On Saturday 10/2/10, I attended the second Self-Publishing Book Expo (SPBE), at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, uptown from Times Square and downtown from Central Park.
The first time--and the last time--I was at this hotel, it was named the Hotel Americana.
I was there in 1970, reporting on the Consumer Electronics Show for my first post-college job as assistant editor of High Fidelity Trade News ($115 per week and an impressive title).
1970 was in the era of 8-track cartridges, quadraphonic sound, strange-shaped speakers and monochrome video recorders. In those days, a big TV had a 25-inch screen. The monitor in front of me is a 27-incher, wide-screen, flat-screen and hi-def. That description (and home computers, thumb drives, iPads, digital movie cameras, tiny wireless videophones, GPS, broadband and wi-fi) were not even realistic dreams the last time I was in this hotel.
The 1970 "CES" was held at the Americana and the nearby New York Hilton (it has since moved to Chicago and Las Vegas). Trade shows are a great testing ground for young business reporters. CES was a grueling physical ordeal compared to my normal desk work, but had free booze, cool technology and hot chicks.
I had invited my college buddy, Dave Evans, to see the new big boys' toys at CES with me. We spent about eight hours cruising the show floor over and over and over again, with little rest and no food.
When the show closed at 5 p.m., the action shifted upstairs at the Hilton and also into the Americana, where the manufacturers welcomed retailers, journalists and even competitors to their "hospitality suites."
In most cases, a hospitality suite was an ordinary hotel room, with a well-stocked bar, and the bed put in the bathtub so products could be displayed in the center of the bedroom.
Dave and I worked our way from one end of the Hilton to the other and from one end of the Americana to the other, stopping in dozens of suites and drinking in each one. By 10 p.m., Dave and I had probably walked 10 miles, drunk three gallons of liquor and eaten two shrimp, a pretzel and a celery stalk.
The Consumer Electronics Show was great place to learn to be a business journalist and a great place to drink--on other people's money. I got so drunk at the Americana that night in June of 1970, that I never got drunk again. I woke up in a strange hotel room, and didn't know how I got there, or even what country I was in. You can read about my reporting and drinking in my book, Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults).
This year, after a 40-year gap (Shit! I feel old writing that), I was once again at the same address and, strangely, again wearing a press pass and checking out new stuff. Since my report goes here on my own blog, I don't even earn $115 per week for writing it. I'm not sure if this is progress, but I'm not complaining.
I was actually at the Sheraton/Americana for several reasons on Saturday. I was entitled to the press pass (actually a badge with a label which proclaimed "MEDIA") because the show management wisely expected that I would write something nice about the expo, and I am doing that. Also, as a self-publisher, I hoped to learn about new products and services that would be useful in my business. I also hoped to do some low-key promotion for my latest book, Get the Most out of a Self-Publishing Company: Make a better deal. Make a better book.
Observations, in no particular order:
- There were lots of people there, right from the opening at 10 a.m. It was obvious that Expo impresarios Diane Mancher and Karen Mender were correct in assessing the need for such an event, and they made the right decision in making the exhibit floor a freebie for all attendees. Last year nothing was free. The panel sessions I visited were well-attended, with an alert audience asking important questions and getting good answers from knowledgeable and experienced experts.
- I was surprised and dismayed at the ignorance demonstrated by some self-publishing newbies, and even by some of the exhibitors. It seemed strange that there had to be a session called "Why a professional editor can be your best friend." People in the audience (and the authors of most of the books I featured in last week's BAD BOOK WEEK) just didn't realize that professional editing is vital--not optional. I've said this before and I'll say it again: "If you can't afford to hire a professional editor, you can't afford to self-publish."
- I was surprised to see the large number of companies offering marketing and publicity services. There is definitely a need for them, but I don't know how an author can decide among them. I spent some time with Beth Werner, who operates Book Marketing Boot Camp, a series of one-to-one sessions to help you create a marketing plan. Beth believes that advertising fiction can be profitable for the author, which surprised me. Beth seems to know what she's doing and her service is definitely worth considering.
