Print Editions: Why Not? (Self-Publishing Roundtable (4/6))

(As a reminder, this is part four of the series discussed here.  This series was originally concieved to be part of a roundtable discussion, so don’t be afraid to comment, disagree, offer new suggestions, etc.)

INTRODUCTION

Many, many times — in indie writer forums and facebook groups — I have seen authors who are successful (sometimes more successful than I am) publishing their ebooks, but who seem utterly perplexed when it comes down to print editions.  Not just the design (as I said in part one of this series, you can hire people to do both the book design and the cover art, if it really gets to be too much for you), but simply with the whole idea of picking a POD service, getting those books into print stores, and even with what you want a print edition for when most of the money, for an indie, is in eBooks.

Print books, for the self-publisher, are difficult to handle.  You have to set high retail prices, book design is much more complex for print than it is for the eBook, print books doesn’t sell much, etc., etc.  There are a few self-published writers, out there, who just don’t see any reason to publish their books in print.

So why would you ever bother to put your book in print?  Well, why not?  It may take a little time and effort, and there are things you need to watch out for, but if you know what you’re doing there’s no real reason not to.

PICKING A POD SERVICE

There was a time when Print-On-Demand books were considered the hallmark of a shoddy publisher.  The books produced are of low quality (well, not any more, but it was true of some POD companies in the early days), bookstores don’t like stocking them (once again, this used to be true, but — with a few exceptions — this is no longer the case), and they cost more to produce than offset printing.

If you are fortunate enough to be selling hundreds or thousands of copies of your print books, you might want to consider offset printing. It is cheaper per book, wholesale, but you have to deal with warehousing and distribution, and you can’t guarantee that every copy you print will sell.  In order to see the savings, you have to print your books in bulk.  Most self-publishers sell print books slowly (if at all), and the cost of warehousing and distribution for that many books more than offsets the savings.

POD, on the other hand, has no warehousing and little or no distribution costs.  The might be some set-up fees (or there might not be, depending on POD provider), and distribution costs (which may be nothing, depending on POD provider).  And you should probably factor in the cost of buying at least one proof copy ($8-10, roughly, for a 300-400 page novel).  But those are relatively minor costs and can easily be avoided (though I really do think you should be sure to buy a proof).

There are three major POD providers that most self-publishers deal with in the U.S.  We’ll go into a few others you might want to consider dealing with in a later section, and a few to avoid (including one that goes by many, many different names, and actually has its tendrils in one of the major ones, but more on that later), but for now we’ll focus on these big three.  They each have different costs, focuses, and abilities.  If you’re at all experienced with POD publishing, you probably already know their names, but just in case let’s go over them again.

To begin with, there is Createspace.  This is the big one, the one most people will start with.  Well, in the United States, anyway — this is not an option in some countries.  Createspace automatically (or, if the bot misses it, with a quick e-mail) associates your print book with your Kindle-published eBook, charges no set-up fees, charges no distribution fees, and distributes through Amazon.com and (domestically) Ingram.  The wholesale price per copy is easily the cheapest of these POD producers (at least for black and white books; if you want a color interior, there are better options) and shipping is cheaper as well.

Createspace is not perfect.  They do not print their own books outside of the US.  They do service customers outside of the U.S., but they outsource their printing for sale on Amazon.co.uk and various Amazon.eu services.  Who provides that printing is not clear (I communicated with an Ingram UK employee; while Ingram does some printing for Amazon in the US, they do not print books in the UK for them), and the quality can very be hit and miss.

But if you are an author and you order a proof, you’re ordering it from the U.S. Printer.  This means, if you are in the UK or Europe, you are paying to ship your proofs and wholesale copies across the Atlantic (a cost that is often greater than buying it retail, as those purchased retail are shipped from the country they are printed).  Since your proofs come from not just a different printer, but an entirely different country, this can cause problems in assessing the quality of the proof.

In the U.S., Createspace has multiple printers of its own, yet occasionally will still outsource some production to Ingram.  The quality of its books in the US are generally pretty good, but the multiple printers are inconsistant and frequently make changes in paper type and quality.  I’ve had them print my spine crooked or up to an eighth of an inch off-center on the spine for one batch, yet have it perfectly lined up the next with no change in the book cover design.

