The writer, Steve Perry, asked me a couple of good questions in the comments on the last article. I wanted to try to answer them up front here because I thought the questions, or the basic question, important.

The basic question (not exactly as Steve asked it) was this:

Is doing a paper book worth the effort?

My flat opinion is yes. So let me explain why I believe that.

How Much Money Can You Make?

In the series you can get to above called “Think Like a Publisher” I talked about how to sell trade paper books and get them into bookstores. (Some of that series is a little dated since I wrote it over a year ago, but I will be going back to fix it shortly.)

To be honest, I talked about trade paper being a long-term plan for most writers. But it really shouldn’t be. Early on indie publishers need to start working some of their books into print. Build a list and a backlist in paper as any publisher would do. So I will change that as well now.

Building a booklist will take time, sometimes years to build a decent publisher list of titles. And the sales will be very slow at first. But down the road, after those years, you will be very, very glad you got started early.

Steve asked about how trade paper books were doing for me and Kris at WMG Publishing. So let me give you a few facts in general and then some of WMG Publishing plans.

Fact: WMG Publishing only has eleven books in trade paper at the moment, and all of them were (in one form or another) experiments. We have three novels, two nonfiction books, four short collections, and two short novels. All but the long novels and one big nonfiction book are $7.99 cover. All are part of the extended distribution through CreateSpace.

Fact: WMG Publishing has 240 or so titles in print electronically. Short stories, collections, short novels, and novels.

Fact: WMG Publishing makes about 15% of its income from the eleven trade paperbacks. Without one ounce of promotion or push to bookstores yet.

A Prediction: Since the focus this year for WMG Publishing is getting more and more books into trade paper, WMG Publishing will be making far more money from trade paperbacks by the end of 2012 than from the books published electronically. And that I am sure will happen.

WMG Publishing should have upwards of 350 electronic titles in electronic print and between sixty and seventy trade paperback titles by the end of 2012. (Yes, those sixty books will make WMG Publishing more than all 350 electronic titles combined.)

We will be selling the trade paperbacks directly to indie bookstores through our own distribution and catalogs and to all stores through the extended distribution systems of Ingrams and Baker & Taylor. And that will take very, very little promotion time and energy.

And because we have a lot of titles, most of you will just say, “Oh, they can do that, but I can’t.”

And if you think that, you will be hurting yourself and your future income because eventually you also will have a lot of titles. And you will have been very, very shortsighted.

The Numbers Yet Again

We all know that at this point in time, electronic publishing is hovering around 20% of all books sold. Higher in some genres, lower in others, higher in some months, lower in others.

That means in general that 80% of all books sold are paper, through either online bookstores like Amazon or indie bookstores or box stores. (CreateSpace is owned by Amazon, so they push CreateSpace books on Amazon. Duh.)

Most indie publishers just ignore those 20/80 numbers and ignore that 80% of the reading and book-buying public. (Which is why I get crazy when people tell me over and over that they have decided to go exclusively with Kindle, which has only a (mostly American) fraction of 20% of the total market. Just not good business to cut out that much of the world and your possible market and readers in my opinion.)

I tend to believe in trying to get WMG Publishing books to all readers around the world in all formats.

Will the percentages of electronic sales vs paper sales industry-wide change this year and next and next? Of course. More than likely in five years it will be around 50/50. Or maybe 40/60, with 40% being electronic. That’s what most experts are saying and I see no reason to disagree at this point. Electronic editions (as a delivery device of books to readers) are here to stay. But so are paper editions. For at least my lifetime and beyond.

Problems with Trade Paper Production

Compared to the craziness that traditional publishers do to produce a trade paperback, indie publishers have it very simple.

However, that said, producing a trade paper is slightly more difficult than producing an electronic version of the same book. There is a different set of learning curves new indie publishers must go through.

Some of the basic skills a new indie publisher must either learn or hire to produce a trade paper edition are these:

— Covers are wrap around, thus dealing with spine and back cover copy and design is critical.

— Interior book design has elements that electronic books do not have, such as running headers, drop caps, gutters, and the like. A simple subscription to the tutorials for a month on Lynda.com can help with a lot of that. And studying and imitating the style of a book design you like.

— It costs $25.00 and the price of a few test proofs to get your book launched compared to no costs for electronic books.

All that is scary, yes. Until you do it a few times and then you wonder what you were scared about. Those of you who have done a number of electronic books know that feeling. You do a few and you wonder why you thought it was so hard.

Of course, the prep of the manuscript up to the point of book design is exactly the same as for an electronic book.

And depending on the layout program you are using, it can be free or cost money to buy the program to get started. Lots of comment sections in previous posts have talked about all the different programs that people use for the different tasks.

Decisions of a Trade Paper Publisher

First off, you have to compare the different print-on-demand (POD) services out there. CreateSpace is the best and cheapest by far. And they are owned by Amazon so it’s a nice connection there, and their extended distribution system works just fine. They only do trade paper, however, so if you want a hardback, you have to make other choices at that point.

