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

By Blog

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.

New product line: In 30 Minutes video classes

By Blog, News, Video

Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes video classes

Publisher i30 Media is pleased to announce a new product line: In 30 Minutes video classes. We’re starting with the Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes video course (For a limited time, available at a 25% discount on Gumroad or available as a video class on Udemy), but will expand to other topics soon. You can learn more about the Google Drive and Docs video here, and we will also distribute the class to other online educational platforms.

The idea for In 30 Minutes video classes has been around almost as long as the book series. Around the same time the ebook and paperback versions of Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes were launched, i30 Media posted a series of short video screencasts on YouTube. They were very popular — one video that shows how to convert a PDF to Microsoft Word or Google Docs has garnered tens of thousands of views. Would people be interested in watching a longer video course about Google’s free online office suite? The popularity of the YouTube videos indicated that the answer was probably “yes” … but it would require a lot of work, ranging from writing a script to setting up a studio to shoot the on-screen narrations and screencast demonstrations.

What’s inside the Google Drive & Google Docs video class?

Here’s an excerpt from the description of Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes (video class):

This 30-minute class is narrated by the author of the top-selling guide, Google Drive & Google Docs In 30 Minutes. The course includes lectures on registration, finding and organizing files, creating documents and formatting them, working with Microsoft Word documents in Google Docs, and a complete review of the interfaces for Google Drive and Google Docs on the Web and mobile devices. The tone of this guide is friendly and easy to understand, with lots of step-by-step instructions and examples that show exactly what to do.

In addition to serving as a solid introduction to new users, it’s great for people making the transition from Microsoft Office, not to mention teachers using Google Drive for education and Google Docs in the classroom.

Here is the lecture list:

  • Introduction
  • The Google Drive user interface
  • The Google Docs user interface
  • Using the Google Drive and Google Docs mobile apps
  • Formatting in Google Docs
  • Formatting Microsoft Word files in Google Docs
  • The Google Drive desktop application for syncing and storage
  • Collaboration

We hope the Google Drive video classes prove as popular as the ebook/paperback versions of the guide. In addition, we will be paying close attention to how people use the course in order to improve the video tutorials and create new instructional videos based on popular topics.

Google Play Books: So much promise, so few results

By Blog, Industry

I’ve lamented the state of competition in the ebook platform wars in the past.

Take Apple, which had so much going for it 3 or 4 years ago compared to Amazon, with a vastly superior e-reader (the iPad using iBooks) and sales that regularly topped $200 per month for my In 30 Minutes series of how-to guides. Apple’s hardware/software advantage did not last. Amazon eventually closed the hardware gap with the Kindle Fire, and continued to make improvements to the Kindle software and ordering processes. Meanwhile, Apple’s bloated iTunes/iBookstore has continued to frustrate users attempting to buy or review books, contributing to a stagnant sales picture. So where did Apple place its platform improvement efforts while Amazon was catching up, you ask? Creating a superb closed-garden authoring tool (see my iBooks Author review here) which has done little for sales in the iBookstore and makes it impossible to export the efforts to any other channel.

Then there is Google Play Books and the partner center for authors and publishers. Google is the only other deep-pocketed company out there that could ever hope to compete with Amazon in the ebook space, but it too has dropped the ball with its marketplace. I have been selling ebooks there for 3 years, and sales have never been good. But there are a host of other problems that stymie content producers and make it difficult to consider it a serious contender to Amazon KDP.