Some bookstores (the evidence I’ve heard is all anecdotal, and a couple years old, but seems well-supported by other local authors I’ve talked to) simply will not (officially) carry Createspace-printed books.  However, the only way they have to tell if a book is printed by Createspace is via ISBN number; if you do not list Createspace as your publisher-of-record (i.e., if you use the $10, $99, or custom ISBN options) they cannot be certain your book is printed by Createspace (note: This issue is discussed in more detail in my article on ISBNs).

Other bookstores refuse to carry Createspace-printed books because Createspace does not fully support the classic returns system (though the returns system is not necessarily something worthwhile, it can be necessary to get into some bookstores).

Createspace does not print Hardbacks (well, they used to, but only by special arrangement and not for distribution; it was never a practical thing for self-publishers, and I learned from a recent Facebook discussion that this service no longer exists).

Finally, I would recommend against using the “professional services” (the in-house editing\layout\cover artist\marketing) for any and all POD companies.  Many are worse than Createspace (I’ll discuss why, below), but even here they aren’t worth the money.

Yet despite these flaws it’s still the best option for most  (if you are doing a children’s book, photo book, or other heavily illustrated text, you might want to consider one of the other options I list below) self-publishers looking into POD.  It’s inexpensive, low-hassle, and reputedly has the best customer service of the bunch.  For the amateur, it has one of the easiest-to-use user interfaces in the business, good tutorials and a built-in support community.  It’s cheap and easy, it produces an acceptable product (well, usually), and it makes your book available in print anywhere in the U.S. and on Amazon.

But there are alternatives, some of which offer options Createspace does not.  Some people chose Createspace and another printer, others choose to stay with just one printer.  Createspace isn’t even an option in some countries, and isn’t always the best choice even where it is available.

One popular alternative is Lulu.  Lulu’s popularity, in part, is because they have been around for a while, and they produce decent books.  I do not recommend Lulu in any circumstances, but they are a viable alternative if you are careful when dealing with them.

Lulu has no set-up fees (just like Createspace).  It has a hardcover option (though the costs of a Lulu hardcover, after distribution fees, are far too high for it to be worth it). It provides distribution through Lulu.com, Ingram, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.  And its books (at least at the “premium” level; they offer lower-grade books, but they are not eligible for distribution, and are not worth the cost) are of decent, professional-grade quality.

However, Lulu’s books are more expensive.  Comparing the cost of a 300 page perfectbound paperback book (of quality that allows for distribution) on each of the three major POD companies, Lulu’s books routinely cost $1-2 more to produce… at least in the U.S. (I cannot compare the numbers, myself, but through Facebook I know someone from South Africa who says that Lulu’s paperbacks are the cheapest where he lives, so if you aren’t in the U.S. you’ll have to doublecheck these numbers).

Lulu offers price calculators on its website which are very up-front about the raw costs of book production with them.  Like Createspace, they do not participate in the Returns system.

I’m going to emphasize this here, even though I’ve already said it elsewhere:  DO NOT USE THEIR “PUBLISHING SERVICES”.  Lulu’s “Publishing Services” are outsourced to a company whose reputation (and the lawsuits accompanying that reputation) makes it seem like one of the worst scams in publishing, today.  If you are curious about the details, read the part on Author Solutions in the next section.

A better option (and yes, that is my unequivocal opinion… at least over Lulu) is Ingram Spark.  If you are moderately successful with print sales, Ingram is the company to go to.  Now, Ingram Spark is the “entry level” version of Ingram’s Lightning Source POD program (and offers offset printing services, as well; Ingram is the largest printer in the country, serving many publishers of all sizes).  You may have heard of Lightning Source, but for the sake of brevity we’ll only talk about Ingram Spark; most services offered by one are offered by the other, and Ingram Spark is the one you’re most likely to be dealing with.