- Publishers Weekly magazine was present to push its new PW Select program. PW's Cevin (not "Kevin") Bryerman was quick to send me a follow-up email, which so far none of the other exhibitors who collected my business cards have done. For what I think is a reasonable $149 fee, PW Select includes a six-month digital subscription (the website is free now, but Cevin said that status will be changing under the new PW owner), listing of your title in the December 20th PW Select Announcement Issue, special advertising rates in print, newsletters or website, and--most important--the opportunity to have a PW review. If your book is selected for a review it will be published in the print magazine and syndicated to PW partners. Some book bloggers have bitched that the $149 fee treats self-pubbers as second-class citizens, and that the big publishers don't have to pay the fee. Well, in 2010, we self-pubbers are second class citizens, but $149 provides entry into the elevator that may raise our status. I'm not interested in attracting the bricks-and-mortar booksellers who read PW, but I recognize the value of a PW review, so I'm willing to gamble $149 on the chance to help one of my new books. When you consider how much self-pubbers spend on review copies, a publicity campaign and entering award contests, $149 is not such a big deal. Someone wrote that the future of publishing is self-publishing. If PW is to survive the transition and maintain relevance as a news medium, it will have to stop differentiating between traditonal publishers and the rest of us. It must provide news coverage and reviews based on importance and quality--not on company size. It's possible that on one day in one year, my little company may do something more important than Simon & Schuster, and it should not be ignored.
- BlueInk Reviews is a new and unashamed pay-to-get-your-book-reviewed service operated by (of course) three women with experience in publishing. You can get a quick review (4-5 weeks) for $495 or a not-so-quick review (7-9 weeks) for $395. As of today, October 4, the BlueInk website was touting a 25% discount good through October 1, and said that "Your review will be featured on our site throughout the summer..." Sorry, Jody, Patti (with an "i") and Patty (with a "y"): both the summer and October first have passed, and I think I'll pass, too. I don't think a paid review has any value. It certainly has less value than five-star reviews on Amazon.com from readers who have actually paid for books, rather than being paid to read and review them.
- I arrived a few minutes before Expo opening time and needed to say a few hellos in the exhibit area, but the schmoozing went on for so long that I missed a 10 o'clock seminar on online book sales. While I am certainly familiar with the subject and did not expect to learn much, I did want to hear my arch-nemeses Brent Sampson of Outskirts Press. I like Brent much more as a speaker than as a writer, and I wanted to meet him and tell him that I have come to agree with him that there is a difference between a "self-publisher" and a "self-publishing company." (Strangely, there is no difference between a "publisher" and a "publishing company"--except that a publisher may be a person or a company.) I may also come to agree with him about what he calls Adsensiphobia.
- I left the Expo too soon for the panel on publicity. I wanted to tell panelist Penny Sansevieri that my new books about self-publishing no longer criticize something she wrote a while ago. See--I do have a heart.
- At least two of the sessions had overflow crowds, with people sitting in the hallway outside the room. It would have been nice if everyone could have been seated inside, but the people listening intently in the hall created an impression of excitement and importance.
- Amazon.com had three exhibit tables promoting CreateSpace, Amazon Encore and, of course, Kindle. I'd previously read about and written about the Kindle, but this was my first opportunity to try one out. I was greatly underwhelmed. My first inclination was to try to turn pages by swiping my index finger across a page, but nothing happened. I had the same experience when I first tried a B&N Nook e-reader. I've had an iPad since last April. Any device that tries to compete and doesn't have a touch screen is simply too 20th-century to be relevant.
- Jason Kuykendall admitted to owning both a Kindle and an iPad. (MEMO TO JEFF BEZOS: Don't fire Jason for heresy. He's good for Amazon.) Jason was smart to point out that Kindle should be considered a channel for distributing books, not just one family of devices for reading them. He's right. I've enjoyed many Kindle books on my iPad. Jason gave me some surprising good news. I had heard that it was very difficult to format a book with lots of graphics, and my books have lots of graphics. Jason explained that it can be difficult to do a Kindle book with complex graphics like flow charts and mathematical formulas, but there is no problem with ordinary photos, diagrams and charts. Based on his recommendation, I uploaded my first Kindle experiment a few hours after I got home from the Expo. I still have to make some adjustments, and I'll give you a full report later.
