Floating business ideas past my readers

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?

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17 Replies to “Floating business ideas past my readers”

  1. Personally, I’ve become a fan of smaller, more tighlty-focused books. It not only keeps the per-book cost down for readers, it also lets them pick and choose which topics are most important to them, so they can get just the books they’ll really care about. A possible bonus for the author is less pressure for any one book, because the amount of content going through the whole process is smaller, and the window of time readers have to wait for it is shorter, but this is something I haven’t yet put to the test.

    I’m not familiar with your work specifically, but the information in this post seems to suggest that this wouldn’t really be an option for you, as it sounds like you’re trying to cover a lot of information about a rather broad topic. I suppose your Option 2 is the closest to what I’d prefer to see, but by making them part of a larger set, you’re making it very clear that you expect people to buy them all, and that (to me) defeats the benefits of having multiple smaller books.

    The most obvious example is A Book Apart, but Make Them Care is working to be another good one. Their books are probably shorter than most topics can manage, but even offerings from (averaging between 200 and 250 pages) or Five Simple Steps (between 250 and 300 pages) seem more focused and approachable. Oddly enough, for two of those publishers, I bought their complete set anyway, even though I didn’t need them all. The books are just so well done that I actively wanted to reward the authors and publishers for doing a great job and trying to find new ways to do this stuff. Rosenfeld even offered a four-book advance purchase plan, which I also picked up, without even knowing which four books I’d get, much less when they’d arrive.

    Whatever you end up with, I wish you nothing but the best. The very fact that you’re asking these questions puts you ahead of the curve in my book, because you genuinely care about your readers. However this crazy industry works out in the next few years, I promise that authors who care about their readers will ultimately be a big part of it.

  2. Thanks, Marty.

    I’ve done OK with small books with wide audiences (e.g., SSH Mastery), but some broad topics really do merit coverage. The trick is to make each book the right length for what it covers.

    And writers who don’t care about their readers won’t live long. No matter what the publishing business does this decade. 🙂

    ==ml

  3. Have you looked at LeanPub.com? It’s very easy to use as a buyer, and their cut taken seems smaller than others, but I haven’t looked into it much from that side. Just wanted to let you know in case you hadn’t heard of them and might be interested

  4. Rob, LeanPub.com (and many similar sites) are fine for people who go shopping there, but won’t get the book wider distribution at better royalty rates. They also require manuscripts in their own XML (MarkDown). I want to write, not hand-code XML. 🙂

  5. Hi,

    Seriously, i think that option one can be possible (Higher price) only if your writes cover admin tasks like for example :
    – Build mail server
    – Build web server
    – secure OpenBSD
    – Firewalling
    – VPN (site-to-site, road-warrior)
    – migrate Windows to OpenBSD (With X support, so a GUI)

    So finally, it is like a training but without instructor. And a price like 100$ for a such print book, it is not so expensive.

    An other idea, i think you have enough knowledges to write it, a tech book that cover BSDP (OpenBSD choice), this kind of book can be easily sold in a range 100-200$.
    Not agree ?


    Wesley

  6. I hadn’t seen LeanPub myself yet, it certainly looks interesting to me at least. For what it’s worth, Michael, Markdown isn’t XML at all, though it’s probably too simplistic for most technical books. I’d rather see something like use reStructuredText instead, but that’s personal preference as well, I suppose.

  7. I think that option 2 clearly outweighs other options. I think you’re likely to enjoy smaller texts as well, although I guess you already know with your SSH book last year. I’ll enjoy reading about the BSD you’re considering, and probably adopt it some places, especially as the filesystem matures and becomes a real competitor to ZFS. Anyway, looking forward to your new series. I’d put off buying an eighty or hundred dollar book for months, maybe years, but I’d pick up ten dollar books on a whim.

  8. It kinda sounds like option 2 is the default you were looking for. $100 is a really high price, and Kickstarter is more oriented towards capital-intensive projects that already have a fanbase that’s big enough for large sales but too diffuse to justify shelf presence.

    I like the idea of smaller books that combine to one larger print book. One of the methods for Kickstarter that I remember reading about was how to price the tiers of product. Have a basic participation item (book), have a ‘deluxe’ item (signed book), and have something ridiculous for a lot of money (signed book with hand-made binding in gold leaf). Having that crazy tier made more people buy the deluxe item, because it wasn’t the top of the list any more and appeared more affordable.