Ingram has some set-up fees; $49 per title (though this can get waived, if you sell enough books early on).  They also have distribution fees of $12/year, and a rather annoying $25 fee for correcting mistakes in your files after uploading (which effectively means $25 for any post-Proof corrections).  Black and white books produced are slightly more per unit than Createspace’s (though the difference is negligible), but are significantly cheaper than Lulu’s.

Color books, however, are far cheaper per copy; less than half what Createspace costs, and almost five times less than Lulu.  The print quality for all of their books are compareable to Createspace’s best.

The price per copy from Ingram can drop if you have heavy sales, much like with offset printing.  Distribution is better, despite the cost (Amazon only uses Ingram’s domestic distribution service; Ingram is also the largest international book distributor in the world).  And Ingram offers three things the other POD providers don’t:

  1. Control the return policy.  Returns can help in getting your book stocked on bookstores’ shelves instead of just buried in their online bookstore.  Still, you might not want to deal with it — Ingram gives you the option of accepting returns or not.  (Please refer to the article I linked to, above; “returns” may not mean what you think it means)
  2. Ingram produces and distributes hardback books for a reasonable price.  I would say that this is the only practical way to get sellable hardbacks from one of the big three POD producers.
  3. Adjustable “discount rates.”  This is the percentage that your book price is discounted when a bookstore purchases it.  Adjust it one way, your royalties increase; increase it the other, the bookstore pays less when ordering it for their shelves.

A note about discount rates:  SOME sources claim that Createspace only gives booksellers a 25% discount, whereas the industry standard — and the default for Ingram Spark — is closer to 40-45%.  I’ve also seen others say that this policy has changed for Createspace, and it now provides the standard discount.  I don’t have the insider information to know which is true, but it’s something to keep in mind.

This does not mean Ingram is always the best choice for a self-publisher.  Far from it — the set-up fees and recurring annual distribution fees sour me on it, a bit — but there are times it might be.

Basically, questions to ask when considering Ingram over Createspace:

  1. Are you regularly giving away or hand-selling fifty copies (the amount needed to waive most set-up fees) of your novel in the first three months?  If so, consider Ingram.
  2. Do you expect a large part of your print-book customer base to be outside of the U.S.?  If so, consider Ingram.
  3. Are your overall sales heavy enough that offset printing is starting to look good?  If so, consider Ingram as an alternative — they can offer some of the benefits of offset printing (bulk discounts) even using POD technology.
  4. And finally, are you printing books with a color interior?  Consider Ingram… though there may be other alternatives.

I would not say “Createspace is for beginners and Ingram is the Big Leagues,” but I might say that Ingram can be the better choice for those self-publishers with larger and more established print markets.  If you’re just starting out and you don’t know, yet, how your book will fare in print, stick with Createspace.

OTHER POD SERVICES

We’ve covered the biggest POD options, but there are others.  It’s hard to find adequate data on some of them, and while one or two might be useful there are problems with a lot of them.  I’ll give you some examples of what to watch out for, and one or two which are pretty good.

One of those “pretty good” POD options is one I might better call a “supplemental” POD distributor:  The Espresso Book Machine.

This wonder of a device can can be found in a number of bookstores and some libraries (I attended the “grand opening” of an Espresso Book Machine in my local library about a year ago.  The books it made were pretty good).  These are (relatively) tiny Print-On-Demand Machines that will get you your book in roughly six minutes, if you can find them.

If you are with Lightning Source or Ingram Spark, your book should be put into the EBM catalog automatically (I’m not clear on the procedure, but I’m told it’s an opt-in\opt-out channel in your distribution agreement).  If you go through Lulu or Createspace, however, you’ll have to put yourself into the catalog manually.  Until recently, you had to go to an EBM representative in person in order to get this to happen, but (and I have yet to determine how fast or successful it is) they now have an online option for listing your books.

Please note, putting your books into the Espresso Book Machine catalog will not put your book into Ingram or any other distribution service; it will not be for sale on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, or anywhere else unless there’s an Espresso Book Machine present.  That is why I’d call this more of a supplemental option to your regular POD service.

Now, if you are interested in POD but for some reason refuse to do business with Lulu, Createspace, or Ingram, there might still be a viable option or two.

