On Writing,  publishing

Paperback vs eBook… Don’t Care

Thanks for all the kind comments…

On the post of the value of a paperback last night, I never intended to start some sort of paperback vs ebook silliness. Both are part of our delivery systems for the near future, at least. I’m fine with that.

In fact, without the advent of electronic books, the indie revolution in publishing would have a much slower and much different start.

My point last night was to help writers understand the value of a single paperback. Indie writers get lost in all the hype of selling ebooks and that sort of thing. I am no exception to that at times.

And a couple people asked me in letters if I was suggesting indie writers go back to doing traditional push of paper books to bookstores. OH GOD NO!!! That is a fantastic waste of money and time for no real return.

And as Data Guy has shown last year and will show again shortly, upwards of eighty percent of paper books are sold online these days.

This is a changing world right now.  

Let me describe how the system works now for a traditional paperback and how it works for an indie paperback.

Traditional still think of release dates (I see indie writers doing this a well, almost always to be disappointed). Release days have an implication that a book is like a banana and that it will spoil if not bought quickly. This is the old produce model and it has been the basis of traditional publishing for decades.

Indie publishing does not work off of release dates. We work off of selling every day every year. Different thinking.

So for traditional publishing, if there are say 10,000 orders for a book, that’s how many get printed through the big web press. Some of those orders will cancel or be reduced at the last moment, so that leaves a few for company warehouses.

The orders come from a major push by the traditional publisher to a few hundred gatekeepers in different distribution systems and major bookstores.

So say about 9,000 paper books hit the stores and warehouses. A vast majority will sit in a distributor’s warehouse until the book either hits a certain sales velocity or is sent back. A small percent go into the few big chains that are left. And of course the Amazon warehouses get a large chunk.

When a book is sent back to the publisher for credit, it is stripped of its cover and the book tossed away. These are called returns and because of the Amazon and selling online, returns are down now from highs of 60% to between 20 and 30%. Most of these stripped books come from small bookstores, distributors, and the large chain stores. Amazon tends to not return books.

So of a print run of 10,000, about 3,000 are destroyed, another 1,000 are sitting in a publisher warehouse, another 2,000 are sitting in other warehouses, and about 4,000 are sold over a period of six months or so to actual readers.

Then the book is done as far as Traditional publishers are concerned. If they run out of the books in their warehouse, they will never reprint. And after a year or so they will sell for pennies all the books in their warehouse to discount stores. Author gets nothing, but at least the books are not destroyed.

This level of sales will get a new writers a $5,000 contract per book for two books. They will not be renewed and their career will be over. They will have lost all copyright to those two books as well.


This plays on another scale. If you haven’t read my blog posts here on the Magic Bakery or grabbed the book that is now out, you won’t fully understand what I am talking about next.

Here is what an indie paperback book’s life looks like.

Indie author puts it out in electronic and paper, just as the traditional publisher does. Tells some friends the book is out, and maybe the sales over the first six months of the paper book are 50 copies. (More than likely I am generous there unless you have a regular series.)

So on the surface, that looks horrid, right? Nope. Wrong. It just looks like a new normal is all.

The Differences…

Difference #1… For traditional, paper books are done in six months. For indie, they are just getting started.

Difference #2… Traditional publishers will let the book go stale and dated. Indie will regularly do new covers, write more books to support the old book, relaunch the old book.

Difference #3… Writers get no more money from traditional publisher for the book. They have lost it. Indie writers are getting money all the time for the book. For decades and decades.

Difference #4… Indie writers got upwards of $3.00 for each paper sold on average. Traditional writers got pennies against their advance for each book sold.

Indie writers will have a cash stream from that paperback of that novel that will continue forward for a time.

The Math!!

Shall we play with the numbers? Traditional author got $5,000 advance (Actually only $4,250 after agent fees.)

Indie author is making money on electronic books, audio books, overseas rights, movie, and you name it, but lets ignore all that and just compare the paper sales because the traditional author will never earn out their advance.

Just for rounding ease, the indie book will sell 50 copies a year in paper if you push it a little, make it part of a series, and rebrand it every few years to make it fresh. That’s about four copies a month.

Author will make about $150.00. On those paper sales.  Year in and year out.

Still doesn’t sound so good, does it? (Remember, I am ignoring all electronic sales, audio sales, and other slices-of-the-pie sales.)

