Why Indie Authors Don’t Need to Bother With B&N’s In-Store POD Program

28462758761_3e2b3c8c26_oLast month B&N expanded its vanity press operation Nook Press with a new POD option where indie authors might possibly if they are lucky get their books into Barnes & Noble store.

The coverage ranged from bland in the trade press to dismissive in the indie blogosphere, but one commentator thought that this was a coup for B&N.

Thad McIlroy describes it as B&N finally having "made a competitive move that Amazon cannot match". He justifies his claim with the argument that print still accounts for two-thirds of the market:

In my coverage of last fall’s NINC conference I noted some remarks from publishing expert Lou Aronica. Lou provided a forceful reminder that self-published authors can’t afford to ignore print: it still accounts for some two-thirds of book sales overall. The larger problem is getting retail access for print. Independent booksellers have always been more open to dealing with self-published authors than the chains. But trying to get into the 2,311 outlets operated by the 1,775 American Booksellers Association (ABA) members is a logistical impossibility. Barnes & Noble has fewer total outlets than the ABA, but a lot more floor space. And just one buying office. At least one report shows bookstore chains with two-and-a-half times the marketshare of independents. Further, getting self-published books into non-bookstore outlets like drug stores and supermarkets is just a dream. And so access to Barnes & Noble should be a big deal.

Do you see the flaw in his argument?

I didn't see it until after Data Guy dropped his bomb at the RWA conference earlier this month. DG shared data on sales of romance novels in the US, and then in the comment section of his post he added a few additional details about thriller and SF&F sales.

To put it simply, the flaw in McIlroy's argument is that he took industry-wide figures and assumed that they applied equally well to all of a single market, when in reality the industry stats reflect revenues generated in a variety of markets and genres, each with their own quirks.

Take romance, for example.

DG showed us that ebook sales accounted for 89% of US romance unit sales. I would say that is a market where authors could afford to ignore print sales, and the same is true for thriller/mystery/suspense.

When queried about the thriller genre, DG explained that his data showed that thriller ebooks accounted for 112 million sales in the US market in 2015, while print sales in this genre only added up 40 million units last year.

That's 40 million out of around 152 million, or about 27% of the units sold. That is arguably a market which indie authors can ignore if they want.

The same may be true for SF&F. Data Guy's data showed that ebooks accounted for a little over half of unit sales in this genre. Print accounted for 54 million units, while ebooks totaled 73 million units.

Print SF&F titles accounted for around 43% of units sold in this genre.

While some might point to that and argue this is a market which indie authors can't ignore, I would remind you that indie authors get into the print SF&F market through POD, which has relatively low profit margins when compared to ebooks.

In other words, it's not worth as much to indie authors as you might think.

Really, the only reason I see for romance, thriller, and SF&F authors to be interested in B&N's new POD program is for the egoboost.

The real money is in digital in general and the Kindle Store in particular, which is why I have dubbed Nook Press a vanity press operation.

There isn't enough money in POD sales through Nook Press to count as a major market, not when digital accounts for such a huge share of certain genres, not when B&N has only 640 stores, not when B&N is converting more and more floor space to things like pasta and 3d printers, and not when all four of B&N's new stores will be restaurants first and bookstores second.

Or did I overlook something?

The comments are open.

image by mikecogh

About Nate Hoffelder (11462 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: "I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

30 Comments on Why Indie Authors Don’t Need to Bother With B&N’s In-Store POD Program

  1. All of my books are available in print. Looking at sales since, let’s say January? I’ve sold 3. Laughable. It’s not worth it, really. People might SAY they like a hardcopy but when the ebook is $3.99 and the printbook is $9.99, they’ll take an ebook.

    • I’ve heard that indie authors should do POD because it makes the ebooks look cheap in comparison, and it’s true.

    • I tend to feel the same way about ebook distribution beyond Kindle. I’ve heard of people who sell fairly well on iBooks or Kobo; I’ve heard of people who sell fairly well in print.

      When my books have been available beyond Kindle, I’ve had numbers that I haven’t found worth the extra ePub effort. People might SAY they want different formats, but 1) I publish without DRM so they can convert, and 2) I’ve found only very specialized readers even know what an ePub is, much less favor the format.


