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Handy hint #1 – the lighter side of self-publishing or…

May 6, 2010

Self publishing 101: Economics

So, after refusing to accept rejection – or, rather, ‘…getting fed up of waiting for an agent to pick up my work with anything more than a resigned shrug and the comment “what’s this?” to his assistant, late on a Friday evening with a whole weekend of socialising ahead of him/her, and no real interest in reading yet another synopsis’, I ventured into the realm of self-publishing. After all, I was an entrepreneur, I knew about business and I knew what was meant by marketing, sales and, above all, about producing a quality product. How difficult could it be?

The simple idea to make money out of any product is to produce it at a price and quality which will allow you to compete in a market of similar products, either offering some measure of quality or price differential (or both) to make your product more attractive than the competition. This takes as a given that there is a market that desires such products.

Simples!

Well, we all like books. And despite the doom merchants and e-publishing disciples, books have a market. People buy them, and will continue to do so. You just have to pitch your book to them with a quality and at a price they are willing to pay. Simple.

OK. So we have a story, we have edited the hell out of it, designed a great cover, type set it so that it is an attractive interior. In fact, it looks just like a book should look. Well, we have hundreds of thousands of examples before us. If we hold our book up to them how does it compare? Does it blend in with the others, or does it stick out? If it sticks out, it sticks out for a reason – and that might not be a good one!

To my mind, people have expectations about what a novel looks like. (We are talking fiction here, not non-fiction.) The differences between one novel and another should be in the cover design, the title, and the blurb on the cover – in all other respects, the book should be identical in quality. The paper should not be lighter, or darker, or thinner; the dimensions should not be shorter, narrower, taller or wider – these are not valid product differentiators.

I love a challenge!

Your challenge, as a self publishing author, is to produce a book of identical quality to your competition. Your problem is one of economics. Not of writing quality. I mean, have you seen some of the books that have been published by main stream publishers – shocking! (But that’s another topic for a blog post.)

Still, where was I? Ah, yes, the problem of economics. If you have got the quality right, then the only other issue is production cost. You cannot sell a book at a greater price than the competition. If the standard price of a paperback novel is x dollars, then you need to list yours at x dollars. If a book seller needs a discount of y% then you need to offer y%. This is where the true problem in self-publishing lies. Because of production scales, it is impossible to produce a book at as lower cost as the competition. And this is where self-publishers start to cut corners and try to get their books out.

In the UK, we can use publishing services like Lulu, Createspace, and Lightning Source – these all offer packaged print/publishing services that, through their own economies of scale and POD, offer the budding self-publisher an easy option. I looked into these services myself. But there are problems. To get the costs to a reasonable level for the self-publisher, the paper tends to be whiter than white, the covers tend to be softer than soft, and – hold your freshly printed book against any mainstream book – it is either taller or shorter or wider or narrower than a standard paperback book in the shop (at least here in the UK). What we have is a product that stands out as ‘not being quite right’, before we even start to look at its design and words. It just doesn’t quite look how we expect the book to look – does it?

But now, we have taken these comments on board, and we have sourced a printer who can actually print a quality book – one that can rank alongside the others we are competing against. And we have managed to negotiate a print prince per copy that at least provides us with scope to offer a book seller a decent margin, without having to order so many copies that we will be forced to give over the entire family den to book storage requirements. What now?

There is an interesting fact about postage. Here in the UK we have physical limits which apply to the thickness of a letter as opposed to the thickness of a package. When I put a copy of my book into the post, in response to a sale from my web site or from Amazon, I put it carefully into a padded envelope to ensure that it arrives at my happy purchaser’s mail box in good condition. My book is about 30 pages too big to be classed as a letter. It effectively doubles the postage rate and kills my profit margin!

A weighty tome

Is there a point to this lesson. Yes. If you are ever to consider self-publishing, consider it from an early stage in your book project. If you set out to write, and write a darn good yarn that stretches to a JK Rowling-size tome of many hundreds of pages – you will have a problem. The economics will just never add up to a business proposition. The print costs alone will make sure you cannot compete in the market place. And try posting a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – all 832 pages of it. Forget it.

My own book makes a profit when I sell it from my web site, from my Amazon market place account or if I offer independent book sellers the standard commercial discount. However, if I sell it through wholesale, or post it overseas, or if I wanted to consider Amazon fulfilment services, then I would pay for it to be sold. Because I cannot get the price lower; because I cannot post it for less; because there are 30 pages too many!

Would my readers really be bothered if there were 30 pages fewer in the book? I think not. If the quality of the story holds, if the quality of the product meets expectation, there will be a market for it. How many good novels are there out there, that are under 300 pages?

So, my handy hint #1? If you are considering self-publishing (certainly here in the UK) make sure you keep your page count down to no more than about 300! At least until you are famous.

Happy writing! 🙂

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2010 9:59 am

    Excellent post. I sometimes forget that this is a blog, it was so thought out and informative.

    I’ve considered self-publishing, but what did me in was the technical stuff of getting it published. I’d never really considered the economics of getting it to market.

    And, yes, I think I burst way past the 300-page mark on one of my novels.

    Keep up the good work across the Pond.

    P.S.: We have LuLu and CreateSpace here in America. I’m not exactly enthused with either one, but, especially, with CreateSpace.

  2. May 6, 2010 3:26 pm

    Hi, Greg, thanks for the comment!

    I really think an appreciation of economics is essential – it even helps us to understand why an Agent might reject, reject, reject.

    The decision to publish is the same, economically, whether it is for the mainstream publisher, the small indie press, or the go-it-alone author.

    Unless any one has the cash to publish and be damned, then it all boils down to an economic risk – can I make this sucker pay for itself and my mortgage!

    🙂

  3. May 7, 2010 8:12 am

    Very informative post, David. I take it the UK doesn’t offer something called a “media mail” rate? We have it here and it’s good for books and reading materials only. Very reduced rate and sometimes a slightly slower delivery schedule. But all of my delays in mailing my MS out to people were my own fault – not the post office’s.

    Either I messed up on an address, didn’t do the correct postage, or mailed a batch out only to have more requests for the copies waiting for me in my P.O. box. Oh wait – do I mention the fact that people wrote the checks out to a fictitious pen name and I can’t cash them?

  4. June 16, 2010 8:11 am

    Wow. Good to see a post about the practical considerations of self-publishing. Thanks for sharing.

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  1. Long live the book… A view on the publishing industry « Wicked Writers

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