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As a relatively successful self-published author but still learning the ropes, I thought I’d share some of my experience with selling books as it seems to be an area with a lot of questions from would-be authors as well as those authors who have a book or books ready to market but who are new to the book selling game.
Normally at this time of year I would be busy hitting five or six of the major Christmas markets here on southern Vancouver Island, hand selling between 400-500 books over the course of several weekends, speaking with readers and spreading the word.
My efforts would pull in between $8000-$10000, enough to pay market registration fees and bankroll most of my writing year, including a good chunk of the cash I’d need for the publication of the next book in my Dyed In The Green fiction series about Canada’s national parks.
Last year I even ventured as far afield as Calgary to take part in one of the Signature Series shows held at the BMO Centre on the Calgary Stampede grounds. I was planning to do that again this year and possibly hit some of the other Signature shows, but as we all know, the world, including the book world, has changed since then, with every market closed and in some cases pivoting to online markets.
Unsure of which way to turn this year, I also decided to pivot, turning my focus away from the Dyed In The Green series … you see, the fifth book is set in Africa and while I was making contacts there with the hope of travelling to Kenya and Tanzania to get in the right head space to write the story, Covid-19 had other plans.
Instead I pushed ahead with Harking, a work of young-adult fiction I’d been toying with for a while.
My distributor suggested 2020 might not be a good year to release a new book given all the uncertainties but when I queried several of the bookstores I deal with to see how their business was doing, I got a mixed bag of responses ranging from “we’re closed” to “we’ve never been busier”.
So, I decided to go for it.
From Day One, I’ve been my own marketing manager, individually contacting hundreds of stores from coast to coast to coast.
I’ve met and talked to some great people, primarily bookstore owners and their staff, as well as consignment staff and sales reps with Coles/Chapters/Indigo.
Based on my experience, where they exist, independent bookstores are my go-to market. I can’t say enough about how well they’ve treated me.
As an example, one bookstore owner I dealt with in Cape Breton initially refused to take any money for the books he sold. He just wanted to give my first book, Dyed In the Green, a try and see if he could sell any … he typically sold used books for less than my $19.99 suggested retail price and wasn’t sure his customers would pay full price. But when he sold the first ten (Dyed In The Green is set in Cape Breton) and offered to take more, I told him only if he would take the same 40% cut other bookstores were taking … which he never really agreed to.
We eventually landed on 25%!
Obviously, it wasn’t the same story with every independent bookstore but they were all taking a risk when they took me on, so they’ve more than earned the top spot on my short list of places to sell my books.
Next is Indigo.
As I worked the phones and email, every consignment person I dealt with at Coles and Chapters stores across the country treated me much the same as independent bookstores treated me. And as I expanded and eventually got a vendor’s account with the mother ship (Indigo), their regional rep has been equally helpful and encouraging.
Now, almost every week, I get a small order from Indigo and my books are making it into communities where there simply isn’t an independent bookstore anymore and the smaller Coles stores fill the bill. Indigo also gets my books into Chapters and Indigo Spirit stores in larger centres.
In most cases, with independent bookstores and with Indigo’s Distributon Centres, I pay for shipping, either directly myself or through my distributor’s fees.
And if my distributor isn’t dealing with an order, I’ll often also ship books from home or from my printer, Friesens, using their fulfillment system to get books to stores and distribution centres.
Shipping is a major cost, probably the next most expensive aspect of self-publishing to actually producing and printing your books.
And the only way I’ve found to reduce shipping/mailing costs is to be aware of Canada Post’s thresholds between regular mail and parcel rates (Hint … if you can keep your book and mailer under 500grams and less than ¾ inch thick … I know I’m mixing metric and Imperial systems here … the regular mail rate will save you at least 50-60% off the small parcel rate!) I’m able to ship Harking at the regular mail rate of between $5-$6 but my other books usually cost me roughly $14 for a single book (obviously I do better with multi-book orders!).
I wish I could say selling from my website was the first, second or even third best venue to sell my books but despite having good success earlier in my writing career (that’s only 6 years ago) I don’t sell as many books from my website anymore.
So that leaves me with Amazon in the third place on my list.
I am frequently surprised to see my books sold on Amazon to/from an address that has an independent bookstore.