I’ve heard good things about a smaller POD company named Blurb.  This one is favorably compareable to Lulu, but until recently they were not equipped to handle novels; I’ve been taking a bit of a “wait and see” approach to them, but I’ll tell you what I know.

Before the middle of 2014. Blurb’s specialty was high quality photo books.  They wouldn’t be especially useful if you were producing any other kind of book, so I’ve essentially ignored them.  But, in 2014, a press release announced that they would be offering more options… including some that are quite adequate for novels.

Reviews I’ve read say that they produce the best “coffee-table” photo book in the POD market (even better than some digital offset printers).  They claim to distribute through Amazon and Ingram, and do appear to have both paperback and hardback options.

While I haven’t done much intensive study of Blurb so far, I’m looking into them more and more.  My mother is putting together a book on quilting, and I’m considering suggesting she put it out through Blurb.  Perhaps I’ll have a supplementary blog on their service once that is complete.

If you still aren’t satisfied with your POD options, however, there’s… uh… well… I’m not really sure if they’re an option or not….

Several years ago, in response to Ingram’s creation of Lightning Source, Baker and Taylor created its own POD service:  Textstream.  Now you know as much about them as I do.

Well, okay, maybe I know a little more.  Textstream opened with little or no fanfare, never had web-based access (you would have to make arrangements for your book’s production through e-mail and telephone conversations), and never really became a big-name player on the market… but somehow survived, and their website insists they still exist.  How that happened, I’m not quite sure, but if it exists it might be able to take on your projects.

Mind you, I only know of one self-publisher who even tried to deal with them.  He ordered some comparison proofs from them; his sample was adequate, but he complained extensively about the difficulties he had getting his instructions and files out to them.  This comparison shopper later decided to go with Ingram, so take of that what you will.

That was back in 2009, when Textstream was the new guy on the block; Createspace and Ingram have improved significantly since then, while Textstream… well, I really can’t say if what’s happened to them is an improvement or not.

Two years ago Baker and Taylor bought out a company called Bookmasters in an effort to create some sort of web interface for Textstream.  I think it is aimed more at the small press traditional-style publisher, however.  I have yet to see how you can use this web interface as a self-publisher; just to get a quote for their print service, you need to submit project details that include an order for a hundred books.

That doesn’t seem like it takes advantage of the best features of POD service, to me — namely, the ability to make print runs that are smaller than is practical with digital offset printing.  However, I’m betting (I have no proof, mind) that there’s an undocumented way to use them.  I suspect, if you went to them through e-mail and telephone (as with the original Textstream), you might be able to make special arrangements for the printing and distribution of your book.

I would not attempt it unless I was writing in a genre Baker and Taylor would be a better distributor than Ingram… which pretty much limits you to Academic or Christian publishing.  Even then, well, they don’t give you their terms of service anywhere, so you’re still probably better off with either Ingram or Createspace.  (Baker and Taylor, you could make yourself a legitmate contender with just a little work.  I know you are a well-respected distributor, so why aren’t you even trying to keep yourselves competitive?)

Full disclaimer:  I’ve never talked to anyone who actually used Bookmasters, successfully, either before or after their acquisition by Baker and Taylor.  What I can tell you, however, is that as difficult as it may be to work with them, I haven’t seen any scam warnings about either company.  I have seen some cautionary tales about Bookmasters in the form of Yelp reviews, but only regarding those issues I’ve already mentioned (they’re hard to work with).  From the few reviews I was able to find, the quality of the books they produce is quite decent, comparable with Ingram, and Baker and Taylor distribution is fairly good (on par with Ingram, domestically, but with a bit more emphasis towards certain genre).

The biggest recommendation I can give them is that Textstream is generally competent in production and distribution once things are set up, and does not appear to be intentionally trying to rip off authors.  The same cannot be said for all the alternatives.

