Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The problem with self-published books (startupreader.net)
70 points by mijustin on Mar 27, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments

First, I have a collection of unread books sitting in a folder called “eBooks” on my computer.

Second, it’s hard to know which books are good.

I have had those exact problems long before ebooks. I still have a pile of unread legacy books. Some bought a decade before, others borrowed and never returned (my local library closed down), many inherited, older than me.

Not to mention, new books are being written all the time while older titles remain available. You can read a book a week and you'll still be behind... forever.

This is a direct result of the effort required to really read a book, tens or hundreds of hours. It's much easier to buy than to consume.

Professional reviewers and a recognizable author's name are the traditional solutions to those problems. Buying a book from someone whose blog you like (essentially sampling) is IMHO superior to both. Maybe because I don't share reviewers' tastes.

A better solution is of course always welcome but the challenge isn't new.

Your book a week comment reminded me of the wonderful What If on XKCD about the infeasibility of reading every English book ever written.


Japanese has it's own word for this: Tsundoku - the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other such unread books


"legacy books" is a great phrase! Did you coin it yourself?

"But instead of reading books regularly, when I sit down with my tablet I end up reading Zite, Flipboard, and Instapaper."

This isn't a problem with self-published books. I don't have any ebooks at all. I have two full IKEA bookshelves loaded with actual physical books I want to read. But I don't read them as regularly as I'd like to. Why? It's because I don't make time for them, plain and simple. Same reason I don't exercise as much as I'd like to, or go on dates with my wife as much as I'd like to.

You have to set aside time to do reading, or any important task where the payoff isn't immediate (in seconds, like 2048), because otherwise it won't happen because there are so many other things competing for your attention.

> You have to set aside time to do reading... there are so many other things competing for your attention.

+1. If it is not aligned on the lines of "snacking" then it's not meant for mass consumption on the web.

I've been a self-publisher for a couple of years now. (My current e-book is about backlogs, or to-do lists. Shameless plug: http://tiny-giant-books.com/backlogs.htm )

I've also been a freelance writer since my teens, having been published in books, magazines, newspapers, and weeklies. And I read like heck. So I know this arena.

There are a few more problems the author does not mention. The number #1 problem on the internet is that everybody wants to be an author, but nobody wants to be an editor. You can click a button and poof! You're published. Back when you had to send it to somebody, and get sometimes biting criticism, you tended to think more carefully about what you wrote. As a self-publisher, you have to be extremely paranoid about quality. And even then, what you don't see, you don't see. It's hard/impossible to replace a good professional editorial staff.

The second problem is that the physicality of books is different from e-books. Don't get me wrong: I love e-books. But for certain things, like learning a new complex skill, I want to have physical books scattered around the office opened to certain passages with other passages dog-eared or bookmarked. E-books just ain't the same.

I also wonder if we're not selling a shitload of e-books that nobody is ever getting around to reading. A lot of people buy books (or e-books) for their imagined experience -- not for the real one. When you have physical books, you can see when your stack is growing large. With e-books, it's very easy to over-consume.

Not sure a book club would help with that, but it would solve the problems the writer mentions. Perhaps some other features could be added to the group?

(I also need to mention that years ago I started a website for startups/hackers to recommend and share books. The idea was something like a social network, but instead of posting or sharing links or status updates, you posted new book titles and shared them. http://hn-books.com)

None of this has anything to do with self-publishing itself.

You have trouble reading ebooks and, I presume, prefer paper? Self-publishing is entirely compatible with offering a paper version of the book.

Books that aren't listed on places like Amazon are troublesome? Good thing it's really easy to get a self-published book on Amazon.

Self-published doesn't have to mean self-everything.

> Books that aren't listed on places like Amazon are troublesome? Good thing it's really easy to get a self-published book on Amazon.

> Self-published doesn't have to mean self-everything.

I think this is the crux of the discussion - people like Nathan Barry are advocating that you do not put your book on Amazon. I think that may work for a few authors, but if everyone did it, it would fall apart.

OP here: I definitely don't prefer paper. ;) I actually sold all of my physical books before my last move.

I think authors moving to self-publishing is a good thing. And when the author sells directly to the reader (and not on Amazon), he/she can build relationships directly with the reader, and can earn more money. That's a good thing.

