Should authors bother with creating paperbacks?

I recently asked what questions people had about writing, publishing, and marketing. One that came up a lot was about paperbacks.

Mainly, writers wanted to know if paperbacks are profitable and worthwhile.

To answer this questions, we need to explore the process of creating a paperback.

So, how do you make a paperback?

Creating a paperback and creating an eBook are two very different things.

There are some pages that are relevant in an eBook that you wouldn’t want in a paperback, for example, any pages that have links in them.

Some authors organise pages in different orders depending on eBook or paperback format.

But, the biggest difference is in the formatting. The margins, headers, footers and, page numbers needed for paperbacks can make the creation process quite long and complicated.

Paperback creation tools

Many people start out using Microsoft Word, it’s a tool that many of us are familiar with and, despite its clunkiness, it is an incredibly powerful tool. It’s also the tool that many authors write and/or edit with, so it’s already paying for itself. While it’s a great tool, it can be time-consuming and buggy.

Other tools like Reedsy’s online editor, Scrivener, and Vellum are also available. In the case of Vellum, a paperback can be created in a handful of clicks. This means that hours of work in Word can be condensed into minutes of work with Vellum.

But that convenience comes at a price, $250 to be exact. Although for that money you can create unlimited eBooks and paperbacks with some state of the art software that substantially reduces your formatting time.

Know your markets

While it’s impossible to predict sales of an upcoming novel, there are reasonable assumptions that you can make regarding your market.

It’s common knowledge that paperbacks in Australia are very expensive, prohibitively so. If you know that the majority of your market are Australian then you might want to think twice about creating paperbacks if there is an associated cost of you doing so.

On the other hand, readers of books that originate from fandom worlds are more likely to want to hold the product in their hand. A book with a fandom audience should always have a paperback option available.

Some genres are more likely to encourage paperback purchase, science fiction, and fantasy being prime examples. The increase in artistically beautiful covers in the fantasy genre is encouraging readers to want to own a hard copy. Romance is considered more of a “disposable" genre, with large volumes of work being produced and prices being driven increasingly lower. Many romance readers expect a cheap, steady stream of new fiction to be available to them and often won’t want to pay extra for a paperback version.

It’s important to take a reading on your books subject matter, genre, and any information you have about your audience.

The importance of POD

If you are wondering if paperbacks are worthwhile then it’s absolutely essential that you use POD (Print-on-Demand). Never pay for a print run of books unless you know they will sell.

POD is the system that Amazon uses, via CreateSpace. It means that authors upload cover art and an interior PDF of their manuscript and the book is only printed when a customer buys a copy.

While this is more expensive than a large print run, it means that books are only created when necessary and there is no initial outlay of costs. The only cost is the creation of the artwork and the interior PDF file.

Don't forget the cover costs!

Something that often gets overlooked in the paperback discussion is the extra costs involved with cover creation. An eBook doesn’t need a spine or a back and therefore the costs of just creating an eBook cover are slightly lower.

Once you venture into the world of paperbacks, you need to create the extra artwork.

Whether this is something you do yourself or something you ask someone else to do, there is probably an associated cost to take into consideration.

Putting it all together

Now it’s time to put it all together. And this is where the maths comes in.

You need to calculate how much it costs you to produce a paperback. And by that I mean the cost of creating the files, not the cost of printing a book.

If you pay a formatter, what is that cost? Do you own software like Vellum? How much did you pay for it? Even if you use Word and do it yourself, how much time are you spending on creating a paperback and how much is your time worth?

Once you have a cost of creation then you need to look at profit margins.

Let’s say that you treated yourself to a copy of Vellum at the cost of $250. Amazon/CreateSpace/Lightning will provide you with your profit margin per book sold, let’s assume that it is $3 per book sold. You would need to sell 84 copies in order to start turning a profit. It’s worth considering if you will use the Vellum software again, let’s say you have another book out in the next six months. With two books out, both making $3 per book, you’d need to sell 42 copies of each book to make a profit.

If you pay a formatter $50 to create the print interior, then you’d need to sell 17 books in order for it to be profitable.

If you use Microsoft Word and you take on the formatting yourself, then technically the first book you sell will make you a profit. Unless you put an hourly rate on your time and know that you could have made more money if you had spent that time marketing or writing. It’s always important to cost up your own time.

And don’t forget to add in any extra costs with regards to the cover. Work out the difference between an eBook cover cost and a paperback cover cost and add that figure into your calculations.

