Thursday, September 20, 2012

Is It Worth It to Create a Buzz in Print?

by Jen Blood, author of the Amazon-bestselling Erin Solomon mysteries

For the past year, I’ve done contract work for a local author’s cooperative here in the great state of Maine. The coop focuses on helping indie authors get their work published and distributed, offering services like book design, editing, printing, e-book formatting, marketing, and promotion. As a result, I’ve been in a unique position to watch indie publishing from an entirely different perspective than the one most common in the publishing world today: one where a great deal of emphasis is still placed on print books, while the majority of my online indie pals are firmly entrenched in the camp where digital is King.

Since I’m an indie author myself, these seemingly conflicting viewpoints have necessarily gotten me thinking: In this day and age, is there truly an advantage to the printed word, or are my cooperative cohorts clinging to a dying industry? To answer that question, I started crunching numbers, looking at stats, and talking to authors in both camps.

The first issue whether you're selling thousands of books every month or merely dozens, is the question of profitability. Since editing will be the same whether you’re going with digital or print, the next big cost to look at is book design. It used to be that designing print books was prohibitively more costly than it was to whip together an e-book for Kindle and Smashwords. Today, however, there are a proliferation of quality book designers who offer their services at surprisingly low rates—starting at as little as $100 and moving upward from there.

CreateSpace, Lulu, and a few of the other big-name POD publishers also provide free templates that are fairly simple to follow for the DIY indie looking to save a few bucks. So, unless you’re looking to create an aesthetically mind-blowing coffee table book, there isn’t a huge financial disparity between print and e-book design nowadays. As for book covers, I personally pay $99 for my cover through; for an extra $30, my designer will do a high-res PDF of the full cover: front, back, and spine. As with just about everything else in this biz, the DIY option is cheaper and there are, of course, always more expensive options if you’re looking for something above and beyond. Either way, though, there’s not a big difference between coming up with a digital cover and the full print version.

That brings us to printing costs. Print on demand (POD) means that we indies are no longer stuck with a basement full of books because the only way we could get printing costs down enough to create a respectable profit margin was to order a print run of 500+ copies. Today, you can order as few as ten copies of your masterpiece and still be paying as little as $4.50 per book through CreateSpace for a full-length novel (including shipping).

My first novel, All the Blue-Eyed Angels, sells in print for $15, which means my profit is over ten bucks when someone buys a copy directly from me. As for shipping, with the exception of the books you’ll be purchasing to sell yourself, POD means that the publisher will handle the labor-intensive act of shipping your books, and the cost is passed on to the buyer.

To me, the bigger issue is what you plan on doing with them after the fact. Is it worth it to approach bookstores and libraries far and wide? What, exactly, does that do for the average author in today’s digital-centric world? I personally have taken the time to approach the local bookstores that know me, and they’ve been great about carrying my mysteries, promoting the series, and keeping me apprised when they’re running low on copies.

I’m asked frequently by locals here in my hometown which bookstores outside of the immediate area are carrying the novels, however, and I used to feel a little weird telling them that there were, in fact, none—like it somehow took some of my legitimacy away because I wasn’t shopping my titles around to every indie bookseller in the tri-county region. I stopped feeling badly about that, however, once I looked at the financial realities of placing my novels in bookstores.

Between time, travel expenses, the cost of creating and printing professional-looking sell sheets, and then factoring in a 40% standard bookstore discount, the reality is that I feel I’m better off investing a little bit of money in advertising or a little time in PR and selling more e-books that way, than I am spinning my wheels trying to convince bookstores to carry a couple of copies. I always have those sell sheets and a few extra copies handy when I’m traveling, of course, so that if I happen to be in or around a bookstore I haven’t approached before, it’s a simple matter.

 Otherwise, however,  I just can’t afford to make them a priority. So what, exactly, are print books good for? Paranormal suspense author Lisa Rayns notes, “Some people still only read print books and I also like to have hard copies. With the time you put into a novel, it’s nice to have something tangible to show for it.”

