The Challenges of Selling Your Self-Published Book in the Real World

I wear two hats.  Well, three actually.  Via my literary agency, The Zack Company, I represent numerous authors of commercial fiction and nonfiction.  And via Author Coach, I offer editorial assistance, career advice, and coaching directly to authors who are trying to figure out how to make their book better or who want their book edited before self-publishing.  And via the Endpapers Press division of Author Coach, I am a publisher, overseeing and executing the publication of books in eBook and print-on-demand formats.

But no matter what hat I’m wearing, I often hear the constant refrain from authors, “I’m just going to self-publish it myself via Amazon.”  And therein lies many a problem.

Via CreateSpace, Amazon has done a fantastic job of creating an inexpensive (mostly free!) process of publishing your own book.  But it’s highly misleading.  Many authors think they can upload their Word file, choose a cover template and go from there.  But that makes for a very ugly book.  I would not want to read it because the actualexperience of reading that book would make me take me back to the days of 13″ black & white televisions.  Because that’s what so many of these self-published books feel like to me.  In a world filled with 3D HD 60″ televisions, many self-published authors are producing the equivalent of a 13″ black & white TV.

But let’s say you happen to be a graphic designer who also happens to be an author.  Chances are you can produce a good-looking book (the writing is another question).  But can you get people to buy it?

You see, Amazon doesn’t really do a lot to help authors sell their books—or perhaps market is the better term—and thus it is up to the author find buyers.  Additionally, most independent bookstores and Barnes & Noble won’t order books published by CreateSpace, since they see that as supporting the competition.  There is an option with Amazon that you can pay for that allows distribution via Ingram, but I don’t recommend it, since that will actually make you less money than distributing via Ingram yourself.

But there’s another problem there:  Recently I heard from an Ignition Books author that a local bookstore would not carry his book.  The bookstore owner complained that the discount was too low.  You see, while the publisher sells at a standard 48% discount to Ingram, Ingram is only passing along a 25% discount to booksellers and that’s not a high-enough discount for booksellers who need a decent profit margin.  Of course if the publisher increased the discount to Ingram, Ingram could increase the discount to booksellers, but then the book would actually make no money for the publisher or the author.

Print-on-Demand publishing is a wonderful thing.  It allows the printing of individual copies of works and ensures that one can always get a copy.  But it is fantastically expensive compared to traditional offset printing and the printing of thousands of copies at a time.  For example, a unit cost of $5 can be common.  And Lightning Source recommends a 55% discount on such titles.  But will readers pay $16.99 for a 272-page book?  Even though it is a trade-paperback?  I bet most readers would consider that high.

In the case under discussion, we priced the book at $14.99 and offered a 48% discount.  That means that Ingram pays $7.79 per copy.  From that, $5 has to be deducted for the printing costs, leaving $2.79 in earnings to be split between the publisher and author at their contractual terms.

Now consider that Ingram recommends a 55% discount.  That would mean $6.74 comes in, from which $5 is deducted for printing, and leaves $1.74 to the publisher and author.  So, the bookstore and the distributor actually make more money off every book sold than the author and publisher.

Of course, this is a fundamental problem of the publishing business in general.  When I worked in a bookstore in 1983, it was not uncommon to see a discount of 42% from publishers.  That meant that bookstores paid 58% of the retail price to the publisher.  But then discounting became rampant in the industry.  First it was best-sellers from the New York Times only and they were discounted 25%.  Okay, that’s 17% profit to the bookseller.  But then Barnes & Noble launched their superstores and started discounting every book in the store at least 10%.  Smaller bookstores couldn’t survive doing that and B&N became a larger and larger market for publishers . . . and able to demand larger and larger discounts.  Oh, and it stopped discounting every book in the store once the competition was gone.

And, of course, then came a lawsuit from the American Booksellers Association demanding that all bookstores get the same discounts as B&N.  And I think that was fair, but with B&N leading the way, sort of like a tractor trailer leads a line of smaller cars through a snowstorm, publishers found themselves giving up more and more of a book’s price in discount.

So how did publisher’s react?  By raising prices, of course!  Sure, the price of paper and printing and other elements played a role in the rising prices of books, but by far the greatest culprit was B&N and its demands for increased discounts.  At least in my humble opinion.

Amazon’s entry into the business and the growth of book sales at “big box” stores didn’t help, either.  Sure, consumers get “lower” prices through such outlets, but the reality is that the prices were marked up to start in order to accommodate the discounts given to the stores.

And where does all this leave the self-published author?  Well, primarily selling via Amazon,, and other online booksellers, which deal in such volume that they can afford to sell books on which they receive only a 25% discount from Ingram.  Or higher in the case of CreateSpace titles sold through Amazon.  Because your local bookseller likely isn’t going to be able to afford to stock the book if they order directly through Ingram.

That said, if you are publishing the book yourself, you may be able to do a deal with the bookseller directly (presuming the bookseller wants to get into that kind of arrangement).  For the one title I’ve been discussing, the bookseller said she would take copies on consignment from the author.  In other cases, the bookseller may be willing to buy two or five copies directly from the author so if the author is willing to order in bulk and cover the shipping, he can sell to the bookstore while still pocketing a few dollars.

But this turns the author into a salesperson, literally going from store to store with a box of books in his trunk.  For some authors, this could be a fun way to spread the word about his or her book.  For others, it’s exactly what they don’t want and why they need a more traditional publishing arrangement.

Regardless of your goals, though, Author Coach can serve your needs, from developmental editing to line editing to copyediting, from book cover design to interior layout and even publication*, we do it all.


*Not all books will be eligible for publication via Endpapers Press.  However, we can help any author self-publish via his or her own venture.

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Author Coach

Author Coach is far more than a place to find a book doctor or freelance editor. Your author coach is there to not simply edit, but to motivate, to brainstorm, to mentor, and to help keep you on track with your goals. Your coach may recommend reading for you to do.


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