- Although Amazon sent people cross-country and rented three exhibit tables, hometown favorite Barnes & Noble was conspicuous by its absence. It was foolish for B&N not to be there, especially since they would not have to pay for airfare or hotel rooms like the west-coast competition. SPBE would have been an ideal location and date to appear before self-pubbers, because the B&N "PubIt!" eBook selling system went live just a few days earlier, and the Expo would also have been a good venue for showing off the Nook eBook reader. B&N has been in turmoil recently, but they missed a big opportunity to show off at SPBE. Maybe they'll smarten up for next year.
- Also conspicuously absent was FOOD (except for the Tootsie Rolls and other small candy provided by exhibitors. The show did have two water dispensers in the exhibit room, but more refreshment and nourishment was needed. Food in or near the hotel is expensive, except for the felafel cart around the corner on 52nd Street. (MEMO TO BARNES & NOBLE: Next year, exhibit at the Expo and assume the role of gracious hometown host. Provide some of the Big Apple's favorite snacks as freebies.)
- About a dozen authors had tables and were hawking their books with vary degrees of success. The biggest audiences seemed to be gathered around the most gregarious authors. Authors with the vibrancy of a totem pole did little or no business. I was at one table, talking to one author and another author sharing the table stood there as still and as silent as a sculpture. I didn't want to seem rude, and I introduced myself, and got no response. I bought a book from the more communicative author. If you write books, you must be prepared to sell books--even one at a time. Self-publishing is not for the bashful or meek. If you’re not confident enough to talk about your book and yourself, you’ll have to hire someone else to do it for you. Even if you hire experts to toot your horn for you, you’ll miss potential sales if you are too shy to toot to or talk to strangers.
- Attendees had to choose among multiple seminars held at the same time. It would be good if video recordings could be available, either online or on DVD. They could be free to people who paid for admission to seminars, and sold to non-attendees. (MEMO to Diane and Karen: Free seminar highlights posted online could be a good promo for the following year's Expo.)
- It was very smart for the hometown magazine New Yorker to be at the Expo, touting their cartoon licensing program. The magazine's witty and sophisticated cartoons would be great addition to many books, and I'm considering them for one of mine. Sadly, the New Yorker can't license the classic spooky Charles Addams cartoons, which led to the great Addams Family TV series, and the copycat Munsters.
- Stock-photo suppliers such as Fotolia and iStockPhoto should have been there.
- Although I walked around the Expo exhibit floor at least six times (just like at CES 40 years ago), apparently I missed at least one exhibitor. When I got home I found a promo sheet in my show goodie bag from smartibooks.com, a company that does eBook coversion and sales. The web link goes to U-publish.com. That site explains the smartibooks process, and also touts a book, U-Publish.com: How 'U' Can Compete with the Giants of Book Publishing by Dan Poynter and Danny O. Snow. I found the connection between authors and an e-formatting service to be confusing. Also, the service pays a maximum royalty of 35% and only to a PayPal account. Publishing via Amazon's Digital Text Platform or B&N's PubIt! pays about twice as much, and puts money into your bank account.
- The Expo was a perfect venue for New York-area self-publishing companies to meet prospective customers and pitch S-P services. Recently revitalized Vantage Press and newbie OffTheBookShelf had steady streams of traffic. Other local companies such as Arbor Books and Self Publishing, Inc. were nowhere to be seen. As with B&N, they could have exhibited without paying for plane fare or hotels.
- Indiana-based Author Solutions, owner of former competitors iUniverse, Wordclay, Trafford and Xlibris (and the private-label service provider for some traditional publishers) was exhibiting. I pointed out to marketing director Joe Bayern that it is hard for a prospective customer who does not fit into a genre such as chick-lit or Christian, to decide which Author Solutions imprint (i.e., brand) is the appropriate choice. Joe explained that the company would be making an effort to better differentiate the imprints, and revealed that the company's best editors work on Xlibris titles.
