Why Print is Bad for Indie Writers

MCMMonday, June 21, 2010

Writing a book is a great adventure that ultimately ends with a dozen questions, none of them easy. The first and most obvious is whether to traditionally publish, or go the indie route. But even within the indie realm, there's another mammoth fork in the road you need to overcome: to print or not to print?

To answer this question, we first need to set aside the emotional attachment to print. Seeing the spine of your book on a bookshelf really does send a shiver down your spine, but what you're doing here is making a business decision (whether or not you are in it for the money), and you can't let shivers dictate your strategy. You have a long, tough climb ahead of you, and you don't want to make it any harder than it needs to be.

The fact of the matter is this: print is a money and time suck. Even in the best of best-case scenarios, it costs you more to print a book than you're likely to earn back in royalties. By contrast, sticking to ebooks will keep your costs down, your profits high, and let you focus on the two things you need to succeed: your writing, and your marketing. But let's examine why, because I know a lot of you won't take me at my word on this.

The most obvious issue is formatting. Print formatting is not hard, but it's not easy, either. You can get it mostly right, but every tiny glitch in your presentation counts against you far more than your actual writing will balance out. Pick the wrong font and you're dead. Make an amateurish mistake in the placement or design of the headers, and you're dead. Screw up your margins and you're dead. In ebooks — at the moment at least — none of these things are a concern. The best ebooks are straight blocks of text with minimal formatting. If you do more, you're doing it wrong. A professional reworking on your print book will cost you at least $500, but you should be able to export to Kindle without any help at all.

The next thing to consider is proofing. Assuming you go with a reputable outfit like CreateSpace (Lulu is poison: avoid at all costs), you are looking at at least $100 to get your book made and approved, and quite possibly more (depending on where you live and how many proofs you require before you're ready to roll. For the Typhoon print book I just finished, it took nine months and fifteen tries before I got it right. And I know what I'm doing, too. The ebook version was done in an hour, and it cost nothing.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, we have the issue of distribution. Put simply, your print book will never be sold in shops. CreateSpace may have expanded distribution available, but even indie bookshops are openly hostile to indie authors. There are writers who get their books on physical shelves, but it took them months and months of pavement-pounding to get any shelf space at all, and I would guess if they counted the time spent versus the money earned, it would be a major loss for a cosmetic victory. Books get placement in bookstores because they have major marketing strength behind them, and you will never have that kind of strength. By contrast, getting on the Kindle Store involves filling out a form and uploading your book. You can reach more stores via Smashwords with even less effort.

In the past, overcoming all these obstacles was a necessary part of the indie author game. You couldn't play if you didn't invest in these areas, and it started you out at a loss, right out of the gate. Sometime in the past year, everything changed. Print has become more than optional, it's become a liability. You can be a successful writer without digging yourself a financial hole first. You still have an uphill battle for mindshare, and every sale will be a victory, but you can start out in a way that traditional authors can't: you can get out of the red much, much faster.

There will always be people out there that won't read ebooks, and it's true that digital publishing is still a tiny fragment of the overall market. But the key to success for the indie author is to realize the print-only readers are no longer your audience. They never were, really, no matter how hard you wished otherwise. There is a growing market for ebooks, and the readers there are more likely to take chances, be blind to the indie label, and make impulse buys. This is where you need to focus your energy. Anything else is a waste of time and money.

Give up on print. It's dragging you down.

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