I implore people to buy from independent bookstores if there’s one in their community or even close by so I haven’t figured this out, but perhaps it’s the case of someone buying a book and having it shipped (often for free), to a friend or relative in a community with no bookstore … I don’t know.
So why sell with Amazon in the first place?
First and foremost for me, it’s a way to get my books into the USA. I don’t have a distributor stateside and my Canadian distributor says it’s not worth their while to ship to the US.
And I use Amazon in Canada to get my books to places without either an independent or Indigo-owned store.
I started by sending only 3 copies of each of my books to Amazon, hardly worth my while financially, then increased to 5 copies and now 10. It essentially costs me $3 per book to ship books to Amazon’s Canadian or US fulfillment centres. Once they take off their fees, I usually make between $6-$7 per book sold. It barely covers my book production costs but my main objective is to get my books into as many reader’s hands as possible, and so it goes.
One thing I have run into with Amazon that I haven’t had to deal with elsewhere is lost shipments. I don’t know why this happens (it never has when I send my books to Indigo’s distribution centres) but when it does, having to deal within Amazon’s system for reconciling shipments is both frustrating and time-consuming. Admittedly it’s an infrequent occurrence, but when you’re trying to replenish inventory and get your books to readers, knowing they’re not available is a drag. And being unable to deal with a real person right from the start doesn’t help.
Unfortunately, despite my and other’s pleas, people choose Amazon over other options, I guess because it’s easy and shipping is often free.
But it’s killing independent bookstores (and possibly Indigo? I hope I’m wrong)
In summary, we all want people reading our books and we all want to make enough money to at least cover production costs. I routinely donate books to our local libraries including little free libraries and with each new book I give away 100 or more.
But if you want to keep your head above water, financially, to support this crazy addiction we have called writing, you have to make some money.
Or so I’m told!
If there’s an independent bookstore in your community or one close by, I’d encourage you to try selling your books to them first. If there’s not, and there’s a Coles or Chapters/Indigo, then your choice is obvious. If there is an independent as well as an Indigo-owned store, it only makes sense to try and sell your book at both because each is likely to have their own dedicated customers.
Ideally your own website should be high on your list but if none of the above are working for you, Amazon, for me is a last resort.
Shipping costs included, you’ll make roughly $9 on a $20 book from an independent (if you can drop them off at a local store yourself you’ll make $12), you’ll make $7-8 from Indigo, and $6-7 from Amazon (if they don’t lose them!).
Obviously volume matters.
If you hit a home run and have a best seller, you probably won’t need to worry about any of this.
But if you’re like me and trying to keep your head above water financially with each book, selling at major markets is probably the best way to top up your bank account followed by independents, Indigo, and Amazon (in that order).
Any yes, ebooks are whole other story (maybe there’ll be more on that in a future post), but I like the look and feel of physical books and in my experience, I sell five to ten times more physical books than I do ebooks.
Partly that has to do with my willingness to get out there, speak with readers, and encourage them to read my stories. Word of mouth advertising has proven to me to be the best way to spread the word, and I enjoy the process.
I hope this helps some of you as you fulfill your own writing dreams and help spread the word about your own stories.
Good luck! It’s worth it.Follow write_nature
My Self-Publishing Experience
Recently I’ve been responding to various people’s questions on Canada Writes about the journey I’ve been on as a self-published author, trying to offer advice or at least tell fellow writers what’s worked or not worked for me.
So today I decided to dig into this a little more and give writers and prospective authors more of a taste of my self-publishing experience. I hope it helps clarify things for those who might be considering their path forward or pondering their options.
So why did I self-publish?
To start with, I’m an impatient guy and not really keen on waiting up to six months for a publisher to tell me they like my writing, but it doesn’t really fit with their program or they only publish so many books in the genre I’m writing. And if you haven’t done multiple submissions then you might have another six month wait as you submit to another publisher, and so on and so on. Or you never hear back at all, which happens all too frequently.
Plus I wrote my first book almost 20 years ago and let it sit for 15 years while family and life responsibilities ruled the day, so when the time came to try and get it published, I wasn’t keen on waiting years longer.
