Publishing, paper, distribution, and doing what works

This has been a long time coming. I think I’ve even announced it here, before, in one form or two others. I just can’t make sense of publishing books on paper and having them available for distribution/wholesale-sales. Warning: This post is going to be full of numbers. Numbers about money.

Here’s some backstory before I get into the numbers: Back in the before-times, I began writing stories. By the turn of the millennia, I’d begun thinking about writing novels. By the end of 2002 I’d written (and published, albeit in extremely low quantity and quality, and quietly) my first novel. By 2004 I’d done a nearly-professional job publishing it, and my second novel, though I still lacked distribution. At the end of 2004, my life went off a cliff, right after I published my 3rd novel, and publishing my 4th novel in 2005 was part of the long descent into Hell, which didn’t begin to let up until the Fall of 2006, when I also finished my 5th novel. Coming out of those dark days, I decided to take publishing seriously, started Modern Evil Press officially in 2007, and re-published my first 5 novels via Lightning Source (LSI), along with two poetry books. With LSI, I had professional (though not offset) printing, and I also had professional distribution (though not the sort of distribution where sales reps were trying to get my books onto store shelves; ‘distribution’ has two definitions in the publishing world, and mine just meant that if a bookstore ordered a book, it would be printed & delivered), and my books began appearing on Amazon &c. in their new forms. In 2008 I left my day job and began working as a full time creative, putting out professional-level eBooks and near-professional audiobooks along with the paper editions. Since then I’ve continued writing, editing, recording and publishing books, and as of right now I’ve written 11 novels, 2 short story collections, 2 poetry collections, and edited & published my first book by someone else. I’ve also published one short story exclusively in digital (eBook & audio).

If you read here much, you probably knew all that. (If not, please check out You may even have some idea of my financials. But… Did you know that, of my books released on paper, none one of them has ever made enough sales (even including sales across all formats, to try to make up for the cost of the paper editions through digital sales) to cover the cost of putting out that paper edition? My only “profitable” titles are the ones where I either 1) never published a paper edition, or 2) sold the original work of art I created for the cover of the book. Then there’s that short story I linked to in the last paragraph, Last Christmas (have you read it? It’s only $1.99!), which has both earned more than it cost me to publish the eBook (I still have to buy an ISBN) and for which I sold the cover art. Including some of the other books’ cover art means it’s not my most profitable book, but it feels that way, since it’s earned close to $70 but cost me less than $10 to publish.

Here are some fun numbers about my relationship with LSI: Since I began working with them in 2007, I have paid LSI $2163.46. By my calculation, $408 of that was in “Digital Catalog Fees”, which is an Invoice-y way of saying I pay $12/year/title to have my books available for distribution to booksellers (i.e.: Amazon &c.), and the other $1728.46 was for things like setup fees, shipping and handling, proof copies, oh, and actually printing copies of my books for me to have for direct sales. Let’s take that second number first, and compare it to the total revenue I’ve had come in from direct sales of paper books, which is approximately $1531.33, or a couple hundred dollars less than I spent getting those books. That’s from nearly 5 years of sales. Of course, I have a fair amount of inventory on hand. If all the books I have on the shelves next to me sold for their full cover prices, my bookkeeping software tells me I’d have another $4716.93 from the sale of those 307 books. By retail value, roughly 40% of that is in the two Untrue Trilogies I published this year, fewer than ten of which have sold (between the two titles), so far. Theoretically, if I could ever sell all these books, I’d still make quite a good margin on selling paper copies directly. With the nearly-2/3 margin I calculate for that, I can even afford to do some discounting (which I regularly do, a dollar or two at a time, whenever it’ll help make a sale).

Now let’s look at that other number. The Digital Catalog Fees. I spent $408 to make and keep my titles available for distribution over the last 5 years. I earned $131.26 from wholesale sales of my books (after LSI took their cut for printing them). That’s right. Over the last five years I spent $408 to earn $131.26. On one hand, I’m also paying for visibility; that fee covers getting my books listed on Amazon,, and theoretically hundreds of other online booksellers, plus it gets them listed as available in the computers of all the bookstores, large and small, across the country. On the other hand, they (bookstores, and customers of online stores) rarely, if ever, order my paper books. Of the 13 titles I’ve printed & distributed with LSI, only 5 titles have ever sold wholesale via LSI, and only one title earned enough from wholesale sales to cover its own Digital Catalog Fees (until/unless I get one more annual fee, then it’s just as red as the others). That includes zero books sold in 2011. (Actually, technically, I sold negative two books via LSI in 2011 – I recently received two returns. Because of strange LSI policies I didn’t fully understand, the cost of the return of one of them exceeded the value of all 5 sales that book had made in prior years. Five sales, one return, zero profit (for that title).) So what is that visibility getting me? Not more sales from my own website. Maybe more eBook sales, though that’s impossible to track. Oh, and speaking of eBook sales: For the 5 titles which had wholesale sales, all earned more from eBook sales than from wholesale paperback sales. All. To readers who paid at least 50% less than those who bought paper copies.

