180 pages, dozens of
illustrations. Perfect for kids 8+ to read on their own, or 5+ as a bedtime story.

Running a book like a startup

June 2012

Sometime last night, a reader in Europe bought the 2,000th copy of Lauren Ipsum. For a self-published computer science book with a tiny marketing budget, making it into the top 0.5% of books sold on Amazon isn't bad at all.

We are in a special time in publishing. Harry Potter, bless his heart, got a new generation of kids interested in reading. A half-dozen ebook platforms are falling all over themselves to get writers to work with them directly. The tools to produce a book are free and you can hire the expertise to use them cheap.

Marginal Revolution

Aside from a handful of important pitfalls, the deal for writers has never been better. Before you'd get a dollar or two per copy on a fifteen-dollar book. Worse, success would be highly dependent on your publisher's patience, marketing, and general competence. Now your margin can be 6 dollars on that same book sale, and it doesn't have to be a blockbuster right out of the gate.

You either play the blues, or sing in a high voice

Charles Stross has an excellent series of posts on how the traditional publishing industry works. He doesn't quite put it this way, but an author signing with a publisher is equivalent to taking on a heavy equity partner in your business. All of the decisions Stross has made, from Procrustean cuts to his books to selling territorial rights piecemeal, make perfect sense — within the framework he's already accepted. He has a partner, and decisions are no longer solely his to make.

Self-publishing means I have much wider freedom of movement. Keeping the worldwide rights avoids painting myself into a corner down the road. Ipsum shipped approximately 5 minutes after I was happy with it, and about six months earlier than it would have with a publisher in on the deal.

I can try experiments that otherwise I could not

For example, in April we started giving away a copy of Ipsum for every copy sold. Your publisher would have to be pretty enlightened to even consider that. We've given away almost two hundred copies so far, and there are hundreds more available. There is a large shipment of free copies on its way to Canada, where Heather Payne will distribute them to her Girls Learning Code and a bunch of schools and libraries.

A few university professors have asked about making an "Annotated Ipsum" for use in the classroom. Maybe that's a dumb idea, maybe it isn't. The point is I don't have to ask anyone's permission before trying it out.

The non-best-selling best-seller

My goal was to reach 5,000 copies sold in the first year. I did talk with a few publishers, and they all agreed that 5K is a respectable outcome for a children's book about computer science. More than halfway in we're less than halfway there, but things are looking good.


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