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Soulene wins IPNE book award

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Soulene: A Healer in Paris IPNE Book awardOn this blog, I have documented the ups and downs of running an experimental nonfiction publishing venture—i30 Media, which I founded four years ago to publish In 30 Minutes guides. But one thing I seldom mention on this blog or elsewhere is the fact that i30 Media is also a publisher of fiction. I am pleased to announce that one our fiction titles, Soulene: A Healer in Paris, recently received an award from the Independent Publishers of New England for young adult fiction. Congratulations go to author Ursula Pearson, who put in a lot of hard work over a period of several years to tell the story of Soulene, a young healer living in medieval France and England.

You may wonder how a publisher of utility nonfiction got involved in publishing YA fiction. I’ve learned that once you hang out your shingle as “publisher” all kinds of people will approach you for help with their work. As the self-publishing explosion has demonstrated, there is an incredible well of untapped writing talent out there. Unfortunately, the process of publishing a book can be difficult. Not only are the tools unwieldy, but also most prospective authors don’t want to deal with the work associated with editing, formatting, designing, and marketing a new book. So they turn to people with more experience to help them get their books published.

While I have said “no” to most prospective authors who have asked me to edit or publish their works of fiction, I made an exception for Ursula. At the heart of her stories was a strong character, a young woman pursuing a passion to help the sick and injured. Soulene lived in an unjust and cruel world, in which poverty, plagues, and war were a constant presence. Only a small class of educated men (most of them from noble families or the clergy) could ever hope to become doctors. Yet Soulene was able to find an alternate path through a religious order for women, the so-called Red Heart Healers, who specialized in working with the poor of France and parts of England.

Soulene also had a fascinating backstory. I won’t reveal it here, but suffice it to say that it rivals a Mexican soap opera for plot twists, villains, and vengeful plots. Ursula also paid close attention to important historical details, including the types of herbs and plants used for treating wounds and illness, the spread of plague in medieval towns, and even the layout of 13th-century Paris.

These qualities, along with the short length of the books, convinced me to take on Ursula’s trilogy. Book 1, Soulene: A Healer’s Tale, was released in 2013. The following year Soulene: The Art of the Red Heart Healers came out. Last year, Soulene: A Healer in Paris, was released. While the first book required a lot of rewrites and editing, by the third book Ursula had hit her stride. The characters were fleshed out, the dialogue was strong, and the pacing was just right. We found talented graphic artists—Steve Sauer and Malgorzata Godziuk—to handle the covers and interior maps. Reader feedback was great, but I also thought there might be an opportunity to get wider recognition.

award-winning Soulene trilogyEnter the IPNE Awards. Every year the Independent Publishers of New England holds an awards contest, the winners of which are announced at the annual conference. A panel of librarians handles the judging in more than a dozen categories, which include art, literary fiction, mystery, and several nonfiction categories. i30 Media entered Soulene: A Healer in Paris as well as two In 30 Minutes titles. Last month, Soulene was named a finalist in the YA category, and at the conference in Portsmouth New Hampshire it won the IPNE 2016 Book award for YA fiction. It was a pleasure to pick up the award on the author’s behalf.

Does the award mean that i30 Media will be developing more fiction titles? I am not sure, but I have told Ursula that when she starts work on another book I will be ready to read her manuscript.

To learn more about Soulene, check out the official Soulene.com website.

My lean publishing advice to a prospective guidebook author

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The essence of lean media is eliminating waste, focusing creativity, and bringing audiences closer to creators. So when a prospective guidebook author queried me about setting up a publishing company to publish a series of guides about state parks in his region, here’s what I advised:

If the demand is there, I would definitely consider doing such a series. I would first try to determine what the demand is, based on things like state park attendance (which is probably publicly available somewhere) and the competition … and creating a test book (as yourself, not through a company) to see how people react.

If there is already a popular book or state park brochure series that covers the state parks, and it is cheap, that would be something you would have to address as you will be competing with them. Maybe your book series could offer better maps or some other information that the competition doesn’t have. In other words, offer a premium feature (for a premium price).

On the other hand, if the competition is expensive and stands tall on quality, you will have to position yourself differently. Say the competition is a big photo book about state parks. Maybe you could price your series lower, or you could try sizing the paperbacks to be able to fit in someone’s pocket, which is a selling point the photo book can’t match.

Keep in mind that setting up a company comes with real costs … I pay $1500 a year to my accountant to maintain my books, plus $500 to the state government as a corporation fee, not to mention various legal costs (trademarks, agreements, copyright applications) which usually run a few thousand per year. My sales are able to support those costs, but if my series was struggling it would probably be better just to sell them on my own or as a “DBA” entity (doing business as) or sole proprietor.

Because of the potential for higher costs, running a test to see if the demand is there is a good idea. If you get some steady sales and reviews you could then start up a publishing company to take things to the next level.

