny and most were completely illegible. Yet when exported to XHTML, they all displayed at the correct, glorious size. In future, we'll be creating images at just the right size in the original document.

Once we had the image size issue fixed, we went through the OpenOffice - eCub - epubchecker - Sigil sausage machine again and the iPad opened the epub file perfectly.

So, finally, we have our first working epub iBook. The next challenge is to get Apple to accept it into the iBookstore, so we'll keep you posted with our continuing adventures.