June 15, 2011

Print on Demand Publishing, part 3

This is the third in a series of blog posts about Print-on-Demand (POD) publishing. These posts are designed to give editors an overview of the process and suggest places an editor might be able to offer ancillary services to authors. It is based on my experiences as a self-published author, teacher, and editor. In this post, I look at the actual printing process, with an emphasis on my experience publishing my book Slow Time.

Choosing the Right POD Publisher
Authors can approach a POD publisher either as an author or as a publisher. The smaller POD publishers, like Lulu and CreateSpace, are designed to be used by authors who are publishing a single book. These publishers provide many services, including editing, design, ISBNs, distribution, promotion, and financial record-keeping.

A bigger POD publisher, like Lightning Source, will work only with publishers, but any “author” can become a “publisher” (and this is recommended if an author plans to publish more than one book). Author/publishers who work with this type of POD publisher will need to either hire or perform most of the tasks listed above themselves.

This is a place where an editor might be able to offer services in addition to editing, for instance, referring an author to a designer, formatting a manuscript for publication, indexing a book, or registering a book with the Copyright office. An editor could also help obtain an ISBN, an LCCN (helps identify the book for library sales), and permissions (for any quoted material).

With most POD publishers, the initial cost to submit a book is low. In fact, it looks like both Lulu and CreateSpace are still free. Lightning Source, on the other hand, charges about $75 to set up a new title.

When I published Friday Mornings Writing, an anthology created by my writing group, with CreateSpace, my first expense was $15 for the proof copy. The POD publisher sends the proof copy to the publishing author for another round of proofreading. (Another place a professional would be useful.) Several rounds of this proofing may be needed, with the author paying for an updated proof copy each time.

Authors should explore all the options a POD publisher offers, though, and editors who provide research and project management services can help. A little more research at CreateSpace reveals that an author has to enroll in their $40 ProPlan to get the book distributed outside of Amazon.com.

It’s also important for authors to understand the implications of purchasing a book’s ISBN from the POD publisher versus purchasing it themselves. The ISBN I bought from Lulu for my first book, Slow Time, is registered under my imprint (Priestess of Swords Press). However, that ISBN is part of a batch of ISBNs provided by Lulu. Even though Lulu is not registered as the publisher, the ISBN marks my book as a single book published by one publisher. This is a signal, to anyone who knows the code (such as booksellers), that my book is self-published.

Does that matter? It might if an author is trying to get a book into bookstores and libraries, but that’s so difficult for self-publishers that it might not be relevant. A single-title ISBN is certainly not going to prevent an author from selling the book via a website or through Amazon.

Setting the Price
All of the POD publishers will provide a price quote for the cost of printing the book—based on the size of the book, the number of pages, and the quality of the paper. Some companies are more expensive than others, but not by much. It’s up to the author to decide what to ask for the book as a retail price.

Here’s a real world example based on my Slow Time book. First I researched the price of comparable books, and in this case, I found two: In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honore is listed at $14.99, and Slow is Beautiful by Cecile Andrews is listed at $16.95. So let’s start with $15 as a price. Bookstores want a discount of between 35% and 45% off the retail price, so assuming a 55% discount will make the book attractive to distributors (who sell to bookstores). Now I calculate the price a bookstore would pay for it: about $6.75. I would then go to Lightning Source and get a quote on the cost of producing the book. It looks like it would cost me $0.90 per unit, plus 0.013 cents per page. I have 192 pages in my book, so it would cost $3.40 to produce. That’s good—I could sell the book for $3.35 more than it costs me. But, I also should include the cost of postage, let’s say $1.25 a book (just a guess). This still means I would make about $2 a book sold at bookstores, which seems reasonable.

Aaron Shepard in his book Aiming at Amazon offers advice about how to price a book to sell it on Amazon.com. The ideal is to set a price that is slightly under the cost of similar books, after the Amazon discount (which varies). For this reason, he recommends not printing the price of the book on the cover or embedding it in the bar code. These things hinder the author’s ability to change the price based on changing discounts. In this way, an author can adjust to the changing market, for instance, starting out at a low price to attract readers, and then raising the price once the book is established.

Lightning Source allows authors to offer a short discount (20%), which means an author will make more per book. If I price my book at $15, I could make $12 per book. But if I want to sell my book to bookstores, I would still have to offer the higher discount of 55%.

Some authors get around this problem by using Lightning Source for all books sold through Amazon and ordering author copies through CreateSpace for direct sales. One author I know was ready to print with CreateSpace until she found out that bookstores would not order her book from them. (CreateSpace does offer distribution to bookstores, but it’s complicated, as Aaron Shepard explains in a recent post on his informative blog on self-publishing.)

When pricing my Slow Time book, which I published with Lulu, I made the mistake of not considering shipping costs. I set the retail price at $19.95. Lulu sells the books to me at $8.34 (less if I order in bulk). But I also pay for the shipping from Lulu to me. And since I created my own account as a publisher with Amazon (using their Advantage program), I pay for shipping to them. Amazon pays me $8.38 per book. So I lose money on every book I sell through Amazon. Very disappointing. Which is why I am switching to Lightning Source, which will ship my book directly to Amazon. (So would CreateSpace.) If I had done more research, I could have signed up for a different distribution contract with Lulu, which might have cost me more in the beginning but saved me money in the long run. Unfortunately, I no longer have that option.

If you think this sounds complicated, pity the poor author who wants to get his or her book out into the world. This is where an editor can come in handy, especially if you like to do research or crunch numbers. You might offer to investigate various options and spell them out so the author can make an informed choice.

POD publishing is changing rapidly, but it’s also extremely flexible, unlike traditional publishing where books are printed in bulk and shipped to warehouses. So if an author makes a mistake (like I did with the pricing for Slow Time) or finds a mistake on a page in the book, it’s easy to fix. Just like blogging. I hope that if I’ve said something incorrectly or less than accurate in this post, you will let me know in a comment, and I can fix it immediately.

My next post about POD publishing will discuss bookstore sales and other financial matters that self-publishers need to consider.

—Waverly Fitzgerald

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