How do we measure ‘success’?

I spent decades of my professional life working with schools and education systems on how they find out how well they’re doing: what information to gather, how to do so, and how to use the information so that it improves their ‘performance’ rather than just measures it. As the old saying goes, ‘weighing the pig doesn’t make it grow.’quote-Charlie-Brown-sometimes-i-lie-awake-at-night-and-3-254664

Many of my Twitter contacts are educators, from all around the world, and these same concerns never seem to fade. All of us accept that as educators we should be accountable for the public money we spend and for the futures of our students that we share with their families. The issue has never been ‘accountability’: it’s always been accountability to whom, for what, and what information is pertinent to these purposes.

The key first step is to define what constitutes success in our classrooms, schools and systems. Only after that can we decide what information will relate to and reveal these important outcomes. All sorts of information can be useful, including numerical data, so long as the numbers accurately represent something of agreed value. The problem is that the quick and ‘manageable’ tests commonly used as the most important measure are seriously flawed, capable only of representing a fraction of the outcomes that we all agree to be important in preparing our children for their future lives. These future lives are to be lived in the 21st century, not the 19th.

Of course, our young people need to be literate and numerate, but they also essentially need to be resourceful, flexible, digitally confident, and collaborative if they are to thrive as individuals. If the communities and societies they inhabit are to be successful, our people also need to be aware and respectful of others, thoughtful, optimistic – the list goes on, influenced by one’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, in England, our students and their schools face a barrage of measurement that hardly scratches the surface of the information we really need. Students’ worth can be calibrated on their performance in these inadequate assessments, and – as we have seen this week – those students whose estimated future performance might adversely affect the school’s overall ‘scores’ can be asked to leave. This perversion of true educative values has been going on for years, and this week’s headlines have been no surprise to many of us.

There is much more to say about all this, but for now I want to make a link to what can be defined as a ‘successful’ book, or author. Yes, of course ‘success’ can be defined simply in sales which are gratifyingly easy to count, but even that number doesn’t equate to the number of people who actually read the book, finding it in a library or lent by a friend. Other quantifiable measures might be the number of five-star reviews on Amazon, but you don’t have to look hard to find the flaws there.Screen-Shot-2017-03-28-at-16.48.56

Professional reviews? Questionable indicators of quality, in terms of which books are chosen and how they are reviewed, by whom, and under what pressure or obligation from a shared publisher or personal loyalty.

As with education, the starting point for deciding the success of a book is to ask the author to define what they were wanting to achieve, and go from there. When I run my workshops on “Successful self-publishing” that’s where we start. ‘What constitutes success for you?’ I ask, ‘and what it would look like if this were achieved?’

In writing as well as learning, the most useful information is ‘ipsative’, from the Latin ‘ipse’ meaning ‘self’. We are most usefully assessed against our own previous best, not against some external norms, or even against criteria that may not fully reflect our personal aspirations. If you’re a teacher or a writer, what does success look like for you?

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Beware of publishing rip-offs

4038219-1867078991-1ca07A year or so ago I ran a self-publishing workshop at a northern book festival, explaining the various choices and challenges we authors encounter when trying to get our books first into print and then into readers’ hands. One of the the twenty or so people there told us a horror story about her failed attempt to get her book published: she had found a company online who promised to help and appeared to be ‘kosher’. They explained that she would have to send the money upfront to cover the expense of printing and that after that they would use their global resources to professionally handle her book, print, and find buyers. She duly sent off an amount that represented a sizeable chunk of her savings, and waited. And waited. And waited. The company disappeared, taking with them her money and her manuscript.

Recently I came across another example of someone who’d been asked for a four figure amount to get their book printed. A contract was provided but was either inadequate, or misleading, or not carefully enough scrutinised. Whatever the reason, the writer received the original money back, but nothing more, despite the 1000 print run selling out almost immediately. The author was not involved in the decisions about the book, including the curious choice of unnecessary heavy glossy paper for a book with no illustrations, a price double that of a ‘normal’ paperback, and a fairly amateur cover design. Some profit must have been made, given the basic calculations of printing costs, price and sales, including the retailers’ discounts – but the author saw none of it. When the publisher then asked for even more money to reprint and meet the obvious demand, it was declined.

What was going on there? As a self-publishing author I expect to invest my own money in the publishing project, but I also enjoy exercising choice over the paper quality, font, page layout and chapter headings, cover design and price. When the book is sold all the profits come back to me. It takes time and promotional effort to make a small profit, but at least the profit ends up in my account, not someone else’s.

SOA_col_rgbSo, fellow-writers, please think twice before paying out your own money to someone that to publish your book, however much they may reassure you and promise great things. If you’re in the Society of Authors, use their excellent contractual advice service and act accordingly. ALLi_Complete_300x150_WEBJoin the Alliance of Independent Authors, another really helpful organisation, or look for free self-publishing advice on the internet. What you do with your money is your business, but beware of being ripped off by the many unscrupulous people out there who make their money by stealing yours.

Proof-reading: a wake up call

The reader who approached me at a recent library talk waited until the end of the event and spoke to me quietly. “I really enjoy your books,” she began, and I could tell there was a ‘but’ on its way. “But, I’ve noticed a few mistakes, nothing major, just little things….lots of little things.” My heart sank, but I rallied and mumbled something about the odd inevitable proof-reading problem. “Could you let me know what you’ve found?” I asked her, and thought not much more of it, until the copy of the book in question arrived with the errors painstakingly marked up and a forest of little stickers marking the pages to be looked at.

