Some people assume self-publishing is only ebooks, while others assume it’s only paperbacks. The truth is you can have either or both, and even a hardcover. How to decide what is right for you?
Check out my article on the new world of self-publishing for an explanation of some of the technologies that have fundamentally changed the book industry.
Some quick definitions
An ebook is a special type of computer file that you can read on a computer, dedicated electronic e-reading devices like a Kindle or Kobo, a tablet computer such as an iPad, or a smartphone.
- Independent authors can create an ebook at home and upload it to big online bookstores like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple.
- Generally, it’s free of charge to get started, and the bookstore finances its side of the operation by retaining a percentage of each book sale, rather than demanding payment from authors upfront.
- There is also the older style of ebook – usually a PDF file – which is still used in certain situations, for example with ebooks that are meant to be printed by the purchaser, or some types of visual books that don’t display so well on e-readers. Authors sometimes sell these direct from their own websites.
A self-published paperback also has various options.
- They can be printed old-style in print runs of several thousand, for those who have the platform and distribution method to make it worth the outlay.
- Alternatively, they can be set up online to be printed, bound and shipped one copy at a time (print-on-demand).
- In big print runs, the per-copy cost to the independent author is lower, but there’s a big initial outlay – often many thousands of dollars. And then you’ve got to store and distribute quite a few cubic metres of books. Don’t underestimate this. It’s a LOT of boxes.
- Using print-on-demand, the printing cost of each copy is higher, but the initial outlay is low and can even be free, depending who you use and how you do it.
- Mystery author and blogger Molly Greene posted recently about the various costs of self-publishing a paperback, and whether it’s worth it. Some good tips there to check out.
Several independent authors share their experiences of experimenting with different formats.
Joanna Penn (J.F. Penn), fiction and non-fiction author: ebook and paperback
Self-publishing blogger Joanna Penn started with paperbacks, shifted to ebook + paperback, and then went ebook-only for her fiction. She created this video in 2013 when she decided to return to producing paperbacks for her fiction, and she has some interesting reasons why she did so.
Molly Greene, fiction author: ebook only
Aside from a smattering of local indie booksellers, it’s nearly impossible – and if you swing it, can be very expensive – for self-published authors to get their product into bookstores nationwide. Also, print profits are lower and, for the majority of self-published fiction authors, ebooks are the highest sellers by far.
Since I don’t do personal appearances or book signings, sell at direct-sale events, or participate in Goodreads giveaways – or anything else that requires a print book – I’ve decided that for me, it won’t pay off to commit time, energy, and budget to creating print editions for my titles. Not right now, anyway.
This very individual decision is, of course, subject to change. ~ Molly Greene
David Bruns, sci-fi and military thrillers: ebook and paperback
For my sci-fi series The Dream Guild Chronicles, I did a paperback of Irradiance, the first novel in the series. Having a paperback does a few things for you: (1) it lets you run a Goodreads Giveaway and (2) allows you to hand sell your book at conferences and other real-life events.
I’ve had some great feedback on my covers for the series so it’s nice to have something tangible to show people when they ask about your book. That said, I sell very few paperbacks of Irradiance, maybe 1 paperback for every ten e-books.
The second paperback was for my co-authored military thriller called Weapons of Mass Deception. We ran a Kickstarter campaign last spring and a paperback copy of the book was one of the rewards for our backers.
Beyond the crowdfunding campaign, I have been stunned by our paperback sales—it’s been nearly one print copy for every e-book sold. We attribute the higher-than-expected rate of print sales to a different audience. The WMD readers tend to skew older and a large number of former military.
I had one reader tell me that she only reads fiction in print because she reads on tablets and computer screens all day at work. Reading a “real” book is her way of relaxing. ~ David Bruns
Tony Riches, historical fiction: ebook and paperback
Although I’ve heard of readers who somehow manage to read a whole ebook on their phone, there will always be readers who can’t – or won’t – read anything other than a paper copy. Also if you plan to offer a ‘Goodreads Giveaway’ you will have to make a couple paperback versions available, even if, like me, over 85% of your book sales are ebooks.
The good news is that indie authors can make sure they don’t exclude anyone, at no cost, by offering a paperback version through the CreateSpace ‘print-on-demand’ service. If you already have a cover which is at least 300 dpi, you can do it all yourself in about half an hour. There are simple instructions on the CreateSpace site and I’ve summarised the steps on my writing blog here:
Since writing this post, I’ve graduated to fully ‘wrapped around’ covers, as they look more professional and your books stand out on the shelf better.
