Think Like A Publisher #11… Electronic Sales to Bookstores

Just over a year ago now, Kris was standing at the end of an aisle in a Safeway grocery store as I came around the corner from the deli section. She was staring at one of those huge end-caps of gift cards that tend to fill all major stores these days. I figured she was looking for the iTunes gift card, since that’s how she controls her spending buying songs by doing one gift card at a time.

“Look at this,” she said and pointed at a gift card.

It was a beautiful gift card for the musical “Wicked.” It had the poster for the musical on the card and if you bought the card, you could download the entire musical by using a code at a web site.

I stared at it for a moment and then looked at her and I could tell she was thinking the exact same thing I was thinking.

“Put A Book On The Card!!!”

So that night I started into the research for the idea and found that it was simple and surprisingly cheap.

Over the next two months I talked to about a half-dozen indie bookstore owners, asking them if they would like to sell gift cards for electronic books in their store? All of them said “Yes!”

And all were enthused.  Especially when I talked about how little space they would take up and that I could give them a 50% discount and free shipping.

Of course they were excited, because it was a very, very simple way to make an electronic book into a physical product for an indie store to sell.

In fact, it’s the solution that just might save bookstores in this new electronic world.

How This Works Exactly

Step #1: Publish your book to electronic publishing, including Smashwords. Set up the book for free on a Smashwords code page. (There are other ways to do this, but this is basic and simple for the moment.)

Step #2: Have a plastic credit-card-sized gift card printed with your book cover on one side.

Step #3: On the back of the card print the free Smashwords code under a black scratch-off bar plus directions and other information.

Step #4: Either give the card away as a promotion at signings and such or put the card into a cardboard hanger with a price and sell to bookstores.

That’s it. Just about as simple as it gets.

What Kris and I Decided to Do

Kris and I thought about starting up some business to do this for us and others, then just decided to use the cards ourselves for promotion at signings and conferences and to sell through our own company. Why did we back away from a business model?

Because anyone, any indie publisher can set this up just as simply as we could do it.

I hinted at this idea early in this series because the more I got into the idea, the more research I did, the more excited about it I got.

In the meantime, a new start-up company, EnThrill, in Canada has decided to try the idea. If you want to see the nifty video about what this new company is planning, go to

But this company is brand new and very small and smartly moving very, very slowly, as they should. They are only in Canada and will be only doing a few test stores this summer with a very small catalog. And even next fall they will be taking only limited titles. In essence, they are becoming a publishing company with this as their main way of distribution.

But again, anyone can do this. Any author, any company. Anyone.

The idea of selling books like gift cards just like other companies sell gift cards is easy for any of us to do, and start-ups like Enthrill will only help knock down some barriers into stores.

But that said, I can’t imagine too many barriers.

Indie bookstores have been looking for a way to sell electronic books in their stories and this is it. The idea is simple, cheap, and every book takes up less room than a regular book, yet it is something the customer can walk out of the store with in a bag.

If we standardize the size of the cards, imagine in ten years parts of every bookstore being like a record store, with bins of books we can just thumb through like we thumb through albums.

First The Details

— Any book, fiction or nonfiction, that is in electronic format, can be sold this way.

— You can use Smashwords coupon codes on the back of the card or set up your own page on your web site for the download address. Right now the simple way is use Smashwords coupon code since Smashwords buyers can use credit cards and can download any format they want. Very simple.

(If you do not understand Smashwords coupon codes, please go to and read the instructions on discount or sales coupons.)

— Card printing is easy. All I did was Google “gift card printing” and found all kinds of places. Dozens and dozens and dozens of printing offers.

Prices range all over as is normal, but I tended to find printers that could use my cover pdf file, my back cover pdf file (full color front, B/W back), scratch-off bar, 30 ml (credit card thickness), and full gloss for under 50 cents per card if I went to 500 cards. More per card if I wanted to print less.

For example, go to All Time Print and check out the prices there. You can print 100 cards for $128.00 but at 1,000 cards you get them for about 36 cents each. (I have not ordered for them, so do not know for sure on quality. Just a price example.)

—Cards with cardboard hangers will cost more. For example, you can do a holder shaped like a book that folds over and has the card inside. You can print your cover on the front of the holder and blurbs and information on the inside and the cost will run about 50-60 cents per card, depending on volume. Again, shop around.

So if you do a decent volume per book, it brings your total for a card with folder to just under $1.00 per card with holder that could hang in a bookstore.

Say $1.00 per book to be high and safe. (A book is plastic gift card and holder with your cover and information printed on the holder as well.)

SHOP AROUND for best prices. Maybe even try your local printers.

Think Like a Publisher

How can a small indie publisher use these cards????

I am certain I haven’t even begun to figure out the many, many ways. But first let me talk simply about selling your electronic books through indie brick-and-mortar stores. Then I will talk about promotion.

Selling to Stores

First you will need to figure the profit margin.

— Novel online price is $4.99. (Or higher. If you are a discount 99 cent publisher, forget this idea and jump to the promotion section below. But I am certain traditional publishers will be picking this idea up quickly over the next few years at their sales prices.)

— You will want to sell your book into bookstores at the same price or less as your electronic book. So let me use $4.99, the price WMG Publishing prices novels at.  That will be an impulse buy for bookstore customers.

— On the hanger print the $4.99 book price.

— Offer the bookstore 50% discount plus free shipping if they order at least 10 books in this format from your catalog. (Shipping will be about 50 cents per card shipping priority flat rate.)

The Math

#1… Your costs: $1.00 printing plus .50 shipping = $1.50.

#2…You get paid ahead from the bookstore $2.50. (50% discount)

#3… Total profit per book is $1.00 per card or $10.00 per ten. (For you math challenged, that’s 20% profit.)

(On how to find the stores, reread Think Like a Publisher #9.)

That simple.

Without doing a POD paper version, you get your electronic book into brick-and-mortar bookstores.

And find more readers.

Who will then look up your other work.


One of the great values of these cards is simply promotion. If you don’t do the hanger and do large enough print runs, you can have a plastic card for around 35 cents or less per card.

On that card on one side is the full cover picture of your book. On the back is a free code to let the reader you hand the card to read your book for free on any device they may own.

And you can leave the free code open for as long as you want or close it when you want. (I would tend to leave it open to be honest to draw even more readers if the person you gave the card to gives it to another person. You know, like lending a book. Gets you more and more customers for your other work.)

Kris and I will have numbers of these cards with us everywhere we go in the future.

Giving a reader a free book by handing them an attractive, colorful gift card is about as good as promotion gets these days.

And note, you can even sign the card. Tough to sign an electronic book before now.


The new future of books is almost here. Books on gift cards.

But they won’t be called “gift cards.”  They will be called “books.”

Electronic books in a physical product, for the same price, can now get into brick-and-mortar bookstores and make bookstores a great mark-up.

Customers can easily buy they, give them as gifts, even wrap them up as stocking-stuffers.

It is easy for any publisher of any size to do.

Gift Card Books take up less of the very expensive bookstore shelf room. You can get a hundred of these in the space of ten paperback books.

So my challenge to you all is this:

Indie publishers, lead the way.

Authors, for promotion, lead the way.

The traditional publishers and chain bookstores will not be far behind.

In ten years you can imagine a bookstore with paper books and thousands of electronic books on cards on huge racks and in bins.

If you doubt that future, just walk into any major store now and look at the huge gift card racks.

And imagine those racks full of cards that contain books.

Have I said lately how much I LOVE THIS NEW FUTURE???


Copyright ©  2011 Dean Wesley Smith


I want to thank everyone who has supported this series, and at some point you will all get a full copy of this series. Maybe even on a gift card. Thanks!

As a professional, this series is part of the income streams. And, to be honest, donations keeps me going on these chapters. And anyone who donates a little to the Magic Bakery tip jar, I will send a free electronic book of all these chapters combined when I am finished.

And  speaking of the Magic Bakery, this chapter is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean

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121 Responses to Think Like A Publisher #11… Electronic Sales to Bookstores

  1. Marie Lamba says:

    Really interesting idea! Bookstores are used to returns and huge discounts. Regular retail stores, however, are more used to buying stock outright, true?

    So perhaps we should also be thinking even more outside the box about this. Like if your novel has a gardening theme, or a local angle or is centered around a sport, etc. etc., is there a quaint specialty store related to your subject that sells gift items, and that might be willing to sell this up by the register as a gift/impulse buy?

    This gift card idea is one of those keep-me-up-late-at-night-thinking sort of ideas. I’ll be turning this one over in my brain for a long time, I can tell.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • dwsmith says:

      Maria, I’ve spent many a night doing the same thing over the last year. And yes, books into every store is now possible and likely given time.

      What drives me nuts is now every time I walk by a huge display of gift cards, I imagine them as book covers. (grin)

  2. heteromeles says:

    Great idea!

    Since I’m aware of elder relatives who simply can’t read off a screen, I’m trying to figure out whether you can use the same code for:

    1. eBook (at $4.99) or
    2. $4.99 off the paper version.

    If Smashwords can handle something as a $4.99 discount, it can accommodate upsales too.

    Also, In the spirit of nutty ideas, I’d suggest an anti-piracy forward to the text that says something like:

    “Dear reader,

    “I’m trying to make a living with this book, and I make $1.00 off the book you are holding.

    “$1.00. I’m not trying to get rich, I’m just trying to pay the bills by writing things you will enjoy.

    “Now, I like to write, but I can only do so if I make tens of thousands of sales every year.

    “You can do whatever you want with the pass code to this book. Share it with friends, give it as a present. Whatever. You own it. But if this code gets publicized and everybody pirates this book, I’ll have to stop writing, and you don’t get to read the sequel.

    “That’s the real cost of piracy. Just thought you’d want to make an informed decision, if you were thinking about pirating this book.”

    Oddly enough, the people I’ve talked with who have pirated eBooks a) haven’t read them all (or even very many of the ones they grabbed), b) they had no idea how much authors made per book, or even that authors would get hurt by their actions,

    Apparently, having hundreds of unread books on a computer is not an incentive to read them all, any more than piling unread journals in the bathroom gets them read faster.

    I don’t expect this to stop piracy, or the ideology of free sharing, but it might help real fans support your work.

    • dwsmith says:

      heteromeles, not sure of that piracy notice, but something shorter sure could be put on the holder of book card. I have no idea what you are talking about with your first point since Smashwords doesn’t sell paper books. They are only a small ebook store and a distributor to other ebook stores.

  3. Lisa says:

    Another issue to consider is simple shoplifting. Standard gift cards can’t be used until they’re activated during the sales transaction at the register. This is really the only viable way to have racks of small, valuable, easily-pocketable items hanging on store racks, as all gift-card-selling retailers will attest. So don’t stray too far from the idea of requiring activation if you’re picturing the racks of gift cards in the store scenario.

    Although I do like the idea of someone wanting something I write, so badly that they’re willing to steal it.

    • dwsmith says:

      Lisa, I have a hard time imagining indie publishing doing any sort of activation. Just not needed. Theft will not be such an issue. I know a lot of writers think that it is, but so far it just hasn’t been. For any of us.

      It’s an ego thing I think for most writers and sure, stores will have to protect themselves, just as they would with a customer walking out with a paperback. Will it happen? Yup. Will I care? Nope. Will the bookstore owner care? You know it. But any store owner knows that shoplifting is a part of business. In my last store, I had security cameras everywhere so everyone could see them and monitors so people could see themselves being filmed. Worked like a charm. It’s a store issue.

  4. Megs says:

    “The coupons at Smashwords have expiration dates so I can have a specific code to sell at specific conventions.”

    Somebody up there said it, but duh! folks. There is no unlimited pirating as long as there’s a limitation on the time frame.

  5. SL Clark says:

    While not the ideal, I found this 4×6 “packaging” might work:

    However, I’m leaning towards something else, then something like these glue dots will come in handy:

    I’m liking eBook products! ;-)))

    • dwsmith says:

      SL, wow, both great links. Thanks! Glue dots are pretty cool. (grin) And being able to print a thousand holders for about $190.00 is pretty cool. They are not ideal but pretty cool. Cover printed on the outside, instructions in b/w inside flap. Nifty.

  6. J.A. Marlow says:

    To expand the idea:

    Add a QR code on the card holder. For those with smart phones they can scan, read a sample, and get other information right on the spot to help them decide to buy. As a publisher, it would require setting the QR code up and setting up a special page, but that isn’t that big of a deal.

    This would also be a good way to drive people to your website and newsletter, if one had it all set up. But it would mean also making sure all the big formats were available (not hard for those of us already doing it). Smashwords is a great way to get going immediately without any further infrastructure.

    And the codes in the back. They would be perfect for tracking where the sales are coming from. One code for one kind of store, another for a different one. Different codes for different covers to see which ones readers respond the most to. Different regions of the country.

    Talk about market research for where your readers are coming from and what they like! For a few bucks extra in printing costs, the information that could be gleaned would be completely worth it. The information wouldn’t be as valuable later, as the codes get passed around, but right at first it would be valuable.

    To go with the marketing thing, if there is a special event, print them up (or have postcards printed up) but without any code on them. Then print a page of the special code off on your printer on sticker-stock to attach to the back. Special code just for the Con, and so on.

    Wow, do I love this idea. Really really love it! There are so many ways to use it.

    (I saw the mention of QR codes later in the comments. Still going to post this comment, though!)

  7. Sabrina Chase says:

    Thinking ahead, there’s no real reason not to have the actual text of the book(s) on the card. SD and other camera-type memory cards are thin enough, although a problem might be getting the memory size *small* enough to be economically feasible for bulk 😉 That would also solve the problem of ownership of your copy of a book–you would have the “original” copy you bought, and could resell it, give it to a friend, etc. and would avoid the cloud-based server issues (like Amazon suddenly deciding a book wasn’t valid, or a server crash, or a direct meteor strike on the data center.) It would also be good for people who don’t have great internet connectivity, or if reader technology changes (you’d still have the original book). There’d have to be a way to get the book into the reader (not yet developed), but the technology is already there for the most part.

  8. Dean Murray says:

    I’m going to circle back to the piracy thing for just a moment as I don’t think we’ve all thought the implications all the way through to the end. As a writer, I have zero worries about piracy because it probably will lead to sales of future titles at some point.

    As the owner of a store that has already paid out hard cash to get a product on my shelves for which there is no return policy, I’m going to strongly resist anything that has the potential to make my inventory worthless.

    If you print hundreds of cards out with the exact same smashwords coupon on each of them, then it will eventually get pirated. Whether or not those using the pirated codes would have ever purchased from the store or not is an open question, but there is a distinct possibility that the book stores are going to push back on this idea unless you can arrange a series of unique codes to put on the cards.

    With anti-piracy efforts, I think it’s ultimately less about actually controlling the content and more about giving your retail channels some security that you’re making a reasonable effort to protect their investment in inventory.

    • dwsmith says:

      Dean, like all gift cards, the codes will be covered with a black bar, thus not allowing buyers to even know if they are like any other code. Plus I am talking with Mark at Smashwords about a way to do numbers of codes. I will be back with you all, but right now he’s very busy at BEA.

      Stores and customers would have no way to know and you would put on the card an e-mail address to mail if problems, of course.

      So my questions is how would anyone know if the code was unique or one in a series of ten or one of one??

      I was just trying to make this simple. I have got to stop doing that. I don’t much care how hard you make this, folks. I’m just trying to get it started and Mark Coker at Smashwords offers the coupon codes that would work great on these. But it is very possible, as I said, to set up on your own web site private pages where these codes could direct a buyer. More than likely a better solution, but for sheer simple, Smashwords wins at the moment.

    • dwsmith says:

      Also, Dean, if you are supporting your store customers and they have a problem, you would be the one covering them. I did that a number of times over the years at Pulphouse. One very rare leather book we had done got stolen from a store and the store owner told me about it, not expecting anything. Just wanted me to watch out for it. I had a PC (Publisher’s Copy done as an extra in case of mailing problems) and I mailed it to him for free and he bought books from me for years and talked nothing but good about Pulphouse.

      As publishers, we support our stores. Part of doing business. So I agree that if a customer could figure out a way to rip off the code number, it might be bad, but the codes will be covered with a black bar and then the card will be in a holder of some sort. Tough to get that code unless you buy the book and even then the buyer would never know it was a single code and not just one of hundreds or thousands.

      And of course, on promotion cards, this doesn’t matter at all.

  9. Heteromeles said: Since I’m aware of elder relatives who simply can’t read off a screen,

    This puzzles me, assuming they can read paper books. I can see it with backlit computer or notepad screens, but ereaders like the Kindle with e-ink are very paper-like in their readability … and Kindle lets you adjust the font size. (It’ll also read aloud to you, if the publisher hasn’t disabled that feature for the given book.) The Kindle is massively popular among older readers for these very reasons.

    Dean, this is brilliant. Kudos to you and Kris.

  10. Just Passing Through says:

    Kind off topic, but I read before how you said that a writer now in the 21st century can’t be like the writers of before and write one novel a year and a handful of short stories and be successful, so, in your opinion, sir: How many novels & short stories should a writer who wants to be $ucce$$ful produce a year?


    • dwsmith says:

      JPT, actually, I’ve been saying that if you can’t manage any more than 250 words per day (1 novel per year), you need to stay in traditional publishing and hope the dice roll in your favor. At that pace, in this new world, you will have to just plain get lucky.

      I talked about this a lot last weekend in the “Secrets to Making a Living Writing Fiction.” Except for the writers who got lucky, most writers who have made a living for a long time, meaning more than two decades, write three to six novels a year, and most also write short fiction at the same time. Numbers of them write far more than six novels a year. I have written eleven one year as my best year, all 90,000 word novels and up.

      (Not hard if you do the math. Sorry. But first you have to believe you can do it, which most writers steeped in the myths don’t, which stops them cold right there. Belief is everything.)

      You asked. I think three or four novels a year plus short fiction. And you need to be selling them both into traditional publishing channels and into indie publishing. But that’s my opinion only. Many, many English teachers will disagree with me.

      The pulp writers we still read today would be in heaven in this new world.

  11. ari says:

    Mailbox stores! Card stores! Grocery chains! Impulse buys at convenience stores! Gas stations!

    Special, loving cards, with warm fuzzy stories inside! Like, to your grandma! Or mom!

    Kid’s adventure stories! In colorful cards!

    Pseudo- photo books! With the story to go along!

    There are so many ways to package this!

    Oh—–gift companies! Like, sell a set with a set of golf balls! For when you’re travelling!


    • dwsmith says:

      ari, I agree completely. My hope is that enough of us indie publishers give this a shot that the traditional publishers jump in and other companies doing this start up and the book industry runs with this. There are so, so many ways to use it that were dead to book sellers before the intervention of electronic books. Now, with the simple combination of something solid and electronic books, we can reach into so many more markets that paper books couldn’t get to.

      I think, honestly, for indie publishing, the number one use will be promotion. Not a lot of us (some will, but not a lot) will set up distribution to indie stores. I figured that out when I wrote #9 in this series. That’s why I am pushing that traditional publishers and start-up companies take some form of this idea and run with it. I really, really want to help the indie bookstores.

  12. I love this idea for promotional purposes. I write children’s books so I can just see tons of possibilities for gifting a card to a Mom or Dad to introduce it to their little one. This An awesome way to introduce someone to your style without worrying about not having a sample. I imagine the card companies will already be familiar with the scratch off code technology. Definitely exploring this. I love the creativity that this new approach to publishing is unleashing.

    • dwsmith says:

      Folks, all gift card printers that I have looked at (about a dozen) offer the scratch-off bar on the back to cover a code number. No issue.

      If you are doing this for promotion, say at a convention, just put a very clear expiration date on the card that you are giving away. But my opinion is that if you are selling the book, no expiration date. Just let it run it’s natural course. And, of course, you will know the numbers and be able to watch them on the other side no matter what system you set up.

      Pirating just won’t be a major issue, as Barb said. Will it happen? Yup. Should you care if the numbers are small? Nope, it’s just your book finding new readers. So stop worrying about it so much folks. You are wasting great brain energy.

  13. Barb Rude says:

    Wow, Dean! This is such a neat idea.

    I wanted to chime in with agreement with your views on piracy. I don’t think that selling coupon codes will put a book at any more risk than putting it for sale online. Basically, once the information is available for download, it’s available to be pirated. I don’t have experience in book file sharing or pirating, but I was college-aged during the Napster era for music. Those songs started as a legally purchased CD, somewhere.

    But it’s my sense that pirates (the ones who collect things and make it available in non-approved channels) are going to take the easiest acquisition method and run with it. Hunting down valid codes for downloads is way too much work, not when you can ask someone who purchases a ton of ebooks to email you all their stuff. Pirates who want to make money sell illegal copies aren’t going to sell someone that coupon code. They’re going to get a ripped copy and offer it as their own download.

    I guess what I’m saying that, in theory, loosing “unlimited” coupons into the world doesn’t increase your odds of getting pirated. Once you make your work available in any form, anywhere, you’re at risk. It’s just the nature of the digital beast, and I’d rather worry about sites making money off my work than a few friends sharing an URL. And like you say, a few friends sharing an URL is quite likely to earn some more fans. Friend sharing is awesome.

  14. A lot of people seem to be advocating one-time codes, but I think there is a major objection to those: readers have the right to expect that they will be able to download your book more than once, not as pirates, but in the case that they change e-readers, lose their copy to a hardware failure, or whatever. This is a really important issue with ebooks, because one of the big barriers to ebook take-up is the fear that they may not last and in a few years you won’t have your book anymore.

    For instance, I’m a web designer, and I recently chose to buy an web development ebook rather than a paper copy. That was based entirely on the fact that the authors (it was self-published) not only allow you to download the book as many times as you want, they also continually update the book and allow you to download the updated versions for free. That’s the kind of added value that makes an ebook a better option. If you have a one-time use code, though, you take that away.

    Of course, you could implement a registration system attached to the unique codes, but that’s far more hassle than most of us would want to take on. And even if you do, there’s nothing to stop logins and passwords being shared in the same way that the download codes would be shared.

    • dwsmith says:

      Patrick, exactly. With a little help from someone who knows web sites, setting up these running codes and added value and such would be very, very simple. And printing the codes on the cards, either sequential numbers or one number is easy. And the scratch-off bar over the code is easy as well. Nothing here is rocket science, otherwise simple mom and pop businesses couldn’t do gift cards for their stores.

  15. SL Clark says:

    Clarification – the glue is called “Fugitive Glue” or surprise “Credit Card Glue”. These search terms will find LOTS of places with Glue Dots, Dispensers, Hot Melt for bulk applications; Uline even.

    The resources are there. Go. Or sit & watch Seth:

    As for cheaper promotions, Joe’s Coasters with a “Free eBook” code for a short story, mated to a website -> first name, last name, email address, autoresponder download = CHEAP, 20 cents a customer, or less. AND for this, an everyday web form, no data verification. -Steve

  16. Steve Perry says:

    On the face it, a great idea, D&K. But there is some kind of niggling little voice in my head that’s saying, “Yeah, sure, but …”

    Lemme see can I articulate it, without having really thought it through all the way.

    Most people with readers are going to buy book from an online provider, at least now. You can get a gift card for iTunes, go there, and read a preview. Or on Smashwords or

    And since part of browsing in a book store is being able to pick up a copy and, well, browse it, if there isn’t a way to preview the book onsite, that would seem an obstacle for a lot of folks. I might buy a novel by somebody I normally follow that way, but for a new writer? I don’t think it’s likely.