    (I realize I just said Kickstarter wasn’t a good idea and then used it for an example. Don’t expect consistency.) If each of 4 smaller books are $10, I’d say the physical book is worth more than $40. It’s all the content of the smaller books, plus convenience and physicality.

    Somewhat unrelated: if you’re going to have multiple books out in this vein, it might be worth forming a consistent visual identity for them. How would they look next to each other on a shelf, for instance?

    http://www.kanzentai.com/manga.php?id=spines

    Or at least having a similar cover style. As the number of “Michael W. Lucas” books grow in number, it would be nice to have them with recognizable patterns. The same way that O’Reilly books always have vintage illustrations, or the drawings that the No Starch books use.

    http://thingsmagazine.net/projects/1960s/index.htm

    http://www.aisleone.net/2012/design/the-marber-grid/

    That’s a farther-out goal, but I would imagine, with my relatively limited knowledge of publishing, that one of the goals is to establish a larger library of books, so that the long tail of the books selling can provide an income floor, so to speak.

  9. Justin, yes, I’m biased. I think #2 is the better plan. The question is, will my readers think so?

    And yes, I plan for all of the small books to have a similar design. But having an image across the spine of several related books is an interesting idea.

  10. I don’t understand why the full book costs 80 dollars in option #1, whereas in option #2 the entire text is just 32 dollars; would option 2 produce a much shorter book?

    At any rate, I don’t know that at eighty dollars you’re going to find many buyers. The hardcore users of MaguffinBSD probably don’t need such a book, and apart from those hardcore users I doubt MaguffinBSD generates enough interest that a new or prospective user is going to buy an eighty dollar book.

    As for kickstarter or crowdfunding in general, let me point out that the very useful Debian Administrator’s Handbook had a tough time reaching its 20,000 euro goal. I would assume that a BSD-specific book would have an even harder time.

  11. I’d go with Option 2, which is probably exactly what you were expecting, so let me give you another reason for your arsenal.

    One of the best things about ebooks is their flexibility; you’ll open up your potential reader base. Consider:

    Person A wants to read the entirety of the MacGuffin series. They have a certain price that they are willing to pay to do so. That price will vary for each iteration of Person A, but in each case, either the selling price will be acceptable to them and they’ll buy the book, or it won’t and they won’t. If they are willing to pay $80, then they’re probably going to be willing to pay half that. If they are willing to pay $40, then they are less likely to be willing to pay twice that, because their maximum price could be between $40 and $79.

    Person B isn’t sure if MacGuffinBSD is for them, and would like to try it before committing fully. They have a number of options, not all of which are legal, but by splitting the series up you’ve given them one additional option– drop $10 on one of the volumes and see if they like it. For many people, $10 is an acceptable price for an experiment, which is how it got to be the default price point for novels. If they don’t like it, then you’ve lost nothing, because People B are unlikely to spend the $$ for the full set, even if it were only $40 instead of $80. If they do like it, then they’ll feel comfortable buying more volumes in the MacGuffin series. Or maybe they’ll decide that MacGuffinBSD doesn’t solve the problem they were trying to solve, but they like the author’s style and will start looking at your other books.

    Person C knows exactly what they need, and possibly already uses MacGuffinBSD, but is having a specific problem with a specific aspect of MacGuffinBSD. They don’t want a full “How to use MacGuffinBSD from start to finish” book, though they may buy one if they are desperate enough and have no other options. They’d be much happier with a smaller book that addresses the problem they need to solve. Sure, you might be able to get the full-book price out of them if they were desperate, but all it takes to lose them is one other person coming along and publishing a smaller book about their specific problem.

    With Option 1, you’ll get Person A, provided that the $80 price is at or below Person A’s maximum threshold, and you’ll get Person C, provided that they are desperate enough to pay $80. Person B will walk away and not look back.

    With Option 3, you’ll get Person A, provided that they are willing to pay Kickstarter and wait instead of buying it right then and there. Depending on your price points in Kickstarter, you may or may not get Person B. Person C will likely walk away, because they have a problem to solve NOW, not in six months when you finally get them the book (unless there is literally NO other option for them, AND they can bubblegum-and-bailing-wire things together while they wait for you to finish.)

    Option 2 gives you all of them.

