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Memoirs of Self Publishing

Posted by srikanth on April 4, 2005 at 2:37 PM PDT

Struts is a very mature framework. Some may think it is old fashioned or not so cool kid on the block, but like it or not, it is a force to reckon with. If I were running a business requiring a solid web infrastructure, I would bet on Struts. After all, the bottomline for the business is project success and not playing with cool bleeding edge framework. (That's the passion for us, developers). And that's probably the reason why Struts is so popular.

Anyway, I have been using Struts ever since it came out there. I have seen developers use Struts in many ways - Some right, while others blatantly incorrect. A bunch of best practices emerged in my mind due to common sense and experience. And so, I decided to document them.

What started as a personal notes was growing into a full fledged book. And then, I decided to try my luck with self publishing. About an year back, I self-published the book. The book, Struts Survival Guide: Basics to Best Practices, as I called it, was successful (by my yardstick). I did not make any profit in the process, but I did not incur any loss either. It was a labor of love and a very rewarding experience at the end of the day.

I sold off all the copies of the book. And now, the ebook is available free for download here.

What follows is my experience with self-publishing

As soon as I started writing the full fledged book, I realized that writing it is going to be tougher than my little notes. I have written articles before, but book authoring was a different ball game altogether.

For starters, I was my own editor, reviewer and graphics editor. That means I not only had to write, but also cross check the facts, fix the grammar and create graphics and illustrations. And I was doing all of this after my day job. (Needless to say that there are still a bunch of grammar mistakes, but no factual errors to my knowledge) I spent countless weekends and evenings working on all aspects of the book. It was painful and rewarding at the same time. It was a tough job to get reviewers for a fledgling book with uncertain future. However I did get a few of my acquaintances to review some chapters.

Finally, the book was completed. Now came the task of getting it printed. I realized I had to launch a company to publish and retain rights over it. The rule says that the book can be published only by a entity owning the ISBN for the book. And so, I registered a LLC in Texas over the Thanksgiving weekend of 2003. It was so easy to do over the internet; I didnt even have to get off my chair.

I also purchased ISBNs from R R Bowker. ISBN is that number on the book one hardly notices. It is the equivalent of UPC in the product world. Bowker sells ISBN in chunks of 10.

With the ISBN in hand, I shopped for somebody who could create cover page for me. Luckily there are a lot of businesses out there who can create cover pages for a decent price. The number of pages in the book, quality of paper to be printed upon etc. have to be known before the cover page is created. With their software, the cover page creators feed the page count, paper thickness and book size to create a template, draw some good eye-catching pictures and plug in a the ISBN and create a bar code out of it.

Next came printing. the printing cost directly depends on the number of copies (or print run as they call it). Higher the copies, lesser the price. I did not want print a lot and let it rot in my warehouse (read apartment ;-D). I did not want to print really less and pay too much per copy either. Finally I printed enough copies so as to break even when most of them were sold. And boy, was I lucky...

Next came copyright registration. It was pretty easy. Fill out a form and send it to Library of Congress

Any book is of no use without a credible and established sales channel. For book publishers, the sales channel comes in two-three forms. Third party retailers, Distributors, and direct sales. Large third party retailers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble tend to buy directly from the publisher. Other smaller retailers and libraries buy through the Distributors. Then there is the direct sales from the Publisher's web site. Distributors and thrid party retailers take as much as 60% of the total list price as their commission.

I tried like crazy to get a distributor, only in vain. Luckily for me, Amazon.com is very small publisher friendly. I set up a account with them to sell my books. They take 55% of the sales price, but are very prompt in payments. Plus they turned out to be my biggest source of sales. If it were not for Amazon, I would be sitting on a pile of books.

No good book would sell without marketing. I joined the Publisher's Marketing Association (PMA), an entity that provides some marketing for small publishers. They hooked me up with Baker and Taylor, the largest wholesaler in US. A lot of libraries buy their books from Baker and Taylor. They accounted for my second largest sales after Amazon.

All said and done, people buy book only if they come to know. Here too, PMA provided me with options to bundle my flyers with other publishers and mail them to Libraries, colleges and so on for a small fee. I dont know definitively, but all my Baker and Taylor orders might have been from Libraries.

Another source of marketing for me was the book promotion in Java Ranch (http://www.javaranch.com). Those folks organize book promotions every week and I booked a slot in advance. On the week, my book is due for promotions, I would have to answer a bunch of questions posted by their readers. Four lucky readers would get a free copy of the book. I think it is a great idea and worked out really well for me. A lucky Slashdot review for my book also worked its magic.

The toughest part was getting credibility to the book. One needs reviews, forewords from well known folks for that. It goes without saying that I did not get any. I sent out book copies and previews to a bunch of guys, but only one person was kind enough to review. Jessica Sant (again from JavaRanch) did an independent review and gave it 9 out of 10 horseshoes (4 out of 5 stars on Amazon). And I thought getting reviewers for the initial chapters was tough.

One final piece of the puzzle was direct sales. I set up my web site and sold ebooks and paperback through it. Selling Paperback was easy. I hooked up with Paypal and linked my site to it. When a payment is made in Paypal, it sends me an email. At the end of the day, after my day job, I reply to all of them and mail the book via USPS.

Selling ebook was a challenge. It is norm that people buying ebook get it immediately. I did not have the infrastructure to set up my own credit card processing. When a payment is made in Paypal, I learnt that it not only sends me an email, but also posts (HTTP) the buyer data to a url I provide (Poor man's web service). I signed up for Java hosting. My Hosting provider gave me a Tomcat where I deployed Struts application (Yeah... eating my own dog food) that would persist the Paypal posted data to a MySQL database. The buyer could then immediately download the ebook. Problem solved.

Marketing, sales and customer support were difficult and hadn't it been for my wife, I would have been left with a bunch of angry customers. These tasks were tougher than writing the book on the first place. If one counts time as money, I made a huge loss. But then the experience was its own reward. There are some things money cannot buy. For all others things, well you know.....

I often hear from readers, why not just best practices book? There are other books that explain basics. From my perspective, it would be a non-seller. When readers buy a book, they expect complete coverage of the subject. And that's exactly what I did in my book.

Another thing I often hear is: What is the best practice for task XYZ? Why is it not covered in the book?

My answer is: It is definitely impossible to cover all best practices in such a small book. Moreover there are very few absolute best practices. Others are best practices relative to a project. The book lays foundation and prepares your mind set about best practices. Use your judgement in all other cases.

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