  2. How about the fact that if you add up romance, SF, fantasy, and thrillers, you get only 10% of the overall trade market in unit volume (2014 figures, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/65387-the-hot-and-cold-categories-of-2014.html)?

    Yeah, you missed something alright.

    • You’re citing statistics for traditional publishing which is not relevant when discussing indie publishing.

  3. How do you know that the statistics aren’t relevant?

    But that’s not really the point. Let’s say that those four genres added up to 20% instead of 10% for “indie publishing,” whatever that is. They are still not indicative of trade publishing as a whole. I could also have argued that especially romance, SF, and fantasy are known to skew to younger readers who are more tech savvy than in other genres and thus are more likely to prefer e-books. My point is that this so-called analysis is based on data that is so cherry-picked as to be meaningless.

    • My point is that this so-called analysis is based on data that is so cherry-picked as to be meaningless.

      And your data, as well as McIlroy’s data, is so broad as to be meaningless to this discussion.

      You say that the three genres mentioned in the post account for only a small fraction of trade print units. Here’s the more important question: in which of those categories can we find indie authors selling a lot of ebooks?

      Remember, B&N’s first hurdle is that indies have to sell a thousand digital copies of a title through Nook Press before it can be considered for in-store placement. I know that a lot of indie genre authors can pull it off; can you say the same for nonfiction?

      • The category “trade books” includes non-fiction and children’s books. Neither category amounts to much in digital or Indie sales.

        Also factoring into Indie calculations is that the margins for pbooks are much lower than for digital so that 27% pbook market share contributes much lower author income than an equivalent number of ebooks.

        Focusing solely on market share is a good way to run a business into the ground. Just ask Palm Computing.

        Some customers just aren’t worth pursuing.

      • That’s right, Nate. You’ve grasped my essential point: that there is no meaningful data in this entire discussion. There wasn’t any in Thad’s original article, either; he was making a broader point.

  4. So I write serious nonfiction, very atypical for indie authors. I put effort into making a high-quality CreateSpace print version and they account for nearly half of the books I sell. But even though I price my Kindle editions significantly lower, their sales account for three-quarters of my revenues. There are some people who would buy digital if there were no print version (I’ve asked) and so overall I make very little on the margin from producing a print version. (I do see strategic marketing advantages, however.)

    I doubt very much that getting into B&N POD would be worth my time and effort. That isn’t to say that it’s a bust for every author, but it’s not an obvious choice.

  5. Hi Nate: You make some good points, but I think you’ve misconstrued my argument. The first hint is in the title of my post “Barnes & Noble Throws Self-Publishers a Bone.” A bone, hardly the whole steak.

    The key argument in my post is made in the lede: Barnes & Noble has “finally made a competitive move that Amazon cannot match.” Whatever else you might think about the value of Barnes & Noble’s move, this statement is undeniably true. And that’s the point I want to emphasize. What I’ve found so disturbing about Barnes & Noble’s competitive positioning against Amazon is that their strategy thus far has been largely reactive. That’s a mug’s game.

    If Barnes & Noble is going to get anywhere they have to play to their strengths. Their singular strength is their retail network.

    As you note, for every category of book published, except romance, print sales comprise at least 25% of the total. Most of these print sales take place via bricks & mortar, not online. For a variety of reasons self-published authors have been largely shut out of these earth-bound outlets.

    Whether the Barnes & Noble bone will provide much nutrition for self-published authors remains to be seen. You make a strong argument that it will not.

    Barnes & Noble is a key part of the book retail landscape. Their diminished presence has not been a plus for anyone (other than Amazon, and perhaps Apple). Remember way back when they were the top etailer for many romance authors. I’d like to see them back in the game. And I’d be thrilled if they could further bolster the great sales strides that indies have been making.

    • The bone is actually a fossilized hunk of rock.
      Nate’s point remains that B&N isn’t offering anything of value. It is all smoke and mirrors:

      – first, you have to sign up with their ASI-affiliated vanity press
      – second, you have to sell a larger number of books through them than their market share can typically move
      – third, you have to convince their gatekeepers you are worthy
      – fourth, after jumping through the hoops you get… what? An inch of shelf-space in the back halls behind the toy displays

      Yes, print books are still a big chunk of the market but just as signatories you have to look at the relevant market: who buys what and where. Lumping all print sales at all location tells you nothing meaningful about the market in print for Indies.