The problems are:

1. Discoverability - finding good books that have been self-published by authors.

2. Reviews - even on goodreads.com not all books are reviewed, and there is no way to find books in the startup space. Having a community of people who can recommend good books on a topic could be valuable.

3. Interaction - personally, I find interacting with other people that are reading the same book motivating. Hearing their point of view, and their ideas for applying a book's topic can improve the reading experience.

There's no chance that I could ever earn more money as a self-published author if I bypassed Amazon. I'd earn more per sale, but the 30% to Amazon in exchange for solving (or at least addressing) the issues of Discoverability and Reviews is so completely worth it.

The problem, as you called out, is with the self-selling, it's a very different skillset than the one that produced the book, so it makes sense to let an Amazon help out on that front.

My sales have certainly not been spectacular[1], but just by dropping my book on Amazon I have 15 reviews[2] I wouldn't otherwise have, and far more revenue overall.

[1] http://www.syncingdreams.com/2013/02/rise-and-fall-of-book-o... [2] http://www.amazon.com/Dragon-Master-Stonedragon-Flame-1-eboo...

That just makes the "collection of unread books" problem even more confusing.

In any case, none of this is due to self-publishing, but rather a particular approach to self-publishing which does not seem to be all that common.

Discoverability is definitely due to self-publishing. If you can't afford to fund your own book tour you're less likely to reach customers.

Do tech books even have book tours? I could see it for mass-market fiction books or such, but publishers do roughly diddly squat for getting tech books in the public eye.

Just because a book isn't sold on Amazon it doesn't mean you can't find reviews somewhere else (e.g. http://www.goodreads.com/ ).

I self-pub comics. Weird sci-fi comics about robot ladies with reality problems to be precise.

A major part of my business strategy is going to comic book conventions and sitting behind a table, talking to people who stop there, telling them about my book and possibly exchanging one for some money. Sometimes I'll have someone buy my comic and come back the next day to rave about it. It may be relentlessly physical and retro, but it's working. I feature the URL of my site in my physical books, and let people comment on new pages as I draw them; there's a modest amount of back and forth between them now and then.

I dunno what parts of that can be transferred to tech books, I don't think there's a vibrant network of tech book fairs out there! A book club sounds like a pretty good idea, really.

(If you're gonna be at ECCC in Seattle this weekend, stop by table CC-09 and say hi.)

I've been having a similar problem myself. I just don't read as many books as I used to. Part of it is because I just don't want to spend so much time in front of a screen (I use an iPad to read), and the other is because I just can't seem to relax enough to get into reading mode, so reading only happens every other weekend when I can get away from thinking about my work from the day.

I guess the screen problem can be solved by getting a Kindle with e-ink, but getting the right headspace is harder.

I like the idea of a book-club, but the problem is I have a list of books i want to get through personally and so my list may not be the same as the book club. I wouldn't read a book just because it was on this month's reading list in the book club.

The book has to be of interest to me for me to participate, and there's no knowing if interests would align well or not.

>"First, I have a collection of unread books sitting in a folder called “eBooks” on my computer. I want to read these books, and learn from them. But instead of reading books regularly, when I sit down with my tablet I end up reading Zite, Flipboard, and Instapaper."

This is much more a problem with individual habit than publishing.

I saw someone use a perfect term for this - infosugar - the equivalent of reaching for a handful of Doritos and a swig of Mountain Dew multiple times a day instead of making a meal of a book.

Personally, I just uninstalled all those apps.

>"Second, it’s hard to know which books are good. Because most self-published books aren’t listed on a marketplace like Amazon (where user reviews abound), it’s difficult to get a good sense of whether I would enjoy a given book."

I'm sure an Amazon listing facilitates collecting reviews, but even then there's an awful lot of material on Amazon with few, if any reviews. At a glance, 25-50% of any given category or search has reviews <= 1.

I think the answer here is simply for self-publishers to make more of each book available to browse online. I'm far more likely to buy a book if I thumb through it (literally or virtually) beforehand.

In my experience, self-publishers are often terrible about this as they provide perhaps a fragment of a chapter and sometimes nothing more than a table of contents alongside a premium price.

