Why I Wouldn’t Self-Publish A POD Paperback (At Least To Start With)

Welcome to the Distress Signals Blogging Bonanza! What’s that, you’re wondering? Well, you can either go and read this post or read the next sentence. In a nutshell: my debut thriller Distress Signals – think: eerily similar disappearances from a cruise ship in the Med – was out in paperback in the UK and Ireland on January 5 and hits the U.S.A. on February 2, and every day in between I’m going to blog as per the schedule at the bottom of this post.

So, TRAGIC news: there will be no video blog today. I know, I know. I’ll give you a second to dry your tears.

Once I finish this post I will be unplugging my modem at the wall, putting the first wave of John Mayer’s new album on repeat and gluing my arse to the chair in front of my computer for the next 72 hours or so in order to finish the second draft of Book 2. I just don’t have time for transforming into a human girl, filming the blog and then editing and uploading it, because all that takes hours, especially the transforming bit. I don’t want to break my 28-day blogging bonanza insanity commitment, so I am blogging (obvs) but I’m going to do a bit of swapping around. I give you: a normal blog post.

Earlier this week I posted The ‘Get Published’ Advice I Wish I’d Listened To in which I mentioned, as an aside, that if I had my time over again or I was about to self-publish a new project now, I wouldn’t bother self-publishing a POD paperback – at least to start with. I’d be all e-books instead. And then, if they took off, I’d capitalise on their success by also releasing a paperback. (That’s actually something a number of traditional publishers have started doing with their commercial fiction, especially crime/thrillers: e-books first, sometimes months before the book is available in paperback.) Today I thought I’d elaborate on why.

I Got Over The Fear

When you first self-publish – or when you first get published if your publisher decides to go e-book first, or your book is out in one country but not yet in another – you will probably experience The Fear, sparked by a conversation that goes something like this:

Random person: I can’t wait to read your book! Is it out yet?

You: [heart soaring] Yes! You can buy it right now. [whispers] Please do.

RP: Where can I get it?

You: On Amazon.

RP: What about Barnes and Noble?

You: Um… Well, you see, it’s only available in e-book.

RP: Oh, I don’t read e-books.

You: [sound of heart breaking]

See also: you releasing the first book of a series and someone asking ‘When is the next one out? I can’t wait to read it!’ and you panicking and hitting Publish on Book 2 five minutes later.

The Fear is the fear of losing a book sale. You encounter a reader who wants to read your book, who says they will buy it, except they’re not interested in the existing options for doing that. And so you rush and you panic and you start flailing about in a drowning depth of anxiety at the thought that you might be selling more books if only you were selling them differently. One more book, anyway.

To this I say: get a grip. Ignore these annoying people. Seriously. Because these people are not your target. Your target is the people who already love e-books, who gobble them up, who buy several of them a week, who will definitely encounter your e-book because you have a promotional plan in place, and who will definitely hit that Buy button because you have taken the time to write a great book, design a great cover, etc. etc. They are the millions of people we’re interested in. Not reader97481 who leaves a comment saying they don’t read e-books. Why should we care about reader97481, especially since (a) she is absolutely in the minority and (b) we’ve no guarantee she even means what she says? I guarantee you that despite you feeling like these people are just the tip of the iceberg and that if you just published a paperback, you’d be sitting pretty atop all the bestseller lists and paying your mortgage off in cash, this is not what will happen if you do.

We made an e-book. Like it or lump it.

Clearly, I got over the fear. You should too.

There’s No Point

This is the biggest reason for me: there’s no point. No self-publisher I know is selling more paperbacks than e-books, and I only know a very small number who are selling anything significant in paperback at all (and they are all selling HUGE amounts in e-book). So what’s the point? Unless you are a life coach who goes around talking to enthusiastic audiences of hundreds who all queue up afterwards to  buy a copy of your book (and, in that case, you should really go to a printer where you can get a volume discount and avoid POD), you don’t need a physical book because it’s not going to sell enough copies to earn any kind of statistical significance in your self-published book sales. So why bother? If you have money to spend, put it in a Bookbub or boost a Facebook post. Don’t waste it on this.

It’s Much More Work Than It Seems

The thinking behind also releasing a paperback usually goes something like this:

  • I may as well – it’s not that much more work
  • I’ll sell more books because some people don’t read e-books.

As I said above, you almost certainly won’t sell more books – or at least, not enough of them to make this worth it. So scratch that. Which leaves it’s not that much more work or money. 

But it is.

Let’s do money first. If you do your own formatting, I will allow that it’s not that much more money. But it is more of it. Formatting for Kindle is relatively easy and easily a DIY job, but formatting an entire book in MS Word is a whole other ballgame. And while you might get away with making a passable e-book cover for free with Canva or PicMonkey, you won’t get away with it for a POD cover, which has to be specifically sized to your spine and supplied to CreateSpace in PDF with everything where it should be, including your barcode space. Then it really is another chunk of money. And I sincerely hope you are ordering a proof copy and not just letting people hand over money for something you haven’t actually seen yourself, so there’s that too – plus shipping.