The bigger picture

But it’s not all about pounds and pence or dollars and cents. It’s also about the kind of author you want to be.

If you want to do public readings, book signings, or publicity events, then you’ll need paperbacks.

And, even though some of the stigma of indie publishing is starting to wane, there is still a feeling that a paperback solidifies the “realness" of a book. Family members will often want a paperback copy of your book, digital copies are sometimes considered nothing but a series of 1’s and 0’s and not a real product. No matter how much blood, sweat, and tears went into it.

There’s a lot to consider when deciding whether or not to convert to paperbacks. But I think the most important thing is, don’t take what other people tell you on face value, test it for yourself. Every book is different, every audience demographic is different. Most authors are grateful for any sale at all, don’t lose yourself a sale because you didn’t test your own market.

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Why print books are getting smaller, and why that’s a GOOD thing!

Recently I ran a survey on lesbian and bi women fiction to get some feedback from readers regarding their thoughts on our industry. You can see the results here.

Lots of interesting information came out of the survey so I thought I’d spend some time addressing some of the points made. Today, I’d like to talk about one of the issues raised: paperbacks. More specifically, the size of paperbacks.

Where did my book go?

One of the things highlighted by the survey, was that people felt that paperbacks were getting smaller.

While this is almost certainly the case, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the actual book is any smaller.

To explain this better, let me explain how paperbacks are made…

Demand or Run?

When an author/publisher decides to print books, they have two options.

1) Order a print run from a printer

2) Use a Print On Demand (POD) service

Print Run

A print run involves asking a printing company to print books in bulk. The more books that are printed at one time, the cheaper an individual unit costs. 

However, there are problems with this. 

Firstly, the author/publisher needs to make a decision on how many books to order. One hundred? One thousand? It can be hard to know. Secondly, they have to store the books they order. And then they have to distribute those books. Ordering a print run of hundreds or even thousands of books can be risky as well as expensive. 

There’s always the chance that they could order too many and have to pay to have them pulped and recycled. And even though the excess books are recycled, none of this process is kind to the environment.

Print On Demand

Many authors/publishers have moved onto Print On Demand, or POD as it is also known. POD means that the cover and the print interior are uploaded to an online platform, such as Amazon, but a book is only printed when a copy is purchased. When a customer orders a POD book, the book is printed and dispatched to them. There’s no waste, no storage cost, no disposal costs, it’s kinder to the environment, and it’s easier all round. 

The only problem with POD is that no one benefits from the bulk purchase discount of a print run. Printing one solitary book is obviously more costly than printing one hundred at a time.

But, what about stores?

Paperbacks are cheaper in bookstores, supermarkets, and anywhere else where you can physically browse books, because these books are printed in a print run. The more books that can be printed in one go, the cheaper the individual unit.

Books in physical locations are often printed by large publishers who can print tens of thousands of books at a time. They have their own printing presses and warehouses. They ship books out to thousands of physical stores. With scale comes a reduction in price.

Unfortunately, the average lesbian and bi women fiction author can only dream of such things. Our market is small and print runs are impossible.

The workaround

With the POD costs high and print runs out of the question, authors/publishers are forced to find other workarounds in order to reduce the expense of producing a paperback. And, as we all know, the best way to make something cheaper is for there to be less of it. But this doesn’t mean that the books have fewer words in them. On the contrary, most books are the same word count as before. It’s just that a few tricks of the trade have been introduced to slim those paperbacks down!

The Diet

Formatting a print book is a fiddly business. There are so many elements to take into consideration! The size of the book, margin, fonts, headings, scene breaks. All of these individual elements have an impact on the overall size of a book.

Reducing the margin by half a centimetre may not sound like much, but that small change over many pages soon adds up. Reducing the font size by half a point can easily lose 10-20 pages in a full-length novel. And then there are the fancy spaces between chapters and scene breaks. It all adds up.

Good book formatters have found innovative ways to trim our books down, all without the reader noticing!

Therefore a book that was originally weighing in at 340 pages may now come in under 300. While this is a smaller book, it is not a smaller story. It’s no longer possible to judge a book by the number of printed pages.

Hooray for design

So, the next time you are looking at paperbacks in our market and you think that you are getting less for your money, remember this might not be the case.

It could just be a contentious author/publisher trying to save you some of your hard-earned cash through some innovative design!

Look out for the word count to see the real size of a book, most publishers will list word count on their website.

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