Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

The Value of a Paperback

So Many Indie Writers Don’t Understand the Value of a Single Paperback…

So as a topic of the night here on a Friday night when few people will likely read this, I’m going to see if I can explain a little.

And with luck, you will say, “I knew that.” But if you do understand the value, how have you acted on that knowledge?

An Example:

A couple days ago I walked into our north store and there on the counter was a stack of well-read books that Kris and I had written. All mass market paperback, all clearly read by more people than one. A bunch more.

We had signed a few of the books through the decades, most were not signed. They had just arrived at the store for trade. The person who brought them in didn’t know we owned the place. (I might be wrong on that.)

One of the books was my first published novel from Warner Questar Books called Laying the Music to Rest. It had been published in 1989 and never reprinted. So that well-read copy had floated around for 28 years. I would love to be able to trace the path of that book through the decades until it ended up in a store I just happened to own.

Josh priced the books and put them out on the shelves. So they could go off on new adventures and find new readers.


First thing I want you to notice is the 28 year timeline. Now I am very proud of being one of the survivors who is still publishing after 28 years. I sold my first short stories in 1974, so actually it’s been over forty-three years, but I am still going 28 years after my first novel came out. And that novel has now been reprinted and new readers can find it. What I really wanted to point out was for those of you who think if something doesn’t happen in a year or two, you are a failure. Nope.

You need to be looking at the scale of that book. 28 years and that book still has a long life ahead of it.

Second thing I want you to notice is that the book left one reader who bought it new a long time ago and the book clearly wound its way through other readers, used bookstores, library sales, yard sales, and so on, all the while giving a brand new reader a chance to find my work. It is now sitting, slightly dog-eared, clearly read and loved (which as a writer I love to see), waiting for a new reader to send it on its continuing journey.

28 years. Makes the Star Trek: Enterprise five year mission sound pretty tame, doesn’t it? How many more years does that copy of that book have? Not a clue.


Indie writers have one problem that has bothered me a great deal for some time now. That is the intense focus on only electronic books. And that was understandable (at first) since it took another skill level to get books into print form.

But now with Vellum, formatting a print book takes only minutes and very little skill. You have to still do your own covers, which is a skill that can be learned, but formatting has now gotten crazy easy for regular books. So that old excuse is gone.

I have heard writer after writer tell me over the last seven years they don’t do print because they don’t sell many. I nod, say nothing, and keep my thoughts to myself, which are not kind I must admit.

And of course, there are the indie writers who believe right down to their core that electronic books will completely take out paper books of all kinds, therefore they don’t need to do paper. I shake my head at that and refrain from asking the person when was the last time they saw Bigfoot climb aboard a spaceship. That belief is that silly.

However, it is another topic on how poorly traditional publishers have handled the transition and many of those major corps will drop away shortly. But paper books are not going anywhere anymore than Bigfoot will join you for breakfast.


I know that long-term thinking past the end of next year is damn near impossible for most indie writers. But for this post let’s pretend you can actually imagine yourself still writing and having fun and publishing in say 28 years.

Strain, but if you try hard, you can do it. (I was 39 years old 28 years ago.)

So you license electronic rights and what does the reader, your fan have? They can read your book, then the book will get lost on the device or deleted or the device will age out and you will have had one reader from that sale.

With luck that one reader will go on and buy more books from you because you have written a great read and have the contract information in the back and didn’t do something really stupid like annoy them by begging for a review in the back of your book.

Now nothing at all wrong with having a reader. Each reader is important. But the reader holds nothing. Nothing to remember you with.

Memory for readers is a critical aspect seldom talked about.

You sell a paperback of your novel to a reader. Same thing. If you have done your job, you hope they will buy more books from you.

But now this reader has this copy of a paper book and four years from now they are moving and donate your book (after looking at it again and checking online for your new books) and a few boxes of other books to a library sale. The memory of the book from four years earlier might get you more sales right then.

A new reader finds your book in the library sale, grabs it because you have a good cover and great active, sales-language blurb, and the same copy of your book gets read again.

And if you did your job right, that second purchaser will check online after reading your books and buy more.

And the book goes off to a used bookstore in a few years, and the book sits on the shelves for a few years until you find a third reader for that one book.

So you have gotten three fans from that one copy of a paperback in ten years. With luck you are still writing and having fun.

