Friday, November 11, 2005

Me, James Joyce and Nora Barnacle

In an earlier post I looked at the unpublished writer's chances of producing an online best seller using a blog as the marketing platform. A number of issues have surfaced as a result.

First off, The Grumpy Old Bookman (who seems to be mellowing alarmingly by the day incidentally) pointed out that it doesn't matter what platform you use your book still has to possess the "wow" factor if it is going to sell in commercial quantities. I'll accept that fundamental qualification as a given, and later maybe take a look at how to achieve it.

Secondly, Teresa Neilsen Hayden of the blog Making Light kindly informed me that 15-20,000 copies in paperback was the minimum commissioning requirement for the traditional mainstream publisher. I've taken a peek over at Making Light and there is some serious brainpower at work over there so I'm certainly not going to challenge her figures. However, as an aside I would be willing to bet that the figure is derived from some sort of breakeven analysis whereby the graph of the projected sales figure crosses the cost of production (a function of fixed and variable overheads, including marketing and delivery). As a matter of interest, I believe that the economic assumptions the publishing trade use to justify these numbers are seriously flawed. Economists have won Nobel prizes for their work on costing, breakeven analysis and profit maximisation. Unfortunately, accountants, particularly cost accountants, remain largely ignorant of, or choose to ignore, this fascinating body of work. Ask me about value destruction in the airline industry for an eye-popping example. From the aspiring writer's perspective, however, the economics of traditional publishing is also a debate for another day.

Let's just state here that the economics of online publishing (esp Read On Demand) differ by an order of magnitude from traditional publishing. The cost of producing one book is next to zero. The marginal cost to the same publisher of producing further books is even closer to zero.

Instead, let us focus on the best place to publish from the writer's point of view. And, pace GOB, let's assume that the basic product is at least readable.

First off, the aspiring novelist needs to compare the merits of publising his/her masterpiece in the traditional marketplace against the new medium of online publishing.

Let's take the traditional marketplace first:

Primarily, you need to ask yourself, are 20,000 people likely to put their hands in their pockets and actually buy your masterpiece? You think so? Why? What is it about your book that differentiates it in the consumer's eye from all the other distractions competing for share of mind and wallet?

Secondly, how are you going to convince an agent or publisher that your book will sell in these quantities?

Supposing you're a new writer called, say, James Joyce and you've just spent years labouring over a novel titled Finnegan's Wake. Be honest, now, James, is the answer to both the questions posed above really yes? 20,000 people? Hand on heart? No? Okay, Jim, what are you going to do instead?

One answer might be to send your precious mss off to a small publisher whose approach to bookselling is based less on raw economics. Maybe this publisher has lower overheads, values literary merit higher and is less wedded to the profit motive. The tradeoff, tho', is that your sales are likely to be a lot lower. What's Nora going to say about that, she's always banging on about the amount you give her for housekeeping as it is? To make matters worse, at some point in the near future your publisher is probably going to go bust thanks to cash flow problems caused by the fact that most of the books he's commissioned simply haven't found an audience.

So Jim, your publisher's gone bust, you still haven't received that first royalty cheque, and Nora wants a new dress. What now?

How about trying Online Publishing. With a name like yours that must be worth a few hits from Technorati in itself. Then there's the expat Irish community. Not to mention all those Eng Lit types looking for a topic for their next PhD. I'm sure they'd all buy a copy of your book. In fact, I think we can develop a profitable little niche market here without too much trouble.

But what if your name's not James Joyce? What if it's Bob Joyce for example? Bob, I think you have a problem.

No-one one has queried the metrics I proposed in an earlier post of the sales we could expect to derive from visitors to our blog. So, Bob, if you want to make 20,000 sales of your difficult-to-read masterpiece "Vinegar's Awake" how many regular visitors will you need to attract to your slightly-easier-to-read blog. The answer, as we know, is 40,000 visitors. A day. Every day.

Bob, I don't care if your name is James Joyce. You're never going to attract that many readers to your website, no matter how good a writer you are. If you get fifty you'll be doing well. Which means you might sell 25 copies of your book.

There has to be a better way.

In the meantime, Bob, my advice to you is to change your name to Dan Brown and send Nora out to work. Oh, and you might make your next book a little more readable while you're at it.


  1. Anonymous8:17 pm

    Do you really think we don't know our own numbers? Economists may have "won Nobel prizes for their work on costing, breakeven analysis and profit maximisation," but as an industry we live and die by our grasp of those issues.


  2. Well, the accountants that ran PanAm, United Airlines, Northwest, Delta etc etc don't seem to have put their grasp of these issues to very good effect.

    On the other hand, I believe Michael O'Leary is an accountant, isn't he?

    The point is, even when confronted with evidence that their business model wasn't working - and despite their knowledge of economic theory - these guys still ran their businesses in the same old way. And look what happened.

  3. Anonymous6:54 am

    Are you trying to argue that your plan will too work? You don't need my agreement or approval to go ahead with it.


  4. That's where you are sooo wrong, TNH. If I don't get your approval or agreement I will tank my idea without a second thought.

    So you see, it's always a mistake to make assumptions about what other people are thinking, even if you are a lot cleverer than me. No pressure on you then.

    To make matters worse, your last two comments have had the unfortunate side-effect of making me think about what I'm trying to do with this blog. And I hate thinking. It makes my brain hurt.

    In the next couple of posts I'll try and address some of the issues you've raised. I'm thinking about them now with a heavy heart because I know you're going to come right back and shoot me down in flames.

    There are times when I wish I had never started this blog.