Book Publishing Secrets – Beauty is Never as Important as Marketing

Time spent fussing to make a book look perfect might be better spent fussing over finding a readership. Without a readership, a great looking book is just a coffee table showpiece for the holiday party. And I can think of a lot cheaper ways to put something nice on a coffee table.

I run a Print-on-Demand discussion group on Yahoo. Print-on-Demand (POD) is an exciting technology because it empowers businesses (and writers) to rethink the publishing business model without worrying about paying for books that are held in inventory when they are sold. With POD, you sell the books one by one, as they are printed.

While POD is a great avenue for entrepreneurs to explore, some “POD fanatics” fall into the hype that “POD is going to change everything.” The idea that new technologies level playing fields while large corporations tremble in fear is totally overblown. In a recent entry on this site, I write more about the realistic possibilities of POD and take a few shots at the POD-will-change-everything crowd.

POD is certainly relevant to the themes of my upcoming book Free From Corporate America, and that is why I am writing a bit on this theme here. Recently, I received an email from someone in my POD group that highlighted some misconceptions about book marketing that are relevant to consider here.

The argument between this other list member and myself was partially centered on the design and appearance issue. This person is a designer, and he has a very well-thought point of view on the importance of making books look professional and aesthetically pleasing. He feels that many POD publishers — especially those who design books in Microsoft Word – are releasing books that suffer enough in appearance that it hurts their marketability.

This leads to a fascinating debate that gets a little less fascinating the hundredth time you have it: how important is interior design and appearance to book sales? There is a secondary question, about whether or not you can achieve a professional look within Microsoft Word, and I’ll consider that question also.

With that context in mind, let’s take a look at the email interaction I had with this individual. In part, his email to me said:

“OK, lets talk marketing. I contend the following:

1. The most cost-effective marketing tool for many/most small and self-publishers is a review in one of the big prepub reviews.

2. A book that looks amateurish, e.g., laid out in MSWord, won’t get a review.

3. Therefore a mediocre layout with the tell-tale MSWord indicators is a detriment to effective marketing.

Is it possible to sell a book with mediocre layout? Of course. My wife bought a book laid out ragged right in Courier, just because it was in one of her favorite genres. But I believe in making every aspect as good as possible, and catching every sale possible. That means quality writing, careful editing, a good cover, indexing where that is appropriate, quality layout, seeking prepub reviews, working the Amazon review scene, creating a blog, and so on. Focusing on one aspect does not excuse neglecting the others.”

My email response focused mostly on the prepub review concept. I said:

“As for your assertion that the most cost-effective marketing tool for many/most small and self-publishers is a review in one of the big prepub reviews, I completely disagree. The best marketing tool is an effective, high traffic web site. One review, even a major one, will not sustain anything, nor does huge one time exposure lead to sales. A sustained marketing channel via the Internet, and a successful, high traffic web site, is best. There is such a thing as a “good enough” layout for a book that is well marketed and there are many arguments for not having your work stuck in a design program when it comes to making revisions and such.”

In many ways, this response was not detailed enough to address his points. Let’s take a step back and see what the key issues are in his argument.

First, his argument assumes that any book laid out in Microsoft Word is going to be perceived as amateurish in layout. I don’t agree with that. However, he is certainly right that laying out books in MSWord can lead inexperienced publishers into sloppy layouts if they are not well-versed on book design principles.

It is the lack of knowledge of book design, rather than inherent flaws in Microsoft Word, that lead to substandard book layouts. However, any startup publisher that takes the time to read Aaron Shepard’s book on laying out books in Microsoft Word, and also backs that knowledge up with mastery of other book design principles, can certainly issue a book that does not reveal itself to be unprofessional by a reviewer.

One of the problems with the “MSWord means no book reviews” perspective is that no one designs their book covers in Word. I would argue that an amateurish cover design is far more likely to have a negative impact on book reviewers than an MS Word interior.

