So Many Indie Writers Don’t Understand the Value of a Single Paperback…

So as a topic of the night here on a Friday night when few people will likely read this, I’m going to see if I can explain a little.

And with luck, you will say, “I knew that.” But if you do understand the value, how have you acted on that knowledge?

An Example:

A couple days ago I walked into our north store and there on the counter was a stack of well-read books that Kris and I had written. All mass market paperback, all clearly read by more people than one. A bunch more.

We had signed a few of the books through the decades, most were not signed. They had just arrived at the store for trade. The person who brought them in didn’t know we owned the place. (I might be wrong on that.)

One of the books was my first published novel from Warner Questar Books called Laying the Music to Rest. It had been published in 1989 and never reprinted. So that well-read copy had floated around for 28 years. I would love to be able to trace the path of that book through the decades until it ended up in a store I just happened to own.

Josh priced the books and put them out on the shelves. So they could go off on new adventures and find new readers.


First thing I want you to notice is the 28 year timeline. Now I am very proud of being one of the survivors who is still publishing after 28 years. I sold my first short stories in 1974, so actually it’s been over forty-three years, but I am still going 28 years after my first novel came out. And that novel has now been reprinted and new readers can find it. What I really wanted to point out was for those of you who think if something doesn’t happen in a year or two, you are a failure. Nope.

You need to be looking at the scale of that book. 28 years and that book still has a long life ahead of it.

Second thing I want you to notice is that the book left one reader who bought it new a long time ago and the book clearly wound its way through other readers, used bookstores, library sales, yard sales, and so on, all the while giving a brand new reader a chance to find my work. It is now sitting, slightly dog-eared, clearly read and loved (which as a writer I love to see), waiting for a new reader to send it on its continuing journey.

28 years. Makes the Star Trek: Enterprise five year mission sound pretty tame, doesn’t it? How many more years does that copy of that book have? Not a clue.


Indie writers have one problem that has bothered me a great deal for some time now. That is the intense focus on only electronic books. And that was understandable (at first) since it took another skill level to get books into print form.

But now with Vellum, formatting a print book takes only minutes and very little skill. You have to still do your own covers, which is a skill that can be learned, but formatting has now gotten crazy easy for regular books. So that old excuse is gone.

I have heard writer after writer tell me over the last seven years they don’t do print because they don’t sell many. I nod, say nothing, and keep my thoughts to myself, which are not kind I must admit.

And of course, there are the indie writers who believe right down to their core that electronic books will completely take out paper books of all kinds, therefore they don’t need to do paper. I shake my head at that and refrain from asking the person when was the last time they saw Bigfoot climb aboard a spaceship. That belief is that silly.

However, it is another topic on how poorly traditional publishers have handled the transition and many of those major corps will drop away shortly. But paper books are not going anywhere anymore than Bigfoot will join you for breakfast.


I know that long-term thinking past the end of next year is damn near impossible for most indie writers. But for this post let’s pretend you can actually imagine yourself still writing and having fun and publishing in say 28 years.

Strain, but if you try hard, you can do it. (I was 39 years old 28 years ago.)

So you license electronic rights and what does the reader, your fan have? They can read your book, then the book will get lost on the device or deleted or the device will age out and you will have had one reader from that sale.

With luck that one reader will go on and buy more books from you because you have written a great read and have the contract information in the back and didn’t do something really stupid like annoy them by begging for a review in the back of your book.

Now nothing at all wrong with having a reader. Each reader is important. But the reader holds nothing. Nothing to remember you with.

Memory for readers is a critical aspect seldom talked about.

You sell a paperback of your novel to a reader. Same thing. If you have done your job, you hope they will buy more books from you.

But now this reader has this copy of a paper book and four years from now they are moving and donate your book (after looking at it again and checking online for your new books) and a few boxes of other books to a library sale. The memory of the book from four years earlier might get you more sales right then.

A new reader finds your book in the library sale, grabs it because you have a good cover and great active, sales-language blurb, and the same copy of your book gets read again.

And if you did your job right, that second purchaser will check online after reading your books and buy more.

And the book goes off to a used bookstore in a few years, and the book sits on the shelves for a few years until you find a third reader for that one book.

So you have gotten three fans from that one copy of a paperback in ten years. With luck you are still writing and having fun.

And over the next eighteen years, that one paperback sale you made might find you five or six more readers and fans.

I will tell you, it looked like about ten different people had read that first novel of mine in 28 years. I am hoping that even without good back matter, some of those people found my name and read more of my work.

Paperback as Artifact

A reader owns something of yours when they buy your paper book. They don’t own your words, but they own the physical copy of the book. And that has a few values to that reader.

One, it reminds them, when they touch it again, the feeling they got when they read your book. I have been told more than once that a reader dug out an old copy of one of my books, remembered they enjoyed it, and went to see if I had written more.

Second,  it gives the buyer of the book some value in trade in a used bookstore or a good sense of charity when they donate the book to a library.

So electronic, you make a sale. Done.

Paper, you make a sale and decades and decades can go by as that one paper copy continues to find you new fans.

This one simple concept of the value of a single copy of a paperback was shown to me so clearly the other day.

So imagine yourself still writing and selling in 28 years. Selling electronic books won’t hurt you right now, but they are very short-term things.

Focus on the paper. Focus on the long-term.

Just a suggestion for a Friday night.

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