So, with some trepidation, I began exploring self-publishing as an option. I took a short course from a local author who’d had some success self-publishing and was pleasantly surprised by her candid answers to questions. There were probably 30 of us in the class but she had no hesitation in saying maybe 2 of the 30 would be able to sell more than 100 books if they went down the self-publishing path. It was a reality check I think we all needed to hear, but I was undeterred, determined to get my book out there and let readers ultimately decide if I would survive as an author or not.
After the course I continued to research the do’s and don’ts of self-publishing and yes, I did submit my manuscript to a few traditional publishers (Lesson Number One … don’t have just one iron in the fire … explore various paths … not unlike with writing … often times our stories take twists and turns we never could have imagined and the ending is often quite different than the one we’d planned on). If a traditional publisher had bit, I would probably be in a different headspace right now, but at the time they didn’t (at least one did later … I get into that in a future post) so I continued to explore my options.
Almost immediately I wrote off the idea of using a “vanity press” to get my book published because quite frankly I felt I was being sold a bill of goods. The “package deals” sounded almost too good to be true and once I dug into the fine print I felt they were. That’s not to say there aren’t good vanity presses out there. There probably are. I just wasn’t interested.
But if you don’t buy a “package” what other options are there to get your book out.
For me, it all starts with story. I felt I had a good one to tell but I needed an objective outside opinion from someone other than friends or family, someone who wouldn’t worry about crushing my dreams, and for me, that was about finding the right editor.
To do that, I attended another afternoon workshop on editing and was directed to PEAVI, the Professional Editors Association Of Vancouver Island. Essentially with PEAVI, you query their database of editors … in my case I was looking for someone to edit what I considered a mystery-suspense manuscript of approximately 100,000 words. I came up with three names that fit the bill and sent each an email with more detail, specifying what I was looking for and the timeline I was looking at.
I received 3 responses (quotes essentially) and chose what I felt was the best one, which wasn’t necessarily the lowest bid. My editor and I came to a quick agreement on what I’d get for the money I was going to spend and how long it would take. At this stage I chose not to rush things, as I wanted quality over expediency.
Long story short, my editor did a first edit and after I dealt with her feedback (edits plus substantive feedback on the storyline, etc) she did a final edit. All told, editing cost me $1500. That was the first time I’d spent any significant amount of money on my writing and I honestly didn’t know how much editing should cost. But speaking with the editor felt right and sometimes you just have to go with your gut. In the end, I felt I probably got more than I paid for and I guess the fact that we’re still working together is testament to a good situation.
With my first book, because I was new to the game, I also hired a proofreader before submitting my book to a layout person/book designer. Although she found few errors, I felt the additional $900 was worth it.
After you have your manuscript edited and pretty much nailed down, a printer requires just two things from you … a print-ready text file and a print-ready cover file.
To get a print-ready text file you either need to know how to do it yourself with a program such as InDesign, or you hire someone to do it for you. I shopped around and was surprised by the range of prices quoted to get my book to the print-ready stage. Quotes of several thousand dollars weren’t uncommon but in the end I discovered that for a pretty straightforward layout, $400-500 was enough to get the job done.
To get a print-ready cover file was another story altogether, and in that regard, I really lucked out.
I had just won a small, local writing contest and was collecting my prize ($100 worth of books at a local bookstore) when I asked one of the staff what they thought made a good book cover. I had the covers from a couple of books in mind and when I asked if the cover of one particular award-winning novel had helped sell the book, I was told it totally sold the book. I opened up the front flap, saw who the cover artist was, then went home and did some research. I sent the cover artist an email and told him that although I wasn’t an award-winning author, I loved his cover art and wondered if he’d be interested in doing mine.
I was surprised to get an immediate response directing me to the artist’s agent (in New York, no less!). I immediately figured I was out of my league but called the agent and told him up front, I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on a cover (my maximum was probably in the order of $1000). His response was that the artist didn’t care about the money … he just liked doing book covers! We quickly agreed on a price and after signing a small contract, we were off to the races.
I told the artist in general terms what I was looking for, he read my manuscript, and within a couple of months of agreeing to design my book cover, provided me with a couple of different cover concepts. I wasn’t keen on the first one but opening the second was a Eureka moment for me. He’d nailed it. Long-story short again, after a few tweaks back and forth, I had a print-ready cover file.
