Skip to main content

Do Indies Have to Do Print?

3631902258_3fab33242d_bEditor’s Note: Will O’Neill kindly agreed to share his experiences with print-on-demand, and help indies decide whether they need release a POD edition, or participate in B&N’s vanity press.

Years ago I tradpubbed an espionage thriller, The Libyan Kill. In print, traditional offset printing, 10,000 copies. If they had all sold it would have paid off my advance, nearly. But after 6 weeks or so Norton pulled back several thousand unsold copies and remaindered them.

Nowadays, I probably wouldn’t bother with a print edition at all. The market for thrillers is mostly e-books.

And the money is mostly in e-books, what money there is. The cover price for The Libyan Kill was $10.95—equivalent to $28.50 today. And most sales were at cover price. Nobody gets that kind of money for thrillers today, but plenty of indie authors get as much or more per copy as the roughly $2.50 (today’s money) that I got then, thanks to the magic of the economics of digital publishing.

In fact, I’m selling a somewhat updated version of the book in Kindle form for $2.99, from which I net nearly $2.00 a copy.

I thought about putting out a CreateSpace version too, but dropped the idea as not worth the time and effort. It would have cost me scarcely anything and probably would have taken no more than another week or two’s effort, but the market isn’t there.

Aside from the fact that people who read thrillers (and even more so the readers of romance and sci-fi) mostly really like e-reading, there’s cost. According to CreateSpace’s nifty royalties calculator, in order to get a $2.50 per copy royalty on Amazon sales of a POD version I’d need to charge $10.85, and if I wanted to shoot for the moon and get $2.50 from bookstore sales the price would have to be $16.25.

Maybe I could churn out a really super-hot new thriller. Maybe a wild tale about a wacked-out real-estate heir who runs for president. Oh, wait…. Anyway, something that could support a $16.25 cover price (remembering that nowadays scarcely any buyer would actually wind up paying that much). My royalty on Amazon sales would be a sweet $5.74 a copy.

What about the e-book version? Taking the Kindle as a convenient example, and allowing a $0.15 network charge, I could get a $5.74 royalty if I charged $8.35, less than half of the POD cover price. Even if Amazon knocked down the POD book price by 40% early on there would still be a lot of daylight between the prices of the p-book and e-book.

But if we think in terms of more realistic pricing levels for books in this category, say $3.99 for the e-book with equal-royalty POD pricing, the story starts to look different. Now my Kindle royalty is a still-respectable $2.65 or so. If the POD version comes out at 364 pages in 6”×9” trim size then I’d need to set the cover price over $11 to get that much in royalty per Amazon sale. And the gap between p-book and e-book pricing starts to look YUUGE, which is going to kill much chance of substantial p-book sales.

And if I tried to price the p-book to match the price of the e-book, CreateSpace would tell me TILT! $6.70 is as low as it can go—resulting in one penny royalty per copy sold on Amazon.

In fact, however, my latest book is World War I military history, The Plan That Broke the World. It’s a really different market. (Of course, if you don’t know who buys your books, you’re already in trouble.) Lots of older guys who don’t do e-books. Lots of gift books for Grandad, or Uncle Clem. (You have to know someone really well to gift an e-book, and it’s never the same as a p-book.) So a p-book is needed.

The good news is that people will pay more for serious history than for genre fiction. Not saying it’s right or wrong, just the way it is. So the POD edition is a paying proposition, and I even get some bookstore orders. But even though the Kindle is priced much lower, it pays me more – both per-unit, and since unit sales are divided roughly equally between POD and Kindle, my net revenues are about two-thirds to three-quarters from the Kindle side.

I’ve really gone out of my way to make this a good e-book; photo reproduction in particular is better than most tradpubs manage. (You can download the free sample and see for yourself.) Nevertheless, I’ve sold nearly as many p-books as e-books. So for this book a POD book was definitely worthwhile.