Ideally, I think there would be at least a substantial fraction of the book online to browse. Unless you're selling the promise of "secrets" or whatever there's probably nothing to fear, cheapskates aren't going to pay regardless.

>"We need our own book club."

I like book clubs, but I really have to wonder about one which sounds like it would be a pretty damn self-referential. How do you deal with honest reviewing and priority of titles when both the reviewers and authors are part of the same reputation economy?

> make more of each book available to browse online.

I totally agree with you. For my books, I give up to 25% of the book's content as preview because I want to show the book's value. By giving one or two chapters for free, the reader gets a much better idea of the writing style, which is good for both of us (I hope).

This makes me thing... maybe there should be an aggregator for book previews?

I don't know if any of the rest of you remember it, but my favorite book club ever was the Global Business Network (GBN)[1] book club, edited by Stewart Brand [2].

The GBN was a network of "interesting" people, and they would put forward books. Stewart Brand would take these suggestions, add his own, and write very insightful reviews. You would really hear about new, interesting stuff there first. It was a book club in a broadcast sense, where they suggest things to read, rather than a discussion forum.

Sadly, GBN was acquired and people moved on. For a long time, the list of books and reviews was still online, but now all of gbn.com seems to be down.

Maybe that could inspire more of a HN book club, which wouldn't just be "startup books", but interesting stuff in the HN vein.

Edit: [3] is a list of the books for 1988 to 2006, from archive.org

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Business_Network

[2] http://sb.longnow.org/SB_homepage/Home.html

[3] https://web.archive.org/web/20070316053617/http://www.gbn.co...

> I have loads of unread ebooks sitting on my computer.

This was true for me... 10 years ago. Now I have a kindle and all these ebooks zipped onto a device more suited for reading ebooks. And they're getting read.

> It's hard to tell which books are good.

I find this to be true for All The Books; even if I do find/read favorable reviews, I can still mislike a book even if it's not independently published.

This is not a new problem. I self-published a sci-fi novel in 2001: http://www.amazon.com/Reflecting-Fires-Thomas-Claburn/dp/073...

The book sold a few hundred copies, thanks to a few reviews on websites and a post on Slashdot. The challenges then are the same today: self-publishers tend to be poor marketers or to not have the time/resources to market effectively; lack of quality reviews and an abundance of pay-to-play review sites that will take your money and do very little for sales; self-published titles are (often justifiably) seen as less worthy than texts backed by an established publisher; and there's an overall shortage of available attention, thanks to the abundance of media options today.

>Tools like Draft, Scrivener, and Penflip have improved the writing, editing and collaboration process.

Technology may make editing easier but it does not improve it. A decent writer won't need a grammar checking algorithm.

>Publishing software like iBooks Author, Leanpub, Softcover, Pressbooks, and Liberio allow authors to easily design, format, and publish their books themselves.

These tools are helpful but there's a reason professional designers exist.

>And e-commerce platforms like Gumroad, Memberful, and Digital Goods Store have solved the payment and distribution problem.

But these problems pale in comparison to getting marketing and attention.

What's more, these issues are the same for other self-published media: apps, music, and videos.

I'd love to have my book or my app (http://blocfall.com/) discussed by a reviews group, but a review in the New York Times or front-page placement in the iTunes App Store would be a lot more helpful.

I think the idea of a "book discussion page" where readers and the author can interact is very promising.

In the past I've used an etherpad to "live chat" and collaborate on problems with students (e.g. https://piratenpad.de/p/linearalgebra ), but I think a forum dedicated to the book would be more interesting.

It's a win-win situation: the author benefits from receiving feedback from readers, and readers can connect with like-minded people. Excuse me while I go learn how to install discourse with MathJax support ;)

> use drip emails to track your progress through a book,

Yes. This would be awesome as it might push you to read the book, but it would have to be done intelligently to work. Just a nagging reminder prodding you to read won't do it. Maybe receiving a weekly batch of exercises or review questions?

This isn't so much the problem with self-published books, as with books that are self-published and more or less "self-sold". I wrote a bit about Authority here: http://blog.liberwriter.com/2013/11/21/nathan-barrys-authori... and think this is a real problem. I don't like not having reviews. There are some books that look interesting to me, like this one: http://www.rachelandrew.co.uk/books/the-profitable-side-proj... where I'm a bit reticent because of the lack of reviews and Amazon integration, combined with a higher price than I'm used to.