Google Play Books review: What’s wrong with Google Play Books

Where to begin? How about the unilateral discounts that Google Play applies to pricing. It’s gotten so bad that when I create a new ebook listing in Google Play, I have to refer to this Kboards forum post that lists the amounts you need to input to Google Play books in order to display the desired price:

Set Price = Discounted Price
99c = no change (royalty = 52%)
1.49 = no change (royalty = 52%)

2.49 = 1.92 (Discount = 23%. Actual royalty = 67%)
2.99 = 2.09 (Discount = 30%. Actual royalty = 74%)
3.49 = 2.65 (Discount = 24%. Actual royalty = 68%)
3.94 = 2.99 (Discount = 24%. Actual royalty = 68%)
3.99 = 3.03 (Discount = 24%. Actual royalty = 68%)
4.50 = 3.44 (Discount = 23.5%. Actual royalty = 68%)
4.99 = 3.82 (Discount = 23%. Actual royalty = 68%)
5.18 = 3.99 (Discount = 23%. Actual royalty = 68%)
5.25 = 4.04 (Discount = 23%. Actual royalty = 68%)
5.99 = 4.61 (Discount = 23%. Actual royalty = 67.5%)
6.48 = 4.99 (Discount = 23%. Actual royalty = 68%)
9.99 = 7.99 (Discount = 20%. Actual royalty = 65%)
8.99 = 7.52 (Discount = 16%. Actual royalty = 62%)
15.99 = 9.99 (Discount = 37%. Actual royalty = 83%)

Then there’s the lack of a sales dashboard on Google Play Books. Even Nook and Kobo understand that authors and publishers want quick insights into how their books are selling, and provide an on-screen look at monthly sales:

Nook Sales sample vs Google Play books

Google Play Books Partner Center, on the other hand, doesn’t have any sales dashboard. It’s only possible to download a .CSV file that contains raw sales data. If you’re handy with Excel or Google Sheets, you can probably set up something that handles basic currency conversion and get a USD total for monthly sales, but if not, you’re out of luck.

Google Play Book reviews include scraped and fake reviews

And then there are the reviews that appear next to my books in the Play Store, written by people who have never downloaded or read them. To be fair, this is a problem with Amazon too, but at least Amazon displays “Verified Purchase” next to the reviews so shoppers know which ones are more trustworthy. Potential customers who venture to Google Play to check out my ebooks are likely to encounter drive-by complaints about the topics covered (“you can get this information on YouTube for free!”) or issues that have nothing to do with my books (such as the person who had a problem recovering a password from some online service). Because Google can’t screen or properly identify real reviews, I’ve taken the step of removing links from my websites to the Google Play Books product pages for half of the titles published. The Google Play product pages have become a liability, and I don’t want to send customers there.

Buy hey, I suppose I should be happy that I at least have access as a publisher, and basic support questions get answered. Nine months ago, Google Play Books closed its doors to new self-published authors and small publishers:

Over the course of the last four weeks there has been a media firestorm about the sheer scope of pirated content on Google Play. This has forced the company to close their Play Books Publisher Portal. In a message in the Google Product Forums, a Google rep said “We’ve temporarily closed new publisher sign ups in the Play Books Partner Center, so we can improve our content management capabilities and our user experience. We’re working to reopen this to new publishers soon. Thanks for your patience.”

As far as I know, Google Play Books is still closed to new authors.

Do you use Google Play Books as an author, publisher, or reader? What has your experience been like? What needs to change?

Five pieces of advice for aspiring authors

By Blog

Goodreads recently prompted me to share some advice about writing to aspiring authors. Although I do not write fiction, I have been a nonfiction writer for years as a journalist (1994-2010), blogger (2002-present), and author of “how to” books (2012-present). I am going to share five pieces of advice for aspiring authors, which may be useful to fiction writers as well as nonfiction authors.

