REPLAY 2011: Why I Might Stop Self-Publishing Paperbacks

Between now and the end of the year I’m going to be using Tuesdays and Thursdays to replay some popular posts from 2011, in case some of the people who’ve discovered my blog in the meantime missed it first time round. Think of it as a “year in review” kind of thing. (Or a “I’m trying to finish the first draft of a new book and so I don’t have time to write five new blog posts a week” kind of thing…) This post proved very popular when I first published it back in October, although I think some of the comment-leavers at the time didn’t quite get what I was getting it.

This is not a post about problems I have that I’m trying to solve; I’m not looking for solutions or suggestions on how I can overcome these problems. I’m saying I see a day when I won’t self-publish paperbacks at all, just e-books, that day is coming soon, and I’m fine with that. This isn’t something that makes me sad; it’s something I look forward to, because it’ll be less work and the majority of my sales are in e-book anyway. Will I keep buying and reading paperbacks almost exclusively? Yes. Do I hope that by the time this no-self-published-paperback day comes, I’ll have traditionally published paperbacks on the shelves of some stores? Um, yes. Obviously! But even if that’s not the case, I won’t be giving myself headaches trying to make and sell paperbacks myself.

September was a pretty hectic month at Catherine Self-Publishing HQ. Although I’d set the (purely decorative) release date for Backpacked as September 5th and the release date for Results Not Typical as October 1st, my cunning plan was to get them both out at the start of September, say nothing and then just shine a bright light in their direction whenever their turn came. That way I would be free, theoretically-speaking, to concentrate on writing The New Novel by the end of last month. But self-publishing two books simultaneously had an unexpected side-effect: it showed me – for the first time, really – what a pain in the arse self-publishing can be. Or more accurately, it showed me what a pain in the arse self-publishing is when you self-publish a paperback.

Self-publishing was to me, right from the start, mostly about producing a physical book. At the very beginning, it was only about that. Because that’s what a book was back then. (Ah, back then. Do you even remember November 2009? The Kindle still looked like something Fisher Price made and Hocking hadn’t even self-published.)  I discovered Smashwords while twiddling my online thumbs in the week it took for my CreateSpace proof copy to arrive; when I initially made the decision to self-publish, e-books weren’t even on my radar. When they showed up, they were only ever supposed to be a bonus. Now I’ve sold almost 9,500 books and only about 800 of them were print editions.

But I have, after all, sold 800 of them. Isn’t that better than a slap in the face? Isn’t that actually a great number for a Print-On-Demand paperback, especially when you consider that an outstanding POD paperback success is 200 books, and most authors are lucky to shift more than 10? And it’s not like making a paperback is all that much extra work. You’re making an e-book anyway, so what’s an extra few hours making an interior and adding a back cover to your e-book cover’s front? And even if you never sell any, haven’t you only “lost” the price of your proof copy? And if you do sell some, don’t you only have to sit back and relax while Amazon takes care of everything? Isn’t self-publishing a paperback easy?

Yes, but none of those things are the problem.

When you self-publish, your aim should be to sell as many books as you can, to get as many readers as you can and to improve your standing as a writer as much as you can while spending as little as you can without sacrificing quality or professionalism. But when you add paperbacks to the mix, you don’t do that. At least, I don’t do that. I haven’t. Producing paperbacks and having them available has cost me more money, I’d guess, than selling 800 of them have brought back. And I wouldn’t have had to spend any of that money – or worry about it at all – if I’d been able to say, “Well, actually I won’t be doing that because Mousetrapped [or Backpacked or Results Not Typical] is only available in e-book.”

For instance, stock. You need to get it to send out review copies, to sell books to friends and family, to give books to friends and family, to have at your book launch, to get on a shelf at your local bookshop. But once your hands touch a copy of your POD’d book, chances are you’ve lost money on it. The unit cost of the book is probably cheap enough, but you’ve had to pay to ship it to you. CreateSpace have recently improved the costs of their formerly astronomical shipping charges, but to avail of their economy option you have to be exceptionally organized. Today is Saturday 15th October. I can order 30 books from CreateSpace and get them to Ireland via economy shipping for just $63.99, or just over $2 a book. That’s pretty good. But what’s not pretty good is if I order them today – I’m writing this on Saturday 15th October – they won’t get here until Friday December 9th. That’s two months from now.

You could stomp your feet and say you’re not offering paperback review copies, not bothering with a launch or getting into bookstores, and instruct all your friends and family to order from Amazon (which itself creates another problem which we’ll get to in a minute). But you can only do this if you’re willing to ignore what’s expected of you. If your book is available in both paperback and e-book editions, you should offer reviewers either a paperback or an e-book. I say this as both a self-publisher and a book reviewer who doesn’t read or review e-books. If you don’t do this you look cheap, and you might also potentially offend the reviewer who gets the message that while you want their time and support, you don’t think it’s worth the price of a “real” book. Book launches are easy enough to avoid, but when it comes to friends and family… Well, good luck with that. You’re going to need it.