- It seemed strange that Lulu, Outskirts Press and some of the other big names in S-P were not at the show. I had some questions to ask, and so did other attendees.
- Apparently there is still strong belief that self-publishing authors would rather not be self-publishing. Bowker Manuscript Submisisons is operated by the same company that provides ISBNs in the United States. It's an online manuscript submission service for authors who want to present their book proposals to "the leading publishers in the industry." If you choose to “opt-in,” your work can also be reviewed by self-publishing companies.
- The Writer magazine was exhibiting, but not Wrtiter's Digest. That was silly of WD. A lot of their editorial is directed to self-publishing authors, and a lot of their ad revenue comes from self-publishing companies.
- It's important for exhibitors without strong brand recognition to have signage that explains what they do, or at least have a massive pile of attractive or tasty freebies to lure people in. The Amazon Encore display area was deserted each time I walked by. There was a sign that said "Amazon Encore," but no indication of what Encore does. I seemed to be one of very few Expo visitors who cared enough to ask. Encore is a publisher. It uses information such as readers' reviews on Amazon.com to identify "exceptional, overlooked books and authors with more potential than their sales may indicate. Amazon will then partner with the authors to re-introduce their books to readers through marketing support and distribution into multiple channels and formats."
- The Expo seemed to be the physical (i.e., non-cyber) debut of OffTheBookShelf.com, a company touting "personal publishing." As with most self-publishing companies, this company's pBooks are printed by Lightning Source, but eBooks and audiobooks are also available. Authors can choose how much of the book preparation they do themselves, and which services they need help with. The company is based on Long Island, and founder/boss Scott Weisenthal said he gets personally involved with most of the books he publishes. The website says, "We’re writers and about a year ago, we decided to develop OffTheBookshelf.com to empower writers like never before. It is a free community where authors (published and unpublished) can set up their own bookstore, market themselves, sell books at the price they want, connect with like-minded writers, create their own cover art, and convert their books to epub for free. The site is not a vanity press, and we are constantly developing new tools for writers and readers in this evolving digital world." I was sorry to see that the site's bookstore section is offering the miserable Principles of Self-Publishing, which was featured in BAD BOOK WEEK.
- The authors I spoke to were all optimistic about their publishing futures--even poets with almost zero chance of commercial success.
- Some authors were confused about the meaning of Print-On-Demand and some were dubious about its quality. I showed a copy of one of my books to a doubter, He said I'd "never be able to get that kind of print quality with POD." It is a POD book.
- Some exhibitors were ignorant, too. Someone behind the table at a new self-publishing service tried to convince me that using them would be better than selling through Amazon because Amazon keeps 55% of the book's selling price. Amazon is perfectly happy to work on 20%. This guy said he'd always given Amazon 55%. He left a LOT of money on the table.
- Although most self-publishing authors seem to be using POD now, there were several offset printing companies at the Expo--and they do more than print books. Self-pubbers have a large and growing variety of paths to reach their readers, and that's good. Thomson-Shore is an intriguing company, providing editing and design as well as printing books, and even promotional posters, postcards and bookmarks. Bookmasters Group also offers design, editing, eBook creation and distribution. Book1One prints in a wide range of formats, but so far does not edit or do eBooks. It's probably just a matter of time. The company touts its quality and flexibility. They'll print one book for you, if that's all you need--even one hard cover--and will even bind books printed elsewhere. Book1One has a blog, strangely featuring the writings of Dan Poynter and Danny O. Snow, who are also involved with Smartibooks.
- A lot of education is needed in self-publishing, which is good news for the Expo, and for people like me who want to sell books about self-publishing. I expect that the show will be successful for years to come as self-publishing becomes more and more important, and more and more acceptable. There are probably six or more cities in the country where the show could be held, if Diane and Karen want to hit the road.
- Although I skipped the first Expo, I'm glad I attended the second. I'm looking forward to the next one--especially if Barnes & Noble can be persuaded to supply knishes, or eggreams and pretzels, or pizza, dim sum, cuchifritos, gyros and other traditional New York foods.