Beyond vanity, there’s the issue of having print copies for reviews and contests, many of which still don’t accept digital submissions. I’ve found opportunities to sell print copies at readings, signings, lectures, workshops, and seminars. I use them for giveaways, book club packages, donate them for raffles to local charitable events, and occasionally foist them on friends and family members as gifts.

What does this actually do for my profit margin overall? Not much. However, whenever I have an event at which print copies will be available, I invariably manage to get some PR from that event, which means more exposure and in turn more digital sales, not to mention more cool stuff to add to my portfolio and the media page on my website.

All of this leads back to the original question: Is it worth it to create a buzz for your books in print? While the answer will vary to some extent based on your goals as an author, I think at the end of the day it depends on just how much time and energy you’re expending to create that buzz in the first place. Signings, readings, book clubs, seminars, giveaways—these are all great opportunities to enhance name recognition and spread the word about your work, but in my mind it’s essential to strike a balance between these types of events and the online marketing necessary to maintain steady e-book sales.

Beyond that, it’s a matter of personal preference and comfort level: I have several friends who thrive on public appearances and face-to-face interaction with their readers and loathe time at the computer. I think those who can find a happy medium between the two—and still manage to eke out some time to actually write the next novel—will ultimately find the most success.

What do you think? If you’ve already published, did you choose to go with both digital and print copies? Have you tried the bookstore route? I’d love to hear what your experience has been in these changing times.

Jen Blood is a freelance journalist and editor, and author of the Amazon-bestselling Erin Solomon mysteries, ALL THE BLUE-EYED ANGELS and SINS OF THE FATHER. She runs the mystery book blog, and teaches seminars on social media and online marketing to indie authors from her home in midcoast Maine. Her third novel, the noir thriller MIDNIGHT LULLABY, will be released in December.


  1. Great information to share. Thanks for blogging with us, Jen.

    Personally, I gave up on bookstores long ago. Too much time and almost no payoff. But my novels are available in print through CreateSpace, and I do a couple of local events each year where I sell quite a few. But I do those events mostly to meet readers in person.

    Once T&M publishes its new versions, I expect my print sales to increase, especially in other markets like the UK, and maybe even libraries.

  2. Great post, Jen. Thanks for the thoughtful and thorough examination of the subject. Personally, I opted out of a contract with a traditional publisher for my recently published mystery, "Matinicus," when the firm's business model changed from a combination of softcovers and e-books to strictly e-books. There are simply too many people out there who still prefer "tree" books and I felt it unwise to decrease my potential readership by going that route. Sales of the book, which I published independently and in both formats through Maine Authors Publishing (which has a distribution arm to handle book store sales so I don't have to), are split pretty evenly between the two versions. I make almost nothing from the softcover, of course, but until the market shifts considerably further toward e-books, I'll stick with doing both.

  3. Great post, Jen.

    There really is so much to think about when it comes to publishing. I think it's great that you're sharing your experience and thoughts with others.

  4. Welcome to CFC, Jen! And thanks for sharing your wealth of information on both print and e-book publishing with us. You've given me a lot to think about for my own writing and publishing, and I'll be sending my writer clients here to benefit from your expertise.

  5. I'm thrilled to be here, LJ! It's always interesting to hear other authors' takes on the print/e-book debate -- I have to admit, I was surprised to find so many authors who still embrace print books (and so many readers still lobbying for them!) I'll be very curious to hear how things shift for you once the new versions hit the market.

  6. Thanks for weighing in, Darcy - It's always good to hear from fellow indies who are making a go of it in the woolly world of bookstores. I think particularly here in Maine, there continues to be a fairly good market for print books - particularly those with a regional slant. MATINICUS is a great example of that (though the mystery is one any fan of the genre would appreciate, regardless of where they hail from!)

  7. Thanks so much, Jodie! I'm a big fan of everyone on the roster here at CFC, so I'm thrilled to be a part of it today!

  8. Great post, Jen! Personally I haven't even tried getting my printed book into the indies, I've been so busy writing in the morning and trying to do social networking in the afternoon. And I've only printed one of my books. So far there have been very few sales of it on Amazon and B&N online, but what I find is that they generate ebook sales of both my books when I do Goodreads giveaways with the printed books.