  12. Sorry this is so late. I also favor option #2. To add to what Amanda and others wrote very well above, it will also be easier to expense your writing for those that work at companies. $80 books are possible but look more like expensing university textbooks on a company dime…

    I am looking forward to the new works, Michael!

  13. Michael, please reconsider LeanPub. My situation is very much like yours. I have my novels and my conventional non-fiction books, but I wanted to publish about experiential learning, a topic for which I have more than 1/2 century of experience. The audience is limited, and I did the analysis you’ve done above. with encouragement from some LeanPub published friends, I decided to make the book into three smaller books at $20 each. I get $17.50 for each one sold, and in two months so far, I’ve earned about $2,000 on the first volume: Experiential Learning Beginning.

    Yes, markup is a PITA, but finite. I’m doing the second volume now, and do the markup conversion when I’m feeling too flat to create anything new. It’s not interfering with my fiction and nonfiction writing.

    I’d say give them a try. They don’t tie you up. You could pull a book at any time. And, you can release the book incrementally.

    Take a look, and mention my name. (I may get some reward from sending you there, but I’ll split it with you, if there is any.)

  14. I’m still a paper book person, so I’d go for the print option … but at $100 (option 1) I’d give it a miss. I do like your stuff, but that’s too much.

    How much are you saying the print/paper version is in option 2?

  15. Hello there. I just received your new book SSH Mastery last week and I think it is a great reference.

    Personally, the idea of smaller, more topic-centric books such as your latest SSH Mastery would really be welcome. One area I can think of off the top of my head is FreeBSD’s ZFS and GEOM Utilities. -A fan

  16. As one of the 5,000 readers, I’ll throw out what I hope or expect from one of my favorite sysadmin technical authors. A little background first, I’ve read all of your technical books except for the 1st edition books for which you have a 2nd edition published. Also, I think I emailed you once about advice on being a good sysadmin and even got a reply! Something about working a lot and carrying around a notebook.

    Getting back to your question, I would no longer be reading your books if you went with option 1. I cannot justify paying $80 for an ebook and despite the fact that I have read all of your books and thoroughly enjoyed reading them, a Michael Lucas book is not worth $100 to me. At best, I would have to wait until I could find a used copy for no more that $60 which is about what your most expensive book costs new right now.

    Personally I hope you go with option 2. I can continue to read everything you write if it is priced at $10 a pop. Also, I can see a couple situations in which it would be better than option 1, although not necessarily from a financial perspective. Take one of your big books like “Absolute FreeBSD” as an example. From my perspective, it takes forever for you to finish your next book, or about 18 months. If I could get my hands on 25% of the book every four or five months, it keeps me happy and interested, plus it reminds me that you are still coming out with books. I don’t know if your writing style is such that you write chronologically and can publish the volumes as you go, or if you don’t know the final layout of the chapters and their content until the book is finished. If it is the latter, then ignore this paragraph since it sounds like all four volumes would be released only when the entire book is finished. Another advantage of option 2 is that you can judge the size of the market for a given topic, assuming again that you publish the volumes as you go. For instance, assume that the purchase distribution of the four volumes of a book is 100% of readers buy the 1st volume, 80% buy the 2nd, 60% the 3rd, and only 40% buy the 4th volume. If after publishing the 1st volume on the topic you find that the readership is only 200 readers instead of 500 readers, you can skip the next three volumes if you don’t deem it to be worth your time. As a reader I wouldn’t be upset if I only got the first five chapters of “Absolute FreeBSD” since it would look and feel just like one of your small books and I wouldn’t know that I’m missing the other 15 chapters.

    Also, option 2 makes it easier for me to recommend your books. The way I recommend your books is as follows. I get a green junior admin and the first thing I have him do is read any of Sobell’s Linux/Unix books. Sorry but your books are too advanced for the new guys when they first start working. If they finish one of those books and still have an interest in linux/unix then I usually try to push them towards a Michael Lucas book. This is a hard sell sometimes when “Absolute FreeBSD” costs $40-$60 and these guys don’t even know if they’ll like your book. If they could read the first quarter of the book for $10 then I think I could get a lot more people to read the first volume of the book. As for the other three volumes or 75% of the book, that would be up to the individual to decide.

    Anyways, I love your books and wish you would stop focusing on the fiction so you can write more of your technical books. The gap between the netflow book and the ssh book was too big and I assume it was because of all the fiction you published in between there.

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