  1. Make time to write. It doesn’t have to be long–an hour in the evening two or three times per week is fine–but you do have sit down, turn off or remove all distractions, and start putting words on the screen. Even if it looks bad, keep at it–you can always go back to edit it later, and in time you will find your voice. Also keep in mind that even if you only manage 200 words per session, that’s enough to generate a chapter or even a very brief short story in 10 days. If you need inspiration, check out the NaNoWriMo movement, which encourages authors to write 50,000-word manuscripts every November.Woman writing in her home office. Licensed from Shutterstock
  2. Work with whatever format you are comfortable with–manuscript, essay, blog, short story–and try to experiment from time to time. Two of the biggest boosts for my writing was keeping a travel journal in the 1990s and then blogging starting in the early 2000s. Both formats helped me develop a very easy-going voice which has served me well as a journalist and author.
  3. Get your book in front of readers. It can be friends, family, or colleagues, writers’ circles, blog audiences, or actual readers that read your book after seeing it on a self-publishing platform. You want honest feedback from people about what works and what doesn’t, so don’t take it too hard if you get constructive criticism about style, spelling, cover art, etc. Audience feedback is central to my “Lean Media” methodology for content creators, so if you are interested in learning more check out my lean media website I created.
  4. Do not waste time pitching agents or “Big Five” publishers unless you have a solid track record with traditional presses or self-publishing. I hear way too many new authors say “I’m waiting to hear back from an agent” when they should be publishing on their own and concentrating on writing their next work. Don’t wait for top industry professionals to help you, because they won’t unless they see evidence of strong sales or a national “brand.” In the meantime, you can try independent publishers or even publish the book yourself, using self-publishing services offered by Amazon KDP, Smashwords, and others.
  5. Learn how to do basic marketing activities, from writing cover copy and online descriptions to setting up a simple author website. If you don’t know how to do this, google it or check out one of the many online forums or blogs aimed at authors. Many new writers are shocked to learn publishers don’t do much marketing for their authors (big-name writers being the exception) so it will be up to you to send out review copies, organize author events, and take care of many other marketing opportunities.

I’m happy to discuss this advice in the comments section … or feel free to share your own advice for aspiring authors!

A new In 30 Minutes book about the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6S

By Blog, News

I’m pleased to announce the release of iPhone 6 & iPhone 6S In 30 Minutes: The unofficial guide to the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6S, including basic setup, easy iOS tweaks, and time-saving tips. This is a special book for i30 Media, as I will describe in the following blog post.

First things first: It’s safe to say that the four devices that make up the iPhone 6 family (and iOS 9) are the most innovative iPhone models since the iPhone 4/4S. With the new phones, Apple has moved beyond Steve Jobs’ emphasis on small and simple that defined all previous generations of the iPhone. The new phones have large screens and enable some advanced technical and UI features, such as 3D Touch and “Live Photos” in the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus models as well as a more sophisticated Apple Wallet experience. Here’s a chart comparing the basic features of the iPhone 6 family:

iPhone 6 and iPhone 6S comparison chart specs

However, with the additional features comes additional complexity—and that’s where iPhone 6 & iPhone 6S In 30 Minutes comes in. The learning curve for people coming from Android or older iPhone models can be steep. For people who have never used an iPhone (or owned an older model), features such as Dictation, Maps, Touch ID, 3D Touch, Apple Wallet, and various camera modes are not readily apparent unless someone sits down and explains how they work.

That’s precisely what I have set out to do in this book about the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6S. Using the classic In 30 Minutes style (friendly, brief, lots of examples), I cover basic setup and then move on to hardware, touch screen gestures, Siri, and core apps such as Camera, Mail, and Maps. Topics that are particularly tricky (I’m looking at you, iCloud and Photos app!) get extra attention. I also warn people away from settings that can negatively impact the iPhone experience, such as Wi-Fi Assist. There are more topics listed here.

What’s special about this title, beyond the cool product it’s about? For one, it’s the first new hardware-specific book published by i30 Media in two years. However, I have to admit that iPhone 6 & iPhone 6S In 30 Minutes spends quite a bit of time on iOS, apps, and other software/network settings. In other words, it’s not purely about hardware.

iPhone 6 & iPhone 6S In 30 MinutesSecond, iPhone 6 & iPhone 6S In 30 Minutes is also the first new title that sports the new In 30 Minutes design. This new look has been in the works since the beginning of the year, so it’s a real relief to finally see it in the hands of readers!

Please go to the iPhone 6 & iPhone 6S In 30 Minutes website if you are interested in learning more about the book or reading some tips and sample chapters. We are offering a 25% discount to people who download the PDF version, but we also offer a paperback edition and ebooks for the Kindle, iPad/iPhone, Nook, and other devices that have e-reader software for the ePub format.