I don't think that everyone selling their own books on their own sites is a stable equilibrium.

I am working on a startup, Understudy, that tries to address this problem. Our approach is one-on-one conversations. We find you someone to meet with each week as you go through a book. The first one we are doing is SICP. You meet up with video chat and a whiteboard on the iPad. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrdjKvka558

It should be on the App Store soon (awaiting Apple's approval!). If you are interested in trying it, send me an email. bridger@understudyapp.com

This is specifically a problem with self-published e-books with no print copy, right?

There's no reason you can't publish a hard copy and sell it on Amazon (I did that, on a topic relatively off-topic for HN).

I find it fascinating to watch how different 'scenes' of creators (books, comics, video games, paintings, etc) react to the flooding of their creative market caused by increased accessibility of participation through technology. As a musician, it's something I've dealt with for quite some time. It's interesting to compare and contrast different communities' reactions. Then to think about how those similarities and differences map to how people in different mediums think is a whole nother layer of fun.

I've noticed that the amount of unread books I have actually stresses me out, so I've come up with a more positive way of looking at my unread book pile.

Instead of seeing my books and thinking "holy crap I'm so behind it'll take me years to read through just the books I own", I think "This is awesome! Whenever I'm done with my current book I can go on to read whatever I want. I'll never run out of potential knowledge. "

The positive outlook makes reading fun again.

If you turn reading into a chore, you'll see it as one.

I"ve had the same problem, and have also recognized that its really a mindset / perception problem - the bookshelf I have at home is really no different than the one at the store. I could never, ever read them all, so I likewise shouldn't stress about my "read later" list. Its just a repository of interesting "when I have time for it" items. Thinking like that is not a hard-switch thats easily flipped, but by consciously recognizing and directing my thought patterns, its helped.

One random thing that has also helped is (inspired by another post) I organized my books by color. Silly little idea. But now that they are both "to learn" and "decoration", i feel less guilty about the ones I haven't read yet.

I could see authors creating a forum for their own book, and then leading the discussion. I'd love the chance to ask questions to an author while reading their book!

We've (me and a friend) been working on a publishing platform that revolves around keeping the connection between author and readers. Using my own book as test (about 2 months or so away from launch, first draft is in the editor's hand!): I write about learning the web and learning how to program, targeting people with no clue. So the idea of a "forum" was a given, I went a bit sideways from a forum, a searchable knowledge base, stuck on a chapter? Go on the website, check the knowledge base to see if other user asked similar questions, if not ask yourself and author will reply.

I think it's a win/win for both authors and reader, as an author this would enable me to update my book, clarify section that a lot of users are having trouble with, and for the readers it offers another dimension to a book, you can discuss it, talk to the author, other users.

I'll probably link it to HN when we are closer to launch.

A book club for startups. It could be interesting, but how would it solve the problem of prioritising what to read, if everybody is expected to read the same?

OP here. I think having forums, where a book is discussed chapter by chapter, could help. You could pick whatever book is already being discussed, and join the discussion after you'd read that chapter.

There might also be the opportunity for people to self-organize around a particular book.

No time for reading is the biggest issue which is also an excuse for most of us. I like the idea of having a book club with interesting people, but don't you think there are already some meetups out there for that? I found myself joined "one week a book" meetup but never being committed.

> No time for reading is the biggest issue which is also an excuse for most of us.

I don't think it's a lack of total time. If many of us could see how much time we spend on our phones or surfing the web every day, we would likely be horrified.

It's that we've diced our time into increasingly small slices and want some sense of completion at the end of each one. We play a ten minute game on our phones ten times, instead of watching a movie. We finish reading ten blog posts instead of part of a book.

We never have an appetite for a real meal because we're constantly snacking.

It might be worth noting that publishing sites like Leanpub and Softcover have integrated e-commerce features, so they solve the payments and distribution problems as well.

A company like Leanpub is in a perfect position to solve the interaction problem: have a dedicated forum for each chapter of each book it publishes.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact