Digital ebooks and audiobooks make up the bulk of income for most indie authors as they are more straightforward to produce and sell but print books remain popular with readers and writers. The Alliance of Independent Authors recommends that indie authors produce print books too and in this post, the AskALLi team looks at print publishing options for indie authors. Our thanks to Jane Davis for her contributions on short order print and to Hugh Howey for his thoughts on print partnerships with trade publishers.
Print production involves the manufacture, storage, and delivery of the book, all of which must be in place for sales to take place. For a first-time self-publishing author, print production might appear to be a daunting task. However, once you understand your goals, and the options available to you, it’s much easier to make a decision and proceed, step by step.
Your options are threefold:
- Print on demand, the choice of most indie authors
- Consignment print, printing books in volume runs or shorter batches
- Print partnership with a trade publisher or publishing service
We will look at each of these options below but first you need to decide what exactly you want your print book to achieve for you.
Print Publishing Options: Your Definition of Success
First think about your goals. Do you want to:
- maximize your revenue from your print book sales?
- see your book in bookstores?
- create an exceptionally beautiful or illustrated book?
- provide print for your readers with minimum disruption, so you can focus on ebook and audio?
- some combination of these?
- something else?
Take time with this stage of the process. A romantic attachment to the print book, or a driving desire to see their book in bookstores can drive some authors into making poor print decisions. Nothing wrong with either of those, but be self-aware, and consider all options first.
Bookstore distribution is an enormous challenge, even for trade publishers with decades of experience. The economics are punishing, for everyone involved. Ask yourself some tough questions. Are you happy with getting your book into a few bookstores with local connections, or do you want national or even international distribution? Do you have the resources to support such a goal? Are you sure you can afford this, if it fails? Will you be happier if you try and fail than if you don’t try at all?
Work out both your creative and commercial goals for your print book and learning everything you need to know about the options before you dive in.
Publishing Options for Print Books 1: Print-on-Demand (POD)
Most self-published authors use on print-on-demand (POD) book production, printing a single title as the customer orders it, rather than printing in bulk, upfront.
POD has higher per-unit costs than traditional printing methods such as ‘offset’ printing, but lower upfront investment. With POD, there’s no risk of being stuck with unsold stock, and no need to worry about deliveries, stock control or warehousing. Furthermore, errors can be easily, and almost instantly, corrected.
Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform and IngramSpark are the front-runners for print-on-demand production for independent authors–and indeed trade publishers too. Both use a worldwide network of printers to produce individual copies of books, as needed, and deliver them to customers direct, or to distributers or wholesalers who in turn supply bookshops, other retailers, educational institutions and libraries.
As well as using print-on-demand, you can order short runs of your book from both KDP and IngramSpark for use at school visits, book signings and other events, and to supply to local bookshops directly. Each site has calculators to allow you to view author copy costs.
KDP and IngramSpark each have different advantages for self-publishers and ALLi recommends you use them together. KDP gives authors access to Amazon’s incomparably huge customer base, with the added bonus of rapid fulfilment for those customers. IngramSpark offers superior international fulfilment and more flexible options for distribution to brick-and-mortar bookstores or libraries.
Note that Amazon does offer an ‘Expanded Distribution’ service, which piggybacks on Ingram’s global distribution data feed and supplies high street bookshops. However, ALLi recommends opting out of this. IngramSpark does not offer the opportunity to opt out of Amazon but once you upload your book to KDPP, Amazon retail store will prioritize their own edition.
To fully understand all the implications of publishing print books on demand see our post on using KDP Print and IngramSpark together
Also watch out for an interview next Thursday with Adam Croft, who has opted out of POD in favor of consignment print and local distribution.
Publishing Options for Print Books 2: Consignment Print
Not only can you earn better revenue this way for your non-Amazon sales, but you also have direct access to your non-Amazon sales data. There are other considerations too, see below.
Historically, offset printing has been the preferred method for trade publishers due to economies of scale. Large print orders leave you with a significant bill to shoulder up-front but cost-per-copy is significantly cheapest — which means a higher profit margin on each book.
and offset printing is typically required for books over 800 –1200 pages, and for specialty books with odd trim sizes or unusual paper, and art or photography books that require higher print fidelity.
None of these are likely to be of relevance or cost-effective for an indie authors of straightforward fiction or non-fiction, unless you have a bestseller on your hands for which you plan to make a special edition. Most authors will find print-on-demand is more forgiving, more affordable, and a better fit for online sales.
That said, some authors do use offset printing, most notably for colour picture books.
Offset print allows you to get your project looking and feeling exactly as you’d like, giving you more freedom in trim sizes, paper types, cover types, etc. You can even give your book fancy flourishes that POD doesn’t permit, like embossed titles.
You have two options when it comes to consignment print: volume print runs of 1000 copies or batch print runs of 500, or sometimes, with some printers, even fewer.
Consignment Print: Volume Print Runs
Those doing large print runs often raise the money to fund the upfront costs for print runs of 2,000 or more books through Kickstarter and other crowdfunding campaigns (advisable only if you have a strong sales track record, a robust sales and marketing plan and are prepared to put in many hours setting up and promoting your campaign).
Consignment Print: Short Print Runs
Minimum orders usually starting at 500 but some companies are now providing shorter print runs, with some going as low as 50.
The per-unit costs if you’re ordering over 100 copies and certainly if going towards 200 may well be lower than KDP Print or IngramSpark author copies. This is something to research and compare costs if the need arises, but it only makes sense if your cashflow allows for it, and you are certain there is demand for your book in those numbers, in the short to medium term.
You can also use short print runs to complement print-on-demand is short digital print runs in the low hundreds from independent printers. Typically you might order this stock for use at book launches or events where you expect to sell in solid numbers, or if you have an order from a bulk buyer.
Case Study: Consignment Print Book Publishing with Jane Davis.
Jane fell in love with the physical book at an early age and so creating a set of desirable, covetable, and collectable novels was one of her goals. She also wanted to see her books on the shelves of bookshops although, as she says, “I know from my experience of being trade published that this process is by no means automatic,” no matter how you’re published.
Why not POD?
As a newbie to self-publishing, I was sold the idea that print-on-demand provided the ultimate solution. The ability to print only what I needed and to update any create new editions easily was certainly alluring but there were three key problems:
- Reluctance on the part of bookshops to stock Amazon-printed titles. I wanted bookstores to be able to order my books.
- Inconsistent quality. I received several botched batches. On one occasion, I had to cancel a launch event. And, while the quality of book covers and paper improved, production problems cropped up frequently. The last straw was when a proof copy ordered in the UK that was so badly cut that the text was affected. My concern is that this quality was being shipping to Amazon’s direct customers – in order words, my readers.
- Profitability. The other pressing issue was that I was making a loss of £5 on every paperback I sold.
I placed an order for 200 of each of my five titles with a printer, spending just over £2000 (B format paperback, Ensocreamy paper 70/135, Cover: 4/0, matt laminate, standard cover board, Delivery to 1 UK address, storage of one box of book per title). The same order with KDP Print (at that time, Createspace) would have cost £4003.87, using their medium shipping option.
However, I incurred costs in getting to the stage where I could place my order. Arguably, some of these costs were unnecessary, but it required a certain amount of work to convert the files from US book sizes to UK book sizes and I didn’t want to use interiors that were based on templates. Your costs might be less.
On the other hand, as you will be producing a long print run, you may want to opt for a final proofread, as there won’t be the opportunity to update. (I did this myself. Twice.)
Interior formatting: £600 (money well spent!)
Book cover formatting: £240 (resizing, revised spine width, adding price and barcode, updates to reinforce branding, one updated cover design)
10 ISBN numbers of which 5 used: £ 72
Total: £912 (or 91p per book)
Plus each book must bear its share of what I call normal production costs (copy editing, cover design, proofreading, etc.) £1520 divided by 1000 assumed sales (actual number of sales may be lower) = £1.52 per book.
Total cost: Short Run
£1.94 (printing, average price)
£0.91 (reformatting, etc.)
£1.52 (production costs)
Total: £4.37 (first print run only); £3.46 (subsequent print runs – this is where it gets interesting)
Total cost: POD
£1.52 (book production)
And now for the not so good news…
Potential profit via POD
- Direct sales at full price: £3.47, less cost of attending event, booking stall, travel, etc. (Average loss £5.00 per book.)
- Sales via indie bookshop (30% discount): £0.77, less any delivery costs (loss of £1.83 per book).
- Profit if sold via Amazon: £-0.88 (I get average 90p less share of production costs.)
Potential profit per book via short run
- Direct sales at full price:£4.62, less cost of attending event, booking stall, travel, etc. (Loss will reduce to £3.85 per book)
- Sales via indie bookshops (30% discount): £1.92, less any delivery costs = potential loss (current postage per book is £2.60, usually hand-delivered)
- Gardners distribution:£0.58
In other words, I won’t break into profit until I place my second order – but I have a product that I’m proud to sell and will show people I mean business.
What about Distribution?
All titles are registered in Gardners’ catalogue. My printers supply ten copies to them initially and then fulfill orders from the stock they hold. (One box of approximately 50 books is stored free of charge. Additional storage is available for a fee). You will be asked to complete a distributors new title form and trading application forms. When the supply held by the printer runs out, you can place another order for another print run.
