How to Completely Fail and Go Broke in Public Domain Publishing

public domain publishing of ebooks isn't profitable on Amazon or elsewhere - it's a rigged numbers game.

Bottom line: it's all a numbers game that's been rigged against newcomers.

Let's go over some patently obvious facts:

1. Public Domain books are a commodity. They are sold like cattle at auction. People buy as low as they can. Meanwhile, publishers are into this scene of each diluting the market with their own version. Search for a classic and you'll usually find about 400 versions of it for sale.
2. They are available for free - why bother. Visit Feedbooks.com or Manybooks.net or Gutenberg.org (where they get their versions from.) You can get any popular PD book there for free. Meanwhile, Amazon did that same thing when they set up originally - importing tens of thousands ebooks for free to get people to use their Kindle. All free to download.
3. PD ebooks books give you lousy royalties. Amazon won't give you more than 35% for any PD book. Kobo only gives you 20%. Itunes does better, but has around 9% of the ebook market share (Compared to Amazon's 65% or so.) Meaning:
4. You have to sell on Amazon to make any real money - and that's nearly impossible. Plus, they actively discourage you every time you post another PD book there - and make you say it's "annotated" or "illustrated" or "translated" in order to 'differentiate' it from the free versions. And what does that do? You have zero reviews to start with, so their algorithms put your book at the bottom of the heap. (Amazon alone uses reviews seriously, very seriously.) Oh yeah, Amazon also threatens your account with their robot emails every time you submit a PD ebook. Nice.

Now all the recent hype has been about ebooks, ebooks, ebooks. All this has done is to get all the self-publishing wannabes to invest heavily in ebooks. So the competition is huge, PD or not.

The Big 5 and also-rans also are on this schtick. They've come out with their own cheap versions of public domain books and work to dominate the low-end market for these.

Even worse, there are some companies who apparently have a business model of coming out with new versions of the top 250 or so classics, apparently under different imprints, which then get featured for a month or so as "new" versions, and then get replaced by the next imprint doing the same thing. (Apparently "big" publishers have a way to mass-import their catalog which the self-publishers don't have access to.)

Unless you love competition just for the sport, you aren't going to find a lot of support in this scene.

Meanwhile, you can't make any real money just throwing new ebook versions up there.

Say you wanted to duplicate the model of the publishers - you can't, but lets say you have a few months where you can do nothing but edit, re-cover, re-describe, and publish PD books to Amazon (and don't mind winding up banned because you screwed up one too many times.)

There are the usual curves about sales which hold true anywhere and everywhere.

The 80/20 rule says that 20 percent of your books will generate 80% of your income.

More narrowly 4% (about 20%  of 20%) gives you a 96/4 split on which of your books will sell well (and generate about 60% of your income.)

And, as usual, less than 1%  (20/20/20%) will be responsible for nearly 50% (80/80/80%) of your sales.

Say you came out with the 200 most popular titles.
  • Statistically, 160 of these will barely sell, if at all.
  • 8 will sell decently.
  • 2 will sell regularly.
  • (and 30 basically won't sell.)

So lets say you could crack into the market for a top PD book like The Great Gatsby.

Go ahead, open this page up in a new browser tab or window. What do you see?
  • 267 Kindle versions that come up for this search.
  • The recommended one is 9.99, sold by Simon and Schuster
  • There are 3 more .99 versions which have an average of less than 5 reviews each.
  • Then there are three more which sell for 2.99 or better.

Lets look at sales. More specifically, sales rank. (Amazon is the only one who provides this data, by the way.)

First, visit (new tab or window) http://theresaragan.com/salesrankingchart.html to see what Amazon's salesrank means.
  • The top seller (9.99) has a sales rank of 2,114 - meaning about 80 books a day (probably why Amazon likes to keep them on top, since they get about $320 daily after they take their "delivery" fees out.)
  • The top .99 ebook has a 6280 sales rank, or about 20 books per day. (Meaning about $7 royalties every day, as there are no fees at 35%)
  • The next .99 ebook has a 5646 sales rank, or about the same sales.
  • The last .99 ebook has a 39730 sales rank, or about 10 books a day - or $3.50 royalties daily.
  • The $3.82 Kindle has a 101411 sales rank, so it sells less than one per day.
  • The "bookhacker summary" version (a short summary) has a price of $2.99 and a sales rank of 416437, or about even less than the one just above. 
  • Finally, the last $2.99 book has a 288653 sales rank, which puts it into the miniscule sales category.