And it is more work – but you don’t yet realise how much more of it, because it’s in the future. POD paperbacks complicate things. If you’re in this for the long haul, you’re going to be releasing a number of books (let’s hope). Each time you have a new release, you need to go back and add mention of it to your previous books, e.g. add it to your Also By This Author list, or maybe include a preview or a link. It’s easy to do this in e-book. You just swap out the file. But with the paperback, you have to swap out the file and go through the proofing process again. You also have to deal with editions. You can’t change anything significant about your paperback without it becoming a new edition, and a new edition is a separate edition. It’s a whole new book. New ISBN and so, horror of horrors, a new listing. You might not be able to bring your reviews for the previous listing over. (That seems to be entirely up to Amazon’s discretion.)

And here’s the worst bit: if you make a new edition, an Amazon listing for your name becomes a wasteland of old editions that aren’t available anymore. Now multiply that by all your online retailers. It’s a mess. A paperback also sets a listing in stone forever. For-EVAH. That listing will never disappear because Amazon keeps the listing active in case MarketPlace sellers have secondhand editions to flog. If you just publish e-books, you don’t have to deal with any of this crap. There’ll only ever be one edition and, if you ever want to ‘unpublish’ it or replace it – change the title, for example – the old one will just disappear.

Actually, no, that’s not the worst bit. The worst bit is that when you publish a paperback, you leave yourself nowhere to hide. You create a huge, new space in which you can make a mistake. In which you can look amateurish. In which you can fail to be professional. What I mean by that is this:

When it comes to novels, self-publishers win at e-books. This is because we format them carefully ourselves and/or we pay other people to do them professionally but in both cases, we build them from scratch. Some traditional publishers use a work-flow to create e-books that takes another form, e.g. a PDF, and converts that into an e-book automatically. This, sometimes, creates errors. I can honestly say that I have encountered more errors in traditionally published e-books than I have in self-published ones. But…

I cannot say the same for POD paperbacks. When it comes to making a physical book, you don’t know what you don’t know. You think it’s easy enough, straightforward. Chapter headings, a table of contents, maybe even a jazzy running head. But so much work goes into the layout and design of the interiors of the books we pick up off our local bookshop’s shelves. You don’t even realise it. And that work is done by professionals. By book designers. Working with far more powerful software and years of experience than you. By producing a paperback, you increase the chances that you will make a mistake. That you will look like you don’t know what you’re doing. (I say this from personal experience. I made mistakes. Embarrassing ones. And if it wasn’t for the likes of The Book Designer, I wouldn’t even have known.) Why do this to yourself when, as outlined above, there’s really no point to it?

The exceptions to all this are, of course, books that really need to be published in print, like reference, cookbooks, workbooks, children’s books, YA books, etc. In other words: where the target audience prefers a print book. And you might need a proof for reviewers and/or to giveaway on Goodreads, but in that case (a) you don’t need a cover design, because Cover Creator will do and (b) it’s okay if proofs are just the text of the book without any ‘design’ element. They only need to be readable, not real books.

But for everything else, I just wouldn’t bother. Work smarter, not harder and all that jazz. Yes, you want to hold a physical book in your hand. Who doesn’t? But that’s a personal, emotional decision, not a business one. And this, if you’re doing it right, should be above all else a business.

Now, off to the writing cave with me for the weekend. Send coffee.


Remember: there’s a super sexy hardcover edition of Distress Signals (the American one, out February 2) up for grabs, signed to you from me. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post or any post published here between January 5 and February 2. One entry per post, so comment on more than one and increase your chances. Open globally. Good luck!

15 thoughts on “Why I Wouldn’t Self-Publish A POD Paperback (At Least To Start With)

      • catherineryanhoward says:

        But keep in mind writing (which you may do for love, art’s sake, etc.) is not the same as publishing. Publishing is commercial. It’s a business. If you are selling your work you are, by definition, engaged in a commercial enterprise.

        • Joel D Canfield says:

          If you are selling your work for a profit you are engaged in a commercial enterprise.

          Do, please, hear all this in the warm and friendly tone of voice I use with all my friends when we don’t immediately realize that we do, in fact, see eye to eye, but aren’t saying it clearly.

          I think, though, what jerked my knee was the “above all else” which I just can’t get behind.

          Should publishing be treated as a business? Should an author who charges money for their books be thinking “business”? Almost certainly.

          “Above all else if you’re doing it right”? Best Beloved and I make a very good living doing things which are not “above all else” a business. (And having written 9 books on the topic, I could probably froth and foam here far more than is healthy.)

