Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What Is 'Value Added' & What Does It Have To Do With Indie Authorship?

I've been taking a lot of flak lately from professionals in the graphic arts and typesetting fields because in The IndieAuthor Guide, I more or less tell indie authors that in most cases, the services of those professionals are optional. The flakkers protest, in frequently ugly tones, that I'm giving bad advice in this regard and a book brought to market without their services is a "defective" product. Here's my recent response to one such complaint:

The local independent bookseller who stocks my titles has said that to his (professional) eye, apart from the lack of a recognizable imprint logo on their spines, my books are indistinguishable from mainstream books. So long as the readers and booksellers are pleased with my books, I'm meeting the demands of my target audience. And that's what indie authorship is all about: reaching and serving your readership, not slavishly following the conventions of traditional publishing, regardless of whether or not they form a value-added proposition where your intended audience is concerned...I and my books are doing pretty well. And in the final analysis, in attempting to judge the merits of what I propose and advise in The IndieAuthor Guide, isn't *that* the only benchmark that really matters?

After I posted, another flakker chimed in to berate me further, pretty much missing my point about 'value added', and it occurred to me that it may be a term that merits some further exploration. It's something one hears bandied about in the business world quite a bit, and entire books have been written on the subject. In simple terms, a 'value-added proposition' is something in which you invest time or money because there will be a commensurate payoff, or payback of that investment, in the future.

For example, let's say you manufacture protective cell phone covers. People like your covers and they're selling pretty well, but you think you could do even better if you started printing licensed cartoon characters on them. So you go through the paperwork and expense of getting the licensing rights, you re-tool your shop to print the characters on the covers and you invest in some extra advertising to let everyone know about your new product line. Naturally, you must price the new line higher to absorb the added expenses, but you're confident it'll be a hit. Three months down the line you find your old, plain covers are selling just as well as they ever did, and sales on the new covers are decidedly slow. Clearly, printing licensed cartoon characters on your covers was NOT a value-added proposition. Customers may like the new covers, and may even prefer them to the plain ones. But if they don't prefer the new covers enough to pay extra for them, it doesn't make business sense for you to be producing them.

And what does this have to do with indie authorship, you ask? When bringing your book to market, every time you make a choice that involves investment of your time or money you should be asking yourself, "Does this constitute a value-added proposition for my target audience?" Because if it doesn't, you should be looking for ways to reduce or eliminate that investment. Based on my research and experience, I've concluded the average reader doesn't know or care about the minutiae of 'proper' typesetting according to mainstream pubishing standards. So long as the text is easily legible and looks about the same as that in a mainstream book to a typical (non-industry) reader, the reader will not find fault with the layout and typesetting in a given book. I freely acknowledge that people who follow the directions I provide in The IndieAuthor Guide will end up with a book that's instantly recognizable as self-published to most industry pros, but since those pros are not the indie author's intended audience, their opinions are irrelevant in this regard. Therefore, investing hundreds or thousands of dollars in professional typesetting and layout services does not form a value-added proposition for most indie books.

In deciding whether or not to invest in this or that service or product when bringing your book to market, let your target audience be your guide. If your target audience WILL notice and care about details of typesetting and layout for instance, paying for those professional services is a necessary expenditure for your particular book. However, if paying for those services requires you to price the eventual book so high that no one is willing to buy it, then the entire book fails the value-added proposition test.

Cover design is another area where value added comes into play. The IndieAuthor Guide includes directions for designing your own book cover, but many authors feel out of their depth when it comes to graphic arts and design and will prefer to hire out for those services; even so, they must wade through a seeming ocean of possible vendors and price ranges. Of course you want a cover that will draw the potential buyer in, even when viewed as an icon on a webpage if your book will be sold online. However, spending thousands of dollars on a piece of commissioned artwork from a name artist for your cover doesn't necessarily add value for which your eventual readers will be willing to pay extra. Since increasing the retail price of your book to absorb that cost may alienate potential buyers, you need to consider how many extra books you must sell at your regular retail price to recoup the money you spent on the cover artwork. In some cases, the investment will be worth it. In other cases, not so much. You can usually get an attractive, professional-looking cover which effectively conveys the theme of your book from a journeyman graphic artist at a much lower cost, or even from an art school grad student who's willing to do the cover for free in exchange for the portfolio sample and exposure. As with any small business expenditure, you must balance the benefit against the cost when determining how much money to spend on professional services.

Let me hasten to add: I am not suggesting that indie authors try to do everything 'on the cheap' for the sake of saving money or increasing royalties. On the contrary, I advise indie authors to do all in their power to deliver a product that, to the typical book buyer, is indistinguishable from the products of their mainstream competitors. That means quality editing, paper, printing, cover design, and more. What I AM saying is that each time you're faced with decisions about whether, and how much, to spend on some aspect of your book's production or promotion, carefully consider the matter of 'value added'.


Alan said...

Very good post, April. I think it's important for indie authors to know what they're good at and what they could use help with. My own covers were designed and put together by myself, but the images on them are by seriously qualified artisans, yet they cost me very little.

I'm no artist, so I searched around for quality images. I then asked the artists if they would let me use the images for free and I would put their web address on the TP Verso and send them a free copy of the book. They were both more than happy to oblige.

As the old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat. ;)

April L. Hamilton said...

Great tips, Alan. Thanks for chiming in. =')

Zoe Winters said...

Great post, April! I agree. Typesetting is definitely something I would never hire out for. It's just too easy to LEARN how to do it.

Yes, some people spend years and years perfecting their typesetting craft, and it is artistry, and that is great. BUT, again your average reader cannot TELL. If you follow a few basic typesetting rules, you're good to go. And this knowledge is easy to find.

It's definitely not worth spending thousands of dollars. Unless I was writing nonfiction that required grahpics and special layout. But for straight text novels, it's not exactly rocket science to create something the average reader has no issue with.

Cover design is one of those things that depending on the project, will depend on how I go about it. I may hire someone for some books. Or I may work on increasing my own skill level in that area.

And Alan, your covers look GREAT!

April L. Hamilton said...

Zoe -
You're right about the artistry, I don't deny layout and typesetting is a hard-won skillset. And I suspect many who have worked for years to hone those skills are now finding their industry shrinking right along with big pub. It's unfortunate, as are the job losses among editors and literary agents, and the whole trend closes more and more doors for new authors hoping to land a mainstream contract. The ripples are felt all the way to the shore.