Question Time: Part 2

Posted on December 18, 2010 (Subscribe to Blog)

This weekend I'm going to print my NaNoWriMo book, just as a first draft and for the purposes of swapping reads with a fellow author. More on that in another post in a day or two, but for now...

Back in September (that long ago already!) I answered a few commonly-asked questions about Island of Fog and its sequels, in a post aptly named Question Time: Part 1. Quite often I'm asked about the process of self-publishing, too, and another such email this morning reminded me that I'm due for Question Time: Part 2.

Q. Do you use Createspace to print your novels?

I did originally. Their prices are impossible to beat and the service is fast. I printed Island of Fog "just to see what it was like," and ended up self-publishing with them for the next year and a half, during which time the second book came along. But before I published the third, I started to have second thoughts. CreateSpace's printing quality seemed to be going down the pan. I rejected 50% of the books I was receiving, and also rejected 50% of the replacement books, and so on... and to be honest, I wasn't completely happy with ANY of them. They all suffered from the same scratch marks on the back, the same coating of dust, the same ugly orange glue and random off-square binding. In the end I made the move to Lightning Source. I could have chosen Lulu, but they're too expensive. Lightning Source (or LSi) is about the same cost-per-book, and I heard that their quality is superb. The sign-up process is long, and the setup costs are $70 per book, and revisions to either the cover or text are $40... but once you get your books up and running, it's a good price and the quality, so far, has been excellent.

My advice for those starting out would be to try CreateSpace or Lulu, but to avoid using their supplied ISBNs. Instead, buy your own block of ten from Bowker. That way, if you move to another printing service, then you can take the ISBN with you and replace your book on Amazon rather than add another edition alongside. Even though I retired Island of Fog and Labyrinth of Fire from CreateSpace, they still show on Amazon because of Amazon's "we always like to show out-of-print books as well" policy. This wouldn't have been a problem if I had used author-owned ISBNs from the start.

By the way, even though CreateSpace is owned by Amazon, my books never appeared "properly" as ready-to-buy products on Amazon UK. Yet when I moved to Lightning Source they showed immediately. LSi have a MUCH better distribution program.

Q. What have you done to market your book?

Probably not half as much as I should have. I keep hoping that one day I'll find a traditional publisher (via my agent). In the meantime I do most of my promoting on this blog/website, and locally via schools and libraries. I've probably sold more through schools and libraries than online. I have my books available as electronic Kindle editions as well.

Another author I know is a genius with marketing. Somehow she's got her Kindle editions to the top of the lists on Amazon, competing alongside bestsellers like The Time Traveler's Wife. The author said she spends "an inordinate amount of time on Kindle store forums and other such websites," meaning she works really, really hard at plugging her work.

Q. How can you offer $5.95 shipping for international?

It's a number-crunching exercise. I tend to buy in quantities of 50 books, and Island of Fog costs me $4.34 to produce (including shipping). I sell it for $11.95, leaving $7.61 profit. It costs me $10.76 to ship a single book via first class international mail, but I only charge customers $5.95, so the difference eats into my profit, leaving me with about $2.80. Not much, but still more than I'd get with a royalty when selling on Amazon.

Now look at what happens when I sell two books abroad: Sale price is $23.90, plus the $5.95 shipping, totaling $29.85. Taking away the manufacture cost ($8.68) and the combined flat-rate shipping cost via priority mail ($13.45) leaves me with $7.72 – quite a bit more than I would get from two sales on Amazon.

With three books, the sale is $35.85, shipping is $5.95, so the total is $41.80 – take away $13.02 manufacture cost and the flat-rate $13.45 shipping and I'm left with $15.33.

If I sell more than than three books abroad, I can no longer use the flat-rate international envelope, so I would have to use a box or a custom package... but by this time my profit has risen enough that I can afford a little extra on shipping.

So I don't get rich off these books, no sirree! You could even say, "Ah, but what about the cost of packaging materials?" but the only time I use packaging materials when sending abroad is when someone buys ONE book; it's cheaper to send it first class than to send it priority flat-rate mail. With two books and more, I use the post office-supplied flat-rate envelopes.

I used to charge $9.95 shipping, but it was almost the cost of the book itself and customers naturally balked. Since lowering the shipping, sales picked up... so I've probably made more in profit than I would have otherwise. In the meantime, I charge $3.95 for domestic shipping and this is typically slightly more than I actually pay using media mail, even when sending three books. So, domestically, my profit is much better. Of course, nothing beats selling books locally and hand-delivering them!

But all this boils down to one thing: If you're in the business of making a ton of money from your books, then don't bother. I make enough that everything I do pays for the next step (buying more books, etc), but I certainly don't make a second income from it.

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