Smaller POD companies have to be carefully examined.  They aren’t necessarily rip-offs, but they can be lacking in some other area.  Take TheBookPatch as an example.  Their prices are a touch high per book, but are compareable to Lulu’s (distributable) books.  The books they produce are, per reviews, fairly decent in quality.   If all you’re looking for is one or two review copies and that’s it, they’re more than adequate.  Now, I’m not sure why you’d go to the trouble of prepping a print book and then only produce a couple review copies, but if that’s all you want The Book Patch is adequate.

The big catch is that they don’t offer distribution — the books they produce aren’t listed on Amazon, they won’t go through Ingram or Baker and Taylor, and they won’t be in any local bookstores.  So, you make yourself a print book and you can’t make it for sale.

So, the Book Patch is only of limited use.  There are worse options out there — companies you should never deal with.

About a decade ago, there were a lot of independent POD companies with distribution through Ingram and Amazon and the like.  One was Lulu, and is still around.  One was Lightning Print, which eventually became Lightning Source (and now includes Ingram Spark).  One was eventually bought by Amazon (Createspace, then known as Booksurge).

But a lot of them — of varying reputations — were bought up by a company called Author Solutions Inc.  Author Solutions also developed “self-publishing” (*snort*) arms for larger publishers, each under different names.  Author Solutions, therefore, controls POD (and eBook production) companies under the names iUniverse, Trafford, Palibrio, AuthorHouse, Book Tango, Wordclay, XLibris, Partridge, Book Country, Archway (Simon and Schuster), Hay House (Balboa Press), Crossbooks (Lifeway), Guideposts (Inspiring Voices), Westbow Press (Harper Collins), and probably a few other names.  They also appear to run the Nook Press’ print division and Lulu’s Author Services (which is why I made special warnings against Lulu’s author services in the section above).

Author Solutions is owned by the parent company of Penguin Random House (or, as I like to call them, Random Penguin).  You would think that would mean they were a legitimate organization (though you might also remember that the Famous Writers School was operated by the pre-merger Random House back in the 60s, and that didn’t exactly legitimize it).  Unfortunately, it is (“allegedly,” for the lawyers out there) a scam — instead of legitimate POD and self-publishing assistance, they are a worst-practices vanity press of the highest order, and still peddle their services despite an ongoing lawsuit.  A typical experience publishing with them was recounted here.

Recall me mentioning that Author Solutions runs Nook Press’ print division?  Well, not only does Nook Press insist on using Author Solutions’ worthless services, they don’t offer any kind of distribution — not even on Barnes and Noble’s website!  So, you spend thousands of dollars getting a print book produced (being gouged all along the way, thanks to Author Solutions), and then no-one can buy it.  If you don’t want distribution, go with TheBookPatch; they at least offer honest service.

In other words… if you find a POD service I haven’t mentioned here, you might want to be very careful while investigating it.  Find out how they are distributed, if they are at all.  Read reviews (though don’t trust every article — Author Solutions fakes a lot of comparison reviews to make themselves look good).  Look for warning signs.  It just might be another scam printer.

USES FOR A PRINT BOOK BEYOND THE OBVIOUS

Once you’ve found someone to publish your print books, the “obvious” thing to do is to sell them on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and whatever other bookstores you can get them in.

But many indie authors sell so few print copies they make little or no net profit on them… so why spend the time and energy getting them produced?  Well, First off, you need some as giveaway items.

For example, good reviews help get your book launched.  Sometimes, these reviews come naturally; other times, you have to go out and track them down.  One way to get those reviews legitimately (Amazon recently reformed their review system to reduce the amount of paid for or otherwise unethically produced reviews; there’s been a bit of flack because the net is catching a few honest reviewers, too) is to give away review copies.  Sometimes, these reviewers insist on print copies.

The giveaway print copy is, for lack of a better word, your portfolio.  Do you want to apply to be a guest at a convention?  Well, name recognition is the best way to get a spot… but the second best is to sending the convention organizers a free copy that show them your stuff as a writer — and usually, they would prefer a print copy (though do inquire, first).

Once at the convention, displaying a free copy on your panelist table is like posting a billboard with your book on it.  Heck, just carrying a copy around so that the cover is visible (if you’ve got a good enough cover) might generate sales.  Have it on display when you’re traveling mass transit, and people get interested.  I’m not saying this sort of thing will put you on the bestseller list, but it could help; at least, it’s reputed to have sold books, before.

