Thursday, 14 March 2013

Managing Sales and Stock Levels on a Budget

World Book Day falls each year in early March. Consequently, the majority of UK schools decide to invite authors, poets, artists etc to come into school and do whatever their "thing" is during this time (often the only time of the year they invite them in).  As most of the Itinerant Poet's self-published books are sold directly via his workshops, March is a key month and managing the stock levels can prove a major headache.  This is where the short digital print run comes into its own.

Some schools book try to book World Book Day workshops at the last minute and have to compromise by taking dates later in March -  WBD/week itself are invariably filled up to a year beforehand.  It is impossible to predict whether these schools will be infants, juniors, middle or high schools with different titles being appropriate in each case.  We have 11 titles currently in print, an incorrect selection available means sales missed.  Quite apart from this is the need to be able to fit the stock in the trusty Green Goddess to travel all over the country for a week at a time.

Thankfully we have a great relationship with our digital printing company, Orbital Digital Print Services, and they can turn around an order extremely quickly.  I placed an order for 25 copies each of three titles on Monday morning and they are scheduled for delivery on Friday of the same week.  We can't risk printing more when too many of the schools are extremely slow payers - beyond our 30 day credit terms with Orbital.  The increased fuel and other costs involved in this month drain the bank account without it being replenished - the curse of being self-employed in this line of business.

Hard Times

The current economic climate is reflected by a slump in book sales.  Parents and schools just do not have the money to spend on "extras".  No matter what the government says about ring-fencing the education budget, on the ground there are teaching staff being laid off or having their hours reduced.  Everything is being squeezed.  The Itinerant Poet has had to freeze daily rates for yet another year.  Rising fuel prices compound this and mean that we are earning less now than a few years ago.  Paper prices have risen and so books are more expensive to produce.  Still, as dear Mr Cameron says, "We're all in this together!"

There are now four poetry books awaiting illustrations and production.  I now at least have the luxury of time to complete them as we will not be shelling out on production until later in the year.  In the meantime, sitting very still seems a good way of not spending money.  We need to do a lot of sitting to guide our two students through their IGCSE English Language exams in late May.

All our children love reading.  We taught them to read well in advance of teaching them to write.  English is one of those subjects where you also need to talk a lot, think a lot and write a lot.  Dipping in and out of the Edexcel IGCSE English Language Anthology is actually rather fun. I enjoy following up background research on the authors, settings and history.  I hope that our children will still find literature enjoyable and that they will not have been put off by analysing and commenting in order to obtain this ticket-to-the-next-stage.  If they are, it makes you wonder....

Friday, 1 March 2013

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Shrinking Image

For the past four weeks, I have been completely immersed in "The Complete Sherlock Holmes"... on my Kindle!  It cost me nothing to buy but my conscience felt clear as I was not denying the author and his direct family income on account of them all being deceased.  I have never read the works before though I avidly watched the old black and white films with Basil Rathbone as Holmes, then Jeremy Brett in the 80s and more recently Benedict Cumberbatch.

I adore the rich language and the insight into late Victorian life quite apart from the scientific approach that Holmes applies to each case.  I love the prominence of trains, cabs and broughams, the mention of Bradshaw's Guide and the London pea-soupers.  Above all I marvel at how modern the stories seem.  It is obvious how their clear structure begged them to be made into films and TV series.  They are timeless and will hopefully live on in digital form long after the last printed copies have disintegrated.

An Image Problem

Fortunately for the producers of the above collection, they only had to include one or two images in their ebook.  These were the occasional sketch of a house or garden showing where the crime was committed.  Unfortunately, they were barely legible.  Images can be a problem!

Producing collections of illustrated poetry in paperback is relatively simple.  In Word, I insert the JPEG files that I have created using ArtRage and Photoshop Elements.  I generally position these behind the text as it allows me to use larger pictures.  I often need to put a light glow on the text to make it stand out against darker shades of grey.  However, in ebook format  I cannot do this.  Images follow the text and frequently appear on a completely separate page.  This is currently beyond my control as it depends on the ereader and its personal preference settings.

I initially followed instructions from a wonderful little paperback bought in Sainsbury's called "How to publish your own eBook.  It has extremely clear instructions on how to publish in all formats but I focussed on Kindle.  I used Sigil and Calibre (free downloads) to produce the MOBI format necessary for Kindle ebooks and started with one of the Itinerant Poet's unpublished works about a dog.  I learned how to format photos of a friend's dog individually and insert them into the text.  It took a long time and the pictures frequently leapt about the text and shrank in size on my test screen.  I nearly went bonkers doing them but stuck at it.  In the end, the Itinerant Poet decided he wanted to re-edit the book so the whole process was merely a steep learning curve without an end product to sell.

Once bitten, twice shy - I decided to investigate Kindle Direct Publishing and its boast that it automatically converted Word files into MOBI format.  I chose the Itinerant Poet's novels because they were not illustrated.  I downloaded a free Kindle eBook on what to do.  It worked beautifully.  The key points are that you need to insert a proper table of contents and format the chapter titles as "Heading 1" to allow a reader to navigate using their Kindle.  It also purports to allow you to include images.  Perhaps because I use a Mac, perhaps because of the number of images, perhaps... well, it didn't work.  I spent hours trying and re-trying to do this but in the end I gave up and went back to my Sigil and Calibre method.  It still took days to do but at least it worked and an illustrated collection is available in digital format... not that I have sold a single copy of it. 

The Digital Dilemma

Should I really be spending my time producing publications for children when I don't believe it is in their best interests to read them digitally?

The feeling of the paper beneath the fingers, seeing how far through a book you are via a page number not a percentage, gazing upon the cover illustration for hints of the story within - are but a few of the delights not offered by a Kindle.  I also feel that children should experience this sensation rather than just holding another piece of electronic equipment and staring at another screen - it seems to cheapen the author's work and make it just another piece of data to be read once then forgotten.  But would I have ever read Sherlock Holmes if I hadn't discovered it on Kindle?  Therein lies my torment!

Our own children read voraciously and it has been the core of our home education programme.  However, it is the thrill of the hunt in a library or, more commonly, a charity shop that yields the reading matter, not the biased promotions and suggestions presented in Amazon's Kindle Shop.  As we travel widely in the motorhome, we spend hours in towns all over the UK hunting on the 10p library sell-off shelves for those undiscovered gems that an author took a long time to craft. British Heart Foundation, Salvation Army, Break, Cancer Research, Oxfam (bit pricey) offer even more fascinating, yellowing and fragrant tomes.  Taking the time to wonder about a curious splash of paint, a smudged fingerprint, a turned page corner, a long-forgotten bookmark or shopping list add to the reading of the book alone.  And I never cease to be moved when I discover a handwritten dated dedication to a previous owner from a relative, friend or school in the distant past.

Real books have history that digital never will.