Why print books are bad for authors

I love the feel of a real book in my hand, and for all that I think e-books are a wonderful innovation, and the basis for a genuine revolution in publishing, I can’t resist publishing WebVivant Press titles in print as well.

But it’s not really for the benefit of our authors. In fact, it’s a pretty bad deal. Let me explain…

BlackProject150I’m just going through the process of setting up Black Project – my satirical novel about conspiracies, paranoia and unexplained phenomena – on CreateSpace. This is Amazon’s Print On Demand (POD) service and gives your book the advantage of showing up as ‘in stock’ on Amazon sites.

I’d previously published a version of Lady Caine, my earlier novel, on CreateSpace, but then decided not to bother with the service for future titles. The reason was that, at the time, CreateSpace was entirely US-centric. Customers from other parts of the world could order the titles, but the delivery charge was ludicrously expensive. That’s now changed, with Amazon having opened European printing and distribution centres. However, pricing is still a big issue, as we’ll see.

Fortunately, the process is pretty simple. I’d already set up an InDesign project for the Lulu print version, which is the same size (6x9in) as the CreateSpace edition, so all I had to do was assign a new ISBN, edit the copyright page to enter the new number and output a new PDF. For the cover, I just needed to replace the bar code.

So I zipped happily through the setup process on CreateSpace … until I came to the page where you set pricing.

I believe in making the books as inexpensive as possible. There’s always a temptation to make the cover price relatively high so that you get a nice, fat royalty from each copy sold. But that’s a mistake. As a general rule, I think that the increased sales from lower unit prices ultimately results in more revenue – and happier readers.

So I tried to set the US base price fairly low – at $4.99. But CreateSpace wouldn’t let me. Presumably, this is something to do with the production cost of the book. It’s 488 pages long (not including covers), which is quite a lot. So I started increasing the price, a dollar at a time, until I hit a level Amazon would allow. That was $11.99 – at which price my author royalty would have been about $0.09. Yup, seriously.

I decided to push it another dollar, finally setting the price at $12.99 – much higher than I would have liked – but even at that level the royalty is just $1.09. That’s 8.4% of cover price.

Which is pathetic.

An author whose book is published by a mainstream publisher usually gets a royalty somewhere in the vicinity of 10-12.5%. Initial, hardback royalties may be higher – up to 15%, perhaps. And it’s often quite a complicated picture in which different editions will net authors different percentages, there are sliding scales involved, and royalties may at times go as low as 7.5%.

So you could argue that the CreateSpace royalty is in line with normal practice, albeit on the low end of the scale. But that would be missing some important points.

For their cut, publishers provide a number of services – sales & marketing and distribution being chief among them. (Yes, mid-list authors are now discovering that many publishers aren’t bothering so much with the marketing anymore, but that’s a separate discussion.) And traditional book distribution is horribly wasteful, requiring warehousing, shipping and a returns process that often leads to the pulping of copies.

CreateSpace does none of this. It’s a POD operation, so no warehousing or distribution, and you do the sales and marketing yourself.

Yes, POD copies are more expensive to manufacture than offset printing, but does that really account for Amazon pocketing 91.6% of the cover price?

The bottom line here is that – as I’ve argued many times – e-books represent a much better deal for self-publishers and their readers. You get to keep a much larger chunk of the sales price – even Apple’s famously avaricious attitude still leaves iBooks authors with 70%. And you can set prices lower.

We’re producing these print versions for those readers who like print – which is something I understand. But they make no sense whatsoever from a business perspective.

 

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