And then there are library copies.  Sure, libraries now sometimes allow self-published ebook to grace their virtual walls, thanks to companies like Overdrive.  Overdrive doesn’t exactly put your book front and center, however (especially the books put into their system from Smashwords; evidently, your book is placed on some sort of super-secret “this book was self-published” list, which is nearly inaccessable unless you already know its there.  No, really!

Put a physical book on the shelves of your local library, though, and people might actually see it on occasion.   Most libraries do have some form of purchase request system; some will even shelve a book if you donate it (check first, though; far too many public and academic library systems insist (as a policy that a mere local librarian is forbidden from overriding) that any donations be put into book sale fundraisers, only, so your book still won’t end up on their shelves).

And, of course, you want to be able to sell your books.  Your local bookstore usually prefers selling your books in print.

GETTING YOUR BOOK IN BOOKSTORES

There is a trick to getting your books into bookstores.  That trick is to make sure that the bookstore can acquire one to be sold (no, really — that’s the trick!).  You put your book through one of the major distributors (like Ingram, either directly or through your POD producers distribution system, as Amazon does), and most bookstores serviced by that distributor will list your book for sale on their web store.

Don’t believe me?  Well, if you have a print book in the Expanded Distribution system of Amazon or similar channel, and you paid attention to the section on print books during my blog on Pricing, check Powells.  It might be missing your cover, but it will most likely listed there.

But having your book in a bookstore’s online store is quite different than having it on that bookstore’s shelves.  And you want it on the shelves, if at all possible.

Now, there are a variety of ways to get books on bookshelves.  Whichever way you go, however, you need a good book — if you’re one of those authors who are trying to publish “practice” work or similarly feel as if your book is of otherwise inferior quality, it might be best not to try until you come out with what you might be willing to call “professional-looking.”

But once you have a good book, there are a few paths to success.  There are the old ways — which are probably too complicated for the average “intermediate” self-publisher, but not completely out of the realm of possibility.  I don’t bother with them, so I can’t really say anything on them, but Kristine Kathryn Rusch put together an extensive description of the process, if you’re interested.

Ugh.  Who wants to do all of that?  Worse, who can do that while still finding the time and energy they need to write the books they’re trying to sell?  This method is probably quite effective, but I’m not sure the cost-benefit ratio is there (in terms of both financial costs and time) for most self-publishers.

Fortunately, there are less… let’s call it “labor intensive” ways to get your book onto some bookstore’s bookshelves.  I’ll admit few are as effective as the old ways, but they should be a lot more palatable.

There are effectively only two major bookstore chains remaining in the U.S.:  Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million  Both of these are theoretically open to the self-publisher in the US., with some effort.  (There are smaller chains in the U.S., such as Hastings — which is less and less interested in books, period — and Hudson’s, which mostly runs Airport bookstores.  As of the last time I checked, both these smaller chains refuse to carry self-published books)  But smaller, independent stores are growing more and more open to independent and self-published authors.

Start by searching the ABA Member Directory for your state (and any other nearby state you think is “local” enough for you to get to in person; for example, if you live along the Potomac River, you want to look into stores in both Virginia and Maryland).  And yes, search by state — checking by City, Zip Code, or Company Name won’t get you enough results.  Identify the independent bookstores from that list who service your genre… and go visit them.  In person.  (Incidently, you might as well try used bookstores; my books went onto the shelves of a used bookstore that also had a “local authors” section)

Talk with the owners (or the manager, or whoever is present that can make decisions).  Let them know you are a local author (the more local the better).  Ask if they are willing to carry your books.  You may have to supply these books yourself (many only take them on consignment), but most of the time they’re willing to carry it for you.