And over the next eighteen years, that one paperback sale you made might find you five or six more readers and fans.

I will tell you, it looked like about ten different people had read that first novel of mine in 28 years. I am hoping that even without good back matter, some of those people found my name and read more of my work.

Paperback as Artifact

A reader owns something of yours when they buy your paper book. They don’t own your words, but they own the physical copy of the book. And that has a few values to that reader.

One, it reminds them, when they touch it again, the feeling they got when they read your book. I have been told more than once that a reader dug out an old copy of one of my books, remembered they enjoyed it, and went to see if I had written more.

Second,  it gives the buyer of the book some value in trade in a used bookstore or a good sense of charity when they donate the book to a library.

So electronic, you make a sale. Done.

Paper, you make a sale and decades and decades can go by as that one paper copy continues to find you new fans.

This one simple concept of the value of a single copy of a paperback was shown to me so clearly the other day.

So imagine yourself still writing and selling in 28 years. Selling electronic books won’t hurt you right now, but they are very short-term things.

Focus on the paper. Focus on the long-term.

Just a suggestion for a Friday night.

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  • Harvey

    I read it. I’m sure a lot of others did too. Maybe touch on the value of a paperback in the sales venue when the reader compares the price of paper with the price of an ebook as a way to drive ebook sales? But also maybe touch on the much larger investment in either time or money (or both) that is required for paper publication? A Part 2 might be appropriate.

  • Lee Dennis

    And if a library buys and displays your paper book, as the Vancouver BC library does with “Vancouver Area Indie Authors,” it’s even more free and easy marketing!

  • Vera Soroka

    I just bought some paper books at our library’s annual sale. One book by Weis & Hickmam was published 17 years ago and is completely new to me. The other one was published in 2003, so 14 years ago. So, yeah a total way to get discovered. I think it is critical to get your books into the library channels. They are used all over the world. I use the library for all the trad pub books as they are too expensive to buy. I need to gather up all my library sale books and others I have and either put them in a garage sale or donate them to another library or used bookstore. Too many allergens.
    So, they are definitely worth doing. I don’t have vellum as I don’t have a mac but I use createspace’s blank templates and it works not bad. It is still a learning curve for me. I don’t have much out but I’m trying to do print with the ebook when I do publish. Audio is another matter all together.
    I have not done much writing over the summer but I have listened to Joanna Penn’s pod casts which have been great. One thing I never thought of was that Amazon will let you lend out your ebook to a friend. I’m sure it’s limited but I think that is a great idea if a reader has some great book that they want to share it with another reader friend. Although I’m not sure many readers know this.
    Totally cool that your first published book ends up in a store that you now own.

  • Marsha

    Timely message for me to read today. I took encouragement from it. look for used books everywhere. And have shelves filled with favorite authors that I return to again and again. I never read the ebooks I’ve downloaded except for the non-fiction. They simply don’t talk to me the way a tactile object does.

    I’ve published 14 books in the last year, all in paper as well as digital because I prefer to read paper and I wanted something to hold in my hand so I could think, “Holy cow, I created this!”

    Over that year I’ve had only one paper sale and sporadic e-book sales. I’m a new author, just getting my feet under me and concentrating on filling my bakery rather than marketing, but it’s discouraging not to have sales when I hear about other new authors selling lots of books daily. (I recently discovered that many of those new authors have only one or two books out and are giving their e-books away, so I’m not sure how they are equating that with thousands of sales, but that’s another topic.)

    My point is, thank you for the reminder (again) about long-term thinking. Now if i can only stay alive for another 28 years.Fortunately writing is something I can do right into my 90s!

  • Chris

    As a lifelong reader/collector of physical books (and now ebooks), I’ve always made a point (as a writer) to create both electronic and physical copies of all my stories.

    The challenge I see for those who want to read/buy physical books is they cost so much more than they did when I bought them as a kid with my allowance or as a young adult with a serious reading habit.

    My question is: do you think 25 years from now, physical books will still be (for readers) a powerful introduction to new authors?

  • Linda Maye Adams

    The deal breaker for me has been the cover for a paper book. I’ve done graphics as part of my job, but the cover has stymied me. is unhelpful because I don’t learn well from a video, and my version of the software is much newer and I can’t find anything. I even got a book called Book Design Made Simple and what wasn’t simple was that cover! I’m going to have to revisit it, but it’s competing with writing more stories and a full time job.