      First, the relevant markets for Indies authors today are the narrative fiction genres and the relevant customers are heavy and regular readers, not casual bandwagon readers who buy one or two bestseller titles a year.

      Second, if you break down those mythical print book sales numbers you’ll find that non-fiction is over 50%. Children’s books make up half of the fiction side. That right there whittles the relevant pbook market to ebook market size and we’re not even done.

      Third, over half of all pbook sales today go through Amazon where Indies have no hoops to go through to get their books featured. Another big chunk (25%) goes through Ingram or Baker and Taylor, both of which will list properly priced Indie POD alongside tradpub titles with no ghettoization. That just cut the relevant audience an Indie title can reach through B&N to a quarter of the ebook market.

      Fourth, if we look at “who” buys pbooks and where, over half of the genre fiction sold is bought by casual/social readers that only buy trendy “hot” titles. The stuff propped up by front table payola and medical coop fees. The stuff available at Costco, Wal-Mart, Target, and every newsstand, supermarket, and chain pharmacy in the land. Are we seriously expected to believe that B&N offering up an inch or two of shelf space to an indie is going to sell to those folks?

      The issue isn’t whether print sales are worth pursuing, that is not Nate’s point at all. The issue is whether print book sales at B&N back racks is worth pursuing by Indies.

      Ten years ago, even five years ago, the answer would’ve been “hail, yeah”. But that was back on the days when B&N was top dog and controlled 30% of book sales and 26% of ebook sales. Today they move less than 20% of pbooks (mostly BPH payola-supported) and, what? 5-6% of ebooks?

      B&N throwing out a fossilized, past its date, bone isn’t playing to its strengths, but rather it is B&N displaying its weakness: with vast swaths of the market moving to Indies (the same Indies B&N would routinely move down 100 slots in their rankings to keep them off the front page) B&N is feebly trying to offer up a counter to Kindle Unlimited and Amazon exclusivity.

      While B&N was playing lapdog to the BPHs, hiding Indie titles and helping Penguin and MacMillan pressure Random House into joining Apple’s Agency conspiracy, Amazon was offering Indies a more or less level playing field to market their books.

      While B&N was leading a borderline illegal boycott of Amazon Publishing titles, Amazon was expanding Kindle globally and cooking up countdown, Kindle Scout, matchbook, Kindle Shorts, Kindle Worlds, and the Kindle Lending library that begat Kindle Unlimited.

      At a time when we are seeing the fruits of the BPHs obsession with reader spend play out in their bottom lines B&N is belatedly realizing they bet on the wrong horse and looking desperately for bait to bring in unwary, uninformed Indies. Much like ASI. But the bait isn’t much of a bait for the market savvy Indie. Just as with the predatory BPH “industry standard contract” the numbers, the real, bottom line numbers, don’t add up.

      B&N is a channel in decline. It has reduced its shelf space devoted to print books by at least 25% and that reduction hasn’t come off the bandwagon BPH titles. It has come off the midlisters and backlist titles that differentiate them from the department stores and newsstands. They are actively replacing books with toys, trinkets, gadgets… Food and Booze.

      Look at the financials closely enough and one thibg stands out: reduced traffic. People simply don’t go to B&N as often as they used to. They don’t sell as many books as they used to: Revenues are flat and 15% of those are from “lifestyle merchandise”.

      They simply don’t matter as much as they used to, even to the BPHs.
      And they sure as check don’t matter much to Indies.

      Yes, print still matters… in some genres…
      But B&N doesn’t really matter all that much to Indies.

      These days all that matters is Amazon, Apple, and Kindle Unlimited.
      The fruits of Agency.

      Given B&N’s

      • Arggh.
        Not “signatories”: antitrust!

        Darn auto-corruption keeps turning itself on.

      • Thank you. Now *that’s* analysis!

      • @Fjtorres

        Great comment: Lots of good stats, well-researched.

