As writers, we seek to develop a relationship with our readers. It can be a relationship of service, one that entertains, one that informs or that argues, among others. Without the relationship, there’s no next step, no story to be told. If you can’t keep the reader’s attention on the first page, they won’t get to the second. The same principle applies on the Web as you sell your book, e-book or site. Publishers share this burden and, if the wish to thrive in the post paper-centric world, will likely focus on this aspect of the reader-author relationship as a key value proposition.
In recent days, I’ve seen a half dozen new places for authors to sell books or list their work in some way in order to be found. Beyond the obvious search engine optimization (SEO) how-to business questions that are answered by other blogs, the proliferation of potential places of presence online confronts the author or publisher with critical questions about how to divide the time and financial resources they have available.
Early in the social media marketing discussion, there was an assumption that a brand had to be everywhere, on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed, and a thousand other sites, but now we recognize that the “tradigital,” which mixes evangelical engagement with customers and judicious use of social networking where the return justifies the investment, is the viable route to profitable use of social media (see my good friend David Churbuck’s blog for a smart Web marketing perspective). Disclosure: David is the executive in who retains my company’s consulting services for Lenovo.
The temptation among authors and publishers is to say the same is true, that one must be everywhere a social connection might be made. For most of the companies launching book listings and other sales-enabling services, the justification of their existence depends on writers making that assumption. Services become checklist items authors want to see on a publisher’s marketing plan, and individual authors/self-publishers can be suckered into spending exorbitantly to get their book seen by readers with no tangible way to measure the results. Indeed, it is certain that one should have a book or e-book listed on the major retailers’ Web stores. It would be stupid not to be on Amazon.com, BN.com, Powell Books, Scribd, and other sites, yet there are certainly other venues where being present will yield some sales. How to judge those opporunities?
Let’s consider a sample of potential listing services and ecommerce deals in recent days. The Association of American University Presses announced it had made a deal with iPublishCentral to place books published by its 130 member publishers on the site. As a publisher-level deal, it makes adding a presence for scholarly and other university press-published authors automatic. It may or may not be a driver of significant sales. It has the virtue of being transparent to those authors, another venue in which they can potentially sell some copies. Likewise, Transaction Publishers launched an online bookstore, which gives its authors one more presence they can sell through, though no enhanced services that let them talk directly with their readers.
Another breed of service has appeared, as well. The other day I wrote about Publetariat, which charges authors $10 a month to list the rights to works they’d like to license or sell. Despite the decidedly Maoist imagery used by Publetariat, it’s very much a modern capitalist venture that makes customers of the author. Yesterday, Jexbo came across my radar, offering a marketplace that allows authors to enter into conversation with readers. Jexbo’s site explains that it is a “no-cost marketing [service] for self-published authors” that charges 99 cents a month to list a paper or e-book book for sale.
As a provider of service to the author in this age of social visibility, both Publetariat and Jexbo need to be very forthright and transparent about the progress they are making in building their traffic and successfully creating sales. They also need to be clear that their fees, while they may be comparatively low in contrast to using an agent to sell rights or selling a book on Amazon, are being put at risk by the author. There is no such thing as no-cost marketing, after all, as I could decide to spend my time using Twitter and Facebook to promote a book.
I asked Jexbo founder Jill Exler about the value her site provides:
99¢ per month to list a book on jexbo is a reasonable price, and it includes free bookmarks that give the name of the book listed along with “Buy my book at www.jexbo.com” to help the writers market their books themselves. There is a 5% fee per book which goes to jexbo, but that gives 95% of the sales price to the seller, which is by far the highest amount that the seller receives compared to the other sites.
I responded by asking about the real cost of the service if, as many self-publishers do, the author placing a book on her site sells only one to six books in a year. Say I list an book for $4.99. After paying the fee to Jexbo for listing and the five percent share of the sale ($0.25), the total fee is $1.24 or 25 percent of revenue. And, by contrast to a site like Amazon or Scribd, I do have an up-front cost when listing with Jexbo. If I did not sell a single copy all year, I’m out $11.88.
Sure, $11.88 isn’t much money, but it’s more than I earned from the service if I didn’t sell any books. Jill responded with a calculation based on the much more optimistic scenario where authors sell one book a month, which I hope she will help people who list books at Jexbo do:
I’ve done some math using the figures you gave – $4.99 for a book listed, and with the assumption of 1 book sold per month, that would cost you $14.87 per year on jexbo (which is 24.8%), and $23.95 on a site which was free to list but took 40%. If the retailer takes a greater than 40% cut, that figure would go up.
There are a lot of choices for self-published authors to sell their books themselves, and I’m working to make jexbo a cost-effective tool for them, as well as an easy-to-use site for readers looking for unique books to purchase.
The problem with this scenario, which is a kind of splitting the difference from my one-book-sold scenario is that if you split the difference again, and assume the author sells three books in a year, the cost is almost the same as paying a higher share of revenue after a sale at a retailer’s Web site. I do think Jill Exler is working hard to make the business work and wish her luck with it. This article isn’t meant as a knock on any of the services mentioned.
Here is what I urge anyone seeking to sell services to authors and publishers to do:
- Be open and upfront about the costs and risks of the service;
- Tell customers (authors and/or publishers) how you are meeting your traffic and sales generation goals with their help—make transparency the hallmark of a community effort to grow the service;
- In addition to blogging and newsletters, think about how to use search marketing to drive traffic by picking identifiable market segments (some folks call them “verticals,” which sounds good in a meeting but doesn’t really apply in markets where the horizontal and ancillary marketing opportunity rule—Mike Shatzkin has a good posting on this today, by the way, which comes down on the side of “verticals” but acknowledges the challenges of horizontal markets);
- Focus on communication as the service that brings authors and readers together.
That last feature, communication-as-a-service, is what struck me as interesting about both Jexbo and Publetariat.
As a writer, I instinctively stay away from services that charge authors up front. It feels too much like the “will read and improve your manuscript” ads that fill the back pages of writers’ magazines. From the perspective of a publisher, I would measure carefully the potential returns against the upfront cost of a service I would invest in for authors, and that requires lots more information than I have from these sites. The amount of information available can change, which is why these are companies worth watching.