So, if you could come out with a competitively priced book to the market leader, you'd wind up on the bottom of the heap and have to climb up somehow. (Unlikely.)

If you went for the bottom end, at best you could take out the next runner-up and make $7 a day.

Let's use that as a base, not accurate perhaps, but it's somewhere to start.

Back to Pareto's 80/20 rule - A year's income from this book would be about $2520 per year.

2 books are 50% of your income. $5,040 annually, then your total sales would be around $10K annually. 

But, maybe that doesn't hold. Lets use that breakdown for Great Gatsby above:
  • Your 1% (2) of 200 books would give you $5,040 per year. (@$7 per day)
  • Your 4% (8 books) would generate about $20,160 per year (@$3.50 per day)
  • Your 160 books might generate $18,144 per year. (@maybe .35 per day)
  • The last 30 books just suck your time. 

So out of 200 books, you might possibly make $40,804 per year. And that's optimistic. (If you don't select your books carefully, you'll probably be closer to that $10K figure.)

What's your current salary for your home? Do you have debts? Insurance? Car payments? Don't forget that the self-employed pays both sides of Social Security.

Could $40K cover all your costs? Or would your spouse/partner have to keep their day job to support your publishing efforts?

Let's also be real about how long it would take you to find and publish 200 books. Say, you could carefully select, and edit, and get new covers, and write descriptions, and publish 2 ebooks a week. That's about 100 a year.

So it's going to take you 2 years to get up to the point of making maybe $40K.

What's your personal track record of sticking with a project that long? Remember, this is probably going to take all your spare time for the next two years. Sure, it's possible that after the first 6 months - if you already knew what you were doing (and reverse-engineered the above with some creative thinking) you might be able to start making $10K off your first 50 ebooks. Woot, woot.

But is that a living? Sounds like a profitable hobby. Pin money. Vacation savings.

The best advice about giving up your day job is to move over to your home business when that business makes twice the income of your day job. 

So look this over. If you want to support your whole family, take both of your incomes and double that. The average income in NYC is just over $50K. So you're looking at making $200K from your home publishing business before you can both quit your jobs (and consider moving to a much lower cost-of-living state.)

$200K means about or over 1,000 books that you've self-published. And that's 10 years worth of work.

Are you ready to commit all your spare time for the next 10 years to having a 6-figure income that would support your family?

For most of us, no. And for most of us, figure that your family isn't going to support your habit for that long. And divorces can be expensive...

On the bright side (if there is one) you could support yourself after only 5 years of self-publishing PD ebooks. Lonely, but profitable (after alimony and child support, that is.)

Consider all this before you start publishing in PD and discover that you "can't make any real money" at this. 

PD is built on commodities, which means low price and volume sales. That's what the big publishers do in this arena, and that's what you need to be prepared to do.

Good Luck.

PS. How did I get to financial freedom in this area?

1. Paid off all my debts over 5 years. Now I pay cash for everything, or know it's in my budget.
2. I live on a working farm, where my living expenses are basically free (paid for in sweat-equity, for sure. which takes my time every day.)
3. Cost of living in these boonies is very low. Internet is high, though, so that's a factor.
4. Entertainment is low-cost: $5 DVD's at Wal-Mart, lots of great PD books to read (free), and the few shows I can stand on over-the-air TV.
5. Long walks in the woods (when I'm not finding more books to publish) rounds out the mix.
6. Do I make my money off PD ebooks alone? No, I've written and published my own books for years, and some of these PD are in paperback. Remember, just a couple of bestsellers on Amazon will more than cover my costs - and I have over 200 books already up there, having made most of the stupid mistakes I outline above. But no, just having 200 books doesn't mean you get an "automatic" 40K per year - far from it.

And that's the point of this. Going blind into PD publishing (like I did) means you usually get diddly-squat back. Going with your eyes wide open and willing to study the real successes (who don't PD publish, they publish their own original works, BTW) can show you a route that would work.

So, mostly I'm telling you to keep your day job and enjoy a possibly profitable hobby. Otherwise, start writing original non-fiction short-read works like Steve Scott in a market that will support it. Or invest in FB ads to spike your sales like Mark Dawson. Both of those two started making 6-figures in less than two years after seriously starting into self-publishing.

And that's why I wrote this for you. PD publishing can be a living, if you know how to make it. For me, frugality and simplicity make it all possible. 

But if you have a high-overhead life, keep your day job and start figuring out what you're going to do when you have to retire - it's coming sooner than you think...

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