    And a story about the journey of a book. My uncle was a chldren’s book writer during 1950s and 1960s. I was checking on line to pick of some what he had written and ran across The Mystery in the Jeep which I had heard of ( It was obviously a used book, and the bookseller said it was autographed. Okay, so I bought it. Which is where the true journey of the book came to light.

    It was autographed to my great-grandfather and his second wife!

    Book was written in 60, great-grandfather died in 61, and his wife a few years after that. The only thing I can think of was that it must have been given away after his second wife died. Someone had used a modern day post-it to cover up their names and leave the autograph visible. Amazing that the book made a some 40+ year journey and landed back in the family!

    • Michelle

      I found a site called a while ago, and it’s been a wonderful free resource for print book cover templates, though they do ask for a voluntary donation if you can afford it. Unlike CS, it can create covers in any size for any number of pages. I haven’t used the manuscript formatting part, as I found a blog about how to set up my own print internal template years ago (and have completely lost the link to it, phooey). Hope this helps.

    • C.D. Watson

      I use to format covers, when I do can’t afford or don’t want to farm them out. (I usually use a professional cover designer, as this isn’t a great skill of mine.) CreateSpace provides a template that I use as a layer within, so I can get the size approximately right. Usually, I don’t do anything fancy; I just don’t have the skills. You can see the ebook and matching paperback covers I did for one of my short novels here:

      The entire cover was created in (plugins were needed for that particular cover, but they’re free, too) using stock images purchased from Shutterstock. I think I may have downloaded the font from or another such place.

    • Kate Pavelle

      Linda, try the KDP paperback feature. It’s not as good at CreateSpace in easily sending copies to customers, but it could be a good stepping stone for you. All you need is the PDF interior and a cover image. That cover image needs to be at least about 12% larger than what you’d use for an e-book due to minimum resolution cut-off (KDP’s quality control.) I made 2 books that way because I’m 8 books behind on putting out paper, and it was super easy. If your cover file isn’t big enough, you can shrink it and use a black border around it (plus spine and the back). It formats the back flap automatically, you just add author photo and bio, and blurb+. They give you a free ISBN. I like CS a bit better, but as I said, it would at least get you into the game.

  • JM6


    Even with electronic books, and my need to not have a huge physical library since I move quite often, there are some books I *have* to have in paper form. Some are simply not available as eBooks yet. Most, though, are the relatively few books that grabbed me and WON’T LET GO. There are some books I made the mistake of selling or giving away once … and then a few years later I had to go out and buy another copy. Not an eBook, another physical copy.

    EBooks have many wonderful advantages (taking a large library with me when I taught in China, for example) but I have never gotten lost in an eBook. The technology is too intrusive. I began rereading an old favorite in paper form last night and when I looked up the first time, I’d read 25 pages without even noticing I had done so. In an eBook, each of those 25 pages would have required precisely touching the screen in a certain point to turn the page and not accidentally touching elsewhere on the screen or else I’d have to navigate my way back to the right place (which I did at least twice on the last eBook I read). I miss the old external buttons to change pages but even that was a bit intrusive.

    Now, there are those who love eBooks and will never go back to paper. More power to them. But I discovered most of my favorite authors by seeing their physical book on a shelf (or seeing them at a convention). I can’t browse Amazon or its ilk easily enough to make it fun, and the signal-to-noise ratio is simply too low. It’s a personal preference.

    Plus, you knever know what you’ll find in a bookstore.

    Once, many years ago, in a used book store, I found Laying the Music to Rest. I read it, I enjoyed it, and then I let it go for someone else to find. And for all I know, that copy in your store might have been mine, once.

  • Victoria Goddard

    I haven’t done it yet, but I have a plan to ‘seed’ some used bookstores with the paper copies of my own books. (Which I definitely did from the get-go! The interior using InDesign wasn’t too bad; I still need to update the first couple of covers.) I have found so many wonderful books–and their authors–through used bookstores, thrift stores, and library sales … and then gone to buy the rest of their catalogues, new if I can manage it. There are few things that give me more pleasure than finding a new treasure in a used bookstore.