Ten years you will have 500 paper copies out there. Twenty years you will have 1,000 paper copies out there, floating around somewhere.

And now, remember my post from last night? The value of a single paperback.

How many readers will those 1,000 paper copies get you over that time span???

Reread my post from last night.

Now understand, if you are in some hurry for some reason, none of this will make a slight bit of difference to you. And most of you, honestly, can’t imagine trying to keep a book fresh over twenty years or longer.

So there is a major difference between the sale of a paperback book and the license of an electronic book. The paper book just sort of floats around and gets you more readers over time.

Electronic books only go to one person and the copy is done helping you.

So my suggestion to Indie Writers…

Focus on getting all your work wide around the world, get all your work in paper as well as electronic if you can, take advantage of some of the new coming audio programs, and be open for whatever comes.

And stay away of the death trap of traditional book publishers. You really don’t need your ego stroked that much do you? If you do, got to Vegas and hire someone to do the stroking. It will save you money in the long run.




  • Chong Go

    Hmm, permanent floating advertising. That’s a great point. Along with the value of cash streams that last decades versus six months.

    Is there anything you can share about upcoming audio programs? Audible is the big dog, so far. As long as you live in the US. Not so great if you don’t. (And Vellum sounds really interesting; I wish there was a Windows version. But perhaps someone is working on something similar.)

  • Louis Doggett

    It’s been way too long since I have commented on a post here but this one seems like a good place to comment,

    I have done both paper and eversions since the beginning, of my Indie novels, even before I read Dean say get them out in every way. It just seemed to make sense. People still buy both after all. I want to get them into audio. A lot months ago I looked into it and almost pulled the trigger on it, but I wanted to find out more about it. Still haven’t done it I am sorry to say even though I have learned enough about it to satisfy me.

    It just sounds like Dean makes a lot of sense when he talks on this subject and I always pay attention.

  • Anthony St. Clair

    It boggles my mind when people start debating e-books vs. p-books. If somebody wants to read an e-book, give ’em what they want. If somebody wants to read a p-book… give ’em what they want.

    When I published my first book in 2013, top question I got was when a paperback would be out. Now I release both e-book and trade paper formats on all titles, and am looking into options for audio and POD hardcover.

    E-book, p-book, a-book, whatever… isn’t it all just different ways of fishing where the fish are?

  • Vera Soroka

    I watched two tutorials on Vellum today and I’m completely sold on it. Now I need to look for a mac that I could use. I would like a desk top but that is on my wish list. LOL.

  • J. D. Brink

    General comments from a semi-experienced amateur (me):
    – I haven’t sold too many paperbacks but I would imagine it makes your ebooks look more professional to prospective readers. If they see just an ebook version they might think, “Self-published noob. Not worth my time.” But if they see multiple formats their impression might be: “Must be put out by a ‘real’ professional publisher with lots of resources.” People are visibly impressed when I say “My new audiobook is out…” They suddenly are taking me more seriously.
    – Speaking of which, my audio sells better than my paperbacks by miles and generally better than my ebooks too. If you’re not in audio yet, you can be! It’s not difficult! And it sounds really cool to hear your characters and stories brought to life by talented voice actors. But be picky. There are plenty of not-so-talented people that would be glad to make a buck off of you that might not sound so great. If you don’t like the way the audition sounds, don’t feel pressured to hire that person. You can find someone else.
    – On Vellum: I just got it myself a few weeks ago and have published one novelette so far on it. It’s pretty darn nice! The ebook looks great and the paperback is done for you, which is a HUGE time saver. (Reformatting manually sucks.)
    That’s all I got. 🙂

  • Kevin McLaughlin

    BV (before Vellum) one had to either use Word for print books – which was a pain in the neck and took me ~4 hours per book – or pay $240 a year for InDesign. That’s a lot of money for a software package that makes me very little additional money.

    I still tended to do print editions, because if nothing else the print edition is an ad for the ebook. The print is $15; the ebook is $5 and the ebook *shows up as 66% off* on the Kindle page. This spurs sales. Ebooks with a print edition are also seen as likely more professional, which *also* spurs more sales. Valid or not, in marketing perception is king.

    Now? In the post-Vellum world? There’s literally no reason for me NOT to do a print edition, and I run one for every book. Always. It’s free. It costs me almost no additional time, so I’m not burning writing time on the process. I absolutely put out a print edition for every new work.