Sunday, January 6, 2013

Print vs. Digital

One question I get asked a lot: “Will you be signing copies of your book?”
The answer is, “Heck yes!”
Unfortunately, there is some fine print with that yes. The fine print being, “When I can afford it.”
Nobody is being released first as an ebook. In fact, it is likely that all my books will first be released as ebooks. When I’ve made enough sales that I can put food on the table, pay the bills and utilities, keep my car running, fix things that break around the house, and still have enough money for a print run—and if there is demand enough to justify it—I will print up copies to sell for those who want a physical book.
The key phrase here is demand enough to justify it.
Everyone tends to think of the artistic side of writing, the craft of honing a story into a form that delivers enjoyment to many readers. But we cannot forget the other side of writing: the business of writing. When you decide to sell a story, you are making a business transaction with a reader, trading your hard-wrought story for their hard-earned cash. In this way, you can make a living as a writer and produce more stories for people to enjoy.
But if it costs you more money to produce the books than you make in income, you aren’t going to be in business for long.
Printing a book has costs involved that go far and above the production of an ebook. Paper, ink, glues, electricity consumed during production, storage, shipping, distribution… Yeah, it’s all money that has to be spent.
A print book and an ebook are structured differently.
A print book is structured so the story is presented across a number of paper pages. An ebook is structured so the story is actually presented in one continuous stream of text. Where we tend to think of a book as a series of pages, an ebook is actually one continuous page like a web page. In fact, in an ebook file, each chapter is a unique web page. An EPUB file is merely a self-contained website.
Go to Project Gutenberg and download an ebook in the EPUB format. Change the file suffix from .epub to .zip and then open that zip archive. Open the newly revealed directory called OPS, and you will see each chapter of the book as a single HTML file. Don’t like the way an ebook is being rendered on your ebook reader? Mess around with the CSS file in the OPS/css directory and fix it. Zip up the files back into a zip archive, change the suffix back to .epub, and voila! Your ebook looks better. I’ve done this with almost every ebook I’ve purchased, with a few exceptions.
So, when I create the epub file for an ebook, I am essentially outputting the chapters as HTML files.
But, a print book requires a different setup.
Again, we tend to think of a book as a series of pages. The key printing technology we are all exposed to is a printer in the office, which prints a document page by page. So, people tend to think of a book as being printed page-by-page and then slipped and glued into a cover.
Not quite.
A series of pages from a book is printed on two sides of a large sheet of paper called a signature. The signature is then folded and the folds are trimmed off, leaving a series of pages in sequence. The image shows a signature I made by folding a 8.5”x11” paper, numbering the pages in sequence and then unfolding it to reveal the signature structure. Notice in the image when folded, you can see page 2 on the other side of page 1. When unfolded, you can see how scattered the page distribution is on the face of the paper. The other pages of my signature are similarly scattered on the obverse of the paper.
In the last image, you see an actual hardcover book up close, showing the folds of the various signatures where they were glued together against the spine of the book. 

A folded signature
The signature unfolded. The arrows indicate the top of the page