Note that determining audience demand through a test edition and some other market-sizing activities (such as evaluating state park attendance) is a critical first step. Otherwise, there is a real risk of spending a lot of time, money, and effort on something that not enough people are interested in.

Dropbox In 30 MinutesThis is in fact how I started the IN 30 MINUTES series, with a DIY first edition of Dropbox In 30 Minutes back in 2012. It started selling a few copies per day, as did the next book in the series, Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes. Once I knew the demand was there, I went ahead and created the corporate entity in early 2013. Now we sell thousands of copies every year of our most popular titles!

The other element that I touched upon in my reply was Positioning. I have blogged about the concept of positioning in the past after reading the book Positioning. It’s a really helpful way to think about creating and marketing products in a crowded marketplace.  According to the lead author of the book Positioning (Al Ries), it makes sense to work with what customers already know. Marketing strategy for a new product should be built from the perspective of the “prospect”, rather than the perspective of the company (and the ego of company executives). Often, this involves finding the hole that the market leaders have neglected or don’t serve well. Hence, my advice to the guidebook author to do his book in a different way than the existing competition.

Lean media and books: Which cover works for you?

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When it comes to Lean Media and books, there are a few approaches for creators to tap test audiences for insights.

One involves the use of beta readers. As recounted in On Writing and elsewhere, author Stephen King turns to a small group of beta readers (including his wife and “ideal reader,” the novelist Tabitha King) and listens very carefully to what they have to say:

In addition to Tabby’s first read, I usually send manuscripts to between four and eight other people who have critiqued my stories over the years.

If more than one of them brings up something that doesn’t quite work, such as a plot twist or a piece of dialogue, he is apt to change or even remove it in the next revision. I think this is a very effective way to catch potential problems before they make it into print, and also to create a work that is more likely to click with readers.

Another approach involves cover design. At IBPA’s Publishing University conference in 2015, I saw how several New York publishing houses use focus groups and A/B testing to generate actionable metrics that they can use to decide which cover design or design elements will resonate the most with readers post-launch.

But you don’t need to be a big publishing house to do this type of test. Right now, I would like you to take a look at the following test covers for Genealogy Basics In 30 Minutes, which will be released later this year. Which cover works for you? Leave your choice in the comments, as well as any other feedback that you think may be helpful!

Genealogy Basics book by Shannon Combs-Bennett

Working with Photos and iCloud Photo Library on macOS/OS X

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When it comes to photos, the digital revolution has been a blessing and a curse. It is so darned easy to take photos, yet it’s so *&^$% hard to organize them. A lot of people either don’t know how to transfer photos from their smartphones and cameras to computers and tablets — or they can’t be bothered. Who wants to deal with cables, import settings, albums, and all of the other details? Apple has tried to take away some of the pain with Photos, the photo organizing application for OS X (soon to be renamed macOS?), as well as iCloud Photo Library, a cloud-based photo storage service.

Photos for macOS/OS X is closely integrated with the Photos app on iOS devices such as the iPhone and iPad (the mobile version of the app is described in more detail in our iPhone In 30 Minutes book):

photos app iPhone

The Photos app on an iPhone.

Photos replaces iPhoto, an older Apple photo editing app for Macs. If you are using an older Mac and upgrade to the latest version of OS X, Photos will be installed and old iPhoto collections will be migrated to the new application, along with any albums created in iPhoto. Here’s what you need to know when it comes to using Photos:

  • Select the Photos tab to see all photos and videos organized by date taken and location (if location data has been added). If you use an iPhone or iPad, you may also see Photo Stream images, a free service which automatically uploads to iCloud up to 1,000 photos taken on your mobile devices and then shares them on any other Mac, iPhone, or iPad connected to the same iCloud account.
  • Shared is part of iCloud Photo Sharing, an optional service that lets you share photos and videos with friends and relatives, including people who do not have Apple devices — albums are visible on the Web, and people can leave comments. As iCloud Photo Sharing is similar to photo-sharing features found in Facebook, Line, and other social networks, it may not be worth activating. On the other hand, it lets you work with existing photos without having to upload them to a separate service.      
  • Under the Albums tab are photo albums you have created (press the “+” symbol to make a new album), as well as views of videos, the most recent import, and Photo Stream.
  • Projects is an underappreciated paid service that lets users create photo books, cards, calendars, and prints. Select photos in the Photos or Albums view, and then click the “+” button. The cost varies, but the quality is good. The books and prints are an excellent way to preserve the best photos in your albums.
  • iCloud Photo Library is a service that syncs photos and videos on all devices using iCloud. So, if you take a photo on your iPhone, a copy of the photo will be uploaded to iCloud and then distributed to your Mac, your iPad, and any other device connected to the same iCloud account. If you edit the photo on one device, the changes will be reflected on all other connected devices.