Note:  As I will cover in ISBNs, sometimes — and I emphasize that this really isn’t common, but anecdotally it happens — an indie bookstore is hostile to Amazon yet still open to indie books.  If they go to order your book and find that it was printed by Createspace, they might reject your book at that point.  This can be revealed when they look up your book’s ISBN number for ordering and find Createspace listed as the publisher-of-record (a technical term referring to the ISBN’s owner, but I’ll get into more detail on that in the ISBN post), so there you have one of the few remaining legitimate cases for purchasing said number yourself.

Okay, there — you’ve got the local indies on board.  But what about the national chains, Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million?  Well… with them, things get a little more complicated.

Once again, I have to talk about things I’ve only heard about other people doing, and not things I’ve done, myself.  Personally, I’m trying to build my experience a bit before I try it (your chances of success may be better when you have a larger “portfolio” of books you can point to), but I know quite a few writers who report success using this procedure, so I’m guessing it works.

With Books-A-Million, you have to contact your local store’s manager… or the regional manager, perhaps.  Depends on the bookstore.  Books-A-Million’s system is rather nebulous; does it require that you accept returns?  Must you have an ISBN?  Will they even take self-published writers?  I’ve heard from different people in different parts of the country who all say different things about what the answers to these questions are.  I think your best bet is to ask the regional manager what he thinks the ‘corporate policy’ is; if they’re at all open to the idea of adding self-published books to their shelves, they’ll tell you what you need to do.

Barnes and Noble is a bit different.  Now, I’ve heard that sometimes a store manager or regional manager will claim that Barnes and Noble has a policy forbidding self-published novels.  However, there really is a policy in place, and it’s there for anyone to see on the Barnes and Noble website.

To sell your book, they say, they want you to:

  1.  Become a “Vendor of Record.”  If you don’t want to click on the link, what it says is that you need to fill out a form; they will check out your eligible titles (they say titles are only eligible if you have an assigned ISBN with a hardback or paperback cover (no comb bindings).
  2. Once they are done checking, you will be asked to send “a copy of the book (no manuscripts, please), along with marketing and promotion plans, trade reviews, and a note describing what makes the book unique” to their small press department.  Before sending that information, you might want to check out this (curiously seperate and unlinked-to from the Vendor of Record application) document here, describing what they actually want in that communique.  To sum up, they want an ISBN number and bar code, quality binding, competitive pricing, wholesale availability, and a marketing\publicity plan.
  3. Convince the store manager that people in the region will be interested in your book.  (So, in other words, at this point the procedure is largely identical to the local independent bookstores, except Barnes and Noble is far less likely to request you sell your books on consignment)

Now, this is the national corporate policy as laid out on their website.  The regional managers, however, sometimes have their own rules (which they sometimes claims are “corporate policy”), such as the book needs to be in the returns system.  I’ve heard some people get their book into their local stores without being in said system.  If your regional manager insists on it, however, protesting won’t do much good.  If that same manages absolutely refuses to carry your book because it’s self-published… well, item 3 on that list pretty much says it all; you’re out of luck in that region’s stores.

Dealing with bookstores can be tricky.  It doesn’t help that you probably aren’t the first self-published author who’s approached them, and likely won’t be the last, and that so many self-published authors have done stupid things dealing with bookstores that it leaves them gun-shy.  It doesn’t help that there is still sometimes a stigma to self-publishing among the veteran bookstore set, who tend to be the regional managers you have to deal with.  It doesn’t help that there are a lot of self-publishers out there who really aren’t good writers or who act badly; enough to reinforce the self-publishing stigma among those who still have it.  All you can do is be as professional about things as you can be, and hope that’s enough.

I’ve seen lots of people try different things.  Some people their book with Createspace to sell on Amazon, but opt out of Expanded Distribution so they can also publish with Ingram Spark (using the returns system, variable discount, and the lack of a connection with Amazon to help make their case) for Barnes and Noble and similar bookstores.  And there are those people who walk into the store, talk to the manager, and get their POD-printed, non-returnable, Createspace ISBNed book placed without a hassle; these people don’t seem able to comprehend that this isn’t necessarily a typical experience.

But, with a little work, it can be done.