        I don’t understand the all-or-nothing approach surrounding indie publishing issues. You write that “people simply don’t go to B&N as often as they used to” and the chain “is a channel in decline.” This is unquestionably true. Does that mean it’s worthless? As you write: “B&N doesn’t really matter ALL THAT MUCH to indies” (emphasis mine). That’s possibly true for certain genres and certain authors who have learned how to work the great sales channels Amazon offers.

        You write that the “relevant markets for indie authors today are the narrative fiction genres and the relevant customers are heavy and regular readers.”

        Indeed this is where the action is. But as a self-published author who writes only specialized non-fiction I’m always troubled that the voluble part of the indie narrative shuffles me off to a ghetto of irrelevance.

        An author like me counts each sale as an event. Every new sales channel is worth checking into even if it moves just a few more copies. If B&N can help expose me to “a quarter of the ebook market” and roughly 20% of pbook market I have no choice but to pay attention, even if the onboarding effort is onerous. (One of my books sells much more print than digital.)

        Is the NOOK Press print platform a bonanza? Clearly not. Does it matter for the average indie author of genre fiction? Perhaps not. Will it matter to my sales? Probably not. Is it worthy of my consideration? Absolutely.

        • The reason I refer to the genres as the relevant market for Indies is because today that is where the Indies are.
          Present tense.
          That is where Indie, Inc makes the vast majority of its money.

          Also because the bigger financial opportunities for Indies lie on the ebook side where they don’t have to compete against BPH payola.

          It’s the way the landscape of the business stacks up today.
          It might change tomorrow but as long as non-fiction and children’s books remain wedded to print those markets will remain dominated by tradpub. The genres, though, are free of those constraints.

          In any business you have to identify your target customer before you figure out how to reach them and for todays Indie writers (who are by and large genre writers) that means going where the genre readers are.

          As Nate pointed out, the classical genres are strongly digital.
          As I pointed out, B&N is of declining interest to buyers of those genres, which makes them of declining importance to the publishers targetting those readers. Especially when you factor in, as I pointed out in my earlier comment, that pbook margins are much lower than ebook margins despite a necessarily higher sale price. A $15 pbook sale through B&M will typically bring the indie author half the net that a $5 ebook will and will also sell in a lower volume. Hence my comment that some customers just aren’t worth pursuing. A romance writer already has access to 90% of the market sticking with digital only so going after the added 10%, which can only bring in half the net anyway, isn’t an effective use of effort.

          That doesn’t mean that a legacy author already selling strongly in print shouldn’t keep on doing print as long as their sales support it. But those aren’t the Indies that Nook press is targeting. They are targeting digital only Indies who don’t already have a print presence. And for those Indies the B&N deal is no deal.
          Better to simply go with Spark or Createspace extended distribution and get POD access to *all* the B&M channel, not just B&N’s fraction. And without the gatekeeping and uncertainty.

          The key point Nate was bringing out is that trade publishing is not the monolith tradpub supporters try to portray. It is a collection of markets, each with its own dynamic and its own ongoing evolution. Lumping them into one pseudo-composite “trade publishing market” allows tradpub to mask their failings in one area behind their strengths in others. In this case, they use their ongoing strength in non-fiction and children’s books to mask the domination of digital in narrative fiction.

          It is their job to obfuscate to keep dreamers dreaming. And submitting.

          And it is our “job” as outside observers to call bs on their obfuscation. 🙂

          • “Better to simply go with Spark or Createspace extended distribution and get POD access to *all* the B&M channel, not just B&N’s fraction. And without the gatekeeping and uncertainty.”

            It took a long time and a great deal of ranting to get around to the key question: does the new Nook Press Print-on-Demand (POD) option add value over the alternative/complimentary options of Amazon CreateSpace or Ingram/IngramSpark?

            – as you point out, Nook does not cover all the paper book channels so it should not be used exclusively, that does not mean there is no value in submitting your paper formatted .pdf file to Nook in addition to another POD service

            – I don’t think the “gatekeeping uncertainty” is an issue, POD is for low-volume and all new/unknown authors start off with low-volume, once online sales reach a threshold (ebook and/or paper book) then in-store stock and in-store promotion may follow, this is a law of limited shelf-space, not exploitive tricksters

            – pricing is a separate issue, there should be a simple formula that provides a price for the eBook/paperBook that gives the exact same author royalty per purchase

            – obfuscation: people in glass houses my friend, burying the lede in opinionated rants against evil doers is ummmm…. lets call it unintentionally complicating the message

            – hoops: are the required hoops worse than the hoops you have to go through for any kind of local promotion? Worse than the review/interview hoops with local media?