Feedback from readers is that they appreciate having the choice of a paper copy – and on Amazon you can select the option for them to have an ebook version as well, at no charge.
A good tip is to make sure you use exactly the same title for ebook and paperback versions, so they are linked on the same Amazon page. You can also “screen grab” the paperback 3D preview from any angle, to use in your publicity. ~ Tony Riches
Ian ‘Watto’ Watson, non-fiction self-help author: paperback only
Ian ‘Watto’ Watson is one of my clients. His book Every Bloke’s a Champion… Even You! is (so far) available only in paperback, although he’s considering an ebook. A paperback suits his target market and his platform: he sells a few copies online, but the bulk of his sales are in person. He travels Australia constantly, speaking to large groups of men. His book has become a bestseller, and he recently launched a second book, Champion Blokes ‘Shed’ Their Shame.
We initially set him up with a print-on-demand book while he tested his market. Once it became clear that the book was selling by the truckload, and large orders were coming in from one of Australia’s major bookstore chains, he ordered a big print run from an offshore printer… and then another big run.
A couple of factors beyond mere sales figures make this suitable for him when it might not be for others. He owns a truckyard and has a shipping container where he can store many thousands of books. And he knew someone who could connect him with an import agent and therefore save him some time and money on that aspect of the process. Meanwhile, his original print-on-demand version is not wasted, as it continues to be available globally on the online bookstores for those occasional internet sales.
Belinda Pollard (me!), mystery/thriller novelist: ebook and paperback
My experience is that I only sell a few paperbacks in the online bookstores, which is exactly what I expected. I produced a paperback for my debut mystery/thriller Poison Bay – not for online sales but because it feels different to have my own book on my bookshelf instead of just in my Kindle, and because I can do it all myself so I don’t have any typesetting or cover design costs.
It is also worth it for me to have a book to show people, because I work in publishing, and so it becomes almost a type of business card for me.
An unexpected bonus is that it’s looking like the paperbacks that I hand-sell are going to be my best chance of breaking even on my publishing costs within a year, including the huge cost of professional editing.
I have sold books at speaking engagements, to my exercise class, church members, Toastmasters club members, bank tellers, post office workers, people attending children’s parties… the list goes on. It’s surprising who is interested in buying a copy, when only we have the courage to talk about our books to people we meet. And it’s surprising how bold I’ve become, after starting out feeling very shy about my book. 😉
It has also meant my book has been purchased by local libraries. Some people think of a library book as one sale where they might have had ten… but I think it’s a wonderful way to reach readers. (As for how I got into the libraries: I offered to do some author talks in my local libraries. They run an ongoing series and are always interested in new writers. And then they ordered copies so that people attending the author talks would have the book to read.)
Belinda Pollard, non-fiction author: paperback only?
I’ve put this under a separate heading so it’s easier for you to find if you’re scan-reading the article, but yes, it’s still me. 😉 I have several non-fiction books in the pipeline, most of which will be available in both ebook and paperback.
However, I’m considering going paperback-only for a workbook that’s due out shortly. My rationale for this is that people write in a workbook – that’s the purpose of the thing. In an ebook, I’ll have to give a whole set of instructions for how to draw tables/diagrams in which to insert information, and I’m not sure I want to do that.
I might consider an ebook down the track, depending on feedback. Or I may produce a PDF ebook available only to people who sign up for a related e-course. I’m keeping my options open.
How to decide?
I’m sure you can understand that issues like an author’s personal level of motivation, skill set and budget are going to affect whether and how they pursue ebooks or paperbacks for their own publishing projects.
However, I would say if we get right down to the heart of the matter, there are 2 key questions each self-publisher needs to answer:
- Which format is best for your book?
- How do your readers like to read?
All other issues aside, these questions are fundamental. We need to consider what we’re writing and who wants to read it.
Something to bear in mind: buyers of children’s books and some types of non-fiction (especially reference works where the reader flicks back and forth between different sections) often prefer a printed book. But they might buy the cheaper ebook version first, to check if they really like it or not… so it’s handy to have both.
We might not be completely sure how to answer the two big questions mentioned above, or it might turn out that our initial answers weren’t quite right… and that’s OK. Taking the time to ponder, experiment, and reassess is an essential component of successful independent publishing, as I continue to learn day by day! In fact, our ability to quickly reassess and redirect is one of our advantages over the big operators in the modern publishing industry.