    It adds another venue, but given the brick-and-board aspect of things, I wonder if it’s going to be a major moneymaker for most of us.

    If you can track sales, do, and let us know …

    • dwsmith says:

      Steve, tracking sales and downloads will be easy. And I agree, the sample aspect is a problem, which is why my sense is that most traditional publishers will have these for sale right beside physical copies of the book. Browse the book in the store, buy the download card so you can read the book on your device. Any device. That way the stores get the money for the purchase of the book instead of becoming just a huge browsing store with no sales.

      Jane, those machines are great and we all get into the data base if we go the right direction with our POD books. But there are still major problems with the Espresso Book Machine. Extreme waste and high costs being just two. Extreme labor costs being a third. Constant breakdowns and expensive supplies being a forth. They are great for single books, usually obscure books, but for any other kind, they still have a ton of bugs I wish would get worked out. Mostly the waste part.

      If you don’t understand what I mean, go into a copy store and check out how many machines are down at the moment. Espresso Book Machines are copy machines with a binding machine attached. Both break down all the time. Also, they only print on 8 1/2 by 11 paper, or at least did the last time I looked. And then trim down. (Take a 5 1/2 by 8 1/2 book and trim it out of the center of a 8 1/2 x 11 inch sheet and you will see what I mean.) And we all buy toner. Yeah, that’s cheap. And so on. So until those machines get bugs out, they will be limited use and expensive per book. I want them to work and have for twenty years, since the first time I saw a Docutek (sp?) being tested at Book Exp in 1991. I loved the idea and thought it was the future. Problem is, they haven’t solved the future yet on this stuff.

  17. Jane George says:

    I’m seeing a combo of your giftcard idea and the Espresso Book Machine. The ABA is now partnering with On Demand to bring the EBM to indie bokstores.

  18. Ty Johnston says:

    @ Steve Perry,

    One suggestion would be to include a few actual pages from the book/e-book. Say you’ve got packaging about the size of a card from Hallmark, with 3 or 4 pages inside with a chapter or some kind of sample text, then the actual e-book card inserted in the back. Of course this ups the cost to produce, and it’s still not the same as being able to thumb through a whole book, but it’s something. Just an idea.

    Here’s another: Often enough I’ve seen little kiosks (for lack of a better word) at places like WalMart where you can listen to various songs from new music releases. The same might work for publishing. Instead of music, there could be a kiosk with a simplified e-reader device that allows potential customers to sample text from an e-book.

    • dwsmith says:

      Ty, both good ideas. I’ve been looking at doing card stock folded holders, printing the book cover and back cover on the 8 1/2 by 11 inch card stock and then folding it so it looks like a book. 5 1/2 x 8 1/2.

      It would be scary simple to saddle stitch (staple) inside a few pages to make it into a small chapbook. And yes, I have no doubt there will be ways to read samples in one fashion or another if this catches on.

  19. SL Clark says:

    LOL, limited edition Chapbooks…, another product for the mill – that was already on my radar. Oahu condo does not equal production space. :-)

    The gift card industry is standardized Landscape, books need a new standard for Portrait; it’ll happen soon. Actually surprised the Indie Bookstore associations haven’t made it work yet.

  20. Camille says:

    I expect that traditional publishers will be all over this like tasty on chocolate — at least if it shows any signs of success. (We don’t know, for instance, if those “WICKED” cards are an experiment, or if they actually do sell as well as a generic gift card.)

    Given that retailers everywhere already deal in these kinds of cards — and more importantly existing booksellers deal with them sometimes — it’s a chance for the existing distribution and business model to stick around a little longer for traditional publishers and booksellers. It may be good for indies, but it will be GREAT for traditional publishers who want to try to keep their main customers shopping the same way they always have.

    Many of us love bookstores, but the main reason we don’t buy from them is because they don’t carry what we want any more. This gives them a chance to carry what we want! And I see bookstores going more and more into the “Gift” business — and that’s the one problem with ebooks as gifts: there’s nothing to wrap.

    Now, the next most important thing will depend on technology developments: if the code on the gift card allowed people to download to their device instantly, no matter what kind of device.

    • dwsmith says:

      Camille, you are right about a technology development needed for what you suggested. Possible, but no online anywhere yet. But possible, very possible. Three or four years, maybe.

      • dwsmith says:

        I’m with you on that, SL. Kris and I thought about doing this as a major company after we hit on the idea and offering services and all store aspects of it for other authors, then just said, “Nope.” We also have been down that road before with Pulphouse and we decided when the time was right to tell people about it, put it out as public knowledge, and just keep doing our own little company and writing, which is what we love.

        I’m too old to walk that road again. It takes a young person like Mark Coker to fight this fight, and wow am I glad they are fighting it.

  21. SL Clark says:

    Dean, given VC funding and a tiny bit of cooperation from the big industry players, I could have this working in 6-8 months tops. It is *not* a tech problem, but a territorial one. Apple already has iTunes cards, will likely have iBook cards soon – or combine their operations in into an “iStore” card – Mac, Music, Books.

    I’ve been down that road, won’t consider it again. I want to own the resulting company, not be kicked to the curb when it has wild success. The $$ always wins that boardroom skirmish – I’d rather be a struggling tiny independent; VC control = death to me. Sorry.

    Just know, it is NOT a tech issue. All the piece are available today, but lack an industry standard. The *one* thing missing is the company to create this standard and getting Amazon, Apple, B&N, Big 6, everyone else all talking the same language. Each wants to *own* this unobtainium, thus the Indie opportunity has a few years to gain traction. Call me happy,,,, -Steve

  22. Just Passing Through says:

    Sensei Smith: So it’s like the old story about L. Ron Hubbard using the the roll of butcher block paper so that he would not have to interrupt his writing changing sheets of his manuscript. Cool.
    The more you write = The better you get = The more readers who read you = The more money you make. Rinse and Repeat.
    Danke Schön.