The other thing that is missing from our discussion is the reality that most of the big prepub reviewers can tell that you are a small publisher based on your ISBN block. ISBNs are sold in blocks of 10, 100, and 1,000. Most POD publishers start with 10, or at most, 100. It’s those small ISBN blocks that reveal the size of the publishing house.

I have heard some difference in opinion in terms of how much you flag yourself as a small publisher through ISBN blocks, or how much reviewers notice this at all, but the bottom line is the book reviewers are biased towards reviewing books from presses they have heard of, from publishing houses that are generally respected, whether that reputation is deserved or not. It’s your market reputation as a publisher, more than anything, that wins you reviews.

There is a misconception that the fact that your book is a POD book hurts you with reviewers. What hurts you more is the name recognition (or lack thereof) of your publishing house, rather than how you print your books. Whether you print your books in groups of 1,000 or one a time does not impact your review chances as much as whether you are a small self-publisher or a large press.

Quality of print job is also a consideration. POD printing is still not up to the quality that we see from an “offset” print run. So this person’s warning about MSWord doesn’t take into account that no matter how good your layout program is, POD printing is still going to be of a lesser quality in most cases than a good offset printing job.

However, this is not something to be discouraged about. I am not convinced that prepub reviewers would rule your book out if your look and feel was a bit off the industry norm. I’ve seen some paperbacks from large publishers that didn’t look so hot either. I do think it’s important to lay your book out as well as you can, but my original point, that there is such a thing as a “good enough” layout, still stands.

While I don’t think that a book laid out in MSWord necessarily hurts you with the prepub gauntlet, I don’t believe prepub reviews are the key to sales for a small publisher anyhow. I would trade a full page spread in the New York Times Book Review for a high volume web site anyday.

A high traffic web site is the key to long term book sales. I learned this the hard way. Resumes from Hell, my second book, has gotten some awesome media exposure. But it did not lead to enormous sales because it was not sitting in the front of every bookstore, ready to capitalize on the “stumble factor” of those who had heard of the book from our publicity.

On the other hand, my first book, The SAP Consultant Handbook, has done very well in sales, without ever having national publicity. The key to sales? Sustained sales volume based on exposure of my work on high traffic web sites. The SAP Consultant Handbook was laid out in MSWord, and its cover was designed in PowerPoint. For the business readers I am targeting, the book is attractive enough. It wouldn’t win any design awards, but that’s not the point. The point is that the book has been a profit center for years and continues to be so.

I always knew that Resumes from Hell needed a better book design than I could get from MSWord. A better way of expressing it might be to say that it needed a better look and feel than I could give it. We hired a professional designer for this one, and the book has illustrations and a fantastic cover design to boot.

Resumes from Hell is a great looking book. It looks far better than the SAP book, which looks fine also. But Resumes from Hell just looks really, really good. However, the SAP book continues to outsell Resumes from Hell, despite its inferior design. There are loads of business lessons here that apply to all kinds of contexts, and I won’t insult the reader by spelling them all out here.

Obviously, there is a time and a place for a beautifully designed book interior. I think the real issue is that every book has a different need in terms of design and marketing. Publicity and reviews can be a help, but only if they are leveraged properly. That means putting all the exposure in the context of an Internet-based marketing strategy.

Talk show appearances might be part of the marketing plan also. But getting the web site active first is the key to taking the best advantage of further exposure. Time spent fussing to make a book look perfect might be better spent fussing over finding a readership. Without a readership, a great looking book is just a coffee table showpiece for the holiday party. And I can think of a lot cheaper ways to put something nice on a coffee table than to waste time and resources on a publishing venture that turns out to be a vanity project.

In my upcoming book Free From Corporate America, I talk a lot about the importance of marketing and identifying your audience. The idea is not to diminish other key tasks, but to put sales and marketing at the center. The same is true of a publishing venture. I would never dismiss a commitment to quality and attention to detail. But I would say that too many of us focus on the wrong things.

When we prioritize things the wrong way, we end up with pretty things we can’t sell. A lot of times, the things that sell best are a little bit ugly. My dreamiest and most elegant writing has never sold as well as my practical business commentary. I don’t like this any more than any other sensitive artist, but itâ’s a fact we can either face or go broke running away from.

