Thursday, January 08, 2015

Should You Do a Print Version of Your Ebook?

The Espresso Book Machine
By Jordan McCollum, @JordanMcCollum

Part of the Indie Authors Series

Most of the time as indie authors, we think about and focus on ebooks exclusively. However, that might be underserving a significant market: readers who prefer print books. You might be leaving money on the table if you haven't at least tried a print-on-demand or possibly even short print run.

Advantages of Print

If you have an ebook, you already have the novel and the cover, so the hard stuff is done. You can experiment with formatting your own interior and converting your cover to PDF as well. My revenue per sale is so much higher with print that it's usually worth it to make the conversion. Plus, many print-on-demand providers, such as CreateSpace, have low or no setup fees.

A major advantage of print is the price: because Amazon lists print and digital prices side by side, they show your ebook as a bargain. The psychological power of getting a good deal is strong—even if it only ends up driving sales to your ebook. On the other hand, if you have a venue to make presentations or speak (especially if your work is nonfiction or can be related to a nonfiction topic), print books sell well and are often easier to handle than selling ebooks through a physical store. Author fairs, writers conferences, and other less traditional in-person gigs can also be good places to offer your books.

And of course, the psychological power of holding your book in your hands is priceless, too.

(Here's more on the value of print books)

Realities of Print

Because they're more expensive, print books can be harder to move. Unless you've got those speaking gigs lined up, you'll probably end up handselling most of these print books one by one—which is seldom easy.

On the other hand, if you can get a distributor to pick up your book and get it into bookstores, you can increase your visibility of your book and generate more print and ebook sales. (Another option, especially with independent bookstores, is to work out a consignment deal, but that's another topic.)

(Here's more on indie book discoverability)

Getting Distribution

While printers like Lightning Source/Ingram and CreateSpace can list your books in catalogs, they appear alongside every other book out there. Generally, it takes a distributor to get your book on the shelf of a brick and mortar store, and that distributor needs to be enthusiastic about your book. Often, the way you get onto the shelf is the distributor's enthusiasm.

Distributors sell books to bookstores and earn their money by taking a percentage of what the bookstore pays (the wholesale price). I've worked with a distributor for one of my books. To "get in" with this distributor, I found the instructions on their website and talked to other clients. For a new client, you just had to mail a copy of your book and wait to see if they accepted it.

Of course, getting picked up by a distributor is one of those "nice work if you can get" deals . . . or is it? Sometimes the numbers don't quite bear out the cost.

(Here are more lessons learned about self publishing)

Is it Worth it?

My distributor, who worked primarily with regional bookstore chains, asked for 150 copies of my book. I priced it out at short-run printers and at my POD printer. The cheapest cost-per-unit was if I did 100 copies at my POD, but it was close enough I figured it would be worth it to set up with the short-run printer in case I needed reprints.

And that's where things began to go badly. The book itself turned out well, but the price they quoted me didn't. The shipping fee was about double what they'd quoted me. While they offered to subtract the difference from my next order, that order still has yet to happen.

Then, once my book did begin to slowly sell through the distributor, they surprised me with another fee for listing me in the Ingram catalog (even though I'd specifically asked if there were any additional fees before signing the contract because that was one complaint I'd heard).

We've all heard the margins in printing are very narrow: here's just how narrow they are. Between the error in the quote and the fee, any possibility of profit was gone. At this point, I believe I've sold about half of my stock of books. Without support inside the stores (i.e., enthusiastic sales staff), it's very hard to move those books. And when a bookstore can't move books within a month or two, they usually return them.

I can't say if my experience is truly representative, of course. It's entirely possible that distributing more books, including the rest of the series, would move the books better. It does seem like I suffered unusual misfortune with this attempt, but it's convinced me not to throw good money after bad right now.

However, I do still do print on demand versions for conferences, prizes and giveaways, friends and family, and just to have. I can actually sell these well below bookstore cost and still make more money per book, so it's a win for me!

What do you think? Would you do print?

Jordan McCollum is the (indie!) author of the romantic suspense series Spy Another Day which begins with I, Spy. She enjoys teaching writing craft through her writing craft blog at, as the Education Director of Authors Incognito (an online writers' support group with over four hundred members), and through her book CHARACTER ARCS (with a foreword by Janice Hardy) and CHARACTER SYMPATHY.


  1. I absolutely think it's worth it to do print. There are so many of my friends and family who don't own ereaders. Plus it's fun to sign them at events!

  2. I've been extremely cautious about my print editions. After a bad year of sales problems, if I'm doing a launch, I only get in pre-ordered copies, and if I'm preparing to sell at an event, I under-estimate as much as possible.

    Aside from that, I'm actually happy to let readers find me on Amazon and decide if they want a print copy or ebook. I have a lot of work to do to boost my sales this year, but I figure I can't tackle every sales avenue there is, so I should focus my energies on a small number until my market presence improves.