            The Nook POD option does not give you a new paper book distribution channel (you can get that with Ingram or CreateSpace) but it does give you a potential new promotion channel (not guaranteed but what is). If you are an American self-publishing author with any kind of personal/professional network concentrated around a B&N physical location, I don’t see the downside. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a serious downside lurking out there, I just don’t know what it is and if it was already covered I missed it.

            If Kobo was to do the same kind of service/promotion with any of their national retail partners, why wouldn’t a local self-publishing author choose that option in addition to Ingram/CreateSpace?

            Amazon is the book/eBook industry gorilla, kudos to them, that doesn’t mean we have to evaluate every competitive move in terms of changing the gorilla status quo.

  6. I’m a little confused by both articles. Shouldn’t the only question be whether the new Nook POD service is competitive with the Ingram and CreateSpace self-publishing POD (print on demand) services? If an author is capable of self-publishing and marketing an eBook, the time/cost of self-publishing a POD paper book approaches zero. As far as I can tell, the carrot being dangled by Nook Press is the possibility of an in-store author event. What are the tradeoffs?

    • The new Nook POD service only goes to B&N stores (authors can also have books printed for themselves). It doesn’t go anywhere else, or distribute.

      So really the question is this: is the new service worth the extra work on the part of authors?

      • Plus, the author/publisher has no control over whether it does get stocked. They tend to gloss over that bit of gatekeeping.
        So an author could conceivably jump through all those hoops and end up with… nothing.
        With Spark or Createspace they get a listing and any bookstore can carry them, if they choose, including B&N.

        To date there are recorded instances of Indies getting into Walmart and B&N itself, among others, via those channels. So Nook Press is actually offering up *less* than one can get solely on their own.

      • Compared to writing the book and marketing the book, the extra effort is neglible I think. There may be some fine print gotchas between the services but all things being equal, an author is generating two files in their tool chain: 1. an ePub for eBook distribution, and 2. a pdf formatted for POD paper size for paper book distribution. There are at least five eBook services (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and Google Play). You have to setup an account and submit the ePub to each but it’s not a philosophical choice, if you leave out a service then you don’t reach a segment of readers. The three POD services are exactly the same except that you submit a pdf file and each service assigns a different ISBN.

        Now that I think about it, the Nook POD service doesn’t sound horrible. You still have to choose either Ingram and/or CreateSpace to cover your bases but basically Nook Press is announcing a coordinated marketing effort directly with self publishing authors. If nothing else, they have the contact info of the self publishing author if they choose to work with them.

        This is not earth shattering but it’s a step in the right direction for B&N.

  7. once again, as per the past 5 or 10 years,
    fjtorres deftly earns the title as the most
    astute commenter in the land of e-books.


  8. Right, I said “meaningful.”

    Tell you what, Nate: don’t take my word for it. Go ask Data Guy whether your three cherry-picked genres are “meaningful.”

  9. I sell an awful lot of paperbacks – but mostly through public appearances and at local festivals. Just next weekend I’ll be telling regional ghost stories at a local paranormal convention and I’ll have my book table set up and I’ll be selling just as many paperbacks as I can.

    It isn’t a strategy that would work for just anybody. I am kind of a weird idiot savante of hand-selling. I wish to hell I could turn that talent into something more digital and profitable – but years of working street festivals and the like have honed my skills to an unholy degree.

    So paperbacks can work for some writers such as myself – but I consider it to be the freak show of bookselling. The real money and the real market is still in the digital.

    I agree about your Barnes & Noble verdict. Their new POD service and their claims of being able to get a writer’s books into bookstores across North America is nothing more than a Hail Mary money-grab. I’ll stick with Createspace.

2 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Thad McIlroy – Future Of Publishing » Barnes & Noble Throws Self-Publishers a Bone
  2. It's Past Time Researchers Stopped Comparing Digital/Print and Started Asking About Genre, Category, and Length | The Digital Reader

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