    Also, I come at things occasionally from the perspective of a medievalist. It’s hard not to imagine the long future when you’re looking at a book that was originally written 700+ years ago. I doubt *our* ebooks will be around 700 years from now … but it is reasonably conceivable (with a few shots of good fortune) that a physical copy might be found, carefully reconstructed, and republished. There is good sociological interest even in minor poets. 🙂

  • Dave Creek

    I love both ebooks and print books. I get whatever form is more convenient/cheaper at the time. I read some fifties/sixties SF that’s available in cheap ebook form, books that will likely never appear in print again. For newer works of whatever genre, I get the print version from the library (although sometimes it has the electronic version now, so I don’t even have to get into the car).

    Some print books I’ll keep forever because I cherish them in their physical form, others I re-buy electronically if a super-cheap version comes up, because my bookshelves are straining and that way the print version goes bye-bye.

  • Misti, a.k.a. Carradee

    Someone who calls me one of their favorite authors bought the paperback of my first novel. Someone they know read it because it was available, didn’t even like it, and ended up reading it again because it was available…and now is one of my core fans, too. It just took him the two readings to “get” the book. If all I’d ever done were e-books, he never would’ve done that much.

    • C.D. Watson

      Last year, I started dating a guy right before he went on a vacation with his sisters and their families. He asked for a paperback copy of my first novel to take along. Half of the adults (four or five people) read it during the week he was there. One of his sisters went on to read the rest of the series (five additional books).

      A couple of years ago, I set the digital edition of the first book in another series to free (from $4.99). Paperback sales of that title were sluggish prior to the free run, but after, they soared. I made quite a bit of money off the paperback sales alone, let alone the buy-through of the other books in the series.

      This is why I never understand why authors don’t create paperback editions of their books. The additional time/money in cover costs and formatting are usually quickly earned back, especially for those selling large volumes of ebooks. People *want* physical books, especially devoted fans.


    And because of this very newsletter/blog/or whatever you call it, I double checked my subscription. Sometimes, you put out golden nuggets. Today was one of those nuggets. Thank you.

  • Michael Alan Peck

    About seven years ago, my knee went out on a hiking trip in the Alps, and I was stuck waiting for several hours to catch a bus connection to the destination everyone else in our group was hiking to. The place we’d stayed the previous night in had a take-one, leave-one bookshelf, and among the meager selection of English choices was a beat-up paperback copy of Robert B. Parker’s “Double Deuce.” It got me through that wait. At some point while reading it, I noticed that it was a lost copy from a library in Montgomery, TX. So when I got home, I emailed them and asked if they’d like their book back. They did, so I mailed it to them, and the librarian even wrote the event up in her little “Librarian’s Corner” column in the local paper (which, appropriately enough, isn’t available on the Web). I’d love to know the stories that paperback could tell other than the one printed on its pages, but none of that would’ve happened with an ebook. (Fill disclosure: I’m a die-hard Kindle reader.)

    Throw in all the Little Free Library boxes around my Chicago neighborhood and things like BookCrossing, a site that allows you to “release” books into the wild and track them, and the power (and fun) of paper is apparent.

    • dwsmith

      I had forgotten about the attempt by BookCrossing to do what I am suggesting. I had heard about it and never checked it out. Thanks, will do so now.

      One thing that stuns me is why writers who are traveling never leave a copy of their book in the hotel lobby where they are staying. Almost every motel and hotel has a small book area for guests there. But the last major convention I went to had a hundred writers staying at the hotel and no writer left a book. What a simple, missed opportunity to find readers.

      • J.M. Ney-Grimm

        My gym has a book exchange by its front door. I’ve left many paper copies of my various titles there. They always disappear very quickly. Looked good to someone! 😀

      • Edward M. Grant

        I’ve been leaving spare copies of my books in the free library at the campsite where we often stop while traveling (and it’s good to see that they’ve disappeared by the next time I go through), but I’d never thought of hotels. That’s a good idea.

  • Chong Go

    Talk about serendipity, we just got a reader feedback card yesterday from a book we published in 1999! We were trying different things, so in the back of that book, we had a nice bookmark and feedback card on tear-out, card stock. The card just asked for their address if they were interested in being notified about new books, and had a checklist asking where the bought the book. 18 years later, it came back to us!

    I’ll send them a thank you as well as one of our later books, and online contact info. If I’d have been really clever, I’d have asked for an email address! Not sure why I didn’t at the time (shrugs).