In 2004 I was writing a series of articles about Dan Brown's next book when a great thought hit me: why not do a little extra work and publish my work as a book. The big question was, how? The standard model of publishing didn't exactly suit my situation. If I attempted to 'sell' the book to a major publisher, even if successful it would likely take 12 months to 2 years to get the book on shelves (the standard turn-around). Brown's book would have likely been out by then (although, in this particular case, his book has been delayed). If I did an off-set run out of my own money, I would likely need around $5000 to print 1000 copies, a substantial risk for an author to take. Furthermore, I faced distribution difficulties as I live in Australia.
One final idea was worth checking though - the developing industry of Print-on-Demand. After plenty of online searching, I came across a Print-on-Demand company called Lightning Source, which offered the perfect solution for me. Below I'll outline why Lightning Source (LS) suited me so well, and why it will probably suit most other authors as well.
One of the great attractions of LS is that they are owned by Ingram, one of the biggest book distributors in the U.S., so if anybody orders the book through their local bookstore it an be supplied easily to that store. The other positive about this is that Ingram and LS have a 'direct line' so to speak with Amazon - anything printed by LS is put on Amazon by default. Lastly, Lightning Source have printing plants in both the U.S. and the U.K., so your book can easily be distributed not only in America, but also across Europe.
Under the standard publishing paradigm, to get a book into bookshops, you need to offer a discount to the distributor (Ingram) of 50-65% of retail price...which makes it very difficult to turn a profit! However, if you are not backed by a decent publisher, it may not really matter about the bookstores, as they are not likely to stock your book anyhow (and bookstores will want to return your book if it doesn't sell, which is an added financial risk). Here the Lightning Source system comes into its own. Amazon will stock your book at retail price, even if you go as low as 20% wholesale discount. If we take an example book which costs $20, under the standard publishing model we are selling it wholesale at $8-$10, while under the LS model we sell wholesale at $15. Obviously, this offers a much higher profit return per book. What's more, the books are only printed as they are ordered, so there is no risk with returns as in the standard model.
It's not worth my while to order cartons of books myself and sell them through my website, as I'm in Australia and the freight cost is prohibitive. However, this would certainly be an option for you if you have a base in the US or UK, and Lightning Source can drop-ship copies of your book to your door on request. The thing to remember is that while Amazon takes $2.00 per $10 book, they handle all the packing and postage, financial transactions, returns etc - once you sell from your own site you are the one to look after this side of things (and the financial transactions part is a whole issue on its own). Personally, I'm happy to give Amazon a few dollars per book to handle all these things. But certainly, drop-shipping is worth contemplating if you can sell through a network of local stores or markets.
Lightning Source as a printing option removes nearly all risk from being a self-publisher. There is an initial setup cost of approximately $100, and apart from a few ancillary costs (e.g. purchasing an ISBN for your book) that is the complete financial risk. Once setup, the cost per book (for paperback) is around $1 flat fee, plus around a cent and a half per page (so a 200 page book costs $3.50 to print, while a 500 page book costs $7.40 to print). Finally, there is an ongoing listing fee of $12 per book each year. Mind you, this fee gets your book registed on both LS in the US and the UK (and as such, Amazon US and UK) - a trivial amount when you consider you can recoup it with two sales.
As an example, using LS and Amazon: a 200 page book would cost you $3.50 each to produce. If you sell this book on Amazon for $13.95 (a standard price for that size book), giving Amazon a short discount of 20%, then Amazon will pay you $11.16 per copy sold (.80 x $13.95). As such, you will make a profit of $7.66 per book ($11.16 - $3.50 printing charge). Therefore, if you sell 15 copies, you have broken even (paying off setup and listing fees). Everything on top is $7.66 per book profit (and no returns to worry about, as is the case in bookstores!).
Needless to say, it's still difficult to justify the time put into writing a book with the likely profits. The upshot though is that it's good for your CV, and provides opportunities. In my case, it led to much interest from publisheres around the world. My book has since been taken up by a publisher in the US (renamed The Guide to Dan Brown's The Solomon Key by them), and foreign rights have been sold to more than ten territories. So my advice: if you really want to pursue a career in writing in these areas, then go for it - just don't expect it to pay for the time involved up front!
The only other caveat with LS is that they don't do great graphics...their presses are suited mainly to text, although I have 13 images in my book and they turned out good enough for my purposes. Recently, LS have added new OCE presses which are said to provide better quality, not to mention they also do colour books as well now (at a premium though!).
As above, remember too though that there are other costs involved in producing a book as well, which LS don't do for you. You need to purchase an ISBN (cheaper to buy a block of 10 than just 1), and if you don't want to do the typesetting and cover design yourself, you have to pay for that too (we did it in-house with Indesign and Photoshop, so if you're happy with your own skills you can certainly do it for no cost except your own time).
The profit margins via the LS-Amazon route though are really impressive, and there's a large number of independent authors/publishers following that route. I recommend reading through Morris Rosenthal's excellent website for a narrative of his own experience, which gave me my first glimpse of a self-publishing future. There are also a number of mailing lists for POD, which are handy for first-time publishers/authors (the archives are quite voluminous to work through though!).
Lightning Source also offers a quick turnaround. In my case, I uploaded the PDF files on December 2nd, I received the proof from Lightning Source on December 16th (to Australia, so this would be a reduced time lag if based in the US) and confirmed it within a day or two, and the book showed up as listed on Amazon UK on December 24th and Amazon US on December 28th. You normally have to upload your own cover image and publicity blurb to Amazon once they have listed it, although this isn't much of a hassle to do.
If you are looking for a way to just print off 25 books as 'show books' to send to publishers, or give to family etc, you can't go past LS.
To sum up, the advantages to printing with Lightning Source are:
- You can print just one book if you want.
- While their price per unit is quite a bit higher than an offset print run of 10,000 copies, it is quite comparable to a 1000 copy print run (at page counts around the 200 mark at least) without the stress of having to spend $5000 and sell 400 copies to recoup the expense. With LS, you can recoup your initial expense by selling 15-20 copies.
- LS have a 'direct line' to Amazon - any books you publish through LS will automatically be available for sale through Amazon.
- The Amazon relationship allows you to 'short discount', allowing maximum profits on your book, while letting them handle the selling and sending of the book.
The disadvantages to LS are:
- It is very difficult to get the book into 'bricks and mortar' stores. Publishers with distribution relationships can get books out quite easily - if you are on your own via Lightning Source though, it will take quite a bit of work (consisting often of creating relationships with individual bookstores). On the flipside, LS is owned by Ingram (a big distributor in America), so if anyone wants to order your book in to their local bookstore, it should be easily supplied to them.
- The quality isn't quite as good as offset printing...although I don't have too many complaints about the quality of my book.
- This quality problem is most pronounced in images within the book. Additionally, LS do not do colour printing within the book (though your cover can be). This is set to change in August 2006.
- Profit is larger on smaller books, as you pay per page. 200 pages is a much better financial setup than 500 pages - however, this doesn't suit a lot of fiction.
Print-on-Demand is the start of a new era. Tied closely to the global reach of Internet marketing, and the international distribution system of Amazon, it provides real opportunities for the author who is thinking of self-publishing.