  9. Jen, my novel is available in print but I get very few sales from that. The majority (99%) by far is ebook. However, I have chosen also not to focus on bookstore distribution either, Like L.J. I do keep some in stock for GoodReads giveaways and award submissions and in-person events. Bottom line is that I also make more on my ebook than print. Yet, in talking to people in person they ask if its available in paperback. True, many people still do not have ereaders. I focus on ebook but have print available. I'd love to hear from others on this!

  10. As a reader, I like both my Kindle for e-books and my print books, so I buy both. I especially prefer print for all the craft of writing books I buy, so I can write in them and underline and flag pages easier. So I'd better make my craft e-books available in print, too, one of these days. Even for novels, I still like holding a print version in my hands. But I much prefer the price of e-books! And of course getting e-books on sale and free is another bonus to owning a Kindle! Also, it's much easier to do a search on Amazon and buy a book with one click, than to drive to a bookstore and spend hours wandering around to see what's on the shelves.

  11. Super post. I come at this from different angles. I work for a small children's book publisher and we print environmentally which is a whole different conundrum. The books come out in e-book format first. If it's proven popular, or if it requires a print run (like a title highly requested by libraries and schools), then we walk that path. On a personal level, e-book is the way to go to get content into the market place. I'm a reader - I love all books including e-books - so the e-book first model is the way I would go personally as well. Having said all that, I've discovered something very intriguing with an e-book short story collection I created with some writing pals. It takes three rounds of online promotion and intermittent free Kindle books, to build good sales volume on a title. Three months to sell at the $2.99 price point. I also think the more books you have in print, the more sales will be generated overall. It's all so darn-near fascinating! ;) Isn't it great how many options we now have? It wasn't like this 30 years ago when I was a book rep.

  12. You've just outlined with facts and figures exactly what I've thought intuitively. Many thanks, Jen, for a fine post.

  13. Welcome to CFC today, Jen. What a great post.

    I can't imagine my books not being available in both print and digital, but my expectations for print sales are about one for every hundred ebooks sold. Sometimes I get surprised, but not often. I'm also considering an audio version, if I can find the time to figure out the process.

    I let people know my book can be ordered through their favorite local bookstore, but it's unlikely to be stocked.

  14. Welcome, Jen. Thanks for joining us.

    I came to the conclusion some time ago that the digital market would be my primary focus and print would be secondary. I still produce my work on paper, but mostly it's for people who want them and for use as a marketing tool (ie: a physical representation I can hold up). Since it doesn't cost me much more to do both, I have no problem with continuing in this manner. But to be perfectly honest, I hardly ever check my paper sales. Whatever money I make there seems almost incidental, compared to my digital sales.

  15. I'm thinking that I'll eventually have print copies of my craft of fiction books out, as other people may be like me and prefer print for advice books, so they can underline points and mark the pages for future reference...

  16. I've approached it a lot like Andrew. I was all set to do ebook only for my first self-publishing venture. But I'd already had one book published with a niche press that was print only for its first year, and when I announced on FB that I was doing ebook only, I got pushback from people who didn't have ereaders! So I decided to do POD through CreateSpace and it was a great decision. As Jen points out, it saved buying up boxes of books and shipping them out myself. I still figured that that most of my revenue would come from the ebook, so I priced the print version at the lowest amount I could and not be in the red (I've since raised it a dollar). My thought was that it would be a courtesy to my print-only readers, and by keeping it on the low side and in line with what most light series mysteries go for, it wouldn't seem like a lot to lay out for a quick read. So far it's worked out very well!

  17. I'm a reader and I much prefer the e-book. although I must say there is nothing like a signed book on the bookshelf.
    To all of you, please continue to supplement your e-books with real tree books.
    Thanks Jen for your insight and for the wonderful work you put out


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