I’d love to hear from other indie authors about their thoughts and experiences regarding POD.

image by NYC Wanderer

Similar Articles


Carmen Webster Buxton August 3, 2016 um 8:36 pm

I have self published 8 ebooks–7 novels and 1 novella–but only 2 are for sale in print, via CreatSpace. I am working on getting print copies of the others, even though I haven’t sold very many print copies at all. The reason has very much to do with marketing. You can host an Amazon giveaway of a Kindle book now, but free paperback copies are still more of a draw. You can also sell print copies yourself, if you go to conevntions, which I do. But also, I think ebooks sell better when there is a print version available. I don’t have any solid evidence for that, but I think it’s true.

Will O’Neil August 3, 2016 um 9:07 pm

It does seem possible that having a p-book edition available may boost e-book sales, just because it changes how the buyer frames the book. And I certainly agree about the importance of having p-books at events. I’d add that it’s a lot easier to get enthusiastic blurbs from "experts" by sending them a print copy. And it certainly is true that CreateSpace makes is pretty easy and very cheap.

Of course going cheap assumes that you do the layout, photo and text editing, proofing, indexing, and cover art yourself. I was determined to do it myself at least once so I understood what was involved and what it was reasonable to expect in terms of quality. And having done it once I found that it’s not really that big a deal. (I do a little crowdsourcing on the proofing and text editing.) And in addition to saving money I get it the way I want it.

Carmen Webster Buxton August 3, 2016 um 9:28 pm

I bought a copy of InDesign because page layout was such a pain in MS Word. It took a while to learn it, but it’s great once you know how. And I get the look I want, too.

Will O’Neil August 3, 2016 um 10:02 pm

$20 per month for InDesign is a bit rich for me, I’m afraid. I’ve had a lot of people express surprise that The Plan That Broke the World was laid out in MS Word, but it’s true. I did tweak just a few things in Acrobat, but only minor stuff.

Carmen Webster Buxton August 3, 2016 um 10:05 pm

I used Word for my first, but found it slow going. I don’t use the Creative Cloud version of InDeign. I bought an OEM copy of the last standalone version, CS6. I agree paying every month can really add up.

RAD August 4, 2016 um 6:14 am

Great info, Will. Two things stand out for me:

1. the lower author royalties for non-Amazon p-books
2. the workflow (Word, InDesign) being the significant cost

I wonder if there is a difference between the author royalties going through Ingram Lightning Source compared to your numbers with CreateSpace, if so, why not use CreateSpace for Amazon sales and Ingram for everything else? For that matter, why not price each channel differently if the royalties are different?

I think your history book falls into a larger category we might call "reference non-fiction" that seems to be a sweet spot for profitable p-books. Technical books fall into this category so its not just an age demographic thing.

I like that you start with the same author royalty regardless of the format. I wonder if a "How this book is priced" page in the Front Matter of the published book might help buyers understand the higher p-book pricing. In fact, I think the author could rationalize a higher royalty for the p-book since the author doesn’t receive any royalties for the resale of the used p-book.

I guess library distribution hasn’t come up at all in these threads, it seems that many of the books on Overdrive are both ePub and PDF eBooks. Is there one or more distribution channels?

Regarding the workflow, from my techie nerd perspective it seems like the Print-on-Demand formatted PDF file should be generated automatically along with the ePub. Markdown centric services like Leanpub and GitBooks should do this automatically if they don’t already. There are some books that truly require special layouts but I think most will be just fine with a Print specific CSS file. It seems to me that the battle is already lost if the original content starts off in a PDF or Word format. These workflows resemble software build systems more than anything else and I think that is the main value add of computer book publishers like O’Reilly, they provide a single workflow/build system that all their authors use.

Finally, I wonder if Print-on-Demand hardcover books wouldn’t make more sense both for gifting (around Christmas say) and any kind of signing event (convention, library, in-store).

Will O’Neil August 4, 2016 um 11:29 am

I haven’t done a comparison with Ingram Lightning Source, but I do note that CreateSpace distributes through Ingram.The "everything else" in my experience adds about 5%, which is why I’m pretty casual about it.

Actually, The Plan That Broke the World is NON-reference nonfiction. Different category. And yes, I do know my audience.

If you’re a writer it makes sense to start in writing-friendly software. You can build a good book going directly from Word to CreateSpace (via PDF) and Kindle (via HTML). Take a look at my titles on Amazon if you don’t believe it. Tim C. Taylor’s book, Format Your Print Book with CreateSpace, lays out a very simple, fast workflow.

