To Print or Not to Print?

to print or not to printThe eBook has certainly changed the publishing universe. Or perhaps it’s better to say that it has “charged” up the self-publishing universe. We now live in a world where the literary voices available to the public are not “filtered” solely by the traditional publishing industry. That means that the stuff that is published is no longer based on what a “few” believe will sell. That is a very good thing for the world of writing. It’s our version of Indie Films and cable broadcasting.

In my research I have noticed that there is not much segregation between discussions on self-published eBooks versus self-published printed books. That is, self-published has become synonymous with e-publishing. In the long-term that may be okay as there might come a time when all written materials are electronic. That would mean an end to traditional publishing but it would also mean an end to printers, fax machines, menus, and a whole bunch of other things we read on paper. While a possibility, it seems a distant future possibility and while not the topic of this post, inevitably for self-publishing to succeed, standards of quality will be required.

In the mean time the self-published author must consider to print or not to print their book. One can join the eBook universe with no cash investment as opposed to the small investment required to go to print. This becomes a value question. Many of us know that a self-published print version still stands little chance of seeing a bookstore’s bookshelf. Even Independent book sellers are largely unwilling to buy books from anyone other than traditional publishers. It’s a cash consideration – book stores are really just organized consignment shops – what doesn’t sell goes back for a full refund and few of the self-published can afford to reimburse at those potential quantities. With that considered, is there any value in making your book available in print? I think there are six good reason to go to print.:

1. Market Share: Living in our electronic world of story writing, blogging, and websites we can falsely assume that “everyone” has an e-reader or that the “majority” of people prefer electronic reading. Some of that misconception is driven by statistics on eBooks. Reports on the eBook market are cited in terms of “growth” not necessarily in terms of “sales.” These double-digit “growth” numbers do not directly represent market share and market share is the thing that self-publishers must capture. In general, eBooks account for about 20% of total book sales. Which means that printed books account for the majority 80%. Within that 20% eBook share, only 25% of those eBooks are self-published.  The other 75% are the works of well-known, traditionally published and backed authors. A lot of math, but it means that self-published eBooks have 5% of the market share…and there are millions of hopeful writers in that 5%. Forget about the “exception” stories like Fifty Shades of Gray – sales and marketing is a numbers game – if you want to be in that game then your work needs to be a part of the 80% market share held by printed books.

2. Wheat and Chaff – A common complaint in customer reviews is book length. With few exception people prefer novels over “short stories.” And at least from a “review” standpoint, readers feel “cheated” when the “novel” is less than novel length. I’ve seen this complaint surface with well-known authors who publish short works but fail to call it out as such. Many eBooks based on their length or word count qualify as a “chap” book or novella. To date we have avoided the requirement to use word count to differentiate types of eBooks. In addition, there isn’t any required pricing structure related to length. I can offer a 90K word novel for .99 along side a 20K word story for $1.99. The point here is that if you are offering a novel (greater than 65K words by traditional standards) then a print book version tells your reader that they are getting a full-length novel and not a short or shorter story.

3. It’s Real and So Are You – 80% of readers purchase physical books. And while I’m not downplaying electronically published stories, anyone with an idea, a computer and Internet access can “publish.” Imagine speaking with someone about your book. They ask to see it. You pull up your computer and show them a word document with a picture…or you pull your physical book from your bag or briefcase and hand it to them. In the first case they nod politely and in the second they flip through the pages and maybe even ask to “borrow” it. Everyone can read a book – an eBook requires devices and power sources which limits your audience. And of course, you can’t have a book signing with an eBook.

4. Do you want to market a “secret?” Avid readers tend to “look” at what others are reading (it’s one of the laws of influence called social validation). While I firmly believe the eBook market has done wonders for the guilty pleasures of Mommy Porn, there is huge  advertising value in your book being in the hands of readers. An eBook is convenient and low-cost, but social mores wave a finger at peaking over someone’s shoulder to see what they are reading.  Do you really want your book to be a “secret?”

5. Author Satisfaction – You pour your heart, love and effort into your creation. There is no experience like receiving your newly printed novel in the mail. The physical substance of your efforts there on your bookshelf next to your favorite authors. It’s just not the same as hugging your Kindle.  For the author, there is something satisfying, something that makes the dream a reality, when you can hold your book in your hand. Print on demand is too easy and too affordable not to enjoy the elation of holding your novel.

6. No Risk, No Reward – Yes, printed versions cost a little more and require extra effort. If you’re story is less than 65,000 words it doesn’t make sense to go to print. If however you are writing a full length novel and you truly believe the story worth reading then you should make the investment. Every author dreams of their book on display at Barnes & Noble, Waterstone’s or Dymocks. Some authors secretly hope that their eBook will be popular enough to be selected by a traditional publisher, who will bring it to print, and in doing so confirm that they are a “real” author. The truth is that only those in the “business” know the difference between a self-published or a traditionally published book. What makes it “real” to the readers or at least 80% of them) is their ability to hold it in their hands. Until the eBook market share is equal to print share the quickest route to your dreams is a printed copy in the readers’ hands.

I want to say it one more time – I am not suggesting that e-publishers are not “real” authors nor that they are not as “good” as those with print books. I have books in electronic version only under a pen-name and they do very well in sales. I am only suggesting that fiction writers are better served both personally and professionally by having print on demand books. And there are “free” options to get your book in print – I’ll cover these in my post “POD Costs and Services” which I will obviously find a more zippy title for when I write it 🙂

Raymond Esposito

Author of The Creepers Saga

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