Adventures in Self-Publishing, Chapter 2: eBook or Dead Tree?

This series highlights aspects of my experience self-publishing The Alexandria Project.   If you'd like to read the book this series is based on, you can read the first three chapters for free here

  Medieval copy of a book by Gautier de Metz, "L'image du Monde" - Wikimedia, public domainIf you are of a certain age (and I, most regrettably, am definitely of a certain age), a book means a certain thing, and that is this: something that you can hold in your hands, keep on a shelf, pack up and carry in a box in move after move (after move, after move…), and generally treasure for life, if it’s a good read or a valued resource. Kept indoors and absent a natural disaster, it can – and does – live on for centuries, always there, patiently waiting to be discovered anew, generation after generation.


It should therefore come as no surprise that the book I wrote last year, The Alexandria Project, will soon be available in tangible as well as eBook form. This is not to say that this makes a terrific amount of sense, viewed from any rational economic point of view. After all, it’s not likely that any bookstore will ever stock it. Moreover, because of costs of production, it’s also not likely that many people will buy it in soft cover, as compared to electronic form, let alone hardcover.


After all, why would they? I plan to sell the eBook for $2.99 [Note:  I later changed my mind, and priced it at $9.99.  I’ll talk about why I made this decision in a future chapter of this series], and anyone can download free eReader software (Amazon’s Kindle, for example) to their laptop, cell phone or smartphone. At close to 300 pages, The Alexander Project will cost more than double that just to print in soft cover, before adding shipping and any profit that I might want to make on the side. So if you’re already into eBooks, which one would you likely want to buy?

Have you discovered

The Alexandria Project?

Buy at Amazon: click icon at right

Buy at iTunes Store

Buy at Barnes & Noble

Moreover, at the prices that most self-published eBooks sell for, they’re an easy impulse purchase, often compared to your favorite hot beverage at Starbucks, or an iPhone App. A few clicks, and they’re yours. Another click when you’re done, and they’re gone from your device’s memory, or simply forgotten in the virtual libraries we’ll all soon have in the Cloud.

For a self-publishing author, there’s therefore a lot to be said for bringing out a book, pamphlet, or anything else you wish to publish in electronic form only. Up to the point that you’re ready to upload your file to wherever you plan to upload it (on which more in a future post), things are pretty much the same. But after that, the costs begin to diverge and the effort doubles up. It’s actually possible to set the electronic file up yourself and then simply upload it to Amazon’s CreateSpace for a nominal fee. To be sure, you can do that at many of the full-service print on demand (POD) sites, but unless you’re really good at book formatting (not something Word is very good at), any clumsiness is going to stick out a lot worse in a physical book than viewed on a smart phone.


For about $300 – $400, you can have someone else tidy up your format, convert your file into files optimized for Amazon, Barnes & Noble and so on, and submit it to those distributors for you, too. For a couple hundred dollars more, they’ll also  design a decent cover for you, assign you an ISBN number (required) and take care of a few other chores that must be attended to before your book can be sold through traditional commercial channels.


Since you’re almost certainly going to want to make your book available electronically, that means that whatever you spend making it available in tangible form will be extra. You can use the same cover artwork for the soft cover version, but you’ll need to pay an extra fee for a hardcover design if you want to offer that version as well (figure another $100 more). And then there’s the fact that some of the middlemen you may decide to work with are slow – it may be four months before you hold that physical book in your hands – unless you pay an extra fee (say, $500) to cut that time down to six or seven weeks (some other print on demand – POD – publishers are much faster). 


Ordering services a la carte from the cheapest POD publishers out there, you won’t be likely to get away with spending less than $800 to bring an eBook and soft cover to market, as compared to $500 just for an eBook (and in both cases, without ordering any additional services, like marketing support). For hardcover, add another $200 to that $800. If you decide to pick up the other trappings most serious self-publishing authors are likely to plunge for – a Web site (to showcase the book), a direct to printer shopping cart (to earn a significantly higher percentage profit on your book sales), and so on, and you’re likely to spend somewhere between $1,200 – $2400 all told, and that’s assuming that you don’t get suckered in to buying all of the marketing materials that are either not worth bothering with (e.g., a press release) or which you won’t need anyway, unless you’re very serious about promoting your book and actually follow through (posters, business cards, and so on).


Once you start to add up all of the costs, time, delay and effort, there’s therefore a lot to be said for making your book available in electronic form only for as little as possible, and as quickly as possible. That approach is doubly persuasive when you take into account the extremely low likelihood of your ever getting back your up front investment from sales of your book, about $1 a book at a time, assuming you price it even that high above cost. Why?  Because you don’t want your book to cost more than a trade book, and your printing costs per book will be higher.  And, as Winter suggested in a comment to the first post in this series, there’s nothing to prevent you from going to print later, if the book somehow, against all odds, actually takes off.


So what should you do? At the end of the day, what you decide to do is likely to have more to do with why you decided to write that book to begin with. If it’s non-fiction, you may want to give copies to customers, marketing contacts, and so on to help promote your business or area of expertise. For the time being, anyway, giving a tangible copy is probably more effective for that purpose.  For fiction or non-fiction, it’s certainly nice to be able to give physical copies to family and friends, with a note handwritten on the flyleaf.


And if you’re of a certain age, seeing your book on an E-Ink screen will just never hold a Kindle, so to speak, to taking those first copies of your own work out of the shipping box and holding them in the same hands that labored so hard to bring them into existence. 


That’s where I came out, anyway. We’ll see what I decide to do the second time around.


Future posts: evaluating and choosing a POD publisher; promoting facts and fancies; and more

Read the first installment of this series here

Read the next chapter of Adventures in Self-Publishing here

 Read Chapter 1 of The Lafayette Deception (the sequel to The Alexandria Project) here