For me, Gardners take a 50% discount, my printers take 12% of monies received from Gardners and they leave you with circa 44%. Gardners will offer your books to retailers at a 35% discount, which makes your book attractive–but of course in competition with books from trade publishers who have relationships with all the bookstores through sales reps and pay for store placement.
You can specify whether you will allow ‘sale or return’. Your printer will pay you direct for sales, usually within 90 days due to distributors’ terms of credit. In addition, you may receive orders via Nielsen’s or other ISBN agencies that offer sales. It is up to you, as the publisher, to check their website to check if they’ve received any orders.
Jane’s Update August 2021
Tips for Consignment Print
Some points worth remembering:
- The responsibility for preparing the files to the required standard is yours. You won’t receive a proof copy, although your files will be checked by a good printer. (They picked up on a minor issue with one of my covers.)
- You will need to purchase your own ISBN numbers (Don’t forget to complete the New Titles forms afterwards.)
- To avoid incurring additional charges, you’ll need to supply the cover complete with a barcode. I used the free barcode generator tool at http://www.creativindiecovers.com/free-online-isbn-barcode-generator/#submit
- The higher the number of books ordered, the cheaper the unit price becomes. If I had been able to afford to pay for and store 300 of each titles, the average price would have come down to £1.50.
- More adventurous self-publishers may be happy to have one company producing the books and another in charge of warehousing and distribution.
- In terms of quality, Ingram Spark seem to have the edge over both KDP and my printer (their covers in particular), but their unit price reflects this.
Publishing Options for Print Books 3: Print Partnership
A third option is to work with a publishing partner who has the contacts with the bookselling world–bookstores, distributors, wholesalers, mass media. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to license your print rights to a trade publisher.
When it comes to licensing rights, ALLi always recommends negotiating each publishing right individually, making separate decisions based on the publisher’s reach, and the potential value of the partnership. This is selective rights licensing.
Publishers have built their contract terms around acquiring final draft manuscripts from authors who have no publishing skills. If you’ve published successfully already, the rights buyer is benefitting from your existing readership and publishing experience.
If you’ve sold enough, they should be open to splitting e-book, print book and audio rights. The e-book and audio rights are too lucrative, or potentially lucrative, for the indie author to give them up. The best known split rights deal for an indie author was Simon & Schuster’s acquisition of Hugh Howey’s Wool, soon to be serialised on Apple TV, with Rebecca Ferguson as lead and executive producer.
Howey published the first print edition of Wool on Amazon KDP Print (then Createspace) in 2011. It sold well and late in 2012, Simon & Schuster picked up the print rights. As all publishers do, S&S initially pushed for all rights but Hugh was not prepared to give up everything, and insisted on retaining ebook rights. The publisher agreed, saying such contracts reprised an earlier model of publishing contract which handled paperback rights and hardback rights separately. “This is a modern twist on the old paperback license,” JuliaProsser, S&S’s assistant publicity director said at the time. “But now it’s the ebook rights which the author retains.”
We caught up with Howey on his boat, as he’s currently sailing round the world, and found that ten years on, he would still like to see more of these deals, for himself and other authors.
“I know other indies who are making six figures a year on their POD books who would gladly hand over the print rights to a publisher who’d get them out to bookstores. We’ll take the hit on earnings to cultivate a relationship with publishers, booksellers, and print readers [who buy in bookstores].
I think most self-published authors understand and appreciate the power and capabilities of major publishing houses… but I also think we understand the limitations (better than even publishers are aware of them), and this cost analysis makes many of us wary about giving up our rights.
The supply of manuscripts to publishers is so great that they can ignore self-publishing bestsellers and still have their pipelines full of content but publishers are also risk-averse. A bestseller is a bestseller. Print sales from an existing bestseller are guaranteed, easy money for publishers. Without the upside of ebook and digital audio sales, yes, but they should embrace leaving well enough alone, while adding value [by doing what they do best].”
This still applies today as much as it did ten years ago, when he made his first print rights partnership.
If this is a route you’d like to go, and you have sold sufficient numbers of books to generate interest, the challenge will lie in finding a publisher who is open to a split rights deal.
Not all such print partnerships happen at this level i.e. big 5 publishing houses. Some indie authors work with small but innovative indie publishers under new-style contracts.
To fully understand all the implications of publishing print books on demand see our post on using KDP Print and IngramSpark together
Watch out for an interview next Thursday with Adam Croft, who has opted out of POD in favor of consignment print and local distribution.
Your Book in Bookstores: ALLi’s Guide to Print Distribution for Authors – by Debbie Young
ALLi members can download the ebook edition for free by logging into the membership site and navigating to PUBLICATIONS > GUIDEBOOKS
None members: order the ebook here.
Order the print edition on Amazon here. Or order from your local bookstore quoting ISBN 978-1913588656