  23. ari says:

    okay, for all the anxiety about pirating……okay, is your book so valuable? and second, will the pirate guarantee quality? I mean, we’ve had pirated movies for years, but who willingly buys a pirated copy? Only if it’s not on the market. B/c pirated movies have spots, and blurs and annoying ads and sound issues. the only bootlegs I know of that people get excited about are studio outtakes that nobody can get on the open market.

    And, second, maybe it’s shared…now, people have software that is downloaded that may or may not work. the example I can think of is Linux. Most people don’t use it. it’s difficult to download and use unless you have specialized knowledge. Molly uses it, b/c she has a master’s in computer engineering and math. the rest of us buy bill gates stuff b/c it’s known and easy, and there are books, and, again, it’s pretty much plug and play. You are underestimating the value of clean and safe and easy.

    And, third off, collectibility. You have the story, is the wrapper something special? And, yeah, I’d vote that it stays useful. Books don’t turn to dust on your shelf, but downloads can disappear. It’s really annoying, having paid for something, to lose that access.

    And, again…….easiness and cheapness. I would, had I stories written yet that appealed to women, go directly to the local grocery stores and hawk my plastic wares. Men buy technology for their wives. I’ve never bought a stereo, a camera, a computer, and I have nice ones b/c my husband buys them for me. My dad bought them before that. I buy fabric to make stuff for them. What he doesn’t buy is the software- the music, the photo-paper, etc. He’ll buy a nice expensive book once a year, but not nice expensive makeup. I have to buy stuff at the grocery store, folded into the grocery bill, 1 dollar here, 3 dollars there, 5 dollars over that away. I would get upset, except that’s every last single stay at home mother that I know. I buy more magazines, and yes, there is a price- line. I’ll buy a candy bar, but there is a price-line. I want my mood altered. I want an impulse buy that makes me feel young, beautiful, loved, not haggard….right now that’s stephenie meyer’s books. I haven’t bought them, b/c I want nice copies, and all the extensions—that’s nearly $100, that I don’t have. Now, deliver me books at $5, and deliver new stories with oomph- I have to buy major groceries every two weeks, and milk every three days. I want something I can tell my friends about, and that they can get, too. And, everything I’ve bought for myself for the past few years has come from recommends…and I’ve promoted things, too, to my friends. They have the same grocery store constraints……….are you getting an idea of the scale of this market? and, golly, if you do, put a shiny gold stripe on the cardboard….if they can do it for the frozen vegetables, so I feel royal for taking care of my family——I should feel royal buying your book. It’s honestly why I don’t even try to read Deb Macomber. I don’t want homespun pastel flowers. I want………anyway, deliver the goods, and make them wonderful and different ( ie let your imagination rip wild)( I quit reading one magazine after a few years b/c the articles cycled over a year) ( let your imagination go wild) when you have readers, they will develop habits. Honestly, for my habit authors, I don’t even read the book flaps. the plots are irrelevant. I want that voice, or that setting, or those characters. not all at once, but there’s something…and don’t dilute your voice. I quit one author when he aged and got a co-. I had literally every book he’d written over 30 years, and now, can’t be bothered. I’m a normal reader. think about norah gaughan readers. they can’t tell you the plot- they can tell you their favoriteS- plural.

    suppliers, meet junkie…..

  24. ari says:

    you know what? make a chapbook with poems, or pictures, or trinkets, and then put the book in. or postcards. sort of like griffin and sabine, or those teen “meet the stars” booklets. put a bookmark in. a button for my denim jacket- 34 pieces of flair. not at first, obviously, b/c it’s expensive. But if you have a cool series? I want to share that I’m all about star wars, or twilight, or silly one liners from the book. I want pictures I can stick on my fridge, or on my computer.

    don’t do it for a single off, but for a series? sheyeah. why not? when I decorate my e-mails, I’m mentioning mason dixon knitting, or linking to yarn harlot, or linking to videos. my friend is telling me about psych on netflix, or little house on the prairie ( the not- produce model!) or we’re talking about fred astaire movies, or looking at opera singer vids, as well as all the usual at home- wash dishes do laundry how’s the kids? sort of stuff. or teachers giving motivational speeches. it doesn’t have to be something you have contempt for- let your absolute I love it totally freak flag fly. you’ll find your ten thousand superfans, and they’ll find their friends………I mean, honestly, I turned people onto a band that was good for one song 20 years ago. if they’d kept writing and publishing…….they’d have new fans they didn’t know about until now. the internet is shareable, so very share-able…… and golly, let fans in. they make great stuff, too.

    make it awesome, and cool, and make it awesome and cool to share….minimalist is for, well, factory model cars…not craftsman unique stuff, you know? it feels good to find something cool that is affordable and shareable and easy-ish to find.

    as for display- you know those plastic strips with tabs? they can be tied onto a regular display. they have those tabs holding onto cardboard? Like when there’s a strip of christmas bows? regular stores would love them- unclaimed real estate making money? that’s for the starter simple sets…….

    and, seriously, if you have a name that’s a brand…….it literally does not matter what you write…somebody will pick it up to buy it. think james patterson, or stephen king back in the day…’d buy it, and put it in your bag, and read it at the beach….then you’d find out if it was any good. My husband knows to buy every last book in three series. they are uneven, but trustworthy enough. Think of it like roller-coasters. they aren’t all the same, but if you like rollercoasters– each one will do the trick.

    confidence, people, confidence!

  25. You know, for only a couple dollars more, you could put an author’s entire output on a microSD chip and sell “The Complete Works of” for whatever the market will bear. (Well, Asimov’s might need two 😉 ) Might only be a small market (dedicated fans and gifts to same) but a high mark-up.

    Not a lot of ereaders that take those chips, though. Yet. (Kindles don’t, you’d have to transfer via computer. I think Nooks do, some smartphones.)

  26. J.A. Marlow says:

    Patrick Samphireon – A lot of people seem to be advocating one-time codes, but I think there is a major objection to those: readers have the right to expect that they will be able to download your book more than once, not as pirates, but in the case that they change e-readers, lose their copy to a hardware failure, or whatever. This is a really important issue with ebooks, because one of the big barriers to ebook take-up is the fear that they may not last and in a few years you won’t have your book anymore.