Photo Stream vs. iCloud Photo Library

Unlike Photo Stream, which stores only a limited number of photos, iCloud Photo Library can store all the photos and videos you add to the account, up to the storage levels you have paid for in your iCloud account. While every iCloud account comes with a limited amount of free storage, it’s not enough to hold a lot of photos or videos, especially if you are constantly taking photos with an iPhone camera.

To activate iCloud Photo Library on your Mac, go to Photos > Preferences > iCloud and check the box for iCloud Photo Library. To add more storage space, open Apple Menu > System Preferences > iCloud and select iCloud Drive. There are several paid tiers:

iCloud Photo Library paid tiers

iCloud Photo Library: Paid tiers

Once activated, photos taken on your iPhone or uploaded or transferred to your Mac will be accessible on every other connected device.

Q&A with Ian Lamont, i30 Media founder and publisher

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Ian Lamont is the founder of i30 Media. In this Q&A, Lamont discusses some of the issues independent publishers face in a rapidly evolving industry. 

For the first question of the Q&A, please tell us about i30 Media and In 30 Minutes guides.

i30 Media was established in 2013, and our main product is the In 30 Minutes series of guides. At the start, I wrote many of the titles myself, but now all new titles are written by other authors. They include Angela Rose, who recently wrote the second edition of LinkedIn In 30 Minutes.

What percentage of your company’s income is generated from digital versus traditional print sales? How did this percentage evolve?

About 20%. It’s gone down in the last three years from about 30%, as digital sales have stagnated on most platforms while paperback sales have grown.

However, I am constantly interested in expanding into new digital platforms and leveraging the strengths of the In 30 Minutes brand. People have less and less time to spend on reading and learning, and appreciate the concept of learning a mildly complex topic in a short period of time. But I have also found opportunities to work with authors on new titles, expand the brand into new channels and experiences (such as our hugely popular YouTube presence), and develop ancillary products.

For your company, what are the benefits of e-publishing?

Easy to make changes, production costs (design, copy editing, etc.) are all up front. We can launch a new product very quickly into distribution.

For your company, what are the challenges of e-publishing?

Dealing with Amazon’s monopolistic tendencies, which aim to squeeze publishers of all sizes through restrictive pricing rules and platform dominance. Another challenge: The inability of other platforms — chiefly Apple and Google — to get their respective acts together and provide effective competition to Amazon. To give you an example, Apple has an excellent hardware platform (iPad) but the software used for purchasing and managing ebooks (iTunes/iBookstore/iTunes Connect/iTunes Producer) is in desperate need of streamlining. Instead of updating this infrastructure, Apple has devoted development resources to creating a superb closed-garden authoring tool (iBooks Author) which has done little for sales in the iBookstore and makes it impossible to export ebooks to any non-Apple channel. Google Play Books has its own set of problems: unilaterally applying major discounts to publisher pricing, providing a substandard reporting tool, and shutting out new publishers for the past 9 months while it deals with a pirated content problem.

For your company, which e-publishing methods and strategies yield the best results?

Avoiding platforms that demand exclusivity, such as Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. This is not just a pitfall of digital publishing, I have heard it exists in some retail channels as well. It restricts your customer base and puts you at the mercy of the platform. What if they decide to cut your payments, or cut you loose?

In addition to recruiting expert authors, outsourcing to talented editors and designers has been key. Working with a designer, Rick Soldin of http://book-comp.com, who can design great print and ebook interiors using the same master, has been a huge help on the production side. It makes managing new releases and coordinating changes much easier, because I don’t have to coordinate with multiple designers. He is a total pro and a great pleasure to work with.

In addition to (or in lieu of) e-books, what sorts of materials—and in what formats—does your company e-publish?

We publish how-to guides in ebook and paperback formats. PDF editions of the guides have sold surprisingly well, too.

Last year we split off some of the book content into “cheat sheets” containing instructions, examples, and keyboard shortcuts (for instance, the Excel 2016 Cheat Sheet and the Google Drive Cheat Sheet) which we sell as printed 4-sheet pamphlets on high-quality card stock.

A recent content experiment is video content, including a video tutorial based on one of our top-selling ebook/paperback titles, Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes. As I mentioned earlier, the In 30 Minutes YouTube channel has been a great success, with thousands of subscribers.

When choosing the best digital format(s) for content delivery, which factors do you consider?

I think a better question is: When choosing the best platforms for content delivery, what factors do I consider?

The number one question I ask when I evaluate any content delivery platform is whether we are treated fairly by a prospective partner. I have said “no” to platforms that treat independent publishers as second-class citizens, or give low payout rates to content providers. Some subscription-based services are particularly bad, and I am not just talking about Kindle Unlimited. One service that targets corporate clients made us an offer based on a shared “royalty pool” of just 20% of subscription revenue.

Models that are designed to benefit only customers and the platform owners at the expense of authors and publishers represent a threat to our industry, and we only need to look at what’s happening in the music publishing world with Spotify and other services to get an idea of what a subscription-based world looks like.