Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A book based on bullshit.

Mark Twain (and others) said, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Many years ago I read a fantastic book called How to Lie with Statistics. It was written by Darrell Huff, and first published in 1954. It was startling when it was first published,  intriguing when I read it around 1962, and is still an eye-opener in 2010.

Huff wrote, "The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify."

A review in The Atlantic said it's "A pleasantly subversive little book, guaranteed to undermine your faith in the almighty statistic."

Last weekend I was reminded of the book I read nearly 50 years ago, while I was reading a newer book, Top Self Publishing Firms, by Stacie Vander Pool (2008).

The book description says, "Stacie Vander Pol has done exhaustive research to uncover the self-publishing firms that sell more books, pay the highest royalties, and provide the best overall value for writers."

The back cover proclaims that this book "is the only book on the market that dares to evaluate self publishing companies based on the sales results of their books."

Well, I dare to evaluate Stacie's book, and I hereby proclaim that Stacie's fundamental premise is bullshit. The choice of a self-publishing company has little (or maybe nothing) to do with the sales of a book.

  • All (or nearly all) self-publishing companies provide the same distribution. Their books are offered for sale on the publishers' own websites (where few are sold) and on the sites of Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers.
  • All (or nearly all) self-publishing companies can provide books to terrestrial booksellers that special-order them for customers.
  • Almost no books from self-publishing companies are stocked on the shelves of  terrestrial bookstores.
  • Self-publishing companies do little or no work to promote the books they publish. Most promotion is done by authors, not by Lulu, CreateSpace (Stacie's publisher), AuthorHouse or Outskirts Press. Stacie tells us, "The marketing services offered by self-publishers are not always a good value for the money. Promotional efforts often include a poorly written and poorly executed press release, a website and a pile of bookmarks and posters (which won't sell your book)." If Stacie recognizes that the publishers have ineffective marketing, why does she think the choice of a publisher is important?
  • The brand name that appears on a self-published book does not help to sell it. The fact that a book is published by Xlibris or Infinity does not mean that the book meets high standards. Lulu founder Bob Young told Publishers Weekly.We publish a huge number of really bad books.
  • Zoe Winters is a romance wri­ter and blogger. She says, “The average reader doesn’t care how a book gets to market. If the book is good, it does­n't matter if your Chihuahua publish­ed it.”  Author/blogger S.G. Royle wrote, “Peo­­ple don't buy books from publishers. They buy them from authors.” Edward Uhlan founded Exposition Press—an early and important pay-to-publish company—in 1936. He said, “Most people can’t tell the difference between a vanity book and a trade book anyway. A book is a book.”
  • There is no reliable source of the sales statistics that form the basis of Stacie's theory. She says, "It is impossible to know the precise sales results for a book" and "Accurate figures are a closely guarded secret in the industry, making it difficult to draw conclusions about sales success." With no "accurate figures," Stacie chooses to rely on third-party analysis and speculation based on Amazon's sales ranking. That ranking changes every hour, and reflects a book's sales compared to millions of other books at that time -- but is not directly translatable into cumulative sales.
  • Stacie loves dishonest and incompetent Outskirts Press -- but chose CreateSpace to publish this book.
  • Stacie's ranking of publishers (even if it truly represents relative sales) merely reflects relative sales -- and the sales DO NOT necessarily reflect the talents, policies or connections of the publishers. Pizza Hut sells more pizzas than any other company, but its sales volume does not reflect the quality of its pizza -- merely the company's ubiquity and prices.
  • There is little or no reason to assume that a book published by one of Stacies's top-rated companies will outsell a similar book published by a low-ranked company. Book quality and promotion mean MUCH more than the brand name on the cover.
While Stacies's theoretical sales-based rankings are largely meaningless, the book does provide legitimate comparisons of the self-pub companies' services and fees, and offers some useful advice to writers. The "bonus chapter" on income tax deduction is just a way to pad the book. Stacie uses more than 20 pages to list bestselling books. The listing is marginally interesting and not particularly useful. I see no benefit in knowing that the number-two bestselling nonfiction book will tell me how to become a Super Hot Woman, or that the worst sellers deal with guitar playing, ancient maps and marketing music with MySpace.

The listing of fiction titles is even more useless. People don't select novels based on a subject, as with nonfiction. Some readers favor particular genres, such has vampire sex, but titles often reveal little and Stacie does not indicate the genres for "hits" like Surrender, or the last-place Private Entrance. Stacie did a lot of analysis, and it is logical to expect that she could say something like "Chick-lit outsells sci-fi" or "Civil War novels are more popular than Viet Nam War novels." If she said it, I could not find it.

There is a lot more wrong with Stacies's book:
  • Stacie shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the book business. She wrote that Aventine Press provides "A 55% discount . . . [which] will allow Amazon to offer it at a reduced price to customers (which will help your Amazon sales)." That's a bunch of crap. Amazon is perfectly happy to work on a 20% discount from publishers, and frequently sells these "short discount" books below their cover prices.
  • The interior is ugh-lee. Like an unfortunately increasing number of self-pubbed books, Stacie formatted her text with full justification but no hyphens. This leads to oversized word spacing which proclaims, "I AM AN IGNORANT AMATEUR."
  • Stacie provides a brief "snapshot" of each included publisher, but the snapshot may not help to make a decision. The entry for PageFree Publishing says that sales results are only "Okay," but other characteristics are "above average," "excellent" and "very good." The BookPros snapshot shows "excellent" sales and royalties and "very good" distribution. On the next page, Stacie tells us that "you'd be crazy to choose this firm." The snapshot for Morgan James shows "excellent" sales results and distribution, but royalties and overall value are "poor." What good are excellent sales and distribution if they provide low income for the writer?
  • It's dangerous to edit your own books. This book does not name an editor, and no editor is indicated on its Amazon page. Apparently Stacie decided to skip professional editing as well as professional formatting, and there are silly errors that a second pair of eyes should have caught. She wrote, ". . . commit to numerous re-writes and edits before submitting your book for publication." An editor would have changed "re-writes" to "rewrites."  An editor would have changed the "P" in "Perfect binding" to lowercase.
  • Stacie tells us that "Professional editing is one of the most important things . . . ." Sadly, she apparently did not follow her own advice. Other books written by Stacie show no editors on their Amazon pages. Stacie expended a lot of effort and time in producing this book. Her chapter 9 ranks the bestselling nonfiction genres (how-to is at the top, and porn is at the bottom). This information could have been the heart of a book which would be much more useful than her dubious ranking of publishers' sales.
Regardless of the validity of her data, the lack of professional editing and interior formatting is simply inexcusable. Rivers and orphans are abundant. Page 138 has a mere two lines of text on it. A professional book designer would not permit this atrocity. Books that try to advise authors should demonstrate more knowledge and skill in bookmaking than Stacie has. The back of the book has three blank pages. I'm an amateur book designer, but my books have no blanks at the back.

A mini-quibble: Stacie chose the wrong title for the book. The correct term is "self publishing company" -- not "firm." A firm is an unincorporated business, or a professional business such as a law firm, even if it is incorporated. Google search results for "self publishing company" outnumber "self publishing firm" by more than 50-to-one. "Companies" would have fit on the cover in the same size type as "Publishing."

1 comment:

  1. Keep kicking ass, Michael.

    It seems that you put more effort into analyzing books than some of the authors do.

    Very sad.