Saturday, April 23, 2011

Writing a book

I have a new project. Not that I needed one.

I have been hearing a lot about the "e-book revolution", and previously unknown authors such as Amanda Hocking, who has sold over 900,000 copies on Kindle so far, since she put her books up last April. If that doesn't grab your ear, then look at this: Author Barry Eisler turned down a half a million dollar advance from a publisher, deciding to self publish instead. Half a million! Something is going on here.

It turns out that authors have been getting the short end of the stick for a long time. Publishers held the keys to the press, and they dictated the terms to authors - 15% royalty rates. Who do you think got the better deal? The publisher, of course.

But now the tables have turned. E-books are increasingly popular. Authors can take their book directly to the customer through Amazon, and other vendors. They can set a price as low as 99 cents, and at $2.99 and up they keep 70% of the profits. So a book at $2.99 earns the author $2.09 per copy sold. Far more money than authors make on print paperbacks. I'm not a mathematician, but I think you will sell more books at $2.99 than at $15.

So I am writing an e-book. Not just for the money, either. I don't have any notion that I am going to hit it big, although I wouldn't mind if that happened. I don't write bestseller material; people want romantic fiction, suspense, pot-boilers. Those books have a wide appeal, and I don't begrudge them success. But I see a niche I could fill. I like to work on ambitious projects, and I can tell stories about a project I accomplished. The first one will be about restoring the Geo Metro. The second will be about building a wood-powered truck. These are not technical manuals. No step-by-step how-tos, nor exploded diagrams of exactly what I did where. I am focusing on the other stuff - the mishaps, the characters I meet, the challenges and how I overcame them, changes in my thinking about the project. That should be of a wider appeal than just "here's how I fixed this car".

This sort of book has been done before. Spectacular examples would include The Brendan Voyage and several other voyages by Tim Severin, who tells the story of the whole process. He has made a career of duplicating historic sea voyages and documenting the whole thing, while building the boats and sailing them.

One of my favorites is The Story of a Stanley Steamer, where George Woodbury restores a classic Stanley he found in a barn, and passes along a boatload of misinformation about Stanleys in general. But it is still a good story, and fun to read. I hope my book comes out that well (except for the bad information).

Another good example is Shopcraft as Soulcraft, where Matthew Crawford explains his decision to leave a high paying job at a Washington think-tank to become a motorcycle mechanic, and he tells the experiences that ensue. He adds a lot of insights along the way which are spot-on.

My book may not be earth shattering, but it is an excuse for me to start writing. I expect my second book to come out better than the first - practice makes perfect. But I still have to start somewhere. I don't have any delusions of grandeur - I will be quite pleased if I end up with a few hundred dollars. Maybe enough to fund another project, something else that I could write about...