The price was a little steeper than many would pay but despite the old adage that you can’t tell a book by its cover, I’m convinced you can sell a book by its cover. And not that I didn’t think my story was a good one, but since those first days, I’ve always told my cover artist that my challenge is to write a story as good as the cover that holds it together. I think I’m there, but again, that’s for my readers to decide.
Now that I had both print-ready text and cover files, the next job was to find a printer … full disclosure, I’d been researching printers and met with reps from a couple so I kind of knew which way I was leaning. But when the rep from the printer I was leaning toward told me up front that he would offer lots of advice but none on how many books I should print, I have to admit I was in a bit of a quandary.
If I was going to do a small print run of a few hundred books, he suggested a smaller, local printer. Just by him doing that, I was impressed that here was a guy who wasn’t about looking for business. He was honestly trying to give me the best advice he could.
I had visions of printing more than a few hundred but also had nightmares of sitting on a palette of hundreds of unsold books so I really didn’t know which way to turn.
But along with everything else I’d been doing, I was also gradually building a social media network of friends, family and former co-workers and getting a sense that people would buy my book.
In the end, I took a leap of faith and ordered 1000 books, shipping 500 to myself and leaving 500 with the printers, who provide a fulfillment service I continue to use.
That first 1000 books sold out in about 8 weeks (well, not actually sold because I had worked out consignment arrangements with about 30 or more bookstores, so although the books were out of my hands, in most cases they were not sold yet).
Still, they were gone. I finally had some money coming in after spending almost $10,000 to get the first book out, so I promptly ordered 2000 more copies. Go big or go home.
And so far, so good. I can provide the hard numbers on how much I make per book but for now, let’s just say that after printing a little over 10,000 books across 4 titles, I was back to where I started financially, but now had a few thousand readers who’d bought my books.
At this point, I’m pretty much back to zero in the bank as I’ve invested it all again in my fifth book, but as long as I don’t go in the hole, I’m going to keep it rolling.
Would I go with a traditional publisher if one made me an offer?
But honestly, only to see what it’s like to have a traditional publisher.
I’ve heard of so many authors who’ve left their publisher to give self-publishing a try.
And I now know what’s involved.
Would I love to be writing more and spending less time doing those other things?
But I’ve got a great team of people who’ve stuck with me now for five books and I can’t even begin to calculate how many people in the book world I’ve come to meet and deal with, and with very few exceptions, I can’t say enough about book people.
I have so many stories of people who have gone out of their way to help me, those stories in themselves could make a book.
And as self-publishing gets easier and gains more acceptance, I like being my own boss and helping to push the envelope.
It takes a lot of work, but at this stage in my life, I wouldn’t do anything else.
And I did have one traditional publisher come back to me, eighteen months after my submission to them! They were interested but I politely told them that particular book was now in bookstores, including one just down the street from their office!
So that’s a little bit about my experience so far.
I can tell you I spend approximately $10,000 to get each book out but that includes the initial purchase of 1000 copies. In general, editing, layout and cover art cost me $5000 or $5/book. Printing costs a similar amount so my initial cost is roughly $10 per book. Prices come down with higher quantities printed but I tend to do print runs in the 1000-2000 range.
The standard discount to bookstores is 40% so they get my books for $12 each and sell them for $20. That leaves $2 per book for me.
In contrast, if I sell a book myself, I make the full $20. At Christmas markets I can often hand-sell 400-500 books pulling in $8000-10,000. At some summer markets I’m lucky to pay my booth fee.
So there are a lot of factors to consider.
Writing the stories, which I love doing, is only half the “job”.
And if you don’t have the time or don’t like the other half or don’t think you would, including trying to get book reviews, directly contacting bookstores and asking them to consider taking your book, organizing and paying for advertising, hand-selling books, packing and shipping books you’ve sold to bookstores or to readers buying directly from your website, and so on, then self-publishing might not be for you.
But it is a way to get your writing out there, to build and audience, and hopefully make a name for yourself.
There’s probably a lot more I could tell you and if you have specific questions I’d be happy to try and answer them.
Bottom line … if you love writing, just write. Get better at the craft and forge ahead.
Submit your work to traditional publishers if that’s what you feel is the best way forward, given your specific circumstances at the time.
But self-publishing is always a viable option.
No doubt some can do it for much less than the amounts I’ve mentioned.
Mine is just one example of a possible way forward.Follow write_nature