    With Smashwords they *can* download the ebook more than once. And in multiple formats, too. Which means if one day they change ereaders they can go to Smashwords and download whatever format they need with no DRM. The ebook is not lost because they changed hardware. That’s one of the nice things about using Smashwords.

    Even better, if the author has released an updated version of the ebook you have the option to download the new version instead of the original version. I’ve done this a few times myself.

    To clarify one point: you enter the Smashwords coupon code only ONCE. And that is when you first ‘buy’ the book. After that you never need that code again. Not for downloading again, not for downloading a different format, not for downloading an updated version.

    No more fuss or muss. The only thing a reader must remember is their account username and password, but you have to remember those things for most other sites anyway, so I don’t view that as an unnecessary burden.

    If the author chose to have a time-limited code on their giftcards, it would not affect the reader’s ability to continue to read their book if they used it on Smashwords before that expiration date. As for one-code-per-person which immediately expires once they use the code, Smashwords does not have that ability at this time.

    I’m wondering if you were talking more about people setting up their own systems on their own websites for this? If so, then all bets are off. 😉

  27. Kevin Cullis says:


    You got me to thinking that I’m going to have to think about it some more.

    But I think you have solved an issue I’ve been thinking about for a while. While I’m moving toward getting my ebook and downloadable one out there is an issue for someone like me. I love reading paper and digital books, but oftentimes I remember I read something in a book but don’t want to take the time to look it up, but it would be great if I had a PDF/ebook of the book. For me, I’d like both versions of a book, paper and digital

    The problem has been in my thinking is how to get the digital one into the hands of someone that has bought the paper version. Or, for those that buy the digital one, get the paper one at a discount.

    Here’s one answer. Put a Smashwords code in my POD book and when they get it they can download it once they receive the book. I’d like to “surprise” my customer with this aspect of getting it for FREE.

    But, how to reverse the process? Get them the digital one and ship them the paper one so they can start reading the digital one before the paper one arrives.

    Great discussion.


    • dwsmith says:

      Kevin, wow, what a great idea. That’s way, way cool, and a great added gift to your buyers. Nice. Don’t mind if I just five-finger lift that idea? (grin)

      Thanks!! Great idea.

  28. Kevin Cullis says:

    Dean, but you started it. :-)

    It’s those connections with other ideas that make the “big bang” of something new.

    If you take a look at my web site, and my book, you’ll see that I’m devoted to this aspect of anyone’s business. In fact, I have found that no matter what your “career,” whether a doctor, lawyer, graphic artist, writer, or a plumber, ALL of our education systems do NOT teach business. As I say, you learn the craft of your business (writing), but not the business of your craft (how to make more than a living, i.e. no starving artist here). Read a quick blog post about this

    and here.

    Dean, you’ve got me as a new fan. And for those writers that want to know what this means, you need 1000 fans. Read this article:

    Thanks Dean.

    • dwsmith says:

      Great stuff, Kevin. And I am a complete believer in the 1000 true fan concept. I’ve watched variations of that happen for decades now. And I used it at Pulphouse, building one fan, one bookstore at a time. It does work. And yes, you can make a living off that number in writing. Especially now that traditional publishing is out of the way.

      So thanks for the links. Great stuff.

  29. I love the idea, but I’m a tad worried about one thing.

    Smashwords makes its money from their commission on the sales of ebooks. If you’re selling ebooks OUTSIDE their system, but still using them to deliver the product, it feels to me as if you’re not playing fair with them.

    So, if I were to implement this, I’d use something else to deliver the ebook format. Even a password-locked web page on your site would work. And that’s so terribly simple to do.

    Of course, this means that you’d have to convert the files yourself, rather than just using Smashwords’ MeatGrinder, but again, that isn’t really a big problem.

    Other than that tiny caveat, this is a great idea.

    • dwsmith says:

      Marion, a valid worry and I have talked to Mark about it at Smashwords and actually, there are things afoot to help on this idea there. Besides, how this works is for every person a writer drives to Smashwords from a bookstore, that’s another customer for Smashwords who will then go on to buy more than just the book they bought in the store. So for Mark at Smashwords, we are helping him advertise in a way he could never do on his own. So win/win, which is why Mark is mulling over more ways he could help.

  30. Kevin Cullis says:

    AND, don’t forget doing a joint ventures with other authors in the bundling of books on a gift card. Same genre, etc.

    Or, hint, hint, Dean. Like my book with your book (think like a publisher). :-)

  31. This is a great article. We did something similar. We had book size postcards made, the front and back of our books, printed and then put sample chapters of the book on CD and then stapled them to the cover. We put these in goody bags and gave them away. The author was in attendance and signed lots of covers, which was great PR.

    We also had the full versions of the books on CDs and attached to covers for sale as well. Those who wanted electronic versions loved it because the CD came with 5 different epub formats, so we hit all bases. The total cost for the samples was about 30 cents a piece. The cost of the full version was the same and we recouped our costs when we sold the e bundles. Also, these take up less space at conferences, book events and author signings. Everyone gets what they want, an autographed cover for the e bundle, or an autographed paperback for those that want print books. We see it as a win, win for every one.

    Thanks for a great article.

    Sapphire Books publishing

  32. Colleen Lindsay says:

    I have always wondered why more publishers didn’t try this. Ironically, about three years ago at Book Expo America, Harper Collins DID try something similar. They printed up a series of cool 3×6 cards with a book cover on one side and book info and a code for a free download on the other side. They were doing this in lieu of giving away physical copies of the ARCs.

    I loved the idea, just as much as I love the idea that some smart publishers are distributing their galleys electronically through NetGalley. But, wow, what a shitstorm! They received so many complaints from people who wanted the physical copy of the ARC that they never tried doing this again. And I was always surprised that the same ones complaining about not getting a physical copy of an ARC were the same ones complaining about having to ship home all the books they picked up. Oh, the irony!

