Monday, June 10, 2013

Books: Traditional Print, E-Books, or Print On Demand?

Adirondack Book ShelfA few local authors recently spoke with me about e-books, which coincidentally are grabbing headlines in a big way lately. The two main stories are Apple’s defense against charges that it conspired with publishers to fix e-book prices, and the surprising decision by Stephen King to not offer an e-book version of his latest title. King, one of the early proponents of digital publishing, hopes to reward the brick-and-mortar stores that helped make him such a huge success in traditional print.

The Apple case is currently in court, but in the nine months preceding the trial, e-book prices plunged, in some cases as much as 75 percent. A good thing? Maybe. But you get what you pay for, and with such low returns for selling e-books, there’s far less incentive for good authors to go digital.

Conversely, publishers are offering plenty of encouragement to less-than-capable writers, and for good reason. Their business plan is not unlike the NYS Lottery’s “Hey, you never know” program: highly successful by playing your emotions against overwhelming odds. I’m not saying the lottery isn’t fun, but here’s a heads-up: THEY DO know. Both the lottery people and the publishers know that nearly everyone who pays into their systems will receive no return other than a few anxious moments.

You see, e-book publishers would rather we didn’t know that the great majority of e-titles sell only a few copies, usually to the writer’s family and friends. Several years ago, self-publisher Lulu’s average book sold 1.8 copies. Obviously, sales statistics are skewed by the occasional breakout title that sells hundreds or maybe thousands of copies. Most of them don’t.

To attract customers, some publishers guarantee that relatively little cost will be incurred, and your book will be available to retailers around the world. All true, but very misleading.

You won’t be informed that, even with the phenomenal rise of e-books, the heart and soul of book sales is brick-and-mortar locations. If a book isn’t available in physical stores, it has little hope of selling beyond a few copies. You wouldn’t think that could be true, what with all the hype about e-books.

For regional writers who are thinking of publishing, there are decisions to be made. Consider the e-book format, but remember that 75 percent of all book sales are printed books. Ignore that format and you’re potentially missing out on the majority of sales. By the same token, if you go with traditional print, remember that 25 percent of book sales are digital. In some cases, a combination is best.

Remember also that genre matters. So far, e-book success has been confined mostly to romance, mystery, and general fiction. Recent statistics reveal other surprises. Who would have thought that owners of e-readers actually purchase half of their reading materials in print and half in digital format?

Don’t necessarily be discouraged by certain facts, but be aware of them―like this one: the whispered secret among self-publishers who sell hundreds of thousands of books is that their average book sells only 5 to 120 copies. Those are the odds you’ll have to beat. It can be tough, but if your book is well written, professionally edited, nicely printed, and you work hard at selling, it’s doable.

When you’re told that you can publish your book for a few hundred dollars and it will be available worldwide, it’s basically trickery. Remember that the only people who can even consider buying your book must first know that it exists. How will you accomplish that in America, let alone worldwide?

Better yet, narrow it down. If you’re in the Adirondacks, begin by asking yourself: how will I let people in the region know that my book exists? Will newspapers welcome my story with open arms? If not, what will I do? Will stores want my book? Craft a plan after asking lots of questions of yourself and others.

Be conscious of the fact that POD (print on demand) promises a low-cost alternative: they’ll publish and/or print your book and you won’t need to stock thousands or even hundreds of copies. In fact, none at all. Whenever an order comes in, they’ll print even a single copy and ship it. But beware.

Though it sounds good in theory, it doesn’t work in the vast majority of cases. Why? Because customers won’t find you: you need to find them. A simple rule of selling is foot traffic: if your book is placed where hundreds of people will see it in a day or a week, a few customers will most likely buy it, and the process will continue daily or weekly. That’s the general plan for selling in a physical store.

But if you go strictly digital because it’s inexpensive to post a picture and description of your book online, how will you get hundreds of people to see it every day? How about even for one day? How will you maintain a flow of new visitors to a website where they will view your work?

That’s what brick-and-mortar stores offer. No one knows the future, but currently they remain a critical part of the sales process, and to work within that system, you need books in hand. Hypothetically, let’s say Hoss’s in Long Lake wants a dozen copies of your book. If you’re using POD, the store will have to wait for the books to be printed and shipped, and when those sell, they’ll be left waiting again.

And that’s just one store. If your book is in 25 or 50 stores, you’ll need to supply all of them promptly, which requires hundreds of copies, and for that, POD is usually not cost effective. Simply put, you can’t sell it if you don’t have it.

In self-publishing, it’s necessary to invest financially in your own work if you hope for a reasonable return, and it shouldn’t be that scary. After all, if you believe enough in your book to write it, it stands to reason you believe it will sell.

And be careful of assurances that it will be quick, easy, and inexpensive to produce your book. With modern technology, yes, it’s now quicker, easier, and less expensive than it was in the past, but remember: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Photo courtesy John Warren.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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