HAND SALES

Okay, you’ve found a printer, sent some copies off to reviewers, made sure your book was on the shelves at your local bookstore, and paraded a copy of your book around the local sci-fi convention.  That’s more than you usually have to do to get your ebooks selling.  So the money should just start flowing in… right?

Well, probably not.  Most of the time, self-publishers don’t sell as well in print as they do e-books (and I’m no exception).  And they probably never will, since huge print sales success depends on bookstores marketing for you (making your book more visible… sometimes literally), and it isn’t likely most self-published authors will get much marketing support even if they are able to get their print books into the stores.

But sales do slowly trickle in, and with POD the book never goes out of print.  I’m not sure of the stats (and I wouldn’t trust the numbers if I saw them), but there’s still a large part of the market that refuses to read eBooks.  You’re shutting yourself off from those people if you don’t set up a Print edition.

Still, your print books won’t sell like your eBooks.  In fact, maybe they barely sell at all — my print sales amount to about 1% of my publishing income.  Now, I haven’t done everything I could to sell my books (I haven’t even done everything I’ve told you can be done to sell books), but I doubt that I could make my print sales match my ebook sales when my best efforts would only grant me regional bookstore distribution.  I might get sales compareable with your average small press, at best.  That rarely matches (in the number of sales, at least) what you can make with eBooks.

You can boost your print sales, to a degree, by hand-selling (a term that means selling your books in-person) or selling signed copies direct from your website.  The return per book sale is better than the sale through any other store (including Amazon, even, if you can keep your shipping costs down), and I have known a few authors who pay their convention expenses by hand-selling their books at an authors table or in the dealer’s room.

Keep in mind, though, that when hand-selling, you change the model of business you’re in as a writer.  Selling your books exclusively through retailers is different from hand-selling your books in a legal way.  If you only sell books through a retailer, probably (check your local laws; I’m not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice) the worst you need to worry about on the business end (tax wise) is filing your taxes quarterly.

But if you start hand-selling your book, you open yourself up to more red tape.  You are no longer just a supplier, you have become a retailer of books.  This changes a lot of things — for example, you have to account for sales taxes, yourself.  Again, check your local laws, but in most cases you will need to fill out forms outside of whatever forms your locality requires to establish a self-publishing business in order to deal with retail sales.

In my case, if I were to fill out that form (I did have one prepared through Legalzoom, but decided to hold off on going this route… for now), I would need to make monthly sales reports and pay a small monthly fee.  I would also have to keep a closer track of the sales I made (a lot of things which are automated on Amazon or similar retailers you need to do, yourself).

You have to decide if it’s worth the effort — in my case, I figure I don’t have enough titles, yet, nor are my print sales strong enough, to justify the added expenses in accounting time and money.

Note:  Should I decide to sell direct from my website, I’ll probably do it under the auspices of my mother’s quilting business — signing her to a contract that would make her a “distributor” for my books — as she recently set herself up with all of these forms and monthly accounting statements so she can add a storefront (coming soon) for her quilting business.  It just makes sense, as I’ll probably be acting as her publisher for a book on quilting that she’s writing, as well.  But the way things are set up I would only be able to do business on the web or in Virginia; if I were attending a convention just barely across the state line, in DC or Maryland, I would need to file a different set of tax documents for those two locations.

Just something to keep in mind.  I assume most people who are reading this series have at least looked into the very basics of self-publishing, but I don’t expect you to necessarily have looked into this sort of issue, so I’m covering more of the basics than usual.

CONCLUSION

So, there’s no question that print books can be complicated.  You can set yourself up with old-style print runs through difficult-to-interact with printers, warehouse said books once they’re printed, market your books to bookstores, market them to readers, and set yourself up as a retailer which requires accounting for sales tax, etc.

On the other hand, you can go through Createspace and treat it just like you do KDP, Nook, and any other ebook store… just with a little more set-up in the book design phase.  You won’t sell as well, but you’ll open up some time to work on your next book and the print version will be there for those people who refuse to buy an e-book.

It’s all about trade-offs, in this business.  Put it more time and effort and you can sell more books… though perhaps not enough to justify that time and effort.  But if you are asking whether you should make a print edition at all?

Well, why not?

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