Interestingly enough, right after I finished this entry, I read an update from Timothy Sykes on how his major publicity campaign was going. Timothy Sykes, as you’ll recall, was the subject of my “good and bad aspects of POD publishing” piece I posted a couple months ago. In that piece, I wrote that “I think Timothy will be shocked at how few book sales he gets on Amazon after major interviews and publicity pushes.”

In another self-publishing blog comment, Timothy recently noted exactly that. Looking back on his successful, high-profile campaigns, Timothy said, “For my book ‘An American Hedge Fund,’ I was shocked to discover that the 200+ pre-release blurbs, the 100 blog reviews and 3 mainstream reviews have done little to help sales.”

As I’ve noted, this does not mean that there isn’t a time and place for a savvy publicity campaign. But if we treat each book as a profit center, which I believe we should, then a big campaign can set us back $10,000 or more – and it takes a lot of book sales to make that kind of money up. For true profitability, for most POD book titles, an Internet-based marketing strategy is the only one that usually makes sense.

The book publishing business can be very rewarding, whether or not you move a lot of titles. But I believe the most successful self-publishers worry less about looking good and getting huge PR, and more about connecting to their target market online and presenting their books as part of some kind of Internet-based value proposition they have already developed in collaboration with their intended audience.

Want to buy Free From Corporate America or see reviews of the final published version from readers like yourself? The printed book is now available on with product reviews.

You can also get a discounted version of the final book in eBook (PDF) format, or you can pick up a copy on the Kindle. The published version of the book is significantly enhanced from the web version available on this site.

4 thoughts on “Book Publishing Secrets – Beauty is Never as Important as Marketing

  1. As a writer, I too am skeptical of the “POD is going to change everything” mentality of some folks: How can you guarantee your book will not be lumped into the same category as every other amateur who wants to see their name in print? Creating a high-traffic web site, as you suggest, seems to be a great way to give weight to your book and set it apart. Is this approach logical only for entrepreneurs with a business to back it up and the kind of manpower that it would take to get a site going, or would you suggest this for freelancers looking to get their work out there?

  2. Jennifer, thanks for the comment – and good question! I believe that a high traffic web site is just as important to a freelance writer as any other kind of entrepreneur. You’d be surprised how much traffic you can build with a targeted web site that taps into a demographic of interested readers.

    Of course, as a freelance writer, you have the luxury of not having to live off of your web site revenues, so any traffic you build will be a bonus. Look at it this way: if/when you look for book deals with larger publishers, they will all be interested in your “platform,” which is, essentially, your ability to market yourself. If you have a web site already built and active, even if it’s not all you hoped it could be, it will be a big head start over having nothing at all.

    Too many creative people, in my opinion, are content with a myspace page. In my opinion, there’s no substitute for your own web site as well. I will write a full article on this topic at some point.

    - Jon Reed -

  3. While I definitely agree with you about needing something more than myspace, the idea of creating my own web site is daunting – especially when I think it just might end up looking bare. I look forward to hearing more on this topic from you.

  4. Hey Jennifer…

    I plan on writing a longer article on this subject before too long, but the short version is that we can’t let ourselves be daunted by the challenges in front of us. I know a lot of people who spend endless time managing their friends and photos on myspace, and some of that time could be spent on mastering the obstacles involved in getting to a better place in our careers and with our online positioning.

    If a web site is too daunting, just starting a simple blog on someone else’s service may be a good first step. The best thing would be to start on a blog that you could eventually transition to your own domain if you get more momentum and a bigger audience. WordPress is one example of a blog service that I believe allows you to transfer over to your own domain over time, and I think there are others that would allow this also. As long as you start on a “portable” service, you should be fine.

    As you start writing, that’s the key thing, then you will build some confidence and hopefully get a better idea of what your audience responds to. As I’ve written elsewhere on this site, that kind of feedback loop is invaluable.

    - Jon Reed -

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