You can see the folds of the signatures along the spine.
They show up as U-shapes in the glue.
All this structure must be predetermined before a story can go to press and be printed as a book. As you can imagine, that takes serious organization and planning to get it right, even with a computer doing the setup automatically. Just grab the signatures out of sequence when assembling them, a reader could find the book going from page 32 to page 64, and then from page 96 to page 33!
Once the layout has been determined, then the printing plates must be created, then loaded into the printing press along with ink and paper for the actual printing. Only then can the operator press the “Go!” button on the press and the signatures containing the story come spitting out the other end.
Then, the signatures go into another machine where they are folded and stacked with the other signatures containing the story. These stacks are pressed together, cut, and glued into the spine of the book cover.
NOW it’s a book!
It takes a lot of skill and expertise, materials, energy and time to just set up a document to be printed into a book. That’s just the set up. Running the press to print the book is going to require paper, ink, and electricity. And don’t forget the salaries of the people the company needs to accomplish all this.
As you can guess, it isn’t cheap.
The setup costs for creating a printed book are going to be the same, regardless of whether the print run is going to be for 1,000 books or 10,000 books. So, the more books generated in a given run then the cheaper it will be per book. If it costs $8 per book to print a 6x9 hardcover book, then 1,000 copies will cost me $8,000. Let’s say the printer gives me a 50% discount from that price for doing 10,000 copies. It will still cost me  $40,000 to print that number of books.
Now, if I had actual commitment from X-number of people to buy the hardcover versions of my book, then I could go out on a limb and have the printer print up X-number of books. It would be a safe investment to put out that cash, knowing that I would make it back in a fairly short time. But without knowing how many people might be willing to pay for my book, I could be left with a lot of stock to sell, but no buyers, and therefore no way to pay off the cost of printing.
Ever wonder why an author charges $20–$25 for a signed copy of their book when you can buy the same book for $13.95 on Amazon? It isn’t for the signature, as most would assume. It is because the author had to pay wholesale for each of those books from his or her publisher, and then they may only sell a couple dozen at a time here and there. There is the cost of gas or tickets traveling to a book signing, hotel and food costs. It adds up pretty quickly. And to sell just a few dozen per sitting? The author will pretty much break even, if lucky.
There have been more than a few authors who have nearly bankrupt themselves by doing too many book signings.
The safe way for now is to sell my story as an ebook and generate income for a while until I have enough money stashed away to pay for a print run. It might be a while before that happens.
It does cost a lot of money to print up even a small number of books. I would need some serious commitments from a lot of people to buy a print version of my book for me to be able to justify the expense of doing so. I’ve already taken enough of a gamble going full time into writing, I don’t think I could afford to gamble again on printing up even a 1,000 copies of my book without having a good idea of how well it would sell.
How do the numbers look for that matter?
To date, I’ve sold over 800 copies of the short story and the response has been overwhelmingly positive! That is incredibly encouraging!
According to Pew Research, about 20% of Americans own an ebook reader. About 75% of all Americans over the age of 16 read at least one book during 2012. So, very roughly, about 25% of the readers in America own an ebook reader.
Keep in mind, I am ignoring tablet computers such as the iPad, because they have other uses, such as playing Angry Birds. An ebook reader has only one purpose: to read a book.
So, if 800 people liked my short story so much, they want to buy the full story as an ebook when released, then it might suggest that four times more people would want to buy my book if printed in a hardcover book. (For those of you bad at math, that’s 3,200.)
To print 3,200 books at $8 apiece, that would cost me $25,600. If I sold them at $22 apiece, that would bring in $70,400. I would make a profit of $44,800. Still a pretty damned good number! Oops! Don’t forget taxes! Take $18,000 off that for taxes. Now I’m down to $26,800. Um, okay, that’s still not too bad. But just remember, that is my total income for the year!
Now, let’s take travel expenses into account. Traveling around the country on business to sell my book, food, hotels, etc. For just ten weeks of travel, it could run me more than $1,000 per week! How many of you make $27K per year in wages are willing to take ten weeks of vacation in various expensive-to-visit cities around the US?
Suddenly, that number has been whittled down to $16,800. Living expenses for the year. Now, factor in rent at $1,100 per month, food, electricity, water, car payments… There’s not much left.
Remember how above I said more than a few authors have or nearly have bankrupt themselves? Now you see the numbers. Now you can understand how it is possible.
Of course, some of the travel costs can be taken off taxes as cost of doing business. There are ways to cut costs during travel. Staying in some cities is still pretty damned expensive, but often hotel chains offer frequent guest discounts. By carefully choosing venues to sell my books, such as science fiction conventions, I could reduce the number of times I have to travel and maximize sales.
But the whole example demonstrates the costs of doing business, and gives you an idea of what it takes to make money selling books. It gives you an idea, for that matter, of just how much you can make selling a limited number of books. It also reveals how many books I would need to sell in order to make a living as an author.
I have stated many times to people, that my goal is to try and sell 10,000 copies of Nobody as an ebook in the first year. I didn’t choose that number arbitrarily. It reflects the minimum I need to sell in order to make enough money to live on and pay back those have supported me in this endeavor.
By odd coincidence, I later discovered that in the publishing industry, a book is considered a hit if it sells at least 10,000 copies! So, I seem to have hit upon the right number.
What are my chances of meeting with that success?
There are 315 million people in the US. At least 63 million (20%) of them own an ebook reader. I just need to reach .02% of 63 million people to reach my minimum goal of 10,000 copies sold.
I thought it would be a stretch to sell 100 copies of Nobody (The Pirate Arc) in just one month—I passed 800! It is still selling at a pretty steady clip! I think the odds are pretty much in my favor that I’m going to make it.
To fund a print version of Nobody, obviously I am going to have to sell a lot more copies of the ebook version than just 10,000. I do fully intend to do print run in the future, if for no other purpose than to be able to have something for signing autographs. Yeah, I’ve gotten requests!
If you want to write a book, you cannot ignore the business of writing! Remember that in any business, there are costs that must be covered. There are costs in selling a book. Heck, there are costs in writing the book. Remember, you have to feed the author so he has enough energy to write.
Keep those costs in sight and plan accordingly. Don’t take a chance and go for broke, because that might be where you end up.