RAD August 4, 2016 um 2:04 pm

I think the issue is that I don’t know the proper name, if it exists, for the type of book I called reference non-fiction. Although I read these books linearly the first time through, I keep re-reading sections and prefer to have a paper copy. I was not trying recategorize your book nor imply a disconnect with your audience, I was trying to generalize the types of books I pay a premium to have a paper/hardcover copy of despite also being an avid eBook reader. A "personal collection paper book" maybe? Maybe it’s also books I self-identify with or want to share with friends/colleagues.

5% for the Ingram distribution option through CreateSpace sounds reasonable so I’m still surprised that the same $2.50 royalty requires a $10.85 price on Amazon but $16.25 in a physical bookstore.

Will O’Neil August 5, 2016 um 10:11 pm

You’re right in the sense that people tend to keep books like this on the shelf, in part because they seem more "respectable" than genre fiction.

The big premium for bookstore distribution comes not only from Ingram’s share but because Ingram sells them to the bookstore on a non-return basis, so the store assumes the inventory risk. Despite the lower royalties I’m still glad of the sales.

RAD August 6, 2016 um 12:19 pm

I’ve been thinking more about this and I believe one of the reasons I buy paper books, even when the eBook is available, is that the book covers a topic/idea/process/technique that I want to master. It goes with the idea of "spaced repetition learning", things you want/need to master require refreshing/revisiting periodically. Having a physical book on a shelf serves as a visual reminder, something Sylv eluded to in the comment below.

Steve Vernon August 4, 2016 um 8:41 am

Paperbacks open the gates for sales at conventions, book fairs, indie bookstores, farmer’s markets and public appearances of any kind.

Here in Canada I can even make money from library borrows – and although Overdrive allows you to POSSIBLY get your e-books into library borrowing, I do a lot better with the actual paperback books that I already have in the library system.

Some reviewers still insist on paperbacks, although I try and avoid dealing with them.

Having a paperback listed on your Amazon e-book listing CAN help a little, in that it sometimes results in a big fat SAVE UMPTEEN PERCENT ON THE E-BOOK notice that sometimes pops up. It can make your digital releases look like more of a bargain.

So yes, I think that indie authors ought not to ignore the paperback market. Print isn’t dead yet, it’s just breathing a little funny is all.

Thad McIlroy August 4, 2016 um 4:13 pm

"Print isn’t dead yet, it’s just breathing a little funny is all." VERY good!

Sylv August 4, 2016 um 8:00 pm

As a reader, I’ve stopped buying ebooks, because it turns out despite my shiny ereader and the option of reading on my phone, 90% of ebooks I buy never get read. Whereas print books – perhaps because they don’t vanish from view so easily – tend to get read eventually, even if it takes me a few years. So I’m willing to pay the absurdly more expensive price for POD indie books because it means I’ll probably actually read them.

Will O’Neil August 4, 2016 um 10:08 pm

Thanks. Good illustration of the diversity of market demand.

RAD August 6, 2016 um 12:30 pm

I find this idea very insightful, that is, buy paper books instead of eBooks as part of a what-to-read-next system. I guess there is two parts to the problem: 1. remembering the titles/authors you want to read, and 2. buying books on demand only when you are about to read them. Sylv’s solution sounds a bit drastic but it makes it clear what the underlying problem is, our limited capacity to remember things.

Moriah Jovan August 6, 2016 um 1:52 pm

This is why I wish publishers/indie authors would put the back-cover copy in the front of the book where the book automatically opens.

All I want to know is, "Why did this book interest me?" because the cover alone can’t jog my memory.

RAD August 6, 2016 um 8:17 pm

On a Kobo eReader you can "View Details" by pressing/holding your finger on the book in the Library | Books view. The details include the book synopsis. Is there is nothing similar on the Kindle? Maybe the metadata isn’t included in the .mobi format.

Top 5 Publishing Articles/Blog Posts of the Week 8/1-8/5 – Publishing Trends August 5, 2016 um 11:25 am

[…] authors offer print-on-demand in addition to […]

News Roundup [August 5, 2016] | No Shelf Required August 5, 2016 um 1:15 pm

[…] Do Indies Have to Do Print? […]

Write a Comment