active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Maas on demand

In January 2017, I began offering paperback versions of my books. But since I can’t see how to make money from them, I’m selling them practically at cost.

Some people cling to paperbacks. I’m one of them, as I’ve already explained in my post In praise of pulp. The first thing to note about publishing your own book as a paperback is that, given that there probably aren’t all that many backward farts like me left in the world, it’s pretty much an act of vanity.

The ebook is cheaper and more convenient. It takes up no room to carry or store. You won’t drop it in the bath or lose it in a house fire. It won’t sit there uselessly after you’ve read it, moldering on the shelf. No matter how much you smoke, it won’t stink up whoever inherits it. Your son will not, the moment he’s old enough to form intelligent opinions, stare at your library and decry his father’s poor taste.

You leave such a neat corpse when everything you were can be deleted at the touch of a button, rather than have to haul all those books into a rented dumpster.

Publishing your own paperback is like dolling your baby up in fancy clothes and pretending you’ve birthed a millionaire. Anybody can do it for free on Amazon. It’s not even like traditional vanity publishing, where you had to stump up the cost. With print on demand (POD), you pay nothing for the book, and neither does Amazon. When somebody orders it, a machine somewhere prints the pages, slaps on the cover, trims the edges, and spits out the finished item, literally in minutes.

There used to be a solid enough dividing line between outsiders like myself, who choose to put out our scribblings as “self-published” ebooks, and real books by real authors published by real companies, who have agents and editors and the whole publishing industry to promote and distribute them.

You buy a real book, you know you’re getting a quality product. You buy a self-published ebook, you know you’re getting trash, and so the only way for self-publishers to succeed in this business is to sell their books at trash prices in the hope that readers will be undiscriminating enough to take a punt on them.

But now that self-publishers can print on demand, what exactly is the dividing line?

I set out with good intentions. The first paperback I published was my non-fiction book Fantastic Trips because I guessed that it might feasibly be something people would want to have as a hard copy, for instance to put in an academic library. But I was so impressed with the quality of the printing that I decided to offer the option for all my books.

As a write this I’m still working through them, and I hope to finish the process by the end of March 2017. In a future post I’ll discuss the results, and what I learned from the experience.

I already know that I will not make any money from paperback books, whereas with ebooks I am at least guaranteed a small (very small) slice of Amazon’s ever-swelling proceeds. The thing about POD is that it is expensive.

Amazon’s options are limited, but the company doesn’t cost them individually, so it’s hard to know how to reduce print costs, and it’s not something you can do on the fly. In order to cost a book you have to typeset it first. You have to create the book, upload it to Amazon’s KDP system, and then see what the cost is. Then you would have to create it again with a different format, upload it again, and see how the cost changes. With a book of any size that simply isn’t feasible.

Let’s take Fantastic Trips as an example. This is a big book. It’s 782 pages long. Since Amazon’s costing is based on the number of pages, there’s a complex balance you might want to consider for a book of this scope. Do you increase the size of the pages and reduce the size of the type and the leading in order to try to reduce the page count? In other words, since smaller type with narrower leading on larger pages is hard to read, do you save money for readers by giving them a less convenient reading experience? Or make them pay more for something that is presented better?

For Fantastic Trips, I chose a page size of 12.85 x 19.84cm since this is the size of some of the best-looking fiction and non-fiction books on my shelf. All my paperbacks are at this size.

The print cost for Fantastic Trips came out at 10.23 USD per unit. Amazon converts this, correctly, to 8.52 GBP, but for some reason adds a hidden cost to Japanese POD, where it comes out at 1739 yen, the equivalent of 15.24 USD (12.42 GBP). I have no idea why. Something to do with the “free” shipping you get as standard on Amazon purchases in Japan, I’d guess. Free is never really free.

Amazon then adds a 66% markup on this print cost to pay for Amazon’s own services, including storing the title on its servers and listing it on its site, promoting it (you can make up your own mind whether that’s worth the money), and the labor costs involved in order processing and packing. So the minimum price of Fantastic Trips is 17.06 USD (14.20 GBP, 2898 yen). I can list it at that price, but if I did I would not get a cent of royalties.

From then on, it’s up to me what I charge. Amazon has a flat royalty rate of 60%, which means that for every extra dollar I add to the purchase price, I get 60 cents and Amazon gets another 40 cents.

Obviously it’s to Amazon’s advantage that I make the book as expensive as I think my audience will tolerate. It’s making 40c on the dollar for nothing. But for me, that means that to make just 60c I have to charge my book at 18.06 USD per unit.

My audience is small and won’t pay much more than that until the book has gained traction. I’ve currently got it listed at 18.95 USD, which may seem steep even for an introductory-period price but gives me just over a dollar a book to show for each sale. (I am likely to increase the price later, so order fast!)

You may say, so what? Without Amazon you’d have nothing at all, and the traditional printing industry has locked authors in even worse contracts. True. But it just shows that, outside of ebooks, it’s really not possible to make a living as an independent publisher of POD paperbacks.

And that dollar I make for each copy of my book? It gets chewed up long before it reaches my wallet. First I have to pay tax on American sales since I’m not an American citizen. (To waive this, I’d have to send my passport to the US—yeah, I’m going to do that!) Then I have to pay bank costs to transfer the remainder into my Japanese bank account. And then I have to pay Japanese income tax. I calculate that I have to sell eight copies of Fantastic Trips simply to afford a cup of coffee at my local Starbucks.

Remember those blogs where the guy posted something and signed off with “Like what I wrote? Then send me the cost of a cup of joe” with a Paypal link? Honestly, I’d be happy with the sachet of sugar and a little plastic stick.


Fantastic Trips by Scott Meze is available to buy in ebook and paperback. The links are here: Other kicks


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