    • dwsmith says:

      Colleen, that was THREE YEARS ago. (grin) Wow, has this business changed in those three years. And I think more publishers will do this and shortly.

  33. Colleen Lindsay says:

    I hope so! It’s a great idea. =)

  34. Randirogue says:

    What about something like the Starbucks “download of the week”? It would be purely a promotional thing, if free, obviously. But, a free short story or if the author has a series, perhaps the first book free?

    Or even a free sample of a book, maybe more than what a reader would get from a sample on Kindle, etc. It could be some sort of separate upload. Or a book of samples? Pick of the week as the author, where the download is a “book” that has the first five chapters of several of the author’s books. Give a potential reader several options all in one place. If they like one, great, if they like them all… even better.

    Or why not try to get the gift cards themselves into Starbucks?

    How many writers and readers utilize Starbucks simply for sitting, snacking, writing and reading? I wonder if there would be a way for self-published authors to utilize (exploit) this aspect of Starbucks?

    eBooks seem like a perfect impulse-buy for Starbucks customers. As corporate as they may be, Starbucks seems to try to give the effect that they are supportive of artists. People already associate them with bookstores since they are in B&N. Though, I wonder if that partnership would impede it. Still, I bet it’d be worth trying to work something out.

    Hope my ideas are helpful, or spark more ideas. I’m a newbie, a novice, and obviously don’t know all the technical business difficulties or applications involved in such an endeavor. I imagine it would be immense.

    But, anyways… there’s my idea that was spawned by this great post.

    • dwsmith says:

      Randirogue, thanks for the comments and ideas. Getting things “officially” into Starbucks is like climbing into a shelf in a physical B&N. Possible, but tough to do and you have to be a good size corporation to even think about it.

      However, leaving cards on a counter as you leave would sure be possible. (grin)

  35. heteromeles says:

    @Alastair (back in the dim mists):

    “This puzzles me, assuming they can read paper books. I can see it with backlit computer or notepad screens, but ereaders like the Kindle with e-ink are very paper-like in their readability … and Kindle lets you adjust the font size. (It’ll also read aloud to you, if the publisher hasn’t disabled that feature for the given book.) The Kindle is massively popular among older readers for these very reasons.”

    Yes, this is the backlit screen issue. None of them own a dedicated reader, and none of them are considering buying one.

    There’s a currently an increasing segment of people who have read books for 50+ years, live on fixed incomes and want to read paper because it’s affordable and they know how to deal. Presumably we’ll eventually get them onto eReaders (assuming that none of the doomsayers are right about the fragility of either the electronics supply chain, Amazon’s cloud, or the problems with the power grid ). In the meantime, I think making a paper copy available is a good idea. If it can be cleanly linked to a card, so much the better.

  36. in case anyone is interested, I just set this up today: Lucky Bat Books is doing ebook cards. They are the size of a business card but with a punch out at horizontal top so they can hang on a hook or lanyard, thinner than a gift card, thick than a biz card. Front and back, full color. Variable codes (meaning each card has a differeent code). Price is $1.15 each for 500 for Lucky Bat Books authors, $1.25 for non-Lucky authors. For flat fee of $50 we will host. So the card holder can come to Lucky Bat, where there will be a page for the author. Data form completion – name, adress, email – will take the cardholder to a place to enter the card code. Entering code allows download of PDF, ePub or mobi file. All data captured for that author will be given to that author (so he or she can track where sales are coming from and to build a database). We decided not to go through Smashwords (as much as I love Smashwords) because they are doing no distribution and taking their cut out can help make pricing more palatable for author and bookstore. Price of books will be worked out between author and bookstores. No money after upfront costs will go to Lucky Bat. Other sizes can be accommodated at different rates. We are working with a local indie bookstore to try a test run of the process with a display of Lucky Bat authors. Whew! That’s all I’ve got now. Serendipity of this blog and one of our authors just happening to own a press specializing in this sort of thing means this all happened really quickly. Exciting!

    • dwsmith says:

      Cindie, wonderful!! Thanks.

      And folks, I can vouch for Lucky Bat Books. They do different things on a menu basis, no percentages. And the price per card is great. Thanks, Cindie.

  37. Dean,

    You never cease to amaze me.

    This is the most beautiful promotional idea for selling ebooks that I have ever seen/heard.

    I’m just laughing my ass off… this is so cool.

    Simple, cheep, easy and best of all it gives them (our customers) something physical to hold in their hand. Never underestimate the value of that. Being able to hold some physical “thing” in their hand is worth lots.

    It dramatically increases the perceived value of the thing that they are buying. Isn’t that why we bother to put a cover on the ebook in the first place. Yes, because it attracts interest and increases the perceived value, not to mention that it communicates something about what’s inside.

    Once again – my hats off to you.

    P.S. Used your ebook publishing advice and finished putting up my first book “Mirror Image” (a short SF novel) with Kindle, B&N and Smashwords this AM.

    Bit of a tussle, learned a lot. Will be much easier next, and next, and next time.

    These are indeed very exciting times!

    Write on…

    Richard A. McCullough

  38. William R. Warren, Jr. says:

    Terrific idea, Dean, I’m sure I’m not alone in appreciating your research AND your sharing the results! I need to read through all the responses (there’s a lot of activity here!) but am reminded of a quote by (I believe) Ben Franklin: “We shall all hang together, or we’ll all hang separately.” (Or words to that effect.)

    E-pub is new territory for us all, creative marketing is going to take on new importance since digital is the future of our respective art.

    Thank you for sharing your efforts and results! And love to you and Kris, it’s been WAY too long since we’ve seen each other — when was that, Radcon two years ago?

    PS — VERY impressive page! I need to buy the “Twilight Zone” anthology posthaste, somewhere Rod Serling is smiling over the fact that his legacy lives on. (Just as Gene is, I’m sure.)

    All the best, always,

    • dwsmith says:

      Hey, Bill, great hearing from you. And it’s been three Radcons I’m afraid. We didn’t make the last two for varied reasons, but we always have it on our schedule. Maybe next year.

      Thanks for the nice comments. Take care and keep working.


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