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Andy Kirkpatrick

24 September 2013

Publishing Empire

A few people have asked me about the ebook I’ve been bringing out of late, and also about pricing, so I thought I’d do a quick blog about it (this may be of interest by other people who want to make some money from publishing).

1.Andy’s book model

Last year I had a melt down as author, throwing my teddy out of the pram, saying that it wasn’t worth the time and effort in writing books, as the remuneration was so poor (it way my own fault for thinking you could).  On the last reckoning I’d sold about 30,000 copies of Psychovertical, but had yet to pay of my advance.  Cold Wars had also sold really well, and although Vertebrate gave me a very good deal (a high margin for a publisher), I realized that writing it had taken nearly a year (I think I said if I’d spent as much time working in Starbucks as writing there I’d have made more money).  But after saying I was giving up I soon realized it wasn’t my choice, and being a writer wasn’t something you can switch on and off (it had taken more time and effort and stress then all the mountains I’d climbed to get to the stage where I’d felt I could write).  And so, being someone who doesn’t like to walk away from a challenge, I realized I had to use what leverage I had to make as much money as possible from what writing I did do, and make it work.  I know that instructional books sell much better then ‘proper books’, but that ‘proper books’ are the more interesting and stimulating to write.  I also know (well I read it once) that to make a living as a writer (when I say living, I’m talking about minimum wage - not ferraris and speed boats) you need ten books in print.  I also knew that I would have to squeeze every drop of potential profit from what I could produce (words, images and film).  Luckily I live in an amazing time for getting paid for your content (it’s all about content).  And so when I write a book like 1000+ Climbing Tips you can buy it on Kindle, iBooks (via iTunes), a PDF (via Lulu.com), a hard copy (which is print on demand, so when you order it, Creative Space print just one copy), and a retail version (printed by Lightning Source - a digital print on demand service, also used by Dave Macleod and his book
).  I’m also planning on doing an audio version (via ACX.com) which you’ll be able to download from Audible.com and iTunes (also going to do a Cold Wars and Psychovertical for this Xmas).  Basically it takes about a two weeks of work to put together a short/medium length instructional book (1000+ Tips is about 50,000 words, so that took a lot longer), so once it’s done, the idea is that it brings in a small amount of money over a long period (publishing is a long game), and the more channels you can make see a profit from the better.

What too charge

The issue of what to charge is very tough one, and I tend to swing between undercharging, and overcharging (well in the eye’s of climbers anyway).

A few things I try and tell myself is:

1.The real cost What I’m selling is the the physical value of the kilobytes of data transmitted down into your device, nor the number of pages between the cover of your hard copy, but the knowledge I have attained over thirty years of climbing, and putting my neck on the line.  When someone pays £8 for 1000+ Tips that may think that’s a lot of money for a digital file, but fail to see that what they have bought is the contents of my climber brain. 

2.Climbing is a niche sport.  If I was a well known old timer triathlete, and I wrote a book about ‘Getting the most from your bike’ or ‘The best way to get your wetsuit off’ I’d probably sell thousands of copies.  As it is, a book like Driven, that covers what I think is an important subject for alpinists and winter climbers at a high level (how to use pegs), may only ever sell a few hundred copies in my lifetime.  If this was an academic book, written by an world export on the subject then it would cost of lot, and on iTunes there’s another book, by another Andy Kirkpatrick, priced £129.99 (have a look on iBooks at this kind of book, there are plenty up there).  As it is, Driven cost £7.99.

3.Comparing cost for cost.  A cup of tea at Starbucks (I work a lot in Starbucks because I don’t feel guilty sat there for eight hours a day, which I would in an indie coffee shop) costs about £1.60, and is just a tea bag, a splash of milk and hot water.  A book like Nutcraft costs £3.99 and is 13,000 words, mixing history, stories, technique and diagrams (more about that below) in a format (Mobi, Epub or PDF) that you can buy and look at instantly on any device.  Just as a cup of tea in Starbuck’s price is more than a reflection of the cost of a t-bag, a splash of milk, and some hot water, the same applies to that file (Indesign software costs £700, Adobe Illustrator used to draw the images £500, plus there’s Photoshop, the cost of all those cups of tea). 