LightningSouce is second best, owned by Ingram Distribution, but caution on the upfront costs.

Lulu is an old company and lagging way behind the other two, with difficult distribution problems for your books. Most writers ignore or move from Lulu.

Extreme caution on trying to use any other service at this point. Buyer beware.

Pricing of the book is also a tough decision. The indie publisher must have a plan on how they will distribute their books as the years go by. If the goal is to just do the book and let it sit on CreateSpace, then just use the pricing calculator on CreateSpace to get a buck on the extended distribution system. And set your price at that. You can always change it later, remember.

But if your goal is to sometime down the road have enough books to distribute to bookstores in a catalog like any other publisher, then go ahead and figure your discounts. A great discount to an indie bookstore is 45% plus free shipping for ten or more books bought. That beats out Ingrams and B&N discounting.

An example: Novel priced at $17.99 retail. Your publisher copies cost about $6.00. You are giving a bookstore 45% discount. About $1.00 shipping cost per book (with an order of ten, otherwise store pays shipping).  You get $9.90 per book from the bookstore. Your total costs are $7.00. You make $2.90 per book profit, or about 16% profit. You never touch the books. You simply order them and change the delivery address at CreateSpace and they ship them directly to the bookstore. (Again, I talk about this in Think Like a Publisher.)

But in setting that price, there are factors. Book length and trim size are two major factors. Again, you will need to study books you like in design and take a tape measure and figure out their trim sizes and then run them through that calculator on CreateSpace. Price the book correctly for the size and page count and your future discounts. Do not undercut yourself. And sometimes that size can be changed fairly dramatically in book design, but you must balance readability in the equation at that point.

Again, many factors. All very learnable with a little trial and error and practice.

My Suggestion of How to Start Building a Book List

Step One: When you finish a book and have it read by others, format it and put it up on electronic publishing first. (Down the road you will work toward getting the book into all forms at the same time, but to start, just do it this way.)

Step Two: Start working on the next book.

Step Three: While writing, on breaks or for an hour or two that is extra, format your book for trade paper. Start the learning curve and take notes as you go so you can remember. Do the cover, the back cover copy, and so on. Eventually, get the book launched on CreateSpace.

Step Four: Forget the book is there, just let it sell what it will sell. At some point tell Amazon to link the paper and the electronic edition, but that’s it. Order a few copies, tell people on your web site it’s available, and give a copy to your mother. Otherwise just forget it.

Step Five: Repeat when book two is finished, including starting to write book three.

Eventually, if you have a few collections or novellas, put them into trade paper form as well. Just let the list of titles you have available in paper grow and the sales be what they will be. Then, at some point, you will have enough books to have your publishing company do a catalog and give to some booksellers.

Read my “Think Like a Publisher” blogs under the tag above if you have twenty or more books in trade paper to learn how to do some of what comes at that point.

The Bottom Line For Me

I flat hate any kind of publishing that cuts out readers. It really is that simple, so when Kris and I helped start WMG Publishing and they took over all our backlist, the focus was to get our books out to all readers. Of course, the readers may or may not buy them, their choice. But we will have them available in as many forms as possible.

Secondly, I get very, very puzzled (considering the new and very easy technology of POD publishing) that any publisher would only go electronic, especially with the well-researched data of number of paper books sold vs electronic books sold. (You remember…20/80?) No matter how anyone fudges the numbers right now, paper is still way out ahead of electronic books and will be for years.

If you are going to have a publishing business with your own work, think like a publisher. Go after every reader you can find in any country. But the only way to do that is have paper copies of your books available.

Will the paper books sell at first, or even sell many copies in the first year? Not likely unless you get lucky.

You ought to have seen Kris and I celebrate when an extended distribution sale came in for ten copies of a novel. We made about $12.00 on those ten copies, but it was as if we had hit the lottery. Why? Because we knew what it meant. We really had hit the lottery. Bookstores were finding the books and ordering in bulk. Or a warehouse was stocking the book for future orders. And we hadn’t even mentioned anywhere the book was available.

It really meant that the new system worked, that the traditional publishing stranglehold on print books really was vanishing. It meant that any of us could get in the door simply by paying $25.00 to CreateSpace and getting our book into print.

For those of us who fought the old system, who fought traditional publishing for decades to get our books to readers, that simple ten-copy sale meant everything. We really had hit the lottery. And now, as we put up more and more of our backlist and also some frontlist books as well, the payoff for hitting that lottery is starting to come in. Sometimes one copy at a time, sometimes ten or seventy-five or more copies at a time.

Steve, is doing POD books worth it? Oh, heavens YES!!

But that is just my my opinion. And as each month more and more money flows in from sales of paper books to WMG Publishing, my opinion gets firmer and firmer.

And besides, it’s great fun to hold the paper book.

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Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime
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