During last week’s blog tour, I guest-posted on Sally Clements’ blog about the problem of explaining self-publishing to your friends and family. I had a launch for Mousetrapped (for which I had to order stock in for and subsequently made practically no money from the sales on the day) so any of my relatives who wanted a copy simply showed up and bought one. I also left a few copies in store so if anyone couldn’t attend, they could pop in there later and buy one then. For Backpacked, there was no launch and I didn’t want to order in 50 books at my own expense if I didn’t know that I was going to be able to shift them. Then I had what I thought was a great idea. The easiest way to estimate how many friends and family members would want to buy a copy of Backpacked was to get a list together, right? Ask around and find who wanted copies and how many of them they’d like. But this would be difficult to organize and I suspected that despite best intentions, some people would order Backpacked and then not pay for it when it arrived. So I opened a website where the people I know could go to pre-pay for however many copies of Backpacked they wanted. This not only meant that I’d order just the amount I needed, but it also meant that I’d have the money to pay for them outright and nobody could order in a copy without paying. (I also opened it up to the world, charging a bit extra to cover shipping; this was the Backpacked pre-order bookstore.) I circulated e-mails, told my parents to spread the word and pasted it all over Facebook. But no one understood what was happening. My friends and family didn’t get that this was their only opportunity to order a paperback of Backpacked, that this time there wouldn’t be a launch or copies in a bookshop or a stack of them in my house if all else failed. The bookshop closed without a single order from anyone I knew; every single book sold through it was destined for faraway shores. “It’s okay,” was the reaction when I explained – again – what was happening. “We’ll get it from Amazon.co.uk.”

Except they couldn’t, because self-publishing paperbacks brings yet another problem: availability, or lack thereof. You have almost no control over where you POD’d paperback appears available for sale. I’ve paid for the expanded distribution upgrade, CreateSpace’s “Pro Plan” ($39) on each of my titles, but only one of them is available directly through Amazon.co.uk. I always order from Amazon.com – where your book will always be – but there’s a shockingly large number of people who think you have to live in the United States to do that. And there’s another problem with selling POD paperbacks: they cost a lot. I had to charge $16.95 for the paperback edition of Results Not Typical just so I wouldn’t lose money. I’d never pay that much for a paperback myself, and I don’t expect to sell any of them. (And I haven’t even mentioned the book to most of my relatives…) If you are a fan of mine and you bought Mousetrapped on Amazon.co.uk for $14.95, are you still going to be fan when the only way you can get my newest book in print is by paying more than that, buying from a site on the other side of Atlantic and picking up some higher than normal shipping fees on the way? Or would you just not bother? I know I wouldn’t.

All of this could’ve been avoided if I’d just self-published e-books.

Which is why I might do it in the future. I could say to reviewers, “I only have an e-book – it’s not that I’m being cheap!” and save myself not only the unit costs of those complimentary books, but the cost of shipping them to me, shipping them to the reviewer and the envelope. No one would expect a launch and you can’t really put e-books in stores (well you can, strictly-speaking, but we’ll talk about that another day), and as hardly any of my friends or family have e-book readers, I just wouldn’t even bother telling them. If they want to read my books, they can buy a Kindle and figure out how to use it. When you publish an e-book with Smashwords, Amazon KDP or Lulu, your book becomes available where they say it’s going to become available, and those places cover all major e-book formats, e-reading devices, countries, planets, etc. There’s no shipping on e-books, no need to worry if the list price covers the manufacturing costs, no way to lose money. You can only make money from e-books.

This isn’t a random photo of a Gu Blueberry Cheesecake. I ate it while I was writing this post.

And it wouldn’t affect my sales. If someone doesn’t read my book because they only read paperbacks, so be it. There’s enough people who’ll happily read e-books to make this a non-issue.

There’s one other reason why I’d consider this e-book only route. I hope, some day, to be traditionally published. But I also hope that I can continue to self-publish alongside any traditionally-published books of mine. However I don’t want to be competing with my own publisher, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t offer me a contract if they thought I was competing with them. Therefore there would need to be a differentiation, clear and recognizable, between the two and I think self-publishing only in e-books would be a good way to do it.

Of course, I might never have this problem, and if I don’t I’ll be crying into my Cornflakes.

But anyway.

Fear not: I’m not about to run off and unpublish all my paperbacks and Self-Printed, which I personally think is best read in paperback form and judging by its sales breakdown between print and e-book editions, you agree, will always remain available in a physical form.

But not selling paperbacks is definitely something I’m seriously considering for the future.

Obviously I’ll still have to make paperbacks of any future books just for myself, because as we all know I’m not a fan of e-books. (Not of reading them anyway.)

There just might come a day when I do that in secret.

One thought on “REPLAY 2011: Why I Might Stop Self-Publishing Paperbacks

  1. Rachel Nichols says:

    If I really want to read something, and it’s only available on line, I will consider an e-book. But I still prefer print–though I see where you are coming from as a successful self-publisher who wants to earn an honest dollar (or pound). 😀

Ah, go on. Tell me what you think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s