Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Lessons Learned

Today's topic for bloggerel is, "Lessons Learned." I want to talk about some of the decisions we've made in starting Rampant Loon, why we decided to form a corporation (yes, we own an actual corporation now, so this permits us to sit in our corporation building and act all corporationy, when the mood strikes us), the lessons we've learned from the K&B Booksellers business in general and the Wrath of Angels experience in particular, and why we've chosen to operate as an actual old-school print publisher, and not as a "print-on-demand" or "ebook" publisher.

But rather than gas on about that, I'd also like to try something different today. So I'm throwing it open for questions now, and tonight will update this post with as many answers as I can provide.

What sort of questions would you like to see answered? I mean, besides the obvious one, which is, "Are you daft?"

Update @ 9 P.M.: Thanks for posting a pile of good questions. As promised, here's the Q & A. If you don't mind, rather than tackling your questions individually, I'll aggregate by like topics and answer collectively — except for this one:

Q. What is the average air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

A. About 1100 fps slower than a 12-gauge 3-dram load of #6 shot. Unfortunately, Mike, you completely failed to ask the obvious follow-up question:

Q. What does deep-fried unladen swallow taste like?

A. Chicken. Very tiny chicken.

With that out of the way: first up, we have a very fundamental question.

Q. Why?

A. Because we were looking for a family-owned business to build, and after examining a considerable number of possibilities, this one seemed to play to our strengths (and limits!) best. It's a field we know, a market we think we understand, and we believe there's a need that's being inadequately served at present.

We may be wrong. We expect to find out in the next two years. If it turns out that we are wrong, this is also a business whose failure we can survive.

Q. Can you tell us about the actual process of putting it together i.e. business plans, backing, that type of stuff?

A. Rather than going into detail here, I'll refer you to the book we started with: Business Plans for Dummies. We can discuss this topic more at another time, if you like.

Next, some questions about the mechanics behind The Wrath of Angels.

Q. Did your company print WoA? Do you have an actual print shop, or do you just broker deals with various printers?

A. WoA was published by Castalia House. Strictly speaking it's a self-publishing project, as Castalia is Vox's company and he's their sole author (so far), but I was more deeply involved in it than we generally let on. Vox wrote the book and bought the cover art; I did the internal design and layout and gave it a cursory proofread, but didn't have time for a proper edit. Vox paid for the printing and binding out of his own pocket, while I brokered the deal with the printer and K&B Booksellers handled everything after the books were shipped from the bindery. As K&B, we created the Amazon listing, and we've been handling world-wide order fulfillment ever since. That's not hyperbole; orders for this book truly have come in from all over the world.

I see no sane reason for a publisher to own an actual print shop anymore. Today's technology makes it not just possible but easy to farm the work out to whoever has the capacity and the ability to do it, and so far I've found no difference in quality between a shop a thousand miles away and one in Bloomington. Maybe the one in Tennessee is a little better, even; they seem happier to have the work. Those guys in Bloomington could be real pr**ks, sometimes.

One sticking point: I will only deal with American print vendors. I know that's insufficiently enlightened of me, but it's a decision I'm going to stick to. Just because.

The great part about doing WoA was that we got to have all of our learning experiences on Vox's dime. The not-so-great part is that we didn't have operational control over the project, and as a result were saddled with some decisions that seemed reasonable in the short term but proved costly in the long run. One thing we definitely learned is that every dollar spent on editing and proofreading before you go to press saves at least ten and probably twenty on the back end.

Q. I think there is an untapped market for pseudo-leather covered magazines, and TPBs. Especially if they contain a certificate of authenticity, signed by the writer/cartoonist, in a pocket on the inside of the cover. There, I just made you your first million, if you do it right.

A. Beat you to it. Keep reading.

Q. Just for the record, I only buy hardbound now. Can you do hardcovers?

A. Yes, our vendors claim to have that capacity, but I'm unimpressed by the quality of the samples I've seen thus far. Most seem to be just glue-bound trade paperbacks with thicker cardboard. I'm still searching for a vendor who can do a proper stitched binding and a quality cloth cover in the quantities we need at a price we can tolerate. I may be chasing a snipe.

Q. Is there a market for books anymore? I'm curious as to why you would exclude ebooks. It seems rather like a record company refusing to release their music in any format other than vinyl. That would be... well, looney.

A. Ah, this is a matter of nuance. I didn't say we wouldn't do ebooks; I said we weren't going to be an ebook publisher. That's one of the places where we've learned from observing other people's failures. We've watched quite a few people jump into the business feet first, while loudly proclaiming, "Print is Dead! Long Live the E-Book! We won't harm trees; we're only going to sell e-books!" And most of them have hit the water, made a big splash, and gone straight to the bottom with barely a bubble.

As the previous questions about hardcovers indicate, people like books. They like the tangible object. We will do ebooks; we're just not counting on making any money from them. I'll admit to being resistant at first, but I've seen it demonstrated enough times to see the light and accept the truth. If you give away the ebook free, a small but significant percentage of the downloaders will like it enough to pay good money for the hard copy. (And the ones who don't? Well, they were never your customers anyway — but maybe they'll remember your name and consider buying your next book.)

The mass market of the future is ebooks, and there's no money in it, because you'll never be able to compete with or control all the Pirate Bays of the world. The money, such as it is, is in catering to that limited subset of people who are willing to pay a premium to own the actual artifact. So stop thinking of books as books, Vidad. Think of them as signed, serialized, somewhat thicker than average lithographs.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons why we decided not to go the print-on-demand (POD) route. Aside from the quality control problems and generally "cheap" feeling we've found in most of the POD books we've seen, if you only print a book when a customer orders it, it's almost impossible to get the author to sign it. And people will pay extra for the author's signature: If we'd been able to arrange for Vox to sign every copy of WoA, we could have easily doubled our sales.

Of course, the other reason why we decided not to go the POD route was because we didn't feel like getting anally raped by Amazon.

Oops, out of time. More tomorrow,