Background: Where it all began
You could say the Film Finance Handbook started as a 20-page free pamphlet, made by Chris Chandler for the BFI. As a teenager in 1999, I turned it into a 40-odd page free funding section of a new website, Netribution (the name was a reference to net distribution of films - our original, over-eager, business plan). A year later this had become an unrecognisable 150 page guide mostly updated by a volunteer (Stephen Salter). A few years after that, after turning down an offer from Focal Press with an advance to self-publish it with another website (Shooting People), I took the content offline.
Had I stopped believing in the importance of the free? I’d spent the previous two years running a free magazine and web directory for filmmakers, manually updating 1000s of pages before such luxuries as Wordpress or Joomla, been turned down for funding by everyone from Sky and Enron to the Film Council and my parents, got tired of sleeping on the floor of our office in what is now the Silicon Roundabout, and of trying to make £500 last for a month without melting one of those then-so-easily gained credit cards. No-one else would pay me, I had to eat, and I couldn’t comprehend that people would buy the book if they could read it all for free online - it hadn’t worked out that way with Netribution.
The upside is I got the money to work on the book for months, to employ a researcher and co-author (Caroline Hancock), and over three more editions - the last two with the very knowledgable Adam P Davies - turned those web pages into a behemoth of film finance information, going into more depth, on more countries, than any book yet, I think.
Moving to digital
Finally last year I belatedly brought out an ebook version. It’s a little odd how slow we were to do this - we were championing crowdfunding long before Kickstarter and IndieGoGo launched, self-distributing when that was viewed as something embarassing (unlike today where 20% of genre eBooks are self-published). We were early to explain Creative Commons, the longtail and Open Source to our readership of film producers, lawyers and filmmakers, yet pretty conservative when it came to our own digital approach. My excuse was the difficulty of turning the book’s multi-column design with dozens of styles, into an eBook - which to be fair was a real struggle.
We first put a Kindle version on Amazon and received a trickle of one or two sales a month; thru Google Play barely a couple overall. So when I put the book up on our own site without DRM and at a price near the cost of the original print edition - and with no updates after five years - and no way to stop people from pirating it and sharing it with hundreds of colleagues - I assumed it would sell a couple at most. I did the whole thing as an experiment and made a point of neither tweeting or writing about the launch just to see if natural search traffic would bring in sales. But the book ended up selling through our website at a level very close to the same rate as when we had a fresh print edition out. It covered the costs of the digital conversion, and then some.
The surprising lessons from selling eBooks..
It was a really eye-opening experience, and not just the higher than imagined sales. Firstly that people prefer PDF - almost 5 times as many people buy the PDF versions as the ePub & Kindle versions combined. But also that platforms like Amazon and Google Play have sold less than 5% of the total digital copies. And best of all the most profitable sales are the ones on our own website, where we make 97% of the asking price, against Amazon, where we take 29% - or US bookshops where we took 28%.
What conclusion can be taken from this? That DRM seems pointless, and that centralised marketplaces don’t seem to add much (at least at the £10+ non-fiction price) and that people overwhelmingly want PDFs - be it for the layout or the ability to print, or the ease to read it on their iPads. And most of all - that the most valuable thing we have in terms of selling the book is our website and the people who visit it. And yet the website currently inspires little reason for people to visit it - there’s no fresh content, and nothing from the book other than sample pages. Where Netribution once boasted number 1 google search ranking for ‘film funding’ and even ‘film industry’, there’s nothing at Fund Your Film to make you visit after buying a book.
(to be continued)