          I suspect I ought to concede that the good Mr. Gaughran has stated the case succinctly and sensibly (as always) and let go of the rope.

  1. David Gaughran says:

    This is great advice. For me it’s not so much about cost or complexity. I had someone format a lovely print edition for me for something like $50 and the cover was next to nothing (on top of the e-book cover cost), and I figured out the rest… here maybe? Anyway, the main reason I think this is great advice is focus.

    Maybe this is a UK (or Irish) thing, but when I was doing talks and workshops in England, all the newbie questions would be about print – how to make a paperback, what to price it at, how to get into bookstores, etc. etc. It was tough work getting them to switch focus on to e-books – which seemed to be an afterthought for most of them. Eventually I was able to explain that virtually all self-publishers will sell something like 95% digital and 5% print (at best) and even the odd birds like me a little more print, those percentages won’t change *that* radically.

    What newbies need to realise is that e-book readers are cheaper and easier to reach. Getting your message out to print readers is much more difficult and much more expensive. Plus that message will be wasted without nationwide bookshop distribution, which self-publishers are very unlikely to have anyway.

    I think print editions are still worth doing. But I think newbies should focus on producing the very best e-book they can, and then bring out the print edition a month or two after that. They certainly shouldn’t be trying to set up bookstore distribution and radio appearances and printing up bookmarks and media packs before they have sorted out, say, an effective e-book cover and which granular sub-categories they are aiming for on Amazon. Besides, people like bookshops will be much more interested if you can approach them from a position of strength – i.e. with a sales record and some nice reviews etc.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      This is an excellent point. And you’re absolutely right re: bookmarks and radio appearances, etc. Sticking to the ebook to begin with might be a good way to reset their thinking if they’re tied to traditional methods of pushing books.

  2. Jacquie Biggar says:

    The best things I like about having paperback copies online is that it immediately shows your ebook on a huge discount. They take off the price of the paperback and say hey, check this sale out. Also, it changes the number of pages for your ebook which translates into dollars for pages read.
    And lastly, being in Canada, we can’t run ebook giveaways on Amazon, at least not yet. The only way is to run one for paperbacks. Why is this important? When you run an Amazon giveaway you can ask entrants to follow you on Amazon, then when your next fantabulous book releases they will get a handy dandy email telling them all about it.
    Free promo is good promo 🙂

  3. Catherine Vaughan says:

    I like how you’ve handled that fear of limited book formats/distribution as you’re right we have to be business savvy therefore focus and streamline our efforts and it helps me see that the ebook format is good enough.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I think that’s a key point, Catherine: the e-book format being good enough. It’s very difficult to come to self-publishing being a book lover all your life (which for most people who write, is the case) and then try to get your head around not producing a paperback or not producing one right off the bat. But e-books are where it’s at for self-publishers. There’s a huge enough market to target, just in them. I’d master that before I’d start thinking about paperbacks. It’ll be easier and it might help change the author’s mindset about print.

  4. mlbanner says:

    Afraid I disagree with you on this one. POD paperbacks are still over 30% of the book market. So if reader97481 wants to buy my book in a different format than ebook, I’d sure like to try and have it available for her (and the audiobook for her friend). Ebooks are 90% of my sales, but it’s worth it to invest just a little more time and money for that 10%. I’ve had no problem producing quality paperbacks, for maybe $300 more than the ebook (formatting and cover). I never sell a ton of them, but I always make money. As mentioned, your ebook listing benefits by showing a discount to the paperback. And nothing beats the feel of your physical book in your own hands (or your readers’). Finally, besides giveaways such as Goodreads (the subject of one of your previous posts), it’s a little hard to do book signings with an ebook.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      To reiterate: not to start with. Maybe down the line. But in the beginning, I think stick with e-book. And I mentioned that you could easily do a proof for Goodreads (most books given away by trad publishers on GRs are proofs, because it’s pre-publication). I have my doubts that the e-book Vs print “discount” has any benefits when people tend to have a preferred format anyway, and it’s comparing apples and oranges. You say you’ve no problem producing paperbacks but the majority of self-publishers I encounter find this the most difficult thing and, as David Gaughran pointed out here, it’s where they get bogged down with things with ISBNs and bookstore distribution and getting reviewed in the newspaper etc. I think a much better and easier workflow for the average self-publisher is to stick with e-book – at least in the beginning. Having said that, self-publishing is not one size fits all.

  5. carolynswriting says:

    It’s interesting how different it is if you’re writing Young Adult novels: I self-published two years ago and have found since that young adult readers are ADDICTED to buying paperbacks and hardcovers 🙂 They will sometimes buy eBooks but much prefer to have a physical copy to put on their bookshelves and to take photos for Instagram. I can’t fault them on this as I too am now addicted to Instagram and have a tendency to think in hashtags and emojis 😉

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