4.What do I make?  The beauty of modern self publishing is that the author can now see a much higher degree of profit, with the margin almost being switch from publisher to author.  On many format that author can make 70% of the gross price, were in traditional publishing the author gets 13% of the net price.  So if I get 30p for every copy of Psychovertical you buy, and I get £5 for every copy of Driven, then I only have to sell 2000 copies of one to make the same profit as 30,000 copies of another. When it comes to setting the price (which is different for different markets), I usually base it on the price of other books in that market.

5.Everyone likes to get a steal.  I always want people to feel like what they get is good value, but what value is is hard to pin down.  I could see all my books for 99p, but due to the small amount of sales due to market size (if I was Jamie Oliver 99p could work, as I’d have millions of sales at that price) this would make it uneconomic for me to write such books.  The margin between £1.99 - which is the cheapest I think you can go when you’ve spent time and energy writing, and £3.99, is the difference between making it worth while, and not, and somewhere between the two is the right price for each buyer. 

6.Think of it not as a book but as a magazine.  If you had a magazine with a 13,000 word piece on nuts, and you wanted to know about nuts, and the mag cost £3.99, then you’d be more than happy.  Once it comes in the form of a book, all of a sudden you feel short changed.  I guess it’s all about expectations, and I always want people to feel like they got their money’s worth - which for me is say one thing that I learn that really makes a difference.

Supporting other projects.  I suppose if a book feels like it’s £1 more expensive than it should be, then maybe try and think that that £1 is actually paying for future projects that may be £1 cheaper, or may never exist.  For example I’m aiming to get my 10 books up on sale, and with these, I should be able to afford to write my third book that will follow on from Cold Wars.  I also have a long term fictional book I’ve been working on, but neither book warrants the time spent on them without the income from less creative books about pegs, or nuts or skyhooks.

Images and the Problem with Formats

At the moment hands down the most successful format for ebooks is the Kindle, which uses a .mobi file format.  This format is one step up from seeing raw HTML and basically is shit.  Formatting and design is almost non existent, and is designed purely to perform the function of displaying text.  Once you try and include anything but the cover things fall apart.  Images are buggy, and break apart text, and add a great deal of hassle to the project.  On top of this Amazon further penalize the author (who wants to give the best experience to the reader) by charging for the download, at about 15p per MB of data, which when you consider some books are only making £1.50 profit, can reduce that markably.  Of course the designer can reduce the file size of all images to the smallest possible, and make then greyscale, but really this only further reduces the appeal of the book.

Ibooks use the latest EPUB file format, and allow full colour images, fixed layout (like a book or mag), video, slideshows, audio, and anything in this format simply looks amazing on a tablet.  It’s also easy to produce and free (using iBooks Author app), and Apple don’t charge any download fee as long the the file is under a gig or so.

We all know how PDF’s work, and these two can have many functions, and great design.

In the hard copy version, price limits books to black and white print, on OK quality paper, and due to this I find photos don’t look so great, so try and only use line drawings.

So the result of this is that often you’re serving different types of the book to different channels, with the iBooks version being by far the best (colour, can have video etc).  By far the worst, and by some margin, is the Kindle version, but it’s also the most popular.  In trying to serve up the best book I can I have to admit that I’m leaving out non essential images from the Kindle version, and only putting in line drawing, as these look OK on the Kindle.

So I hope this sort of explains the way things are at the moment.  Of course I would love to produce really amazing multi format books, that would include loads of video of techniques, but I expect I would need to charge £25 for such a book, and I’m not sure if climbers would pay that for a digital format.  I have been asked many times about writing a soloing book, and maybe doing a high value book, with words and video, and charging a high price (how many big wall soloists are there out there?) might be a good test of the idea (mixing video, text and images had to be the future for such books).

On the subject of what books I plan to write over the next few months, here’s a break down of what I’m currently working on:

  • Belly Timber - Alpine and Expedition nutrition
  • Binman Fitness - Practical strength and conditioning for real people
  • Down - How to descent of climbs and stay alive
  • Hoar - Scottish Winter climbing kit list

I’ve also at the final stages of my book Unknown Pleasures, which is like one of those Jim Perrin anthologies of past writing (from High, Climb, Summit, Alpinist, The Walrus, and my blog), which will be out at Xmas.


A Snicker's bar costs 60p. Were these words worth as much?

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