So, what do we learn from this? Well, for one: Paying for distribution of paper books doesn’t make sense, at all. Also: I need to better gauge the number of paper books I’ll be able to sell directly; when I sell them, they’re profitable, but when they sit on my shelf, they aren’t. (To clarify: It was a terrible idea to publish a new edition of the First Untrue Trilogy, and was probably a bad idea to put out a paper edition of the Second Untrue Trilogy. Of the ~$1700 I spent on getting paper books made in the last 5 years, ~$700 was for those two books. Which is to say: Without those books, I’d have had ~$1300 in direct sales and ~$1000 in printing costs, and at least that aspect of it would have been profitable.) Another detail which comes up: Publishing digital-only is much more likely to be profitable for me, even when only a few copies sell.

Really, because only a few copies sell.

I can pretend that “someday I’ll reach a bigger paying audience”, and maybe I will, but I can’t count on it. I need to make decisions based on reality. Right now the reality is that I have a few, very dedicated readers and supporters (the so-called “true fans”) and a whole lot of readers who are very unlikely to spend anything at all on my work. (And when they do, it isn’t on a paperback.) So: I’ve already begun taking my books “out of print”.

I told LSI to “cancel” my two poetry books (right after publishing Unspecified), which have earned about $70 between them and cost me somewhat over $480, so far. They weren’t making even enough sales to cover the annual Digital Catalog Fees, so I cancelled them. (I’ll have full eBook editions for sale… soon.) I’ll probably cancel all the rest when my LSI reps get back from holiday. I have literally no idea when they’ll stop being listed as available on Amazon and other sites. Right now my poetry books are listed as “temporarily out of stock” on Amazon, even though I cancelled them months ago. Note: I still have plenty of copies available. That actually goes for all my books. I have over 300 books sitting here, waiting for readers. Even after they’re removed from all the bookstores’ databases, I’ll still have them for sale. I’ll work on updating in the new year, too. I’ll probably offer them unsigned for the cover price and signed for a little more, close to what I have now, but my own buy button instead of external links. (Since those links literally never worked for getting sales, anyway.)

What about my future books, you may be wondering? Well, how about digital-first? (Maybe digital-only.) How about digital first, and maybe a Kickstarter or just-straight-painting-sale or maybe a pre-order signup process to see whether there’s any interest in a limited-edition, direct-only, paper version of the book (probably hardback). If I’m not doing distribution, if each paper book is limited edition from copy one, the whole thing gets turned on its head, from price to quality to design. Offset printing still won’t make sense until/unless I get that theoretical larger-audience, but I can design a very nice hardback edition for LSI to print just for me and my readers. If I don’t have to give a retailer 50% (or more) off the top of every sale, even POD hardbacks can be reasonable prices. If I’m producing collector’s items, even relatively affordable ones, even just selling a few can make me a lot more money than I’ve been getting from book sales. It’ll be a sort of cautious Freemium model. Less-popular books will make most of their money from digital, more-popular books will make vastly more money from paper books, and I’ll still probably make more money from art than from books for years to come. (These aren’t final numbers, but it looks like for 2011 I’ll have had a little over $700 in book sales, a little over $1400 in art sales, and a little over $1600 in expenses. Profitable again, which is good, but not by a whole lot. If I just get an order of magnitude more successful, I might actually have to think about things like paying quarterly estimated taxes! In the meantime, I’m generally happy where I’m at.)

I’m going to play around with numbers a lot more in the next few weeks. Keep your eyes out for a new set of quarterly (and end-of-year) download numbers, with some interesting spikes, some time next month. I’ve actually got about 3 months of bookkeeping I’ve got to go through; I’ve been slacking. (The numbers above are all estimates; I have numbers, I just haven’t got them all in the right places for business purposes, yet.) I’ll also want to run all the numbers I can think of on … everything I’ve been talking about. And some projections into the new year.

Oh, and I’ve got to finish writing those books. I’ve not been working on them in the last week or two, partially because sitting down every day to grind out more chapters was beginning to feel more like work and less like something I wanted to be doing – and I want to write these books. So I’m taking most of the money/expenses out of my business, and I’m taking most of the pressure off my process, and I think I’ll be better off for it. In fact, I think my business will be more successful, financially, and I’ll personally be more successful, creatively and emotionally. Win, win, win, and win for anyone who likes reading my books, too.

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Author, artist, romantic, insomniac, exorcist, creative visionary, lover, and all-around-crazy-person.

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