I am slowing recovering from the shock and embarrassment of what was revealed. Even when I found the delicate pencil stroke in the margin and looked for the error it sometimes took two or three attempts to even see it. They were little things: often an extra or missing short word, and eyes reading quickly for the sense of the sentence floated over without registering it. Very few readers have mentioned the errors to me, and I must have read the offending sections many times and never noticed either, but it’s still unacceptable in properly published material.

Crying and spilled milk come to mind. The book is out there, and the inquest among the editorial team has begun. All of us recognise how the errors have happened, mainly because the people trying to proof-read have been involved in the development and drafting of the story right from the beginning. Familiarity hasn’t bred contempt, just a failure to see each word on the page separate from the context that we all know so well. It has taken a fresh reader, who must read more slowly and carefully than me, to spot what we couldn’t see. I’m very grateful to my amateur proof-reader, and have told her so. She could have been aggressive about it and got my defences up, but her approach was perfect and it worked. If she’s prepared to proof-read all my previous books before they go for reprint, I’d be delighted.

As a self-published author I have the same responsibilities to my readers as a traditional publisher. If it costs more money – probably an additional £400 or so – to hire a professional outside reader for the second proof read immediately before printing, and if that process takes a week or two on top of an already tight schedule to publish one book a year, well that’s what it has to take, and it will be done.

Advice to self-publishers? Don’t cut corners on proof-reading, and don’t try to do it yourself. Once the book is out there with your name on it, the mistakes will haunt and taunt you. Your reputation and your readers deserve the best. Mea Culpa.

 

Can you make money self-publishing?

There was some very interesting discussion of this question at a workshop on self-publishing I led recently. Sixteen or so people round the table all had different goals, starting points, skills, strategies and experiences. Some did everything themselves, and used time and perseverance rather than money for the project. Others – me included -needed professional help with all or part of the process, and were able and prepared to pay for it. Others spent all their money on producing the book, but then found themselves with nothing left over to use for promotion, without which their beautiful books were still in their boxes cluttering up the house. Some just about covered their costs; some were nowhere near doing so; one or two had lost more than they could afford. I’d expected at least some stories of financial success, but heard none. Maybe the quiet ones at the table were doing better than they wanted to share.

There’s no question that almost all self-publishing projects will cost you something, either money or time, and probably both. There’s also no doubt that producing an ebook is much easier and cheaper than any other format, and you can sell heaps if you put a ludicrously low price on it, but the effect on sales is ephemeral. Publishing a paperback is a more difficult, but carries with it many more opportunities for promotion and direct sales.

I’m often surprised that many aspiring self-publishers don’t appear to have thought the process through, although that’s understandable given its complexity. If you truly understood the whole process it might be so daunting that you would never even start. One of the more unfortunate of the workshop participants regretted that she hadn’t attended a workshop like this two years before, and we realised why when she recounted – very bravely I thought – the series of mistakes she had made and the loss she’d incurred.

I may have had some advantage in this ‘business project’ game having been self-employed for many years, and having some idea of how to think ahead financially. Before I took the decision to self-publish I knew enough to calculate how many books I would need to sell, at what price, to retrieve the money I had shelled out at the start on the costs of ensuring a high quality paperback. The costs were for critique, editing, design and printing, and came to around £5000 for a 1500 print run. I also knew that bulk printing is cheaper than ‘print on demand’ (POD), and that unit costs are a function of quantity. How did I know that? I did enough initial research to think through some of the details and their implications. I was then able to work out how long it might take to recoup the money, and an approximate ‘rate of sale’. I reckoned it might take two years to recoup the outlay on the 1500 print run, and that turned out to be about right, although the necessary promotion strategy developed very slowly. I should have thought longer and harder about ‘How will people know about your book and why should they want to buy it?’

Once printed, and before sale, the books have to be stored somewhere. I ended up paying for dry secure storage, although I could at a pinch have saved that money by persuading friends and family to store a few boxes each for me. When the first print run was all sold, at a profit of about £4 per book, and I could reprint, then the the unit production cost would go down by about 50% while the price would remain the same, which makes for more profit. I priced the ebooks so that they too would generate about £3-4 each, as the up front costs are minimal. I have used Kindle Direct Publishing, which seemed very complicated to start with and required patience to reach any level of confidence. It’s paying off though: ebooks sales are steadily increasing, and £80-£100 per month is quite a healthy return, in my terms at least. The more books you have to sell, the better, but the outlay of time and investment to produce one book each year, as I currently do, is very demanding for someone with a job or a family, or both.

None of this is rocket science. But listening to people’s experiences the other day I realised what a struggle some self-publishers have. One person had sent off their precious manuscript to an outfit who promised to publish and make her rich. She has not seen any money, as the company she’d trusted went bankrupt, having sold her work on to another bunch of charlatans who also went down. What a mess. Now she has no money left to find out what she may be entitled to, and is lost the commercial maze that she tried unsuccessfully to avoid in the first place.

There’s lots more to say about the financial aspects of self-publishing, and I’ll hold some of it for future posts. I hope my recent two-hour workshop was helpful, although it could have been longer, and pressure of time didn’t enable me to get detailed feedback. There are so many writers out there considering self-publishing, and so many unscrupulous people keen to exploit that interest, that I find myself wanting to help with the basic practical details. Will running workshops on self-publishing generate greater sales of my books? I doubt it, but it feels like something that needs doing.