Share your experiences. Have you published ebooks? Paperbacks? Hardcovers? What formats do you prefer to read… in both self-published and traditionally-published books?
Mary Gorden says
First book coming out next month. A memoir. Some of my friends only do print books. Others only do ebooks. So I’m doing both. Then I have to deal with friends who want it as an audio book. A member of my writing group has done one so I can get some help.
It’s a big wild world out there. Thanks for sharing different viewpoints.
Belinda Pollard says
Audiobooks are looking to become a much bigger share of the market in the years ahead, so it sounds like a great idea, Mary. Very best wishes with your book.
It’s easy to add a printed option with CreateSpace and Amazon usually manage to link the ebook and the printed versions on their respective pages. So in my view it’s best to offer both options and let readers decide which they prefer.
Personally when I’m buying a book I usually prefer a real, printed, book but if I’m in a rush to read the rest of it then I’ll opt for the Kindle version instead.
No point in limiting readers options – give them as many ways to buy as possible!
Belinda Pollard says
I agree Trevor. I like to give readers the option, and I often make quite a few face-to-face sales because I have a paperback.
Robert Scott-Norton says
One little fridge benefit in producing a POD paperback through Creatspace and having it show up on the same page as the kindle edition is that it subtly makes the ebook version cheaper. The RRP for the book will be shown as the selling price of the paperback, and the kindle edition will be shown as percentage saving of that price. It’s a small, subtle way to make the kindle price seem more desirable.
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks Robert, that’s very true. Sometimes, the author needs to advise Amazon so they link the two editions. https://kdp.amazon.com/help?topicId=A33G45HCUNE6YF
Robin L Warren says
I really appreciated this article. As an Author who is self publishing and trying to decide if paperback is a good choice, it was timely and helpful. Thanks, Belinda for all your helpful information.
Belinda Pollard says
I’m glad it’s helpful, Robin. Thank you so much for your feedback, and I hope your publishing adventure is a good one.
Kristen Steele says
Self-publishing is an excellent option to consider, but like you said, it’s not as simple as just choosing self-publishing. There are many different ways to publish your book, and you need to do the research on what your target demographic is, and what the most popular avenues are to reach that audience.
Belinda Pollard says
Very true, Kristen. The options are simple enough but the decision can be complex and is always a personal one.
My target market (farmers and farm wives) definitely prefer the paperback and my ebook sales are small in comparison for my first book. However, the formatting of my second book is much better and I think I’ll have more confidence promoting it.
I printed 2000 copies of my second book and between all the costs (new website, cover designer, editor, formatting, illustrator, stand cost for an agric show, bookmarks, and the printing), I’ll need to sell almost 900 to break even – eek but my goal is to sell 1200-1500 by Xmas and any ebooks I sell will be profit (I haven’t calculated them into my break even costs).
Having boxes of books there is a good stimulant to get out and sell!
Belinda Pollard says
You are very organised, Lorna, to have figured out your break even point etc. I’m afraid I have never even done that on Poison Bay, I think because I couldn’t bear to look! I didn’t expect it to break even before I had about 3 books out, so I chose not to think about it. 😉
Congratulations on how well you are doing. Your case is similar to Ian ‘Watto’ Watson. You have so many face-to-face meetings with your readers, and it really makes sense to have that paperback for you.
Best wishes for how it continues to unfold!!
David Bruns says
Hi Belinda –
Thanks for including me in your author round-up. Since we last spoke, I’ve gotten much bolder about hand-selling (just like you) and that’s been our path to breaking even on WMD. It’s great to sell a book and have that person ask you to sign it, too! Never gets old.
Take care –
Belinda Pollard says
Thank you, too, David. Yes, it’s so wonderful when someone is thrilled to have your book. It’s the meeting of imaginations which I suspect is what really drives us as authors, not the financial side of it. But then, it’s always good to break even…! 😉
Molly Greene says
Thank you so much for including me, Belinda! Creating a print version is a no-brainer decision for most authors and is sometimes the first thing they do. I’m sure I’ll get around to it eventually, and then I will problem wonder, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?” Cheers!
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks for your contribution, Molly. I think you’re very wise to know what your strengths are and stick to them. It’s obviously paying off in the wonderful success of your series! 🙂