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Profiting from the Long Tail

Here's an article I wrote for the ASJA Newsletter in 2006 on how to publish your own book and profit from the Long Tail.  

You have a book in you. You know there's a readership for it. Not a huge readership perhaps, but enough: slow but steady sales over years, perhaps decades.

Maybe your book is on an obscure hobby, or family genealogy, or a rare medical condition.

No publisher will take a book destined to sell only a few hundred copies per year. A century ago, a book went from sales rep to front list to midlist to backlist, then into the used book shops. Today, in the age of the blockbuster, books in bookstores are lucky to get a few months on the shelf before they either take off or die.

Oh yeah, you could have your niche book done by a "vanity" publisher or by print-on-demand, with every copy costing over $10. You'd get published, but make no money. So you're out of luck, right?

Wrong! There's now another way to get that book out of you profitably: the Long Tail.

In 2004, Chris Anderson wrote an article for Wired magazine outlining the theory: the Internet has breathed new life into niche and out-of-print content, especially music and books. Apple's iTunes allows you to search for obscure or long out-of-print songs and download them for a dollar. Amazon.com has done the same for niche-market books: no matter how small the niche, readers can now find and buy it.

Anderson called it "The Long Tail," the asymptotic sales curve that most content follows from publication to extinction—if only the content can be kept catalogued and available. Before Google allowed us to search the world for any book in seconds, before Amazon.com started telling us that "people who bought this book also bought...," the Long Tail was considerably shorter—at least for the author.
Well, the economics have changed now in favor of independent ("self-") publishing.

The book I had in me was a memoir about travel writing and about Turkey, where I had served in the Peace Corps. I wanted to write this memoir, I knew it had an audience (Peace Corps Volunteers, wannabe travel writers, and travelers in Turkey), and I believed the audience would be there for years, but I didn't think it was big enough to interest any publisher.

I wrote the book. For the cover, I shot a still-life photo on my kitchen table. A friend with a desktop publishing business laid out the book, helped me with the mechanics (ISBN, copyright registration, Library of Congress catalog info, etc.) and recommended a printer. I ordered 3000 copies. Each copy cost me less than $3 to produce, all in.

I registered the book's title as a domain name, put some excerpts on a website along with online ordering information, registered the book with Books in Print and Google Book Search, set up PayPal and Amazon.com accounts, and sent notices to all my old Peace Corps friends.

I found a literary agent in Istanbul who licensed the right to publish the book in Turkey in English. It is selling fairly well to tourists there. I reserved the right to publish and sell the book in all other countries.

Online sales only, no traditional distributor, no bookstores. They cost too much: the distributor and bookstore take over half the cover price, send back unsold copies for refund, then reorder later. Payment takes weeks or months—if it ever comes. Online, every copy is paid for before I ship it, so I sell my book only online.

Within two years after I published Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea," I'd sold over 700 copies at $15.95, plus $3 shipping ($10 overseas). I'd mailed copies to Australia, New Zealand, and many countries in Europe, though most sales were in the USA and Canada. My popular travel website, TurkeyTravelPlanner.com, has been instrumental in the book's success, as I knew it would be.

In less than two years I grossed over $11,000, and all out-of-pocket expenses for design, printing and registration were paid off. So less than two years after publication I was earning a profit.

By the end of 2008, 3-1/2 years after publication, I had sold half of the print run. Because the book is a perennial, of continuing interest to wannabe travel writers or those traveling to Turkey, I expect to sell at least 400 copies per year for the next few years. If I do, I will have grossed $63,800, and netted $52,800, which I consider adequate recompense for the year it took me to write the book.

Beyond the dollars and cents, I connect directly with my readers, scrawling a personal note on each sales receipt, receiving nice messages in reply, running into my readers on the road in Turkey. Best of all, I got the book out of me, and I expect it to yield a nice return for years to come, thanks to the Long Tail.

The Economics of Self-Publishing

All About Book Self-Publishing

Guidebook Writing & Book Publishing

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Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea, by Tom Brosnahan